Flood!

There were widespread floods in Shropshire this weekend and they reached right to the boundaries of Century Wood. I had planned to stay for the day but in the end I broke off early and went up to the Lilleshall Monument for a wider view and then to Lilleshall Abbey. Inundations aside, it was a beautiful sunny autumn day.

This first picture shows the view from the bridge over the mainline railway near Mill Meece, with a flooded field beside the tracks. A diversion had been put in place, but this led to a completely flooded lane complete with abandoned Land Rover Discovery half sunk into the verge.

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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.

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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.

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Visiting Walden Pond

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. This book has gone on to become a classic of American literature, held up by advocates of self-reliance, resistance to the power of the State, naturalism, and conservation; and studied by generations of school children. Even in the UK, it’s often quoted, with its mixture of philosophy and the outline of Thoreau’s efforts to lead a self-reliant life from the land around his cabin. For me, over the last ten years it’s become an increasingly valuable account of living and working in woodland, of learning and practicing woodscraft, and becoming the amateur naturalist of your own environment.

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The cairn at Century Wood

This weekend saw my 300th visit to Century Wood in the eleven years I’ve owned it. I’ve decided to mark that milestone with this cairn of rocks in a small clearing off one of the rides that’s well shaded and not overgrown in summer. The cairn starts with one rock for each visit I’ve made so far, and I intend to add a stone each time I visit from now on. I often pick up interesting rocks and pebbles when I visit places, and now I have somewhere to put them! It’s also something visitors can do.

This idea was prompted by the cairn at Thoreau’s cabin in the woods at Walden Pond which I visited myself a week ago. That cairn was started in 1872 by Thoreau’s friends a few years after his death as something that would fit better into the woodland environment than an engraved stone. We do also have lots of cairns on the tops of mountains in the UK. So why not in woods too.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

I don’t know about you, but poetry at school was a hit and miss business. Looking back, it feels as if a lot of verse was thrown in my general direction, some of which has stuck and some of which just bounced off – even when committed to memory overnight to placate a teacher. W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is one that stuck, and a couple of years ago I realised its connection to hutting and to Walden in particular. The poem is short enough to quote in full here:

Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Until I came back to the poem a couple of years ago, I remembered the island but not the cabin. Perhaps as a boy I imagined escaping from the pavements of my own city to the island, but as a man I think ahead to shelter and the cabin. Yeats thought even further, to food, with his nine bean rows and bee hive. Rereading it I then saw the connection to Thoreau’s account of two years living in a hut by a lake, in “Walden”. Thoreau grew his own food, and sold the surplus to pay for other necessities. He talked at length about cultivating rows of beans in particular:

Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

Which is more prosaic and more extensive than Yeats’ nine rows of beans, but represents the voice of experience!

Some digging of my own turned up passages in Yeats’ autobiography which spelt out his childhood connection between Walden and the island, starting with a conversation with his father:

When I said to him, echoing some book I had read, that one never knew a countryside till one knew it at night he was pleased (though nothing would have kept him from his bed a moment beyond the hour); for he loved natural things and had learnt two cries of the lapwing, one that drew them to where he stood and one that made them fly away. And he approved, and arranged my meals conveniently, when I told him I was going to walk round Lough Gill and sleep in a wood. I did not tell him all my object, for I was nursing a new ambition. My father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep. (Part I, xvii, p.43)

Years later walking on the grey pavements of London in 1888, he remembered the island and composed the poem:

I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. (Part II.I, xv, p.94)

One of the impulses of hutting is not just to go to more natural places, but to go back to them. Repeatedly. To maintain a connection to them, even when walking the grey pavements of cities. To carry part of them inside you, “in the deep heart’s core”.