I am reading Thoreau’s “Maine Woods”, which is one account put together by Henry from three different excursions he made into the wilderness of Maine with friends. I find that I have to be in the mood to read him, because he takes the world at a much slower and more careful pace than what us moderns are accustomed to digesting. The reading gives me more of a feeling about the mysteriousness of vast, wild nature, than it does about his transcendental philosophy or his botanical scrutinies, although I find plenty of his style of mysticism woven into the text.
I can easily relive my own boyish wonder through his words, when I would take a pack and hike into the California mountains, either the coastal ones of Big Sur, or the Sierra Nevadas near Yosemite. I would sometimes not follow any trail, because I didn’t want to see what others were seeing, as Thoreau often is doing in these Maine woods. Instead, I would pick a small stream or creek, and follow its course all day long, which often entailed hopping over logs, wading through trout ponds, or backtracking in dense wilderness because I had wandered into a box canyon with no outlet.
I would still be doing this if my aging body would only participate in the adventure. My balance is not good enough to tiptoe over trees that have fallen across rocky streams and ravines. My legs want to cramp when I work them too hard on an uphill stretch. My breathing suffers from a heaviness and strain when I push myself very hard. The account Thoreau gives of moving batteaus (small paddle boats) up swiftly-moving river canyons, and having to lift them out and portaging them around waterfalls, makes my own head swim in a sort of delight that visual media cannot do for me.
California still has much vast empty, unspoiled space, where one might go to emulate the experience Thoreau describes. Most of us live close to or within major population centers. To obtain the pure nature experience we need to get in a car and travel to a remote location. It is there for us if we go look for it. I feel a sense of wildness, a primeval paradise, in things close by me, but need to be reminded to look and open my exploratory senses. Clouds are close by and are quite wild and untamed, and so is the surface of the Pacific. Thoreau would have us always looking for the life that has not been tampered with by mankind, whether it be physical or spiritual existence. Here is a passage from “Maine Woods”, in which he discusses the civilizing of America, and contrasts it with a landscape just a few miles away that remains as it has been nearly forever.
“We have advanced by leaps to the Pacific, and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us. Though the railroad and the telegraph have been established on the shores of Maine, the Indian still looks out from her interior mountains over all these to the sea. There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principal lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests of which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinement of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries,— and yet only a few axemen have gone “up river,” into the howling wilderness which feeds it.”
He regards the physical world as the most mysterious and special, which helps to explain his fascination with botany. He sees himself as a ghost or spirit that is privileged enough to spend time mingling with the atoms and molecules of this planet, and senses that it is his duty to appreciate the precious things that were here before people came along and spoiled them. Thoreau tells us how people have come to find and impose their purpose on the forests of Maine. Lumberjacks, fishermen, fur trappers, and ranchers, have ventured into these wilds to figure out how to make a profit from nature, whereas he approaches the forest as a poet, finding that bringing forth life in many different forms is truly the purpose of the forest.
Descriptions of personal awe and wonder may not be quite the fashion that it was when the New England Transcendentalists had their slight hold on our culture. The fashion that stems from the woods of Maine has more to do with the white pine that is hauled out and formed into pretty houses. What is forgotten is that the white pine had a life and it was quite majestic.
I’m only about a third of the way through Thoreau’s book. I’m sure he has much more to convey about these woods. Being a Californian, I may never get to these places a continent away that he describes. He gives me the desire to go look there for myself. Since Maine is so far away and there is so much in between that I have never seen, I must be satisfied for now with carrying his vision with me when I look at the life, celestial and terrestrial, that surrounds me close by.