Category Archives: General

Rivery Days

By Sandy Stott

“I was impressed as it were by the intelligence of the brook, which for ages in the wildest regions before science is born, knows so well the level of the ground and through whatever woods or other obstacles finds its way. Who shall distinguish between the law by which the brook finds its river [sea], the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations, the knowledge by which man steers his ship around the globe?” — H.D. Thoreau, Journal, May 17, 1854

Though I am later out the door than Henry Thoreau was in the late spring of 1854, (often, he began at 6 a.m., or earlier, summoned by the early light, and the long, possible days), we share often a common destination. I mean “common” in a larger sense, in that we are also separated by 140 miles as well as by the span of years. We live in different places and times.

What joins us this spring-going-on-summer?

Thoreau and I go often in search of water, which in its streaming is on its own search. As I’ve read through spring 1854’s Journal outpouring of local excursion and observation, I’ve lost count of the number of times, Thoreau wrote, “Up Assabet,” or “To Fairhaven,” or “To the river…” His boat barely slept, I think. And from those waters, he kept track of spring’s profusion of leafings and flowerings out. So much to see; so much to be, he might have written in summary.

Mere Brook in Brunswick, Maine

My own spring of ’20 has also been water-infused and -enthused. Here in Brunswick, Maine, we have a brook that runs through us, much as the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord run through Thoreau’s town. But our brook, aptly named Mere Brook, has nowhere near the name or volume of Concord’s waters. It is just under five miles long before it becomes sea, and for much of its length, I can switch banks in a single bound (or once could have). But once gathered into initial pooling, Mere Brook knows where it must go. And it works impressively through our town to do so.

Mere Brook also has a lot going on over its few miles. So much so that it’s earned an unwanted descriptor from our state; MB is “urban-impaired.” Which is no better than it sounds. In short, in its shortness, our brook bears enough toxins and sediment and bacteria to make it unwelcome when it unburdens itself in Harpswell Cove, when it returns to its Mare. A number of us have taken on the cause of clearing Mere Brook of its “impaired” designation.

The brook’s burden has a number of sources — streets, houses, storm drains, backyards, piles of discard — in short, us and our various uses of the world. It also has one large-handed contributor: Mere Brook runs its intermediate miles through an old naval air base going-on industrial park. There, its east branch endures a 3/4-mile passage through a culvert beneath two runways, the imposition of a storm water and spill containment system on a tributary stream, and a legacy of dumped pollutants in groundwater named the Eastern Plume. No fancy feather that.

Still, like all its watery brethren, Mere Brook bears on, its waters surprisingly clear, it manilla sands firm in the center, its gullies and forested reaches passage for both waters and wild critters. It is in many places beautiful and expressive. And, like Thoreau’s rivers, Mere Brook occasions vision and visions.

I was, just a month ago, especially taken with Thoreau’s short description of “brook intelligence,” which pointedly he compared with our intelligence that enables us to rove the world. In his tri-part yoking of brook, bird and human, he unseats the usual assumption of our superiority as derived from our consciousness. We see ourselves as separate, apart from the usual flow; Thoreau begs to differ. “Who shall distinguish between the law by which the brook finds its river [sea], the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations, the knowledge by which man steers his ship around the globe?” he asks.

It has, these past few days, been just so on Mere Brook. Over those days, I have followed the wonderfully-named John Field, a fluvial geo-morphologist, as he walks the brook and susses out how it moves and why in this direction or that. “What’s on its brook-mind?” he asked. Over the hours of brook-walking and brush-bashing, I have watched man and stream take each others’ measure. “See this mudded root system,” said John the other day. “It shows me how our brook ponded here for a number of years, dropping silt as it slowed in the pooled water. We need to find out what made Mere do this.”

And some yards downstream, we found our forming force, an old, overgrown beaver lodge, shaped like a giant yurt. Another intelligence. Fifty yards downstream, a crushed rock berm rose fifteen feet, with two culverts punched through it for stream passage. Naval imposition.

The beavers, on the other hand, must have thought they’d reached the afterlife — dam already built, wild pond-plain guarded, people kept out; all they had to do was plug two culverts, pretty simple work for such engineers. So, for some years, the beavers thrived. When, finally, the food ran out, they moved on; the grasses and bushes grew back.

Mere words? Perhaps. Tomorrow we go out again to walk another reach of the brook, to see what’s next as Mere Brook knows its way to the sea. We take with us a growing sense of Thoreau’s “brook intelligence.”

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, lives in Brunswick, Maine. The Founding editor of The Roost, 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 2018. He may be reached at

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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 .


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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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