By Joe Rankin
Today Henry David Thoreau is best remembered for Walden, the account of the time he lived alone in a cabin on the shores of the now famous pond.
But Thoreau, who once said he had “traveled a great deal in Concord,” his home town, also ventured more widely. Among his travels were three trips into the wilds of Maine between 1846 and 1857.
And, like virtually everything else he did, Thoreau wrote about them, in a finely crafted travelogue that was still being endlessly polished as he was dying, and was published after his death as The Maine Woods. Today it's a classic.
In it, Thoreau tells of canoeing up the Penobscot River, portaging rapids and falls; of climbing to the tableland on “Ktaadn”; of canoeing on Moosehead Lake. His prose is peppered with familiar place names, though spelled a little differently: Kineo, Pockwockomus Falls, Ambejijis, Chesuncook, Lobster Stream . . .
Thoreau often lamented that eastern Massachusetts was so tamed. For him, Maine embodied wildness in its rushing waters, its dense forests. In the Indians, and in animals like moose, deer and bear. It satisfied a heartfelt yearning in his soul.
In The Maine Woods Thoreau turned his keen eye and meticulous reporting on everything from no-see-ums to how to make a camp; the killing of a moose to the driving of logs down the rivers. But always there is the wistful poetry of his words:
"In the middle of the night, as indeed each time that we lay on the shore of a lake, we heard the voice of the loon, loud and distinct, from far over the lake. It is a very wild sound, quite in keeping with the places and the circumstances of the traveler, and very unlike the voice of a bird. I could lie awake for hours listening to it, it is so thrilling. When camping in such a wilderness as this, you are prepared to hear sounds from some of its inhabitants which will give voice to its wildness."
Thoreau's The Maine Woods is as good a guide as you're going to get to the Maine of a century and a half ago. And it's one anyone can learn from today.
That's why we're putting it at the head of our list of the best books on the northern forest. For an audio experience, buy the CD A Fable True by Maine singer-songwriter David Mallett. Mallett's consummate guitar playing is interspersed with readings from Thoreau's book.
Our “best of” list is varied. There are older books and newer ones. We looked for books that are a compelling read as well as being informative about a place, a time, or the life of the forest. Fresh from the Woods readers offered their suggestions.
And, yes, we know this is not a definitive list. Send us your favorites, telling us why you think they qualify, and we'll include them in the sequel to this story. We know there's going to be one.
Meanwhile, here are the rest of our picks. Happy reading:
The Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich.
Heinrich grew up in Maine and owns several hundred acres of forestland in western Maine. A university biology professor, he is a prolific author and an artist. Like Thoreau, he's a keen observer of the natural world who loves to share his sense of wonder in carefully crafted prose and beautiful sketches.
In this book he delves into everything from how wood grows to the close relationship between man and apples to the even closer relationship between trees and fungi. Time, tree sex, and individual trees are all dealt with.
A Year in the Maine Woods by Bernd Heinrich.
This work is a highly readable Walden-like account of a year Heinrich spent at his cabin near Weld.
Written in journal format, it's replete with musings on almost everything you would encounter if you lived intimately with the Maine woods for a year – skunks, pine bark beetles, wind, bedrock, maple syrup and more.
Forest Trees of Maine by Maine Forest Service
Hands down the best guide to the trees of the northern forest. The book's first edition was published in 1908 and was a hot item. Today, in its 14th edition, it still is.
The new version includes range maps and color photos in a ring-binder format, perfect for taking into the woods. Want to know more about the book's evolution? Read "Forest Trees of Maine" from our Fresh from the Woods archives.
Reading the Forested Landscape: a Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels.
Sometimes, when we are in the forest, we feel like we are the only ones who have stood there, so primitive does the woods around us feel. But, of course, humans have lived in the forests of North America for thousands of years, and made their marks on them.
Wessels asks us to look closely when we're in the woods, to think about what the landscape is telling us about its history. Each chapter is presented as a puzzle tied to an etching. The result is a deeper appreciation for the woods that exists today, and the ones that existed in the past.
Want to know more about Wessels? Read The Forested Landscape in our Fresh from the Woods archive.
The Northern Forest by David Dobbs and Richard Ober
Dobbs and Ober deal not just with the history of that great swath of forestland that stretches from New Brunswick west to the other side of the Adirondacks, but with the issues the region faces today.
They focus on the people who live there: a logger, a guide, a mill worker and others, and how decisions made about the forest by corporations in far-flung cities and be-suited policymakers under capital domes affect their lives and the land.
One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke
This book about a man who built a cabin alone, with hand tools, amidst some of the most stunning scenery in the world is a captivating read.
Fresh from the Woods reader Dick MacGown of Pittsfield, who built a similar cabin on a pond in northern Maine in 1969, found he could relate.
“The more significant part of the process was not the cabins themselves, but the total experience of pitting oneself against the difficult odds of doing it alone and living in a way that blends in and fits with all of what Mother Nature offers if one is tuned to what she is trying to teach us. Hardly an hour passes up there that something doesn't occur to make it all worthwhile,” MacGown said.
Years of the Forest by Helen Hoover.
This book is one of a series Hoover wrote about her and her husband Abe's life in the northern Minnesota wilderness. The couple exchanged good jobs in the Chicago steel industry for a simple existence in a cabin where they developed an intimate acquaintance with their neighbors: squirrels, chipmunks, bobcats and other animals.
Fresh from the Woods reader Vin Lawrence said that “among Helen Hoover's books on the northern forest, The Years of the Forest is particularly deserving of mention.”
The Interrupted Forest, a History of Maine's Wildlands by Neil Rolde
Historian, author and former legislator Neil Rolde crafted this book about what today we call Maine's unorganized territories, the 10 million plus acres in northern Maine that were never really settled, though they were logged, at times heavily, and fought over frequently.
The book is highly recommended by the University of Maine's Spencer Meyer, who called it an important and readable work.
Rolde's book deals with how that land came to be and how the trees grew. But it also talks about the people. Indians, squatters, loggers, hunters, fishermen, giants of industry and colorful characters of all stripes shaped the land and were shaped by it.
We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickenson Rich
Rich's autobiographical account of living in the remote woods near Lake Umbagog in western Maine in the 1930s with her husband Ralph, was published in 1942. But despite that, it's still an engaging read. It's down-to-earth and written in a wry, self-effacing tone.
It was one of many books recommended by Peter Hilton of Presque Isle.
Robert J. Wagner, a conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montrose, Pa, agrees. “I came across it as a yard/book sale find when I was on vacation in New Hampshire,” he wrote. “I have enjoyed several of her other books, My Neck of the Woods and Happy the Land.”
The Great American Forest by Rutherford Platt
Fresh from the Woods reader Richard Greene said this is his favorite book about the northern forest, calling it “an oldie, but a goodie.”
The book is now out of print, but still widely available online, or in used bookshops.
Deep Woods: A John Burroughs Reader
Also recommended by Peter Hilton of Presque Isle, this collection of 10 of the iconic naturalist's essays serves as a great introduction to the prolific author's body of work.
It covers a lot of ground, from the Adirondacks to Yosemite.
Burroughs, who lived from 1837 to 1931, picked up the baton of the nature essay from Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became the master of the genre, beginning with his first work: Wake-Robin in 1871.
Oak: the Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan
The biography of a tree. And not just any tree, but the oak, which has contributed so much to mankind, from acorns to timber to shade. It was used to build huge buildings, fine furniture, and entire navies.
Forests for Maine's Future Committee member Kilton Andrew recommends this highly. “I read it twice,” he said.
Northeastern Wilds: Journeys of Discovery in the Northern Forest by Stephen Gorman
In this richly photographed new book, the Vermont author is your guide on a visual as well as literary journey across the 26 million acres of northern forest that runs from the Adirondacks across to Maine.
Gorman takes readers down rapids, including the West Branch of the Penobscot, and across snow-capped peaks, writing about the lives of the people of the region where they intersect with the land and delving into the complex issues that face the region today.
Forest Life and Forest Trees; Comprising Winter Camp-Life Among the Loggers, and Wild-Wood Adventure; With Descriptions of Lumbering by John S. Springer
This book was originally published in the mid 1800s, and while it's out of print you can get a free e-copy.
The book looks at how the old-time lumber camps in Maine and New Brunswick operated, from Sunday services to ox teams to camp cooking, as well as felling trees and the tremendously dangerous job of driving them down rivers to the mills.
“Some of your older forester readers may be aware of the book. It's one of the most interesting books I've seen and I am enjoying it. I . . . recognize lots of places the author writes about,” said John Hileman of Lynchburg, Va., a former manager for Georgia Pacific in Maine.
Also worthy of mention
Ten Million acres of Timber: The Remarkable Story of Forest Protection in the Maine Forestry District (1909-1972) by Austin H. Wilkins
A History of Lumbering in Maine, 1920-1861 by Richard G. Wood
American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery by Douglas W. MacCleery
Winter World; Summer World; The Geese of Beaver Bog; In a Patch of Fireweed, all by Bernd Heinrich
The Penobscot Man by Fanny Hardy Eckstorm
Penobscot Man by Frank G. Speck
Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee
Working with Your Woodlot: a Landowner's Guide by Mollie Beattie, Charles Thompson and Lynn Levine