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A view of 'Country' -- through Thoreau's eyes
Publication offers writer's insights on forests, man

THOREAU'S COUNTRY: JOURNEY THROUGH A TRANSFORMED LANDSCAPE; By David R. Foster; Harvard University Press; 270 pages; $27.95.Henry David Thoreau, determinedly individualistic, has suffered an interesting fate in the tag end of the 20th century. He has become Everyman.

Henry is our aphoristic Poor Richard ("Simplify, simplify, simplify.") and our epigraphic picture-calendar-selling Noble Savage ("In wilderness is the salvation of the world.") and he is our original Libertarian ("that government is best which governs least").

He mined his astonishing journals for "Walden, or, Life in the Woods" and "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." Posthumously, friends published additional refined ore from those daybooks: "Cape Cod" and "The Maine Woods." That is hardly the end of the list -- he was, as they used to type, the author of all the above "&c., &c."

David R. Foster, the director of the Harvard Forest at Harvard University (in Petersham, Mass.), has painstakingly sifted through the journals for Thoreau's insights into the effect of human occupation on the forest primeval. Foster, who teaches ecology at Harvard, is uniquely situated for this work: The Harvard Forest's mission is investigating how land use, fire and hurricanes shape our woodlands, and to Foster, Thoreau is the granddaddy of all scientific foresters.

Foster is correct in his judgment to this extent: Thoreau's particular talent as a naturalist was an uncanny eye for the visible traces of human activity that shaped his landscape as he sauntered near Walden Pond. And in spite of his reputation as a loner (he did write that he was his own best company), Thoreau was haunted by the human history of his countryside. Those two interests came together, as readers of the journal know, in his uncanny ability to find arrowheads, pottery shards and stone tools scattered by the long-departed Indians.

In Foster's selections from the journals, Thoreau's perceptive eye is focused on the succession of forest trees, the dispersal of seeds, the management of woodlots and the remnants of old, aboriginal forest. Another reader of the journals will find everything from anti-Irish sentiment to anti-slavery fervor.

At roughly the length of the Bible (and still in print after all these years), Thoreau's journals are open to literal interpretation, Talmudic argument and literary criticism. Although highly selected, the fragments of the journals reprinted in "Thoreau's Country" are a fair, if minute, sampling of the riches of the original. Sampling is not a bad introduction: One needs only a teaspoon of soup to see how the whole stock-pot tastes.

Foster organized his book in a nonacademic manner: A series of quotations from the journal will precede, and then surround, a reflective essay that is deceptively straightforward. There are any number of moments when Foster explains something that seems obvious enough, but which the reader (at least this reader) could not have noticed without Foster's help.

Take a simple example: Thoreau's use of the word "meadow." He restricts it to flat, seasonally flooded, riverside land that is regularly mown for the wild hay it produces. There are no meadows along the Concord and Sudbury rivers today. The eponymous meadows of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord are nothing but a stew-pond of lilies, cattails, muskrats and catfish. Gone are the nesting bobolinks, as departed as the rustic Concordians wielding scythes.

Preserving open space, in community zoning, has come to mean preserving anything -- bramble patches, alder thickets, oak stumplands. What we keep literally open, in the towns about Walden Pond, we keep open through agriculture or the indiscriminate mowing that at least keeps the white pines and birches from filling in yet another abandoned field.

But the mere thought of cutting down some trees to keep things really open is apparently beyond the nerve of conservation commissions or the tolerance of the sub-burghers. But not everywhere. On Martha's Vineyard, heroic cutting of some of the state forest and other woodlands, to replace pitchpine with meadow (the "heath" of the extinct Heath Hen) is planned.

It would probably cause a riot if someone suggested cutting down most of the trees on the top of Mount Misery in Lincoln, one of the town's most-used public woodlands. But if they did cut, as happened in Thoreau's day just across the Sudbury River from Mount Misery, we would, like Thoreau, be surprised to see "distant well-known blue mountains on the horizon." Indeed, one could see Monadnock and, on a clear day, Mount Washington. Thoreau was utterly charmed by the clearing of his hilltop: "I take this (route) in preference to all my old familiar walks."

Foster's book, with its mix of Thoreau himself and thoughts about Thoreau, will repay any visitor who has previously walked a mile in Thoreau's footsteps. Reading it will recall scenes -- the nearly primeval (and occasionally murmuring) pines and the hemlocks between the grocery store and the Episcopal Church, or the alder hell surrounding a small stream and its native brooktrout -- and it will remind the reader, and perhaps comfort the reader, that we are not alone. We walk behind giants. Not just Henry David, but whoever it was who had the courage even to begin that stone wall that marks the far edge of the field.