Posts Tagged 'Thoreau'



Purple Martins

It’s been several years since I last ventured to the Purple Martin colony at Lemon Creek on Staten Island. There are at least half a dozen nests going now. It’s hard to count with all the comings and goings. Also, House Sparrows and European Starlings have taken some of the spaces, adding to the difficulty of counting. (Overly purple lures to attract the birds, like the ones at the far left and right of the above, were not counted.)Progne subis, the largest of our swallows. Progne, or Procne, was an unfortunate Greek mythological character whose husband cut her tongue out because he wanted to marry her sister Philomel. Procne and Philomel had their revenge, but it was gruesome enough to upset the gods, who turned Procne into a swallow and Philomel into a nightingale. Meanwhile, at Lemon Creek, there were fledglings perching and flying, as well as nestlings still in the condos and gourd-shapes. (Hollowed gourds were used by Native Americans for Purple Martin nests; the ones here are plastic, alas.)

This week, I will be celebrating the 200th birth of Henry David Thoreau. On April 17, 1852, he wrote “When I was young and compelled to pass my Sunday in the house without the aid of interesting books [because of the grim New England Sabbath], I used to spend many an hour till the wished-for sundown watching the martins soar (from an attic window) — and fortunate indeed did I deem myself when a hawk appeared in the heavens though far toward the horizon against a downy cloud — and I searched for hours till I had found his mate. They at least took my thoughts from earthly things.”
And John James Audubon, in 1831, judging the accommodations by their martin houses: “Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.”

Thoreau Thursday

All biographies end. And, of course, the ending is always the same. Nearing the literal and figurative end of Laura Dassow Walls’s magisterial life of Henry David Thoreau, I suddenly found myself not wanting to go on. I didn’t want him to die. Not right now. Not during our political upheaval. I started reading “Wild Apples” to delay the inevitable, even though I’ve another new Thoreau biography, Expect Great Things, by my friend Kevin Dann, lined up and ready to go, as if it were a reincarnation. img_2462Concord, Massachusetts was never completely abolitionist, even after the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But it was a bastion of anti-slavery, so when, in April 1860, federal marshals attempted to arrest Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, one of the so-called Secret Six funders of John Brown, the town erupted in demonstration. Citizens blocked the marshals and “Annie Whiting immortalized herself by getting into the kidnapper’s carriage so that they could not put the long legged martyr in,” wrote the young Louisa May Alcott in a letter. Thoreau, another supporter of Brown, called the fire alarm, rung that night to rouse the citizenry, a sign of “the hottest fire he ever witnessed in Concord.” The marshals ignored a hand-scribbled writ of habeas corpus, but when the country’s deputy sheriff said he wouldn’t hold back the hundred demonstrators, they gave Sanborn up. Thoreau stood watch over Sanborn’s house that night. The next day, a federal judge voided the warrant (the Congressional investigation into Sanborn was made moot by the war a year later). Concord’s subsequent “indignation meeting” against tyranny was addressed by Sanborn and others, including “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau, who insisted that it was precisely because Concordians hadn’t obeyed the law that Sanborn was free. img_2461

Thoreau Thursday

Orwell is our go-to guy for the political perversion of language, but I discover that Ralph Waldo Emerson was on a similar track a century earlier. Corruption of character leads to “the corruption of language,” he wrote in “Nature.” “In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or affections.” Hoo-yeah!
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Anticipating the Progressives who formed the national parks in the face of rapacious despoilers by almost half a century, Thoreau thought we should save our wild lands “for inspiration and true recreation. Or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our national domains?” Well, the Republicans in the House have an answer to that: grub ’em up, sell ’em off, privatize ’em, turn ’em over to their cronies in the states to do as they see fit to line their pockets.

“True recreation.” Recreation in English originally meant refreshing oneself by taking in food, nourishment. Then it turned metaphoric: a nourishment of mental or spiritual consolation. Finally, more broadly to an activity for pleasure–a broader definition, yes, but one that seems to have constricted, like the word itself sometimes, as in “rec center.”

Yet rarely do our words reveal themselves so well as “re-creation.” And what a metaphor of the physical processes of life itself, constantly recreated, new cells replacing old. Much of your body is under ten years old. (But not all, and there, as they say, is the rub, if you’re inhuman enough to want to live forever.)

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But there’s living right now to be done. I’m leading a Brooklyn Brainery walk at Croton Point Park to look for Bald Eagles on the 11th. We will ride up on MetroNorth and enjoy the extra scopes set up the good people of the Teatown Hudson River Eagle Fest.

Thoreau Thursday

img_2300“When the thermometer is down to 20, the streams of thought tinkle underneath like the rivers under the ice. Thought like the ocean is nearly of one temperature. Ideas, — are they the fishes of thought?

Poetry implies the whole truth. Philosophy expresses a particle of it.

Would you see your mind, look at the sky. Would you know your own moods, be weather-wise. He whom the weather disappoints, disappoints himself.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal, January 26, 1852.
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Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience” was initially and rather obscurely published under the title “Resistance to Civil Government” in 1849. “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” It was the duty of citizens, he argued, to resist when government caused injustice. Here’s where he broke real ground: his definition of resistance was broad, encompassing the defense of fellow citizens and as those who were outside citizenship. In the late 1840s, this included slaves, the Mexicans being killed by Polk’s war for the expansion of slavery, and the continuing genocide against Native Americans. But Thoreau went even further, extending his sense of the ethical community to the non-human, the world. We now call this environmentalism, arising from the science of ecology, which literally means the study of home.

Wigeon And All

Anas americanaAn American Wigeon (Anas americana) and American Black Duck (Anas rubripes).

The other day a commentor here bemoaned the intrusion of ideas into his refined quest for pictures of nature. Those who refuse to make the connection between politics and the natural world, or what there is of it, are a monstrous problem.

From the beginning this blog has been inspired by Henry David Thoreau. You can read posts I’ve written about him here. This is the 200th anniversary of the year of his birth. I am committed to honoring his great legacy of acute natural history observation and his politics. They were inseparable.

Stay tuned for more HDT200, including a new book by my friend Kevin Dann, Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, just outAs you can imagine, this is going to be a banner year for ol’ Henry. March sees Thoreau’s Animals, by another friend, Geoff Wisner. In April: Thoreau and the Language of Trees, by Richard Higgins is being published. In July: Laura Dassow Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life. I’m sure there are others….

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A reminder, as if you needed it, by Michael Tomasky, of just how bad Trump’s gang of bigots, kleptocrats, and authoritarians promise to be.

Taking a lesson from the McCarthy era, this historian of that lamentable period surveys the future. The fiercely reactionary politics of Trumpism may try to resurrect “many of [McCarthyism’s] techniques and objectives. After all, the new regime relies on the same kind of right-wing forces.” In the case of the Koch brothers, a direct line to their father, who was one of the founders of the lunatic fringe John Birch Society.

Thoreau’s Birthday

Turdus migratorius

“I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.” ~ HDT journal entry, 10-20-1857

(Robins, like many other birds no longer considered game, were eaten then.)

Cold Tree

“A beautiful form has as much life at one season as another.” ~ Henry David Thoreau.

The distinctive cone shape of the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is actually kind of similar to the distinctive cone shape of the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). Both species grace Brooklyn Bridge Park and both appear “bald” this time of year. And, in the cold, battened down — or maybe that was just me, being iced in the cheek by the wind off the water.

Happy Birthday, Henry

To my mind, the exemplar of America is Henry David Thoreau, who was born on this day in 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Christened “David Henry,” he changed the order of his given names when he was twenty. He was closely associated with Concord and didn’t sell many books in his lifetime, but his influence as an environmentalist and a political thinker has branched and blossomed widely since. Natural history and moral history were intertwined in his mind, the observations inseparable from the politics; his last two published essays were “The Succession of Forest Trees,” written under the influence of Charles Darwin, and “The Last Days of John Brown,” in which he states: “I commonly attend more to nature than to man, but any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects. I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised whenever I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still, or met persons going about their affairs indifferent.” (The mass of men, and women, are still blockheads.) Indeed, the central question of philosophy from the beginning, and really, the only one of interest, pardon all the academics delving in abstractions — how does one live in the world? (or, conversely, how does one die?) — might be said to be his whole topic. As a young Harvard graduate, he quit the school he was working in because he thought the floggings he was supposed to administer were cruel and unusual. He was a lifelong Abolitionist, in thought and, crucially, deed. His essay “Civil Disobedience,” originally called “Resistance to Civil Government,” influenced Gandhi and King and countless others peacefully battling the illegitimate and immoral within states. His detailed notes on local natural history have been used to compare his Concord’s species and blooming times to today’s.

He died on May 6, 1862 of the tuberculosis that haunted his entire adulthood. There are some wonderful deathbed scenes recorded, sounding like pure encapsulations of his spirit. When asked how he was preparing for a supposed afterlife, he shot back, “One world at a time.” When asked by a relative if he had made his peace with God, he said “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” In a culture positively swimming in opiates, he refused the wistful embrace of Morpheus’s draughts of laudanum in his final hours. His last intelligible words are said to have been “moose” and “Indian.”

Reading Thoreau, one needs a commonplace book at hand to capture all his sly wisdom.

“What journal do the persimmon and the buckeye keep, and the sharp-shinned hawk?”

“Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.” “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

“A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.”

(More about Thoreau here at Backyard and Beyond.)

A Wider View

“The poet says the proper study of mankind is man. I say, study to forget all that; take wider views of the universe.” – Henry David Thoreau, Journal, April 2, 1852

This blog was begun nearly two years ago under the influence of Thoreau and remains so. Going with a tweeted recommendation from Geoff Wisner, I recently read A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature by Robert Kuhn McGregor. The book details Thoreau’s transition from Transcendentalist to ecologist, to, indeed, becoming our foundering environmentalist.

It all began with Thoreau’s increasing attention to the world around him, instead of that in books, or, for that matter, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ego. Emerson was Thoreau’s mentor initially, but the distance ultimately traveled by the two of them resulted in very different destinations. Nature for Emerson was a philosophical construct, most worthy of contemplation, but preeminently for human needs. Transcendental thought, centered around individualism, easily leached into the mythology and practice of American capitalism, which means the world we live in is very much Emerson’s. But the world we — or at least I — dream of is Thoreau’s. (Thoreau is one of the roots of the alternative America.)

Not that Transcendentalists weren’t necessary to clear out the cobwebs of Unitarian orthodoxy, as the Unitarians usurped Puritanism (but not enough of it) in their day. Sometimes, you need a machete to slog through the lianas of Protestantism. But I digress.

Back to roots. And seeds. Thoreau’s nature writings were largely ignored by the literary clan, and biologists had no time for them. Uncompleted drafts, some only saw publication long after his premature death in 1862 at the age of 44 — for instance The Dispersion of Seeds (1993) and Wild Fruits (2000). His epic “Kalendar” of the seasons of life around Concord went unfinished.

Yet Thoreau was one of the earliest Darwinians in the U.S., while the nation’s foremost scientist of his day, Louis Agassiz, stalwartly defended the theologically-based notion of the immutability of species from his seat at Harvard. Indeed, in the last few years of his life — Origin was published in London in 1859, HDT was reading a copy early the next year — Thoreau began to examine Concord from a Darwinian perspective, one of the first field naturalists to do so.

I was surprised to read in Faith in a Seed that many in his time still thought that trees were spontaneously generated. You see what you want to, I guess, especially if you’re aren’t looking. Or to put it like the master, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

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“I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord.”

Thoreau kept records of around 500 species of plants, nothing their flowering times through the 1850s. Using this as a baseline, along with records from other local naturalists, modern researchers have compared today’s Concord flora to the past. Thoreau lived at the dawn of the Age of Carbon; his descriptions of winter, deep New England winter, already sound like another world (mean annual temp in Concord has risen 2.4C in the last century; spring comes a week earlier). Climate change and habitat destruction and massive amounts of toxins have followed since his passing. A re-survey in 2006-08 found that 27% of the species he originally recorded are gone; another 36% are extremely rare and endangered.

Thoreau’s handwriting is notoriously hard to decipher and his drawing skills were rudimentary. But his description, and drawing, of a luna moth, dated July 8, 1852, are unmistakable.

A scant note on abundance

Extinction is forever. The Anthropocene Extinction we are living through is much discussed, but in this discussion something gets lost as we attempt to save the last hundred or thousand members of a particular species of charismatic megafauna.

That something is the antithesis of extinction. It is the incredible abundance of animals and plants that once filled the ocean, air, land. Especially in the Americas, which half a millennium ago were saturated, ripe, with animal and plant life. But already by the middle 19th century, Henry David Thoreau could rightly ask amid the farms and woodlots of eastern Massachusetts, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” Two centuries earlier, William Wood, in his New England’s Prospect of 1633, a book Thoreau read, detailed the abundance like a catalogue of wonders Thoreau could only marvel at.

The salmon, eels, green turtles, Eskimo curlew, Carolina parakeets, and all the seals and whales, the oysters…. We remember the history of the herds of buffalo, the clouds of passenger pigeons, but these were only the beginning of that vanquished richness. (Buffalo and pigeons, btw, are thought by some to have been so numerous because the Native Americans who had hunted/managed them were decimated.)

These thoughts were conjured by Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery, a heartbreaking record of slaughter upon slaughter, echoing Peter Matthiessen’s earlier Wildlife in America (1959). Nicholls’ central point is that each generation only knows what it sees itself; this becomes a shifting baseline for comparison; the sense of abundance is lost, even incomprehensible.


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