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The Indispensable Thoreau
He lived alone for two years in a small cabin on Walden Pond, but he was neither misanthropic nor solitary. Perhaps more than any other American writer, he can teach us how to live with ourselves.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Logging was the industry, but Maine was so roomy that the Abnakis had not been annihilated or seriously embittered. The rivers saw log drives instead of flotillas of trippers, and “God’s own horses”—moose—were still abundant. Thoreau met two métis (mixed-breed) hunters who had shot twenty-two for the skin trade. A guide was needed in those days, and this is a rare episode in Thoreau’s work where we see him as an employer, paymaster (though he must have supervised employees at his family’s pencil factory too), and bourgeois Bostonian on vacation. He seems wholly natural in the role, but exults at one point that he is seventy-five miles from a road, and at another that there are still places where one “might live and die and never hear of the United States, which make such a noise in the world—never hear of America, so called from the name of a European gentleman.” Joe Polis asks after a brother who has not shown up at home for a year after going off hunting—not worried that he is dead so much as wondering where in a woods so big he is contentedly wandering. In the virgin timber the loggers like to have a yoke of oxen mount each giant stump, “as if that were what the pine had grown for, to become a footstool of oxen,” Thoreau observes. More happily, he lies listening to Polis talking in his own language to a St. Francis Indian they encounter, trying to guess their subject matter by their gestures.
“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl,” Thoreau says, but he revels in the campfires ten feet long and four feet high, with snowberry and checkerberry tea, trout and moosemeat, and talk of snapping-turtle-and-beaver meals with men who write to one another on the sides of trees. The fish in the streams below Mount Katahdin are as colorful as flowers and bite wildly. Indeed, theirs is only the fifth party of white people to have climbed it, he says—a mile high and known as Kette-Adene , “greatest mountain,” to the Indians. And although Thoreau wasn’t an exceptional woodsman—only an exceptional writer—his ebullience brimmed so high he climbed way ahead of his guides and friends on the day they reached the foot of the mountain, got himself close to the top, then came back and led the rest of them part way up the next morning, till, when they tired once again, he left them and scrambled clear to the summit by himself. Awesome with boulders the size of the cabin that he had recently built at Walden Pond, the steep pitch and bleak tundra on top reminded him of “a cloud-factory,” and of the Earth at its beginnings, made of “Chaos and ancient Night.” Mountain peaks are among the unfinished parts of the globe, he says, and imagines Nature speaking to him: “Why came ye here before your time? … I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing.… Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to mv ear.”
Emerson regretted Thoreau’s lack of ambition: “Instead of engineering for all America, he was captain of a huckleberry party.”
It’s high-flown, but not a preposterous-sounding apostrophe for any reader who has hiked on barren, fog-swept terrain, and of a piece with his frequent arpeggios to Indians, “the red face of man,” who eat “no hot bread and sweet cake,” but muskrat, moosemeat, and the fat of bears. Though happy and enthusiastic in the wilderness (he hails the heroism of the first white settler’s dog on Chamberlain Lake, whose nose must take the porcupine quills for the rest of his race), he is not sentimental, but quite cool in his judgments—a freethinker first and a chum second—and pays the Abnakis the compliment of his close interest, seeming to scribble notes almost nonstop, noting even the piles of moose hair they have scraped at campsites to lighten the weight of their loads. “Here, then,” he had said, explaining part of why he’d entered these wild woods, “one could no longer accuse institutions and society, but must front the true source of evil.”
He was not a man who looked for evil, however—only for foolishness. He was primarily a factseeker and a rhaosodist, and relished announcing incongruities when no revelation was at hand. He was capable of sadness and pity as well as fanfares, but did not really believe in evil. Disappointed on his first trip to Maine by the failure of two Penobscot Indians to show up because of a “drunken frolic,” he comments matter-of-factly on their resemblance to the “sinister and slouching fellows whom you meet picking up strings and paper in the streets of a city.… The one is no more a child of nature than the other.” But Joe Polis’s intelligent assistance during the third trip made him wax transcendental in a letter to his friend Harrison Blake: “I flatter myself that the world appears in some respects a little larger and not as usual smaller and shallower for having extended my range.… The Indian … begins where we leave off,” he adds, and as a result seems “so much the more divine; and anything that fairly excites our admiration expands us.”