Retracing Ralph Waldo Emerson's Steps In A Now 'Unchanged Eden' A century and a half ago, the poet and philosopher headed to New York's Adirondack Mountains with some notable pals. Today, we follow his journey with a new crew, the help of a painting and a book.

Retracing Ralph Waldo Emerson's Steps In A Now 'Unchanged Eden'

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It's high summer, and for many of us, that means it's time to go camping. Today, we're going to celebrate one particular camping trip - a famous one way back in 1858. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great philosopher, essayist and poet, set out into New York's Adirondack Mountains, and he took with him some of the most famous artists, scientists and thinkers of his day. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann retraced Emerson's journey.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I set out early in the morning in my canoe with environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben and our guide, Mike Carr with the Nature Conservancy. Our idea is to paddle as closely as possible the route Emerson and a bunch of his friends took 157 years ago.

MIKE CARR: They came down through Stony Creek Ponds, just upstream, and floated down the Raquette.

MANN: Emerson was in his 50s when he made the trip, already a famous poet and essayist. He came from Boston when the Adirondack Mountains were still really remote, a howling wilderness north of Albany. Getting here took days of travel by train and wagon and boat. On this day, it feels like nothing much has changed. We drift the current down the big river, under white pines as tall and straight as ship masts. We see beaver and an otter creasing the water. McKibben points out an eagle sweeping ahead of us.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Wow, we're in - deep in paradise here, man.

MANN: Emerson's journey here was famous even while it was going on. The newspapers found out what he was up to, and people started calling it the Philosopher's Camp. The party included one of the great scientists of the day, a guy named Louis Agassiz, also a lawyer named Ebenezer Hoar, who would later serve as attorney general of the United States. They passed through this vast meadow that links the Raquette River to Follensby Pond, where they planned to make camp. It's so quiet we can hear the wind as it lays the grass side to side.

MCKIBBEN: That play of water and pickerel lily and grass and big pines on the edge - it's magnificent.

MANN: The next hour, we cross the open reach of the lake. One of the men on Emerson's trip was a painter, William James Stillman. He painted the scene of the Philosopher's Camp, with Emerson standing at the middle and Agassiz off to one side, dissecting a trout. Using Stillman's painting as a guide, we're able to home in on the low-rise where they camped, wading ashore through bog laurel and lilies.

This it?

CARR: Yeah, they dammed this up.

MANN: Bushwhacking through the woods, McKibben and Carrr find the spring where Emerson drank and huge boulders that may be the ones in Stillman's painting.

CARR: It really feels like hallowed ground. You know, we're standing in a hardwood stand with giant sugar maple and black cherry, big white birch here.

MCKIBBEN: You know, we're used to thinking of sort of spiritual pilgrimages or we go to Fenway Park or, you know, we have these historical pilgrimages, where we go off to a battlefield or something. But what we come here to remember is this particular spark of intellectual energy.

MANN: The reason we followed Emerson's journey this summer is that a new book has been published about the Philosopher's Camp and the men who gathered here. The writer, James Schlett, meets us at the lake. He says Emerson wasn't really much of an outdoorsman. He preferred his nature in small doses, in gardens and farm fields. But the poet wound up loving this place.

JAMES SCHLETT: And it was a very meditative moment - just Emerson there standing among these giant trees, taking it all in in the quiet, away from the rabble of the camp.

MANN: This may be the biggest legacy of the Philosopher's Camp. This was the moment when one of our deepest thinkers on nature and the spirit took his deepest dive into a truly wild place, one that still boasted wolves and bears and mountain lions. In his poem about the trip, called "Adirondac," Emerson sounds melancholy about leaving.

SCHLETT: (Reading) The holidays were fruitful, but must end. Under the cinders burned the fires of home. So in the gladness of the new event, we struck our camp and left the happy hills.

MANN: The Nature Conservancy bought Follensby Pond seven years ago. It isn't yet open to the public, and it's unclear when that might happen. What is certain is that this place where Emerson paddled out to look at the stars will stay wild and undeveloped forever. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

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