July 20, 2010

My third excursion to the Maine woods

"I started my third excursion to the Maine woods Monday, July 20th, 1857, with one companion, arriving at Bangor the next day at noon." Thus wrote Henry David Thoreau in his book, The Maine Woods.

He and his one companion hoped to find a Native American to guide them through, but were told many had fled the area due to an outbreak of small pox. Thoreau finally found a man named Joseph Polis, "stoutly built, perhaps a little above the middle height, with a broad face, and, as others said, perfect Indian features and complexion." Thoreau asked if he knew a guide and "Joe" answered back, "Me like to go myself." He was hired.

Thoreau tried to strike up a conversation with Joe. "In answer to the various observations which I made by way of breaking the ice, he only grunted vaguely." Conversation got easier a little later on and the trio went on their excursion, mostly by canoe. Thoreau observed everything: the landscape, the vegetation, the animal life and, of course, the way Joe used language. He asked Joe the meaning of the word "Musketicook," the original name of the Concord River. "Dead-water," he replied. Thoreau agreed it was an appropriate name. Here, some of his observations about birds:

The birds sang quite as in our woods, — the red-eye, red-start, veery, wood-pewee, etc., but we saw no bluebirds in all our journey.... Ducks of various kinds — sheldrake, summer ducks, etc. — were quite common, and ran over the water before us as fast as a horse trots. Thus they were soon out of sight.

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