Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"In wildness is the preservation of man."

Last night, I finished reading The Thoreau You Don't Know, Robert Sullivan's new biography of Henry David Thoreau. It took me a while to get through it. My previous conception of Thoreau was most influenced by the memoir of essayist John Gould, Maine's Golden Road, in which Gould both compares himself to Thoreau a lot and also makes fun of him mercilessly as a clueless, Harvard-educated character, a guy who brings an umbrella to climb Mt. Katahdin and uses it to measure the dimensions of a moose along the way. It's very funny, although, in hindsight, it's a bit unfair to Henry David.*

This is exactly the kind of preconception this book tries to change, and though it took some effort on my part, it was worth it. For me, the high point came near the end, in a chapter where Sullivan visits Walden Pond State Reservation. Here's a passage:
The problem - if I have not said this too many times already - with the Thoreau so many people know is that he perpetuates a separateness between man and nature. We see the nature of Walden Pond as separate from the nature of the railroad tracks. We see that nature at the beach on the pond, which we try to keep litter free, as separate from nature in our driveways, where our car has a leak and the oil seeps out and down into the street and away to who knows where ... We see our individual actions as separate from the actions of our community... when we are all creatures in the same landscape, a herd, a mass of men and women. With a Thoreau who is separate from us, then we don't see our actions, the how we live, as relating to Thoreau's nature, which is in town, right where we live.


The understandable human tendency in nature writing to celebrate the extraordinary in the natural environment makes other places seem less than extraordinary, or bad, or ratty... But exceptionalism ends up being anti-Thoreauvian, as well as unfair and unjust, as applied to other species, or places, or even neighborhoods. Exceptionalism leads to trash incinerators being sited in low-income neighborhoods and eventually to the loss of the mundane that makes the extraordinary possible.

I was getting the feeling more and more that in the city I might find nature in a lot more places than I might have looked for it before, that the wildness was more important than wilderness, that wildness was everywhere, if I looked for it, the search being part of what makes wild wild. "In wildness is the preservation of man."
The Thoreau You Don't Know reveals a Thoreau who is more interested in finding nature inside the unremarkable town where he lives - in the cut of a railroad embankment, in managed woodlots, and in the industrial ice-harvesting operation that runs on Walden Pond during his time there. The real Thoreau called on us to embrace a more honest relationship with nature and each other, so that both our souls and our economy could prosper.

Sullivan's book makes me feel as though I've found a kindred spirit in plain sight, and it successfully convinced me to give Thoreau's books and essays another chance after my shallow and partial high-school-era reading.

*Footnote: Speaking of high school reading, Gould's daughter, Mrs. Christy, was my 10th-grade English teacher, and gave me Maine's Golden Road as a graduation gift. Also, when Stephen King was a tenth grader, he got his first writing job working for Gould at the community weekly paper in Lisbon, Maine. According to King, it was there that Gould taught him everything he needed to know about writing successfully.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Things seen today while lounging in the grass at Fort Allen Park:
  • An osprey headed west, possibly to one of the nests near the Coast Guard base or the Casco Bay Bridge, and carrying a fish in its talons
  • The Java Sea oil barge (which has been here since Thursday), swinging on its mooring near Little Diamond Island
  • The Baltic Captain I arriving in harbor, and a smaller barge docking alongside (presumably in order to take on bunker fuels)
  • Wild strawberry (fragaria virginiana) blooming in the mown grass

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death by Transcendentalism: The Poison Garden

At right: hellebore in Amy Stewart's backyard. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Nature is pretty, but it can also kill you. In fact, whether by man-eating lions or microbes or cellular decay, it probably will.

This doesn't jive well with the modern environmental movement. How can someone revere and dote on their inevitable murderer? The idea would baffle the Puritans, who used the the word "wilderness" almost as a dirty word, synonymous with death, torment, and terror. For Boston's founders, anything west of modern-day Copley Square was the domain of Satan.

But two hundred years later, their descendants embraced the wilderness and established the philosophical underpinnings of modern environmentalism. When nature wasn't threatening to starve or maim you, they found, it could make you feel pretty great: like a transparent eyeball, or a "part or particle of God," to use phrases from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Nature."

The wilderness became a spiritually and morally uplifting place as soon as humans tamed the wilderness.

I understand the transcendentalist point of view. I've had chills run down my spine from the freedom of being outside, have been struck dumb at spectacles of nature among craggy mountaintops and on the sidewalk of Broadway in Manhattan, and understand perfectly what Emerson means when he talks about a transparent eyeball.

Even though most of us can't experience the howling wilderness as the Puritans experienced it - park rangers, cellphones, and rescue helicopters having replaced large predators in the woods - I'd argue that getting us closer to death is still a pretty important part of nature's spiritual and moral value. Really understanding nature requires that you understand how insignificant you are, and how tenuous your life is, in the grand scheme of things. Being reminded of those facts constantly and violently - say, as a settler in the New World - probably would feel hellish. But it wouldn't hurt our well-fed, post-industrial, economically-panicked society to confront these facts more often.

Which is why I'm so jazzed about author Amy Stewart's poison garden, which is profiled in the decidedly un-wild "Home and Garden" section of the New York Times today. While working on a book about common poisonous plants, Stewart planted a garden of them in her backyard. Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities is "a fine gift for owners of country houses who have become altogether too smug about country life," according to the Times article.

Here is an impeccably cultivated garden in a suburban backyard. By all appearances, it seems to be the Puritan ideal of what nature should be: thoroughly civilized and under control.

But in fact, many of these plants are capable of killing you: digitalis, or foxglove, which can cause anorexia, nausea, and vomiting; castor beans, which, when raw, contain toxic ricin; and datura, a hallucinogen that can cause fatal cardiac and respiratory distress.

Eat any of them, and nature will violently express its callous indifference to your existence. It's a backyard botanist's version of extreme rock-climbing: a garden designed to put you ill-at-ease with nature. Honestly, I wouldn't want a garden like this for myself. But I love that it's out there, and I believe that I'll read the gardener's book as well.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Overseas Shirley

This oil tanker frequents the Portland Pipeline Corporation's oil terminals in South Portland, and was tied up to the Maine State Pier in downtown Portland for a few days this past winter for some repair work. She was last here on April 20th.

Shirley is also a felon, unfortunately.

According to MarineTraffic.com, the Overseas Shirley arrived in Portland early this morning after a stop in Halifax. Curiously, after departing from Halifax on May 14th, the Overseas Shirley took a northeasterly course towards Newfoundland, and was steaming towards Placentia Bay on the morning of May 16th, apparently destined to arrive at the Come-By-Chance oil refinery in Arnold's Cove. On the morning of May 17th, however, it was recorded steaming south out of the bay, about 10 miles away from the refinery - apparently it was either a very quick or a cancelled trip to Newfoundland's sole oil refinery.

Instead, the Overseas Shirley came here, to Portland, apparently to deliver crude oil into the Portland Pipeline and on to a larger refinery complex in Montreal. According to this Canadian history site, the Come-By-Chance refinery has had financial troubles in the past, probably owing to its geographic isolation. It seems likely that the Overseas Shirley filled its tanks with crude oil in Halifax (where, as in Portland, there are huge "tank farms" for oil storage), took some of it to Newfoundland, then delivered the rest to Montreal via the Portland Pipe Line.

Portland's harbor functions primarily as a foreign waystation for the Canadian oil industry. The United States is famously addicted to oil, but in this particular commerce, Maine plays the role of a junkie and of the cross-border mule.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Via Planet Money.

The American economy has taken some hard knocks lately, but at least it's still able to quench our thirst for getting mind-fucked with an overwhelming array of meaningless choices.

And now, please enjoy this advertisement:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Detroit, Land of Opportunity, The New New World

Corine Vermuelen-Smith is a photographer who makes me want to move to Detroit:

Her photographs show a city that's reverting back into a frontier: a wide-open landscape of open prairies and land that's free for the taking.

The once-mighty tribes of the Big Three are shadows of what they once were, and their ruins are scattered everywhere. What remains of them is confined to government reservations. Their downfall wasn't smallpox or colonial crusades, but cheap credit and complicity in the SUV trade.

Above: empty-lot farm on Pierce Street.

The Detroit that remains looks like a ruin to most perspectives. But in the images of Vermeulen-Smith (who happens to be from the Netherlands), it looks a lot like a New World. Yeoman farmers reclaim abandoned lots to grow crops, and Detroit's homeless fashion tidy homes in the wilderness to live strikingly similarly as our national demigods, the western pioneers.

The recession is a new American revolution. From these ruins of the old economy grow a new manifest destiny, and it should lend hope for us all that this one will be more frugal, resourceful, and honest than the one we had expected.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Beach of Shredded Auto Parts

On Portland's western waterfront, between the Casco Bay and Veterans Bridges, lie the remains of a railyard that was abandoned sometime in the late 20th century. Along the collapsing granite seawall on one section is a mound of reddish soil, which, upon further inspection, isn't soil at all, but a finely-ground mixture of old rubber hoses, wire casings, nuts, washers, bits of fiberglass, and plastic.

These look like the remnants of scrapped automobiles that were sent through giant shredders at junkyards, then shipped by rail to this location. But the railyard went out of business, and the barge that was supposed to take them to some distant landfill never came.

So the temporary waterfront landfill became a permanent beach of shredded auto parts. Decades of oceanfront weather eroded the junk even further: now, the rubber is brittle to the touch and the metals are entirely rusted.

The junk has undoubtedly been leaching all sorts of toxic meatals into the adjacent Fore River Estuary for all these years: cadmium, lead, copper, zinc, and other poisons common to our automobiles. Yet, miraculously, a few scrubby juniper and aspen trees have managed to take root on the mound of shredded cars: