Thoreau’s Maine Woods

Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. I listened to the excellent Librivox recording by “Expatriate.”

This is the posthumously published account of three trips Thoreau took between 1846 and 1857 to the vicinity of Mount Katahdin, all by canoe or bateau, on two of which he employed native guides. The land he saw was thinly settled, but it had already been greatly changed by cutting of the white pine and the construction of numerous dams to facilitate floating the large logs down to the sawmills. They frequently visited or slept at vacant lumber camps. The descriptions match very closely the reconstructed one I visited years ago near London, Ontario.

Thoreau was of course, an unmatched observer of nature, whose journals are still a valuable resource for modern ecologists seeking to understand the New England landscape as it existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. He gives many detailed descriptions of the landscape, from the forbidding slopes of Mount Katahdin to the falls and rapids of the Penobscot River. He gives the scientific names of the plants he saw, most of which were familiar to me, like jack pine, Pinus banksiana, and Lilium canadense. He mentions many birds, including the shelduck, which I take to mean the common merganser, Mergus merganser, the cat owl (probably the great horned owl) and bald eagles along the rivers. He has some excellent descriptions of the geology of the routes, such as Mount Kineo, in Moosehead Lake, whose flint-like rhyolite was sought by the natives for toolmaking. His accounts of the difficulties of walking along the rocky, timber strewn banks of the streams and through the boggy ground at the divide between the major drainages evoke memories of similar hikes. The photo by KD Swan, river driving in 1937 in  Kaniksu National Forest, from the US Forest Service Northern Region, gives an idea of the challenge.

Thoreau the transcendentalist’s belief in the spirit lodged in every person is evident in his narrative of these trips. Some of the best descriptive passages are of the the solitary hunters and the timber scouts, who spent months in the wilderness, searching out the uncut stands and the routes for bringing logs to the mills, or the ones engaged in piling up hay and other stores in the camps, to feed men and beasts over the winter of timber cutting. His descriptions of camping out, under simple cotton tents, next to roaring fires, cowering under veils and blankets from mosquitoes and black flies, fishing, hunting and skinning moose and dressing the huge, heavy hides are vivid. Best are his accounts of his native Penobscot guides, particularly Joe Polis, who accompanied him on the third trip to the St. John’s and Penobscot. His interest in Native American language and woodcraft is evident in his careful accounts of Joe and his ways. He gives a detailed and nuanced description of this man, who had travelled to Washington D.C. To pay his respects to Daniel Webster and who had led the pro-education faction of his village against the Catholic priest, who wanted to tear down their “liberty pole” and shut the school. This struggle included a simulated attack on the priest and his party, as they tried to lay hands on the pole, by a gang of painted, naked young men. Despite his tendency to keep his communication minimal and to refuse to answer a question more than once, Joe was a superb teller of tales. He was also a superb handler of his canoe, shooting dangerous falls and rapids, handling the heavily laden craft on stormy lakes and portaging over rough trails. Thoreau tells how Joe taught him the techniques of paddling, which sounded very similar to what I practiced when I earned canoeing merit badge. Joe Polis knew the properties of most plants, could make numerous varieties of tea from them, and yet he was not as familiar as Thoreau with the arrowheads and other flint tools that Thoreau found and showed to him. Overall, Thoreau’s portrait is of a man successfully bridging two cultures.

The Maine Woods joins books by Ruben Gold Thwaites, Mark Twain, Richard Bissel, and, continents away, Eric Newby, on my short but growing list of great river narratives. I’m about to post on a fine account of three British naturalists, Bates, Wallace and Spruce on the Amazon.

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