Adapted from the Program with Abstracts, 2017 Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society
The Boatman is my main contribution to the Thoreau Bicentennial and a follow-up to my previous book Walden’s Shore. My illustrated AG lecture will highlight five key points:
(1) Henry was a boatman, more than he was a woodsman: lifelong river rat whose sense of place emerged from boating (often sailing), walking (sometimes naked), and skating (sixty miles on one day) the Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord Rivers. The confluence of this river triumvirate at Egg Rock was the axis mundi of his life, not the center of Walden Pond.
(2) By community vote, Thoreau was selected to be a paid-consultant for a controversy involving the tear-down of the Billerica Dam. This was effectively America’s first regional environmental assessment: a class-action lawsuit that ended in political corruption three years later. That consultancy led to an eighteen-month-long pro bono investigation that remained unfinished and unpublished at the time of Henry’s death. Erroneously called his “River Survey,” this project was the most rigorously analytical and theoretical work of his lifetime. The quantitative details of this work were excised from Thoreau’s Journal when it was published in 1906, skewing the canonization process.
(3) Thoreau lived amidst and appreciated the many changes to his river system that were caused by the human makeover of the 19th century. Dams, canals, bridges, and near-complete deforestation improved his sailing, rowing and skating, botanizing, and work as a naturalist. One salient example is a site called the Leaning Hemlocks on the Assabet River, one of Concord’s most celebrated scenic destinations. Thoreau recognized this this to be a landslide caused by enhanced bank undercutting, caused by the combination of poor design of the Union Turnpike bridge and the raising of the Billerica Dam in 1827-1828.
(4) During the last decade of his life, Thoreau lived with a view of the river at his bedside, and his sense of the wild moved toward the unpredictable dynamism of landscape changes taking place around him.
(5) Eleven days before Thoreau’s 1862 death, the meadowlands responsible for colonial settlement were given up for lost as impoverished wetlands. Ironically, this set the stage for their later protection as National Wildlife Refuges and designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers.
Quoting The Boatman, “Walden Pond and Thoreau’s river country need not compete with each other for our attention. Rather, they inspired complementary literary texts: his masterpiece Walden and his life’s work, the Journal. Pond and river are complementary geometric forms, a circle and a line, respectively.