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Sunday, 8 May 2011

Henry David Thoreau: time to talk about him....




Henry David Thoreau. I’ve been here a month now, so I think it’s fair enough to bring his name up. And if you want to skip the philosophising and get on to the sex and violence – well, I apologise: there ain’t any.

Henry David Thoreau. I’ve been here a month now, so I think it’s fair enough to bring his name up. And if you want to skip the philosophising and get on to the sex and violence – well, I apologise: there ain’t any.

I first read Walden way back in my freight train days, sitting in a rickety caboose with a can of tea simmering on the cast-iron stove, paraffin lamps flickering, a string of 40 loose-coupled wagons rattling through the night. I sat and dreamed of a life in the woods as we left Sheffield, still a thriving steel city at that time, sped past the blazing walls of fire that were the coke ovens at Wath on Dearne, and out into the country heading for the cathedral city of York.

I read him again when I did a degree in American history and literature in my late thirties. I was mightily impressed both times. But it’s not his thoughts on Economy I’m thinking about now. It’s his essay on walking, which was on my mind as I wandered the hills and explored wooded valleys this afternoon.

Thoreau remarked that a seventy-year lifespan was just about enough time to allow a man (and a woman, I guess, but he didn’t say that) to get to know the landscape within a day’s walk of home. Within a ten-mile radius, that is. Ten miles out and ten back: home before dark.

So I found myself wondering, as I scrambled – at times crouched, occasionally on my hands and knees – through the dense undergrowth that feeds on the waters that flow into the Niobrara. Wondering. How well can I get to know these 6000 acres in one growing season?

I honestly think I will get a good overall impression, and that’s about it. There is so much to see, so many micro-environments, so many different trees that seem to be holding their breath, ready to burst into leaf all at once; so many mysterious animal tracks, so many flowers. And then the grasses. There are no less than 71 pages of the damned things in my Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. Okay, only a couple per page, but I am daunted.

My best hope, I conclude, is that I will be able grasp what the great landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown called the genius loci, the spirit of the place. That’ll do me.

Okay, enough philosophising. My walk took me westward to the north-south fence that divides this place from the next one upstream. A broad, gently sloping pasture led me down to a thicket of cedar trees that marked the river’s course.

When I’d ploughed my way through them I found a narrow band of lush green grass by the water’s edge, just a few feet wide - in places only inches. Opposite me, the tall white bluffs that form the northern bank. Here and there the fallen timber, the tangled grapevines, the over-hanging branches, were so dense that I was forced to scramble up the bank and fight my way onward – hence the scratch-marks on my face this morning.

It was a struggle, but it was well worth it, although I wasn’t able to stay on the bank any further: the bluffs now came right to the water’s edge. So I followed the stream towards its source – and found to my delight wild strawberries growing beside it. They aren’t going to be huge, and there aren’t going to be many, but – as with the plums and  grapes – I will have my eye on them.

Today I have nothing planned – except to check on a very important soccer score from home. Don’t be surprised if tomorrow’s entry reveals a very different me: tetchy, pretty loose with my language, small-minded. Aren’t all sports fans a little that way when their team gets beaten? But who knows, we may win….  I wish I didn’t care; but I do.