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David R. Foster
Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape

"The other day I saw what I took to be a scarecrow in a cultivated field, and noticing how unnaturally it was stuffed out here and there and how ungainly its arms and legs were, I thought to myself, 'Well, it is thus they make these things; they do not stand much about it;' but looking round again after I had gone by, I saw my scarecrow walking off with a real live man in it." -- June 23, 1853
David R. Foster has assembled excerpts from Thoreau's journal into subject-related themes. Included are Foster's commentary and beautiful, full-page black and white drawings by Abigail Rorer. The subjects Foster chooses are to illustrate several points--the main one being that the landscape Thoreau wrote about was in a state of change then and continues to change today. The surprise is that the wilderness was being done away with in Thoreau's day but is slowly returning to its more primitive condition since the old, wilderness-destroying farms have been abandoned. Foster illustrates the "connection between land-use history and modern landscape characteristics". (p. 234)

The quotations from Thoreau are usually priceless. I'm not sure if they are a sort of "best of" collection or if they are representative of the journals in total. If the latter is the case pursuing the journals in total may be something I want to do in the future. An example:

I am reminded that this my life in nature, this particular round of natural phenomena which I call a year, is lamentably incomplete. I listen to [a] concert in which so many parts are wanting. The whole civilized country is to some extent turned into a city, and I am that citizen whom I pity. Many of those animal migrations and other phenomena by which the Indians marked the season are no longer to be observed. I seek acquaintance with Nature,--to know her moods and manners. Primitive Nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. -- March 23, 1856
All is not lost, however. For during Thoreau's life, and thereafter, the farmlands were slowly being abandoned and subsequently would be transformed back into woodlots. Thoreau (and Foster) discuss the ins and outs of how these events took place in fascinating detail. This return-to-forest land conversion is/was not without its casualties. The existence and proliferation of some of Thoreau's favorite birds and animals were a direct result of human land use. Several species of birds, butterflies, and plants depend on open habitats. Without farmers to clear the land these species would not have been reflected in Thoreau's journals. Indeed they aren't to be found in today's Concord landscape with the new woodlots that were formerly farms in Thoreau's day. As Foster points out on page 225
...conservationists find themselves resorting to highly artificial means or extolling the virtues of artificial habitats. We are caught in a cultural dilemma in which we seek to maintain what we know and what is becoming rare even though it is largely the consequence of intense human activity.
and on page 155
Thoreau's passages on wildlife reveal a paradox of loss and gain. The sounds and sights of wildlife that brought him joy and marked the seasonal progression of his New England countryside were largely produced by species that thrived on the same landscape changes that proved inimical to the wilder species that he longed for.
Thoreau's Country will make you want to take a walk. The woods of Concord would be nice, but a closer locale will also do. Your new eyes will spot the signs of how the land of your walk was previously used in ways that wouldn't have been possible before the education this book provides. Those who live in the Northeastern portion of the United States will gain even more than the rest of us from the contents.

from the publisher:
In 1977 David Foster took to the woods of New England to build a cabin with his own hands. Along with a few tools he brought a copy of the journals of Henry David Thoreau. Foster was struck by how different the forested landscape around him was from the one Thoreau described more than a century earlier. The sights and sounds that Thoreau experienced on his daily walks through nineteenth-century Concord were those of rolling farmland, small woodlands, and farmers endlessly working the land. As Foster explored the New England landscape, he discovered ancient ruins of cellar holes, stone walls, and abandoned cartways--all remnants of this earlier land now largely covered by forest. How had Thoreau's open countryside, shaped by ax and plough, divided by fences and laneways, become a forested landscape?

Part ecological and historical puzzle, this book brings a vanished countryside to life in all its dimensions, human and natural, offering a rich record of human imprint upon the land. Extensive excerpts from the journals show us, through the vividly recorded details of daily life, a Thoreau intimately acquainted with the ways in which he and his neighbors were changing and remaking the New England landscape. Foster adds the perspective of a modern forest ecologist and landscape historian, using the journals to trace themes of historical and social change.

Thoreau's journals evoke not a wilderness retreat but the emotions and natural history that come from an old and humanized landscape. It is with a new understanding of the human role in shaping that landscape, Foster argues, that we can best prepare ourselves to appreciate and conserve it today.

From the journal:

"I have collected and split up now quite a pile of driftwood--rails and riders and stems and stumps of trees--perhaps half or three quarters of a tree ... Each stick I deal with has a history, and I read it as I am handling it, and, last of all, I remember my adventures in getting it, while it is burning in the winter evening. That is the most interesting part of its history. It has made part of a fence or a bridge, perchance, or has been rooted out of a clearing and bears the marks of fire on it . . . Thus one half of the value of my wood is enjoyed before it is housed, and the other half is equal to the whole value of an equal quantity of the wood which I buy." --October 20, 1855
David R. Foster is Director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, and teaches ecology at Harvard University.
"Thoreau is for all time, of course, but the land he walked and loved has changed in fascinating ways. This accessible and engaging book bring Thoreau's account into the present, and even the future." --Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
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