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Henry David Thoreau

CONTACT! CONTACT! Up Katahdin with Thoreau

David Rothenberg

The wild is more than a named place, an area to demarcate. It is a quality that beguiles us, a tendency we both flee and seek. It is the unruly, what won't be kept down, that crazy love, that path that no one advises us to take--it's against the rules, it's too far, too fast, beyond order, irreconcilable with what we are told is right.

The wild refers to many things. In wildness is the preservation of the world, says our canonized curmudgeon Thoreau. He did not say "wilderness." He did not mean wilderness. He meant the breaking of rules, the ostracized life in the midst of his peers. Walden Pond is a mile from downtown Concord, and a train runs close to the far shore today just like it did back in Henry David's time. That nearness is the wild in it. To buck civilization right in its a deep surge of nature far inside us, what he named as the soul force behind creativity. Poet Philip Booth echoes the sentiment: "....whether we live and write in sight of Mt. Rainier or in midtown Manhattan, no matter where we experience being in place, we immerse in our deepest selves when we begin to write. It's from instinctive memory, from the wilderness of the imagination, from a mindfulness forever wild, that Art starts."(1)

 Once again, Thoreau found the wild close by to the tame, and pledged allegiance to it as much in his bucking of authority than in any spurning of culture's ways. It is probably on the summit of Maine's Mount Katahdin that his writing, usually ornate, mannered, nearly Victorian, approaches a free wildness that approaches the timeless, animistic sense of wild wanderers from many cultures. He is here describing the windswept, barren summit upon which almost no visible plant grows, rising high above dense forests: 

 This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor wasteland. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever,-to be the dwelling of man, we say,--so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific,--not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, nor for him to tread on, or be buried in,-no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there--the home this [sic] of Necessity and Fate..(2)

 He savors the aloneness of the surrounding place, an enveloping world of raw natural phenomena. Reaching through appearance, Thoreau has grasped out for the Earth, and is groping for the language to say this. His cranky style fails him, his ruminations on nature as tonic have no place. He is in the elements here, and it nearly makes him speechless. Go there yourself, you will feel what he means.

 The wild barrens of such a mountain are chillingly inhuman, while at the same time touching us deep inside our own human selves, as a weight in the gut somehow proves that the wild within belongs here, and will not be whatever home we choose.

And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. (3)

 The wild is only lasting if it is still within reach from amidst the metropolis. So to see the pure, we must have memory to rely on. Turbulent nature is a foil to the city, yet we need to be in the grid to glimpse its magnitude in opposition to the place where we are. The perfection of the silent mountain is only exalted by those who have come from the mess and noise of the centrum of civilization. It is a sublime vision, that is great in its vast difference from the scale and sense at which we stand.

There is sublimity here out my own urban window. It is spring; the sky is remarkable blue, beneath my window the concrete city plummets over choked highways to the East River below, strangely sparkling like a visitation of wilderness, waves, ferries, the monument of liberty, the haze of Jersey beyond. The sparkle of traffic, cars careening around the tip of Manhattan. An apparently all inclusive and consuming city--how hard it is right now to write about anything else! To the West, the great Wall of money, that Street where fortunes rise and plummet. Just past, the twin peaks of World Trade. Metal boxes, amazing structures, towers rising up.

Boring, though. Mount Katahdin is about five times as high as each of them, and has more summits along the knife edge ridge. If I see clouds in the distance I fantasize that they are ranges of light, snowy summits that I might reach in a long day's walk across the great swamps and bayous at the edge of the self-proclaimed center of the world. Some cities have this. Seattle and Portland each have volcanos on the near horizons, gigantic sentinels that make human ingenuity appear minute beside the immensity of nature. These mountains rise up to fill the need for a recollection of wildness from a world bounded by the human struggle. This is why the realms above the timberline make us feel free. At least it has always made me feel free. I am happiest as the trees fall away, as the wind whips up, and the vistas explode on all sides as I have climbed upward into the lonely openness.

 So I applaud Thoreau as he reaches for wildness, as he ascends to the most powerful, thunderous, and exotic of any of the places he visited on his travels. Katahdin is the sentinel of wildness, the greatest of Eastern mountains. Not big by any world standard, being scarcely as high as Denver. You call this a mountain? We take our mountains where we find them; size ain't everything. See how much Wordsworth had to say about the savage hills of the Lakes District! They are enough-such ripples in the Earth are sufficient to inspire unending reverie. They are beyond the human, they take work to reach, they are worth the effort. 

 The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. (4) 

 The summits of mountains, unfinished? Is it up to us to finish them, or to learn to revel in the incomplete? The human project was described by Aristotle as the completion in ends of what nature offers as beginnings, but he was a flatlander himself. Perhaps if he had lived to see what the polis has become, he might occasionally need to flee to unfinished high points if only to gain a sense of perspective. We haven't made everything, we still don't know how things came to be made the way they are. The cool, crisp highlands are the natural place for philosophy, where the air is thin enough to be fillable with logic and reason. We can try to explain, or we can be carried away. Thoreau, in this incantation, this moving prayer, this wild commentary, does both. It's the roughest place he goes, this tableland and way up to the summit of Maine's highest peak. Why is he comfortable? Why is it here that he touches the Earth?

 Let me explain out of my own recollection how mountain becomes myth. When the child was a child, he read the book, pored over pictures, built up the romance. I can appreciate the sense of Katahdin as awesome and Great Summit as I first learned of it from a handsome edition of Thoreau's Maine Woods, illustrated with the turn of the century photography of Herbert Gleason. I received as a gift a copy of this work when I was twelve years old, and today it remains solid, though well-aged, with a hint of sun fade to the left side, by the binding. It has sat by the window a long time, catching the rays, taking in the brightness. I have a near photographic memory of reading slowly through the pages, and poring over the illustrations, wondering how much the landscape has changed since those early and wild days of the northern country. I fantasized on the batteaux, those elongated Quebecois lakeboats that so impressed Henry D. More pointed and angular than a canoe, they seem to reflect an external, European geometry more than the silent sweep of the more native craft through the still or windy waters. Yet these were working boats, tools of the fur trade, a practical, not an idealistic, invention. And Thoreau was a pragmatist, he appreciated the commerce of the wild as much as its romance.

 The whole book promised a vast forest of still possible adventure, and I soon discovered firsthand that the landscape up there still looked much the same as it did at the turn of the last century. Staying with my parents and brother, the family spent a few weeks at one of the last of the old resort camps (now closed) just beneath the Katahdin massif. It was gray and stormy for days, and the mountains could be as tremendous as I wished to imagine them, rising only into the solid bank of cloud that rimmed the lake in. Doublehead, North Brother, Barren, Mount O-J-I. The summits' names are explicit, simple, severe, echoing the sense of a still present frontier. For days we looked up in vain, the gray mist of the rough field of rocks. The weather was not right for an ascent of Katahdin. Sometimes in the late evening the peak would appear, glowing in an orange uneasy light. I had discovered alpenglow.

 The day we chose at last to head for the summit was as gray as any other. Walking towards the foot of the Abol Slide, I was as full of anticipation as Thoreau, and as ready to imagine the huge mass of mountain as a great symbol for all that the earth offers as inhuman, beyond the pale, more than us and what we will ever become. We can eliminate mountains, but we cannot really move them. If we pay attention, they move us.

 On the trail, in the thin forest under the portentous clouds, the first hazard is crossed on the path. A downed hornet hive, lying on the trail, surprises me as I walk right into it. Now as a child I was inexplicably scared of bees and wasps, not particularly allergic, but cowering in fear, of something. This moment, in my thirteenth year, was the moment this fear ended. Because I was surrounded by hornets, particularly sinister looking, black and white ones,all over my arms and legs. I was confronting my demons, swatting at them everywhere, killing them with my bare hands, running, dashing down the trail as they followed with vengeance.

The clouds had slipped lower, the rain was around us. Multiply stung and somewhat feverish, there was no choice but to return. The mountain remained an unreached place of the country, and so became an even larger symbol around which to dream. Three years later another attempt was made. This time the approach began further from the mountain--two weeks away. Beginning at the last outpost before the longest roadless section on the whole Appalachian Trail, in the town of Monson. Where fifteen cent ice cream cones could be got at a general store that doubled as the justice of the peace. Where the youth hostel was an old lutheran church now filled with rows of huge brass beds. We headed straight up the Chairback range, laden with overstuffed packs, struggling upward through a torrential rain. On this muddy, sopping journey, every time we came near a mountain, the black clouds would descend, and we would be marshes, looking up at the solemn wooded summits, made strangely inaccessible by the unplanned patterns of the weather.

 Some of this land was much wilder now than in the days of Thoreau, more remote than in the heyday of Maine tourism following his call to the people of leisure of the last century. Gulf Hagas, the former "Grand Canyon of the East" once a major tourist attraction for vacationers in the old fishing and hunting camps on the shores of the northern lakes, was now a hidden gorge, with its intricate network of old nature paths now almost impossible to navigate. Back then this area was the most accessible wilderness to the large centers of American population. Now it lies forgotten as it is easier to fly west to Yellowstone or Vail. The nation seems smaller, so the local attraction returns to wildness.

 As it returns to remoteness it also has returned to resource. All this country is owned by paper companies, who are desperately trying to make clearcutting of the evergreen forest into something profitable. I remember on the trip how we would be traipsing down the muddy, moose imprinted Appalachian Trail, frequently consulting the guidebook to imagine where we were. Then suddenly,in the midst of a documented wilderness, we would cross a completely unmarked wide, packed-down gravel road. A highway out of nowhere!

These new logging roads have been cut throughout the forest. The hikers' maps can't keep up with the rapid transformation of the landscape. (What did we expect, that words would be the most accurate guide to the shifting landscape?) Of course, a hundred years ago the hillsides were far more ravaged than they are today. They have recovered in a sense, and might again, when the cutting stops.

The wildest land may also be the least protected land, where the ethics of the frontier survives. There is something tame about a park, where rules hold, where things are forbidden. We are not completely free. In the free country, the forces of use and appreciation vie for the determination of value of the place. People want to make a living off the earth, as well as enjoy it. This is the current battle around the northern forests. If completely protected, does it then become a museum where humanity can only be a visitor?

Thoreau realizes on the climb up Katahdin that he treads upon an earth that was not made for him or his ilk, a land of Titans, the clouded tablelands of sublimity above the cliff falling down to the timid plains of humanity. "Five thousand feet," as Nietzsche would have said, "above men and time."

And yet there is a need for the visit, the place serves a purpose, and affects him. He is leaping past the veil of explanation, and the Earth is touching him. "Contact!" he implores, as the stark country makes a deep impression upon him. It is the country for philosophy. We need raw wildness in order to learn how to think.

 Coming across that logging road at the age of fifteen as I thought I was walking through the wilderness shattered my vision of the wild place. It shouldn't be there, it disturbs the gestalt, it was not what I expected. The trail itself was mowed over, and we had to walk for mile after mile on a new, ugly road that appeared on none of our maps. It was a complete and utter insult to the wish that we really were crossing the wildest portion of the whole Appalachian Trail.

 Now it is fifteen years later, and I feel that I should hold a more balanced perspective. Oh well, maybe I've been in the city too long. Perhaps I'm aging into conservatism. Thoreau's reverie on Katahdin is that of a visitor, someone distanced from the place, using it to clear his mind and soul from the wasteland of civilization. Breathing in the mountain air turns his own writing style toward the pure, the direct, the apprehension of wild experience. He sheds the shackles of culture as he learns to let go. We should all have the chance for this experience, so this land is so preserved, part of the large rectangular green area on the map, Baxter State Park.

 But what of the rest of the North Woods? Who is it for, who knows best how it should be managed into the future. The lovers of wilderness hope it will be a huge, Eastern national park untouched by roadbuilders, vacation home developers, or paper companies. Enough is enough, the forests have submitted to enough abuse for the time being. Then the green spot on the map would increase, and those of us living far away would rest easy knowing a beautiful and philosophically important place has been set aside for all of us to choose to relive Thoreau's experience, in the mind or on foot, whenever we want to.

 On the other hand, what of the people who live in these woods, make their livelihood here, and are close to the land in a practical sense, not the sublime one. They may have less time to reflect on its beauty, but they make their culture amidst this wild nature. Often they are the people who want to keep cutting, and keep developing. Maine is an impoverished state, and it is unclear how to improve its economic condition. Is it enough to be "Vacationland, USA?" Is Thoreau's summit climb toward truth simply part of the holiday mentality?

 What traditions are worth saving? There has always been a pragmatic lore of the woodsman tacitly opposed to the romanticized sense of tonic described by a Thoreau. One hopes that both will be able to survive: a local culture of the forest, and a place worth visiting by those of us who by fate live far away from our beloved mountains. There is a chance for commonality, embracing different senses of what is fun.

Certainly we need better forestry practices, we need an enlightened sense of development, which will neither keep the poor beaten down nor desecrate the landscape in the name of instant profit. No romantic wants to let out the battle cry of "compromise!" so we will all have to pool our different kinds of love for the mountain, and the uncertain land that surrounds it on all sides.

 I'm wondering about all this now, but nothing was farther from my concern as our party slowly approached the mountain through weeks of questionable weather. With each rainstorm the mosquito invasion retaliated, and my love of nature was questioned again. No matter how much Ole Woodsman's Fly Dope I applied to my ragged green felt crusher hat, the beasts returned again for another chance at my blood. (At least the stuff kept people away, though.)

 You may smile and write this off as just another part of the Mainely Maine experience, but I know that back then, haggard, exhausted, underfed, underweight in the prime of adolescence I wanted more than once to burst into tears, collapse onto the trail and scream, "I give up, I'm yours, take my blood, please." The insects seem poised to win. Now I look back, and the whole episode seems but a small tribulation--we both win. There's enough blood for all, parasite and host.

Can we love and curse the black fly, midge, and no-see-um all at the same time. I am reminded of the Dalai Lama visiting Vermont, interviewed by Bill Moyers on TV, swatting away flies as he spoke. "What," said Bill, "about the mosquito? How do we show compassion there?" "Hmmm, good question," His Holiness ruminated. "First mosquito. no problem. Bite. Second mosquito. brush away. Third mosquito," as he grinned a wide Tibetan grin, "Splat!"

I'm not sure if this anecdote is about patience or frustration, but it does bring a little realism into the abstract kind of love of nature. There is killing in nature, things are taken and consumed. Is the humane approach simply to think twice when we do this, or to feel a little guilty? Must we explain our position, or be content with benign hypocrisy?

Such stories of inconvenience are sometimes left out of tales that embrace the wonder of being returned to the world of the wild. And that is all right, I suppose, but we still should be encouraged to remember everything. Take no pictures, make expression of the journey more work: write, draw, think, memorize, keep technology out of it. Let the mind and the body retain what has happened.

 Back to my teenage trip, after two weeks, we reached the campsite at the base of Katahdin. The Great Mountain loomed above us, too close to actually be visible. This time, I thought, nothing could stop us. We would reach the summit the next day.

Yet as luck, or the fated plan, would have it, a rare hurricane had ascended into inland Maine. Most unusual. Heavy rains, wind, downed trees, dark skies and impassible conditions. In this regulated wilderness, the mountain was deemed "closed." Unfit for ascent, out of bounds, off limits. We wandering pilgrims waited for days under plastic tarps, amusing ourselves by building balanced matchstick sculptures atop polyethylene canteen bottles, an art form that can take years of aborted mountain climbs to master.

The Mountain closed? Close a mountain? What would our forefather Henry D. have thought? In his musings he felt such a mountain was inherently closed to the human way of being, but then thought that we needed to go there to discover it. It is doubtful he could have foreseen the need for regulation in the mountains that society now requires. The Maine woods are by now a scene of dichotomy-on one side, the bounded and watched over Park, on the other, the reckless lumber lands. Which then is more wild?

 After two failed attempts to climb Katahdin, the mountain had achieved a kind of legendary status in my own internal mythology. Something about this place was keeping me from reaching there until I was ready. Each year it seemed a looming possibility, another journey, another fated disaster. Naaah, let's not go, let's put it off, let's keep the myth alive.

 This is how a mountain becomes a symbol, and its qualities become larger than life. The idea of the mountain situates itself inside us, and from the hum of the city we close our eyes, breathe in the air, and imagine the summit. Then hold the memory in a special place to guide the anticipation of the climb.

 In college I finally organized a trip there in autumn, during the height of the blazing colors bringing on the white hope of winter. It was a long drive, a cold camp, and the morning seemed stormy. Once again a sign at the trailhead announced that the peak was closed for the day. Gales were expected in the afternoon, there had been snow, the path was icy.

This time we had to ignore the warning, transgress the law. I had been waiting too many years. This time we had chosen Thoreau's own route, a longer path, up through waterfalls and onto a green sloping ridge. Thoreau Falls. An honorific place of rushing water, or a historic upset? His reputation falls, he falls from grace. The man seems a contradiction, an anachronism, a dated, lonely rhapsodizer of the near and familiar. Will we let history get away with this?

 I repeat, up toward Katahdin Thoreau is at his best. He was on the climb of what the native Penobscots called the "Greatest Mountain." None of them cared much for the ascent, as they probably had better things to do. But for the lonely white man who chooses to go up there, there awaits not an empty nature but a pure one.

Up the falls, into the spruces and pines. The views emerge, red and green seas of color in between blue black lakes heading clear to the Canadian border. The higher one gets, the more that seems that this is not just the greatest, but the only mountain for miles. The place where the sun first shines at dawn in the whole United States, highest up, furthest east, the beginning of the American day. That was true for Thoreau and is still true today.

No trees, just wind, rock, and for us a light coat of rime ice and snow. The wind was beginning to gust, up from the glacial valleys onto the open headland. The only danger seemed in the future, in the imagination, or in the secure memory of this mountain as a sacred and personally inaccessible place.

 Beyond the ridge the trail emerges on the open tableland, and the landscape approaches the harsh and the strange. Too high and windy for trees, too stark for most creatures, only the ancient green map lichen seems to be comfortable living here, as it has for thousands of years. H.D. found it inhuman up this far, and fought the urge to turn back, but I have always felt happiest in such places, able to think most clearly, most at home, most at one with my idea of nature.

 What clarity did I find this time? Some kind of expulsion of all the detritus I had brought with me from the city, a necessary and opposite pole to the bustle of ordinary life. And yet this is ordinary life too, ancient life of things growing slowly on glacial granite, enduring across generation after human generation. What can be said? Any prose becomes purple, the mountain denies language, as it encompasses all possible views of it. A thousand views of Katahdin each season, a hundred visitors a day in the height of summer. Each takes home a memory, each has ascended somewhere else inside themselves.

Thoreau let himself out on a limb, and I guess he is still right. We touch the Earth in such places, and we learn in an instant the experience of the release from the civilized, the bond with the wild. He and I reach the summit, a hundred forty years apart, and we feel the same sensations and releases:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one-that my body might-but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has taken possession of me? Talk of mysteries-Think of our life in nature-daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it-rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? (5)

Disorientation, question, then reality. A candid Thoreau admits he fears the earth, that his solitary life may have made his own body seem a stranger. But up where the air is thin, the ground is close and direct. He knows now he is more than mind. And we know the mountain is more than memory.

 Every mountain has its chronicler, every landscape its literature, every human her home, whether lived or imagined. Contact those who will need it, who will live it, who will save it, who will understand how to reconcile its place and purpose when put against our conflicted civilization. This is it, H.D. and I have come home, we are united by experience. The practical reason of breaking the rules, civilly disobeying the authorities to climb the mountain, to accept blithely the risk. At the summit I met a ranger, and smiled apologetically. "Isn't it beautiful?" I suggested to her. "Isn't the mountain always open whether we wish it or not?"

It's there now as the first summer storm brews over the East River. It's there as I unplug the phone. It's there as the skyscrapers are swallowed by clouds. The mountain looms inside us. And the wild will win in the end. 

1. Philip Booth. "Distances/Shallows/Deeps," Ohio Review: Special Issue on Art and Nature, no. 49, p. 18.

2. Henry David Thoreau. The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph Moldenhauer with photographs by Herbert Gleason (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1974), p. 70.

;3.. Ibid, p. 70.

4. Ibid, p. 65.

5. Ibid, p. 71.

David Rothenberg is the author of Hand's End and Is It Painful to Think?, and editor of the remarkable journal, Terra Nova. Article published in The Maine Scholar and posted by permission of the author. Do not download without contacting him at

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