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THOREAU'S COUNTRY by David R. Foster

THOREAU'S COUNTRY

Journey Through a Transformed Landscape

By David R. Foster

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-88645-3
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Any way you slice Harvard University ecologist Foster’s evolutionary portrait of the New England landscape—psychogeography, an archaeology of place, glimmerings of the swiftness of nature’s transformations—his choice of subject thwarts him: whatever he has to say, it has been better said before Foster’s point is clear and sensible: “Nature can only be understood through an awareness of its history,” and if we are to appreciate, conserve, and manage ecosystems, we must know that history. This used to be called, by its artful purveyors Derwent Whittlesey and Hugh Raup, sequent occupance, an old and fruitful approach to the reading of landscape that goes uncredited here. To illustrate this idea, Foster takes New England as an example and uses extensive selections of Thoreau’s journals for their “insightful perspective originating from a pivotal period.’ What Thoreau had to say about land use and the changes in its wake (such as the role of wildfire; the succession of trees in an abandoned field or one given over to pasturing; those features of the landscape that are now rare or nonexistent, such as field birds, coppices, meadows) makes fascinating reading. More so, in fact, than the annotated material that Foster appends to it, though he does provide small clarifications, such as what Thoreau meant by a primitive wood as opposed to a primitive woodland, and fleshes out some of the social forces Thoreau mentions at work behind the flight from the farm in the mid-1800s. And while Thoreau’s journals give palpability to his country, no coherent contemporary picture of that country emerges from these pages—despite a slew of intriguing elements, including why bobcats have appeared where once the bobolink sang—let alone the much more difficult to capture sense of place, something that John Hanson Mitchell (Walking Towards Walden, 1995) has done with great success for this very patch. It is a well-worn path through a very public landscape that Foster travels, and he fails to jump the ruts.