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of North America
North America divided into two vast regions, one sloping toward the pole, the other toward the equator. Mississippi valley and its geology. The Atlantic coast and the foundation of the English colonies. Contrast between North and South America at the time of discovery. North American forests and prairies. Nomadic native tribes and their appearance, mores, and languages. Traces of an unknown people.
North America has striking geographical features which can be appreciated at first glance.
Land and water, mountains and valleys, seem to have been separated with systematic method, and the simple majesty of this design stands out amid the confusion and immense variety of the scene.
The continent is divided into two vast and almost equal regions.
One region is bounded by the North Pole and the great oceans to east and west, while to the south it stretches down in an irregular triangle to the Great Lakes of Canada.
The second starts where the other ends and covers the rest of the continent.
One region slopes gently toward the pole, the other toward the equator.
The lands to the north of the first region slope so imperceptibly that they may almost be described as plains, and there are no high mountains or deep valleys in the whole of this vast level expanse.
Chance seems to trace the serpentine courses of the streams; great rivers mingle, separate, and meet again; they get lost in a thousand marshes, meandering continually through the watery labyrinth they have formed, and only after innumerable detours do they finally reach the Arctic sea. The Great Lakes, which bring this region to an end, are not framed, as are most lakes in the Old World, by hills or rocks; their banks are level, hardly rising more than a few feet above the water. So each is like a huge cup filled to the brim. The slightest change of global structure would tilt their waters to the pole or to the tropics.
The second region is broken up more and is better suited as a permanent home for man. Two mountain chains run right across it; the Alleghenies parallel to the Atlantic, and the Rockies to the Pacific.
The area between these two mountain chains is 1,341,649 square miles, or about six times that of France.
But the whole of this vast territory is a single valley sloping down from the smooth summits of the Alleghenies and stretching up to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, with no obstacles in the way.
An immense river flows along the bottom of this valley, and all the waters falling on the mountains on every side drain into it.
Formerly the French called it the St. Louis River, in memory of their distant fatherland, and the Indians in their grandiloquent tongue named it the Father of Waters, the Mississippi.
The Mississippi rises in the borderland between our two regions, not far from the highest point in the plain which links them.
Another river which rises nearby flows down into the polar seas. The Mississippi itself sometimes seems in doubt which way to go; it twists backward several times, and only after slowing down in lakes and marshes seems finally to make up its mind and meander on toward the south.
Sometimes gently flowing along the clay bed which nature has carved out for it, and sometimes swollen by storms; the Mississippi waters some twenty-five hundred square miles.
Thirteen hundred and sixty-four miles above its mouth, the river already has a mean depth of fifteen feet, and ships of three hundred tons can go over four hundred and fifty miles up it.
Fifty-seven large navigable rivers flow into it. Among the tributaries of the Mississippi are one river thirteen hundred leagues long, another of nine hundred leagues," another of six hundred, another of five hundred; there are four other rivers of two hundred leagues, not to mention the innumerable small stream on every side which augment its flood.
The valley watered by the Mississippi seems created for it alone; it dispenses good and evil at will like a local god. Near the river nature displays an inexhaustible fertility; the further you go from its banks, the sparser the vegetation and the poorer becomes the soil, and everything wilts or dies. Nowhere have the great convulsions of the world left more evident traces than in the valley of the Mississippi. The aspect of the whole countryside bears witness to the waters' work. Its sterility as well as its abundance is their work. Deep layers of fertile soil accumulated under the primeval ocean and had time to level out. On the right bank of the river there are huge plains as level as a rolled lawn. But nearer the mountains the land becomes more and more uneven and sterile; the soil is punctured in a thousand places by primitive rocks sticking out here and there like the bones of a skeleton when sinews and flesh have perished. The surface of the earth is covered with granitic sand and irregularly shaped stones, through which a few plants just manage to force their way; it looks like a fertile field covered by the ruins of some vast structure. Analysis of this sand and these rocks easily demonstrates that they are exactly like those on the bare and jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. No doubt the rains which washed all the soil down to the bottom of the valley, in the end brought portions of the rocks too; they were rolled down the neighboring slopes, and after they had been dashed one against another, were scattered at the base of the mountains from which they had fallen. (See Appendix I, A.)
All things considered, the valley of the Mississippi is the most magnificent habitation ever prepared by God for man, and yet one may say that it is still only a vast wilderness.
On the eastern slopes of the Alleghenies, between the mountains and the Atlantic, there is a long strip of rock and sand which seems to have been left behind by the retreating ocean. This strip is only forty-eight leagues broad on the average, but three hundred and ninety leagues long. The soil in this part of the American continent can be cultivated only with difficulty. The vegetation is scanty and uniform.
It was on that inhospital shore that the first efforts of human...Democracy in America. Copyright © by Alexis de Tocqueville. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
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