Monday, November 7, 2016

MA Walden Pond: The Cormorant Preferred Hawthorne

A view to the inside - recreation of Thoreau's cabin.

I met two writer friends at Walden Pond early in the morning on Friday for an ambling stroll around Walden Pond. Patty earned her doctorate many years ago doing research on Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord. Paul is a farm-based educator and writer on at a community farm not far away. He fancies himself an essayist in the style of Thoreau.

National Historic Landmark designation declared in 1965.

We met at the reconstructed/recreated cabin near the path to the pond as soon as the park opened. This is not the original cabin and does not stand where the original stood. But it gave us a good starting point to decide who was going where, for how long, and when to meet up again and go over our thoughts and any writing we did. I haven't had a decent writer's group experience in forever, so I was pretty excited. "Walking around the pond is a pilgrimage for a lot of folks," said Paul. "I suggest - if you haven't been here before - do that loop first." I hadn't been here before, so that's what I did. Patty headed uphill to the Esker Trail. Paul walked with me until he found a warm spot of sandy beach on which to compose his essay.

It was not always dry land where we dwell.
- Henry David Thoreau

Black oak - the bark was used for tanning leather.

I was having Pleistocene thoughts as I rounded the bend of the Pond Trail towards one of many grass meadows that farmers in Thoreau's day would harvest for hay. These hollows can be from an acre to hundreds of acres. The meadow grass was the critical piece in a complicated agricultural matrix that dated to settlement times and centered upon livestock husbandry. Without the meadows, there would have been no Concord. The meadows are as much an artifact of Colonial farmers as they are of Pleistocene glacial comings and goings.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
- Henry David Thoreau

A giant pine was laid down in sections.

By the time Thoreau occupied his cabin for his two-year experiment in solitude, colonial agricultural traditions had changed in Concord. The agroecological methods and practices that had made  Colonial farmers very successful was switching over to a commercial-consumer brand of farming, not a bad thing for the farmers who found eager buyers for their dairy products in the bustling city of Boston. But the old ways were rapidly disappearing. Thoreau and his dear friend Emerson would often take long walks together and talk about the changes.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and you have lived well.
 – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Duff layer under a canopy of white pine and red oak.

Walden Pond is a kettle hole, a deep lake of water left from a chunk of glacier ice that broke away during the retreat of ice sheets a mile thick over Concord, ten thousand years ago. I used to work in a state park in Vermont that had a kettle hole pond. Shallow on the edges. Deep in the middle. The land around the pond is a rubble pile of glacial till and gravel. The esker ridge where Patty was hiking was a remnant river bed, now a ridgeline that marked where meltwaters coursed over and through the retreating glacier. The sandy shore on which Paul was writing is the ground-up remains of mountain tops and bedrock released from the melting berg, lake sediments, and sand. The woods grow thick on the boulder rubble of glacial debris.

The good news is that the moment you decide that what you know is more important than what you have been taught to believe, you will have shifted gears in your quest for abundance. Success comes from within, not from without.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Layers of white pine and red oak.

Winterberry was bright against the dry browns of the forest floor. New England, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and the South have been experiencing a summer and fall drought so I was surprised to see this native holly in such bright profusion when everything else was frost-killed or dried up. But then I looked a little closer. The winterbery were growing on some of the best glacial soils for moisture retention, old lake bottom silts in a small cove of the pond. Juncos flitted from branch to branch ahead of me. They'll soon be in my neck of the woods in South-Central Pennsylvania.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
- Henry David Thoreau

Winterberry, a small native holly.

I came to the site of Thoreau's original cabin, outlined in granite blocks. (Later, on a conference tour, I learned from a woman who lives in the farmhouse down the road from here that the cabin had been moved to a place in town, then to her farm for use as a pigsty until it weathered away.) Henry lived in solitude here but walked into town every few days, worked as a surveyor for farmers in the area, and rambled a lot with Emerson. The old roads are all still here. I wandered around them for a long while. Rough, marginal land. It wasn't much good for Colonial farmers, so it stayed in woods for a long while until wood became a commodity sold to markets "away." But what was this place like before Colonial settler farmers improved what they could? What came before the native people who practiced shifting agriculture throughout the area for thousands of years?

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
-Henry David Thoreau

Dr. Marjorie Winkler, paleoecologist with the University of Wisconsin, conducted a lake sediment core study here in the 1979. Core samples revealed some pretty amazing changes on this land. Combining this study with core samples taken from other kettle holes in the area, she and her team have described a 12,000 year-old tundra blanketed by spruce mat and grass. 9,500 years ago the scene had shifted to alder thickets, jack pine, and mixed spruce boreal woods. The pollen samples drawn from the cores vividly show the coming of the hickory woods, ash, white cedar, chestnut and white pine. Then the shift: ragweed in abundance! Here came the settlers! The sediments describe early American farmers preference for white pine over pitch pine. There were layers of charcoal ash from numerous forest fires (one of these was started accidentally by Thoreau himself), and precisely in 1913 - the disappearance of chestnut pollen. What becomes evident in this study and several others ( I swear Walden Pond has been the most studied pond in U.S. history...) is that there is no stable state for the forests here and across the glacial landscapes of New England and northern Pennsylvania. It is a long, complex story of constant change.

The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Election cake fungi." (See Notes at bottom)

Forest dynamics are governed by changes in climate, adaptations, soil types, and disturbance cycles. Hurricanes and wind events, fire cycles that are natural as well as managed by people. Disruptions caused by diseases and insect outbreaks can reset certain growth cycles and introduce phases of release for different plant species. Late comers to Walden Woods story are hickory and chestnut, crossing the Appalachians from west to east five thousand years ago. There seems to be no clear idea of what a typical New England forest should be because, it seems, there never has been one.

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
- Thoreau, Journal 1859

Red oak.
White pine.

I wandered the old roads and imagined walking behind Emerson and Thoreau, imagining I could eavesdrop on their conversations. Emerson owned these woods and made it possible for his younger friend to engage in purposeful, simple living here. It was a project Thoreau had long dreamed of doing. He would go on to write later about his experiences in Walden.

 Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such, — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.
- Thoreau, Walden

Wyman Road.
I found my way back down to the pond and saw that Paul had picked up his camp chair and was walking back. I hadn't yet written a word, but I upped my pace a little to see if I could find a place near the Esker Trail to write a few thoughts. I penned some not-too-deep questions. Is this where the long tap root of America's environmentalism began?  Are there deeper roots yet among the skilled, place-adapted farmers who knew their soils? With evidence of great stewardship for the land, well documented by historian Brian Donahue and others, I wondered in my journal how to connect the environmental movement of the 20th century to farming of the 18th century. Thoreau, however, sometimes had different ideas about farming and farmers of his time, when large commercial networks began to drive the rural production pipeline to urban markets.

I would rather save one of these hawks than have a hundred hens and chickens. It is worth more to see them soar, especially now that they are so rare in the landscape. It is easy to buy eggs, but not to buy hen-hawks. My neighbors would not hesitate to shoot the last pair of hen-hawks in the town to save a few of their chickens! But such economy is narrow and grovelling. It is unnecessarily to sacrifice the greater value to the less. I would rather never taste chickens’ meat nor hens’ eggs than never to see a hawk sailing through the upper air again. This sight is worth incomparably more than a chicken soup or a boiled egg. So we exterminate the deer and substitute the hog.
- Henry David Thoreau, Journal 1853

White cedar shake roof to the woodshed.
I wasn't making a very good attempt at thinking deeply about anything, however. I just sort of stopped thinking. I hadn't actually walked the "pilgrimage trail" around the pond. Instead, I had wandered everywhere in every direction. I watched a man fish from his canoe then went in search of birds in the young pines. I poked around a patch of dry summer stalks and leaves. I stood very near a double crested cormorant and asked him how the fishing was. He was a great listener. I read to him from a National Park Service brochure on Concord's famous authors. He preened.

The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

" A clear, deep and green well," wrote Thoreau of Walden Pond.

Walden Pond is nothing as it was in Thoreau's day. Winkler's core studies and subsequent water quality work on this and other nearby ponds have shown that in the last century a great change has occurred. The presence and persistent impact of humans in the modern era has tainted, even polluted, the water with agricultural chemicals, sewage seepage from nearby homes, and the direct effect of 600,000 visitors a year, most of whom will who swim (and pee) here (and apply copious amounts of sunscreen).  Even the cormorant, who was clearly very used to people coming very close, has left an impact on the pond. His stately glacial boulder perch showed that he has fed from the pond throughout the season!

Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.
- Thoreau, Journal 1859

Double-crested cormorant.

Not using zoom. He allowed me to walk right up to him as he preened.

So there I was reading to a cormorant, and the thought occurred to me that I should probably take some notes on the conversation. For every sentence I read, he preened a row of feathers and slicked them with oil from his gland until he shone like an armored knight. This went on until the brochure had been read then he looked out over the water. I told him about Louisa May Alcott and Nathanial Hawthorn and the great house, Wayside. He preened his breast. I read to him some quotes I'd copied from a book I'd been reading the night before, snippets of the meaning of friendship and the art of the saunter. He carefully worked across an underwing then arranged and oiled every scale-like feather on the topwing. Then I wrote a few lines about the experience of reading Hawthorne to a cormorant while visiting Walden Pond. It seemed sort of naughty, somewhat daring. Sorry, Henry, but I think the bird preferred Hawthorne.

We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Rock pile near the original cabin site.

I wrote about the cormorant in my journal.

I am close to a cormorant, able to study him oily gleam in early November sun. He eyes me with no curiosity, but certainly tolerance. I am not his first human companion. He preens when I read and looks out over the water when I stop to write. I am so close that I can see the pupil of his eye whirl around under its goose-pimpled top and bottom lid. I was once closer to a cormorant than this when I carried a dying bird from the edge of surf on a South Carolina barrier island beach. The gleam had gone out of his feathers. He died waterlogged and cold. But here, this guardian of Walden Pond, handsome in his shining suit of feathers, snaps his bill and winks into the sun. "Read me more of that Hawthorne," he says, "I tire of Thoreau."

Memorial to a cabin.
I said goodbye to the cormorant and thanked him for the inspiration. At least I had a paragraph and all was not lost on this writer's ramble. I found Patty back at the cabin and Paul sitting on the steps of the new visitors center. We joined him there and read some of our work. Paul wrote an essay about what he imagined Thoreau would say about the upcoming election day. We giggled and clapped. Patty read a short poem, one of several she composed while sitting on a log on the Esker Trail. For us she read a poem about the dying of her cat Walden, named for the pond. She found him here as a stray kitten wandering around the parking area fifteen years ago. "He was a cat philosopher," she said later.

Wally lived in slow motion, the slow stroll, the slow stretch.
Wally passed in the garden, 
his leaving gifted with marigolds the color of candy corn.
Old, slow Walden.
Circled back to the garden path,
sniffed late summer twilight,
the air dry as old bones.
No rain.
No rain.

- Patty C.  (transcribed with permission)

Thoreau in heavy metal.

The weekend conference did not allow me much time to wander as I love to do on lunch walks, on travels, or afternoons after work. So this morning ramble with two writer friends was a special treat. I enjoyed my visit to Walden Pond and was glad we didn't encounter the throngs of people pictured in photographs of hot summer days. The conference was wonderful and energizing, however, and I am so honored to have received an award for my work in ag education. But take no offense conference goers and planning committee, but reading Hawthorne to a double crested cormorant was a hard act to follow!


There is a brand new Visitor Center at Walden Pond State Reservation, though the main exhibit area is not yet open as of this writing, the bookstore of the Thoreau Society is. What a beautiful shop!

Election Cake Fungi -

Park Info -

Anyone having access to scientific journals in paleo studies can easily find Winkler's published work on core samples of Walden and neighboring ponds. Here's the quick and dirty from an old NYT article for the rest of you:

Reading on the friendship between Thoreau and Emerson:

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