Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Maps of Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is mainly known for nature writing, but he was also an accomplished surveyor and cartographer. Here is a detail from an 1853 Concord, Massachusetts farm survey. Note the north arrows and the name of one of the abutting landowners "N. Hawthorne."
An excellent article by Daegan Miller in Places Journal (source of the image above) details his involvement in disputes between farmers and industrialists over the water levels of the Concord River. He carefully surveyed the river, noting depths, fords, sandbars and bridges with some interesting written embellishments such as "here is a shallow place", "quick current", "willow", "bottom soft", etc.

The article has a nice detail from a 91 inch wide rolled survey of the river. Unfortunately I cannot show it here because of permissions issues but you can see it from the web page of the Concord Free Library. One important takeaway is that through his notes on the map Thoreau sought to bring life to the map by filling details into the empty spaces. Previous maps had treated the river as a resource to be plundered. To quote Miller
"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."
Thoreau mapped many of the places he traveled to such as Cape Cod - via OpenCulture,
and the Merrimack River in New Hampshire via Mapping Thoreau Country.
You can see a huge collection of his maps a surveys via the Concord Free Library's Thoreau Surveys page. Most are farm surveys from Massachusetts but there are also plans for industrial sites as well as copies of historic maps of North America.

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