The Roost

A blog at Thoreau Farm
editor, Margaret Carroll-Bergman
founding editor, Sandy Stott

“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” –Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”

Stone Advice to Pilgrims

Don’t Forget the Rock

by Corinne Smith

Out-of-towners aren’t always familiar with the protocols of visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Some forget to pack essential elements from home. So let this be an appeal to those Transcendental Pilgrims who plan to make their first-time journeys in the future. Be sure to bring something to leave as a tribute to Henry David Thoreau at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, at Walden Pond, or at both sites. Don’t be caught embarrassingly empty-handed.

Throughout the calendar year, people leave mementos at Thoreau’s gravesite in Sleepy Hollow. The stone carved with the simple name HENRY is often surrounded by pine cones, pine-needle sprigs, acorns, pebbles, rocks, pencils, pennies, and hand-written notes. Unprepared pilgrims sometimes pick up random natural gifts along the cemetery pathways, courtesy of the tall trees that give the place its park-like atmosphere.

In early May and in mid-July, corresponding to the dates of Thoreau’s death and birth, the piles at his marker grow taller. Thoreau’s neighbors on Author’s Ridge – the Hawthornes, Alcotts and Emersons – often attract similar but smaller heaps of tribute. Henry and Louisa May Alcott draw the most items. Not that anyone is counting, of course.

A different kind of tribute sprawls a few miles south, at Walden Pond. At the site of Thoreau’s house stands a cairn that was begun by Mary Newbury Adams on a summer day in 1872. Mrs. Adams was visiting from Dubuque, Iowa, and was walking around the pond with friend Bronson Alcott. When Alcott showed her the by-then empty plot where Thoreau’s house once stood, Mary was moved to memorialize the landmark in the Gaelic tradition. In Alcott’s words: “Mrs. Adams suggests that visitors to Walden shall bring a small stone for Thoreau’s monument and begins the pile by laying stones on the site of his hermitage, which I point out to her.” The cairn has varied in height and girth ever since. The exception came in the late 1970s, when state workers first hauled the heap away as a presumed eyesore and a safety hazard, and then supposedly brought the same rocks back three years later. (In theory.) Today, visitors still bring stones from home – sometimes inscribed — and other individuals take some of them away.

But a nearby and more deliberate rock connects Walden with the Thoreau Farm Birthplace. When granite posts were installed to outline the pond house site in the late 1940s, an additional large stone was placed where the chimney had risen. Its carved letters include a line from the Thoreau poem “Smoke,” which was published in 1843 in The Dial and later in the pages of Walden:

Beneath these Stones
lies the Chimney Foundation
of Thoreau’s Cabin 1845-1847
“Go thou my incense upward
From this hearth.”


This rock came from the original Thoreau birthplace property, courtesy of owner and local historian Ruth Wheeler. According to Roland Wells Robbins, the farm’s pastures were “littered with granite boulders of all sizes and shapes. After inspecting many, we decided on a flat surfaced boulder about three feet long and two feet wide. It weighed about twelve hundred pounds and would insure protection for the chimney foundation.” Somehow, it was hauled over to Walden Pond. Now embedded in the earth at the far end of the house site, this piece of glacial litter is a quiet link between the land Henry David Thoreau was born on, and the two-year home that served to establish his literary and cultural reputation.

So: We’ve already left our rock at Walden. Have you?

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Starting Up

The other day, as I considered the routine of my teaching life, I was wondering (again) about the thousand little decisions that occur in every class. What was I hoping to achieve? How might I get there? A teacher lives a class-period in a state of hyper-awareness, tracking (and, on a good day, weaving) both the threads of discussion and the simultaneous connections and disconnections happening all around him. It is far from a routine experience, even if it happens every day. “It is exhausting and startling,” I said to myself. And the word “startling” stirred familiar memory.

Whenever my students reach Walden’s chapter Higher Laws, I gird myself for their responses. Already poked and prodded for some 200 hundred pages, they enter this chapter’s room to find that woods-loving, pine-needle-appreciating Henry has adopted the tone of a scold. Worse yet, he has decided to take on appetite and its physicality, areas of life that seventeen-year-olds are exploring with more than a little fascination.

As he warms to his lesson, Thoreau writes the following:

If the hunter has a taste for mud-turtles, muskrats and other such savage tidbits, the fine lady indulges a taste for jelly made of a calf’s foot, or for sardines from over the sea, and they are even. He goes to the millpond, she to her preserve pot. The wonder is how they, how you and I, can live this slimy beastly life, eating and drinking.

“O, please,” I recall one student saying and dropping her book in disgust at this point. “What’s the alternative?” And in that moment, I thought, exactly; that’s exactly the question Thoreau wants, because he follows this wondering with one of Walden’s memorable, compact moments.

“Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he writes. “What’s that mean?” I ask, and silence usually ensues. Into it I trickle this question: “Did you take a shower this morning?” A little nervous laughter. Teachers are weird, I see them thinking. “Okay,” says one. “I’ll bite; yes, I took a shower.” And in the discussion that follows we talk about warm water versus cold, about soap and its types, about whether or not shampoos have been animal tested on sensitive eyes. What swirls down the drain and where does it go? we ask.

What about your lunch? What about your shoes? Your belt? Your bag? Your laptop? Questions stack up rapidly; it’s easy to imagine a point of paralysis. I notice that we’re all leaning forward over our tables and suggest that we sit back and take a deep breath. “Now I don’t think Thoreau wants us to drown in a welter of micro-decisions,” I say, “but he does want your initial question to be alive in our minds. What’s the alternative seems exactly on point.”

“So there’s the connection with the central theme of being awake,” says another student. “You have to be fully awake to even think that there’s an alternative, and then to think what that alternative might be. There’s an awakeness about being startled.”

Yes, there is; we wake from the complacency of routine, of herd-life, with a start; we begin to be individuals as a start. And that’s part of what I want for my students, and for myself.

And you? What startles you?


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Making It Real

No matter our age, September’s arrival suggests beginning again. Our years of schooling tab it as the true new year; for me, a teacher, the effect is stronger still – I begin again with new groups of students.

All of this has me asking myself this perennial question: What does it take to teach and learn well? And as this question pools again at the start of my 40th year of teaching, I return to Thoreau’s question in the early going of Walden:

Which would be most advanced at the end of a month, – the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this, – or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the mean while and had received a Rogers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

Thoreau’s opinion is clear – real experience, hands-on work, trumps lecture and passive reception, and he would find many currently teaching who agree. Experiential education gains more converts each year. At my school a long history of devotion to the arts leads us in that direction – just as an artist makes art, so too a student makes learning. The challenge often lies in finding and fitting experience into the uniform time-boxes that form a school’s schedule. How can I make our work real rather than received, I wonder.

Here’s one attempt from this time last year:

9/4/11: The e-mails arrived last evening and this morning: Next Monday’s assignment includes the intentionally vague request that each student make a map of Thoreau’s essay Walking; in class, this request passed without comment and everyone shuffled off to the next class. “What do you mean, want?” chorused the four e-mails. “Okay,” I wrote back, “I’ll outline (vaguely, still) what sort of visual representation a map might offer, but I want your take, not mine.”

Shuffle shuffle, Monday arrives and they do too. We talk over passages; we speculate, we formulate ideas in small groups, we go outside and consider the act of walking, it locomotion. The class period comes to an end. “So,” I say with the sort of teacher-cheeriness that makes students roll their eyes, “will your maps get me from here to there?” And amid a rustling of paper, I collect their maps. Most are flat single sheets, a few are rolled, and one weighs nearly a pound. I sit in the now-empty classroom and prepare to be guided. The many drawings offer good distillation of Thoreau’s essay and a number of its key points; as I read and scan on, I am happy to be in their territory. I unfurl the heavy scroll and along its meandering ink lines and amid its drawings, I find the sources of its weight – glued to the map are twigs, pine needles, a stone and, where the paper was once wet, it wrinkles. The map uses a “tawny grammar,” a wild expression, and near the end it says, “Go see for yourself.”

I’m out the door in under a minute.

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Look to the Skies

by Corinne H. Smith

As a weekend docent at the Thoreau Farm Birthplace, I do a fair amount of chatting about our friend Henry. Because our tours begin in the front yard, one of the first questions a guest is apt to ask is: “What would he think of that?” A nod or a finger pointing to the sky will accompany the raised eyebrows.

You see, the east-west runway of nearby Hanscom Field lies just beyond the property’s tree line. On most days, this lane is used for regular airplane take-offs. When the wind shifts slightly, it’s used instead for landings. The airport serves mostly small craft, but they all look rather large to us because they’re so close. Large and loud. The intrusion is only temporary, though, until the plane either soars away or touches down. Even on the airstrip’s busiest days, at least a few minutes of peace will pass before the next silver-clad “bird” shows up.

I quickly recite the text of Thoreau’s journal entry of January 3, 1861: “Thank God, man cannot as yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth! We are safe on that side for the present.” This quotation usually gets a giggle from the group. I also remind folks that the proximity of the runway to this house is similar to that of the railroad tracks and the site of Thoreau’s home at Walden Pond. Visitors understand this analogy, especially if they’ve just come from the pond and from hiking around its perimeter. If they happened to be at the state reservation at the “right” time, they got to see the gray and purple cars of an MBTA commuter train clatter along the tracks at the western edge of the water. Whether we consider the trains cutting through Walden Woods, or the planes flying over the farmland of Thoreau’s roots, both illustrate a relationship between people and nature, both are examples of industrialization’s imprint on nature.

Plane above the Thoreau Farm Treeline

On occasion, another question may arise: would Henry Thoreau have gone up in a plane, if he had been given the chance? Well, speculation across the centuries can be a tricky task. But let’s start with the “Sounds” chapter of Walden to find Thoreau’s reaction to the introduction of the railroad to Concord. At first, he calls the soot-spewing locomotive a “fire-steed” that makes “the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils.” But he grows to admire the way the trains improved both daily time-keeping and transportation. Thoreau traveled by rail frequently: to go to Boston and Worcester, to travel to lecture sites throughout New England, and even to reach his favorite mountains – Wachusett in Worcester County and Monadnock in New Hampshire. He did not discount all new inventions.

So, based on his acceptance of the railroad, I believe Henry Thoreau would have tried flight at least once, if only to see his hometown from yet another perspective. Who knows? Maybe he would have had to alter another one of his famous sayings: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”

On the other hand, if you look up that flying reference in Thoreau’s journal, you’ll see from his follow-up remarks that he appears to be addressing the issue of pollution, and not of mere travel. Ah. That would be a lesson for another day.


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Roost Interview with Christine Woodside – Editor of Appalachia

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor who lives in Deep River, Connecticut. She has written many articles for The New York Times, the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, as well as relatively unknown magazines like New England Watershed and Connecticut Explored. Chris wrote a book about alternative energy (Energy Independence, Lyons Press) and is writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and how the Great Depression helped form the pioneer myth. Chris was a newspaper editor and writer for 18 years.
Chris serves on the advisory board of the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island, where she was a fellow in 1999. She hiked the entire Appalachian Trail with her husband Nat Eddy and two friends some years back. She and her husband have two grown daughters. Learn more about her New Jersey ancestors and early years at her Web site,

Chris edits Appalachia journal (published twice each year – see and the quarterly, Connecticut Woodlands ( Appalachia is the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club and its oldest publication.

The summer-fall issue is published in June; the winter-spring issue comes out in December. Appalachia offers essays, journalism, poetry, and reports of mountain accidents (in the White Mountains of New Hampshire) and exploits (in the high elevation peaks around the world). The Journal also reviews books on wilderness-related topics and publishes poetry by some of today’s leading poets.
Chris has decided to devote much of Appalachia’s December 2012 issue to an exploration of Thoreau’s ongoing influence. In the following interview she reflects on some of what she found as she composed the issue.

• You’ve decided to devote a sizeable part of the upcoming issue of Appalachia to Thoreau and his legacy. What drew you to take such an in-depth look at him?

I wanted to play up the difference between modern sensibilities and Thoreau’s, laying bare how strange it feels for a modern person to think and act like Thoreau.

• Now that you’ve reached the final stages of preparing the issue, what shape has the Thoreau section taken?

Three of our Concord-based members of the Appalachia Committee have written about Thoreau’s legacy in his hometown. Lucille Stott has written the anchor piece of journalism about Thoreau’s life in Concord, the restoration of his birthplace as Thoreau Farm, and the throngs of readers and scholars who read his papers at the library. Parkman Howe has written about the house where Thoreau died and some townspeople’s perception of him as a ghostly figure. Sandy Stott has written about teaching high school students to meet Thoreau as a writer speaking directly to them, rather than as a famous literary figure. Kristen Laine has chronicled her attempt to ramble through the woods and fields of her home property like Thoreau. The issue also includes an essay by Heather Stephenson about circumnavigating Walden Pond with her young daughter, flower ID book in hand, and a short piece about Thoreau’s botanical (mostly) observations on New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock by University of New Hampshire professor Peter J. Thompson.

• As you gathered response and commitment from various writers, how did your plans for the issue change? In other words, what major themes have emerged?

I thought the issue would highlight how difficult it is to live and think as Thoreau did, now that it’s 2012. I was wrong. I have realized that modern people who read and consider Thoreau are not trying him on in a shallow way; many writers respect him deeply and understand his attitudes.

• How has working with the issue’s various writers and their articles changed your sense of Thoreau and his ongoing effect?

My original assignment to Kristen Laine was: go camping, Thoreau style. Don’t move around too much. Sit and contemplate a set of wild flowers, that sort of thing. But Kristen wanted to stay close to home and ramble daily over the same terrain, noting what was growing and what wasn’t, as Thoreau did in his later years. She proves in her piece that…. well, I’ll let you read it.

• What surprised you as you worked on this issue?

That I no longer feel Thoreau was eccentric in any way.

• Thoreau famously went to Walden to observe and think and write, but many point to his daily walks as the key contemplative practice that informed his writing. Where do you go to find your questions and begin to forge answers to them?

I started walking in the woods as a way to write more honestly about 15 years ago, after my father died. I already knew at that point that getting onto a forest path, alone, helped me sort out what I thought. But I was still in the mode of putting off the time in my life when I would act on those thoughts.
The day my father died, he told me about a conversation he’d had with someone at work, who had asked him if he had ever written stories. “No, but my daughter is trying to,” he said to her.
At that point I was waiting for the rest of my life—for the calling (this was 17 years ago) to write something other than newspaper articles—to happen to me. My father held up a Newsweek magazine cover about people who were fried by work. He raised his eyebrows.
That night, he died, and in the days after, I felt this tremendous push, something to do with him and my interpretation of him, to start writing stories. I knew I was a writer, but I was not writing from my own ideas.

Some years before all this, I had met myself in the mountains. My husband and I and two friends had quit our jobs and sublet our apartments to hike from Georgia to Maine for four and a half months. I was 28. This was the first time I had ever broken from society’s expectations, and, tame as it was, it liberated me to be homeless for that period.
I needed to do that then, and I still need to walk every day now, because I am one of those people who tends toward trying to please the world. I smile at people who are rude. I blush at pushy clerks. Walking alone takes me to who I really am and makes it possible to write originally. If the prose isn’t supposed to smile, it doesn’t. But I have to trudge through the woods first.

• The theme of Thoreau Farm is “Living Deliberately,” and visitors to the house often leave notes about what those words mean to them. Has this issue of Appalachia given you any new insights about what it means to live deliberately today?

I do think the issue will remind readers that we must try ever harder to live simply and deliberately in this age of distraction. We must take command of computers and the Web, remembering they are tools only. We must resist the urge to research how everybody else does something—whether it be gathering firewood, building a shanty, writing a poem, or making spaghetti—before we attempt it ourselves. We must stop buying things to solve problems that aren’t material.

• In the long run, Thoreau placed his hope for the future and faith in a seed. Where do you find hope as you survey and write about the challenges we face?

I find hope in birds that return year after year to their nesting grounds and do the same things, bravely, minute after minute. They never give up.

• What do have you in mind for future issues of Appalachia?

Well, I’m thinking about an issue with a few articles about women’s difficulties (and the solace they find) in the mountains. I want to continue my mission of nurturing new writers alongside the accomplished writers I recruit to the pages. I’d like to gather narratives of water journeys and maybe devote an issue exploring the similarities between rainforests and New England/British Columbia forests.

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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.

more »


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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.)


*     *     *

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? more »

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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: more »

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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. more »

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The Farm Next Door

Getting to know Thoreau Farm’s neighbor, Gaining Ground

“I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But why should I raise them? … What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?”
Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean-Field,” Walden

Writing there in Walden of his (successful) experiment in the bean-patch, Henry Thoreau got down to basics (as he had a tendency to do). Down to the fundamental questions: Why should I raise them? What shall I learn? And learn not only about the beans but about himself.

At the outset of my very first post on this blog, back in February, I mentioned that the Thoreau Farm property (the parcel owned by Thoreau Farm Trust on which the birthplace house sits) is adjacent to — in fact seamlessly connects with — a community farm and food project called Gaining Ground, dedicated to hunger-relief in the Boston area.  Situated on 17 acres leased from the Town of Concord — on some of the oldest continually cultivated land in America (farmed for more than 350 years) — all of the farm’s organically-grown produce , more than 20,000 pounds per year, is donated to food pantries and meal programs, consumed within 20 miles of the farm and within 24 hours of harvesting. Community volunteers provide roughly two-thirds of the labor. more »

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Climate and the Very Serious, Cont.

The RoostThe New Yorker goes deep on geoengineering. Is this what it looks like when our Very Serious media take the climate seriously?

[UPDATE, 5/10/12: NASA’s James Hansen has a hard-hitting op-ed in today’s New York Times, which shows us what it looks like to take climate seriously. “Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening,” he writes. Describing near-term scenarios, he continues, “If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically.” Bottom line: “The science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow.”]

.   .   .

Back in March, just after we launched this blog at Thoreau Farm, I asked David Roberts of Grist in an email exchange what it would look like if our “Very Serious mainstream media” (as he likes to call it) started taking climate change seriously. If you missed it, the resulting exchange is worth reading (and was cross-posted at Grist).

Well, it may not have led the evening news (or even made it into your newspaper), but this past Saturday, we got to see what it looks like when ordinary citizens — all over the planet — take climate change seriously.

May 5 was the first “Connect the Dots” Climate Impacts Day, the latest “global day of action” spearheaded by Bill McKibben and The idea was simple: thousands of people, in communities around the world, who are already feeling the impact of global warming got together for group photos, holding homemade “dots,” and sent them to There, they joined a spectacular — and often moving — photostream at, “connecting the dots” between extreme weather and climate change (as scientists are already doing), and calling for action. (I organized an event in Wayland and spoke at the event in Concord, where more than a hundred people gathered at the Old Manse, right next to the Old North Bridge. You can see a great collection of photos from around Massachusetts at, a new statewide grassroots network that I’m helping to organize.)

One kind of “climate action” I didn’t see or hear mentioned on Saturday is the highly controversial (some say crazy) idea of “geoengineering.” For that, though, you can turn to this week’s issue of The New Yorker, its splashy “Innovators” issue, and a big piece by Michael Specter titled “The Climate Fixers.”

Everyone should read this piece, or at least the first two sections. Not because it adds terribly much to the well-covered topic of geoengineering (i.e., human manipulation of the atmosphere to counter the effects of climate change), but because Specter’s opening pages are as close as anything I’ve seen, in a “Very Serious” publication, to what I call the “WE’RE F****D. NOW WHAT?” framing of the climate story. A framing, in other words, that begins to level with readers about the extremity of the situation. more »


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A Walk and a Talk

The Roost“In my walks I would fain return to my senses.”
-Thoreau, “Walking”

I managed to get out for a much-needed walk this morning, over to a nearby conservation area in Wayland, where I live. At the heart of it is a big, open swamp, a quarter-mile wide, surrounded by thickly wooded slopes, a pond at one end. The air was surprisingly cold. The water up a bit after last week’s rains. The geese were out with their young ones. Clear sky.

“I enter a swamp as a sacred place — a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength — the marrow of Nature.”

That’s also from “Walking.” (And yes, I have a thing about that essay.)

Yesterday morning I was a guest speaker, along with two of my fellow initiators of Transition Wayland, at the historic First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) in Wayland center. I’m posting my talk here (you can read the others here). It’s not an exact transcript of my remarks (there was some ad libbing), but it’s pretty close. If you’ve been following this blog, some of it will sound familiar. The interviews and exchanges I’ve posted here in recent weeks were very much on my mind. more »

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Climate and the Politics of Hope

A conversation with journalist Mark Hertsgaard, author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth

Mark Hertsgaard, an accomplished global-environmental reporter, wants you to remember the first Earth Day, how it really started, 42 years ago, on April 22, 1970. He wants to remind you of the far-reaching change it brought about — under a conservative Republican president, no less.

In an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation, Hertsgaard notes that here in the U.S., as Earth Day has become “a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt,” there are environmentalists who are ready to get rid of it altogether. But rather than do that, he writes: more »

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Amy Seidl: A Voice for Resilience

April 1 [1852]. Walden is all white ice, but little melted about the shores…. We have had a good solid winter, which has put the previous summer far behind us; intense cold, deep and lasting snows, and clear, tense winter sky. It’s a good experience to have gone through with.
Henry David Thoreau (from The Journal 1837-1861, edited by Damion Searls)

Amy Seidl

Remember winter? Here in New England, especially this year, the experience (good or otherwise!) of “intense cold, deep and lasting snows,” seems like a fading memory.

Amy Seidl has been tracking this change — not just scientifically, but culturally, even psychologically. Winter, she writes in her much-admired 2009 book, Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World, “is no longer the season it was a century ago…. The hard fact is we see far fewer periods of deep cold.” In that book, Seidl closely observes the landscape surrounding her home overlooking the Champlain Valley, and contemplates the effect of a changing climate on our senses and our inner lives. “What will happen to the world, to us,” she asks, “if a season like winter all but disappears as a result of global warming? Some have proposed that as our seasons begin to radically change we are becoming deseasoned, which refers to the experience of losing or skipping over a season.”

To grasp just how radical this shift is, try to imagine a “deseasoned” Henry Thoreau. I, for one, can’t. No winter, no Walden. more »

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Snyder, Thoreau, and Cold Mountain

It was a great treat to see and hear Gary Snyder on Tuesday night at MIT, where he received the Henry David Thoreau Prize (for “literary excellence in nature writing”) from PEN New England.  I’ve written a short piece on Snyder for this Sunday’s Boston Globe Books section, so I won’t say too much right now (I’ll post the link and a few more thoughts on Sunday).

UPDATE, 4/15/12: My appreciation of Snyder appears in the Globe Books section today (if you’re not a subscriber, you can also find it here, but the version behind the pay-wall is far more attractive and easier to read). I like the way my piece is paired with Christina Thompson’s review (for non-subscribers here) of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, by paleontologist Richard Fortey. It ties in nicely with the point I make about Snyder: my mini-essay begins with a note about climate change and the bristlecone pines, the earth’s oldest living trees, growing along the rim of the North American Great Basin, and a poem of Snyder’s, “The Mountain Spirit,” in which he spends a night among the bristlecones. I then write:

“Snyder has long been celebrated as a poet and essayist of place — Cascade peaks, Kyoto temples, Beat San Francisco, the South Yuba River watershed in the Sierra foothills where he’s lived since 1970 — and the idea of truly inhabiting one’s surrounding landscape is vital to his environmental ethic. But these days I think of Snyder, even more, as a preeminent poet of impermanence and time: from cosmic kalpas and geologic eons down to the evanescent ripple of the present moment.”

I go on to say that this interest in impermanence has never led him to passivity or fatalism in the face of suffering. I hope you’ll read the rest of the piece and let me know what you think.

But I do want to share some comments of Snyder’s, from his introduction to his reading at MIT, in which he drew an implied (or more than implied) connection between Thoreau and the 8th-century Chinese Buddhist hermit-poet Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”), whose poems Snyder (famously) translated in the 1950s while a grad student at Berkeley. It’s a connection I’ve thought about at times myself (and I’m sure I’m not the only one).

Snyder can be very funny in person. He admitted at the outset that he has sometimes struggled with Thoreau over the years. For instance, “Why the heck didn’t he get himself a girlfriend?!” When the laughter in the room subsided, Snyder continued (this is from my own recording): more »

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Gary Snyder to receive ‘Thoreau Prize’

The RoostThe great American poet and essayist Gary Snyder will be in Cambridge tomorrow night, Tuesday, April 10, to receive the Henry David Thoreau Prize for “literary excellence in nature writing” (now there’s an understatement) from PEN New England. You’ll find the details online here.  (The Poetry Foundation has a selection of Snyder’s poems and a few recordings online, which I recommend to the uninitiated.)

I’ll have more to say about Snyder and tomorrow night’s event in an upcoming post, but for now I’ll simply say that Snyder is a literary hero of mine. As I mentioned in a comment on my exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, Snyder’s engaged Zen Buddhism has great appeal to me (as a student of Zen myself). I see him as a profoundly unifying figure, bridging the divides between eco- and anthropo-centrism — and between withdrawal and engagement — that Kingsnorth and I represented in our “debate.”  Perhaps Snyder should be a reconciling model for us both.

Stay tuned. More on this to come later in the week.

Wen Stephenson

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Hope in the Age of Collapse (Part 3)

The RoostThe conclusion of my exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project

(See part one and part two of this exchange.)

.     .     .


From: Wen Stephenson
To: Paul Kingsnorth

Hi Paul,

So, just as I sat down to write this reply, I reached for the remote to turn off the TV, and realized I was looking at a concert video of Arcade Fire. They were playing (I kid you not) their anthem “Wake Up” to an enormous outdoor crowd of beautiful bright-faced young people in Galicia, Spain, in 2010. As the camera panned over the audience, you could see that these kids were — what’s the word? — rapt? ecstatic? (Was religion in Europe ever this good? The band certainly seemed to relish a revivalist role.) But where will those young people be in twenty years? Thirty years? 50? And are they to blame for what’s in store? Those 20-year-olds? (I won’t even ask what responsibility the culture industry bears…. whoops, I just did.)

“Children … wake up.”

So, yeah, for whatever that’s worth.

I want to pause for a moment and emphasize what we have in common, before venturing another question or two about where we differ. I’ll try to keep this brief.

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Hope in the Age of Collapse (Part 2)

Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth responds

(See part one of this exchange.)

.     .     .

From: Paul Kingsnorth
To: Wen Stephenson

Dear Wen,

Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.

But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.

This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.

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Hope in the Age of Collapse

The RoostAn exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
“State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012

That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference  in London.  As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)

Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):

It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.

Not Paul Kingsnorth.  An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there. more »


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Spring Swing

The Roost

[Updated, 4/2/12]

In which I praise (sort of) The Boston Globe and look ahead to my conversation with Vermont ecologist and author Amy Seidl…

Though all eyes are on the Supreme Court this week, the big news on the climate and environment front is the EPA’s announcement of its rule curbing carbon pollution from new power plants. “The move could end the construction of conventional coal-fired facilities in the United States,” writes Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. (David Roberts over at Grist has an excellent rundown on “the top five things you need to know about EPA’s new carbon rule.”)

With all of that excitement, news readers in New England might have missed The Globe’s important (if somewhat low-key and underplayed) story by David Abel, headlined “Spring frost could doom early blooms,” about the wild swing in temperatures we’re experiencing right now, from unprecedented highs to a sudden freeze, and what it means for flowering trees and plants — and, perhaps even more important, for farms: more »

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Bill McKibben: Love and Justice

An interview with the founder, Keystone resister, Occupy supporter, Jesus follower (and, yes, Thoreau scholar)

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present…. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated…. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament — the gospel according to this moment.”
-Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

“My only real fear is that the reality described in this book, and increasingly evident in the world around us, will be for some an excuse to give up. We need just the opposite — increased engagement. Some of that engagement will be local: building the kind of communities and economies that can withstand what’s coming. And some of it must be global: we must step up the fight to keep climate change from getting even more powerfully out of control, and to try to protect those people most at risk, who are almost always those who have done the least to cause the problem.”
-Bill McKibben,
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010)

“With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”
-Climate activist Tim DeChristopher, after his sentencing in federal court in Salt Lake City, July 26, 2011

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Climate Facts, Hard Fictions

The RoostWhat kinds of stories can convey the full human dimensions of climate change?

I take up that question in today’s Boston Globe Books section, in a “By The Book” essay on a recent collection of short fiction, I’m With the Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet (Verso). As it happens, the volume has an introduction by Bill McKibben, and I’ll be posting an interview with him — not about these stories but about climate and politics (and, yes, Thoreau) — here on The Roost this coming week.

The Globe essay begins this way: more »

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Climate and Very Serious Media (3)

Part three of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.

(Read parts one and two.)

From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts

Couple more things:

Jay Rosen (and plenty of others, including my old colleague Jim Fallows at The Atlantic) recently wrote about NPR’s new guidelines and the so-called end of “false equivalence” in reporting (giving equal weight to opposing “sides” in a debate, regardless of the evidence supporting one or the other). more »


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Climate and Very Serious Media (2)

Part two of my exchange with David Roberts of Grist.

(Read parts one and three.)

From: Wen Stephenson
To: David Roberts

> deviance is what we just don’t talk about, positions that don’t even earn a mention in mainstream coverage, e.g., climate change means economic growth is no longer viable.

I’d suggest that a position like this — “climate change means economic growth is no longer viable” — gets mentioned, maybe even discussed at some length (in the pages of the better newspapers and magazines), but is framed as, yes, deviant. The mainstream enjoys a little deviance — letting it into the discussion can be an amusing parlor game, and of course helps define the boundaries of what’s Serious (i.e. legitimate) and what’s not. Or are you saying there are truths and/or serious arguments about climate that really are unmentionable? more »

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Climate and Very Serious Media

The RoostAn exchange with David Roberts of Grist

A central part of our mission at Thoreau Farm is to look squarely at the present and face, to use Thoreau’s language, “the essential facts.” To that end, if you’re not already reading David Roberts, longtime staff writer at Grist in Seattle, please start now.

Roberts is not only one of the smartest writers you’ll find on climate politics and policy, he’s got my vote for the most readable (any other nominees?). Which is no small achievement. The challenge of writing about climate change in an informed, urgent and accessible way — as anyone who’s ever tried surely knows — is daunting. more »

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Ready or not, here comes spring…

The RoostEarly this morning, as I do a lot of mornings, I walked out into the parcel of conservation land, formerly part of a farm, behind my house in Wayland. I didn’t want to miss what could be the last frost of this season. more »


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Blogging ‘Deliberately’

The RoostLast week in my introductory post, I suggested (only half jokingly) that I launched this blog “because I wished to blog deliberately.” Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write a Walden parody — for one thing, the competition is too intimidating; how could I top this? But I’ve been thinking that I should say a few more specific things about what I’m planning to do here (you know, just to “manage expectations,” as they say), and what it might actually mean to blog deliberately. more »


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Post-forum notes & #Occupy reads

The Roost (small)First, a big, sincere thanks to everyone who came out for Vivian Gornick yesterday and made our first Thoreau Farm Forum a great success. We had a very nice turnout, a highly engaged audience, and of course a famously engaging speaker (and topic!). more »


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Vivian Gornick on Emma and #OWS

“The most alive is the wildest,” Thoreau wrote. I couldn’t help thinking of that line as I read the first pages of Vivian Gornick’s Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, the book she’ll be reading from and discussing at our first Thoreau Farm Forum at Concord Academy this Sunday. Read Gornick’s opening paragraph, and you’ll see what I mean. It draws a bead on Thoreau’s idea of wildness as something within — something he wanted to liberate. She writes: more »

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Introducing ‘The Roost’

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.
–Walden, Ch. 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”


I’m sitting here in the office at Thoreau Farm, in the house where Henry David Thoreau was born, in 1817, out on Virginia Road in Concord, Mass. It’s late-morning, quiet inside and out, another unseasonably mild winter day. A few minutes ago I took a brisk walk around the property. The house itself has been moved a few hundred yards from its original site, but I’m glad to say it still has a small working farm out back, a local community food project called Gaining Ground, dedicated to hunger relief in the area. An organic farm with a social conscience – it’s hard to imagine a better neighbor to Henry’s birthplace, or a better image with which to begin this blog.

This is my first post here on The Roost, the blog that Thoreau Farm Trust has invited me to write and edit. more »


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