thoreau-land-surveyor-140Thoreau the Land Surveyor
by Patrick Chura (Lithuania 1992-94)
University Press of Florida
$34.95
212 pages
October 2010

Reviewed by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87)

MOST OF US WOULD LIKE TO BELIEVE HENRY DAVID THOREAU was as pure in his personal life as the natural world he extolled in books like Walden and The Maine Woods. But the man supported his writing habit by working as a land surveyor, actually laboring for some of the same companies who clear-cut the woods around Walden Pond and built the railroads that hastened the industrial dominance he so detested.

Yet somehow author chura-pPatrick Chura makes sense of all these contradictions while creating another improbability: a scholarly book that’s as beautiful as it is unput-downable.

Chura is himself the son of a land surveyor. He accompanied his dad on many surveying outings in and around St. Louis, Missouri during the 1970s and 80s. He is also an associate professor of English at the University of Akron. Thus the stars line up.

It’s been years since I read Walden so I had forgotten the book is full of surveying references and metaphors. I had forgotten Thoreau worked part time from the 1840s till his death in 1861 as a master of the compass and rod. Indeed, some versions of Walden have been published with Thoreau’s surveying masterwork included: a rendering of the pond itself — the 61-acre surface and, surprisingly, the full contours of the pond’s bottom. Thoreau did this in the winter of 1846, using pick and ax to bust dozens of holes through 16-thick ice to get soundings of the pond floor. He did this out of curiosity. No pay.

As it happens, I built fish ponds as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Congo in the 1980s, and I had to use a simple surveyor’s glass in the process. So perhaps I was predisposed to enjoy Chura’s book. But trust me, this is an amazing work of literary and historical investigation, written with a style both elegant and lively.

Chura explains early on his reason for writing the book: “Thoreau’s literary stock (rose) steadily in the twentieth century, but interest from literary researchers in his reputation as a land surveyor has been intermittent at best. The story of how the author of Walden so lived his life as to elicit the admiration of literature scholars, philosophers, environmentalists, antiauthoritarians and future land surveyors is certainly an under-appreciated and significant measure of the man.”

And make no mistake, Thoreau was very good at surveying and, by all accounts, loved the work even if he struggled with the final aims of his employers. In all, Chura writes, the storied essayist made more than 165 professional surveys that “resolved ownership disputes, aided in the laying out of Concord’s roads, regularized notoriously erratic property lines in Middlesex County, and plotted off large stretches of woodland for sale and cutting.” One of Thoreau’s last surveys was of the Concord River where he “took literally thousands of river soundings, sometimes returning to the same spot hourly to check on barely measurable fluctuations of the water level.”

So why did he do it? What drew Thoreau to surveying? “From one perspective,” Chura writes,

Thoreau should have valued surveying because it allowed him to analyze environmental characteristics while earning money . . .. From another perspective, however, surveying contradicted the preservationist ethos at the core of Thoreau’s enduring legacy as our greatest nature writer. Imposing straight lines and mathematical formulae upon natural irregularities, marking off and subdividing the landscape near Walden Pond, laying out houses, barns and roads in Concord, Thoreau undeniably participated to some degree in civilized encroachment and environmental defacement.

In other words, he was a modern human being like the rest of us. It is one of the many virtues of Chura’s book that he does not paint Thoreau as a hypocrite or a phony. He was a man who, despite living in a 10-by-15 foot log cabin much of his life, could not avoid some measure of Earthly disturbance in order to be in the world at all. He was not “financially free to be only a surveyor of the soul,” writes Chura.

Not only is Chura a fine writer here, he is one heck of a historian. He enriches every page with carefully considered research, pulling in details about Thoreau’s work life from obscure surveying journals and old maps and even walking some of the same ground. He develops such an expertise that at one point Chura informs a Massachusetts museum staff that the surveying chain they claim was used by Thoreau was in fact never employed by the writer.

I loved this book from start to finish.

Mike Tidwell is the author of the Peace Corps memoir The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn. He is also founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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