Saturday, November 10, 2012

Merriweather Lewis' Moment of Reflection

They were only thirty three souls and a dog, facing thousands of miles of unknown territory.  Their adventure captures my imagination like no other. 

Two years, four months and ten days travel from St. Louis to the Oregon Coast, and then back again to St. Louis; 3,700 miles one way and 7,000 miles round trip.  We moderns can make this trip in a period of hours.

They started out going upstream in a dugout boat, endured tortuously hot days, swarms of insects beyond imagination, saw plants and animals they had never imagined, and spent the freezing winter with Indians in North Dakota.  No group has ever done anything like this before, or since.  This was the incredible moon shot of 1804; in many ways, there was more mystery, adventure and courage in this journey than in the all of the Apollo program.

One of the two leaders of this group was a 30 year old from Virginia named Meriweather Lewis. Biographers note this was a man of who was introverted, melancholic, and moody.  William Clark, Lewis' co-leader of the expedition, was in contrast extroverted, even-tempered and gregarious. The better educated and more refined Lewis, who possessed a philosophical, romantic and speculative mind, was at home with abstract ideas; Clark, of a pragmatic mold, was more of a practical man of action. Each supplied vital qualities which balanced their partnership.
About six weeks ago, on our travels home, we stopped at Fort Clatsop, near Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River.  This was the last stop of Lewis & Clark's historic adventure to the West.  We spent a soft, cool Oregon morning at the Fort, walking through the reproduction of the original encampment and learning more about this remarkable journey.

While viewing the exhibits, I happened upon a quotation from the journal of Meriweather Lewis that I had read before, but now which  somehow resonated deep within me.  More than 206 years ago, on his birthday on a rainy night in coastal Oregon, surrounded by only frontier and darkness, in a completely new land, Meriweather Lewis sat in this (at left)  darkened room, lit only by fire and candlelight, recording in his journal his reflections on becoming just 31 years old:

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.
Lewis, Meriwether; Clark, William (2012-05-12). The Journals of Lewis and Clark, 1804-1806 (Kindle Locations 9685-9691) Kindle Edition.
The thoughts of this brave young adventurer leave me wondering about existential questions at beyond the midpoint of my own life.  I am standing, in a way, at a marker of my own; a time to reflect as a very recent empty nester, wondering what things of significance my future life will hold.    First, I wonder much these days about the worth of my own contributions to the world thus far.  What can I do that will offer a life lived for mankind, and not for myself?

Second, I wonder about the sense of distorted perspective that we might all have of our own lives.  What seemingly small things have we done that we cannot recognize as possibly of great importance?  Perhaps in the Divine economy, there is a different way of looking at what matters in life, and at the little things that can become big.

Here was a young man who had just accomplished things very few in recorded history could ever claim.  He and a small band had explored half of a continent.  And yet, as he looked back on his life, he found himself far lacking in things achieved or internal character.  Why was this, and why do I often feel very much the same way?

After the Expedition, Meriweather Lewis was appointed Governor of the Louisiana Territory.  William Clark was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed to the Superintendency of Indian Affairs. However, Lewis at age 35, died tragically on October 11, 1809, just three years after the Expedition.

His grave lies within Natchez Trace National Parkway, near Hohenwald, Tennessee. Thomas Jefferson, who held life-long affection for his protege, is credited with the Latin inscription on Lewis' tombstone: Immaturus obi: sed tu felicior annos Vive meos, Bona Republica! Viva tuos. (I died young: but thou, O Good Republic, live out my years for me with better fortune.)

For the most outstanding book on Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery, see Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage.

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