Story type: Essay
It seems to be agreed that civilization is kept up only by a constant effort: Nature claims its own speedily when the effort is relaxed. If you clear a patch of fertile ground in the forest, uproot the stumps, and plant it, year after year, in potatoes and maize, you say you have subdued it. But, if you leave it for a season or two, a kind of barbarism seems to steal out upon it from the circling woods; coarse grass and brambles cover it; bushes spring up in a wild tangle; the raspberry and the blackberry flower and fruit; and the humorous bear feeds upon them. The last state of that ground is worse than the first.
Perhaps the cleared spot is called Ephesus. There is a splendid city on the plain; there are temples and theatres on the hills; the commerce of the world seeks its port; the luxury of the Orient flows through its marble streets. You are there one day when the sea has receded: the plain is a pestilent marsh; the temples, the theatres, the lofty gates have sunken and crumbled, and the wild-brier runs over them; and, as you grow pensive in the most desolate place in the world, a bandit lounges out of a tomb, and offers to relieve you of all that which creates artificial distinctions in society. The higher the civilization has risen, the more abject is the desolation of barbarism that ensues. The most melancholy spot in the Adirondacks is not a tamarack-swamp, where the traveler wades in moss and mire, and the atmosphere is composed of equal active parts of black-flies, mosquitoes, and midges. It is the village of the Adirondack Iron-Works, where the streets of gaunt houses are falling to pieces, tenantless; the factory-wheels have stopped; the furnaces are in ruins; the iron and wooden machinery is strewn about in helpless detachment; and heaps of charcoal, ore, and slag proclaim an arrested industry. Beside this deserted village, even Calamity Pond, shallow, sedgy, with its ragged shores of stunted firs, and its melancholy shaft that marks the spot where the proprietor of the iron-works accidentally shot himself, is cheerful.
The instinct of barbarism that leads people periodically to throw aside the habits of civilization, and seek the freedom and discomfort of the woods, is explicable enough; but it is not so easy to understand why this passion should be strongest in those who are most refined, and most trained in intellectual and social fastidiousness. Philistinism and shoddy do not like the woods, unless it becomes fashionable to do so; and then, as speedily as possible, they introduce their artificial luxuries, and reduce the life in the wilderness to the vulgarity of a well-fed picnic. It is they who have strewn the Adirondacks with paper collars and tin cans. The real enjoyment of camping and tramping in the woods lies in a return to primitive conditions of lodging, dress, and food, in as total an escape as may be from the requirements of civilization. And it remains to be explained why this is enjoyed most by those who are most highly civilized. It is wonderful to see how easily the restraints of society fall off. Of course it is not true that courtesy depends upon clothes with the best people; but, with others, behavior hangs almost entirely upon dress. Many good habits are easily got rid of in the woods. Doubt sometimes seems to be felt whether Sunday is a legal holiday there. It becomes a question of casuistry with a clergyman whether he may shoot at a mark on Sunday, if none of his congregation are present. He intends no harm: he only gratifies a curiosity to see if he can hit the mark. Where shall he draw the line? Doubtless he might throw a stone at a chipmunk, or shout at a loon. Might he fire at a mark with an air-gun that makes no noise? He will not fish or hunt on Sunday (although he is no more likely to catch anything that day than on any other); but may he eat trout that the guide has caught on Sunday, if the guide swears he caught them Saturday night? Is there such a thing as a vacation in religion? How much of our virtue do we owe to inherited habits?
I am not at all sure whether this desire to camp outside of civilization is creditable to human nature, or otherwise. We hear sometimes that the Turk has been merely camping for four centuries in Europe. I suspect that many of us are, after all, really camping temporarily in civilized conditions; and that going into the wilderness is an escape, longed for, into our natural and preferred state. Consider what this “camping out” is, that is confessedly so agreeable to people most delicately reared. I have no desire to exaggerate its delights.
The Adirondack wilderness is essentially unbroken. A few bad roads that penetrate it, a few jolting wagons that traverse them, a few barn-like boarding-houses on the edge of the forest, where the boarders are soothed by patent coffee, and stimulated to unnatural gayety by Japan tea, and experimented on by unique cookery, do little to destroy the savage fascination of the region. In half an hour, at any point, one can put himself into solitude and every desirable discomfort. The party that covets the experience of the camp comes down to primitive conditions of dress and equipment. There are guides and porters to carry the blankets for beds, the raw provisions, and the camp equipage; and the motley party of the temporarily decivilized files into the woods, and begins, perhaps by a road, perhaps on a trail, its exhilarating and weary march. The exhilaration arises partly from the casting aside of restraint, partly from the adventure of exploration; and the weariness, from the interminable toil of bad walking, a heavy pack, and the grim monotony of trees and bushes, that shut out all prospect, except an occasional glimpse of the sky. Mountains are painfully climbed, streams forded, lonesome lakes paddled over, long and muddy “carries” traversed. Fancy this party the victim of political exile, banished by the law, and a more sorrowful march could not be imagined; but the voluntary hardship becomes pleasure, and it is undeniable that the spirits of the party rise as the difficulties increase.
For this straggling and stumbling band the world is young again: it has come to the beginning of things; it has cut loose from tradition, and is free to make a home anywhere: the movement has all the promise of a revolution. All this virginal freshness invites the primitive instincts of play and disorder. The free range of the forests suggests endless possibilities of exploration and possession. Perhaps we are treading where man since the creation never trod before; perhaps the waters of this bubbling spring, which we deepen by scraping out the decayed leaves and the black earth, have never been tasted before, except by the wild denizens of these woods. We cross the trails of lurking animals,–paths that heighten our sense of seclusion from the world. The hammering of the infrequent woodpecker, the call of the lonely bird, the drumming of the solitary partridge,–all these sounds do but emphasize the lonesomeness of nature. The roar of the mountain brook, dashing over its bed of pebbles, rising out of the ravine, and spreading, as it were, a mist of sound through all the forest (continuous beating waves that have the rhythm of eternity in them), and the fitful movement of the air-tides through the balsams and firs and the giant pines,–how these grand symphonies shut out the little exasperations of our vexed life! It seems easy to begin life over again on the simplest terms. Probably it is not so much the desire of the congregation to escape from the preacher, or of the preacher to escape from himself, that drives sophisticated people into the wilderness, as it is the unconquered craving for primitive simplicity, the revolt against the everlasting dress-parade of our civilization. From this monstrous pomposity even the artificial rusticity of a Petit Trianon is a relief. It was only human nature that the jaded Frenchman of the regency should run away to the New World, and live in a forest-hut with an Indian squaw; although he found little satisfaction in his act of heroism, unless it was talked about at Versailles.
When our trampers come, late in the afternoon, to the bank of a lovely lake where they purpose to enter the primitive life, everything is waiting for them in virgin expectation. There is a little promontory jutting into the lake, and sloping down to a sandy beach, on which the waters idly lapse, and shoals of red-fins and shiners come to greet the stranger; the forest is untouched by the axe; the tender green sweeps the water’s edge; ranks of slender firs are marshaled by the shore; clumps of white-birch stems shine in satin purity among the evergreens; the boles of giant spruces, maples, and oaks, lifting high their crowns of foliage, stretch away in endless galleries and arcades; through the shifting leaves the sunshine falls upon the brown earth; overhead are fragments of blue sky; under the boughs and in chance openings appear the bluer lake and the outline of the gracious mountains. The discoverers of this paradise, which they have entered to destroy, note the babbling of the brook that flows close at hand; they hear the splash of the leaping fish; they listen to the sweet, metallic song of the evening thrush, and the chatter of the red squirrel, who angrily challenges their right to be there. But the moment of sentiment passes. This party has come here to eat and to sleep, and not to encourage Nature in her poetic attitudinizing.
The spot for a shanty is selected. This side shall be its opening, towards the lake; and in front of it the fire, so that the smoke shall drift into the hut, and discourage the mosquitoes; yonder shall be the cook’s fire and the path to the spring. The whole colony bestir themselves in the foundation of a new home,–an enterprise that has all the fascination, and none of the danger, of a veritable new settlement in the wilderness. The axes of the guides resound in the echoing spaces; great trunks fall with a crash; vistas are opened towards the lake and the mountains. The spot for the shanty is cleared of underbrush; forked stakes are driven into the ground, cross-pieces are laid on them, and poles sloping back to the ground. In an incredible space of time there is the skeleton of a house, which is entirely open in front. The roof and sides must be covered. For this purpose the trunks of great spruces are skinned. The woodman rims the bark near the foot of the tree, and again six feet above, and slashes it perpendicularly; then, with a blunt stick, he crowds off this thick hide exactly as an ox is skinned. It needs but a few of these skins to cover the roof; and they make a perfectly water-tight roof, except when it rains. Meantime busy hands have gathered boughs of the spruce and the feathery balsam, and shingled the ground underneath the shanty for a bed. It is an aromatic bed: in theory it is elastic and consoling. Upon it are spread the blankets. The sleepers, of all sexes and ages, are to lie there in a row, their feet to the fire, and their heads under the edge of the sloping roof. Nothing could be better contrived. The fire is in front: it is not a fire, but a conflagration–a vast heap of green logs set on fire–of pitch, and split dead-wood, and crackling balsams, raging and roaring. By the time, twilight falls, the cook has prepared supper. Everything has been cooked in a tin pail and a skillet,–potatoes, tea, pork, mutton, slapjacks. You wonder how everything could have been prepared in so few utensils. When you eat, the wonder ceases: everything might have been cooked in one pail. It is a noble meal; and nobly is it disposed of by these amateur savages, sitting about upon logs and roots of trees. Never were there such potatoes, never beans that seemed to have more of the bean in them, never such curly pork, never trout with more Indian-meal on them, never mutton more distinctly sheepy; and the tea, drunk out of a tin cup, with a lump of maple-sugar dissolved in it,–it is the sort of tea that takes hold, lifts the hair, and disposes the drinker to anecdote and hilariousness. There is no deception about it: it tastes of tannin and spruce and creosote. Everything, in short, has the flavor of the wilderness and a free life. It is idyllic. And yet, with all our sentimentality, there is nothing feeble about the cooking. The slapjacks are a solid job of work, made to last, and not go to pieces in a person’s stomach like a trivial bun: we might record on them, in cuneiform characters, our incipient civilization; and future generations would doubtless turn them up as Acadian bricks. Good, robust victuals are what the primitive man wants.
Darkness falls suddenly. Outside the ring of light from our conflagration the woods are black. There is a tremendous impression of isolation and lonesomeness in our situation. We are the prisoners of the night. The woods never seemed so vast and mysterious. The trees are gigantic. There are noises that we do not understand,–mysterious winds passing overhead, and rambling in the great galleries, tree-trunks grinding against each other, undefinable stirs and uneasinesses. The shapes of those who pass into the dimness are outlined in monstrous proportions. The spectres, seated about in the glare of the fire, talk about appearances and presentiments and religion. The guides cheer the night with bear-fights, and catamount encounters, and frozen-to-death experiences, and simple tales of great prolixity and no point, and jokes of primitive lucidity. We hear catamounts, and the stealthy tread of things in the leaves, and the hooting of owls, and, when the moon rises, the laughter of the loon. Everything is strange, spectral, fascinating.
By and by we get our positions in the shanty for the night, and arrange the row of sleepers. The shanty has become a smoke-house by this time: waves of smoke roll into it from the fire. It is only by lying down, and getting the head well under the eaves, that one can breathe. No one can find her “things”; nobody has a pillow. At length the row is laid out, with the solemn protestation of intention to sleep. The wind, shifting, drives away the smoke.
Good-night is said a hundred times; positions are readjusted, more last words, new shifting about, final remarks; it is all so comfortable and romantic; and then silence. Silence continues for a minute. The fire flashes up; all the row of heads is lifted up simultaneously to watch it; showers of sparks sail aloft into the blue night; the vast vault of greenery is a fairy spectacle. How the sparks mount and twinkle and disappear like tropical fireflies, and all the leaves murmur, and clap their hands! Some of the sparks do not go out: we see them flaming in the sky when the flame of the fire has died down. Well, good-night, goodnight. More folding of the arms to sleep; more grumbling about the hardness of a hand-bag, or the insufficiency of a pocket-handkerchief, for a pillow. Good-night. Was that a remark?–something about a root, a stub in the ground sticking into the back. “You couldn’t lie along a hair?”—“Well, no: here’s another stub. It needs but a moment for the conversation to become general,–about roots under the shoulder, stubs in the back, a ridge on which it is impossible for the sleeper to balance, the non-elasticity of boughs, the hardness of the ground, the heat, the smoke, the chilly air. Subjects of remarks multiply. The whole camp is awake, and chattering like an aviary. The owl is also awake; but the guides who are asleep outside make more noise than the owls. Water is wanted, and is handed about in a dipper. Everybody is yawning; everybody is now determined to go to sleep in good earnest. A last good-night. There is an appalling silence. It is interrupted in the most natural way in the world. Somebody has got the start, and gone to sleep. He proclaims the fact. He seems to have been brought up on the seashore, and to know how to make all the deep-toned noises of the restless ocean. He is also like a war-horse; or, it is suggested, like a saw-horse. How malignantly he snorts, and breaks off short, and at once begins again in another key! One head is raised after another.
“Who is that?”
“Somebody punch him.”
“Turn him over.”
“Reason with him.”
The sleeper is turned over. The turn was a mistake. He was before, it appears, on his most agreeable side. The camp rises in indignation. The sleeper sits up in bewilderment. Before he can go off again, two or three others have preceded him. They are all alike. You never can judge what a person is when he is awake. There are here half a dozen disturbers of the peace who should be put in solitary confinement. At midnight, when a philosopher crawls out to sit on a log by the fire, and smoke a pipe, a duet in tenor and mezzo-soprano is going on in the shanty, with a chorus always coming in at the wrong time. Those who are not asleep want to know why the smoker doesn’t go to bed. He is requested to get some water, to throw on another log, to see what time it is, to note whether it looks like rain. A buzz of conversation arises. She is sure she heard something behind the shanty. He says it is all nonsense. “Perhaps, however, it might be a mouse.”
“Mercy! Are there mice?”
“Then that’s what I heard nibbling by my head. I shan’t sleep a wink! Do they bite?”
“No, they nibble; scarcely ever take a full bite out.”
Towards morning it grows chilly; the guides have let the fire go out; the blankets will slip down. Anxiety begins to be expressed about the dawn.
“What time does the sun rise?”
“Awful early. Did you sleep?
“Not a wink. And you?”
“In spots. I’m going to dig up this root as soon as it is light enough.”
“See that mist on the lake, and the light just coming on the Gothics! I’d no idea it was so cold: all the first part of the night I was roasted.”
“What were they talking about all night?”
When the party crawls out to the early breakfast, after it has washed its faces in the lake, it is disorganized, but cheerful. Nobody admits much sleep; but everybody is refreshed, and declares it delightful. It is the fresh air all night that invigorates; or maybe it is the tea, or the slap-jacks. The guides have erected a table of spruce bark, with benches at the sides; so that breakfast is taken in form. It is served on tin plates and oak chips. After breakfast begins the day’s work. It may be a mountain-climbing expedition, or rowing and angling in the lake, or fishing for trout in some stream two or three miles distant. Nobody can stir far from camp without a guide. Hammocks are swung, bowers are built novel-reading begins, worsted work appears, cards are shuffled and dealt. The day passes in absolute freedom from responsibility to one’s self. At night when the expeditions return, the camp resumes its animation. Adventures are recounted, every statement of the narrator being disputed and argued. Everybody has become an adept in woodcraft; but nobody credits his neighbor with like instinct. Society getting resolved into its elements, confidence is gone.
Whilst the hilarious party are at supper, a drop or two of rain falls. The head guide is appealed to. Is it going to rain? He says it does rain. But will it be a rainy night? The guide goes down to the lake, looks at the sky, and concludes that, if the wind shifts a p’int more, there is no telling what sort of weather we shall have. Meantime the drops patter thicker on the leaves overhead, and the leaves, in turn, pass the water down to the table; the sky darkens; the wind rises; there is a kind of shiver in the woods; and we scud away into the shanty, taking the remains of our supper, and eating it as best we can. The rain increases. The fire sputters and fumes. All the trees are dripping, dripping, and the ground is wet. We cannot step outdoors without getting a drenching. Like sheep, we are penned in the little hut, where no one can stand erect. The rain swirls into the open front, and wets the bottom of the blankets. The smoke drives in. We curl up, and enjoy ourselves. The guides at length conclude that it is going to be damp. The dismal situation sets us all into good spirits; and it is later than the night before when we crawl under our blankets, sure this time of a sound sleep, lulled by the storm and the rain resounding on the bark roof. How much better off we are than many a shelter-less wretch! We are as snug as dry herrings. At the moment, however, of dropping off to sleep, somebody unfortunately notes a drop of water on his face; this is followed by another drop; in an instant a stream is established. He moves his head to a dry place. Scarcely has he done so, when he feels a dampness in his back. Reaching his hand outside, he finds a puddle of water soaking through his blanket. By this time, somebody inquires if it is possible that the roof leaks. One man has a stream of water under him; another says it is coming into his ear. The roof appears to be a discriminating sieve. Those who are dry see no need of such a fuss. The man in the corner spreads his umbrella, and the protective measure is resented by his neighbor. In the darkness there is recrimination. One of the guides, who is summoned, suggests that the rubber blankets be passed out, and spread over the roof. The inmates dislike the proposal, saying that a shower-bath is no worse than a tub-bath. The rain continues to soak down. The fire is only half alive. The bedding is damp. Some sit up, if they can find a dry spot to sit on, and smoke. Heartless observations are made. A few sleep. And the night wears on. The morning opens cheerless. The sky is still leaking, and so is the shanty. The guides bring in a half-cooked breakfast. The roof is patched up. There are reviving signs of breaking away, delusive signs that create momentary exhilaration. Even if the storm clears, the woods are soaked. There is no chance of stirring. The world is only ten feet square.
This life, without responsibility or clean clothes, may continue as long as the reader desires. There are, those who would like to live in this free fashion forever, taking rain and sun as heaven pleases; and there are some souls so constituted that they cannot exist more than three days without their worldly–baggage. Taking the party altogether, from one cause or another it is likely to strike camp sooner than was intended. And the stricken camp is a melancholy sight. The woods have been despoiled; the stumps are ugly; the bushes are scorched; the pine-leaf-strewn earth is trodden into mire; the landing looks like a cattle-ford; the ground is littered with all the unsightly dibris of a hand-to-hand life; the dismantled shanty is a shabby object; the charred and blackened logs, where the fire blazed, suggest the extinction of family life. Man has wrought his usual wrong upon Nature, and he can save his self-respect only by moving to virgin forests.
And move to them he will, the next season, if not this. For he who has once experienced the fascination of the woods-life never escapes its enticement: in the memory nothing remains but its charm.