Do you love hot dogs?

Still time to sign up, all you hot dog aficionados, for my conversation with Lloyd Handwerker tonight, June 8 at 7 EST– free, virtual, one hour, part of Save Ellis Island’s Preserving New Jersey series.

Lloyd is the grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog empire. He wrote a biography of this remarkable man (Ellis Island immigrant, the reason for his inclusion in the program) — Gil collaborated with him on it. Lloyd is a filmmaker and did a terrific doc about his grandfather as well.

It should be fun!

As I said, it’s free, but advance registration is necessary in order to get the Zoom link:

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I greet the trees

on my regular saunter around the Catwalk estate.

John Muir preferred the word saunter to hike.

Guess what? Have you ever had a wonderful dream, then woken up, then fallen back asleep and had the same wonderful dream continue?

That’s what I feel like. Catwalk called and said someone had canceled for the next session. Would I come back?

What do you think I said? I’m back in paradise for another two weeks.

I must have done something good at some point to deserve being in the presence of this fresh young white oak.

So I amble around, revisit my favorite sights.

The monster red oak poses for me.

The trees always look the same, I can rely upon them. Yet somehow different. Even the grass here pops, holding its cup of dew.

The beech’s silvery trunk more elegant each time.

Chipmunks scurry. Hummingbirds – too fast for a picture! The meadow. The air smells like cinnamon.

The meadow grasses.

Ever lush.

Each flower has a name.

Must I know them all?

I identify them.

Then forget the name.

Does it matter? Everyone knows a daisy, if they know anything at all.

Perfect wet rolls off the leaves. They don’t know how beautiful they are.

The ponds. First the catfish pond.

Then the frog pond.

A cattail, ready for her close-up.

A redwing blackbird calls. I meet up with a painted lady after she dug a hole for her eggs but before she laid them.

I tiptoe away so as not to disturb her further.

I see x’s and o’s. The x’s roots on the ground.

The o’s happy critter habitats all around.

Lichen on trunks.

Mossy, venerable stone walls, built at two hundred years ago to last.

More trees, characters like this leaning sweet birch, I have to stop for it each time I pass.

Mysterious sculpture made by someone I don’t know, sometime in the past.

Statuary. This strange creature.

Look a little closer.

Closer still.

Dogwood, its new bract spangles.

I wind up at my garden shed, my sanctuary. Filled with dusty, magical old objects, perfect light.

And the lawn outside with its gracious trees and a spooky circle of chairs.

The spider web, still here.

Recently I had some guests over for sugar cookies and oak leaf favors, good for book marks.

Introduced them around to some of the trees. Bur oak, I think? Or shagbark hickory? This is a good place because it reminds me I don’t know everything. I want to lose my arrogance.

The heavy hanging catkins of a black walnut. That I know.

Come back to my living quarters, stick some peonies in a glass. Glad to be back.

Time to write.


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I had forgotten how secret a spot

Slabsides is.

There is no sign marking the turn to it from what passes for a highway nearby, Route 9W. Use a GPS to take a few increasingly smaller more isolated lanes and you get to a dead end.

Retrace your tracks, and you will get to a gravel pull off, also lacking signage. There’s a chain strung across. Pass through and there is a trail that leads a quarter mile down to the cabin site.

No one here. It was easy to imagine John S. Burroughs, the naturalist who built Slabsides, poking along the trail to his cabin. I saw a white pine right by the trailside, a woodpecker’s chosen home, with not only a front door but a back door, twin well-pecked hollows. Burroughs probably saw the same tree, though it was surely living during his tenure here.

Finally, the cabin. In his 1904 memoir Burroughs wrote, “I was offered a tract of land, barely a mile from my home, that contained a secluded nook and a few acres of level, fertile land, shut off from the vain and noisy world of railroads, steamboats, and yachts by a wooded, precipitous mountain. I quickly closed the bargain, and built me a rustic house there, which I called ‘Slabsides’ because its outer walls are covered with slabs. I might have given it a prettier name, but not one more fit, or more in keeping with the mood that brought me thither…Life has a different flavor here. It is reduced to simpler terms; its complex equations all disappear.”

The John Burroughs Association opens the cabin to visitors exactly twice each year, one of them being the third Saturday in May. I was fortunate enough to find myself in the Catskills on exactly that day. Kismet.

To get there, I drove down 9W though the Town of Ulster, past the old farmhouse in an apple orchard where I resided years ago with my husband and toddler daughter at a time when Malus domestica was pretty much the only tree I could identify, and this just at the height of its extravagant springtime pink-white blossoming. Louise Erdrich has written, “When it happens that you’re broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

During the period I lived surrounded by ripening apples on wizened old trees their sweet, somewhat sad magic met my emotional needs, and I barely was cognizant of the twin cypress trees or the northern catalpa that stood proud and tall outside our front door.

Along the highway on my way to Slabsides I could see that so much had changed since those days. Our house – “wolf-grey,” I recall the realtor calling it – had since been repainted a muddy purple and was almost invisible from the road, having been swallowed up by multiflora rose bushes and unpruned branches. The neighboring chicken farm with its delectable poultry and garden-nourishing aged manure was no more, nor was the farm stand, the Apple Bin, nor the old -fashioned steakhouse where we listened to Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich on a classic old-school jukebox.

Slabsides was one and the same though. It had not been altered since last I visited some thirty years before. In fact, it had not changed since the day John Burroughs died. It will never change, not if the John Burroughs Association has its druthers.

The group, administered out of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has maintained Slabsides since 1922, the year after Burroughs died on a train journey back from a trip to the Midwest.

When I arrived at Slabsides, early for the biannual festivities, I was welcomed by Patrick, who has been a docent at the National Historic Landmark for twenty years.

He told me that the first thing Burroughs did when he took up residence here in 1895 was put in 50,000 celery plants – that is precisely why he chose this spot, in fact. He “blasted rock away and cleared the swamp and found black muck.” Perfect growing conditions. Burroughs became the first commercial celery farmer in New York, regularly importing boatloads of the vegetable to the Gilded Age metropolis.

The bark-covered slabs that make up the cabin’s clapboards constitute the only part of the structure not locally sourced. They came from a sawmill north near Burroughs’ boyhood home.

Represented are first-growth pine, chestnut, hemlock, larch.

Burroughs built all the furniture at Slabsides himself, the benches and the rocker and the writing desk with its sumac legs, or as Patrick pronounced it, “sumash.”

The beams and siding within the house consist of yellowed birch trunks. They are in fact yellow birch, said Patrick, but that name comes from the color of the wood, not the bark, which would have been silver when newly installed.

The reason the interior walls of the cabin are golden and glossy now is because when the John Burroughs Society was formed just after his death members decided to shellack all the wood in the cabin to preserve it.

Everyone wanted to preserve everything that was John S. Burroughs, he was such a rock star of his time. His fame was comparable to some other literary greats. When international celebrity Washington Irving’s 1819 Rip Van Winkle became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the writer was feted in the homes of the intelligentsia and welcomed at the White House. Charles Dickens by the time of his second American tour in 1867 complained of being tormented by overwrought fans grabbing fistfuls of his fur coat. (We always must remember, that these were the days before television.)

Vassar students travelled upriver from Poughkeepsie to West Park Dock and then walked an hour to the cabin to pay homage to the great man. I wonder what Burroughs made of these smart young ladies, who organized a “Wake Robin” club named after his first book of nature essays. He displayed a burgundy-and-silver Vassar pennant on his wall, the gift of his college-student admirers.

I read on-line a couple of interesting details about the naturalist’s life. Wikipedia mentions a failed marriage and an affair with a younger woman. A related account suggests that Burroughs was a bit of a philanderer. When I brought up these reports to Patrick he said, “Oh, no, he had a long happy marriage with his long-time wife. She didn’t like his friends tramping through through Riverby, though.”

Riverby being the grand stone house on a fourteen-acre terraced Hudson River estate a mile and a half from rustic Adirondack-style Slabsides, where John and his wife Ursula lived since building the mansion in 1873. Burroughs raised table grapes for market there and did most of his important writing in his Riverby study overlooking the river. Patrick told me that Ursula’s dissatisfaction with Burroughs’ slobby friends was a major reason why he built Slabsides. When pressed on the point of his supposed dalliances and whether any might have taken place at the cabin, Patrick demurred: “Well, some people say it’s so.” Usually an indicator of some unassailable truth. We never like to besmirch the names of the great ones, do we? And yet they were all flesh and blood, like us.

Oscar Wilde also visited the naturalist, as did Thomas Edison. Teddy Roosevelt sailed up the Hudson in 1903 on the presidential yacht; the leader of the free world and his wife Edith are said to have dined on Burroughs’ famous brigand steak and spring peas from his garden. Today a wooden sign greets pilgrims with one of his corniest quotes, which yet has the ring of truth.

John Muir was the first overnight guest, on June 22 1896, the night of the summer solstice, when the slab clapboards had barely been nailed up.  At the cabin on this May morning a century and a quarter later someone had unhelpfully roped off the steps to the sleeping loft. As the barrier was easy enough to step over, I ascended to the upper floor and was greeted with the pillow upon which Muir must have laid his head beneath a window that looked out over the celery swamp.

Textiles deteriorate over time if not cared for, but the homespun coverlet Burroughs’ mother sewed is still spread across his cot on the first floor, so why should this pillowcase not be original as well?

Most meaningful for me, Walt Whitman was a frequent visitor (and probably a muddy-shoed annoyance) at Riverby. Some of Whitman’s most famous lines: “I tramp a perpetual journey…My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods.” He does not sound like a fellow who would necessarily think to wipe his boots on the mat before entering a civilized foyer.

Burroughs would publish the first critical study and biography of the writer, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, in 1867. The book was extensively and anonymously “revised” by Whitman himself before its release – in plain terms, ghostwritten.

I discovered Whitman’s verse as a sixteen year old, not so much younger than Burroughs when he discovered the unparalleled American bard. I too resonated to supercharged lines in Song of Myself such as

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

As a rebellious adolescent, I loved his exhortation to

Unscrew the locks from the doors!

Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs!

One confession of his made perfect, almost rational sense. As a teenager I did have a rather solid ego.

I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious,

Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy

Whitman described these Ulster woods. “A primitive forest, druidical, solitary and savage—not ten visitors a year—broken rocks everywhere—shade overhead, thick underfoot with leaves—a just palpable wild and delicate aroma.” Burroughs referred to the woods surrounding the cabin as “Whitman Land.” Whitman took to calling Burroughs “Jack.” Jack brought the poet by horse and carriage and boat to visit Vassar. Later, he convened guests at the spot where Whitman had stood, beside some falls near Slabsides. He declaimed aloud from Leaves of Grass to a rapt audience.

At Slabsides on this May morning I met John’s great granddaughter Joan Burroughs, who currently makes her home at  Riverby. I watched as she moved a vase of lavender dame’s rocket into a more picturesque location at the base of the stairs before visitors arrived. At the top of the steps, which seemed rather steep for the elderly gent Burroughs would have been by the time he built the cabin, he had placed a grabbing crook made from a peeled stanchion of oak. Touching the wood well-polished by the writer’s grasp (as well as that of Muir, Roosevelt, Henry Ford and innumerable Vassar Wake-Robin-ites) felt like a charged connection.

I hiked with my graduate school friend Kim to the celery swamp below the cabin and beyond, through the nearly-two-hundred-acre preserve. What was Burroughs’s lucrative celery crop has now been usurped by profuse tracts of clownish skunk cabbage.

We talked about hard things – a recalcitrant publishing industry, kid problems, ageism, things that troubled us – and yet our souls seemed to be set free as we tramped through the woods where Burroughs and Whitman hiked together.

Do you take it I would astonish?

Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?

Do I astonish more than they?

 “Keep busy with survival,” reads a passage from May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude, a philosophy Whitman might have appreciated. “Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”

And so we did. And we sweated, too, as the no-longer-young Burroughs and Whitman must have sweated on these uneven, hilly trails against a background of harsh boulders and outcroppings. “These rocks are amazing,” marveled Kim.

We heard a scarlet tanager loud and clear, its distinctive, harsh chick-burr call. We saw a thumb-sized brown wood frog, scooping it up to say hello before letting it hop away into the leaf litter. Underfoot, I discovered a natural phenomenon I had never seen before: oak apples, glistening green orbs about the size of ping pong balls.

A gall found on many species of Quercus, the oak apple is created when the Atrusca bella wasp lays her eggs in developing leaf buds. Her larvae feed on the tissue resulting from their secretions, which modify the bud into a structure that protects them as they metamorphize into adults. Nature, “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson had it, or in this case phosphorescent green in tooth and claw.

Conjoined trees populate these woods.

We circled back to Slabsides to find guest writer/ornithologist Susan Fox Rogers entertaining a crowd of around two dozen sixty-somethings with a reading from her book Learning the Birds: A Midlife Adventure.

We gratefully gulped some water from plastic cups, distinctly non-historic vessels that would probably have impressed Burroughs, and might even have found a way into one of Whitman’s all-encompassing stanzas. He wrote something great about pretty much everything. From my dogeared pages of Song of Myself, the iconic lines Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

The floor (in this case rocks and logs set up as for an auditorium) opened for questions after Fox Rogers finished her presentation. One woman asked something as strange and apt as it was obvious: “Why do birds sing?”

“They sing because they can!” said Rogers. “A chickadee has sixty-four different vocalizations.” She added, cheerfully, “The males are singing this time of year – they’re saying Come look at me! Don’t you want to come make babies with me?”

Burroughs wanted to “liberate the birds from the scientists,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. He hoped to become an “Audubon of prose.”

Another question: “What is the bird that sounds like, I need you, I need you?

“Ask your therapist!” called out a comic in the crowd. The bird expert thought the call might be that of a catbird.

The hermit thrush was perhaps Burroughs’s favorite bird. He called it “my beautiful singer,” and in one of his essays describes is as bird of the deep woods that “only the privileged ones hear.” His fondness for the species inspired Whitman to use the bird as a symbol of “Nature pure & holy” in his elegiac poem about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”

Burroughs served as a pallbearer when Whitman died in 1892, three years short of the opening of Slabsides. The refrigerator-magnet motivational adage that John Burroughs is perhaps best known for has little to do with nature. “Leap and the net will appear” has become famous, its origin uncertain, but inspiring to many. Burroughs himself would seem to have lived that advice. A decade after Whitman’s death Burroughs would meet a person who would supplant the poet in his affections. In 1901 he met and fell for she whom the Slabsides docent did not want to acknowledge.

A physician with the state psychiatric hospital in Middletown, New York named Clara Barrus wrote Burroughs an admiring letter in 1901; she was 33, half John’s age. He invited Clara to Slabsides, describing her as “Whitmanesque” and a “new woman” who was very much his intellectual equal. Clara became Burroughs’ lover as well as his biographer, taking to the road with him on a trip to the Petrified Forest in 1907 accompanied by John Muir, at which time they had already had a well-established “companionship.” Clara moved into Riverby after Ursula Burroughs died in 1917. Later she published an authoritative account of the friendship between Whitman and Burroughs.

On April 3rd, 1921, the day that would have been Burroughs’ 84th birthday, he was interred on the Catskill Mountains farm where he’d been born. Mourners threw a wreath of ivy from Whitman’s tomb down onto the coffin before the grave was covered with dirt.


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Trouble, trouble, trouble. Trouble.


How can you complain when you find yourself in the most beautiful place on earth? Can there really be trouble in paradise?

It’s like this.

I got some feedback on a just-drafted chapter from someone I trust. He said what I wrote was not perfect. It’s hard to write about nature when you’re in the presence of natural perfection. And manmade perfection, in the form of a perfectly built old stone wall. Can I produce anything that good, that lasts that long? Probably not.

I take my seat in my writing garden shed.

Inspire myself with some of the flowers that grow just outside.

Say a few words to my shed-mate Giselle.

Woe is me. Write a while. Dreck. Go outside.

Admire a few simple flowers.

Visit with some trees. The shagbark hickory. Its new leaves are the most incredible shade of green.

Look up at the black cherry. How tall is that thing anyway?

Marvel at a tangled fall of shattered silver maple against a bewildered black gum. Human-produced sculpture doesn’t get that good.

Something amazing. A seemingly robust old white oak.

Around the back, it’s clearly had a lot of problems, but fixed itself. The way trees do.

Down the path, the crazed contours of bark, this one a white ash.

Everyone has problems. Knee problems. Heart problems. Cash flow problems. I can put a check in all those boxes at least some of the time. There aren’t too many people to tell my troubles to.

But how can I complain, really?

Trying to learn from the persevering robin who hops by over and over again outside my writing garden shed and is rewarded with money-green inchworms. I mean, over and over again. All day.

Then I go, rock myself in the hammock.

Within a few paces of the just-blooming lilac.

Olfactory bliss.

So really, can I complain?

I can complain. Watch me.

I sweat my way down to the river. Think. Pick up a few what I seem to remember are water chestnuts. They might not be. They might be magic.

Think some more. All of this thinking is making my head hurt. So I stop thinking.

Pass by the cherub floating above some ripening rhododendron at the wooden loveseat.

Sometimes a thing is almost more beautiful before it’s blossomed.

When I get back to the caretaker’s cottage I find a bright green inchworm crawling on my leg. I set it outside, gently. I don’t need it.

The lawn is filled with dandelion wishes for the taking.

What the heck.

I’ll get a bigger bouquet.


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In my skin

as it were – and having exercised my brain enough for today I thought I would exercise my legs by making my way down the scant-mile-long trail to the river.

Magic hour. Just before nightfall. It is a wonderful path, carefully marked with delicate ribbons by Chuck, who takes care of the property.

I’m hoping to scare up one of the wild turkeys that have been seen around here or at least a deer but no animals, just the mad sound of bird song all around.

Dame’s rocket in abundance. Also called mother-of-the-evening.

A mysterious grove of mossy logs.

A spruce cone.

An old fallen pine with just about the right dimensions for a ship mast, like the ones I’m writing about in my current chapter.

Kismet! This trail has a bouquet of young white oak leaves.

On the way down the last steep slope I can hear the waves rushing. After trying to explain inosculated trees to some painters here and sounding like a knowitall jerk I come across a pair right by the side of the trail here, a young white ash and a hophornbeam, seemingly making out.

They’ve been marked by ribbons as though ready for their close up. And a knotted rope placed there to help in the descent.

Finally, the beach. First, an Eastern cottonwood stretches itself out on the shore.

Is this beautiful enough for you? The Hudson is a beast.

How about this?

I find an ancient brick, probably from one of the historic Hudson River brickyards back in the day.

Handsome driftwood.

The smoothest beachrock in the world.

Heading back in the near dark, mysteries. An old foundation. Who came here before?

A forest containing a sad story. Pine bark beetle.

Things live here though. A hidey hole.

Multiflora rose, still holding tightly to its blooms. I don’t care if you’re invasive as long as you don’t invade me.

The first honeysuckle of the season, bringing back memories of childhood.

An old gate to the estate that hangs open as if to welcome me.

Closer, closer. The old carriage house.

Fluffy viburnum.

Lilies of the valley. I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen them.

More mysteries. Cannonball stones on the lawn. What?

Finally, the linden with its delicate lime green bracts.

And I’m back to the Caretaker’s Cottage.

Home sweet home, for now.


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I am in Heaven

and thus not able to file regular blog posts. You’ll understand. Catwalk Institute is a ravishing place to have a writing residency.

I think I will be far too consumed with writing chapters of Heartwood here to do much else. Perhaps exercising my daydreaming muscles too. Part of the creative process, don’t you know.

My cheerfully monastic room has plenty of shelf space for my anvil collection (think I brought enough books?).

Hoping to claim the gardener’s shed as my work lair for the next three weeks.

The tiny little space seems custom made for me and my laptop. There’s even wifi.

On the way, lovely little nooks and crannies in which to lose myself.

Whimsy abounds.

Places to walk, think.


I am sure that I will spend time meandering around the far-flung reaches of the sixty-five acres of the estate stretching down to the Hudson River, which happens to be visible from the living room of the Caretaker’s Cottage, my digs.

Practically the first thing that greeted me was a majestic white oak.

Met Chuck the caretaker of the property, who told me he “was born a tree.”

He seems to know everything about everything. We toured the place and talked about the phlox.

The carpenter bees (“they like to play”). Chuck introduced me to one named Herman. We saw the cattail pond only partly invaded by phragmites. We ID’d a mourning cloak butterfly and a Chinese fringe tree.

The fat old deodar cedar.

And its fat baby cone.

Chuck told me he made a wooden sign for his home with the legend, “Breathing in I am a tree. Breathing out, I am rooted in spirit.” He was kind enough to prop up a kindred spirit.

Whatever I do I’ll be sure to take it slow, preferably strolling in the shade of a handsome old black locust.

Physically, at least. My brain has already begun firing on all cylinders.

Wish me the best. I am so fortunate to be a Fellow here.


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If you happen to get this RIGHT NOW

I am about to be featured as moderator with a fascinating historical preservationist, tonight at 7 EST (virtual, free, one hour) as part of a series I’ve organized for Save Ellis Island called Preserving New Jersey. I’ve spoken with Aidita Milsted and she is very smart and it should be a lively conversation. Please consider dropping in. You’ll need to register to get the link.

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When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall,

wrote Thomas Carlyle, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. Here at Lasdon Arboretum in Katonah, New York, foresters, ecologists, gardeners and volunteers are giving that breeze a little bump.

To wind up with an oak forest you need to start small–even tiny, with seedlings that look more like sticks than the mighty trees they will become.

These bare-root specimens are being coaxed to thriving in an experimental 1,000-tree “oak orchard” as part of an important initiative called the Northeastern Urban Silviculture Study. Its purpose is to demonstrate how local ecotypes perform at different locations across the Northeast. Westchester Parks, which runs Lasdon, is partnering in this experiment with the United States Forest Service.

The idea emerged from a series of five virtual workshops with experts earlier this year that focused on how traditional forestry might translate to urban forests. Oak trees have been celebrated over time as symbols of longevity, strength and stability, endurance, power and justice. They can grow to the age of three hundred or more. Often the leaves of Quercus hang on all the way through the winter. You can see a few even on these twiggy seedlings.

Lasdon is an extremely civilized place. Yes, the 234-acre former estate boasts lovely wooded trails, but it also has family-friendly exhibits (dinosaurs, butterflies) and a botanical garden in which visitors may stroll and enjoy perennial flowers and shrubs.

Specimen trees like Japanese maples are now just springing forth.

There are carefully labeled border plantings.

Eastern redbuds.

Now exhibiting one of my favorite botanical phenomena, cauliflory, whereby flowers bud and bloom directly on trunks and branches.

Nice benches appear on pleasant walkways to rest and contemplate it all.

The oak project is a bit different. The boughs of the oak are roaring inside the acorn, wrote the English poet Charles Tomlinson.

Max Piana, a research ecologist with the US Forest Service, breaks briefly from his labor to tell me that two species will be studied. First, white oaks are being planted here at Lasdon to investigate climate adaptation. The work is being funded by folks in Kentucky, because they are running out of the white oak needed to produce barrels in which bourbon is aged. Apparently no other wood will do for this purpose. “Otherwise it becomes scotch or whiskey,” Max tells me. White oak is so cool.

To prepare for today’s planting, volunteers collected acorns from locations all the way from Memphis to Massachusetts, including sites in Baltimore, Kentucky and New York. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was probably speaking metaphorically, but he might have approved of the literal version underway here at Lasdon.

The acorns were propagated and “families” of seedlings gathered. This is Max holding one such family, which looks to me more like a twiggy bouquet of infant oaks.

Spread out across the oak plot at Lasdon is a “rainbow” of trees, red, white, purple and so on, reflecting the originating conditions of the acorns, “from hot to cold.”

Trees will be assessed as they grow for qualities that include drought resistance. “That’s how you improve cultivars,” says Max. “We’ve got to get a jump on climate change.”

Specimens were mailed to the University of Kentucky, where they’ve been kept in cold storage until the spring planting season. “They’re still asleep, just waking up now,” says Max.

The project will also install 8,000 chestnut oaks in forest gaps beginning this fall. A member of the white oak group, the chestnut oak currently grows here in New York at the northern edge of its range. The idea is ultimately “to increase their abundance here,” says Max. When urban forestry is discussed, he says, “Nobody ever talks about these forest tracts. They talk about street trees.” Yet, remarkably, there are fully 10,000 acres of urban forest in New York City alone.

Students have come to Lasdon today to help in the planting.

They cut down through the tough sod with their spades and insert each seedling firmly in its new habitat.

Mulch will follow, along with plenty of water, especially in the first year as the trees get established.

Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! wrote George Bernard Shaw. You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak!

One student assesses things more simply. “Planting is so therapeutic,” she says. “Why cut trees? We need them for our life.”


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It’s nothing. Really.

Three generations take a hike at Brown’s Ranch, in Scottsdale. Nothing important happens.

Nothing worth recording.

Except for everything.

My mother, my daughter, me. Sixty years separate those two. My daughter is thirty-one.

I’m somewhere in the middle. In the middle of age and work, love and life.

It’s not a long hike, really a stroll, a saunter. This half a mile is a long enough hike when it’s almost one hundred degrees. We get ourselves ready to go.

We examine plants.

Mother: Looks like something you would find in a window on Madison Avenue. Some fancy florist arrangement.

Daughter: That’s the quintessential saguaro.

Mother: That one’s pretty healthy, isn’t it.

Velvet mesquite.

Do I dwell too much on insignificance? I have always liked the unimportant things.

A bird flits away.

Mother: Was it a female cardinal?

Me (know it all): You know what a female cardinal looks like? They’re green.

Mother: No, they’re brown.

Me: Okay, green-brown.

Nothing of consequence is discussed. There’s an agave. Nothing special.

Me: (the know it all): You see, you don’t have to get far off the beaten track to see everything nice.

Daughter: A saguaro skeleton.

Mother: I’ve seen that before.

We see other specimens we recognize from previous walks here. Old friends. Meaningless probably to anyone else.

We know saguaro have buds that will later flower.

Daughter: How much do they grow per year?

Me (Having no idea): Two inches.

There are phenomena we didn’t know existed. We had seen plenty of saguaros but never seen the honeyed droplets at the end of one’s arm.

Mother:  I’ve never seen that before.

Daughter: That’s definitely the buds coming out.

Always something new in the ancient desert.

We see a plant with with little pale bubbles.

Mother: Don’t touch. It could be poisonous, because it’s white.

Yucca has white blossoms too. We identify them.

We see an information placard saying that coyotes use the wash as a highway.

Daughter: It’s a fun way of thinking about it.

Someone has seen fit to tag one fishhook cactus.

Me: Wonder why?

No one knows. It just is what it is.

Mother: That’s mallow.

Mother: I wish they’d provide some shade here.

There is no shade in the desert, it’s only sun, sun sun.

Me: Let’s sit down for a few minutes.

The view is ravishing, of course, but it is also nothing, an ordinary view for these parts.

Save the tough stuff for some other time. There’s so much to talk about. Not now.

Daughter: If you see human trash don’t pick it up because pack rats will use it for their den.

Mother: That’s a hedgehog cactus.

Daughter: Nice.

We see delicate purple flowers and crush them between our fingers.

Daughter: I think it’s lavender.

Me: Maybe.

Mother: Desert lavender is a thing.

We’re not sure. I like it when you admire things and you don’t know their names.

Daughter: The things you see when everything looks dead.

The nearly mundane. The unflamboyant.

Flame orange tubes, barely visible.

Daughter: Little hot dogs.

Mother: I like way they grow out of the rock like that.

Only the small things matter. The barely seen. The almost missed.

Half a dozen lizards scamper ahead with their tails held high. A rabbit bounds away.

A nothing flower. A plant without a name.

Me: I don’t know what that is, do you?

Mother: No.

Daughter: No.

A butterfly appears, you can barely see it in shrubbery.

Mother: I think I know the name of that one.

Another bird.

Mother: A hummingbird. See the sharp beak?

Me: Really?

Daughter: Yes, definitely.

Mother: Solid as granite, isn’t that an expression?

Daughter: Are these the same ones we saw before?

Me (definitively): Yes, definitely.

Mother: I don’t know.

A beneficence of the mundane. Just wondering. Not sure. Trying to figure things out, but not working at it too hard.

Restroom at the end of the trail.

Mother: They know quite a bit about snakes, don’t they? Someone must have seen them in the restroom.

Snakes. They must. But it’s no big deal. Nothing to make a fuss over. Hardly worth mentioning.

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Is Nature mean? Or is She kind?

Or simply indifferent?

Visiting Yosemite National Park in the spring of 2023 I have come to believe it might really be all of the above. Smoke plumes rise and mingle with mist from the multiple waterfalls flowing down from great heights all around.

We see small smoldering pyramids of branches and brush, lit by fluorescent-garbed fire professionals to eliminate underbrush that might spread wildfire.

The National Park Service will be shutting down most of the 747,956-acre Park starting Friday night, two days after our visit, because the place is expected to flood. Some of the roads as we drive already shows signs of dangerously high water.

The snow is melting into music, wrote John Muir, he who knew Yosemite through and through, sunshine to snow melt. The waters of the Merced River rise and rush, a bathtub of soap bubbles.

Yosemite is breathtaking, lush with grasses after all of California’s precipitation this year.

It is probably impossible to do justice to El Capitan or Half Dome or the rest without a tripod and fancy camera, and myriad shutterbugs throng the route’s turnoffs.

But actually, any picture in these parts is a good picture, so divine are the views.

It is hard to believe the Nature is angry even as the fires burn and the floods rise, the mountains are so majestic, such a boon to humankind.

We cannot ascend to the high peaks as the roads through the passes will be closed until May due to snowpack.

We knew this coming in, but chose to make the trip anyway, taking the dreamy highway down from San Francisco through the Central Valley. We saw some happy dairy cows noshing on green grass in roadside fields and others reveling knee-deep in spa-like shady watering holes. Once in a while bull would wander off, doing his own lazy thing, and I was of course reminded of sweet Ferdinand.

Wait, do cattle have knees?

The funky resort where we stay at the edge of the Park, known as the Yosemite Bug, bears a discernable southern California-hippie-Charlie Manson vibe.

All the little cabins have been set into the hillside, necessitating a clamber up to get to your room.

It is a place that offers rentable snow shoes and tire chains in the icy season. Now it appeals mainly with insect art, hung everywhere. The Junebug seems to be the totem animal.

Entomology is not my thing, but I know that Junebugs and mayflies are identical. Mayflies do not bite. The reason: they have no mouths. Their life span is a mere 24-72 hours.

Seeing the celebration of insect life all around the lodge I recall mayflies I saw on Star Island off the coast of New England one summer years ago, how wet and gross and omnipresent they were, flying against the lights at night, as well as the daytime vision of a doomed one being crunched between the diminutive jaws of a chipmunk perched on a pine stump. My mind was not entirely well at the time, and I recall how the sight seemed a metaphor for the futility of human existence.

At the Bug, we find ourselves startled by a bison head looming over the door of the canteen.

I had no idea bison were so gi-normous. Bison factoid number one: bison and buffalo are two different creatures, and it is bison that roamed America before their population was decimated in the course of the genocide campaign against Indigenous Americans of the Plains. Photo documentation reveals bison skulls ultimately used for fertilizer.

Bison factoid number two: the animal was never native to California. Bison factoid number three: in 1891, in a burst of Wild-West fervor, bison were introduced into Golden Gate Park, where a now-all-female herd lives in a paddock and cannot possibly charge innocent day trippers. Having all females just keeps everything a little bit more calm, the general manager of San Francisco Recreation and Parks has been quoted as saying. Ain’t it the truth.

The food at the Bug is scrumptious, and after a dinner of kimchee ramen, a sleep worthy of Ferdinand and a pancake breakfast we begin our adventure through the lowlands and bluffs.

The road in to Yosemite Valley ought to be called red bud highway.

Nature is indeed kind to bestow this flaming fuschia everywhere, now just going from bud to blossom.

Which is more beautiful, the shape of the trees themselves or the showy flowers, ready for their closeup? Additionally, the blooms make a delicious addition to salads.

Making our way past rockslides takes patience.

Even windshield views reveal amazing plants making a life in the granite.

John Muir wrote: When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.

We are rewarded with the sight of iconic formations. Passing under Arch Rock is like entering a magic zone.

Many people have obviously come this way, with some comical results.

We worship at a spot marked by history, the very place were Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir sat down together in 1903 and talked forest good. Not sure exactly what that means but it sounds like a positive.

I kvell, imagining Muir lighting his campfire here—serving up a salad with redbud blossoms?

I also think of him walking here all the way from San Francisco and seeing this landscape for the first time. Muir wrote that he was overwhelmed, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower. Less jumping now, apparently.

We come across quaint old interdenominational Yosemite Community Church nestled beneath the sheer face of Half Dome.

Built in 1879, it predates the Park itself and is in fact the oldest building in Yosemite. It would have been there when John Muir first sauntered through (he preferred the word saunter to hike). The church is closed, it being Wednesday, but I enjoy the sign outside.

Some people might prefer a meeting to a stiff drink after whooping and howling down these mountains.

Ponderosa pines are everywhere. Muir: Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.

Nature nurtures us. We are so fortunate to have these trees, along with the other 36 species in Yosemite, including black oaks and sugar pines, Douglas firs and incense cedars. And giant sequoias, of course, some of them 300 feet tall, although on this trip we do not see many of the earth’s oldest living specimens.

Still, we have to look up. Ponderosas can reach 200 feet, so they’re no slouch in the reach-for-the-clouds department.

And Ponderosas have it over sequoias in the department of fragrance. We stick our noses up close to the tree’s rough-plated bark and get a good hit of butterscotch. We admire the plant life enjoying itself, having a good old life in the tree bark’s grooves, its nooks and crannies.

We look down to see the ground littered with cones and breathe in the intoxicating breeze wafting up from the carpet of brown needles.

Muir wrote about his first summer in the Sierras: Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue. 

I want to come back and stay in a platform tent here some day. Unit 309 will do just fine, thank you.

Muir was not always serious. He must have had a sense of humor to describe himself as poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!! On another occasion he wrote: Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them. 

So let’s have fun when we camp out in the Valley. I will bring the n/a beer, you bring the salty snacks.

Muir, once more: Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail. 

It’s not only old trees here. Fetching young ones spring up all around as well.

We break open our box lunch brought from the Bug and I devour the most delicious sandwich with which I have ever filled my gut, crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado. Happy makes hungry.

A current storm not of Nature’s making involves recent controversy surrounding John Muir’s views about people of color. He was criticized a few years ago by the then executive director Michael Brune of the Sierra Club for his comments about the Indigenous people he came across on his travels through America. Brune asserted in a 2020 blog post that the group must “take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” He said that the storied conservationist must be chastised for his “derogatory comments … that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.” In one oft-quoted remark, Muir spoke of the strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness

Brune’s assertion drew pushback from traditionalist board directors and he had to step down, but not before Muir received a public trouncing.

Who knew that blog posts could be so influential? Poet W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and I was always under the impression that blogs ranked even lower than verse in the category of inconsequentiality.

Now the Sierra Club takes a measured view. A History and Future Task Force concluded in 2021: The Sierra Club acknowledges that John Muir used derogatory language about Indigenous people that created harm. Muir later recognized and appreciated the achievements of Indigenous people and spoke about the equality of all people and the importance of making public lands accessible for all.”

What did he say as he matured? He wrote after visiting with Alaska’s Native Americans in 1879 that:

“The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity in circumstances that to us would be novel and embarrassing. Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come to the white men when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc. This evening an old woman fell asleep in the meeting and began to snore; and though both old and young were shaking with suppressed mirth, they evidently took great pains to conceal it. It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers.

While the current thinking regarding Muir’s views might or might not contain some truth, what is clear is that the ecosystem he did so much to preserve still thrives.

Muir wrote: Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

In recognition of this truth, the Park Service has now taken the controversial step of expanding the built environment at Yosemite to allow for more comfortable tourism. Off to the edges we see earthmoving machines and cut trees and construction workers hard at pouring concrete to create expanded viewing platforms.

Five million people from all over the world descend up the Valley and the Peaks in the warm months, wanting to get just a taste of John Muir’s elation over the Sierras.

Muir: Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality. 

All in all it strikes me that Nature is mostly indifferent to our presence here. These stern mountains and this sumptuous valley will go on for eon upon eon regardless of what we careless and sometimes stupid humans do to each other, making our tiny, flailing forays up her wildflower-rich greenscapes. All we can do is be a little less mean, a little more kind in the day to day. Nature’s job is to remain magnificent. Ours is to rise, somehow, however improbably, to the example She sets.

That’s all we can do, and the effort is hard. But the attempt means something, now more than ever.


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I fall in love

with the big old trees the moment I walk into Muir Woods. Same as everyone.

It’s a funny place. On the one hand these redwoods, ancient marvels of nature, on the other a precious tourist attraction.

I go there accompanied by two smart people, Bay Area denizen Lisa, my friend of fully 45 years, and local landscape architect and pro urban forester Karla.

We enter amid the startling hush of trees, relatively uncrowded because it’s not yet the height of the season.

Lisa says, The new foliage looks so soft, doesn’t it? It’s gorgeous.

Karla: Did you know that the redwoods get fifty percent of their water from the fog? And the fog patterns have been changing.

Muir Woods is a careful, considered sort of place.

At the entrance you’ll find a carved map of the terrain, helpfully imprinted in braille. Interesting choice. As a young inventor John Muir nearly went blind when a piece of metal flew off of a project and damaged his cornea. He recovered his sight, thankfully.

It is no wilderness. The paths are paved or wood plank. Over them tower the gentle giants. We admire them, same as everyone.

We see some marvelous wildflowers. Trees and trees and more trees. A creek. We experience awe, same as everyone.

Karla worked at the nonprofit Friends of the Urban Forest off and on for two decades, most recently as vice president of operations, before going off on her own as a landscape architect. She also is helping the Society of Municipal Arborists fine tune its high-level leadership program, called the Municial Forestry Institute, to better serve the urban foresters of the future, looking at possible gaps in curriculum, study materials, teachers. Karla and I both graduated from MFI in different years. Rethinking the program is a big job, and she’s “like the head spider, weaving it all together.”

We stop at a fairy circle of redwoods as we go – the center one burned in a long-ago fire and youngsters sprung up around it. This piece of land was saved when the wealthy couple John and Elizabeth Kent saw the future and bought 611 acres in 1905, afterward deeding it to the federal government and insisting it be named after Muir.

We wonder at the felling of these incredible trees before the turn of the twentieth century. How could people do such a thing? I have often found that arborists can be counterintuitive when it comes to trees, even unsentimental. Karla comments, My apartment is built of redwood. The gold rush helped build the city too, but without the redwood trees San Francisco would not exist.

People come from all around the world to experience these trees, to learn about nature.

Us too. I am wowed by some intricate fungi.

We admire the velvety moss all around, same as everyone. I tell Karla and Lisa that in the Muir biography I am reading I have learned that Muir had a close relationship with a married woman who started him on his naturalist road and who had a proficiency in mosses.

We speak of peoples’ feelings about trees in everyday life, apart from spectating in Muir Woods. Karla says, In San Francisco there really are some people that just don’t want a street tree. Either they don’t want you to put a tree there, or they don’t trust that the city will take care of it, or multiple people live in one house and there’s no parking, so they want to park on the sidewalk.

I mention the bugaboo I’ve come across in New York City, where people complain that falling acorns dent the roof of their car or that leaves are a mess to rake up. We admire the plants edging the paths here.

I ask Karla about invasives, a hot topic where I live on the east coast. If you’re asking about whether only native plants should be planted, or are invasive plants destroying our natural ecology, it’s two different things, she says. In California we have a type of broom that is invasive. When we have a massive fire and it grows under the trees, the flames spread even more quickly. Broom is really difficult to get rid of.

Karla says she wants do more professionally with fire protection, telling me, It’s a national problem, not only in California, as well as all over the world. And it’s only going to get worse.

We pass lots of educational signage.

Commemorative plaques.

I say, I know a lot of people who are serious hikers who might not touch this place with a ten-foot pole, it’s so civilized.

Karla says, Not everybody has the ability to travel far or hike long distances, or even to figure out where to go and make their way there. And in fact, despite the paved paths and inescapable signage, you can still hear the trees rustling in the breeze, the waters of the stream burbling, the birdsong all around. It’s pretty great that a person confined to a wheelchair can come here and experience these wonders.

Lisa shows me some graffiti. You know that humans love a place when they make the effort to carve an autograph.

Emily from Australia comes over with grandmother to chat, her pigtails swinging as she jumps up and down. She makes us guess her age. Six. I saw a spider web hotel!

Down the path, I insist that Karla and Lisa take a pose in a redwood crevice so I’ll have a souvenir, same as everyone.

We ooh and ahh about the redwood sorrel. They fold up when direct sunshine hits them. Little umbrellas, says Karla.

Lisa notices a plant that looks orchid-like, and in fact is a type of orchid.

And a giant horsetail.

Karla says, That might be one of the most primitive plants, along with gingkos.

Then we come to a massive timeline.

It gives the usual chronology of Muir Woods, but has been annotated to relay different facts, facts that might have been thought unimportant in the past.

What about the timeline? I ask Karla.

What about adding all those new factoids? What’s up with the revisionist history?

I would say it’s the broader history, the true history, she says firmly. THE history.

Karla was good enough to spend time with me and make sense of some of the more important issues of our day. The National Park Service was not quite as forthcoming. In answer to my query about meeting with a ranger on May 25, Public Affairs Specialist Julian Espinoza with the Office of Communications & External Affairs at Golden National Recreation Area sent apologies for the delay in getting back to you on this. Unfortunately, given the limited capacity of our staff at Muir Woods, we aren’t able to participate in an interview of that length. Okay.

In the very-small-world department, we discover that Lisa’s aspiring landscape architect nephew Alex, who attends the Merritt College Urban Forestry Program, founded in 2018 to train workers for the blossoming tree industry, just recently interviewed Karla for an assignment, asking questions about her career, how she got to her position, and what a typical day is like.

One of the most significant things I took away from the Municipal Forestry Institute was the suggestion that we find a mentor, she says, someone that I could go to for guidance, advice, unconditional support. Having someone who was always in my corner gently pushing me gave me the encouragement I needed to make big career decisions. It’s become important to me to do the same for others. I love giving support to people who are beginning their careers and helping grow new urban forestry leaders. Sharing my own work experiences seems to give hope, inspiration and motivation – and we all need a little bit of that no matter where we are in our careers.

Karla, Lisa and I make our way to the exit. We see a token of the recent past, already hopelessly dated, oddly out of place in these pristine but yet not so pristine woodlands.

Exiting through the gift shop there are carved bears.

There are baubles.

I forego the fog globe but get a few books, John Muir’s writings on the wonders of the natural world. I want something to take with me that will help me remember Muir Woods.

Same as everyone.

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Too soon? Too late? Or just on time.

It would seem to be just about the right time to visit Fairy Duster Trail at Spur Cross Ranch in Cave Creek. We see a perfect fairy duster.

Even though it is April, the supposed height of the wildflower season, it seems as though all of the blooms are somehow not enough. But maybe we are just greedy. After all, the slopes here are flooded with yellow.

Some saguaros are in bud – you can see the nubs on their tips. Too soon to see any actual blooms.

The jumping cholla has jumped off its parent but will not take root for a long, long time.

Prickly bear barely obliges.

Well, some do oblige, if you’re paying attention. Note the bug that crept in, barely visible.

Some plants seem to have already gone to seed, like this lady, possibly some kind of clematis.

Way beyond too late for this gentleman skeleton.

Yes, there is plenty of brittlebush. There is always plenty of brittlebush.

And some nice strawberry hedgehog.

But why can’t they all be blooming for us, all at once? Thank you, chamomile. You are right on time.

We sit for a while under a shelter to cool off.

In another month or two we won’t be out on this trail at all. It’s already too hot to go far.

Contemplate the cowboy on the old rusted fence.

Wondering if we’ll see a rattlesnake.

Envying the horseback riders coming through. Hydrate! A couple of the girls shout to us.

Is it a lupin or purple sage? Nubilous (look that one up). Anyway it won’t stay still to pose.

It all seems to make sense suddenly, in the presence of a wispy palo verde, but perhaps that is only a case of pareidolia (look that one up too).

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron relates a story about a woman running away from tigers, coming to a cliff and hanging from it with one tiger above, one below. A mouse is gnawing at the vine to which she is clinging. Suddenly she sees a little bunch of strawberries growing near to her on the rock. She looks at them, looks at the mouse, looks up and down at the tigers. Then she plucks a berry and puts it in her mouth.

In the distance, the creek line shows green.

Each moment is just what it is, Chodron writes. It might be the only moment of our life, it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

Focus on what is in right in front of you.

Even the dullest cheatgrass is splendid.

Everything is perfectly what it is. The tiniest euphorbia.

The most spectacular ocotillo embracing a young saguaro in a love grip.

Not too soon. Not too late. Just on time.


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I thought I knew Thoreau.

But in fact there are many things not generally known about America’s great nineteenth-century naturalist.

I knew Thoreau’s soulful eyes.

We have few images of this forest-loving philosopher king–after all, he lived in the mid-1800s. But there does exist a studio shot taken in 1856. He was 40. When Thoreau disciple Calvin Greene asked for a photo of the writer, Thoreau replied: “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing personally – the stuttering, blundering, clodhopper that I am.”

After Greene sent him money to get the picture taken, though, Thoreau dropped by the Daguerrean Palace in Worcester, had three plates made for fifty cents each, and sent one off to Greene in Michigan. The photo now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

A daguerreotype, of course, cannot reveal color. Thoreau had “the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray—eyes expressive of all shades of feeling.” So said peer, poet, abolitionist, Unitarian preacher and Thoreau biographer William Ellery Channing.

I also knew some of Thoreau’s pithiest statements, many of which seem prefabricated for use on art prints, mugs and tee shirts.

Way to go, Thoreau! Can anyone today quibble with his assessment that all good things are wild and free? But he expressed the sentiment pretty much better than anyone and over and over again, more juicily every time (with apologies to John Muir, who also knew how to turn a phrase about wildness).

I also did not know that the name is pronounced THOReau, accent on the first syllable. As in thorough. Thorough Thoreau. Makes sense when you consider he committed millions of words to paper in books, articles, poems and journals, all executed by hand.

Written with a fountain pen and ink. Something else I never knew concerns writing utensils: he revolutionized pencil making. In a recent trip to Concord, Massachusetts to worship at the shrine of Thoreau I discovered that between teaching students, surveying land and working as a handyman, the writer worked for his family’s pencil business and even ran it upon his father’s death. He invented a grinding machine that made better quality plumbago (the mixture of lead, graphite and clay inside pencils of the day). Today the Concord Museum sells facsimiles.

I went to the museum to see Thoreau’s homemade Aeolian harp (“when I am in the woods I sometimes sing”), his writing desk (painted green of course) and the humble cot on which he rested his head at the end of a tough day hiking and thinking.

My quest for the genuine Thoreau was led by my friend Joan, a citizen-naturalist devoted to all things Concord, and joined by my daughter Maud, the type of person who might be comfortable wearing one of those Thoreau-slogan tee shirts, only feeling slightly silly. We circled Fairy Lake, in a town forest now brimming with spring. We took what is titled in the local guidebooks and highlighted in pink as the Emerson-Thoreau Amble.

Maud showed off her own naturalist chops, identifying woodpecker holes, skunk cabbage, the pointed shape of a beaver stump. Beavers’ hearing, we would later learn, is so acute that they only quit building their dams when they notice the sound of running water has ceased.

It was easy to believe that all things might be possible here.

We headed up toward Walden Pond, through Thoreau’s pine-scented woods.

Someone had considerately left a walking stick wrapped in duct tape.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote.

“To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Boom! Boss, right? I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life

Only these woods have changed, changed utterly, as William Butler Yeats would phrase it. Since Thoreau’s time his hometown has grown and modernized, with a current population of 18,000–up from1,800 at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Concord’s quiet cow paths and trails have become teeming highways.

In 1845, at the age of 27, Henry David Thoreau built a simple house at Walden Pond on land owned by his mentor, Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. He lived here for two years, two months and two days. Paradoxically, today the site is dominated by a parking lot packed with hundreds of gas-guzzlers and a huge, modern visitor’s center.

Joan on the subject of Walden today: “I’m embarrassed by how touristy it is.”

In the gutter along the wooded path that is now a paved road are many tossed-aside nips, one bane of Joan’s existence.

Even Boston has a problem now with people scattering their empties into the byways, she told us. “It’s so ironic,” said Maud. “So unfortunate,” Joan said.

Joan loves all that is unspoiled, a creature after Thoreau’s heart. She remembers an iconic moment of her childhood, when she skated across a frozen pond to pluck a tempting cattail at the far edge and fell in. She has mounted a one-woman campaign to save the habitat of bluebirds in her suburban enclave, and showed me a half dozen bird houses that had been coopted by invasive sparrows.

“They use whatever they can find, straw, trash – nasty nests.” Sparrows will even kill bluebirds, she says – she’s found them “with their heads pecked out.” She told me, “Bluebird nests are beautiful, neatly made with pine needles.” The Audubon Society will give permission to destroy nests, eggs, even birds, because sparrows are invasive critters originally imported from England.

Thoreau collected nests, something else I did not know. He presented one to the Natural History Museum in Boston, along with eggs of the yellow warbler and the red-tailed hawk.

On a tour of downtown Concord with a guide named Richard we walked past some amazing trees, an old white oak on New Hill, a European larch in a colonial graveyard.

A tree company I once worked for inventoried all 23,806 public trees here. You can call up a red maple, say, on a phone app and learn all about its benefits, from cooling to carbon sequestration, posited in economic terms. Thorough Thoreau might have liked that trick.

This was one hot day. Witness the damp back of Maud’s neck.

I wanted to see the original manuscript of Walking, the consummate guide to getting out there in nature. Thoreau wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” Hearing that Walking was in the possession of The Concord Library, I sought it out, thinking it must be centrally displayed. No. “You’ll have to go downstairs for that. Special collections,” instructed the librarian, sitting across the way from a Thoreau-inspired paper tree created by Concordian children.

In the basement, assistant curator Jess withdrew the precious item from a safe. I was allowed to thumb freely through the pages –now encased in plastic – which Thoreau submitted to the Atlantic Monthly just weeks before he died.

Kvelling, I examined the faded script, the ancient cross-outs and fluid stains (Strong coffee? Pond water? Milk of human kindness? Tears?) Then I found it. The iconic line.

How near to good is what is wild! With wild underscored for good measure. And emphasized with an exclamation point.

Maud’s husband Dan showed me something in the Concord woods he learned in Green Beret training, that if you take the root of a pine tree and scrape it, you can use the inside pith to light a fire.

It’s the type of knowledge that Thoreau would surely have treasured. Something else I did not know about Thoreau is that as a young man of 22 he actually torched part of the forest he loved. He was cooking fish over an open fire in the woods outside of Concord and the nearby grass caught flame and reduced over 100 acres of land to cinders. Really? Another paradox: while he did love the woods, it turns out the great man was human. And he made mistakes. Including setting a fire where he shouldn’t have. A historic figure’s inherent humanity, warts and all, makes him all the more endearing, to my mind.

Considering how much we know about Thoreau, and how much he wrote, including journals that are quite intimate in tone, I found it intriguing to see how much mystery still surrounds his private life.

On the Concord tour, Richard told us about the local Indians, the Nitmuk, who used weirs to catch eels, turtles and fish at the confluence of three rivers and who traveled in mashouns carved from tree trunks. Some of these canoes have been found submerged in Central Massachusetts because that’s how the Indigenous people stored them. A little hard to imagine that earlier life in civilized Concord with its many pretty window boxes.

Its ice cream cones and cutesie onesies.

Richard told the group that local history features “quite a literary crew. You are all familiar with Henry David Thoreau. He’s been called ‘one of the wealthiest men in town because his wants were so few.’” We stood at the corner of Walden Street under a mature gingko.

Brilliant feminist Margaret Fuller, Richard said, “slept on Emerson’s couch for four to five weeks at a time.” A notable run-in between Emerson and Fuller occurred when Fuller told Emerson she wanted to be closer to him: “You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body?” he wrote in his journal, aghast. Emerson was a brain, and apparently not the most physical guy.

Thoreau slept there, too, after emerging from his Walden sojourn. “When I bought my house, the first thing I did was plant trees,” said Emerson. He also wrote, “Happy is the house that shelters a friend!” At Bush House he had hemlocks, pines and chestnuts, apples pears and plums, which surely delighted Thoreau.

Strong women made their voices heard in Concord, especially on the question of abolition. Louisa May Alcott, a passionate suffragist, was the first woman to vote in a local election in town in 1880: “No bolt fell on our audacious heads,” she recalled wryly, “no earthquake shook the town…” Louisa is even more of a draw locally today in Concord than Henry.

During the downtown tour I posed a question that had been bothering me: Why did Thoreau never marry?

Our guide’s pause was not inconsiderable: “I think he was gay.” Richard stated that the idea does not fit with what is often thought about Thoreau, “who is supposed to be above sexuality.” But letters from Thoreau to Emerson, he said, are “a tale of heartbreak and unrequited love.” Emerson felt safe leaving Thoreau at his house with his wife and daughters for the months on end while he traveled the lecture circuit because he trusted that the man would not seduce his wife or daughters.

“People think they were nonsexual, because they were such intellectuals, but I’m like, baloney,“ said Richard. Go to the diaries, he insisted, to see “it’s a passion at a Shakespearean level.”

So I did. Here is just one sentence from Thoreau’s journals: “My friend is the apology for my life. In him are the spaces which my orbit traverses.”

Is this view a case of presentism? Are we interpreting the past mistakenly through the lens of contemporary mores? I am not the first to be intrigued by Thoreau’s queerness, or that of other writers of his time. It is generally acknowledged that Walt Whitman, another bard of the outdoors, preferred men romantically–the poet’s relationship with the streetcar conductor Peter Doyle, the love of his life, has been well documented.

Why not Thoreau?

Something curious pertaining to Thoreau’s personal life occurred in 1847, when Sophia Ford – Louisa May Alcott’s tutor – fell in love with him. She was 45, he was 30. He explained to Emerson: “I have had a tragic correspondence, for the most part all on one side, with Miss ——,” he wrote.  “She did really wish to — I hesitate to write — marry me. That is the way they spell it. Of course I did not write a deliberate answer. How could I deliberate upon it? I sent back as distinct a no as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust that this no has succeeded. Indeed, I wished that it might burst, like hollow shot, after it had struck and buried itself and made itself felt there. There was no other way. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career.”

Ford threatened to kill herself. Thoreau burned her correspondence. She lived to the grand old age of 85, died single, and never forgot him.

Emerson reciprocated, but only to a certain extent. He informed his brother William that the newest member of the household was “a scholar & a poet & as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree.” But it seems that Thoreau could be a bit of a handful. One acquaintance commented, “I love Henry, but I do not like him.” A docent at the Concord Museum thought it important to reassure us that “Thoreau’s family really loved and supported him, no matter what.” In any case, Emerson’s passion did not measure up to Thoreau’s.

Everyone, I think, knows what it is to pine for somebody. Why would Thoreau be exempt?

Weirdly, when I stopped into the replica of Thoreau’s Walden cabin—built as a tourist attraction in the mid-twentieth century just by the car-mobbed parking lot, its roof mossy at this point, situated across the road from his beloved pond—I found it absolutely empty.

It was just me and Thoreau’s green desk and Thoreau’s cot, identical to the one in the museum, which looked as if it had been specially made up just for my nap-time visit with sheets and pillow and a thin comforter. It was so easy to imagine Thoreau lying in bed here thrilling to the sound of the wind in the trees and the peepers at the pond, pondering everything wild and yearning for his friend Emerson. Thoreau was human. He might not have been so celibate in his secret fantasies.

Emerson surely would have visited him at the cabin before or after the two ambled. There are a couple of chairs there, in addition to the cot with its rumpled sheets. Where would they have sat? No matter, it would have to be close to one another, the single room is so small, so intimate. Would they have been sensible of each other’s sweat?

Of course they would have.

It must have been a terribly hard secret to keep, a secret hiding in plain sight. How painful must that have been for Henry on his daily walk around Fairy Lake with Waldo?

And here’s another irony: after Thoreau died young, of tuberculosis, years before his friend, Emerson would read every one of Thoreau’s journals and would be privy to all of this intense emotion, all the things that Thoreau could not confess aloud at the time. Thoreau was in fact in love with forests, in love with the wild. But he was also in love with a man.

I find this idea incredibly moving. He was a person of his time, when homosexuality was pretty sternly disallowed. But surely today we may be permitted to ask ourselves whether he did in fact harbor this powerful love. It won’t tarnish his image, don’t worry. Thoreau is such an important and influential figure that his reputation can handle it.

In fact, if he was gay, and if some of his rapture about his wild can be pegged to a sublimated love for another man, I believe it makes his achievement all the more striking.

People pay homage now to Thoreau’s utterly simple grave site on Authors Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—the headsone reads simply “Henry”—leaving pencils in his memory. Aware he was dying, Thoreau had some memorable last words: “Now comes good sailing.”

I visited another plot where he first was buried, his mother’s family plot, before his remains were reinterred at the more writerly site.

There is no mention of him at the first grave site now. I have only to wonder what Thoreau himself would have made of being laid to rest with the other famous ones in his circle. Would he have preferred even his burial to be solitary? He was as great a loner as he was a walker. On the other hand, being buried alongside Emerson, their two bodies stretched out side by side for eternity, might have made him very happy.

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This blog post is about the Jewish food. 

For the Jewish singles event, see Matzo Ball. According to Wikipedia, “The Matzo Ball is an annual Christmas Eve nightlife event and party held in a number of major cities in the United States targeted primarily at young Jewish singles and organized by Mazel Events, LLC (previously the Society of Young Jewish Professionals).”




What was he cooking?

Matzoh ball soup, apparently!

Matzoh is definitely the food of all time. Some may say that it is the rite of spring. We, the matzohrazzi, decided to photograph and document our matzohbulous Matzoh-making process!

Since we are nearing the time of the cherry tree festival, here is a matzoh haiku:

Matzoh Matzoh Mat

Zoh Matzoh Matzoh Matzoh

Matzoh Matzoh Mat

In Japanese: 

マッツォー マッツォーマッツ


マッツォー マッツォーマッツ

We realized that there is no kanji character for matzoh, so here is Jasper’s artistic interpretation:

“Confucianism? I don’t really buy it.”  — Jasper

By ‘Ler and ‘Sper

The latest episode of Eclectic Home Cooking 101.

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I heard about a couple of heiresses who saved woodlands

in upstate New York a good century ago, so I go to check out the story. I come home weighed down with paradoxes.

Two sisters, Maria and Rachel Williams, grew up fabulously wealthy in turn-of-the-century Utica, a town that became so rich from textile manufacturing it came to be known as the Knit Goods Capital of the World. The girls’ grandfather amassed his fortune in burrstones (used for grinding grain) as well as Pennsylvania coal fields, steamships and railroads in addition to the aforesaid textiles. Their mother Helen and her brother Samuel added to the wealth by investing in iron manufacturing, with an ultimate portfolio of probably half a billion dollars in today’s terms, and put up a mansion called Fountain Elms on fashionable Genessee Street.

Now more known for its tomato pies and Utica greens, the town was then the family’s oyster. Sisters Maria and Rachel came of age and married two brothers, Thomas and Frederick Proctor. Neither couple had children. The Proctor men, Vermont natives, made their living as hoteliers and bankers and dabbled in politics, hobnobbing with some of the most powerful elected officials of the time.

So, while their husbands furnished respectability, their wives brought the cash. They gifted the city with farmland purchased to make parks, many of them designed by leading landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. — scion of the great one — starting with 7 acres that eventually became 700.

Wanting to see the lands Maria and Rachel endowed, I go to find the Switchbacks at South Woods in Roscoe Conkling Park, created in 1909. This being Good Friday, the gate admitting entrance at Master Garden Road is locked.

I manage to sneak in behind a park garage. I search out the trailhead.

I’m too nervous about my parked car getting a ticket to venture far into the woods. Dipping in, I notice first of all that this urban forest is filled with a surprising amount of noise from the wind circulating through the treetops beneath a scalloped swirl of clouds. Secondly I see some beautiful old specimens. There is a grove of white pines standing on their tippytoes.

Many trees by the trailside have ancient silver tags, a sign of the care taken long ago to inventory them for posterity. One beech is nicely autographed.

It just feels good to linger a little among these trees, some of them fully three hundred years old, including bitternut hickory and basswood, green ash and hophornbeam. To quote Thoreau, the nineteenth-century bard of sauntering: In my walks I would fain return to my senses. Black bear once roamed this forest. The place is still rife with habitat. Home sweet home.

A stream flows through. I’d heard about another brook in the vicinity, Starch Factory Creek, named for an 1807 industry on its shores, whose waters flow into the Mohawk river. This brook looks pristine in the early springtime sunlight.

How were Maria and Rachel so prescient as to know in 1909 how important it would be to secure this scrap of local forest against a future Utica that they had no idea would be swallowed up by fast food strips, tract housing and pizza joints, where fully a quarter of the population live in poverty? True, some people knew then that the urban poor needed outdoor spaces. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. told the City of New York in 1872 that the midtown Manhattan park he was building would serve as the “lungs of the city.” It still seems amazing that the sisters were aware of just how critical it would be in the future to have a greenspace such as this one preserved.

Thinking to get some answers, I visit their house, a grand Italianate home now owned by the Munson, a Philip Johnson-designed museum originally called the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute. You can access the house through a connecting light-filled corridor.

Its plashing fountain has been preserved.

Retirees crowd the lobby of the museum to see an afternoon screening of Everything Everywhere All at Once, but I have the creaky old mansion all to myself. Some of the early furnishings still haunt the place, giving a sense of Maria and Rachel’s pampered upbringing.

Most of their home now contains perfect period rooms, the same as you would find at historic house museums anyplace in America. Some of the wallpaper might be original.

The girls’ mother, Helen preferred the more traditional landscape artists over the Impressionists then coming into vogue.

Hoping for more intimate knowledge of Maria and Rachel, I enter the hallowed precincts of the Founders Rooms. Here the girls’ early lives are plumbed in photos and placards.

You can see the juvenile versions of them in an 1857 painting.

Their intricate dollhouse welcomes viewers.

Its legend tells me that the miniature world was considered by their mother to be not only for pleasure but also, perhaps primarily, for instruction in proper household organization. Her decrees to dismantle the rooms after playtime (not accepted agreeably by her daughters) forced them to place the objects in their proper locations each time they played with them.

I can imagine Maria and Rachel putting their dollies to bed the same way I had as a child. But what about the two sisters as adults, ladies with the foresight to preserve trees?

There is no placard, no legend, no mention. Not one word.

I see their silver souvenir spoon collection and their thimble collection proudly on display here—Maria acquired 125 thimbles from all over the world.

I also see the timepieces collected by their gentleman husbands.

A series of personal belongings are layed out along with faded labels in Maria’s handwritten cursive, including a funny old fake flower corsage with the legend: Worn on tenth anniversary April 9th, 1906.

I see pictures that show the women to be aristocrats of their age, including one of Maria along with Thomas and Frederick, photographed by Rachel, posed in the Adirondacks in 1910. At that time, the most affluent Americans had begun to flee cities and rusticate in the wild in deluxe wall tents with picnic baskets organized by the cooks and maids imported to service them on their vacations.

That is as close as the Founders Rooms get to the sisters’ passion for the outdoors.

Taking my leave, I ask the friendly blue-fleece-attired docent, Why is there nothing in the Founders Rooms about the sisters’ funding of the Utica park system?

I guess they didn’t really feel it was significant enough, it didn’t rise to the level of their art collections, he tells me.

I drop by the Education Department. Knock, knock. I interrupt an Educator busy at her computer. Barb takes issue with my wording, correcting me: Well, I don’t think they ”bankrolled” the preservation of the woods. I believe it was their husbands who were instrumental. That line, I know, is not strictly true. Barb brings in her colleague from the next-door cubicle. She advises me that the two girls were taught from a young age to donate part of their weekly allowance to charity.

In formal photos of grownup Maria she looks to be a woman with presence of mind, even when wearing an artificial flower corsage.

The Educators send me off to the museum library. There, a knowledgable person helps me exhume folders of yellowed clippings and catalogs from a file cabinet.

Always a thrill for a researcher to find herself elbow deep in original documents. Some experts say that Maria’s husband Thomas spearheaded the parks project, that he even rolled up his sleeves to collaborate with Olmsted, Jr. on some of the design work. That may be so. But the sisters were the ones who endowed the parks with their gigantic inheritance, and without them we would not be hiking in Utica today.

When most people think of nineteenth-century naturalist influencers, they might conjure up John Muir, Thoreau, perhaps John James Audubon or John Bartram –  rather than two urban heiresses who could have put their money towards pretty much anything they wanted and chose to safeguard woodlands. Theirs is a secret history, buried in timeworn assumptions about what women of their time did or did not do, should or should not do. Saving trees is not part of that construct.

You have only to track down the grand, over-a-century-old northern catalpas lining the lane to their South Woods to grasp the truth.

I have circled back and reentered the Switchbacks. This time I am unafraid, and go farther into the woods. A pair of kindred soul hikers suggest that my car will in all likelihood not be towed. So I walk.

When we walk, said Thoreau, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? I now see details I missed the first time around. Some tree drama.

Also a conjoined black cherry with character to spare.

Again, Thoreau: My walks are full of incidents.

Thank you, Maria and Rachel, for making it possible for me to return to my senses in your woods.

I wouldn’t have missed this walk in the park for all the pizza in Utica.


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