Thoreau’s Borderlands

In Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” he writes, “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure.” It is this longing for wildness that drove Thoreau to live and continue to return to Walden pond; to seek out nature whether along rivers, or the seashore, in the Maine woods, or his home town.

But at times Nature complicates Thoreau’s idealism by presenting raw, untamed forces—true wilderness, rather than just wildness—that stand in stark contrast to the pastoral that he often evokes in his writing.  

In August 1846, Thoreau left his home in the woods around Walden Pond for a journey to the Maine wilderness around Mount Ktaadn. Simply going from Massachusetts to Maine was as vast a difference in contact with the natural world as going from Boston to Thoreau’s cabin, and Thoreau notes these differences throughout the first part of his narrative of this trip—the condition of roads, land, and houses, and the work, leisure, health, and intelligence of the people who inhabit these—in regard to the Mainers who have chosen to live away from the urban centers, the same as himself. But at the end of the journey, after reaching the summit of Ktaadn, something changes in Thoreau.

I can relate my own experience in regard to nature with Thoreau’s in going from his place on Walden Pond to the mountaintop wilderness of Mt. Ktaadn.  For the first 32 years of my life, I spent much time hiking, camping, and fishing in the woods and foothills of southern Illinois. I sought out wildness but had never experiencedwilderness. Not until moving to Oregon and working as a backpacking guide in the High Cascades, navigating miles of roadless forest and climbing to the summits of snowpeaked volcanoes did I finally understand wilderness.  And I see this distinction in Thoreau’s description of his experience on the summit of Ktaadn. That he had gone to the woods before and had climbed highpoints to take in the view of the surrounding countryside before, that he had experienced wildness, but he had never experienced true wilderness, nature untouched by humankind.

After reaching a secluded meadow on the return from the climb, Thoreau writes, “Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature… while coming down this part of the mountain.” This statement does not carry the transcendentalist rhetoric that some of his other reflections on nature carry. Even within this narrative of Ktaadn, his writing shows someone reflecting from familiar territory; that of observing humankind’s relationship with nature. But in this moment on Ktaadn’s summit, he isn’t trying to preach the gospel of looking for the wild in one’s own, civilized back yard, but instead he is faced with an ancient wilderness whose physical size and time on Earth cause him, in that moment, to question his very identity and purpose: “Who are we?” he says. “Where are we?” He is faced with something unrecognizable:

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 waste-land.  It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever…. Man was not associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific—not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not 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 of Necessity and Fate.

These are the words of a man whose faith has been shaken. If Emerson is Transcendentalism’s Abraham, then Ktaadn was Thoreau’s Sinai, or even more fitting, his temptation in the desert, where he looked into the face of his god and was transformed.

After he returned to Walden, he began to write the narrative of his Ktaadn adventure, understandably, using first person, past tense—the voice of a traveller returned. An important thing to remember when encountering prose set in this point of view, is that the narrator already knows the outcome of everything; he is omnipotent in the universe created by the opening sentence and ending with the last. And while Thoreau relates this information in relatively chronological order, as if the reader were following the same path as the author, the author is in full control of which information the reader sees and when the reader sees it.

We see this first-person omniscience when Thoreau, still in the telling of the outward journey, interrupts the narrative of describing the “fencing stuff” of the loggers by saying, “[I]t was always startling to discover so plain a trail of civilized man there. I remember that I was strangely affected when we were returning, by the sight of a ring-bolt well drilled into a rock, and fastened with lead, at the head of this solitary Ambejijis Lake.”

This slight shift in the narrative foreshadows the transformation ahead, letting the reader know that he will come back changed. It’s as if he is setting up the “crisis of faith” as he moves deeper and deeper into the Maine woods, and further away from his pastoral where humankind lives embracing the wild but still within the reach of home.

He writes later in Walden, we “settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, … through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.” Only in “The Maine Woods,” Thoreau, rather than finding reality by descending to the depths, finds it ascending to the summit of Ktaadn.

Up to this point in the narrative, Thoreau had discussed nature always in relationship to the humans who lived in it. Described their attempts to tame it, to utilize its resources, to capitalize on it, and he described those who lived and worked in nature as being superior to those who lived in urban settings. But now, here in the Maine backwoods, he finds it startling that humanity can leave such a mark on this place.

Thoreau writes of the logger’s ownership mark: “Every log is marked with the owner’s name, cut into the sapwood with an axe, or bored with an auger, so deep as not to be worn off in the driving, and yet not so as to injure the timber.” This seems to be Thoreau’s view of human relationship with nature before reaching the summit of Ktaadn; man should go to the wild and leave his mark there rather than living a life confined in cities, but also that the mark be light enough to ensure that nature is not wiped from the earth, leaving humankind stuck with nothing but the civilization he created.

We see this desire to leave one’s mark show up a little later in the narrative in a logging camp along the way where Thoreau finds a “whole brick… red and square as in a brick-yard,” and says that some of the party regretted afterward not bringing it to the summit of Ktaadn as “a simple evidence of civilized man.” A similar sentiment is also seen in the last sentence of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which can be read as an elegy for his dead-too-soon brother: “and we leaped gladly on shore, drawing [the boat] up and fastening it to the wild apple tree, whose stem still bore the mark which its chain had worn in the chafing of the spring freshets.”

The closer Thoreau gets to Mt. Ktaadn and true wilderness, we see him carefully point out the mark of humankind on the woods: among other things, a handbill for the Oak Hall wrapped around a pine whose bark has been stripped. Imagine it, miles and miles into this roadless wilderness, Thoreau shows the reader a harbinger of modernity—an advertisement stuck to a barkless trunk, smooth as a telephone pole.

It isn’t until Thoreau and his companions reach the foot of the mountain and begin the ascent that they, finally, become “buried in the woods.” Here the signs of human presence are exchanged for an abundance of animal sign, and travel through this country untouched by humankind becomes even more difficult. He wonders how a moose, an animal of a thousand pounds, “could thread these woods, which required all our suppleness to accomplish, climbing, stooping, and winding, alternately.”

That night, in their first camp on the mountainside, the shift in Thoreau’s vision of nature is complete when he describes the view not as a “pleasant wilderness,” as he described it earlier in the narrative, but instead “savage and dreary scenery enough.” That night, one of the party awakens crying out, thinking the world is on fire. Here, where there are no more reminders of the power and might of human beings and their civilization, in an “undone extremity of the globe,” these tough and rugged frontiersmen cry out in their sleep for fear the world is ending.

And it is here that Thoreau sees the origins of the world, the “raw materials of a planet” first hand, and in doing so his view of who he is and where he stood in the world changed. On page 64, Nature speaks to the reader, to Thoreau himself, in biblical prose:

Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more lone than you can imagine. There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him, than in the plains where men inhabit. His reason is dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtle like the air. Vast, Titanic, in-human Nature has got him at a disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, why came ye here before your time? This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile on you in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.

How does one return from this kind of crisis of faith? What must it be like to look into god’s face and instead of finding the love and gentleness you had come to believe in, you instead find a raw, indiscriminate power that makes the scope of your life seem as unimportant as the dust underfoot? How does Thoreau reckon his idyllic “pleasant wilderness” with the hard realism of the undone extremities of the globe?

One might think there would be a clear shift in Thoreau’s writing after his trip to Ktaadn, but Thoreau is not a character or a persona (as many often view him), but a human being, like any other, full of complexity and contradiction. We see this throughout his writings, and often within the same piece, as in his essay, “Walking,” where within a few pages he yearns for a “wildness no civilization can endure” and makes the bold claim that “all good things are wild and free” and then seems to turn completely when he states that “the American farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural” and that “the weapons with which we have gained our most important victories… are not the sword and the lance, but the bush-whack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe.”

However, in Thoreau’s last work, Cape Cod, published posthumously in 1864, the reader sees the writer who is still fascinated by Nature and humanity’s relationship with it, but now with a quieter, more subdued tone that no longer views Nature as something to be tamed or marked by human hands, but instead something that cannot be conquered. Here we see that people may live within nature, use it to their benefit, and even for a brief time seem to control it, but at any moment, Nature can send humankind spinning back into the void. As Thoreau walks the thin strip of land that is Cape Cod, it becomes a borderland between the wild, ever-changing sea, and the westward expanding civilization of the United States, a place where he can bring together the extremes of ideology and reality.

Thoreau begins Cape Cod with the scene of a shipwreck. The statement is obvious: centuries after the first European crossings of the Atlantic, the journey had become fairly commonplace, and yet here, within sight of the ship’s destination, Nature reminds humankind how small it is.

Thoreau describes the easy work the waves made of the ship: “It appeared to us that there was enough rubbish to make the wreck of a large vessel in this cove alone, and that it would take many days to cart it off,” and he is amazed at how quickly Nature deteriorates the ship’s materials, “that iron must go to pieces in such a case, and an iron vessel would be cracked up like an egg-shell on the rocks. Some of these timbers, however, were so rotten that I could almost thrust my umbrella through them.” The elements quickly reclaim this wreckage, mingling the natural with the crafted. “In the first cove were strewn what seemed the fragments of a vessel, in small pieces mixed with sand and sea-weed, and great quantities of feathers; but it looked so old and rusty, that I first took it to be some old wreck which had lain there many years.” Hours and hours of human labor and ingenuity destroyed in moments by Nature, and we can imagine the defeat and hopelessness one might feel having seen the great Boston shipyards and then this scene on the shore.

But Thoreau notes that the people who live here on the edge of the world, always within earshot of the sea’s constant roar reminding them of its power, showed “no signs of grief, but… a sober dispatch of business which was affecting.” That if one is to live wild, if one is to stare back into that unflinching glare of Nature, then one has to accept that Nature always wins. That humans are but a small part of Nature. That like the ship, we are easily transformed back into the elements from which we came.

When Thoreau describes the sight of the dead, he uses the same detached clarity of a naturalist, as if he were describing the decay of an apple tree or the erosion of a riverbank: “I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen, and mangled body of a drowned girl… to which some rags still adhered, with a string, half concealed by the flesh, about its swollen neck; the coiled up wreck of a human hulk, gashed by the rocks or fishes, so that the bone and muscle were exposed, but quite bloodless,—merely red and white,—with wide open and staring eyes, yet lustreless, dead lights; or like the cabin windows of a stranded vessel, filled with sand.”

These images compare with the description of the shipwreck itself, the raw materials that had been constructed by human hands and the raw materials of the humans themselves all are transformed back into Nature indiscriminately and without malice.

But with this scene, we see a different reaction from Thoreau than we did on the summit of Ktaadn. Instead of being left paralyzed in the face of Nature’s power, he responds to it much the same as the people worked with efficiency and economy and without grief collecting the dead. He says, “I sympathized rather with the wind and the waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?”

How, in the face of such human tragedy could Thoreau sympathize with the waves? Has he lost any sense of compassion for his fellow man? Or has he simply come to view all as a part of Nature? An answer to this comes later in the book in the chapter titled “The Beach.” Here Thoreau and his companion come upon a “Humane House,” buildings constructed on the shore to provide temporary shelter and safety to shipwrecked sailors, and they think of going inside to get out of the freezing wind, only to find it locked. So Thoreau peeks through a knot-hole and describes what he finds: “Turning our backs on the outward world, we thus looked through the knot-hole into the Humane house, into the very bowels of mercy; and for bread we found a stone…. However, we were glad to sit outside, under the lee of the Humane house, to escape the piercing wind; and there we thought how cold is charity! how inhumane humanity!… We concluded that it was not a humane house at all, but a sea-side box, now shut up, belonging to some family of Night or Chaos, where they spent their summers by the sea.”

We see again Thoreau use the description of Chaos and Night, the same as he described the summit of Ktaadn years before. Only this time, rather than the untouched primal landscape of the mountaintop, he is describing humanity’s attempt to civilize this wild stretch of seashore with the Humane House, but the door is locked. The words of Thoreau echo the authoritative voice of Nature on the summit of Ktaadn: “Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear” (“The Maine Woods”), only this time, rather than the voice of Nature, it is the voice of Humanity casting him away, and he is once again left in the borderlands.

We might consider then, how the landscapes themselves allow for a different perspective. At Walden pond Thoreau finds refuge in the pastoral that lies wild but safe in known world; on Ktaadn, Thoreau experiences a landscape that appears to stand untouched from the beginning of time, for geological time to human eyes appears unmoving, and to enter that landscape one enters eternity. But on the shores of Cape Cod, he sees a landscape that is ever-changing and perpetually in motion. The sand, the waves, the humans, the plants, the fish, everything in this place is moving, sometimes in harmony and other times in disharmony. A place where “pleasant wilderness” and “hard bottom reality” exist simultaneously. A “sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only” (“Walking”), where Thoreau found reconciliation between his Transcendental philosophies and the bleak rawness of untamed Nature, and it’s here in these borderlands, where all dichotomies are balanced, that we may find some semblance of what might be called peace.


Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. Ed. William Rossi. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print

Thoreau, Henry D. “Walking.” Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. Ed. William Rossi. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Thoreau, Henry D. “Ktaadn.” The Maine Woods. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Thoreau, Henry D. Cape Cod. Orleans, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1984. Print.


James Alan Gill is the Dispatches editor for The Common.

Thoreau’s Borderlands

Related Posts

Reflective pool

Delusions of Grandeur

There is something post-decadent about Versailles in winter. The fountains are off; there are not many tourists. Everything is still fiercely geometric and over-the-top, but in this gray, expired kind of way, at least most of the day; the crisp chill of nighttime being an exception.

Pandemic Diaries

Five times a day, there are knocks on my door and I have to open. I am learning to distinguish between the frantic banging of the hazmat-suited man taking my temperature, and the rushed taps of the man delivering plastic cartons of hot food. On my third day, two medics knocked...

Image of Hebe Uhart

Translation: A Trip to La Paz

When I was twenty, I went abroad for the first time; the train to La Paz took three days and it was easy to meet people on board. I went with Julia Leguizamón, who was a few years older. To me, she was the essence of mystery and refined intelligence—qualities I lacked.