Saturday, August 29, 2009

on Thoreau and gabled ends

"Everyone must believe in something; I believe I'll go canoeing". So goes the quotation attributed to Henry David Thoreau on the back of t-shirts sold by this paddling shop in Saranac Lake, in New York's Adirondacks. As well as contributing any number of popular quotations, Thoreau's writings have also had a significant influence on modern North American environmental thought, and as someone who teaches university-level environmental studies courses, I've felt it important to read some of his works over the years. Walden; or, Life in the Woods is the best known of these. Published in the 1850s following two years pursuing a mostly-subsistence lifestyle on the shore of a small Massachusetts pond, this somewhat rambling book contains sections that are stunningly boring and some that are stunningly insightful. I read some of the latter aloud to my first-year students in introductory lectures on the subject of modern environmental thought; I'm not sure what the students make of it. Perhaps they're inspired, but probably not.

More interesting than Walden for me is  Thoreau's book The Maine Woods, first published in 1864, in which he recounts travels made in the 1840s and 1850s through a Maine backcountry that had still been relatively unexploited by settlers of European origin. The allure of The Maine Woods is the wildness of both the landscape and the people Thoreau encounters there. Thoreau must have seemed a strange duck to the aboriginals, loggers and moose hunters who encountered him, but if his writing is factually accurate, they likely forgave him his oddities given his willingness to work hard in the boat and in the camp at the end of the day. Thoreau lived far rougher while traveling through Maine than he ever did at Walden Pond.

As is often the case with his writing, The Maine Woods sometimes gets carried away with unnecessarily flowery prose laden with references to Greek and Roman classics, but for the most part the book provides a thoughtful and engaging account of the last days of the New England frontier. It also contains some more philosophical observations that are still challenging today. For example, in the chapter written about his 1853 trip to Chesuncook Lake, Thoreau provides a lengthy description of a settler's house on the edge of the forest, contrasting its sturdy log construction and rough appearance with the lavish classical architecture popular with the rich and powerful in New England cities. He observes approvingly that the house's fitted-log exterior has "none of your frilled or fluted columns, which have cut such a false swell, and which support nothing but a gabled end and its owners' pretensions". I like this passage a lot, because the university at which I teach has as its symbol a stylized rendition of the columns and gable end of one of its oldest buildings, Tabaret Hall, built in the early 1900s and very much of the style Thoreau mocked. It's mildly ironic that Thoreau's thoughts on nature are today described to students who labour under those gabled ends.

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