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A Character Study (Old Phelps)
by [?]

There has been a lively inquiry after the primeval man. Wanted, a man who would satisfy the conditions of the miocene environment, and yet would be good enough for an ancestor. We are not particular about our ancestors, if they are sufficiently remote; but we must have something. Failing to apprehend the primeval man, science has sought the primitive man where he exists as a survival in present savage races. He is, at best, only a mushroom growth of the recent period (came in, probably, with the general raft of mammalian fauna); but he possesses yet some rudimentary traits that may be studied.

It is a good mental exercise to try to fix the mind on the primitive man divested of all the attributes he has acquired in his struggles with the other mammalian fauna. Fix the mind on an orange, the ordinary occupation of the metaphysician: take from it (without eating it) odor, color, weight, form, substance, and peel; then let the mind still dwell on it as an orange. The experiment is perfectly successful; only, at the end of it, you haven’t any mind. Better still, consider the telephone: take away from it the metallic disk, and the magnetized iron, and the connecting wire, and then let the mind run abroad on the telephone. The mind won’t come back. I have tried by this sort of process to get a conception of the primitive man. I let the mind roam away back over the vast geologic spaces, and sometimes fancy I see a dim image of him stalking across the terrace epoch of the quaternary period.

But this is an unsatisfying pleasure. The best results are obtained by studying the primitive man as he is left here and there in our era, a witness of what has been; and I find him most to my mind in the Adirondack system of what geologists call the Champlain epoch. I suppose the primitive man is one who owes more to nature than to the forces of civilization. What we seek in him are the primal and original traits, unmixed with the sophistications of society, and unimpaired by the refinements of an artificial culture. He would retain the primitive instincts, which are cultivated out of the ordinary, commonplace man. I should expect to find him, by reason of an unrelinquished kinship, enjoying a special communion with nature,–admitted to its mysteries, understanding its moods, and able to predict its vagaries. He would be a kind of test to us of what we have lost by our gregarious acquisitions. On the one hand, there would be the sharpness of the senses, the keen instincts (which the fox and the beaver still possess), the ability to find one’s way in the pathless forest, to follow a trail, to circumvent the wild denizens of the woods; and, on the other hand, there would be the philosophy of life which the primitive man, with little external aid, would evolve from original observation and cogitation. It is our good fortune to know such a man; but it is difficult to present him to a scientific and caviling generation. He emigrated from somewhat limited conditions in Vermont, at an early age, nearly half a century ago, and sought freedom for his natural development backward in the wilds of the Adirondacks. Sometimes it is a love of adventure and freedom that sends men out of the more civilized conditions into the less; sometimes it is a constitutional physical lassitude which leads them to prefer the rod to the hoe, the trap to the sickle, and the society of bears to town meetings and taxes. I think that Old Mountain Phelps had merely the instincts of the primitive man, and never any hostile civilizing intent as to the wilderness into which he plunged. Why should he want to slash away the forest and plow up the ancient mould, when it is infinitely pleasanter to roam about in the leafy solitudes, or sit upon a mossy log and listen to the chatter of birds and the stir of beasts? Are there not trout in the streams, gum exuding from the spruce, sugar in the maples, honey in the hollow trees, fur on the sables, warmth in hickory logs? Will not a few days’ planting and scratching in the “open” yield potatoes and rye? And, if there is steadier diet needed than venison and bear, is the pig an expensive animal? If Old Phelps bowed to the prejudice or fashion of his age (since we have come out of the tertiary state of things), and reared a family, built a frame house in a secluded nook by a cold spring, planted about it some apple trees and a rudimentary garden, and installed a group of flaming sunflowers by the door, I am convinced that it was a concession that did not touch his radical character; that is to say, it did not impair his reluctance to split oven-wood.