Category Archives: Nature

Man versus Machine

By Corinne H. Smith

“For many years I was self appointed inspector of snow-storms & rainstorms and did my duty faithfully – though I never received one cent for it.” ~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, after February 22, 1846

When I heard the sound of a nearby gas-powered engine starting up, I hurried to put on my boots and my coat and to head outside. I wasn’t about to let my next-door neighbor use his noisy and environmentally-unfriendly snow-blower on my sidewalk and driveway.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I am a snow lover. And one of the activities that I love most is shoveling snow. I cannot explain this addiction, other than to say that I like the sound, I like the solitude, and I like the rhythm of the physical activity. So when I woke up after our most recent storm and saw that more than seven inches of the white stuff had fallen overnight, I was overjoyed. Over the moon, really. But at least I waited until after dawn to go out and to attack the pavement and the driveway.

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Times tested method of snow removal.

There’s a science to shoveling snow, you know. You have to time your approach to gauge the duration and consistency of the storm. Shovel too soon, and you could leave the sidewalk vulnerable to an ice coating that will be too slick to walk on. Put off shoveling until the storm ends, and you will have more snow to remove, and you may also have to crush through a thick top coating of ice. Wait a day or two longer, and that snow will become reluctant cement. Good luck clearing any of it without a pick-ax.

My strategy is to keep up with the snowfall reasonably and regularly. I go out early. Once I do the major work, I have to go back later only for quick touch-ups. Whenever the sun comes out, I let the warmth of the rays do the rest of the work for me. If my timing is perfect, the pavements are bone-dry within a few hours, or at least, on the following day.

It’s impossible to shovel a snowstorm without inspecting it. This time, I was one of only two people out there on our block. Someone three doors down and across the street was shoveling quietly, too. The snow fell straight down, steadily and softly. The township plow hadn’t come through yet. Sounds from our part of suburbia were magnified in the cold air. A murder of crows  flew over me several times, calling to one other. A flock of geese went over, too, but the snowy sky hid them from view. Their’s seemed like voices from the heavens. A woodpecker tapped at a distant tree. A blue jay cawed from the top of another one. The songbirds were huddled in bushes somewhere, I was sure. But some of the other wild ones were out and about.

While I tidied up the walk a bit, a woman with Small Dog in Sweater walked by. I said hello and asked the little one if he was having a good time.

“We’re looking for a place to ‘go,’” his pet mother said.

I laughed. “Well, there aren’t any green patches out here today, unfortunately for him,” I said.

They continued on.

I successfully defended my sidewalk from the noisy neighbor’s machine. (Had he chatted with the woman and dog? No, because he was too busy and couldn’t hear them.) And look at the difference between my part and his! Mine is organic. His is mechanical. Nature doesn’t make straight lines. And he leaves tire marks behind. I leave only boot prints.

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The woman and the Small Dog came back around several minutes later. “Success?” I asked.

“No, not yet,” the woman sighed.

“Oh, well. I know how that feels,” I said. She laughed.

Later in the morning, I heard Neighbor John start up his coughing snow-blower. Although his machine is even more intrusive than the one my other neighbor has, I tolerate John’s because he respects my space. He and I also tag-team on behalf of Mrs. Jones, the elderly widow who lives across the street. Her driveway is more than two times longer than either one of ours. Once John and I have attended to our own properties, we move over to hers. I tackle the carport and its edges with the shovel, and he does the driveway and the sidewalk with his blower. This is actually the only time John and I ever see each other. We live in suburbia, after all.

John waved as he aimed his snow-eater toward her driveway. “Hey, I haven’t seen you since …”

“… last year at this time,” I finished.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

We worked together to get the carport, driveway, and sidewalks cleared off. Mrs. Jones came to the door in her housecoat, and I warned her to stay inside for the day. I also waved off her offer to pay us. John was wearing earplugs – another inconvenience a shoveler doesn’t have to worry about – so we couldn’t talk when the machine was on. Whenever he had to turn it off to maneuver, he and I caught up a bit on personal news.

“Didn’t you write a poem about this last year?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah, I did.” (I had forgotten.) “I’m in the middle of writing a blog post about the snow right now.” (At least I’m consistent in what I get passionate about.)

We were almost done with the job when John called, pointed, and turned the machine off again. “What?” I asked.

“We flushed out a rabbit.” It had taken shelter under one of Mrs. Jones’s yews. “He ran over there.” John pointed to another neighbor’s yard, where another nice bush could provide refuge.

Wouldn’t you know? I had missed seeing this encounter myself. I called over an apology to the bunny to let it know that we were almost done with our work. When every surface was cleared for Mrs. Jones, John and I said our goodbyes and returned to our own houses. I admired our good work on the way back.

The next morning, an early-riser co-worker e-mailed me from the office. “Be careful when you come in,” she wrote. “The sidewalks and the parking lot haven’t been cleared yet.”

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Sidewalk cleared!

“No worries,” I replied. “I’ll bring my shovel.” A good snow-storm inspector is always prepared.

 

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost

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.

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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