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Wednesday, September 11, 2013 | Posted by Ethan Carr

TO BE AT THE FARTHER EDGE: Photographs along the New England Trail

Long before the map, there was the trail. It may be the most ancient means of both organizing and experiencing space. In at least some cultures the two ideas are conflated. But for anyone, walking a trail can be a kind of experiential mapping, one not tied to cartographic projections and graphics, but directly to memory, time, and space. If life is defined by movement, life experienced as a path implies direction, and ultimately some transformation or even salvation. The greatest trails have always been pilgrimage routes—journeys of duty and personal growth. The trail, as allegory, maps human experience and lends it purpose and destination.

Young rock climbers at Farley Ledges

Young rock climbers at Farley Ledges. All photographs by Barbara Bosworth, 2012.

The most renowned metaphorical trail, at least in English literature, is described by John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, a journey from “this world” to the “Celestial City” as revealed to the author in the “similitude of a dream.” The book had a great impact on Protestant theology, not least upon the Puritans of New England, where it must have resonated with real experiences and shared memories of immigration. From the earliest days of the English settlement of Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut Valley, exodus and personal redemption were linked and identified with the journey to and arrival at a new Zion.

Historians have emphasized a Puritan hatred for the “howling wilderness” of seventeenth-century New England.[1] But the Puritan ethos was never so simple in its attitudes towards the uncultivated world. Milton’s description of Eden as a wilderness “with thicket overgrown, grottoesque and wilde” passionately evokes untrammeled natural beauty. Descriptions of such a “delicious Paradise,” characterized by the profuse and fecund disorder of nature, indicate that wild places did not always signify an evil to be overcome in the Puritan mind. The historian Perry Miller describes the mystical aspects of Puritan theology, which recognized “regeneration” through direct experience of the divine, as an ancestor to the mysticism of New England Transcendentalism, which sought revelation through direct experience of a divine Nature. Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century Calvinist minister who did not allow his religion to prevent him from exalting in the natural world, provided a transformational link in this regional propensity for mystical experience.[2]

View of Mt. Tom, 2012

View of Mt. Tom, 2012

New England Transcendentalism is notoriously hard to define, but the meditative activity of walking was perhaps its one sacrament. For Emerson and Thoreau, the appreciation of the natural world was inseparable from this active mode of experience. Romantic sensibility depended not so much on overcoming the wilderness—that had occurred centuries earlier in Europe, after all—but on opportunities to travel for the pleasure of appreciating regional scenery. Seeing places as landscapes was a function of the increased mobility of modern life. Technology transformed perceptions of the world, as improved roads and carriages, canals, steamboats and eventually rail all came in rapid succession. While reactions to these influences ranged from rejection to embrace, modern patterns of living allowed the access and leisure needed to appreciate Nature and to compose landscape scenes, whether on canvas or in the mind.

The itineraries of nineteenth-century tourists soon had their own imagery and literature, which both found large audiences. The phenomenon of tourism began in the Northeast, as cities grew and more metropolitan residents had the means to travel. The historians Laura and Guy Waterman suggest that the Crawford Path (1819) up Mount Washington is the oldest recreational trail in the region still in use. At that time the Crawford family operated an inn at the base of the climb, which served tourists eager to experience the already storied mountains.[3] By mid-century, dozens of “mountain houses” occupied peaks in New England and eastern New York. Both Mount Tom and Mount Holyoke—sites along today’s New England Trail—were early mountain house locations. Unlike Saratoga and other spas, these accommodations were places for taking in the views and cool mountain air, not the waters. Mountain resorts also implied a certain amount of hiking, an activity that generated the earliest clubs devoted to the pursuit, notably in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) was founded in Boston in 1876 and its members focused their attentions not only on mountaineering, but also on the maintenance of trails and high elevation “huts” in the White Mountains.[4] In 1895, a group of hikers and conservationists established the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA).

Harry above Briggs Brook Falls

Harry above Briggs Brook Falls, 2012

The members of groups such as the AMC and the CFPA shared an enthusiasm for outdoor recreation that extended to advocacy for regional planning and land conservation. By the 1880s, areas of scenic beauty and ecological significance within metropolitan Boston were being destroyed by the expanding city. One prominent member of the AMC, the landscape architect (and inveterate New England hiker) Charles Eliot, enlisted his fellow members to initiate a campaign to create what became, in 1891, the Trustees of Public Reservations, the first land trust dedicated to the preservation of regional scenic and historic landscapes. The next year, the Massachusetts legislature established a Metropolitan Park Commission empowered to acquire and manage scenic reservations in the suburban towns around Boston, with Eliot acting as its landscape architect planning the system.[5]

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[1] Benton MacKaye, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” The Journal of the American Institute of Architects (October 1921).

[2] Edwin M. Fitch and John F. Shanklin, The Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 60-88.

[3] Steve Elkinton, et al., The National Trails System: A Grand Experiment (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, 2008), 4-12.

[4] See for the full text of the act.

[5] Laura and Guy Waterman, Forest and Crag (Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1989), 39-43.

[6] Waterman, Forest and Crag, 57-68, 183-92.

[7] Charles W. Eliot, Charles Eliot, Landscape Architect [1902] (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press in association with the Library of American Landscape History, 1999), 316-35.

[8] See for example Roderick Frazier Nash, quoting Michael Wigglesworth and others, in Wilderness and the American Mind [1967] (Fourth edition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 34-43.

[9] Perry Miller, “From Edwards to Emerson” [1940], in  Errand Into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 184-203.

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