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James Baldwin

The Center of the World

T HE picture which I would paint on your mental canvases, my dear Leonidas, my dear Leona, is that of a backwoods settlement in the Middle West at the time when such settlements were by no means rarities. It lies deeply sequestered in the forest, ragged, raw, and of uncertain extent. Its prevailing rudeness and uncouthness may at first repel you, but its air of newness and simplicity will surely deserve your admiration. Here you may see the beginnings of things. The roads, the fences, the houses, the clearings, the farms are all just emerging from the embryo state; they are the promises of what are to come in later days. And the people—how old-fashioned they are, and how unspoiled by the ways of the world! The simple life exists here in its primitive purity, the rawness of innocence prevails.

Now imagine in the midst of that settlement a squatty, little log cabin standing quite alone near the edge of a clearing. It is one among many of its kind, and is in perfect harmony with the mingled newness and old-fashionedness of its environment. It is such a habitation as can not be found to-day in the whole length and breadth of Hoosierdom; but, in that backwoods period to which I am introducing you, it is the type of hundreds and thousands of homely dwellings. The logs which compose its walls are unhewn, some having the bark still clinging to them, and the spaces between are chinked with clay and moss. The roof is low and covered with broad split clapboards which are held in place by long and heavy poles. The chimney is of the stick-and-clay variety, cavernous at the bottom and tapering narrow at the top, and rivaling the proverbial mud fence in its unapproachable ugliness. At the end of the cabin, opposite the chimney, there is a lean-to shed, made of poles and puncheons, and called the "weavin'-room" because it contains the loom and other appliances for making home-made cloth. Beyond this shed rises the skeleton of a new frame house which, when completed, will be the wonder and admiration of the entire New Settlement.

There is but one doorway in the cabin. The door itself is broad and strong, and it is hung on wooden hinges and fastened with a wooden latch. To lift the latch, you must pull a string that is passed through a gimlet hole in the board above it. At night, or when there is no admittance for intruders, the latch-string is drawn inside and the cabin becomes a castle. But, see now! The latch-string is hanging out—a signal that all comers are welcome. Let us pull it, lift the latch and walk in.

The smooth floor of basswood puncheons, scoured to a snowy whiteness, invites our admiration and admonishes us to linger on the threshold and wipe our muddy soles. We enter. On this side of the room are a few splint-bottomed chairs ranged with precision against the wall, a three-legged "candlestand" and an ancient bureau. On the opposite side are the spinning-wheels, a square table, and a corner cupboard wherein are contained rows of tin cups and shining pewter plates and an array of "chany cups and sassers" and blue-figured dishes reserved for use "when company comes."

The rear end of the commodious room is curtained off into three sleeping apartments, each exactly large enough to contain a single spacious bed with a trundle-bed for children and emergencies beneath it. And see, now, the huge fireplace at the opposite end. It is a poem of comfort in winter, and a magazine of homely cheer in all seasons. Dinner is in preparation. The fire is blazing on the hearth. Steaming pots and skillets, on beds of glowing coals, send out savory odors to whet the jaded appetite. Potatoes are roasting in the ashes, a fowl is broiling in the "reflector," a "mess of greens" is boiling in the big dinner pot. A feast shall be ours if we will but accept the housewife's kindly invitation to "take a cheer and wait a bit."

The ceiling over our heads is low; it is made of rough clapboards laid upon a series of smoke begrimed poles which serve the purpose of joists. From the "j'ists" many things are suspended: hunks of jerked beef and links of home-made "sassage," bunches of dried catnip and fragrant camomile and pennyroyal, strings of red peppers for medicinal uses, and ears of choice seed corn. And if you look for it, you may see the square hole in the ceiling through which access is had to the boys' sleeping-room above—a dark low loft, the abode of mud-wasps and spiders and creatures of the night.

And now, having these pictures well outlined and impressed upon your imagination, direct your eyes once more to the open door of the cabin. A boy is standing there—a little pale-faced fellow with tow hair, and with eyes indicative of the shrinking shyness of his heart. He is clothed scantily in a coarse shirt of home-woven linen and long "britches" (trousers) of brown jeans; other apparel he has none. The "britches," which are much too large for him, are held in place by a pair of "galluses" (suspenders) made of narrow strips of blue-colored tow-cloth. The lad's feet are bare, betraying a familiarity with the soil and showing the marks of many conflicts with briers and sharp-edged stones. His large frowsy head is also bare.

Observe him as he stands in the door, looking out and listening to the varied sounds that come from the fields, the clearings and the dense wild woods. Birds are singing, frogs are croaking, bees are humming, the fresh new leaves of the cottonwood trees are rustling to every movement of the morning air. The voices of nature are calling, and the lad's face beams joyously as though he were enraptured with the melody and the mystery that surround him.

Looking straight ahead of him, he has a somewhat obstructed view of what he believes to be a very large portion of the known world—the hundred-acre farm which his father has literally hewn out of the wilderness. In the foreground are the garden and orchard, a dozen cherry trees loaded with white blossoms, a straggling "laylock" bush, and a crooked rail fence overgrown with briers and tangled vines. Here also, at a bow-shot's distance from the cabin, runs the "spring branch," a little stream that never goes dry; and spanning it, amid a lush growth of calamus and cattails, is the "spring-house," a frail structure in which numerous crocks of milk and cream are standing to be cooled in running water. Beyond are two large corn-fields, dotted with charred stumps and separated by a narrow lane which leads down to a tract of wet alluvial land known as "the bottom." There, an irregular line of white-trunked sycamores marks the meanderings of "the crick"—a stream so broad that the boy has never been able to jump quite across it, and so deep that in places it is impossible to wade without getting wet above the knees.

On the farther side of the "crick," and extending to the southernmost border of the farm, lies "the new deadenin'," where hundreds of leafless trees stand in mute agony, lifting their gaunt arms toward heaven as though dumbly protesting against the cruelty of the man who has girdled their trunks and doomed them to a lingering death. And finally, beyond this landscape of fields, pasture-land, bottom and deadening, rises the forest primeval, "the big woods," a region of mystery, stretching away and away to the very rim of the sky, the edge of the world.

As the boy gazes upon this scene, so familiar and yet always wonderful to him, his heart grows big with pride. For do not all these orchards and fields and "deadenin's" belong to his father? Is there anywhere in the world another farm such as this? Is there in the New Settlement or elsewhere another lad so blessed as he with every comfort and, more than all, with a parent so strong, so wise, so well-to-do as his father?

Elated and well contented with his outlook on life, he leaps from the door-step and runs round to the other side of the cabin in order to view the northern half of the universe. There the scene is quite different and the landscape more extended. The rim of hazy blue where the sky, like an inverted dinner pot, rests upon the earth, is more plainly visible. The forest survives only in patches and strips of timberland between the fenced fields of friendly neighbors. The roofs of two or three dwellings may be seen, indistinct in the distance; and an orchard of apple trees, snowy white with bloom, crowns the summit of a little hill not far away.

Scarcely more than a stone's throw from where the boy is standing, there is a high rail fence which marks the northern boundary of his father's domain; and here is the big gate through which visitors enter and depart, and where egress is had to the unknown regions of the circumambient world. The gate opens outward into a broad lane, green with burdock and soon to be flowery with dog-fennel. At the end of the lane, not more than half a mile distant, the great highway known as "the big road" invites acquaintance with foreign lands.

The big road is here but little more than a wagon track, winding this way and that between stumps and stones, chuck-holes and decaying logs. But if you should follow it toward the right, it will lead you in due time to the Dry Forks, where you will see a meeting-house, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop. If you should take the opposite direction, you will by and by, so people say, come to a mighty river and the half-mythical city of Nopplis, and then to Pogue's Run and the jumping-off place.

The boy is familiar with the road to the Dry Forks, for he has traveled to the "meetin'-house" there twice every week since he can remember. But of the other end of the great highway he has no knowledge save that which he has gained through hearsay. The country through which it passes is a region of mystery and dreams, where worldly and wicked people dwell and the sun shines but dimly.

Suddenly a strange impulse comes into the lad's mind, and he climbs to the top of the gate-post to study the problem that is perplexing him. He looks around. The view has improved, but not much. He reasons that he is not more than eight feet from the ground; what would happen if he could be a hundred? What vistas of creation might he not behold from so grand an elevation!

Quite near at hand there stands a giant oak which the settler's ax has reverently spared because of its size and beauty. The trunk is studded almost to the ground with branches small and large, and as the boy looks that way, the leaves of the great tree begin quivering and dancing, and a sweet voice seems to murmur, "Come and climb me! Come and climb me!"

He leaps down from his perch on the gate-post, and the next moment is swinging himself up into the oak, clinging with hands and feet as best he can, and steadily ascending toward the sky. He thinks of himself as a squirrel—a big clumsy squirrel—and the thought causes him to forget the fear which otherwise might have unnerved him and set him trembling. Up, up, up he goes, panting, courageous, aglow with eagerness. At length, at a height far above that of the neighboring trees, he pauses. There are now no more lateral branches large enough to support him. He can go no farther. His heart thumps hard, and he clings with both arms clasped around the slender trunk which is here no larger than his leg.

Soon his courage revives and he begins to gaze around him. From his lofty perch he can look down on the trees in the deadenings and the forest. He has an unobstructed view of the entire horizon, the rim of the sky encircling the world. How vast and strange! Looking toward his right, he sees clearing after clearing and farm after farm; and, seeming almost directly below him, he recognizes the meeting-house and the blacksmith shop at the Dry Forks—but oh! how small they have become, and how near they seem!

He turns and looks in the other direction. Nothing but woods, woods, woods as far as the world extends! But in one place he sees a great smoke ascending. It is near the edge, where the sky is very low, and he wonders whether this may not be Nopplis, of which he has often heard—or whether it may not be that vague region of vanity and wickedness where George Fox used to preach to a godless people, or perhaps the wilderness wherein the Israelites wandered with Moses. He raises his eyes and sees how evenly, like the interior of a monstrous bake-oven, the sky curves upward and inward from the horizon until it reaches the highest point, which is exactly above the dear, glorious log cabin which he calls home.

His whole being throbs with exultation as his mind grasps at the mighty truth. "Yes, yes!" he whispers to himself; "the world is round, and we live at the very center of it. I wonder if father thought of that when he picked out this place for our home."

But hark! What gentle voice is that, calling him from below? "Come down, my boy! Come down, come down!"

Ah! he has been forbidden, often and often, to climb this tree—to climb any tree. His mother will see him—and then what will happen? He hears the voice again: "Come down! Slide along my great body. Don't be afraid." It is the old oak itself that is speaking, as the wind passes through its branches and its thousands of young leaves are set to rustling and quivering.

With imminent peril to neck and limbs, the boy slides rapidly down, swinging himself from branch to branch like an experienced athlete, and finally leaping lightly to the ground. No one has seen him—no one but the kind, sweet, mighty oak, and oaks never tell secrets.

He runs to the house. He bursts in upon his mother, busy with her baking and stewing, and cries out, "O mother, guess what I know! Guess what I know!"

"It is not best for little boys to know too much," says the mother, much accustomed to such speeches.

"But, mother, listen!" persists the child. "The world is round—as round as that plate in thy hand. I know it is so, mother; and our house is right in the center of it!"

And now, my dear presumptive descendants, it is time that I should whisper in your ears a momentous secret. The simple backwoods lad whom I have tried to portray to your imagination was myself—myself, Robert Dudley,—in one of the various forms that have been mine. It was sixty years ago—yes, more than sixty, more!—that I thus climbed the giant oak, gained my first outlook upon the world and awoke suddenly to the consciousness of existence. Since then I have passed through many transformations, I have experienced many changes, but in all things essential, I remain the same individual that I was on that day of sudden waking.

Did you speak, my dear Leona? Did you say, "Impossible"? And Leonidas, do you smile at what you are pleased to call an old man's foolish conceits?

See this sheet of paper so white, so spotless, so free from the slightest defect—a pure creation fresh from its maker's hands! It is the young lad; it is myself, a mere infant, inexperienced, innocent, just starting on the journey. But wait a minute—only a minute. Here is the identical sheet of paper: it is covered with scrawls and blots; it is discolored, creased and wrinkled; it has had rough usage. And yet the same combination of elements is here; it is the young lad after seventy years of contact with wind and weather; it is myself. I have described the appearance of the lad at the beginning of his career; if you would see him when nearing its end, look at me now.

I count it my peculiar good fortune that I first saw the light of day in that humble log cabin which I have endeavored to picture to you. It was not the sort of dwelling which most people would, nowadays, choose for a birthplace. Indeed, I myself would probably not have chosen it, had my prenatal preferences been consulted; and there have been times when I have bitterly complained of Providence because of the humbleness of my beginnings. But it is not the palatial home, the gilded cradle, or the silver spoon that makes the happy life or the successful career. The child of the log hut, naked, and toyless, and strange to luxuries, is nearer to Heaven (and often in a double sense) than is the pampered offspring of wealth with no wish ungratified, no comfort unprovided.

Providence—at least, let us say it is Providence—has wisely decreed that no one can choose the place of his borning. If it were otherwise, royalty would be congested, and the common people would be too few to serve and support the myriads of princely paupers that would rush into existence: the case of the Countess of Heneberg would be duplicated in every palace of Europe!

And here let us have an end of moralizing.