Category Archives: General

Walking With Henry

By Tom O’Malley

It is good to walk with someone who knows how to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.  For modern educators, it’s a downright necessity.  What with all the theories, strategies, lesson plans, faculty meetings, parent associations, and student advocacy groups, one needs to find a companion who knows how to keep his or her feet on the ground.

Over the years, 36 and counting, I’ve never found a better schoolyard  companion than Henry David Thoreau.  He died in 1862, but luckily he left his voice with us in the form of two wonderful books and his grand opus Journals.

Henry’s journals were not published during his lifetime, and I suspect he might not appreciate the fact that they are readily available today.  He was a precise writer, fond of editing and revising his work — honing it to literary sharpness.  Perhaps that is why his voice still speaks to me here in the 21st century.  My life in the classroom is often a combination of problem solving, handwriting, shoulder leaning, and all sorts of listening opportunities.   Through it all, Henry remains my mentor, enduring wisdom sprung from the head of Zeus and deposited on the doorway of my classroom. 

Here are two lessons:

In 1836, Henry was a newly minted Harvard graduate. He was also unemployed.  One day, in desperation, he visited his famous friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived in the same neighborhood.  The philosopher asked, “What are you doing now?”  That is the ultimate question for students and teachers alike, one that should be asked over and over.

Henry spent the rest of his life confronting that question and using it as a guide. The answer prodded him to explore self-reliance at Walden Pond, and to create the genre of American nature writing. It also led him to prison in opposition to slavery.  Good questions can shape a life.  Good questions can shape a nation.  As a teacher, I use Emerson’s question as a guide.  What am I doing now? It connects me to my students and pushes our studies forward.

Can we learn how not to be bored?   In his journal for June 27, 1840, Henry confronted  boredom: ”I am living this 27th of June, 1840, a dull cloudy day and no sun shining. The clink of the smith’s hammer sounds feebly over the roofs, and the wind is sighing gently, as if dreaming of cheerfuller days.”  I never realized life could be dull in the 19th century, what with all the discovering and Civil Warring going on.  Yet there it is.

This is the kind of day the history books gloss over.  Students often suggest that this is a world without computers,  Blu-rays, or social media.  What can you expect but boredom?  Still, not one to give in, Henry found that boredom could be a useful part of life.  He did this by taking up journal writing in a serious way. I like people who turn a perceived bad into a perceptive good, and that’s what he did.  Notice the good, careful observation on that 27th of June entry.  It’s just an ordinary day, but Henry turned it into something special by paying attention and then writing about it.  There’s a lesson in all this for my students.

Journal writing went on at an almost daily pace for Henry, and it does for my students as well.  Often times writers sit and wait for those moments of inspiration.  I often see my students waiting for the Muse to descend and inspire them.  Yet, as Thomas Edison pointed out, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”  This applies to writing as well.  

Henry found this out on January 29, 1851 when he wrote:  “Of all the strange and unaccountable things, this journaling is the strangest.  It will allow nothing to be predicted of it.  Its good is not good, nor its bad bad.  If I make a huge effort to expose my innermost wares to light, my counters seem cluttered with the meanest homemade stuffs, but after months or years I discover the wealth of India…” 

See what I mean? There’s no waiting around for writing or most kinds of learning.  It is really a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. There is magic in this work.

In the end, good writing requires patience, confidence and discipline.  The writer needs faith that the ideas in his of her head can be fleshed out, sharpened and transferred onto the page.  That is no easy task as anyone who has stared at the blank page will verify. Yet, walking with Henry will keep the journey interesting, and fuel the imagination every step of the way.

Tom O’Malley is an adjunct professor of English at Canisius College. 

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Bringing Back the Sun

By John Hanson Mitchell

Beaver Brook Trail in Littleton, Massachusetts

Almost every day for the last twenty-five years I have trekked down through the woods below my house to a dry bank above a slow north-running stream known as Beaver Brook. The bank offers a good vantage point for viewing the surrounding landscape, and if you are of the type who appreciates the implications of the flow of dark waters from source to sea and the unfolding progress of the seasons, it’s one of the only places around here where you can gain some perspective on the regular cycles of the natural world, as opposed to the alarming events of the current human condition.

Last year just before dawn on Christmas morning I went down to my place beside the brook to watch the day unfold. It was a day not unlike that of other days that I visit the place, except that it was the official beginning of the winter season. The sky was cloudy, and the air was filled with that close, watery scent of coming snow. I went out anyway and rather than follow the cart track that leads through the woods to the stream, I took a short cut and clambered through a tangle of oaks and pines, interspersed with thickets of bittersweet, brambles and multiflora rose, skirting walls and brakes and blow downs all along the way. With only a slight suspension of disbelief you might think for a second or two that you were in wilderness here. In fact, this is a fast suburbanizing region of former farmlands and apple orchards, and in order live with the myth of the past, you have to go burrowing into the night woods and seek out those few isolated spots in the area, such as the stream bank. Henry Thoreau knew all about this sort of thing. He might have liked my private sanctuary.

Down at the brook, the grass on the bank was still snow free and I sat cross-legged above the waters and waited for sunrise. There was nothing to wait for in point of fact; this day was characterized by that flat, seamless pall of sky that prefigures snow. A few flakes began drifting down as I watched, followed by a few more flakes and then by a steady, but light fall.

As I waited, a pale faded image of the white winter sun, much filtered through the mists and drifting flakes, showed itself—a silvery coin behind the black branches of the trees. It was an odd, somehow portentous sunrise, the type of light into which the native shamans and Puritan ministers of these parts might read dark omens — which got me thinking about the implications of this particular holiday.

Among Christian cultures, Christmas marks the day when it is believed that the Savior of the world was born, the Prince of peace who would mark the start of a golden age. But in fact, shortly before the historical birth of Christ the same date was celebrated by a popular Roman cult whose chief luminary was Mithra, who was not exactly a god, but a representative of what they believed was the true and only god — the sun. Mithra, who pre-dates the birth of Jesus, not coincidentally, was born on December 25.

Long before that, by a thousand years or more, the day was celebrated as a solstice festival. This was, for all the cultures of the world an absolutely critical holiday. In earlier times, the ancients watched the fading light and shortening days with dread. It was not clear that the sun would not carry on in its decline and never return. To halt this process, shamans and holy men and later priests and potentates would carry out certain rituals, most of them involving fire — the thought being that the fiery sun would be nourished by earthly light.

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs, who were considered the earthly embodiment of the sun, used to perambulate the temple walls to encourage the real sun in its daily course. Each year at Rhodes, the ancient Greeks would cast a chariot and four horses into the sea to refresh the wornout team of Helios, who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky by day and sank in the western seas at dusk. Some of the local Native American tribes would shoot fiery arrows into the night sky at this time of year, and all across the globe fires were lit, ritual hymns were sung, sacred herbs were consumed and dances were performed imitating the course of the year.

Here, amid the silence of the drifting snow, and the quiet flow of black waters below the stream bank where I was sitting, you could catch a hint of all this. On mornings like this, the pre-Christian wilderness manifests itself; the peace of wild things descends, time stalls out, and even runs backward so that I might be sitting here 500 years ago, when all eyes were on the night sky and all around the world the sacred fires burned.

Mr. Thoreau, were he with us now, would surely understand.

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

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A Loch Ness Monster in Long Lake? Or, if Humans Are Creatures, Can Creatures Be Human?

by John Hanson Mitchell

On a clear night recently, two local scientists spotted a strange, long-necked aquatic animal rising above the surface of Long Lake in Littleton, Massachusetts.

Sketch depicts the south shore of Long Lake in Littleton, Massachusetts, where the monster was spotted. Credit: John Hanson Mitchell

Dr.Timothy Ahearn. who holds a degree in aquatic biology, and Dr, Lawrence Millman, an ethnographer and an authority on aquatic animals, were boating along the shores of the lake around 11 PM when they saw a large serpent-like form rise out of the water. The creature stared at them briefly and then arched its back and submerged.

“It looked like your classic Loch Ness Monster, “ Millman said. “Or descriptions I’ve read of Lake Champlain’s creature, Champy, and I would have thought I imagined it, except that Tim saw it too.”

“Neither Larry nor I could believe what we saw,” Dr Ahearn said, “but after it disappeared, our mutual descriptions matched. The thing rose no more than four or five feet above the water and it had a slim snake-like body and a head that resembled some sort of reptilian otter. In fact, we both at first thought it was an otter, but its body was too slim and snake like and far too long.”

Sketch by John Hanson Mitchell

Long Lake, it should be said, does harbor some unique aquatic species. Every August, a host of nickel-sized jelly fish appear en masse in the waters. These were identified a few years ago as Craspedusta sowerbii, a rare species of freshwater jellyfish that occurs in the Yellow River in China, as well as Long Lake and a few other sites in North America.

And Dr. Ahearn, who lives on the lake, has seen a giant water scorpion just below the clear black ice, also immense water bugs. Eels, black water snakes and an unusually large snapping turtle have also been seen in the lake over the years. Furthermore, there was a legend among the local Nashobah Village Indians of a lake creature know as the Ap’chinic, although that “species” lived in Nagog Pond, and was more like a giant octopus.

Dr. Millman, who is a Research Associate at Harvard University, spent several afternoons reviewing the literature on Native American lore and historical reports of local sea serpents but could find no reports, other than the Ap’chinic, and several sightings of a sea serpent in Massachusetts Bay in the mid 19th century, later disputed.

Sea serpents, lake monsters, winged snakes, dragons and the dreaded, ship-swallowing, deep water squid known as the Kraken are, of course, the stuff of legend and myth. But as geographers, anthropologists and crypto-zoologists, point out, the legends and folk-tales of pre-literate cultures often reflect real creatures and prehistoric geologic events such as world-wide floods and ice mountains.

For example, the Nashobah people, a seventeenth century group of Christianized Indians believed that the four winds were trapped inside Nagog Hill and would periodically roar and thunder and shake the very earth. Geologist later determined that the area is an epicenter for earthquakes.

Loch Ness and Lake Champlain are known for their depths, and were both connected to the sea after the retreat of the glacie, the theory being that Pleistocene sea creatures were trapped in the lakes when the lands rose after the ice retreated. Long Lake, by contrast is shallow and spring fed, not prime territory for monsters of the deep.

One other detail, for what it’s worth, is the fact that the Long Lake serpent was seen around Halloween, a period when cultures around the world record extraordinary events; the dead can walk, spirits rise from the earth, and bats, witches, dragons, flying snakes and other “mythic” creatures course through the air.

It is also the time of year when the so-called Wild Hunt would pass over. Ghostly hunters, eternally damned, would touch down on earth in this season in the form of high winds and carry people away, only to have them return weeks, or even months later with no memory of where they had been.

So why not a local Long Lake primordial water dragon?

“This thing was benign,” Millman said. “Not dangerous. It just stared at us briefly in curiosity. Littleton should be honored to host such a rare being.”

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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