January 17, 2015

Walden...Winter's Waterdrum Calls

On Saturday, the sunny, brisk, and windless afternoon calls me toward Walden's frozen basin.  Usually I avoid visiting our hallowed pond on weekends when visitors are at their peak.  But today it all feels convivial sharing the bracing air and ice together.  It is 3 pm and the sun's low angle casts strong a warm spotlight on all of the activity....fisherman in their favorite places, skaters gliding end to end, families skittering together, a puppy slip-sliding through his first ice walk, elderly couples arm in arm for steadiness, the ever-present wave of Chinese visitors making their pilgrimage and posing for selfies against the gleaming pondscape, another pilgrim above me talking on about the life-changing impact reading Walden had on her life while seemingly inattentive to her own experience here in this moment.

Chung-gachun-wump-wung...the deep pond begins to sing under my feet, its sounds echoing off the hills, amazing and startling some of its explorers.  As the sun lowers and the air cools, the ice expands and becomes more taught across its surface.  The ice's cracking and movements send sound waves through the air pockets and deep water below creating a beautiful, haunting resonance.  This 61-acre water drum calls visitors from near and far to join in shared communion.

Fisherman, beautifully silhouetted in the late afternoon light bring a wilder presence to this otherwise civilized weekend gathering.  Those out at mid-pond have simple effects yet, by their movements, convey a deeper wisdom about the winter elements and this pond's particular nature through their selective movement and enterprise.  While noting this, I am reminded of Thoreau's reflective comment about the fisherman at Walden, "His life itself passes deeper in nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist."

But I also come here today to find inspiration in the ice.  It is glaringly beautiful and yields a record of this winter's stormy sequences that have stirred, frozen, thawed, and patterned the pondscape.  A hunt for puzzles and treasure through the disciplined focus of the lens, for me, promises a very fulfilling afternoon.

Black ice, drifted snow, and irregular refrozen shapes create abstract patterns that hold stories of the interplay of wind and temperature over the early weeks of winter.

This week, another local photographer and Thoreauvian posted a similar photo of the ice patterns below , in part prompting my expedition today.  They cover about a 10x20 foot area near the point rounding into Thoreau's Cove on the northern shore.  These circles appear to be remnants of a creative endeavor, seemingly embossed into softened ice.  Apparent thawing and refreezing make their origin hard to decipher, but I wonder if they might have been inspired by the current Walden, revisted exhibition at the deCordova Museum.

Mysterious impressions
As the sun sinks behind the southwestern corner of the shoreline, the water drum rhythms quicken, and I enjoy watching how the remaining visitors respond to this sonorous moment in winter wildness. 

Walking back at last toward the eastern shore, some curved lines in the ice catch my eye, so I turn to view them in the sun's backlight and an angel appears.  Another moment of grace on the ice.

And as only the skaters' blades can still be heard, the sun disappears leaving a blush on both sky and ice.

January 2, 2015

Altered States - Day 2


On New Year's afternoon, I return to the fractured, icy floodplain, near the Timber Trail on the eastern end of Great Meadows.  The tall pines along the shoreline and mature silver maples in the flood zone lend a haunting feel to this icy corner.  Great horned owls often roost in these woods, their calls deepening the mood here.

At 3 pm the sun is low, illuminating the old trees and casting their reflections onto their silvery ice collars and the black ice below.  I bushwack toward the mirrored expanse, drawn by a darker, more monochromatic pallette of color than I encountered the day before.  Two refuge visitors appear to be following and watching me at a distance, for so long that I begin to wonder about their curiosity.

This is the place where I encounter mink on early spring mornings and great-spangled fritillary butterflies feeding on the nectar of nearby milkweed blossoms in early July.  As young caterpillars, the fritillaries dine on nearby woodland violets.

As the sun dips below the horizon and I'm in the last stretch of the walk back to my car, another car pulls up to me and visitors ask if I was looking at owls in the flooded woods on the eastern end of the refuge - they were the ones following me!  I happily share that I was photographing ice and its reflections but they look a bit puzzled.  After encouraging them to tune into that winter spectacle on their next visit, I reassure them that we also often hear great horned owls calling from the pine woods around dusk at this time of year and that screech owls have occasionally been spotted in tree hollows near there.

As I approach my car, another visitor calls out a familiar question, "See anything interesting?"...oh where would I begin!

January 1, 2015

Cubist Reflections - Altered States of Ice, Light, and Awareness

On New Year's eve, newly forming ice catches the raking light of the late afternoon sun and the reflections from silver maples overhead, creating a fractured perspective of winter's waterworld by the Concord River.  Perhaps a long affinity for late Cubist paintings roused my attention to an offering otherwise easily missed.

And these patterns had an accompaniment.  Slow walking with two dear friends through the river floodplain at Great Meadows, we stopped to listen to the cacophony of shattering sounds coming from the frozen basin surrounding these small, ice-skirted trees.  Mysteriously, it seemed that unseen creatures were adding weight to the thin ice causing it to instantly crumble.  But exploring the possibilities with my friends and later my husband, it seems that as the temperature cooled and the slanting sun warmed the surface of the ice, frozen patches gave way to air pockets beneath them, left by receding waters.

I welcome, the altering states of ice, light, and awareness in the winter months ahead, and hope that everyone will be blessed in this new year with seeing the familiar in entirely new and inspiring ways.

December 27, 2014

Tempering December's Expectations

Today, began with a perfect December sunrise, full of winter clarity and color.  All year, I look forward to the quiet insulation of snowfalls, the crystalline transformation of the land and waterways, the freezing over of wetlands that invites deeper exploration of their secrets. But as the holiday whirlwind subsides, I am startled by the strength of my own longing for a wintery December walk and how that brings disappointment in the unusually warm weather we're having.

I head out to Great Meadows and join a swarm of holiday visitors along the Dike Trail, who are basking in the warmth of the mid-day sun.  Inside, I'm grumbling about the absence of ice and snow, the chatter, the flatness of the light on the monochromatic landscape.  Then I catch my thoughts.  When I lead each monthly walk here, I ask all participants to set aside their expectations and preoccupations in order to fully receive what this special place has to offer in the moments that we pass through it.  And so, I do now, and the day becomes a revelation.

First, I pass through small clouds of Chironomids (non-biting gnats) pulsing up and down over the trail....an expected encounter during ice-out on warming spring days, but not in December.  I notice the joy on passing faces, in appreciation for this unexpected, post-holiday warmth, and turn to see shimmering ribbons of light in the marsh with a muskrat lodge hovering above the twinkles like a mirage.

Once at the river, remnants of pumpkins float by and their orange brilliance stands out against the drab shorelines.  Unusually high water this month, swept them from the lower fields at Hutchins' Farm across the way.  While chuckling at the pumpkins, a rooster's midday crowing catches my ear, followed by another, and then another (in baritone voice) from neighboring farms.

Where I stand, the river's rise has nearly reached the trail's edge, filling the floodplain forest with a rare winter inundation.  Minding my expectations, I'm still hoping that this high water will freeze solid in the coming months to form a "dance floor" through the forest filled with flash frozen treasures and ice skirts around the trees as waters recede.

Moving more deeply into communion with the light, temperature, and gentle breeze of the day, I realize that this a more perfect day for baby spiders to hatch and balloon than we had in all of November.  Sure enough there are shimmering gossamer strands trailing out from the cattail heads and tiny spiders crawling about on their tips.


Crackling sounds from deep within the tangles of cattail stalks along the trail, catch the attention of some visitors passing by.  I point out chickadees who are diligently shredding these dried reeds looking for insect larvae.  In November, they spent more time up in the seed heads, gleening out tiny black seeds while helping to loosen the tension-packed bundles. 

At the far eastern turn in the dike trail, there was a surprising and baffling scene...a beaver-cut branch dangling from a leaning silver maple tree.  Imagine the beaver who climbed this tree, likely at night, to nibble and cut this woody stub five feet above the water's surface!

In my final stretch along the dike trail and through the woods, I enjoy the company of an adult bald eagle.  Bald eagles have been visiting the refuge almost daily this winter, drawn by the presence of many coots who have chosen to stick around this winter.  This hunter made a few circles over the eastern end of the lower impoundment.  Then while I and a visiting couple are walking along the edge trail, the eagle comes in for several close passes over them and then me.  It appears that it is curious about our movements in the woods, and perhaps the bright red coat that the other young woman is wearing.

With my expectations tempered by today's welcome surprises, I return home for the afternoon.  At dusk, while returning some borrowed tables and chairs up the road, I stop by Thoreau's birthplace to enjoy the sight of the waxing moon and wisps of pink clouds hanging over it and to catch the somewhat uncertain call of a white-throated sparrow.

Following the color home, I watch the daylight fade in clarity and color as it began.

November 3, 2014

November's Gossamer Day

On a warm, blue-skied, mid-November day with gentle breezes stirring, thousands of young spiders launch themselves on silken threads above Great Meadows.  Sailing up over the cattails and buttonbushes, some are carried high on the thermals, over the Concord River and out of sight.  Others arrive to festoon the marshes with their gossamer parafoils, which catch the low afternoon sunlight.

The Middle English word gossamer means 'goose summer,' that time around St. Martin's Day (November 11) when the weather briefly warms, the geese are fat for eating, and silken threads drape the land.  The French call these delicate spinnings Fils de la Vierge and in Germany it's Spinnfaden. 

In temperate regions across the world, young spiders take to the autumn sky, surprising, baffling, and delighting observers with their floating filaments and silk-draped landscapes. 

At Great Meadows, this annual spider migration is conjoined with the annual flocking of the marshes with cattail fluff.  The drying seeds and autumn whipped winds shake bales of cattail down into the air and all this fuzz catches on the newly lain gossamer, flocking the landscape like a 1960's Hallmark card.

On November 13, 2013, all of these seasonal events coincided on the day of the full moon and caught me in their spell as I walked the evening trail.

October 20, 2014

Walden in the Moment

Chasing autumn's splendor, I embark on a morning walk around Walden Pond, the iconic, deep watering hole for the soul, that I choose to avoid in the warmest months.  Thanks to Thoreau's musings, millions come here on pilgrimage to circumambulate this 100' deep kettlehole pond hoping to touch a wilder side of themselves or to find their own moments of insight and meaning along its shore.  But for me it is neighborhood and part of the natural and cultural fabric that defines my community, its history, and my small place in that continuum.

As I walk along the shore, I overhear two teachers on the nearby trail reflecting on Thoreau, above the chatter of a long line of high school students behind them, "He made such a point of his living the self-sufficient life out here, yet he still took his clothes home to be washed...what an imposter!"  (I hide my smile and the urge to comment.)  Despite this momentary disillusionment, the throng continues on their dutiful rounds to visit the cabin site and take a group photo against the backdrop of the pond.  Still, every time I come here I wonder about visitors' expectations and the impressions they take away. 

To be in the moment at Walden (or in any wild place), receptive to its offerings, requires some practice, or a practice.  Its landscape does not offer singularly awe-inspiring vantage points.  It is often crowded with visitors, with hoped for silences broken by chatter, traffic sounds, and the scheduled clamor of passing trains.  Indeed many photographers, including Annie Liebovitz, have lamented that it's vistas lack inspiring focal points or ready compositions in its natural features.  But this humble visage is also its gift, requiring us to focus and delve deeper for its inspirations.

And so, as I approach Walden's shore today - with the sun already high, the breeze stiffening, and the silence and solitude waning as visitors multiply - I take a few deep breaths, let go of expectation, note all of the liveliness around the pond, and surrender to the inspirations of light, patterns, color, and intersecting time as I walk.

I come away with images of moments that reveal Walden to be the sum of its facets and their interplay at any given point in time.

Walden's legendary clarity is both message and metaphor for the seeker.

Warm reflections in Thoreau's Cove, where ice first melts in the spring, flanked by Wyman's Meadow, parched by the late summer drought.

Returning to my starting point near the esker trail, autumn light dapples the rolling terrain, a characteristic image in Walden's autumn woodlands.