Forests primeval

Monday Book Reviews

March 15, 1993|By Andrew Todd Reiner

THOREAU'S MAINE WOODS: YESTERDAY AND TODAY. By Cheryl Seal. Photographs by Robert F. Bukaty. Yankee Books. 183 pages. $24.95.

MOST of us associate Henry David Thoreau with high school English, where we might have read his classic mid-19th-century essays, "Walden." But few know that Thoreau also wrote "Maine Woods." This unfinished work about the naturalist's three journeys into the north woods was a plea for an end to the stripping of forest land -- written 100 years before most of the nation's conservation laws.

So it's natural that in the environmentally correct '90s, Cheryl Seal and Robert F. Bukaty give us "Thoreau's Maine Woods," a collaboration of words and photographs. Both Ms. Seal and Mr. Bukaty act as missionaries for Thoreau, spreading the gospel that unless we stop ravaging the forests, "We shall be reduced to gnaw the crust of the Earth for nutriment."

Describing the Maine woods in the book's first section, Ms. Seal plants the seeds for her argument that the once-green forests of our northeasternmost state are in a state of code red. The villain is the white man, not the indigenous Abenaki, the Algonquian people who cut birch trees one by one.

In the second section, Ms. Seal focuses on Thoreau and his life. Her portrait shows a man of many dimensions whose trips into the woods and on the Concord and Merrimack rivers inevitably led to three excursions in Maine. It was there, while Thoreau was standing atop a mountain with clouds and wind "boiling around him uneasily," that he found not simply beauty but deeper, harsh truths about nature and humankind's existence.

A Maine journalist who writes about environmental issues, Ms. Seal blames the paper companies for the ills of the northern wilderness. Because they've cut so much of the timber, Ms. Seal contends, the companies have left the land vulnerable to fires, insects and other predators. And, she says, the many miles bulldozed to create logging roads have opened the Maine woods to other monsters -- tourists and hunters.

The last half of "Thoreau's Maine Woods" is a pictorial essay by photographer Robert F. Bukaty. Mr. Bukaty must have been told ahead of time what to shoot, or his intuition is unearthly, for next to every photo is a perfectly appropriate passage from Thoreau's Maine journals. Like its written counterpart, this visual essay pays homage to Thoreau, showing a passion for wildlife and trees and condemning the destruction of the woods by paper companies and recreation buffs.

Some of the photos are ripe with pathos. One shows a three-story mountain of felled trees. They look like carcasses, their freshly sawed wounds revealing fibrous flesh. On the facing page the authors use a passage from Thoreau to imply that entire forests, alive only days before, were leveled to create this hardwood cemetery so vast it could keep "the poor of Boston or New York amply warm for a winter." Behind the pile of logs, a paper mill spews smoke into the sky, frozen in mid-belch.

One could quibble with some of the arguments here. Ms. Seal condemns the European settlers who stole the land from the Abenaki and then erected fences to ward off public use. But Ms. Seal herself would keep out all but the select few. Where do we draw the line between uncaring tourists who leave behind plastic six-pack holders (which strangle birds), and responsible tourists, hunters and fishermen? Ms. Seal doesn't make that quite clear.

But she and Mr. Bukaty should be happy with their joint effort. Their message that the Maine woods demand stewardship and preservation is as uncompromising as was Thoreau's. He once wrote: "Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it."

Andrew Todd Reiner is a Baltimore writer.

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