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CHAPTER I. 


Certain moral philosophers, with a due disdain of the flimsy foundations of human pride, have shown that every man is equally descended from a million of ancestors, within a given number of generations; thereby demonstrating that no prince exists who does not participate in the blood of some beggar, or any beggar who does not share in the blood of princes. Although favored by a strictly vegetable descent myself, the laws of nature have not permitted me to escape from the influence of this common rule. The earliest accounts I possess of my progenitors represent them as a goodly growth of the Linum Usitatissimum, divided into a thousand cotemporaneous plants, singularly well conditioned, and remarkable for an equality that renders the production valuable. In this particular, then, I may be said to enjoy a precedency over the Bourbons, themselves, who now govern no less than four different states of Europe, and who have sat on thrones these thousand years.

{Linum Usitatissimum = Linum usitatissimum (Cooper's capitalization varies) is the botanical name for the variety of flax from which linen is made}

While our family has followed the general human law in the matter just mentioned, it forms a marked exception to the rule that so absolutely controls all of white blood, on this continent, in what relates to immigration and territorial origin. When the American enters on the history of his ancestors, he is driven, after some ten or twelve generations at most, to seek refuge in a country in Europe; whereas exactly the reverse is the case with us, our most remote extraction being American, while our more recent construction and education have taken place in Europe. When I speak of the "earliest accounts I possess of my progenitors," authentic information is meant only; for, like other races, we have certain dark legends that might possibly carry us back again to the old world in quest of our estates and privileges. But, in writing this history, it has been my determination from the first, to record nothing but settled truths, and to reject everything in the shape of vague report or unauthenticated anecdote. Under these limitations, I have ever considered my family as American by origin, European by emigration, and restored to its paternal soil by the mutations and calculations of industry and trade.

The glorious family of cotemporaneous plants from which I derive my being, grew in a lovely vale of Connecticut, and quite near to the banks of the celebrated river of the same name. This renders us strictly Yankee in our origin, an extraction of which I find all who enjoy it fond of boasting. It is the only subject of self-felicitation with which I am acquainted that men can indulge in, without awakening the envy of their fellow-creatures; from which I infer it is at least innocent, if not commendable.

We have traditions among us of the enjoyments of our predecessors, as they rioted in the fertility of their cis-atlantic field; a happy company of thriving and luxuriant plants. Still, I shall pass them over, merely remarking that a bountiful nature has made such provision for the happiness of all created things as enables each to rejoice in its existence, and to praise, after its fashion and kind, the divine Being to which it owes its creation.

{cis-atlantic = this side of the Atlantic (Latin)}

In due time, the field in which my forefathers grew was gathered, the seed winnowed from the chaff and collected in casks, when the whole company was shipped for Ireland. Now occurred one of those chances which decide the fortunes of plants, as well as those of men, giving me a claim to Norman, instead of Milesian descent. The embarkation, or shipment of my progenitors, whichever may be the proper expression, occurred in the height of the last general war, and, for a novelty, it occurred in an English ship. A French privateer captured the vessel on her passage home, the flaxseed was condemned and sold, my ancestors being transferred in a body to the ownership of a certain agriculturist in the neighborhood of Evreux, who dealt largely in such articles. There have been evil disposed vegetables that have seen fit to reproach us with this sale as a stigma on our family history, but I have ever considered it myself as a circumstance of which one has no more reason to be ashamed than a D'Uzes has to blush for the robberies of a baron of the middle ages. Each is an incident in the progress of civilization; the man and the vegetable alike taking the direction pointed out by Providence for the fulfilment of his or its destiny.

{Milesian = slang for Irish, from Milesius, mythical Spanish conqueror of Ireland; Evreux = town in Normandy, France; a D'Uzes = a member of an ancient noble family in southern France}

Plants have sensation as well as animals. The latter, however, have no consciousness anterior to their physical births, and very little, indeed, for some time afterwards; whereas a different law prevails as respects us; our mental conformation being such as to enable us to refer our moral existence to a period that embraces the experience, reasoning and sentiments of several generations. As respects logical inductions, for instance, the linum usitatissimum draws as largely on the intellectual acquisitions of the various epochas that belonged to the three or four parent stems which preceded it, as on its own. In a word, that accumulated knowledge which man inherits by means of books, imparted and transmitted information, schools, colleges, and universities, we obtain through more subtle agencies that are incorporated with our organic construction, and which form a species of hereditary mesmerism; a vegetable clairvoyance that enables us to see with the eyes, hear with the ears, and digest with the understandings of our predecessors.

{epochas = archaic Latinized spelling of epochs}

Some of the happiest moments of my moral existence were thus obtained, while our family was growing in the fields of Normandy. It happened that a distinguished astronomer selected a beautiful seat, that was placed on the very margin of our position, as a favorite spot for his observations and discourses; from a recollection of the latter of which, in particular, I still derive indescribable satisfaction. It seems as only yesterday--it is in fact fourteen long, long years--that I heard him thus holding forth to his pupils, explaining the marvels of the illimitable void, and rendering clear to my understanding the vast distance that exists between the Being that created all things and the works of his hands. To those who live in the narrow circle of human interests and human feelings, there ever exists, unheeded, almost unnoticed, before their very eyes, the most humbling proofs of their own comparative insignificance in the scale of creation, which, in the midst of their admitted mastery over the earth and all it contains, it would be well for them to consider, if they would obtain just views of what they are and what they were intended to be.

I think I can still hear this learned and devout man--for his soul was filled with devotion to the dread Being that could hold a universe in subjection to His will--dwelling with delight on all the discoveries among the heavenly bodies, that the recent improvements in science and mechanics have enabled the astronomers to make. Fortunately, he gave his discourses somewhat of the progressive character of lectures, leading his listeners on, as it might be step by step, in a way to render all easy to the commonest understanding. Thus it was, I first got accurate notions of the almost inconceivable magnitude of space, to which, indeed, it is probable there are no more positive limits than there are a beginning and an end to eternity! Can these wonders be, I thought--and how pitiful in those who affect to reduce all things to the level of their own powers of comprehension, and their own experience in practice! Let them exercise their sublime and boasted reason, I said to myself, in endeavoring to comprehend infinity in any thing, and we will note the result! If it be in space, we shall find them setting bounds to their illimitable void, until ashamed of the feebleness of their first effort, it is renewed, again and again, only to furnish new proofs of the insufficiency of any of earth, even to bring within the compass of their imaginations truths that all their experiments, inductions, evidence and revelations compel them to admit.

"The moon has no atmosphere," said our astronomer one day, "and if inhabited at all, it must be by beings constructed altogether differently from ourselves. Nothing that has life, either animal or vegetable as we know them, can exist without air, and it follows that nothing having life, according to our views of it, can exist in the moon:--or, if any thing having life do exist there, it must be under such modifications of all our known facts, as to amount to something like other principles of being." "One side of that planet feels the genial warmth of the sun for a fortnight, while the other is for the same period without it," he continued. "That which feels the sun must be a day, of a heat so intense as to render it insupportable to us, while the opposite side on which the rays of the sun do not fall, must be masses of ice, if water exist there to be congealed. But the moon has no seas, so far as we can ascertain; its surface representing one of strictly volcanic origin, the mountains being numerous to a wonderful degree. Our instruments enable us to perceive craters, with the inner cones so common to all our own volcanoes, giving reason to believe in the activity of innumerable burning hills at some remote period. It is scarcely necessary to say, that nothing we know could live in the moon under these rapid and extreme transitions of heat and cold, to say nothing of the want of atmospheric air." I listened to this with wonder, and learned to be satisfied with my station. Of what moment was it to me, in filling the destiny of the linum usitatissimum, whether I grew in a soil a little more or a little less fertile; whether my fibres attained the extremest fineness known to the manufacturer, or fell a little short of this excellence. I was but a speck among a myriad of other things produced by the hand of the Creator, and all to conduce to his own wise ends and unequaled glory. It was my duty to live my time, to be content, and to proclaim the praise of God within the sphere assigned to me. Could men or plants but once elevate their thoughts to the vast scale of creation, it would teach them their own insignificance so plainly, would so unerringly make manifest the futility of complaints, and the immense disparity between time and eternity, as to render the useful lesson of contentment as inevitable as it is important.

I remember that our astronomer, one day, spoke of the nature and magnitude of the sun. The manner that he chose to render clear to the imagination of his hearers some just notions of its size, though so familiar to astronomers, produced a deep and unexpected impression on me. "Our instruments," he said, "are now so perfect and powerful, as to enable us to ascertain many facts of the deepest interest, with near approaches to positive accuracy. The moon being the heavenly body much the nearest to us, of course we see farther into its secrets than into those of any other planet. We have calculated its distance from us at 237,000 miles. Of course by doubling this distance, and adding to it the diameter of the earth, we get the diameter of the circle, or orbit, in which the moon moves around the earth. In other words the diameter of this orbit is about 480,000 miles. Now could the sun be brought in contact with this orbit, and had the latter solidity to mark its circumference, it would be found that this circumference would include but a little more than half the surface of one side of the sun, the diameter of which orb is calculated to be 882,000 miles! The sun is one million three hundred and eighty-four thousand four hundred and seventy-two times larger than the earth. Of the substance of the sun it is not so easy to speak. Still it is thought, though it is not certain, that we occasionally see the actual surface of this orb, an advantage we do not possess as respects any other of the heavenly bodies, with the exception of the moon and Mars. The light and warmth of the sun probably exist in its atmosphere, and the spots which are so often seen on this bright orb, are supposed to be glimpses of the solid mass of the sun itself, that are occasionally obtained through openings in this atmosphere. At all events, this is the more consistent way of accounting for the appearance of these spots. You will get a better idea of the magnitude of the sidereal system, however, by remembering that, in comparison with it, the distances of our entire solar system are as mere specks. Thus, while our own change of positions is known to embrace an orbit of about 200,000,000 of miles, it is nevertheless so trifling as to produce no apparent change of position in thousands of the fixed stars that are believed to be the suns of other systems. Some conjecture even that all these suns, with their several systems, our own included, revolve around a common centre that is invisible to us, but which is the actual throne of God; the comets that we note and measure being heavenly messengers, as it might be, constantly passing from one of these families of worlds to another."

I remember that one of the astronomer's pupils asked certain explanations here, touching the planets that it was thought, or rather known, that we could actually see, and those of which the true surfaces were believed to be concealed from us. "I have told you," answered the man of science, "that they are the Moon, Mars and the Sun. Both Venus and Mercury are nearer to us than Mars, but their relative proximities to the sun have some such effect on their surfaces, as placing an object near a strong light is known to have on its appearance. We are dazzled, to speak popularly, and cannot distinguish minutely. With Mars it is different. If this planet has any atmosphere at all, it is one of no great density, and its orbit being without our own, we can easily trace on its surface the outlines of seas and continents. It is even supposed that the tinge of the latter is that of reddish sand-stone, like much of that known in our own world, but more decided in tint, while two brilliant white spots, at its poles, are thought to be light reflected from the snows of those regions, rendered more conspicuous, or disappearing, as they first emerge from a twelvemonths' winter, or melt in a summer of equal duration."

I could have listened forever to this astronomer, whose lectures so profoundly taught lessons of humility to the created, and which were so replete with silent eulogies on the power of the Creator! What was it to me whether I were a modest plant, of half a cubit in stature, or the proudest oak of the forest--man or vegetable? My duty was clearly to glorify the dread Being who had produced all these marvels, and to fulfil my time in worship, praise and contentment. It mattered not whether my impressions were derived through organs called ears, and were communicated by others called those of speech, or whether each function was performed by means of sensations and agencies too subtle to be detected by ordinary means. It was enough for me that I heard and understood, and felt the goodness and glory of God. I may say that my first great lessons in true philosophy were obtained in these lectures, where I learned to distinguish between the finite and infinite, ceasing to envy any, while I inclined to worship one. The benevolence of Providence is extended to all its creatures, each receiving it in a mode adapted to its own powers of improvement. My destiny being toward a communion with man--or rather with woman--I have ever looked upon these silent communications with the astronomer as so much preparatory schooling, in order that my mind might be prepared for its own avenir, and not be blinded by an undue appreciation of the importance of its future associates. I know there are those who will sneer at the supposition of a pocket-handkerchief possessing any mind, or esprit, at all; but let such have patience and read on, when I hope it will be in my power to demonstrate their error.

{avenir = future; esprit = soul or vital spirit }

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