Thoughts Like Wild Apples

‘I fear that he who walks over these hills a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man! there are many pleasures which he will be debarred from!’ — Thoreau

Apparently I was grippling here and didn’t know it

Perhaps Thoreau’s idea of having fun, as expressed here, is out of the ordinary. But stretching the bounds of the WordPress Photography challenge is rather fun, in itself. (theme this week: ‘Fun‘)

Reading Thoreau is not generally considered a roaring good time.  But I enjoy doing, learning, connecting with the natural world, and feeling my pulse resonate with history. (That last is particularly thrilling.) Although I am not always a Thoreau enthusiast—and even wrote about it—I respect many of his aims, and enjoy his insights into the natural world.

Sometimes I find him downright endearing, as in his earnest essay Wild Apples. This was his thoughtful effort, written in 1862, to bring attention what he considered to be one of the disappearing treasures of the landscape.

‘The wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste…sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.’

This just might be Thoreau at his liveliest!

I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the tangy nature of these wild fruits would be dimmed if eaten in the tamed air of indoor rooms. As Thoreau puts it, ‘you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with.’

Here, in August, our apples are dropping early. The ground, warmed by the late summer sun, wafts up repeated gusts of spicy cider fragrance. Dreams of caramel apple pie bedazzle the gaze of my husband/photographer, and an earthy bit of cider from a stranger’s apple trees shall accompany the harvest.

On top of everything else, finding new words is fun. Thoreau just handed me another Curious Word. ‘Grippling’…. It’s a lost, juicy, ‘spirited and racy’ wild apple of a word. According to Thoreau, it was a custom of apple gleaning that was practiced in days of yore in Herefordshire.

‘The custom of grippling, which may be called apple gleaning, is, or was formerly, practised in Herefordshire. It consists in leaving a few apples which are called gripples, on every tree, after the general gathering, for the boys who go with climbing poles and bags to collect them.’

(Apparently his resource for this information was Plantæ Utiliores: Or Illustrations of Useful Plants, Employed in the Arts and Medicine, Volume 1, published 1842, and part of the Harvard Library where Thoreau researched)

But you know what would be really fun? To discover the rare treat Thoreau described as

‘better than any bottled cider that I know of, and with which I am better acquainted than with wine.’

It is the ‘frozen-thawed’ apple. Thoreau describes it with great excitement. First you walk the old woods that rim the farmland, where wild apples are left to grow unheeded. It is December, the first snows have fallen. But so comes the first thaw, under a mild winter sun. Wild apples, fallen on the ground, never gathered in, begin to soften in the warmth of those rays. It is then that they find their true potential; the harsh, crabbed taste Thoreau describes is gone, and in its place ‘a sweet and luscious food, in my opinion of more worth than the pineapples…of the West Indies.’

‘Your jaws are the cider press.’

It is only the first freezing and thaw, Thoreau cautions, that creates this prized delicacy of the woodland rim. In fact, here is his recipe for the sweet tang of heaven:

‘Let the frost come to freeze them first, solid as stones, and then the rain or a warm winter day to thaw them, and they will seem to have borrowed a flavor from heaven through the medium of the air in which they hang.’

I think there is analogy here to some of the people I’ve known. Or perhaps myself. Apparently there are no bad apples; just wild ones, who haven’t realized their sweet potential.


Another post that shows I have a particular fondness for apples…and I’m still Looking For Ethel.

In Search of Leafless Trees

“A few days ago I walked along the edge of the lake and was treated to the crunch and rustle of leaves with each step I made.
The acoustics of this season are different and all sounds, no matter how hushed, 
are as crisp as autumn air.”  –   Eric Sloane

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“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
-  Henry David Thoreau,  1817 – 1862  


After having recently fulfilled an appointment of my own with a horse chestnut, a sycamore that turned out to be a Stewartiana, (but was nonetheless beautiful) yesterday I went in search of leafless trees. It was time for another of my ‘perambulations’ that sometimes pop up on this blog.

A fascinating bark like a sycamore, but is actually a Stewartiana

A fascinating bark like a sycamore, but is actually a Stewartiana

I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and did not have to tramp ‘eight or ten miles through the deepest snow’ to find them. Though I am a tree enthusiast, I’m no match for Thoreau and his tireless treks.

Along the way, though, I was accompanied, in thought, by Thoreau and the words of other writers who love trees.

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‘There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill.’  – Thoreau


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“Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food, and for building, 
and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants, deserving boundless affection and 
admiration from us, becomes, in proportion to their obtaining it, a nearly perfect test of our 
being in right temper of mind and way of life; so that no one can be far wrong in either who 
loves trees enough, and everyone is assuredly wrong in both who does not love them, 
if his life has brought them in his way.” 
-  John Ruskin


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“The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background; and the stars of the dead calices of flowers and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost contribute something to the mute music.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson


Oh, I love Emerson’s idea of ‘mute music’, though in this walk I was more reminded of the above quoted thought from Sloane, regarding, ‘the acoustics of the season’. It was a fine and windy day, so the music I heard was not so mute; the gusts rushed powerfully through the tops of the barren trees, creating deep bass sighs and alto groans. Emerson’s words about ‘stubble rimed with frost‘ provides sweetmeats to the wordsmith so let me digress a moment. Emerson employs a wonderful word—rime—that comes from a poet’s bag of tricks and describes that fine, crystalline hoarfrost that is not quite snow but gives everything it touches a luminous white coating. (If you would like to read more about this sparkling, fairy-like phenomenon, and some fascinating scientific details as to the different types, read this lovely post by Cathy Bell.)

Icy blasts off the river scoured out my lungs—or should I say rimed my lungs, for that is what it felt like—and caused my eyes to stream with what might have looked like the ‘tears of a solitary walker’. Even so, the brisk gait of the indomitable Thoreau looms into view:


‘It is invigorating to breathe the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter,—as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons.’ – Thoreau


Ogden Nash said something similar, only quite different.

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“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.” – Ogden Nash


It’s appropriate we end with Ogden Nash, because he was parodying what is possibly the most famous tree poem of all.

I hope you enjoyed this November walk, and feel ‘fitted out’ for the winter.

 

 

Blue Stockings and Muddy Petticoats

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“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.

Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.

I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.

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Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation

‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.

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Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.

Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?

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Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:

‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’

A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]

In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.

Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations. Continue reading

Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir

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Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

John Muir

He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.

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Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.

The Smoke of Opinion: Another Look at Thoreau

 

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“No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” – Walden

You asked: When was the last time a movie, a book, or a television show left you cold despite all your friends (and/or all the critics) raving about it? What was it that made you go against the critical consensus?

To go against popular opinion brings Henry David Thoreau readily to mind. He was a man who thrived on going against critical consensus. Yet it was Thoreau who gave me my first major reading disappointment. Yes, you, Thoreau. You who said, (and I remember it well):

‘Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.’ 

My reading tastes, and naturally, by extension, writing style, lean toward the older genre of literature. The previous generations had so much of interest to say, and in a way, they are still speaking. The Great Conversation is still ongoing if we but want to tune in. I learned this from my parents and grandparents, and grew up surrounded by old books.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not...Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers.

My great grandfather, solitary farmer. Not sure if he would have been approved by Thoreau, or not…Thoreau said some pretty scathing things about farmers. Grandpa Duncan is alone with his thoughts, though, which I’m sure Thoreau would have praised.

I enjoy many highlights from Thoreau today, but that was not always the case. It has been a long time since I picked up one of his books for a serious read.

‘For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of men? They are the only oracles which are not decayed…We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old.
To read well—that is, to read true books in a true spirit—is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.’ [Walden]

However, years ago, when I first took my mom’s beloved copy of Walden off the bookshelf and sat down to read, I was crushingly disappointed with this man—this self appointed lifestyle coach of the nineteenth century so often spoken of in reverential tones. He seemed to me to be pompous, cranky, smug, and terribly irresponsible.

His self-satisfied musings rang shrill in their efforts to convince. He contradicted himself. The old ways are best one day, then thumb your nose at ancient traditions as valueless the next day. On the third day, spend time with yourself as the best company in the world. But know this, he intones—at heart man is a social animal. ‘Believe me today for tomorrow I will have changed my mind’ he appeared to be saying.

What Thoreau had indulged in was luxury—taking time out from the rest of the world to read, write, think. ‘For I was rich, if not in luxury, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly. Nor did I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop…’

And ‘procreation’ i.e. sex? ‘It dissipates, and makes one unclean…’ ‘Far better to be invigorated and inspired by nature.

Hmmm. This was beginning to sound like the ravings of a mad man indulged by his mommy.

And don’t even get him started on the reading of popular fiction. He likens it to a sort of daily baked gingerbread, fresh from the oven, read eagerly

with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard‘.

Yes, Thoreau, you disappointed me. And I don’t even know what an unwearied gizzard is.

Even E.B. White, an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, admitted that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected”.

What did people see in this book?

‘How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world—how deep the the ruts of tradition and conformity!’

My reaction, in some part, had less to do with my teenage spunk and umbrage than it did that I took exception to Thoreau’s dismissive comments about the working man. We all know the quote; ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

Thoreau crafted well, in pious prose, an image of the poor dullard slogging away in his intellectually deprived life while he put food on the table. Food that his slack jawed wife then slopped into the waiting mouths of his many children who swallowed it greedily like nestlings given a worm. Or words to that effect. Something like the literary equivalent of ‘The Potato Eaters’—only Van Gogh had a more respectful approach, if you can call it that, in his troglodytic rendering of the common herd.

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh

I thought about my father—how deeply intelligent he was, how enthusiastic about life. He was a natural woodsman and fisherman, and how he would have loved to live in a little cabin in the woods, tend a garden, read, and fish. Especially fish. There was never a man more at peace than when he was standing hip deep in a stream, casting out.

But inner peace as a laudatory pursuit, self-fulfillment as an object in itself, being self-aware as though this somehow brought one in touch with an inner god—? Not sure Dad gave those ideas a lot of thought. Six children, and his own sense of responsibility kept him in a job and a lifestyle of domesticity and workaday worries. He made sacrifices.

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I remember putting Walden firmly back on the shelf, feeling protective of my father, and a bit angry with Thoreau. Thoreau with his hand built cabin and his peaceful fishing and his studies of ice and lazy pondering of a water bug from a quarter mile away; ‘Thoreau the Great’  who had been able to indulge himself in simple luxuries that my father would have loved.

Well, now it is time to forgive the young man. For that is what he was—Thoreau was young and idealistic, both foolish and incredibly wise. We forget that fact at times, when we read the writers from a long ago age. They were often younger than we are now. But still we look to them for wisdom. In the case of Thoreau, when he lived the experiences at Walden Pond, he was only 27. He was just trying to ‘find himself’, as the saying goes. He hadn’t learned to temper his deep understanding, his ‘knowingness’ with empathy, as yet, but how much better off people would be if they lived by a few of his dreams.

For he also said, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed…?”

Now that is something to strive for. A deeply felt happiness that not just a few, but all could enjoy. In that case, ‘the mass of men’ could lead lives of quiet inspiration. That, I believe, is what Thoreau dreamed of.

I have my mom’s old prized copy of Walden in my own collection. It has beautifully rendered engravings and thick, creamy paper that give a bit of resistance when you try to turn the page. Very nice.

I’m giving Thoreau another go.

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”   ―  Thoreau