For the most part I confine my comments about books to the Off Radar column. But this winter a work of pure backyard naturalism came my way that may interest readers here.

“The cover for Seringo” by Charles Weld. Contributed photo

The book is “Seringo” by Charles Weld. It’s a collection of freely formed sonnets generated from the poet’s excursions in the woods and in Henry David Thoreau’s journals. The two activities bleed over into each other. Which, I have to tell you, is exactly my experience too.

It’s not always clear, in memory, whether you’re remembering walking the woods or remembering reading the journals. In “Seringo,” you’re doing both.

You can get a picture of what’s happening from “Three Shadow Foreshadow,” which is about turkey vultures. The speaker of the poem sees three shadows pass over and notes to himself that “Big woes / may have been foreshadowed in another century / by their visitation.” And if the foreshadowing is not of woe, it might be snow in May, “like last night.” Nature is numinous.

The poem then turns seamlessly to the journal, when the author brings Ed Hosmer, one of Thoreau’s neighbors, in to explain that “a cat owl’s hoots … were the surest sign of rain,” which Thoreau disputed. Joe Polis, one of Thoreau’s Abenaki guides, told him it’s whistling snakes that forecast rain. Thoreau considered this more carefully because, the speaker of the poem says, “Polis’s vast knowledge caused him pause.”

Then the little story returns to its own backyard, where a woodcarver neighbor “has a road-kill vulture in his freezer.”


“Beautiful,” he said. For a model, of course, not augury, to put himself close to the world’s forbidding novelty.

In 14 lines we get from the poet’s yard, into the numinous shadows of turkey vultures, back to the woods around Concord, Massachusetts, further back to pre-European Native wisdom, then finally return to the poet’s neighborhood on a numinous image of death and the modern world’s distance from nature. This is very insightful, interconnecting poetry.

Thoreau’s journals, of course, are made of words. And Weld hears them everywhere. “When Thoreau writes, ‘(Wood thrush song) is delivered like a bolas,’ / … the prey, I guess, is he, himself … / taken down by the Wood Thrush’s caroling.” In birdsong, Thoreau’s words and the poet’s own listening: “Deep calls to deep.”

In “Song Sparrow Song,” the speaker observes that no two song sparrow melodies are exactly the same, even though they seem the same, like days. He notes the early 20th century naturalist Aretas Saunders transcribed hundreds of variations, then observes that Thoreau’s efforts to transliterate it — “Olit, olit, olit — chip, chip, chip” — never succeeded either.

His different attempts to get it right across years of his journal with bits of words admit that there’s no one right fit or so many in the mix that, as with an electron in orbit, position is hard to fix, so many possibilities in such a big bag of tricks.

This is quintessential backyard naturalism, or so I call it. Most of the book riffs off Thoreau in these various ways, and a last section calls into the woods the voices of other naturalists, such as Saunders, Cordelia Stanwood, and Arthur Cleveland Bent. The language is pretty clean and accessible throughout, but always playful and skillfully made.

I can’t tell you how resonantly this book speaks to me. Like my own woods, words and wanderings in Thoreau’s journals.

“Seringo” is available from Kelsay Books and online book sellers. Charles Weld attended the University of Maine and lives now in the Finger Lakes Region of New York.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can email him at His book “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: