North to Katahdin
by Eric Pinder
Reviewed by A. J. Herrman
In North to Katahdin, Eric Pinder reflects thoughtfully on one of the nation’s most revered natural landmarks. Instead of merely writing a history of the mountain or retelling his own experiences with Katahdin, Pinder weaves these themes and others in an attempt to reveal the soul of the mountain. Pinder explains this goal early in the book by reminding his readers: “the cliché about climbing a mountain because it’s there just won’t do. I want to discover why it's there, geologically, and why, emotionally, I care."
Pinder’s goal in North to Katahdin is an admirable one, as the book is an attempt to go beyond the usual travel narrative to try to get at the inner psychology of our attachment to the wilderness and to climbing mountains. Both of these ideas have special ramifications with Katahdin because it lies in northern Maine’s Baxter State Park, one of the few truly wild places left in the eastern United States.
Pinder begins the book by recounting Henry David Thoreau’s first trip to Mount Katahdin in 1845. This recap sets the tone for the rest of the narrative, and Pinder spends considerable time discussing in the context of Katahdin Thoreau’s idea that “nature is the antithesis of civilization” (71). Baxter State Park and the surrounding North Woods of Maine comprise one of the last true wilderness areas in the northeast, and this distinctive character is increasing in jeopardy, as the economically depressed communities around Katahdin push for economic development. Pinder is no militant environmentalist (and he grew up in upstate New York in a community very similar to the ones around Katahdin), but he worries what this development might do to the wilderness around the mountain.
If Pinder spent the entire book writing about this important dilemma and weaving it in with some of the history behind the mountain and Baxter State Park the book would have been unqualifiedly excellent. However, occasionally Pinder wanders thematically. In a few instances he starts to tell a story that illustrates the battle between preservation, recreation, and economic development but then jumps to an entirely different topic, as, for example, in the chapter “Building a Mountain, Taking it Down,” where Pinder relates the story of a seventy-five year old woman who successfully climbed the mountain but who nearly died of exposure on the way down. Pinder could have used this story a number of ways: to illustrate Katahdin’s ability to seem like an easy mountain but also to retain its wildness, to introduce a discussion of the increasing tendency for unprepared individuals to journey into nature, or simply to serve as anecdote to illustrate the mountain’s history. Instead Pinder tells the story and then moves on to a philosophical passage about the affect that mountains have on people, reflecting: “people are mortal, and it is the brevity of our stay on earth that makes mountains look old” (78).
Despite these digressions, however, Pinder has written a first-rate book, and he tells a compelling narrative about the history of the mountain while discussing some very interesting and pertinent questions about the future of Katahdin and Baxter State Park. Other authors of books about natural landmarks can get preachy at times in their calls for protecting the wilderness, but Pinder does a great job presenting the fight between locals and environmentalists over the land around Katahdin. Pinder sees and understands both sides of the issue, which makes his analysis of the situation particularly excellent. He also does an excellent job interviewing people from all walks of life about their experiences with and memories of Katahdin. A highly recommended read.
Eric Pinder, North To Katahdin, Minnesota: Milkweed Publications,
ISBN: 1571312803. $14.00.