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Monday, February 25, 2013

Essay Islands

The phrase ‘oak openings’ is saturated with romance, its meaning not on the surface of the words but hidden in history, evoking a landscape long ago erased by settlers and farmers. If you visit today what was once the tall grass prairie, you will see only flat, cultivated fields laid out in squares and rectangles, bounded by straight country roads. Before the white man came? It was a sea of grass, grass as tall as a man, a sea extended as far as the eye could reach. The wind played on its rippling, swaying surface as wind plays on the waters of the ocean. Only movement in the grass gave away the presence of animals making their secret ways beneath the surface. And the oak openings were not clearings in a forest but occasional islands of tall trees interrupting the otherwise featureless expanse of grass. The ground stood higher there. The trees soared. The ‘opening,’ reached by myriad secret paths worn by paw and moccasin through the tall grass, provided shelter for many different varieties of prairie life.

Sometimes in a longer book, one of fiction or memoir, islands of essays stand out. This is famously true of Melville’s Moby-Dick, and it is true of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America. The latter work boasts two essay islands rising up following pages of notebook entries alphabetic and nonalphabetic, de Tocqueville’s various American experience told and retold in different forms according to the focus the author was bringing to it at that time. The notebooks are fascinating and well written but workmanlike and repetitious. And then come the very brief “Journey to Lake Oneida” and the longer “A Fortnight in the Wilds,” standing out from the rest and calling unforgettably.

“Journey to Lake Oneida” shows de Tocqueville and Beaumont at the height of their youthful romantic dreams. Years before Alexis had come upon a book called Journey to Lake Oneida, the story of a young French couple who fled early revolution to take refuge on a remote island in America.
There, cut off from the whole world, far from the storms of Europe and rejected by the society that saw them born, these two unfortunates lived for one another, each consoling the other for their unlucky fate.
“The book,” de Tocqueville wrote, “left a deep and lasting impression on my mind.” The story makes a deep impression on readers’ minds--not only the story of the young French couple but the effect it had on Alexis and Gustave who searched for their traces years later. Before they made their journey the two dreamed of searching for this couple on their island.
We often talked about it, and always ended by saying, sometimes laughing, sometimes sadly, ‘The only happiness in the world is on the shores of Lake Oneida.’
It was a place they felt they had known long before they ever saw it.

If “Journey to Lake Oneida” is a romantic island in de Tocqueville’s book of numbered and dated notebook entries, “A Fortnight in the Wilderness” is much, much more. The essay was begun on the first of August, 1831, written in its entirety on the steamboat The Superior, and concerns not the tall grass prairie of lower Michigan but the stands of virgin forest that covered its eastern and northern parts and the native populations of these lands. He notes in beginning that “the further we got to the northwest, the further did the end of our journey seem to flee before us.” Valleys and rivers bore Indian names, and they were told in one place that there had been Indians there ten years before, five years before in another place, but the forest had been felled before their arrival, the Indians disappeared.
Man gets accustomed to everything. To death on the field of battle; to death in hospital; to kill and to suffer. He gets used to every sight. An ancient people, the first and legitimate master of the American continent, is vanishing daily like the snow in sunshine.... In the same spots and in its place another race is increasing.... It fells the forests and drains the marshes.... The wilds become villages, and the villages towns. The American [settler], the daily witness of such wonders, does not see anything astonishing in all this. This incredible destruction, this even more surprising growth, seem to him the usual progress of things in the world. He gets accustomed to it as to the unalterable order of nature.
Searching and wondering, following the forested shores of Lake Erie, Beaumont and de Tocqueville come at last by steamer to bustling Detroit.
So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand what you want. You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go straight ahead and you will find what you want. They are there all right around the new roads and well-trod paths.
When I expressed my own impossible wish to see the southern Michigan prairie, meaning to see it as it had been, an endless sea of grass punctuated by isolated oak openings, I was told to drive south of Kalamazoo, and there it was. No, that wasn’t what I wanted to see. The two Frenchmen were more fortunate in their wish. When they mention wanting to visit Saginaw, the response tells them they are on the right track, much to their host’s incredulity. Uninhabited wilds! Woods full of Indians! Meant as warnings, the words fall like promises on the ears of the Frenchmen.

Finally the real journey is at last underway, travel into the heart of wild America. At Flint Rock, “fifteen leagues” from Saginaw, the Europeans on horseback entrust themselves to a pair of teenage Indian guides for a sum of two dollars, and now they learn what it is to be utterly dependent on others for their survival. The Indians were at home in the forest, a white man “incapable not only of being his own guide . . . but even of finding the means to sustain life.” The forests too were utterly unlike anything in Europe. Here dead trees were never cleared away, and among the fallen, often half-rotted limbs and trunks all manner of other plants pushed and climbed and twined. “Life and death meet here face to face as if they wished to mingle and confuse their labours.” At midday, when the wind and birds fell silent, the absence of sound filled the immensity, filling the Europeans with a “sense of isolation and of abandonment.” They had at last found the elusive American wilderness.

Reaching Saginaw the next day, they find Indians, French, English, Americans and mixed-blood residents, and de Tocqueville notes that, even in a settlement numbering only thirty souls,
Colour of skin, poverty or affluence, ignorance or enlightenment have already built up indestructible classifications among them; national prejudices, and prejudices of education and birth divide and isolate them.
In separate paragraphs he adds and details the divisions made by religious differences.

The romance of “Journey to Lake Oneida” was certainly touched with tragedy and melancholy, but it was quieter and more remote, more imaginary, existing in the minds of the foreign visitors who knew only the merest outlines of the story. “A Fortnight in the Wilds” tells of more immediate experience, of tragedy unfolding and growing alongside happy and confident progress in what was for Europeans the “New World.” Like another son of civilization, historian Bruce Catton, de Tocqueville sees back into the past and forward into the future to realize the tragic losses that are the cost of progress. Even as he is privileged to see with his own young eyes some of Michigan’s still-trackless forests, he is every moment aware that they will soon be gone.
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. . . .
 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.
“I cannot say what bitter regret”—these are the words of a sensitive nature combined with piercing vision and range of comprehension.

In my Faber and Faber edition of Journey to America (London, 1959), “A Fortnight in the Wilds” is less than fifty pages long. By itself it would be a small book, but I have long wished that someone would publish it on its own, perhaps with an artist’s illustrations. Nothing else I have read gives such a picture of Michigan’s forests before the days of large-scale lumbering, and nothing else gives, either, the “mixed blessing” sense of civilization come to the wilderness.

We cannot travel today to the tall grass prairie or to the virgin forested expanses of our home state, except in books and imagination, so with this post you must make the pictures in your mind.


Gerry said...

As you've been reading de Tocqueville I've been reading Scott Berg's history of the Dakota war: Little Crow's vision of the tidal wave that would sweep away Dakota culture, juxtaposed with the settlers in St. Paul confident of Progress and filled with go-ahead American spirit. The wind blowing over the prairie is full of bitter regrets.

I'm quite taken with the notion of essay islands.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I'm glad you like my essay islands notion because this post started out as an introduction but then "grew like Topsy" and insisted on being the star rather than the warm-up act. That is to say, I have another book with essay islands to tell about soon.

But oh, the bitter regrets. And now the drones and the 3-D printers? Our species never seems to know when it's well off.

Dawn said...

And what grand pictures they are, those in my mind as I read this. Thanks for sharing. Husband and I came upon tall grass along the shores of Lake Huron a couple of years ago. Was beautiful.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, your comment reminds me (as did a recent post on Throwaway Blog) of grassy areas along the Mississippi along the Wisconsin border. Every now and then we see some small wild remnant that gives us an idea of what the whole country must have looked long ago.

Jerry said...

This is so well written I want to run to the prairie and throw myself into the sea of grass that was once as high as a man. Instead, I'll throw myself into Journey to America to savor those essay islands. Splendid post.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks, Jerry. Better to throw yourself into a book, anyway, on the cold last day of February than into the deep snow covering the prairie!