Friday, October 22, 2010

for the road

“There is no real contemplation of God
unless it is followed by a glance upon the world.”
~ André Pinet, Benedictine monk of Saint-Bénoît sur Loire, France

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

carried along

“Sometimes there’s doubts
When the dogs they bark
And you’re not sure
What is in the dark.
I start to cry
but then the wind goes by
To carry us through.”

~ Sarah Masen, Carry Us Through

Sunday, October 17, 2010

place prepared

“The trail winds up
on the next horizon,
the pilgrim soul proceeds with earnestness
to follow wind and sand
and earthsome pleasures
as if he knows
that there’s a place to go.”

~ Monks of Weston Priory, A Place to Go

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

graphite roots

“seek, and ye shall find”

~ Matthew 7:7

Following a good few miles of walking I stopped to write a few words, aperch on a large rock. Looking from the panoramic ocean in front of me, and down to my notebook, the dark grey textured granite caught my attention. From the massive rock, I noticed the pencil I was writing with- and saw how their tones blended together as though from the same source. I wrote in my notebook, “I am writing with the earth of which I am formed.” We write and draw our lines and marks with the colors around, beneath, and above us. Formed from this earth, we write with earth upon this life's substrata.

Not long before that moment, I’d enjoyed a day’s adventure seeking out and exploring the ancient graphite mine site at Tantiusques, Massachusetts. Parts of the treads and seams of my hiking shoes still hold traces of the unusual orange soil from the terrain. I like the reminder. When I arrived at the location of several now forested-over deep trenches, I tried to imagine how the native Nipmuc prospectors would have even thought to excavate that particular spot and not another. Simply shuffling at the ground, my feet kicked up a clay-like ferrous soil. That may have been the tip to explore further. The Nipmuc used the greasy, sticky graphite to make ceremonial paints.

Graphite is a mineral, an allotrope of carbon (as is anthracite), and as any such material it must be mined. Forming in veins of metamorphic rock, combined with limestone deposits, graphite is identifiable by its black streaks. Its name is based on the Greek verb graphein, (“to write”) because of its use in the production of writing tools. A rarer type of graphite is its crystal form, among the world’s few non-metallic conductors of electricity.

Tantiusques, often pronounced “Tantasqua,” approximately translates as “the black deposits among the hills,” and is located in a remote area southwest of Sturbridge. The site was an ancient source of graphite long before is was shown to exploring Massachusetts colonists in the early 1630s. A few years ago, I read The Tale of Tantiusques, written by George H. Haynes in 1902. With captivated imagination, I determined to find the place. All I needed was agreeable weather and time to sojourn to an intriguing place that doesn’t appear on my way anywhere.

“The mine is situated in the midst of a tract of land,” wrote Haynes; “still, wild, and desolate.” Today, Tantiusques is protected by the Trustees of Reservations, and the area is near another protected area managed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In 1644, John Winthrop the younger, son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor John Winthrop, purchased the mine and the area around it from the Nipmuc sachem. The agreement secured “ten miles round about the hills where the mine is thats called black lead.” Indeed, the Colonies were to supply England with the abundance of “all mynes and myneralls, aswell as royall mynes of gould and silver,” as we read in the records from the 17th century.

Winthrop’s goal was to raise as much as 30 tons of graphite from the mine, and he also hoped to find silver. As Haynes wrote, “The early colonists shared the hope that El Dorado might be discovered in New England.” Briefly put, the going was very rough. Tantiusques was located in remote inland wilderness, making transportation and maintaining a labor force difficult. Winthrop’s reports attest to how the high-quality ore lay deep in small veins, “it being very difficult to get out of ye rocks, which they are forced to break with fires.” Convinced his graphite was mingled with silver- both fetching high prices in London- Winthrop brashly wrote to his Swedish shipping agent in England, the raw material was “part silver, but this you must keep as a secret and not talke to any body about it further then it is to make pencills to marke downe the Sins of the People.” Later on, a London appraiser declared, “that which you call a silver ore is almost all iron.” The Winthrop family ownership and management of Tantiusques continued until 1784.

The post-Revolution and the War of 1812 evidently diverted energies from many ventures- including Tantiusques. By the time Frederick Tudor, of Boston, purchased the mine and its surrounding property just before 1830, Massachusetts became a center in the American pencil industry. Included in this region was the successful Thoreau manufacture in Concord, and graphite mines in Acton, Mass., and in contiguous southern New Hampshire. In the employ of Tudor was Capt. Joseph Dixon. At Tantiusques, Dixon and his son worked at the mine and founded the Dixon Crucible Company. Dixon was an entrepreneurial inventor who innovated a mirror-based camera viewfinder, a double-crank steam engine, methods for underwater tunneling, and a heat-resistant graphite crucible. He began his graphite enterprises, using Tantiusques graphite, in 1827, producing stove polish, foundry materials and lubricants, brake linings and bearings, non-corrosive paints, and woodcased graphite pencils. The Civil War era intensified the domestic demand for portable (and dry) writing material. Pencils became indispensible. By the early 1870s, Dixon Crucible was the world's leading graphite consumer and dealer. Pencil production reached 86,000 per day. Perhaps you are currently using Dixon pencils, which are descendants of the ancient Tantiusques mine!

By the time Sturbridge businessman Samuel L. Thompson purchased the Tantiusques property in 1889, Dixon Crucible had been well-established in Jersey City- close to the port of New York. After Francis L. Chapin’s purchase of the property in 1893, the Massachusetts Graphite Company was organized to continue developing the area, using more modern mining methods. As Haynes reported (in the present tense) in 1902, “Prospecting has been undertaken upon other parts of the property, and one short open cut has been made in which graphite of remarkable excellence was encountered.” These were Tantiusques’ last productive years, as all mining ceased by 1910. For the preservation of the site, the next significant year was 1962 when The Trustees of Reservations acquired the land with a gift from Roger Chaffee of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a former student of George H. Haynes (author of The Tale of Tantiusques). Finally, in 1983, the Tantiusques site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

When Tantiusques was in full production, most of the mining had been open-trench. One of the large trenches that is still visible had been dug 1,000 feet long by up to 50 feet deep, and only 6 feet wide. Once more, Haynes’ words from 1902: “The principal vein of graphite was inclined at an angle of 70 degrees. In following it an open cut was made some 500 feet in length, from twenty to fifty feet in height, about six feet wide. This deep cut has always been a source of danger; on the thirteenth of October, 1830, the fall of a great mass of the overhanging rock crushed to death two workmen and crippled for life a third.” Standing at the bottom of the vein today presents an oddly peaceful sight. It is a lengthy and angled trench, with steep chiseled rock and trees banked high at both sides.

Though I could find my way to the well-concealed and winding Leadmine Road, being a seasoned New England navigator, locating the Tantiusques site took a lot of persistence. Having missed at least three rounds of mild-weather seasons, and also having dedicated the time, I would not be daunted- and that meant taking all the wrong turns in good spirits. A very worthwhile adventure, rewarded as soon as I found a mine tunnel opening. From there, some very rocky trails ascended uphill revealing high-angle views of deeply-cut trenches. Considering the mine has been extinct for a century, my enduring impressions combine tranquility with the strange beauty of the place. Verdant natural growth covers pronouncedly human-carved terrain. Near the top of the longest trench I found, I could see the pond at the incline’s base which had been the landing-point of mining debris. Today, Leadmine Pond rests silently and glistens with reflected light.

The day, filled with chilled autumn sun, amounted to a moving and fascinating experience. In a new way to see territory I know well, it became clear to me that the tools I have been using are formed of the basis that supports living beings. Seeing the mine and walking throughout its environs brought some past experiences to mind, such as jobs I’ve had in dark and subterranean confines. And my visit, years ago, to pay respects to coal miners (dissimilar as the Tantiusques site is) was close to my thoughts when I crouched into the tunnel. Yet upward to the sky vault the trees. Pondering how all things have roots, I stopped to write about my lifelong search for roots of my own; I find shreds of them in scattered places. And thus, learning about who I am, my explorations are at once upon the surface and deep within. Two very small rocks from the inside of the mine tunnel are on my desk for me to be reminded of what transforms within. As memories are scribed upon the soul, my hands continue to write the graphical record. I know that I will think of Tantiusques when the winter snows cover the seashores near my home as well as the remote woods that have reclaimed an ancient graphite mine.

Eldorado found in New England!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

walden pond

“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things,
we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable,
that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and
unfathomed by us because unfathomable.
We can never have enough of nature...
We need to see our own limits transgressed,
and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Transitioning seasons and colder air invite me outdoors. Such liminal spans occur to me as “vignetting times,” recalling the ways I’d blend and fade edges of photographic images by vignetting exposures in the darkroom. The motions of time are clearly visible now, and the elements call me away from my confines. Driving winding back roads and hiking forests and shores, early-autumn shows resemblances to early-spring. The draw of creation combines with a welcome: a rarified sense of belonging so elusive in society. The thicker the clouds, the more evident the embrace. Proximity with a long view.

To be welcomed is to be received: to be recognized and blended into an environment. When is welcome transformative? Ponder the occasions when you’ve experienced a mutual acceptance with others- perhaps even in your prayers. Thinking of my sojourns in monastic communities brings to mind what can happen when individuals pursue lives that welcome one another’s presence. With this mindset, I’ve seen how such discipline and conscientiousness also translates as a perception that considers the self and others as part of a greater entirety. Those experiences of learning by example have strongly influenced my view and practice of friendship and collegiality. And being well-acquainted with times during which welcomes have been elusive, I keep an eye out for those who themselves experience unwelcome. This has been done for me, as well, and such rare generosity is impossible to forget. On his ascent of Mount Katahdin in 1846, Henry David Thoreau experienced a silently profound welcome by the Maine wilderness itself. Not a greeting campfire, nor groups of travellers; “no face welcomed us but the fine fantastic sprays of free and happy evergreen trees, waving one above another in their ancient home.” A gracious guest responds to an invitation with reverential wonder.

As Thoreau was welcomed by the Maine woods, so I found a quiet welcome of my own at his place. The present-day comparison between the region around Mount Katahdin and Concord, Massachusetts is surely much more pronounced than it had been 165 years ago. But somehow, despite some long-established encroachment emanating from greater Boston, the Walden Pond area is surprisingly serene. I didn’t expect that. Even the markers corresponding to Thoreau are sparing and understated. His cabin’s site is neatly marked with small granite posts and its replica is far enough away, at the entrance to the state park. On the original site, I stopped to write in my journal beside Thoreau’s hearth, looking from there to the water as he would have done. True to this vignetting season, the day was pensively overcast with cool cloud-calmed air filtering through the woods. The pond has the breadth of a small lake, and hiking its periphery on narrow paths I was treated to numerous views through gaps in the trees at the mirroring water. Very simply, my thoughts were taken up with admiring the beauty of the place.

On my way to Walden Pond, I’d stopped at the Concord Public Library to see Thoreau’s manuscripts. There, in the archives, I was able to see Thoreau’s own depth survey of Walden Pond, the maps he created of contiguous regions, and his original handwritten essays. Not to be missed, I asked to see pencils made at the innovative and illustrious Thoreau pencil factory. Though he found his greatest inspirations in natural environments and the wilderness, Thoreau was technologically savvy. He discovered ways to streamline the production of pencils by blending clay with locally-mined graphite. Thoreau’s technique was enormously successful. He even worked out methods of mixing the clay and graphite such that degrees (from 1 to 4) of hardness/softness in pencils could meet consumers’ needs. As a side-note Charles Thomas Jackson, geologist to the State of Maine (and brother-in-law of Ralph Waldo Emerson) used Thoreau pencils to write his surveys- which included Mount Katahdin.

Above: some of Thoreau's land surveys.
(I wasn't permitted to photograph his prose manuscripts.)

Below: the Concord archivist displays a Thoreau pencil,
which has a squared graphite rod inside the cedar casing.

As captivating as the artifacts were, it was the outdoors that I really longed for. From Walden Pond, the next two days were filled with back roads, forests, and hiking. Noticing the peaks of the Berkshire Mountains, I began to wonder about the draw of the woods. Why retreat to silence and stillness? What do peaceful forests, mountains, and oceans teach us? What is concealed beyond the silence, which requires our listening?

These questions returned to me, back home in Maine, while hiking a winding path near the ocean- once again under deliciously heavy skies that were ripe with rain. My answers began with recalling the state of mind I tend to have whenever I return from sojourns in the woods: a calmer and cleaner slate. Such natural elements as the woods and the ocean remind me of the vastness and variety of creation. Too often the world is reduced to a cubicle; we have to know when we can break out of the box. The draw of wilderness places may be the places and sights, but there are results which accompany us on our ways through and back, such as clarity of thought, serenity of mind, and strengthening of spirit. Just the other day, along a trail that became a deep crevasse, I stopped and looked up at the tall trees rising high above both sides. Directly above were shifting clouds. Through the composite was an audible silence, and after dining on the quiet for a good while, leaning on a boulder I wrote, “vast skies inspire raised eyes.” Sights are serendipitously unpredictable. On uneven trails, one must pay attention- sometimes with every step. I take to the trails to hear that silence; I go in order to let go. Realizing what cannot be grasped, release the grip.

Between a welcome such as that received by Thoreau, by “the glassy smoothness of the sleeping lake,” and the embraces of loved ones, profound significance and meaning are added to our days. Places and experiences to be kept close to heart. As with the maps we hold within, these are for us to reference for all our years. Drawing from a place of strength can be equally along a trail as from the soul’s depths. If the adage is true, that we read to know we’re not alone, I’ll add that I write to remember I have a voice. I’m aware of that, especially along trails- and- under those big skies, my thoughts are brought down to an assuring proportion. My perspective reveals as a bicycle wheel that needs truing- whose propensities require realignment. Looking to changing foliage and turning tides reminds me of all that is in my sights, yet beyond my control- though I am somehow part of these elements.

Aperch at Thoreau's hearthside, Walden Pond cabin site.