To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s “The Maine Woods,” the Northern Forest Center organized a re-creation of Henry David’s final excursion to Maine. Participants included scholars, Maine guides, conservation activists and members of the Penobscot Nation, who were, appropriately, the adventure’s hosts. The route they paddled was a veritable tour not only of the geography but of the metaphysical heart of Penobscot territory: across Moosehead Lake into the West Branch of the Penobscot, then the Allagash watershed, and finally into and down the East Branch to Indian Island.

Courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press

Out of this experience comes “Rediscovering the Maine Woods,” a collection of essays edited by John J. Kucich of Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts who was one of the paddlers. As a point of departure, Prof. Kucich lays out the way in which Thoreau’s three trips to Maine (in 1846, 1853 and 1857) and the three essays that resulted (“Ktaadn,” “Chesuncook and “The Allegash and East Branch”) demonstrate the evolution of Thoreau’s views and interests, none more so than his growing understanding and admiration of Penobscot culture. Kucich makes it clear that the thrust of the book will be as much about the Penobscot guides, Joe Attean and Joe Polis, as it is about the Talented Mr. Thoreau. Nor do the volume’s 10 essays shy away from exploring the not-always-consistent attitudes and opinions of the Sage of Concord.

The collection tackles its subject in three sections. Part One, “Tracing a Landscape,” starts with a vivid account of the expedition’s first days by Christopher Sockalexis, the Penobscot Nation’s tribal historic preservation officer. Stormy weather made crossing Moosehead Lake quite a challenge – the canoes had to be lashed together to form catamarans and trimarans against the waves. It was the first time Sockalexis had canoed across Moosehead, inducing “a sense of awe thinking of how my ancestors had made this trip for thousands of years.”

Stan Tag gives a more complete account of what was essentially a circumnavigation of Mt. Katahdin. Tag, a specialist on 19th century writing about the Maine Woods, interweaves his own progress with the records of long-ago travelers. Robert M. Thorson adds a fourth dimension (time) to the itinerary, which he characterizes as outlining a rhomboid. As a geologist, he gives Thoreau credit for his observations of phenomena not yet understood by contemporary science, such as plate tectonics and glaciation. He also considers the effects on Thoreau of treelines, not just in the altitudinal sense, but along lakes and rivers, and those created by human activity, too.

English Lit professors take over Part Two, “Maine’s Thoreau.” Laura Dassow Walls zeroes in on a central issue in each of Thoreau’s essays, starting with the famous “Contact! Contact!” passage in “Ktaadn.” The three trips, she writes, “dramatize three separate confrontations with an unfolding mystery that was never resolved, only deepened.” The second “confrontation” – in “Chesuncook” – was the moose hunt, which shocked him most because of the waste. Kathryn Cornell Dolan makes the most, and then some, of the part that they ate.

Melissa Sexton analyzes Thoreau’s epiphany on Katahdin through French philosopher Bruno Latour’s theory of materiality. I must confess that I was somewhat overwhelmed by her academic terminology. At the end, however, she explains, blessedly clearly, her reading of “Contact!”: “to wake up one’s faculties, via a temporary and experimental excursion, so that one can then participate in daily contact with nature in a way more attuned to its materiality and its wildness.”

The book’s final section examines the tensions “Between Wilderness and Working Forest.” In delving into the question of how much has changed in the woods since Thoreau’s day, James S. Finley usefully identifies the “will-to-wild and timeless spectacles” that color the views of many latter day “pilgrims.” I question his statement that “Logging exists alongside – rather than in opposition to or competition with – outdoor recreation, wildlife preservation, and resource management.” While this can be true on the Public Reserved Lands, it is hardly widespread beyond them. Dale Potts traces the history of the Maine Woods through writers who have visited since Thoreau.

Finally, Richard Judd – of the academics, the only one from Maine – masterfully untangles Thoreau’s posthumous career as variously transcendentalist, dissenter, naturalist, back-to-the-lander, wilderness advocate, etc. He points out that this was as much a measure of Thoreau’s admirers as his writings. Judd concludes that Thoreau’s essential message is that society and nature are interdependent. “Neither can be protected without understanding the connections between them.”

The book ends with a gentle meditation by Penobscot Tribal Historian James Francis. He considers the three portages that link the four watersheds (Kennebec, Allagash, East and West Branches of the Penobscot) both in real time and over thousands of years. When Francis explains the seasonal patterns of his people’s migrations – “We did not just tromp through the landscape aimlessly, saying “Wow! A berry bush! We eat today!” – I couldn’t help hearing echoes of Joe Polis as he patiently instructed Thoreau.

In the words of John Kucich, Thoreau was “an uneasy spokesman for any one cause.” This book generously investigates many of the reasons why.

Thomas Urquhart lives in Falmouth. His new book, “Up for Grabs, a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands,” will be published in June.


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