« ElőzőTovább »
THE PLUNGE INTO THE WILDERNESS
BY JOHN MUIR
In crossing the Atlantic before the days of steamships, or even of the American clippers, the voyages made in old-fashioned sailing vessels were very long. Ours was six weeks and three days. But, because we had no lessons to get, that long voyage had not a dull moment for us boys.
There was quite a large number of emigrants aboard, many of them newly married couples, and the advantages of the different parts of the New World they expected to settle in were often discussed. My father started with the intention of going to the backwoods of Upper Canada. Before the end of the voyage, however, he was persuaded that the States offered superior advantages, especially Wisconsin and Michigan, where the land was said to be as good as in Canada, and far more easily brought under cultivation; for in Canada the woods were so close and heavy that a man might wear out his life in getting a few acres cleared of trees and stumps. So he changed his mind and concluded to go to one of the Western states.
On our wavering westward way a grain-dealer in Buffalo told father that most of the wheat he handled came from Wisconsin; and this influential information finally determined my father's choice. At Milwaukee, a farmer who had come in from the country near Fort
Winnebago with a load of wheat agreed to haul us and our formidable load of stuff to a little town called Kingston, for thirty dollars. On that hundred-mile journey, just after the spring thaw, the roads over the prairies were heavy and miry, causing no end of lamentation, for we often got stuck in the mud, and the poor farmer sadly declared that never, never again would he be tempted to try to haul such a cruel, heart-breaking, wagon-breaking, horse-killing load, no, not for a hundred dollars.
On leaving Scotland, father, like many other homeseekers, burdened himself with far too much luggage, as if all America were still a wilderness in which little or nothing could be bought. One of his big iron-bound boxes must have weighed about four hundred pounds, for it contained an old-fashioned beam-scales with a complete set of cast-iron counterweights, two of them fifty-six pounds each, a twenty-eight, and so on, down to a single pound; also a lot of iron wedges, carpenter's tools, etc. And at Buffalo, as if on the very edge of the wilderness, he gladly added to his burden a big cast-iron stove, with pots and pans, provisions enough to stand a long siege, and a scythe and cumbersome cradle for cutting wheat, all of which he succeeded in landing in the primeval Wisconsin woods.
A land agent at Kingston gave father a note to a farmer by the name of Alexander Gray, who lived on the border of the settled part of the country, knew the section-lines, and would probably help him to find a good place for a farm. So father went away to spy out the land, and, in the meantime, left us children in Kingston in a rented room.
It took us less than an hour to get acquainted with some of the boys in the village; we challenged them to wrestle, run races, climb trees, and the like, and in a day or two we felt at home, care-free and happy, notwithstanding that our family was so widely divided. When father returned, he told us that he had found fine land for a farm in sunny open woods on the side of a lake, and that a team of three yoke of oxen, with a big wagon, was coming to haul us to Mr. Gray's place.
We enjoyed the strange ten-mile ride through the woods very much, wondering how the great oxen could be so strong and wise and tame as to pull so heavy a load with no other harness than a chain and a crooked piece of wood on their necks, and how they could sway so obediently to right and left, past roadside trees and stumps, when the driver said haw and gee. At Mr. Gray's house father again left us for a few days, to build a shanty on the quarter-section he had selected four or five miles to the westward. Meanwhile we enjoyed our freedom as usual, wandering in the fields and meadows, looking at the trees and flowers, snakes and birds and squirrels. With the help of the nearest neighbors the little shanty was built in less than a day, after the rough bur-oak logs for the walls and the white-oak boards for the floor and roof were got together.
Soon after our arrival in the woods, some one added a cat and puppy to the animals father had bought. The pup was a common cur, though very uncommon to us: a black-and-white short-haired mongrel that we named Watch. We always gave him a pan of milk in the evening just before we knelt in family worship, while daylight still lingered in the shanty; and instead of attending
to the prayers, I too often studied the small wild creatures playing round us. Field-mice scampered about the cabin as if it had been built for them alone, and their performances were very amusing. About dusk, on one of the calm, sultry nights so grateful to moths and beetles, when the puppy was lapping his milk, and we were on our knees, in through the door came a heavy, broadshouldered beetle about as big as a mouse; and after droning and booming round the cabin two or three times, the pan of milk, showing white in the gloaming, caught its eyes and, taking good aim, it alighted with a slanting, glinting plash in the middle of the pan, like a duck alighting in a lake. Baby Watch, having never before seen anything like that beetle, started back, gazing in dumb astonishment and fear at the black sprawling monster trying to swim. Recovering somewhat from his fright, he began to bark at the creature, and ran round and round his milk-pan, wouf-woufing, gurring, growling, like an old dog barking at a wild-cat or a bear. The natural astonishment and curiosity of that boy-dog getting his first entomological lesson in this wonderful world was so immoderately funny, that I had great difficulty in keeping from laughing out loud.
Watch never became a first-rate scholar, though he learned more than any stranger would judge him capable of, was a bold, faithful watch-dog, and in his prime a grand fighter, able to whip all the other dogs in the neighborhood. Comparing him with ourselves, we soon learned that, although he could not read books, he could read faces, was a good judge of character, always knew what was going on and what we were about to do, and liked to help us. We could run almost as fast as he
could, see about as far, and perhaps hear as well, but in the sense of smell his nose was incomparably better than
One winter morning when the ground was covered with snow, I noticed that, when he was yawning and stretching himself, after leaving his bed, he suddenly caught the scent of something that excited him, went round the corner of the house, and looked intently to the westward across a tongue of land that we called West Bank, eagerly questioned the air with quivering nostrils, and bristled up as if he felt sure that there was something dangerous in that direction and had actually caught sight of it. Then he ran toward the Bank, and I followed him, curious to see what his nose had discovered.
The top of the Bank commanded a view of the north end of our lake and meadow, and when we got there we saw an Indian hunter, armed with a long spear, going about from one muskrat cabin to another, approaching cautiously, careful to make no noise, and then suddenly thrusting his spear down through the house. If wellaimed, the spear went through the poor beaver-rat as it lay cuddled up in the snug nest it had made for itself in the fall with so much far-seeing care; and when the hunter felt the spear quivering, he dug down the mossy hut with his tomahawk and secured his prey the flesh for food, and the skin to sell for a dime or so. This was a clear object lesson on dogs' keenness of scent. That Indian was more than half a mile away across a wooded ridge. Had the hunter been a white man, I suppose Watch would not have noticed him.
When he was about six or seven years old he not only became cross, so that he would do only what he liked,