Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beyond the Earth

October 31, 2010
No-Name Swamp

It is in vain to dream of a wildness
distant from ourselves.
There is none such.
It is the bog in our brain and bowels,
the primitive vigor of Nature in us,
that inspires that dream.
This and all quotes today are from Thoreau’s Journal
of August 30, 1856,
  as he recalls a walk at Gowing’s Swamp
in Concord, Massachusetts

Jackie and I wanted to meet today to take a walk, somewhere, and it was Halloween. Could we pick a place suitable to the occasion? I suggested the bog we visited back in the hot days of July, and that there were tamaracks there. Unique among conifers in this area, they are not evergreen, but their needles die and fall in late autumn. They should be turning now -- there wasn’t much time left to see them.
So today we returned to that swamp. It’s just a six-mile drive up the road; you park the car and walk about 200 feet – and enter another world !

Consider how remote and novel that swamp.
Beneath it is a quaking-bed of sphagnum, and in it grow Andromeda polifolia, Kalmia glauca, Menyanthes, Gaylussacia dumosa, Vaccinium oxycoccus, plants which scarcely a citizen of Concord ever sees.
It would be as novel to them to stand there as in a conservatory, or in Greenland.

As you first step in, the ground gives  - gravity is different here.
It's even not ground anymore - you are beyond the earth.
You walk upon a floating moss carpet of unknown thickness; beneath that - who knows how much water?

In July, everything was green and lush.
Today – every plant had changed color. It was truly a Halloween landscape:
With orange trees

Ghostly growths

Spooky spider-webs

And creepy branches

Though I do think the tamaracks are beautiful. These trees are thin and spindly, but if you look closer, you can sense their exuberance.

Then, suddenly, the season changed – a brisk north wind off the lake brought a low, pale cloud overhead – all at once, it was snowing.

Little pellets of snow were hurled down in handfuls – I burst out laughing as they hit me on the head. Looking back, I saw Jackie laughing, too. Now we were in Greenland!

As suddenly as it began, the snow-pellet shower ended. The clouds parted, and the sun shone weakly, just enough to light up the tall cottongrass.

We walked over to the edge of the bog, near the brook channel. The moss layer is thinner there, and each careful step we took made suction-cup noises.

Time, meanwhile, had inexplicably moved on to the Christmas season - everything now looked red and green:

Spruces all spruced-up

Bog Rosemary – Thoreau’s beloved andromeda 

Leatherleaf (also named andromeda in Thoreau's day) had turned scarlet, and was everywhere.

Pitcher-plants reclined on maroon moss beds

And like jewels, hidden here and there, single plump cranberries dangled at the ends of  impossibly-thin stems. Thoreau suggested they be called “swamp pearls.”
I tasted one.

Better it is to go a-cranberrying than to go a-huckleberrying.
For it is cold and bracing,
leading your thoughts beyond the earth …
It feeds your spirit,
now in the season of white twilights,
when frosts are apprehended,
when edible berries are almost gone.

Let not your life be wholly without an object,
though it be only to ascertain the flavor of a cranberry, 
for it will not be only the quality of an insignificant berry
that you will have tasted,
but the flavor of your life to that extent,
and it will be such a sauce as no wealth can buy.


  1. How I love returning to our favorite places with you! And your beautiful blog with its always appropriate Thoreau quotes just adds a deeper quality to the experience. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Oh, I do love bogs. And you're right - they do seem otherworldly, with all the strange adaptive plants. I especially love the carnivorous ones. Very Halloween appropriate.

  3. yes aren't bogs great? this one is very approachable ...and thankfully, it is their very nature which seems to have saved them from the usual rampant "development" ...

  4. Living nearly on its doorstep, Gowing's Swamp has been a treasured neighbor for all my adult life. I enjoyed your post and photographs and was amused to see you ventured into its heart while I was leading a Halloween day walk around its shores. In 2010, I completed a report documenting the bog's unique natural, literary, and scientific history for the town and Sudbury Valley Trustees. If interested, you can link to this online, as well as to a photo album and other posts about the bog at my website,

    A note of care to your readers...Gowing's Swamp is a very fragile and rare ecosystem for this area and the portion you describe especially so. It can also be unpredictably risky for the walker. It's surroundings are beautiful and it's best for the bog to enjoy it from the shoreline trails.

  5. Hi Cherrie, nice to meet you -
    I live at the edge of the Adirondack Park in upstate New York, and that is where the bog I wrote about is located.
    I've never been to Gowing's Swamp, but would love to see it sometime during my visits to Concord. Perhaps I could look you up when I visit there next summer?
    I love going to places that Thoreau was fond of.
    His journals give me many clues of things and events to look for in my neck of the woods, too. (Today I saw "gossamer" flying by !)
    There's a reason I did not name the swamp in this blog, it's a way of protecting it. We do not venture very far into it, not only for safety reasons, but because it is a fragile environment. Bogs aren't as rare in my area, but all are very special places.