Two outdoors writers trace Thoreau's historic footprints through the Maine woods
- By: Richard Grant
Of all the writers who ever set pen to paper on the subject of Maine, Henry David Thoreau is, I’d wager, the most widely admired yet least often read.
We all know, albeit vaguely, about The Maine Woods, Thoreau’s expansive recollection of three journeys Down East, the earliest in 1838 and the last in 1853. We’ve likely read excerpts here and there, and been duly pleased by how aptly the old Concord Yankee evokes the eerie dark and stillness of an evergreen forest, or enthuses over the view of Moosehead Lake at dawn, or waxes rapturous at the daunting grandeur of Katahdin. But how many of us have had the stamina to make the long literary trek — 464 pages worth in the Penguin edition — slugging with our unhurried narrator through every type of intemperate weather, braving bad trails and leaky tents and Biblical onslaughts of biting insects, rehashing unproductive efforts at conversation with a taciturn native guide, only to find ourselves on the wrong peak of an unfriendly mountain with zero visibility in a raging storm? Precious few, I suspect.
Well, it’s true: there are reasons not to read Thoreau. He’s a windy sort of narrator, inclined to overstatement, loathe to drop any topic until it’s been mined for every smidgen of possible interest. He is self-absorbed to a degree that remains impressive even in an age of blogorrhea. His prose veers from plain-spoken to quaintly mannered. And like many pioneers, he sometimes gets lost, physically and intellectually — viz., his frequent errors identifying plants and animals he encounters by the way.
For all that, Thoreau is also uniquely rewarding. His singular point-of-view, his knack for sudden, startling insight, and his apprehension of the transcendent unity of nature stand even today as virtually peerless.
And so, the good news: two contemporary writers have penned worthy and readable books that reintroduce us to this difficult but fascinating body of work — one by bringing The Maine Woods into the twenty-first century, the other by beckoning us away from our computers and out to the Maine woods themselves.
For the armchair adventurer, Tom Slayton’s Searching for Thoreau: On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England (Images From The Past, Bennington, Vermont; paperback; 210 pages; $18.95) offers an eloquent mapping-out of Thoreau’s thought-world. A former editor of Vermont Life magazine, Slayton leads us on a briskly-paced tour of the landscapes that inspired the seminal writings — not just in Maine but on the Cape Cod shore, the slopes of Mount Washington, the Concord and Merrimack rivers, and, of course, the banks of Walden Pond. It’s a lively trek, and Slayton’s great achievement is to treat Thoreau as both a guide and a companion. We seem to peer over his shoulder as he marvels at an untrammeled vista or wrings out his clothes after some sodden misadventure. The long haul up Katahdin — and subsequent race back down, lashed by driving rain — is notably revelatory, as it marks a dramatic turn in Thoreau’s evolution as a naturalist: a sobering glimpse of a world that is indifferent, even contemptuous, of his presence. “It was stern, stark, and forbidding,” writes Slayton, “and it shook him to his core.”
In The Wildest Country: Exploring Thoreau’s Maine (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, Boston, Massachusetts; paperback; 222 pages; $19.95) J. Parker Huber brings us a different Thoreau: not the natural philosopher but the intrepid, hands-on outdoorsman. Like a North Woods Baedeker, this volume kindles our hunger for exploration, inviting us to head outdoors and re-experience Thoreau’s Maine adventures for ourselves. Fine-grained, far-ranging, and rich in both background data and local detail, this is a practical travel guide that makes such a journey, even for the modestly stout-of-heart, a doable proposition. In this updated and reissued edition, Huber provides useful maps and daily itineraries, photographs both historical and contemporary, and liberal snippets of Thoreau to set the proper tone for the excursion. Inter alia, we find essays on indigenous flora and fauna, up-close surveys of local geography, extensive notes and suggestions for further reading, and a brief, admiring introduction by environmental writer Bill McKibben.
Fine as they are, these new books are not Thoreau. No one, it seems, will ever recapture the strange, sophisticated innocence of a man who, discovering a phosphorescent glow from rotting wood, “exulted like a pagan suckled in a creed. . . . I let science slide, and rejoiced in that light as if it had been a fellow creature. . . . I believed that the woods were not tenantless, but choke-full of honest spirits as good as myself any day.” Perhaps Huber and Slayton will encourage some of us to take a fresh look at the old, eccentric master.
- By: Richard Grant