Category Archives: The Roost

A blog at Thoreau Farm, written and edited by Sandy Stott

A Visit to Two-boulder Hill

By Corinne H. Smith

“Went to what we called Two-Boulder Hill, behind the house where I was born. There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold … Called a field on the east slope Crockery Field, there were so many bits in it.” ~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, January 31, 1860

One morning at the end of March, six people accompanied me on a nature writing walk to Two-Boulder Hill, behind Thoreau Farm. We were armed with our journals and open eyes, ears, and minds. We were awake and alive. We wanted to see what we could see, on this muddy day that happened to overlap both winter and spring. The sun was shining and the robins were bobbing for worms in the front yard when we started out. We hoped to beat the expected heavy rain, which we had heard would arrive by afternoon. Off we went.

Following Thoreau’s advice, we were also determined to leave behind all of the big concerns of the day, including the unrest in Ukraine, the search for the Malaysian jetliner, and the devastation left by that massive mudslide on the opposite coast. “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit,” Henry wrote in the essay called “Walking.” “It sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” Yes, for at least a few hours today, we wanted to shake off the village and return to our senses. If we each found something nifty to write about, so much the better.

We stepped carefully around a few remnants of winter: some random patches of snow that had hardened into thick, slick ice. And we considered with wonder this landscape that had been covered for months with more layers of white. We found spots where we could only suspect that something tragic had happened. The sight of several piles of gray fur with no visible skeletons raised more questions than it answered. Several scat deposits lay in the middle of our path as well: one from a rabbit (perhaps), and another from a coyote (perhaps). (Note to self: Next time, bring along an animal tracking book that identifies such droppings.) The green fungi on a fallen log caught our interest, too.

Green Fungi en Route

Green Fungi en Route

We crossed what Thoreau called “Crockery Field.” Its tall grass from last summer had been flattened by the snow. If you looked closer, though, you could see bits of green moss peeking out from underneath the sharp tan blades. The story goes that before Thoreau’s day, this place was owned by a man who worked at the Middlesex Hotel on Monument Square in Concord. He brought home the slop bucket from the hotel kitchen in order to feed his hogs. That’s why Henry found bits of the hotel china in the dirt. More pieces may still be here.

Crockery Field

Crockery Field

We spent a good long while at Two-Boulder Hill. Each one of us found a sitting space where we were inspired to write in our journals. Some climbed up onto the actual boulders. From the nearby woods, we could hear the sounds of occasional birds, like cardinals, chickadees, crows, and woodpeckers. Sitting as we were in the direct line of Hanscom Field’s east-west runway, we also had low planes flying over us, on their way home. Each one of them had a different voice, too.

Atop Two-boulder Hill

Atop Two-boulder Hill

I scribbled some of my own thoughts into my notebook. Then I began to notice a growing rustling. The sunlight had faded, and the air had chilled. The shrub oaks on this hillside were still holding on to their brown leaves from last fall. A sudden wind was now blowing through them. I turned back to see what Thoreau had written in 1860. “There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold.” I tried to orient myself and imagine the compass directions. Was this wind coming from the northwest? Maybe. I smiled and shook my head. We had wanted to follow in Henry’s footsteps. We sure had. We were experiencing something very similar to what he had felt at this very spot, 154 years ago. Wow!

When our group came back together for the return trip, I wasn’t the only one smiling. The others had felt and heard the wind change too. We all got the Thoreau connection. We couldn’t have planned our adventure any better.

The clouds were really rolling in when we got back to the house Henry was born in. Sure enough, the rain began soon afterward. Our timing was perfect.

We shared a few of our own impressions with the others. The fifth-grader had picked up a cool rock that she deemed as being “igneous,’ having just learned the three categories of minerals. We encouraged her to take it to school the next week. Then we parted our temporary and pleasant company. Each one of us left with a lot to think about. And none of it would be broadcast on the evening news.

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Filed under General, Living Deliberately, The Roost

Why My Daily Run Is Better Than Climbing Everest

We near May, and it’s the Himalayan silly season again, the narrow slice of time before the monsoon makes already extreme weather impossible for climbing. And in the various base camps beneath the planet’s grandest mountains, expeditions are arranged like little summer camps for adults. I say this because most of the climbers there are with commercial expeditions led by guides who function as counselors – they make all the decisions, set the schedules, assess the ground and sky before them. And the “campers?” They follow along, plod and haul themselves, or are guide-hauled, through unimaginable weather and terrain; occasionally, often in clusters, they even lose their lives – it is after all an extreme camp. But mostly they do as they’re told. Some come back having “climbed” to the world’s highest summit.

Today, at noon and under the springiest of skies, I stepped from my door and set out on foot for local woods. I had in mind an hour’s run, mostly of trails softened by recent rains and outlined by a cold front’s scrim of snow. Some minutes later, I reached the old railroad grade that runs alongside the Assabet River, and I turned upstream. The grade is slight and only a few root-bundles disturb its reliable surface. And so it wasn’t long before I’d fallen into a lulling cadence and my mind had drifted free. I had mountains on my mind, mostly from my habit of carrying a topo map with me for those spare moments when I’m waiting for something – a class, a colleague, a pizza. My maps usually feature the White Mountains or local USGS quadrangles, but recently the Himalayas have been in my pocket.

Pocket-world, Home Mountain

Pocket-world, Home Mountain

Perhaps that’s because I’ve been thinking about the long ago, when my parents realized a lifelong dream and walked 175 miles from Kathmandu to the Base Camp of Everest, took in those awesome uplands from 16,000 feet (took hundreds of photos too) and then walked the 175 miles back to Nepal’s capitol. I was in high school at the time and relieved to be allowed to stay there. And, of course, they brought back maps, which I read avidly. For my parents an essential part of the dream was walking the Himalayan landscape and approaching Everest under their own power. Yes, they had a Sherpa guide and small party of porters, but this was 1965, well before the trekking era set in; only sporadic expeditions of real mountaineers or oddball dreamers visited in those days.

For some reason, around that time, and despite a fascination with and affinity for the upland world, it became clear to me that I was happy confining farflung mountainscapes to maps, that I liked my local hills enough for a lifetime. And that, unlike many of my younger self’s convictions, has held.

East from Moosilauke, Another Home Mountain

East from Moosilauke, Another Home Mountain

Many years later, when Henry Thoreau’s writings became walking companions, I found expression for the deep local travel that I had intuited as a teenager. It began to seem to me that where I walked and ran was all one landscape, and that, when I traced the contours of one of my maps, I could also use my feet to follow on nearby trails. One day in midwinter I was looking out at the roof-dumped snow just beyond a plate glass door; up its vertical ice, a cold-stunned fly was climbing, making his way higher across the seracs and up the gullies. Surely, that fly was on his own Everest; it was nearby.

So too is mine. No need to hire planes and outfitters; no need to arc across the world; just unfold the local quadrangle and aim for those two bunched contours you’ve never visited…or the ones that puddle like silk dropped to the floor. They all run together underfoot.

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Filed under General, Nature, The Roost

The Giant Leopard Moth

By Ashton Nichols

On a huge abandoned tractor tire, in the scrubby woodlot back behind the house, I find a jet-black wooly-worm style caterpillar, as long and as thick as my thumb, his prickly bristles pin-sharp to the touch. An hour later, I return to the spot and he is gone, having wandered off somewhere to weave his thick cocoon, hiding deep in the dark underbrush that separates one large farm field behind us from another.

My field guide tells me that this is a Giant leopard moth larva, Hypercompe scribonia (archaic: Ecpantheria scribona), a member of the family Saturniidae that ranges from southern New England to eastern Mexico. These are among the largest of all moth species in North America, and the family includes such beautiful giants as the luna moth, the cecropia silkmoth, and the two-eyed Polyphemus moth. We used to catch these and mount them in cigar boxes when I was young, amazed at their size and wild coloration, stunned by their furry antennae and always wondering at their astonishing lifestyles.

Leopard Moth Caterpillar - Sasha Azevedo

Leopard Moth Caterpillar

This caterpillar has hibernated here in our woodlot all winter, and now that it is one of the first warm days of April, he has emerged from his underground hiding place to feed for only a few days. Then he will get to his busy work, forming a dense and silky cocoon in which to metamorphose (what a verb!). He will emerge from his chrysalis stage in two or three weeks, now a fully-formed moth, ready to fly off and find a mate, fully developed and prepared to continue a life cycle that has been going on for who knows how many millions of years.

How can this small creature change so much—from this prickly black and red larva to a delicately winged flying machine—and how can this change possibly happen so quickly; it takes less than a full month. Where do his caterpillar body parts go? What happens to all of those prickly spines and those jagged caterpillar mouthparts, what becomes of all of those wooly worm legs? There were certainly many more than six of them. The adult moth will have just six perfectly formed legs. And what about the bright red rings that marked off his caterpillar segments; where have they gone? Where have all of these earlier parts disappeared to in their cocoon stage?

Leopard Moth Adult

Leopard Moth Adult

He emerges from his cocoon as a beautiful black and white adult with shining blue and yellow stripes on his abdomen. Sometimes this iridescent blue—almost a sapphire shiny blue—continues as spots on the top and back of his head. Such metamorphoses remain one of the truly great mysteries of nature. What genetic forces, what chemical combinations, what signals from chromosomes and developmental triggers transform that jet black and fire-engine red caterpillar into this stunning adult creature, with its delicate white wings, its fat orange abdomen, and its oh-so-sapphire blue spots. I do not know.

In his Journal for February 19, 1854, Thoreau says that it is the “mind of the universe” that is responsible for the creation of each moth’s cocoon, for the fashioning of “each particular object.” He adds that, “a kindred mind with mine” determines “how cocoons had best be suspended.” As for me, I just wonder as I wander.

Leopard Moth - Kevin Collins

Leopard Moth – Kevin Collins


Ashton Nichols holds the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies in Environmental Studies and Science and is a Professor of Language and Literature at Dickinson College.





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