Category Archives: Nature

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

Laughter Amid The Storm

By Sandy Stott

Snapping turtle at Thoreau Farm

Perhaps you too could use a laugh … or at least a smile curling across your face where worry often sits. Here’s a recent moment that shifted me from smile to laughing aloud.

Many of us read Henry Thoreau for wisdom, solace, otherness, but not many go fishing with him for a laugh. Yes, I know that he is funny at times, and also that he thought himself so. A little redemption for being a sometimes-scold; and yes, I’ve smile-groaned at his affection for puns. But straight-out laughing? Not so often.

The other day, here in Maine, May began (finally) to utter itself. We’ve had a lot of cold rain and cold wind; our last snowflakes greeted me in the morning under a week ago. It’s been bundle up and bear-it weather, even as our green has come on. Throughout the month, I’ve been reading along, day by day, with Thoreau’s May of 1854 Journal. That May sums to 88 pages rife with observation. So much to see and note; so much change. Thoreau’s head seems to have been bursting with necessary notes. And, throughout it, he is always headed for the door, often to take his boat out onto the rivers and flooded meadows.

Thoreau’s May 16th features such a boat trip to Conantum in the afternoon, and, as ever, he is overflowing with observation. Leafing out is coming on so fast. On prior days he has been noting up a storm of openings, many of which are tagged as having happened, “say yesterday.” Enough so that I have begun to suspect that witnessing spring’s births really means arriving just after each event; it must always seem to have just happened. Then, on this day, he throws up his hands at trying to record in sequence, and in essence says, “It’s all happening; too much to record. Go out and be joyful.” Good advice. I went out the door.

Later, I returned to my reading. Here’s where image morphed to laughter. The 16th ends with a fine comic scene that involves a medium-sized snapping turtle. Thoreau spots commotion in the shallows of flooded Hubbard’s meadow. Of course, he floats over to see. There he finds the turtle on the bottom. Then, being himself, removing his coat and rolling up sleeves, he plunges his arm in repeatedly up to his shoulder, trying to catch the turtle, which in turn tries to hide under the boat. Finally he snags the turtle’s tail and hauls it aboard. The turtle is, as we all would be, a little put out. Henry reads as unperturbed, even as the turtle catches hold of his boot’s toe. He begins doing what Henry does — observing closely: carapace, moss on it, little leeches embedded. “It was wonderful how suddenly this sluggish creature would snap at anything.”

As he floats on through the late afternoon with the turtle now under the seat, Henry scratches the turtle’s back, a sort of absent affection that we visit on dogs. The turtle, however, is having none of it and pitches hissy (literally) fits, startling Henry repeatedly, even “though I was prepared for it. He suddenly went off like a percussion lock snapping the air.”

What made me laugh, beyond the descriptions of the two boated personalities, was the lack of resolution to the story. The little story ends there. Does the turtle get back into the water? When does Henry go home?

For me then this: on they sail, turtle and man, two tempered beings. Perfectly matched, it seems; still out there.

Sandy Stott is the Roost’s founding editor. He is a writer and educator, and the author of  Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com. 

 

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Filed under Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost

For the Pine Being

By Sandy Stott

“Like great harps on which the wind makes music. There is no finer tree.” — Henry Thoreau writing about the white pine in his Journal, September 16, 1857.

 

It took one microburst, three consults, and a dark, wind-fraught night before we made the final call.

“Yes, Jeff,” we said to local arborist Jeff Gillis, “we’d like to set up a time to take down our front-yard pine.” Some few minutes later, we had a date.

That October ‘19 night, the power had gone out, unleashing a racket of generators and darkening the street. Rain beat like thrown pebbles on the windows. When I’d stepped outside in the lee of the house, it was utterly dark and alive with the speech of trees enduring. Another thump on the roof punctuated their many-pitched moaning. It was like living inside a drum at a rock concert.                                                                     

Throughout the slow hours, we lay awake, counting and huddling toward daylight. Somehow, even the wan light of predawn seemed hopeful. And with it, the wind began to ease; we looked out on a branch-littered world.

When I walked out in the morning, I found that others had been less lucky. Our next door neighbors had had their car crushed, its roof now caved in where driver and passenger once sat. Just down the street, a large pine lay astride a back roof. Inside, an arm-thick branch stub had punched a hole in the ceiling. Water dripped steadily from the limb into a bucket set beneath. Throughout town it was a morning of saws.

When we bought our house nearly 20 years ago, part of its appeal lay in the way it was set within woods. The lot was very small, but wherever you looked through our many windows, you saw trees; their long stalks lifted your eyes. Sky peered through the gaps in the crowns. It was an optimist’s aspect. Many neighbors shared it, living tight to their trees too.

While we all lived day-to-day, the pines grew. High above, they spread the sails of their foliage, caught whatever winds blew and leaned and swayed in response. Their roots, as pine roots will, remained shallow. And, in our neighborhood, which lies atop alluvial sands put down by the last glacier, there’s not much for a tree to grip.

We began to call our front yard pine the Worry-tree; it was our conundrum. Prince of the yard, it rose more than 90 feet due west of our house. On days when I felt so inclined, it was a big hug, too big, in fact, for a little man to grasp. The Worry-tree had its name from its habit of leaning a few degrees east of true. If neighbor Worry were to go anywhere, we would receive it square.

When a microburst blew through in September of 2018, taking down seven large pines within 100 yard radius of the Worry-tree, including a like-sized king pine 50 feet away, we knew we needed to do something. So began the consults.

We considered cabling the two lofty leaders together, but that didn’t answer the pine’s tilt; it simply meant that if it went, we’d get its fullness rather than half a whack. Either one would crush the house. “Go to the basement if a gust-front blows in,” we were told.

After the October ’19 storm, I sent a note to Jeff Gillis:

“Our primary concern with the tree and its threat to our house lies in worry about a gust front/microburst. They often come from the west or northwest as part of a thunderstorm line, and wind from that direction would push the tree right at our house, which is also the way its weight tends. That sort of storm is usually a summer sort, and even a March cut of the tree would get it removed before summer. Winter storms, when they’re severe, tend to be nor’easters, or occasionally blow-ups from the south or southwest, and the wind gusts don’t tend to reach the level of a microburst. So, even as the tree leans in our direction, those winds would tend not to drive it at the house.”

I got this back: “Your reasoning for, and timing of the pine removal sound dead on to me. As such, we will keep the March 12th work date, and, I will continue to look for a sooner time.”

The “sooner time” arrived in January on a 15-degree day that featured also winds up to 25 mph. Not much of a day for time up high, but arborists are hardy folk. We were away, but, throughout the day, I felt a persistent sadness. I’d seen big pines taken down, and I knew roughly how it would go. When we got back, I went out to the stump to take in what was: it measured four feet in diameter, and its rings — counted twice — summed to 85, rife with their thick or thin stories of growth and endure years.

Neighbor tree, I thought, we lived together as long as we could.

Postscript: some solace: after the felling, I talked with the foreman of the crew about his frequent work in our neighborhood.

“Yes,” he said, “when these houses were built, many of the pines were only 40’ high. Now many have reached their limit, and we’re here all the time. In fact, I built half of my house from neighborhood pine. We try to use what we can, so much of our cutting doesn’t end up in a hole.”

A vision of a snug house of local pine rose in my mind; I thought back to the “tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth” that Thoreau felled for his house at Walden. I liked that vision.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. 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 Environment, General, Nature, The Roost