In Another's Words

"The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthrone in your heart - this you will build your life by, this you will become." James Allen

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Maine Woods Book Review

The Maine Woods

by Henry David Thoreau

1988 Penguin Nature Classics
442 pages

Thoreau’s eloquent description of the wilderness and his journeys through it still resonates one hundred fifty years later.  It was in September 1853 that he paddled down the West Branch Penobscot to Chesuncook Lake.  The Maine Woods is a posthumous creation made up of three essays, one for each of Thoreau’s excursions to Maine, “Ktaadn” in 1846, “Chesuncook” in 1853 and “Allegash and East Branch” in 1857.  

I read The Maine Woods for two reasons.  The first would be that I am recently transplanted to this state and am interested in all things “Maine.”  The second is that I am an inveterate armchair traveler and this sort of book is right up my alley.  I followed his progress with my DeLorme Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, and what a time I had.  

The greatest challenge in reviewing this book is deciding what tack to take in order to navigate through it thoroughly but with some hope of brevity.  Timeless writing defies generalization and condensation; it is multi-layered and each word contributes.   The continued popularity and usefulness of Thoreau’s work one hundred fifty years after it was written, is a testimony to both his modern voice and the ageless appeal of his subject, the wilderness.  Such timelessness is not easily summed up in the proverbial nutshell; one is constantly in danger of being lured down some byway, which does not contribute to the terseness desirable in a review.  I will consider only several of many possible perspectives from which to explore The Maine Woods.  

The most obvious tack to take is to recommend it simply for the fun of reading Thoreau’s writing.  On a superficial level, it is an easy read, the most difficult part being the pronunciation of the Indian place names and Latin labels for fauna and flora sprinkled liberally throughout.  A reader looking for an adventure story can simply skim over these and follow in Thoreau’s steps as he and his companions paddle up and down (or down and up) streams and rivers, challenge rapids and falls or portage around them, climb mountains, slog through swamps, anguish over man’s incursions, sleep and eat outdoors, overcome adversity, slay a moose, absorb the lore of the wild, soak up the ambiance and generally enjoy a naturalist’s dream vacation.  For the erudite and the more attentive reader, there is also great pleasure here.  The Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 223, Fall 2000, offers a six-page analysis of two short sentences from “Chesuncook.”  (Check it out at  Writing that offers such manifest opportunities for both the cursory reader and the accomplished wordsmith, and where story and message are so painlessly interwoven, is both sophisticated and enduring.  

Another obvious angle from which to analyze The Maine Woods is its power to inspire.  Within this area, let’s consider two possible calls to action.  The first is to the adventure traveler: “Such an excursion need not cost more than twenty-five dollars apiece, starting at the foot of Moosehead, if you already possess or can borrow a reasonable part of the outfit,” Thoreau says in “Appendix VI. Outfit for an Excursion.”  The second appeal calls everyone to promote and protect the wilderness, to “see its perfect success.”

Subsequent to reading The Maine Woods, and inspired to “go and do likewise” in response to the first of these calls, I was delighted to learn through Internet research that one can follow these same routes today and see much of what Thoreau saw one hundred and fifty years ago, and in much the same way, the only real difference being the increased cost of the kit and the guide.  Hundreds of hikers climb Katahdin each year, but there is no road to the top.  A modern traveler will find campsites along the rivers and lakes, but Chesuncook Village is still only accessible by boat, and there are few roads along the shores of the Allegash or the banks of the East Branch.  Outfitters catering to the adventure traveler abound; the number of excursions into the wilds each year is expected to soar in the foreseeable future beyond what the wilderness can endure.  Parks are placing quotas on the number of persons allowed entrance at any one time.   Clearly the call of the wild, that Thoreau voiced so seductively, is still a siren song. 

It is harder to determine the success of his second appeal.  How many of the thousands of acres under protection in the Maine woods today owe their integrity to this work bearing their name?  Who can say?  It is enough for our purposes here to acknowledge that his work and words have been useful; generations of conservationists have found inspiration and information in these essays and much of the wilderness endures.  Just as Thoreau stood on the shoulders of John Evelyn and drew inspiration from Sylva, so have students of ecology drawn from Thoreau and his enduring legacy.

The one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Thoreau’s trip to Chesuncook presents a perfect excuse (as if one were needed) to visit, or revisit, The Maine Woods.  

This book review appeared in Wolf Moon Press Journal - A Maine Magazine of Art and Opinion
April, 2003
Ref. Maine, At Last - A Moving Memoir Vol. I Page 176
See Maine, At Last - A Moving Memoir

1 comment:

  1. I will be publishing various previous book reviews and articles here as they are mentioned in the Maine, At Last series. This one is my first ever published work, referred to in A Moving Memoir, Vol. I of the series, and since the Wolf Moon Press website is unavailable, I am giving it new life here for the benefit of my readers and for its intrinsic value as well.