Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part Two

“The human race in this part of the world is separated into three divisions, arranged in the order of their merits: white men, Indians, and Mexicans; to the latter of whom the honorable title of ‘whites’ is by no means conceded.” (274–275)

I do not want to give the wrong idea. Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail is not a Social Darwinian text, creating an odious racial taxonomy of the “American” West. However, statements like this were hard to look away from as I was reading the second half of the book. Parkman was by no means an egalitarian. In his massive history France and England in North America, he explained the failure of the French empire in religious terms (blaming their Catholicism) and often exposed other prejudices. Late in life, he wrote a polemic against women’s suffrage. In fact, he was quite active in the anti-suffrage movement. Pretty much all of his historical works whitewash black Americans and slavery. We do see here, his intense interest in American Indian life, which runs through his historical scholarship. His first major work was a history of the Pontiac revolt. I do not want to say that this translated into respect or a belief in equality. He never backtracked from racial superiority in the writing of The Oregon Trail, but he does hover around an attitude of respect, even when making clear to his readers that the Indians of the plains are not the threat that they some believe them to be.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Parkman’s real purpose of his Western travels, recorded in The Oregon Trail, was to experience the life of the Sioux (Ogillallah) first hand. He does this for a month or so before returning home. Readers hoping for a start to finish narrative of the Oregon trail itself will be disappointed, and despite the title of the original version (The California and Oregon Trail), he has nothing to say about the West coast destinations of the migrants.

His major conclusion about Indians, derived from his travels, was that they were fundamentally capricious and rather silly in their beliefs. “A grand scene of gambling was going forward with all the appropriate formalities. They players were staking on the chance issue of the game their ornaments, their horses, and as the excitement rose, their garments, and even their weapons; for desperate gambling is not confined to the halls of Paris. The men of the plains and the forests no less resort to it as a violent but grateful relief to the tedious monotony of their lives, which alternative between fierce excitement and listless inaction.” (208) He thinks this capriciousness leads to inaction and ineffectiveness in war and in interactions with whites. In his view, it was also evidence of a type of passivity, a disturbing acceptance of fate. He describes a fairly impressive war-party and goes through great pains describing how brave the warriors were, how they could suffer torture and death. But, “when suffering from a protracted disorder, an Indian will often abandon himself to his supposed destiny, pine away and die, the victim of his own imagination.” (214) To make the point clear, the chapter ends with a comment on the pathetic dismantling of the war-party after all the “fasting, dreaming, and calling upon the Great Spirit.” (214) Examples of this run throughout his reportage. He is amazed a battle where no one was hurt yet many bullets and arrows were expended. He reports on what he sees as irrational sloth, contributing to the debased and desolate environment.

When Parkman returns to his guides, and Fort Laramie, he returns to reporting on the more international population of migrants following the Santa Fe Trail. There are hints in the final hundred pages of The Oregon Trail of dark foreshadowing about just how horrible the consequences of this migrant would be for the environment and people of the West. They met one armed migrant who claimed that he had a mission during his travels of killing an Indian. Encounters like this convince us immediately that despite the often festive nature of both the migrants and the Indians along the trail, as well as the elaborate rules of the game described in the last post, there was always a brutal reality of violence and power below the surface. For what were these migrants, ultimately, if not the extension of white American power over the continent?

The hints of environmental devastation are just as strong. People slaughtering snakes and keeping trophies. The constant sounds of axes levelling forests. The slaughter of the buffalo. Bears being frightened and chased off by armed gangs of migrants. Parkman admits some of this impact openly. “We soon came in sight of [Bent’s Fort], for it is visible from a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles was cropped close by the hoses of General Kearney’s soldierly.” (276) As is well known, the buffalo hunts took on a festive atmosphere and were engaged in for sport, more than need. One of his companions challenged: “Do you see them buffalo? Now I bet any man I’ll go and kill one with my yager.” (325) Parkman contributed to the prejudice of the expanding white America over the nature of the West. Several times he refers to the animals of the region (buffalo and sheep are two examples I recall) as being stupid and strangely clannish and arbitrary. This is not so different from how he interpreted the Indians he encountered.

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Not insignificantly, the final chapter of The Oregon Trail is called “The Settlement,” which describes both the return to St. Louis after Parkman’s frontier adventures but also the future of the West he toured, although he was not fully aware of it yet. “Little more than a hundred miles now separated us from the frontier settlements. The whole intervening country was a succession of verdant prairies, rising in broad swells and relived by trees clustering like an oasis around some spring, or following the course of a stream along some fertile hollow. These are the prairies of the poet and the novelist. We had left danger behind us. Nothing was to be feared from the Indians of this region, the Sacs and Foxes, the Kanzas, and the Osages.” (337) The reason for this comparative peace was that this land and these people were already consumed by the United States’ empire.

St. Louis at the time of Parkman's travels

St. Louis at the time of Parkman’s travels

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Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part One, The Almanac

I first encountered A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school biology. At the time I suppose I thought that the teacher (I forgot his name) was just wasting time reading selections from Aldo Leopold book to use, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have appreciated his generosity in sharing Leopold’s words with us. In any case, I did not appreciate it at the time.  There is nothing I can do about my ignorance and the lack of curiosity I had as a teenage. I wonder if I went to high school in any place except Wisconsin, would my teacher have had the same relationship to Leopold? (The growth of importance of the text is certainly ending whatever provincial character it had.)  I can say, living now in Taiwan, at the time of year that I miss my home state most of all, reading Leopold’s little book is a joyous experience.  While living in Taiwan, I suspended by Library of America subscription, but I did make a point of having this recent publication shipped here. Published in 2013, the LOA collection of Leopold’s writings is a wonderful contribution to the series.

coverFor those who have not read A Sand County Almanac, I can only urge that they pick it up. It only takes a couple hours to read through the first section, the almanac proper. It is a series of vignettes from his life on a rather unproductive farm in Sauk county Wisconsin. The vignettes are arranged throughout the year, starting with “January Thaw” and ending with “65290” (about chickadee’s winter survival). Each month has at least one story, some have several. This is followed by a broader set of essays set in other parts of Wisconsin or in other states but like the almanac are autobiographical and tell complex stories of ecological systems through his own experiences. The first part are some of his more formal essays on conservation, including “The Land Ethic.”

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Leopold always combines a serious scientific approach while casting doubt on the human ability to understand the minds, perspectives, and lives of the animals he writes about. Much of the power of the work comes from his subtle celebration of the diversity and otherness of the natural world. The reader sees this in his attempt to explain the inexplicable survival of chickadee 65290, banded by Leopold as part of his local conservation work. Falling short of learning very much, the banding experience gave Leopold a chance to just enjoy being in awe of the otherness of the chickadee, and in particular this small life. “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.” (81–82) Even in the small locale of his farm and surrounding forests, there was so much unknown about the plants and animals. One need not travel far to find radical otherness.  Take for instance his discussion of the evening “sky dance,” put on by the woodcocks. “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance… It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. ” (29)

A second thing that struck me while reading these vignettes was the deep sense of natural history. He reminds us that with every human act on nature we are intruding (and often ending) creatures with experiences deep into the past, making us neophytes at best. Most clearly laid out in “Good Oak” about the cutting down of an aged oak tree. With each pull of the saw blade, he goes deeper and deeper into that history, reversing (if only in his mind) the damage done to the Wisconsin landscape. ” The mental journey ends with the birth of the oak tree in the 1860s, “when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.” (15) Later, he writes: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1942. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.” (20)

Another message, and one that is particularly important. is that we need the land in order to be free and creative. On one level, we learn about agency from observing the land and its residents. They are not simply following evolutionary programming but are engaging with their world. In one chapter Leopold describes himself as a landowner with tenants, but his sovereignty is completely contingent on the acquiesce of the animals.  Bottom-up political systems had always been there, it just had to be observed.  But I will say more on these radical political conclusions of A Sand County Almanac in the following posts.

leopoldWith a book like A Sand County Almanac, I find it useful to just enjoy the beautiful prose and the profoundly simple prose, which can carry such significant ideas. I wish people could speak so clearly.

 

Lafcadio Hearn, “Chita” (1889)

In the age of ecology and our current environmental problematic it is impossible to read lines like this without imagining Lafcadio Heran as prophetic.  “How often she herself had wondered–wondered at the multiform changes of each swell as it came in — transformation of tint, of shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes, — and sinister, and spectral.  Then they all appeared to move in order, — according to one law of impulse: — each had its own voice, yet all sang one and the same everlasting song.   Vaguely, as she watched them and listened to them, there cam to her the idea of a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their utterance–the idea of one monstrous and complex life!  The sea lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak! — it only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end.  Thenceforth she feared to find herself along with it.” (130)  The ocean as a malevolent and destructive force that easily overpowers humanity and its feeble designs is the major theme of Chita, Hearn’s novel considering the impact of a Louisiana hurricane.  The handful of humans who populate the novel are largely passive in the face of nature’s devastation.  It is not so much revenge, as we might find in 21st retellings of such stories, shaped by concerns about climate change and the human impact on nature.  Instead, nature is closer to the Lovercraftian gods, indifferent to human concerns with a purpose and consciousness of its own.

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The story begins with a long description of the lands and waters of the lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to “the islands.”  This description takes up around 1/5 of the short novel.  We immediately realize that the author is not concerns with humanity.  As the description unfolds we are introduced to the hurricane.  The human impact on the islands is limited.  “There are no telegraph lines, no telephones.” (88) Humans resort to hope and the divine for they have no technology that can salvage their homes, boats, and lives.

As we learn more of the human world, we discover that it is deeply divided by class.  A “great hall” is hosting a dance of “pleasure-seekers” when the hurricane hits.  Of course, nature respects no class boundaries and the dance hall party is broken up with the same indifference as is the homes of the impoverished locals.  It does however create an equalization of status that the poor scavengers can take advantage of.  “And swift in the wakr of gull and frigate-bird the Wreckers come, the Spoilers of the dead, — savages skimmers of the sea, — hurricane-riders wont to spread their canvas-pionions in the face of storm; Sicilian and Carsican outlaws, Manila-men from the marshes, deserters from many navies, Lascars, marooners, refugees of the hundred nationalities, — fishers and shrimpers by name, smugglers by opportunity. . . There is plunder for all — birds and men.” (95-96)  Hearn seems to lump these working poor into the same category as nature, indifferent and moving in with the same consciousness as scavanger birds, but we know better.  Nature may not be capable of consciousness of revenge, but the exploited and embittered underclass certainly are.  When the facade of civilization breaks down and equalizers power, so that those with a piece of paper declaring their wealth, and therefore power over others, find that that paper has no more worth than any other ink stained parchment, the revenge will be had.

One rich character, assumed lost on the storm, returns to find that he was forgotten with little pomp or concern.  Hearn writes: “Seldom, indeed, does it happen taht a man in the prime of youth, in the possession of wealth, habituated to comforts and elegance of life, discovers in one brief week how minute his true relation to the human aggregate, — how insignificant his part as one living atom of the social organism.” (117)  We cannot help but notice that this parallels the fate of all the humans in the delta, discovering that they are insignificant in the face of Nature.

The plot from this point focuses on the discovery, by a young religious woman named Carmen, of a young orphan who is given the name Conchita (Chita).  There is a moment of triumph over the indifferent Nature when Chita learns to overcome her fear of the water and takes up the skill of swimming.  Through this the ocean goes from being something to fear to something that gives life.  Chita becomes the means for Hearn to carry the story in a circular fashion back to the pristine state before the hurricane.  “Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath stricken all mythology dumb; — thou most wrinkled living Sea, the millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary motions; — thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the monsters and the gods, — whence thine eternal youth?  Still do thy waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded above their face in the Beginning! — still is thy quickening breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life.”   (133)

Nature is not done with the characters.  In the final pages of this short novel we learn of an epidemic disease racing through the delta.  We are left with the same feeling of helplessness that we started with.  Hearn ends the novel with Carmen calling out for aid from God.

I have quoted extensively from Chita because the novel really should be read as an literary experience rather than for its plot.  The argument, is summarized in the books epigraph by Emerson “But Nature whistled with all her winds, Did as she pleased, and went her way.” (73)  We could read it as a warning or as a rebuff to the late 19th century optimism in human progress.  Hearn sets the novel in a place where the major gains of the 19th century were not evident, but yet some of its greatest sins (slavery and inequality) were deeply rooted.