“Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. 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, not 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.”
The place that inspired those words, which appear in Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Ktaadn” in The Maine Woods, was last Wednesday designated as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It was a major victory for wilderness preservation, a nice birthday present for the National Park Service (which celebrated its 100th anniversary a day later), and a rich endowment for the American people.
“Ktaadn” was based on Thoreau’s 1846 excursion to Maine while otherwise living at Walden. Even then, he observed the threat of indiscriminate industry: “the mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest out of the country, from every solitary beaver-swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.”
The 87,500-acre expanse is the heart of Maine’s North Woods, and much is former logging territory acquired by Burt’s Bees cofounder Roxanne Quimby. Quimby bought the land from closing or downsizing paper mills, then arranged to donate it for all to enjoy. Alas, not everyone welcomed the contribution or the monument status bestowed by President Barack Obama via executive authority; the effort met significant resistance and misdirected anger from those who long for an industry that’s not coming back.
The establishment of Katahdin Woods and the day-later expansion of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument arrive as some congressional Republicans are trying to pawn off wildlife refuges and public lands. These maneuvers are often provisions slipped into larger bills to aid cash-strapped states; if they draw attention, they are presented as ways to limit the federal government (always popular) and assert state land rights (surely the legislatures that have driven states to the brink of financial ruin will do the right thing and not immediately lease or sell the land to the highest bidder).
Thoreau didn’t live long enough to see the creation of the National Park Service, let alone the preservation of his beloved Walden Pond or Maine woods, but his writing inspired early advocates for a federal park system, including John Muir. Muir first read The Maine Woods in 1870, and he carried a copy with him on his initial visit to Alaska in 1879.
With the exception of three trips to Maine, Thoreau rarely strayed far from Concord, Massachusetts, and when he traveled he did so in relative comfort. Muir traversed the nation and embraced roughing it, and once lamented, “Even open-eyed Thoreau would perhaps have done well had he extended his walks westward… .” But they arrived at the same destination. They saw the importance of and value in protecting our wildlands, and they understood that our own claims of ownership to any patch of earth are tenuous and fleeting.
In the 1851 speech that became the famed essay “Walking,” Thoreau asserts that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” “In God’s wildness,” Muir proclaims in his Alaska journals, “lies the hope of the world.”
Here’s hoping to another 100-plus years of our National Park Service.