Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Day 3 - Robert Frost, Henry David Thoreau et al.

We woke up in a canopy bed at Meadow Farm, in Northwood, New Hampshire. Even before our blueberry pancake breakfast, I knew we made the right choice.

Breakfast at Meadow Farm, Northwood, NH.

The dad at the table held up a kettle, in honor of my recent book on kettle lakes and ponds, Beyond Walden.

Kristine and I both had trouble sleeping, our brains overloaded with the sights and sounds of the previous day. Already, I had learned that issues involving freshwater are nearly everywhere one looks.

The task in front of me was to finish the blog before checkout time and setting off for two literary spots in southern England, Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. I barely got started before falling into conversation with two excited but unrelated kids being dropped off for summer camp at a nearby lake. Each was accompanied by a parent, who were carpooling up from New Jersey,

That morning I posted my entry using a jump drive plugged into the back of an old Dell computer programmed for the Windows operating system, which was behind a desk in an old hayloft of an even older barn. Before departing, we took a walk to several lovely spots within a few minutes time, most importantly to the beautiful shoreline of Jenness Pond.

From our B&B dock at Jenness Pond, Northwood, New Hampshire.

South to Robert Frost Farm

Our trip began with some of the most challenging driving of the trip. In the Dakotas, the county roads are wide, ram-rod straight, and run for many miles between even small towns.

Old post office for Northwood, New Hampshire.

Here, the state highways are often narrow, windy, and are constantly crossing through towns whose road network was laid out in the ancestral, spoke-like pattern. In Northwood, it seemed, all roads led to village centers, which were usually marked by a church and an old general store. Water towers, we later realized, were conspicuously absent,

Heading south through Northwood, New Hampshire.

I wonder how long the state will keep those signs, now that the Old Man has fallen down.

We kept winding right into Derry, New Hampshire, where we stopped at the Robert Frost Farm. Former poet laureate of the United States and New England’s most famous sage, Frost lived here with his family during the first decade of the 20th century while running a chicken farm.

What’s left of his home and farm is a lovely, but small New Hamsphire State Park consisting mostly of a white clapboard farmhouse, the barn, and the adjacent fields that so inspired poetic thoughts.

Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Our faithful travel vehicle is barely visible behind the barn.

I’ve given two slide-show lectures in this barn, one without electrical power (when it was knocked out by a thunderstorm, which meant that my slides were invisible), and one with power, which meant we could see them.

Attending both talks was a jovial guy named Bill Gleed. Besides being the park manager, he’s also a published poet and my personal guru for all things Frost. I suspect he knows the man and the house in such detail that he may have memorized how many teeth were in the old man’s comb.

Though Bill refused to admit it, I think he preferred the talk I gave without slides, given its “Now What?” urgency, creative spontaneity and diversionary tactic about Robert Frost being a “closet geologist.” As a student, Frost had been greatly inspired by Nathaniel Shaler, his geology professor at Harvard, who is also one of my favorite overlooked historical characters.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…. Good fences make good neighbors.” Those phrases are from “Mending Wall,” unquestionably the most famous poem about the abandoned stone walls that grace New England’s countryside. I’ve recited it many times as a speaker.

Another famous Frost poem is “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which begins with the line “Whose woods these are I think I know.”

I bring this poem to your attention on a freshwater journey because it’s a chance to remind readers, once again, that snow and ice are both made of water. Also, according to the Frost farm resident expert Bill Gleed, nearby Beaver Pond is quite likely the inspiration for the “frozen lake” mentioned in this section of the poem:

My little horse must think it queer.

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

Beaver Pond in Derry, New Hampshire is likely the source of inspiration for the poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Before I left, I asked Bill an unusual interview question: “If Robert Frost were here today and I asked him to say something about fresh water, what do you think he would say?” Bill admitted it was a tough question and then, with a slight accent reminiscent of Frost, gave three short answers in this order, which I copied verbatim: “Water is essential to farming. Lots of my poems have fresh water in them. Water is the essential blood of the planet.”

Walden and Concord

Just west of Derry, we jumped on the Interstate 93, which merged with Interstate 495, and glided over the area “North of Boston,” which is a famous book title by Robert Frost. This is an area of wall-to-wall suburbs surrounding four historically separate cities: Boston, Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lowell, Massachusetts. These suburbs might be enjoyable to live in, but are not easy to cross when time is of the essence.

At Lexington, we headed west to Walden Pond on Highway 2A, which parallels the “Battle Road,” the stone wall-lined path taken by the retreating British regulars following their armed exchange with colonial minutemen at the Old North Bridge in Concord. This “shot heard round the world” was fired on April 19th, 1775 -- a story made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride." The history is now very well told by the staff, signage, and literature of Minuteman National Park.

Concord, Massachusetts is the oldest inland town in what turned out to become the United States. It was founded in 1635 by farmers attracted to the “Great Meadow,” a mosaic of freshwater marshes that provided hay for the earliest cattle, and which could be carefully managed as productive tillage bottom land. The story of this place, captured by a colleague and environmental historian Brian Donahue in his prizewinning book of the same name, is also a story about frozen and unfrozen water in the form of ice-sheet invasion and the seasonal inundation of what used to be a ribbon-shaped glacial lake.

Henry David Thoreau died in 1862 in this house in Concord, MA.

Walden Pond was the highlight of the day’s trip, even though I’ve been there many times before. What made it special were the people I interviewed.

An anonymous mom at the kid’s swimming area provided just the right balance between sharing her young son with the world and protecting him from the bad things that might happen when a complete stranger walks up and wants to take a picture of her son. I don’t know her name because she didn’t give it voluntarily and I didn’t presume to ask. Imagine the scene. A lone male with an oversized camera walks right up and asks if he could photograph her sun for publication on the Internet. What would any prize-winning mother do?

Fortunately, my business card, doesn’t list “middle-aged creep” or “child molester” among my academic positions. I introduced myself before explaining my purpose: to blog the hydrosphere from Walden to Wobegon, which probably sounded pretty strange, now that I look back on it. Eventually, she consented, though her son did not, refusing to return to the water or look at my camera.

Child at play at Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, looking west.

Before leaving the beach, I did something symbolic that borders on superstition. I collected some water from Walden so that I might pour it into Lake Wobegon when I get to Minnesota, and vice versa.

Overlooking the pond are the headquarters of Walden Pond State Reservation, managed by the state park system of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (an agency title that gets its priorities straight). There, I talked with supervisor Sandy Libby. She's the antithesis of the cardboard version of the “state worker” (a slacker employee on the taxpayer dole), being hard-working, resourceful, decisive, and, in my case, very helpful.

“What’s most special about Walden Pond,” she said, “is that they get the widest variety of people of any other state park.” People come from every continent and country, speaking languages that doesn’t knowo exist. This, of course, is testament to the pond's international reputation as a shrine to environmental thinking. More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau set an example that we, as a nation, have yet to follow. Its hard to think of our nation’s attempt to preserve water resources without thinking of Walden Pond first.

According to Sandy, we “Thoreauvians,” are only one of three largely separate groups, who visit the pond. Also present in every season are those who use the pond to recreate. They range from serious athletes (triathlon trainees in wet suits who use the pond as a giant swimming pool and marathoners in lycra using its trails for daily workouts) to the chubby guy eating a picnic hot dog while most of his body is submerged like a hippo (I’m a witness). The third main group consists of those who come to enjoy Nature in what has become a fairly crowded, and increasingly gentrified town. Concord is on the railroad commuter line to the “Athens of America,” but seemingly removed from urban woes. The subtext of this observation is that it’s an expensive place to live.

I also talked with Michael Mitchell, Director of Interpretation for the State Park. This title means exactly what it says. His job is to interpret what is known about the pond, the woods, and the American history, and re-package it in such a way that different groups can understand it. A self-described city kid from nearby Lowell, Mike’s career began when he was a seasonal (read “summer”) employee doing jobs like picking up trash, clearing trails, and monitoring humans not following the rules.

When I asked Mike what his biggest challenge was, he replied: “trying to reach out to inner city youth groups.” He went on to explain that this challenge isn’t so much about the kids – some of whom are emotionally moved and profoundly changed by the simple experience of standing in the quiet, lakeside woods -- as it is about finding the money and mechanisms to get kids off the streets and into the park. This, to my mind, is better way to spend tax money than fixing a few more potholes (in the pavement).

The last person I talked to at Walden Pond was an intense, but thoroughly fascinating and helpful guy named Richard Smith. Trained as a historian, his “main” job is performing impersonations of Henry David Thoreau around the country. His “day” job is to be the manager of the “Shop at Walden Pond,” which is run by The Thoreau Society, of which I am a member. (When I was there yesterday, I signed copies of my recent book, Beyond Walden.) Members of the society can be though of as those who care about Thoreau enough to pay dues to an organization devoted to him. Alternatively, think of us as members of an Audubon Society devoted to a biped without feathers.

When there, Kristine bought a stuffed toy loon distributed by the National Audubon Society to be a mascot for our trip. When squeezed, it does a very good imitation of the haunting wail that so captivated Thoreau when he lived here in the mid 1840s.

A Water-Powered Revolution

After an early supper in Concord, we traveled south toward the industrial mill village of Harrisville, Rhode Island.

Milldam in Harrisville, RI, built of enormous cut granite stones.

To get there before dark, we had no choice but to take Interstate 495 between Marlboro and Milford, Massachusetts, which parallels the town-after-town stretch of Route 85. We were late because I was submitting, and reviewing my regular newspaper column to the Hartford Courant (the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper) on its deadline day.

Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union, is basically the land surrounding Narragansett Bay and the islands within it: Aquidneck, Conanicut, Prudence, Dutch, Hog, and many others. Having lived three years in Seattle and having mapped components of northwest Washington for the U.S. Geological Survey, I’ve come to think of Narragansett Bay as a sort of upside-down Puget Sound, but with the glacier creeping down the bay instead of creeping up it, respectively. The rocks of both basins are as similar as

Though located in the Ocean State, there is nothing salty about Harrisville. In fact, flowing freshwater, both here and in the adjacent Blackstone Valley, was the lifeblood of economy in the 19th century. Power was the key. And hydropower was the best power available in the age before fossil fuels. Here were clear streams flowing perennially over hard rocks, providing thousands of profitable opportunities to tap the solar power of the hydrological cycle in order to run mill factories to weave, stamp, grind, polish, cut, shake, and crush whatever needed to be done. High quality granite was available to quarry building stone for milldams, canals, raceways, and mill foundations. At rock narrows, pre-existing rapids and small waterfalls could be easily exploited and managed for waterpower. Finally, in rocky country, streams are generally free of sediment, which might otherwise clog up the works.

The small mill town of Harrisville, Rhode Island, is one such place. There, the center of human life was not the church, but the mill and the dam that powered it. When we think of fresh water today, we usually think of drinking, flushing, and recreating. But scarcely a century ago, people nearly everywhere in New England thought of water as the source of power.

Westward Home

We had arrived after dark in Mansfield, Connecticut, where we’ve lived for more than twenty five years. Mansfield was settled in 1695 as “Ponde Place,” after the many kettle ponds on the sand plain a few miles to the south. This settlement branched off from the nearby town of Windham because residents got tired of crossing the Natchaug River on their way to Sunday Sabbath. So may town histories in New England involve fresh water.

Our house is a fairly non-descript brick ranch built on a lot carved out of an old pasture of an old farm. This, along with New England’s famously stony glacial soil, explains why our patch of ground is surrounded by stone walls, which are visible from every angle. The yard is sodden from last night’s rain. Here our entire neighborhood drinks water straight from the tap that comes from individual wells. Ours comes from bedrock fractures at a depth of about 250 feet below the surface. There’s no water tank or cistern here like there used to be. Like everyone else, we use a pressure tank instead. What that means is that when the power goes out, so does the water.

At breakfast, I decided to interview myself about the highs and lows of water. On the plus side, living on the crest of a hill helps keep our water clean because infiltrating water moves outward in all directions. My down side involves the local version of a crazy idea: using water to irrigate fairways and greens of golf courses.

For the last two years, I’ve been the unofficial water expert for our neighborhood association, which is up in arms because of the University of Connecticut’s plans to do raise golf course turf grass on the abutting experimental farm. Their plan is to drill three deep bedrock wells in order to suck up tens of thousands of gallons of water per day in order to irrigate experimental plots of grass, in order to see which will work best for golf course fairways, an industry now on the decline.

Eventually, their water expert (a faculty colleague of mine who teaches groundwater hydrology) convinced us that there was enough water to go around and that surface pollution won’t affect our wells. My neighbors, however, remain quite circumspect about assurances provided by a university that recently sucked an adjacent river completely dry when they over-pumped the local aquifer, killing many fish and alarming those of us who rely on private wells. As an individual with some sense of how the earth works, my main concern is not the hydrologic details – drawdown curves, hydraulic conductivities, specific yields, etc. --- but the absurdity of promoting golf course irrigation in parts of our country that are running low on water.

It’s one thing to play golf in the well-watered northeast. It’s quite another to irrigate golf courses (or suburban lawns) in the desert southwest, where conflicts over this precious resource are raising taxes for everyone and creating international conflicts. California is a water disaster waiting to happen to tens of millions of people. No course truly needs irrigation. As a kid, I remember playing on a course on the prairie with sand greens and brown fairways. As an adult was a golf course built for officers of General Augusto Pinochet’s army in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. The fairways were dust, the greens were patches of sand surrounded by stones spray-painted green, and the water hazards were identified by stones painted blue.

For the last time in weeks, I hit the proverbial hay in my own house.