Brown’s Bog: A Sumac Filled Swamp

Our trek through Brown’s Bog was a welcome and peaceful break from the hectic pre-spring break rush. Although many bemoan the dreary weather, I think it added to the serenity of the bog. This introspective feeling was heightened by the boardwalk weaving through the woods. Unlike the walk at Johnson Woods, this boardwalk was narrow, making it impossible to walk next to anyone. 

This tranquility was stymied somewhat by a nagging fear in the back of my mind: poison sumac. I’m a veteran poison ivy contractor, and from what Professor Bourne said, sumac is several times worse. Upon further investigation, the unpleasant reaction sumac has with skin is because of the compound urushiol, which bind to proteins in the skin. This triggers an immune response— the cells that adhered to the foreigner are killed by the immune system, which creates those characteristic red and oozing welts. Interestingly, not all sumac varieties trigger such a response— others have been used in dyes, as medicine, and even to flavor beverages. Once again, Heraclitus’  duality makes itself known, because, as Hannah described in class, sumac can be both what it is (an irritant that causes cell death) and what it is not (a medicine to cure various ailments).


Seeing Nature in Society: Thoreau’s Botanical Descriptions of Clothes

Thoreau often uses metaphor to express a situation or to invoke an image of nature. These stylistic choices not only give his writing vibrance and life, but they also inevitably give the reader multiple ways to dissect his ideas, offering them various lenses through which to observe a single scene. It offers both a literal and more interpretive point of view, imploring that the reader see ordinary things in a new light. 

This mode of description stood out to me as Thoreau was discussing clothes. On page 21 (at least in my edition), he describes clothes using language associated with botany, comparing a human to a plant. He refers to our “thin and fanciful clothes” as our epidermis (the “skin” of a plant), our “thicker garments, constantly worn” as our cortex (tissue beneath the epidermis), and our shirts as our “true bark.” In this way, Thoreau manages to do the opposite of anthropomorphizing, he rather attributes plant traits to humans. 

The clothes he refers to as our epidermis I gathered were our jackets, and the way he describes them here suggests that he sees them as more decorative than functional. Taking the plant perspective however, one could interpret the functional similarities between a jacket and an epidermis: they both act to keep things in (water for plants, heat for humans) and keep things out (bacteria and fungi in plants, water and weather for humans). In this way, he once again creates a layered scene, rife for multiple interpretations.

This passage highlights not only Thoreau’s command of language, but also his extensive knowledge of the natural world. However much I question his work because of his seemingly  condescending attitude toward society, it’s moments like these that show Thoreau’s skill and commitment to a nature-centered way of life. It shows that even when describing a solely human attribute, his mind always takes him back to nature.

Changing perspectives: exploring time through Walden Pond

Thoreau’s discussion of Walden Pond is rich with evocative and thought-provoking language. The language he uses reflects the scenes he’s describing. Surrounded by “celestial dews” and housing a “myriad of ducks,” he portrays the pond as a beacon of tranquility. Not only is Thoreau detailed in his physical descriptions, he also goes to great lengths to describe the pond’s nature or characteristics, taking the reader through its history as he sees it, focusing especially on the pond’s ancientness. 

On page 124 Thoreau gives a sense of Walden Pond’s age, discussing a narrow path along the shore that was likely “worn by the feet of aboriginal hunters.” On the page before, he even uses Biblical imagery to express the age of the pond, suggesting that it was likely there in all its glory when Adam and Eve were driven from Eden. Even when he describes his ax falling into the water, Thoreau urges his reader to understand the long and static disposition: he remarks that had he not disturbed it, it likely would have stayed in the same position—hilt up—until it eventually rotted.  

All of these references to Walden Pond’s history and how inevitably unchanging it is made me think back to McKibben, who shattered the longstanding notion of nature’s eternity. Thoreau’s language pints to his belief in the pond’s stability and steadfastness, where McKibben can’t help but notice abrupt changes in entire ecosystems. Although in a way Thoreau and McKibben have the same core principlesdeveloping a deep respect for nature and all its inhabitants—they seem to view nature in completely different ways. This is to be expected, as Thoreau wasn’t aware of the extent that humans would wreak havoc on the planet, and it makes me wonder what Thoreau would think today. Would he still think of nature as a place of isolation if, as McKibben points out, there’s no new frontier and no corner of the world untouched by human influence? 

Johnson Woods: A Sustainable Symbiosis

At this point it’s hard to see humans totally disentangling themselves from nature. Like McKibben says, the frontiers are all gone, there isn’t anywhere the boot of man has yet to tread. With that in mind, places like Johnson Woods are impressive in their overall respect for the surrounding natural world. Located on a small backroad and surrounded by acres of farmland, the forest is a large stand of trees a passerby might overlook. The woods themselves are relatively undisturbed, the only human structure being the boardwalk that snakes through the woods and over the marshy areas. 

Although with the boardwalk it’s impossible to forget human civilization, I’d argue that humans would always be present in one’s conscious anyway, with or without the boardwalk. This constant reminder manifests not only in the crude carvings on nearly every single beech along the path, but also in the historically unfamiliar organisms residing there. When we first stepped off the bus we were instantly reminded of the meddlings of humans in nature by the thousands of starlings in the neighboring field, a species introduced solely for their brief appearance in Henry IV.

Additionally, the boardwalk may be less sinister than one would think. I initially criticized it for hugging the forest floor, lamenting the habitat fragmentation it was likely leading to. Even though the width of the walk isn’t substantial, structures like these can impose significant barriers to various ground-dwelling fauna, like small insects and mammals. However, upon closer investigation, the boardwalk was set a few centimeters above the soil, allowing for mobility through the seemingly bifurcated environment. When paying closer attention to the path, I noticed that it too was teaming with life, supporting many fungal and moss communities. These intrepid settlers had surpassed merely surviving, they thrived in this environment, as could be seen by their protruding sporophytes, or their spore producing structures. These tiny sporophytes asserted themselves in this human-nature hybrid habitat, promising a new generation to come.