Moving the Mountain, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter 8

AFTER all, it takes time for a great change in world-thought to strike in. That’s what Owen insisted on calling it. He maintained that the amazing up-rush of these thirty years was really due to the wholesale acceptance and application of the idea of evolution.

“I don’t know which to call more important—the new idea, or the new power to use it,” he said. “When we were young, practically all men of science accepted the evolutionary theory of life; and it was in general popular favor, though little understood. But the governing ideas of all our earlier time were so completely out of touch with life; so impossible of any useful application, that the connection between belief and behavior was rusted out of us. Between our detached religious ideas and our brutal ignorance of brain culture, we had made ourselves preternaturally inefficient.

“Then—you remember the talk there was about Mental Healing—‘Power in Repose’—‘The Human Machine’—or was that a bit later? Anyway, people had begun to waken up to the fact that they could do things with their brains. At first they used them only to cure diseases, to maintain an artificial ‘peace of mind,’ and tricks like that. Then it suddenly burst upon us—two or three important books came along nearly at once, and hosts of articles—that we could use this wonderful mental power every day, to live with! That all these scientific facts and laws had an application to life—human life.”

I nodded appreciatively. I was getting quite fond of my brother-in-law. We were in a small, comfortable motor boat, gliding swiftly and noiselessly up the beautiful Hudson. Its blue cleanness was a joy. I could see fish—real fish—in the clear water when we were still.

The banks were one long succession of gardens, palaces, cottages and rich woodlands, charming to view.

“It’s the time that puzzles me more than thing,” I said, “even more than the money. How on earth so much could be done in so little time!”

“That’s because you conceive of it as being done in one place after another, instead of in every place at once,” Owen replied. “If one city, in one year, could end the smoke at once,” Owen replied. “If one city, in one year, could end the smoke nuisance, so could all the cities on earth, if they chose to. We chose to, all over the country, practically at once.”

“But you speak of evolution. Evolution is the slowest of slow processes. It took us thousands of dragging years to evolve the civilization of 1910, and you show me a 1940 that seems thousands of years beyond that.”

“Yes; but what you call Evolution’ was that of unaided nature. Social evolution is a distinct process. Below us, you see, all improvements had to be built into the stock—transmitted by heredity. The social organism is open to lateral transmission—what we used to call education. We never understood it. We thought it was to supply certain piles of information, mostly useless; or to develop certain qualities.”

“And what do you think it is now?” I asked.

“We know now that the social process is to constantly improve and develop society. This has a necessary corollary of improvement in individuals; but the thing that matters most is growth in the social spirit—and body.”

“You’re beyond me now, Owen.”

“Yes; don’t you notice that ever since you began to study our advance, what puzzles you most is not the visible details about you, but a changed spirit in people? Thirty years ago, if you showed a man that some one had dumped a ton of soot in his front yard he would have been furious, and had the man arrested and punished. If you showed him that numbers of men were dumping thousands of tons of soot all over his city every year, he would have neither felt nor acted. It’s the other way, now.”

“You speak as if man had really learned to ‘love his neighbor as himself,’” I said sarcastically.

“And why not? If you have a horse, on whose strength you absolutely depend to make a necessary journey, you take good care of that horse and grow fond of him. It dawned on us at last that life was not an individual affair; that other people were essential to our happiness—to our very existence. We are not what they used to call ‘altruistic’ in this. We do not think of ‘neighbors,’ ‘brothers,’ ‘others’ any more. It is all ‘ourself.’”

“I don’t follow you—sorry.”

Owen grinned at me amiably. “No matter, old chap, you can see results, and will have to take the reasons on trust. Now here’s this particular river with its natural beauties, and its unnatural defilements. We simply stopped defiling it—and one season’s rain did the rest.”

“Did the rains wash away the rail-roads?”

“Oh, no—they are there still. But the use of electric power has removed the worst evils. There is no smoke, dust, cinders, and a yearly saving of millions in forest fires on the side! Also very little noise. Come and see the way it works now.”

We ran in at Yonkers. I wouldn’t have known the old town. It was as beautiful as—Posilippo.”

“Where are the factories?” I asked.

“There—and there—and there.”

“Why, those are palaces!”

“Well? Why not? Why shouldn’t people work in palaces? It doesn’t cost any more to make a beautiful building than an ugly one. Remember, we are much richer, now—and have plenty of time, and the spirit of beauty is encouraged.”

I looked at the rows of quiet, stately buildings; wide windowed; garden-roofed.

“Electric power there too?” I suggested.

Owen nodded again. “Everywhere,” he said. “We store electricity all the time with wind-mills, water-mills, tide-mills, solar engines—even hand power.”


“I mean it,” he said. “There are all kinds of storage batteries now. Huge ones for mills, little ones for houses; and there are ever so many people whose work does not give them bodily exercise, and who do not care much for games. So we have both hand and foot attachments; and a vigorous man, or woman—or child, for that matter, can work away for half an hour, and have the pleasant feeling that the power used will heat the house or run the motor.

“Is that why I don’t smell gasoline in the streets?”

“Yes. We use all those sloppy, smelly things in special places—and apply all the power by electric storage mostly. You saw the little batteries in our boat.”

Then he showed me the railroad. There were six tracks, clean and shiny—thick turf between them.

“The inside four are for the special trains—rapid transit and long distance freight. The outside two are open to anyone.”

We stopped long enough to see some trains go by; the express at an incredible speed, yet only buzzing softly; and the fast freight; cars seemingly of aluminum, like a string of silver beads.

“We use aluminum for almost everything. You know it was only a question of power—the stuff is endless,” Owen explained.

And all the time, on the outside tracks, which had a side track at every station, he told me, ran single coaches or short trains, both passenger and freight, at a comfortable speed.

“All kinds of regular short-distance traffic runs this way. It’s a great convenience. But the regular highroads are the best. Have you noticed?”

I had seen from the air-motor how broad and fine they looked, but told him I had made no special study of them.

“Come on—while we’re about it,” he said; and called a little car. We ran up the hills to Old Broadway, and along its shaded reaches for quite a distance. It was broad, indeed. The center track, smooth, firm, and dustless, was for swift traffic of any sort, and well used. As the freight wagons were beautiful to look at and clean, they were not excluded, and the perfect road was strong enough for any load. There were rows of trees on either side, showing a good growth, though young yet; then a narrower roadway for slower vehicles, on either side a second row of trees, the footpaths, and the outside trees. i

“These are only about twenty-five years old. Don’t you think they are doing well?”

“They are a credit to the National Bureau of Highways and Arboriculture that I see you are going to tell me about.”

“You are getting wise,” Owen answered, with a smile. “Yes—that’s what does it. And it furnishes employment, I can tell you. In the early morning these roads are alive with caretakers. Of course the bulk of the work is done by running machines; but there is a lot of pruning and trimming and fighting with insects. Among our richest victories in that line is the extermination of the gipsy moth—brown tail—elm beetle and the rest.”

“How on earth did you do that?”

“Found the natural devourer—as we did with the scale pest. Also by raising birds instead of killing them; and by swift and thorough work in the proper season. We gave our minds to it, you see, at last.”

The outside path was a delightful one, wide, smooth, soft to the foot, agreeable in color.

“What do you make your sidewalk of?” I asked.

Owen tapped it with his foot. “It’s a kind of semi-flexible concrete—wears well, too. And we color it to suit ourselves, you see. There was no real reason why a path should be ugly to look at.”

Every now and then there were seats; also of concrete, beautifully shaped and too heavy to be easily moved. A narrow crack ran along the lowest curve.

“That keeps ’em dry,” said Owen.

Drinking fountains bubbled invitingly up from graceful standing basins, where birds drank and dipped in the overflow.

“Why, these are fruit trees,” I said suddenly, looking along the outside row.

“Yes, nearly all of them, and the next row are mostly nut trees. You see, the fruit trees are shorter and don’t take the sun off. The middle ones are elms wherever elms grow well. I tell you, John, it is the experience of a lifetime to take a long motor trip over the roads of America! You can pick your climate, or run with the season. Nellie and I started once from New Orleans in February—the violets out. We came north with them; I picked her a fresh bunch every day!”

He showed me the grape vines trained from tree to tree in Tuscan fashion; the lines of berry bushes, and the endless ribbon of perennial flowers that made the final border of the pathway. On its inner side were beds of violets, lilies of the valley, and thick ferns; and around each fountain were groups of lilies and water-loving plants.

I shook my head.

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “I simply don’t believe it! How could any nation afford to keep up such roads!”

Owen drew me to a seat—we had dismounted to examine a fountain and see the flowers. He produced pencil and paper.

“I’m no expert,” he said. “I can’t give you exact figures. But I want you to remember that the trees pay. Pay! These roads, hundreds of thousands of miles of them, constitute quite a forest, and quite an orchard. Nuts, as Hallie told you, are in growing use as food. We have along these roads, as beautiful clean shade trees, the finest improved kinds of chestnut, walnut, butternut, pecan—whatever grows best in the locality.”

And then he made a number of startling assertions and computations, and showed me the profit per mile of two rows of well-kept nut trees.

“I suppose Hallie has told you about tree farming?” he added.

“She said something about it—but I didn’t rightly know what she meant.”

“Oh, it’s a big thing; it has revolutionized agriculture. As you’re sailing over the country now you don’t see so many bald spots. A healthy, permanent world has to keep its fur on.”

I was impressed by that casual remark, “As you’re sailing over the country.”

“Look here, Owen, I think I have the glimmer of an idea. Didn’t the common use of airships help to develop this social consciousness you’re always talking about—this general view of things?”

He clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re dead right, John—it did, and I don’t believe any of us would have thought to mention it.” He looked at me admiringly. “Behold the power of a naturally strong mind—in spite of circumstances! Yes, really that’s a fact. You see few people are able to visualize what they have not seen. Most of us had no more idea of the surface of the earth than an ant has of a meadow. In each mind was only a thready fragment of an idea of the world—no real geographic view. And when we got flying all over it commonly, it became real and familiar to us—like a big garden.

“I guess that helped on the tree idea. You see, in our earlier kind of agriculture the first thing we did was to cut down the forest, dig up and burn over, plow, harrow, and brush fine—to plant our little grasses. All that dry, soft, naked soil was helplessly exposed to the rain—and the rain washed it steadily away. In one heavy storm soil that it had taken centuries of forest growth to make would be carried off to clog the livers and harbors. This struck us all at once as wasteful. We began to realize that food could grow on trees as well as grasses; that the cubic space occupied by a chestnut tree could produce more bushels of nutriment than the linear space below it. Of course we have our wheat fields yet, but around every exposed flat acreage is a broad belt of turf and trees; every river and brook is broadly bordered with turf and trees, or shrubs. We have stopped soil waste to a very great extent. Also we make soil—but that is a different matter.”

“Hurrying Mother Nature again, eh?” “Yes, the advance in scientific agriculture is steady. Don’t you remember that German professor who raised all kinds of things in water? Just fed them a pinch of chemicals now and then? They said he had a row of trees before his door with their roots in barrels of water—the third generation that had never touched ground. We kept on studying, and began to learn how to put together the proper kind of soil for different kinds of plants. Rock-crushers furnished the basis, then add the preferred constituents and sell, by the bag or the ship load. You can have a radish bed in a box on your window sill, if you like radishes, that will raise you the fattest, sweetest, juiciest, crispiest, tenderest little pink beauties you ever saw—all the year round. No weed seeds in that soil, either.”

We rolled slowly back in the green shade. There was plenty of traffic, but all quiet, orderly, and comfortable. The people were a constant surprise to me. They were certainly better looking, even the poorest. And on the faces of the newest immigrants there was an expression of blazing hope that was almost better than the cheery peacefulness of the native born.

Wherever I saw workmen, they worked swiftly, with eager interest. Nowhere did I see the sagging slouch, the slow drag of foot and dull swing of arm which I had always associated with day laborers. We saw men working in the fields—and women, too; but I had learned not to lay my neck on the block too frequently. I knew that my protest would only bring out explanations of the advantage of field work over house work—and that women were as strong as men—or thereabouts. But I was surprised at their eagerness.

“They look as busy as a lot of ants on an ant heap,” I said.

“It’s their heap, you see,” Owen answered. “And they are not tired—that makes a great difference.”

“They seem phenomenally well dressed—looks like a scene in an opera. Sort of agricultural uniform?”

“Why not?” Owen was always asking me “why not”—and there wasn’t any answer to it. “We used to have hunting suits and fishing suits and plumbing suits, and so on. It isn’t really a uniform, just the natural working out of the best appointed dress for the trade.”

Again I held my tongue; not asking how they could afford it, but remembering the shorter hours, the larger incomes, the more universal education.

We got back to Yonkers, put up the car—these things could be hired, I found, for twenty-five cents an hour—and had lunch in a little eating place which bore out Hallie’s statement as to the high standard of food everywhere. Our meal was twenty-five cents for each of us. I saw Owen smile at me, but I refused to be surprised. We settled down in our boat again, and pushed smoothly up the river.

“I wish you’d get one thing clear in my mind,” I said at last. “Just how did you tackle the liquor question. I haven’t seen a saloon—or a drunken man. Nellie said something about people’s not wanting to drink any more—but there were several millions who did want to, thirty years ago, and plenty of people who wanted them to. What were your steps?”

“The first step was to eliminate the self-interest of the dealer—the big business pressure that had to make drunkards. That was done in state after state, within a few years, by introducing government ownership and management. With that went an absolute government guarantee of purity. In five or six years there was no bad liquor sold, and no public drinking places except government ones.

“But that wasn’t enough—not by a long way. It wasn’t the love of liquor that supported the public house—it was the need of the public house itself.”

I stared rather uncertainly,

“The meeting place,” he went on. “Men have to get together. We have had public houses as long as we have had private ones, almost. It is a social need.”

“A social need with a pretty bad result, it seems to me,” I said, “that took men away from their families, leading to all manner of vicious indulgence.”

“Yes, they used to; but that was because only men used them. I said a social need, not a masculine one. We have met it in this way. Whenever we build private houses—if it is the lowest country unit, or the highest city block, we build accommodations for living together.

“Every little village has its Town House, with club rooms of all sorts; the people flock together freely, for games, for talk, for lectures, and plays, and dances, and sermons—it is universal. And in the city—you don’t see a saloon on every corner, but you do see almost as many places where you can ‘meet a man’ and talk with him on equal ground.”

“Meet a woman, too?” I suggested.

“Yes; especially, yes. People can meet, as individuals or in groups, freely and frequently, in city or country. But men can not flock by themselves in special places provided for their special vices—without taking a great deal of extra trouble.”

“I should think they would take the trouble, then,” said I.

“But why? When there is every arrangement made for a natural good time; when you are not overworked, not underfed, not miserable and hopeless. When you can drop into a comfortable chair and have excellent food and drink in pleasant company; and hear good music, or speaking, or reading, or see pictures; or, if you like, play any kind of game; swim, ride, fly, do what you want to, for change and recreation—why long for liquor in a low place?”

“But the men—the real men, people as they were,” I insisted. “You had a world full of drinking men who liked the saloon; did you—what do you call it?—eliminate them?”

A few of them, yes,” he replied gravely; Some preferred it; others, thorough-going dipsomaniacs, we gave hospital treatment and permanent restraint; they lived and worked and were well provided for in places where there was no liquor. But there were not many of that kind. Most men drank under a constant pressure of conditions driving them to it, and the mere force of habit.

“Just remember that the weight and terror of life is lifted off us—for good and all.”

“Socialism, you mean?”

“Yes, real socialism. The wealth and power of all of us belongs to all of us now. The Wolf is dead.”

“Other things besides poverty drove a man to drink in my time,” I ventured.

“Oh, yes—and some men continued to drink. I told you there was liquor to be had—good liquor, too. And other drug habits held on for a while. But we stopped the source of the trouble. The old men died off, the younger ones got over it, and the new ones—that’s what you don’t realize yet: We make a new kind of people now.”

He was silent, his strong mouth set in a kind smile, his eyes looking far up the blue river.

“Well, what comes next? What’s done it?” I demanded. “Religion, education, or those everlasting women?”

He laughed outright; laughed till the boat rocked,

“How you do hate to admit that it’s their turn. John! Haven’t we had full swing—everything in our hands—for all historic time? They have only begun. Thirty years? Why, John, they have done so much in these thirty years that the world’s heart is glad at last. You don’t know ”

I didn’t know. But I did feel a distinct resentment at being treated like an extinct species.

“They have simply stepped on to an eminence men have been all these years building,” I said. “We have done all the hard work—are doing it yet, for all I see. We have made it possible for them to live at all! We have made the whole civilization of the world—they just profit by it. And now you speak as if, somehow, they had managed to achieve more than we have!”

Owen considered a while thoughtfully. “What you say is true. We have done a good deal of the work; we did largely make and modify our civilization. But if you read some of the newer histories ” he stopped and looked at me as if I had just happened. “Why you don’t know yet, do you? History has been rewritten.”

“You speak as if ‘history’ was a one act play.”

“I don’t mean it’s all done, of course—but we do have now a complete new treatment of the world’s history. Each nation its own, some several of them, there’s no dead level of agreement, I assure you. But our old androcentric version of life began to be questioned about 1910, I think—and new versions appeared, more and more of them. The big scholars took it up, there was new research work, and now we are not so glib in our assurance that we did it all.”

“You’re getting pretty close to things I used to know something about,” I remarked drily.

“If you knew all that was known, then, you wouldn’t know this, John. Don’t you remember what Lester Ward calls ‘the illusion of the near’—how the most familiar facts were precisely those we often failed to understand? In all our history, ancient and modern, we had the underlying assumption that men were the human race, the people who did things; and that women—were ‘their women.’ ”

And precisely what have you lately discovered? That Horatio at the bridge was Horatia, after all? That the world was conquered by an Alexandra—and a Napoleona?” I laughed with some bitterness.

“No,” said Owen gently, “There is no question about the battles—men did the fighting, of course. But we have learned that ‘the decisive battles of history’ were not so decisive as we thought them. Man, as a destructive agent did modify history, unquestionably. What did make history, make civilization, was constructive industry. And for many ages women did most of that.”

“Did women build the Pyramids? the Acropolis? the Roads of Rome?”

“No, nor many other things. But they gave the world its first start in agriculture and the care of animals; they clothed it and fed it and ornamented it and kept it warm; their ceaseless industry made rich the simple early cultures. Consider—without men, Egypt and Assyria could not have fought—but they could have grown rich and wise. Without women—they could have fought until the last man died alone—if the food held out.

“But I won’t bother you with this, John. You’ll get all you want out of books better than I can give it. What I set out to say was that the most important influence in weeding out intemperance was that of the women.”

I was in a very bad temper by this time, it was disagreeable enough to have this—or any other part of it, true; but what I could not stand was to see that big hearted man speak of it in such a cheerful matter-of-fact way.

“Have the men of today no pride?” I asked. “How can you stand it—being treated as inferiors—by women?”

“Women stood it for ten thousand years,” he answered, “being treated as inferiors—by men.”

We went home in silence.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54