At the end of August 1846, a young pencilmaker and little-known author named Henry David Thoreau set aside his experiment in loneliness at Walden Pond and traveled to the North Maine Woods for the first time. After a week of boating on the Penobscot River, he landed and scrambled up Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak—today the terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Hundreds of lakes and rivers sparkled in the swath of forest far below. Thoreau described the scene as “a mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and wildly scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun.” He attributed the metaphor to “one who has since visited this same spot.”
Sandy Stream Pond, one of the many “fragments of a broken mirror”
visible from the top of Mt. Katahdin. I have never not seen
a moose at Sandy Stream Pond.
Since Thoreau’s day, a surprising number of authors have quoted, misquoted, and occasionally stolen outright this passage from The Maine Woods. The words have appeared in trail guides, memoirs, and magazine articles. But when credit is given, it is bestowed on Thoreau, not his mysterious “one.”
The lake metaphor originally appeared in the Bangor Courier, 1847—a full year after Thoreau’s journey to Katahdin, when he had not yet published his “Ktaadn” essay. The author was a journalist named J. K. Laski.
As the only layman on a botanical expedition to Katahdin, Laski chased squirrels, trampled grass, and started rock avalanches just to listen to the noise—all with a sort of innocent glee. He also wrote about lakes in the forest: “I thought of many similes—but can give you the best idea of it when I say that the scene reminded me of that represented by a splendid mirror broken into a thousand fragments and widely scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun.”
The bulk of Laski’s energetic essay is chock-full of exclamation points, dashes, italics, and wild similes—amusing, but not very memorable. At one point he compares the Knife Edge, a mile-long glacial arete on Katahdin—to “the nose of a big man.” In spite of this, he is often quoted—without recognition—in books about Katahdin and Maine. When credit is given, it is given to Thoreau, not Laski.
J. K. Laski’s original article was later reprinted in The Maine Naturalist (June 1927) now located in a dusty corner of the Special Collections Room at the Fogler Library, University of Maine at Orono.
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