Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Many Happy Returns

July 12, 2011
Moreau Lake State Park

Today, the twelfth of July, is the birth-day
of Henry David Thoreau.

Many Happy Returns of the Day to you sir!


When we walk we naturally go
to the fields and woods;

what would become of us
if we walked only in a garden
or a mall?

Even some sects of philosophers
have felt the necessity
of importing the woods to themselves
since they did not go to the woods,

"They planted groves and walks of Platans"
where they took subdiales ambulationes
in porticoes open to the air.

Of course, it is of no use
to direct our steps to the woods,

if they do not carry us thither.

I am alarmed when it happens
that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily,

without getting there in spirit.

 In my afternoon walk I would fain forget
all my morning occupations,

and my obligations to society.

But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily
shake off the village.

The thought of some work will run in my head,

 and I am not where my body is;

I am out of my senses.

In my walks I would fain return to my senses.

What business have I in the woods,
if I am thinking of something out of the woods?
    HDT, Walking 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

True Freedom

July 4, 2011
Cole's Woods

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived.
It is the emblem of purity.
It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in,
and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth.
I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes
is in the fragrance of this flower!
I shall not so soon despair of the world for it …

     From Thoreau’s speech at Framingham, July 4 1854,
     later published as Slavery in Massachusetts

It’s the day in 1845 that Henry Thoreau officially moved in to his little house by Walden Pond, to spend the next two years there in his own experiment in Independence.

Nine years later, just as Walden was about to be published, Thoreau was invited to speak at a large Abolitionist Rally to be held in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was advertised in the Boston papers as a "Meeting for True Freedom on the Fourth of July." Due to recent events, such as the Anthony Burns Affair (see links below,) feelings were running high. Abolitionists spoke out against state and local governments who had laws supporting slavery. After speaking at the morning session, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, burned the Constitution in protest !

(It helps to understand that said Constitution would not be amended to outlaw slavery until eleven years later, in 1865)

Thoreau’s turn to address the crowd of 2,000 came in the afternoon –
after rousing speeches by Wendell Phillips and Sojourner Truth.
Tough acts to follow !

Click here and here for two fascinating accounts of that day.

(If anything, it shows that, contrary to what many think of him today, Thoreau was no hermit, but was actively involved in social issues of his day.)


My Independence Day was a somewhat quieter than Henry’s was back then.

After a very busy week at work, it was nice just to have a few hours to relax.
I went for a walk in the woods with a friend.
It was my hope to find two particular plants, seen recently in Moreau Lake State Park, in a Warren County location. What I needed was dry sandy soil, and open sunny areas -- like those under powerlines.

There is a place like that in Cole’s Woods, a green gem set in the middle of Glens Falls. It is forested, with Halfway Brook meandering through its many acres, and also has a scruffy powerline section, with just the conditions I was looking for.

At the very last minute, I stopped at the house of my friend Ruth, who considers this woods her special place.

She enthusiastically joined me, and led me right to the sort of place I was looking for.

Along the way, the butterflies were flitting here and there –

And the slugs nodded to us as we walked past.

Very soon, we did see the first plant I was seeking – a wood lily !

Ten minutes after that, the second plant almost tripped us up as we walked by it – a clasping milkweed !

We found others of their kind out onlong the powerline trail.

I was very happy to find these new plants, and to be able to anticipate where they might be found. Just lucky, I guess.

We rambled along the powerline trail, finding other treasures.

Like ripening black raspberries.

Tonight there are many celebrations of our Nation’s birth-day planned,
most of them involving fireworks and other noisy explosions.
And lots of flag-waving.

My patriotism is of a different sort. Probably not in line with today’s definitions of it.

The United States as a nation has come a long way, and still has a long way to go toward her ideals. But I do love America. In that long-ago summer when I travelled to Alaska and back, camping all across this country, I came to love the land itself. From sea to shining sea.

So it’s three cheers

for the Red

                                                                                 Black Raspberry


                                                                 Enchanter's Nightshade

and Blue-green !

                                                                                 Ebony Jewelwing
And yellow…

                                                                                        Canada Lily

And green …

                                                                                    Solomon's Seal
And orange …

                                                                                    Butterfly weed

Thursday, July 7, 2011


July 2, 2011
Pyramid Lake, NY

Near the lake, which we were approaching with as much expectation as if it had been a university, -- for it is not often that the stream of our life opens into such expansions, -- were islands, and a low and meadow shore with scattered trees.
       HDT, The Maine Woods

Today I happily returned to Pyramid Lake, for an excursion organized by Jackie Donnelly to explore the plant life in this Adirondack setting. Pyramid is a retreat center, and on this summer weekend, there were youth groups enjoying the great outdoors here too. This is one of Jackie's special places - she volunteers here - and she delighted to share it with us.

Just one hour's drive from my front door, I can step out onto land so wild and interesting, it's like visiting another planet.

At the lake, our morning party consisted of Jackie, myself and Ruth Schottman. Once again it was my pleasure to follow in their footsteps – er, in this case, paddle-dips – and learn something new.

The center sits along a small portion of the northern shore, and the rest of the lake and surrounding forest is classified as Adirondack wilderness.

In the first cove, we spotted Rose Pogonia – we would see much more of it throughout the day.

Water lobelia, water-lilies and irises were all out and looking beautiful.
No pickerel-weed flowers yet -- it seems late this year.
We saw a cove full of mini-lilies, 2-inch replicas of the familiar sweet white lily. Are they a separate variety?

 Tiny sundew plants sparkled on fallen logs, in terrarium-like mixes here and there.

Jackie led us to the far end of the lake, where a cedar swamp contained some treasures she hoped to share with us.

It is remarkable how little these important gates to a lake are blazoned. There is no triumphal arch over the modest inlet or outlet, but at some undistinguished point it trickles in or out through the uninterrupted forest, almost as through a sponge.
    HDT, The Maine Woods

A sponge, indeed ! We put ashore and gingerly stepped (or stumbled) among tree-roots, onto deep sphagnum moss covered with delicate bog-loving plants.

And, lacking a "triumphal arch," Jackie and Ruth wisely brought along orange survey-tape, to mark our trail, so that we could find our way back to our boats. It made me think of Hansel and Gretel in the dark spooky forest, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. (And we all know how THAT turned out.)
This was bushwacking at its finest.
I kept nervously checking over my shoulder at our backtrail, for this cedar- swamp was so thick that it would have been very easy to get lost.

Just as I was thinking about that possibility – who would ever find us ? and when ? – I saw deer fur and some bones. Only the shadow of this deer remained. Perhaps she went peacefully, and just became one with the swamp ... ? My timid mind considered other possibilities.

But I soon got over it. My companions kept pointing out so many plants that were new to me. At our soggy feet was spread an amazing assortment of green treasures.


One-sided Pyrola, Twinflower, Snowberry,  and Wood sorrel --

Though Jackie did not find the one particular plant she had hoped to show us here, we didn’t care. The mosquitoes were surprisingly lackadaisical, and we could take our time exploring.

I could see my own reflection in a glistening dewberry -

With the loss of the usual visual cues, the cardinal points became ...
less obvious.
Lines between things became blurred. 

After just a few minutes in this emerald forest, it was difficult to discern what was land, and what was water.
What was sky, or what was earth.

It was a pleasant, slightly hypnotic feeling.
The Sirens of the swamp are very real.

All this time, we were never more than fifty feet from where we put ashore!

Back in the boats (which we had a little spot of trouble locating, even WITH the orange tape), we continued around the far side of the lake, in the lee of Bear Mountain, which rises steeply above with water.

Under the gaze of the Lady of the Lake,

we floated past giant pinkish boulders covered with green and white lichens.

And giant fishing-spiders !

Damselflies were everywhere, clasping in courtship. Ruth had several of them hitch-hiking on her kayak. I even saw two of them hooking up underwater.
Glub. Glub.

There was fireweed (complete with teensy fly on the left)

and a basking water-snake -- right at eye level !
I think I put the camera up more to protect my face, than to take his picture.

We came ashore back at camp for lunch, and sat at a deck overlooking the beach cove. Entertainment was provided by a large snapping turtle, who was trying unsuccessfully to make friends with the girls on the swimming-float.

At lunch we met up with the fourth member of our boating party, Nancy Slack, an expert on mosses and lichens. She had just missed us in the morning, and had done some solo botanizing on the lake. If she had been with us, we would probably still be in that swamp, learning our mosses. She joined us for the afternoon paddle into the swampy outflow of the lake.

It was a lovely day, and despite seeing more lovely things in those shallows - things like salamander eggs and sheep laurel -- 

-- I physically ran out of gas soon after lunch, having worked late the evening before.
It was time to call it a day.

Once again I am grateful to accompany such knowledgable friends, who lead the way to (formerly) spooky places like impenetrable swamps, and expand my horizons.

Ruth shared her field-notes with us later, and it is strikingly similar to one of Henry’s lists from The Maine Woods. Here is what he noted on one of his trips:

The prevailing flowers and conspicuous small plants
of the woods, which I noticed, were:
Clintonia borealis,
checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens),
Aralia nudicaulis
(wild sarsaparilla),
great round-leaved orchis,
Dalibarda repens,
Chiogenes hispidula (creeping snowberry),
Oxalis acetosella (common wood-sorrel),
Aster acuminatus,
Pyrola secunda (one-sided pyrola),
Medeola Virginica (Indian cucumber-root),
small Circæa (enchanter’s nightshade),
and perhaps Cornus Canadensis (dwarf cornel).

Thoreau always sniffed at Emerson’s suggestions to join him at the Philosopher’s Camp (click for link) in the Adirondacks; preferring the wilds of Maine instead.

But I think he would have liked this place.