Down East 2013 ©
Image Courtesy Fogler Library Collection/Forest Life and Forest Trees.
This is the story of two books published within three years of each other in the early 1850s, enlivened somewhat with accounts of oxen, an aggravated bear, vastly differing views of the New England forests, and, for good measure, an inebriated lumberman.
One of the books is Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which you may have heard of. It was published in 1854 and was written by a writer from Massachusetts named Henry David Thoreau. The other is a book published three years prior to Walden by someone I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard of, a Maine writer named John S. Springer. It’s called Forest Life and Forest Trees, with the comprehensive if cumbersome subtitle of Comprising Winter Camp-Life Among The Loggers and Wild-Wood Adventure With Descriptions of Lumbering Operations on the Various Rivers of Maine and New Brunswick.
I’d picked up a copy of Springer’s book about twenty years ago. I have an 1856 edition, with an embossed brown cloth cover, and, in the colorful vocabulary of the rare book trade, loose signatures and slightly foxed pages. I had never read much past Springer’s preface, in which he wrote, “This volume makes no pretensions to literary merit.” When an author is quick to tell you he doesn’t think his book is all that readable, it’s usually pretty safe to take him at his word. So Springer spent his time with me largely unmolested except by dust motes, spending the past decade on a bookshelf of our camp on West Grand Lake in Washington County.
That is, until last summer. I pulled it down during the endless rains of June, when I would have happily read a comprehensive history of Canadian-Norwegian diplomacy. I started flipping though it and found it actually quite well written and, in parts, even literary. Springer wrote that the idea for his book started off as a series of “pleasant reminiscences,” but expanded when he came to realize that “nothing of interest or importance had been put forth exemplifying the life and adventures of a very large class of persons known as the lumberman.”
Springer had spent most of his time in the early nineteenth century employed around East Grand and Spednic lakes, more or less commuting along the St. Croix River before decent roads and rail made the interior accessible. This is the same Washington County watershed where I now spend the summer, and there’s remarkably little written about the region’s history. I often wondered who came here before me, and reading Springer was like finding out about someone who’d lived in your house more than a century ago.
And what a house is was! Springer paints a picture of a wild land of rushing rivers and staggeringly tall trees, populated by creatures large and small. He writes of thick and mossy forests, of massive tree trunks and little sprouts alike poking up through the thick duff — a “harmonious confusion of undergrowth,” he called it. He marveled at the landscape’s complexity, which “all combined, serve to explain the attachment of the Aborigines to their forest abodes, and give to savage life the power of attachment.”
But enough of poetic sentiment. Springer didn’t go tramping through the woods on a lark to admire nature’s handiwork, as did a certain Massachusetts writer during his somewhat later trips to Maine. Springer ventured into this “forest abode” to cut it down.
And he did so with remarkable efficiency and dispatch.
Springer’s job as a woodsman was pretty straightforward: to find the biggest and best pines, fell them, then haul them out of the woods. These pines could be surprisingly wily. The abundant “King’s Pines” that once lined Maine’s shores had been largely harvested when we were still a colony, and a century later it took a month of tromping to locate the grandest old specimens, requiring journeys of up to two hundred miles from coastal ports.
Here’s how he’d do it: Springer and an advance crew would be sent upriver to find the best stands, which involved a crewman occasionally scampering up the tallest tree to scan for the telltale wispy, broad crowns of towering white pines. Getting atop these spotter trees involved some ingenuity — Springer reports of one red pine that had no limbs up to a height of eighty-two feet — so younger trees would have to be cut to lean against their elders, forming a sort of rigging to ascend the mainmast. “From such a tree-top,” Springer wrote, “like a mariner at the mast-head upon the ‘look-out’ for whales (for indeed the Pine is the whale of the forest), large ‘clumps’ and ‘veins’ of Pine are discovered.” (This isn’t Springer’s only reference to whaling; he later notes that once a giant is felled, barkers would hop up on the tree “like whalemen leaping upon the backs of their prize with their cutting spades.”)
Once a good crop of pines was identified, a lodge was built of spruce logs in which to spend the winter. The one-room hut of notched logs shingled with rough planks was subdivided into cooking, eating, and sleeping areas by laying out long and narrow poles on the dirt floor. A bed of sorts was constructed, between ten and twenty feet wide, depending on the number of expected occupants. “Our bedstead is mother earth,” Springer reported, “upon whose cool but maternal bosom we strew a thick coating of hemlock, cedar, and fir boughs.”
Finally, they built the “deacon’s seat,” where the men spent evenings sitting in front of the fire. It was composed of a length of stout spruce cut in half lengthwise, on which three or four limbs were left to serve as legs. (“I can assure the reader that the instances are rare in which it become necessary to send them to the cabinet maker for repairs,” Springer wrote, “especially to have the legs glued in.”)
The rest of the crew soon followed with a herd of oxen, which were used to haul felled trees to the frozen riverways to be floated to the mills in spring. The men were not a particular genteel bunch, and seemed to survive the winters mostly via copious consumption of potable antifreeze. Springer recounts one adventure, crossing a lake by heavily loaded skiff, during which rum was employed to give “the arm more vigor in the necessary labor of plying the paddle.” A tippling boatman named Dan soon became “too comfortable in his feelings to keep still,” and swamped the boat, requiring a panicked retreat to shore. “When I call to mind the intemperate habits to which most lumbermen in times past were addicted,” Springer wrote, “I am surprised that no more accidents have occurred while navigating our rivers.”
In camp, the oxen had to be sheltered and provisioned, which involved regular haying trips to the boggy grasslands that dot the damp forests of eastern Maine. Haying and transport was done by means of a clever device called a “staddle” — an elevated platform constructed in the marsh upon which the hay would be stacked to dry after it was cut. When the marsh finally froze, the supporting poles would simply be chopped away, and the staddle would become a sled to be pulled by oxen back to camp.
Sometimes the process of transporting oxen across frozen lakes became more interesting than the men would have liked. Springer recounts herding twelve oxen across Baskahegan Lake as the sun set late one winter afternoon. “The ice cracked and buckled beneath our feet at every stop,” he wrote, and then “gave more alarming indications.” Moments later, ten oxen plunged into the freezing water below. Remarkably, all were saved, pulled out one at a time by the two oxen that hadn’t gone in. Springer said the oxen were almost always fawned over. “Never have I witnessed more untiring devotion to any creature than is bestowed upon the ox when under the care of a good teamster,” Springer wrote.
Yet, be warned that if you’re an animal rights activist, you may find Springer a man of limited charms. He and his crew had a number of encounters with the native megafauna of the Maine forest, and rarely did animals emerge from these encounters for the better. (Bear cubs seem to fare especially poorly.)
I can point to one incident, though, that will cheer PETA members. Springer recalled two lumbermen paddling across a lake in a boat when they spotted a bear swimming nearby. “As usual in such cases, temptation silenced prudential remonstrance,” Springer noted, and so they caught up to the bear and whack at it with an axe. This “seemed to make but a slight impression” upon the bear, which in turn clambered into the boat and attacked the men with some brio before jumping back in to the lake and continuing its swim across the lake.
The loggers both survived; one required six weeks to recover.
If you read Walden in high school — or at least pretended to — you probably will have a hard time imagining Thoreau pursuing a swimming bear while swinging an axe. For Thoreau — writer, transcendentalist, philosopher — wildlife was a subject of study and contemplation. Thoreau lived at a time when people hunted as a matter of necessity; during an excursion through Maine he watched a moose being tracked and killed, but admitted to feeling uneasy about it: “Nature looked sternly upon me on account of the murder of the moose,” he wrote. He also wrote about a manmade clearing in the forest viewed from the perspective of a bear. When it comes to wildlife, Thoreau is more Sendak than Springer.
Thoreau was also more of a homebody than Springer. Springer lived much of his life tramping widely through the northern forest, spending each season in a different camp. Thoreau spent most of his time within walking distance of Concord, save for a few brief forays, among them his three trips to Maine, which he recounted in his 1864 book.
Thoreau never felt at home in Maine’s wilderness, which he was quick to admit. Like Odysseus, he longed to return to his own home, back to Concord, where man had woven a tapestry of cultivated fields. Thoreau admitted that “it was a relief to get back to our smooth, but still varied landscape. For a permanent residence, it seemed to me that there could be no comparison between this and the wilderness, necessary as the latter is for a resource and a background, the raw material of all our civilization. The wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness.”
When first published, Walden made little impression upon readers. Henry James said it was so locally focused as to be parochial — a story about a very ordinary sort of pond — while Robert Louis Stevenson said Thoreau’s retreat from society was “unmanly,” and John Greenleaf Whittier found it “heathenish.”
Walden, of course, turned out to be well ahead of its time. Over the decades, the book would be embraced by early conservationists, then the back-to-the-land movement, then today’s environmental activists. Thoreau has become a cottage industry in the academy, and his thoughts have insinuated themselves into generations of college students. He even has his own lovely study center — the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods Library — just down the road from Walden Pond, which itself remains an ordinary pond that’s grown into an extraordinary shrine.
“Walden is not significant as a place at all,” as the scholar Richard Adams once put it. “It is significant only because the word Walden suggests some thoughts a man had once.”
I’m convinced that Walden resonates and endures not so much because of its environmental message, strong as that may be, but because of Thoreau’s underlying message of self-reliance — it’s the classic American tale of getting by on your own with an axe and a few matches. By heading alone into the woods, Thoreau writes, “You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, when you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent.”
Of course, Springer spent more time than Thoreau deep in the woods, and got by just fine with axe and match. He didn’t find the woods simple or barren in the least. But there’s no study center for Springer; his book isn’t mandatory in freshman English courses; few have heard of him. He’s not the writer that Thoreau was — as he himself admits — but more so, he didn’t withdraw from society and the economy when he went into the woods. He became part of a larger system, a cog in the machine Thoreau found so faulty. Springer is the parochial one these days — someone who didn’t blaze a new trail, but followed a well-worn one. Springer’s adventures were woodland adventures, where Thoreau’s were adventures of the mind.
Yet the more I read of Springer during the rains of last June, the more I saw he wasn’t just engaged in dime-novel adventures in the Maine woods, hacking and blasting and shooting things up. He had a profound understanding of and affection for the woods, which shines through on nearly every page. “I was reared among the noble Pines of Maine,” he begins, “nestled in my cradle beneath their giant forms, and often has the sighing wind made music that has calmed me to repose as it gently played through their tasseled boughs.” For Springer, both exploiting a resource and deeply admiring it were not mutually exclusive. He could hold two notions fully in his head at once, the practical and spiritual.
Springer and Thoreau are today seen like two modern stereotypes, one the “environmentalist from Massachusetts,” all aloof with his head in the clouds, and the other, the “I’ll-do-as-I-damn-well-please Maine native” who is adamantly convinced that the woods are only understood by those who’ve worked them. Both images are rigid and wrong. Yet today the gulf between them seems to be getting wider and more intransigent, just as moderate politicians have steadily been replaced by demagogues of left and right.
Thoreau and Springer, as far as I know, met only on the page. In Maine Woods Thoreau makes four references to Springer’s book, and it strikes me that he had a sort of begrudging respect for the man, especially in practical matters. (Thoreau seemed particularly impressed by the deacon’s seat, noting that its legs “are not likely to get loose.” One can only assume that loose bench legs were a persistent plague of the mid-nineteenth century.)
I like to imagine the pair traveling together on a tromp through eastern Maine — I think they would have found plenty of common ground. I also suspect their conversations might have held a map to plot us through the terrain where the gap between environment and industry grows more dangerously wide by the day.
Forest Life and Forest Trees can be downloaded for free at books.google.com , or as a recent reprint by BiblioBazaar.