Henry David Thoreau: “The Maine Woods” (1864, posthumous)

The Anglo-American can indeed cut down, and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech, and vote for Buchanan on its ruins, but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances. He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them. Before he has learned his a b c in the beautiful but mystic lore of the wilderness which Spenser and Dante had just begun to read, he cuts it down, coins a pine-tree shilling, (as if to signify the pine’s value to him,) puts up a deestrict [sic] school-house, and introduces Webster’s spelling-book. (769–770)


One thing that strikes the reader of Henry David Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods is that he is describing a region under incessant threat of industrial capitalism. There is a struggle for survival at the heart of this book between the expansionist forces of New England capitalism and a more diverse world sheltered in the woods of Maine. The book consists of three essays written by Thoreau after three separate trips to the Maine forests. The first was in 1846, when he was living in Walden. The second was in 1853. The final trip was in 1857. A close analysis (which I will not do here) will suggests a gradual erosion of the wilderness in the face of expanding American capitalism. With these tours we are really seeing different stages of this conquest. Thoreau finds much appealing about Maine compared to Massachusetts, but cannot help but notice that that world is under growing stress.


The works Thoreau published during his life were really philosophical tracts that were presented as autobiographical narratives of his time living with nature. A Week was about a river trip. Walden, of course, was about his two years living near Walden pond. They can be read for the naturalistic value they offer, but mostly we approach those texts for what they say about Thoreau’s values and philosophy. The Maine Woods is much closer to a real travelogue.

So the signs of capitalist development are all around. We see it in the creeping settling of farmers, the formation of towns, the evaporation of Indian cultures, the rising of picket fences, and mills. Yes, it is not the cruel textile mills of Lowell, but it is the start and Thoreau is wary of much of what he observes. “But Maine, perhaps, will soon be where Massachusetts is. A good part of her territory is already as bare and commonplace as much of our neighborhood, and her villages generally are not so well shaded as ours. We seem to think that the earth must go through the ordeal of sheep-pasturage before it is habitable by man.” (710) Some parts of the forests Thoreau explored have already been worked over. In his account of the first trip, he described an old logging camp that has been abandoned, leaving the countryside “overgrown with weeds and bushes.” (626)

Many may approach The Maine Woods as a book of naturalism, and they would not be wrong. I find Thoreau’s descriptions of the people of the Maine forests as fascinating as his descriptions of the landscape. The Indian guides that so affected Thoreau with their beliefs and the fiercely independence settler stand are the center of The Maine Woods. These are, in the end, the only forces that could oppose the creeping gigantism of New England “civilization.” (I am often reminded of Deadwood these days, and I felt it again here in the assumed opposition of the pioneer settlers to the forces of state and corporate power.)

The only hope for the yet pristine parts of the Maine forests was that the United States may have already looked beyond New England and, by the 1850s, was more interested in exploiting and settling the “great West.” Yet even this is a false hope. For Thoreau, Bangor stands as a cancerous tumor in the middle of the woods. The forests are alive still but only for the moment.

We have advanced by leaps to the Pacific, and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us. Though the railroad and the telegraph have been established on the shores of Maine, the Indian still looks out from her interior mountains over all these to the sea. There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principle lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests on which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinements of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries, —and yet only a few axe-men have gone “up river,” into the howling wilderness which feeds it. The bear and deer are still found within its limits. (655)

So, although The Maine Woods is clearly one of Thoreau’s less well-known works and overshadowed by Walden and his great essays, it is historically significant and should be understand in the environmental history of the United States. In a world without wild spaces anymore, it is not always that useful go back to the imagined pristine wilderness. As much as Thoreau believes it exists, he did not understand how the Indians used and misused the natural world even centuries before whites arrived to the Americas. More useful, perhaps, is to look at the original crimes that led to the triumph of capital over the commons. Without fully knowing it, Thoreau did this in The Maine Woods. While describing the forests of Maine he was looking into the seizure of the commons. How this happened, where, when, and by whom are some of the most important historical questions of our time as we struggle to restore the commons before capital succeeds in the destruction of all life.


Mark Twain: “Tom Sawyer, Abroad” (1894)

Dangnammit! Huckleberry Finn was supposed to go West to Indian country and leave civilization behind him. But here he is, back in St. Petersburg talking about his continuing adventures with Tom Sawyer. If only Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Abroad was fan fiction. It is not that bad, but if taken too seriously it does threaten to take away some of the moral seriousness readers faced at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But, as an anarchist, I cannot help but praise a story about biracial gang of outlaws commandeering a hot air balloon and going on adventures.


As the story begins, Tom Sawyer is in a fix. He has a good tale to tell his friends over his role in freeing Jim and getting shot in the process, but the postmaster—Nat Parsons—came back from travels to Washington D.C. with all sorts of stories. Tom is at risk of losing his status as town hero. In a parochial place like St. Petersburg it is not hard to build up a reputation. Tom commits to going abroad in a way to preserve his threatened status as village adventurer. This leads to their encounter with a scientist and his hot air balloon. The scientist dies at some point early in their travels. The three (they being Jim along) eventually reach Africa, cross the Sahara desert, visit the pyramids and Cairo (a bit of an inside joke possible, since the town of the same name was Huck and Jim’s destination in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Once there they send a telegram home and prepare their return voyage.

It is around 90 pages in the Library of America awesome typesetting.

Planning a crusade. More interesting than the normal justification for tourism.

Planning a crusade. More interesting than the normal justification for tourism.

One interesting thing about this novel is that Twain appears to claim that travel and tourism is mostly about bragging rights. Tom Sawyer has no plans to go abroad before he felt his position threatened. Huck Finn has little interest regardless. As for having adventures based on pure imagination, Tom Sawyer never had troubles before. Whether it was playing pirates or prison escape, travel was never strictly required. In a sense, Tom Sawyer is growing up. Showing off moved to a new, unfortunate level. As I talked about earlier in this blog, I am not a big fan of tourism. I do not travel to tourist sites often. I prefer a bender and reckon you can learn more about a society from its pubs and brothels than from its carefully cultivated historical sites. Worse than visiting these sites, however, is the requirement to collect a detailed record of the travel. Photos, videos, blog posts, and overpriced junk from a gift shop seem to serve no other purpose but to show off that one travelled. It also creates a false memory. Smiling to a camera creates a false memory of happiness. Looking back on photos of smiling tourists creates the image that people were happy, which may not be true.


The novel has a humorous didactic structure based on the fact that Tom Sawyer attended school regularly, while Huck Finn and Jim were still quite vernacular in their knowledge. Several times in the short novel, Huck or Jim would make a mistake of fact and Tom Sawyer would lecture them on the truth. Huck thought they had not changed states because the grass has not changed color. Maps show states as different colors, of course. Tom correct him. Tom gives lessons on the jumping ability of flees, the nature of the Sphinx, and the extent of the Sahara desert. Unfortunately this makes Tom to be an incredible and unimaginative bore through much of the novel. Being right all the time is no fun for anybody. I try to be wrong several times every day. (Students stealing from my blog should keep this in mind. I do not mind the plagiarism, but just be warned.)

Let me close with some wisdom from the novel about needs and wants:

“The Professor had laid in everything a body could want; he couldn’t a been better fixed. There warn’t no milk for the coffee, but there was water and everything else you could want, and a charcoal stove and the fixing for it, and pipes and cigars and matches; and wine and liquor, which warn’t in our line; and books and maps and charts, and an accordion, and furs and blankets, and o end of rubbish, like glass beads and brass jewelry.” (674)

Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876): Growing Up

“’Who’s Robin Hood?’
‘Why he was one of the greatest men that was ever in England—and the best. He was a robber.’
“Cracky, I wisht I was. Who did he rob?’
‘Only sheriffs and bishops and rich people and kings, and such like. But he never bothered the poor. He loved ‘em. He always divided up with ‘em—perfectly square.’
‘Well, he must ‘a’ ben a brick.’
‘I bet you he was, Huck. Oh, he was the noblest man that ever was. They ain’t any such men now, I can tell you.’” (157)

That the main plot of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is about children pretending to be robbers and praising the accomplishments of robbers while also engaged in a real serious life and death battle with a real robber, totally odious in practice with none of the nobility imagined by children, is very significant. Tom and Huck can play robber, but when they encounter a real robber, they face him with maturity, courage, and nobility. This tells us that Mark Twain did not believe that the line between play and reality was that far. Play did not create a false vision of the world, even as it did allow for playful imagination. We can believe that Tom and Huck after meeting Injun Joe still believe that robbers could be heroic and noble Robin Hoods. In fact, we know this is true because Tom recommits himself to being a robber even after becoming rich (even if that is to scam Huck into staying with the Widow Douglas).


The adult worlds and the creative constructions of young people are mostly separate through the first half of the novel, but they become increasingly intertwined and combined in the second half. One example of this is the introduction of the summer activities to St. Petersburg, which brings, momentarily, a childish spirit to the entire town. A black minstrel show, the Fourth of July celebrations, a circus, a phrenologist and a mesmerizer all came in turn and “left the village duller and drearier than ever” when they left. By and large, it is the children who are forced into adult responsibilities, fears, and troubles.


The murder trial of Muff Potter was the first time in the novel when Tom Sawyer was given a truly adult responsibility. The burden was on him to defend Muff Potter’s innocence. Of course to do so meant witnessing against Injun Joe, who sat in the audience looking fearsome. Although this made him a town hero, he remained in perpetual fear of Injun Joe. “Injun Joe infested all his dreams, and always with doom in his eye. Hardly any temptation could persuade the body to stir abroad after night fall.” (148) While most of us, I hope, enter adulthood without such a traumatic experience, fear is a component of that transition for most. Fear of money, fear for safety, fears of eternal loneliness. These are all ways that we are brought into adult responsibilities of college, careers, marriage, and saving.

Despite this, Tom is able to defend his freedom in the face of the pressures of creeping adult responsibility and he embraces them with greater seriousness and stoicism. This is what makes his assurance to Huck at the end of the book that he remains committed to being a robber feel so tragic. If he does grow to be a robber, it might very well be as a land speculator…although we do not share such fears for Huck. We already see in Tom some attraction to wealth that seems to be lost on Huck, when he looked on Injun Joe’s “treasure.” “He never had supposed for a moment that so large a sum as a hundred dollars was to be found in actual money in any one’s possession. If his notions of hidden treasure had been analyzed, they would have been found to consist of a handful of real dimes and a bushel of vague, splendid, ungraspable dollars.” (165) We can appreciate this childish approach to money (especially when people today hoard wealth that is literally inconceivable). There is some end to Tom’s innocence when looking at the wealth. It is clear from later passages that he wanted that treasure.


Both of the young boys get their chance to become local heroes, but again we find a different between the two. Huckleberry Finn’s heroism is anonymous as he informs on the actions on Injun Joe to the Welchman. Tom is more famous as he saves Becky from their (quite scary) adventure of being lost in a cave occupied by Injun Joe, at his final hideout. After his escape he did not tell about noticing Joe there, an oversight that had tragic consequences.


Tom’s role in killing Injun Joe needs to be addressed as part of his more harsh entrance to adulthood. Huck will enter adulthood through a moral question. Tom’s entrance to adulthood is shaped by violence and the acquisition of wealth. For two weeks, Tom did not mention bumping into Injun Joe in the caves. During those two weeks, the people of St. Petersburg locked the cave shut to prevent other children from getting lost. Only then does he tell the adult that Joe was there. Twain’s description of Injun Joe’s is one of the most horrible descriptions I have ever read and it has stayed with me for years. It conveys not only the horror of his death but the isolate that helped create Injun Joe and the insignificance of a single human life in the context of time.

In the final scene, Tom tricks Huck into becoming civilized. He perhaps does not know that civilizing Huck would end what Tom and the others of the town so admired about Huck. Tom perhaps just wanted him around him as a friend. He uses the attraction of a robber gang to convince Huck to be adopted by the Widow Douglas. In a way the final dialog between the two is a battle between adulthood and childhood, civilization and freedom.

Huck commits to staying with the “widder,” but it is his earlier words that stay with us. “The widder eats by a bell; she goes to bed by a bell; she gits up by a bell—everything’s so awful reglar a bodyc an’t stand it. . . . I ain’t everybody, and I can’t stand it. It’s awful to be tied up so. And grub comes too easy—I don’t take no interest in vittles, that way. I got to ask, to go a-fishing; I got to ask, to go in a-swimming—dern’d if I hain’t go to go ask to do everything. Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort—I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out a while, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she woundn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks.” (212)

Welcome to the adult work Huckleberry Finn. I am glad you see it my way.

Aldo Leopold: The 1930s, Limits of State-directed Conservatiion

This blog has been quiet for a while, once again. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I have been burdened with completing my upcoming book, due out in a few months. A second reason is for the past two months I took a job to make some extra cash. That accomplished, I quit in hopes of sustaining a few other projects and working as much as possible on my Philip K. Dick project and some articles related to Taiwanese history. Freed from my temporary status as wage slave, I can return with full energies to educating myself.

I left off with Aldo Leopold’s writings from the 1910s and 1920s. Now we come to his writings of the 1930s. It is during this period that Leopold settled permanently in Wisconsin and began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, but before that he worked briefly in some of the New Deal-era conservation programs.

In Aldo Leopold’s textbook Game Management (1933) we find “thinking like a state” is really at the heart of conservation. Such state centrism takes the problem of sustaining the right population of “wild game for recreational use” and sees it as essentially a problem of managing different variables (predators, forests, number of hunters). An interesting of his discussion on game management is that he connects it to agriculture, saying that the line between farming and management is not so wide. However, more profoundly, he notices that game management has been a part of civilization since the beginning of agriculture. Agricultural societies did not only seek to tame a small number of crops and animals for their use, they almost immediately took steps to ensure a steady population of wild game for hunting. Rules established by the Hebrews, the Romans, the Mongols, and Tutor England differed greatly but they had in common a fear that the people, if not limited, will overuse the commons. The tools they had were not so different than the tools available in Leopold’s generation: faith in defense of game through private ownership, game farming followed by release into the wild, cover control to make hunting easier, and punishments for individuals over harvesting the commons.


The anti-statist critique could sound something like this: If the state manages wildlife, it ceases to be wild and becomes an extension of cultivation at best. At worst, it becomes sterile and machinelike, like the farmed forests that produce wood for paper mills but fail to sustain an eco-system. Leopold predicts this critique. “There are still those who shy at this prospect of a man-made game crop as at something artificial and therefore repugnant. This attitude shows good taste but poor insight. Every head of wild life still alive in this country is already artificialized, in that its existence is conditioned by economic forces. Game management propose that their impact shall not remain wholly fortuitous.” (315—316) Leopold, writing Game Management confesses to the end of the wilderness.

One thing I appreciate about reading Leopold is this total honesty about the human abolition of nature and the catastrophic consequences of it. Although he often took on the role as an agent of the state, advocating a host of policies to help manage wildlife, he knew that the state was ultimately doomed to failure and that civilization often runs counter to our basic human desires. While civilizations struggle to create sustainable systems (political, economy, social), they are always doomed to failure. This is a basic lesson of history It is interesting that around the same time that Leopold is writing this down in “The Conservation Ethic,” Arnold Toynbee was working on his massive theory of history, which brought home the idea that civilizations are always doomed to collapse. How then, is conservation (itself a form of management of the commons) possible without taking on all the other values of “civilization.” These include: the idea that nature should be conquered and that this is a benefit for humans and that a good

life comes from increasing consumer goods and technology. In this, Leopold provides a bit of prefigurative politics, within the structure of the state. Yes, the lesson of history is that civilization seems incapable of interacting with nature ethically, but conservation at least provides a space to workout, experiment with alternatives. This is his position in a short essay “The Arboretum and the University,” where he suggests that the university arboretum is a testing ground to experiment in a new definition of civilization as one working with nature. “If civilization consists of cooperation with plants, animals, soil and men, then a university which attempts to define that cooperation must have, for the use of its faculty and students, places which show what the land was, what it is, and what it ought to be.” (353) It may sound slightly naïve given the deep challenges we face, but is this not the essence of prefigurative politics: Our effort to create spaces where the future we desire is worked out. Leopold may have been too willing to work with fully despicable institutions to affect his ideal, but he is hardly the worst person to do so.

leopold Leopold lived at a time of dramatic changes in the power of the state over society and over nature. The New Deal made possible the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other laws that would profoundly shape the relationship between Americans and their environment. This is not to suggest that unregulated capitalism did much better by the land. The Dust Bowl was caused by reckless misuse of land and overproduction in the West. The Agricultural Adjustment Act helped solve that ecological problem. The massive engineering projects, like the hydroelectric power projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority are more troubling, because they did seem to continue what Leopold warned about: the attitude that civilization and progress require the conquest of the land. “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” (410) This is from his 1938 essay “Engineering and Conservation.” I wonder if it is at this point that he starts to grow more ambivalent about the role of the state institutions as being the agent of prefiguring.

Leopold's shack

Leopold’s shack

The following year, he came out with an essay “The Farmer as Conservationist,” where is proposes a more vernacular option. There is a practical aspect to looking at the farmer as an alternative agent. It is not so much that farmers have some sort of cosmic, spiritual encounter with the land through their work, but rather that they—through vernacular practices—can break free of some of the economism that makes some of the state-initiated plans so devastating. Some projects that may not provide immediate returns, but help conservation can be identified by people closer to the land. The central question for Leopold in this essay is: “Can a farmer afford to devote land to fencerows for a patch of ladyslippers, a remnant of prairie, or just scenery?” (429) He holds out hope that this is possible in America because of the large amounts of available land. Whether possible or not, the move toward conservation requires the destruction of the logic of crass economism. Thankfully, Leopold reminds us, America is founded on a struggle for independence. “We Americans have so far escaped regimentation by our own ideas? I doubt if there exists today a more complete regimentation of the human mind than that accomplished by our self-imposed doctrine of ruthless utilitarianism. The saving grace of democracy is that we fastened this yoke to our own necks, and we can cast it off when we want to, without severing the neck. Conservation is perhaps one of the many squirming which foreshadow this act of self-liberation.” (430)