Paying Maine’s indebtedness to Thoreau

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Long before “quality places,” before “green” evolved from colorful adjective into lifestyle descriptor, before “eco-tourism” became buzzword, one man traveled by canoe to explore the Maine Woods.

“Why should not we…have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther … may still exist, and not be ‘civilized’ off the face of the earth,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1853. “Or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our own national domains?”

Thoreau’s transcendental musings are as fresh and insightful as the day they were written, for his impressions of Maine as forested kingdom, where human and nature live as neighbors, now draws thousands to our state each year, many yearned for the same spiritual release from a society some have described as a consumer treadmill.

(It’s no gentle irony that Thoreau, like so many of Maine’s nature-seekers, hailed from Massachusetts.)

On Monday, the nonprofit group Maine Woods Forever unveiled the “Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail” to mark the 150th anniversary of the writer’s final journey through the state. It begs an interesting question:

What if Thoreau were here now?

He would arrive in Maine along public roads that follow the stagecoach trails of his time, and find, in many places, an environment as enveloping as during his journeys in 1846, 1853 and 1857.

He would likely join those opposing Plum Creek’s proposed resorts and subdivisions around Moosehead Lake, echoing the criticism that development in this unspoiled region would do irreversible environmental harm, and forever corrupt its image as untamed wilderness.

At the same time, Thoreau would probably goggle at opposition to wind energy, as preservation of appealing viewsheds would fall against using nature as a source of clean, renewable power, to stem the extraction and overuse of other scarce natural resources.

He would kneel by the banks of the Androscoggin River, wondering how humans could wreak environmental damage to its pristine waters, and stare at all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, questioning why mechanized noise is preferable to a pair of hardy boots or snowshoes.

Then Thoreau would stroll through L.L. Bean, where he would understand his woodsy travels have inspired countless others to experience the wild, albeit better and more stylishly equipped.

He would applaud reports such as the Brookings Institution’s “Charting Maine’s Future” and programs such as the Land for Maine’s Future fund, and encourage the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission to expedite comprehensive planning for the vast territory under its purview.

He would realize, in short, his message still influences Maine policy, citizenship and thought, 15 decades later.

As the Atlantic Monthly wrote in its 1864 appraisal of the Maine Woods, “…the world repaid [Thoreau] with life-long obscurity, and will yet repay him with permanent renown.”

Given the legacy and resonance of his ideals, Maine remains deeply indebted to Thoreau today.

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