Defining Wilderness

Defining Maine

A series developed by Candace Kanes

What does wilderness mean to you? Adventure? Tranquility? Danger? A means of understanding our place in the universe? Some people connect it with a sense of spirituality, many are simply attracted to its beauty; for others it represents the promise of a simpler or more authentic life.

Even as we develop and “improve” the landscapes around us to make our lives easier, many of us still look to wilderness as a respite from those comfortable lives. Sometimes our longing for wilderness becomes so great that we build highways so we can reach it faster; then roads and trails and even houses in the wilderness itself.

What then is “wilderness?” If we go to it in large numbers, is it still wilderness? What does wilderness mean in Maine and for Maine? These are questions that have been considered since the early days of European contact, and “wilderness” has meant different things at different times. Henry David Thoreau thought wilderness could include humans and some level of human activity. Many contemporary commentators think of wilderness as devoid of permanent human influence.

Regardless of how we define wilderness, the Maine woods—Maine’s wilderness—has long attracted attention from both within the state and without. In many ways, ideas about the wilderness have helped to define the state. In our day it is the competing ideas about wilderness that still frame the unresolved questions about the future of Maine’s forestland.

This series examines the Maine wilderness, how various people have experienced it and written about it, and how those accounts have influenced Maine and shaped its identity. It raises questions about what constitutes wilderness, the relationship between humans and the natural environment, about conservation and ecology, and not least about our personal relationship to the wilderness.

Readings will range from intensely personal to historical. The series begins with Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, first published in 1864, two years after the death of the writer, philosopher, and naturalist from Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau came to Maine in 1846, when he visited Katahdin; in 1853, when he traveled to Chesuncook; and in 1857, when he paddled on the Allagash and the East Branch of the Penobscot River. The Maine Woods comprises his description of those trips, reflecting his curiosity and concerns—about the flora and fauna, Indians, logging, and everything else associated with the woods. This is one of the most enduring and widely read descriptions of the area. Thoreau of course often is credited with starting the environmental awareness movement. The Maine Woods will be paired with an account by Elizabeth Oakes Smith of her 1849 trip to Katahdin. Oakes Smith, a native of Yarmouth, and a noted writer and lecturer, was reportedly the first woman to scale Maine’s tallest peak.

Dean Bennett’s The Wilderness from Chamberlain Farm: A Story of Hope for the American Wild is a historical account of the area around a late 19th century farm. Bennett, a retired University of Maine at Farmington professor of history, has written a history of the wilderness area where the farm was located from its geologic beginnings, through its use by native peoples, as a logging supply point, and finally as a recreation site. The book explores the meaning of wilderness, how it has been interpreted by various people, and the changes on the landscape brought about by those interpretations.

Next in the series is Fly Rod Crosby: the Woman Who Marketed Maine, by Julia A. Hunter and Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., a short, photo-filled biography of Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby of Phillips, Maine. Fly Rod worked for Maine Central Railroad and helped encourage tourism in the Maine woods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This session will also include several short accounts by early tourists of their trips to the Maine woods: “Down the Allagash,” about a 1911 canoe trip from Greenville to Fort Kent, written by Henry L. Withee of Rockport; and an 1889 logbook of a hunting-fishing trip to Ragged Lake by John Dunn of St. Paul, Minnesota. Both also are part of Maine Memory Network ( and can be accessed online, along with numerous photos of both trips.

George S. Kephart came to Maine after World War I, and worked as a forester for eleven years. Campfires Rekindled is his memoir of logging in Maine in those years. It is full of anecdotes, humorous and painful, and information about “modern” logging practices.

The last reading will be We Took to The Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. This is a classic memoir of life in a remote outpost near Lower Richardson Lake in the 1930’s. Louise, her “husband” Ralph, their young son, Rufus, and sometimes, his daughter Sally, along with various dogs and cats occupy Forest Lodge, where they sustain themselves by fishing, maple sugaring, gathering berries, hauling tourists’ canoes and gear, and doing other odd jobs.