No two persons in the United States have written with as much passion and power about the bond between human beings and the natural world as Thoreau of WALDEN and Muir of MOUNTAINS OF CALIFORNIA. For both, Native Americans best exemplified the innate need of the human spirit to merge with the primal wilderness. This is the first book to treat together and in depth these two great students of our natural America to explore Native American influence on the development not only of their—but America’s—natural philosophies and environmental awareness.
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About the Author
Richard F. Fleck is author of Desert Rims to Mountains High, and also the foreword writer for the WestWinds Press Literary Naturalist Series. A professor of American literature for some fifty years, Fleck earned a PhD from the University of New Mexico (1970), and taught at the University of Wyoming, Osaka University, Japan, as well as Prescott College, the University of Northern Colorado, and the University of Bologna, Italy. At age seventy-five he remains active by climbing mountains and guiding Sierra Club hikes in Colorado and Utah and teaches occasional classes for Colorado Heights University.
John Muir (April 21, 1838 – December 24, 1914) was a Scottish-born American naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States.
Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist.
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On his first Alaskan trip, Muir met Samuel H. Young, a mission¬ary at Fort Wrangell, and the two became traveling companions throughout the panhandle, where Muir would study glaciers and Young would preach to the Indians. Both men were Thoreau and Emerson enthusiasts, and both had copies of the New Englanders’ works. My best guess is that Muir carried with him an 1864 edition of Thoreau’s Maine Woods. If he did not physically have that book he certainly did mentally, for there are many striking philosophical similarities in their growing fascination for Native American cul¬tures. Both books are based on three separate excursions to the wilderness, and both Thoreau and Muir experience culture shock when they first enter Indian worlds. But the two writers begin to respect and admire the Indian once they mingle with and make friends with the people. They both attempt to learn the native dialects as well as mythology and Indian lifestyles. Whether or not Muir consciously modeled Travels in Alaska (compiled on his deathbed) on The Maine Woods (compiled after Thoreau’s death) is a moot point. But permit me to digress a while with a brief compari¬son of Thoreau’s and Muir’s Indian education.
Thoreau’s first excursion into Maine in 1846 (while he is still residing at Walden Pond) provides him with his first substantial contact with Indian culture. At first he is shocked by the “shabby,” “woe begone,” “dull,” “greasy-looking,” “sluggish,” “sinister,” and “slouching” looks of the Penobscot Indians in general and Louis Neptune in particular. He would have been happier to see a man tortured at the stake by wild Indians than to see these frightfully demoralized ignoble savages who had little interest in nature and seemed to comprise the lower part of the white man’s world.
Likewise Muir begins Travels in Alaska by describing coastal Indians with “hideous face paint,” and “fearful” and “superstitious” manners. He was amazed that Tlingits were not as curious about the wild, beautiful country as he. But both Thoreau and Muir overcome their hesitancy to accept another culture through their contact with individual Indians, Muir on his first excursion and Thoreau on his second and third excursions. Perhaps Muir’s acquaintance with the Maidu Indian shepherd ten years earlier enabled him to overcome his shock and disdain for certain customs and habits of the Tlingits more quickly than Thoreau was able to overcome his difficulties with the Penobscots. Most of Thoreau’s knowledge of Indians as of 1846 was book knowledge, not personal acquaintance. However, Thoreau did come to appreciate the Indian as his teacher and metaphysical guide. In 1853, Thoreau met Joe Aitteon, his first nonwhite wilderness guide. Through Aitteon, Thoreau gained an intense interest in the Penobscot language and Penobscot wilderness living. Describing his evening campfire educa¬tion, Thoreau writes:
While lying there listening to the Indians, I amused myself by trying to guess at their subject by their gestures, or some proper name intro¬duced. There can be no more startling evidence of their being distinct and comparatively aboriginal race, than to hear this unaltered Indian language, which white man cannot speak nor understand. We may suspect change and deterioration in almost every other particular but the language which is so wholly unintelligible to us. It took me by surprise, though I had found so many arrow-heads and convinced me that the Indian was not the invention of historians and poets . . . these Abenakis gossiped, laughed, and jested, in the language which has been spoken in New England who shall say how long? These were the sounds that issued from the wigwams of this country before Columbus was born; they have not yet died away; and, with remarkably few exceptions, the language of their forefathers is still copious enough for them. I felt that I stood, or rather lay, as near to the primitive man of America, that night, as any of its discoverers ever did.36
This Indian language was close to nature—so close Thoreau conjectures in his Indian Notebooks that the Indian looks about him in nature to find some natural object to aid his expression.37 Penobscot language brought Thoreau to the very ground as its sounds were the sounds of nature unfiltered and undigested by civilized man. Though this language was at first totally incomprehensible, Thoreau did make the effort to learn it at an elementary level as Muir would learn Alaskan tongues. Both Thoreau and Muir could see the direct natural sense of Indian languages. For example, Thoreau asked what the word Sebamook meant:
Tahmunt said, “Ugh! I know,” and he rose up partly on the moose-hide—“like here is a place, and there is a place,” pointing to the different parts of the hide, “and you take water from there and fill this, and it stays here; that is Sebamook.” I understood him to mean that it was a reservoir of water which did not run away, the river coming in on one side and passing out again near the same place, leaving a permanent bay.38
Sebamook, then, is a word full of the forces of nature uttered in three syllables. Therein lies a good bit of metaphysical significance for Thoreau. Many pages of the second essay “Chesuncook” of The Maine Woods are taken up with a discussion of Indian vocabulary predominantly relating to natural phenomena (e.g., Penobscot River meaning originally the name of a section of the main channel, from the head of the tidewater to a short distance above Oldtown). Every word is steeped in nature; this is important to a nineteenth-century philosopher whose every thought is steeped in nature.
Likewise the Indian living patterns are rooted in nature as were Thoreau’s at Walden Pond and Muir’s in the Sierra. Thoreau writes, “I narrowly watched his motions, and listened attentively to his observations, for we had employed an Indian mainly that I might have an opportunity to study his ways” (p. 95). Joe Aitteon’s native ingenuity exemplified for Thoreau an ideal blend of man in nature. From the bark of a birch tree, for instance, he made a hunting horn and a torch to keep insects away at nighttime. The white lumberman and other backwoodsmen learned much from the Indian in this regard. Like Muir with the Maidu Indians, Thoreau marveled at Joe’s manner of silent walking during a moose hunt: “. . . he stepped lightly and gracefully, stealing through the bushes with the least possible noise, in a way in which no white man does, as it were, finding a place for his foot each time” (p. 112). No one can deny the importance of Thoreau’s education at Harvard, yet the Penobscots of Maine were surely of equal significance in the development of Thoreau the philosopher.
Table of Contents
Chapter I Henry Thoreau’s Indian Pathway
Chapter II John Muir’s Homage to Henry David Thoreau
Chapter III John Muir among the Digger, Tlingit and Eskimoan People
A Postscript on Thoreau and Muir
Appendix: Henry David Thoreau and John Muir’s Unpublished Manuscripts on Primal Cultures of the
A Selective Bibliography
What People are Saying About This
"Richard Fleck’s classic study, finally back in print, shows the connections between two of America’s iconic naturalist writers, and the line from Native American culture to Thoreau to Muir. What impressed Thoreau about the Native Americans he met was that they stood 'free and unconstrained in nature.' Thoreau and Muir both did the same. A well-written, thoroughly researched, and thoughtful presentation."
—Jeffrey S. Cramer, editor of WALDEN: A Fully-Annotated Edition and THE PORTABLE THOREAU