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Impearls: AFitW: The American Pioneer

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

The American Pioneer 3   by Alexis de Tocqueville

If we had indeed only wanted to see forests, our hosts in Detroit would have been right in telling us that we need not go very far, for, a mile out of the town, the road goes into the forest and never comes out of it.  The land it passes over is completely flat and often marshy.  From time to time along the road one comes to new clearings.  As all these settlements are exactly like one another, whether they are in the depths of Michigan or just close to New York, I will try and describe them here once and for all.

The bells which the pioneer is careful to hang round his beasts’ necks so as to find them again in the dense forest, give warning in the far distance that one is getting near a clearing.  Soon one hears the echoes of the axe that is cutting down the forest trees, and as one gets closer, signs of destruction make man’s presence ever more evident.  Severed branches cover the road, and trunks half scorched by fire or cut about by the axe, yet stand still erect in our way.  As you go on your way, you come to a wood where all the trees seem to have been struck by sudden death.  In full summer their withered branches seem the image of winter.  Looking at them close-up, you see that a deep circle has been cut in their bark, which, by preventing the circulation of the sap, has brought them to a speedy death.  That in fact is usually the planter’s first beginning.  As he cannot, in the first year, cut down all the trees that adorn his new property, he sows corn under their branches and, by striking them to death, prevents them from shading his crop.  After this field which is an unfinished sketch, a first step of civilisation in the wilds, one suddenly sees the owner’s cabin.  It is generally placed in the middle of some land more carefully cultivated than the rest, but where man is yet sustaining an unequal fight against nature.  There the trees have been cut but not grubbed up; their trunks still cover and block the land they used to shade.  Round this withered debris, wheat, shoots of oak, plants of all kinds, and weeds of all sorts are scattered pell-mell and grow up together in the untamed and still half-wild ground.  It is in the midst of this vigorous and variegated growth of vegetation that the planter’s dwelling or, as it is called in this country, his log-house rises.  Just like the field around it, this rustic dwelling shows every sign of new and hurried work.  It is seldom more than thirty feet long.  It is 20 feet wide and 15 high.  Both its walls and its roof are made of unsquared tree-trunks between which moss and earth have been rammed to keep the cold and rain out from the inside of the house.  The closer the traveler gets, the more animated the scene becomes.  As they hear his footsteps, the children, playing in the surrounding debris, get up in a hurry and run for shelter to their father’s house, as if they were frightened at the sight of a man, while two great half-wild dogs with ears pricked and long muzzles, come out of the hut and growling cover their young masters’ retreat.

It is then that the pioneer himself appears at the door of his dwelling; he takes a good look at the new arrival; signs to his dogs to go back under cover and himself hastens to give them the example without a sign of curiosity or anxiety.

When he gets to the threshold of the log-house, the European cannot help casting an astonished glance round the sight before him.

Such a cabin generally has but one window, at which perhaps a muslin curtain is hanging; for in these parts where necessities are not seldom lacking, superfluities often abound.  A resinous fire crackles on the hearth of beaten earth, and, better than the daylight, lights up the inside of the place.  Over this rustic fire one sees trophies of war or hunt: a long rifle, a deerskin, some eagle’s feathers.  To the right of the chimney a map of the United States is often stretched, and the draught that blows through the gaps in the wall keeps raising and fluttering it.  By it on a single shelf of ill-squared planks are a few tattered books; there one finds a Bible with its cloth and boards already worn out by the piety of two generations, a prayerbook and, sometimes, a poem of Milton or a tragedy of Shakespeare.  Along the wall are some rough seats, made by the hands of the owner himself; some trunks instead of cupboards, some agricultural implements and samples of the harvest.  In the middle of the room is a rickety table whose legs, still sprouting foliage, seem to have grown by themselves on the ground they cover.  One also sees an English china teapot, some spoons usually of wood, some cracked cups and newspapers.

The looks of the master of this dwelling is no less remarkable than the place that gives him shelter.

His angular muscles and thin limbs make one recognize at first glance the inhabitant of New England.  This man has not been born in the solitude where he lives.  His temperament alone makes that clear.  His first years were passed in a society used to thought and argument.  It is the strength of his will that has taken him to do work in the wilds to which he seems little adapted.  But if his physical powers seem too slight for this undertaking, his features lined by the cares of life bespeak a practical intelligence, and a cold, persevering energy that strike one at first sight.  His movements are slow and stiff, his words measured and his appearance austere.  Habit and still more pride have given his features that Stoic stiffness that his deeds belie: it is true that the pioneer scorns things that often move men’s hearts most violently; his goods and life will never depend on the chance of a throw of dice, or the fate of a woman; but to win affluence he has braved exile, the solitude and innumerable wretchednesses of life in the wilds, he has slept on the bare ground and risked fever in the forest and the Indian’s tomahawk.  He has one day made that effort, and renewed it through the years; perhaps he will carry on with it for twenty years more without discouragement or complaint.  Can a man capable of such sacrifices be a cold, unfeeling being?  Should one not rather recognize that he is consumed by some burning, tenacious, implacable passion of the mind?  Concentrating on the single object of making his fortune, the emigrant has ended by making an altogether exceptional mode of existence.  Even his feelings for his family have become merged in a vast egotism, and one cannot be sure whether he regards his wife and children as anything more than a detached part of himself.  Deprived of the usual contacts with his fellow men, he has learnt to make solitude a pleasure.

When one presents oneself on the threshold of his isolated dwelling, the pioneer comes forward to meet you; he shakes hands as custom provides, but his features express neither good will nor pleasure.  He only starts talking to ask you questions, satisfying a need of the head rather than of the heart, and, as soon as he has found out the news he wanted to learn from you, he relapses into silence.  One might think one was meeting a man who had come back home in the evening tired by the importunities and noise of the world.  Ask him questions in your turn, and he will give you the information you lack intelligently, he will even provide for your needs and he will take care of your safety as long as you are under his roof.  But there is so much of constraint and pride in all he does, and one is aware of such a profound indifference even about the result of his own efforts, that gratitude is frozen.  But the pioneer is hospitable in his way, only his hospitality has nothing about it that touches you, for you feel that he himself in doing what he does, is submitting to an unpleasant obligation of life in the wilds.  He sees it as a duty which his situation imposes, not as a pleasure.  This unknown man is the representative of a race to whom the future of the New World belongs, a restless, calculating, adventurous race which sets coldly about deeds that can only be explained by the fire of passion, and which trades in everything, not excluding even morality and religion.

A nation of conquerors that submits to living the life of a savage without ever letting itself be carried away by its charms, that only cherishes those parts of civilization and enlightenment which are useful for well-being, and which shuts itself up in the solitudes of America with an axe and a newspaper; a people who, like all great peoples, has but one thought, and presses forward to the acquisition of riches, the single end of its labours, with a perseverance and a scorn of life which one could call heroic, if that word were properly used of anything but the strivings of virtue.  It is a wandering people whom rivers and lakes cannot hold back, before whom forests fall and prairies are covered in shade; and who, when they have reached the Pacific Ocean, will come back on its tracks to trouble and destroy the societies which it will have formed behind it.

In speaking of the pioneer one cannot forget the companion of his trials and dangers.  Look at that young woman at the other side of the hearth who as she sees to cooking the meal rocks her youngest son on her knees.  Like the emigrant this woman is in the flower of her age; like him, she can remember the affluence of her first years.  Her dress still shows an ill-suppressed taste for clothes but time has pressed heavily on her.  By her features worn before their time, by her wasted limbs it is easy to see that existence has been a heavy burden for her.

In fact this frail creature has already had to face incredible trials.  Scarcely embarked on life, she has had to tear herself away from her mother’s tenderness and those dear fraternal links which no young girl gives up without a tear, even when she leaves them to share the opulent home of a new husband.  The pioneer’s wife carried off in an instant and without hope of return from her innocent cradle of youth has exchanged the charms of society and the joys of the domestic hearth for the solitude of the forest.  Her nuptial couch was on the bare ground of the wilds.  To devote herself to austere duties, to submit to privations once unknown to her, to embrace an existence for which she was not made, such has been the work of the best years of her life, such for her have been the delights of conjugal union.  Want, suffering and boredom have changed her fragile frame but not broken down her courage.  Amid the deep sadness engraved on her delicate features it is easy to see something of religious resignation, a profound peace and I cannot say what natural firmness and tranquility that faces all the trials of life without fear or boast.

Half-naked children bursting with health, thoughtless of the morrow, true sons of the wilds, press round this woman.  Their mother looks from time to time at them half in sadness half in joy.  To see their strength and her weakness one would say that she has drained herself to give them life and does not regret what they have cost her.

The dwelling in which these emigrants live has no internal division and no storehouse.  The whole family comes to seek shelter of an evening in the single room which it contains.  This dwelling forms as it were a little world of its own.  It is an ark of civilization lost in the middle of an ocean of leaves, it is a sort of oasis in the desert.  A hundred paces beyond it the everlasting forest stretches its shades around it and solitude begins again.



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