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Appalachian Trail Trails Benton MacKaye

“Expedition Nine”: A 1969 Benton MacKaye birthday tribute

Cover of Expedition Nine: A Return to a Region, by Benton MacKaye, published on the occasion of his 90th birthday, March 6, 1969.

One hundred forty-five years ago this March 6th, Benton MacKaye was born in Stamford, Connecticut. On that date in 1969, he celebrated his 90th birthday at his long-time hometown of Shirley Center, Massachusetts—actually a village in the town of Shirley, some 35 miles northwest of Boston. A man whose vocation and long career earned him many titles—forester, teacher, writer, conservationist, activist, regional planner, “geotect” (his own coinage), among others—he remained intellectually active and socially engaged until his death in 1975. MacKaye is best known for his conception of the Appalachian Trail (AT), the now-legendary long-distance hiking path spanning 2,197.4  miles along the spine of the Appalachian mountain range, from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia. He first proposed the project in an October 1921 article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. 

MacKaye will always be best remembered for his conception of the Appalachian Trail, but he lived through and participated in other significant chapters of American history during his century-long life. “The idea that MacKaye, who publicly proposed the A.T. at age 42 and lived more than 96 years, wrote one article and otherwise sat in the shadows thinking deep thoughts is the first thing to be dispelled,” writes Brian King, long-time director of publications for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in a stimulating article, titled “What Were You Thinking, Benton?” for a special 2021 issue of AT Journeys, in celebration of the AT’s 100th anniversary. An estimable AT historian, King sensitively portrays both MacKaye’s ever-evolving, unique, sometimes ethereal intellectual perspective and his erratic vocational status. 

In that last decade of MacKaye’s life, his failing eyesight and hobbled mobility kept him confined largely to Shirley Center for much of the year. He often spent his summer months at the Cornish, New Hampshire summer home of his niece Christy Barnes, daughter of one of Benton’s older brothers, Percy. A playwright, poet, and creator of large-scale theatrical pageants, Percy enjoyed his greatest successes and acclaim in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In Shirley Center, Benton resided during that last decade of his life in the home of his next-door neighbor, friend, and care-keeper Lucy Johnson, whose husband Harry had died in 1966. The Johnson house stood immediately adjacent to the modest MacKaye Cottage, unimproved with modern conveniences like running water and electricity since the family had acquired the property in 1889. For the MacKayes, including Benton’s mother, his “Aunt Sadie” Pevear, and some of his siblings, the Cottage, along with the larger “Grove House” they later acquired nearby, served as a family retreat and refuge, especially during periods of economic and personal crisis and duress. For Benton in particular, who outlived all his siblings and who was a bachelor for all but six of his 96 years, Shirley Center represented the ideal example of the rural or “communal” environment he believed represented one element of a tri-partite balanced, harmonious human and natural environment, which also comprised “primeval” (wilderness) and “metropolitan” (urban) environments.

These last years of his eventful life were rewarding ones for MacKaye. In 1966, “three National Park Service officials arrived in Shirley Center to present [him] with the Department of the Interior’s Conservation Service Award,” as I wrote in my biography of MacKaye. But “many others—scholars, journalists, biographers, Appalachian Trail hikers—made the pilgrimage to visit the oracle of Shirley Center, the living memory of the American conservation movement.” He reported to a friend, the conservationist and author Freeman Tilden, that “I’m making more speeches now, and getting more response than I ever did before; and this sitting right here on my Empire [his ironic term for the modest Shirley compound of MacKaye properties], without the fuss of facing a crowd.”

MacKaye had sometimes been described and dismissed as an impractical “dreamer” and “fireside philosopher” during his long career. But one satisfying benefit of his longevity was that he lived long enough to witness the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1968 National Scenic Trails Act. Both of these significant federal laws were instigated and enacted through the efforts of two durable conservation organizations he had been instrumental in creating, the Appalachian Trail Conference (founded in 1925, renamed the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 2015) and The Wilderness Society (founded in 1935).   

Benton MacKaye, his siblings, their mother, and spouses in Shirley Center, in front of the Cottage, July 1916. Left to right: on ground, Percy, Harold; in chairs, James, Hazel, Mary (mother), Benton; standing, Marion (Percy’s wife), Betty (Jessie Stubbs, Benton’s wife). (Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College Library)
“F.O.B. (Friends of Benton)”

The highlight of MacKaye’s 90th birthday celebration was the presentation to him of a modest, fifty-page, handsomely produced hardcover collection of his own articles and essays, titled Expedition Nine: A Return to a Region. The nominal publisher of the slender volume was The Wilderness Society, headquartered in Washington D.C. MacKaye had been one of the organization’s eight co-founders, along with such other conservation luminaries as Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, and Robert Sterling Yard. He served for decades on the Society’s governing Council, for five consequential years as its president, from 1945 to 1950, and in the years afterwards, until his death, as Honorary President.

Title page of Expedition Nine (1969)

The publication of Expedition Nine was spearheaded and funded by some of his close friends and colleagues, as an expression of their respect and affection for MacKaye. In September of 1968, Anne Broome, a close, younger long-time acquaintance of Benton’s, distributed a letter “to perhaps a hundred of Benton’s friends” seeking to raise “$2,000 or so” to produce and publish a book “under the general aegis of The Wilderness Society, in a small edition in time for his next birthday.”

“Benton,” she reported, “had prepared (without knowing anything about the plans herein outlined) a little book of essays entitled “Expedition Nine: A Return to a Region,” in which he relives some of the trips he made 75 years ago in the Shirley region—the Squannacook, the Long Swamp, the Mulpus, the Farnsworth tract, etc.—observing man and nature in a way that started him off on a long career of fertile ideas on urban planning, forestry, geotechnics, and ecology. The book, which is thoroughly Bentonesque, might well be called ‘Shirley Revisited.'”

“Benton knows that the manuscript is being considered for publication,” she concluded her appeal, “but he does not know of these machinations, and so it is asked that it not be mentioned in any correspondence.”

A statement on the published book’s copyright page reads:

The publication of Expedition Nine has been made possible through the generosity of an anonymous fraternity of Friends of Benton MacKaye, who take this opportunity to salute a great and lovable man as he reaches the honored age of four score years and ten, on the sixth day of March 1969.

The copy of Broome’s letter from which I’ve quoted is the one she sent to two of MacKaye’s long-time and most faithful friends, architect Clarence Stein and his wife, respected film and stage actress Aline MacMahon. Stein was first introduced to MacKaye in the summer of 1921 by their mutual acquaintance Charles Harris Whitaker, editor of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. Stein, a socially minded architect, was at that time chair of the AIA Community on Community Planning. After hearing MacKaye describe his conception of the Appalachian Trail as part of what he described as a region-spanning “project in housing and community architecture,” Stein agreed that his committee would sponsor the plan. Whitaker agreed to publish in his magazine MacKaye’s article, which lit the fuse that launched the AT. Stein and MacKaye remained close friends and professional collaborators in all the decades since, seeing each other through professional and personal setbacks and crises. Throughout these years, Clarence and Aline had often come to MacKaye’s financial aid, sometimes with his knowledge, sometimes not. 

In a hand-written postscript at the end of her letter to Stein and his wife, Anne Broome wrote: “Blessed Benton sustains me. I hear from him two/three times a week.” Stein and MacMahon would have recognized the poignancy of her brief comment. Her husband Harvey, a prominent Knoxville, Tennessee lawyer and trail activist who had been one of the eight Wilderness Society co-founders, had died at age 65, just six months earlier. MacKaye had known the couple since the 1930s, when they had first met. In fact, MacKaye offered his Shirley Cottage as the site for their wedding in June 1937. Harvey Broome and MacKaye first became acquainted in 1931, when Broome was president of the Knoxville-based Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Later in the 1930s, the Broomes had sealed their friendship with MacKaye during the “The Two Damndest Years,” as he came to call the period when he lived in Knoxville while working for the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Cosmos Club connection

MacKaye’s “anonymous fraternity” of friends in fact included professional writers, editors, publishers, photographers, and cartographers, some of them his fellow members of the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC, where, until 1964, MacKaye had generally spent his winters for the previous decade. Founded in 1878 at the Washington home of its first president, the renowned explorer, writer, anthropologist, and government official John Wesley Powell, the then men-only Cosmos Club had long been the gathering place for many of the national capitol’s scientific, literary, journalistic, and conservation leaders. The Club’s purpose and ethos, as set down in its original articles of incorporation, exactly matched MacKaye’s interests and aims: “the advancement of its members in science, literature and art, their mutual improvement by social intercourse, the acquisition and maintenance of a library, and the collection and care of materials and appliances related to the above subjects.”

After his retirement from government service in 1944, MacKaye had subsisted on a very modest government pension, as well as the generosity and hospitality of friends and family members. He was accustomed to the spartan conditions the rustic MacKaye Cottage provided, as well as the familiar workspace of his upstairs “Sky Parlor,” repository of the books, manuscripts, and maps that were the tools of his trade. Lacking utilities, though, the Cottage was essentially uninhabitable during the winter months.

The Townsend Mansion, 2121 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, headquarters of the Cosmos Club since 1950 and Benton MacKaye’s wintertime residence during the mid-1950s until the mid-1960s. (Cosmos Club)

MacKaye once referred to himself as “an amphibian as between urban and rural life,” however. At the Cosmos Club—which in 1950 had moved from its long-time Lafayette Square headquarters to a grander mansion on Connecticut Avenue—he and some other older single members could rent modest rooms, enjoy regular meal service, and use a well-stocked library. Perhaps most important for MacKaye, his Cosmos Club membership and residency provided stimulating company and collegiality on a daily basis. Many fellow club members held influential positions on the staffs of government agencies, advocacy groups, and publications. Among MacKaye’s closest Cosmos Club friends, who sometimes took their meals with MacKaye at the dining room’s Table 12 where he was a fixture, were Paul Oehser, an editor of publications for the Smithsonian Institution, and George Crossette, a photographer and editor for the National Geographic Society. Together, this volunteer ad-hoc publishing operation edited MacKaye’s manuscript and prepared professionally produced versions of his hand-drawn maps and diagrams for the book. Oehser and Crossette traveled from Washington to Shirley Center to present a copy of the freshly printed Expedition Nine to their friend.

Benton MacKaye (left) and George Crossette (right), an editor for the National Geographic Society and a member of Washington’s Cosmos Club, presenting a copy of Expedition Nine to MacKaye on his 90th birthday, March 6, 1969, at the home of MacKaye’s neighbor, friend, and care keeper, Lucy Johnson, immediately next door to the MacKaye “Cottage.” (Photo courtesy of the Shirley Historical Society and the Appalachian Trail Museum)
“Homeland Wilderness”

Expedition Nine‘s seven short essays, three appendices, 10 photographs, and 12 maps and charts were organized as a handbook of local natural history and ecology. Throughout his career, MacKaye made several unpublished starts at similar larger projects, covering vaster regions, such as the terrain encompassing the Appalachian Mountains. From his broad, almost cosmic perspective, however, the lessons to be learned from the natural environment were universal. The narrowest, shortest stream, the gentlest neighborhood hill, and the most modest local stand of woodlands told the same story as a continent-draining river, a rugged mountain range, or a vast forest.

Even as Wilderness Society staffers, after passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, had devoted their energies to the designation and management policies of large Wilderness Areas carved from existing federal lands, MacKaye urged them not to neglect the public and environmental benefits of preserving smaller, accessible natural areas. He suggested to Paul Oehser, a member of the organization’s governing Council, that the Wilderness Society publish a “Homeland Wildland Series,” to describe for general readers a variety of natural environments. Though a one-off effort and publication under the auspices of the Wilderness Society, Expedition Nine proved to be a representation of MacKaye’s own idea.

During his professional career, MacKaye had traversed large swaths of North America, working in, studying, and imagining the future prospects of all the continent’s natural and human resources and communities. He measured these prospects by a standard he came to describe as “habitability.” Now, in his later years, he returned to his home region, as his little book’s subtitled described, where, as a precocious, ambitious, and independent adolescent he had first set forth on his lifelong environmental explorations. Indeed, the title of his later, influential, and still stimulating 1928 book, The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning, encapsulates the vocation, mission, and profession–not usually a very remunerative one in his case–he created for himself. And the goal of his own explorations, as he declared in that book, was to create a human environment in which “work and art and recreation and living will all be one.”

Let MacKaye himself explain the genesis of the title and purpose of his Expedition Nine, a book brief in page length but broad in perspective, pithy in style, and farsighted in purpose. The book’s two-page introductory, “Return to a Region,” reads as follows:

“No. 9” was the main one . . . one of a score of expeditions taken here around Shirley Center, Massachusetts (region of “Middlesex village and farm”). I return to repeat them, not their steps but the thoughts by them inspired—thoughts of a happy hunting ground whose game would be to conserve game and maintain their generation.

Hail to those sylvan jaunts in that springtime of 1893! They came as a release from jail, after a winter cooped up in New York. Indeed, I was imitating neighbor Longley’s cows. For well I recalled a previous spring, farmer Melvin Longley turning loose his herd from a winter locked in stanchions, into the pasture leading to far hills. I can seem them now, in full gallop, heels kicking in air, as they poured themselves into the open. Onward they pranced, never to stop till on top of fair Chaplin Hill. . . . But I pranced even farther—to Hunting Hill, over the line in Worcester County. And to other terrains, “remote and primeval.”

“Expeditions” I called them. Why this imposing title? Well, I had at one time been in Washington, frequenting the Smithsonian Institution. There I met collectors from distant lands and saw the products of their expeditions. I had laid eyes on illustrious explorers, including Peary, starting on his first voyage to the Arctic; and Powell, recounting his own and the white man’s first voyage ever through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Then and there I caught the bug. Why shouldn’t I, my own self, be an explorer?—up there in my own homeland, containing the “canyons” of the Squannacook?

And so the scheme. I would explore the county within walking distance of my home in Shirley Center (radius four miles). I would in particular map the forest, “deciduous and evergreen” (my first stunt in forestry). And in general I’d scan the region’s habitability (my first stunt in geotechnics). I would number my expeditions: “No. 1,” “No. 2,” “No. 3,” etc. And off I went.

I began on Mulpus Brook (where I had learned to swim), carefully mapping the “bushes” on its banks and noting the flight of the kingfisher. Next, the Squannacook, with some looks at least at some real wild life, including the swimming muskrat. By “No. 9” I had reached the top of the divide (between Mulpus and Squannacook)–Hunting Hill.

Thus, MacKaye embarked on his mind’s-eye re-exploration of the local landscape he had traversed in the summer of 1893, three quarters of a century before publication of Expedition Nine. He retained a meticulous and accurate memory for past events until his very last days. As he wrote his essays about those early expeditions, however, he had at hand the journal and maps in which he had originally recorded his earlier tramps “within walking distance of my home in Shirley Center.”

Benton MacKaye’s “Map of the Mulpus Valley” drawn during his “expeditions” in the countryside surrounding Shirley Center during May and June of 1893. (Shirley Historical Society)

 

Title page of Benton MacKaye’s 1893 “Geographical Handbook,” in which he recorded his 1893 “expeditions.” (Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College)

The book’s other brief chapters capture the particular micro-environments and natural features that together, as MacKaye saw it, encompassed the purpose of the lifelong practice and pursuit that he came to call “Expedition Nining,” as his brother James once jestingly described Benton’s youthful exploratory quests.

The essays were titled “From Hunting Hill”; “Wilderness and Why”; “Squannacook River: Its Four Lives”; “Long Swamp, Present and Past”; “Mulpus Woods, Natural History in the Making”; and “Toward a Happy Hunting Ground.” His book, in other words, described a hilltop, a local “wilderness,” a 13-mile river, a wetland, and a small patch of woodlands. MacKaye’s “Expeditions,” he asserts from the perspective of 75 years, were aimed “toward keeping or restoring the Region’s balance.”

Writing locally    

A lifelong writer, whose ideas have had a meaningful impact on America’s natural environment and public policies, MacKaye never earned significant financial benefit from his copious output of books, articles, official reports, unpublished manuscripts, and colorful personal correspondence. Nor did he achieve the literary acclaim of such close friends and colleagues as Leopold, Marshall, Lewis Mumford, Sigurd Olson, and others.

Nevertheless, as Lucy Johnson would report to his friends, he kept pecking away at his old typewriter, then, as his eyesight dimmed, dictating to helpful Shirley neighbors, throughout his later years. During the mid- and late 1960s, as the environmental and “ecology” movement gained popular and political recognition and support, MacKaye, who had been writing on these subjects in perceptive and prophetic terms for more than half a century, found an outlet for exploring the significance of environmental and ecological themes in, almost literally, his own backyard. One of these outlets was the local weekly newspaper, The Public Spirit, published in the adjacent town of Ayer, Massachusetts and serving Shirley and other small nearby towns in Middlesex and Worcester counties. During the late 1960s, the paper published some of the material later included in or adapted for Expedition Nine.

As it happened, The Public Spirit was in those years my hometown newspaper. At that time, my family lived in Harvard, my father’s hometown just to the southeast of Shirley and Ayer. Before that, my family had lived in the towns of Pepperell and Townsend, just to the north and northwest of Shirley. During most of the latter 1960s, I spent much of my time elsewhere in Massachusetts, in boarding school and college, so I saw The Public Spirit irregularly, when home for vacations and breaks. At the time, I had only the dimmest awareness of who Benton MacKaye was, when an article in that and other local newspapers might mention some honor the Shirley man had received in recognition of his conservation achievements, especially the Appalachian Trail. As a teenager at the time, little did I know that I would later spend a significant chunk of my lifetime researching and writing a biography of MacKaye.

 

My family’s home terrain for the first 25 years of my life overlapped with that in which Benton MacKaye resided during the last 25 years of his life. We lived in three separate nearby towns in those years–Townsend, Pepperell, and Harvard–five to ten miles from MacKaye’s Shirley Center home (“MacKaye ‘Empire,'” on map), the starting point for his 1893 “expeditions.”

I can’t say for sure whether I noticed or read any of MacKaye’s contributions to The Public Spirit when they first appeared in the latter 1960s. I think I may have, as I read and perused the paper closely, partly because it was published at the time by a close friend and business associate of my father’s, John McMaster, and edited by Gardner LePoer, my older brother’s high school classmate and our Pepperell neighbor. With some assistance, or at least advice, from my father, as I recall, McMaster acquired the venerable weekly paper, which he published successfully for many years thereafter.

The March 13, 1969 edition of The Public Spirit [Ayer MA], reported on MacKaye’s 90th birthday celebration and the publication of Expedition Nine.

In 1975, earlier in the year MacKaye died, I went to work for a small weekly newspaper, The Harvard Post, the town immediately to the southeast of Shirley where my family then lived. In the course of my work as a young reporter, I had many opportunities to write about the many environmental issues that occupied the town and its readers at the time (as, of course, such issues continue to do everywhere). In the introduction of my biography of MacKaye, I described the nature of my own “expedition” through our shared terrain:

The Algonquian names for the local natural features—the Squannacook, Nashua, and Nissitissit rivers, the mountains called Monadnock, Wachusett, and Watatic—were as much a part of my own native consciousness as they had been of MacKaye’s. My first and abiding awareness of the contours or the world had been formed in the same New England watershed that MacKaye called home: that of the Nashua River, a tributary of the grander Merrimack. Out of curiosity, fate, and circumstance, I gradually came to learn more about MacKaye’s life and career beyond our common locale.   

“Toward a Happy Hunting Ground”

On June 12th, 1893, MacKaye recorded and reflected on the panoramic vista from the open summit of Hunting Hill, perhaps two and a half miles north of the MacKaye Cottage, the destination of his ninth “expedition” that season. “Hunting Hill is situated at the southeast point of a plateau about three miles square on the north side of Mulpus Brook,” wrote the meticulous young explorer. “The hill itself is a drumling [sic]. As I sit looking off this drumling, only 542 high, taking in the beauty of the scenery, I have the country spread out like a map before me.”

The brief final essay in his 1969 Expedition Nine, “From Hunting Hill,” reflected on the profound and lasting influence of his youthful revelation from the top of that gentle hill:

The view from Hunting Hill yet scans a land fertile for Expeditions. For jaunts for would-be explorers and naturalists. We can’t all be great explorers like Peary and Powell, nor great naturalists like Thoreau and Humboldt. But anyone who prizes the sights and sounds of nature in action, whether robins at the window or muskrat in the stream, of bog born of ages, such a one is, within his measure. an explorer and naturalist. And his job is cut out for him: to make of his region, as seen from its highest hill, a place for taking expeditions.

On June 27, 1937, MacKaye returned to Hunting Hill with a small group of younger friends who had gathered at his Shirley Center Cottage for the wedding of his young friends Harvey Broome and Anne Pursel two days later. He read from his 1893 “Geographic Handbook” the passage he had written on the same spot as a 14-year-old. Later that summer of 1937, in August, the final link of the Appalachian Trail was blazed and opened in western Maine, completing for the first time the uninterrupted path between Mt. Oglethorpe in Georgia and Katahdin in Maine that he had proposed in 1921.

Benton MacKaye on Hunting Hill, June 27, 1937. The bound volume he holds in his hands is the 1893 “Geographic Handbook” in which he recorded his “expeditions” that summer. (Photo courtesy of Rauner Special Collection Library and Robert McCullough)

In his later years, during the 1960s and early 1970s, in talks, articles, and interviews, Benton MacKaye, the originator and oracle of the Appalachian Trail, offered variations of a Zen-like formula in response to the era’s burst of AT popularity. The purpose of the AT, he preached, was “to walk, to see, to see what you see.” He worried that the era’s hikers, or at least some of them, were emphasizing distances traversed and the speed at which hikers traversed them, at the expense of the lessons to be learned from walking at a slower, more deliberate pace and purpose. “I hope the A.T. will never become a race track,” he wrote to one hiker in 1966. “But if so, I for one would vote to give the prize to the slowest traveler. 

MacKaye’s musical interests didn’t extend far beyond Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs and square-dance tunes. Acquaintances told me MacKaye would walk out of a restaurant if a radio was playing. “Slow down, you move too fast.” A man in his eighties and nineties would have paid little heed to 1960s popular music (unlike a teenager of that time, like me). But the first line of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 hit, “The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” echoed MacKaye’s contemporaneous walking and exploration mantra.  

The message distilled in Benton MacKaye’s short, hard-to-find 1969 book Expedition Nine—a message about respect for the natural environment, and the lessons that environment can teach from quiet immersion and careful observation—remains timeless and inspirational.