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Impearls: AFitW: In the Wilds

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

In the Wilds   by Alexis de Tocqueville

On the next day, the 25th July, our first care was to ask for a guide.  Fifteen leagues of wilderness came between Flint Rock and Saginaw, and the road leading there is a narrow path that the eye can hardly see.  Our host approved our plan, and soon brought along two Indians in whom, he assured us, we could place entire trust.  One was a child thirteen or fourteen years old.  The other a young man of eighteen.  The latter’s body, though it had not yet acquired the full vigour of ripe manhood, nonetheless gave an impression of agility combined with strength.  He was of medium height, his body was upright and slender, his limbs supple and well proportioned.  Long tresses fell from his bare head.  Besides he had been at pains to paint his face as symmetrically as possible with black and red lines.  A ring through his nose, a necklace and ear-rings completed his attire.  His warlike gear was equally remarkable.  At one side a battle axe, one of the celebrated tomahawks; at the other a long sharp knife with which the savages cut off the scalps of the defeated.  Round his neck was hung a bull’s horn that served him as powder-flask and he held a rifle in his right hand.  As is usual with most Indians his gaze was fierce and his smile kind.  By his side, to complete the picture, went a dog with ears pricked up and a long muzzle, more like a fox than any other sort of animal, and whose fierce appearance was in perfect harmony with the countenance of his leader.  When we had looked at our new companion with an attention which he did not for a moment seem to notice, we asked him how much he wanted to be paid for the service he was going to do for us.  The Indian answered a few words in his language, and the American quickly said that what the savage asked could be valued at two dollars.  “As these poor Indians,” our host kindly added, “do not know the value of money, you give me the dollars and I will gladly see to getting him the equivalent.”  I was curious to see what the good man considered the equivalent of two dollars and quietly followed him to the place where the deal was done.  I saw him give our guide a pair of moccasins and a pocket handkerchief, objects whose total value certainly did not amount to half that sum.  The Indian went back thoroughly satisfied, and I escaped noiselessly, saying to myself like La Fontaine:  “Ah!  if lions knew how to paint!”

Besides it is not only the Indians whom the pioneers make their dupes.  We ourselves were daily victims of their extreme greediness for gain.  It is very true that they do not rob at all.  They are too enlightened to do anything so imprudent, but otherwise I have never seen a hotel-keeper in a great city overcharge more impudently than these dwellers in the wilderness among whom I expected to find the primitive honesty and simplicity of a patriarchal way of life.

Everything was ready; we mounted and passing by a ford across the stream that forms the ultimate boundary between civilisation and the wilderness, we went in earnest into solitude.

Our two guides walked or rather jumped like wild cats over all the obstacles in the way.  If we came across a tree blown over, a stream or a marsh, they pointed a finger to show the best path, went across and never turned to see how we got through the difficult place; accustomed to rely on himself, the Indian finds it hard to conceive that anyone needs help.  If needs be, he knows how to do you a service, but no one has yet taught him to add to its value by obligingness and taking trouble.  At other times we would have protested on our side at this way of behaving, but it was impossible for us to make our companions understand a single word.  And besides! we felt ourselves completely in their power.  There in fact the order was reversed; plunged into deep darkness, reduced to his own resources the civilised man walked like the blind, incapable not only of being his own guide in the labyrinth that surrounded him, but even of finding the means to sustain life.  It is in the heart of the same difficulties that the savage triumphs; for him the forest obscured nothing; he felt at home there; he walked with his head high, guided by an instinct more sure than the navigator’s compass.  In the tops of the highest trees, under the densest foliage, his eye could see the prey close to which the European had passed and repassed a hundred times in vain.

From time to time our Indians halted; they put their fingers to their lips to show that we must keep silence and signalled to us to get off our horses.  Led by them we came to a place where one could see the game.  It was a strange sight to see the scornful smile with which they took us by the hand like children and led us at last close to the object that they had seen a long time ago.

Now as we advanced further the last signs of man disappeared.  Soon there was nothing even to indicate the presence of savages, and we had before us the spectacle which we had been so long pursuing, the depths of a virgin forest.

Through undergrowth that was not thick and across which one could see objects at a considerable distance, the high forest rose straightway, composed entirely of pines and oaks.  Forced to grow in a narrowly limited area and almost entirely hidden from the light of the sun, each tree grows quickly upwards looking for air and light.  Straight as a ship’s mast, it soon rises above everything surrounding it.  It is then when it gets into this higher region that it quietly spreads its branches and envelopes itself in their shade.  Others soon follow it in this high sphere, and they all, interlacing their branches, form as it were a huge dais above the ground that bears them.  Below this damp and unmoving vault the look of things changes and the scene takes on a new character.  Majestic order reigns above your head.  But near the ground there is a general picture of confusion and chaos.  Trunks that can no longer support the weight of their branches, are split half-way up and left with pointed and torn tops.  Others, long shaken by the wind, have been thrown all complete on the ground; torn out of the soil, their roots form so many natural ramparts behind which several men could easily take cover.  Immense trees, held up by the surrounding branches, stay suspended in the air, and fall to dust without touching the ground.  With us there is no district so thinly populated and no forest so completely left to itself, that the trees, when they have quietly come to an end of their days, fall at last from decay.  It is man who strikes them down in the vigour of their maturity, and rids the forest of their debris.  In the solitudes of America nature in all her strength is the only instrument of ruin and also the only creative force.  As in forests subject to man’s control, death strikes continually here; but no one is concerned to clear the debris away.  Every day adds to the number; they fall and pile up one on top of the other; time cannot reduce them quickly enough to dust and make fresh places ready.  There many generations of the dead lie side by side.  Some that have come to the last stage of dissolution, show as no more than a train of red dust along the grass.  Others already half consumed by time, still yet preserve their shape.  Then there are those that, fallen yesterday, still stretch their long branches on the ground, and hold the traveller up by an obstacle he had not expected.  In the midst of all this debris the work of new creation goes ceaselessly forward.  Offshoots, creepers and plants of every sort press across every obstacle to the light.  They ramp along the trunks of fallen trees, they push their way into the rotten wood, and they lift and break the bark still covering them.  Life and death meet here face to face as if they wished to mingle and confuse their labours.

We have often admired one of those calm and serene evenings on the ocean, when the sails flap quietly by the mast leaving the sailor doubtful whence the breeze will arise.  This repose of all nature is no less impressive in the solitudes of the new World than on the immensity of the sea.  At midday when the sun darts its beams on the forest, one often hears in its depths something like a long sigh, a plaintive cry lingering in the distance.  It is the last stir of the dying wind.  Then everything around you falls back into a silence so deep, a stillness so complete that the soul is invaded by a kind of religious terror.  The traveller halts and looks round; pressed one against the other and with their branches interlaced, the forest trees seem to form but one whole, an immense and indestructible edifice under whose vaults eternal darkness reigns.  On whatever side he looks, he sees nothing but a field of violence and destruction.  Broken trees and torn trunks, everything testifies that the elements are here perpetually at war.  But the struggle is interrupted.  One would say that at the behest of a supernatural power, movement is suddenly halted.  Half broken branches seem still held by secret ties to the trunks that no longer support them; uprooted trees have not yet had time to reach the ground, and stay suspended in the air.  He listens and holds his breath in fear to better catch the least echo of life; no sound, no murmur reaches him.

More than once in Europe we have found ourselves lost deep in the woods; but always some sound of life came to reach our ears.  Perhaps the distant tinkle of the nearest village bell, a traveller’s footstep, the woodcutter’s axe, a gunshot, the barking of a dog or just that confused sound that pervades a civilised country.  Here not only is man lacking, but no sound can be heard from the animals either.  The smallest of them have left these parts to come close to human habitations, and the largest have gone to get even further away.  Those that remain stay hidden from the sun’s rays.  So all is still in the woods, all is silent under their leaves.  One would say that for a moment the Creator had turned his face away and all the forces of nature are paralysed.

But that is not the only occasion on which we noticed the strange analogy between the sight of the ocean and that of a wild forest.  In both the one and the other you are assailed by a sense of immensity.  The continuity and monotony of like scenes both astonishes and overwhelms the imagination.  Again in the solitudes of the New World we felt, perhaps more strongly and more poignantly, that sense of isolation and of abandonment that had weighed on us so heavily in the middle of the Atlantic.  On the sea at least the traveller looks toward the vast horizon on which his eyes and hopes are set.  But in this ocean of leaves who could point out the way?  Whither turn one’s looks?  In vain to climb to the top of very high trees, for others still higher surround you.  It is useless to climb the hills, for everywhere the forest seems to walk in front of you, and this same forest stretches before your feet right up to the Arctic Pole and the Pacific Ocean.  You can travel on for thousands of leagues under its shade, and you go forward the whole time without appearing to change place.

But I must get back to the road to Saginaw.  We had already been going forward for five hours in the most complete ignorance of where we were, when our Indians halted, and the elder, who was called Sagan Cuisco, drew a line in the sand.  He pointed to one of the ends saying “Miché-Couté-Ouinque” (that is the Indian name for Flint River), to the other pronouncing the name Saginaw, and, making a point in the middle of the line, he showed us that we had come half-way and ought to rest for a few moments.  The sun was already high in the sky, and we would gladly have accepted the suggestion he made to us, if we had seen any water within reach.  But seeing none anywhere near, we made a sign to the Indian that we wanted to eat and drink at the same time.  He understood at once, and set off again as rapidly as before.  An hour on from there he halted again, and pointed to a spot thirty paces away in the wood where his gestures indicated that there was water.  Without waiting for our answer or helping us to dismount, he went there himself; we hastened to follow him.  A great tree had recently been blown over by the wind on that spot.  In the hole where its roots had been there was a little rain water.  That was the fountain to which our guide had led us without appearing to think that one could hesitate to make use of such a drink.  We opened our knapsack; another blow!  The heat had completely ruined our provisions, and we were reduced to a very small piece of bread, all that we had been able to find at Flint River, for all our dinner.  Add to that a cloud of mosquitoes congregating near the water, so that one had to fight them off with one hand while one put a bite into one’s mouth with the other, and you will have some idea of a picnic in a virgin forest.  While we were eating, our Indians stayed sitting with arms crossed on the trunk of the fallen tree I mentioned before.  When they saw that we had finished, they made a sign that they were hungry too.  We showed our empty knapsack.  They shook their heads without saying a word.  The Indian has no conception of what regular hours for meals are.  He gorges himself on food when he gets the chance, and then fasts until he gets another chance of satisfying his appetite.  Wolves behave the same in like circumstances.  We soon thought of mounting our horses, but saw with great alarm that our mounts had disappeared.  Stung by the mosquitoes and pricked by hunger they had strayed from the path where we left them, and it was only with difficulty that we succeeded in getting on their tracks.  If we had stayed for a quarter of an hour more without paying attention, we should have woken up, like Sancho, with the saddle between our knees.  We heartily blessed the mosquitoes that had made us think so soon of moving, and set off again.  Every moment our horses had to force their way through thick bushes or jump over the trunks of huge trees that barred our way.  At the end of about two hours of very difficult going, we came to a stream that was not very deep but had very high banks.  We crossed it by a ford and when we had climbed up to the top of the opposite bank, we saw a field of corn and two cabins very like log-houses.  We realised as we came close that we were in a little Indian settlement.  The log-houses were wigwams.  Otherwise the deepest solitude prevailed there as in the surrounding forest.

When he came to the first of these abandoned dwellings, Sagan Cuisco stopped; he paid close attention to all the objects around, and then putting his carbine down, he came up to us.  First he drew a line in the sand, showing us in the same manner as before that we had not yet covered more than two-thirds of the way; he then got up, pointed to the sun and made signs to indicate that it was descending rapidly to the horizon.  He then looked at the wigwam and shut his eyes.  This language was very easy to understand; he wanted us to sleep on that spot.  I admit that the proposition surprised us a lot, and did not please us at all.  We had not eaten since the morning, and were but moderately anxious to go to bed without supper.  The sombre and savage majesty of the sights we had seen since the morning, the complete isolation in which we were, the fierce countenances of our guides with whom it was impossible to make any contact, in all that there was nothing to inspire us with confidence.  Moreover there was something strange in the Indians’ behaviour that was far from reassuring us.  The way we had gone for the last two hours seemed even less frequented than that we had travelled on before.  No one had ever told us that we should have to pass an Indian village, and everyone had on the contrary assured us that one could go in one day from Flint River to Saginaw.  So we could not conceive why our guides wanted to keep us for the night in this wilderness.  We insisted on going on.  The Indian made a sign that we should be surprised by darkness in the forest.  To force our guides to continue the journey would have been a dangerous attempt.  We decided to tempt their cupidity.  But the Indian is the most philosophic of all men.  He has few needs and so few desires.  Civilisation has no hold on him; he is unaware of, or scorns its charms.  But I had noticed that Sagan Cuisco had paid particular attention to a little wicker-covered bottle that hung at my side.  A bottle that does not get broken.  There was an object whose usefulness struck his senses, and which had aroused his real admiration.  My rifle and my bottle were the only parts of my European gear that had seemed able to rouse his envy.  I made a sign that I would give him my bottle, if he would take us at once to Saginaw.  The Indian then seemed to be struggling violently with himself.  He looked at the sun again and then at the ground.  Finally making up his mind, he seized his carbine, and putting his hand to his mouth raised a cry of “Ouh! ouh!” and darted in front of us into the bushes.  We followed him at fast trot, and forcing a way through for ourselves, had soon lost sight of the Indian dwellings.  Our guides ran like that for two hours faster than they had yet gone; but night gained on us, and the last rays of the sun were beginning to disappear behind the forest trees, when Sagan Cuisco was suddenly seized with a violent nose-bleed.  Accustomed though this young man, like his brother, seemed to be to bodily exercise, it was clear that fatigue and want of food were beginning to drain his strength.  We ourselves began to be afraid that they would give up the undertaking and want to sleep under a tree.  So we took the decision to make them ride in turns on our horses.  The Indians accepted our offer without surprise or difference.  It was an odd sight to see these half-naked men solemnly seated on an English saddle, and carrying our game-bags and our slung rifles with bandoliers, while we laboured along on foot in front of them.  At length night came on and a freezing damp began to spread under the foliage.  Then darkness gave a new and terrible aspect to the forest.  All around one could see nothing but gatherings of confused masses, without shape or symmetry, strange disproportionate forms, incoherent sights and fantastic images that seemed to come from the sick imagination of a fever bed.  (The gigantic and the ridiculous rubbed shoulders there as close as in the literature of our day.)  Never had our footsteps raised more echoes; never had the silence of the forest seemed more fearsome.  One might say that the buzzing of the mosquitoes was the only breathing of this sleeping world.  The further we went on, the darker did the shadows grow, and nothing but the occasional flight of a firefly through the woods traced a thread of light in their depths.  Too late we realized how right the Indian’s advice had been, but there was no question now of retreat.  So we pressed on as quickly as our strength and the night would allow.  After an hour we came out of the wood and into a vast prairie.  Three times our guides yelled out a savage cry that echoed like the discordant notes of a tom-tom.  An answer came from the distance.  In five minutes we came to the edge of a river in such darkness that we could not see the opposite bank.  The Indians made a halt at this spot; they wrapped themselves up in their blankets to escape the mosquitoes’ stings, and, lying down on the grass, they soon formed no more than a scarcely perceptible heap of wool in which no one could have recognised the shape of a man.  We, too, got to the ground, and patiently waited what was going to happen.  A few minutes later a faint sound could be heard, and something approached the bank.  It was an Indian canoe, about ten feet long, and shaped out of a single tree.  The man who crouched in the bottom of this fragile bark, was dressed and looked completely like an Indian.  He spoke to our guides who at his order hastened to take our saddles off and put them in the canoe.  As I was getting ready to get into it myself, the supposed Indian came up to me, put two fingers in my shoulder, and said in a Norman accent that made me jump:  “Don’t go too fast, sometimes people get drowned here.”  If my horse had spoken to me, I do not think I should have been more surprised.  I looked at the man who spoke to me and whose face lighted by the first rays of the moon shone like a ball of copper:  “Who are you then,” I said to him, “French seems to be your language, and you look like an Indian?”  He told me that he was a bois-brulé, that is to say the son of a French Canadian and an Indian woman.  I shall have frequent occasion to speak of this race of half-castes that covers all the frontiers of Canada and part of those of the United States.  For the moment I only thought of the pleasure of speaking my mother tongue.  Obeying the advice of the savage, my compatriot, I sat down in the bottom of the canoe and kept balance as well as might be.  The horse went into the water and began to swim, while the French Canadian propelled the little boat with an oar, singing under his breath the while an old French song of which I only caught the first two lines:

“Between Paris and Saint Denis
There lived a girl.”

We reached the further bank without mishap.  The canoe went back at once to fetch my companion.  All my life I shall remember the moment when it came up to the bank for the second time.  The moon which then was full, rose at that very moment above the prairie we had just crossed.  Only half its orb showed above the horizon; one might have thought it a mysterious gate from which light flowed towards us from another sphere.  Its rays reflected in the water glinted close around me.  The Indian canoe slid forward right along the line of the pale moonbeams; one saw no oars; one heard no sound of rowing; it glided on quickly and effortlessly, long, narrow and black, like an alligator on the Mississippi that makes for the bank to seize its prey.  As he crouched in the tip of the canoe with his head on his knees, one could only see the shining tresses of Sagan Cuisco’s hair.  At the other end the French Canadian rowed in silence, while behind him the horse’s plunging chest sent the water of the Saginaw splashing.  The whole scene had something of savage grandeur in it, which then made and has since left an enduring impression on our souls.  Landing on the bank we hurried up to a house which we saw in the moonlight a hundred paces from the stream, where the French Canadian assured us we could find accommodation for the night.  We did in fact get ourselves suitably fixed up, and probably sound sleep would have restored our strength, if we had been able to get rid of the myriads of mosquitoes in which the house abounded.  But that is something we never achieved.  What is called a “mosquito” in English and “maringouin” by the French Canadians, is a little insect like to its French cousin in everything except size.  It is generally bigger, and its sting is so strong and sharp that only woollen stuffs can protect one from its attacks.  These little gnats are the scourge of the solitudes of America.  Their presence is enough to make a long stay unbearable.  For my part I avow that I have never suffered torments like those they inflicted on me throughout the journey and particularly during our stay at Saginaw.  By day they stopped us sketching, writing or staying one moment in the same place; by night they circled in their thousands round us; any bit of your body that you left uncovered at once became their rendezvous.  Woken by the pain of their stings we covered our heads in the sheets, but their needles went through them; thus hunted and harried by them we got up and went to breathe the air outside until fatigue at last brought on troubled and interrupted sleep.



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