Friday, November 18, 2022

The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau

Roughing it in the Pine Tree State
Henry David Thoreau was a native of Concord, Massachusetts and lived there most of his life, with the exception of his years at Harvard and his sojourn at nearby Walden Pond. Thoreau did get around, however, and his travels and natural explorations make up the bulk of his books. From 1846 to 1857 Thoreau made three trips to Maine that resulted in three lengthy essays that comprise the book The Maine Woods. Although two of these essays had previously been printed in magazines, the book as a whole was unfinished at the time of Thoreau’s death and was published posthumously in 1864.

In Thoreau’s time, the line between civilization and wilderness was not as sharply defined as it is today. Nowadays, however, his three excursions to Maine would probably qualify as “wilderness adventure travel,” meaning he slept outdoors, often traveled by foot and canoe, and his primary objective was to experience nature through hunting, fishing, birding, botanizing, and simply enjoying the scenery. In the first essay, “Ktaadn,” Thoreau climbs to the top of Maine’s highest mountain, now Mount Katahdin. He also observes the lives of the loggers and boatmen who work amid the woods, lakes, and rivers of Maine. In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau accompanies some moose hunters to the lake of the same name. Apparently there were no moose in Massachusetts, so Thoreau enlightens his readers on this fascinating creature. He also shares his views on hunting. Hunting for sport makes him sad, but he’s OK with hunting for subsistence. The third essay, “The Allegash and East Branch,” is a more rambling journey with no apparent objective other than the appreciation of scenery and the collecting of plant specimens.

In all three trips, Thoreau was accompanied by traveling companions, and they enlisted the help of Indian guides. The companions never really develop into characters, and Thoreau usually doesn’t even name them. The Native guides, however, are important presences in the book, particularly in the second and third essays. In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau is guided by Joe Aettion, and in “The Allegash and East Branch” by Joe Polis, both of whom he describes as Penobscot Indians. Aettion competes with the moose for attention in his essay, but Polis is very much the main focus of “The Allegash and East Branch.” In both cases, Thoreau wants to illustrate the character and personality of the Native Americans through character studies of these two individuals, but at the same time he points out how Native life has been altered by colonialism. He sees these men as a bridge between the old ways of the pre-Colombian past and ostensibly “civilized” White America. As a naturalist, Thoreau clearly admires and envies their woodcraft and wilderness survival skills. At times they call to mind Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (except he was White), but Thoreau’s two Joes are more realistically drawn than the noble savages of Cooper’s novels. Given his love of wilderness, Thoreau not surprisingly thinks White America could learn some from the Natives on how to live a life more respectful of nature. .

Unlike Walden, which is permeated with Thoreau’s philosophical musings, The Maine Woods is more of a straightforward travelogue and nature study, though Thoreau does occasionally reveal his thoughts on ecology and environmental ethics. In particular, he has a lot to say about logging and laments the rampant cutting of the forests. Because it was published after his death, “The Allegash and East Branch” has an unfinished feel to it, but all three are exceptional pieces of nature writing. Thoreau not only describes the natural environment but also delves into the cultural aspects of Maine life, which results in essays that read like they might have been articles in National Geographic or Outside magazine. Thoreau really transports the reader into the Maine wilderness and vividly encapsulates this period in American history..

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