Tag Archives: Henry David Thoreau

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.

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“Walden Warming – Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” by Richard Primack

Henry David Thoreau has been part of my life for a long time. My mother quoted him. So did my minister. We read some of his writing in high school, more in college. And I am a New Englander. Walden Pond is located in woods just like those I played and camped in as a child. But until I read this book, I never thought about the impact of global warming on Walden Pond, and on “my” woods.

Dr. Richard Primack is an academic botanist with decades of research experience, but his work around Walden Pond began only about ten years ago. Looking for an “angle” from which to study the impact of climate change on plants, Primack learned that Thoreau, most commonly thought of as an author and philosopher, was a dedicated naturalist who kept detailed records about the plants and animals around him. The crucial pieces of data related to dates – when did the winter ice leave Walden Pont, when did plants leaf out, blossom and set fruit? Having an “old” data set allows for comparison with present conditions. Yes, it can be documented that climate change is having an impact on plants. (And so are many other actions, especially development.)

Primack moved on from plants to insects, using data from Thoreau and other early naturalists. When he ran out of records, he turned to the world’s great insect collections, reading the dates on specimens, from which emergence data can be construed.

Primack repeatedly referred to “analyzing” data, but didn’t really say how. I assume he looked for statistical correlations, but wonder if he also engaged in mathematical modeling, to me a mysterious but potentially useful “black box” endeavor. 

Primack also studied climate impact on birds, bees, butterflies, fish and frogs. Only a person with tremendous energy and a steady supply of graduate students could cover so much physical and intellectual territory.

I was totally taken by surprise when Primack discussed the impact of climate change on humans by analyzing data from the Boston Marathon! 

His last chapter, on solutions to global warming, wasn’t really needed. So many people are addressing that topic. But I would say Primack is entitled to hold forth, since he produced so much well written discussion in Walden Warming. His ideas about introducing southern wild plant species to New England are intriguing.

This book, which I highly recommend, is right on the line between “popular” and “scientific”. I hope Primack continues to write in both veins, since he has valuable information to impart.