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Lincoln's Personal Life
Nathaniel Wright Stephenson
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The Child Of The Forest
Of first importance in the making of the American people is that great forest which once
extended its mysterious labyrinth from tide-water to the prairies when the earliest
colonists entered warily its sea-worn edges a portion of the European race came again
under a spell it had forgotten centuries before, the spell of that untamed nature which
created primitive man. All the dim memories that lay deep in subconsciousness; all the
vague shadows hovering at the back of the civilized mind; the sense of encompassing
natural power, the need to struggle single-handed against it; the danger lurking in the
darkness of the forest; the brilliant treachery of the forest sunshine glinted through leafy
secrecies; the Strange voices in its illimitable murmur; the ghostly shimmer of its glades
at night; the lovely beauty of the great gold moon; all the thousand wondering dreams
that evolved the elder gods, Pan, Cybele, Thor; all this waked again in the soul of the
Anglo-Saxon penetrating the great forest. And it was intensified by the way he came,--
singly, or with but wife and child, or at best in very small company, a mere handful. And
the surrounding presences were not only of the spiritual world. Human enemies who were
soon as well armed as he, quicker of foot and eye, more perfectly noiseless in their tread
even than the wild beasts of the shadowy coverts, the ruthless Indians whom he came to
expel, these invisible presences were watching him, in a fierce silence he knew not
whence. Like as not the first signs of that menace which was everywhere would be the
hiss of the Indian arrow, or the crack of the Indian rifle, and sharp and sudden death.
Under these conditions he learned much and forgot much. His deadly need made him
both more and less individual than he had been, released him from the dictation of his
fellows in daily life while it enforced relentlessly a uniform method of self-preservation.
Though the unseen world became more and more real, the understanding of it faded. It
became chiefly a matter of emotional perception, scarcely at all a matter of philosophy.
The morals of the forest Americans were those of audacious, visionary beings loosely
hound together by a comradeship in peril. Courage, cautiousness, swiftness, endurance,
faithfulness, secrecy,--these were the forest virtues. Dreaming, companionship, humor,--
these were the forest luxuries.
From the first, all sorts and conditions were ensnared by that silent land, where the trails
they followed, their rifles in their hands, had been trodden hard generation after
generation by the feet of the Indian warriors. The best and the worst of England went into
that illimitable resolvent, lost themselves, found themselves, and issued from its shadows,
or their children did, changed both for good and ill, Americans. Meanwhile the great
forest, during two hundred years, was slowly vanishing. This parent of a new people gave
its life to its offspring and passed away. In the early nineteenth century it had withered
backward far from the coast; had lost its identity all along the north end of the eastern
mountains; had frayed out toward the sunset into lingering tentacles, into broken minor
forests, into shreds and patches.