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Impearls: AFitW: The Utmost Limits

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

The Utmost Limits   by Alexis de Tocqueville

We got up very early in the morning, and the first sight that struck us as we left the house was that of our Indians rolled in their blankets near the door, asleep beside their dogs.

Then for the first time we saw in daylight the village of Saginaw which we had come so far to seek.

A small cultivated plain bounded on the south by a lovely, tranquil stream, on the east, west and north by the forest, is up to now the whole territory of the city to be.

Near us was a house built in a style showing its owner’s affluence.  It was that in which we had just passed the night.  There appeared another house of the same sort at the other end of the clearing.  Between the two, along the edge of the wood, were two or three log-houses half lost among the leaves.  On the opposite bank of the stream the prairie stretched like a boundless ocean on a calm day.  At that time a column of smoke was coming up from it and rising peacefully into the sky.  Tracing its line back down to the ground one could finally discern two or three wigwams whose conic form and pointed top lost themselves in the prairie grass.

A cart turned over, some oxen going back on their own to work, and some half-wild horses complete the picture.

Whichever way you looked, the eye would never find the spire of a Gothic belfry, a wooden cross marking the way, or the moss covered threshold of a presbytery.  None of these venerable relics of old Christian civilisation have been transported into the wilderness; nothing there awakens thoughts of the past or of the future.  One does not even find sanctuaries sacred to those who are no more.  Death has not had time to claim its dominion nor to define the graveyard’s limit.

Here man seems furtively to enter upon life.  There is no meeting round his cradle of several generations to express hopes that are often vain and give rein to premature joys to which the future gives the lie.  His name is not inscribed on the registers of the city.  None of the touching solemnities of religion are mingled with the family’s solicitude.  A woman’s prayers, a few drops of water sprinkled on a baby’s head by his father’s hand, are the quiet opening for him of the doors of heaven.

The village of Saginaw is the last point inhabited by Europeans to the northwest of the huge peninsula of Michigan.  One may regard it as an advanced station, a sort of observation post, which the whites have established in the midst of the Indian tribes.

The revolutions of Europe and all the noisy bustle forever ringing in the well-policed part of the world, hardly reach here at long intervals, and ring like the echoes of a sound whose nature and origin the ear cannot identify.

Perhaps an Indian incidentally recalls in the poetic manner natural to a man of the wilds some of the sad occurrences in the affairs of the world; a forgotten newspaper in a hunter’s haversack; or just that vague rumour spread by unknown voices which hardly ever fails to let men know that something extraordinary is happening under the sun.

Once a year a ship going up the Saginaw comes to renew this broken link in the great European chain which already encircles the world.  It brings the new settlement the varied products of industry and takes back in return the fruits of the soil.

Thirty people, men, women, old people and children were all that made up at the time of our visit that little society, a scarcely formed embryo, a growing seed entrusted to the wilds, which the wilds must fertilize.

Chance, interest or desire had brought together these thirty people in this narrow space.  There was no other common link between them and they were profoundly different.  One found French Canadians there, some Americans, some Indians and some half-castes.

Some philosophers have believed that human nature everywhere the same only varies according to the institutions and laws of different societies.  That is one of the opinions to which the history of the world seems to give the lie on every page.  In history all nations, like individuals, show their own peculiar physiognomy.  Their characteristic traits reproduce themselves through all the transformations that they undergo.  Laws, morals, religions alter; dominion and wealth change hands; external appearances vary; the dress is different; prejudices vanish or are replaced by others.  Through all these diverse changes you always recognize the same people.  Something inflexible shows through in spite of all man’s adaptability.

The people inhabiting this little bit of cultivated plain belong to two races who for nearly a century have lived on American soil and obeyed the same laws.  But there is nothing in common between them.  They are English and French, just like those one finds on the banks of the Seine or the Thames.

Once inside that leafy hut you will find a man whose cordial welcome and open features at once indicate his taste for social pleasures and carefree attitude to life.  At the first moment perhaps you will think him an Indian.  Forced to live the life of a savage, he has freely adopted its habits, customs and almost its manners.  He wears moccasins, otterskin cap and woollen cloak.  He is an unwearying hunter, sleeps in the open, and lives on wild honey and bison flesh.  Nonetheless this man has still remained a Frenchman, gay, enterprising, haughty, proud of his origin, passionate lover of military glory, vain rather than mercenary, a man of instinct following his first inclination rather than reason, preferring renown to money.  To get to the wilds he seems to have broken all the ties that bind him to life; one does not find him with wife or children.  This condition is unnatural to him, but he accepts it and everything else easily.  Left to himself, his naturally stay-at-home temper would reassert itself; no one has a stronger taste than he for the domestic hearth; no one delights more in the sight of the ancestral clock-tower; but he has been snatched away in spite of himself from his tranquil habits, his imagination has been inflamed by new sights, and he has been transplanted under another sky; the man is the same but he has suddenly felt an insatiable desire for violent emotions, vicissitude and danger.  The most civilised of Europeans has turned into a worshipper of the savage life.  He prefers savannas to city streets and hunting to agriculture.  He is taking chances with his life and lives without a care for the future.

The white men of France, say the Canadian Indians, are as good hunters as we.  Like us they despise the comforts of life and brave the dangers of death.  God made them to dwell in a savage’s hut and live in the wilds.

A few steps away from this man lives another European who, having to face the same difficulties, has hardened himself against them.

This latter is cold, tenacious and relentless in argument; he attaches himself to the ground and snatches from savage life all that can be got out of it.  He is in continual contest against it, and daily despoils it of some of its attributes.  Bit by bit he carries into the wilds his laws, his habits and his customs, and if he could, he would introduce everything down to the smallest refinements of advanced civilisation.  The emigrant from the United States is only interested in victory for its results; he holds glory but a vain clamour, and thinks that man has only come into the world to gain affluence and the comforts of life.  He is brave nonetheless, but brave by calculation, brave because he has found out that there are several things harder to bear than death.  An adventurer surrounded by his family, but one who sets little store by intellectual pleasures and the charms of social life.

On the other side of the river, down in the reeds by the Saginaw, the Indian occasionally casts a stoic glance on the dwellings of his European brethren.  Do not go imagining that he admires their works or envies their lot.  For nearly three centuries by now the American savage has been in contest with the civilisation that presses on him and surrounds him, but he still has not learnt to know or esteem his enemy.  In vain does generation follow generation in both races.  Like two parallel rivers they have been flowing for three centuries towards a common abyss; a narrow space separates them but their waters never mingle.  It is not that the native of the New World is always lacking in natural aptitude, but his nature seems obstinately to repulse our ideas and our skills.  Sleeping in his cloak in the smoke of his hut, the Indian looks with mistrust at the European’s comfortable house; he for his part prides himself on his poverty, and his heart swells and rejoices at the thought of his barbarian independence.  He smiles bitterly as he sees us plagueing our lives to get useless wealth.  What we call industry, he calls shameful subjection.  He compares the workman to an ox laboriously tracing out a furrow.  What we call the comforts of life, he calls children’s playthings or women’s affectations.  He envies us nothing but our weapons.  When a man can find cover at night in a tent of leaves, when he can find enough to light a fire to keep off the mosquitoes in summer and cold in winter, when his dogs are good and the country full of game, what more can he ask from the Eternal Being?

On the other side of the Saginaw, near the European clearings and so to say on the border of the old and new world, one finds a rustic hut more comfortable than the savage’s wigwam but ruder than the civilised man’s house.  That is the half-caste’s dwelling.  The first time that we presented ourselves at the door of such a half-civilised hut, we were surprised to hear a gentle voice singing the Psalms of penitence to an Indian air.  We stopped a moment to listen.  The modulations of the sound were slow and profoundly melancholy; it was easy to recognize the plaintive harmony of all the songs of men of the wilds.  We came in.  The master was away.  Seated cross-legged on a mat in the middle of the room, a young woman was making some mocassins; with one foot she rocked an infant whose copper colour and whose features made its double origin clear.  This woman was dressed like one of our peasants except that her feet were bare and her hair fell freely on her shoulders.  When she saw us, she fell silent with a sort of respectful fear.  We asked her if she was French.  “No,” she answered smiling. — “English.” — “Not that either,” she said; she lowered her eyes and added, “I am only a savage.”  Child of two races, brought up to use two languages, nourished in diverse beliefs and rocked in contrary prejudices, the half-caste forms an amalgam as inexplicable to others as to himself.  What his rude mind takes in of the sights of this world, present themselves as something like an inextricable chaos from which his spirit knows no escape.  Proud of his European origin he scorns the wilds, and yet he loves the freedom that prevails there.  He admires civilisation but cannot completely submit to its domination.  His tastes are in contradiction with his ideas, and his views with his habits.  Not knowing how to find his way by his uncertain lights, his soul is the painful battleground of all the arguments of universal doubt.  He adopts contradictory customs; he prays at two altars; he believes in the Redeemer of the world and in the mountebank’s amulets; and he reaches the end of his life without ever being able to sort out the difficult problem of his existence.

So in this corner of the earth unknown to the world God’s hand had already sown the seeds of diverse nations; here there are already several different races, several distinct peoples facing one another.

Several exiled members of the great human family have met together in the immensity of the forests and their needs are all alike; they have to fight against the beasts of the forest, hunger and hard weather.  There are scarcely thirty of them in the midst of the wilds where everything resists their efforts, but they cast only looks of hatred and suspicion on one another.  Colour of skin, poverty or affluence, ignorance or enlightenment have already built up indestructible classifications between them; national prejudices, and prejudices of education and birth divide and isolate them.

Where could one find a more complete picture of the wretchedness of our nature in a narrower frame?  But there is yet one feature still unmentioned.

The deep lines that birth and opinion have ruled between these men by no means end with life but stretch out beyond the tomb.  Six religions, or different sects, divide the faith of this nascent society.

Catholicism with its formidable immobility, its absolute dogmas, its terrible anathemas and immense rewards, the religious anarchy of the Reformation and ancient paganism are all represented.  Already the one Eternal Being who made all men in his image is worshipped in six different ways.  Disputes rage about the heaven that every one claims as his exclusive heritage.  Beyond that even, in the midst of the wretchedness of solitude and the troubles of the present, human imagination wears itself out inventing inexpressible sorrows for the future.  The Lutheran condemns the Calvinist to eternal fire, the Calvinist the Unitarian, and the Catholic embraces them all in a common condemnation.

The Indian, more tolerant in his rude faith, does not go beyond exiling his European brother from the happy hunting grounds he reserves for himself.  For him, faithful to the confused traditions bequeathed by his fathers, there is an easy consolation for the ills of this life and he dies peacefully dreaming of the ever green forests which the pioneer’s axe will never bring down, where deer and beaver will come to be shot through the numberless days of eternity.

After lunch we went to see the richest landowner in the village, Mr. Williams.  We found him in his shop busy selling Indians a quantity of objects of little value such as knives, glass necklaces and ear-rings.  It was a shame to see how these unfortunates were treated by their civilised European brethren.  Moreover everyone we saw was loud in praise of the savages.  They were good, inoffensive, a thousand times less inclined to theft than the white men.  It was only a pity that they were beginning to learn about the value of things.  And why that, if you please?  Because the profits made by trading with them were daily becoming less considerable.  Do you appreciate there the superiority of the civilised man?  The Indian in his rude simplicity would have said that he was finding it daily more difficult to cheat his neighbour.  But the white man discovers in the refinements of language a happy nuance that expresses the fact but hides the shame.

Coming back from Mr. Williams’ it occurred to us to go some way up the Saginaw to shoot the wild duck on its banks.  While we were so engaged, a canoe came out from the reeds in the river and some Indians came to meet us to look at my rifle which they had seen in the distance.  I have always noticed that that weapon, which however has nothing unusual about it, wins me altogether special consideration from the savages.  A rifle that could kill two men in one second and be fired in fog, was in their view a wonder beyond value, a priceless masterpiece.  Those who came up to us as usual expressed great admiration.  They asked where my rifle came from.  Our young guide said that it had been made on the other side of the great water, in the land of the fathers of the French Canadians; a circumstance which, as you will believe, did not make it less precious in their eyes.  But they pointed out that as the sights were not placed in the middle of each barrel, it was difficult to be sure of your shot, a criticism to which I admit I could not find an answer.

When evening came on we got into the canoe again, and trusting to the experience we had gained in the morning, we went out alone to go up a branch of the Saginaw of which we had only had a glimpse before.

The sky was cloudless and the air pure and still.  The river waters flowed through an immense forest, but so slowly that it would have been almost impossible to say in which direction the current was running.  We had always found that to get a true idea of the forests of the New World, one must follow up one of the streams that wander beneath their shade.  The rivers are like main roads by means of which Providence has been at pains, since the beginning of the world, to open up the wilds and make them accessible to man.  When one forces a way through the woods, one’s view is generally very limited.  Besides the very path on which you walk is the work of man.  But the rivers are roads that keep no marks of tracks, and their banks freely show all the great and strange sights that vigorous vegetation left to itself can provide.

The wilds were there surely just the same as when our first fathers saw them six thousand years ago; a flowering solitude, delightful and scented; a magnificent dwelling, a living palace built for man, but to which its master had not yet reached.  The canoe glided without effort and without sound; the serenity of universal calm reigned around us.  We, too, soon felt the tender influence of such a sight.  We talked less and less and soon found that we only put our thoughts into whispers.  Finally we fell silent, and working the oars simultaneously, both of us fell into a tranquil reverie full of inexpressible charm.

Why is it that human language that finds words for every sorrow, meets an invincible obstacle in trying to make the most gentle and natural emotions of the human heart understood?  Who will ever paint a true picture of those rare moments in life when physical well-being prepares the way for calm of soul, and the universe seems before your eyes to have reached a perfect equilibrium; then the soul half asleep hovers between the present and the future, between the real and the possible, while with natural beauty all around and the air tranquil and mild, at peace with himself in the midst of universal peace, man listens to the even beating of his arteries that seems to him to mark the passage of time flowing drop by drop through eternity.  Many men perhaps have seen long years of existence pile up without once experiencing anything like what we have just described.  They will not understand us.  But there are some, we are sure, who will find in their memory and at the bottom of their heart something that gives colour to the picture that we paint, and, as they read, will feel the memory awakening of some fugitive hours which neither time nor the demanding cares of life have been able to efface.

We were woken from our reverie by a gun-shot that suddenly echoed through the woods.  The sound at first seemed to roll crashing along both banks of the river; then it rumbled into the distance until it was entirely lost in the depths of the forest.  It might have been the long, fearsome war cry of civilisation on the march.

One evening in Sicily we happened to get lost in a vast marsh that now occupies the place where once was the city of Himera; the sight of that once famous city turned back to savage wilds made a great and deep impression on us.  Never have we seen beneath our feet more magnificent witness to the instability of human things and the wretchedness of our nature.  Here too it was indeed a solitude, but imagination instead of going backwards to try and get back into the past, went rushing on ahead and got lost in an immense future.  It struck us as a peculiar privilege of fate that we who had been able to look on the ruins of perished empires and to walk through wilds of human making, that we, children of an ancient people, should be brought to witness one of the scenes of the primitive world and to see the still empty cradle of a great nation.  Here it is not a question of the more or less doubtful anticipations of the wise.  The facts are as certain as if they had already occurred.  In but few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen.  The noise of civilisation and of industry will break the silence of the Saginaw.  Its echo will be silent.  Embankments will imprison its sides, and its waters which today flow unknown and quiet through nameless wilds, will be thrown back in their flow by the prows of ships.  Fifty leagues still separate this solitude from the great European settlements and we are perhaps the last travellers who will have been allowed to see it in its primitive splendour, so great is the force that drives the white race to the complete conquest of the New World.

It is this consciousness of destruction, this arrière-pensée of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such a touching beauty to the solitudes of America.  One sees them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of a hurry to admire them.  Thoughts of the savage, natural grandeur that is going to come to an end, become mingled with splendid anticipations of the triumphant march of civilisation.  One feels proud to be a man, and yet at the same time one experiences I cannot say what bitter regret at the power that God has granted us over nature.  One’s soul is shaken by contradictory thoughts and feelings, but all the impressions it receives are great and leave a deep mark.

We wanted to leave Saginaw on the next day, the 27th July; but as one of our horses had been badly rubbed by its saddle we decided to wait one day more.  For want of any other way to pass the time, we went shooting along the meadows that fringe the Saginaw above the clearings.  These meadows are not at all marshy, as one might have supposed.  They are more or less large open spaces that the wood does not cover although the soil is excellent.  The grass there is tough and three or four feet high.  We found but little game and came back early.  The heat was stifling as if before a storm, and the mosquitoes were even more troublesome than usual.  We could not move without a cloud of these insects on whom we had to make perpetual war.  Bad luck to any one who had to stop.  That was to give oneself over defenceless to a pitiless foe.  Once I remember having to keep moving while I was loading my rifle, so difficult was it to stay still for a moment.

As we were crossing the meadow on our return, we noticed that the French Canadian who acted as our guide, kept to a narrow trodden path and was very careful to look at the ground before putting his foot down.  “Why are you so careful?” I asked him.  “Are you afraid of getting wet?”  “No,” he answered.  “But I have got the habit when I am walking through the meadows, of looking where I put my feet so as not to tread on a rattlesnake.” — “What the devil,” I answered jumping onto the path.  “Are there rattlesnakes here?” — “Yes indeed,” our Norman American answered with imperturbable sang-froid.  “The place is full of them.”  I reproached him then for not having told us sooner.  He made out that as we were wearing good boots and a rattlesnake never bites above the ankle, he had not felt that we were running great danger.

I asked him if a rattlesnake bite was mortal.  He replied that one always died in less than twenty-four hours unless one turned to the Indians for help.  They knew of a remedy which, if given in time, he said saved the victim.

However that may be for the rest of the way we imitated our guide and looked as he did to our feet.

The night that followed this burning day was one of the worst I have passed in my life.  The mosquitoes had become so troublesome that, though worn out with fatigue, I could not shut my eyes.  Towards midnight the long threatened storm finally broke.  With no more hope of getting any sleep, I got up and opened our hut door so as at least to breathe the fresh night air.  The rain had not started yet and the air seemed calm; but the forest shook already, and was filled with deep groans and lingering wails.  Now and again a lightning flash illuminated the sky.  The tranquil flow of the Saginaw, the little clearing that edges its banks, the roofs of five or six huts and the leafy fence that surrounded us appeared then for an instant like an evocation of the future.  Then all was in the deepest darkness and the fearsome voice of the wilds was heard again.

While I stood, struck by this great spectacle, I heard a sigh at my side and in the flash of the lightning I saw an Indian leaning as I was doing against the wall of our dwelling.  No doubt the storm had broken his sleep, for it was a fixed and troubled gaze that he cast around the scene.

Was this man afraid of the thunder?  Or did he see in the clash of the elements something beyond a passing convulsion of nature?  Had the fugitive images of civilisation which rose unbidden in the midst of the tumult of the wilds a prophetic meaning for him?  Did these groans of the forest that seemed to be fighting an unequal battle strike his ear as a secret warning of God, a solemn revelation of the final fate reserved for the savage races?  I could not say.  But his agitated lips seemed to be murmuring prayers and all his features were stamped by superstitious terror.

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