Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Garden in the Wilderness

" Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. " Matthew 4:1

William Bartram returned to Fort Prince George, South Carolina on May 30, 1775, after a week of botanical exploration along the Little Tennessee River. When I tried to return to Fort Prince George a few years ago, I found it covered by the waters of Lake Keowee. A sign at the edge of the lake instructed me to leave without delay if I heard warning sirens from the nearby nuclear reactor.

Every May, I have Bartram on my mind, thanks to his account of travel to the Cherokee Middle Towns in 1775.
I can’t think about wild strawberries without thinking about Bartram’s famous encounter with a party of berry-picking maidens.

And I realize more than ever that the length of Bartram’s visit to the Southern mountains was entirely inadequate for the subject of his study. He investigated plenty of spring flora during his week in the Tennessee Valley. But I wonder what else Bartram might have discovered if he had arrived a couple of weeks earlier or stayed a couple of weeks longer.

Bartram, though, wasn’t merely cataloging plant specimens. He was recording a perspective on the Garden in the Wilderness. Whenever I take the short drive from Clayton, Georgia to Franklin, NC, I picture the world that Bartram saw as he followed the same course across the Blue Ridge Divide:

I OBSERVED growing in great abundance in these mountain meadows, Sanguiforba Canadensis and Heracleum maximum, the latter exhibiting a fine shew, being rendered conspicuous even at a great distance, by its great height and spread, vast pennatified leaves and expansive umbels of snow-white flowers; the swelling bases of the surrounding hills fronting the meadows, present, for my acceptance, the fragrant red strawberry, in painted beds of many acres surface, indeed I may safely say many hundreds.

AFTER passing through this meadow, the road led me over the bases of a ridge of hills, which as a bold promontory dividing the fields I had just passed, form expansive green lawns. On these towering hills appeared the ruins of the ancient famous town of Sticoe. [today’s Clayton, GA] Here was a vast Indian mount or tumulus and great terrace, on which stood the council-house, with banks encompassing their circus; here were also old Peach and Plumb orchards, some of the trees appeared yet thriving and fruitful; presently after leaving these ruins, the vale and fields are divided by means of a spur of the mountains pushing forward; here likewise the road forked, the left hand path continued up the mountains to the Overhill towns; I followed the vale to the right hand, and soon began again to ascend the hills, riding several miles over very rough, stony land, yielding the like vegetable productions as heretofore; and descending again gradually, by a dubious winding path, leading into a narrow vale and lawn, through which rolled on before me a delightful brook, water of the Tanase; I crossed it and continued a mile or two down the meadows, when the high mountains on each side suddenly receding, discover the opening of the extensive and fruitful vale of Cowe, through which meanders the head branch of the Tanase, almost from its source, sixty miles, following its course down to Cowe.

I LEFT the stream for a little while, passing swiftly and foaming over its rocky bed, lashing the steep craggy banks, and then suddenly sunk from my sight, murmuring hollow and deep under the rocky surface of the ground: on my right hand the vale expands, receiving a pretty silvery brook of water, which came hastily down from the adjacent hills, and entered the river a little distance before me; I now turn from the heights on my left, the road leading into the level lawns, to avoid the hollow rocky grounds, full of holes and cavities, arching over the river, through which the waters are seen gliding along, but the river is soon liberated from these solitary and gloomy recesses, and appears waving through the green plain before me. I continued several miles, pursuing my serpentine path, through and over the meadows and green fields, and crossing the river, which is here incredibly increased in size, by the continual accession of brooks flowing in from the hills on each side, dividing their green turfy beds, forming them into parterres, vistas and verdant swelling knolls, profusely productive of flowers and fragrant strawberries, their rich juice dying my horses feet and ancles.

THESE swelling hills, the prolific beds on which the towering mountains repose, seem to have been the common situations of the towns of the ancients, as appear from the remaining ruins of them yet to be seen; and the level rich vale and meadows in front, their planting grounds.

In 1833, Timothy Flint published The History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley. One passage caught my attention because Flint, like Bartram, revealed the idea (or ideal) of the Garden in the Wilderness. According to Flint’s account of white settlers immigrating to Missouri, the Wilderness celebrated their arrival:

Springs burst forth in the intervals between the high and low grounds. The brilliant red bird seen flitting among the shrubs, or perched on a tree, in its hollow whistle seems welcoming the immigrant to his new abode. Flocks of paroquets are glittering among the trees, and gray squirrels are skipping from branch to branch. The chanticleer rings his echoing note among the woods, and the domestic sounds and the baying of the dogs produce a strange cheerfulness, as heard in the midst of trees, where no habitation is seen. Pleasing reflections and happy associations are naturally connected with the contemplation of those beginnings of social toil in the wilderness.

In the midst of these solitary and primeval scenes the patient and laborious father fixes his family. In a few days a comfortable cabin and other out buildings are erected. The first year gives a plentiful crop of corn, and common and sweet potatoes, melons, squashes, turnips, and other garden vegetables. The next year a field of wheat is added, and lines of thrifty apple trees show among the deadened trees. If the immigrant possess any touch of horticultural taste, the finer kinds of pear, plum, cherry, peach, nectarine and apricot trees are found in the garden. In ten years the log buildings will all have disappeared. The shrub and forest trees will be gone. The arcadian aspect of humble and retired abundance and comfort will have given place to a brick house, or a painted frame house, with fences and out buildings very like those, that surround abodes in the olden countries.

It is a wise arrangement of providence, that different minds are endowed with different tastes and predilections, that lead some to choose the town, others manufactures, and the village callings. It seems to us that no condition, in itself considered, promises more comfort, and tends more to virtue and independence, than that of these western yeomen, with their numerous, healthy and happy children about them; with the ample abundance of their granaries; their habitation surrounded by orchards, the branches of which must he propped to sustain I heir fruit, beside their beautiful streams and cool beach woods, and the prospect of settling each of their children on similar farms directly around them. Their manners may have something of the roughness imparted by living in solitude among the trees; but it is kindly, hospitable, frank, and associated with the traits, that constitute the stability of our republic. We apprehend, such farmers would hardly be willing to exchange this plenty, and this range of their simple domains, their well filled granaries, and their droves of domestic animals for any mode of life, that a town can offer.

No order of things presents so palpable a view of the onward march of American institutions as this. The greater portion of these immigrants, beside their wives, a few benches and chairs, a bible and a gun, commenced with little more than their hands. Their education for the most part, extended no farther than reading and writing, and their aspirations had never strayed beyond the desire of making a farm. But a sense of relative consequence is fostered by their growing possessions, and by perceiving towns, counties, offices and candidates springing up around them. One becomes a justice of the peace, another a county judge and another a member of the legislative assembly. Each one assumes some municipal function, pertaining to schools, the settlement of a minister, the making of roads, bridges, and public works. A sense of responsibility to public opinion, self respect, and a due estimation of character and correct deportment are the consequence.

This pleasant view of the commencement and progress of an immigrant is the external one. Unhappily there is another point of view, from which we may learn something what has been passing in his mind, during this physical onward progress.

All the members of the establishment have been a hundred times afflicted with that gloomy train of feeling, for which we have no better name than home sickness. All the vivid perceptions of enjoyment of the forsaken place are keenly remembered, the sorrows overlooked, or forgotten. The distant birth place, the remembrance of years that are gone, returning to memory amidst the actual struggles of forming a new establishment, an effort full of severe labor, living in a new world, making acquaintance with a new nature, competing with strangers, always seeming to uneducated people, as they did to the ancients, as enemies, these contrasts of the present with the mellowed visions of memory, all tend to bitterness. We never understand how many invisible ties of habit we sever in leaving our country, until we find ourselves in a strange land. The old pursuits and ways of passing time, of which we took little note as they passed, where there are new forms of society, new institutions, new ways of managing every thing that belongs to the social edifice, in a word, a complete change of the whole circle of associations, feelings, and habits, come over the mind, like a cloud.

The immigrant, in the pride of his remembrances, begins to extol the country he has left, its inhabitants, laws, institutions. The listener has an equal stock. of opposite prejudices. The pride of the one wounds the pride of the other. The weakness of human nature is never more obvious, than in these meetings of neighbors in a new country, each fierce and loud in extolling his own country, and detracting from all others in comparison. These narrow and vile prejudices spread from family to family, and create little clans political, social, religious, hating and hated. No generous project for a school, church, library, or public institution, on a broad and equal scale, can prosper, amidst such an order of things. It is a sufficient reason, that one clan proposes it for another to oppose it. All this springs from one of the deepest instincts of our nature, a love of country, which, like a transplanted tree, in removing has too many fibres broken off, to flourish at once in a new soil. The immigrant meets with sickness, misfortune, disaster. There are peculiar strings in the constitution of human nature, which incline him to repine, and imagine that the same things would not have befallen him in his former abode. He even finds the vegetables, fruits, and meats, though apparently finer, less savory and nutritive, than those of the old country.

Under the pressure of such illusions, many an immigrant has forsaken his cabin, returned to his parent country, found this mockery of his fancies playing at cross purposes with him, and showing him an abandoned paradise in the western woods, and father land the country of penury and disaster. A second removal, perhaps, instructs him that most of the causes of our dissatisfaction and disgust, that we imagine have their origin in external things, really exist in the mind.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

To the emigrants from towns and villages in the Atlantic country, though they may have thought little of religious institutions at home, the absence of the church, with its spire, and its sounds of the church-going bell, of the village bustle, and the prating of the village tavern, are felt as serious privations. The religious discourses so boisterous and vehement, and in a tone and phrase so different from the calm tenor of what he used to hear, at first produce a painful revulsion not wholly unmixed with disgust. He finds no longer those little circles of company, into which he used to drop, to relax a leisure hour, which, it may be, were not much prized in the enjoyment, but are now felt as a serious want. Nothing shocks him so much, as to see his neighbor sicken and die, unsolaced by the voice of religious instruction and prayer, and carried to his long home without funeral services. These are some of the circumstances, that, in the new settlements, call up the tender recollections of a forsaken home to embitter the present.

These are the dark sides of the picture of immigration. But there is, perhaps, less romance in. the American character, than in that of any other people; and every thing in our institutions tends to banish the little that remains. We are a people to estimate vendible and tangible realities. Imaginary and unreal sorrows and disgusts gradually yield before an estimate of the value of abundance and independence. More than half the inhabitants of the western country still dwell in cabins; and to those who know how much general contentment with their lot, moral and sturdy hardihood, guileless honesty, and blitheness of heart these humble establishments generally contain, they bring associations of repose and abstraction from ambitious and artificial wants, and present on the whole, a balance of real and homefelt comfort and enjoyment.

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