Author Archives: Wen Stephenson

John Hanson Mitchell: Undiscovered Country, Part 2

John Mitchell and I conclude our exchange on Thoreau, wildness, climate, and “conservation in the Anthropocene”

(Read part one of the exchange.)


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From: Wen Stephenson
To: John Mitchell

Hi John,

I’d like to pick up on a couple of ideas in your first response, which I very much enjoyed. (Poor Kareiva, he’s got Thoreauvians ganging up on him now…)

First, it has to be noted that time and place, human and wild, have been preoccupations of yours for quite a while.  And I want to ask you about time — both geologic and human-scale — and the concept of the “Anthropocene,” which collapses the two.

In Ceremonial Time, you wrote the natural and human history of (as the subtitle puts it) “15,000 Years on One Square Mile.” That square mile being Scratch Flat, as it used to be called, in Littleton. (Confession: after reading that book for the first time just a couple of years ago, I drove up to Littleton and poked around your neighborhood, book and map in hand, because you’d brought the landscape to life so vividly I had to see it for myself. I hope you’ll take that as the compliment it is.) Now, that book was published in 1984. I wonder, would you write it — or frame it — differently now, given what we know about climate change, the Anthropocene, and the deep uncertainty of our too-near human future on this planet? Continue reading

Undiscovered Country: An exchange with John Hanson Mitchell

Part One of our exchange on Thoreau, wildness, climate, and “conservation in the Anthropocene”

The first time I met John Hanson Mitchell, the prolific author and longtime editor of Mass Audubon’s Sanctuary magazine, it was in September 2010 over lunch in Lincoln, Mass., not far from his office at Drumlin Farm. Engaging and generous with his time, he listened gamely as I talked about some crazy idea I had for an essay about walking to Walden Pond from my house in Wayland, just down the road from Concord and Lincoln. I’d sought him out because, as several people told me, if I wanted to write about Thoreau and the contemporary landscape around these parts, I needed to talk with John Mitchell — and read his books, like Living at the End of Time (1990), his fine memoir about building and living in a cabin at the edge of the woods behind his house in Littleton, just up the road from Concord; and Walking Towards Walden (1995), in which he and friends traipse cross-country, in one long day, from Littleton to Concord.

Nobody knows better than John Mitchell that “the wild” is just outside our doors, if we care to look. His highly regarded first book, Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile, published in 1984, is a thought-provoking extended essay on the natural and human history of his semi-rural neighborhood, known traditionally as Scratch Flat. Near the outset, he notes that many people doubted him when first told that, among the surrounding landscape’s abundant wildlife, they could find great horned owls living in the white pines a short walk from their backyards. This leads him to reflect: Continue reading

Thoreau’s Apples at Gaining Ground

The RoostLast week I wrote about Gaining Ground, the community farm and hunger-relief project out back of the Thoreau Farm house, and posted my interview with Michelle De Lima and Kayleigh Boyle, the farm’s co-managers.  It turns out they wrote an item for Gaining Ground’s Spring newsletter about the new apple orchard they’re planting behind the house, on part of the Thoreau Farm Trust property.  With their permission, I’m posting it here on The Roost. (You can download the full newsletter here in PDF format).

Growing Thoreau’s Apples
by Kayleigh Boyle and Michelle De Lima

“For I do not refuse the Blue-Pearmain, I fill my pockets on each side; and as I retrace my steps in the frosty eve, being perhaps four or five miles from home, I eat one first from this side, and then from that, to keep my balance.” -Thoreau, “Wild Apples”

Want to try Thoreau’s favorite apple variety? Visit us on Virginia Road in a few years, and you can. Thoreau is said to have appreciated the Blue Pearmain apple for its tart flavor, which he thought was “almost as good as wild.” This spring, on land belonging to the Thoreau Farm Trust, we are planting an apple orchard designed with Concord history in mind. Growing alongside the Blue Pearmain will be Hunt Russet and Morse Late Sweet, two apples that originated in Concord in the mid-1700s. Continue reading