“Home Manufactures,” “Acorns in a Mast Year,” “Moosehead Lake,” “Nature Did That,” and “American Bittern”
by Charles Weld
We could call the creek behind the school Sea Cook Creek
because that’s where our black lab, dead years ago
now, dove without warning into two feet of snow
to pull up a muskrat in his jaws. I got a peek at the creature
the next July, one back leg too lame to bear weight,
wobbling with Long John Silver’s rolling gait
before dropping into the water. Thoreau suggested
a tariff on words to encourage home manufactures.
He preferred musquash to muskrat, and tested
quackled for drowned to describe a trapped muskrat dying
underwater—that East Anglian antique, so satisfying
to say, picked up perhaps from hearing local farmers speak.
A word compresses many experiences into a few
ways of thinking. But maybe less so with a make-do,
Yankee contraption whose fit for the job is its virtue.
“Acorns in a Mast Year”
Boiled a quart of acorns for breakfast wrote Thoreau
in early October of what I’m guessing was a mast
year, when oaks, beeches, or hickories throw
down their nuts in such profusion that the season’s feast
by mice, turkey, and deer doesn’t really dent supply.
Soaking his acorns overnight, he found sinkers
sound—floaters, worm-eaten, or otherwise too gone by
to sprout. About one good for every seven spent
was the odds Thoreau gave for acorn potency.
The waste of oak labor—cost per sprout—he
called a glaring imperfection in Nature. Those years,
one in seven was also the probability of dying from TB
in Concord. So, the sharp remark may be presentiment
of the end beginning to close off his sense of possibility.
The summer I was twenty-two, I worked on a line gang,
laying track in the woods near Jackman, Maine.
Last hired: worst job. I pounded six-inch spikes
with a short-handled sledge, two or three hits
until each bit an inch or two into the splintery tie,
secure enough for the gas-powered-machine guy
behind me to drive them straight down to the steel plate
without wobbling. Wake up was 4 am. We ate
beans, pie, eggs and meat—washed in a pond, quit
early if the rails warped in the sun, bunked on a siding
in boxcars. Laid off one morning, job complete, I hitchhiked
south down the side of Moosehead Lake, at first riding
in a log truck past the face of the Penobscot’s Mt. Kineo,
beside sparkling water where Joe Polis had guided Thoreau.
“Nature Did That”
Into the mouths of snakes go babes said Bradley Puffer
who told Thoreau he’d seen twenty-five water adder
snakelets slip into the maw of their mother
to escape danger. Now I take it that is Nature,
Nature did that he pronounced with a remarkable air,
as if he were communicating or suggesting something
unnatural—some sideshow spectacle extraordinaire.
There was also his story of turtles freezing
on the March meadows, after a flood power
washed them out of their quarters. A hundred pounder,
forty others smaller. And pickerel laid out on the winter
ice four to five hours brought to life in water.
A long talk with him, Thoreau wrote,in the rain under
a tree until, cold and wet, they both began to shiver—
each ready to receive whatever Nature would deliver.
Peabody called it the boomer, Rice—cow-poke
or baked plum pudding. Some others named it
wollerkertoot, Minott said, although he liked pump-er-gor
instead. Stakedriver was the common name, more
often used than bittern by locals. Thoreau wrote stroke
and suck to describe the call’s two parts. A hit
or dry click, the first sound. A slurp, the second.
Like driving a postinto soft ground. Or drawing water
with a wooden pump. To any New England farmer—
familiar sound. But nick names didn’t make the bird
easier to find. Approaching one, Thoreau found after a third
of a mile, it did not sound much nearer, and the two
parts of the sound divided. Each seemed to beckon
from its own direction, complicating what he knew,
another surprise to catalyze the sorting of false from true.
Charles Weld’s poetry has been collected in two chapbooks (Country I Would Settle In, Pudding House, 2004; and Who Cooks For You? Kattywompus Press, 2012.) With degrees from Cornell and the University of Maine, he is a mental health counselor, and has worked as an administrator in a non-profit agency that provides treatment for youth experiencing mental health challenges. He lives in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York State.