Experiencing the Maine woods with Thoreau

#6: The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau (1864)

Katahdin, some twenty miles to my west, looks like a sketch done in chalk, set against the winter-gray sky. Its ever-present clouds hover today down where its knees might be if the great mountain had them. Katahdin always has clouds. Henry David Thoreau described Katahdin as “a cloud-factory.”

“I entered within the skirts of the cloud which seemed forever drifting over the summit, and yet would never be gone, but was generated out of that pure air as fast as it flowed away,” Thoreau wrote.

The great hermit of Walden is much on my mind today as I read his book The Maine Woods and, by happenstance, retrace part of his route.

My father and son and I have driven up to Oakfield to fetch a black-bear hide from a one-man tanning operation. I-95 North took us to the east of Mount Katahdin, the second-highest mountain in New England and the northernmost terminus of the Appalachian Trail. When I was my son’s age, my father took me and my brother to the roots of Katahdin on many moose-watching excursions.

Oddly, Thoreau saw no moose on his Katahdin expedition in 1846, although he saw plenty of sign. It wasn’t until his return in ’53 that he finally saw one (witnessing a moose hunt provides one of the most thoughtful passages in the second part of Thoreau’s book). He Made a final trip in ’57, drawn back by “the continuousness of the forest.” He combined the accounts he wrote about the three trips into The Maine Woods, published in 1864 two years after his death.

“[N]ot only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail, to drink at some new and bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness,” Thoreau wrote.

He arrives each time in Bangor, easily accessible at the time—but it was the last metropolitan outpost on the edge of Maine’s vast hinterland. As he travels up the Penobscot River, he passes through “Oldtown” (today, Old Town), past the Sunkhaze Stream where my father’s farm sits, through Passadumkeg, Lincoln, Mattawamkeag, Molunkus. The road Thoreau followed eventually became modern-day Route 2. I am heading south along that very same road, Katahdin now behind me.

I’m intentionally reading The Maine Woods now, while I’m in Maine, not only in the hope that I’ll somehow draw some kind of spiritual inspiration from the land but also because I want to read the book in conversation with Bernd Heinrich’s A Year in the Maine Woods. Heinrich’s book rooted me in one small area for a year; Thoreau’s, it turns out, is less a meditation on place than it is a travelogue.

It is a travelogue that takes place over eleven years, though. The Thoreau who undertakes the incredibly arduous canoe trip down the Allegash River—some 325 miles—is a more mature and less idealistic Thoreau than the Walden resident who traveled to Mount Katahdin more than a decade earlier.

His trip to Katahdin takes on a spiritual cast:

The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.

But Thoreau, known as a stylist for his wonderful sentences, “keeps it real,” too, so to speak. He balances his transcendentalism with real-world perspective:

The mountain seemed a vast aggregation of loose rocks, as if sometime it had rained rocks, and they lay as they fell on the mountain sides, nowhere fairly at rest, but leaning on each other, all rocking-stones, with cavities between, but scarcely any soil or smoother self. They were the raw materials of a planet dropped from an unseen quarry….

At times, Thoreau’s travel accounts deteriorate into dry recitation of where he went, who he met, and what he ate. Elsewhere, though, his descriptions shine. He describes moose as “great frightened rabbits” and Katahdin’s summit “veiled in clouds, like a dark isthmus in that quarter, connecting the heavens with the earth.” Elsewhere, he writes: “The spruce and cedar on [the lake’s] shores, hung with gray lichens, looked at a distance like the ghosts of trees.”

He also captures first-hand accounts of the lives of the Penobscot Indians through a sympathetic portrait of his Allegash guide, Joe Polis. It’s a valuable anthropological snapshot of their culture.

I love the country Thoreau writes about and have spent much time in those very same woods. I’ve lived on the Sunkhaze, “said to be some of the best deer ground in Maine on this stream,” as Thoreau recounts. My glimpses of Katahdin from the barren windswept hilltops outside Oakfield, along with my drive down Route 2, give me just the faintest connection to Thoreau on a day when I’m reading about his adventures, and even that’s enough to help me feel greater affinity for the writer’s work.

Why, just today I had an experience in the woods that Thoreau captured, exactly, nearly 150 years ago:

Who shall describe the inexpressible tenderness and immortal life of the grim forest, where Nature, though it be mid-winter, is ever in her spring, where the moss-grown and decaying trees are not old, but seem to enjoy a perpetual youth; and blissful, innocent Nature, like a serene infant, is too happy to make a noise, except by a few tinkling, lisping birds and trickling rills?

With woods still covering some 85% of the state, Maine remains the most forested state in the lower forty-eight. But it’s not the wilderness Thoreau experienced by any stretch. When Thoreau and his five companions paddled up the Penobscot past Millinocket, they entered a land where “[n]o face welcomed us but the fine, fantastic sprays of free and happy evergreen trees, waving one above another in their ancient home.”

Route 2 takes me today past a patchwork of farms and homesteads carved out of that once-vast wilderness.

To the east, the wilderness still sits in evergreen stillness; to the west, beyond the sketch of Katahdin rising out of the forest, the wilderness erupts again, stretching out toward the Canadian border.

My kids and my father and I will plunge back into that wilderness tomorrow. I know already—have known for decades—its power as a “bracing fountain of the Muses.” To see it with Thoreau’s eyes will nonetheless be a treat.