Thoreau’s The Maine Woods


Henry D. Thoreau, 1856, from wikipedia.org

Lately I’ve been availing myself to the many works of literature now available on line for free. These works have copyrights which have expired and are now in the public domain. Fortunately for visitors to Maine, one free seminal work awaits here, The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau. First published in 1864 from a journey made in 1857, the 150th anniversary of the account has been celebrated by a recreation of the journey called the Thoreau-Wabanaki Anniversary Tour, which started in May of 2014. A media-rich overview of this trip is available here. The upshot is that Maine is surprisingly unchanged from the way it was in 1857. It could even be argued that it’s improved. Thoreau lamented about the logging he saw north of Bangor in chapter one,

The mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.

No more are the Penobscot’s tributaries choked with logs and surrounded by heedless clearcuts. Maine’s forest cover is (2012) at least 83.1% according to the USDA, highest in the nation. Maine was lucky in a way, to have the ravages of the industrial age happen early. There has been time to heal. Now our natural resources are managed in a more enlightened manner, and the summer visitor can easily slip into the Thoreau experience.

Thoreau had more to say than his thoughts about nature. He was an ardent abolitionist and was horrified that the Fugitive Slave Act allowed public officials in his home state of Massachusetts to enable bounty hunters to capture runaway slaves back into slavery. His writings about civil disobedience inspired Martin Luther King Jr. among others. Interestingly, Maine owes its statehood at least in part, to the struggle against slavery. It was cleaved from Massachusetts in 1820 as a way to increase the number of free states as part of the Missouri Compromise, so that the slave-holding southern states would not gain more control and influence.

Thoreau also had great interest and sympathy for Native Americans and what he saw was their suffering under European influence. He slowly transformed his perceptions from stereotypes to greater understanding as he continued his visits to Maine and sought greater contact with members of the Penobscot Nation. Today, the Penobscot Nation addresses this relationship here. The organizers of the 150th commemoration paid due respect to the partnership between Thoreau and the Penobscots.

The Maine Quarterly: Thoreau Trailer from Maine Office of Tourism on Vimeo.

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