Relaunching the Roost

Welcome to the relaunch of The Roost, the Thoreau Farm Trust blog begun by Wen Stephenson earlier this year. Wen, an accomplished writer and journalist, agreed to conduct a series of interviews for Thoreau Farm to launch our site, and we are grateful for his wonderful work and for the many visitors who enjoyed it and left comments. We have archived Wen’s series here so you can read them at your leisure should you have missed them earlier. Please take a look!

We at Thoreau Farm hope you will be able to visit the birth house, where you can step into the room where Henry was born, have a picnic on the expansive grounds, and learn more about the influence Thoreau has had on people around the world. But until you can come by, we hope you will continue to enjoy The Roost, which seeks to promote Thoreau Farm as a “Birthplace of Ideas” to explore ways of “living deliberately,” whoever and wherever we are.

In coming months, The Roost will be hosted and written by Sandy Stott. Sandy, chair of the English Department at Concord Academy, teaches a course called “Thoreau and Kindreds.” A hiker, outdoorsman, and writer, he was also editor of the journal Appalachia from 1990 to 1999. 

Sandy’s posts will include his own musings on living life in Thoreauvian spirit, reports on what is happening at Thoreau Farm, and invitations for you to submit your own thoughts on how you interpret Thoreau’s admonition to “live deliberately.” We welcome your response!


Summer Walk

by Sandy Stott


t seems right that before climbing to this roost to proclaim anything, or to ask questions, I should go for a walk; perhaps along the way, I’ll see something or hear the keening whistle of our local redtail. After a walk I should have something to say. After all the man who inspired the preservation of his birthplace, who lived in such close contact with his “one life at a time,” walked daily as a way to be in and of the world. And Henry Thoreau brought back reports from those walks, reports of a precision and depth that amounted to poetry, even as he wrote most of them in prose.

A walk, as Thoreau tells us at the outset of his essay “Walking,” is no simple expenditure of time and foot-power. Famously, Thoreau sets criteria that can only be met by a walker ready to cast himself or herself fully into the experience:

 We go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return —  prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

The redtail actually is keening outside. If I leave my door, turn right on Main Street here in Concord, turn right again and cross the Sudbury River, and then turn right once more, I will reach the former railroad grade that runs for a mile beside the Assabet River on its way to confluence with the Sudbury, where they become the Concord River.

Perhaps, if you’ve read this far, you too should straighten your affairs, leave a note and go for a walk. We can compare notes when (if) we return.

The air has grown thick with the coming rain, and the sky is a sullen gray; yesterday’s clear, photographic air that gave every leaf an edge is gone. The mosquitoes and deer flies have returned to patrol the path by the summer-shrunken river. Does this sound promising?

And yet it is. Trees – white pines and oaks – I’ve not seen in the weeks I’ve been away in Maine are stolidly there, a few looking outsized beyond my memory, especially the white pine on the spur trail up from the river. It is a favorite tree, its single trunk rising a hundred feet in the air, its girth requiring three of us to form a hand-touching ring around it. Today, I settle for a solitary embrace of its bark-rough side. A decent year for acorns, I think, as I walk on scuffing a few into flight – good for the squirrels, who are good for the hawks.

A half-mile farther on I come upon two redtails that have trapped a gray squirrel on a tree with no escape hole. One hawk has the upper branches of the tree with their possible links to other trees covered, while the other hawk has the ground. The squirrel in a dance of anxiety runs up then down repeatedly, though as the hawks shrink the distance between them, the squirrel’s running room grows shorter too. Finally, from close range, the upper hawk drops and the squirrel leaps out hoping, it seems, to hit the ground and run off. But the lower hawk reads the arc of flight and settles to the ground, where it meets the squirrel and catches it.

That is the first time I’ve seen hawks hunt in tandem instead of being a single blade dropping from the air. I hope the squirrel had settled his affairs.

What I take from life’s uncertainty is the need to live it fully. Just steps ahead there are hawks, or perhaps a new flower, or the fox I met one day as each of us turned this trail’s corner absentmindedly and suddenly found only a few feet between us. There is no such thing as a routine walk if you are fully alive and alert, fully committed to it.

And you? What happened on your walk?


Filed under General, The Roost

7 Responses to Relaunching the Roost

  1. Dennis Noson

    Here in the upper west corner of the states, a local walk can sometimes be close to a mountain climb. Usually that is intentional, by driving to a high altitude trail head, as my wife and I did two weeks ago: to Hurrican Hill, in Olympic National Park.
    Oh, and what was that call, a keening plea, off above us, over the alpine meadows. Red tails, of course! Four of them, loosened from their roost by desire to flight. A great sound, echoing off basalt bluffs and stands of stiff subalpine firs.
    This is what happened on our walk… the family of redtails and also this: the road gated (unknown to us) just after we passed by the visitor’s center at 8am, which kept trail foot-traffic to a few saunterers all morning, on an open sky day.

  2. Sally Long

    “Summer Walk” is such a wonderfully written piece by Sandy Stott; reading it I find at times it’s difficult to tell the difference between Thoreau’s style and his – stopping and looking at nature purely for what it is, Sandy describes it in a way that “sounds” so much like Thoreau. Thank you to Thoreau, the Roost, and Sandy for the inspiration.

    In response to Sandy’s encouragement to saunter about on a walk and discover – I am postponing my walk for the time being and instead recalling a memory of a walk long ago, a walk with a grade school friend in “Packy’s” – acres and acres of un-kept and in some spots un-touched land. I guess maybe Packy owned it – but we thought we did. It was where the neighborhood kids took walks, adventured on day-long hikes, built forts, played war games, played dolls, had picnics, played hide and seek. There weren’t many spaces like Packy’s in the heart of Cleveland back then – and this one would soon be gone as well, the need for progress and highways would eventually turn it into Interstate 71. But in the meantime it was a magical oasis of wild flowers, streams, meadows, woods and glens. It was a place we kids could go – to find nature – to get lost – to find ourselves – and to find each other.

    One of the many memories from those walks is a day when my grade school friend and I found a beautiful clearing in the woods, a soft grassy bank next to a little babbling stream with birds walking about. We lied on the soft yellow-green tender grass of spring, looked up at the beautiful blue sky and watched the pure white clouds float by. We felt so moved, so grateful. It was a feeling that I thought was beyond words, but just days after the walk, I found a poem that captured it so completely it took center stage on my scrapbook’s title page.

    And to this day, fifty years later, when I recall those words from William Allingham, it takes me right back to that very special place and that feeling of complete oneness with nature, being utterly engulfed by its beauty.

    “Four ducks on a pond, A grass-bank beyond, A blue sky of spring, White clouds on the wing; What a little thing, To remember for years, To remember with tears.”
    – William Allingham

  3. Thoreau Farm and Roost:

    I have visited the farm–shortly after it had just opened–donated to the farm, and supported the farm with my students, colleagues, and friends. The fact that you have entitled your blog “The Roost” is a fine coincidence with my major idea (urbanatural roosting) and tribute to HDT. Here is Macmillan’s page on my latest book

    My central idea–“Urbanatural Roosting”–is also praised in my complete early reviews (see complete reviews after NYT review of my website):

    Thanks for you interest. I look forward to supporting the Farm in numerous ways in the future.


    Ashton Nichols
    Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies
    Department Chair, Environmental Studies and Science
    Professor of Language and Literature
    Department of English
    Dickinson College
    717 245-1660 fax 717 245-1942

  4. I am most at rest when I’m moving. Mostly I walk on roads. Roads let things be what they are, where they are. And let you pass quietly among them. In the woods things are up too much against me. I have to push them aside, cover my arms and legs from their prickers and protect my eyes and the back of my head from the whiplash of their branches. On a road when things go by, they are gone. In the woods I duck and bob and weave. On a road I just walk and look.
    And watch the trees separate as I come towards them. They start as a tight gray bundle and peel off sideways one by one like acrobatic swimmers diving sideways into the water, until each tree stands on its own. If I veered quickly to my right I could bring the trees crashing soundlessly together. But I let them stay separate. And then, one by one, they disappear behind me. I feel closer to things when they are approaching me, at my speed.
    This time I am walking on a road near Rhinebeck New York. All roads are either loops or out and backs. This one is a three mile loop. But that doesn’t really matter. The height of the surroundings does. I need things at and above my eye level in order to feel as if I’m moving among them.
    This road has trees at the start, trees so tall that all I can see in passing are the trunks. The barks are uniformly gray. And uniformly bumpy. Except for one tree with shake-shingle chunks of bark that hinge out at a thirty degree angle from the trunk. The shingles look so solid and so firmly in place that if I were to push on them I bet they wouldn’t move at all until I exerted enough pressure to break them at their base. Even then they would drop down but not dangle loosely from the trunk.
    Not like the branch I see at the top of my eye level. It’s a pale, weathered-shingle-gray stick with barnacles of fungus covering over half of its four foot length and at least as thick as my thin wrists. I stop and walk backwards, first to see how it is suspended, and then from what. The branch floats forward and hovers in place, letting me look. There’s a ninety degree crack at a point about twelve inches from the trunk revealing cedar colored wood muscles. The trunk is the same gray color I’ve seen all along my walk. And when I look as closely as I can at the fracture point that is probably ten feet above my head I still can’t see what the connection is. The red wood grows out of the tree all right, and the muscles seem strong enough for even a finger tip grip, but the branch looks as if it is somehow secretly super glued to some unseen point at the very tip of the wood. Someday, in a strong wind, the branch will groan and fall into the thick bushes of poison ivy directly below it. Maybe the noise will give away the secret spot. But there is barely a breeze on any of my three walks.
    I noticed the poison ivy long before I saw the branch. Even though it is well below my eye level. It grows heavily along both sides of the road stretching from the fields, across the stone walls and out onto the narrow gravel shoulder. As I always do, I move towards the middle of the road. When cars or trucks approach I move closer to the shoulder. But I never, unless really pushed by a car’s threat, move to within less than an arm’s length of the roadside. I’ve had poison ivy several times. And was injured once in a traffic accident while driving. There is no comparison between the itch and the crushed bone. Still I try to hold my ground.
    The poison ivy, like some of the Maple trees and other vegetation, is changing to its fall coloring. Some of the ivy leaves have the dappled yellow-brown color of a bosc pear. The color seems to change the leaf’s texture from smooth and oily to bumpy and dry. I do not touch it. Other ivy leaves are orange. They are almost as bright in their orangeness as some of the signs stapled at eye level to various tree trunks.
    The signs also appear in red, yellow, and white. The words are always the same, except for the name at the bottom. Two orange signs, one facing East, one North, are paired on an oak tree. Behind that oak tree are two other trees displaying a North facing orange and a South facing white sign. Separating the oak from the other trees is a barbed wire fence running along the top of a stone wall. Why four signs? Why even one sign? Doesn’t the barbed wire and the man made stone wall shout “private property”? Why must the trespassing be STRICTLY forbidden? Isn’t FORBIDDEN good enough? I’m confused. But then again I’ve got my own reasons for staying on the road.
    The telephone poles along the side of the road are all numbered; “N Y T 98, 97, 9something”. They are new-wood brown, weathered gray and one is an unnatural burnt umber color. Their wood is naked and smooth. The road is named and/or numbered also. So is each piece of POSTED PRIVATE PROPERTY. And somewhere, someone knows where each pole and road and parcel of land is. As I’m walking I look far ahead and back over my shoulder. I don’t see anyone. Right now no one knows where I am except me. And I have no kind of map for this road, except that I know I am on a route that will take me back to where I started my journey from.
    I walk by a dead bird lying on its right side along the edge of the road. It’s slightly larger than a sparrow and charcoal-gray-colored with three white wing stripes. There are no marks of injury and no signs of decay. The legs are bent and the claws hang limp, and its head is looking straight ahead. The dead bird looks as if it is frozen at a moment during take off when its body has leapt upwards but its wings have not yet spread. Except the background is tar black and not sky blue.
    Later that same day when I walk by that same spot, the bird body is gone, without a trace. Maybe someone moved it. Someone else who believes that things that should fly freely should never be on a road. And that things that can’t yet, must.

  5. Barbara Ghoshal

    We are, each and all of us, the squirrel and the hawk. Thank you for this posting, and the wisdom it holds. I went for a walk yesterday at the Morton Arboretum, just west of Chicago, and thought about Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, her losses and her strengths. Perhaps you might write about her at length one day on the thoreaufarm website.

  6. Heidi Kaiter

    The Thoreau Farm Trust may consider initiating a “Sauntering Society” and coordinate nature walks in the Concord area. Then write about the experience at the Thoreau Farm!!!

  7. Nice post, Sandy… and you saw this amazing hawk squirrel hunt on your little walk! What great things can happen!