FARMINGTON — Despite carrying several maps with him on his travels through Maine, the great naturalist Henry David Thoreau expressed contempt for them in his journal.

“How little there is on an ordinary map!” Thoreau wrote. “How little, I mean, that concerns the walker and the lover of nature. Between those lines indicating roads is a plain blank space in the form of a square or triangle or polygon or segment of a circle, and there is naught to distinguish this from another area of a similar size and form.”

His chief complaint, as he put it, is that maps do not capture “the wauling woods, the dells and glades and green banks and smiling fields, the huge boulders” and all the rest that separate “a stretching plain with scarcely a tree on it” from land covered with oaks creaking in the wind.

Moses Greenleaf’s Map of Maine from 1829 that Thoreau called a “labyrinth of errors.” David Rumsey Map Collection

And yet Thoreau — the author of “The Maine Woods” who first brought the state’s vast wilderness region to the nation’s attention — also loved maps, sometimes copying old ones and sometimes creating new surveys of his own.

It is possible he even sketched one of Mount Katahdin back in the mid-1800s that has somehow eluded scholars ever since.

Fifty years ago, a retired Colby College professor penned a piece for the Lewiston Journal Magazine about a trip he had made to the mountain with two colleagues back in 1912.

In that piece, biologist Webster Chester mentioned how the somewhat clueless trio needed “to find a map showing us how to get to Katahdin.”

“All that we could find was a diagram that Thoreau had made in the middle of the last century when he paid Katahdin what was to become a famous visit,” Chester wrote, which Thoreau chronicled in his “Ktaadn.”

To help them find their way, he said, they “borrowed the Thoreau diagram from the Colby College library.”

That was apparently the first time anyone ever mentioned in print the existence of a Thoreau rendering of the Katahdin area.

It was enough, though, to set a retired administrator at the University of Maine at Farmington on the trail of what would certainly be a valuable addition to the known works of one of America’s most-beloved writers.

William Geller of Farmington has searched for a map that Henry David Thoreau might have made of Mount Katahdin in the mid-1800s. So far, Geller has not found the map, but he still thinks it might exist. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

A LOVE OF THE WOODS

William Geller, 72, grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he often “prodded around the woods,” even leading Boy Scout expeditions as “Ranger Bill” back in the 1960s.

He kept exploring the vast forest of northern New England during a 33-year career as a college administrator, including regular explorations of the area between Millinocket and Katahdin with friends and his retired father, an engineer.

They came to possess a deep knowledge of the region and its past that later became the foundation for Geller’s book “Within Katahdin’s Realm: Log Drives and Sporting Camps.”

Geller said he spent many hours researching, talking to old-timers and poking around among the trees and waterways of that vast region “to see what’s left of the history in the woods.”

As a retired amateur historian, Geller has the luxury of following detours in his research whenever he feels like it.

Once, he devoted days to figuring out the identity known solely as “T” who signed five letters to a Cleveland, Ohio, newspaper about an 1853 ascent of the mountain. He succeeded.

Another time, he read in an 1849 issue of The Bangor Daily Whig and Courier about a journey to the top of Katahdin by Elizabeth Oakes Smith and a female friend. He didn’t rest until he discovered her name, too.

“I was just curious,” Geller said. “I’m kind of a sucker for trying to put together puzzles.”

After seeing the reference to the Thoreau map, he said, it became “a personal challenge” to dig deeper.

“If this thing exists, can I find it?” Geller said.

 

GELLER AND THE THOREAU MAP

For his research on the mountain, Geller plowed through every early account he could find of anybody who bothered to write about what it was like to reach Katahdin.

An 1856 photograph of Henry David Thoreau. Benjamin D. Maxham

He found himself one day reading Chester’s 1970 account of going there in 1912, nearly six decades earlier.

By the second paragraph, Geller was hooked. All it took was the mention of “a Thoreau diagram.”

“I was so flabbergasted when I saw that,” Geller said, since he was familiar enough with both Thoreau and the mountain to recognize immediately that if the famed naturalist had made any sort of map of Katahdin, it had been long forgotten.

There was only one choice: “I started looking,” Geller said.

He said he first checked with the most obvious spot — the Colby College library, which Chester said had given the map to him.

Colby said, though, it had nothing of the sort.

Before long, Geller had checked with all sorts of libraries, experts and Thoreau-related organizations. None of them knew a thing about the diagram mentioned by Chester.

 

COULD THOREAU HAVE MADE A MAP?

Thoreau was many things: naturalist, idealist, writer, pencil maker and more. He was also a surveyor.

The library in his native Concord, Massachusetts, has many of his surveys in its holdings, at least some of them easily accessible online.

“The man had the capabilities as a surveyor,” Geller said.

His interest in maps is obvious from his own writings.

During a foray to the Northeast and Canada, Henry David Thoreau copied a handful of historic maps of the region, including this one he sketched of Champlain’s 1612 rendering of the area. Library of Congress

In his diary for 1846, for instance, Thoreau noted he stayed in a Madawamkeag tavern during a trip to the Maine woods.

“The last edition of (Moses) Greenleaf’s Map of Maine hung on the wall here, and, as we had no pocket map, we resolved to trace a map of the lake country: so dipping a wad of tow into the lamp, we oiled a sheet of paper on the oiled table cloth, and, in good faith, traced what we afterwards ascertained to be a labyrinth of errors, carefully following the outlines of the imaginary lakes which the map contains,” Thoreau wrote.

In short, he made his own copy of Greenleaf’s map — a copy that does not appear to have survived.

As a map, perhaps that is just as well. Thoreau wrote in that same journal entry that “the Map of the Public Lands of Maine and Massachusetts is the only one I have seen that at all deserves the name.”

Geller said it is not impossible to imagine Thoreau might have made a map based on what friends told him before he went to Katahdin himself or that he drew one later for someone heading there.

But, he said, the more likely explanation is that the Colby library gave Chester a copy of a published map that Thoreau used or perhaps one that came along later that was simply misidentified.

Geller said, though, he cannot rule out the possibility that an honest-to-God “Thoreau diagram” existed. And that it might still exist.

 

IF THOREAU DID MAKE A KATAHDIN DIAGRAM, WHERE IS IT?

Geller said he checked with many institutions and did what he could to track down the purported map by Thoreau.

Though he did not find one, he readily admits, “I didn’t look everyplace.”

Indeed, searching everywhere is beyond the capacity of anyone.

After all, a lot of historical papers, photographs and maps are not in a university archive or similar spot.

“It’s amazing what people turn up out of their trunks,” Geller said.

In recent months, he has stumbled on previously unknown pictures, for instance, of a house built in the middle of the Maine woods long ago and another of a famed photographer hanging in a bucket from a wire over a Maine river.

It is not especially unusual for stuff to turn up.

Just a decade ago, someone found a cache of maps that Thoreau had copied from early explorers of the coast of New England and Canada. They were spread around in archives, unnoticed until the Library of Congress publicized their existence.

Detail of Mount Katahdin on the famous 1835 map called A Plan of the Public Lands in the State of Maine, by Geo. Coffin.

A Thoreau map of Katahdin, Geller said, would make a splash.

It would be “an important artifact,” he said, and one that would be a valuable contribution to the history of Maine — and America.

 

WHY BOTHER WITH HISTORY?

Geller said he is worried about the state of local history, with ever fewer newspapers keeping tabs on what goes on, let alone delving into the past.

The columnists who used to weigh in on such stuff are “pretty close to done these days,” Geller said.

And there are fewer people stepping up to record what’s gone on, to interview their aging neighbors and collect the types of things that bring the history of a community to life for those who come after.

“I don’t see a lot of people interested in spending the time,” he said. “I’m concerned about it. I don’t see an easy answer.”

Geller said he hopes he is wrong.

“To me,” he said, “it’s important to know where you come from.”

A photograph by George Parlow captured Henry David Thoreau, not long before his death in 1862 in Concord, Massachusetts. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

THOREAU ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP

On his deathbed in 1862, a feverish and weak Thoreau mumbled a lot of gibberish.

But someone took note that just before tuberculosis claimed him at age 44, two words escaped his lips: “moose” and “Indian.”

It is not far-fetched to imagine that in his last moments, Thoreau was thinking about his time in the Maine woods, where he once described “the tops of mountains” as “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,” Thoreau wrote, unaware that hordes of hikers would one day stand atop Katahdin.

They did not need his map because he had already pointed them in the right direction.

Early-morning haze colors Mount Katahdin and its surrounding mountains in this photo taken in 2014 from a height of land along Route 11 in Patten. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

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