A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
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A Backwoods Political Rally
Half a day's easy driving transported us from this scene of primitive simplicity and rudeness to a beautiful and populous town, whose hotel, spacious and elegant, and exceedingly well managed, offered some temptation to an extended stay, after our homely lodging at the old carpenter's, and sundry others not much more desirable. These contrasts are very striking in a new country. The settlement has been sudden, and very unequal, and you emerge from the untouched forest, through which you have been threading your way long enough almost to forget that there are such things as dwellings and enclosures, upon highly-cultivated farms and busy villages. These contrasts we may find in travelling any new country, but they are more striking in these newly-settled regions because of the wild freshness of the aspect of Nature in the intervening tracts. Immense trees give an air of solitary grandeur to the landscape, and the absence of everything like fence or dividing line of any sort, inspires ideas of immensity—of solitude—which make the sudden apparition of man and the traces of his busy hands produce a feeling akin to surprise.
After we left the woods we came out upon what had been, a few years since, a small prairie, now covered with loads of nodding grain, swayed by every passing breeze into the semblance of golden-brown billows. There are few more beautiful sights than a wheat-field full half a mile square, perfectly level, and unbroken by anything save perhaps here and there a fine old tree, promising a noontide shelter to the reapers. One does not wonder that such views suggested to the poets of old the images of laughter and singing.
The prairie-land passed, our road was a log-causeway; a long straight track through a dead swamp,—and in this all horrors are expressed, all mud-holes, all thumps, all impossibility of turning out. This was a pretty place in which to meet a political convention! a new kind of locomotive of immeasurable power, not very easily managed except by adepts.
It was a formidable apparition certainly; and we were fain to shrink into infinitesimal nothing ness, and to find a place for our outer wheels on the sloping ends of the corduroy, even at the risk of a souse into a sea of black mud; for there was a deep ditch on either side. The chance that even our sober steeds would endure the clatter of drums and fifes, cymbals and triangles,—noisy orators and still noisier singers,—was a small one; but there was no retreat, and we remained perched on our "bad eminence," until the whole procession had passed.
There were perhaps thirty vehicles, of which the smallest were large wagons, with four horses each. There were gaily painted barges—"canoes," I ought to say, in the spirit of the day,—mounted on wheels, and drawn by unnumbered if not innumerable steeds, and containing crowds of people; every man and every horse bearing a banner, inscribed either with high-sounding patriotism on a large scale, or with electioneering squibs on a very small one. There were rectangular countenances, drawn evidently with the aid of compass and square, and haloed round with snow-white fleece—accredited representatives of the much disfigured father of our country; then again, faces where in a very long drooping nose was surmounted by a pair of eyes that seemed running into one—awful travesties of the popular candidate. There were golden eagles spreading their gorgeous wings amid the stars, on fields of silk as blue as their own heaven, and raccoons enough (in effigy) to have fed the whole national eyry, if golden eagles could eat.
A huge ball was rolled along with great appearance of effort, by several men, and these actors, by their shouted watchwords and their various significant decorations, gave us to understand that the said ball typified the interest of their favorite. A miniature log-cabin, the very ditto of those by the road side, mounted on a platform spacious enough to carry much of the out-door arrangements of a settler's primitive establishment, was drawn by a long string of oxen, the tips of whose horns streamed with flags and knots of gay ribbon. The emblems which met the eye every moment embraced all degrees of ingenuity and absurdity, and the costume of those who exhibited them was almost equally various.
There was an Indian, in blue and red paint and a feather-petticoat, bearing a banner with the inscription, "Our best brave," here an impersonation of Liberty, strait-laced and anxious, in pink ribbons and black prunello boots. Now a car from which an orator was setting forth in no inelegant terms the pretensions of the idol; and anon another bearing his image, in the act of presenting a horse to a minister. Under the influence of omnipotent corduroy, the minister, first tottering like Mr. Stiggins, abominably knocked down by his benefactor, and the horse sympathetically tumbled on them both and completed the pyramid.
Such trifling disasters passed unfelt and almost unnoticed in the enthusiasm of the hour. Beneath all the little oddities which are almost inseparable from getting up a popular show on so large a scale with rather incongruous materials, there was evidently an under current of warm feeling and genuine interest which makes everything respectable; and however one might feel disposed to laugh at some particulars of the exhibition, there was an impressiveness about the whole which made one sensible of "the majesty of the people." For my own part I confess that this immense moving mass of life, with its alternations of war-like music, animated declamation, and sweet chorus of female voices, caused the blood to tingle in my veins and my heart to overflow at my eyes. Sympathy has wondrous power, and after waiting till the whole grotesque train had passed, we drove to the end of the corduroy, and then turned about, and, with a host of other gazers, followed the multitude.
The place of destination was a grove whose sylvan beauty never could be surpassed even in Michigan, which is all groves. It was at no great distance from the road, but it was in all the wildness of nature, and looked as if the axe had never yet profaned its hallowed aisles. Here, in the midst of primeval solitude and silence, a wide amphitheatre of rough benches,—the whole roofed in by noble oaks and maples, with "unpierced shade."
Rapidly, and with a silence and regularity which bespoke thorough drilling, did the immense assemblage dispose itself appropriately over the broad area,—the orators and officials taking their places upon the platform, where the banners were planted and arranged in very effective drapery,—the ladies on the front seats next to the music, and the common world on the remaining benches.
The Marseilleise was now performed—with verses by a native poet of course,—and the entire company joined in the chorus which imparted a stentorian energy to their "most sweet voices." A marshal now announced that a clergyman presented would "make a prayer," and the multitude stood, with heads uncovered, and in a throbbing silence, till it was finished. Then the band played and the ladies sang "Hail Columbia," and again the leafy canopy quivered to the excitement of the hour. Then came the speeches, blazing with patriotism, and touching, in their wide scope, on every disputed and disputable point in politics. And here I was much amused by a young gentleman furnished with a flag which he waved most graciously, bowing at every shout, as if to thank the "good friends, kind friends, sweet friends," who took his hints in such good part.
The "sentiments" were drank at intervals, in very innocent liquids; so that if there was truth in the rapture of the hour, it was not wine that brought it out. Everybody seemed to feel, to the heart's core, all the privileges, advantages, rights, grievances, and hopes, on which the chosen orators harangued so warmly, and I doubt not that vows were made that day which told afterwards for good or evil, in opinion and action.
All this time the sun had been trying his best to look in upon the animated scene, and although his vertical rays scarce succeeded in checkering here, and there a portion of the well-trodden green sward, yet the atmosphere confessed his power so unreservedly, that some of the ladies began to be very restless, and some even threatened an interlude of fainting-fits. One who sat near the stage with a child in her lap, insisted upon having the glass of water which had been placed on a table for the speaker handed down for the use of her baby, returning the remnant very coolly,—a mixed crystal, to say the least.
So it was judged best to adjourn for refreshment; and on the announcement, all was renewed animation in a moment. The band played, the ladies fluttered,—and the result of all was a very long procession on foot, in which "woman," as the toast have it, bore a conspicuous part;—each fair hand carrying a bough, which our imaginations were bound to convert into palm or laurel, (I spare thee "Birnam wood," O reader!) and every swanlike throat trilling with most patriotic sentiments, married to popular airs, and stirring every heart as with the sound of a trumpet.
The long array passed over an open glade where the sun's rays were of the strongest, but this served only to enhance the delicious coolness of the shade which soon enveloped us—a shade, to form which, even the dense woods had been aided by great awnings, and bowers within bowers formed of immense branches and thick-leaved vines.
These varied and far-reaching canopies, adorned with wreaths of wild flowers and gay flags with emblematic devices, formed a splendid dining-hall, within whose circuit all the rural luxuries that most laborious search could procure had been displayed with a taste which, though it might not shine in more cultivated regions, certainly did honor to the Western wilderness. Huge venison pasties, such as (if we may believe veracious chroniclers‚ kings have ere now revelled in; wild turkeys prodigious as any tame ones to be found at the Sublime Porte; roast pigs delicate and crisp as those which run about the land of Cokaigne, crying, "Who'll eat me?" chickens in all attitudes, and pork under all disguises;—these were among the more solid and noticeable items of good cheer. But to give even a passing glance at the feminine contributions belonging to the department of the dessert, and in the preparation of which all the female skill of the county had been, as it were, brought to a focus,—this was a hopeless task, and especially to one who could not even guess at the names of half the recondite compositions that adorned the "lily lawn."
Here and there might be observed something in contrast to the general good taste; such as an unfortunate stag, roasted (or half roasted) whole, and standing, antlers and all, as if alive; only, alas! "upon another footing now!" propped in his erect posture by flower-wreathed sticks, and, in this position, sliced and eaten, after a fashion which ought to have sickened any but Abyssinians.
The immortal johnny-cake figured under every conceivable form,—round and square, rhomboid and parallelopipedon,—stuck with roses, or basted with gravy,—johnny-cake was everywhere—she was the universe." Hard cider there was none,—an inevitable omission; for either it had been all consumed at previous conventions, or the apple-trees of the neighborhood belonged to the opposite party, and there was none to be had. The song of "Drink to me only with thine eyes" might have been appropriate as suggesting some consolation in this emergency, but I believe the devotees pledged each other in the pure element—indeed I should judge it must have been so, from the exceeding order and good-humor of the day.
The zest with which the people, individually and collectively, attacked the godly array, would have silenced the veriest croaker on the subject of Western agues.
Talk of city feasts! Your true alderman never earns an all-sanctifying appetite by rising three hours before day, and walking ten or twenty miles without tasting food beyond a crust of bread. He can never know the true gusto of roast pig, far less of johnny-cake. When he sits down at six to his turtle he may indeed have eaten "nothing to signify," since lunch; but that very lunch and its unconsidered sequence have stolen away all the piquancy from his dinner, and he might rationally, in his character of gourmet, envy the hardy backwoodsman his simplest cheer, with the accompaniment of his ordinary and sometimes rather importunate appetite. On this special occasion, there was not only the well-earned relish, but the choicest opportunity for its gratification, and the result must be left to the imagination of the reader.
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What changes may be wrought in one little hour! Where be now the shining roast—the delicate boiled—the patés—the pyramids—the temples—the universal johnny-cake?
The "banquet hall deserted,"—the theatre with its latest lamp expiring—the once trim deck after a sharply contested action,—these are sad images; but such a table after all are satisfied save a few voracious stragglers!
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We waited not to hear the concluding address. It may have been a good one,—I dare say it was,—but I fear it fell upon dull ears. We hastened onward, passed the log-causeway again, and reached the fine hotel at _______, two hours before the procession reentered the town. We retired early after the fatigues of the day, forgetting that there might be such a thing as a ball-room at ______ House. Fatal error! Those who had marched, and shouted, and sung, and eaten, in honor of their far-distant favorite, thought not the rites complete until they had expended the remainder of their energies in dancing. Violins squeaked without stint or mercy, and till gray dawn did the house quiver in unison with the superhuman efforts of patriotic heels and elbows.
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