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Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

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Iris and Rose, enjoying a quiet moment at home.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.

– Henry David Thoreau, in Walking

Anywhere else, I walk with speed and purpose. But here at home, I am a Saunterer. I amble from the house to the chicken coop to collect the eggs, or mosey out to the stable to brush the goats. I stroll to the clothesline to take down the laundry—at least I did, before a Mighty Wind last Sunday night snapped one of the clothesline poles; now we’re waiting for the concrete to set on the new post.

The margins of our five-acre property make it feel postage-stamp small, though I understand that from the seat of a lawnmower under a blazing sun the place seems mighty big. We have pasture, lawn, outbuildings (less one since the Mighty Wind), and a large chicken run with coop. There’s a fledgling orchard with two apple trees, a fig, and several blueberry bushes. We have a few raised garden beds, and one in-ground garden larger than an Olympic-sized pool. A fringe of woods marks our back survey line, and a deeper stand of woods across the road appears nearly impenetrable. We have hickory trees, cedars, a dogwood, and lots of redbud trees, but there aren’t any patches of actual, walkable woods that we own, so there are no cool forest paths.

Our house was originally wrested from the forest. We know this from the many times we step in holes and soft spots where long-time-gone stumps have crumbled to dust, leaving the top layer of ground as collapsible as pie crust. Our large, open front lawn appears deceptively smooth and tranquil, but we must step carefully to avoid holes. I am mindful of every step.

We also have some rather impressive rocks rising from the lawn in random places. Ernesto has removed numerous rocks from the yard and garden and built them into an inviting snake-pile at the edge of the woods behind us. Every time he plows the garden he turns up a fresh crop of rocks. Sometimes I go along behind the tractor, flinging rocks to the side. There’s a lot of quartz, and I’ve collected a bowlful of white and glassy chunks. After every rain there are new ones visible in the red dirt. It’s as if this place was at one time a crystal mountain, now worn down to fragments.

It’s a stump-holed, rocky patch, but it provides most of what we, the chickens, and the goats need—with plenty left over for visitors. This summer our visitors have included a pair of red-shouldered hawks. We see them in the yard enjoying a meal, sitting on the fence, and flying overhead. Even when they aren’t visible, I can hear them calling almost every morning.

On the other end of the bird spectrum, we have a tiny flock of hummingbirds. Hyped on nectar, they fight and chase and shove each other to get another fix at our feeders. One feeder hangs from the front porch, and the birds are almost invisible until they are on top of it. Going and coming, they appear like rips in the atmosphere, as if the veil of reality is torn as they pass. Needle-beaked, maybe they’re actually holding the fabric of life together as they dip and weave, repairing and embroidering the thin spots. If that’s their job, it’s a thankless one. We say, “Oh, aren’t they darling?” with no thought for how exhausted they must be, and how badly they need the sugar-water to stay aloft and alert.

If you squint, it’s an idyllic place we have here.

Which isn’t to say it’s complete. Ernesto wants to add a garage, especially now that the shelter we used to park under blew away, burst through ours and our neighbor’s clotheslines, and came to rest 100 yards away in the neighbor’s front yard. Yesterday he carried the scrap metal to the Liberty Recycling Center. It had been a large steel shelter, open on all sides with a red metal roof tall enough for a horse trailer or tractor. Every molecule of it blew with the wind, and it took two trips in the Ford Ranger to haul it away. Then Ernesto had to submit to a number of security measures to ensure that he was not selling stolen property (I guess): He had to show his driver’s license, have his picture taken next to each truckload, and sign an affidavit or something. All to collect $26.13.

We were talking about our possible new garage, and I asked about underground power lines. I know where the lines enter the house, but there are additional lines running to the stable and outbuildings. I wondered if those lines were buried deep, and securely. “If something were to hit one,” I asked, “would the person who hit it be hurt?”

“Electrocuted?” Ernesto shook his head. “No, but they might be dazzled.”

Being dazzled sounds rather pleasant, but I still think I’ll try not to dig holes anywhere in the back yard. Instead I’ll continue to saunter from coop to clothesline, from goat pen to garden. Because even without a woodland path of shade and moss, and even though the crystal mountain crumbled, the ground occasionally caves in, and things sometimes fly away in the night, this is holy land, and it is home.

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ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

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