Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Circling the Pond

July 11, 2009

This morning’s annual Memorial Walk around Walden Pond is scheduled for 7 a.m.
I aim to go a-water-walking instead.

At 6:30 a.m. I stand on the shore next to my kayak, and make an offering.
One push and I am buoyant upon the water.
The early swimmers are already ploughing headfirst around the north side of the pond. My path goes along the southern side, in a sun-wise circle around the edge of Walden.
I come upon a modern-day Melvin, happy to show me his catch:

Sunlight comes over Pine Hill behind me and illuminates the leafy shore.
Sprays of clethra leaves hang over the water. There are elder flowers – blackberries – and many, many star-faced blueberries.

Circles within the circle. Fish nests. And fish.

Near a quiet cove, the silent walkers pass by, up on the fenced path. My path has no fence.

I head for the very center of the pond. The air is still and the paddling is easy. The water gets darker and darker as the bottom drops away, far far below, until it is one hundred feet below my boat. I rest there, bobbing gently on the water.

The swimmers are far away, their arms flashing noiselessly above the water. The walkers are somewhere behind the trees near the site of Henry’s little house. One of them rudely breaks the silence by singing very loudly, off-key. That was her offering, I suppose.

Now I go back toward the shallow shoreline, continuing to scribe the circle.
The sun is full upon the trees now and they send back their reflections in the water.
The opposite of shadows.

The color of the water endears this place to me.

Walden is blue at one time and green at another,
even from the same point of view.
Lying between the earth and the heavens,
it partakes of the color of both.


Now I come back full round, along the northern shore, to face the sun and the breeze that rises. Past green overhanging grapes and more unripe blueberries.
But wait – here’s one ripe enough to eat!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Great Meadows Walk with Peter Alden

July 10, 2009 CONCORD, MA.
A.M. - To Great Meadows

Another walk not to be missed when attending the Gathering is “Anywhere-with-Peter-Alden.” Peter is a Concord naturalist who is a world-renowned birding expert. He organized the first of several Biodiversity Days, gathering botanists, field biologists, even scat-ologists, to take a one-day survey of all flora and fauna in Concord.
In between jetting to other continents, he leads walks in Concord during the Annual Gathering, at places like Great Meadows, or to a heron rookery near White Pond. Peter emphasizes the Big Picture - especially where migratory birds are concerned – that it matters what happens, not just at the ends, but in all places along a migratory route.

The walk this year was along the trails at Great Meadows. It didn’t matter that I had been there just a day or two before. Peter is up with the birds, and so it was a beautiful dew-speckled scene that greeted us at 6:30 a.m. on the path between the two great marshes. Canada geese were the prevailing big bird, though I saw more herons in one place than I’d ever seen outside of a rookery.
An osprey was hovering and plunging into the shallows after fish. Peter mentioned that there were nesting ospreys in the Concord area for the first time in decades. (We are fortunate to have had a nesting pair at Glen Lake for many years, and others settle along Lake Champlain, where there are nesting-platforms set up. They are not so rare a sight here.)

The causeway trail is excellent for viewing, as the cattails provide a sort of natural blind. Some of the birds are just a few feet away from you!
The marsh wrens chattered, perched on top of cattail stalks.
A heron was close enough to hear us talking, but chose to preen himself nonchalantly.

Unfortunately, it's a blurry heron, because I had not yet figured out why my new camera was not focusing when zoomed in on such sights – arrgh.
So as usual, I took the short view and admired plants up-close.

The roses were fragrant, and the bumblebees were lining up to get at the rosebuds -- one seemed to be rolling around in there in a sort of nectar-induced high:

We trotted after Peter like ducklings, as he pointed out various birds and told us interesting facts about their lives.

He's got a long stride. But being a great birder, he knows the value of standing still. And waiting. Patiently.

The Concord River flows by here. We stood quite a while, searching for a glimpse of the warbling vireo in the treetops, while hearing its song as clear as day. Pishing brought out others – a mob of nuthatches! A blue-grey gnatcatcher! Cedar waxwings!

The trail came through a soft wooded area and I saw a new flower: swamp honeysuckle.

Another high point of this day was attending a presentation by D.B. Johnson. His children’s books featuring a bear named “Henry” are a delight to the eye. The author explained that these books are an attempt to get very young people interested in what HDT had to say about life. If you haven’t read any of these books, check them out. They are NOT just for kids! The latest book in the series is called Henry’s Night and was inspired by Thoreau’s moonlight walks.

P. M. – As soon as the sun came out strongly, I knew that I was not going to sit indoors this afternoon! It seemed important to try that trail over to Fair Haven again …
after the clamor of the crowded beach at Walden Pond, things got quieter as I crossed over the tracks again.
At one of the Andromeda Ponds, I happened upon a man sitting quietly. I noticed a copy of Walden in his hat.

He did mention that the lower trail at Fair Haven was blocked by high water,
but I continued on in that direction nevertheless.
What is it about clethra that attracts me so? It is so pleasing to the eye.

The trail ended at the log where, a year ago, Corky and I stopped to eat lunch before getting thorough-ly lost on Fair Haven Hill.
It was a fine view of the bay where I had paddled a few days ago.

I walked back home a different way, taking as long as possible.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Bird in the Hand

July 9, 2009
Thursday a.m.

Up early to go on a morning hike led by J. Walter Brain of Lincoln. He knows the Walden area like few others – not only the geography or biology of the area – but also its history. He himself is a part of that history, due to his conservation efforts to help preserve the Walden Woods over the last 30 years. He has walked many a mile in these woods, a woods which he clearly loves, and it is a pleasure to accompany him.

Today he took us for a walk to Emerson's Cliff by way of the Hatchet Path. We paused by a large boulder at the top of a steep little rise, where naturally you’d stop and catch your breath. It was called the Philosopher’s Seat.

Walter told us that Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to this area as “My Garden.” Along the way he pointed out plants, and identified birds by song (since they stayed mostly hidden in the forest canopy.) One song in particular was missing from the mix, however. The hermit thrushes -- which Corky and I heard the day before, along this same trail --were silent. Walter shared a poem about this most beautiful song of the woods. I was toward the back of the group as we approached the Cliff, and one woman told me that she had never heard a hermit thrush before, and wondered what it sounded like.
Aha! Technology to the rescue! I thought.

A week earlier I had finally activated a cellphone, just for this trip. I had bought the dern thing at Christmastime -- the cheapest prepaid one I could find. But my resistance to electronica was SO strong. The phone just sat there in its package, unloved and appreciated - until a few days before my vacation in July.Then I got it set up & going, and surprised myself by being able to download a custom ringtone, from a website that birding buddy Lindsey had told me about. Haha, I'll show them that an old dog can learn new tricks! So instead of the cheesy disco ringtones that come with the phone, I now had one that sounded like ... you guessed it ... a hermit thrush!

Back to our hike. Breathlessly I pushed a bunch of buttons to get where I could play the lovely flutelike song of the hermit thrush for that curious woman. There! Brrrrrr ….tweedle tweedle!
It was sort of loud.
The woman said, "ah, so that's it, thanks."
At that moment I looked up -- and saw the rest of the group, including Walter, looking at me with chagrin.
While I had been in the back of the group fooling around with the phone, in the front part of the group, Walter had stopped cold in his tracks and exclaimed "There it is! The song of the hermit thrush!" and proceeded to search the treetops for it. Well he located it, all right - in the palm of my hand.

After a good laugh, the walk continued over to Heywood's Meadow (really a swamp). At one end there is an active beaver dam. It's a great place to come to early or late in the day, despite the commuter trains thundering past, now and then.
The morning light comes into this place gradually. Somewhere a kingfisher rattles.

On the return path you go through a grove of ancient pines as tall as the ribs of a cathedral.

Thinking of today - of digitized birdsongs - of trying to convey the beauties of nature, somehow - and finding this stanza from Emerson's poem My Garden:

Canst thou copy in verse one chime
Of the wood-bell's peal and cry,
Write in a book the morning's prime,
Or match with words that tender sky?

Thursday pm.
Lectures & presentations have begun at the old Masonic Hall in town.
Between sessions, visited Richard being "Henry Thoreau" at the House Replica near the Parking area. Found him sitting on a chair in the corner, while three lovely women sat on his bed, plying him with questions.
A situation that Henry never found himself faced with, methinks.

I should mention that during the four days of the Annual Gathering, there are many events happening, some of them concurrently. So far, I have been choosing the outdoor/nature type events over the indoor/academic discussions, though both are fascinating.
Even though some of the renowned-expert lecturers have travelled halfway round the world to present papers,
and I have travelled across half of New England to get here, there is still the possibility that if the day be hot enough, I will blow it all off to go swimming in Walden Pond …

Dinner - a picnic at the house on Virginia Road where Thoreau was born in 1817. It is being restored and will house the Thoreau Society offices (in a new energy-efficient addition to the back of the house) some time in the future.

A ghost of residents past?

Early to bed so as to not be a complete zombie on the 6:30 am hike tomorrow, at Great Meadows with Peter Alden.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Washout Wednesday

July 8, 2009

Unsettled weather predicted for the entire day, so I took a Be-A-Tourist shopping break in Concord. Tomorrow was the beginning of the Annual Gathering events, and there would be less “free time” to ramble.

Breakfasted with an acquaintance from the wilds of Acton, who spends a great deal of his time portraying Thoreau. One simply cannot stump him on any question regarding HDT. Over our coffee, we lamented the omission this year of the Annual Gathering’s fabled trivia contest. (Perhaps because his team had won, the last three years running?) It should be noted that Richard, unlike Thoreau, does not (thank goodness) limit his beverages to water only!

Later in the day, started out for a hike to Fair Haven, via Walden Pond trail.

Whilst chatting with two friendly fishermen at the far end of the pond, we all heard some distant thunder.
The one fisherman hastily began to pack his gear, while the other laughed.
“Hey, I was out here yesterday, & got caught out in that big storm,” the Cautious Fisherman said, “Saw a couple of close hits right over theyah.” (points to a nearby cove.)
“I could smell sulfur!”

Leaving them, I continued on across the railroad tracks, which run along the western edge of Walden Pond. The tracks were laid in 1843, and the passing steam locomotives surely must have rattled Thoreau’s desk, as he sat to write during the morning hours at his little house. He frequently walked the railroad causeway to travel to and from Concord while living at Walden.

On the other side of the tracks is the marvelous trail system that is part of the town of Lincoln’s conservation district.
Passing by the Andromeda Ponds, the wooded trail suddenly got very dark. Too dark to take a photo of Indian Pipe, though it came out ghostly enough.

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora)

While I stopped to take this photo, the wind, which had been restless all day, stopped. It was way too calm. And eerie. Then came a low rumble of thunder, sounding much closer than before.
Throwing away any hope of seeing Fair Haven today, I turned on my heel and headed back, being some distance from shelter of any kind.

It was power-sauntering at its best!
Along the way, I caught up with the Laughing Fisherman. He was calling it a day, as well.

Statement as of 3:25 PM EDT on July 08, 2009
... A Tornado Warning remains in effect until 345 PM EDT for south central Middlesex... west central Norfolk and extreme southeastern Worcester counties...

At 323 PM EDT... National Weather Service Doppler radar continued to indicate a tornado. This tornado was located near Hopkinton... or near Milford... moving southeast at 10 mph.

When a Tornado Warning is issued based on Doppler radar... it means
that strong rotation has been detected in the storm. A tornado may
already be on the ground... or is expected to develop shortly.

If you wait to see or hear it coming...
it may be too late to get to a safe place.

In spite of these dire portents, all we saw in Concord was a light drizzle. Not enough to keep Corky & I from going to a sort-of reggae concert in town that evening, trying dance the rain away.
One Love! One Heart! Let's get together and feel all right

Instead of a Rainbow

July 7, 2009
P.M. - to Walden Pond

When the clouds broke and little slices of sunshine streamed down, I grabbed the camera and headed to Walden Pond. It was the opposite of “Storm Chasers” – I was hoping to see not a storm, but a rainbow.
The trail had been washed out along the eastern side of the pond, so it was messy going. Low scuddy clouds were swirling ominously, so much so that I could not tell which way the weather was going – or coming. I admit I am pretty much of a lightning-phobe, and considered turning back at every unsettled gust of wind.
It didn’t seem really safe to be out there, and there was no one else around.
Instead, the plants and trees along the trail lured me on. Ask any photographer: after a rain, things are beautiful. The soft light, the raindrops, the (literally) saturated colors.

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)

What I found, instead of a rainbow in the sky, was a young couple huddled together on one of the stone-step openings, gazing at Walden Pond. They had taken the train from Cambridge, and walked to the pond, getting caught in that storm along the way.
They were looking for Thoreau’s House Site. I was happy to show them the way, and glad for the company as well. We walked together and I asked how they came to be interested in Thoreau. Bhrigu said that, growing up in India, he had heard that Gandhi had been influenced by Thoreau’s writings. They wanted to see for themselves the source of inspiration for these words, which seem to have gone around the world and back again.
We talked about the fact that Thoreau and Emerson were among the first Americans to read the Hindu scriptures and publish excerpts of them in English.

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial. ~Walden

As we got to the house site, I was ready to leave them alone with their thoughts.
Then, casually, Prerna mentioned that it was her husband’s birthday today.
Well! A commemorative photo must be taken! Happy birthday!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

To Great Meadows before the Storm

July 7, 2009 - CONCORD, MA.

Corky arrived from Florida last night ! We met two years ago at the Thoreau Gathering and she is a wonderful sauntering companion. Her poetic outlook on life is infectious. She encourages my attempts at creativity. Plus she’s just fun to be with.

She was meeting a friend today whom she had not seen for a very very long time. The three of us went a-walking at Great Meadows at mid-day.

To put it more accurately, I was a-walking, and they were a-talking, and all the glories of the Meadows were spread out before us.

Great Meadows is a fantastic birding place (a National Wildlife Refuge). It’s on a major migratory route relatively close to the coast, emcompassing varied habitat such as the large open marsh, a quiet river, and shady woods. Even at a “quiet” time of year such as July, it’s an opportunity to see marsh wrens – herons – grebes – osprey – ducks – warblers – etc.
Along the trail I admired the plant life, some familiar, some new.

Later, on viewing the photos, it seems every flower hosted a visitor, equally beautiful in its own way.

Coming back along the causeway between marshes, we saw four Northern Water Snakes, draped along the rocky edge of the trail. At least, I hope that’s what they were.

We headed back for lunch as deep dark clouds appeared in the northwest.

at 238 PM EDT... National Weather Service Doppler radar indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing nickel size hail... and damaging winds in excess of 60 mph.

This storm was located near Sudbury... or near Framingham... and moving northeast at 15 mph.

Some locations in the warning include... Maynard... Wayland... Wellesley... Weston... Concord... Lincoln... Watertown... Carlisle... Lexington... Bedford... Belmont and Arlington

In addition to large hail and damaging winds... frequent cloud to ground lightning and torrential rainfall is occurring with this storm. Get indoors or inside a vehicle now!

Well THAT was exciting! We were eating a late lunch inside the inn’s skylighted great-room when it hit. The storm lasted a good hour, with gullywashing rain, wind and some pretty close lightning-strikes, too.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Pause that Refreshes

The week is going by quickly - not much time for sitting at a computer ! Guess that's what a vacation is all about. Plus for some reason setting up a blog entry is more difficult from my laptop.
Don't worry, there will be more entries soon.

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Chestnut By Any Other Name

July 6, 2009

Another fabulously clear and sunny day! What else was there to do but to get that kayak into the water?

Concord is located at the junction of two rivers, the Sudbury and the Assabet, which join together to form the Concord River. Today the Sudbury was my destination, with a trip through Fair Haven Bay. When I was here in October, the wind came up in the afternoon, and the waves form pretty easily on the wide expanse of relatively shallow water.

Today the sky was completely clear and the water smooth as silk. At the put-in, I saw a weird contraption hanging into the water:

It was a harvester of some sort. Then I recalled what I saw here last year, covering almost the whole surface of the Bay:

the Dreaded Water Chestnut

It’s a nasty invasive that, among other things, makes paddling a real pain. It forms a mat that will yank the paddle right out of your hands. And forget about going close to the shoreline. Of course it is much more than an inconvenience for the local flora and fauna.

Fortunately, in Moreau Lake, it has not been spotted yet. It spreads by way of nasty-looking floating seedpods which attach to boat trailers.

Lake George Association has a good educational program at local marinas about this and other aquatic invasives which can travel from state to state this way.

Here in Concord, it is apparently rampant enough to warrant the Department of Public Works here to have a contraption that looks like something out of a Mark Twain nightmare:

When I arrived downstream at the mouth of the bay, there was this vessel, ker-chogging loudly around the edges of the bay, mowing a swath through the thick layer of water chestnut and conveying it into its hold, to be hauled out in a dump truck later.

My vision of a bucolic float through the bay was mowed down just as neatly.

So far this trip was becoming something of a Grim Reality Check. Hey, Sue, welcome to 2009 !

Well, it’s good to know that at least something is being done to try to restore the balance; a balance that, in this case, was upset by humans in the first place.

The machine was on the east side of the bay, so I kept to the left and continued down the placid Sudbury River. There was a rocky point along the western shore (Lee’s Cliff?) (Was this where Henry T. waited out a thunderstorm ashore, under his overturned boat ?)

Saw several blue herons, a green heron, a Canada goose family. The shoreline growth was mostly button bush, and in other places was a lush mix.

Painted turtles by the dozens ducked back into the water at my approach, sometimes just a swirl in the duckweed the only evidence of them. Pickerel weed was just opening its spikes, and water lilies were everywhere. Clouds were forming in the heat of the day, and that just made the scenery more interesting, as they were mirrored in the smooth surface of the water.

After turning about, I returned along the east shore, under Fair Haven Hill - one of Thoreau’s favorite places to watch sunsets and moonlight on the Bay. Today numerous inobtrusive foot trails traverse the wooded ridge. One path comes steeply down to the river’s edge, and it was here that I pulled ashore to stretch my legs and just admire the view.

The big noisy chestnut-eating machine was gone. The only sounds were the yawp of a heron on the river before me, a thrush song in the woods behind me, and the peculiar lip-smacking noise that seemed to come from the buttonbushes growing at the river’s edge.

Returning, I continued a short way upriver, past the put-in spot. I was getting sunburned, and it was time to call it a day. Turning about – after looking at lilies "just one more time" – I looked up to the north shore and saw a sight that made my jaw drop:

It was a tall chestnut tree, in full bloom! The sight of it took my breath away – this was not supposed to be happening – they were almost extinct in this area! I took lots of photos, and for some time, just sat floating in the boat, gazing at this miraculous sight. The flower spikes covered the tree in white dreadlocks.

After hauling out, still marveling at this good fortune, I took a different road back to the inn. Suddenly I pulled the car over – there, in the dooryard of a very old homestead, was

ANOTHER chestnut tree in full bloom!

Now anyone with half a brain would have figured it out by now, but no, I was just too entranced.

This one was about 40 feet tall, but wide. Gnarled low-hanging branches practically drooped to the ground, festooned with fuzzy white blooms. The ground below this ancient-looking tree was covered with the empty husks of burrs. I got out of the car, camera in hand. As I approached the tree, it seemed to be humming. There were bees and bee-lets of all sorts, on almost every bloom.

There was an indescribable scent in the air, though not as funky as some have described. The leaves seemed very glossy on the topside, paler beneath. And little proto-burrs were already forming.

Weird smell or no, I was as intoxicated as those bees for the whole ride back.
Now, whom could I contact about this incredible sighting? It must be reported!
TWO blooming, blight-resistant chestnut trees – in one day!

Later that evening, I looked at the photos on the laptop. It was time to shift from drunken-bee to sober-scientist mode. Though they were toothed, those leaves did not really have the deep scalloped edge if the American Chestnuts I’ve seen. And they were pretty dark and glossy. Hmm.

Time for the buzzkill. After doing a little internet research, most likely these trees were JAPANESE chestnuts. They are sometimes blight-resistant and had been introduced as an orchard tree in America in the 1870s.

Here’s one interesting link:

Well, it was fun while it lasted. One can only imagine a hillside of magnificent American Chestnut trees in bloom. Maybe we’ll live to see that again.