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The heroic 'Walden'; a literal take on birdsong

Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition
By Henry David Thoreau
Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer
Yale University, 370 pp., illustrated, $30

The Music of Wild Birds: An Illustrated, Annotated, and Opinionated Guide to Fifty Birds and Their Songs
Illustrated and adapted by Judy Pelikan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 184 pp., illustrated, $18.95

A Cottage for Sale* (*Must Be Moved): A Woman Moves a House to Make a Home
By Kate Whouley
Commonwealth Editions, 301 pp., illustrated, $22.95

Questing: A Guide to Creating Community Treasure Hunts
By Delia Clark and Steven Glazer
University Press of New England, 254 pp., illustrated, $24.95

For ''Walden," we know the exact ''pub date," as the trade puts it, because Henry David Thoreau noted it matter-of-factly in his journal for August 9, 1854: ''Walden published."

To mark the anniversary, there are several new editions of note. From Beacon Press comes a paperback edition ($9.95), handy to take along on your own Walden quest, with an introduction by environmental writer Bill McKibben. From Shambhala, a ''gift edition" ($24.95), with striking woodcuts by Michael McCurdy. And from Yale, a handsome ''all-things-Walden" edition, copiously annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods.

Cramer's take is that ''Walden" is to be read not as autobiography but as mythology, ''a heroic book because it is a book about a hero." ''By turning the experiment of life into a heroic task," Cramer writes, ''Thoreau was able to turn 'Walden' from a philosophical tract of unattainable goals into a guide for the perplexed."

Cramer's annotations -- 1,634 of them, handily arranged in columns along the edges of appropriate pages -- identify Thoreau's wide-ranging sources, but also show him to be an acute observer of daily life in 1840s Concord.

There is the dispute over tapping Walden Pond to bring water ''to the village in a pipe, to wash their dishes with!" There are references to the railroad that passed northwest of Walden Pond. And there are descriptions of farming practices, and of the Irish workers who came out from Cambridge -- ''with Yankee overseers" -- to cut ice, a thousand tons a day, which they stacked like ''the solid base of an obelisk designed to pierce the clouds."

Cramer's annotations also show Thoreau to be a more playful figure than usually depicted. Thoreau wrote that while fishing alone at night, ''I used to raise the echoes by striking with a paddle on the side of the boat . . . until I elicited a growl from every wooded vale and hill-side." Friends recalled those occasions, one remembering ''a weird night" with him.

And since Thoreau had been a skating companion of Emerson's and Hawthorne's, it is a delight to find him using the children's game of ''kittlybenders" -- running or skating across thin ice without breaking it -- to urge the importance of finding ''a solid bottom."

One key joy of sampling nature is observing birds. And the most avid of bird-watchers may be the bird-hearers who can identify them by their songs and try to imitate them with an off-key whistle. To carry that further would be to actually perform them. Early in the last century, F. Schuyler Mathews, a naturalist who divided his time between Cambridge and Campton, N.H., made that possible, with a field book in which he transcribed bird songs in standard musical notation.

Illustrator Judy Pelikan was tipped off to Mathews by a friend and, in ''The Music of Wild Birds," has handsomely illustrated a new edition that may lure bird-hearers out of the woods and on to their pianos, flutes, or violins.

Kate Whouley, a book-marketing consultant who lives in Barnstable, did not build a cabin in the woods like Thoreau, but bought a cabin-size summer cottage and had it moved to become an addition to her own small house. In ''A Cottage for Sale," Whouley tells how it all happened, with zest and, one assumes, a sense of relief. The project required the talents of various contractors and building movers, assorted friends and neighbors, as well as town officials. One wonders just how many meetings at the town hall Thoreau would have put up with.

''Questing" is an adventure of a rather different sort, an educational treasure hunt in which small groups set off with a map and some cryptic cues to find a hidden treasure box. ''While certainly a heap of fun," write authors Delia Clark and Steven Glazer, ''Questing was developed to accomplish an important mission: strengthening the vitality of local communities." It does this, they write, ''by encouraging young and old to actively research, explore and have fun in their local natural and built landscapes."

The authors are involved with the Valley Quest program based in White River Junction, N.H., and a detailed description provides most of what any community group would need to start its own project; this reader is already enthusiastic enough to suggest it to a local neighborhood group.

Michael Kenney writes every other month about new books of regional and local interest.

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