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Thoreau’s Last Wolves in the Natural History Notebooks

Christopher V. Dolle and Raymond F. Dolle

Thoreau’s late notebooks contain three extracts describing wolves, bears, and panthers from Frederick Gerstaecker’s Wild Sports in the Far West (1859), John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), and Mayne Reid’s The Boy Hunters (1853). These notes give insight into Thoreau’s objections to commercial hunting and trapping. The extracts from Gerstaecker, Lawson, and Reid connect to each other and to passages in Walden, The Maine Woods, Thoreau’s Journal, and several essays. The panther, bear, and wolf can be understood as motifs representing primal nature. Thoreau sees the disappearance of these predators and the loss of the wild as a personal loss and an environmental crisis. Gerstaecker describes how the wolf gnaws off its leg to be free from a trap, and how the bear sucks his paws while hibernating. In the Lawson extract, wolves and bears are seen as commodities, and the wilderness is reduced to cheap nature. Thoreau notes that Reid draws from Lawson on bears, and Thoreau copies the idea that the prairie wolf is the “progenitor” of the Indian dogs. Reid’s “barking wolf” is a missing link between wolves and dogs, the wild and the tamed, the savage and the civilized.


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