Bog Trip

No school for 13-year-old, day off for 19-year-old, no snow yet, and November’s scant light: I fold up my laptop and, impromptu, declare we’ll visit Chickering Bog.

We follow a path through the woods, our boots brushing through fallen maple and ash and cherry leaves, then through a stand of tamarack where the dirt path is scattered with tiny gold needles. On the easy walk, the girls chattered, moving quickly against the damp, the three of them in their black down jackets and myself in turquoise. We’re not far from the world from houses and cars, yet the forest folds around us. I’ve been walking in various New England forests since I was a child, and although this particular path isn’t familiar, the woods are — filled with both that allure of what’s around that next bend or behind that glacial erratic? and, simply, the woods’ loveliness.

The path leads up to what’s more properly a fen. The boardwalk takes us near the middle where the girls find cranberry-red carnivorous pitcher plants. Beneath our boots lies the thousands-of-years-old mysteries of peat. And over our heads, all that sky.

A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the Beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Calais, Vermont

Unwinding the Rope of Writing

Not long ago, I was at the county courthouse in Barre, Vermont, waiting for the final hearing of my divorce. That courthouse contains the ebb of human life, chock-full of misery and grief, and every time I’ve entered that immense building I’ve witnessed adult women and men crying. I stood alone in a large room whose windows looked into a courtyard where trees were in bloom, and the sunlight shone bright and full of promise. What I was thinking about was a terrible illness in a family member, and how mortality’s knife lies in all of us. Dormant or not, at any moment that knife might turn and slash fatally.

Standing there, I vowed not to let my particular cup of sorrow raise so high that I couldn’t see beyond the vessel of my own brew. Lose a husband, a family life, an occupation, beloved friends: but lose my soul to bitterness, too?

Thoreau’s desire to live as fully as possible, to suck out life’s marrow, to know it as fully as possible is yet my own, despite the bile I naively never expected. Deep in the unlit realms of faith, I know writing is a rope out of that courthouse’s sludge, that art – and making art, like living a human life – holds the potential to burn our hearts in its kiln and emerge with deeper compassion. The sun rose and set on that day in my life, as it’s risen and set for centuries. Even when I was in the windowless courtroom, working through legal litany, I knew the sun would shine in the courtyard when I emerged.

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods


Crawford Notch, New Hampshire

Stormy Spring Fever

Not only the children have spring fever; I’m afflicted, too. In this rainy afternoon, the children are outside, equipped with boots and splashed bright cheeks.

In the woods, the rain lessens. Green trout lily leaves sprinkle the forest floor profusely now, although the coltsfoots’ golden blossoms are folded up, napping away the deluge. In the cold, damp earth, my freezing fingers tugged free a few of my garlic sprouts, their pale white roots clinging deeply in the soil, winding around rouge pebbles. I chopped their savory greens and tender shoots for a salad, a taste of liquid chlorophyll, I imagine.

This is the season of secrets unearthing – last fall’s decaying fungus belly-white, frog eggs fattening near the pond’s stippled surface, the children too big for last year’s summer clothes.

We need the tonic of wildness…. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Woodbury, Vermont

Heaven Under Our Feet

Here’s a bit of my Thoreau paper on sense of place – with snow. Then back to weeding the garden.

Imagine Walden a sphere, where all elements within are constantly in motion and inherently connected, from the most minute level – for example, the weight of perch – to the cosmological. Within this Walden sphere, all aspects knit into the natural world…  Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes… Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.


Floor, Concord, MA, Masonic Lodge.


We’re thick into the summer now, with a smear of humidity, and the breeze this evening through the open window and balcony door rich with the sweet scent of freshly mown grass, the nocturnal animals calling and chirruping.

I have this vision of summertime involving sweating glasses of refreshing lemonade, and every year about this time, I realize there’s lemonade, but the sweat drips from my hand. More likely these days, there’s a cup of coffee beside my laptop, my toes grimy already from an early morning weed in the garden.

July is the month of verdant growth – not a month to miss in Vermont.  But while the garden is growing, and the jewelweed and ferns and raspberries march in, the human realm doesn’t seem to pause, either.  Some of this is just fantastic – the radiant happiness of a ten-year-old at art camp (oh joy!) this week – but our lives have no pause, no genuine respite from the undercurrents of our inner lives.  Perhaps this is simply the nature of being human, and the lushness of summer echoes our own midsummer madness.

In the Thoreau paper I’m writing, I propose Walden is a spherical whole, where all aspects of the natural and human worlds are intertwined.  Joy knots around a kernel of sadness, and grief holds a gleaming ribbon of happiness.

Here’s Paul Gruchow again:

But the fact is that the same dramas and miracles of life occur in Windom (Minnesota) as in Tokyo. People are born, they struggle to live worthy and productive lives, they are challenged by fate, buffeted by setbacks and disappointments, heartened in unexpected hours, visited by evil and grace alike, and come to sudden and premature or to lingering and overdue deaths everywhere in the world.

Go for a swim in a cold, deep lake, with its illusive bottom.  Eat cherries with kids and spit the stones, laughing.  Lie awake at night listening to the breeze dappling the maple leaves.



Here’s the thing about Thoreau and gardening:  Thoreauvian time is distinctly non-linear, perceiving the world through cyclical seasons.  Walden is written as a single-year cycle, with multiple circles within.  As gardeners, we must all, on some level, embrace the world in variations of rebirth, growth, and demise.

Today, my garden bursts in profusion:  white currants, greens, rogue chamomile mixed in with the bee balm.  A woodchuck we saw running by…..

This is the season of a ten-year-old girl picking peas, of dinner cooked over an outside fire, of rain on the sunhat left on the grass while we played an evening game at the neighbors’ house.  Their four-year-old daughter showed us her garden, while her younger brother ran in excited figure eights.  Walking home tonight,  my daughter’s hand in mine, fireworks from Cabot and Morrisville lit up the night sky over our mountain, while fireflies blinked around us.  Our heels struck the dirt road, our guide home in the thick country dark, the frogs peeping and the owls calling, this season of Vermont July.

Children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men…  At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomable by us because unfathomable.

– Thoreau