Thoreau, “Chesuncook,” and the Complications of Hunting

Scot Miller, Thoreau, The Maine Woods: A Photographic Journey Through an American Wilderness, Levenger Press, 2013.

Henry David Thoreau’s “Chesuncook,” the second essay of The Maine Woods, is well known for the controversy resulting from Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell’s decision to remove a now famous sentence referring to a pine tree.1 One hundred and fifty years later, Thoreau’s essay continues to resonate for another reason: its extended meditation on hunting, a pastime that attracts Americans to the woods throughout the year. Considering calls for more hunters and laxer hunting regulations, a recent increase in hunting license sales after declines since 1980, and current legislative movements to protect hunting practices today, “Chesuncook” remains relevant.2 For Thoreau, accompanying moose hunters in Maine prompted him to encourage all citizens to question how material comforts and habits relate to hunting. 

Because of Walden’s popularity, readers generally assume that Thoreau’s stance on hunting in “Higher Laws” is his final say on the matter, portraying hunting as destructive and hoping that boys would outgrow it and “leave the gun … behind.”3 Thomas Altherr has suggested that this is a faulty assumption and that Thoreau, who wrestled with his own impulses toward spiritualism and savagism, understood hunting as a sport that combined elements of both impulses.4 Thoreau’s journals suggest that he often interacted with hunters, listening to their stories and learning from their experiences. Within “Chesuncook”—where he actually joins them—Thoreau best articulates his complicated thoughts about hunting.

Thoreau explores hunting and his relation to hunting more extensively in “Chesuncook” than he does in Walden. He writes, “Though I had not come a-hunting, and felt some compunctions about accompanying the hunters, I wished to see a moose near at hand, and was not sorry to learn how the Indian managed to kill one. I went as a reporter or chaplain to the hunters—and the chaplain has been known to carry a gun himself.”5 By describing himself initially as a “reporter,” Thoreau makes clear his role as an anthropological recorder of events, and more importantly, by positioning himself as a “chaplain,” he separates himself philosophically and morally from the intentions of the hunting party. This serves him well during the first part of the journey, but later on Thoreau refers to himself as a more distant “spy” (130). After beginning the journey more open to experience, he finds the group’s behavior irresponsible and reimagines himself as an outsider. Thoreau’s primary objection to his hunting companions relates to how practicing unnecessary slaughter can influence perceptions of the natural world. In “Higher Laws,” Thoreau worries that hunters and fishermen could learn to view the natural world as a place for killing—which would negatively affect human consciousness, animal populations, and ecological balance—rather than as a place to explore, learn, or seek spiritual solace.6

Joseph Aitean, circa 1862

During the first few days of the hunting trip, Thoreau learns from his guide, Joe Attean, the sounds moose make when moving in the distance and the potential for human body odor to thwart the hunt (99-100). He listens attentively, asks questions, and records detailed notes. He eats moose thrice and describes its taste as “like tender beef, with perhaps more flavor; sometimes like veal” (117). These observations fascinate him and broaden his understanding of the hunting experience. However, as the slaughter increases, Thoreau undergoes a change in thought. He senses that the party’s nonchalant approach to hunting and killing moose is environmentally hazardous because of what he sees as a blind adherence to habit. According to Nancy Mayer, Thoreau continually calls attention to the need for an “ongoing internal dialectic” that prevents the crystallization of habits which threaten to sever humans from the nonhuman world.7 Ignoring accounts of fewer or smaller moose, the hunters routinely forgo any reflection on what could result from overhunting and thereby divorce themselves from the potentially destructive result of their actions. 

J.J. Audubon, Beaver, The Quadrupeds of North America.Thoreau recognizes a need for greater sensitivity toward environmental impact as well as human exertion and risk if hunting were to approach legitimacy (119). In addition to these stipulations, he advocates a responsible, respectful, and prudent use of quarry. When Thoreau claims a preference for modern explorer groups over hunting parties, he writes that the former tend to rely “chiefly on the provisions they carry with them, though they do not decline what game they come across” (101). He is not opposed to the taking of game occasionally and purposely for sustenance, but the wastefulness of hunting merely to track and kill for financial gain disgusts him because it also puts animal populations at risk. In one noted example, he misinterprets and then condemns a Penobscot hunting camp for its excessive slaughter of moose.8 He also alerts readers to the relationship between hunting and animal products when a Penobscot man tells him that the once-decimated beaver population is expanding. As “America’s first commodity animal,” the beaver population declined steeply during the prior centuries as a result of overhunting and exploitation by Dutch, English, and French explorers.9 With their pelts now worthless, the beaver population revived from the damage caused by overhunting. Thoreau’s attention to these details reveals the impact of trade on the oft-depicted wild and unencumbered hunter, linking the perception of the natural world’s worth and one’s experience within it to a potentially dangerous commodity value. 

moose

Although concern for the wilderness remains most important to him, Thoreau stops short of condemning hunting in “Chesuncook” and even makes room for future hunters in the essay’s concluding paragraph. He acknowledges the human-environment intimacy and environmental education afforded by hunting. If his experience as an environmental chaplain/reporter/spy irritates Thoreau at times, he ultimately does not regret it because he learns from the experience: “the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses” (156). Thoreau concludes “Chesuncook” by calling for our own preservation areas “in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist” (156). The challenge, as he comes to recognize, is for Americans to avoid becoming “villains…poaching on our own national domains,” or creating imbalances among humans, nonhumans, and the environment (156). To do that, people must consider, as Thoreau does, how economic forces shape human interactions with nonhuman plants and animals. This, the essay’s final request, enlists and indicts us all, hunters and nonhunters alike.

Jericho Williams is a PhD candidate at West Virginia University. His research explores human-animal relationships in hunting and fishing stories in American literature.

Notes

pine tree

1 Thoreau’s sentence reads, “It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to high heaven, there to tower above me still.” See Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Chesuncook: Textual Notes,” in The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 435. 

2 See Jim Sterba, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds (New York: Crown, 2012). 

3 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971), 213. 

4 Thomas Altherr, “‘Chaplain to the Hunters’: Henry David Thoreau’s Ambivalence Toward Hunting,” American Literature 56, no. 3 (1984): 348. 

5 Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 99. Hereafter cited parenthetically. 

6 Thoreau, Walden, 213. 

7 Nancy Mayer, “Hunting the Human Animal: The Art of Ethical Perception in ‘Higher Laws,’” The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies ns. 17 (2009): 31. 

8 See Jeffrey Myers, Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 72-75, for a discussion of the way Thoreau misreads Penobscot hunting practices within “Chesuncook” at first before correcting himself when he learns more about their culture. 

9 Jim Sterba, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds (New York: Crown, 2012), 69.

Photo credit, Moose, Scot Miller, Thoreau, The Maine Woods: A Photographic Journey Through an American Wilderness, Levenger Press, 2013.

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