The New Country

When we were clear of the village and the straggling houses that lined the road beyond its limits, the sun was well above the horizon, lighting with ever-lessening shadows the great prairie spread out before us. Refreshed and enlivened by the pure air and the companionship of the quiet country, I looked about me, curious as to the route we were following and the far-reaching prospect on either side. On our right the gentle Mauvaise Terre pursued its slow and devious course through the quiet plain, marked throughout its winding way by trees and drooping bushes. To the south, low down on the hazy landscape, the great forest about Wild Plum, so dear of memory, showed its black depths in the soft morning air. This far-off glimpse of my home stirred the sorrows of my heart anew, but a turn in the road shutting out the view, I soon found myself scanning with curious interest the placid landscape on which we were entering.
Our great state, now so thickly peopled, had then, save here and there, only widely scattered inhabitants. Its forests and prairies were still undisturbed, save by the birds and wild animals that sought in their vast solitudes the security and food they craved. Of highways there were scarce any, and these as nature had left them, except at some impassable place where neglect would have barred the way. The streams, quiet and uneventful, pursued their noiseless way across the level plains, amid flower-strewn banks, unvexed by obstructions of any kind, save, perhaps, at points far removed on the great rivers, where primitive ferries added to rather than lessened the solitude of the gentle landscape.
In this way Nature’s aptitude for grouping the beauties of her abundant harvest found material with which to work her will unvexed by man. The great prairies, looped together or apart, formed natural parks, interspersed throughout their length and breadth with quiet lakes and still-running streams, the whole fringed about with slumbering forests filled to the edge with every kind of foliage that could attract the eye or engage the mind. This grouping of forest and lawn, separate yet forever together, blending and scintillating in the sweet air, filled the heart of the traveler with the peace and restfulness that only the quiet of the country can afford. Man’s presence here, I thought, as I looked forward on the road which scarred the face of the grassy plain as if cut with a whip, can only disfigure, not help it in any way.
Such was the prospect, but of its beauty I was only partly conscious. This is not strange, though no more so in the case of the young than of those of mature age. For the infinite is ever beyond us, no matter when or how presented. We can, at best, only understand the small things of life, the make-believes of the world. The petty park, the trick of some cunning landscape gardener, elicits our admiration and unstinted praise, and this properly; but the wide expanses of Nature, in which beauty blends in every line and shadow, pass by us unnoticed, or at most with only feeble comprehension. Their symphonies are beyond us, or at best, find only a faint echo in our hearts.
In this manner, and only half-conscious of what I saw, we pursued our way; but in excuse I may say one must share in the quietude of Nature to be able to drink in her beauties to the full. This I could not do—my awakening had been too rude; nor was our vehicle one to invite comfort or reflection. Hard usage had long since dulled its springs, and its narrow seats suggested poverty of material rather than desire to put one at his ease. Public need, however, it was apparent, could afford nothing better, and so the traveler was fain to be content, and was. Of paint or ornamentation it had none, and the horses, dulled out of all semblance of animation, dragged us forward in sullen discontent. In front, beside the driver, a mail-pouch lay, and in the body of the vehicle two seats faced each other, and behind these a rack for baggage. Above our heads a coarse canvas was upheld by rude supports, and at the sides soiled and tattered curtains flapped uneasily in the morning air. The vehicle, however rude, was thought to denote some attempt at splendor, and never failed to call the more curious to the roadsides as it went back and forth across the country.
Such were the surroundings, you must know, under which I set out that sunny morning in May, 1838, to take my first step in the serious affairs of life.