Thoreau's Impossible Wilderness

· 08/11/2017 ·

Robert Pogue Harrison reviews several new works on Thoreau in The New York Review of Books. While the author of Walden is forever associated with the American wilderness, Thoreau couldn't escape the reaches of modern life.

Thoreau was fully cognizant of what today we call the 'anthropocene,' or the era when most of the planet has been touched or altered by human beings. When Thoreau embarked on an excursion to Mount Katahdin in Maine, for example, he imagined he would be venturing into pristine territory, only to find that humans had left their mark in even the state’s most remote regions.

"It is vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves," Thoreau wrote. "There is none such."

Laura Dassow Walls writes in her new biography of Thoreau:

Even where the road ended, the houses did not, and even after the last house, there were logging camps and blacksmith forges, dams and log booms, trails rutted with use, even a billboard. The untouched forest had been logged, each tree cut and branded, its destiny not to reach for the heavens but to drop downstream through the falls to the sawmills.

Instead, Thoreau sought and marveled at the wilderness tucked in amongst modern life. "One can’t help but marvel at the rapture that the sight of things like huckleberries, turtles, or wildflowers would inspire in him."

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