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List Of Contents | Contents of In the Wilderness, by Charles Dudley Warner
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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 caviling 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 plow 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 installed 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 woolen 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 childlike 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 northwest 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

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