Friday, April 10, 2009

Etienne Brule, a 17th Century chameleon

Following the shadow of Etienne Brule: Much of the magnificence of the Lake Superior shoreline still exists today as it did yesterday.

He hunted and found a fantastic intangible ....

Today, I "hired" a fellow to write something for me. Bruce Catton was a journalist, a historian and a pretty remarkable guy. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his books about the Civil War. He was one of the founders of American Heritage magazine. He enjoyed writing about colorful characters. One of the characters he mentioned in one of his books was Etienne Brule, a Frenchman who came to America in 1608 at the age of 16. Brule spent more than 20 years wandering and exploring the wilderness. He was a chameleon of the first order and, undoubtedly, his contemporaries thought him to be more than a little queer. Basically, he saw the world for what it was, not for what other people told him it was. Meet Monsieur Brule.

By Bruce Catton

Etienne Brule .... had better luck. He hunted a fantastic intangible, found it, made the most of it, and vanished at last into bloodstained legend, his final thoughts unrecorded. He wanted to get to the fabulous back-of-beyond -- to discard everything he had been taught in seventeenth-century France and find out how it would go with a man who followed total loneliness into the loneliest forest on earth -- and he did precisely what he set out to do, which is more than most men ever do. The result was something he had not foreseen. Discarding civilization and making himself total uncivilized, he nevertheless dragged civilization after him, which is why no one today can go where he went and see what he saw. By escaping into the wholly primitive, he helped to destroy it ....

The interesting thing about this is that Brule himself begged (Samuel) Champlain to send him into the wilderness. It had bugged him, and it drew him on to a mutual catastrophe .... Brule saw something far beyond, and it was this far-beyond that he wanted. So away he went (in 1610 at age 18) -- up the Ottawa River, over Lake Nipissing, down the French River to Georgian Bay, along the coast to the pocket where the land runs north-northwest again to Lake Huron, which is deep and wide and blue and cold and deadly -- and he was the first white man to see any of this, the first to escape entirely from the tight limits of Europe, the first one free to explore himself under the guise of exploring a new land. This is very strong wine. It is much as if, today, a man landed on the moon and found the gates of fantasy wide open, with an enchanted garden waiting to be entered; if he went in, he might die there, and he knew this perfectly well; but as a young man, he also knew the final value of life better than the old do, so in he went, and there he died, and if he could have come back afterward, he would not have undone any of it ....

Brule had many adventures, obscure and apparently pointless. He wandered all over the high country, getting into Lake Superior and coasting along its magnificent and deadly shores, seeing the copper country .... and going to the great harbor that lies under the long sand bar behind which Duluth now climbs the hills to breath-taking beauty ....

He went back to the Huron country and turned south and east; got into up-state New York and was caught by a party of Iroquois, who prepared to torture him to death and began pulling out his beard by the handful, just to give him a foretaste. Brule threatened them with the wrath of the Great Spirit; at which moment, in the most unbelievable story-book fashion, a thunderhead that had climbed the sunny sky unnoticed exploded in a great blast of bumping noise and blinding fire, so that the Iroquois were suddenly converted and tried to atone. They untied him, gave him a big dinner, and sent him on his way with their best wishes.

He kept going .... and returned to the high country, where he lived here and there. It is easier to say this than it could possibly have been to do it. He was not just living among the Indians: he was living among an all but infinite number of different tribes of Indians, some of whom felt this way, while others felt that way. Make friends with one tribe, and you make enemies of another, and your life is poised on a knife edge, all the time. Also, the Indians had taboos, superstitions, and social codes that nobody knew about, and a man could lose his life if he pushed too hard against any of them.

For years, Brule played the game very well; that is, he stayed alive and had exactly the kind of life he wanted to have, becoming -- as happened afterward to many another man who wandered away from the settlements -- more Indian than the Indians. He seems to have disconnected himself completely from all his old ties. The English fought the French, and Brule did not know which side he was on, going with the English for a time and then at last picking up the old threads again with the French. In the end, he managed to make a fatal mistake in dealing with the Indians; if he could forget that he was a white man, they could not, and at last -- in a Huron town called Toanche, whose site is lost in the gloom of wilderness prehistory -- the red men found that they were mortally tired of him. They clubbed him to death, and then, according to legend, they ate him; so, in 1632, his story ended forever.

Music Note: Listening to Bob Seger ....
Specifically, "Against the Wind" ....
Some lines from: "Against the Wind:"

And the years rolled slowly past

And I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way
There were oh so many roads
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed
Moving eight miles a minute for months at a time
Breaking all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searching
Searching for shelter again and again
Against the wind
A little something against the wind
I found myself seeking shelter against the wind

Well those drifter days are past me now
I've got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out

Against the wind
I'm still running against the wind
Well I'm older now and still
Against the wind


TheChicGeek said...

Hi Fram :) That was very nice. I like the story. The picture of the lake is very special too.
The song makes me feel sad :(

Fram said...

Hi there, Kelly ....

I think Brule led an extraordinary life and was a lucky guy.

To me, the photograph reflects a journey offshore from the mainland: Island hopping, crossing each stretch of "wilderness" until reaching the next "refuge," one jump at a time, until finding a "final port" which offers safe haven.

I guess the song basically is a pretty sad song, although I never really thought of it that way.

TheChicGeek said...

Extraordinary and lucky...most definitely!

And the photo, yes, it really does :)

Katy said...

That's a great story Fram, thank you. It sounds as if you are very inspired by Brule (and indeed Catton). Are you thinking of retracing his steps, as much as that is now possible in the places mentioned?

I frequently have a great desire to live somewhere extremely remote, although I'm sure perhaps the reality would be much tougher than I think!

I hope you're having a great Friday too :-)

A Cuban In London said...

Another brilliant post, my friend. And thank your guest columnist for me, too. Maybe because I am writing this response under the influence (no, no, I'm not talking about drugs, I don't do drugs, but I am listening to Lou Reed's 'New York' album and I am bouncing up and down on my chair), maybe because of that I was immediately transported to that wilderness which is not a far cry from the urban wilderness Reed describes in his record. Fantastic outing, Fram. Many thanks.

On another note, thanks for the poem you posted on my thread. I responded to you, but I will replicate my reply here. As an atheist/humanist, I believe in evolution and in the power that mother nature has over all living and dead bodies (including us, humans, in the former category, of course). That's why I would never be able to see a tree as a piece made by God, but to see it as what it is to me, mother nature's hands at work.

Have a happy Easter, mate!

Greetings from London.

Fram said...

Two visits from Kelly today. That puts me into the lucky guy category, too. Thank you.

Fram said...

Greetings, Katy ....

Pull out your maps and look at Lake Superior. Another fellow and I did a leisurely six-week cruise of the entire south shore, so I at least have that much in common with Monsieur Brule. I have bits and pieces along the north shore as well, and out to Isle Royale and back one time.

I cannot remember when I first "met" Brule. I read Catton's Civil War trilogies in college, and noted at that time he was born the same year as Hemingway and in a town very near the Hemingway's summer cottage. I wondered if maybe they crossed paths as passengers in their baby buggies as their mothers pushed them along a village street.

Yes, Good Friday is a good Friday for me, too. No work for me today.

Fram said...

I will admit this only to you, CiL, and to no one else. I frequently can be found bouncing in my chair, too. Music, music, music. Dancing in my chair, I call it, and sometimes rocking with my guitar while I dance the night away.

I am glad you enjoyed reading about Brule. I do not know that I would have followed his lifestyle for twenty-some years, but two or three would have been fantastic to me. Paradise revisited.

We are cousins in the sense that I have been an agnostic since my very early teens. I do, however, sometimes split my cards and by that means hedge my bets. I do not suppose that would work too well in this instance, though. Thanks, for the visit.

Natalie said...

Mr. Fram,
I am absolutely sure that Monsieur Brule rarely used a horse in his travels, yet how many of us would be willing to give up their cars/private jets as means of transportation?
In my eyes he is a true Hero.

Fram said...

Natalie, I am glad to see you.

Our Monsieur Brule is of a particular breed because he did what he did for the joy and the experience of doing it, rather than for adulation or for money or to seek special status. Too few of that type are around these days.

Brule, in addition to being a chameleon, no doubt also was a true wolf.

Did you like the photograph?

Natalie said...

You changed your reply! Why? Which photograph, yours or mine?

P.S. "the joy, the experience, special status..." - I respectfully disagree. One have to be in Monsieur Brule’s XVII century shoes to truly understand his motives... Or no??

Fram said...

Yes, Natalie, I dropped most of the last paragraph. I thought after re-reading it this morning that it could be interpreted as a bit harsh, and I did not mean it that way. All it was meant to say is that I think men and women often have difficulty understanding each other.

I was referring to my photograph.

While the Brule-type is somewhat unique, it is not completely uncommon. As Bruce Catton noted, ".... he stayed alive and had exactly the kind of life he wanted to have, becoming -- as happened afterward to many another man who wandered away from the settlements -- more Indian than the Indians."

They might come in somewhat different shapes and varied forms but, if you look, you can spot them here and there.

Something special ....