Category Archives: Nature

Winter patience in the not-so-great indoors

By Peter Brace

On the morning of the second “big” sno’easter of Winter 2016/2017 to hit Nantucket, with a forecast of 60 mph gusts and five to eight inches of snow, I was sitting at the edge of my bed re-bandaging a wound on my left foot.

Doxie 0056

Matt and Peter Brace skiing down Pine Mountain, Maine, during a back country adventure. (Circa 1979)

A podiatrist prescribed the daily bandaging procedure and forbade me from walking other than for daily needs for two weeks, an eternal Hell for my dog, Kismet, and me.

Normally, I’d be lacing up my hiking boots to go walk two or three miles; a year-round, circadian ritual I live for. And, I love winter! In fact, only spring barely approaches the nirvana of winter in my mind.

On Nantucket during the winter, the island is empty of visitors. With more than 60 percent of our 30,000 acres protected from development, 45 percent of it conserved as open space, and no dog harassing middle mammals, including raccoons, coyotes, skunks and porcupines, Nantucket is an ideal place to explore by shanks mare.

Having missed almost all of January to a debilitating cold and, recently getting back out into my hiking routine, to then be benched again was dispiriting given my new line of work.

In 2015, I’d launched a guided natural history hiking service on the island. After writing about the natural world on Nantucket for most of my career, guiding hikes around the island just sort of felt right.

My parents were my guides to the outdoors, but mostly my father.

I grew up in Concord, MA, where conservation land exists in abundant acreage relatively on par with Nantucket’s. With the parents divorced by the time I was 10, Pop didn’t slacken into the single dad who squandered father-time with his kids at malls, movies, the zoo or museums. Instead, we explored every inch of Concord open to hiking, cross-country skiing, orienteering, skating and swimming.

Our Thoreauvian adventures included but weren’t limited to the Hapgood Woods, the Walden Pond woods, the Estabrook Woods, the woods between there and Middlesex School, the Wright Woods, the Seton Woods, the Great Meadows and the Upper Spencer Brook Valley, 18 acres of which land my grandmother Elise Huggins donated to the Concord Conservation. I know he felt every second of exploring the outdoors with his children were teachable moments and that he reveled in his new role albeit forced as it was.

Now, through my business, Nantucket Walkabout, I think I’ve gotten inside Pop’s Thoreau psyche and learned some of the boundless pleasures of teaching adults and children as I guide them around the island.

A few months before his passing on Aug. 21, 2014, I saw my dad using a brand new purple Swiss Army pocketknife, cursing while explaining that he’d recently lost his original maroon one. A few days after his death, I found that knife under the cushions of his couch by the wood stove where he took his naps. Upon inspection, I realized that this was the knife he’d had most of my life because the main blade’s tip was rounded over and the blade itself well worn from decades of use and sharpening.

He had countless uses for it on our hikes together hut to hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, on Mt. Katadin and the mountains in Acadia National Park in Maine. I imagined it’d been a talisman for him, a direct link to his more active days, cherished and yet still handy.

So, here I was using my father’s pocketknife — maybe hoping for a little trail magic — to diligently keep to my bandaging schedule so I could finally get out walking again to get in shape for my season, my winter patience now worn thinner than his old blade.

Editor’s note: Peter Brace is a prize-winning journalist and environmental writer and the author of  “Walking Nantucket: A Walker’s Guide to Exploring Nantucket on Foot,”  and  “Nantucket: A Natural History.”

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Filed under Environment, General, Nature, The Roost

To Begin at the End

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Thoreau, Walden

February is a stirring month. Or, more accurately, a month of stirrings. Eyes closed, face to the sun, tucked into a sheltered tree trunk or backed by a building’s corner-nook, I find a blissed-out few minutes, where the blush of warmth spreads over me, along the folds of my scarf, even, finally, to my feet. Heat is the seed of dreams. And mine are of summer and its elastic days.

Yes, I/we bow to the intervals of onslaught, the storm also stirring to our southwest. But already, it’s clear the warm will win, already it’s clear that the future is light. So much to do- for that I am thankful.

Gratitude is much on my mind today, and part of that thankfulness goes to you, a reader, on occasion, or in sequence, of this blog’s skein of posts. Over these 4+ years and 100,000+ words, I have written for you. And in doing so, again and again I’ve encountered the serendipity of learning more as I write – more about what I see and find daily, more about what lies in the folds of the world, more about Henry Thoreau, whose spirit and wide, wild intelligence stays with me like a third parent’s presence.

A familiar moment.

A familiar moment.

I send on these thanks now, because my current writing work suggests that I stop writing here on the Roost and focus on the book I’m completing. It’s about search and rescue in NH’s White Mountains (working title – On the Edge Of Elsewhere – Searchers and Rescuers in the White Mountains, University Press of New England, spring ‘18), specifically about the people who do this saving work. And so it’s about mountain altruism, a spirit and practice that runs directly counter to our always-problems of greed and selfishness. It is hopeful work; they are hopeful people. Even in the face of difficulty and tragedy. And yes, Henry Thoreau’s a presence there too: his 1858 wanderings on Mt. Washington appear as a primer on how not to get lost, or stay found.

During my time as a teacher, when my students and I reached the end of reading Walden, with its sunlit image of a morning star, I always asked them what they made of it. By then they were well attuned to the sun’s central presence and morning’s promise, and so, quick to note both. But we often lingered as you do when reaching the door of a life-room, and often I got a version of this: “You know,” said any number of them, “Thoreau’s hope is that this book, our reading, is a beginning, not an end. If the book’s had effect, we’re about to begin.”

Part of the pleasure of writing to and for you has been this feeling of starting afresh, of beginning again and again. Part of the pleasure of saying thank you lies in a sense of its being another beginning.

I hope, if an occasional post here has had effect, it too has offered a start. Thanks for reading toward each beginning; surely, there is “more day to dawn.”

Sandy

Scene from a November visit - choosing.

Scene from a November visit – choosing.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

A Town Meeting – Seeding February

“The history of a woodlot is often, if not commonly, here a history of cross-purposes, of steady and consistent endeavor on the part of Nature, of interference and blundering with a glimmering of intelligence at the eleventh hour on the part of the proprietor.” Thoreau, Faith in a Seed.

While I read a morning poem, the snow wanes. A few tiny flakes slant still in from the north; spaced even father apart, a few fat flakes fall like random punctuation undecided about the day’s line – here and here; that will do. A flurry at the feeder makes me look over, reminds me to fill its sleeve before turning out to work.

Last evening, I went to a meeting of fellow citizens on two of our town’s commissions. Our charge was to look over a 30-year mistake involving two small parcels of a subdivision that had been set aside for conservation or recreation land and somehow never conveyed to the town as was intended. The recreation lot, suitable only for “passive recreation,” which is an oxymoron of sorts and to most of us means watching trees grow, had the added question of a right-of-way. That drive could only pass through in the shape of a question mark. More possible punctuation.

Tucked behind the houses and still-to-be-built lots was the prize. Down its few-acre center runs Great Gully Brook, and given our underlying sand-plain, this deep cut also features fragile banks. Not far to the south of the site, the brook runs into a broad, mud-rich bay, and also nearby are a couple of wildlife corridors. Smelt are rumored to run in the stream, and, reportedly, turkeys have become its bully-birds. So, keeping the brook’s gully intact is important for the bay, which needs no more silt, and for the fish who would swim and spawn there. The birds and quadrupeds who use it as passage also recommend the gully.

All of this was rich fodder for a little dreaming as the meeting-clock ticked forward. Each night the long darkness comes first to this gully, and through it pass any number of night wanderers; through it too pass the always-waters of the brook, on their way to the bay.

Melt-detail from nearby

Melt-detail from nearby

The current residents, who like their gully neighbor and want it protected, were at the meeting in numbers. They offered sightings of wildlife and the added life of having such a neighbor. The question-mark right-of-way, they said, was in such a shape because it needed to skirt the gully at enough distance to preserve its banks. They warned of disturbance, of loosing the banks and sending them to choke the bay.

Our commission, which will end up holding title or rights to the gully and so will become its overseer, listened to these stories carefully. We are already maxed out with such seeing over. But the right thing is what must be done – it’s part of being part of a town, of looking out for and after where we live. It is, we hope, the eleventh-hour “glimmering of intelligence” that joins us to our land. It helped to imagine Great Gully’s water running in the night and all who follow it to and from the sea. Even as we talked and listened that life was pulsing along the gully.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote