Near the end of Darwin’s famous narrative of the voyage of the Beagle there is a passage which, for me, has a very special interest and significance. It is as follows, and the italicisation is mine: “In calling up images of the past, I find the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all to be most wretched and useless. They are characterised only by negative possessions; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support only a few dwarf plants. WHY, THEN— AND THE CASE IS NOT PECULIAR TO MYSELF— HAVE THESE ARID WASTES TAKEN SO FIRM POSSESSION OF MY MIND?’ Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyse these feelings, but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely practicable, and hence unknown; they bear the stamp of having thus lasted for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?”
That he did not in this passage hit on the right explanation of the sensations he experienced in Patagonia, and of the strength of the impressions it made on his mind, I am quite convinced; for the thing is just as true of today as of the time, in 1836, when he wrote that the case was not peculiar to himself. Yet since that date — which now, thanks to Darwin, seems so remote to the naturalist — those desolate regions have ceased to be impracticable, and, although still uninhabited and uninhabitable, except for a few nomads, they are no longer unknown. During the last twenty years the country has been crossed in various directions, from the Atlantic to the Andes, and from the Rio Negro to the Straits of Magellan, and has been found all barren. The mysterious illusive city, peopled by whites, which was long believed to exist in the unknown interior, in a valley called Trapalanda, is to moderns a myth, a mirage of the mind, as little to the traveller’s imagination as the glittering capital of great Manoa, which Alonzo Pizarro and his false friend Orellana failed to discover. The traveller of today really expects to see nothing more exciting than a solitary huanaco keeping watch on a hilltop, and a few grey-plumaged rheas flying from him, and, possibly, a band of long-haired roving savages, with their faces painted black and red. Yet, in spite of accurate knowledge, the old charm still exists in all its freshness; and after all the discomforts and sufferings endured in a desert cursed with eternal barrenness, the returned traveller finds in after years that it still keeps its hold on him, that it shines brighter in memory, and is dearer to him than any other region he may have visited.
We know that the more deeply our feelings are moved by any scene the more vivid and lasting will its image be in memory — a fact which accounts for the comparatively unfading character of the images that date back to the period of childhood, when we are most emotional. Judging from my own case, I believe that we have here the secret of the persistence of Patagonian images, and their frequent recurrence in the minds of many who have visited that grey, monotonous, and, in one sense, eminently uninteresting region. It is not the effect of the unknown, it is not imagination; it is that nature in these desolate scenes, for a reason to be guessed at by-and-by, moves us more deeply than in others. In describing his rambles in one of the most desolate spots in Patagonia, Darwin remarks: “Yet, in passing over these scenes, without one bright object near, an ill-defined but strong sense of pleasure is vividly excited.” When I recall a Patagonian scene, it comes before me so complete in all its vast extent, with all its details so clearly outlined, that, if I were actually gazing on it, I could scarcely see it more distinctly; yet other scenes, even those that were beautiful and sublime, with forest, and ocean, and mountain, and over all the deep blue sky and brilliant sunshine of the tropics, appear no longer distinct and entire in memory, and only become more broken and clouded if any attempt is made to regard them attentively. Here and there I see a wooded mountain, a grove of palms, a flowery tree, green waves dashing on a rocky shore — nothing but isolated patches of bright colour, the parts of the picture that have not faded on a great blurred canvas, or series of canvases. These last are images of scenes which were looked on with wonder and admiration — feelings which the Patagonian wastes could not inspire — but the grey, monotonous solitude woke other and deeper feelings, and in that mental state the scene was indelibly impressed on the mind.
I spent the greater part of one winter at a point on the Rio Negro, seventy or eighty miles from the sea, where the valley on my side of the water was about five miles wide. The valley alone was habitable, where there was water for man and beast, and a thin soil producing grass and grain; it is perfectly level, and ends abruptly at the foot of the bank or terrace-like formation of the higher barren plateau. It was my custom to go out every morning on horse-back with my gun, and, followed by one dog, to ride away from the valley; and no sooner would I climb the terrace and plunge into the grey universal thicket, than I would find myself as completely alone and cut off from all sight and sound of human occupancy as if five hundred instead of only five miles separated me from the hidden green valley and river. So wild and solitary and remote seemed that grey waste, stretching away into infinitude, a waste untrodden by man, and where the wild animals are so few that they have made no discoverable path in the wilderness of thorns. There I might have dropped down and died, and my flesh been devoured by birds, and my bones bleached white in sun and wind, and no person would have found them, and it would have been forgotten that one had ridden forth in the morning and had not returned. Or if, like the few wild animals there — puma, huanaco, and hare-like Dolichotis, or Darwin’s rhea and the crested tinamou among the birds — I had been able to exist without water, I might have made myself a hermitage of brushwood or dug-out in the side of a cliff, and dwelt there until I had grown grey as the stones and trees around me, and no human foot would have stumbled on my hiding-place.
Not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but day after day I returned to this solitude, going to it in the morning as if to attend a festival, and leaving it only when hunger and thirst and the westering sun compelled me. And yet I had no object in going — no motive which could be put into words; for although I carried a gun, there was nothing to shoot — the shooting was all left behind in the valley. Sometimes a Dolichotis, starting up at my approach, flashed for one moment on my sight, to vanish the next moment in the continuous thicket; or a covey of tinamous sprang rocket-like into the air, and fled away with long wailing notes and loud whur of wings; or on some distant hill-side a bright patch of yellow, of a deer that was watching me, appeared and remained motionless for two or three minutes. But the animals were few, and sometimes I would pass an entire day without seeing one mammal, and perhaps not more than a dozen birds of any size. The weather at that time was cheerless, generally with a grey film of cloud spread over the sky, and a bleak wind, often cold enough to make my bridle hand feel quite numb. Moreover, it was not possible to enjoy a canter; the bushes grew so close together that it was as much as one could do to pass through at a walk without brushing against them; and at this slow pace, which would have seemed intolerable in other circumstances, I would ride about for hours at a stretch. In the scene itself there was nothing to delight the eye. Everywhere through the light, grey mould, grey as ashes and formed by the ashes of myriads of generations of dead trees, where the wind had blown on it, or the rain had washed it away, the underlying yellow sand appeared, and the old ocean-polished pebbles, dull red, and grey, and green, and yellow. On arriving at a hill, I would slowly ride to its summit, and stand there to survey the prospect. On every side it stretched away in great undulations; but the undulations were wild and irregular; the hills were rounded and cone-shaped, they were solitary and in groups and ranges; some sloped gently, others were ridge-like and stretched away in league-long terraces, with other terraces beyond; and all alike were clothed in the grey everlasting thorny vegetation. How grey it all was! hardly less so near at hand than on the haze-wrapped horizon, where the hills were dim and the outline blurred by distance. Sometimes I would see the large eagle-like, white-breasted buzzard, ‘Buteo erythronotus’, perched on the summit of a bush half a mile away; and so long as it would continue stationed motionless before me my eyes would remain involuntarily fixed on it, just as one keeps his eyes on a bright light shining in the gloom; for the whiteness of the hawk seemed to exercise a fascinating power on the vision, so surpassingly bright was it by contrast in the midst of that universal unrelieved greyness. Descending from my look-out, I would take up my aimless wanderings again, and visit other elevations to gaze on the same landscape from another point; and so on for hours, and at noon I would dismount and sit or lie on my folded poncho for an hour or longer. One day, in these rambles, I discovered a small grove composed of twenty to thirty trees, about eighteen feet high, and taller than the surrounding trees. They were growing at a convenient distance apart, and had evidently been resorted to by a herd of deer or other wild animals for a very long time, for the boles were polished to a glassy smoothness with much rubbing, and the ground beneath was trodden to a floor of clean, loose yellow sand. This grove was on a hill differing in shape from other hills in its neighbourhood, so that it was easy for me to find it on other occasions; and after a time I made a point of finding and using it as a resting-place every day at noon. I did not ask myself why I made choice of that one spot, sometimes going miles out of my way to sit there, instead of sitting down under any one of the millions of trees and bushes covering the country, on any other hillside. I thought nothing at all about it, but acted unconsciously; only afterwards, when revolving the subject, it seemed to me that after having rested there once, each time I wished to rest again the wish came associated with the image of that particular clump of trees, with polished stems and clean bed of sand beneath; and in a short time I formed a habit of returning, animal-like, to repose at that same spot.
It was perhaps a mistake to say that I would sit down and rest, since I was never tired: and yet without being tired, that noonday pause, during which I sat for an hour without moving, was strangely grateful. All day the silence seemed grateful, it was very perfect, very profound. These were no insects, and the only bird-sound — a feeble chirp of alarm emitted by a small skulking wren-like species — was not heard oftener than two or three times an hour. The only sounds as I rode were the muffled hoof-strokes of my horse, scratching of twigs against my boot or saddle-flap, and the low panting of the dog. And it seemed to be a relief to escape even from these sounds when I dismounted and sat down: for in a few moments the dog would stretch his head out on his paws and go to sleep, and then there would be no sound, not even the rustle of a leaf. For unless the wind blows strong there is no fluttering motion and no whisper in the small stiff undeciduous leaves; and the bushes stand unmoving as if carved out of stone. One day while ‘listening’ to the silence, it occurred to my mind to wonder what the effect would be if I were to shout aloud. This seemed at the time a horrible suggestion of fancy, a “lawless and uncertain thought” which almost made me shudder, and I was anxious to dismiss it quickly from my mind. But during those solitary days it was a rare thing for any thought to cross my mind; animal forms did not cross my vision or bird-voices assail my hearing more rarely. In that novel state of mind I was in, thought had become impossible. Elsewhere I had always been able to think most freely on horseback; and on the pampas, even in the most lonely places, my mind was always most active when I travelled at a swinging gallop. This was doubtless habit; but now, with a horse under me, I had become incapable of reflection: my mind had suddenly transformed itself from a thinking machine into a machine for some other unknown purpose. To think was like setting in motion a noisy engine in my brain; and there was something there which bade me be still, and I was forced to obey. My state was one of SUSPENSE and WATCHFULNESS: yet I had no expectation of meeting with an adventure, and felt as free from apprehension as I feel now when sitting in a room in London. The change in me was just as great and wonderful as if I had changed my identity for that of another man or animal; but at the time I was powerless to wonder at or speculate about it; the state seemed familiar rather than strange, and although accompanied by a strong feeling of elation, I did not know it — did not know that something had come between me and my intellect — until I lost it and returned to my former self — to thinking, and the old insipid existence.
Such changes in us, however brief in duration they may be, and in most cases they are very brief, but which so long as they last seem to affect us down to the very roots of our being, and come as a great surprise — a revelation of an unfamiliar and unsuspected nature hidden under the nature we are conscious of — can only be attributed to an instantaneous reversion to the primitive and wholly savage mental conditions. Probably not many men exist who would be unable to recall similar cases in their own experience; but it frequently happens that the revived instinct is so purely animal in character and repugnant to our refined or humanitarian feelings, that it is sedulously concealed and its promptings resisted. In the military and seafaring vocations, and in lives of travel and adventure, these sudden and surprising reversions are most frequently experienced. The excitement affecting men going into battle, which even affects those who are constitutionally timid and will cause them to exhibit a reckless daring and contempt of danger astonishing to themselves, is a familiar instance. This instinctive courage has been compared to intoxication, but it does not, like alcohol, obscure a man’s faculties: on the contrary, he is far more keenly active to everything going on around him than the person who keeps perfectly cool. The man who is coolly courageous in fight has his faculties in their ordinary condition: the faculties of the man who goes into battle inflamed with instinctive, joyous excitement are sharpened to a preternatural keenness. (1) When the constitutionally timid man has had an experience of this kind he looks back on the day that brought it to him as the happiest he has known, one that stands out brightly and shines with a strange glory among his days.
[footnote] (1) In an article on “Courage” by Lord Wolseley, in the Fortnightly Review for August 1889, there occurs the following passage, descriptive of the state of mind experienced by men in fight; “All maddening pleasures seem to be compressed into that very short space of time, and yet every sensation experienced in those fleeting moments is so indelibly impressed on the brain that not even the most trifling incident is ever forgotten in after life.”
When we are suddenly confronted with any terrible danger, the change of nature we undergo is equally great. In some cases fear paralyses us, and, like animals, we stand still, powerless to move a step in flight, or to lift a hand in defence of our lives; and sometimes we are seized with panic, and, again, act more like the inferior animals than rational beings. On the other hand, frequently in cases of sudden extreme peril, which cannot be escaped by flight, and must be instantly faced, even the most timid men at once, as if by miracle, become possessed of the necessary courage, sharp, quick apprehension, and swift decision. This is a miracle very common in nature; man and the inferior animals alike, when confronted with almost certain death “gather resolution from despair.” We are accustomed to call this the “courage of despair”; but there can really be no trace of so debilitating a feeling in the person fighting, or prepared to fight, for dear life. At such times the mind is clearer than it has ever been; the nerves are steel; there is nothing felt but a wonderful strength and fury and daring. Looking back at certain perilous moments in my own life, I remember them with a kind of joy; not that there was any joyful excitement then, but because they brought me a new experience — a new nature, as it were — and lifted me for a time above myself. And yet, comparing myself with other men, I find that on ordinary occasions my courage is rather below than above the average. And probably this instinctive courage, which flashes out so brightly on occasions, is inherited by a very large majority of the male children born into the world; only in civilised life the exact conjuncture of circumstances needed to call it into activity rarely occurs.
In hunting, again, instinctive impulses come very much to the surface. Leech caricatured Gallic ignorance of fox-hunting in England when he made his French gentleman gallop over the hounds and dash away to capture the fox himself; but the sketch may be also taken as a comic illustration of a feeling that exists in every one of us. If any sportsman among my readers has ever been confronted with some wild animal — a wild dog, a pig, or cat, let us say — when he had no firearm or other weapon to kill it in the usual civilised way, and has nevertheless attacked it, driven by a sudden uncontrollable impulse, with a hunting-knife, or anything that came to hand, and has succeeded in slaying it, I would ask such a one whether this victory did not give him a greater satisfaction than all his other achievements in the field? After it, all legitimate sport would seem illegitimate, and whole hecatombs of hares and pheasants, and even large animals, fallen before his gun, would only stir in him a feeling of disgust and self-contempt. He would probably hold his tongue about a combat of that brutal kind, but all the same he would gladly remember how in some strange, unaccountable way he suddenly became possessed of the daring, quickness, and certitude necessary to hold his wily, desperate foe in check, to escape its fangs and claws, and finally to overcome it. Above all, he would remember the keen feeling of savage joy experienced in the contest. This would make all ordinary sport seem insipid; to kill a rat in some natural way would seem better to him than to murder elephants scientifically from a safe distance. The feeling occasionally bursts out in The Story of My Heart: “To shoot with a gun is nothing . . . . Give me an iron mace that I may crush the savage beast and hammer him down. A spear to thrust him through with, so that I may feel the long blade enter, and the push of the shaft.” And more in the same strain, shocking to some, perhaps, but showing that gentle Richard Jefferies had in him some of the elements of a fine barbarian.
But it is in childhood and boyhood when instincts are nearest to the surface, and ready when occasion serves to spring into activity. Inherited second nature is weakest then; and habit has not progressed far in weaving its fine network of restraining influences over the primitive nature. The network is continually being strengthened in the individual’s life, and, in the end, he is eased, like the caterpillar, in an impervious cocoon; only, as we have seen, there are in life miraculous moments when the cocoon suddenly dissolves, or becomes transparent, and he is permitted to see himself in his original nakedness. The delight which children experience on entering woods and other wild places is very keen; and this feeling, although it diminishes as we advance in life, remains with us to the last. Equally great is their delight at finding wild fruits, honey, and other natural food; and even when not hungry they will devour it with strange zest. They will gladly feast on sour, acrid fruits, which at table, and picked in the garden, would only excite disgust. This instinctive seeking for food, and the delight experienced in finding it, occasionally comes up in very unexpected and surprising ways. ‘“As I came through the wood,” says Thoreau, “I caught a glimpse of a woodchuk stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness which he represented.”
In almost all cases — those in which danger is encountered and rage experienced being exceptions — the return to an instinctive or primitive state of mind is accompanied by this feeling of elation, which, in the very young, rises to an intense gladness, and sometimes makes them mad with joy, like animals newly escaped from captivity. And, for a similar reason, the civilised life is one of continual repression, although it may not seem so until a glimpse of nature’s wildness, a taste of adventure, an accident suddenly makes it seem unspeakably irksome; and in that state we feel that our loss in departing from nature exceeds our gain.
It was elation of this kind, the feeling experienced on going back to a mental condition we have outgrown, which I had in the Patagonian solitude; for I had undoubtedly GONE BACK; and that state of intense watchfulness, or alertness rather, with suspension of the higher intellectual faculties, represented the mental state of the pure savage. He thinks little, reasons little, having a surer guide in his instinct; he is in perfect harmony with nature, and is nearly on a level, mentally, with the wild animals he preys on, and which in their turn sometimes prey on him. If the plains of Patagonia affect a person in this way, even in a much less degree than in my case, it is not strange that they impress themselves so vividly on the mind, and remain fresh in memory, and return frequently; while other scenery, however grand or beautiful, fades gradually away, and is at last forgotten. To a slight, in most cases probably a very slight, extent, all natural sights and sounds affect us in the same way; but the effect is often transitory, and is gone with the first shock of pleasure, to be followed in some cases by a profound and mysterious melancholy. The greenness of earth; forest and river and hill; the blue haze and distant horizon; shadows of clouds sweeping over the sun-flushed landscape — to see it all is like returning to a home, which is more truly our home than any habitation we know. The cry of the wild bird pierces us to the heart; we have never heard that cry before, and it is more familiar to us than our mother’s voice. “I heard,” says Thoreau, “a robin in the distance, the first I had heard for many a thousand years, methought, whose note I shall not forget for many a thousand more, — the same sweet and powerful song as of yore. O the evening robin!” Hafiz sings:
O breeze of the morning blow me a memory of the ancient time; If after a thousand years thy odours should float o’er my dust, My bones, full of gladness uprising, would dance in the sepulchre!
And we ourselves are the living sepulchres of a dead past — that past which was ours for so many thousands of years before this life of the present began; its old bones are slumbering in us — dead, and yet not dead nor deaf to Nature’s voices; the noisy burn, the roar of the waterfall, and thunder of long waves on the shore, and the sound of rain and whispering winds in the multitudinous leaves, bring it a memory of the ancient time; and the bones rejoice and dance in their sepulchre.
Professor W. K. Parker, in his work On Mammalian Descent, speaking of the hairy covering almost universal in this class of animals, ways: “This has become, as everyone knows, a custom among the race of men, and shows, at present, no sign of becoming obsolete. Moreover, that first correlation, namely, milk-glands and a hairy covering, appears to have entered the very soul of creatures of this class, and to have become PSYCHICAL as well as PHYSICAL, for in that type, which is only inferior to the angels, the fondness for this kind of outer covering is a strong and ineradicable passion.” I am not sure that this view accords with some facts in our experience, and with some instinctive feelings which we all have. Like Waterton I have found that the feet take very kindly to the earth, however hot or cold or rough it may be, and that shoes, after being left off for a short time, seem as uncomfortable as a mask. The face is always uncovered; why does the supposed correlation not apply to this part? The face is pleasantly warm when the too delicate body shivers with cold under its covering; and pleasantly cool when the sun shines hot on us. When the wind strikes us on a hot day, or during violent exercise, the sensation to the face is extremely agreeable, but far from agreeable to the body where the covering does not allow the moisture to evaporate rapidly. The umbrella has not entered the soul — not yet; but it is miserable to get wet in the rain, yet pleasant to feel the rain on the face. “I am all face,” the naked American savage said, to explain why he felt no discomfort from the bleak wind which made his civilised fellow-traveller shiver in his furs. Again, what a relief, what a pleasure, to throw off the clothes when occasion permits. Leigh Hunt wrote an amusing paper on the pleasures of going to bed, when the legs, long separated by unnatural clothing, delightedly rub against and renew their acquaintance with one another. Everyone knows the feeling. If it were convenient, and custom not so tyrannical, many of us would be glad to follow Benjamin Franklin’s example, and rise not to dress, but to settle comfortably down to our morning’s work, with nothing on. When, for the first time, in some region where nothing but a fig-leaf has “entered the soul,” we see men and women going about naked and unashamed, we experience a slight shock; but it has more pleasure than pain in it, although we are reluctant to admit the pleasure, probably because we mistake the nature of the feeling. If, after seeing them for a few days in their native simplicity, our new friends appear before us clothed, we are shocked again, and this time disagreeably so; it is like seeing those who were free and joyous yesterday now appear with fettered feet and sullen downcast faces.
To leave this question; what has truly entered our soul and become psychical is our environment — that wild nature in which and to which we were born at an inconceivably remote period, and which made us what we are. It is true that we are eminently adaptive, that we have created, and exist in some sort of harmony with new conditions, widely different from those to which we were originally adapted; but the old harmony was infinitely more perfect than the new, and if there be such a thing as historical memory in us, it is not strange that the sweetest moment in any life, pleasant or dreary, should be when Nature draws near to it, and, taking up her neglected instrument, plays a fragment of some ancient melody, long unheard on the earth.
It might be asked: If nature has at times this peculiar effect on us, restoring instantaneously the old vanished harmony between organism and environment, why should it be experienced in a greater degree in the Patagonian desert than in other solitary places — a desert which is waterless, where animal voices are seldom heard, and vegetation is grey instead of green? I can only suggest a reason for the effect being so much greater in my own case. In sub-tropical woods and thickets, and in wild forests in temperate regions, the cheerful verdure and bright colours of flower and insects, if we have acquired a habit of looking closely at these things, and the melody and noises of bird-life engage the senses; there is movement and brightness; new forms, animal and vegetable, are continually appearing, curiosity and expectation are excited, and the mind is so much occupied with novel objects that the effect of wild nature in its entirety is minimised. In Patagonia the monotony of the plains, or expanse of low hills, the universal unrelieved greyness of everything, and the absence of animal forms and objects new to the eye, leave the mind open and free to receive an impression of visible nature as a whole. One gazes on the prospect as on the sea, for it stretches away sea-like, without change, into infinitude; but without the sparkle of water, the changes of hue which shadows and sunlight and nearness and distance give, and motion of waves and white flash of foam. It has a look of antiquity, of desolation, of eternal peace, of a desert that has been a desert from of old and will continue a desert for ever; and we know that its only human inhabitants are a few wandering savages — who live by hunting as their progenitors have done for thousands of years. Again, in fertile savannahs and pampas there may appear no signs of human occupancy, but the traveller knows that eventually the advancing tide of humanity will come with its flocks and herds, and the ancient silence and desolation will be no more; and this thought is like human companionship, and mitigates the effect of nature’s wildness on the spirit. In Patagonia no such thought or dream of the approaching changes to be wrought by human agency can affect the mind. There is no water there, the arid soil is sand and gravel — pebbles rounded by the action of ancient seas, before Europe was; and nothing grows except the barren things that Nature loves — thorns, and a few woody herbs, and scattered tufts of wiry bitter grass.
Doubtless we are not all affected in solitude by wild nature in the same degree; even in the Patagonian wastes many would probably experience no such mental change as I have described. Others have their instincts nearer to the surface, and are moved deeply by nature in any solitary place; and I imagine that Thoreau was such a one. At all events, although he was without the Darwinian lights which we have, and these feelings were always to him “strange,” “mysterious,” “unaccountable,” he does not conceal them. This is the “something uncanny in Thoreau” which seems inexplicable and startling to such as have never been startled by nature, nor deeply moved; but which, to others, imparts a peculiarly delightful aromatic flavour to his writings. It is his wish towards a more primitive mode of life, his strange abandonment when he scours the wood like a half-starved hound, and no morsel could be too savage for him; the desire to take a ranker hold on life and live more as the animals do; the sympathy with nature so keep that it takes his breath away; the feeling that all the elements were congenial to him, which made the wildest scenes unaccountably familiar, so that he came and went with a strange liberty in nature. Once only he had doubts, and thought that human companionship might be essential to happiness; but he was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in the mood; and he soon again became sensible of the sweet beneficent society of nature, of an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining him.
In the limits of a chapter it is impossible to do more than touch the surface of so large a subject as that of the instincts and remains of instincts existing in us. Dr. Wallace doubts that there are any human instincts, even in the perfect savage; which seems strange in so keen an observer, and one who has lived so much with nature and uncivilised men; but it must be borne in mind that his peculiar theories with regard to man’s origin — the acquisition of large brains, naked body, and the upright form not through but in spite of natural selection — would predispose him to take such a view. My own experience and observation have led me to a contrary conclusion, and my belief is that we might learn something by looking more beneath the hardened crust of custom into the still burning core. For instance, that experience I had in Patagonia — the novel state of mind I have described — seemed to furnish an answer to a question frequently asked with regard to men living in a state of nature. When we consider that our intellect, unlike that of the inferior animals, is progressive, how wonderful it seems that communities and tribes of men should exist — “are contented to exist,” we often say, just as if they had any choice in the matter — for ages and for thousands of years in a state of pure barbarism, living from hand to mouth, exposed to extremes of temperature, and to frequently-recurring famine even in the midst of the greatest fertility, when a little foresight — “the smallest amount of intelligence possessed by the lowest of mankind,” we say — would be sufficient to make their condition immeasurably better. If, in the wild natural life, their normal state is like that into which I temporarily fell, than it no longer appears strange to me that they take no thought for the morrow, and remain stationary, and are only a little removed from other mammalians, their superiority in this respect being only sufficient to counterbalance their physical disadvantages. That instinctive state of the human mind, when the higher faculties appear to be non-existent, a state of intense alertness and preparedness, which compels the man to watch and listen and go silently and stealthily, must be like that of the lower animals: the brain in them like a highly-polished mirror, in which all visible nature — every hill, tree, leaf — is reflected with miraculous clearness; and we can imagine that if the animal could think and reason, thought would be superfluous and a hindrance, since it would dim that bright perception on which his safety depends.
That is a part, the lesser part, of the lesson I learnt in the Patagonian solitude: the second, larger part must be cut very short; for on all sides it leads to other questions, some of which would probably be thought “more curious than edifying.” That hidden fiery core is nearer to us than we ordinarily imagine, and its heat still permeates the crust to keep us warm. This is, no doubt, a matter of annoyance and even grief to those who grow impatient at Nature’s unconscionable slowness; who wish to be altogether independent of such an underlying brute energy; to live on a cool crust and rapidly grow angelic. But, as things are, it is, perhaps, better to be still, for a while, a little lower than the angels: we are hardly in a position just yet to dispense with the unangelic qualities, even in this exceedingly complex state, in which we appear to be so effectually “hedged in from harm.” I recall here an incident witnessed by a friend of mine of an Indian he and his fellow-soldiers were pursuing who might easily have escaped unharmed; but when his one companion was thrown to the ground through his horse falling, the first Indian turned deliberately, sprang to the earth, and, standing motionless by the other’s side, received the white men’s bullets. Not for love — it would be absurd to suppose such a thing — but inspired by that fierce instinctive spirit of defiance which in some cases will actually cause a man to go out of his way to seek death. Why are we, children of light — the light which makes us timid — so strongly stirred by a deed like this, so useless and irrational, and feel an admiration so great that compared with it that which is called forth by the noblest virtue, or the highest achievement of the intellect, seems like a pale dim feeling? It is because in our inmost natures, our deepest feelings, we are still one with the savage. We admire a Gordon less for his god-like qualities — his spirituality, and crystal purity of heart, and justice, and love of his kind — than for that more ancient nobility, the qualities he had in common with the wild man of childish intellect, an old Viking, a fighting Colonel Burnaby, a Captain Webb who madly flings his life away, a vulgar Welsh prize-fighter who enters a den full of growling lions, and drives them before him like frightened sheep. It is due to this instinctive savage spirit in us, in spite of our artificial life and all we have done to rid ourselves of an inconvenient heritage, that we are capable of so-called heroic deeds; of cheerfully exposing ourselves to the greatest privations and hardships, suffering them stoically, and facing death without blenching, sacrificing our lives, as we say, in the cause of humanity, or geography, or some other branch of science.
It is related that a late aged prime minister of England on one occasion stood for several hours at his sovereign’s side at a reception, in an oppressive atmosphere, and suffering excruciating pains from a gouty foot; yet making no sign and concealing his anguish under a smiling countenance. We have been told that this showed his good blood: that because he came of a good stock, and had the training and traditional feelings of a gentleman, he was able to suffer in that calm way. This pretty delusion quickly vanishes in a surgical hospital, or on a field covered with wounded men after a fight. But the savage always endures pain more stoically than the civilised man. He is
Self-balanced against contingencies, As the trees and animals are.
However great the sufferings of the gouty premier may have been, they were less than those which any Indian youth in Guiana and Venezuela voluntarily subjects himself to before he ventures to call himself a man, or to ask for a wife. Small in comparison, yet he did not endure them smilingly because the traditional pride and other feelings of a gentleman made it possible for him to do so, but because that more ancient and nobler pride, the stern instinct of endurance of the savage, came to his aid and sustained him.
These things do not, or at all events should not, surprise us. They can only surprise those who are without the virile instinct, or who have never become conscious of it on account of the circumstances of their lives. The only wonder is that the stern indomitable spirit in us should ever in any circumstances fail a man, that even on the scaffold or with the world against him he should be overcome by despair and burst into weak tears and lamentations, and faint in the presence of his fellows. In one of the most eloquent passages of his finest work Herman Melville describes as follows that manly spirit or instinct in us, and the effect produced on us by the sight of its failure: “Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel in ourselves — so far within us that it remains intact though all the outer character seems gone — bleeds with keenest anguish at the spectacle of a valour-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but the abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick and drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God Himself.”
There is then something to be said in favour of this animal and primitive nature in us. Thoreau, albeit so spiritually-minded, could yet “reverence” that lower nature in him which made him brother to the brute. He experienced and fully appreciated its tonic effect. And until we get a better civilisation more equal in its ameliorating effect on all classes — if there must be classes — and more likely to endure, it is perhaps a fortunate thing that we have so far failed to eliminate the “savage” in us — the “Old Man” as some might prefer to call it. Not a respectable Old Man, but a very useful one occasionally, when we stand in sore need of his services and he comes promptly and unsummoned to our aid.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51