Concord and Walden in late summer

In September I was in Boston again and went back to Concord and Walden Pond that I first visited in March: ‘In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and started the process which led to “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854.’  In that post I talk about what Thoreau said and did, and here I’m just adding more photos and videos from September with enough of a description to identify them.

I stayed overnight in the Colonial Inn, which dates back to 1716 as houses, and is in the centre of Concord. Thoreau’s family lived in one of these houses during his time at Harvard.  The yellow trolley was outside Concord Lumber and is identical to the one I use at Century Wood – a symbol of the pervasive globalisation which Thoreau’s description of Walden Pond ice being sold around the world foreshadowed. The third picture was taken in the Concord Library.

Then the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers, which continue as the Concord River; boats by the Concord River from the Lowell Road Bridge; a squirrel and a tree eating a concrete fence post on the Reformatory Branch Trail; the white-painted Old Manse and the North Bridge near the climax of the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 – the Old Manse was owned by the Emerson family and Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson live there in 1834-5; the Robbins House, a museum to black inhabitants of Concord, with similar construction to Thoreau’s cabin, if a little more substantial and several times bigger.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house on the old Cambridge Turnpike to Cambridge (including Harvard College) and Boston; an early part off the Emerson Thoreau Amble which starts in the garden of Emerson’s house behind the garage, and goes all the way to Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond;  the Amble has some good signage; and goes past Fairyland Pond in the Hapgood Wright Forest.

It was pouring with rain for much of my walk along the Amble, as you can see in this short video.

The site of Thoreau’s cabin, marked with granite pillars; a stone from Century Wood (washed carefully!) and my Macmillan copy of Thoreau’s book “Walden”; the Century Wood stone added to the cairn at the cabin site; a bicycle appropriately enough; the bridge across the neck of Wyman Meadow/Cove; Wyman Meadow is marshy ground this year – it cycles between a navigable cove extending the Pond, a marsh as now, and a meadow that can be grazed; the view of the Pond from Thoreau’s Cove with the bridge behind me.

The Main Beach at the east end of Walden Pond; views of the Pond, some of which show its clarity, with a tree trunk visible metres away from the shore; a fish eye lens view from the southwest shore line. This last picture was inspired by Thoreau’s observation:

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.

I walked to the summit of Emerson’s Cliff, which I must admit was rather disappointing as there are no views due to the density of the tree cover. In Thoreau’s time, there would have been dramatic views of the whole Pond, the new railroad and off towards the Sudbury River and Fairhaven Bay. I went down the west side of the hill to reach Heywood Meadow, which like Wyman Meadow is currently a mixture of marshy ground and patches of open water. I startled frogs as I walked along its shore and captured one in a video. The Fitchburg Railroad embankment runs along the edge of Heywood Meadow, now a commuter railway.

Before the Sudbury River reaches the confluence that I photographed above, it enters the broad expanse of Fairhaven Bay shown in these pictures, and the following video.


Finally to the car park and visitor’s centre. The reconstruction of the cabin is just inside the main gate, and as in Thoreau’s house, has three chairs, a bed, a table, and a desk. There is a wood store at the back. The red fungal bracket is growing on a tree on the peninsula which sticks out into Goose Pond behind the car park. The peninsula is very wooded so it’s hard to appreciate the U-shape of the pond. In the visitor’s centre is a stamp and ink pad, with which I marked my Macmillan copy of Walden. The plaque marking the 1922 establishment of the Walden Pond State Reservation with land given by local families.


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Summer photos from Century Wood

These are some of the nature pictures I took at Century Wood this summer. As a I mentioned last week, I didn’t get very much actual work done, but I did see some interesting things.

A giant puffball, with a 50p coin for scale.

A fungal bracket on a dead, shaded-out poplar.

A young hazel with bark stripped by American grey squirrels, with distinctive tooth marks. Immature hazelnuts found on the ground, split in half or bitten from the end, with pin prick squirrel tooth marks. The fur and skull of a squirrel on the floor of the barn, presumably caught and eaten by a buzzard or owl.

The trolley I use at the wood, now with solid tyres and repainted. A rabbit next to the trolley. A wasp nest in the corner of the barn.

Two crates of logs going home with me at the start of October.

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Thoreau on Staten Island

I’ve done a lot of travelling this year and last month this included New York. Henry David Thoreau lived there for most of 1843, a year and a bit before he went to live in the cabin in the woods by Walden Pond that I wrote about in April. Naturally, I made time to retrace some of his steps and photograph one of the woods he probably knew.

Before we get on to my visit in August, I should explain the context. Thoreau’s mentor was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had established himself in Thoreau’s native Concord in Massacheusetts, writing and giving popular public lectures in a world before television and film. The town of Concord had a good road to the city and port of Boston via Cambridge, the location of Harvard College. So Emerson and Thoreau were able to get around and enjoy a cosmopolitan environment, whilst living within sight of fields and woods.

Emerson in turn had an older brother, William, who had moved to Staten Island in New York, practiced law and became a judge and altogether rather successful. He lived in a house called the “Snuggery”. Originally a cottage from before the War of Independence, it had been extended and upgraded. It stood by what is now Douglas Road on a rise that is now called Emerson Hill. Today this is a rather well to do area, with its own website and page about its history : if you’ve seen the film “The Godfather”, a house on Emerson Hill was used for that big house owned by the Corleones. Back in 1843 it was very rural, with farms and scattered houses, fields and woods.

Ostensibly Thoreau came to Staten Island as the tutor of William Emerson’s son, but really it was to allow him to make contacts in the New York literary world over on Manhattan, and try to get his career properly started. As today, Staten Island is connected directly to Manhattan by ferry and so its situation was not unlike that of Concord in relation to Cambridge and Boston. Except New York was already a much bigger literary and publishing centre. And a bigger financial centre. In fact a much bigger everything.

Thoreau’s famous diary is silent during his stay on Staten Island but we have many letters that he wrote during those months, and they are readily available on the Walden Woods Project website.

My own journey started at the Trinity Church on Broadway. The first church was built in 1698 for the Anglican community in the city, but during Thoreau’s stay the current building was under construction. When it was finished in 1846 it was the tallest building in the United States. Now it is positively dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Thoreau mentioned Trinity Church and the nearby stock exchange in a letter to Emerson on 23rd May as part of his initial reaction to the size of the city.

The crowd is something new and to be attended to. It is worth a thousand Trinity Churches and Exchanges while it is looking at them – and will run over them and trample them under foot one day.

And before that in his first letter from Staten Island, on 11th May to his mother:

I am seven and a half miles from New York, and, as it would take half a day at least, have not been there yet. … But it is rather derogatory that your dwelling-place should be only a neighbourhood to a great city, – to live on an inclined plane. I do not like their cities and forts, with the their morning and evening guns, and sails flapping in one’s eye. I want a whole continent to breathe in, and a good deal of solitude and silence, such as all Wall Street cannot buy, – nor Broadway with its wooden pavement. I must live along the beach, on the southern shore, which looks directly out to sea

Soon Thoreau was going over the water to New York (ie Manhattan). Indeed by 1st October, he wrote to his mother that he had crossed the bay 20 or 30 times. He went across by steam ferry. He preferred the ferries between the upper dock on Staten Island to a dock near the Battery on Manhattan. This is almost exactly the route of the modern day Staten Island Ferry. On May 22nd he said the boats left five or six times a day. By June 8th he wrote “the boats now run almost every hour, from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. back and forth, so that I can get to the city much more easily than before”.

Now the Staten Island Ferry runs 24 hours a day, leaving every 15 to 30 minutes, and taking less than half an hour to get across. Surprisingly it’s completely free: you just join the mass of people waiting by the doors and get on when they open. I took this picture from the ferry as another one passed.

On the island I got an Uber to Douglas Road. It is indeed an inclined plane facing Manhattan, as well as in the metaphorical sense of Thoreau’s observation. And a rather steep plane at that. In the first photo the suspension bridge is between Staten Island and Brooklyn. I took the photos near number 37, where the Snuggery was, and where William Emerson and family lived, and where Thoreau stayed.

Going up the hill in the heat and humidity of August, I reached the high ground formed during the last Ice Age when rock and soil were dumped by the glaciers in a type of hill called a terminal moraine. This is quite similar to the geology around Thoreau’s native Concord, and there are small kettle ponds on Staten Island formed the same way as Walden Pond itself. The nearby Todt Hill is the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard between Florida and Cape Cod.

On 8th June Thoreau wrote:

I have got quite well now, and like the lay of the land and the look of the sea very much – only the country is so fair that it seems rather too much as if it were made to be looked at. … This is in all respects a very pleasant residence – much more rural than you would expect of the vicinity of New York. There are woods all around.

and on 6th August to his mother:

I should have liked to be in Walden woods with you, but not with the railroad … I go moping about the fields and woods here as I did in Concord, and, it seems, am thought to be a surveyor, – an Eastern man inquiring narrowly into the condition and value of land, etc.

In Thoreau’s absence the construction of the Fitchburg Railroad had reached Concord and a large embankment cut across part of Walden Pond itself. Its presence would be felt in his account of living by the Pond from 1845, and he was both fascinated and slightly appalled by it.

My own rather planned wandering took me up to Deere Park on Todt Hill. This 40 acre woodland owned by the city is named after a previous owner, Charles Deere, son of John Deere who founded the famous farm and forestry equipment company. I entered on the short Staten Island Boulevard and followed the trail through to Todt Hill Road and Ocean Terrace, near the summit. You can see the photos if you scroll down. It’s not that different to Walden Woods and you can see why Thoreau felt at home.

Thoreau left Staten Island and moved back to Concord in December 1843. Within eighteen months he would building his cabin and preparing to live in the woods beside Walden Pond. I returned to Manhattan by the ferry as the sun set.

All photographs

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A busy summer – but not at Century Wood

I’ve not written for a while, being busy with other things. Moving house, travelling, building things for the house rather for than the wood. My visits have been to mostly to check everything is ok and to do bits of maintenance here and there. I recoated the log cabin and put more creosote on the barn. I did a bit more ride clearing, and looked for interesting things happening around me (like a giant puffball, a wasps’ nest, a woodpecker hole in a fallen tree). I expect things to pick up again now we’re moving into autumn and winter.

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Tolkien and trees

Yesterday I caught the Tolkien biopic which is right at the end of its release in cinemas. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s set against the latter part of his childhood, time at university, and service in the trenches of the First World War. The main themes are his relationships with his similarly-gifted school friends (the other three boys of the “TCBS” club) and his difficult pursuit of the love of his life, Edith, but there are secondary themes of his fascination with language and hints at the importance he attached to trees. It reminded me of how he influenced some of my own early treeish thoughts.

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Off grid videos by Maximus Ironthumper

This week I came across a series of YouTube videos about off grid living by Maximus Ironthumper (he does reenactments too, including making Viking items!) He covers a lot of topics relevant to people with woodland cabins, including generating electricity, sanitation, and managing firewood.

This is an introductory video which describes his set up:

For the rest of his off grid videos, he has provided a playlist.

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Bagley Wood

This week I spent a couple of hours in the early morning at Bagley Wood near Oxford. The wood has been owned by St. John’s College since the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries, and before that it was owned by Abingdon Abbey since 955 AD. It is managed as a nature reserve, for research, and with some areas as plantations. I took a lot of phone camera pictures, as I didn’t have my DSLR with me. I saw a few deer, Bluebells, log stacks, standing dead trees, Leyland Cypress, Oak, Hazel, Larch, and Scots Pine. There were quite a few areas of planting with tree shelters, including one with Oak that I photographed as shown below.

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