Here to return to
A CHARACTER STUDY.
THERE has been a lively inquiry after the primeval man. Wanted, a man who would satisfy the conditions of the miocene environment, and yet would be good enough for an ancestor. We are not particular about our ancestors, if they are sufficiently remote; but we must have something. Failing to apprehend the primeval man, science has sought the primitive man where he exists as a survival in present savage races. He is, at best, only a mushroom growth of the recent period (came in, probably, with the general raft of mammalian fauna); but he possesses yet some rudimentary traits that may be studied.
It is a good mental exercise to try to fix the mind on the primitive man divested of all the attributes he has acquired in his struggles with the other mammalian fauna. Fix the mind on an orange, the ordinary occupation of the meta- physician: take from it (without eating it) odor, color, weight, form, substance, and peel; then let the mind still dwell on it as an orange. The experiment is perfectly successful; only, at the end of it, you haven’t any mind. Better still, consider the telephone: take away from it the metallic disk, and the magnetized iron, and the connecting wire, and then let the mind run abroad on the telephone. The mind won’t come back. I have tried by this sort of process to get a conception of the primitive man. I let the mind roam away back over the vast geologic spaces, and sometimes fancy I sec a dim image of him stalking across the terrace epoch of the quaternary period.
But this is an unsatisfying pleasure. The best results are obtained by studying the primitive man as he is left here and there in our era, a witness of what has been; and I find him most to my mind in the Adirondack system, of what geologists call the Champlain epoch. I suppose the primitive man is one who owes more to nature than to the forces of civilization. What we seek in him are the primal and original traits, unmixed with the sophistications of society, and unimpaired by the refinements of an artificial culture. He would retain the primitive instincts, which are cultivated out of the ordinary, commonplace man. I should expect to find him, by reason of an unrelinquished kinship, enjoying a special communion with nature, — admitted to its mysteries, understanding its moods, and able to predict its vagaries. He would be a kind of test to us of what we have lost by our gregarious acquisitions. On the one hand, there would be the sharpness of the senses, the keen instincts (which the fox and the beaver still possess), the ability to find one’s way in the pathless forest, to follow a trail, to circumvent the wild denizens of the woods; and, on the other hand, there would be the philosophy of life which the primitive man, with little external aid, would evolve from original observation and cogitation. It is our good fortune to know such a man; but it is difficult to present him to a scientific and cavilling generation. He emigrated from somewhat limited conditions in Vermont, at an early age, nearly half a century ago, and sought freedom for his natural development backward in the wilds of the Adirondacks. Sometimes it is a love of adventure and freedom that sends men out of the more civilized conditions into the less; sometimes it is a constitutional physical lassitude which leads them to prefer the rod to the hoe, the trap to the sickle, and the society of bears to town-meetings and taxes. I think that Old Mountain Phelps had merely the instincts of the primitive man, and never any hostile civilizing intent as to the wilderness into which he plunged. Why should he want to slash away the forest, and plough up the ancient mould, when it is infinitely pleasanter to roam about in the leafy solitudes, or sit upon a mossy log and listen to the chatter of birds and the stir of beasts? Are there not trout in the streams, gum exuding from the spruce, sugar in the maples, honey in the hollow trees, fur on the sables, warmth in hickory-logs? Will not a few days planting and scratching in the “open” yield potatoes and rye? And, if there is steadier diet needed than venison and bear, is the pig an expensive animal? If Old Phelps bowed to the prejudice or fashion of his age (since we have come out of the tertiary state of things), and reared a family, built a frame-house in a secluded nook by a cold spring, planted about it some apple-trees and a rudimentary garden, and in stalled a group of flaming sunflowers by the door, I am convinced that it was a concession that did not touch his radical character; that is to say, it did not impair his reluctance to split oven-wood.
He was a true citizen of the wilderness. Thoreau would have liked him, as he liked Indians and woodchucks, and the smell of pine- forests; and, if Old Phelps had seen Thoreau, he would probably have said to him, “Why on airth, Mr. Thoreau, don’t you live accordin’ to your preachin’?” You might be misled by the shaggy suggestion of Old Phelps’s given name — Orson — into the notion that he was a mighty hunter, with the fierce spirit of the Berserkers in his veins. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The hirsute and grisly sound of Orson expresses only his entire affinity with the untamed and the natural, an uncouth but gentle passion for the freedom and wildness of the forest. Orson Phelps has only those unconventional and humorous qualities of the bear which make the animal so beloved in literature; and one does not think of Old Phelps so much as a lover of nature, — to use the sentimental slang of the period, — as a part of nature itself.
His appearance at the time when as a “guide” he began to come into public notice fostered this impression, — a sturdy figure, with long body and short legs, clad in a woollen shirt and butternut-colored trousers repaired to the point of picturesqueness, his head surmounted by a limp, light-brown felt hat, frayed away at the top, so that his yellowish hair grew out of it like some nameless fern out of a pot. His tawny hair was long and tangled, matted now many years past the possibility of being entered by a comb. His features were small and delicate, and set in the frame of a reddish beard, the razor having mowed away a clearing about the sensitive mouth, which was not seldom wreathed with a child-like and charming smile. Out of this hirsute environment looked the small gray eyes, set near together; eyes keen to observe, and quick to express change of thought; eyes that made you believe instinct can grow into philosophic judgment. His feet and hands were of aristocratic smallness, although the latter were not worn away by ablutions; in fact, they assisted his toilet to give you the impression that here was a man who had just come out of the ground, — a real son of the soil, whose appearance was partially explained by his humorous relation to soap. “Soap is a thing,” he said, “that I hain’t no kinder use for.” His clothes seemed to have been put on him once for all, like the bark of a tree, a long time ago. The observant stranger was sure to be puzzled by the contrast of this realistic and uncouth exterior with the internal fineness, amounting to refinement and culture, that shone through it all. What communion had supplied the place of our artificial breeding to this man?
Perhaps his most characteristic attitude was sitting on a log, with a short pipe in his mouth. If ever man was formed to sit on a log, it was Old Phelps. He was essentially a contemplative person. Walking on a country road, or anywhere in the “open,” was irksome to him. He had a shambling, loose-jointed gait, not unlike that of the bear: his short legs bowed out, as if they had been more in the habit of climbing trees than of walking. On land, if we may use that expression, he was something like a sailor; but, once in the rugged trail or the unmarked route of his native forest, he was a different person, and few pedestrians could compete with him. The vulgar estimate of his contemporaries, that reckoned Old Phelps “lazy,” was simply a failure to comprehend the conditions of his being. It is the unjustness of civilization that it sets up uniform and artificial standards for all persons The primitive man suffers by them much as the contemplative philosopher does, when one happens to arrive in this busy, fussy world.
If the appearance of Old Phelps attracts attention, his voice, when first heard, invariably startles the listener. A small, high-pitched, half-querulous voice, it easily rises into the shrillest falsetto; and it has a quality in it that makes it audible in all the tempests of the forest, or the roar of rapids, like the piping of a boatswain’s whistle at sea in a gale. He has a way of letting it rise as his sentence goes on, or when he is opposed in argument, or wishes to mount above other voices in the conversation, until it dominates everything. Heard in the depths of the woods, quavering aloft, it is felt to be as much a part of nature, an original force, as the north-west wind or the scream of the hen-hawk. When he is pottering about the camp-fire, trying to light his pipe with a twig held in the flame, he is apt to begin some philosophical observation in a small, slow, stumbling voice, which seems about to end in defeat; when he puts on some unsuspected force, and the sentence ends in an insistent shriek. Horace Greeley had such a voice, and could regulate it in the same manner. But Phelps’s voice is not seldom plaintive, as if touched by the dreamy sadness of the woods themselves.
When Old Mountain Phelps was discovered, he was, as the reader has already guessed, not understood by his contemporaries. His neighbors, farmers in the secluded valley, had many of them grown thrifty and prosperous, cultivating the fertile meadows, and vigorously attacking the timbered mountains; while Phelps, with not much more faculty of acquiring property than the roaming deer, had pursued the even tenor of the life in the forest on which he set out. They would have been surprised to be told that Old Phelps owned more of what makes the value of the Adirondacks than all of them put together; but it was true. This woodsman, this trapper, this hunter, this fisherman, this sitter on a log, and philosopher, was the real proprietor of the region over which he was ready to guide the stranger. It is true that he had not a monopoly of its geography or its topography (though his knowledge was superior in these respects); there were other trappers, and more deadly hunters, and as intrepid guides: but Old Phelps was the discoverer of the beauties and sublimities of the mountains; and, when city strangers broke into the region, he monopolized the appreciation of these delights and wonders of nature. I suppose, that, in all that country, he alone had noticed the sunsets, and observed the delightful processes of the seasons, taken pleasure in the woods for themselves, and climbed mountains solely for the sake of the prospect. He alone understood what was meant by “scenery.” In the eyes of his neighbors, who did not know that he was a poet and a philosopher, I dare say he appeared to be a slack provider, a rather shiftless trapper and fisherman; and his passionate love of the forest and the mountains, if it was noticed, was accounted to him for idleness. When the appreciative tourist arrived, Phelps was ready, as guide, to open to him all the wonders of his possessions: he, for the first time, found an outlet for his enthusiasm, and a response to his own passion. It then became known what manner of man this was who had grown up here in the companionship of forests, mountains, and wild animals; that these scenes had highly developed in him the love of beauty, the aesthetic sense, delicacy of appreciation, refinement of feeling; and that, in his solitary wanderings and musings, the primitive man, self-taught, had evolved for himself a philosophy and a system of things. And it was a sufficient system, so long as it was not disturbed by external scepticism. When the outer world came to him, perhaps he had about as much to give to it as to receive from it; probably more, in his own estimation; for there is no conceit like that of isolation.
Phelps loved his mountains. He was the discoverer of Marcy, and caused the first trail to be cut to its summit, so that others could enjoy the noble views from its round and rocky top. To him it was, in noble symmetry and beauty, the chief mountain of the globe. To stand on it gave him, as he said, “a feeling of heaven uph’isted-ness.” He heard with impatience that Mount Washington was a thousand feet higher, and he had a child-like incredulity about the sur passing sublimity of the Alps. Praise of any other elevation he seemed to consider a slight to Mount Marcy, and did not willingly hear it, any more than a lover hears the laudation of the beauty of another woman than the one he loves. When he showed us scenery he loved, it made him melancholy to have us speak of scenery else where that was finer. And yet there was this delicacy about him, that he never over-praised what he brought us to see, any more than one would over-praise a friend of whom he was fond. I remember, that when for the first time, after a toilsome journey through the forest, the splendors of the Lower Ausable Pond broke upon our vision, — that low-lying silver lake, imprisoned by the precipices which it reflected in its bosom, — he made no outward response to our burst of admiration: only a quiet gleam of the eye showed the pleasure our appreciation gave him. As some one said, it was as if his friend had been admired, — a friend about whom he was unwilling to say much himself, but well pleased to have, others praise. Thus far, we have considered Old Phelps as simply the product of the Adirondacks; not so much a self-made man (as the doubtful phrase has it) as a natural growth amid primal forces. But our study is interrupted by another influence, which complicates the problem, but increases its interest. No scientific observer, so far as we know, has ever been able to watch the development of the primitive man, played upon and fashioned by the hebdomadal iteration of “Greeley’s Weekly Tri-bune” Old Phelps educated by the woods is a fascinating study; educated by the woods and the Tri-bune, he is a phenomenon. No one at this day can reasonably conceive exactly what this newspaper was to such a mountain valley as Keene. If it was not a Providence, it was a Bible. It was no doubt owing to it that Democrats became as scarce as moose in the Adirondacks. But it is not of its political aspect that I speak. I suppose that the most cultivated and best informed portion of the earth’s, surface — the Western Reserve of Ohio, as free from conceit as it is from a suspicion that it lacks any thing — owes its pre-eminence solely to this comprehensive journal. It received from it every thing except a collegiate and a classical education, things not to be desired, since they interfere with the self-manufacture of man. If Greek had been in this curriculum, its best known dictum would have been translated, “Make thyself.” This journal carried to the community that fed on it not only a complete education in all departments of human practice and theorizing, but the more valuable and satisfying assurance that there was nothing more to be gleaned in the universe worth the attention of man. This panoplied its readers in completeness. Politics, literature, arts, sciences, universal brotherhood and sisterhood, — nothing was omitted; neither the poetry of Tennyson, nor the philosophy of Margaret Fuller; neither the virtues of association, nor of unbolted wheat. The laws of political economy and trade were laid down as positively and clearly as the best way to bake beans, and the saving truth that the millennium would com, and come only when every foot of the earth was subsoiled.
I do not say that Orson Phelps was the product of nature and the Tri-bune; but he cannot be explained without considering these two factors. To him Greeley was the Tri-bune, and the Tri-bune was Greeley; and yet I think he conceived of Horace Greeley as something greater than his newspaper, and perhaps capable of producing another journal equal to it in another part of the universe. At any rate, so completely did Phelps absorb this paper and this personality, that he was popularly known as “Greeley” in the region where he lived. Perhaps a fancied resemblance of the two men in the popular mind had some thing to do with this transfer of name. There is no doubt that Horace Greeley owed his vast influence in the country to his genius, nor much doubt that he owed his popularity in the rural districts to James Gordon Bennett; that is, to the personality of the man which the ingenious Bennett impressed upon the country. That he despised the conventionalities of society, and was a sloven in his toilet, was firmly believed; and the belief endeared him to the hearts of the people. To them “the old white coat” — an antique garment of unrenewed immortality — was as much a subject of idolatry as the redingote grise to the soldiers of the first Napoleon, who had seen it by the camp-fires on the Po and on the Borysthenes, and believed that he would come again in it to lead them against the enemies of France. The Greeley of the popular heart was clad as Bennett said he was clad. It was in vain, even pathetically in vain, that he published in his newspaper the full bill of his fashionable tailor (the fact that it was receipted may have excited the animosity of some of his contemporaries) to show that he wore the best broadcloth, and that the folds of his trousers followed the city fashion of falling outside his boots. If this revelation was believed, it made no sort of impression in the country. The rural readers were not to be wheedled out of their cherished conception of the personal appearance of the philosophy of the Tri-bune.
That the Tri-bune taught Old Phelps to be more Phelps than he would have been without it was part of the independence-teaching mission of Greeley’s paper. The subscribers were an army, in which every man was a general. And I am not surprised to find Old Phelps lately rising to the audacity of criticising his exemplar. In some recently-published observations by Phelps upon the philosophy of reading is laid down this definition: “If I understand the necessity or use of reading, it is to reproduce again what has been said or proclaimed before. Hence letters, characters, &c., are arranged in all the perfection they possibly can be, to show how certain language has been spoken by the original author. Now, to reproduce by reading, the reading should be so perfectly like the original, that no one standing out of sight could tell the reading from the first time the language was spoken.”
This is illustrated by the highest authority at hand: “I have heard as good readers read, and as poor readers, as almost any one in this region. If I have not heard as many, I have had a chance to hear nearly the extreme in variety. Horace Greeley ought to have been a good read er. Certainly but few, if any, ever knew every word of the English language at a glance more readily than he did, or knew the meaning of every mark of punctuation more clearly; but he could not read proper. But how do you know? says one. From the fact, I heard him in the same lecture deliver or produce remarks in his own particular way, that, if they had been published properly in print, a proper reader would have reproduced them again the same way. In the midst of those remarks Mr. Greeley took up a paper, to reproduce by reading part of a speech that some one else had made; and his reading did not sound much more like the man that first lead or made the speech than the clatter of a nail-factory sounds like a well-delivered speech. Now, the fault was not because Mr. Greeley did not know how to read as well as almost any man that ever lived, if not quite: but in his youth he learned to read wrong; and, as it is ten times harder to unlearn any thing than it is to learn it, he, like thousands of others, could never stop to unlearn it, but carried it on through his whole life.”
Whether a reader would be thanked for reproducing one of Horace Greeley’s lectures as he delivered it is a question that cannot detain us here; but the teaching that he ought to do so, I think, would please Mr. Greeley.
The first driblets of professional tourists and summer boarders who arrived among the Adirondack Mountains a few years ago found Old Phelps the chief and best guide of the region. Those who were eager to throw off the usages of civilization, and tramp and camp in the wilderness, could not but be well satisfied with the aboriginal appearance of this guide; and when he led off into the woods, axe in hand, and a huge canvas sack upon his shoulders, they seemed to be following the Wandering Jew. The contents of this sack would have furnished a modern industrial exhibition, — provisions cooked and raw, blankets, maple-sugar, tin-ware, clothing, pork, Indian-meal, flour, coffee, tea, &c. Phelps was the ideal guide: he knew every foot of the pathless forest; he knew all wood-craft, all the signs of the weather, or, what is the same thing, how to make a Delphic prediction about it. He was fisherman and hunter, and had been the comrade of sportsmen and explorers; and his enthusiasm for the beauty and sublimity of the region, and for its untamable wildness, amounted to a passion. He loved his profession; and yet it very soon appeared that he exercised it with reluctance for those who had neither ideality, nor love for the woods. Their presence was a profanation amid the scenery he loved. To guide into his private and secret haunts a party that had no appreciation of their loveliness disgusted him. It was a waste of his time to conduct flippant young men and giddy girls who made a noisy and irreverent lark of the expedition. And for their part, they did not appreciate the benefit of being accompanied by a poet and a philosopher. They neither understood nor valued his special knowledge and his shrewd observations: they didn’t even like his shrill voice; his quaint talk bored them. It was true, that, at this period, Phelps had lost something of the activity of his youth; and the habit of contemplative sitting on a log and talking increased with the infirmities induced by the hard life of the woodsman. Perhaps he would rather talk, either about the woods-life or the various problems of existence, than cut wood, or busy himself in the drudgery of the camp. His critics went so far as to say, “Old Phelps is a fraud.” They would have said the same of Socrates. Xantippe, who never appreciated the world in which Socrates lived, thought he was lazy. Probably Socrates could cook no better than Old Phelps, and no doubt went “gumming” about Athens with very little care of what was in the pot for dinner.
If the summer visitors measured Old Phelps, he also measured them by his own standards, lie used to write out what he called “short-faced descriptions” of his comrades in the woods, which were never so flattering as true. It was curious to see how the various qualities which are esteemed in society appeared in his eyes, looked at merely in their relation to the limited world he knew, and judged by their adaptation to the primitive life. It was a much subtler comparison than that of the ordinary guide, who rates his traveller by his ability to endure on a march, to carry a pack, use an oar, hit a mark, or sing a song. Phelps brought his people to a test of their naturalness and sincerity, tried by contact with the verities of the woods. If a person failed to appreciate the woods, Phelps had no opinion of him or his culture; and yet, although he was perfectly satisfied with his own philosophy of life, worked out by close observation of nature and study of the Tri-bune, he was always eager for converse with superior minds, — with those who had the advantage of travel and much reading, and, above all, with those who had any original “speckerlation.” Of all the society he was ever permitted to enjoy, I think he prized most that of Dr. Bushnell. The doctor enjoyed the quaint and first-hand observations of the old woodsman, and Phelps found new worlds open to him in the wide ranges of the doctor’s mind. They talked by the hour upon all sorts of themes, — the growth of the tree, the habits of wild animals, the migration of seeds, the succession of oak and pine, not to mention theology, and the mysteries of the supernatural.
I recall the bearing of Old Phelps, when, several years ago, he conducted a party to the summit of Mount Marcy by the way he had “bushed out.” This was his mountain, and he had a peculiar sense of ownership in it. In a way, it was holy ground; and he would rather no one should go on it who did not feel its sanctity. Perhaps it was a sense of some divine relation in it that made him always speak of it as “Mercy.” To him this ridiculously dubbed Mount Marcy was always “Mount Mercy.” By a like effort to soften the personal offensiveness of the nomenclature of this region, he invariably spoke of Dix’s Peak, one of the southern peaks of the range, as “Dixie.” It was some time since Phelps him self had visited his mountain; and, as he pushed on through the miles of forest, we noticed a kind of eagerness in the old man, as of a lover going to a rendezvous. Along the foot of the mountain flows a clear trout-stream, secluded and undisturbed in those awful solitudes, which is the “Mercy Brook” of the old woodsman. That day when he crossed it, in advance of his company, he was heard to say in a low voice, as if greeting some object of which he was shyly fond. “So, little brook, do I meet you once more?”
and when we were well up the mountain, and emerged from the last stunted fringe of vegetation upon the rock-bound slope, I saw Old Phelps, who was still foremost, cast himself upon the ground, and heard him cry, with an enthusiasm that was intended for no mortal ear, “I’m with you once again!” His great passion very rarely found expression in any such theatrical burst. The bare summit that day was swept by a fierce, cold wind, and lost in an occasional chilling cloud. Some of the party, exhausted by the climb, and shivering in the rude wind, wanted a fire kindled and a cup of tea made, and thought this the guide’s business. Fire and tea were far enough from his thought. He had withdrawn himself quite apart, and wrapped in a ragged blanket, still and silent as the rock he stood on, was gazing out upon the wilderness of peaks. The view from Marcy is peculiar. It is without softness or relief. The narrow valleys are only dark shadows; the lakes are bits of broken mirror. From horizon to horizon there is a tumultuous sea of billows turned to stone. You stand upon the highest billow; you command the situation; you have surprised Nature in a high creative act; the mighty primal energy has only just become repose. This was a supreme hour to Old Phelps. Tea! I believe the boys succeeded in kindling a fire; but the enthusiastic stoic had no reason to complain of want of appreciation in the rest of the party. When we were descending, he told us, with mingled humor and scorn, of a party of ladies he once led to the top of the mountain on a still day, who began immediately to talk about the fashions! As he related the scene, stopping and facing us in the trail, his mild, far-in eyes came to the front, and his voice rose with his language to a kind of scream.
“Why, there they were, right before the greatest view they ever saw, talkin’ about the fashions!”
Impossible to convey the accent of contempt in which he pronounced the word “fashions,” and then added, with a sort of regretful bitterness, —
“I was a great mind to come down, and leave ‘em there.”
In common with the Greeks, Old Phelps personified the woods, mountains, and streams. They had not only personality, but distinctions of sex. It was something beyond the characterization of the hunter, which appeared, for instance, when he related a fight with a panther, in such expressions as, “Then Mr. Panther thought he would see what he could do,” &c. He was in “imaginative sympathy” with all wild things. The afternoon we descended Marcy, we went away to the west, through the primeval forests, toward Avalanche and Colden, and followed the course of the charming Opalescent. When we reached the leaping stream, Phelps exclaimed, —
“Here’s little Miss Opalescent!”
“Why don’t you say Mr. Opalescent?” some one asked.
“Oh, she’s too pretty!” And too pretty she was, with her foam-white and rainbow dress, and her downfalls, and fountain-like uprising. A bewitching young person we found her all that summer afternoon.
This sylph-like person had little in common with a monstrous lady whose adventures in the wilderness Phelps was fond of relating. She was built something on the plan of the mountains, and her ambition to explore was equal to her size. Phelps and the other guides once succeeded in raising her to the top of Marcy; but the feat of getting a hogshead of molasses up there would have been easier. In attempting to give us an idea of her magnitude that night, as we sat in the forest camp, Phelps hesitated a moment, while he cast his eye around the woods:
“Waal, there ain’t no tree!”
It is only by recalling fragmentary remarks and incidents that I can put the reader in pos session of the peculiarities of my subject; and this involves the wrenching of things out of their natural order and continuity, and introducing them abruptly, — an abruptness illustrated by the remark of “Old Man Hoskins” (which Phelps liked to quote), when one day he suddenly slipped down a bank into a thicket, and seated himself in a wasps nest: “I hain’t no business here; but here I be!”
The first time we went into camp on the Upper Ausable Pond, which has been justly celebrated as the most prettily set sheet of water in the region, we were disposed to build our shanty on the south side, so that we could have in full view the Gothics and that loveliest of mountain contours. To our surprise, Old Phelps, whose sentimental weakness for these mountains we knew, opposed this. His favorite camping-ground was on the north side, — a pretty site in itself, but with no special view. In order to enjoy the lovely mountains, we should be obliged to row out into the lake: we wanted them always before our eyes, — at sunrise and sunset, and in the blaze of noon. With deliberate speech, as if weighing our arguments and disposing of them, he replied, “Waal, now, them Gothics ain’t the kinder scenery you want ter hog down!”
It was on quiet Sunday in the woods, or in talks by the camp-fire, that Phelps came out as the philosopher, and commonly contributed the light of his observations. Unfortunate marriages, and marriages in general, were, on one occasion, the subject of discussion; and a good deal of darkness had been cast on it by various speakers; when Phelps suddenly piped up, from a log where he had sat silent, almost invisible, in the shadow and smoke, —
“Waal, now, when you’ve said all there is to be said, marriage is mostly for discipline.”
Discipline, certainly, the old man had, in one way or another; and years of solitary communing in the forest had given him, perhaps, a childlike insight into spiritual concerns. Whether he had formulated any creed, or what faith he had, I never knew. Keene Valley had a reputation of not ripening Christians any more successfully than maize, the season there being short; and on our first visit it was said to contain but one Bible Christian, though I think an accurate census disclosed three. Old Phelps, who some times made abrupt remarks in trying situations, was not included in this census; but he was the disciple of supernaturalism in a most charming form. I have heard of his opening his inmost thoughts to a lady, one Sunday, after a noble sermon of Robertson’s had been read in the cathedral stillness of the forest. His experience was entirely first-hand, and related with unconsciousness that it was not common to all. There was nothing of the mystic or the sentimentalist, only a vivid realism, in that nearness of God of which he spoke, — “as near sometimes as those trees,” — and of the holy voice, that, in a time of inward struggle, had seemed to him to come from the depths of the forest, saying, “Poor soul, I am the way.’
In later years there was a “revival” in Keene Valley, the result of which was a number of young “converts,” whom Phelps seemed to regard as a veteran might raw recruits, and to have his doubts what sort of soldiers they would make. “Waal, Jimmy,” he said to one of them, “you’ve kindled a pretty good fire with light wood. That’s what we do of a dark night in the woods, you know; but we do it just so as we can look around and find the solid wood: so now put on your solid wood.”
In the Sunday Bible-classes of the period Phelps was a perpetual anxiety to the others, who followed closely the printed lessons, and beheld with alarm his discursive efforts to get into freer air and light. His remarks were the most refreshing part of the exercises, but were outside of the safe path into which the others thought it necessary to win him from his “speckerlations.” The class were one day on the verses concerning “God’s word” being “written on the heart,” and were keeping close to the shore, under the guidance of “Barnes’s Notes,” when Old Phelps made a dive to the bottom, and remarked that he had “thought a good deal about the expression, ‘God’s word written on the heart,’ and had been asking himself how that was to be done; and suddenly it occurred to him (having been much interested lately in watching the work of a photographer), that, when a photograph is going to be taken, all that has to be done is to put the object in position, and the sun makes the picture; and so he rather thought that all we had got to do was to put our hearts in place, and God would do the writin’.”
Phelps’s theology, like his science, is first-hand. In the woods, one day, talk ran on the Trinity as being nowhere asserted as a doctrine in the Bible; and some one suggested that the attempt to pack these great and fluent mysteries into one word must always be more or less unsatisfactory. “Ye-es,” droned Phelps: “I never could see much speckerlation in that expression the Trinity. Why, they’d a good deal better say Legion.”
The sentiment of the man about nature, or his poetic sensibility, was frequently not to be distinguished from a natural religion, and wits always tinged with the devoutness of Wordsworth’s verse. Climbing slowly one day up the Balcony, — he was more than usually calm and slow, — he espied an exquisite fragile flower in the crevice of a rock, in a very lonely spot.
“It seems as if,” he said, or rather dreamed out, — “it seems as if the Creator had kept some thing just to look at himself.”
To a lady whom he had taken to Chapel Pond (a retired but rather uninteresting spot), and who expressed a little disappointment at its loneliness, saying,
“Why, Mr. Phelps, the principal charm of this place seems to be its loneliness,” —
“Yes,” he replied in gentle and lingering tones, “and its nativeness. It lies here just where it was born.”
Rest and quiet had infinite attractions for him. A secluded opening in the woods was a “calm spot.” He told of seeing once, or rather being in, a circular rainbow. He stood on Indian Head, overlooking the Lower Lake, so that he saw the whole bow in the sky and the lake, and seemed to be in the midst of it; “only at one place there was an indentation in it, where it rested on the lake, just enough to keep it from rolling off.” This resting of the sphere seemed to give him great comfort. One Indian-summer morning in October, some ladies found the old man sitting on his doorstep, smoking a short pipe. He gave no sign of recognition of their approach, except a twinkle of the eye, being evidently quite in harmony with the peaceful day. They stood there a full minute before he opened his mouth: then he did not rise, but slowly took his pipe from his mouth, and said in a dreamy way, pointing towards the brook, —
“Do you see that tree?” indicating a maple almost denuded of leaves, which lay like a yellow garment cast at its feet. “I’ve been watching that tree all the morning. There hain’t been a breath of wind: but for hours the leaves have been falling, falling, just as you see them now; and at last it’s pretty much bare.” And after a pause, pensively: “Waal, I suppose its hour had come.”
This contemplative habit of Old Phelps is wholly unappreciated by his neighbors; but it has been indulged in no inconsiderable part of his life. Rising after a time, he said, “Now I want you to go with me and see my golden city I’ve talked so much about.” He led the way to a hill-outlook, when suddenly, emerging from the forest, the spectators saw revealed the winding valley and its stream. He said quietly, “There is my golden city.” Far below, at their feet, they saw that vast assemblage of birches and “popples,” yellow as gold in the brooding noonday, and slender spires rising out of the glowing mass. Without another word, Phelps sat a long time in silent content: it was to him, as Bunyan says, “a place desirous to be in.”
Is this philosopher contented with what life has brought him? Speaking of money one day, when we had asked him if he should do differently if he had his life to live over again, he said, “Yes, but not about money. To have had hours such as I have had in these mountains, and with such men as Dr. Bushnell and Dr. Shaw and Mr. Twichell, and others I could name, is worth all the money the world could give.” He read character very well, and took in accurately the boy nature. “Tom” (an irrepressible, rather over done specimen), “Tom’s a nice kind of a boy; but he’s got to come up against a snubbin’-post one of these days.” “Boys!” he once said: you can’t git boys to take any kinder notice of scenery. I never yet saw a boy that would look a second time at a sunset. Now, a girl will sometimes; but even then it’s instantaneous, comes and goes like the sunset. As for me,” still speaking of scenery, “these mountains about here, that I see every day, are no more to me, in one sense, than a man’s farm is to him. What mostly interests me now is when I see some new freak or shape in the face of Nature.”
In literature it may be said that Old Phelps prefers the best in the very limited range that has been open to him. Tennyson is his favorite among poets; an affinity explained by the fact that they are both lotos-eaters. Speaking of a lecture-room talk of Mr. Beecher’s which he had read, he said, “It filled my cup about as full as I callerlate to have it: there was a good deal of truth in it, and some poetry; waal, and a little spice too. We’ve got to have the spice, you know.” He admired, for different reasons, a lecture by Greeley that he once heard, into which so much knowledge of various kinds was crowded, that he said he “made a reg’lar gobble of it.” He was not without discrimination, which he exercised upon the local preaching when nothing better offered. Of one sermon he said, “The man began way back at the creation, and just preached right along down; and he didn’t say nothing, after all. It just seemed to me as if he was tryin to git up a kind of a fix-up.”
Old Phelps used words sometimes like algebraic signs, and had a habit of making one do duty for a season together for all occasions. “ Speckerlation” and “callerlation” and “fix- up” are specimens of words that were prolific in expression. An unusual expression, or an unusual article, would be characterized as a “kind of a scientific literary git-up.”
“What is the programme for to-morrow?” I once asked him. “Waal, I callcrlate, if they rig up the callerlation they callerlate on, we’ll go to the Boreas.” Starting out for a day’s tramp in the woods, he would ask whether we wanted to take a “reg’lar walk, or a random scoot,” — the latter being a plunge into the pathless forest. When he was on such an expedition, and became entangled in dense brush, and maybe a network of “slash” and swamp, he was like an old wizard, as he looked here and there, seeking a way, peering into the tangle, or withdrawing from a thicket, and muttering to himself, “There ain’t no speckerlation there.” And when the way became altogether inscrutable, — “Waal, this is a reg’lar random scoot of a rigmarole.” As some one remarked, “The dictionary in his hands is like clay in the hands of the potter.” A petrifaction was a “kind of a hard-wood chemical git-up.”
There is no conceit, we are apt to say, like that born of isolation from the world, and there are no such conceited people as those who have lived all their lives in the woods. Phelps was, however. unsophisticated in his until the advent of strangers into his life, who brought in literature and various other disturbing influences. I am sorry to say that the effect has been to take off some thing of the bloom of his simplicity, and to elevate him into an oracle. I suppose this is inevitable as soon as one goes into print; and Phelps has gone into print in the local papers. He has been bitten with the literary “git-up.” Justly regarding most of the Adirondack literature as a “perfect fizzle,” he has himself projected a work, and written much on the natural history of his region. Long ago he made a large map of the mountain country; and, until recent surveys, it was the only one that could lay any claim to accuracy. His history is no doubt original in form, and unconventional in expression. Like most of the writers of the seventeenth century, and the court ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century, he is an independent speller. Writing of his work on the Adirondacks, he says, “If I should ever live to get this wonderful thing written, I expect it will show one thing, if no more; and that is, that every thing has an opposite. I expect to show in this that literature has an opposite, if I do not show any thing else. We could not enjoy the blessings and happiness of riteousness if we did not know innicuty was in the world: in fact, there would be no riteousness with out innicuty.” Writing also of his great enjoyment of being in the woods, especially since he has had the society there of some people he names, he adds, “And since I have Literature, Siance, and Art all spread about on the green moss of the mountain woods or the gravell banks of a cristle stream, it seems like finding roses, honeysuckels, and violets on a crisp brown cliff in December. You know I don’t believe much in the religion of seramony; but any riteous thing that has life and spirit in it is food for me.” I must not neglect to mention an essay, continued in several numbers of his local paper, on “The Growth of the Tree,” in which he demolishes the theory of Mr. Greeley, whom he calls “one of the best vegetable philosophers,” about “growth without seed.” He treats of the office of sap: “All trees have some kind of sap and some kind of operation of sap flowing in their season,” the dissemination of seeds, the processes of growth, the power of healing wounds, the proportion of roots to branches, &c. Speaking of the latter, he says, “I have thought it would be one of the greatest curiosities on earth to see a thrifty growing maple or elm, that had grown on a deep soil interval to be two feet in diameter, to be raised clear into the air with every root and fibre down to the minutest thread, all entirely cleared of soil, so that every particle could be seen in its natural position. I think it would astonish even the wise ones.” From his instinctive sympathy with nature, he often credits vegetable organism with “instinctive judgment.” “Observation teaches us that a tree is given powerful instincts, which would almost appear to amount to judgment in some cases, to provide for its own wants and necessities.”
Here our study must cease. When the primitive man comes into literature, he is no longer primitive.