The Roots of Stewardship


“I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings,
where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever 
unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me.” —Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau isn’t asking for the world in this famous quote—
just the great parts of it where the wild is still alive and well
and will continue to be so with each new day.

Chapter No. 4

And, if it were up to him, that would be the case forever. Henry David Thoreau made no secret of the fact that he felt it was up to him. There were few others willing to conduct the human experiment of living alone beside a pond in the woods, few others willing to embark on journeys of discovery, science and spirituality into the vast wilds of Maine.

The question has long been asked: Through his example, his study and his declarations of the vital need for humankind to respect, embrace and protect the natural world, was Henry David Thoreau our first environmentalist? The case in favor has been articulated time and again in the years that followed by scholars and biographers and, more importantly, by a whole new category of students and advocates of nature—the conservationists. The consensus is, of course, yes. Did Henry David Thoreau have an inkling at the time that his observations, writings and life experience would be the seeds of a nationwide outgrowth of respect for and conservancy of the wilds he loved?

On this, we can only speculate. What we do know is that the youthful Thoreau was right there observing the world as his native Concord lost much of its surrounding forests to farming and the demand for wood to use as fuel. The village itself became a virtual life form of its own before his eyes as it expanded into the previously wild countryside. With his feet firmly in the present but his eyes looking toward the future, he wrote in his essay, “Walking”: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a Freedom and Culture merely civil,— to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”

It was clear to Thoreau that while the natural world around him had been in existence since primordial times, human beings were now very much a part of the landscape. The Native Peoples had been there for millennia, and the Europeans were now present in full force. Of course, there could be no reversing of history. What there could be, however, was a new kind of exploration and discovery—of study, education and, ultimately, a commitment toward a future in which the natural world was as much a part of humanity as humanity was of it.

“Thoreau…was our last true poet, a seer of new worlds not yet lived
in which human flourishing and wild nature go hand in hand.”

—Robert Pogue Harrison

Henry David Thoreau traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles deep into the Maine wilderness. His vision was looking deep into the future of Maine as well, to the conservation practices that would follow the prints of his boots on land and the wake of his canoe on the waters.

Remarkably, the Maine woods that became legendary in Thoreau’s essays are not public parks. The majority of Maine’s vast forestlands are privately owned and managed for forest products. Through the years, however, the people of Maine have not only acknowledged the need for intelligent, intuitive, forward-thinking conservation practices. They have remained kindred in spirit to the joy and wonderment Thoreau first felt when encountering the Maine woods—even while finding ways to profit from timber harvesting. Here in Maine, that spirit is embodied and sustained by the philosophy and practice known as “The Working Forest.”

Maine’s forest heritage and recreation traditions have long walked hand in hand with the timber industry, one of the state’s greatest sources of revenue, allowing for the public use of private lands by citizens and visitors. Today, as a result of remarkable cooperation between private landowners, conservation groups and the state, the vast majority of Maine’s wild lands—from the deep forests and majestic uplands to the mystical waters and breathtaking coastline—remain virtually unchanged from the time of Thoreau.

Maine’s esteemed visitor would be quite pleased to see that people and nature really were able to find a common ground in the state he came to cherish. You are invited to come and discover for yourself the freedom, exhilaration, outer beauty and inner peace of today’s wild Maine. A certain kindred spirit is just waiting to make your acquaintance.

Chapter No. 4