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The Death of Wilderness: Reflections on the Industrial Forest by Henry David Thoreau

Introduction by Cheryl Seal

Henry David Thoreau first traveled to Maine in 1846, just as industrial logging (at least the pre-Civil War version) was beginning to eat its way across the northern forest landscape. He left on August 31 – the anniversary date of his departure up the Concord River to the White Mountains with his beloved older brother John some years earlier - the last expedition he’d made with John, who died in 1842. Thoreau’s climb to the top of Katahdin was, in essence, a tribute to his brother and best friend. Standing atop the rock-strewn mountain peak, which rises from the center of what is now Baxter State Park, Thoreau was struck by the awesome power and majesty of the true wilderness that stretched out beyond his feet. He realized with a shock that man was not master of this realm - he was but a small part of it: “Talk of mysteries! Think of our daily life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it – rocks, trees, the wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world The common sense.. Contact! Contact! What we? Where are we?”

In the 15 years before his death, he was to return to Maine two more times, each time penetrating deeper into the wilderness. What he discovered with each successive journey was how vulnerable “wilderness” really is. Land can be true wilderness just once – once violated, it is wilderness no more. Even armed with axes, the 19th-century logging operations were able to cut over nearly every acre of Maine at least once before 1900. Today, Maine is not wilderness – it is an “industrial forest” carpeted by third- and fourth-growth trees, most less than 10 inches in diameter and plagued by the wind damage, insect infestations, and erosion that comes with a young, even-aged forest that is largely a monoculture of spruce. My woodsman friend Martin used to say, “If you want to look at a healthy old tree now, then you’d best go look in a village green.”

Though Thoreau wrote the following words nearly 150 years ago, they remain hauntingly pertinent to today. Now the logging industry is highly mechanized – they don’t need many workers. They have skidders and giant “harvester” machines (the latter, run by one man in an air-conditioned/heated cab, can cut hundreds of trees an hour and cut, with the aid of flood lights, round the clock).

Today, it is not the local economy that benefits - it is a handful of Weyerhauser or James River Executives sitting in sleek offices sometimes thousands of miles away who reap the real profits. Meanwhile, the damage that roads and modern logging operations- and now oil drilling operations - can do is total and permanent. As Congress and the Administration prepare to decide the fate of the remaining wilderness, they would do well to ponder the thoughts of Henry David Thoreau on Maine’s forest.

The following are excerpts from Thoreau’s essays on his three journeys to Maine in 1846, 1853, and 1857.

And what are we coming to?- The very willow rows lopped every three years for fuel or powder and every sizeable pine and oak or other forest tree cut down within the memory of man! As if individual speculators were to be allowed to export the cloud out of the sky or the stars out of the firmament.

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to he light, to see its perfect success, but most are content to behold it in the shape of many board brought to market and deem that its true success!

For one that comes with a pencil to sketch or to sing a thousand come with axe or rifle.

The wood were as fresh and full of vegetable life as a lichen in wet weather and contained many interesting plants, but unless they are of white pine, they are treated with as little respect here as a mildew and in the other case, they are the more quickly cut down.

Thus they had dammed all the larger lakes, raising their broad surfaces many feet, thus turning the forces of Nature against herself that they might float their spoils out of the country. Think how much land they have flowed without asking Nature’s leave!

He who rides and keeps the beaten track studies the fences chiefly.

How far men go for the materials of their houses! The inhabitants of the most civilized cities in all ages send into far, primitive forests, beyond the bounds of their civilization, where the moose and bear and savage dwell, for their pine boards for ordinary use. On the other hand, the savage soon receives from cities iron arrow points, hatchets, and guns to point his saveageness with.

When the chopper would praise a pine, he would commonly tell you that the one he cut was so big that a yoke of oxen stood on its stump. Why, my dear sir, the tree might have stood on its own stump and a deal more comfortably and firmly than a yoke of oxen can, if you had not cut it down. What right have you to celebrate the virtues of the man you have murdered?

But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of man is to be cut down and made into manure.

Think how stood the white pine tree…its branches soughing with the four winds and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight. Think how it stands with it now – sold, perchance to the New England Friction Match Company.

The very willow-rows lopped every three years for fuel or powder, and every sizeable pine and oak or other forest tree cut down within the memory of man! As if individual speculators were to be allowed to export the clouds out of the sky or the stars out of the firmament, one by one. We shall be reduced to gnaw the crust of the earth for nutriment.

We shall be obliged to import the timber for our liberty pole – as leafless as it is fruitless – ore hereafter splice together such sticks as we have, and our ideas of liberty are equally mean with these.

The mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest out of all the country, from every solitary beaver swamp and mountainside as soon possible

The wilderness experiences a sudden rise of all her streams and lakes, she feels ten thousand vermin gnawings at the base of her noblest trees, many combining, drag them off, jarring over the roots of the survivors and tumble them into the nearest stream till the fairest having fallen, they scamper off to ransack some new wilderness, and all is still again.

A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man.

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy Here, then, one could no longer accuse institutions and society, but must front the true source of evil.

I have been into the lumberyard and the carpenter’s shop and the tannery and the lampblacks factory and the turpentine clearing. But when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest uses of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize. It is as immortal as I am and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower over me still.