1895 - Wohlers, J. F. H. Memories of the Life of J.F.H. Wohlers - CHAPTER I. MY YOUTH.

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  1895 - Wohlers, J. F. H. Memories of the Life of J.F.H. Wohlers - CHAPTER I. MY YOUTH.
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THE years of childhood and of youth are in themselves of no great importance, still there is something in them that has a bearing on the later life. I was born on the 1st October, 1811 (a younger son amongst seven children), in Mahlenstorf, in the parish of Brucken, district of Hoya, where my father was a respected farmer. The neighbourhood and the district of Hoya lies far from cities. Civilisation in respect of the inhabitants was in a backward state. The reason was that the whole surrounding country was oppressed under the rule of the French conquest. Parents and children had to eat their sorrowful bread in the bitter sweat of their brow. The French had, as it was expressed, sucked the marrow out of the peasants' bones. My father had allowed my name to be registered by the mayor in the French registry as Heinrich Friedrich, but from hatred of the French had me baptized as Johann Friedrich Heinrich. I can only remember one Frenchman now. It was probably after the battle of Leipzig, when the Frenchmen were driven out of Germany heels over head. There was a cry in the house--a Frenchman! I ran out and saw a jaded cavalry soldier talking to my father at the door of the house. I still have a lively remembrance of his trembling voice, as well as his rusty scabbard.

It may be here remarked, by the way, that my father was a considerable man among the peasantry of the place, and for that reason, after the conclusion of the French occupation, was elected

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squire of the parish (Bauermeister). My mother, whose maiden name was Ahlers, and whose birthplace was Hoyerhagen, was a person of quiet modest piety.

When I was six years old I was sent to the house of my grandmother at Hoyerhagen, in a charming district where the trend of the country is towards the valley of the Weser. There were no children in the house there (my uncle was not yet married), and I was to feel this want--so great a want in one accustomed to a lively household--very considerably.

This was of importance, because in accordance with the conclusion of all parties concerned, I was brought up here. My education alone had this difference from that of the rest of us--that in my tender childhood (later on I have had to work hard enough) I was spared the depressing influence of hard manual labour, and for that reason could go to school with fresh and unimpaired strength. The road to school was a distance that took half-an-hour to travel, and passed through a large and lofty forest of oaks. This made a lively impression on my receptive mind in summer when the green canopy waved in living freshness, and in winter when the stormy winds roared through the leafless branches. Such impressions were strange to my comrades at school, who, both before and after school, had to tire themselves out with hard labour.

There were about 120 children in our village school, and only one teacher. He did his work faithfully, but what can one man do amongst such a heap of blockheads, belonging to a race amongst whom the difficulty of acquiring knowledge had become hereditary!

He had to exhaust himself with them to get the most rudimentary essentials crammed into them, and had therefore only a small portion of time to spend on me, although I was capable of more rapid advancement. I helped myself as far as I could, especially in arithmetic, as I required less direction in this branch, and for that reason I brought this study for our school (where very few attempted to reckon on a slate, and those who did, having achieved this accomplishment, went no further) to an unexampled state of perfection. My arithmetic book was

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the so-called Alte Bremer Munze, by Peter Koster. I stuck to my arithmetic after school years were over, especially in the winter evenings, and in course of time worked the whole book through, with the exception of the appendices, which embraced algebraic examples, of which at that time I knew nothing. As I had no supervision, I had to make many unnecessary experiments, and work my way through a host of unnecessary figures (I did not then know the short method) before I could bring out the right answers to the difficult and involved problems.

I only turned my attention to arithmetic in my few leisure hours because all other avenues to learning were closed to me. I was not so well acquainted with any cultivated man as to be able to obtain books from him, as the upper classes had nothing in common with the peasantry.

Many a time I have broken my head over the High German language. In spite of all my endeavours I could not make it out why words which appeared to me quite the same were printed one time with a capital letter, and another time without; why sometimes there should be a "dem" and another time "den," and of similar puzzles many more. I could well believe that these things were not the result of chance. Sometimes I seemed to scent out a difference, and then the scent vanished again. Enough of this!

The labour of the peasant is as necessary to make a whole man as learning is, and one cannot support oneself with speculations about incomprehensible mysteries.

The condition of the peasant is always one of contentedness. Come along with me into the field! No; not now, now that I am an old man, and, after a life of labour, just yearn for eternal rest; but then, when I was yet a fresh and hearty peasant boy. It is early morning in the autumn seed time. As we rise the stars are yet in the sky; but when we have the horses harnessed to the ploughs, the dawn is broken, and we can see the furrows. The share cuts through the sod with a lively rustle, and turns the spit over with an easy fall, to cover up the sod all overgrown with weeds and thistles with the fresh clean earth from below. We dare not look back, or the plough might slide out of the furrow,

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and leave an ugly place in the field; but still we can see the reddening dawn in front of us. What a sight! It is as if the loved heavenly Father held his hand before the light, and amused the child on His lap by letting the light stream through His fingers.

In the morning's purple glances,
Blazing on its wreath of rays,
The youthful day in joyous dances;
Me, too, he wakes with friendly hand,
And uprise my grateful songs
In creation's joyous band.

God sweetens the long hours to the peasant, from early morn till late at night, with an inward joy which the quick movement in the bracing air, and the beauty of surrounding nature, produces as a gratuitous gift. Mowing grass is hard labour, but yet what greater joy than that of a young peasant, when at daybreak he is on the dewy meadow. How refreshed he feels after the short sleep, and how sweetly his sharp scythe hisses through the moisture-laden grass.

I'm content the whole year round;
In spring I plough the land;
Then springs the lark with upward bound,
A merry song he sings to God;
Then comes the lovely summer time;
Then does my heart o'erflow;
Then when I wander in the prime,
So many thousand ears I see;
When comes the Jacob day along,
I swing my scythe,
I cut the corn,
And take the grain to harvest home.
In autumn look I upon my trees,
See apples, pears, and plums thereon,
And if they are ripe I shake them well;
So God rewards the peasant's toil.
Then when sad winter comes,
And my cottage is all white with snow,
And all the fields as chalk are white;
The meadows then are thick with ice;
And when the lovely Sunday comes
I dress myself with decent care,
And go to church with quiet heart,
And hark to what the preacher says.

--Spinning-room Song.

Hoyerhagen (meaning probably Count's Park), the village and the common where I was born, lies in a woody region of great

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natural beauty, under a row of sandhills partly covered with needlewood (pines). Oak and beech woods spread themselves out on either side. These hills, evidently the sandhills of some earlier sea beach, are in places so high that one can see the spires and towers of Bremen from them, a distance of thirty miles or so. Hoyerhagen itself lies in the foreground of the low country. The many farmhouses lie mostly isolated, almost every one surrounded with its own groves of fruit and other trees in a great oak wood. On the edge of this wood, and partly between the farmhouses, there is a row of stream-like ponds, that are kept flowing by the annual overflowing of the Weser (I hear the wood has died out now, and the district has a more uniform appearance). The beauties of nature were daily before my eyes, and impressed my sensibilities more and more. They awakened, however, a keen desire for wider experiences, such as are available to townspeople, but closed to the peasantry. In a more uniform neighbourhood, such as that of my birthplace, with the heavy load of manual labour in early childhood, such a disposition had probably been less developed.

With all its natural beauties Hoyerhagen was a most dead-and-alive community, and, with regard to opportunities for mental acquisition, very poor in books. The few books that were to be found in houses for the most part lay unused, and could have been easily counted. There was the land catechism (a good book), exclusively for the school children; then the church hymn book; then there was the yearly land calendar; then an old prayerbook ; a still older house postil, and last, an old Bible. In my estimation the Bible was the chief book, and then the calendar. I preserved the calendars from year to year, and consequently had quite an important collection. Sometimes I bought myself a little book from the bookbinder's, but these were of no great importance, and have vanished from my memory. On the other hand I have yet lively recollections of the lessons on the Bible and the calendar.

As a result of my want of books, and my great desire to read and learn, I soon made the discovery that the Bible contained a rich treasure of instruction. I learnt therefrom the

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biblical histories, learnt chapters and Psalms by heart, and thought over them afterwards, when I was driving and ploughing, whenever my thoughts were not required in attention to my work. This certainly had this good effect--although the natural man receives nothing of the spirit of God, it kept me in a sort of innocent naturalness. At all events I was free from many sins to which youth is liable.

Besides the Bible, my collection of calendars contained a valuable treasure of easily understandable information about astronomy, meteorology, and other pleasant bits of information, as well as patriotic and other songs. I learnt all this diligently. The patriotic songs stirred my whole heart with love for my German fatherland.

I greet thee, dearest fatherland--
I'm born for thee alone!
To thee, with high uplifted hand,
The child's true faith is sworn.
My powers I do devote to thee--
Thy welfare shall my honour be;
Be bann'd all mean and base desire
From thy son's breast, oh fatherland!

--From the Calendar.

But I was born a peasant, and a peasant I supposed I must remain. Not even as a soldier was I of any use--I was too small.

In accordance with good old custom, the peasantry always went regularly to church. I did not. Yet, if I could have heard explanations of the Bible, or, above all, something spiritual that would have helped my sinking belief, then had I gladly gone. Instead of that, I was fed with lessons in housekeeping. When, for instance, the sermon was on the necessity of early rising, and a calculation was made as to how much time was saved in a year--or maybe in a lifetime--if one rose every morning an hour earlier; that was a matter I could easily have reckoned up for myself. But what angered me beyond measure was that the whole affair was totally unnecessary. By far the most of us hearers were obliged to be out of bed every morning

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at four; only a few could sleep till five; and some few had to get up at three. Surely that was early enough!

Such dissertations about common everyday affairs disgusted me with church going. In preference, therefore, I read at home, or went in summer time into a wood and dreamed the time away. I had not far to go. Close by the house the before-mentioned river-like pond flowed along, and here, between the still water and a blooming meadow, we had a little wood of high oaks, beeches, and other kinds of trees, as well as thick undergrowth of osiers, hazels, and such like. Here it was, as still and solemn as in some sublime temple of a Nature's God, the little insects enjoyed their short life--they wished no better. A gift of a few days was to them as good as all eternity. Why, then, should the heart of man be so drear? Why does it seem so strange and lonely in God's beautiful creation?

The good God He lives for us all,
We all do stand in His right hand,
Whether we roam in the Northern wild
Or in the Southern tropic land;
The Father's eye it reaches far,
It blesses all, it takes all in,
And from the starry host of heaven
Looks down on flower that lonely blows.

--Out of the Calendar.

Is it true that a self-existent God lives that knows every green leaf and its web, and who thinks of the lonely man and his dark forebodings; or is there only a world soul, only half known to itself, that permeates all visible nature and unfolds itself through it, but which regards no single life? Ah! the solemn stillness in the temple of Nature may well instil a soft sadness, but it cannot satisfy the awakened yearning after something. What is it? What may Nathaniel have felt when he was alone under the fig tree, before Philip called him and led him to Christ? Or I went alone to the already-mentioned heights. Here lay spread out before me, right across to Verden, the thirty-mile-wide Weser valley, with hamlets and villages, spires and windmills, woods, fields, and meadows, and the woody Hoyerhagen in the foreground.

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For love of us they deck them all,
The meadow, hill, and grove;
The birds they sing from near and far,
With song they fill the air;
The lark sings to us when at work,
At our sweet rest the nightingale.
And when the golden sun gets up,
And gold floods all the world;
When everything in blossom stands,
And ears all fill the field,
This splendour all, then think I then,
For me, dear God, for me is made.

--From a School Song.

But how small one feels in the great creation. Here on the margin of a fragrant pine wood, where a solemn rustling wanders through the pine needles, the anxious foreboding rises once more that one is forsaken. One feels in the very home like a stranger in a strange land. Will it be different in a future life? Will even a peasant there have access to higher knowledge? Is there really a life after death, or is the belief a mere naked hope to be set against the certainty of the death that lies before us? Does life end with death ? or do we not really know but that we have comforted ourselves with a vain belief? Is God a man that He should lie? Can He really hold out idle hopes to His children to make their short earthly life bearable? Not if He is really the God the Bible teaches.

A still summer evening. Twilight is gradually losing itself in night. A few faint streaks of the red fading evening glow gleam through the fruit trees and the far-away woods. A plum tree in full freshness stands before me. The leaves of the young shoots are in full sap, ready for their nightly rest, in such expressive manner, as if to say we correspond with our existence. I could not say this about myself. The world and nature when in their softest moods can give me no satisfaction. God appeared to me to be near in the visible creation, but immeasurably distant from the yearnings of my inner soul. A bat fluttering described an always returning circle. Poor creature! Helpless in flying--unskilled in running--and it dare not trust itself out in daylight. And yet it enjoys itself for its existence in its dark world. Even so the men of my condition are glad to be content in their ignorance, and men shun knowledge for fear it might bewilder

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them. But I could not be content. My whole soul yearned after higher light, and with this longing locked in my bosom I was obliged to move restlessly in a dark circle. I was acquainted with no cultivated man, knew no one to whom I could lay bare the longings and yearnings of my heart, or any one who would be able to understand me. If I spoke about the longings and yearnings of my heart I received the short answer--Bist narr! (you're a fool). I had also sufficient penetration to see that really there was a good deal of folly in me. This drove me to solitude.

It was the hereditary opinion that a peasant must trouble himself only about such matters as had been usual in previous generations--all other knowledge and speculation could only end in his ruin. And I, too, thought there was somewhat of truth in this. All younger sons in my rank of life placed their hopes and exerted their energies in the direction of some day being farmers themselves, whether by purchase, lease, or marriage. I never had such a wish, therefore, thought I, I was ruined already. But this thought in no way hindered me doing my duty in the service of my uncle at Hoyerhagen, and becoming a thorough farmer. I could load a cart with hay or corn, could turn as good a furrow, sow the seed as well and regularly as any other peasant who never thought at all. But I had no desire at all to be an independent farmer myself.

And so I arrived at my twenty-fifth year, and the road to higher knowledge was closed to me on all sides, and that by so high a wall that I could not even look over it. It is well that God preserved me from people with revolutionary ideas, who want to improve the world without God and without Christianity. If I had fallen into such hands, and they had represented to me that the entire parochial and civil organisation was a wrong one, and as a consequence I was wrongfully deprived of the opportunities of improvement, and it must be overturned, they might easily have led me astray and ruined me. But God's merciful hand was over me, and I knew it not.

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