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“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such.
His profession is the best symbol of our life.
Going from ___ toward ___; it is the history of every one of us.”

Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday is this year. I have never quite felt comfortable with the idea of marking birthdays for people who have died, but we do it. I have written about Henry before because I find him an interesting person of contrasts.

He went against the times he lived in. He went to Harvard College and was an intellectual, but in our general image of him, he is a non-conformist. He walked away from society to live in the woods for a year. But he went back. My favorite little anecdote about Hank is that in that year at Walden Pond, he often walked back into town to get some cookies from his mother and have her do his laundry.  It is like camping in the woods, but not too far away from a convenience store.

Thoreau was an abolitionist, a serious and the solitary walker and a passionate naturalist. He modeled his life on religious convictions. He believed that each of us has a connection with divine spirit, though I suspect people generally think of him as less Religious and more spiritual. He never went to church. He never married. He never voted and he didn’t pay his taxes.

He literally talked to trees. He was an environmentalist, although that term was not used in his time. He saw a tragedy coming for future generations because of the heedlessness he saw growing around him.

There is a new biography of HDT out this month that I reserved at my library simply titled Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Will I discover new things about  Thoreau when I read it? Certainly. Will it change my own life, as I feel my first reading of Walden did? I highly doubt that. That’s not a flaw in the book, but a flaw in me. Or maybe it’s a flaw in almost all of us – our lessening ability to change as we get older.

I found out about the book listening to an episode of Radio Open Source, one of three episodes on Thoreau. Pronunciation trivia: “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough” though most people tend to emphasize the second syllable instead.

Something that I always liked about Thoreau is that he seems to have kept himself very busy. As someone who spends too much time making To Do lists and not enough time doing things on the list, I admire his work ethic.

He worked. He was alternately a handyman, carpenter, surveyor, lecturer, businessman (his family owned a pencil-manufacturing company) and a constant writer.  He spent nearly a decade trying to describe that famous one year on Walden Pond and finally published his Walden or Life in the Woods.

He was a bit of an anarchist. In 1846, he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail, but was freed the next day when someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax, against his wishes. He used the experience for several lectures on tax resistance, the rights of the individual to self-government, and it eventually became an essay best known as “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau studied Indian spiritual philosophies and religions and they appear in his writings. He even followed a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India” and enjoyed flute playing (a musical pastime of Krishna) and yoga.

I found a very interesting website, MappingThoreauCountry.org,  that uses historical maps to organize and interpret documentary materials related to Thoreau’s travels throughout Massachusetts. I am a fan of maps of all kinds and you can view Thoreau’s own work in cartography on the site.

Henry (whose first name was officially David, but he reversed the first and middle name after college) was also very much at home on rivers. Water worlds engaged him. He made his own boat and he paddled and sailed on nearby waterways. He looked into the water in a scientific way and a philosophical way.

Before his Walden year, he had spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers  paddling from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, with his brother John in 1839. John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote the book, in part, as a tribute to his brother. He did the first draft during that year at Walden Pond along with his journaling that would become Walden

HDT also loved solitary walking. Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod four times, passing through nearly every town on what he described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” Along the way, he recorded observations that became the basis for lectures, essays, and, eventually, a book-length travelogue that was published posthumously as Walking in 1864.

After college, came a short period of teaching first in a public school and then in the Concord Academy started by Henry and his brother. The school closed after John’s death.

In Concord, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who took a paternal interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to local writers and thinkers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendships with Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement had their ups and downs, but it led to his being a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist.

In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house and served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repairman and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he tutored the sons of William Emerson on Staten Island,  while he was looking to make contacts with literary men and journalists in New York City. That was how he found his future literary representative, Horace Greeley.

Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family business for most of his adult life.

In April 1844,  he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that ironically consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.

His experiment in simple living began the following year on July 4, 1845. He moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres. It was 1.5 miles from his family home.

He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 – 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after loving there – and returned to the Emerson house.

In Walden, he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house in 1848 and stayed at a house on nearby Belknap Street. In 1850, he and his family moved into a house at 255 Main Street, where he lived until his death.

When his aunt Louisa asked him in the last weeks of his life if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two unexplained words, “moose” and “Indian”.

He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44.

During his rather short life,  Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. This was not a change that thrilled him.

He did not see those changes away from nature, self-reliance and simplicity as positive progress.

He was a contemplative individual and a proponent of finding the wilderness, wildness, even the bewilderness that remained in nature. Even if that wilderness was just a small woods, park or river near your home.

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“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau

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It felt a little odd to download Thoreau’s essay, Walking, to my tablet to read. I’m not sure how Henry David would feel about digital books. But I know he would still recognize walking all these years later.

It appeared in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He must have liked it because between 1851 and 1860 Thoreau read the piece aloud ten times, more than any other of his lectures. “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.”

On the essay’s first page, he writes:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau mixed this essay in his lectures with another on wildness (not to be confused with wilderness) and says that private property is killing our capacity for wildness.

I love to walk. I try to walk outdoors every day. I try to walk, when I can, in whatever pieces of wilderness are nearby.

Like others, I find walking is a creative stimulant. I prefer a natural area but even walking in a city or around my suburban neighborhood can change the way you perceive the world.

sidewalk

A modern-day look at this is Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit which looks at  walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning. Th book discusses some famous walkers  that I admire (Wordsworth, Gary Snyder) and argues for preserving the time and space in which to walk in our world that lacks both wildness and wilderness.

Solnit cherishes walking’s “relaxed gait, one that allows us to take in sights, sounds, and smells that we might otherwise pass by” and its opportunity for private thought.

I am also not alone in thinking of walking in a health-minded way and as a low-impact way of shedding a few pounds and stretching a few muscles.

Thoreau and Solnit both use walking to lead them to other subjects. Walking and philosophizing make good partners.

Fossil evidence shows that the ability to move upright on two legs is the characteristic that separated humans from the other beasts and has allowed us to dominate them. I would say that walking connects us to those early walkers, but as I recently wrote about the stars, that is probably not scientifically accurate.

“Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris, which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C. Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.”

I suspect that those early walkers were walking with a lot more survival in mind than my sauntering. “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. We make some tradeoffs in deciding between presence and productivity.

Being present in a walk can help you to see. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” says Marguerite Duras. Try On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyeswhich records walks around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog. Yes, walk like a dog walks, like a child walks, be as mindful as Sherlock Holmes, be as tuned in as Thoreau.

chris

If you read Into the Wild or watched the well done film version (directed by Sean Penn), you are familiar with the story of Chris McCandless who went to Alaska, somewhat ill-prepared but full of the Romance of the adventure.

Chris McCandless grew up in suburban Virginia and was a good student. He graduated in 1990 from Emory University and broke off connections with his family. He gave away his $25,000 to Oxfam and went “on the road.”

He traveled across the country in that road trip that many of us dreamed and talked about doing during or after college, but never did. Eventually, Chris abandoned even his car.

In April 1992, he hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in Alaska and headed down the snow-covered trail and into the wild. He wasn’t totally unprepared – 10 pounds of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, several boxes of rifle rounds, a camera, and a small selection of reading material – including a field guide to the region’s edible plants. But he wasn’t well prepared for an extended stay or very knowledgeable about the plant and animal life, food gathering or the topography of the area.

He survived for about 119 days. He is thought to have died on August 18, 1992.

He survived by foraging for edible roots and berries, shooting game from birds to a moose. He wrote in his journal. He took photographs, including self-portraits.

Although his plan had been to hike to the coast, summer was not a good time for that as the boggy terrain made it too difficult. So, he set up camp a derelict bus that others had used as temporary shelter.

He tried to leave in July 1992, but couldn’t cross a snow-melt swollen river. Unfortunately, there was a hand-powered tram just upstream that he could have used. He wrote in his journal on July 30, “EXTREMLY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED. It was interpreted by Krakauer to mean that Chris had eaten the seeds of an edible plant commonly known as wild Eskimo potato. He had been eating the roots (“potatoes”) which are sweet and nourishing in the spring, but when later in the season they became too tough to eat, he started collecting the seeds.

A new article by Jon Krakauer covers new evidence that the seeds theory is more likely to be true.  He might have made it if not for the poisoning by the seeds.

Maybe. Starvation seems like it still may have taken him. Some better maps and map skills and more information about the area and the seasonal changes would have helped, as would better food supplies.


I loved the book and I’m glad that this evidence seems to support Krakauer’s theory.  Not that the actual cause of his death is critical to what I got from reading and teaching this book to students.

My own belief is that Chris was a victim of Literature and Romance and the deadly brew they can be when mixed and taken in by some people. Krakauer describes McCandless’ very ascetic personality as having been influenced by reading Henry David Thoreau and Jack London.

His story is a lesson worth sharing. Though some people read the book and see Chris as heroic,  I don’t. I sided with about half of my students who saw Chris as someone not really prepared for the quest – though admittedly better prepared than most of us.

Did they want to do their own on-the-road questing journey? Almost all of them said they would like to do it in some form. We know that very few, if any of them, ever will.

I will tuck the article into my copy of the book as a footnote, but it doesn’t change the power or the appeal of the story for me.

I know that his story has become Walden-ish for some people. People make the trip, pilgrim-style,  to the bus in the way people go to Walden Pond.

It’s hard to explain what people would expect to achieve by going there, but I understand that desire. I felt that way about seeing Walden Pond and even the reconstruction of the Thoreau’s cabin. It had a kind of museum reverence.

Further Reading

Back To The Wild is a collection of the photographs and writings of Christopher McCandless and includes his original photographs, postcards and journal entries from his two years of traveling throughout the Western United States, Mexico, Canada and Alaska.

The Wild Truth written by Carine McCandless, Chris’s sister, tells another side of the story after 20 years. She fills in some of the blanks in his story and portrays a family that was dysfunctional and violent.

On Independence Day 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin on Walden Pond. Ralph Waldo Emerson owned some land near Concord, Massachusetts, and let Thoreau build a cabin there. He stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

This year on Independence Day (AKA the 4th of July), I was sitting in my backyard when I heard a robin carrying on quite loudly near me.  I assumed it was a mother robin because there was a young robin hopping on the ground near me unable to fly. I suppose it could have been a father robin, but we always seem to assume it’s the mother protecting the young.

My neighbor, Frank, came out on his deck. “Is the robin over there?” he asked.

“Yeah. It can’t seem to fly,” I called back.

Turns out there were two young robins on the ground. We found their nest in a small tree between our yards. We both scooped up the young robins and Frank climbed up on a ladder to put them back in the nest.

The mother robin swooped down. Protecting her nest? No. She pushed those little ones right back out.

It was independence day in that nest. Ready or not, those kids were going to learn to fly.

In 1791 the first recorded use of the name “Independence Day” occurred. The day commemorated the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 that declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Thoreau chose the day to start his attempt “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

He was mostly independent but he wasn’t all that apart from civilization. The nest, Concord, was only a mile and a half away, and he often walked into town. He worked part time as a surveyor, and his mother usually sent him back to the cabin with some home cooking.

He stayed for a little more than two years and he kept a journal. A form of the journal writings were published a book, which he called Walden; or Life in the Woods, in 1854.

Sometimes you have to get thrown out of the nest. Even if someone is watching out for you nearby.

Walden Pond

“Things do not change, we change.” – Henry David Thoreau


In 1849, Henry David Thoreau self-published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It was his first book. It is about a two-week boating trip he took with his brother, John. The trip had occurred in 1839 and they went from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back.

“We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language.” – from the chapter “Friday” in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

The brothers were close but very different. Henry was the quiet, studious one, and was loud and fun-loving. But John helped pay his brother’s tuition to Harvard, and he helped Henry open his own school. (Henry had been fired from his teaching job because of his objection to corporal punishment.) During the ten years between the trip and the book’s publication, John died unexpectedly from tetanus. He dies in Henry’s arms.

Thoreau decided on seclusion and began building a cabin by the banks of Walden Pond.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived, ” he wrote. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion”

What did he mean by “living deliberately?” Do most of us live “accidentally?” Thoreau wanted to determine for himself what was really important. his method was to take himself out of the normal life of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840’s. Partially, this was economic as he reduced his material needs by living simply. That meant he did not have to spend time supporting a lifestyle that he did not need or care about. The other part, which gets most of the attention from readers, is spiritual. We often see his time in the woods as akin to the spiritual retreats of eastern and western religions.

He lived there for two years and during that time he finished the drafts of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and a series of lectures that would eventually become Walden.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Henry David Thoreau is part of America’s literary history today, but A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was initially rejected and Thoreau was able to publish it only by paying for printing from its sales. It took him four years to pay off the printing cost. He wrote in his journal that his publisher had delivered the remaining unsold copies to his home. “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

Socrates said the unexamined life was not worth living. I’m not sure if he had some place of retreat to examine his life. Can you live deliberately while still living in the “normal” work of your work and life? Do we need our cabin in the woods and a few years of living deliberately to know who we are and what we want to do with the rest of

As poet Mary Oliver asks in “The Summer Day (New & Selected Poems)

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Statue of Thoreau & a replica of his cabin at Walden Pond

(All quotes from Walden:Life in the Woods – Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, unless otherwise noted.)

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.


Walden: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition

wilderness

Wilderness south of Machtesh Ramon, Israel

Sometimes people just give up on civilization and head out into the wild. It’s a Romantic notion. Some of those people are prepared for the wild. Some are naive.

In many religions, there are stories of people who sought out God or enlightenment away from civilization. The story of the temptation of Christ is one early one. After being baptized, Jesus is supposed to have fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean desert. The “Desert Fathers” were Christian hermits of the third century who abandoned the cities of the “pagan world” to live in solitude in the desert of Egypt. Anthony the Great was the first known ascetic to go directly into the wilderness.

Gauguin’s landscape

When I was in high school, I was charmed by the biography of the painter, Paul Gauguin. I had fallen into my own Impressionist period, and discovered Gauguin’s (a Post-Impressionist) art and writing. I liked his primitivist style and philosophy. And I loved that in 1891, broke and frustrated by his lack of recognition, he sailed to the tropics. He wrote that he wanted to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.”

Gauguin spent his remaining years living in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. He wasn’t really living in the “wilderness” and he was interacting with the natives and even clashed with colonial forces. But, he did escape civilization as he knew it.

happinessThoreau

Closer to our own time is Henry David Thoreau, American author, naturalist, and philosopher best known for his book Walden. That book is his reflections on his time spent living independently in a cabin beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Thoreau returned to civilization and didn’t really have it all that rough in the woods and Concord wasn’t that much of a walk away. But his self-imposed isolation helped him get a perspective on the civilization he left behind. And many people since then have followed in his footsteps and tried to escape from civilization – even if it wasn’t very far or for very long.

Self-portrait of McCandless at his camp that was found undeveloped in his camera after his death.


Christopher McCandless is one modern escapee who took those of the past much more seriously. His story is told well in the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild and in a good movie version of that book.

McCandless took the notion of living civilization behind and decided to live off the land in Alaska. He had some book knowledge of survival but was more fueled by literary Romanticism.

Disenchanted with his parents’ lives and wealth and materialism in general, he set out across the country, took on the name Alexander Supertramp, and finally ended up in Alaska.

Unfortunately, he did it at the wrong time of the year and without the proper equipment and knowledge. His odyssey lasted only 113 days before he died of starvation in August 1992.

But the bus that he ended up living in has become a destination for a kind of Romantic tourist who probably has the same kind of dream. Maybe Chris’ death has become a good lesson for what doesn’t work if you want to escape.


If you read or watch these stories, you can view some of these individuals as idealistic or naive. That is true with McCandless who I see as both of those things.

I feel the same way about Tim Treadwell whose idealism pushed him to protect a habitat he loved through his activism and filmmaking. His story is told in a really unusual documentary film, Grizzly Man.

Tim Treadwell was an environmentalist, amateur naturalist, eco-warrior and documentary filmmaker. He lived with the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska.

The documentary was made by Werner Herzog who had access to over 100 hours of video shot by Timothy Treadwell.

Treadwell spent thirteen summers in Katmai alone or with is girlfriend learning about the grizzly bears and developing a “relationship” with them.  In the film, you see Treadwell’s sanity slipping away. It is not unlike the portrait of McCandlees in Kakauer’s book. Though the madness may come from  different places in these two cases, you get the feeling that the wilderness and isolation is part of the madness. No wonder Thoreau occasionally walked into Concord to get some cookies.

Treadwell was an idealist, a failed actor, a recovered alcoholic and yet someone we can admire as a truth-seeker. Herzog takes that view. But, in that thirteenth summer of living among the bears without any protection, his luck ran out as he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a bear.

Kaczynski’s cabin

If you want to look at an extreme, take the case of Ted Kaczynski, another primitivist who deeply criticized civilization and technology. Of course, he is known to us now as “The Unabomber” and he is serving a lifetime sentence without parole in a federal prison.

Like McCandless and Thoreau, he was educated. My own theory is that a college education will expose you to all kinds of ideas that can change your life for better or worse – because they are the kinds of ideas that lead to dreaming.

He was an academic but quit his math professorship at the University of California at Berkeley to live in a remote cabin without running water or electricity in the wilds of Montana. He rejected civilization.

Sounds a bit like Thoreau.

In Montana, Kaczynski was self-sufficient. He learned tracking, edible plant identification, and primitive “technologies.” He was there from 1971 until 1996. He built a box of a “cabin” (more like a shed) that wasn’t unlike Thoreau’s cabin. In his time there, he saw the wilderness around his cabin disappearing.

It is easy to see that Kaczynski slid into madness over the years because he realized that he could not really escape from society and technology. He has been called a “neo-Luddite” and “eco-terrorist” but both terms bother me. They demean Luddites and anyonyone involved in ecological work. He was a madman.

From 1978 to 1995, he created 16 bombs that blew up and caused the death of three people and the injuring of 23. He was arrested in 1996 at his cabin. They found 40,000 handwritten journal pages about bomb-making, his targets, and the typed manuscript of his “manifesto.”  I wouldn’t even link to his manifesto here, but it is online and he has continued to write and even be published from prison.

Better that you should read some of the best writers who have considered wilderness and wildness. It’s a pretty long list.

My own favorites include Edward Abbey, Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Loren Eiseley, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben, John Muir, Gary Snyder and Lewis Thomas.

Read them. Maybe you can escape in your armchair. I will continue to escape to Paradelle for now.

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