Audubon’s Maine Woods, by C. John Burk

Detail, John James Audubon, “Spruce Grouse (Canachites canadensis),” original watercolor for plate no. 176, from Birds of America

Fourteen years before Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Katahdin, and twenty-five years before his travels on the Allegash and Penobscot Rivers, John James Audubon and his family, who were traveling in search of northern birds and subscribers to The Birds of America (1827-1838), spent several weeks in rural Maine. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Maine Woods, we may want to consider the art and writings that Audubon produced in Maine. Both Thoreau and Audubon were keen observers of the natural world who spent roughly the same amount of time in Maine and were inspired by their experiences.

J.J. Audubon

Thoreau and Audubon were both Romantic naturalists of the highest order. While Thoreau made topographical notes on Maine’s inner landscape and provided a useful taxonomical catalogue of what he found there, he went to experience wilderness in all its rugged intensity. From the Penobscot River at Bangor, Thoreau remarked that “only a few axe-men have gone ‘up river’ into the howling wilderness that feeds it,” yet should one venture in that direction, “What a place to live, what a place to die and be buried in!”1 Thoreau meant to discover as much about himself as he did about nature. For Audubon, however, Maine was quite different. Audubon’s approach to natural history was, from a scientific standpoint, much more focused. His goal was to produce a painting of each bird species of the continent, including species yet to be described. Publication of the Birds was already well underway by 1832 and had become a business enterprise in which the entire Audubon family was involved. 

The few weeks Audubon and his family spent in Maine served as a pastoral interlude of productive domesticity between the discomforts of the Florida coast and a projected venture north to Labrador. They stayed there for several weeks while Audubon drew birds and their habitats. It was during this time that Audubon was inspired to write some of the more remarkable short essays that appeared in the first edition of his Ornithological Biography,2 the textual supplement to the “Double Elephant Folio” first edition of The Birds of America. The major sources for this period in Audubon’s life are contained within the species account “The Spotted or Canada Grouse” (2: 437-442) and the episode titled, “The Force of the Waters” (2: 97-101). Surprisingly, Audubon’s biographers have neglected this sojourn in Maine, passing over this episode in Audubon's life as merely a preliminary expedition in anticipation of his more adventuresome trip to Labrador the following year.

 John James Audubon, “Spruce Grouse (Canachites canadensis),” original watercolor for plate no. 176, from Birds of America

The Audubons went north from Boston by steamer to Portland in mid-August, 1832. John James Audubon was forty-seven, his wife Lucy two years younger. With them were their two sons: Victor Gifford, who had just turned twenty-one, and John Woodhouse, who was age nineteen. From Portland, they took a carriage and mail coach along the coast to a small village named for the Dennys River called Dennysville (or Dennisville, as Audubon spelled it), about eighteen miles southwest of Eastport. There the Audubons stayed at the home of Theodore Lincoln. This was a large house on a hill looking downstream to Cobscook Bay and upriver towards a lumber mill that was owned by the Lincoln family.3

Lincoln's sparrow or Lincoln's finch

Theodore’s son, Thomas Lincoln, had apparently been interested in birds since childhood, and Audubon quite deliberately “attached” himself to him.4 The artist was looking for “spruce partridges,” the bird species known today as the spruce grouse, but called the spotted, or Canada grouse in Audubon’s time. Finding them proved unexpectedly difficult, perhaps even more difficult than spotting a moose was for Thoreau. Tom led Audubon and his two sons on a route “to those retired woods where the Spruce Partridges were to be found…over fallen trees, among tangled brushweed, and through miry ponds” (2: 437). If that wasn’t enough, the weather was muggy, and mosquitoes and “moose flies” were as abundant as would be reported on Thoreau’s trip down the Allegash and East Branch. Returning without success in late afternoon, the party learned that a covey of the birds was seen in a meadow near the village earlier that day.  

Spruce grouse status: endangeredAudubon promptly found another guide to take him to his next potential breeding ground. This second trip took him deep within “larch forests, which are there called ‘Hackmetack Woods,’” and which are, according to Audubon, “as difficult to traverse as the most tangled swamps of Labrador. The whole ground is covered by the most beautiful carpeting of verdant moss…among which we sunk at every step or two up to the waist” (2: 438). This time, their travails were rewarded. They shot several males in good plumage and on their return to the Lincoln house found two female grouse that had been brought in by a hunter. Despite their seeming elusiveness, spruce grouse proved remarkably tame when found. Audubon concluded, “so seldom do they see men in the secluded places which they inhabit, that they do not seem to be aware of the hostile propensities of the race.” Thoreau would refer to the birds as black partridges. He too thought they behaved “as if they had not yet learned to distrust trust man entirely” (MW 106-107).

The result of Audubon’s first successful hunting trip in Maine is Plate 176 of The Birds of America. The original watercolor illustration by Audubon captures two pair of grouse displayed in lifelike poses near a fallen log. The background contains a painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) with a single bright red fruit and three shoots of twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius), with clasping leaves and red berries that dangle from contorted flower stalks.5 A maple seedling rises from a patch of leafy lichen. Readers of Ornithological Biography would be assured that the trillium, “as well as the other species represented, grows abundantly in Maine, in all such secluded places as are frequented by the Spotted Grouse, which eagerly devours its berries” (2: 442).

Olive-sided flycatcher, plate 174Audubon worked on several other drawings there. He drew a branch of balsam fir (Abies balsamea) as a perch for the olive-sided flycatcher in Plate 174 (2:422-426),and, for the veery of Plate 164, a bit of forest floor with a ragged orchis (Habenaria lacera), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), and assorted mosses, grasses, and seedlings (2:362-365). Thoreau used the same common name for the veery we do today; Audubon called it a tawny thrush. His son John also created habitats for new bird drawings, including possibly the hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branch that supports the red crossbills of Plate 197 (2:559-562). Audubon discovered what he thought was a species new to science (2:452-454), a “wood wren…in a deep wood, eight or ten miles from Eastport.”6 In Plate 179 of The Birds of America, the wren appears set jauntily on a rock amid a clump of moss and lichen. A corn or bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis), found to be “extremely abundant in the dark woods of Maine, growing in moist places,” dominates the background, bearing an upright umbel with four fruits of an unusually intense blue. The scarlet fruits of bear-berry (Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi) or just possibly checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens) appear in the lower left. 

John James Audubon, “Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus),” original watercolor for plate no. 360, from Birds of America

In addition to the plant and animal life of the region, Audubon took interest in another rare, though scarcely elusive, northern species—the “lumberer.” At Dennysville, Audubon was fascinated by the activities of these men, who, during the past winter, had logged white pine forests in the interior, sending the trees down the Dennysville River towards a series of stream-side mills (2: 99). By late summer, water levels had become so low that most of the logs were stranded along the way. In September, a temporary dam was built to form a lake that extended a mile upstream. The pine logs began to float again, and when the dam was breached, “the mass of waters burst forth with a horrible uproar.… Presently a slow, heavy motion was perceived in the mass of logs; one might have imagined that some mighty monster lay convulsively writhing beneath them, struggling with a fearful energy to extricate himself from the crushing weight.” Fourteen years later, Thoreau would comment in more human terms on the work of the lumberers: “It was easy to see, that driving logs must be an exciting as well as arduous and dangerous business,” but he was equally discouraged by the results of their activities: “Think how much land they have flowed [i.e., flooded] without asking Nature’s leave!” (MW 228) Like Thoreau, Audubon sensed larger untamed natural forces at work in the Maine landscape, and his essay The Force of the Waters is curiously violent. It evokes “a war of destruction, such as ancient authors describe the efforts of the Titans” and finally “the emblem of wreck and ruin, destruction and chaotic strife… the route of a vast army, surprised, overwhelmed and overthrown” (2: 101). One senses that at the edge of what wilderness remained in Maine, Audubon had glimpsed a kind of wildness he had sought and failed to find elsewhere in his travels, but along with this came a vision of its ultimate destruction. 

Although Audubon could not have read The Maine Woods (he died in 1851), Thoreau was certainly familiar with Audubon’s work, which he refers to on several occasions including in his essay "The Natural History of Massachusetts" and in his journals. Among these journal entries was the entry for May 22, 1852. On his way to Plymouth, Thoreau had stopped at the State House in Boston to look at the copy of The Birds of America there. He was examining details he could use in identifying birds and plants, and among them were the differences in the plumages of the mourning (turtle) dove and the passenger pigeon, now of course extinct and even then declining in New England.7 When The Maine Woods was published, two years after Thoreau’s death, Audubon’s trusted assistant, Tom Lincoln, was 52 years old. One wonders whether Tom ever read the book, and if he did, whether Thoreau’s prose would spark his own memories of travels with another great naturalist in Maine some three decades earlier.

About the author:

C. John Burk is Elsie Damon Simonds Professor Emeritus in the Life Sciences at Smith College, where from 1961 to 2009 he taught plant ecology and systematics. 


1. Thoreau, Henry David. The Maine Woods. Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 81-83. Cited hereafter as MW.

2. Audubon, John James. Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America; Acccompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work Entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners. 5 vols. (Edinburgh: Adam Black, 1831-1849).

3. Townsend, Charles W., “A Visit to Tom Lincoln’s House with Some Auduboniana,” The Auk, Vol. XLI (1924): 237-242.

4. Tom Lincoln would later join Audubon on the Labrador trip and discover a new species of sparrow (now Lincoln’s sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii, named in his honor.) He corresponded with Audubon for a time after the Labrador trip and recalled the artist as “a nice man but Frenchy [i.e., emotional] as thunder.”

5. Plant nomenclature here follows the 8th edition of Gray’s Manual of Botany by M. L. Fernald (New York: American Book Company, 1950) and should be generally familiar to readers of The Maine Woods.  Readers should be aware that nomenclature used by both Audubon and Thoreau may have differed to various degrees, as may current nomenclature according to Flora Nova Angliae by Arthur Haines (Yale UP, 2013).

6. The bird was later found to be a large specimen of the common house wren.

7. Thoreau, The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Vol. 5: 1852-1853, Edited by Patrick F. O’Connell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 70.