Category Archives: Nature

An Appreciation: Reading “Thoreau and the Language of Trees”

Editor’s note: Thoreau and the Language of Trees is a new book by Concord author Richard Higgins.

By Sandy Stott

As I begin this book, a patient presence of white and pitch pines stands ten or so feet from my open window. One, a pitch pine, has died, though its trunk rises still to 30 feet, and it has become a lure for a pileated woodpecker whose exploratory peckings offer a braille I run my hands over, even as their poetry eludes me. The other 42 trees of this small, yard-girt woodland vie for light, for sky, and they stir whenever the wind blows. Tonight though, they wait, stilled in the late light of this summer’s solstice. Perhaps the owl who called from them a few nights ago will visit all of us later. They are of my yard; all will outlive me; even the pileated-stippled pitch pine trunk may endure decades. Making the acquaintance of these trees takes me beyond myself.

****

When I taught parts of Thoreau’s work to the sometimes hurried young, I had a favorite moment in the semester: some weeks of reading into the term, and some minutes into a class, I closed Walden and asked simply, “are you ready?” Most said, yes; a few demurred: “um…for what?” they asked. “Let’s go,” I said, and they followed me out from the rectangular classroom, down the stairs and to the door. Once outside, I offered them a choice — find any natural object, get comfortable, and concentrate on it (and only it) for ten minutes. I’ll let you know when time’s up.

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Most often people picked trees. I would watch them watch their trees. Some lay on their backs and looked at the canopied sky; other stood at mimicked angle a few feet from the tree; a good number climbed into a tree of choice and sat or stretched out upon a limb. A few got inches away from the trunk or a twig. For an age group often slandered for their rabbity attention, they had remarkably little trouble “getting lost” in their trees. When I read their findings later, I realized that some of them had remained with the tree for paragraphs well after I’d summoned them back into the usual school world of call and response.

I knew, of course, of Thoreau’s fondness for and scrupulous attention to trees. What I didn’t know was that as I was working with the rudiments of this tree-teaching, Richard Higgins was afoot in nearby Concord and in the pages of Thoreau’s journal making a much deeper study. Would that I had been able to bring Higgins and his tree-findings to help my classes toward their trees.

That is, I realize, a rather lengthy preamble to what I mean to be a praise-song for Higgins’s new book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees, but I have taken a personal route to praise because this attractive, compact volume has touched me. Three presences are prominent in its pages — Thoreau, Higgins and a cast of character-trees too numerous to name. Higgins shapes his short essays at the outset of each chapter with an appealing clarity, using them to introduce small groves of short readings from Thoreau. The trees rise from their words. And they rise also in a generous offering of illustrations — photographs (many by Higgins) and, familiar to readers of Thoreau’s journals, a scattering of his quick sketches.

Here is an excerpt that perhaps offers enough window into Higgins’s book for you to see your way there:

Trees brought out another side to Thoreau, one we rarely hear about. They stirred a boyish joy in him. He found “an inexpressible happiness” in the woods. “Their mirth is but just repressed.” Lichen lifted his spirits, and trees seen from a mountain delighted him: “Nothing is so beautiful as the tree tops. A pine or two with a dash of vapor in the sky—and our elysium is made.” (p. 36)

tree 2

When work has confined me, boxed me into its rectangles, I’ve always pointed to the reward of a next woods-walk as part of what sustained that work. But what Thoreau and his modern companion Higgins have done is to enrich my relations with trees, to sharpen my eye, broaden my heart and encourage my narrative impulse to include my patient neighbors. Who may or may not — who knows? — be patient with me.

I return to the page. Here, deep in the book, I’ve found that Robert Richardson’s first sentence in the Forward rings true: “There is real magic in this book.”

I look out at my 42 friends a few feet away. So many stories. Now, it is time to go out.

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

Each Town Should Have a Park: Wandering Public Lands Far and Near

By Scott Berkley

 “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. … If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.”  — Henry David Thoreau, Journal. October 15, 1859

On the late-summer day last year when the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was announced, former Roost editor Sandy Stott was out paddling a kayak in the Gulf of Maine. When he returned to the news that the state of Maine had added a parcel of the immense North Woods to its stock of public lands, the connection to Henry Thoreau, who loved both the northern reaches of New England and the idea of land deeded to the public good rather than held by private interests, was immediately evident. To Thoreau, the purpose of setting aside public lands was to make them “a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” as he put it in his journal.

When I met up with Sandy in Maine later in the fall, we went land-ward to the Brunswick Commons, a parcel set squarely between the housing developments which ring that prosperous coastal town and the manicured playing fields of Bowdoin College. The Brunswick town Commons – which have made an appearance on The Roost in the past – are encircled by all the signs of a community becoming more and more of a paved metropolis. And yet the sandy trails meandering across marshlands dense with low sedge and scraggly pitch pines seemed, as I ran through the slanting autumn light, to exist as the beating heart of the town as a whole – a region that spoke back to the encroaching development. Let every town have its forest, says Thoreau; and let it be, by extension, not separate from the town, but at the basis of this larger ecological and spatial community.

This past month, I found myself thinking often of Thoreau’s public-lands dictum and what it tells us about land use in the twenty-first century. In the past four weeks travel took me to two of our nation’s most famed national parks: Yellowstone and Great Smokies. On the move in these hallowed places of wild land, I thought about the historical importance of these National Parks, this one-hundred-and-one year-old idea. Even more, I thought about how the millions of acres in the national park system speak to the tiny parcels of public lands in towns like Brunswick, and how the town-parks speak back to these iconic locales that take up so much space in our collective American consciousness.

On my way to Yellowstone, I found one such town-park in the city of Bozeman, at the south end of the Bridger Mountains of Montana. Over the past few years a local nonprofit, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, has spearheaded an ambitious trail-building initiative known as “Main Street to the Mountains,” connecting urban bike paths and trails in places like Linley Park and Peet’s Hill to mountain trails leading to the Bridger Ridge. As of next year, when a new connector trail is finished, a trail runner or hiker will be able to go from downtown to Mt. Baldy at the south end of the Bridgers without having to find a way to drive to the trailhead.

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.  Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.
Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

Two weeks later, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I recalled the significance of Bozeman’s urban trails when I visited Le Conte Lodge, perched near the summit of the park’s second-highest mountain. The continued existence of the Lodge, where up to sixty overnight guests can stay during the March-through-October full-service season, testified to the eleven million visitors who come to the Smokies each year. Le Conte itself is a kind of town, even in the cold and foggy month of March; dozens of dayhikers came to visit the Lodge, even though it was closed for the winter, every day. Bozeman’s trail network creates a park experience even in the midst of urban development, while Le Conte Lodge recalls how humans can interact with expansive wild places on their own terms: by finding a way to make a home in the mountains.

The author out running in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Ryan Koski-Vacirca.

Back in my hometown of Concord after the second leg of this two-park tour, it was again the familiar, lower-case parks that beckoned: Walden Woods; Fairyland, with its stone engravings of quotes from Thoreau and Emerson; Estabrook Woods, where those two once walked. One quote not engraved was Thoreau’s advice to wealthy landowners, to “abandon” their holdings “to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” Fascinating word, abandon – as though the common, once given over to the shareholders of a town or country, were a place to be left alone rather than used and appreciated for generations. One hopes that, in this time of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political volatility, the town common is true to its name, binding us together in the shared joy of use.

Scott Berkley, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, has worked for the past five years in the huts of the White Mountains and is at home at all speeds on woodland trails.

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

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