296 pages, 21 b/w illustrations, 3 b/w maps
The Boatman gives readers a Thoreau for the Anthropocene epoch. As a backyard naturalist and river enthusiast, Thoreau was keenly aware of the way humans had altered the waterways and meadows of his beloved Concord River Valley. And he recognised that he himself – a land surveyor by trade – was as complicit in these transformations as the bankers, lawyers, builders, landowners, and elected officials who were his clients. Robert Thorson tells a compelling story of intellectual growth, as Thoreau moved from anger, to lament, to acceptance of the way humans had changed the river he cherished more than Walden Pond.
In his twenties, Thoreau had contemplated industrial sabotage against a downstream factory dam. By the mid-1850s he realised that humans and an "imperfect" nature were inseparable. His beliefs and scientific understanding of the river would be challenged again when he was hired in 1859 as a technical consultant for the River Meadow Association, in America's first statewide case for dam removal – a veritable class-action suit of more than five hundred petitioners that pitted local farmers against industrialists. Thorson offers the most complete account to date of this "flowage controversy", including Thoreau's behind-the-scenes investigations and the political corruption that eventually carried the day.
In the years after the publication of Walden (1854), the river boatman's joy in the natural world was undiminished by the prospect of environmental change. Increasingly, he sought out for solace and pleasure those river sites most dramatically altered by human invention and intervention – for better and worse.
"The Boatman presents a whole new Thoreau – the river rat. This is not just groundbreaking, but fun. Thorson pursues not footsteps of the solitary woodsman but the wake left by Thoreau's skiff. As always with Thoreau, one of the deepest pleasures comes from the idea that we can rediscover and resettle our home places, and what better and more exciting way to do this than on the water? If Thorson had just done this, the book would have been valuable enough, but his story of Thoreau's self-education in hydrology, of his turning himself into a scientific expert on the local rivers and in rivers in general, and of his involvement in a class-action suit to tear down the Billerica dam, make this an important book."
– David Gessner, author of All the Wild That Remains
"The Boatman offers the first sustained account of what Henry Thoreau was doing on the local rivers before and after he sojourned at Walden Pond. Thoreau's water world engaged his mind and eye, involved him in a major political dispute, and led him to far-reaching scientific insights. Paddling and sailing on the nearby waterways, Thoreau discerned a natural world transformed by human action, to the loss of the communities of all the living creatures who depended on it for survival. Explicating these insights into the ecology of rivers and into the power of 'the wild,' Robert Thorson reminds us why Thoreau is so essential to our environmentally imperiled times."
– Robert A. Gross, author of The Minutemen and Their World
List of Figures
1. Moccasin Print
2. Colonial Village
3. American Canal
5. Port Concord
6. Wild Waters
7. River Sojourns
11. Saving the Meadows
12. Reversal of Fortune
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Robert M. Thorson is Professor of Geology at the University of Connecticut.