March 1991

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 40

The Beauties of Michigan

We found a decent inn and a tolerable breakfast, but the place itself was the image of desolation. It was one of those which had started into sudden life in speculating times, and the great mill, the great tavern and various other abortions had never known the luxury of a pane of glass or a paint-brush, nor did they bear marks of having at any time been occupied. A "variety store," offering for sale every possible article of merchandise, from lace gloves to gooseyokes, —ox-chains, tea-cups, boots and bonnets inclusive—displayed its tempting sign; but the clerk sat smoking on the steps, and a few loungers around him looked like whiskey-customers only. There was a banking-house, of course; and (also of course) it was closed, though the sign still stared impudently at the cheated passenger. And this was "Wellington!" Hollow honor for "le vainqueur du vainqueur du monde!"

After breakfast—at which, by the bye, Mr. Butts and his friend filled high places,—we bade adieu to the Margolds, who were to regain the great road after a few miles of further travel, while we took to the woods again. Before we parted, however, Mr. Butts sought occasion to call us to witness that he returned to Mr. Margold the bank-note which that gentleman had deposited on Mr. Gaston's table.

"You see, he ain't no hand to make a fuss, Gaston ain't; so he jist told me to give it to ye after you got away. And he said," added the agreeable youth with a smile, "that he'd rather you'd buy manners with it, if you could."

How Mr. Margold and his driver got on after we parted, I cannot pretend to say, but I must confess I did not find it difficult, on review of what had passed during our short acquaintance, to decide which party had been most deficient in propriety and good feeling.

Our way lay northward, through a broken and uneven tract, and the road wound round the base of high woody hills in many an intricate curve. This road is only one of Nature's laying. When it is what is technically called "laid," by the united wisdom of the district,—at present the owl and the fox are the only savans in the neighborhood,—it will go most determinedly straight up and straight down the hills, and in a "bee line," as we say, through the broadest marshes, if marshes lie in the way. We scorn to be turned aside when we are laying roads. Not that we run them in a direct line between the places we wish to connect. Nothing is further from our plan. We follow section lines most religiously, and consequently,—the sections being squares,—we shall in time have the pleasure of travelling zigzag at right angles, from one corner of the state to another. We do not submit to have notches and slices cut off our farms for the accommodation of the public. It fifty cents' worth of land would save digging down a hill or bridging a wide marsh at the expense of hundreds of dollars, no farmer would be found who would vote for so tyrannical a proceeding. Truly say Mons. De Tocqueville that ours is a most expensive mode of transacting public business. But as I was saying, our road was not "laid," so it was a very even and pleasant one, although it led through a rough country.

We had not yet lost the fresh breeze of the early morning, but the sun had become so powerful as to make the flickering shade of these scattered woods very delightful to us all. The children were never tired of watching the vagaries of the little chipmunk as he glanced from branch to branch with almost the swiftness of light, but they screamed with pleasure when the noise of our wheels started three young fawns that were quietly nested at the foot of a great oak, and now pursued their graceful flight over hill and hollow, lost to the sight at one moment, then reappearing on another eminence, and standing still to watch us, belling all the while. It was a pretty sight, and I was as much disappointed as the little folks when I found our fairy company had indeed left us, as the children said, "for good and all." On the whole, that morning ride was one of the pleasant trifles which one remembers for a long time.

Our scenery has been called tame. What is tame scenery? Is every landscape tame which cannot boast of mountains or cataracts? Save these I know of no feature of rural beauty in which our green peninsula is found wanting. If the richest meadow-land shut in by gently swelling hills and fringed with every variety of foliage—streams innumerable, not wild and dashing it is true, but rapid enough to insure purity—if lakes in unparalleled variety of size and figure, studded with islands and tenanted by multitudes of wild fowl—if these be elements of beauty, we may justly boast of our fair domain, and invoke the eye of the painter and the pen of the poet. No spot on earth possesses a more transparent atmosphere. If it be true of any region that "the glorious sun enriches so the bosom of the earth that trees and flowers appear but like so much enamel upon gold"— we may claim the description as our own. The heavenly bodies seem to smile upon us without an intervening medium. The lustre of the stars and the white guttering moonlight seem more pure and perfect here than elsewhere.

"That's a little sun, Papa!" said wee Willie, pointing with rapt admiration at the evening star; and it is not long since I uttered an exclamation at seeing what I supposed to be a crimson flame bursting over the roof of a house at a little distance, but which proved to be Mars just risen above the horizon, and showing an aspect which in warlike times could be considered nothing less than portentous.

This peculiar transparency in the atmosphere is strikingly evident in the appearance of the Aurora Borealis, which often looks to be so near us that one can almost fancy that the tall pines pierce its silvery depths and enjoy perpetual daylight.

Perhaps it is this that gives a charm to scenery which it has been the fashion to call tame. The waters are more like molten diamonds, and the herbage like living emeralds, because the lustrous sky brings out their hues in undimmed intensity, adding depth to shadow, and keeping back nothing of brilliancy. Philosophers might tell of refraction,—and painters of chiaroscuro—I have but one word—Beauty! and this expresses all that I know about that which fills me with delight.

We can at least boast some features unique and peculiar in our landscape—our "openings" and our wide savannahs are not to be found in Switzerland, I am sure. These—as to the picturesque which we are all wild about—bear something like the same proportion to the Alps that the fair, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked and tidy daughter of one of our good farmers, does to the Italian inprovisatrice with her wild black eyes and her soul of fire. There are many chances in favor of the farmer's daughter being the most comfortable person to live with, though she will attract no tourists to her soirees.

It is well understood that a large proportion of the new world was found but scantily clothed with timber. Immense tracts are covered but thinly with scattered trees, and these are almost exclusively of the different kinds of oak. By contrast with the heavily timbered land these tracts seem almost bare, and they have received the appropriate name of "oak-openings." Innumerable are the hypotheses by which the learned and the ingenious have attempted to account for this peculiarity of the country. Many have ascribed it to the annual fires which the Indians are known to have sent through the forest with the intention of clearing away the almost impervious under-brush which hindered their hunting. But the fact that the soil of the openings is ordinarily quite different in its characteristics from that of the timbered land seems to oblige us to seek further for a reason for so striking a difference in outward appearance. Much of our soil is said to be diluvial,—the wash of the great ocean lakes as they overflowed toward the south. This soil, which varies in depth from one foot to one hundred, (say the explorers,) is light and friable, but it is based upon something emphatically called "hard pan," which is supposed to prevent the roots of large trees from striking to a proper depth. Whether oak-openings are found only where the soil is one foot in thickness, or equally where it extends to one hundred, we are not informed, I believe; but in all cases the hard pan gets the blame, from one class of theorists at least, of the want of large timber in these park-like tracts of our pleasant land.

The other "feature" to which I alluded—a very wide and flat one—the prodigious amount of wet prairie or "marsh"—the produce of millions of springs which percolate in every direction this diluvial mass—it is said to promise magnificent resources of wealth for—our great-grandchildren. At present it yields, in the first place, agues of the first quality, and secondly, very tolerable wild grass for the cattle of the emigrant; which latter advantage is supposed very much to have aided in the rapid settlement of the country. People make their transit now as in the time of the patriarchs, with their flocks and their herds, certain of finding abundant though coarse food for the sustenance of all kinds of stock until they shall have had time to provide better.

As to future days, inexhaustible beds of peat and marl—the former to use as fuel when we shall have burned all the oaks, the latter to restore the exhausted soil to its pristine fertility—are to compensate to our descendants for the loss of energy and enterprise which we ancestors shall undoubtedly suffer through agues. So things will in time be equalized. We reap the advantages of the rich virgin soil; our hereafter is to find boundless wealth beneath its surface.

Not fewer than three thousand lakes—every one a mirror set in verdant velvet and bordered with the richest fringe—with a proportionate number of streams—the very threadiest capable of being dammed into a respectable duck-pond—supply moisture to our fields. What wonder then that those fields "stand dressed in living green!" One acre of water to less than forty of land! Small need, one would think, for artificial irrigation! Yet we have seen much suffering from drought, even in this land of water. For eighteen months, at one time, we of the interior had not a heavy shower, nor even a soft rain long enough continued to wet more than the surface of the ground. This lack of the ordinary supply of falling water is supposed to have effected materially the decrease of depth in the great lakes. Their periodical subsidence (a knotty subject, by the bye) went on much more rapidly than usual during that time. A smaller, though not unimportant, concomitant of the parching process was the thirst condition of the poor cattle, who had to be driven, in some cases, miles for each day's drink. They do not like their champaign without water, so that they really suffered. At such times, one is almost disposed to wish, in defiance of the picturesque, that the state was laid out like a checkerboard —a lake in every other quarter-section. I suppose however that no country—except Holland perhaps—is more thoroughly soaked than ours; so that, notwithstanding this one arid period, we need scarce fear that our history will be a dry one.

The quietly beautiful aspect of Michigan, tame though it be, is not without its consolations. Have not the learned agreed that people's characteristics usually bear some mysterious rapport to those of their native land? Few of our "natives" have as yet had time to show much character, but we as are bound to believe in the pretty notion that "lands gentle-featured, calm and softly fair, produce such men as should be dwellers there" —what of mildness, kindness and all the gentler virtues may we not augur for the rising race? It is true there may never be a William Tell among them, but the mountain hero was the bright creation of circumstances that will never arise in this sunny land of lakes. We can do without such, for we shall have no Gesslers.

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
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