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VISIT TO LAKE ONEIDA. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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VISIT TO LAKE ONEIDA.
[Written in 1831.]
At sunrise on the 8th of July, 1831, we left the little village called Fort Brewington, and turned our steps towards the north-east.
About a mile and a half from the house of our host, we took a path which opened into the forest, as the heat began to be troublesome. A close morning had succeeded to a stormy night. We were soon under shelter from the rays of the sun, and in the midst of one of those dense forests in the New World, whose gloomy and savage majesty seizes the imagination and fills the mind with a sort of religious awe. How can such a scene be described?
A thousand little rivulets, as yet unconfined by the hand of man, trickled and lost themselves in perfect freedom over a marshy ground, in which nature had scattered with incredible profusion the seeds of almost every plant, that either creeps along or rises above the ground.
Over our heads was a vast green vault. Beneath this thick veil and in the damp recesses of the woods, strange confusion meets the eye; a chaos of trees of all ages, leaves of every colour, grasses, fruits, and flowers of a thousand sorts mingled and plaited together. For centuries has one generation of trees succeeded to another, and the ground is covered with their remains. Some seem to have been felled yesterday, others already half buried in the earth exhibit only a shell, others again reduced to dust serve as manure to their latest offshoots. Among them thousands of plants of different kinds struggle in their turn towards the light. They insinuate themselves between these motionless corpses, creep over their surface and under their withered bark, raise and scatter their dust. It is like a struggle between death and life. We sometimes came upon an immense tree uprooted by the winds, but in spite of its weight often unable to reach the ground through the crowded forest, the withered branches still hanging in the air.
A solemn silence reigned in this profound solitude. Scarcely a living creature was to be seen. Man was absent, and yet it was not a desert. On the contrary, nature exhibited a productive force unknown elsewhere. All was activity; the air appeared impregnated with an odour of vegetation; one seemed even to hear nature at work, and to see sap and life circulating through the ever-open channels.
We rode for many hours through this imposing solitude in a dim light, and hearing no sound but that made by our horses trampling over the leaves heaped up by many winters, or forcing their way through the dry branches which covered the ground. We kept silence; our minds filled by the grandeur and strangeness of the scene. At length we heard the first sounds of the axe, which proclaimed from afar the presence of an European. Prostrate trees, burnt and blackened trunks, some of the plants which serve as food for man sown confusedly among all sorts of rubbish, guided us to the abode of the pioneer. In the centre of a narrow circle, cleared by fire and steel, rose the rough dwelling of the precursor of civilization. It was an oasis in the midst of the desert. After talking for a few moments with the inhabitant of this spot, we resumed our journey, and half an hour afterwards reached a fisherman’s hut, built on the shore of the lake we came to see.
Lake Oneida stands in the midst of low hills, and of still virgin forests. A belt of thick foliage surrounds it on every side; its waters bathe the roots of the trees, which are reflected on its calm, transparent face; a single fisherman’s cabin is the only dwelling on its shore. Not a sail was to be seen on its whole expanse, nor even smoke ascending from the woods: for the European, though he has not yet taken possession of its shores, is near enough to expel the populous and warlike tribe from which the lake was named.
About a mile from where we stood were two oval-shaped islands of equal length. These islands are covered with trees so crowded that they hide the ground; they look like two thickets floating quietly on the surface of the lake.
No road passes near. In this region are no vast industrial establishments, nor spots celebrated for their picturesque beauty. It was not, however, chance that had led us towards this solitary lake. For it was the end and aim of our journey.
Many years before, I had met with a book called ‘Voyage au lac Oneida.’ The author related that a young Frenchman and his wife, driven from their country by the storms of our first revolution, sought an asylum in one of the islands on the lake. There, separated from the whole world, far from the tempests of Europe, and cast off by the society in which they were born, they lived for each other, and found mutual consolation in their misfortune.
This book had left a deep and lasting impression on my mind. Whether its effect on me were due to the talent of the author, to the real charm of the incidents, or to my youth, I cannot say; but the remembrance of the French couple on the Lake Oneida was never effaced from my memory. How often I had envied the peaceful joys of their solitude! Domestic bliss, the charms of conjugal union—even love—became mixed up in my mind with the image of the solitary island which my imagination had transformed into a new Eden. The story interested my companion. We often talked of it, and we every time ended by repeating, gaily or sadly—“The only happiness in this world is on the Lake Oneida.”
When unexpected circumstances led us to America, the recollection pressed upon us still more strongly. We determined to visit the French pair, if they still lived, or at least to explore their dwelling. So strong is the power of imagination over the mind, that this wild spot, this still and silent lake, these green islands, did not strike us as new objects; we seemed to see again a place which we had known in our youth.
We at once entered the fisherman’s hut. The man was in the forest; an old woman lived there alone; she hobbled out to her door to greet us. ‘What is the name of that green island about a mile off in the midst of the lake?’ said we. ‘It is called the Frenchman’s island,’ she replied. ‘Do you know why that name was given to it?’ ‘I have been told that it was so called after a Frenchman who, many years ago, came to live there.’ ‘Was he alone?’ ‘No: he brought with him a young wife.’ ‘Do they still live there?’ ‘One and twenty years ago when I settled in this place the French couple had left the island; I remember that I had the curiosity to go to see it. That island, which from hence looks so wild, was then a beautiful spot; the interior was carefully cultivated, the Frenchman’s house was in the middle of an orchard surrounded by fruits and flowers, a great vine climbed up the walls and spread all round it, but the place was already falling to pieces for want of inhabitants.’ ‘What then had become of the French pair?’ ‘The wife had died and the man abandoned the island, and no one knows what became of him.’ ‘Will you lend us the canoe moored at your door that we may cross over to the island?’ ‘Willingly; but it is a long distance to row, and it is hard work for people who are not accustomed to it; and besides, what can you see to interest you in a place which has grown wild again?’
As instead of answering we made haste to push the canoe into the water, ‘I see what it is,’ she said, ‘you want to buy the island. The soil is good, and land is not yet dear in our country.’ We replied that we were travellers. ‘Then,’ said she, ‘you are no doubt related to the Frenchman, and he has desired you to visit his property?’ ‘Not at all; we do not even know his name.’ The good woman shook her head incredulously, and handling our oars we proceeded rapidly to the Frenchman’s island. During this little voyage we were silent. Our hearts were full of sad and tender feelings. The nearer we came the less could we understand that the island had ever been inhabited, so wild was its appearance. We fancied that we had been duped by a fable. At last we reached the shore, and creeping under the huge branches that hung over the lake, we pushed on further. First we penetrated through a belt of venerable trees which seemed to defend the approach. Beyond this leafy fortification we suddenly came upon another scene. A thin growth of underwood and of young forest trees covered the interior of the island. In the woods, through which we had ridden that morning, we had often seen man struggling bodily with nature, and succeeding with difficulty in effacing its wild and fierce character, and subjecting it to his laws. Here we saw the forest re-asserting its supremacy, reconquering the desert, defying man, and rapidly obliterating the fleeting traces of his triumph.
It was easy to perceive that a diligent hand had once cleared the space in the middle of the island now filled by the young race of trees which I mentioned. No ancient trunks lay on the scattered remains. All bore the appearance of youth. We could see that the surrounding trees had thrown offshoots into the deserted fields, grass had grown over the spot which once yielded a harvest to the exile; briars and parasites had returned to the possession of their ancient domain. It was only at rare intervals that the trace of a fence, or the appearance of a field, was visible. We were an hour searching in vain among the trees and other brushwood which choked up the ground for some vestige of the forsaken dwelling. The rustic spot that the fisherman’s wife had just described to us, the lawn, the flowers, the fruit, the products of civilization introduced by intelligent and tender care into the midst of a desert, all had disappeared with the beings who inhabited it. We were about to renounce our undertaking when we espied an apple tree perishing of old age; this first put us in the right direction. Soon we discovered a plant, which we at first took for a convolvulus, climbing up the tall trees, winding round their slender trunks, or hanging like a green wreath from their branches; on further examination we found it to be a vinestock. We then felt certain that we were on the very spot chosen, forty years ago, by our two unfortunate countrymen as their last asylum. But even by digging in the thick layer of leaves which covered the ground we could find only a few fragments falling into dust, and which will soon disappear. Of the remains of her who had not feared to exchange the pleasures of civilized life for a tomb in a desert island in the New World, we could not find a trace. Did the exile leave these precious relics in the desert; or did he remove them to the spot whither he went to end his own days? No one could tell us.
They who read these lines will, perhaps, not be able to conceive the feelings here described, and will deem them, perhaps, exaggerated or fanciful. Still I must say, that it was with hearts full of emotion and agitated with hope and fear, that it was with a kind of pious sentiment that we engaged in these minute researches, and followed the traces of the two beings whose name and family were unknown to us, of whose history we knew little, and whose only claim on us was their having experienced in this spot the joys and sorrows which touch every heart, because every heart contains the spring of them.
Here was an unfortunate being, bruised by his fellow-men, shut out and expelled from their society; forced to renounce their intercourse, and to flee to the desert. One friend clung to him, followed him into solitude, came forward to dress his wounds, succeeded in healing his broken spirit, and in substituting for worldly pleasures the most powerful emotions of the heart. He is reconciled to his lot. He has forgotten revolution, politics, cities; his rank and his family. He at length breathes freely. But his wife dies. Death strikes her and spares him. How will he be able to endure the remaining years? Will he remain alone in the desert? Will he return to the society which has long forgotten him? He is no longer fit for solitude, nor for the world. He can live no longer alone, nor with other men; he is neither a savage nor a civilized man; he is a wreck, like those trees of the American forest that the wind has been strong enough to uproot, but not to prostrate. He is still erect, but he lives no longer.
We explored the island in every direction, examined every relic, and, impressed by the icy silence which now reigns in its woods, we returned to the mainland.
Not without regret I saw disappearing the high verdant bulwark which for so many years had shielded the two exiles against the bullet of the European, and the arrow of the savage, but could not protect their cottage from the invisible stroke of death.