In The Footsteps of Thoreau
Photographer Dan Tobyne sought to retrace the famous journeys of Henry David Thoreau through the Maine woods. In this excerpt fr
Edited excerpt from Thoreau’s Maine Woods; photography by Dan Tobyne; foreword by Bernd Heinrich; Down East Books; hardcover; 128 pages; $35
Moose . . . Indians . . .” were the last words from Henry David Thoreau’s lips when he died in his native Concord, Massachusetts, on May 6, 1862. He had (in 1851) penned the now immortal words, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” and as he looked back at the end of his journey, he saw where he had been. He had been to the Maine woods, from where he had earlier looked ahead; he had transcended his own existence and would leave an indelible imprint on the world that will survive the ages.
He had lived all forty-four years of his life in Concord, but he had made three trips to Maine (in 1846, 1853, and 1857), and that is where his heart and soul were, and remained to his last breaths. Just before he consulted his memory and saw moose and Indians on that day in early May he said, “Now comes good sailing.” He was probably thinking of the Maine woods. He had said of them, “What a place to live, what a place to die and be buried in! There certainly men would live forever, and laugh at death and the grave.” Was he thinking of Umbazooskus, which “the Indian said [was] a dead stream with broad meadows, [that was] a good place for moose?” Maybe he was recalling the West Branch of the Penobscot River, where he awakened one midnight “to watch the grotesque and fiend-like forms and motions of some of the party who, not being able to sleep, had got up silently to arouse the fire . . . Thus aroused, I . . . rambled along the sandy shore in the moonlight, hoping to meet a moose, come down to drink, or else a wolf.” Although he did not laugh at the grave, he certainly did not fear it. When asked as he lay dying if he had made his peace with God, he replied: “I did not know we ever quarreled.”
In Maine Thoreau recognized that our home is more than where our body resides. It is also where our soul resides. Maine was the home of my soul within a month of my arrival here sixty years ago. I feel that I know what he was talking about, although it is not anything I can specify objectively as representing the whole of reality. Yet, what he felt and described, his Maine, is also the home of millions of people all over the globe. It is but a room in the home that is now the whole world, made one by common culture, language, customs, jet travel, and instant electronic communication that makes it possible to talk and see each other in real time, no matter where our bodies may reside. These same marvels, supported and made possible because of our global economy, are at the same time destroying the wild places and making the fast-shrinking homes of our souls into sinking islands in a sea of progress.
Thoreau saw in the backwoods cabins and life in Maine that “most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” They only masked life’s true essential needs. So it is not surprising that he put it this way: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well!” Strong words, for a man known for his ornery contrariness.
Almost a century and a half have passed since Thoreau visited the Maine woods and made them the home of his soul. One has to wonder what he would think and how he would behave now. He was then already fearing that they might become, like his native Concord and the rest of New England, degraded by commercial enterprise, which in his case he could only envision as the cutting down of great pine trees. Trees re-grow. Moose and deer can thrive in the face of hunting pressure, as they have for millions of years. Indeed, despite his affections for the prey, he also had a grudging respect if not romantic inclination to the predators, the hunters, loggers, and woodsmen. He had balanced (some would say contradictory) views that above all respected individual rights.
Today, the Maine woods are in danger of ever-greater changes, permanent and irreversible ones. It is now more than ever imperative that we see them again as Thoreau did, as a home of humanity, as a retreat of the mind to make and keep us human and rooted in the nature that is our biological heritage. What would he think of international collectives connected by commercial interests only, who erect housing developments in the middle of the wilderness, and who would violate the sanctity of mountains and lakes so they can make a buck? What chance does an individual have against them who have grown so monstrous? None. Only the government has the power to stand up for individuals of the Maine woods. What, dear Henry, since you said, “that government is best which governs not at all,” do you think of government now, if it alone can stand in defense of your spiritual home? Against whom should your, and our, civil disobedience be aimed?
The prevailing paradigm is economic growth. It is “the good” that those of influence and power feel now, and it is “the bad” that those who look ahead see. Given that the immediate global interests are and will continue to be economic growth, our only bulwark is to foster awareness, to try to save what we have. The legacy of Thoreau is in his view of the larger picture, the one that sees value beyond commerce. In Maine we still have some of the wilderness he saw as having the power to awaken the soul and to save the world. Let all the world see his woods. Let all the world enjoy them and feel refreshed and inspired, as they inspired the greatest social revolutionary who ever lived.