Thoreau’s friend the Canadian woodchopper (Walden 103)

While in the woods, Thoreau met a French Canadian woodchopper who was a “true Homeric or Paphlagonian man.” (Paphlagonia was an ancient Roman province on the Black Sea.) His name was Alek Therien. Henry does not name him in the book, but describes him at length; he obviously likes and admires the man, and his comments tell us a lot about the characteristics that Henry valued in a person.

“A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice and disease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him. He was about twenty-eight years old, and had left Canada and his father’s house a dozen years before to work in the States, and earn money to buy a farm with at last, perhaps in his native country.”

Henry liked him because he was sincere, unpretentious, thought for himself, and lived simply. He was good at what he did but wasn’t obsessed with work. He was friendly and sociable but spent a good deal of time alone.

“He interested me because he was so quiet and solitary and so happy withal; a well of good humor and contentment which overflowed at his eyes. His mirth was without alloy. Sometimes I saw him at his work in the woods, felling trees, and he would greet me with a laugh of inexpressible satisfaction…”

He was a skilled hunter, but could be gentle with animals to such a degree that chickadees would “alight on his arm and peck at the potato in his fingers; and he said that he ‘liked to have the little fellers about him.’” He had great physical stamina; “In him the animal man chiefly was developed,” Henry says with obvious admiration.

Is this the ideal man, the sort of happy, self-sufficient person that our culture could produce if we would just get out of our own way?

But Henry is disappointed when it comes to his friend’s education. “He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man, but kept a child.”

He was “natural” in that he “was so genuine and unsophisticated that no introduction would serve to introduce him, more than if you introduced a woodchuck to your neighbor.” (!)

How smart was he? “To a stranger he appeared to know nothing of things in general; yet I sometimes saw in him a man whom I had not seen before, and I did not know whether he was as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child, whether to suspect him of a fine poetic consciousness or of stupidity.”

And Henry could “never, by any manoeuvring, could get him to take the spiritual view of things; the highest that he appeared to conceive of was a simple expediency, such as you might expect an animal to appreciate; and this, practically, is true of most men.”

When Henry was first getting to know the Canadian, I think he wondered if he’s met a kindred spirit. In some ways he had. Henry doesn’t say so, but I think he probably came away with a better understanding of what an odd combination of characteristics that he himself possessed, combining the woodchopper’s concrete love of simplicity and nature with an abstract idealism and intellectual curiosity. “Is there someone out there like me?” Henry may have wondered.

He sums up his new friend in words that are simultaneously condescending and admiring, and one wonders if anyone else in Concord saw such potential in the Canadian:

“He suggested that there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life, however permanently humble and illiterate, who take their own view always, or do not pretend to see at all; who are as bottomless even as Walden Pond was thought to be, though they may be dark and muddy.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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