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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Channeling Thoreau

Air Date: Week of

Whirlybirds (Maple Seeds) (Photo: Flickr/Greenhem)

Writer Tom Montgomery-Fate ponders falling maple seeds and Henry David Thoreau’s words.


GELLERMAN: Writer Tom Montgomery-Fate recently decided to re-read Henry David Thoreau’s classic journal “Walden.“ But it wasn’t until Montgomery-Fate closed the book and began to wander through a nearby meadow that he was able to fully appreciate the meaning of the words.

MONTGMERY-FATE: On a cool, sunny afternoon, I sit in a small cabin in the woods reading Walden. The long, winding streams of words sparkle with insight. But after riding the raft of Thoreau’s consciousness for several hours I lose track of where it’s going. I know that’s the point—the journey matters, not the destination—but on page 154 I get snagged on this long sentence:

‘In our most trivial walks we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and not 'til we are completely lost or turned around—for a man needs only to be turned around once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.’

Maple Seeds (Photo: Flickr/Greenhem)

A half hour or so later I wake to my own snoring and rub my eyes. I close Walden and walk outside, into the meadow, hoping to learn how to read Thoreau. A gust of wind blows through a row of 90-year-old silver maples and the cool air is suddenly alive with the golden rain of a thousand spinning seeds, what Thoreau often called 'maple keys.' Another gust and another flock of the twirling blades of sunlight takes flight. I lie down on a cedar picnic table underneath the trees. The maple seed shadows, the whirlybird silhouettes falling across the barren wood in their dark revolutions, are as magical as the seeds that are landing on my body and the tangle of my hair.

I sit down in the dry grass and try to watch the flight of one individual seed. But I can’t do it. I’m lost in the awe of the whirling multitude, and in the whoosh and whistle of the wind, which has blown into a surprising gale. It is here, amid the timeless language of wind and seed, I understand Thoreau's words––that by steering through the ‘vastness and strangeness’ of nature with an open eye and ear, I can wake up and trust the quiet faith of a maple tree and a thousand whirling prayers.

GELLERMAN: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. His most recent book is a memoir “Steady and Trembling.”



Tom Montgomery-Fate, Professor of English, College of DuPage, Illinois


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