Cooper’s Theory of Relativity: Time Travel in the Leatherstocking Tales

Christina Starobin (Culinary Institute of America)

Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 79-82).

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

One morning when I went walking my hound, Rocky, in the forest area behind our house, he became excited and started pulling me. I thought it was a deer as he went faster and faster. Suddenly he stopped. As we walked around the edge of a tree, I saw a fox lying dead. It was an adult lying peacefully stretched out on its side. There seemed to be no bullet marks or marks of being attacked by another animal. Its tail was fluffy and extended the line of the body.

I called the vet and asked if there were an agency I should report the fox to, as I knew sometimes they carry rabies. “It probably died of natural causes,” said the vet. “You don’t have to do anything.”

For about two weeks we kept going back to the fox on our morning walk. We saw it covered with a late snow and then saw little black beetles go into its side. I thought of the Egyptian scarab, the emblem of eternity, and how it really was the dung beetle which ate dung and passed it through its system.

One morning after a rain we returned and saw the fox again. Its fur was spread out further and it was being flattened into the leaves and earth. It was becoming part of the forest, blending into the ground. I thought of the fossils I had found by the stream and how they were bodies that had died and become part of the earth under layers and layers of hundreds of millions of years.

It might be remarked that Cooper, in Chapter 9 of The Deerslayer, introduces the rock where Deerslayer meets the Great Serpent — which has some of the same mythic age:

It was a large, isolated stone that rested on the bottom of the lake, apparently left there when the waters tore away the earth from around it, in forcing for themselves a passage down the river, and which had obtained its shape from the action of the elements, during the slow progress of centuries. (p. 149, Cooper Edition [Albany: SUNY Press, 1987], emphasis added)

Last week my boyfriend Michael and I had occasion to revisit an old favorite hiking spot of many years. Driving through the town, by the road where we so often came by bus, furnished us with a Deerslayer-like revisiting; so much had changed yet so much had remained the same. I wrote this short poem, “Mountain climbing return”:

How strange you are, Hydrangea! after so many years to still be here houses are built in the forest shopping centers mushroom but this tree still grows, home again, home again! the very stones make me weep and the mountain laurel the mountain laurel is a floral that outcrops on mountain tops and never stops Whoop de do whoop de do whoop de do whoop de do says the Whoop de do crane Tweet says the tweety bird One tree that was forked by lightning & fell, they took you down I weep the rain down upon your memory with serenity serene and tranquility tranquil let them bury us apiece on top of Sunset Hill just as though we’d never left but the path is steeper & the road more small or are we grown fat & tall? the wind still sings here above & beyond the airplanes & car beepers it whips the trees & repossesses the shadows that cover the land& from the High Point the mountains recede in waves & the clouds lay their shadows on the land, the reservoir & tiny buildings where does time go when it goes? how can we make it return? where are the people we once were? will they jump out form old photos & take us for coffee? no, and someday only the photos will remain or the memory of our shadows on the mountain wind may the wind blow through the bones of your dreams & carry you above the trees to where we sit so high & rare with the clouds & sun & wind in our hair                6/31/03

The question of the action of time and the return after the passage of time, a subject ready-made for the majesty of an “Ozymandias,” rounds out the end of The Deerslayer and gives the whole series an eternal ring. This is Time in “normal” or “chronological” order. In the 20ᵗʰ century, the physicists have enjoined us to play with time and space, via Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, with the famous Twin Paradox.

A pair of twins is divided so that one stays on earth (Mack) and the other (Jack) goes space travelling to a star. The one on earth ages faster than the one travelling. If, in fact, the traveller Jack were to go at a speed approaching the speed of light, he might find his twin Mack twenty years older by the time he had only gone to the star and back. Or, as Reginald Buller put it:

There was a young man name of Bright

Whose bike could go almost like light

To his twin he said bye

Rode he into the sky

And returned to find bro old and slight.

In Cooper’s universe he complicates or explains the complication that not all time is happening at once, but different parts of the forest are in different stages of decay: “These little huts were made of the branches of trees put together with some ingenuity, and they were uniformly topped with bark that had been stripped from fallen tress, of which every virgin forest possesses hundreds, in all stages of decay.” (p. 184, The Deerslayer, emphasis added)

Although we are in the electric and computer and space age, we still use metaphors from the era of reading. “Turn over a new leaf” refers to books, much as does “change the channel”. The ability to stop time with the TV remote control can be compared to putting a book mark into a volume. “The next chapter in your life will be an exciting one,” says my fortune cookie, implying a linear verbal reality. But we are not only a multi-cultural world, we are a space-time four dimensional tic-tac-toe game where multiple relationships can and do exist which interact and react, if you will. upon our experience of reality.

Who has not had the experience of having read something without much thought only to have it brought home forcibly later with a big “aha!” and the mental light bulb going off? And what about déjá vu that some scientists say is just the mind experiencing something a split second before and then believing it was much anterior? Or the sensation of déjà vu introduced by the instant replay on television or the reintroduction of women’s fashions on a regular 30 year rotation? Or what about The Matrix, reintroducing the epic again, this time giving the viewer the right to play with time space and alternate realities to help recreate the experience he would actually have while living?

Our current country, in which yard sales continuously demonstrate the interchangeability of relics becoming junk and junk becoming relics only shows or reinforces the current “many worlds” hypotheses, in which everything that can happen happens but in simultaneous and other universes. Of course, as a novelist and writer, I know that anything that can happen will, in another book, and we all know “if anything can go wrong it will go wrong.” The ability to right these wrongs is one of the novelist’s happiest serendipitous prerogatives.

Because of the way the Leatherstocking Tales were written (not in chronological order as to the age of Natty Bumppo) Cooper had more than the general novelist’s chance to “play God” — in fact enjoining the reader to Time Travel, especially in The Deerslayer when Natty comes back to a world he left on his “whirlwind tour” of the future. Cooper’s ability to get a great overview went hand in hand with his perspective as a conservationist to see the result of man’s use of the environment. The most mythic of the Leatherstocking tales, Cooper goes back in The Deerslayer and exercises another of the novelist’s prerogatives (that of naming characters and places) by having Natty explain the genesis of his name to Hetty — an animal based name (Deerslayer) which becomes Hawkeye — and ties the tales together in an understandable sequence. First he was Straight Tongue, then Pigeon (recalling the massing slaughter of birds in The Pioneers), then Lap-ear. Deerslayer became Hawkeye and then in following volumes, as the reader knows, la Longue Carabine, Pathfinder, the old trapper. As readers, we have already seen the end of the story; now we’re in on the beginning and we see the past through the present and vice versa.

Reading the Leatherstocking Tales has the effect of seeing reruns of a TV series without having seen the series in its original “run”; like watching Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with the past being all out of order. In the previous books of the Leatherstocking Tales Cooper had chances to explore his ethics regarding man’s relationship to the environment. He began in The Pioneers with the pigeon shoot and the use of resources. In The Deerslayer he comes around to a classic conclusion to this epic cycle with the nature of change through time.

Incidentally, a couple of interesting nineteenth century overlappings are visible in this book. In chapter 14, Cooper — after the following passage — added a footnote on caravan keepers, in his own lifetime, letting elephants bathe in the Otsego:

Little did either of them [Rivenoak and Deerslayer] imagine, at the time, that long ere a century elapsed, the progress of civilization would bring even much more extraordinary and rare animals into that region, as curiosities to be gazed at by the curious, and that the particular beast, about which the disputants contended, would be seen laving its sides and swimming in the very sheet of water on which they had met. (p. 245)

We might say “Little would Cooper imagine that a century and a half later we would meet here discussing his life and works and movies made from his works.”

Maybe all books are like the twin on the bike, Jack, because they can go around the world while “normal earth reality,” Mack, gets old, or “chronologically advanced”. In our minds we never age, like written words upon the page.

Back to the elephants bathing in Glimmerglass, this reminds us of Henry David Thoreau’s mention of the waters of Walden being mixed with the waters of the Ganges. More than a coincidence, this indicates a preoccupation with “the other side of the world” in the nineteenth century, also evinced in the use of hieroglyphics by Poe at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a preoccupation fueled by the discovery of Cleopatra’s needle.

In Chapter 15, Natty speaks to Hetty about the “progress” of civilization:

“As for farms, they have their uses, and there’s them that like to pass their lives on ‘em; but what comfort can a man look for in a clearin’, that he can’t find in double quantities in the forest? If air, and room, and light are a little craved, the wind-rows, and the streams will furnish ‘em, or here are the lakes for such as have bigger longings in that way; but where are you to find your shades, and laughing springs, and leaping brooks, and vinerable trees, a thousand years old, in a clearin’? You do’n’t find them, but you find their disabled trunks, marking the ‘arth like head-stones in a graveyard. It seems to me that the people who live in such places, must be always thinkin’ of their own inds, and of univarsal decay; and that, too, not of the decay that is brought about by time and natur’, but the decay that follows waste and violence.” (p. 266)

Cooper’s “boring message” of the waste of natural resources calls to us powerfully today. After seeing mankind in an ark, where are we headed that the forces of Time and Decay will not overtake us? In Cooper’s time the forces were man’s “wasty ways” — today they have become even more wasty. This disregard makes a geometric progression of our destruction — like atomically devastated, ever glimpsing a prefiguration of our disappearance. Paradoxically, today when we can see more of the world, we act even more unilaterally — especially our leadership which forgets to consult us and only informs us “after the fact” — not so in Cooper’s universe.

Certainly this Leatherstocking Tale which contains the horrific vignette of Thomas Hutter scalped alive and dying by inches with his daughters next to him, Hetty reading from the Book of Job, reinforces the idea of a vengeful God. Hutter’s finally tranquil burial sets the stage for the tranquil and transcendent end of the book.

Although The Prairie, of all the Leatherstocking Tales, speaks to us with an incredible visual panorama, The Deerslayer asks us to bear witness to a chronological vista, a panoramic survey through the ages, as is appropriate in the last of the series to be written coming full circle to the youth of Natty Bumppo and the virgin purity of America and her hopes.

One morning of the Memorial Day weekend when I was walking my dog Rocky around the side of our house I saw a white tail disappearing into the forest. We followed and saw the deer that had just disappeared and another deer sitting, very self possessed, on the forest floor. “How bold!” I thought and stood as Rocky strained to get at the two deer.

The first deer was ready to go deeper into the woods, but the second didn’t even move. Then it slowly got up and I could see two baby deer that she had just given birth to overnight. As she got to her feet shakily, and we moved off, I was filled with the wonder that comes from touching (witnessing?) life’s miracle. It’s around us all the time, but we seldom are aware of it; when we are aware, it transforms everything.