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On the liberation cartography of Henry David Thoreau.
Old 11-06-2019
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On the liberation cartography of Henry David Thoreau.

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Although he is now remembered mostly as a romantic nature writer, in his own time and place Henry David Thoreau was a highly trained, well regarded, disciplined though eccentric land surveyor. 1 In the summer of 1859, he stood under a willow beside the Concord River contemplating a gash he had cut low in the tree’s trunk, to gauge the water level. 2 In 22 miles the Concord fell only 32 inches — it was very nearly a pond — and any additional water heaved the river up and over its banks, before gravity’s current slowly siphoned it out to sea. Yet flooding wasn’t necessarily a problem. Indeed, the annual springtime deluge was the town’s lifeblood, because the waters always rolled back, leaving behind a thick, black, nutrient-rich muck spread all across the bottomlands, whose field grasses grew fat and sleek on nature’s bounty, perfect fodder for the farming town’s livestock. 3

But in 1798, in the predawn haze of the industrial era, the Middlesex Canal Corporation downstream at Billerica raised the height of an old mill dam that had been slung across the river, setting off a century-long fight for control of this resource. When the dam was upgraded again in 1851, it jacked the water level unnaturally high through Concord, well into the summer, ruining the hay, threatening the farmers’ livelihood, and setting in motion a wave of lawsuits and petitions to the state legislature, which always seemed to be resolved in the interest of the mills and their capitalist owners. 4
“And so a riddle threaded its way through Concord: what is the best use of a river? Thoreau, the eccentric land surveyor, was hired to answer it.”
At the root of each dispute over the river’s water was an argument over the meaning of improvement and its near cousin, progress. Improvement could mean the cultivation and refinement of human qualities, but it also had a material connotation. To improve the earth was to mix one’s own labor with it, to cultivate wild nature and thereby claim it as one’s own. This was the preferred usage of the “improvers,” those farmers who advocated for a scientific approach to husbandry that emphasized conservation, personal rectitude, and practices akin to what we might now call permaculture. There were improvers throughout Concord, and they even had an organization, the Concord Farmers’ Club. 5

Yet even then the word was diverging from its agrarian roots, developing something of its current flavor: economic advancement enabled by new technologies. 6 And Concord’s improvers found themselves surrounded on all sides by lovers of Progress, because Thoreau’s corner of Massachusetts was also ground zero for American industrial capitalism and, specifically, for the textile mills that powered this country’s Industrial Revolution. 7

In the early 1850s, the Billerica dam passed into the hands of a textile-factory owner named Charles Talbot, and soon after, upstream farmers noticed that the floods flooded deeper and longer than ever. However much Talbot’s dam checked the flow of the already-languid river, its effect was magnified by the dozens of mills that periodically released their wastewater into the river, in effect flooding Concord from both ends. The growing city of Boston had also begun to draw water from the overworked Concord watershed, and to compensate country folks the Boston Water Board had constructed ponds up and down the river’s spine whose timed releases kept the water levels uniformly high, even during periods of drought. 8 Farmers were predictably incensed by all of this and convinced that the industrialists conspired to swamp their livelihoods.

And so a riddle threaded its way through Concord: what is the best use of a river? To power mills that would churn out cheap commodities, aid the growth of towns, yield fantastic profits for their owners, and help usher in an age of modern industrial capitalism; or, as Concord’s farmers argued, to grow a productive, profitable, improved farming landscape? 9 That was the question that Thoreau, standing in the shade of the riverside willow, had been hired to answer.

It’s not entirely clear where Thoreau learned the art of surveying, or why, but he came to pursue it with an obsessed intensity. 10 Already by the 1840s, he was exploring the farthest and most arcane corners of the discipline — the unsolved mysteries of terrestrial magnetism; the best, most finicky methods of ensuring a compass’s accuracy. He was a passionate scholar, whose research went far beyond the daily tasks of measuring property boundaries and town lines, laying out woodlots, and planning roads. 11 His obsession with accuracy and variation had gained him a reputation as one of the town’s premier surveyors.

Surveying also allowed him to pursue his love, the Concord River, and to learn its daily rhythms, its hardly-noticed secrets. The river was wild and ultimately unknowable, and yet Thoreau was convinced that surveying would help him fix its living likeness. On June 4, 1859, he was commissioned by Simon Brown, an elite, improvement-minded farmer who chaired the Committee of the Proprietors of the Sudbury and Concord River Meadows, an organization which had arisen in response to Talbot’s grass-killing dam and with hopes that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s newly appointed Joint Special Committee, which had been formed to investigate the flooding, would finally rule in the farmers’ favor. 12 Thoreau was to measure and catalog the width of each bridge that crossed the Concord between Sudbury and Billerica, the characteristics of every pier that might jut its obstructing pylons into the water, the history of each bridge’s construction and improvement, and the character of the falls at Billerica itself. Brown’s committee hoped these measurements would help prove that “the great oppression and spoliation to which we and our fathers have been so long subjected” was not the result of sluggish nature but the fault of industry (and, specifically, of Talbot’s dam). 13

Over the next two months, Thoreau spent 34 days on the river, often accompanied by his friend William Ellery Channing. He sounded the bottom in hundreds of places — stopping every thousand feet over a distance of more than 25 miles — and saw with his mind’s eye the river bottom from the side, saw its gullies and hills. 14 He also plunged into the town archives, searching out maps he should consult and local citizens whose long memories he could mine for crucial information. 15 At the end of the project, he took his 33 pages of detailed notes and boiled them down to a single oversize chart. 16 His neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson was in a huff over what he saw as wasted time spent away from the true work of writing: “Henry T. occupies himself with the history of the river, measures it, weighs it, strains it through a colander to all eternity,” the elder transcendentalist wrote to a mutual friend. 17

Emerson was right to worry. Thoreau was zealously disciplined in his surveying, which isn’t surprising, because most 19th-century manuals, including Thoreau’s copy of Charles Davies’s Elements of Surveying, demanded exacting precision, not only in one’s instruments, but also in one’s body and mind. 18 Surveying was as much a way to measure the land as it was a method of plotting the perfect, modern man: the would-be surveyor needed to be polished and upright; he needed “a careful training of the eye and hand … the exercise of judgment in laying out and prosecuting the work … physical alacrity and endurance in the collection of the data. … In short, the requirements are such that only a person of good judgment, temperate habits, active temperament, and scholarly attainments can hope to excel in this profession,” as one manual put it. 19

Thoreau and his willow tree were inheritors of a much longer history whose deep context was then spreading its way across the continent. Thousands of similar trees dotted the American landscape, inscribed by thousands of ax-wielding men. From the moment of European footfall, surveyors had tried to lash the chaotic, polyphonic story of the landscape into one coherent narrative.

Though blazing a tree was as old as surveying itself, the connotation of every mark began to change with Thomas Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1785, which sought to bring order to territorial expansion through a streamlined, efficient process of rationalized surveying and cartography. A new nation, in the New World, needed a method of self-invention. Americans, beginning with Jefferson, inscribed the national grid — which now stretches from the streets of Manhattan, across the checkerboard of the Great Plains, all the way to the beaches of California — onto the land. 20 Anchoring this imaginary, cross-hatched latticework were the witness trees standing sentinel at the corner of many six-mile-square townships, America’s building block.
“Surveyors tried to lash the chaotic, polyphonic story of the landscape into one coherent narrative.”
The grid was powerfully abstracting: it transmuted real, impossibly complicated land into simple squares, all of which looked the same on a map; and the clarity it allowed was a welcome relief from the headaches, political intrigue, and disenfranchisement that attended the traditional system of settlement in Jefferson’s South — a free-for-all of indiscriminate corruption by “surveyors” whose only claim to qualification was their claim to being qualified. In the colonial era, it was not uncommon for the same parcel of land to be sold to many different buyers at the same time, and legal wrangling over ownership clogged Southern courts for decades. 21 Jefferson’s plan was to map the land before settlement, to pinpoint its resources and divide the nation’s territory into uniform squares, then to parcel them out intelligently to deserving yeoman farmers. 22

But if abstraction brings clarity and connection to disparate things flung across great distances, it can do so only through severing the tangled roots that plot any thing in a local place. Abstraction is a way of saying that some general connections matter and that others, the more specific ones, don’t. What must be ignored in order to think that a parcel of land in one place is like a similarly sized parcel anywhere else? One way to answer that question is to look at what was abstracted out of the picture — people: squatters, wanderers, and, above all else, American Indians; and also topography, flora and fauna, ecology.
“That perfect grid of mitotic squares, spreading out effortlessly into the sunset, helped give Americans the idea that the continent was empty.”
That perfect grid of mitotic squares, spreading out effortlessly into the sunset, helped give Americans the idea that the continent was empty, the land free for the taking as long as a well-trained property surveyor was near at hand. 23 Jefferson had hoped that his abstraction would roll democracy and his chosen people into one tight landscape of liberty, but he hadn’t adequately reckoned with the metastasizing forces of capital, and it didn’t take long for the economic elite to grasp that Jefferson’s grid could be folded into a funnel to efficiently siphon off the wealth of an entire continent. All landscapes serve somebody’s purpose.

Once abstraction had standardized the landscape and imaginatively emptied it of all prior claims, the profit-hungry could reconstitute land as yet another fungible product to be traded on the open market. This is the point of commoditization, a special kind of abstraction: every sack of grain, every board foot of lumber, every gallon of oil, every good, is stripped of its individuality and imagined to be exactly like every other in its class. 24 Between Jefferson’s time and Thoreau’s, it became increasingly possible to shift one’s attention from the content of the landscape to its borders, from the productive value of the land to its exchange value as a unit.

“The striking and peculiar characteristic of American society,” observed the French political scientist Émile Boutmy, in 1891, “is that it is not so much a democracy as a huge commercial company for the discovery, cultivation, and capitalization of its enormous territory.” 25 In fact, the very first big-business trust in America, from the late 18th century, was a real-estate outfit named the North American Land Company. 26

Land survey by Henry David Thoreau

Plan of John B. Moore’s Farm, Concord, Mass, surveyed by Thoreau in 1853, with annotations in red ink by Albert E. Wood in 1886. [Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society]

Several years before his river survey, in the fall of 1851, Thoreau had resurveyed Concord’s town line. It was an old New England tradition for the town’s selectmen to walk the boundaries once a year and reacquaint themselves with the sentinel trees, but this was the first time they had chosen to include a surveyor in their number. 27 Though Thoreau didn’t let on to it, he was excited, even honored, to be asked, and he put the adventure down twice in his journals: once in the surveying notebook that he had been keeping since 1849, using disciplined surveyor’s prose — “perambulated the line between Concord and Acton, from a split stone near Paul Dudleys” — but also a second time in his personal journal:

Commenced perambulating the town bounds … Mr. — — told a story of his wife walking in the fields somewhere, and, to keep the rain off, throwing her gown over her head and holding it in her mouth, and so being poisoned about her mouth from the skirts of her dress having come in contact with poisonous plants … — — described the wall about or at Forest Hills Cemetery in Roxbury as being made of stones upon which they were careful to preserve the moss, so that it cannot be distinguished from a very old wall.

Found one intermediate bound-stone near the powder-mill drying-house on the bank of the river. The worker-men there wore shoes without iron tacks. He said that the kernel-house was the most dangerous, the drying-house next, the press-house next. One of the powder-mill buildings in Concord? The potato vines and the beans which were still green are now blackened and flattened by the frost. 28

A funny thing happened to Thoreau every time he looked at his compass: his mind strayed from its close focus on straight lines, and then he was off, expertly wandering, running seemingly unconnected things — gossip, stone walls, labor exploitation, phenology — all together, creating a subjective, historical, experiential patchwork of a map at the very same time that he was employed as the legal guardian of the town’s boundaries. 29 His journal entries tell of death’s economic balance sheet: powder leveled troops as well as mountains and forests. (“The willow reach by Lee’s Bridge has been stripped for powder,” he wrote, a month before the walk with the selectmen.) 30 They tell us of commerce and communication with the larger port city of Boston. We learn that poisonous plants grow, and we hear what might be a bit of loose talk, or possibly a morality tale about vanity, or maybe a lesson about the loss of local, rooted knowledge; we hear of early efforts at historic preservation. We learn that workers in the powder mills — who were helping to make munitions for the Mexican-American War — wore shoes without hobnails so that the simple human act of walking, of striking one’s feet on the ground, wouldn’t kick up sparks. And finally, Thoreau took the time to record the change of seasons, to notice that the window in which certain crops could thrive was shuttered tight against the cold.
“No matter how precise one’s instrumentation, a well-trained mind will always stumble upon the unknown, the fantastic, the enchanted.”
His journals are filled with such moments, and he learned to survey in order that he might discover how to get lost; to triangulate between nature and humankind; to pinpoint the connections that emplace a person in a deep context at once cultural, economic, and natural; to find himself. “The boundaries of the actual are no more fixed and rigid than the elasticity of our imaginations,” Thoreau wrote in 1853, and the deliberate, blending, countermodern confusion he sowed between inanimate property and living creatures is a key to how he used his compass, and what for. 31 At the heart of his observations there is always a sense of wonder, an acknowledgment that no matter how precise one’s instrumentation, a well-trained mind will always stumble upon the unknown, the fantastic, the enchanted. 32

Simon Brown and his fellow improvers hired Thoreau because he was exact, and they hoped that his skill would keep the river in their control. 33 They were right; they won. 34 But Thoreau took the job so that he could spend time with one of his muses. “For the first time it occurred to me this afternoon what a piece of wonder a river is,” he wrote, in one of his very first journal entries, in the spring of 1838. “A huge volume of matter ceaselessly rolling through the fields and meadows of this substantial earth.” He was clearly in love. 35 Two decades later, he knew that piece of wonder intimately. He had filled his journal with hundreds of entries on the river’s height and temperature, which he would continue to monitor until he could no longer leave his bachelor’s bed, when he was dying of the tuberculosis that had been aggravated by a bitterly cold day spent counting the rings of trees.

Painting of textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, by John Badger Bachelder

Textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Detail from a painting by John Badger Bachelder, 1856.

Though he never did finally settle on whether he thought the flooding of Concord’s meadows was anthropogenic or not, Thoreau had no doubt that the flow was artificially influenced. 36 Back in 1854, he had observed that the river remained fairly high even in periods of drought. 37 And while surveying for the Committee of the Proprietors in 1859, his willow tree told him a curious thing: the river had risen without a single drop of rainfall. 38 So, over the course of the summer, he took hundreds of readings of the water level at various times every day, until he discovered that the river had an irregularly rhythmic pulse. Of course, that pulse wasn’t the river’s at all, but the action of the upstream mills, pumping their floods during the workday and holding them back at night and on weekends. 39

The river was an organic machine, a river rationalized — gridded, even — to serve the interests of capital. Thoreau, miserable, describes a body “so completely emasculated and demoralized … that it is even made to observe the Christian Sabbath.” 40

By a gauge set in the river I can tell about what time the millers on the stream and its tributaries go to work in the morning and leave off at night, and also can distinguish the Sundays, since it is the day on which the river does not rise, but falls. If I had lost the day of the week, I could recover it by a careful examination of the river. It lies by in the various mill-ponds on Sunday and keeps the Sabbath. What its persuasion is, is another question. 41

But just here, at the main revelation, Thoreau got sidetracked again and wandered away from the desolate gloom of his statistics toward an uncaulked chink where hope streamed in. What is a river’s persuasion? He knew, from years of painstaking measurement, that water always forces its own course, and that the path of least resistance sometimes leads directly through the most concrete redoubt of Progress: “Who knows what may avail a crow-bar against the Billerica dam,” Thoreau wrote, back in 1849, in a book-length poem about the river. 42 Years later, he discovered that the sympathetic river had beaten him to the punch. On a visit to another dam, he found himself “amused with the various curves of water which leak through at different heights. … The dam leaked in a hundred places between and under the planks, and there were as many jets of various size and curve.” 43

“It excites me to see early in the spring that black artery leaping once more through the snow-clad town,” he wrote. His faith had taken a knock from his findings but had not, ultimately, succumbed to the logic of surveying. “All is tumult and life there, not to mention the rails and cranberries that are drifting in it. Where this artery is shallowest, i.e., comes nearest to the surface and runs swiftest, there it shows itself soonest and may see its pulse beat. There are the wrists, temples of the earth. Where I feel its pulse with my eye. The living waters.” 44 The river was alive, wild, even if it had been calmed by the regulation of the mills. Precision again led him to bewilderment, fact to a flowing unknown. “Men are inclined to be amphibious, to sympathize with fishes, now,” he wrote, on another occasion, in a joyful spirit of boundary crossing. 45

The Jefferson Grid

Satellite images of American land use and development from The Jefferson Grid, a collection on Tumblr and Instagram.

The ultimate problem with abstraction is that it relies always on violence. One of the word’s many meanings is “to steal,” and one of the purposes of the 19th-century’s federal land surveys was to prepare land for stealing. 46 The army had its own corps of engineers, which was reorganized in 1838 to better reconnoiter the continent’s people and its exploitable natural resources. Between 1842 and 1845, John C. Frémont, the flamboyant, self-promoting explorer who would take the name “Pathfinder” when he ran for president a decade later — under the campaign slogan “Free Soil, Free Men, and Frémont” — embarked on a series of secret missions to help make the developing narrative of violent annexation appear inevitable, natural, divinely sanctioned. 47 After the gun smoke cleared and the earth soaked in all the blood it could hold, the surveyors arrived with their squares, rewriting history, declaring the land open, empty, and free for democracy.
“After the gun smoke cleared and the earth soaked in all the blood it could hold, the surveyors arrived with their squares.”
Jefferson’s grid helped knit slavery ever deeper into the nation’s fabric. In those red-hot years of Manifest Destiny, following the Mexican-American War, slavers streamed west. It was Anglo slaveholders in northern Mexico who goaded Texas to revolution in 1835, and it was the prospect of some 270,000 square miles of slave-worked Lone Star land that helped push the United States toward war. Once the shooting was done, slave owners could enjoy an unbroken view from Florida all the way to the borders of free-state California, and what they saw was the promise of fortune. 48

Cotton production exploded during Thoreau’s lifetime, from 80 million bales in 1811 to well over a billion at the time of his death. All that cotton was grown on land abstracted away from others, and picked by stolen labor. Nearly a million slaves, commodified bodies, were marched west out of the Upper South between 1790 and 1860. 49 Much of the cotton they picked and cleaned was shipped to textile mills in England, but some of it went to Massachusetts, where the Lowell mills alone consumed 100,000 days of enslaved people’s labor every year, and some of that white fleece found its way farther upstream, to a mill along the banks of the Concord River, whose dam backed the water up ever closer to a willow tree with a notch cut low in its trunk, under which stood a surveyor, thinking. 50

When Thoreau looked down the river, he saw a current congealed by a factory in which weary humans toiled to make cloth from cotton picked by slaves and grown on land won through violent dispossession. He saw a world that he loved collide with Progress, a landscape ruled by the profit motive. “This world is a place of business,” he elaborated in “Life without Principle.” He continued, “I think there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself” — a landscape of violent abstraction, of gridded lives, land, and water, a place of thievery where everything complicated, unique, and wonderful was put up for sale. 51
“Thoreau’s genius lay in seeing the invisible, countermodern connections between things.”
Thoreau’s genius lay in seeing the invisible, countermodern connections between things; but what use is talent if it can’t be shared? Though he was gifted with rare powers of observation, he struggled to make them apparent to others. There’s no one text or chart where Thoreau ever plainly plotted the intersection of land, labor, and capital; the meeting ground of Southern chattel slavery and the Northern wage system; the overlapping territory of machine, cotton, and surveying. He could feel the connections, he knew they were there, but his writing remained archipelagic.

What separated Thoreau from many of his politically radical peers was his insight that free trade and slavery, the mill and the factory, territorial expansion and offensive war and demoralized rivers, all were rooted in a peculiar kind of landscape. Thoreau had gone to Walden in 1845, the year Manifest Destiny entered the American vocabulary, a year when his surveying interests were growing into a passion, in order to “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” 52 He went searching for meanness, and of course found it, for if the culture of capitalism fed in part on reconceiving of nature as natural resources, it grew fat on reducing people to mere functions. 53 Yet life, as it must, endured. “I have thus surveyed the country on every side within a dozen miles of where I live,” he wrote, and what he discovered was sublime: he found the wild. 54
“Wildness, a quality, and wilderness, a place, are not the same things.”
Unfortunately, there is perhaps no way Thoreau has been more misunderstood than as an advocate for a wilderness without humans. 55 “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he famously wrote, in his ever-unfinishable essay “Walking,” a line that is still misquoted as a defense of untouched wilderness. 56 But wildness, a quality, and wilderness, a place, are not the same things. 57 Wildness gives life its character — “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest” — it is the underground current sustaining all nature, including all human nature. 58 Wildness is what pulsed through Thoreau and the leaping black artery of the Concord; wildness is why, in Walden, Thoreau was able to count mice, phoebes, ants, loons, a “winged cat,” ducks, and dozens of animal others among his neighbors, and runaway slaves as his visitors. 59 “All good things are wild and free,” he wrote in “Walking,” an essay that also happens to seethe with scorn for capitalist surveying. 60

If Thoreau thought that in wildness the world could be preserved, it was because the wild was a landscape where “no fugitive slave laws are passed,” because the wild planted every human as “an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature,” because the wild grows untamed and always threatens the abstract orderliness of the grid. 61 Thoreau had chased life into a corner, and when he did, he saw that the market’s abstractions were neither natural nor inevitable. Yet, perhaps Thoreau boasted a bit much. Perhaps he didn’t chase life, but instead was led by the hand until, alone together, life turned to face its follower. When it did, Thoreau felt his own boundaries fade and float out on the day’s light. “The life in us is like the water in the river,” he wrote in Walden’s conclusion. “It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands.” 62

Concord River landscape

Concord River. [Richard Ellis]

What is the best use of a river? That’s the question that Simon Brown and his committee had hired Thoreau to find out, and I’m sure they had little patience for wildness, or wandering, or border-bending metaphors, or any of the other transcendental things for which Thoreau used his surveying skills. Concord’s other farmers wanted legally defensible maps and tables of statistics. Thoreau knew this; he complied with his employers’ wishes and was paid, and then he found himself crossing into the monochromatic kingdom of despair. He fretted over the deadening effect that measurement played on his mind. 63 It was the surveyor’s job to abstract, after all, to produce a map claiming to capture something essential, something real about the earth; but Thoreau worried that in gaining a critical distance he was losing the world. 64
“‘How little there is on an ordinary map,’ Thoreau wrote. Blank spaces irritated him, because they weren’t, in fact, blank.”
“How little there is on an ordinary map,” Thoreau wrote, soon after finishing his work for Simon Brown. “How little, I mean that concerns the walker and lover of nature. Between those lines indicating roads is a plain blank space in the form of a square or triangle or polygon or segment of a circle, and there is naught to distinguish this from another area of similar size and form.” 65 These blank spaces irritated Thoreau, because they weren’t, in fact, blank, and his famously circuitous writing can be seen as a literary effort both to picture the landscape more truthfully and to confound a map’s simpleminded linearity. 66 It’s a bitter irony, then, that what Thoreau produced for the Committee of the Proprietors was the ultimate abstract landscape: a wilderness of statistics.

Thoreau wasn’t asked to produce a map for the committee, because its members already had one, and he came to know it well. 67 It had been drawn in 1834 by B. F. Perham, under the supervision of the highly regarded surveyor Loammi Baldwin, and in 1859 it was still considered legally up to date. Its greatest strength was its generic beauty. It was a map that looked like any other, a map that outlined the river’s arcing course, the area’s political boundaries, the towns’ notable buildings. It had five bridges and, at the very top, the river’s notable statistics: length, 22 miles, 802 feet; vertical fall, 2.865 feet. It confidently offered itself as objective, naturalistic, reliable, passive, a true transcript of raw, uninhabited space. All of it aggravated Thoreau.

Where are the people, he wondered? Where are the fields and the trees and the homes and the roads and the stores? Where are the landscape’s other inhabitants — the plants, the animals, all the things every bit as real as the river and courthouse and political boundaries? 68 Where, he must have asked himself, am I?
“Where are the people, he wondered? Where are the fields and the trees and the homes and the roads and the stores?”
On July 7, 1859, Thoreau was poring over the Baldwin-Perham map, filling his journal with measurement tables and all kinds of statistical minutiae. 69 He listed all of the bridges, and then corrected the names that Baldwin and Perham got wrong. 70 At some point, he became disillusioned not only with Baldwin but also with the mute stupidity of his own statistical table. What could a column of numbers have to say about a living river that was worth hearing?

And so Thoreau improved the time: “I [am] reminded of the advantage of the poet, and philosopher, and naturalist, and whomsoever, of pursuing from time to time some other business than his chosen one, — seeing with the side of the eye. The poet will so get visions which no deliberate abandonment can secure. The philosopher is so forced to recognize principles which long study might not detect. And the naturalist even will stumble upon some new and unexpected flower or animal.” 71 Improve was one of Thoreau’s favorite verbs, but he meant something very different from either the agricultural improvers or their industrial antagonists. “I hate the present modes of living and getting a living,” Thoreau had written in 1855, and for him improvement meant living rather than getting one. 72 It meant being present, aware of the birdsongs, the taste of the river, the character of the breeze; it meant being alive and sensitive to one’s living surroundings. 73 It meant, in July 1859, making a map.

Thoreau began by tracing the outlines of Baldwin’s and Perham’s map and then reusing them for his own. 74 But the similarities end at the sketched-in river’s banks, for Thoreau’s map is alive with a riot of thousands of tiny notations — most in variously hued pen’s ink, but some, ghostly, in pencil — including particular comments about the river’s current: “shallow and quick” in some places, “sandbars and grass,” “soft banks,” in others. And there’s a sense of the river’s human use. Thoreau notes, just downstream from the Turnpike bridge, “1st cottage,” and just a little below, the “boat pl.,” from where he and his friend Channing began their riverine explorations. Elsewhere he marks the good swimming holes. He points out the cultural and historical geography of the river: where an old hay bridge once stood, where one might find freshwater clams, the monument to the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1776. And he carefully details, in scores of places, what plants grow where: individual oak and ash trees, polygonum, bulrush, and many others. 75 The sharp-eyed Thoreau had gained his townspeople’s respect as an exacting surveyor, but here he was after something wilder. His map plunges its viewer headfirst into the chaotic mystery of a river called Concord, and it all begins in a cloud of cartographic disorientation with Thoreau’s refusal to give the map a coherent name.
“Thoreau’s seven-and-a-half-foot map plunges its viewer headfirst into the chaotic mystery of a river called Concord.”
The map is overwhelmingly long — seven-and-a-half feet — which means that its viewer actually has to walk its length, must reenact, in miniature, an afternoon’s boating trip. It’s a demanding map, and to get a grip on it, one must focus on the river itself, the only immediately apparent narrative thread. Not until the river’s conclusion, where it crashes into Talbot’s dam, do we stumble upon a title cordoned off in the lower right corner: Plan of Concord River from East Sudbury to Billerica Mills, 22.15 Miles, To be used on a trial in the S.J. Court, Sudbury and East Sudbury Meadow Corporation vs. Middlesex Canal, Taken by agreement of Parties by L. Baldwin, Civil Engineer. Surveyed & Drawn by B.F. Perham, May 1834. This was the exact title of Baldwin’s and Perham’s map, except they had put it front and center, in semaphoric letters that could not be missed. Thoreau then gave to his map an even smaller title, in a box at the center: Plan and Profile of that part of Concord River between Sudbury Causeway & the Canal Mill Dam in Billerica, Surveyed & the level taken in October 1811, and to be used in The Supreme Judicial Court, in an action then pending between D. Baldwin & J.L. Sullivan, pursuant to agreement of the parties. By L. Baldwin. Apparently, Baldwin had also mapped the river in 1811, for an earlier dispute over the river’s height — a fact of which the Baldwin-Perham map makes no mention.

A header with twin sets of statistics from both 1811 and 1834 runs across the entire top of the map. Those figures represented the river’s fall over the course of its length, and they were the sort of scientific facts that “may dust the mind by their dryness,” as Thoreau once complained. But they were oddly significant because they weren’t even close to agreement. Baldwin had recorded the river’s fall as 4 feet, 3.9 inches in the first case; and 2 feet, 10.38 inches some two decades later. 76 Both could not be right. As it turns out, Baldwin had been hoodwinked back in 1811. Before he could set up his instruments, the Billerica dam’s owners had thrown open the floodgates to artificially inflate the river’s fall and clear the way for capitalism’s rising tide.

Baldwin’s folly was public knowledge by the 1850s, but Thoreau refused to let the point go. 77 Instead, he drove home the tenuous connection between map and terrain by including both sets of statistics. He cared less about the inaccuracy of the earlier map than he did about how easily a map can distort reality. To guard against the chance that anyone might misread his own fantastic map of conjoined titles and twinned measurements, Thoreau came up with a raving-mad scale to rule his landscape: “60 rods to the inch & B[aldwin]’s is 2/3 of a division of my scale longer than Perham’s.” 78
“The map’s resistance to utilitarian clarity is the same resistance with which all living things meet the violence of abstraction.”
It is tempting to read Thoreau’s river survey as a satirical anti-map, a snide rejection of disciplinary pretension that leaves its viewer wallowing in relativism. How could anyone measure anything with a tripolar scale whose differing notions of what an inch is babble over each other? But irony is only one of the tropes that Thoreau drew on. He was always more interested in improvement than deconstruction, and his countermodern map is affirming in its self-aware subjectivity, its desire to picture Concord as situated in a landscape teeming with life and human usage. This was a political choice. If Baldwin’s and Perham’s Concord River is anonymous and untouched and dead, an ahistorical space that denies change, a river that can be manipulated and controlled; then all those notes pinpointing where the plants grew, all those piles of figures and ghosts of surveys past, make of Thoreau’s a deep map — a view of an impressively interconnected world where nature, commerce, culture, history, and imagination all grow together — something nonfungible and specific: a full, a wild land living at once beyond and beneath the confined landscape of the town’s grasping improvers, both agricultural and industrial, who, despite their superficial differences, ultimately agreed that the best use of a river is to turn a profit. 79 Its resistance to utilitarian clarity is the same resistance with which all living things meet the violence of abstraction. It won’t sit still but demands that you walk it, puzzle over it, bend close, look from afar, and leave it, bewildered.

Perhaps wildness is always a trespasser disrespecting the artificial boundaries of power. “They who laid out the town should have made the river available as a common possession forever,” Thoreau wrote near the end of his life, in his great anti-capitalist essay “Huckleberries”; and he used all his surveying skill to stake a claim for the bulrush and the ash tree, for the bathers and those who hunted for freshwater clams, for himself and for all Concordians in his map. 80 The river persuaded him to use his cartographic training as a means to protest the privatizing of the public goods that ought to benefit every living thing, to disavow the cheap utopian assurances of individual gain so dearly bought. Call it liberation cartography: “I find that I have a civil right in the River,” Thoreau wrote in 1853. Six years later he plated those claims on the map you can read here. 81

This essay is adapted from This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, by Daegan Miller, published this month by University of Chicago Press. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.


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