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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Chasing Thoreau's Ghost

Photo credit "angela n"   Flickr creative commons.

Walden Pond is my first stop on the Storied Waters tour. I have yet to find any evidence that Henry David Thoreau fly-fished. In Walden, or Life in the Woods, he pontificates on pickerel and horned pout, tells of going “a-fishing” at midnight, and seems content to fish with worms. Hmmm.

If Thoreau had been a fly-fisher, we would all know it. He would likely have filled several volumes on how fly-fishing is morally and spiritually superior to… well, you get the picture. We all know that many fly-fishermen have a massive superiority complex, so let’s just say 'why would he be any different than the rest of us'?

Sadly, Thoreau's most famous quote about fishing is not a quote at all. He never said: "Many men fish all their lives without ever realizing that it is not the fish they are after." According to the expert scholars at the Walden Woods Project, this was actually a paraphrase of Thoreau's journal by Michael Baughman in A River Seen Right (Lyons Press, 1995). So much of what we know about Thoreau is as much folklore as it is scholarship.

Henry certainly was fascinated with water and fish. He describes the rivers, streams and ponds that he visits in reverent detail. In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau spends much of the early chapter titled ‘Saturday’ talking about the many species of fish that inhabit the rivers. He also laments how humans have impacted sea-run fish, notably salmon, shad and alewives, that were blocked from ascending the river, even in the 1840s, by a dam at Billerica.

“Poor shad! Where is thy redress? When Nature gave the instinct, gave she thee the heart to bear thy fate?... Who hears the fishes when they cry?”

In The Maine Woods, Thoreau seems as happy to catch and eat fallfish (he calls them chivin) as he does salmon. And most of his fishing is done with alder sticks cut streamside. Thoreau was no split-cane rod snob, that’s for sure.

When I visit Walden Pond in May to launch my trip, I will cast my line, hoping to catch a stocked trout on a dry fly, because, yes, I am a confessed fly-fishing snob. As I cast I will contemplate Thoreau’s dialectic between my animalistic and spiritual instincts. Like Thoreau, I immerse myself in nature to find my inner spirit and cleanse the self. The Storied Waters tour might as well be a spiritual journey as well as a physical journey. Or so I fancy.

And while I am at Walden, I will keep an eye out for Henry's ghost. This year marks Thoreau’s 200th birthday, so I am hoping to wish him well on that milestone.

Most people would presume that Thoreau’s ghost, if his spirit exists beyond the printed page, is at Walden Pond, as that is the most famous period of his life. But Thoreau only lived at the pond for "two years, two months and two days." Would he remain there for eternity just because Walden has been a popular and influential book?

As much as he enjoyed living "deliberately" in a one room, rustic cabin, would Henry want to hole-up there for the next 150 years? The cabin no longer exists, although archaeologists eventually found the footings of the chimney. They have a cabin replica at the Walden Pond Reservation, but I doubt very much his ghost would be there. Maybe a replica ghost?

The farmhouse where Henry was born is still standing outside of Concord, but he only lived there for his first eight months before his family moved into town. So, I doubt I would find his ghost at the farmhouse.

The home where he lived in town until his death is also still in use. Henry loved Concord, but his house was later purchased by Louisa May Alcott, so he and she would have to share ghostly duties there. The house is privately owned, so I won't get to scope out that possibility.

Henry and other notables are buried on Authors Ridge (his gravestone simply says “Henry”) in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. Given that he was such a traveler, I would expect he wouldn’t find much appeal in staying in the cemetery. Maybe as a ghost, he is still fond of making “excursions.”

Could Thoreau be kicking back on top of Mount Katahdin with Pamola, the spirit/god of the Penobscot Nation, with the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the feet and wings of an eagle? Despite several trips to the Maine woods, Thoreau never made it to the summit, but it would be a much easier trek as a spirit. However, as Thoreau himself noted, Pamola tends to get angry with anyone who “climbs to the summit of Ktaadn,” so I would think Mt. Katahdin is unlikely. That's okay; I climbed Katahdin years ago, but my knees are no longer up for the ascent.

We tend to think of ghosts and spirits as being ethereal – of the air, rather than the water. But perhaps Thoreau became a water spirit, in the tradition of the Lady of the Lake, and resides in the mists of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, or possibly Cape Cod, or Moosehead Lake (“the gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” as he put it), on the Allagash River, or the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

I plan to fish the Kennebec River near Moosehead and the East Branch in the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, so I will keep an eye out for him up there, but doubt I’ll find him.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was, among other things, a paean to Henry's dear brother, John, who paddled with him on that literal and metaphorical journey (which actually took two weeks), before John tragically died (in Henry's arms) of tetanus only three years later.

John’s death deeply affected Henry, so the book was very important to him. He wrote the first draft of A Week while living at Walden Pond, and it was published five years before Walden.

My guess is that, if I were to encounter Henry’s ghost, it would be on the Concord River, paddling with John on an eternal, joyful outing, there on the waters close to home.

I think I'll cast a fly in the Concord River while I am in town. At the very least, I’ll be sure to walk the shore before heading on to Vermont. I’ll let you know if I see, or feel, Henry’s ghost, as I start my own excursion.

Come to think of it, maybe Henry will want to come along.

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