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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Allagash Wilderness Waterway: 8/31/15 - 9/4/15, After-thoughts

After-thoughts of the Allagash

                                                   The usual scene

     One of the most striking aspects of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, besides the sheer beauty of the river and the woods, is how time passed. There was very little intellectual content to our days. In the concentrating body work during the day of watching the water, scouting for rocks, gazing at trees and animals, loading and unloading; in the evening the multi-step processes of setting up tents, laying out sleeping pads and bags, unpacking utensils and food, cooking and cleaning; and in the morning packing up again, there was little or no time for the kind of thinking and worrying we usually are stuck in.
     There was no re-arranging of the past, no thought of the past at all except the deepest of pasts, our own wild genetic roots so obvious everywhere we looked.
     There was no analysis of the present – how am I feeling, am I happy or sad, is someone dissing me behind my back; it was all feeling, of cool water splashed by a canoe or dipped by a hand, of warm sun on bare legs, of the taste of bacon and eggs in the clean air. Even at night, in some hours of wakefulness, we looked for stars or clouds, not the read-out of an alarm clock; heard sounds of friend and possible foe, not helicopters or sirens; felt contentment in nature, not emotional redress of a day’s slights; smelled pine tar and river mud, not exhaust; touched the fabric of a tent and not the plastic of a bottle of antacids.
    And there was no obsession of the future, except the studied and exciting prediction of rapids and shoals.
     We thought, but hardly in the normal way. The coordination between mind and body was seamless. We were grounded, no flying allowed. The wide, wild river took care of that, its ripples and riffles and eddies and rapids demanding attention, its deep, slow parts offering strong rhythms of paddling, and the incredible northern forest in its riot of vegetation, thick and diverse and endlessly rewarding. One has no need of the stock market, Mideast politics, anything about presidential primary races, etc., etc., when rocks, hidden and seen, call to you constantly to miss them.
     And anyway, the news when we returned was the same awfulness or awful sameness. I’m reminded of the section of Thoreau’s Walden, Chapter 2, in which he talks about the news.

“I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter - we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip. There was such a rush, as I hear, the other day at one of the offices to learn the foreign news by the last arrival, that several large squares of plate glass belonging to the establishment were broken by the pressure - news which I seriously think a ready wit might write a twelve-month, or twelve years, beforehand with sufficient accuracy.” 

     This is not to say we completely neglected metered time. A few times a day someone would ask what time it was, and E, the keeper of the watch, would give no answer until everyone had guessed. We got quite accurate by the end. Of course, the exercise was quite unnecessary, more fun than anything else, for the sun and the rumblings of stomachs were really all we needed.
     The other symbol of measurement, our map, we did use a lot. The normal human desire to know where one is, and what’s ahead, coupled with the need to plan for a campsite, made the map a well-used item.
     Finally, we thought not at all about whether the Allagash represents wilderness or not. Lots of people apparently do, and write tendentiously, even meanly, to say that of course it isn’t wilderness, the river is only a beauty strip a few hundred yards wide, and runs through land owned by private timber companies besides, land which has been logged over at least twice, right down to the river banks. All that is true. There is really no place left on earth, except perhaps the ocean depths, that qualifies as wilderness. But the “realists” mean to imply, I guess, that somehow one’s appreciation of nature can only take place where humans have never disturbed the land, that somehow the very concept of wilderness in the 21st century destroys our ability to appreciate it, that somehow because it was once devastated, there should be no reason to preserve it. One article I saw, actually titled “Wilderness Values: How Thoreau Cursed the Allagash,” pits the snobbish through-trippers against the local day-trippers. How very puritanical. I take tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction in woods and rivers even in their restored state, perhaps because of their restored state, and there must be left a few places on earth to enjoy them in depth, at length.

     Mother Earth is very forgiving, and regenerative. Humans are not, unless we put our minds and our money and our myths to work to help her. That’s my view of salvation.

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