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Chapter VI

Natty Bumpo's View

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

And now we had arrived at a very agreeable stage of our pilgrimage. For a few days our goings and comings were to center upon the house of France, which in turn centered upon the kitchen stove. This black but ingratiating quadruped had its quarters in a sunny room from which other rooms also relating to the art of sustenance made way, one to the pantry, one to the cold larder, and one to the scene of dining. This benign monster's capacity for white kindling must have seemed nothing short of devilish to the chopper, but the vapors that it gave off were appositely celestial. Dishes that one in the world had learned to regard as common became in the hands of Madame France comestibles for the gods. And she became the bright star of our comparisons when we were again waited upon by the lesser housewives of the Catskills. Their most verdant efforts withered in the consequence.

There is a zone still geographically extant where food can be obtained, which, in style of serving and genuineness of substance, dates back to the pastoral era midway between the culinary dark ages of back-woods dyspepsia and the present period of automatic lunches and delicatessen dinners. This zone begins where a meal is the substance and not the shadow, as a dejeuner or a tea. It reaches its richest development in that backward region where milk is still derived from a cow, butter from a churn, and maple syrup from the maple tree. It can be recognized as such when the fresh but simple viands of the poor are all put on the table at once. Unlike the caloric froth of an apartment breakfast, which can be wafted down the esophagus while the morning news is being digested, the breakfast of the gastronomic zone that I am describing demands one's full powers. I defy anybody to mix printer's ink with real country cream and wild strawberries.

The Catskills, particularly the dairying part of the Catskills, belongs in this zone of mediaeval but blessed nourishment. Time and again we found that the delicate mastery of breadmaking, of cream-skimming, of poultry-slaying, of troutbroiling and berry-layer-caking, of venison-steaking and pork-chop-browning, of butter-churning and cheese-making and ciderbrewing and apple-tarting-in short, the mastery of fundamental mysteries we found-was so complete that living threatened to be dying as well. I have seen Brute drive such a salient into a gooseberry tart as to render the chances of a future attack negligible And, indeed, his customary division of anything of the sort gave rise to the important conundrum: Why is Mrs. France's house like her pie? The answer is exceedingly trivial and shall not deface a serious page.

Haines' Falls

Haines' Falls

 
However, it was into an establishment such as I have hinted that we two did intrude at the hour of seven, the hour when most good Catskillers are thinking of bed. But the friendly people bestirred themselves for our comfort, and in short order Brute was discussing his favorite tobacco with the woodsman, while his wife was having us in dry socks. We amused them, it appeared, with an account of our journey from Clum Hill, and soon after had wished ourselves upstairs. He rests doubly well who lays a contented mind upon a smooth pillow. That night beneath the eiderdown brusque April was forgotten. A gentle ozone from the hemlock slopes breathed over us the balm of its tranquillity.

We awoke to a world brilliant and fairly ringing with light. The cloud scroll had rolled up and liberated a sun long chafing to be free. Woods and valleys lay bright in the universal luster. Sunshine and snowshine and the white of birchbark groves shimmered like a broad fountain of light, till the sedate firs were ready to dance too. Only if one climbed down in a ravine did he see that the hemlocks retained some vestige of their gravity and that the sky was still true blue.

 
It is because winter is so often dark that its name has a sinister sound. When we say that winter is coming we mean that we are going to have to rise in the dark, to have to witness the end of the day while we are far from home. The cold is not the objection. Sparkles from rows of varied icicles, tree limbs lit with their shell of ice, all the ecstasy of resplendent carnival, buoys our spirits above the most distressing zeros. December would outliven May, given an equal brilliance. And so on that morning we were gaily tuned to any comedy, had Puck been there to present the way.

Haines' Falls village is quadruply gifted. It stands at the head of the Kaaterskill Clove, at the brink of its own falls, opposite the Kaaterskill Falls, and is but sixty minutes I walk from the edge of the old sea-cliff that overlooks the valley of the Hudson. The view from this cliff while not so inclusive as that from the Overlook, is rather more impressive if taken from the Mountain House. It is the view that Cooper commemorated, that Queen Victoria longed to see. (She said she did.) It is the view that made the Catskills famous. And knowing this, with the impetuosity of the best sight-seers we hastened along the road to the Mountain House, in hopes of looking off into the neighboring States before the atmosphere should become clouded with the lees of later hours-though, to be downright honest, the ravings of previous describers had somewhat taken off the edge of my expectation.

If you will exhume the diaries, monographs, travelogs, and exhalations concerning the tremendous brink that we were approaching, you will shudder at it. All the diarists did. Every visitor who had had paper handy set his pen to distilling adjectives about it. On the map the elevation is set down at 2250 feet. But the visitors re-arranged that. They described the terrifying gulf below them. They depicted thunder-storms raving incontinently, miles beneath. If they were artists they drew tolerable pictures of the sky into which they were thrust. They usually situated it about four feet above their heads. If literary, they likened the Hudson to a thread of silver creeping like a tape-measure to the visible Atlantic. At least, Miss Martineau says she saw the Atlantic. And all the other unfortunates who could neither draw nor write reported what they thought, hurling towering adjectives from the cliff until one would think that the awful abyss (their favorite term) would have got choked with them.

Being fairly well read up on this mass of memoranda, I was also fairly ready to be disappointed in the sight. I knew there must be some sort of capacious hole in front of the hotel, but I had discounted the layers of thunder-storms plying between one's feet and the farms below. And yet --

We had got Mrs. France to put us up a lunch, not wishing to be dinner-bound, thinking that after we had got through with the view we could go somewhere and enjoy the day. The road had brought us to the shining levels of the two small lakes, and then to the head of the Otis Elevating Railway, which disposes of any of the old romance of getting to the summit. We walked along the board-walk in front of the pioneer hotel, stopped out oil the overhanging rock, and looked. I could feel Brute looking as I was looking-deeply, thirstily. All the incontinent ravings were forgotten, blown away by the outburst of the view. And later, when we had sat down, the first thing I said, quite seriously, was:

Natty Bumpo's View

Natty Bumpo's View

 
"I wonder why nobody ever told me about this, Brute. "

"Where was they to begin?" he very adequately replied.

It is a curious thing that geologically, historically, and emotionally our East represents age and our West youth. Geologically the Hudson Valley was an antique before the Colorado Canyon had made a mark for itself. Historically New York State helped in the national councils a couple of centuries before anyone even thought of Arizona Territory. Only yesterday did flannel shirts cease to be full dress in a land that could not be shocked.

 
And the parallel holds between the two Grand Canyons: for, since that first view, I shall always think of the great broad valley lying between the Berkshire ramparts and the Catskill cliff as the Grand Canyon of the East. It fits the East so exactly. Instead of the Colorado gulf of splintered slopes, the abyss of painted splendors, you have a serene picture complete in three lines, subdued in tones of green and blue. The Colorado canon exalts with its divine rhapsody; the Hudson Valley breathes celestial repose. Out West is violence of desire; here there is quiet of attainment.

As we stood gazing over the river of civilization with its valley green with farms and touched here and there with spires, I seemed to feel the presence of the unseen city at the end of the river, as well as companionship for the farmer in the field beneath. At my back rose the impressive forest. There were majestic distances, but the momentous quality of the scene was the quiet and settled beauty of the level land between the two wide walls. How striking when compared to that Western seven-hued fantasy of isolation fresh from the hand of God. Those of us who have been bred to this may visit that gorgeous and incredible wild, may sigh a while for the reckless freedom of those Western spaces. But we will return to the mellowed richhess of our East, the savor of which can be gotten nowhere better than from that Catskill cliff.

Sooner or later young blood gets to the stoneshying period of view-taking. There is no prospect under heaven so grand and so dignified that youth will not come to throwing rocks into it. Youth gives sentiment its due, but nothing to sentimentality; and so, at about the time that old ladies would have begun to repeat how much they were being moved by the panorama, from our parapet Brute set to work trying to hit some of those farms below us with red shale. He had finished with creation couchant on a field of green, and thought it was time for a little something rampant. I could not have stood a companion puling and mouthing at every turn of the landscape, so gladly I set out with him along the ledge that leads south from the hotel.

This ledge brought us to a projection from which one's eye shot across the country a hundred miles at a wink. The day was too clear for the best eff ects. They say that the area of impression one gets from that ledge is all of ten thousand square miles when there is no haze, and if so we bad the benefit of every square inch of it. The day was what the farmers call a weather-breeder, but it must have been breeding somewhere else. There wasn't any weather visible, -- no clouds, no hazes. The hills were stripped of atmosphere almost to nakedness. If other people have seen Mt. Washington from that promontory, so did we, though I should hate to take an examination on its shape. An artist would have daubed his canvas with yellows and purples, I suppose; but for our duller eyes there seemed but endless white, variable green, and an infinite supply of blue. So still, so clear the air that the steam from a train ten miles away on the other side of the Hudson not only displayed to us its lights and shadow, but we could see the reflection of its whiteness in the river. That is a statement of fact and not mere traveler's license.

Through stunted spruces and small hemlocks we came to a path that took us up to the Kaaterskill House, a mammoth hotel set near the summit of this mountain. It was hawsered to the rocks as was the Overlook, and presented a broad invitation to the heavy gusts that have hurled themselves as yet in vain upon its white bulk. There were ladders to the roof, and we climbed. Though we had come but five minutes I walk from the edge of the precipice, the quality of the view had been completely changed. No longer did one got the unique sensation of looking down from the battlement of some stupendous castle. One saw only the slope of evergreen leading to the unseen brink, and then far off a blue gulf. It was very fine still, but the difference was the same as that between talent and genius. The suddenness was lost, and with it went the thrill.

But from this roof I had another and almost equally memorable sensation. It was on another morning, when the west wind was flowing strongly from a deep sky filled with great galleonclouds that sailed in white fleets with hulls of distant gray. The sky was all in motion. The wind, though strong, was steady; and, looking down upon the green-crested ranges rolling out of the west, I had the distinct feeling that each ridge of mountain was a hurrying comber, curled, and about to break. Even the nearest shapes helped with the illusion. High Peak and Round Top, viewed from that hotel, seemed like sublime breakers just ready to topple over in a universal thunder of white foam. The distant Overlook looked as I have often seen breakers look from the seaward, hastening toward the plunge. I could feel the rush, feel the exhilaration. And, to complete the illusion of this tremendous ocean, the white plain stretched below like the wide surf of the spent wave, flinging itself upon the Berkshire beach. But the green waves never fell; the great combers, advancing as if from some vast inland Pacific, got no nearer. The clouds sailed and the wind blew fresh on my cheek, but the tumult was petrified in its gigantic play. And there you may see it at any time that the sky is blue and the small spiral-fibered cedars bend to the east.

For Brute and me the calm of our noon sun was utterly satisfactory. Lunch-time struck beneath the belt, and down we sat on the porch of this winter skeleton of summer fatness. How unreal the hotel seemed! Ten months of lonely cold and two of vivacious summer might breed some introspection in a house, as well as its own desert does in the Sphinx. But I was glad there were no people humming about. "Anyplace," I wrote later in my note-book, "is as good as new if you only are there out of season." A few days after I wrote: "People don't mind sharing an orchestral concert with the audience. Why should they prefer not to have a crowd with them before some impressive panorama?" There 's a note-book for you!

The great advantage of visiting inspiring scenery or talking with strong men is not what you get out of them, but what they draw out of you -- the same thing, of course, but put in a more comforting light. If you are keenly alive all men will interest and no scene will bore. There is no commonplace of scenery. The dreariest desert flows with color, and the drought-driest pasture, silken with spider-webs at certain lights or musical with small life, can be a wonderland of delight. But it does pay to hunt up the great. For, when the marvel is at last come upon, when you at last are struck to the very core of your being by the Bridal Veil Falls, by the Rapids of Niagara, or even by the October glories on this Wall of Manitou, your spirit overflows with an intenser life. You swim, for a moment at least, in the greatness about you, just as one who had talked with Lincoln would have to be more generous or more kind. The nobler the sight the nobler you are, for the time being. And this is the supreme worth of travel.

The effects of such a valuable shock wear off. I have found people altogether despicable in an environment that should have produced saints. But, even if a man can't be known by the country that he keeps as well as by the company, he will know himself better if he submits himself to the play of Mother Nature upon his personality. On the curvature of our green globe there is a spot for everyone more satisfying than any other, and if you will show me the spot I can to some degree tell you the man. Some tend to upland pastures, some to the deep woods, some take a suburban grassplot, and some a room in the city. The only being I can't conceive of is he who wants to perch on the side of the Grand Canyon all his days. Even Dante was not big enough for that. All should travel some, if only as far as a man can walk in fifteen hours of a Sunday. Nothing will help to revise one's table of contents like a day a-foot. As we sat there in the flood of sunshine, devouring the lunch of the excellent Mrs. France (may she get a white stroke for every one she puts up) and indulging in intermittent discourse, some things that Brute said made me quite sure that the above is true.

If you could have seen that boy sprawling over three or four porch steps, half blinking in the light like a contented woodchuck, looking lazily out over the valley and letting his old black pipe draw his thoughts from him, you 'd never guess that they were thoughts. Neither would Brute have claimed that reputation for them. He did not crave that position. But those steady dark eyes of his had been set broad to see things true. Just because his good nature belied his ability to criticize, one got the impression that he was n It as much interested in things as was the case. But I found that he had the habit of clinging to a string of ideas until he reached the ends. Then he tied a knot. He was evidently reaching for one of the ends when he said abruptly:

"It Is funny how they lie."

"Who?"

"Oh! all the people who preach at you and teachers and copy-books. I was thinkin' of the copy-books and the way they made me write out 'Business before pleasure' fifty times at a throw. When I 'd get to the pleasure end of it there wasn't't any. I can't see as there's much business connected with this goose-chase of ours, and yet I can't somehow feel as if I was losin' out."

He smiled comfortably and then continued: "I've got a stack of ideas, more'n I could use in a year at the garage. When I get home I'll show 'em a surprise. But I 'm going to find that copybook writer first."

"He wasn't so far wrong," I remarked. Brute transferred his gaze from the valley to me.

"Then what in the devil are we doing sitting around in these mountains? We've been putting pleasure so far ahead of business that it isn't in the same day. We keep it up and keep it up; and yet I can't see as your conscience is giving you much anguish."

A laugh escaped me at his picture.

"You've mixed the meanings. The old-fashioned way was to hate your job, but let it take it out of you for ten or twelve hours a day and then heat up the scraps and call them pleasure. Nowadays the law cuts it down to eight hours of drudgery and sixteen of something else. But there are a lot of people like you and me who must have our pleasure first and all the time. And we get paid for it, too."

" How do you suggest cashing in to-day's fun?" he asked with a little laugh.

"You just suggested it yourself." I had to laugh, too, at his look of mystification.

"Then I must be getting to be a mighty loose talker. "

"Ideas, man. You never get any ideas when you're not enjoying yourself-at least any valuable ideas. It wasn't all work that made Jack a dull boy-it was all drudgery did it. And I refuse to put drudgery before pleasure, and just now so did you. You said you were going to wake up your garage with your ideas. Just like Ford, maybe. You can't tell me that he stopped having pleasure when the whistle blew; now did he?"

"Not punctual," Brute admitted.

"He put pleasure first. Pleasure paid him. Pleasure always pays, if it is real."

"What's to tell," asked the boy, "whether you're experiencin' a real pleasure or just being a slant-domed fan of gaiety?"

That was a hard drive at my theory. We were both silent for a moment in the cascade of white light that poured upon the brooding forest. A short way off, some pines stood shining like candelabra. There seemed no reason why the path of the future should not be plain, so abundant was the joy of living. Brute answered his own question:

"I think I get you; it's this way. In your way of living there won't need to be anybody to do the chores, for there won't be any chores to do. There 'll be enough people to have everybody doing what he likes and yet get everything done."

"And better done than now, " I added; "for it will be done from the heart. That's the only real fun-doing something from the heart. Call it business, if you like to fool the world. Or call it just plain pleasure, if you 're bold. You like your grease and monkey-wrenches, and I like something else; but both of them would be abominable trades for a third man. And if coming out here in the wilds didn't do another thing for us but make us certain, it would be time well spent. But you found your ideas in addition."

"And the money-end 'll come? Do you believe that this pleasure-business will bring in the money as sure as that old system of drudgery?"

"Ford made his millions out of being happy. If he'd stuck to business he'd 've still been working for a living."

"But Ford's Ford."

"Well, you're you, with just the same truths holding water as they did for Ford and all the rest of us in this good old United States that God and Thomas Jefferson planned out so well. Did they make you learn the Declaration of Independence in your school?"

"That dope about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" Brute lit his pipe again. "It never impressed us kids much."

"That very dope is the whole thing. That's the American contribution to this universe. Our American notion of pleasure is to follow out our bent, and our notion of happiness is having the liberty to follow out our pleasure."

"Well, there ain't so much happiness lying around, according to that," said Brute.

"That's true. Because there are mighty few who've read their Declaration of Independence right. There are a million clerks keeping ledgers who secretly want to keep cows, a million milliners dreaming how happy they are going to be when they've chewed off the last thread, five million unhappy school-teachers who don't know what that first sentence of the Declaration means."

"Which is-?"

"Healthy life, intelligent liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-meaning happiness in your pursuit."

I knew that Brute's first puff was the end of the conversation, but his thoughts were burrowing deep still, and in that vast silence any talk seemed but trivial embroidery to the largeness of the day. The mountain seemed brooding over the plain, and the plain led one's fancy to the sea. But now their impersonal hugeness seemed less interesting far than the glimpse I had had into the boy's heart beside me. And, as if in answer to my mood, he stretched and said:

"Seein' big must make you think big. I wonder what we'd have talked at if we'd been sittin' on the Rockies."

 

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