On the morning of this Independence Day I sit on the stoop of my back porch, feet planted firmly on the short stretch of concrete walkway, husking sweet corn. I select an ear from the brown bag, part the dark tassel and strip down the outer husk. Rows of shiny kernels, yellow and white, glisten in the late morning sun. I snap off the base and lay the cleaned ear on the heavy oval plate at my side. High in the trees that tower above my neighbor’s house a vireo pipes his clear, crisp notes. Momentarily, I pause in my labor to look up; but the bird is hidden in the densely leafed canopy.
A chipmunk pops her head up from a crevice in the red stone wall to survey the scene. In a moment she poses prettily on a capstone, watching me work. Sparrows descend to perch atop our weather-worn wooden fence and take turns attacking the birdfeeder. Languidly, our black cat lounges on the driveway below, content to bask in the morning sun.
One hundred seventy years ago on this day, July 4th, Henry Thoreau moved into his small one-room house near the northwest cove of Walden Pond, eight days shy of his 28th birthday. He had begun to clear the site with a borrowed axe four months earlier before ice-out. By mid April the house was framed and ready for raising. Thoreau dug his cellar in the side of a small rise that sloped to the south; and “at length, at the beginning of May, with the help of [his] acquaintances,” he set up the frame of his house. Before the following winter he had built a chimney, shingled the sides and plastered the interior walls. The final structure measured ten feet wide by fifteen feet long, boasted “eight-feet posts, a garret, a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end and a brick fireplace opposite.”
“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest,” Thoreau wrote. “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?”
As I reach for the final ear of corn, a catbird calls from its nest in the thicket behind the garage. I have never heard so many catbirds as I have this year. They might be making a comeback, I think, as I strip the husk from the last ear of corn. I pick off the few remaining strands of corn silk and add it to the stack on the plate.