Chateaubriand's memoirs, VIII, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VIII - Chapter 2
The Course of the Ohio



London, April to September 1822.

Leaving the Canadian lakes, we came via Pittsburgh to the confluence of the Kentucky and the Ohio; there, the landscape displays an extraordinary grandeur. This country of such magnificence is nevertheless called Kentucky from the name of its river which signifies river of blood. It owes its name to its beauty: for more than two centuries, the nations siding with the Cherokees and those siding with the Iroquois nations have been in dispute over the hunting grounds.

Will European generations be more virtuous and free on those shores than the lost generations of Americans? Will slaves not plough the earth beneath their masters’ whips, in those wildernesses of man’s primitive independence? Will prisons and gibbets not replace the open hut and the tall tulip tree where the bird makes it nest? Will the rich soil not give rise to new wars? Will Kentucky cease to be the field of blood, and works of art more beautiful than the works of nature adorn the banks of the Ohio?

Having passed the Wabash, the Great Cypress grove, the Winged or Cumberland River, the Cherokee or Tennessee River, and the Yellow Banks, one reaches a tongue of land often drowned by the vast waters; there the Ohio merges with the Mississippi at 36 degrees 51 minutes latitude. The two rivers meet, while an equal resistance slows their course; they slumber against each other in the same channel, without merging, for a few miles, like two great nations separated at their source, then joined to create a single race; like two illustrious rivals sharing the same resting place after a battle; like a married couple, of opposing blood, who at first had little inclination to unite their destinies in the nuptial bed.

And I too, like the powerful flow of the rivers, have extended the little course of my life, now on one side of the mountain, now on the other; capricious in my mistakes, never wicked; preferring the bare valleys to the rich plains, halting by flowers rather than palaces. Moreover, I was so delighted by my travels, that I scarcely thought any more of the Pole. A company of traders off to visit the Creek Indians, in the Floridas, allowed me to travel with them.

We were headed for the region known at that time under the general name of the Floridas, now occupied by the states of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. There, we would more or less follow the trails that now link the grand route from Natchez to Nashville, through Jackson and Florence, with that which in Virginia, runs through Knoxville and Salem: a region little frequented at this time, but whose lakes and sites of interest Bartram had explored. The planters of Georgia and the maritime Floridas came to the various tribes of Creeks to buy horses and half-savage cattle that bred extensively in the savannahs (treeless plains) which are pierced by those well-springs on whose banks I placed Atala and Chactas. They extend even as far as the Ohio.

We were urged on now by a fresh breeze. The Ohio, swollen by a hundred rivers, now lost itself in lakes that opened before us, now in forest. Islands rose from the midst of the lakes. We sailed towards one of the largest: we landed there at eight in the morning.

I crossed a meadow dense with yellow-flowering ragwort, pink-headed hollyhocks, and abelias with purplish blooms.

An Indian ruin caught my attention. The contrast between this ruin and virgin nature, this human monument in a wilderness, caused me great emotion. What people had lived on this island? What had been their name, and race, the length of their stay? Did they still exist, as the world in whose breast they were hidden existed unknown to three quarters of the earth? The silence of that people is contemporary perhaps with the noise of great nations fallen to silence in their turn. (The ruins of Mitla and Palenque in Mexico, show today that the New World can dispute its antiquity with the Old: Note, Paris 1834)

The sandy crevices, of their ruins or tumuli, sported poppies, with red petals hanging from the tip of a peduncle tending to pale green. The stem and the flower had a scent which stayed on the fingers when one had touched the plant. The perfume of this flower remains, as a symbol of the memory of a life passed in solitude.

I observed a water-lily: it was preparing to hide its white bud in the water, at the day’s end; the weeping shrub (nyctanthe: gardenia or Malabar jasmine) waits for night to reveal itself: the wife goes to her rest at the hour when the courtesan rises.

The pyramidal oenothera (evening primrose), seven or eight feet high, with oblong greenish-black jagged leaves has another manner of behaving and another fate: its yellow flowers begin to half-open in the evening, in the space of time it takes Venus to descend below the horizon; it continues to open in starlight; dawn finds it in all its splendour; half-way through the morning it fades; it dies at midday. It only lives a few hours; but it passes those hours under a serene sky, between the sighs of Venus and dawn; what matter then the brevity of that life?

A stream is embowered with Venus fly-traps; a multitude of dragonflies buzz around. There are also hummingbirds and butterflies which, in their most glittering jewellery, joust brilliantly with iridescent flowers. In the midst of my wandering and my studies, I was often struck by their futility. What! Could the Revolution, which always weighed on me and which had driven me into the woods, inspire me with nothing more serious? What! During those days of upheaval in my native country, could I occupy myself with nothing more than descriptions of plants, butterflies and flowers? Human individuality serves to measure the littleness of the greatest events. How many men are indifferent to those same events? How many other men are ignorant of them? The total population of the globe is estimated to be eleven or twelve hundred million; a human being dies every second: so in every minute of our existence, of our smiles, our joys, sixty expire, sixty families mourn and weep. Life is a continual plague. This chain of bereavement and funerals that winds us about, never breaks, it lengthens; we ourselves form a link. And then we magnify the importance of those catastrophes of which seven-eighths of the world heard not a word! Let us hanker after a fame that will not vanish a few miles from our grave! Let us plunge into an ocean of bliss where each minute flows among sixty coffins continually re-filled!

‘Nam nox nulla diem, neque noctem aurora secuta est,
Quae non audierit mixtos vagitibus aegris
Ploratus, mortis comites et funeris atri.’

‘No night has followed day, no dawn has followed night, in which tears and mournful sounds of grief have not been heard, the companions of death and dark funerals.’