Sunday, January 8, 2012

Oak Openings

In 1848, James Fenimore Cooper, the author famous for the Last of the Mohicans, published a novel set in Kalamazoo titled Oak Openings. Set in 1812, it describes west Michigan before European settlement:
The woods around were the then unpeopled forest of Michigan ; and the small winding reach of placid water that was just visible in the distance, was an elbow of the Kalamazoo, a beautiful little river that flows westward, emptying its tribute into the vast expanse of Lake Michigan. Now, this river has already become known, by its villages and farms, and railroads and mills; but then, not a dwelling of more pretension than the wigwam of the Indian, or an occasional shanty of some white adventurer, had ever been seen on its banks. In that day, the whole of that fine peninsula, with the exception of a narrow belt of country along the Detroit River, which was settled by the French as far back as near the close of the seventeenth century, was literally a wilderness. If a white man found his way into it, it was as an Indian trader, a hunter, or an adventurer-in some other of the pursuits connected with border life and the habits of the savages.

The title, Oak Openings, refers to the landscape, an ecosystem now called an Oak Savannah. Cooper describes it:

The trees, with very few exceptions, were what is called the "burr-oak," a small variety of a very extensive genus; and the spaces between them, always irregular, and often of singular beauty, have obtained the name of "openings;" the two terms combined giving their appellation to this particular species of native forest, under the name of "Oak Openings."

The story itself is about the adventures of Ben Boden, a "bee-hunter," on the Michigan frontier during the War of 1812. The prose is very different from a modern novel.

The text is in the public domain, so it is available free online from Google books or Project Gutenberg. Amazon will sell you a Kindle version or a print copy.

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