I. 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....