Following a Story Line

Nancy Marie Brown
May 01, 1999

Rain urges me off the firetower and down the mountain. At Stratton Pond the rain and the black flies struggle for control of the atmosphere. The far shore appears and disappears as the murk does magic tricks. The pure, haunting notes of a white-throated sparrow carry across the pond. Birders say that its two-toned call sounds like "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." Doesn't sound like that to me, it sounds like, well, a whistle that I can't put into words. If only this page could sing . . .

But of course pages can't sing and words can't whistle and humans can't ever really step into the heart or mind or larynx or stamen or ecological niche of other living things, and our attempts to do so are rendered in the distinctly human medium of language. There are lines we can't cross, even—or especially—following the squiggly isoalphabetic lines we put down on paper. So how in the world, goes the objection, can human beings ever see the world or talk about the world in anything other than human terms? In other words, how can we be anything but anthropocentric? To which I answer, using language to take us on a journey into some other consciousness is precisely what literature does. —Ian Marshall, Story Line

I met Ian Marshall at the base of the mountain, his car parked at the trail-head. It was October, the yellow phase of fall, before the leaves bronze and crisp. He took off his sunglasses to say hello, to let me see his trustworthy eyes. We were going to climb a mountain together, and he wanted to start as friends.

The first part of the trail was steep. A literature professor and a professional writer, we debated the difference between fiction and nonfiction, the perfunctoriness of genre, the obligations of art. We stopped to talk to a man with a dog and, later, a young woman in black fleece and silver bangles. The man had found someone's keys; the woman hadn't lost hers. At the crest of the hill, Marshall stopped for a breather. Tall, fit, and beginning to gray, he's hiked the 2,000-plus-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, in two-week to two-month stretches over the last 20 years. The walking was research for a book on American literature, one that the New York Times called "rich," "provocative," "elegant," and "a joy." "It would have been a successful book had Marshall done nothing more than persuade readers that walking on the Appalachian Trail is still the best way to encounter the East's forested landscape," the reviewer wrote. "He has accomplished much more than that. He's also blazed an engrossing new path to experience some of its finest literature."

There are chapters on Melville and Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Cherokee myths, Bartram's Travels, Murfree and Kephart and Edgar Huntly (those three unknown to me), the evenmore obscure "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe," Robert Frost, Walt Whitman (informed by Alan Ginsberg's "Howl"), and Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, all organized geographically, south to north, and interspersed with true tales of Marshall's own travels, such as the time he and his hiking companion spend much of the night standing in our underwear cussing at porcupines. They have been trying to eat the wood walls of the leanto, and their persistent scratching and crunching has kept us awake. . . . Insolent bastards, like rats carrying knives, they have no healthy fear of us. . . . I want to be Thoreauvian, a lover of nature, one who finds meaning, sense, value, in the natural world, one who is at ease with himself amid nature and who sees nature's purposes. But the porcupines have me wondering.

"It's like a good trail mix," a student told Marshall over e-mail. "It's got some nutritious things in it"—Hawthorne and Bartram and Frost in the place of raisins, peanuts, and granola—"but there's also lots of M&Ms," like the porcupines, or the image of the Professor at Jefferson Rock: It's raining harder now, and I crawl under the rock, which is not the actual rock Jefferson stood upon. The original was pushed over the cliff by his political opponents. . . . There's plenty of room to sit under there. I worry that I'll be ruining people's photos—they want pictures of Sublime Nature, or of The Place Where Thomas Jefferson Stood, not some scruffy backpacker trying to stay dry. But the rain seems to have halted the flow of tourists up the shale steps cut out of the cliff. I'm alone. Looking out, beyond the spire of St. Peter's Church, I imagine that I'm hearing the rivers meeting each other with a rush, but it's really the hiss of rain spattering on rock and leaf not far from where I sit hunched under the rock and over a book.

"It's for both literary scholars and nature lovers," Marshall says of his book, Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail. "I worried that the people who loved nature would be put off by the literary criticism, and vice versa, that scholars would say, 'it's inappropriate to be that personal.' I was afriad they wouldn't like the fact that I told stories about myself."

We've reached a mountain spring; paused to sip our bottled water. Besides their associations with economic possibility and divine presence, with freedom and the future, Marshall writes in Story Line, mountains are signs, memorable and prominent landmarks that help us identify where, and who, we are. At the moment, we are on the back side of Mount Nittany, out of sight of Beaver Stadium. The witchhazel is blooming in delicate yellow stars. Out of the sun, the wind is chill. I button my Icelandic sweater. Marshall sits back on his heels, his feet looking immense in leather hiking boots. (They're only an average size 9, he tells me later.) With his walking stick, a squareedged, multicolored, laminated high-tech staff (it's really the shaft of a sawed-off hockey stick, I learn), he flicks the downed leaves from the springfed pool.

"In Story Line, I take a lot of new ideas, all the different ways of viewing nature—like eco-criticism, eco-feminism, geopiety—and I explore them, I explore their boundaries," he says. As I take out my notebook and start quoting him, he watches me nervously, forms his sentences with care. "I'm not an expert trying to impress another expert, I'm talking to people who do not understand. I want to make these ideas comprehensible to someone who is not an expert."

What I'm attempting to practice is an ecology of reading, Marshall writes, where life, literature, and theory interconnect and merge in a meaningful way, everything hitched to everything else.

He thinks with his feet. Knowing that the author of Moby Dick, for instance, had made the acquaintance of the author of The Scarlet Letter while hiking up Monument Mountain in the Berkshires in August of 1850, Marshall recruited his friend Duane and set off to recreate the writers' hike. He wanted to know what Melville and Hawthorne talked about. He read the letters and articles published by other members of the outing, and brought along a copy of William Cullen Bryant's poem about the mountain, as one of the writers' companions had, to read aloud upon the summit.

Walking up, he writes, I close my eyes and try to feel the sunshine finding its way through cloud cover and leaf shadow to dapple my skin. And I try to put myself in Melville's hiking shoes. What could he and Hawthorne have talked about as they were just getting acquainted?

At the top the answer seems obvious.

Prominent on the horizon is Mount Greylock. It's a humped, gray, whale's back of a mountain, one that filled the tiny garret window of the house in nearby Pittsfield where Melville was vacationing. It filled, too, the study window of the estate Melville bought a few months later and where he finished Moby Dick. Hawthorne, in his Wonder Book for Boys and Girls of 1851, points out the similarity of the "gigantic conception" of the white whale and the "gigantic shape" of the mountain out Melville's window. Onto his new house Melville built a porch that looked toward the mountain (north, away from the sun, Marshall notes), a porch that figures in a story from 1856. In 1857, he dedicated his novel, Pierre, to Greylock's "majesty."

The day he hiked up Monument Mountain with Hawthorne and saw Greylock from a new vantage, Marshall writes, Melville must have commented on the view. And that might readily, perhaps inevitably, have prompted Hawthorne to mention Thoreau.

Here's where Marshall's literary feet take a leap. Thoreau was not famous in 1850. He was a kook and a hermit who'd had only one book published, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which Hawthorne knew because he had once lived near Thoreau and had bought from him the boat immortalized in the book. By the time of "The Piazza," Melville's 1856 story about building the porch, it's clear he had read Thoreau's work: one scholar calls the story "an antitranscendentalist reworking" of a passage in Thoreau's A Week. But did Thoreau, the unknown, influence Moby Dick? (And if so, gentle reader, why should you care?)

After meeting Hawthorne on Monument Mountain, Melville does more than just move to the area. He and Hawthorne become close friends and Melville's writing takes "a dramatic turn," with Moby Dick changing from another ordinary sea-going adventure into the penetratingly philosophical tome that led some contemporary reviewers to believe that Melville had gone insane.

In A Week, Thoreau writes of climbing Mount Greylock.

Marshall and his companion Duane lace up their hiking boots and follow his path, now part of the Appalachian Trail, and it is there, in a lean-to on a moonlit night, that they are harassed by the porcupines.

In his own response to those insolent bastards, those rats carrying knives, Marshall begins to understand the difference between Melville's view of nature and Thoreau's—and his own.

For Thoreau, there's much to admire about the porcupine.

For Melville, the romantic luster of nature is a mirage. Ishmael, Melville's narrator in Moby Dick, tries to read nature symbolically, but he is never sure just what is being represented. What does the white whale stand for? Purity? Innocence? Evil? God? . . . The only thing Ishmael is sure of is the Hawthornian (and un-Thoreauvian) lesson that we—people, that is—must depend on one another.

Thoreau climbed Greylock and found "dignity and self-confidence" in its "space and solitude." He spent a cold night on the summit, Marshall writes, covering himself with boards left over from some construction work. Recreating the experience, Marshall lies down on the grassy summit and tries to take an afternoon nap (the porcupines had ruined his night's sleep). He's cold. He's uncomfortable. I can't believe Thoreau spent a night up here with no sleeping bag. He rereads that part of Thoreau's book to make sure. One scholar, he recalls, had called those castoff boards "a makeshift coffin." Thoreau writes of waking up, not cold, but surrounded by "an ocean of mist, which . . . shut out every vestige of the earth, while I was left floating on this fragment of the wreck of a world, on my carved plank in cloudland."

And then it comes to me, Marshall writes, like a view from a high place, the summit euphoria of the researcher: Thoreau on the top of Greylock—alone amid an "ocean" of mist, protected from the elements by a "coffin" of boards, "floating on this fragment of the wreck of a world," a carved fragment, no less—essentially describes the ending of Moby Dick. Call him Ishmael.

My scholarly curiosity is aroused. Is it possible that Melville was reading Thoreau's account of Greylock while he was writing the epilogue to Moby Dick?

Coming down off the mountain, Marshall headed for the library, worked out the chronology, found out when Melville borrowed Thoreau's book.

Hiking on Mt. Greylock and Monument Mountain, I felt myself in sacred places—sacred to me in part because great writers whom I admire wrote about those places, but sacred too because they had inspired the work of great writers, had made the writing possible. My claims that Thoreau's work may have influenced the ending of Moby Dick, or that Hawthorne and Melville may have talked about Thoreau on the day they met, can indeed be supported (if not proved) through an examination of the evidence contained in a good library. But everything I learned in libraries about Melville's reading of Thoreau did no more than reinforce what I sensed the moment I read their words while reclining in summit meadows and nestling amid sheltering rocks atop the mountains where they'd rambled. Sharing their geographic perspectives, I felt that I understood their views.

He understood his own better, too. I want to be Thoreauvian, a lover of nature, he wrote when the porcupines brought out the worst in him and he knew that he wasn't like Thoreau. "Thoreau changed my life," he explained to me as we headed back down Mount Nittany, refreshed with the thermos of tea I had brought in my backpack, along with some cake and his pocketful of granola bars. A girlfriend had given him an expensive edition of Thoreau's Walden when Marshall, a recent college graduate with a literature B.A., was clerking in an Eddie Bauer store. "I was reading it at night after working all day," Marshall remembered. "Thoreau said something like, "If you have been building castles in the air, your work need not be lost. Simply put the foundations under them.' And so I decided to go to graduate school and become an English professor and get paid for doing what I love, talking about books."

And yet he wouldn't want to imitate Thoreau. "There's a lot that was left out of his life, like sexual companionship and love. He sublimated his need for human love by finding it in nature. I'd hate for it to be either/or like that.

"I agree more with the poet Gary Snyder, who points out that the wild is our home. It's not a place where we don't belong, it's what human beings evolved for. This is the world our senses are designed to experience. There shouldn't be a conflict."

There also shouldn't be a conflict between being in nature and being with people, and on the Appalachian Trail, that wish can come true. "People may start out on the trail thinking they don't want to see anyone else, but what they find is that it's precisely the human contact that is most rewarding. You're thrown together. You have common ground in ways you wouldn't otherwise have."

I shared a shelter on a stormy night with Indigo, Trail Mix, and Just Jane. While our noodles boiled on hissing stoves, we looked out the open front of the lean-to to see slivers of rain, lit by jolts of lightning, slant down at sharp gust-driven angles. After dinner, by shivering candlelight, with our pots soaking under the runoff from the eaves, we took turns leafing through a paperback collection of Robert Frost poems that someone had left in the shelter. In the morning Indigo remarked that he had been an English major at Dartmouth, which Frost briefly attended, and I confessed to being an English professor, and so we commenced class over our granola. What I like about Frost, I said, is the way he makes his language seem so natural and free even as he's working within very tight constraints of form. A Frost poem, I opined, is like a shelter—"a rigid structure that gives the illusion of openness."

Trail Mix crawled out of his sleeping bag and checked his pack where it had been hanging from rafters at the front of the shelter. "Illusion of openness! Man," he said, "my stuff is soaked from rain blowing in through that illusion of openness."

I stood corrected. It's real openness, real naturalness, within the solid structure of a Frost poem. —Ian Marshall, Story Line

Ian Marshall, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Penn State-Altoona, 3000 Ivyside Park, Altoona PA 16601-3760; 814-949-5107; Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail was published in 1998 by the University Press of Virginia

Last Updated May 01, 1999