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Appreciating Thoreau on the sesquicentennial of ‘The Maine Woods’

Big Squaw Mountain, near Moosehead Lake, Maine.

Scot Miller

Big Squaw Mountain, near Moosehead Lake, Maine.

Wherever we go in New England, we usually find Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) got there first — and had something pithy to say. He might have scoffed, but we think of him as the region’s preeminent and perhaps prototypical travel writer, a curious wanderer with a keen eye for observation and a penchant for putting those thoughts to paper.

Scot Miller might agree. The Texas-based nature photographer has been fascinated by Thoreau since he spent five years taking photos in and around Walden Pond for the 2004 anniversary edition of “Walden; or, Life in the Woods.” Thoreau’s reflections on two years in a bosky cabin made him famous for staying put. He proved adept at seeing a world in a grain of sand, as William Blake put it, but we’d argue that Thoreau makes better company when he gets out of the house. A century and a half later, he still has a lot to teach about the art of fruitful travel.

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Miller might agree again. After photographing an illustrated edition of Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” he spent parts of seven years on “Thoreau, The Maine Woods: A Photographic Journey Through an American Wilderness” (Levenger Press). The book anticipates the 150th anniversary in May of the original, posthumous publication of “The Maine Woods.” The Harvard Museum of Natural History (26 Oxford St., Cambridge, 617-495-3045, www.hmnh.harvard.edu) has mounted a wonderful exhibition of some of Miller’s photographs — augmented in part by plant specimens that Thoreau gathered in Maine — that will be up until Sept. 1.

“I think Thoreau has made me a better photographer,” Miller told us. “When you are out walking, slow down, look around, take your time. People are so often in a hurry to get through the forest or the park that they don’t see that much. Thoreau gave me a new appreciation for slowing down. When you do, you see so much more.”

Thoreau’s example of patient awareness is especially pointed in this digital age when most of us seem terrified to be alone with our thoughts. When you look up from your smartphone and pay attention, there’s plenty to discover, even close to home.

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Thoreau proved it himself in his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (1849). Musing on the mock-heroic nature of his 55-mile journey by water from his Concord backyard to Hooksett, N. H., Thoreau opines, “It is worth the while to make a voyage up this stream, if you go no farther than Sudbury, only to see how much country there is in the rear of us.”

Thoreau had already wandered the planet in his reading. (He was an enthusiastic fan of Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle.”) But his colloquial imagination is a match for the most exotic travel. Thoreau could paint a portrait of duck hunters in the Great Meadows stretch of the Concord River every bit as vivid as Darwin’s notes on the finches of the Galápagos.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

“Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Journey in Photographs With Scot Miller” is on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural history.

Thoreau also had a yen to wander afar and see the unfashionable. While travelers were flocking to the White Mountains to behold the scenery, Thoreau went instead to Cape Cod, then considered a sandy backwater where the light of civilization had yet to dawn. He liked it so well that he visited four times between 1849 and 1857. Nowadays, only scholars (and other travel writers) read Thomas Starr King’s “The White Hills; Their Legends, Landscapes, and Poetry.” Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” on the other hand, remains one of the most enjoyable books ever written about the region.

Thoreau was no shill for the Cape. It seems to be forever raining as he slogs along the beach from Eastham to Provincetown, and when he manages to start a fire to roast a huge surf clam (“though it was very tough, I found it sweet and savory”), he later regrets the meal. This is, of course, part of the droll appeal of Thoreau, who frequently casts himself as a comic, even ridiculous figure. It’s a good reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. We are not the first person it’s rained on, nor the first to eat a bad clam.

Some might say it was his contrarian nature, but Thoreau also extolled the virtues of visiting a place in the off-season. Moreover, he was every bit as ready as a modern couch surfer to rough it. Advising the best season for Cape Cod, he announced, “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman’s hut the true hotel.” Thoreau was clearly not the sort for bed-and-breakfast comforts. In a digression in “A Week on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers” he insists he was perfectly warm and comfortable spending a night at the summit of Mount Greylock beneath some lumber. He wore such hardships as his badge of authenticity.

Getty Images

Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862).

As far as we know, Thoreau was also the first to offer packing advice, in what we consider his best excursion book, “The Maine Woods.” Its “Appendix VI. Outfit for an Excursion” lists everything he deems necessary for “twelve days into the Maine woods in July, with a companion, and one Indian.” Essentials included 12 pounds of sugar, a pound of tea or three pounds of coffee. He must have liked his hot drinks sweet.

Thoreau made three trips to the Maine woods between 1846, when he attempted to summit Mount Katahdin, and 1857, when he paddled from Moosehead Lake through the Allagash waterways and back south on the east branch of the Penobscot. Because of persistent cloud cover, he never reached Katahdin’s highest points, but the experience humbled him. “Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable, Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain,” he wrote.

He also descends from his rhetorical heights and proves as ready as a village gossip to relate details of the lives of the men he meets. His brief sketches of the lumbermen, farmers, and Penobscot Indians are as riveting as his description of the streams and woods. Devoting equal prose to the human inhabitants of what he conceives as the wildest of wilderness, he demonstrates an intuitive sense that people and place are intertwined.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Thoreau wrote of birds “waiting for the sea to cast up their breakfast.”

The people have gone but the places remain. The settings in “The Maine Woods” have hardly changed since Thoreau’s last visit. The long rapids of the Ripogenus Gorge may have been tamed by a dam, but only logging roads cross the wilderness. To see these woods aright, one must still travel by water. It is not the easiest way, but Thoreau had a knack for finding the harder but more rewarding path. That way, he could relish the journey as much as the destination.

He made it clear in his assault on Katahdin. “The mountain may be approached more easily and directly on horseback and on foot from the northeast side,” he wrote, “. . . but in that case you see much less of the wilderness, none of the glorious river and lake scenery, and have no experience of the batteau and the boatman’s life.”

Or in contemporary jargon, the journey is the destination. Just remember to pay attention.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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