Exploring Nature, Finding Ourselves


“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and
see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” —Henry David Thoreau

For Thoreau, the natural world and especially the wilderness were the means
by which to realize that higher, more enlightened level of the self.
Henry David Thoreau

It isn’t easy to revolutionize the worlds of writing, philosophy and social science at the same time, but a trip to the woods is an excellent place to start. Just ask Mr. Henry David Thoreau. Of course, to do that, you’d need to take a time machine back to the 1830s, the decade that saw the birth of American Transcendentalism, a movement inspired by visionaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amos Bronson Alcott and other gentlemen who liked to use all three of their names. Including this fellow named Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau lived his entire life in New England and spent significant periods of time in Maine. Yet in many ways, Thoreau lived in a world all his own. Of course, he shared the same world, the same New England and the same Maine as everyone else. It’s just that he saw it all in a different light.

Arriving at a true definition of Transcendentalism is as difficult today as it was in the time of Thoreau and his compatriots. The roots of the movement can be traced all the way back to the philosophy of Plato. Perhaps the best way to begin a definition is to say that Transcendentalism was a natural flowering of the seeds of the American experiment in individualism, self-reliance and, despite the dour looks in the old photos, the pursuit of happiness.

So what exactly were the Transcendentalists trying to transcend? In essence, they envisioned a way of living in which the individual could go beyond the limits imposed by structured society and conventional thinking and truly reach a higher level of awareness, imagination and creativity, ultimately connecting with one’s essential nature.

It was in Maine that Thoreau encountered a 
spectacular natural world that was as primordial as it
was pure, as rugged as it was pristine.

Thoreau’s most well-known literary work was “Walden,” a collection of essays drawn from his two-year experiment of living alone and self-reliantly in a tiny cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. However, right on the heels—or should we say bootstraps—of “Walden” in terms of literary and historical significance was “The Maine Woods,” a collection of Thoreau’s written experiences and reflections culled from his three epic sojourns into the wilds of Maine.

It was in Maine that Thoreau encountered a spectacular natural world that was as primordial as it was pure, as rugged as it was pristine. Among other sites, Thoreau explored the Penobscot River, Chesuncook Lake, the Allagash River, Mount Katahdin, and Moosehead Lake. It was there, on Mount Katahdin, that Thoreau had the transcendental experience that came to be known as The Contact. Why do we call it that?

Talk or Mysteries! Think of Our Life in Nature

This passage from “The Maine Woods” describing the epiphany should make it self-explanatory: “Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?” Clearly Thoreau was also ahead of his time in the kind of enthusiastic use of exclamation points that has become so common in the text messaging of the 21st century. And speaking of the 21st century, one of the most amazing aspects of the state of Maine today is the manner in which it has seemingly transcended the passage of time in maintaining its vast and undeveloped forests. For today’s visitors, the opportunities to explore wild, remote places and, thereby, to touch new levels of the mind and spirit are as abundant and inviting as ever.

Not Only for Strength but for Beauty

In fact, the following passage from “The Maine Woods” rings as true for today’s visitors as it did for Henry David Thoreau. “Not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail, to drink at some new and bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness.” So what is the best way to experience Transcendentalism for yourself when you come to Maine? Is it rivers or reflection? Mountains or meditation? Forests or philosophy? Moose or muse? For Thoreau and all those who have followed his path to the Maine woods, the answer is all of the above. And when you come, feel free to keep a journal of your experiences. Who knows? Maybe someday they’ll be talking about you in the halls of academe, by all three of your names.

Chapter No. 3