A. J. Downing, "The Dans Kamer. A Revery in the Highlands," New-York Mirror 13 (Oct. 10, 1835): 117-18.
Indian summer! mild and balmy season, we love thee, for thou art to us as the poetry of the year. Soft and soothing ever are the gentle gales that come breathing through thy lovely blue skies, and softer and lovelier still is the magick beauty of nature when clothed in thy translucent veil. What though the poets have ever sung the beauties of spring; was it not in another clime than ours? Spring, the fresh and the fair, though she visits us as in eastern lands with sweet wreaths of blossoms in her tresses, yet she comes half trimmed from the embraces of winter, and weeps showers of tears at the cruel and chill breezes of the departing icy king. But autumn, "the proud, the purple emperor," thou comest here not clad in a sad and russet garment, but with a robe of purple and crimson, and a girdle of gold. Bright, golden flowers spring up under thy footsteps, and rich gorgeous colours like broken rainbows scatter themselves at thy approach over the wide landscape, from the teinted leaf of the little floweret that kisses the silvery rivulet, to the gay masses of crimson and green and gold that deck and embroider the forest masses and the green hill-tops. And then, as if ashamed of the full display of thy glorious colours, Indian summer comes like "the deep purple's twilight charm," and modestly and gently drops over thee her thin azure curtain, softening and sweetening the outlines of the trees and the distant mountains, and letting the sun through in such a mild golden glow, that we would fain believe we are looking at fairy scenes, whose colours are not bedecked "for mortal eyes." Ay, and we feel the heart softened, too, and kindly and gentle feelings,
"Like a spirit, still and bright,
With something of an angel light."
hovering around us, and sinking to gush forth in grateful response to the loveliness and fascinating beauty of nature, winning
______"The heart's deep chords to pour
Their music forth on life,
Like a sweet sound prevailing o'er
The sound of torrent strife."
These were the thoughts and musings that involuntarily and unbidden poured themselves forth from our lips as we lay in a half reclining attitude, one calm and cloudless day of the last bygone season that we love, on a romantic point that juts out into the blue waters of the Hudson and forms the northern boundary of the noble bay of the Highlands. Peacefully calm and serene lay that beautiful expanse of water, stretching forth from beneath our feet, to the distance where the blue hills of the Highlands rose in pride and magnificence out of its mirror-like surface. Soft and shadowy-like is the sublimity of the Highland scenery on the Hudson, on such a day, when autumn has touched with his magick pencil the rich foliage that adorns the landscape. The bright scarlet of the maple, the deep crimson of the dogwood, the mellow brown of the ash, and the lively yellow of the sycamore and the chestnut, contrast richly and strikingly with the deep evergreen of the cedar; the pine nut and the hemlock scattered around here and there in masses, like dark clouds floating in the many-teinted sky of summer. And then that water, lake-like in its extent, (it would be a Leman in any other country,) fringed as you have seen dark lashes fringe some liquid eye with a soft and dim reflection of bright villas deep-set in verdure, rich tracts of cultivated land, cheerful villages, and above all, those aged guardians of the panorama, the deep blue mountains, their shadows reaching far down upon the clear bosom of the waters where their teints mingle with the cerulean hue, even as they melt away in the celestial sky above them; the white-sailed barks moving on in swan-like beauty, the only things meanwhile to convince you that the same water is not another and a liquid firmament. We must confess, passingly, we have an affection for water, as a page in nature's book which is ever open to us, and which awakens sweet thoughts in our hearts unceasingly. From the tiny dew-drop, whose flashing and sparkling among the fresh flowers and the bright green grass, has often filled us with delight, to the mountain rivulet that comes dashing and singing "with linked sweetness long drawn out," down among the moss-fringed rocks of the deep woods and shady glen, infant sister as she is to the proud river whose onward flow, deep, powerful, and unceasing, carries the thoughts away upon its surface, to the lakes whose beauty fills the heart of the poet and glads the pencil of the painter; all -- all -- we love them: whether they lie resting in calm sleep, soothing the heart with their placid loveliness, or whether the waves gently curling catch and imprison the rosy light of morning in their peaceful motions, or wildly toss and lash themselves into foam and fury in the mighty winds; we love to gaze upon their every look, and cherish the souvenirs of their beauty, as an absent lover dreams ever on the charms and perfections of his first idol. And then the sea!
"Where is the sea! I linger here.
Where is my own blue sea,
With all its barks of swift career,
And flags and breezes free?"
We wondered not, as we lay upon our jutting rock, that the red men who lang syne launched their canoes upon its bosom, called the Hudson the "River of the Great Mountains" [Shatemuck], for it was with a true feeling of the majesty and sublimity of nature, as they gazed upon the forest-clad grandeur of the highland summits of that noble river, springing from the midst of its waters like mighty spirits from the deep. Even now that the scream of the eagle is heard but seldom among the tall trees, and the footprints of the wild deer are no longer seen among the once thickly-wooded forest glades; now that the once dense wilderness has disappeared under the hands of civilized man, and its sites now "wave in fields of golden grain," the "Great Mountains" mirror themselves, in the liquid depths of that same river, as grand as majestick, bidding defiance to the hands of man, as on that day when the "waters retreated from the earth, and the hills and the mountains shouted aloud for joy."
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Many blessings on thee, Diedrich Knickerbocker! First among historians! Thy memory shall rest in our heart, embalmed in the mellowed and never-fading light of immortality." Are we not indebted to thee for all that remains of our calm and peace-loving ancestors of Communipau and Mannahatta? Nay, did not thy pen, with its mellifluous descriptions, clear away the obscurity that hung like a thick fog of a summer's morning over thy beloved colony, and exhibit to the world in their true brilliancy the illustrious achievements of our worthy Dutch ancestors? And who but thou has saved from shipwreck the rich old legends and antiquarian scraps swimming, as they were, upon the "deep, deep flood" of oblivion? Bear witness Spijt den duyvel creek, how he has preserved the tragick story, and unravelled the deep mystery that hung round thy startling name. And thou, Anthony's Nose, speak from thy bed in the Highlands, in lusty glorification of the mighty nasal promontory of thy namesake, Anthony the trumpeter, of whose bodily qualifications thou to this day standest forth the monument! Yes, thanks to thee, Deidrich! the huge moss-covered and cedar-tufted rock on which we repose, bids us return thanks to thee! for preserving in thy immortal pages, the grievous fright which the wild and demon-like dancers (who oft assembled upon thy rocky floor, and made thee the scene of their war dances) gave the goodly Peter Stuyvesant, when sailing past for the first time in his gallant bark, he fancied, from the wild creatures that revelled on thy surface, that thou wert indeed as he called thee, and as thou art to this day called, the Duyvel's Dans Kamer [Devil's Dance Chamber].
The Dans Kamer! It awakens thought in our mind and stirs the imagination, like the gazing upon some old and storied moss-gray ruin. Doubtless it had been a favorite meeting ground of the Indians. Their council-fires had gleamed upon its surface, and the red lights had there streamed up to heaven, and shone like the Aurora Borealis to their brother tribes, whose wigwams curled up their blue smoke to the skies, far away among the shadowy glens and dense-timbered shores of the bay of the Highlands. Its situation, creeping tortoise-like out from the hills around it, and the ease with which the Indians could reach it from both sides of the Hudson, all pointed it out as the very spot for a rendezvous. Perhaps even the place where we reclined, had often rebounded to the footsteps of the Indian in his war dance. The wild yell of the savage sounding the warwhoop had often been re-echoed by the neighbouring hills. Here they had often held their hunting-feasts. Here they had sung the exploits of the living warriour and chanted the renown of the dead; the tomahawk had often flashed here in the sunbeams; the bow twanged, and the arrow whizzed a thousand times through the air. A myriad wandering thoughts like these flitted like shadowy dreams through our mind, until in our imagination the old Point was peopled again with its ancient inhabitants; and we almost feared to look around us, lest we should be asked whence we came, and why we had intruded unbidden upon their festivities.
A sudden dashing of the waves at our feet, like the rushing of a tempest, roused us from the revery into which the stillness of the scene seemed to have plunged us. We raised our eyes -- they rested upon a steamboat. That object was the representative of another age -- it carried our thoughts in a moment through a wide lapse of time. The canoe and the paddle have disappeared; they have given place to the tall-sparred vessel, whose white sails glided along as if borne upon the wings of the breeze; and to the gay and gallant steamer, moving like magick through the foaming waters. Rich, green fields smile along those river glades, where once the winds moaned through the tall forest-trees. the wild yell of the savage re-echoes no more among the hills, but breaking upon the ear come the clear-toned bells, swinging to and fro in the spires that lift their summits out of the deep foliage, and calling with sweet and mellow sound the inhabitants of the neighboring villages to places of instruction and devotion. The wigwam is gone, and in its place are a thousand cheerful houses gleaming in the sunshine. And the Indians, where are them? Echo answers, where! Their footsteps are for ever silent. They have disappeared with the wolf and the panther. Their bows and their arrows have decayed like their memories. A nation of warriors, unyielding in battle, crafty and subtle as the serpent, mighty and powerful as the tempest, and courageous as lions, who claimed for their hunting-grounds from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi, have disappeared from the earth, and their lands are the possessions of others.
There is a set of philanthropists, who live at the present day, and who with a sickly sentimentality, bemoan the extermination of the Indians, and take every opportunity, now that they are securely established in their own comforts and luxuries, to lament the cruelties of their forefathers (whose perils they shared not) to the aborigines of the soil. The "poor Indians," say they, with uplifted hands, "we shall have to answer for them." Look carefully and calmly through the many teinted pages of the history of the continent, that have been written down since the whites and the Indians met, and we doubt not that you will, like us, rest silent in the conviction, that the same Providence has guided their footsteps toward the setting sun, that has watched over and fostered the increase of the whites in this blessed land which the red men have left behind them.
We, who have long forgotten, or who have never heard the savage yell of the Indian, are prone to think of his character only in such lights as the poet and the writer of fiction have depicted him. Courage and fortitude, and valour, shed such a glow around some few of their chieftains, that is apt to cast into the shadow the even and malignant passions which form the groundwork of the Indian character. It was been well remarked by a modern writer of celebrity, that the character of the American Indian forms one of the extremes of human nature. The more acute and tender sensibilities, which soften the heart and keep open the floodgates of sympathy in the bosom of almost all the other races of men, were the special objects of despisal and contempt among them. Their unshaken fortitude and endurance of suffering, have been pointed to as proofs of a mental superiority, but we are inclined to doubt, whether they are anything more than an insensibility to physical suffering, inuring of the body through successive generations. Gloomy and reserved and melancholy, peace seems to have been an unnatural state for them -- the only excitements they allowed to disturb their silent moodiness, and to cause an exhibition of the passions that swell in the human heart, where the bloody conflicts of the battle, when their greatest satisfaction seems to have been the gratification of their infuriated revenge. Sanguinary by nature, their highest pleasure seems to have been the cruel scalping of their prisoners -- their supremest delight, the writhings of their victims at the stake, under the most demoniacal tortures.
We are aware that this appears to be a harsh picture. We many of us love to fancy to ourselves the Indians passing their days innocently in hunting, and their nights calmly and peacefully in slumber. But the facts bear heavily against us. It is unquestionable, that when this country was discovered, the natives spent the majority of their time in contests, each petty tribe dipping their arrows in the blood of their neighbors. Nay, looking around over the vast monuments found scattered over our western prairies -- the lengthy and wide-stretched mounds -- the bones of another race, differing widely from the Indians which they cover -- the implements and utensils bespeaking the work of a more civilized race of beings found in their neighbourhood -- all these facts incline us to believe with those antiquarians who have thought more deeply on the subject, that the Indians were the conquerors and destroyers of a former race far more advanced in the arts and conveniences of life than themselves, and over whose territory, after getting possession, they have scattered themselves, without the spirit of union or peace; their lives a tissue of laziness and indolence, broken in upon by intervals of the most savage and bloody warfare. When the whites landed upon their shores, too indolent to adopt the customs of civilized life, too powerless to resist them, seeking new hunting-grounds farther and farther into the depths of the forest; and as those wild beasts, whose untameable nature prompts them to shun the face of civilized beings, have disappeared with the deep wilderness that once sheltered them, so also have the Indians perished from the east of the Alleghanies, and the memory of their deeds is fast sinking into forgetfulness and oblivion.
Such were our thoughts -- a mingled stream of joy and sadness -- inspired by the Dans Kamer, its reminiscences, and the beautiful and picturesque scene which surrounds it: -- of joy, for the bright face of nature, the hum and murmur and joyousness of life which met our senses on every side of the wild landscape, irresistibly stirred those chords in the heart -- of sadness, when we mused on the extinction of the thousand tribes of our fellow-beings who were once the sole masters from the rising to the setting sun, and over whose character, however their total and gradual disappearance may be reconciled with the decrees of Providence, there is a deep spring of humanity in the heart, that prompts us to pause and reflect tenderly and forgivingly, now that they are mingled with the dust of their native hills, and their dancing grounds are silent forever.
copyright 1997 David Schuyler