Maine's Woods: Observations by Bert Lincoln Call & Henry David Thoreau back to intro page

Henry David Thoreau

Rowse drawing of Thoreau 1854 Thoreau 1854 Drawing by S.W.Rowse

Much has already been written by and about Thoreau, both in print and on the Web. Therefore, only the biographical data most relevant to this project has been included here. Still, further study of this extraordinary man is highly recommended. Please see links below.

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817 and died on May 6, 1862. A persuasive proponent of simple living, Thoreau acted on his ideals. Appreciative of how free and satisfying a life could be with a minimum of money and status, he attempted to put his words and philosophy of life into action. As a young man, he loved to hunt and fish, whiling away afternoons in a dreamy reverie. He kept his economic desires to a minimum and adopted a plain and frugal ethic.

His extensive journals reveal how he sought to live a poetic life. Thoreau wore many hats in his short life of 44 years. He was a surveyor, a laborer, a naturalist and a philosopher. Many proclaimed him a hermit, a pacifist, a poet, a militant and a collectivist.

Why did Thoreau go to Maine? He made three trips to the Maine woods during his lifetime, in 1846, 1853 and 1857.

Maxham daguerreotype of Thoreau 1856 Thoreau 1856 Daguerreotype by B.D.Maxham

As a traveler and explorer, he went in search of a primitive forest, intrigued by Maine's north woods because they were still considered a wilderness in the mid-19th century. He saw the vast expanse of wild land as both powerful and fragile at the same time, and sought to record the changing face of the environment before it was tamed completely.

He called himself an inspector of the woods. An early naturalist, he had a keen curiosity about his surroundings. Constantly taking notes in his hometown, he recorded his examinations of plants and animals in minute detail. Maine's woods afforded him a wealth of unfamiliar flora and fauna to observe.

As a writer, he went in search of inspiration and of material that he could add to his volumes on philosophy and natural history. He gave considerable time to defining this wilderness and mentioned it constantly in his journals. The resulting serialized essays were posthumously compiled into a book, “The Maine Woods”. He wrote:

But there are spirits of a yet more liberal culture, to whom no simplicity is barren. There are not only stately pines, but fragile flowers, like the orchises, commonly described as too delicate for cultivation, which derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat. These remind us, that, not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger's path and the Indian's trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness. (From “Chesuncook”, The Maine Woods)

As a human being, he sought adventure and loved to walk. At times, he expressed real fear—threatened by woods, water, harsh weather and wild animals. Yet, he also found deep emotional satisfaction and a sense of physical achievement from his explorations of the rugged Maine wilderness. His experiences moved him to argue for its preservation.

The kings of England formerly had their forests “to hold the king's game,” for sport or food, sometimes destroying villages to create or extend them; and I think that they were impelled by a true instinct. Why should not we, who have renounced the king's authority, have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be “civilized off the face of the earth,”–our forests, not to hold the king's game merely, but to hold and preserve the king himself also, the lord of creation,–not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation? or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our own national domains? (From “Chesuncook”, The Maine Woods)

Dunshee ambrotype of Thoreau 1861 Thoreau 1861 Ambrotype by E.S.Dunshee

More about Thoreau and his writings, including digital editions: