2017-08-26 / News

Mackinac Island as Thoreau Wrote It

By Cathryn Lien

In 1861, philosopher and environmentalist Henry David Thoreau was diagnosed with tuberculosis and prescribed the healing medicine of the great outdoors. His wrote extensively during a Midwest journey that included Mackinac Island and a posthumously published field notebook reveals his perspective on Mackinac Island.

“Thoreau didn’t have a chance to write about his 1861 trip to the Midwest himself, so all we have is his 100-page field notebook” said Corinne H. Smith, Thoreau Scholar and author of Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey. His notes are viewable on microfilm at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Dr. Smith compiled Thoreau’s writings on Michigan and Mackinac Island for the Mackinac Arts Council’s book, Thoreau At Mackinac, an anthology of his writings with poetry and prose from the Island. The book was published in July in honor of Thoreau’s 200th birthday and to commemorate his historic visit to the Island.

Thoreau stayed on Mackinac Island from June 30 until July 4. His doctors prescribed fresh air and clear waters, believing that the natural surroundings would rid his body of the disease, and the Island was the perfect location.

During his stay, Thoreau recorded his scientific observations of the wildlife and plant species, spending time at Fort Mackinac and Arch Rock. Thoreau made the first significant summary of weeds observed on Mackinac Island, listing 27 species, including milfoil, whiteweed, gromwell, and dandelion.

“He really just jotted down quick notes, probably intending for them to be mere memory-joggers for when he came back to write a more finished narrative,” Dr. Smith said, although, unfortunately, this completed narrative would never be produced.

Upon arriving on Mackinac Island, Thoreau writes: “Some wild Ind. from Eastward still offer tobacco – leave it on the rocks at Mackinaw – No fur trade of consequence for 20 years.” He also notes that Lake Huron ices over in mid-January and stays frozen until April.

“Sat by fire July 2d – They think trout not as good as white fish,” Thoreau wrote, which still rings true today as white fish is a popular dish on the Island.

According to Dr. Smith, Thoreau included a four-page inventory of plant names, from trees like arbor vitae and sugar maples, to flowers like yellow ladies slippers and dandelions (“very abundant – even throughout woods”).

One line fascinates horticulturists and nature enthusiasts: “apple in bloom — & lilac.”

Thoreau’s visit to Mackinac Island would have been during the peak of lilac season for Mackinac Island, during what would be today’s annual Lilac Festival. Lilacs had to have been thriving on the Island since at least the 1850s, ten years before his arrival, for them to fully bloom during his visit.

“Thoreau probably found this sighting interesting because of the date,” Dr. Smith said. “When he arrived, June was turning into July. Here on Mackinac, apple trees and lilacs bloomed more than a full month later than they did back in Massachusetts.”

Lilacs on Mackinac Island grow far beyond their expected life span because the Island’s limestone soil is richly alkaline.

“In the wild, lilacs usually grow to a height of four or five feet along mountainsides and live only a few years, but Mackinac Island’s lilacs thrive in the limestone soil,” said Jeff Young, an instructor at the University of Vermont and member of the International Lilac Society.

Resident nature enthusiast and Mackinac Island Town Crier “Nature Notes” columnist Patricia Martin agreed that the later date is the reason Thoreau would pay special attention to the apple blossoms and lilacs.

“Every year is different for lilacs on the Island because of the lake effect,” Mrs. Martin said. “They are temperature- dependent rather than light-dependent. Soil temperatures are affected when waters take longer to heat up and cool down.”

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