a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Me and Thoreau and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park:
My Life in the Woods with the Kids
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.
—Henry David Thoreau, opening Walden
When I wrote the following pages, I lived mostly alone for six weeks in 2003, in the woods, in a house loaned to Artists in Residence in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and earned my living teaching creative writing to grade school students who came to the Environmental Center for four days and nights of science, math, culture, and arts integrated with nature studies. They came from Northeast Ohio’s inner cities, rural towns, and wealthy suburbs.
In my own words and the students’ words, here’s how that spring went—in our hearts, in the valley, and in the world, where, as I began the residency, the Iraqi war loomed but had not yet begun. I brought with me the 12 volumes of the journals of Thoreau, a writer with whom I have had many conversations throughout my life, with whom I planned to continue talking.
“Thermometer this morning, about 7 A.M., 2 degrees, and the same yesterday. This month has been windy and cold, a succession of snows…the spring birds all driven off.
–Journals of Henry David Thoreau (hereafter, JHDT), March 13, 1857
I arrived in the National Park Sunday after driving from Massachusetts, and since then, I’ve been unpacking, meeting people, and reading Thoreau’s journals for early March, nearly all of which seemed spring-like. But this morning, I came across the 1857 spring, which sounds a lot more like spring 2003.
This morning around sunrise, I opened the curtains to see the surrounding land white with gray sticky trees and underbrush, and rising on the hill behind them, pines so dark they look more black than green. Paul said, “You need to lean to see it, but there’s a red bird there.” Leaning, I saw the teeny beeniest male cardinal I have ever seen, as though someone painted one fleck of brilliant red on a white and brown sapling.
We talk a lot about the “situation in Iraq,” which my emails are full of, too. News comes in on the Women Poets List Serve about protestors arrested: Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, and 23 other women writers arrested in front of the White House; a man near Albany arrested for wearing a t-shirt that said, “Peace on Earth.” I guess you can only wear that in December.
Yesterday afternoon, I met with two groups of students at the Center to write poems about place. I read my poem, “Ohio Rag,” and then we wrote poems about the Cuyahoga Valley. Here are some of my favorite of their lines:
The wind whispers to me like my friend telling a secret. –Shali
Crooked like an old granny’s back/Hilly like waves of an ocean –Jacqueline
Hills, water, snow, the gray trail dwarfed by everything else. –Jon
The smell of pines wraps you like a blanket. –Yuhjung Han
Fox scat/deer track/aroma of fresh green pine trees. — Mandi
Snow as hard and crunchy, but cold/ Ice as slippery, hard as gold. –Niara
“It is fine clear weather and a strong northwest wind. What a change since yesterday!” –JHDT, March 16, 1859
The weather has been so various. Thursday morning, a day predicted to have a high of 46, felt relatively warm, so reports on school closings in Cleveland seemed curious, but within an hour, it was freeeeeeezing again, and a cold rain came down all day. On schedule for the day was “Creative Hike,” and Colleen took off with some who were layered for it, while I stayed writing with others. The hikers came back an hour later, layered with mud and lessons on scat (poop, not singing.)
Later in the afternoon, I shared my journal and asked students to make any entry, beginning with a quote and taking into account what was going on here and beyond us, at home in the city or in the larger world. Sarah wrote:
“The only thing to fear is fear itself.” (Winston Churchill)
It seems that there is so much more to fear than fear right now. Terrorist attacks become more likely every day, and our country is considering going to war with Iraq. At the CVEEC, you forget all that. The only thing to concentrate on is nature, and it seems as if nature is concentrating on you. Nature appeals to all five senses, and the second you get there, you fall into balance.
When I returned home, Paul said I had missed two wild turkeys that morning out on the front lawn. I said I didn’t know if I would recognize a wild turkey—how did he know? He said, “Oh, you’d know. That red neck!” grabbing his throat, meaning “wattle.”
I am amazed by the animals we’re surrounded by. Tuesday, leaving the Center, I passed seven deer grazing on the lawn outside Lipscomb Hall. Maybe some day I will get used to how beautiful they are.
Friday morning the weather took a sudden change and the trees were painted in ice. The whole landscape glistened. I suddenly realized that those dangling sparkle Christmas lights are trying to duplicate this natural phenomenon, and the electric version is a poor substitute. (Lord, I sound like Thoreau.) I had to get on I-77, and from afar, the woods looked like a field of hoarfrost, a solid made up of thousands of individual strokes of sparkly white ice. The temperature was rising, and as I returned to the Center, the small trees in the parking lot, shown like crystal, the ice on them just beginning to melt. One brown tree looked studded with gold beads. By noon, the air was so warm that I walked about without a coat, but the ice sparkled for a long time after.
The snow has melted in a lot of places, but here at the house with so many trees, we’re still backed by a lot of snow, reminding me of another passage I read in Thoreau, where he talks about sitting on a bare patch of ground dotted by mounds of snow on a day so warm he has his coat off.
“Last night I came home through as incessant heavy rain as I have been out in for many years…. But to-day I see the children playing at hop-scotch on those very sidewalks…so rapid are the changes of weather with us, and so porous our soil.”
–JHDT, March 16, 1859
This week, I began performing as “The Moon” at the Night Hike.
Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, Paul has been to a peace demonstration in Salem. They were heckled by teens blasting Poison out their car stereos, but many teens joined them, too. He thought about taking our Scottie wearing a sign that said, “Barney, talk to your owner.”
“Snow going off very gradually under the sun alone.”
–JHDT, 17 March 1856
War and weather, the two topics of the 10 o’clock news last night and this morning.
On the war front, we hope for reprieve, but it grows less likely every hour. The Iraqis are lining up for gas to try to drive away; U.S. citizens in Middle East countries are being brought stateside; Blix has been told to recall the inspectors. Bush has said this is the last day. Hussein says he will take the war to the skies.
I’ve been thinking of Sarah’s journal. Is nature an escape from it all, and should it be? I agree that there is a balance in nature, and I wonder if Camp David has wild turkeys.
I have been so oblivious to wild turkeys till now, loved these passages from Thoreau:
“For two or three or three days, I have heard the gobbling of turkeys, the first spring sound, after the chickadees and hens, that I think of.” (March 20, 1856)
“I hear turkeys gobble. This, too, I suppose, is a spring sound.” (March 19, 1858)
Meanwhile, in Hinckley, where the buzzards were due this weekend, the birds arrived two hours earlier than ever before.
“Despite all these activities, Thoreau was not well. He records few details of his illness but it may have been related to his lifelong battle with tuberculosis. Some recent biographers suggest that the illness may have been psychosomatic. Whatever its basis, it had a devastating effect upon his journal, and we find both far fewer and much shorter entries for months on end.”
— Harding Introduction to Vol. 8, The Journals of HDT
I just sort of disintegrated this week. My allergies kept me wired and awake. I felt miserable but because I couldn’t sleep, I got a lot done, typing poems, prepping, standing out in the woods dressed as the Moon to greet children on their Night Hike. But by Thursday, I had such sinus pain that I went to an urgent care center. The doctor attributed it to mold in the park. (Of course! Mold! My worst! Ah, wilderness!) She prescribed antibiotics, a decongestant, and another allergy medication. Within hours of taking them, I felt somewhat better.
“You might frequently say of a poet away from home that he was as mute as a bird of passage, uttering a mere chip from time to time, but follow him to his true habitat, and you shall not know him, he will sing so melodiously.”
–JHDT, March 25, 1858
I do have trouble writing poetry away from home. Home this weekend, my parents’ home– the one my father built shortly after coming home from the war, the one I was brought to after my birth– I didn’t write, but I slept the best that I have for weeks.
The morning was beautiful and warm. At noon, I walked out to the Everett Covered Bridge, then through the woods to the Center and back home, wearing a light jacket. This afternoon, it clouded over.
Every day has had three kinds of weather—if not climates. Tomorrow is the Night Hike, with me outside as the Moon again, so I am hoping again for good weather
Last night we had a thunderstorm, so my moon show moved indoors. I am not wearing my white-feathered Mardi Gras mask, as masks tend to erase the individual, and I sport a moon tattoo instead. I recount the Spanish folk tale about Segovia’s aqueduct during eclipse. Sixth graders have questions about eclipses on the Ohio proficiency exam, which I hate, think of my storytelling as running interference on that exam, bringing awe into the lesson.
I continue to be pleasantly undone by the wildlife. I noted for several days we hadn’t heard the peepers, asked everyone, “Have you heard them? Are they done?” Then, last night, during the hike, the peepers peeped so loudly I could barely hear the people on the trail with me. I had just found Sam Hammill’s article on making a broadside for Ruth Stone’s poem “Mantra” which has the lines: “When I forget to weep,/I hear the peeping tree toads/creeping up the bark.”
I imagine our tree toads gathered in a big circle in some low-lying lovely area of some bog, legs wrapped around each other, peeping their little froggy lungs out, something like “Viva la company!” Their song echoes in a watery way. And I have not yet forgotten to weep.
Friday, we had incredible spring weather, highs of 70, so warm the staff meeting was outdoors. Then yesterday, there was what Thoreau calls a “spitting snow” by afternoon. This morning, when I got up and opened the curtains, I laughed: fat white flakes coming down. None have settled, but it is chilly. We walked for an hour and a half, my nose running like a broken faucet the whole time.
As usual, the best part involves the students I work with and the interns who work with them. I began some new exercises with new students. Tom stunned his teacher with this:
Cattails, cattails, cattails,
all in one pond,
you look in the water
and what do you see?
Not your reflection
or things behind you
but in its innerself
you see another world.
In this world you see
only the coolest animals you can be:
newts and salamanders,
fishes or frogs.
Oh how we love this pond,
Oh how we love this pond.
The “other world” in the pond’s “innerself” is so very Transcendental. Everyone asks me if I edit the students’ poems, but I barely touch them, they arrive so whole.
March 31-April 6
“April has begun like itself.”
–JHDT, 1 April 1854, p.m.
The last three days have been typical spring weather. Snow Sunday and Monday, first sleety, then big fat flakes. Monday morning, I awoke to find snow covering the ground, melting by noon. Now sun streams, and I can stand outside without a coat. But rains are due by afternoon, and I will probably get soaked at my Night Hike appearance as “The Moon.”
“A remarkably warm day for the season: too warm while surveying without my greatcoat; almost like May heat.”
–JHDT, March 17, 1854
The weather is just glorious. Last night, I was able to perform my Moon act out by the pond wearing my nylon nightgown instead of flannel and long underwear. Friends cannot imagine me doing this: a moon tattoo on my face, my white hair sprouting straight up like a fountain, held by two silvery scrunchies. I wear tons of huge rhinestone and crystal jewelry while carrying a candlelit lantern. The kids come on Night Hike, which features several activities, my favorite of which is chewing white mint candy in the dark with their mouths open to watch the sparks. (I should mention that while it is my favorite, there are much more educational ones, like learning to discern night noises.) When the kids find me, I give moon lore and copies of my poem “Notes During the Eclipse,” as a memento of the evening. At the campfire after the hike, I tell the Segovian folktale.
This morning, warm weather continues, and I am on the way to a reading of Elton Glaser and Will Greenway’s Ohio Bicentennial anthology, I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio.
“Oh, what company good poets are!”—José Martí
Oh, but it was great to be with 14 poets yesterday. Emails are coming in from them, saying, “Oh, it was good to see so and so after so many years,” and “I had never met you before, and really enjoyed getting to know you.”
When the children here at the park ask, “Are you famous?” I always answer with Daniel Thompson’s phrase, “Famous in the neighborhood.” Poets in Ohio are a neighborhood, a rather genial and supportive group of artists who tend to know each other. So readings like this are like family reunions. I drove to Findlay with Cleveland poet Bonnie Jacobson, whom I haven’t seen in over seven years, and we chattered on so relentlessly, that we missed our exit on the turnpike and ended up wending back east through tiny farm towns I didn’t know till we hit Fremont and then it was Bettsville, Fostoria, Arcadia, and Findlay.
This week, using Hamill’s article on Broadsides, I have been teaching broadsides. At the end of day one, I show them many of the broadsides I have collected over the years: Bloody Twin Press’s letterpress broadsides, my computer-generated ones, and students’ hand-printed ones, and we talk about features like the colophon. Day two, after writing, the students choose one of their writings to make into a broadside. It provides closure to their time with me and an array of posted broadsides, from lovely little crayon sketches under the words, to huge dazzling blocks and circles of glitter punctuating odes to frogs, deer, and pines.
Today, the one-year anniversary of my sister’s death, I carried her drum that the kids played while we recited poems, all which she would so have loved. Emails flooded in from friends all over the U.S., who remembered, too.
“Another remarkably windy day; cold north west wind and a little snow spitting from time to time….”
–JHDT, April 6, 1859 April 7 13
“I skinned my duck yesterday and stuffed it today. It is wonderful that a man, having taken such an enterprise, ever persevered in it to the end, and equally wonderful that he succeeded. To skin a bird, drawing backward, wrong side out, over the legs and wings down to the base of the mandibles!
–JHDT, 7 April 1855
Man, I skinned no ducks today. Despite all my endeavors, I got nothing done but buy and change four light bulbs
On April 8th, a day later, Thoreau adds to the topic of skinning his duck, “When taking the brain out of my duck yesterday, I perceived that the brain was the marrow of the head, and it is probably only a less sentient brain that runs down the backbone—the spinal marrow.” Exactly how my brain feels tonight.
“The ground white with frost, and all the meadows also, and a low mist curling over the smooth water now in the sunlight, which gives the water a silver-plated look…Quite a wintry sight.”
–JHDT, April 8, 1855
Well, on the one hand, we didn’t get all the ice and 4-6 inches of snow predicted, though it is cold and frosty this morning.
Yesterday, feeling a bit down and concerned about merely simulating life for the kids, I went to Keats’s Endymion, which comforts me so, ten lines I have memorized that begin “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” After those lines, Keats describes nature’s comforts: sheep, trees, daffodils, muskroses, rills– and despite myself, I went back to one of the first poem exercises I ever created for work with kids, my own take on “Odes,” a little bit of Neruda, a little bit of my “Ode to a Pomegranate,” and this time, I added Keats and the idea of nature being a comfort.
I was scheduled to meet seventh graders in one of the small bay-window areas of November Lodge. When I did my shtick, they said they knew all about metaphors from their English teacher, who truly must love metaphor because metaphors flowed out of their pens like gold ink:
Leaves which run on branches [thick as] cars on [city] streets –Greg
Old and brittle as an old man/ yet smart/ knowing his surroundings –Tim
…the pain like that of thinking too hard/to write an ode –Matt
Sky is the hole that never ends…filled with translucent marshmallows –Andrew
Assigned to “ write about one of the organisms here” Becka sighed, “I want to write on the deer, but I haven’t seen one yet.” I replied, “Well, write an ode to the deer you haven’t seen yet.” As we finished up that session, I read aloud what she had written:
ODE TO A DEER I HAVE NOT SEEN
O, I’m wishing, hoping
waiting to see
the light, soft deer.
I’m wanting, needing
waiting to spot
the sweet cute face.
I’m thinking, imaginating
waiting to see
the furry doe
as cute as a teddy bear
O, I’m wishing, hoping
waiting to spot
the deer in the forest.
Then, and I swear, this knocked me out, someone shouted, “Look at the deer!” and five deer came walking across the clearing. One stayed off to the left with his butt to us the whole time (lesson on the white tail of the white-tailed deer), and the other four, for all the world as though their stage directions said, “Enter left, stand center-stage for 10 minutes,” stood in the middle of the window, chewing and staring as the kids darted quietly with their cameras.
Then deer and students left, and another group came and we did it again, without the miracle of the deer but with other miraculous odes.
“The west and northwest side [of D.R.’s shanty] is well-nigh covered with slips of paper, on which are written some sentence or paragraph from R.’s favorite books.”
–JHDT, April 10, 1857
I spent yesterday typing, and the house is covered in student poems. Today the students wrote persona poems and made broadsides. That has become a very fun activity, sort of like taking kids, stirring them up, covering them with glitter.
“The robin is the only bird as yet that makes a business of singing, steadily singing—sings continuously out of pure joy and melody of soul, carols. The jingle of the song sparrow, simple and sweet as it is, is not sufficiently continuous to command and hold attention, and the bluebird’s is but a transient warble…but the song of the robin on the elms or oaks, loud and clear and heard afar through the streets of the village, makes a fit conclusion to a spring day.”
–JHDT, 13 April 1852
One of the parents asked me as we were walking the other day if I was thinking in verse. I didn’t answer clearly, but on Friday morning when I woke up and heard some bird fling 11 wild notes that sounded like someone punching randomly on a touch-tone phone, I recalled three lines of “Ode to a Bird” which Matt had written Tuesday:
“Feathery, peaceful, and floaty/ In this habitat you’re like a fish in a pond…./ happy as if it’s a holiday.”
I have been too anxious lately to write poetry, but I feel the kids’ poems as mine in a way, feel comforted by them and hear them in my head.
In the evening, I drove to Hines Convention Center to meet the Cuyahoga Valley Nature writers. Arriving early, I stepped onto the path, just as four deer stepped toward me, and we danced a number titled, “Hey, Come Over Here—Hey Stay Over There but Tell Me Who Are You and Where Are You Going?” After seven minutes they got tired of the dance, and I went indoors to meet the humans.
“Can we believe when beholding this landscape, with only a few buds visibly swollen on the trees and the ground covered eight inches deep with snow, that the grain was waving in the fields and the apple trees were in blossom April 19, 1775?”
–JHDT, April 14, 1852
While we don’t have eight inches of snow today and are due for warm weather this week, but not for long, this has been a very late spring and very long winter. Some people predict this will be one of those years with no spring to speak of, right from snow to swimsuits.
Today I met with two groups from Horace Mann Middle School, and we wrote acrostic serenades, a combination form I invented for my “Serenade for my Goddaughter.” I encouraged the students to imagine the upcoming Night Hike. A few of my favorite lines from the day:
Sparkling diamonds in the deep, dark sky/ Take their time to be big and bright. –Kathleen
Rain sparkling down from that/ Everlasting sky./ Even when it turns to dusk, the pond still/Sparkles through the night. –Camille
Night hawks swerve through the stars in the dusk./In the dark, when I look up, the lightning bugs glow….—Morgan
Even the oldest deer crosses rivers to get to the sky in the evening. –Kaitlyn
For some reason, we got off on Sasquatch, whether urban legend (my position) or real (everyone else’s opinion) and Jason wrote a Sasquatch acrostic serenade on his name:
Sasquatch in his
Around in the light of the
Stars, which are
Over our heads every
And then, all the arguments for/against gross animals:
|SNAKES ( Ray)
Snakes wander thru the forest at
New and old are all
|BUGS ( Matt)
Bugs are nasty at night
“Horace Mann …brought me some days ago the contents of a stakedriver’s stomach or crop…. He brought me also some time ago the contents of a black duck’s crop.”
–JHDT, April 16, 1861
I came across these references to Horace Mann just as I am working with students from Horace Mann School. This is what we used to call “coincidence” and now call “Synchronicity.” I wondered if Thoreau’s Horace Mann referred to the school’s namesake. Horace is still at it in Thoreau’s April 20th journal: “H. Mann brings me the hermit thrush.”
Researching, I found that Mann Sr. came to Ohio to be President of Antioch College. Shortly after he died in 1859, Thoreau entered this passage:
Dr. Bartlett handed me a paper to-day, desiring me to subscribe for a statue to Horace Mann. I declined, and said that I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose the advantage of one man’s dying if we are to have a statue to him forthwith…. At this rate they will crowd the streets with them.
Of course, Thoreau willfully forgets that we don’t build statues to everyone, only (ideally) to a few who stand as important reminders. And since we have all the politician and warrior’s statues, why not one statue to an educator, one who said in a commencement speech, “Be ashamed to die before you have won some battle for humanity.”
Anyhow I also learned that the Horace Mann who ran around bringing all these animals and organs was Horace Mann Jr., two years after his father’s death.
Today students wrote persona poems imagining themselves as some organism. I liked this tiny quatrain:
HERON ( Nick)
I am usually lonely
stalking my prey.
Sometimes I can stay
here all day.
Another group read John Haines’s “If the Owl Calls My Name” and imagined what they would do if an animal here called to them. One student wrote this:
WHEN THE SPIDER CALLS (T.J.)
from his web
I’ll wait for the sun to rise
then climb up his web
to meet him.
We’ll talk a lot
and eat pizza.
We’ll sit on the couch
and watch T.V.
As the sun begins to
set, I’ll depart,
filled with happiness.
“It is remarkable how the American mind runs to statistics. Consider the number of meteorological observers and other annual phenomena…. Every shopkeeper makes a record of the arrival of the first martin or bluebird to his box. … John Brown, merchant, tells me this morning that the martins first came to his box on the 13th, he ‘made a minute of it.’ Beside so many entries in their day-books and ledgers, they record these things.”
–JHDT, April 17, 1854
Thoreau didn’t know the half of it! I am struck by recent accounts of “Bloggers,” who record their life daily (daily!) and at length online. One Iraqi in Baghdad was making daily, even hourly entries of what the war was like for Iraqi citizens. At some point, his blog just disappeared. I hope he did not.
The last day of my six-week residency.
I began this morning by walking with a group, talking about Horace Mann. Later, we all got together in an open field for closing ceremonies. I read two poems, a very silly rhyming one by Kathleen about a Canada goose getting a massage from a masseuse, and this final one by Helen, which echoes Thoreau’s final paragraph of Walden, which says, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
The heron calls in the deepest, darkest of mornings
when the dew has just fallen.
I’ll wait until he opens his wings and digs for fish
so early in the morning.
Sing sing o wise and beautiful guardian of the creek,
speak your beautiful heron words
of soaring above it all,
build your nest of pine and oak
teach your babies of the greatness of the world.
Perhaps before I do, it would be good to let Thoreau have the last word, “Man [ahem] does not travel as easily as birds migrate. [S]He is not everywhere at home, like flies….My home, then, to a certain extent is the place where I keep my thick coat…and some books which I cannot carry; where, next, I can depend upon meeting some friends; and where, finally, I, even I have established myself in business” (August 19, 1851). Surely, Ohio will always be one of my homes. But it is a journey to my other home that I make tomorrow, not as easy a migration as the sparrows flying back to Capistrano or the buzzards returning to Hinckley– though the Boston Marathon is Monday, so there will be throngs awaiting there, just as they wait for the swallows and the buzzards.
Diane Kendig, who has worked as a poet, writer, translator and teacher for over 40 years, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently The Places We Find Ourselves (fall 2009). A recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Fellowships in Poetry and a Fulbright lectureship in translation, she has published widely in literary journals, most recently J Journal, Wordgathering, Earth’s Daughters, and qarrtsiluni. For more information about her, see dianekendig.com.