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From the Bennington Banner, Oct. 9, 2008


Staff Writer

BENNINGTON — Americans have been altering the landscape and tinkering with nature longer than many people today realize.

One of the nation's first environmentalists, Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862), not only documented unspoiled nature with compelling prose in his books and journals, he also documented man's deleterious effects upon the environment in his own time.

For instance, a train ran and loggers cut trees near Thoreau's beloved Walden Pond in his hometown of Concord, Mass. He wrote of the effect of a dam at Billerica on the migration of shad on the Concord River and walked on a Cape Cod that had been stripped of most of its native forest, leaving its sand to erode haphazardly into the sea.

He also saw the first tourist-oriented development on the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Reading at Bennington church

Author Tom Slayton, a Montpelier resident, will read from his new book, "Searching for Thoreau, On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England," and speak about Thoreau on Sunday, Oct. 12, at 10 a.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting in Bennington. The event is free, copies of the book will be available for sale and refreshments will be served.

Thoreau was a critic of society, a student of Eastern religion and a very careful and exact botanist. He documented his experiences with nature in such books as "Walden," "Cape Cod," "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," "The Maine Woods" and elsewhere. "New England's history is long and complex, and our wild places share in that complexity," Slayton writes. "Every place that Thoreau treasured was caught in the flux of change when he knew it and has been altered since."

Thoreau was neither the first to climb Mount Katahdin in northern Maine nor the first Yankee to withdraw from society to live in a forest — which he did at Walden Pond — but he wrote about such experiences better than anyone had before — and better than most have since, Slayton observes.

"The other reason Thoreau has lasted is that he stood for something — something that is important to us today. It is easy to forget now, with the principles of ecology, conservation, civil disobedience, and conscious alternatives to mainstream society well established, how unusual and courageous it was to stand for such things in mid-19th-century America and in staid old Concord, Massachusetts."

Slayton, long an outdoorsman, was editor of Vermont Life for 21 years. Before that, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in Vermont. "Searching for Thoreau" is published by Images from the Past, in Bennington.

For his book, which was a three-year project, Slayton caught up on the Thoreau books he hadn't yet read. He then visited or revisited the places Thoreau loved most and wrote about best. These include Walden Pond, the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod, Mount Katahdin and other places in northern Maine, Mounts Monadnock and Washington in New Hampshire and Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts, about 25 miles south of Bennington.

Slayton compares the environmental challenges these sites faced in Thoreau's time and face in ours. For instance, while Cape Cod faced very serious erosion issues in Thoreau's day, the threats today are encroaching development and a deluge of tourists during three summer months each year.

Slayton said he found Thoreau to be a much more complex and interesting person than he had thought. He also had a sense of humor, something he is not generally known for, Slayton said. Commenting on the sound of crickets while camping with his brother, Thoreau wrote: "A thousand little artisans beat on their anvils all night long."

Thoreau wrote very little about Vermont. In 1850 he crossed Vermont by rail and Lake Champlain by steamer on the way to visiting Montreal and Quebec. In September, 1856, he visited Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, climbing Chesterfield and Fall Mountains. Slayton theorizes that being a Romantic and Transcendentalist in search of the "sublime," Thoreau didn't find Vermont's mountains spectacular enough to draw his interest. The fact that the state was then about three-fourths deforested also made it less desirable to the naturalist.

The necessity for preservation and protection of New England's wild places is a major theme of Slayton's book. If people want to save parts of wild New England, it has to be deliberately preserved and protected, he said.

The National Seashore on Cape Cod is one example of successful preservation keeping development at bay. In New Hampshire, encroaching development stops at the very boundary of the park that preserves Mount Monadnock, he said.

Percival Baxter failed to persuade the state legislature to preserve Mount Katahdin and its surrounding from logging interests while he was governor of Maine in the 1920s. So Baxter, heir to a canning company fortune, spent the next 40 years buying the mountain and surrounding lands and gave it to the people as a state park, Slayton writes.

Today, however, logging is declining in northern Maine, timber companies are selling land and the specter of huge developments is emerging as a new threat.

As for an environmental problem that Thoreau had no inkling of in his day, Slayton said in the interview that he would no doubt be horrified by global warming.

In a small way, the writer even established a baseline that helps illustrate the issue. Thoreau's botanical notes are very exact, and experts have established that plants he studied are flowering two weeks earlier now than when he made his observations of them in the 19th century.


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