🌲 Talking Back to Walden
October: song of the trees
Welcome to Talking Back to Walden. This is where we consider only the best passages of Thoreau’s 1854 classic, for what they might tell us about our present-day environmental woes and hopes. This month, trees are our teachers as we explore the “letting be” of reverie.
This month’s theme was inspired by this post by, about letting go and letting be. I’ve also had in mind since Steven mentioned his plan to return to Walden’s message of living simply in the wilderness.
From chapter 4, Sounds
There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale.
The transcript is at the end, if you prefer to read it.
Talking Back to Walden is a labor of love. If you enjoy it, please share. For more like this and for my regular weekly posts, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I’m working on a short story about a maple sugaring wood that, through corrupt misuse of eminent domain, is clear-cut for a natural gas pipeline. My fictional story is based on real events that happened in the Marcellus shale region of northeastern Pennsylvania. Aside from that travesty, the least fictional aspect of my story is that it’s narrated by a maple tree. This tree tells the reader, “I know a thing or two about complexity. This year, I will grow 121,475 leaves—68 more than last year. I can hear Mother saying, Pride is not a Maple trait.”
I not only hug trees, I listen to them. I said in September’s Talking Back that trees call to me in their language of color and light. Mixing paints and working them on paper is an excuse for attention and presence. Sometimes when I paint, I feel the tree directing me. My busy mind rests in the background, choosing and mixing color, relaxed, curious and uncritical, following the tree’s lead.
The painting at the top of this post is a maple in the side yard of our home in Baltimore, where we lived for twelve years. That house was at the end of a long boulevard lined with grand porched houses and stately old maples. In late winter, my neighbor would tap them and hang tin buckets to collect sap. They loved the attention, those city-maples. We knew by the sweetness.
Our first October in that house, the maples put on a show so spectacular, I brought a big buttery leaf to the paint store to match the color for our front door. It had been a sober black, so this caused some controversy in the neighborhood. When we sold that house and moved to another in the same neighborhood, the new owner painted it a sad pale gray. There’s nothing wrong with yellow. The world needs more of it.
I wish I could say while painting this tree, I was in a blissful reverie of noticing and connection—much like Thoreau in his dooryard. The truth is, the entire time I thought I was failing. Nothing came out the way I wanted it to. Even now, I try to look at it objectively, but apart from a few moments where the color bled delightfully, that disappointment lingers.
But Thoreau reminds us to set aside objectivity once in a while. And it’s true that some part of me was in a reverie, caught by this tree’s invitation to attention. These paintings are more means to an end than ends in themselves. That one at the top is no longer mine. I framed and gave it to the birthmother of a newborn we were going to adopt after many years of failure to become parents in the usual (and less usual) ways. So now this little painting has the added burden of reminding me of our heartbreak when she changed her mind after just a week. The day my husband and I had to bring him back to the agency and leave him there. When we walked out into the bright sunshine, carrying the empty car seat, sobbing with sudden, unspeakable loss.
Trees teach us how to let go. Every year they create leaves from scratch, many thousands of leaves, and after a season, they just . . . let them fall.
Ah, Nature. How extravagant you are. Wanton, generous, a live-for-today teacher, tossing gifts and treasures at our feet year after year, with no expectations of reciprocity. Though this intimate relationship was part of our agreement from the beginning, you don’t hold grudges. Your embrace is ever-loving and filled with the light of beauty.
As I paint these autumn leaves, my brush sometimes hovers over a leaf, rather than onto my paper. It doesn’t matter whether I make my humble likeness on the paper or not. The point is to surrender into the trance of attention. These fallen leaves nudge me into a form of ceremony, an hour of careful, close study. Rewarded with vistas of branching veins and gorgeous fire-lit color. How the veins in this leaf are like the branches of trees: central trunk, graceful curving arms and tributaries carrying summer rain to the hinterlands. How their veins are like our veins.
Are fallen leaves living or dead? Surely these colors are alive. That they so easily captivate me is all the evidence I need. They light me up with delight and joy and peace.
This month’s invitation is inspired by David Wagoner’s marvelous short poem, “Lost,” which opens this audio. Feel free to start a thread in chat to share your experience or insights. Or, leave a comment here.
The warming climate is affecting the trees of Walden woods in at least two measurable ways: they leaf out earlier and they’re starting to migrate northward. Starting in 2009, a group of scientists enlisted Thoreau to help them compare today’s spring leaf-out dates to those 150+ years ago. Thoreau kept detailed field notes, which helped them to determine that, on average, woody plants leaf out 18 days earlier than in his time. The far-reaching ripple effects on insects, birds, whole ecosystems and people, are in the early stages of study.1
In the case of maples, they’re moving slowly northward seeking their accustomed cooler climate. According to the Three Rivers Park District, over 100 years ago, the maple forest was spread out across central Minnesota, centered near Brainerd. By 2003, the center of maple density was closer to Grand Rapids, about 60 miles north. “If temperatures continue to rise and snow amounts continue to fall, in another 100 years Minnesota may no longer have any maple trees.”2
#notallmaples A recent study of Canadian maple trees found that migration northward may not be an option. They will run out of room, boxed in to the north by boreal forests with different soil properties, including pH and conductivity, from the temperate forests where maples have flourished for centuries.3
The naturalist Robert Macfarlane writes of first learning about the mycelial networks that connect trees together in forests: “I could not forget the image of that mysterious buried network, joining single trees into forest communities. It was planted in my mind, and there took root.”4
His exploration of Epping Forest with biologist Merlin Sheldrake ranges from the mutualism of trees and fungi to how we humans overlay our puny political and economic frameworks over a place as miraculous as a forest, completely missing the mystery.5
“‘In my field, discourse choice forcefully shapes research directions. “Sanction and reward,” for instance, is a central technical concept in mycorrhizal studies, not just an ornament of speech. The metaphor drives the scholarship. I read research papers with titles like “Unequal Goods Shared under Common Terms of Trade.”’
“‘That sounds as if it was commissioned by the Ayn Rand Think Tank,’ I say.”
Macfarlane arrives at a surprising but inevitable passage on the limitations of language:
“‘I’m tired of both of these stories,’ Merlin says as we leave the lake. ‘The forest is always more complicated than we can ever dream of. Trees make meaning as well as oxygen. To me, walking through a wood is like taking a tiny part in a mystery play run across multiple timescales.’
“‘Maybe, then, what we need to understand the forest’s underland,’ I say, ‘is a new language altogether—one that doesn’t automatically convert it to our own use values. Our present grammar militates against animacy; our metaphors by habit and reflex subordinate and anthropomorphize the more-than-human world. Perhaps we need an entirely new language system to talk about fungi … We need to speak in spores.’
“‘Yes,’ says Merlin with an urgency that surprises me, smacking his fist into the palm of his hand. ‘That’s exactly what we need to be doing—and that’s your job,’ he says. ‘That’s the job of writers and artists and poets and all the rest of you.’”
To that I say, sign me up. ✍️
Talking back to Walden together
In the chat thread for September’s Walden post, subscribers shared delightful encounters with our non-human cousins—turtle, barred owl, slug, fox, jackrabbit, green tree frog, desert tortoise, skunk, and praying mantis. It seems those animals are as curious about us as we are about them. Almost as if they’ve been trying all this time to get our attention. The chat stories were full of wonder and appreciation. This month, let’s see photos of what autumn looks like where you live. Subscribers can join the fun in this chat.
Transcript of excerpt from Chapter 4, Sounds
. . . Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. . . . For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune. As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest. My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for to-morrow, and overhead for the passing day.” This was sheer idleness to my fellow-townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting. A man must find his occasions in himself, it is true. The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence.
. . . As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fishhawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge, conveying travelers from Boston to the country.
. . . . Sometimes, on Sundays, I heard the bells, the Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord bell, when the wind was favorable, a faint, sweet, and, as it were, natural melody, worth importing into the wilderness. At a sufficient distance over the woods this sound acquires a certain vibratory hum, as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.
Thanks for reading Talking Back to Walden. Read September here. If you enjoyed it, please share. For more like this and for my regular weekly posts, please consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“Spring Budburst in a Changing Climate,” in American Scientist March-April 2016, by Richard B. Primack, Amanda S. Gallinat
“Sugar Maple Trees Have Nowhere To Go Under Climate Change,” in Forbes, Jan 17, 2020, by Linh Anh Cat