I have read Henry David Thoreau’s account of his July 1857 trip with Joe Polis on the Allagash and the East Branch of the Penobscot at least three times, and this month, I picked it up again. I have an old Apollo Edition of The Maine Woods, and each time, with a yellow highlighter, or a pencil, or a pen, I check the parts I especially love. The pages are covered with marks and comments, as if I’d travelled alongside Polis and Thoreau, although I would not have fit into that small canoe, nor survived the carry into Chamberlain Lake. The tote road, according to Thoreau, was most likely made by muskrats and finished off by hurricanes.
Two men of different races and cultural persuasions on a trip together is an American fictional trope: Huck and Jim, Queequeg and Ishmael, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. This, however, is different. First, it’s true. Second, it’s a window into the closing of the 19th-century northeastern frontier. And, finally, it explores the sensibilities of men who are part of our country’s history: Henry David Thoreau, a white man from the village of Concord, Massachusetts, and Joe Polis, a Penobscot from Indian Island. They are both very good at what they do — one an unparalleled writer, botanizer, and philosopher, whom E.B. White, with great affection, called “a regular hair shirt of a man,” and the other famously at ease in the woods and on the rivers and lakes, which means he knew how to read the big and the small parts of them and what he could use from them.
Polis believed in learning how to negotiate the ways of the dominant culture without losing one’s own.
Thank god there is nothing politically correct in Thoreau’s approach to the trip or to his guide. He writes what he thinks of Joe Polis and of himself, no matter how raw. To sentimentalize Polis would be to patronize him, a man of wit, self-respect, and curiosity about the world — much like Thoreau himself. Both had endured periods of sharp suffering in their lives. Both were funny, ironic, and testy, and they pick at each other a bit: Polis finds Thoreau somewhat dense and repetitive. Thoreau finds Polis’s stories rather pointless.
We can look back at this journey and find two independent and principled people on a canoe trip who arrive at a certain level of understanding in a troubled country that was struggling to understand itself. Thoreau, at 40, had already spent his night in jail rather than pay taxes to a government that legalized slavery; he had spent two years in his cabin at Walden, and written about it, and in two years hence he would argue, passionately, for an appreciation of John Brown’s failed rebellion. Forty-eight-year-old Joe Polis had represented his people in Augusta and Washington. He was a leader and teacher who fought to keep open a grammar school on Indian Island because he believed in learning how to negotiate the ways of the dominant culture without losing one’s own. He set a standard of excellence in a dark time.
Many of us know that Thoreau’s last words, as he lay dying, were, “Moose. Indian.”
We know that he wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” On this East Branch trip, we meet not only loggers sawing away at giant white pines, but a man for whom wilderness is home. Thoreau believed that even as we keep house in a village, as both he and Joe Polis did, we need unspoiled land beyond it — crepuscular and damp, or bathed with astonishing brightness, full of silence or sudden sounds, a great big place of danger and promise. And we need people who know how to value it.