Category Archives: General

An Imaginary Friend for Henry

By Sandy Stott

Perhaps these days have you talking to yourself, or, better yet, revisiting an old ability many of us developed in childhood — that of talking with imaginary friends. Surely they can be helpful making sense of a time that seems beyond our experience.

Pink Lady’s Slipper by Kate Furbish

The other day, I did what I do daily: I went for a walk in the woods, and, after a long, stuttering start, I noticed that our coastal Maine woods have begun to say, “It’s the warm season; take a look at this.” Three favorite flowers colored this voice in my head — the trout lily, trillium and, finally, our orchid, the pink lady’s slipper. I love each, and they arrive in the overlapping sequence of their mention above.

In our Town Commons and on a set of local trails, each flower has been a welcome flag of the season. And each has nudged me to pick up a favorite small volume, “Wildflowers of Maine — The Botanical Art of Kate Furbish.”

Furbish (1834 – 1931) lived in Brunswick, Maine throughout her life and became one of the era’s better known botanists, and then, after her death as her illustrations gained a broader audience, a revered painter. She was, it turned out, that rare combination — scientist and artist (though by now we should be alert for the core of curiosity and close observation that brings a person alive in both disciplines; they seem deep and likely complements).

Perhaps Furbish’s dates and combined talents have brought you already to Henry Thoreau, and this friend I have imagined him meeting. Surely, the surface likenesses are strong. Both were unmarried, dedicated to family and ferocious in pursuit of learning. Both, as example, drew upon the work of famed Harvard botanist, Asa Gray, and Furbish often sent him samples of her findings.

But beneath these two surfaces lay eye, heart and habit that seem even more irresistibly alike. I know Thoreau’s life and work much better than Furbish’s, but when I look at her paintings and read her descriptions of looking for and finding her plant subjects, I begin to fashion a meeting between these two. Not that such a meeting happened, but it might have if chance had bumped them together when Henry was through Brunswick as a young man looking for work. Or, more likely, they might have “met” over Walden or his Journals, which ascended in reputation throughout much of Furbish’s lifetime. I’ve asked Furbish scholars if she read Walden or the Journals, however, and none can point to her having done so. Still…her interests and long life suggest possibility.

Which is all I need to begin constructing my imaginary meeting. Would they have gotten on? Hard to know. Each had a character that didn’t mold easily to others; each relished being out in the woods alone. Still…here are a few bits of story that say, maybe.

Kate Furbish at work:

In a letter written in 1909, Furbish described her process of finding and collecting the Maine plants that were her subjects and life’s work. The self-portrait is, I think, irresistible:

I have wandered alone for the most part, on the highways and in the hedges, on foot, in hayracks, on country mail-stages (often in Aroostook, too, with a revolver on the seat), on improvised rafts (equipped with hammer, saw, nails, knife, rubber boots, vasculum,etc.), in row-boats, on logs, crawling on hands and knees on the surface of bogs, and backing out when I dared not walk, in order to procure a coveted treasure. Called ‘crazy,’ a ‘fool’ — and this is the way that my work has been done, the flowers being my only society, and the manuals the only literature for months together. Happy, happy hours!

After that catalogue of collecting behaviors and epithets received, readers expect some concluding note about suffering for one’s knowledge and/or art. They get instead, “Happy, happy hours.”

Such happy hours put me in mind of what I take to be one of Henry Thoreau’s signature statements in his early essay The Natural History of Massachusetts: “Surely,” he wrote:

joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.

From those and other moments, I fashion a meeting between these two artist-scientists. Why not, I say to self, make it in 1856, when a 22-year-old Kate Furbish, ready with years of training as a painter and botanist reads Walden and begins to imagine her life. “I must meet this man who goes to and knows the woods so well,” she says to self, and on a visit to Boston, she sets out for Concord, accident and change painted upon her wings. And then…

So there they are, these two imaginary friends brought to life by long hours of looking closely at nature and then creating art that helps us see and be in our world.

I’m sure you have a friend for Henry too.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident. He is the Roost’s founding editor, and he writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com .

 

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

At the End of the World With Henry

By Lawrence Millman

Henry David Thoreau is not only one of the dozen dedicatees at the beginning of my book, At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic, but he also figures prominently in the book itself, although he never visited the Arctic. Indeed, he never made it farther north than the Saguenay River in Quebec.

Lawrence Millman researching the Belcher Islands murders.

Consider the Belcher Islands, an archipelago in the turbulent waters of eastern Hudson Bay. So remote were these islands that the first white person to set foot on them did so only as recently as 1916. But they weren’t remote from the violence in the name of religion that’s currently common on our planet. In the mid-1930s, a missionary visited the Belchers and gave the local Inuit a simplified tutorial on the merits of Christianity.

Here are the consequences of that tutorial: some years later, during a winter when game was very scarce, one Inuk declared him Jesus, another declared him God, and anyone who didn’t believe in them was killed because that person was Satan. A plethora of Satans were killed in the Belchers.

So what do these killings have to do with Henry? I didn’t have the answer to that question myself when I first tried … and failed … to write a book about those killings. Years passed, but I still couldn’t seem to get a fix on the story. Then I happened to be in Tasiilaq, East Greenland, and I heard about a recent incident where a young woman was sitting on a rock by the sea and texting, unaware that a polar bear was approaching. At the last moment she saw the bear and screamed, whereupon the bear loped away. Presto! I realized I couldn’t write about the past without also writing about the present, and I got the necessary fix I needed to write the book.

In one of the book’s epigraphs, Henry says, “Let your life be a counter friction against the machine.” If he were alive today, he might replace“machine” with “screen.” For digital technology not only has become the silver SUV of global economy, increasingly so with the advent of COVID-19, but also something akin to a religious obsession, a pill-sugaring fantasy that, in making our lives seemingly easier, has removed us from the natural world. An example: In the book, I refer to a woman fixated on her iPhone and smashing into me on a sidewalk in Boston, then saying, “Sorry, but I was just trying to find out the weather.”

If Henry were alive today, I can imagine him also smashing into me, but only because he was gazing up at the sky in an effort to identify a certain type of cloud … or smashing into me because he was gazing down at the ground in order to identify a plant species (he donated 1,100 botanical specimens to Harvard’s Farlow Herbarium). A very different type of smashing.

Twice in the book I describe being in the vicinity of Henry’s grave in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The first time I was collecting Suillus mushrooms near the grave when a burly man in a pickup truck shouted at me,“Hey, my GPS crapped on me — can you tell me how to get to Route 2?” I gave the fellow directions without consulting a GPS, a device I don’t own, since it would remove me from the natural sights that document my whereabouts.

The second time I’d given a lecture at a New England college, after which one of the professors told me the college was jettisoning all of its books and going completely digital. No more palpable reading matter! I visited Henry’s grave and said, “I think we’re in trouble, Henry.” There was no response, but in a nearby tree a white-throated sparrow was singing, “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” perhaps the saddest of all bird songs.

At the End of the World mentions the elderly Concord woman who used to put flowers on Emerson’s grave, but who muttered as she passed Henry’s, “And none for you, you dirty little atheist.”

Regardless of his religion or lack thereof, what would Henry have done if he happened to be in the Belchers when the missionary arrived in the mid-1930s and left a Bible translated into Inuit syllabics? He gives some idea of what his response might have been in this sentence from Walden: “If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  Note that he says “run” rather than “saunter,” one of his favorite words.

But rather than run or even saunter for his life, Henry might have simply stayed put and addressed the Belcher Inuit with these words: “O my animist friends, do not forsake the natural world, for it’s the best of all possible worlds. Game may be scarce on occasion, but Nature doesn’t exist for the benefit of us humans. You might succumb from want of food, then perchance Arctic heather and purple saxifrage (not ’weeds’ and ‘brambles,’ as my New England-based Journal observes) may constitute your second growth…”

Lawrence Millman is an adventure travel writer and mycologist from Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

 

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

Afterday

By Sandy Stott

During all the years I taught Thoreau’s work and through that larger span — ongoing — when reading him has prodded and settled me, I’ve missed noting his death-day, May 6. Realizing its passage on say, May 11, or some such proximate but late date, has always felt like a deficiency.

“What sort of reader and walker are you?” I said to self on more than one occasion. “At least nod to the man’s day of passing.” Never happened, and I offered myself the usual, mealy “he’s alive to me,” reasoning, and vowed weakly to do better. Never happened.

But here it is early on May 6, 2020, and here I am already a paragraph into remembrance. I’ve also just read The Roost and found Richard Smith’s fact-rich tribute, and so, here in the morning’s slant-sun — the right time, you will agree — I have Henry in mind. And still: my “recall” of this date has been one more instance of fortuitous bumbling.

In late April, as our new adherence to home wore on, I, like many of us, wanted more companion reading that was illuminating and distracting, words that wore spring’s rising light well. Slow pony that I am, it took a little while before, during a circuit of the living room, I stopped by our gathering of the blue-bound 1906 edition of Henry Thoreau’s Journal. Over the years, I’ve often chosen stretches of time where I read through a particular year at the calendar’s pace. “Let’s go to 1854 again,” I thought, recalling points of its passage, including Henry famous, terse note on August 9.

So, as May began, so did I. It was and is spring; what’s ahead, or, more aptly, what’s coming up?

For starters: “May 1. A fine clear morning after three days of rain — our principal rain-storm of the year, — raising the river higher than it has been yet.

6 A.M. — Up railroad. Everything looks bright and as if it were washed clean…”

First Light. Credit: Sandy Stott

Even a pedestrian start soothed. Here it was, 6 A. M., light flooding in, and already we were off. It looked to be a long, light-filled, local day. Which it turned out to be. On that first May day, Thoreau went out three times, first on foot, then twice by boat on the swollen rivers. I would go out thrice too, even as our forecast promised rain. I thumbed ahead in the Journal to see how many pages the month would bring. In my volume, they summed to 88, one measure of May ’54’s expansive feel, a measure I hoped to feel one day at a time.

That May’s early pages are rife with notes of noticing. Its header reads helpfully, Observation and Life; Thoreau seems to swell with life just as the many plants and animals he finds do. Also, in that May’s early pages, I experienced a moment of sympathetic recognition that suddenly jarred.

Thoreau wrote: “The red maples, now fully in bloom, show red tops at a distance.”

I looked up, nodded. “Yes, just so,” I mumbled to self, and began reading again. And stopped. “Wait a minute,” I said aloud. “Wait a minute.”

The problem clicked clear: Thoreau and I were on to the same maple-time of spring, but I was not where he was. Instead, I live over 100 miles mostly north in Maine. My spring in 2020 was his in 1854.

So, here I am, and it’s May 6. The white pine’s needles are shining, as he said they did, and these eight years before he died, Henry Thoreau has nearly four pages of observations about life for me.

They are large, “There is no such thing as pure objective observation.” And little, “Horse-mint is an inch or two high, and it is refreshing to scent it again.”

They are the expansive and precise observations of his life and his world, and they offer me the nudge to go and inhabit my world as fully as I can.

I have set aside afternoon hours that will take me from the headwaters of a local brook I am getting to know into the forest full of glacial leavings that the brook drains. Who knows what I’ll find? I will be both Maine in 2020 and Concord in 1854, and I am getting the gift of being able to live locally in each.

“It matters not where or how far you travel — the farther commonly the worse —, but how much alive you are.”

What will tomorrow bring? On May 7, I will open this journal and this window and this door and find out.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident. He is the Roost’s founding editor, and he writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com 

 

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