Tag Archives: Walden Pond

Museums in my life – a very selective account!

Roebling Museum

A Facebook friend recently posted a wonderful question! “Did the town you grew up in have a museum?” Thank you, Lynne Calamia! You can’t imagine how many memories this shook loose. Yes, my town had a museum.

What I remember: The Children’s Museum (of Hartford, Connecticut) was located in a big old brick Victorian house just near enough for me and my sister to walk to. Near the front door was a swan, beautifully mounted, in a big glass case. I loved it! So beautiful and so lifelike, with its wings raised. The swan was the symbol of the Museum. I believe it was a trumpeter swan, which has a ten foot wingspan!

I don’t remember much else about the Museum. I think it had dioramas, like most museums at that time. But what did they show? No idea.

By the time I was ten years old, the Children’s Museum had grown and moved, and was closer to me. My mother signed me up for a workshop on growing plants. We mixed our own potting soil. The swan was still on display (I think), but the Museum had a new symbolic animal, a whale. They built a huge model whale outdoors and children could climb in and around it, getting a feel for its enormous size. Fun!

Years passed and I returned to the Museum with my sons. Lots to see. Good family fun, but we lived 200 miles away. Clearest memory: the Museum had a live monkey, which predictably fascinated my two year old son. He and the monkey came face to face through a glass barrier. The monkey made an aggressive grimace! My son, terrified, forgot his ability to walk, dropped to all fours and scuttered away as fast as he could move! I scooped him up for reassurance. It didn’t seem to reduce his interest in animals or museums.

Through their growing up years, I took my sons to various museums. I like SMALL museums. If I go to a huge one, I’m likely to pick one floor or exhibit, rather than walk myself to exhaustion trying to see “everything”. 

My sons and I especially enjoyed house type displays. For example, the Mark Twain House in Hartford was a real hit, with its porch balcony the resembles a Mississippi steam boat. An the famous fire place with twin chimneys on either side of a big window, so residents could watch snow fall into the fire. So was Thoreau’s house at Walden Pond. It isn’t the original house, which was judged too remote for a public exhibit, but an excellent reproduction. Very appealing! My sons wanted to move right in. But very best of all were the 1903 Camp Buildings at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Again, not original structures, but a beautiful, detailed reconstruction. There wasn’t much “civilization” on the island of Kitty Hawk when the Wrights chose it for its open space and steady wind. They brought most of their own supplies and lived simply. Children love the idea of camping out! Roughing it! My sons spent more time studying the Camp Buildings than running along the 852 foot flight line that shows where the Wrights accomplished their amazing feat.

So, if someone asks what museums are for, I say they are for families to share. Now my most frequently visited museum is the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Medium sized, and home to the American Entomological Society and a world class collection of insects. Don’t miss it! Families love it. 

I hope to visit the Roebling Museum in Roebling, New Jersey, soon! The Executive Director is Lynne Calamia, mentioned in my first paragraph above. It’s a museum of history and technology, now closed for Covid but maintaining an active on-line presence. 

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“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.

“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.