By David Grayson
THE WELL-FLAVOURED EARTH
"Sweet as Eden is the air And Eden-sweet the ray. No Paradise is lost for them Who foot by branching root and stem, And lightly with the woodland share The change of night and day."
For these many years, since I have lived here in the country, I have had it in my mind to write something about the odour and taste of this well-flavoured earth. The fact is, both the sense of smell and the sense of taste; have been shabbily treated in the amiable rivalry of the senses. Sight and hearing have been the swift and nimble brothers, and sight especially, the tricky Jacob of the family, is keen upon the business of seizing the entire inheritance, while smell, like hairy Esau, comes late to the blessing, hungry from the hills, and willing to trade its inheritance for a mess of pottage.
I have always had a kind of errant love for the improvident and adventurous Esaus of the Earth. I think they smell a wilder fragrance than I do, and taste sweeter things, and I have thought, therefore, of beginning a kind of fragrant autobiography, a chronicle of all the good odours and flavours that ever I have had in my life.
As I grow older, a curious feeling comes often to me in the spring, as it comes this spring more poignantly than ever before, a sense of the temporariness of all things, the swiftness of life, the sadness of a beauty that vanishes so soon, and I long to lay hold upon it as it passes by all the handles that I can. I would not only see it and hear it, but I would smell it and taste it and touch it, and all with a new kind of intensity and eagerness.
Harriet says I get more pleasure out of the smell of my supper than I get out of the supper itself.
"I never need to ring for you," says she, "but only open the kitchen door. In a few minutes I'll see you straighten up, lift your head, sniff a little, and come straight for the house."
"The odour of your suppers, Harriet," I said, "after a day in the fields, would lure a man out of purgatory."
My father before me had a singularly keen nose. I remember well when I was a boy and drove with him in the wild North Country, often through miles of unbroken forest, how he would sometimes break a long silence, lift his head with sudden awareness, and say to me:
"David, I smell open fields."
In a few minutes we were sure to come to a settler's cabin, a log barn, or a clearing. Among the free odours of the forest he had caught, afar off, the common odours of the work of man.
When we were tramping or surveying in that country, I have seen him stop suddenly, draw in a long breath, and remark:
"Marshes," or, "A stream yonder."
Part of this strange keenness of sense, often noted by those who knew that sturdy old cavalryman, may have been based, as so many of our talents are, upon a defect. My father gave all the sweet sounds of the world, the voices of his sons, the songs of his daughters, to help free the Southern slaves. He was deaf.
It is well known that when one sense is defective the others fly to the rescue, and my father's singular development of the sense of smell may have been due in part to this defect, though I believe it to have been, to a far larger degree, a native gift. Me had a downright good nose. All his life long he enjoyed with more than ordinary keenness the odour of flowers, and would often pick a sprig of wild rose and carry it along with him in his hand, sniffing at it from time to time, and he loved the lilac, as I do after him. To ill odours he was not less sensitive, and was impatient of rats in the barn, and could smell them, among other odours, the moment the door was opened. He always had a peculiar sensitiveness to the presence of animals, as of dogs, cats, muskrats, cattle, horses, and the like, and would speak of them long before he had seen them or could know that they were about.
I recall once on a wild Northern lake, when we were working along the shore in a boat, how he stopped suddenly and exclaimed:
"David, do you hear anything?"—for I, a boy, was ears for him in those wilderness places.
"No, Father. What is it?"
And, sure enough, in a short time I heard the barking of their dogs and we came soon upon their camp, where, I remember, they were drying deer meat upon a frame of poplar poles over an open fire. He told me that the smoky smell of the Indians, tanned buckskin, parched wild rice, and the like, were odours that carried far and could not be mistaken.
My father had a big, hooked nose with long, narrow nostrils, I suppose that this has really nothing to do with the matter, although I have come, after these many years, to look with a curious interest upon people's noses, since I know what a vehicle of delight they often are. My own nose is nothing to speak of, good enough as noses go—but I think I inherited from my father something of the power of enjoyment he had from that sense, though I can never hope to become the accomplished smeller he was.
I am moved to begin this chronicle because of my joy this morning early—a May morning!—just after sunrise, when the shadows lay long and blue to the west and the dew was still on the grass, and I walked in the pleasant spaces of my garden. It was so still...so still...that birds afar off could be heard singing, and once through the crystal air came the voice of a neighbour calling his cows. But the sounds and the silences, the fair sights of meadow and hill I soon put aside, for the lilacs were in bloom and the bush-honeysuckles and the strawberries. Though no movement of the air was perceptible, the lilacs well knew the way of the wind, for if I stood to the north of them the odour was less rich and free than to the south, and I thought I might pose as a prophet of wind and weather upon the basis of this easy magic, and predict that the breezes of the day would be from the north—as, indeed, they later appeared to be.
I went from clump to clump of the lilacs testing and comparing them with great joy and satisfaction. They vary noticeably in odour; the white varieties being the most delicate, while those tending to deep purple are the richest. Some of the newer double varieties seem less fragrant—and I have tested them now many times—than the old-fashioned single varieties which are nearer the native stock. Here I fancy our smooth Jacob has been at work, and in the lucrative process of selection for the eye alone the cunning horticulturist has cheated us of our rightful heritage of fragrance. I have a mind some time to practise the art of burbankry or other kind of wizardy upon the old lilac stock and select for odour alone, securing ravishing original varieties—indeed, whole new gamuts of fragrance.
I should devise the most animating names for my creations, such as the Double Delicious, the Air of Arcady, the Sweet Zephyr, and others even more inviting, which I should enjoy inventing. Though I think surely I could make my fortune out of this interesting idea, I present it freely to a scent-hungry world—here it is, gratis!—for I have my time so fully occupied during all of this and my next two or three lives that I cannot attend to it.
I have felt the same defect in the cultivated roses. While the odours are rich, often of cloying sweetness, or even, as in certain white roses, having a languor as of death, they never for me equal the fragrance of the wild sweet rose that grows all about these hills, in old tangled fence rows, in the lee of meadow boulders, or by some unfrequented roadside. No other odour I know awakens quite such a feeling—light like a cloud, suggesting free hills, open country, sunny air; and none surely has, for me, such an after-call. A whiff of the wild rose will bring back in all the poignancy of sad happiness a train of ancient memories old faces, old scenes, old loves—and the wild thoughts I had when a boy. The first week of the wild-rose blooming, beginning here about the twenty-fifth of June, is always to me a memorable time.
I was a long time learning how to take hold of nature, and think now with some sadness of all the life I lost in former years. The impression the earth gave me was confused: I was as one only half awake. A fine morning made me dumbly glad, a cool evening, after the heat of the day, and the work of it, touched my spirit restfully; but I could have explained neither the one nor the other. Gradually as I looked about me I began to ask myself, "Why is it that the sight of these common hills and fields gives me such exquisite delight? And if it is beauty, why is it beautiful? And if I am so richly rewarded by mere glimpses, can I not increase my pleasure with longer looks?"
I tried longer looks both at nature and at the friendly human creatures all about me. I stopped often in the garden where I was working, or loitered a moment in the fields, or sat down by the roadside, and thought intently what it was that so perfectly and wonderfully surrounded me; and thus I came to have some knowledge of the Great Secret. It was, after all, a simple matter, as such matters usually are when we penetrate them, and consisted merely in shutting out all other impressions, feelings, thoughts, and concentrating the full energy of the attention upon what it was that I saw or heard at that instant.
At one moment I would let in all the sounds of the earth, at another all the sights. So we practise the hand at one time, the foot at another, or learn how to sit or to walk, and so acquire new grace for the whole body. Should we do less in acquiring grace for the spirit? It will astonish one who has not tried it how full the world is of sounds commonly unheard, and of sights commonly unseen, but in their nature, like the smallest blossoms, of a curious perfection and beauty.
Out of this practice grew presently, and as it seems to me instinctively, for I cannot now remember the exact time of its beginning, a habit of repeating under my breath, or even aloud, and in a kind of singsong voice, fragmentary words and sentences describing what it was that I saw or felt at the moment, as, for example:
"The pink blossoms of the wild crab-apple trees I see from the hill.... The reedy song of the wood thrush among the thickets of the wild cherry.... The scent of peach leaves, the odour of new-turned soil in the black fields.... The red of the maples in the marsh, the white of apple trees in bloom.... I cannot find Him out—nor know why I am here...."
Some form of expression, however crude, seemed to reenforce and intensify the gatherings of the senses; and these words, afterward remembered, or even written down in the little book I sometimes carried in my pocket, seemed to awaken echoes, however faint, of the exaltation of that moment in the woods or fields, and enabled me to live twice where formerly I had been able to live but once.
It was by this simple process of concentrating upon what I saw or heard that I increased immeasurably my own joy of my garden and fields and the hills and marshes all about. A little later, for I was a slow learner, I began to practise the same method with the sense of smell, and still later with the sense of taste. I said to myself, "I will no longer permit the avid and eager eye to steal away my whole attention. I will learn to enjoy more completely all the varied wonders of the earth."
So I tried deliberately shutting the doorways of both sight and hearing, and centring the industry of my spirit upon the flavours of the earth. I tested each odour narrowly, compared it well with remembered odours, and often turned the impression I had into such poor words as I could command.
What a new and wonderful world opened to me then! My takings of nature increased tenfold, a hundredfold, and I came to a new acquaintance with my own garden, my own hills, and all the roads and fields around about—and even the town took on strange new meanings for me. I cannot explain it rightly, but it was as though I had found a new earth here within the old one, but more spacious and beautiful than any I had known before. I have thought, often and often, that this world we live in so dumbly, so carelessly, would be more glorious than the tinsel heaven of the poets if only we knew how to lay hold upon it, if only we could win that complete command of our own lives which is the end of our being.
At first, as I said, I stopped my work, or loitered as I walked, in order to see, or hear, or smell—and do so still, for I have entered only the antechamber of the treasure-house; but as I learned better the modest technic of these arts I found that the practice of them went well with the common tasks of the garden or farm, especially with those that were more or less monotonous, like cultivating corn, hoeing potatoes, and the like.
The air is just as full of good sights and good odours for the worker as for the idler, and it depends only upon the awareness, the aliveness, of our own spirits whether we toil like dumb animals or bless our labouring hours with the beauty of life. Such enjoyment and a growing command of our surroundings are possible, after a little practice, without taking much of that time we call so valuable and waste so sinfully. "I haven't time," says the farmer, the banker, the professor, with a kind of disdain for the spirit of life, when, as a matter of fact, he has all the time there is, all that anybody has—to wit, this moment, this great and golden moment!—but knows not how to employ it. He creeps when he might walk, walks when he might run, runs when he might fly—and lives like a woodchuck in the dark body of himself.
Why, there are men in this valley who scout the idea that farming, carpentry, merchantry, are anything but drudgery, defend all the evils known to humankind with the argument that "a man must live," and laugh at any one who sees beauty or charm in being here, in working with the hands, or, indeed, in just living! While they think of themselves cannily as "practical" men, I think them the most impractical men I know, for in a world full of boundless riches they remain obstinately poor. They are unwilling to invest even a few of their dollars unearned in the real wealth of the earth. For it is only the sense of the spirit of life, whether in nature or in other human beings, that lifts men above the beasts and curiously leads them to God, who is the spirit both of beauty and of friendliness. I say truly, having now reached the point in my life where it seems to me I care only for writing that which is most deeply true for me, that I rarely walk in my garden or upon the hills of an evening without thinking of God. It is in my garden that all things become clearer to me, even that miracle whereby one who has offended may still see God; and this I think a wonderful thing. In my garden I understand dimly why evil is in the world, and in my garden learn how transitory it is.
Just now I have come in from work, and will note freshly one of the best odours I have had to-day. As I was working in the corn, a lazy breeze blew across the meadows from the west, and after loitering a moment among the blackberry bushes sought me out where I was busiest. Do you know the scent of the blackberry? Almost all the year round it is a treasure-house of odours, even when the leaves first come out; but it reaches crescendo in blossom time when, indeed, I like it least, for being too strong. It has a curious fragrance, once well called by a poet "the hot scent of the brier," and aromatically hot it is and sharp like the briers themselves. At times I do not like it at all, for it gives me a kind of faintness, while at other times, as to-day, it fills me with a strange sense of pleasure as though it were the very breath of the spicy earth. It is also a rare friend of the sun, for the hotter and brighter the day, the hotter and sharper the scent of the brier.
Many of the commonest and least noticed of plants, flowers, trees, possess a truly fragrant personality if once we begin to know them. I had an adventure in my own orchard, only this spring, and made a fine new acquaintance in a quarter least of all expected. I had started down the lane through the garden one morning in the most ordinary way, with no thought of any special experience, when I suddenly caught a whiff of pure delight that stopped me short.
"What now can that be?" and I thought to myself that nature had played some new prank on me.
I turned into the orchard, following my nose. It was not the peach buds, nor the plums, nor the cherries, nor yet the beautiful new coloured leaves of the grape, nor anything I could see along the grassy margin of the pasture. There were other odours all about, old friends of mine, but this was some shy and pleasing stranger come venturing upon my land.
A moment later I discovered a patch of low green verdure upon the ground, and dismissed it scornfully as one of my ancient enemies. But it is this way with enemies, once we come to know them, they often turn out to have a fragrance that is kindly.
Well, this particular fierce enemy was a patch of chickweed. Chickweed! Invader of the garden, cossack of the orchard! I discovered, however, that it was in full bloom and covered with small, star-like white blossoms.
"Well, now," said I, "are you the guilty rascal?"
So I knelt there and took my delight of it and a rare, delicate good odour it was. For several days afterward I would not dig out the patch, for I said to myself, "What a cheerful claim it makes these early days, when most of the earth is still cold and dead, for a bit of immortality."
The bees knew the secret already, and the hens and the blackbirds! And I thought it no loss, but really a new and valuable pleasure, to divert my path down the lane for several days that I might enjoy more fully this new odour, and make a clear acquaintance with something fine upon the earth I had not known before.
OF GOOD AND EVIL ODOURS
Of all times of the day for good odours I think the early morning the very best, although the evening just after sunset, if the air falls still and cool, is often as good. Certain qualities or states of the atmosphere seem to favour the distillation of good odours and I have known times even at midday when the earth was very wonderful to smell. There is a curious, fainting fragrance that comes only with sunshine and still heat. Not long ago I was cutting away a thicket of wild spiraea which was crowding in upon the cultivated land. It was a hot day and the leaves wilted quickly, giving off such a penetrating, fainting fragrance that I let the branches lie where they fell the afternoon through and came often back to smell of them, for it was a fine thing thus to discover an odour wholly new to me.
I like also the first wild, sweet smell of new-cut meadow grass, not the familiar odour of new-mown hay, which comes a little later, and is worthy of its good report, but the brief, despairing odour of grass just cut down, its juices freshly exposed to the sun. One, as it richly in the fields at the mowing. I like also the midday smell of peach leaves and peach-tree bark at the summer priming: and have never let any one else cut out the old canes from the blackberry rows in my garden for the goodness of the scents which wait upon that work.
Another odour I have found animating is the odour of burning wastage in new clearings or in old fields, especially in the evening when the smoke drifts low along the land and takes to itself by some strange chemical process the tang of earthy things. It is a true saying that nothing will so bring back the emotion of a past time as a remembered odour. I have had from a whiff of fragrance caught in a city street such a vivid return of an old time and an old, sad scene that I have stopped, trembling there, with an emotion long spent and I thought forgotten.
Once in a foreign city, passing a latticed gateway that closed in a narrow court, I caught the odour of wild sweet balsam. I do not know now where it came from, or what could have caused it—but it stopped me short where I stood, and the solid brick walls of that city rolled aside like painted curtains, and the iron streets dissolved before my eyes, and with the curious dizziness of nostalgia, I was myself upon the hill of my youth—with the gleaming river in the valley, and a hawk sailing majestically in the high blue of the sky, and all about and everywhere the balsams—and the balsams—full of the sweet, wild odours of the north, and of dreaming boyhood.
And there while my body, the shell of me, loitered in that strange city, I was myself four thousand miles and a quarter of a century away, reliving, with a conscious passion that boyhood never knew, a moment caught up, like a torch, out of the smouldering wreckage of the past.
Do not tell me that such things die! They all remain with us-all the sights, and sounds, and thoughts of by-gone times awaiting only the whiff from some latticed gateway, some closed-in court to spring again into exuberant life. If only we are ready for the great moment!
As for the odour of the burning wastage of the fields at evening I scarcely know if I dare say it. I find it produces in the blood of me a kind of primitive emotion, as though it stirred memories older than my present life. Some drowsy cells of the brain awaken to a familiar stimulus—the odour of the lodge-fire of the savage, the wigwam of the Indian. Racial memories!
But it is not the time of the day, nor the turn of the season, nor yet the way of the wind that matters most but the ardour and glow we ourselves bring to the fragrant earth. It is a sad thing to reflect that in a world so overflowing with goodness of smell, of fine sights and sweet sounds, we pass by hastily and take so little of them. Days pass when we see no beautiful sight, hear no sweet sound, smell no memorable odour: when we exchange no single word of deeper understanding with a friend. We have lived a day and added nothing to our lives! A blind, grubbing, senseless life—that!
It is a strange thing, also, that instead of sharpening the tools by which we take hold of life we make studied efforts to dull them. We seem to fear life and early begin to stop our ears and close our eyes lest we hear and see too much: we clog our senses and cloud our minds. We seek dull security and ease and cease longer to desire adventure and struggle. And then—the tragedy of it—the poet we all have in us in youth begins to die, the philosopher in us dies, the martyr in us dies, so that the long, long time beyond youth with so many of us becomes a busy death. And this I think truer of men than of women: beyond forty many women just begin to awaken to power and beauty, but most men beyond that age go on dying. The task of the artist, whether poet, or musician, or painter, is to keep alive the perishing spirit of free adventure in men: to nourish the poet, the prophet, the martyr, we all have in us.
One's sense of smell, like the sense of taste, is sharpest when he is hungry, and I am convinced also that one sees and hears best when unclogged with food, undulled with drink, undrugged with smoke. For me, also, weariness, though not exhaustion, seems to sharpen all the senses. Keenness goes with leanness. When I have been working hard or tramping the country roads in the open air and come in weary and hungry at night and catch the fragrance of the evening along the road or upon the hill, or at barn-doors smell the unmilked cows, or at the doorway, the comfortable odours of cooking supper how good that all is! At such times I know Esau to the core: the forthright, nature-loving, simple man he was, coming in dabbled with the blood of hunted animals and hungry for the steaming pottage.
It follows that if we take excessive joys of one sense, as of taste, nature, ever seeking just balances, deprives us of the full enjoyment of the others, "I am stuffed, cousin," cries Beatrice in the play, "I cannot smell." "I have drunk," remarks the Clown in Arcady, "what are roses to me?" We forget that there are five chords in the great scale of life—sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and—few of us ever master the chords well enough to get the full symphony of life, but are something like little pig-tailed girls playing Peter Piper with one finger while all the music of the universe is in the Great Instrument, and all to be had for the taking.
Of most evil odours, it can be said that they are temporary or unnecessary: and any unpleasant odour, such as that of fruit sprays in spring, or fertilizer newly spread on the land, can be borne and even welcomed if it is appropriate to the time and place. Some smells, evil at first, become through usage not unpleasant. I once stopped with a wolf-trapper in the north country, who set his bottle of bait outside when I came in. He said it was "good and strong" and sniffed it with appreciation. I agreed with him that it was strong. To him it was not unpleasant, though made of the rancid fat of the muscallonge. All nature seems to strive against evil odours, for when she warns us of decay she is speeding decay: and a manured field produces later the best of all odours. Almost all shut-in places sooner or later acquire an evil odour: and it seems a requisite for good smells that there be plenty of sunshine and air; and so it is with the hearts and souls of men. If they are long shut in upon themselves they grow rancid.
FOLLOW YOUR NOSE!
"Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn— Look to this day! For it is Life, The very Life of Life!"
On a spring morning one has only to step out into the open country, lift his head to the sky—and follow his nose....
It was a big and golden morning, and Sunday to boot, and I walked down the lane to the lower edge of the field, where the wood and the marsh begin. The sun was just coming up over the hills and all the air was fresh and clear and cool. High in the heavens a few fleecy clouds were drifting, and the air was just enough astir to waken the hemlocks into faint and sleepy exchanges of confidence.
It seemed to me that morning that the world was never before so high, so airy, so golden, All filled to the brim with the essence of sunshine and spring morning—so that one's spirit dissolved in it, became a part of it. Such a morning! Such a morning!
From that place and just as I was I set off across the open land.
It was the time of all times for good odours—soon after sunrise—before the heat of the day had drawn off the rich distillations of the night.
In that keen moment I caught, drifting, a faint but wild fragrance upon the air, and veered northward full into the way of the wind. I could not at first tell what this particular odour was, nor separate it from the general good odour of the earth; but I followed it intently across the moor-like open land. Once I thought I had lost it entirely, or that the faint northern airs had shifted, but I soon caught it clearly again, and just as I was saying to myself, "I've got it, I've got it!"—for it is a great pleasure to identify a friendly odour in the fields—I saw, near the bank of the brook, among ferns and raspberry bushes, a thorn-apple tree in full bloom.
"So there you are!" I said.
I hastened toward it, now in the full current and glory of its fragrance. The sun, looking over the taller trees to the east, had crowned the top of it with gold, so that it was beautiful to see; and it was full of honey bees as excited as I.
A score of feet onward toward the wind, beyond the thorn-apple tree, I passed wholly out of the range of its fragrance into another world, and began trying for some new odour. After one or two false scents, for this pursuit has all the hazards known to the hunter, I caught an odour long known to me, not strong, nor yet very wonderful, but distinctive. It led me still a little distance northward to a sunny slope just beyond a bit of marsh, and, sure enough, I found an old friend, the wild sweet geranium, a world of it, in full bloom, and I sat down there for some time to enjoy it fully.
Beyond that, and across a field wild with tangles of huckleberry bushes and sheep laurel where the bluets and buttercups were blooming, and in shady spots the shy white violet, I searched for the odour of a certain clump of pine trees I discovered long ago. I knew that I must come upon it soon, but could not tell just when or where. I held up a moistened finger to make sure of the exact direction of the wind, and bearing, then, a little eastward, soon came full upon it—as a hunter might surprise a deer in the forest. I crossed the brook a second time and through a little marsh, making it the rule of the game never to lose for an instant the scent I was following—even though I stopped in a low spot to admire a mass of thrifty blue flags, now beginning to bloom—and came thus to the pines I was seeking. They are not great trees, nor noble, but gnarled and angular and stunted, for the soil in that place is poor and thin, and the winds in winter keen; but the brown blanket of needles they spread and the shade they offer the traveller are not less hospitable; nor the fragrance they give off less enchanting. The odour of the pine is one I love.
I sat down there in a place I chose long ago—a place already as familiar with pleasing memories as a favourite room—so that I wonder that some of the notes I have written there do not of themselves exhale the very odour of the pines.
And all about was hung a fair tapestry of green, and the earthy floor was cleanly carpeted with brown, and the roof above was in arched mosaic, the deep, deep blue of the sky seen through the gnarled and knotted branches of the pines. Through a little opening among the trees, as through a window, I could see the cattle feeding in the wide meadows, all headed alike, and yellow butterflies drifted across the open spaces, and there were bumblebees and dragonflies. And presently I heard some one tapping, tapping, at the door of the wood and glancing up quickly I saw my early visitor. There he was, as neighbourly as you please, and not in the least awed by my intrusion; there he was, far out on the limb of a dead tree, stepping energetically up and down, like a sailor reefing a sail, and rapping and tapping as he worked—a downy woodpecker.
"Good morning, sir," I said.
He stopped for scarcely a second, cocked one eye at me, and went back to his work again. Who was I that I should interrupt his breakfast?
And I was glad I was there, and I began enumerating, as though I were the accredited reporter for the Woodland Gazette, all the good news of the day.
"The beech trees." said aloud, "have come at last to full leafage. The wild blackberries are ready to bloom, the swamp roses are budded. Brown planted fields I see, and drooping elms, and the young crows cry from their nests on the knoll.... I know now that, whoever I am, whatever I do, I am welcome here; the meadows are as green this spring for Tom the drunkard, and for Jim the thief, as for Jonathan the parson, or for Walt the poet: the wild cherry blooms as richly, and the odour of the pine is as sweet—"
At that moment, like a flame for clearness, I understood some of the deep and simple things of life, as that we are to be like the friendly pines, and the elm trees, and the open fields, and reject no man and judge no man. Once, a long time ago, I read a sober treatise by one who tried to prove with elaborate knowledge that, upon the whole, good was triumphant in this world, and that probably there was a God, and I remember going out dully afterward upon the hill, for I was weighed down with a strange depression, and the world seemed to me a hard, cold, narrow place where good must be heavily demonstrated in books. And as I sat there the evening fell, a star or two came out in the clear blue of the sky, and suddenly it became all simple to me, so that I laughed aloud at that laborious big-wig for spending so many futile years in seeking doubtful proof of what he might have learned in one rare home upon my hill. And far more than he could prove far more.
As I came away from that place I knew I should never again be quite the same person I was before.
Well, we cannot remain steadily upon the heights. At least I cannot, and would not if I could. After I have been out about so long on such an adventure as this, something lets go inside of me, and I come down out of the mountain—and yet know deeply that I have been where the bush was burning; and have heard the Voice in the Fire.
So it was yesterday morning. I realized suddenly that I was hungry—commonly, coarsely hungry. My whole attention, I was going to say my whole soul, shifted to the thought of ham and eggs! This may seem a tremendous anti-climax, but it is, nevertheless, a sober report of what happened. At the first onset of this new mood, the ham-and-eggs mood, let us call it, I was a little ashamed or abashed at the remembrance of my wild flights, and had a laugh at the thought of myself floundering around in the marshes and fields a mile from home, when Harriet, no doubt, had breakfast waiting for me! What absurd, contradictory, inconsistent, cowardly creatures we are, anyway!
The house seemed an inconceivable distance away, and the only real thing in the world the gnawing emptiness under my belt. And I was wet to my knees, and the tangled huckleberry bashes and sheep laurel and hardback I had passed through so joyously a short time before now clung heavily about my legs as I struggled through them. And the sun was hot and high—and there were innumerable small, black buzzing flies.
To cap the climax, whom should I meet as I was crossing the fence into the lower land but my friend Horace, He had been out early looking for a cow that had dropped her calf in the woods, and was now driving them slowly up the lane, the cow a true pattern of solicitous motherhood, the calf a true pattern of youth, dashing about upon uncertain legs.
"Takin' the air, David?"
I amuse Horace. Horace is an important man in this community. He has big, solid barns, and money in the bank, and a reputation for hardheadedness. He is also known as a "driver"; and has had sore trouble with a favourite son. He believes in "goin' it slow" and "playin' safe," and he is convinced that "ye can't change human nature."
His question came to me with a kind of shock. I imagined with a vividness impossible to describe what Horace would think if I answered him squarely and honestly, if I were to say:
"I've been down in the marshes following my nose—enjoying the thorn apples and the wild geraniums, talking with a woodpecker and reporting the morning news of the woods for an imaginary newspaper."
I was hungry, and in a mood to smile at myself anyway (good-humouredly and forgivingly as we always smile at ourselves!) before I met Horace, and the flashing vision I had of Horace's dry, superior smile finished me. Was there really anything in this world but cows and calves, and great solid barns, and oatcrops, and cash in the bank?
"Been in the brook?" asked Horace, observing my wet legs.
Talk about the courage to face cannon and Cossacks! It is nothing to the courage required to speak aloud in broad daylight of the finest things we have in us! I was not equal to it.
"Oh, I've been down for a tramp in the marsh," I said, trying to put him off.
But Horace is a Yankee of the Yankees and loves nothing better than to chase his friends into corners with questions, and leave them ultimately with the impression that they are somehow less sound, sensible, practical, than he is and he usually proves it, not because he is right, but because he is sure, and in a world of shadowy halt-beliefs and half-believers he is without doubts.
"What ye find down there?" asked Horace.
"Oh, I was just looking around to see how the spring was coming on."
"Hm-m," said Horace, eloquently, and when I did not reply, he continued, "Often git out in the morning as early as this?"
"Yes," I said, "often."
"And do you find things any different now from what they would be later in the day?"
At this the humour of the whole situation dawned on me and I began to revive. When things grow hopelessly complicated, and we can't laugh, we do either one of two things: we lie or we die. But if we can laugh, we can fight! And be honest!
"Horace," I said, "I know what you are thinking about."
Horace's face remained perfectly impassive, but there was a glint of curiosity in his eye.
"You've been thinking I've been wasting my time beating around down there in the swamp just to look at things and smell of things—which you wouldn't do. You think I'm a kind of impractical dreamer, now, don't you, Horace? I'll warrant you've told your wife just that more than once. Come, now!"
I think I made a rather shrewd hit, for Horace looked uncomfortable and a little foolish.
"Come now, honest!" I laughed and looked him in the eye.
"Waal, now, ye see—"
"Of course you do, and I don't mind it in the least."
A little dry gleam of humour came in his eye.
It's a fine thing to have it straight out with a friend.
"No," I said, "I'm the practical man and you're the dreamer. I've rarely known in all my life, Horace, such a confirmed dreamer as you are, nor a more impractical one."
"How do ye make that out?"
With this my spirit returned to me and I countered with a question as good as his. It is as valuable in argument as in war to secure the offensive.
"Horace, what are you working for, anyhow?"
This is always a devastating shot. Ninety-nine out of every hundred human beings are desperately at work grubbing, sweating, worrying, thinking, sorrowing, enjoying, without in the least knowing why.
"Why, to make a living—same as you," said Horace.
"Oh, come now, if I were to spread the report in town that a poor neighbour of mine, that's you, Horace, was just making his living, that he himself had told me so, what would you say? Horace, what are you working for? It's something more than a mere living."
"Waal, now, I'll tell ye, if ye want it straight, I'm layin' aside a little something for a rainy day."
"A little something!" this in the exact inflection of irony by which here in the country we express our opinion that a friend has really a good deal more laid aside than anybody knows about. Horace smiled also in the exact manner of one so complimented.
"Horace, what are you going to do with that thirty thousand dollars?"
"Thirty thousand!" Horace looks at me and smiles, and I look at Horace and smile.
"Waal, I'll tell ye—a little peace and comfort for me and Josie in our old age, and a little something to make the children remember us when we're gone. Isn't that worth working for?"
He said this with downright seriousness. I did not press him further, but if I had tried I could probably have got the even deeper admission of that faith that lies, like bed rock, in the thought of most men—that honesty and decency here will not be without its reward there, however they may define the "there." Some "prophet's paradise to come!"
"I knew it!" I said. "Horace, you're a dreamer, too. You are dreaming of peace and comfort in your old age, a little quiet house in town where you won't have to labour as hard as you do now, where you won't be worried by crops and weather, and where Mrs. Horace will be able to rest after so many years of care and work and sorrow—a kind of earthly heaven! And you are dreaming of leaving a bit to your children and grandchildren, and dreaming of the gratitude they will express. All dreams, Horace!"
"The fact is, you are working for a dream, and living on dreams—isn't that true?"
"Waal, now, if you mean it that way——"
"I see I haven't got you beaten yet, Horace!"
He smiled broadly,
"We are all amiable enough with our own dreams. You think that what you are working for—your dream—is somehow sounder and more practical than what I am working for."
Horace started to reply, but had scarcely debouched from his trenches when I opened on him with one of my twenty-fours.
"How do you know that you are ever going to be old?"
"And if you do grow old, how do you know that thirty thousand dollars—oh, we'll call it that—is really enough, provided you don't lose it before, to buy peace and comfort for you, or that what you leave your children will make either you or them any happier? Peace and comfort and happiness are terribly expensive, Horace—and prices have been going up fast since this war began!"
Horace looked at me uncomfortably, as men do in the world when you shake the foundations of the tabernacle. I have thought since that I probably pressed him too far; but these things go deep with me.
"No, Horace," I said, "you are the dreamer—and the impractical dreamer at that!"
For a moment Horace answered nothing; and we both stood still there in the soft morning sunshine with the peaceful fields and woods all about us, two human atoms struggling hotly with questions too large for us. The cow and the new calf were long out of sight. Horace made a motion as if to follow them up the lane, but I held him with my glittering eye—as I think of it since, not without a kind of amusement at my own seriousness.
"I'm the practical man, Horace, for I want my peace now, and my happiness now, and my God now. I can't wait. My barns may burn or my cattle die, or the solid bank where I keep my deferred joy may fail, or I myself by to-morrow be no longer here."
So powerfully and vividly did this thought take possession of me that I cannot now remember to have said a decent good-bye to Horace (never mind, he knows me!). At least when I was halfway up the hill I found myself gesticulating with one clenched fist and saying to myself with a kind of passion: "Why wait to be peaceful? Why not he peaceful now? Why not be happy now? Why not be rich now?"
For I think it truth that a life uncommanded now is uncommanded; a life unenjoyed now is unenjoyed; a life not lived wisely now is not lived wisely: for the past is gone and no one knows the future.
As for Horace is he convinced that he is an impractical dreamer. Not a bit of it! He was merely flurried for a moment in his mind, and probably thinks me now, more than ever before, just what I think him. Absurd place, isn't it, this world?
So I reached home at last. You have no idea, unless you have tried it yourself, how good breakfast tastes alter a three-mile tramp in the sharp morning air. The odour of ham and eggs, and new muffins, and coffee, as you come up the hill, there is an odour for you! And it was good to see Harriet.
"Harriet," I said, "you are a sight for tired eyes."
THE GREEN PEOPLE
I have always had a fondness, when upon my travels about the world of the near-by woods and fields, for nipping a bit of a twig here and there and tasting the tart or bitter quality of it. I suppose the instinct descends to me from the herbivorous side of my distant ancestry. I love a spray of white cedar, especially the spicy, sweet inside bark, or a pine needle, or the tender, sweet, juicy end of a spike of timothy grass drawn slowly from its close-fitting sheath, or a twig of the birch that tastes like wintergreen.
I think this no strange or unusual instinct, for I have seen many other people doing it, especially farmers around here, who go through the fields nipping the new oats, testing the red-top, or chewing a bit of sassafras bark. I have in mind a clump of shrubbery in the town road, where an old house once stood, of the kind called here by some the "sweet-scented shrub," and the brandies of it nearest the road are quite clipped and stunted I'm being nipped at by old ladies who pass that way and take to it like cat to catnip.
For a long time this was a wholly unorganized, indeed all but unconscious, pleasure, a true pattern of the childish way we take hold of the earth; but when I began to come newly alive to all things as I have already related—I chanced upon this curious, undeveloped instinct.
"What is it I have here?" I asked myself, for I thought this might be a new handle for getting hold of nature.
Along one edge of my field is a natural hedge of wild cherry, young elms and ashes, dogwood, black raspberry bushes and the like, which has long been a pleasure to the eye, especially in the early morning when the shadows of it lie long and cool upon the meadow. Many times I have walked that way to admire it, or to listen for the catbirds that nest there, or to steal upon a certain gray squirrel who comes out from his home in the chestnut tree on a fine morning to inspect his premises.
It occurred to me one day that I would make the acquaintance of this hedge in a new way; so I passed slowly along it where the branches of the trees brushed my shoulder and picked a twig here and there and bit it through. "This is cherry," I said; "this is elm, this is dogwood." And it was a fine adventure to know old friends in new ways, for I had never thought before to test the trees and shrubs by their taste and smell. After that, whenever I passed that way, I closed my eyes and tried for further identifications by taste, and was soon able to tell quickly half a dozen other varieties of trees, shrubs, and smaller plants along that bit of meadow.
Presently, as one who learns to navigate still water near shore longs for more thrilling voyages, I tried the grassy old roads in the woods, where young trees and other growths were to be found in great variety: and had a joy of it I cannot describe, for old and familiar places were thus made new and wonderful to me. And when I think of those places, now, say in winter, I grasp them more vividly and strongly than ever I did before, for I think not only how they look, but how they taste and smell, and I even know many of the growing things by the touch of them. It is certain that our grasp of life is in direct proportion to the variety and warmth of the ways in which we lay hold of it. No thought no beauty and no joy.
On these excursions I have often reflected that if I were blind, I should still find here unexplored joys of life, and should make it a point to know all the friendly trees and shrubs around about by the taste or smell or touch of them. I think seriously that this method of widening the world of the blind, and increasing their narrower joys, might well be developed, though it would be wise for such as do take it to borrow first the eyes of a friend to see that no poison ivy, which certain rascally birds plant along our fences and hedges, is lurking about.
Save for this precaution I know of nothing that will injure the taster, though he must be prepared, here and there, for shocks and thrills of bitterness. A lilac leaf, for example, and to a scarcely lesser degree the willow and the poplar are, when bitten through, of a penetrating and intense bitterness; but do no harm, and will daunt no one who is really adventurous. There is yet to be written a botany, or, better yet, a book of nature, for the blind.
It is by knowing human beings that we come to understand them, and by understanding them come to love them, and so it is with the green people. When I was a boy in the wild north country trees were enemies to be ruthlessly fought—to be cut down, sawed, split, burned—anything to be rid of them. The ideal in making a home place was to push the forest as far away from it as possible. But now, when I go to the woods, it is like going among old and treasured friends, and with riper acquaintance the trees come to take on, curiously, a kind of personality, so that I am much fonder of some trees than of others, and instinctively seek out the companionship of certain trees in certain moods, as one will his friends.
I love the unfolding beeches in spring, and the pines in winter; the elms I care for afar off, like great aloof men, whom I can admire; but for friendly confidences give me an apple tree in an old green meadow.
In this more complete understanding I have been much aided by getting hold of my friends of the hedges and hills in the new ways I have described. At times I even feel that I have become a fully accepted member of the Fraternity of the Living Earth, for I have already received many of the benefits which go with that association; and I know now for a certainty that it makes no objection to its members because they are old, or sad, or have sinned, but welcomes them all alike.
The essential taste of the cherry and peach and all their numerous relatives is, in variation, that of the peach pit, so that the whole tribe may be easily recognized, though it was some time before I could tell with certainty the peach from the cherry. The oak shoot, when chewed a little, tastes exactly like the smell of new oak lumber; the maple has a peculiar taste and smell of its own that I can find no comparison for, and the poplar is one of the bitterest trees that ever I have tasted. The trees—pines, spruces, hemlocks, balsams, cedars—are to me about the pleasantest of all, both in taste and odour, and though the spruces and pines taste and smell much alike at first, one soon learns to distinguish them. The elm has a rather agreeable, nondescript, bitterish taste, but the linden is gummy and of a mediocre quality, like the tree itself, which I dislike. Some of the sweetest flowering shrubs, such as the lilac, have the bitterest of leaves and twigs or, like certain kinds of clematis, have a seed that when green is sharper than cayenne pepper, while others, like the rose, are pleasanter in flavour. The ash tree is not too bitter and a little sour.
I give here only a few of the commoner examples, for I wish to make this no tedious catalogue of the flavours of the green people. I am not a scientist, nor would wish to be taken for one. Only last winter I had my pretensions sadly shocked when I tasted twigs cut from various trees and shrubs and tried to identify them by taste or by smell, and while it was a pleasing experiment I found I could not certainly place above half of them; partly, no doubt, because many growing things keep their flavours well wrapped up in winter. No, I have not gone far upon this pleasant road, but neither am I in any great hurry; for there yet remains much time in this and my future lives to conquer the secrets of the earth. I plan to devote at least one entire life to science, and may find I need several!
One great reason why the sense of taste and the sense of smell have not the same honour as the sense of sight or of hearing is that no way has yet been found to make a true art of either. For sight, we have painting, sculpturing, photography, architecture, and the like; and for hearing, music; and for both, poetry and the drama. But the other senses are more purely personal, and have not only been little studied or thought about, but are the ones least developed, and most dimmed and clogged by the customs of our lives.
For the sense of smell we have, indeed, the perfumer's art, but a poor rudimentary art it is, giving little freedom for the artist who would draw his inspirations freshly from nature. I can, indeed, describe poorly in words the odours of this June morning—the mingled lilacs, late wild cherries, new-broken soil, and the fragrance of the sun on green verdure, for there are here both lyrical and symphonic odours—but how inadequate it is! I can tell you what I feel and smell and taste, and give you, perhaps, a desire another spring to spend the months of May and June in the country, but I can scarcely make you live again the very moment of life I have lived, which is the magic quality of the best art. The art of the perfumer which, like all crude art, thrives upon blatancy, does not make us go to gardens, or love the rose, but often instils in us a kind of artificiality, so that perfumes, so far from being an inspiration to us, increasing our lives, become often the badge of the abnormal, used by those unsatisfied with simple, clean, natural things.
And as a people deficient in musical art delights in ragtime tunes, so a people deficient in the true art of tasting and smelling delights in ragtime odours and ragtime tastes.
I do not know that the three so-called lesser senses will ever be organized to the point where they are served by well-established arts, but this I do know—that there are three great ways of entering upon a better understanding of this magic earth which are now neglected.
I think we have come upon hasty and heated days, and are too much mastered by the god of hurry and the swift and greedy eye. We accept flashing pictures of life for life itself; we rush here and rush there and, having arrived, rush away again—to what sensible purpose? Be still a little! Be still!
I do not mean by stillness, stagnation not yet lazy contentment, but life more deeply thought about, more intensely realized, an activity so concentrated that it is quiet. Be still then!
So it is that, though I am no worshipper of the old, I think the older gardeners had in some ways a better practice of the art than we have, for they planted not for the eye alone but for the nose and the sense of taste and even, in growing such plants as the lamb's tongue, to gratify, curiously, the sense of touch. They loved the scented herbs, and appropriately called them simples. Some of these old simples I am greatly fond of, and like to snip a leaf as I go by to smell or taste; but many of them, I here confess, have for me a rank and culinary odour—as sage and thyme and the bold scarlet monarda, sometimes called bergamot.
But if their actual fragrance is not always pleasing, and their uses are now grown obscure, I love well the names of many of them—whether from ancient association or because the words themselves fall pleasantly upon the ear, as, for example, sweet marjoram and dill, anise and summer savoury, lavender and sweet basil. Coriander! Caraway! Cumin! And "there's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember,... there's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you: and here's some for me—" All sweet names that one loves to roll under his tongue.
I have not any great number of these herbs in my own garden, but, when I go among those I do have, I like to call them by their familiar names as I would a dignified doctor or professor, if ever I knew him well enough.
It is in this want of balance and quietude that the age fails most. We are all for action, not at all for reflection; we think there are easy ways to knowledge and shortcuts to perfection; we are for laws rather than for life.
And this reminds me inevitably of a mellow-spirited old friend who lives not a thousand miles from here—I must not tell his name—whose greatest word is "proportion." At this moment, as I write, I can hear the roll of his resonant old voice on the syllable p-o-r—prop-o-rtion. He is the kind of man good to know and to trust.
If ever I bring him a hard problem, as, indeed, I delight to do, it is a fine thing to see him square himself to meet it. A light comes in his eye, he draws back his chin a little and exclaims occasionally: "Well—well!"
He will have all the facts and circumstances fully mobilized, standing up side by side before him like an awkward squad, and there's nothing more awkward than some facts that have to stand out squarely in daylight! And he inquires into their ancestry, makes them run out their tongues, and pokes them once or twice in the ribs, to make sure that they are lively and robust facts capable of making a good fight for their lives. He never likes to see any one thing too large, as a church, a party, a reform, a new book, or a new fashion, lest he see something else too small; but will have everything, as he says, in true proportion. If he occasionally favours a little that which is old, solid, well-placed, it is scarcely to be measured to him as a fault in an age so overwhelmed with the shiny new.
He is a fine, up-standing, hearty old gentleman with white hair and rosy cheeks, and the bright eyes of one who has lived all his life with temperance. One incident I cannot resist telling, though it has nothing directly to do with this story, but it will let you know what kind of a man my old friend is, and when all is said, it would be a fine thing to know about any man. Not long ago he was afflicted with a serious loss, a loss that would have crushed some men, but when I met him not long afterward, though the lines around his eyes were grown deeper, he greeted me in his old serene, courtly manner, When I would have comforted him with my sympathy, for I felt myself near enough to speak of his loss, he replied calmly:
"How can we know whether a thing is evil until we reach the end of it? It may be good!"
One of the events I esteem among the finest of the whole year is my old friend's birthday party. Every winter, on the twenty-sixth of February, a party of his friends drop in to see him. Some of us go out of habit, drawn by our affection for the old gentleman; others, I think, he invites, for he knows to perfection the delicate shadings of companionship which divide those who come unbidden from those, not less loved but shyer, who must be summoned.
Now this birthday gathering has one historic ceremony which none of us would miss, because it expresses so completely the essence of our friend's generous and tolerant, but just, nature. He is, as I have said, a temperate man, and dislikes as much as any one I know the whole alcohol business; but living in a community where the struggle for temperance has often been waged intemperately, and where there is a lurking belief that cudgelling laws can make men virtuous, he publishes abroad once a year his declaration of independence.
After we have been with our friend for an hour or so, and are well warmed and happy with the occasion, he rises solemnly and goes to the toby-closet at the end of his generous fireplace, where the apple-log specially cut for the occasion is burning merrily, and as we all fall silent, knowing well what is coming, he unlocks the door and takes from the shelf a bottle of old peach brandy which, having uncorked, he gravely smells of and possibly lets his nearest neighbour smell of too. Then he brings from the sideboard a server set with diminutive glasses that have been polished until they shine for the great occasion, and, having filled them all with the ripe liquor, he passes them around to each of us. We have all risen and are becomingly solemn as he now proposes the toast of the year—and it is always the same toast:
"Here's to moderation—in all things!"
He takes a sip or two, and continues:
"Here's to temperance—the queen of the virtues."
So we all drink off our glasses. Our mellow old friend smacks his lips, corks the tall bottle, and returns it to his toby-closet, where it reposes undisturbed for another year.
"And now, gentlemen," he says, heartily, "let us go in to dinner."...
As I think of it, now that it is written, this story bears no very close relationship to my original subject, and yet it seemed to follow naturally enough as I set it down, and to belong with the simple and well-flavoured things of the garden and fields; and recalling the advice of Cobbett to his nephew on the art of writing, "never to alter a thought, for that which has come of itself into your mind is likely to pass into that of another more readily and with more effect than anything which you can by reflection invent," I leave it here just as I wrote it, hoping that the kinship of my genial old friend with simple and natural and temperate things may plainly appear.
PLACES OF RETIREMENT
"Good God, how sweet are all things here! How beautiful the fields appear! How cleanly do we feed and lie! Lord, what good hours do we keep! How quietly we sleep!"
CHARLES COTTON (a friend of Izaak Walton)
I have been spending a Sunday of retirement in the woods. I came out with a strange, deep sense of depression, and though I knew it was myself and not the world that was sad, yet I could not put it away from me. ... As I write, the wood seems full of voices, the little rustling of leaves, the minute sounds of twigs chafing together, the cry of frogs from the swamp so steady and monotonous that it scarcely arrests attention. Of odours, a-plenty! Just behind me, so that by turning my head I can see into their cool green depths, are a number of hemlock trees, the breath of which is incalculably sweet. All the earth the very earth itself has a good rich growing odour, pleasant to smell.
These things have been here a thousand years a million years and yet they are not stale, but are ever fresh, ever serene, ever here to loosen one's crabbed spirit and make one quietly happy. It seems to me I could not live if it were not possible often to come thus alone to the woods.
...On later walking I discover that here and there on warm southern slopes the dog-tooth violet is really in bloom, and worlds of hepatica, both lavender and white, among the brown leaves. One of the notable sights of the hillsides at this time of the year is the striped maple, the long wands rising straight and chaste among thickets of less-striking young birches and chestnuts, and having a bud of a delicate pink—a marvel of minute beauty. A little trailing arbutus I found and renewed my joy with one of the most exquisite odours of all the spring; Solomon's seal thrusting up vivid green cornucopias from the lifeless earth, and often near a root or stone the red partridge berries among their bright leaves. The laurel on the hills is sharply visible, especially when among deciduous trees, and along the old brown roads are patches of fresh wintergreen. In a cleft of the hills near the top of Norwottuck, though the day is warm, I found a huge snowbank—the last held trench of old winter, the last guerilla of the cold, driven to the fastnesses of the hills.... I have enjoyed this day without trying. After the first hour or so of it all the worries dropped away, all the ambitions, all the twisted thoughts—
It is strange how much thrilling joy there is in the discovery of the ages-old miracle of returning life in the woods: each green adventurer, each fragrant joy, each bird-call—and the feel of the soft, warm sunshine upon one's back after months of winter. On any terms life is good. The only woe, the only Great Woe, is the woe of never having been born. Sorrow, yes; failure, yes; weakness, yes the sad loss of dear friends—yes! But oh, the good God: I still live!
Being alone without feeling alone is one of the great experiences of life, and he who practises it has acquired an infinitely valuable possession. People fly to crowds for happinesss not knowing that all the happiness they find there they must take with them. Thus they divert and distract that within them which creates power and joy, until by flying always away from themselves, seeking satisfaction from without rather than from within, they become infinitely boresome to themselves, so that they can scarcely bear a moment of their own society.
But if once a man have a taste of true and happy retirement, though it be but a short hour, or day, now and then, he has found, or is beginning to find, a sure place of refuge, of blessed renewal, toward which in the busiest hours he will find his thoughts wistfully stealing. How stoutly will he meet the buffets of the world if he knows he has such a place of retirement where all is well-ordered and full of beauty, and right counsels prevail, and true things are noted.
As a man grows older, if he cultivate the art of retirement, not indeed as an end in itself, but as a means of developing a richer and freer life, he will find his reward growing surer and greater until in time none of the storms or shocks of life any longer disturbs him. He might in time even reach the height attained by Diogenes, of whom Epictetus said, "It was not possible for any man to approach him, nor had any man the means of laying hold upon him to enslave him. He had everything easily loosed, everything only hanging to him. If you laid hold of his property, he would rather have let it go and be yours than he would have followed you for it; if you laid hold of his leg he would have let go his leg: if all of his body, all his poor body; his intimates, friends, country, just the same. For he knew from whence he had them, and from whom and on what conditions."
The best partners of solitude are books. I like to take a book with me in my pocket, although I find the world so full of interesting things—sights, sounds, odours—that often I never read a word in it. It is like having a valued friend with you, though you walk for miles without saying a word to him or he to you: but if you really know your friend, it is a curious thing how, subconsciously, you are aware of what he is thinking and feeling about this hillside or that distant view. And so it is with books. It is enough to have this writer in your pocket, for the very thought of him and what he would say to these old fields and pleasant trees is ever freshly delightful. And he never interrupts at inconvenient moments, nor intrudes his thoughts upon yours unless you desire it.
I do not want long books and least of all story books in the woods—these are for the library—but rather scraps and extracts and condensations from which thoughts can be plucked like flowers and carried for a while in the buttonhole. So it is that I am fond of all kinds of anthologies. I have one entitled "Traveller's Joy," another, "Songs of Nature," and I have lately found the best one I know called "The Spirit of Man" by Robert Bridges, the English laureate. Other little books that fit well in the pocket on a tramp, because they are truly companionable, are Ben Jonson's "Timber," one of the very best, and William Penn's "Fruits of Solitude." An anthology of Elizabethan verse, given me by a friend, is also a good companion.
It is not a discourse or a narrative we want as we walk abroad, but conversation. Neither do we want people or facts or stories, but a person. So I open one of these little books and read therein the thoughtful remark of a wise companion. This I may reply to, or merely enjoy, as I please. I am in no hurry, as I might be with a living companion, for my book friend, being long dead, is not impatient and gives me time to reply, and is not resentful if I make no reply at all. Submitted to such a test as this few writers, old or new, give continued profit or delight. To be considered in the presence of the great and simple things of nature, or worn long in the warm places of the spirit, a writer must have supreme qualities of sense or humour, a great sensitiveness to beauty, or a genuine love of goodness—but above all he must somehow give us the flavour of personality. He must be a true companion of the spirit.
* * * * *
There is an exercise given to young soldiers which consists in raising the hands slowly above the head, taking in a full breath at the same time, and then letting them down in such a way as to square the shoulders. This leaves the body erect, the head high, the eyes straight ahead, the lungs full of good air. It is the attitude that every man at arms should wish to take, After a day in the woods I feel some such erectness of spirit, a life of the head, and a clearer and calmer vision, for I have raised up my hands to the heavens, and drawn in the odours and sights and sounds of the good earth.
* * * * *
One of the great joys of such times of retirement perhaps the greatest of the joys is the return, freshened and sweetened, to the common life. How good then appear the things of the garden and farm, the house and shop, that weariness had staled; how good the faces of friends.
I live in a country of beautiful hills, and in the last few years, since I have been here with Harriet, I have made familiar and pleasant acquaintance with several of them....
One hill I know is precious to me for a peculiar reason. Upon the side of it, along the town road, are two or three old farms with lilacs like trees about their doorways, and ancient apple orchards with great gnarly branches, and one has an old garden of hollyhocks, larkspurs, zinnias, mignonette, and I know not how many other old-fashioned flowers. Wild grapes there are along the neglected walls, and in a corner of one of them, by a brook, a mass of sweet currant which in blossom time makes all that bit of valley a bower of fragrance, I have gone that way often in spring for the sheer joy of the friendly odours I had across the ancient stone fences.
The largest and stoniest of the farms is owned by an old man named Howieson. A strange, brown-clad, crooked, crabbed old man, I have seen him often creeping across his fields with his horses. An ineffective worker all his life long, he has scarcely made a living from his stony acres. His farm is tipped up behind upon the hill and runs below to the brook, and the buildings are old and worn, and a rocky road goes by to the town. Once, in more prosperous days, before the factories took over the winter work of these hill farms, the busy families finished shoes, and wove cloth, and plaited straw hats—and one I know was famous for wooden bowls craftily hollowed out of maple knots—and the hill people relied upon their stony fields for little more than their food. But in these later days, the farm industries are gone, the houses are no longer overflowing with children, for there is nothing for children to do, and those who remain are old or discouraged. Some homes have entirely disappeared, so that all that remains is a clump of lilacs or a wild tangle of rose bushes about a grass-covered or bush-grown cellar wall. The last thing to disappear is not that which the old farmers most set their hearts upon, their fine houses and barns or their cultivated fields, but the one touch of beauty they left—lilac clump or rose-tangle.
Old Howieson, with that passion for the sense of possession which thrives best when the realities of possession are slipping away, has posted all his fields with warnings against intrusion. You may not enter this old field, nor walk by this brook, nor climb this hill, for all this belongs, in fee simple, to James Howieson!
For a long time I did not meet James Howieson face to face, though I had often seen his signs, and always with a curious sense of the futility of them. I did not need to enter his fields, nor climb his hill, nor walk by his brook, but as the springs passed and the autumns whitened into winter, I came into more and more complete possession of all those fields that he so jealously posted. I looked with strange joy upon his hill, saw April blossom in his orchard, and May colour the wild grape leaves along his walls. June I smelled in the sweet vernal of his hay fields, and from the October of his maples and beeches I gathered rich crops and put up no hostile signs of ownership, paid no taxes, worried over no mortgage, and often marvelled that he should be so poor within his posted domain and I so rich without.
One who loves a hill, or a bit of valley, will experiment long until he finds the best spot to take his joy of it; and this is no more than the farmer himself does when he experiments year after year to find the best acres for his potatoes, his corn, his oats, his hay. Intensive cultivation is as important in these wider fields of the spirit as in any other. If I consider the things that I hear and see and smell, and the thoughts that go with them or grow out of them, as really valuable possessions, contributing to the wealth of life, I cannot see why I should not willingly give to them a tenth or a hundredth part of the energy and thought I give to my potatoes or my blackberries or to the writing I do.
I chose a place in a field just below Old Howieson's farm, where there is a thorn-apple tree to sit or lie under. From the thorn-apple tree, by turning my head in one direction, I can look up at the crown of the hill with its green hood of oaks and maples and chestnuts, and high above it I can see the clouds floating in the deep sky, or, if I turn my head the other way, for I am a kind of monarch there on the hill and command the world to delight me, I can look off across the pleasant valley with its spreading fields and farmsteads set about with trees, and the town slumbering by the riverside. I come often with a little book in one pocket to read from, and a little book in the other to write in, but I rarely use either the one or the other, for there is far too much to see and think about.
From this spot I make excursions round about, and have had many strange and interesting adventures: and now find thoughts of mine, like lichens, upon all the boulders and old walls and oak trees of that hillside. Sometimes I climb to the top of the hill. If I am in a leisurely mood I walk lawfully around Old Howieson's farm by a kind of wood lane that leads to the summit, but often I cross his walls, all regardless of his trespass signs, and go that way to the top.
It was on one of these lawless excursions in Old Howieson's field that I first saw that strange old fellow who is known hereabout as the Herbman. I came upon him so suddenly that I stopped short, curiously startled, as one is startled at finding anything human that seems less than human. He was kneeling there among the low verdure of a shallow valley, and looked like an old gray rock or some prehistoric animal. I stopped to look at him, but he paid no heed, and seemed only to shrink into himself as though, if he kept silent, he might be taken for stock or stone. I addressed him but he made no answer. I went nearer, with a sensation of uncanny wonder; but he did not so much as glance up at me, though he knew I was there. His old brown basket was near him and the cane beside it. He was gathering pennyroyal.
"Another man who is taking an unexpected crop from Old Howieson's acres," I thought to myself.
I watched him for some moments, quite still, as one might watch a turtle or a woodchuck—and left him there.
Since then I have heard something about him, and seen him once or twice. A strange old man, a wanderer upon the face of the fragrant earth. Spring and summer he wears always an old overcoat, and carries a basket with double covers, very much worn and brown with usage. His cane is of hickory with a crooked root for a handle, this also shiny with age. He gathers bitter-bark, tansy; ginseng, calamus, smartweed, and slippery elm, and from along old fences and barnyards, catnip and boneset, I suppose he lives somewhere, a hole in a log, or the limb of a tree, but no one knows where it is, or how he dries or cures his findings. No one knows his name: perhaps he has forgotten it himself. A name is no great matter anyway. He is called simply the Herbman. He drifts into our valley in the spring, is seen here and there on the hills or in the fields, like the crows or the blackbirds, and disappears in the fall with the robins and the maple leaves. Perhaps he is one of those favoured souls to whom life is all spring and summer.
The age has passed him by, and except for certain furtive old women, few care now for his sovereign remedies.
I met him once in the town road, and he stopped humbly without lifting his eyes, and opening his basket let out into the air such a fragrance of ancient simples as I never smelled before. He said nothing at all; but took out dry bundles of catnip, sassafras, slippery elm, to show me. He had also pennyroyal for healing teas, and calamus and bitter-bark for miseries. I selected a choice assortment of his wares to take home to Harriet, but could get him to name no price. He took what I gave without objection and without thanks, and went his way. A true man of the hills.
As I said, I came often to the field below Old Howieson's farm. I think the old man saw me coming and going, for the road winds along the side of the hill within sight of his house, skirts a bit of wood, and with an unexpected turn comes out triumphantly to the top of the ridge beyond.
At the turn of the road I always disappeared, for I crossed the wall into the field below Old Howieson's farm, and mysteriously failed to appear to the watchful eye upon the ridge beyond. What could be more provoking or suspicious! To go in at one end of a well-travelled road and not to come out in the regular and expected way at the other! Or to be suspected of not being deferential toward trespass signs, or observant of closed ways! How disturbing to all those who dwell tremulously within posted enclosures of whatever sort, or those who base their sense of possession upon stumped paper, or take their God from a book. Men have been crucified for less.
Sooner or later those who cross boundaries clash with those who defend boundaries: and those who adventure offend those who seek security; but it was a long time before I came face to face with Old Man Howieson.
This was the way of it: Well back of Howieson's buildings and reaching upward upon the face of the hill stretches a long and narrow field, a kind of barren back pasture with boulders in it, and gnarly hawthorn trees, and a stunted wild apple or so. A stone fence runs down one side of the cleared land and above it rises the hill. It is like a great trough or ravine which upon still spring evenings gathers in all the varied odours of Old Howieson's farm and orchard and brings them down to me as I sit in the field below. I need no book then, nor sight of the distant town, nor song of birds, for I have a singular and incomparable album of the good odours of the hill. This is one reason why I chose this particular spot in the fields for my own, and it has given me a secret name for the place which I will not here disclose. If ever you should come this way in May, my friend, I might take you there of an evening, but could warrant you no joy of it that you yourself could not take. But you need not come here, or go there, but stop where you are at this moment, and I here assure you that if you look up, and look in, you, also, will see something of the glory of the world.
One evening I had been upon the hill to seek again the pattern and dimensions of my tabernacle, and to receive anew the tables of the Jaw. I had crossed Old Howieson's field so often that I had almost forgotten it was not my own. It was indeed mine by the same inalienable right that it belonged to the crows that flew across it, or to the partridges that nested in its coverts, or the woodchucks that lived in its walls, or the squirrels in its chestnut trees. It was mine by the final test of all possession—that I could use it.
He came out of a thicket of hemlocks like a wraith of the past, a gray and crabbed figure, and confronted me there in the wide field. I suppose he thought he had caught me at last. I was not at all startled or even surprised, for as I look back upon it now I know that I had always been expecting him. Indeed, I felt a lift of the spirit, the kind of jauntiness with which one meets a crucial adventure.
He stood there for a moment quite silent, a grim figure of denial, and I facing him.
"You are on my land, sir," he said.
I answered him instantly and in a way wholly unexpected to myself:
"You are breathing my air, sir."
He looked at me dully, but with a curious glint of fear in his eye, fear and anger, too.
"Did you see the sign down there? This land is posted."
"Yes," I said, "I have seen your signs. But let me ask you: If I were not here would you own this land any more than you do now? Would it yield you any better crops?"
It is never the way of those who live in posted enclosures, of whatever sort, to reason. They assert.
"This land is posted," said the old man doggedly.
"Are you sure you own it?" I asked. "Is it really yours?"
"My father owned this farm before me," he said, "and my grandfather cleared this field and built these walls. I was born in that house and have lived there all my life."
"Well, then, I must be going—and I will not come here again," I said. "I am sorry I walked on your land—"
I started to go down the hill, but stopped, and said, as though it were an afterthought:
"I have made some wonderful discoveries upon your land, and that hill there. You don't seem to know how valuable this field is.... Good-bye."
With that I took two or three steps down the hill—but felt the old man's hand on my arm.
"Say, mister," he asked, "are you one of the electric company men? Is that high-tension line comin' across here?"
"No," I said, "it is something more valuable than that!"
I walked onward a few steps, as though I was quite determined to get out of his field, but he followed close behind me.
"It ain't the new trolley line, is it?"
"No," I said, "it isn't the trolley line."
"What is it, then?"
In that question, eager and shrill, spoke the dry soul of the old man, the lifelong hope that his clinging ownership of those barren acres would bring him from the outside some miraculous profit.
His whole bearing had changed. He had ceased to be truculent or even fearful, but was now shrilly beseeching, A great wave of compassion came over me, I was sorry for him, imprisoned there within the walls of his own making, and expecting wealth from the outside when there was wealth in plenty within and everywhere about him.
But how could I help him? You can give no valuable thing to any man who has not the vision to take it. If I had told him what I found upon his hill or in his fields he would have thought me—well, crazy; or he would have suspected that under cover of such a quest I hid some evil design. As well talk adventure to an old party man, or growth to a set churchman.
So I left him there within his walls. So often when we think we are barring other people out, we are only barring ourselves in. The last I saw of him as I turned into the road was a gray and crabbed figure standing alone, looking after me, and not far off his own sign:
Sometime, I thought, this old farm will be owned by a man who is also capable of possessing it. More than one such place I know already has been taken by those who value the beauty of the hills and the old walls, and the boulder-strewn fields. One I know is really possessed by a man who long ago had a vision of sheep feeding on fields too infertile to produce profitable crops, and many others have been taken by men who saw forests growing where forests ought to grow. For real possession is not a thing of inheritance or of documents, but of the spirit; and passes by vision and imagination. Sometimes, indeed, the trespass signs stand long—so long that we grow impatient—but nature is in no hurry. Nature waits, and presently the trespass signs rot away, one arm falls off, and lo! where the adventurer found only denial before he is now invited to—"pass." The old walls are conquered by the wild cherries and purple ivy and blackberry bushes, and the old Howiesons sleep in calm forgetfulness of their rights upon the hills they thought they possessed, and all that is left is a touch of beauty—lilac clump and wild-rose tangle.
LOOK AT THE WORLD!
"Give me to struggle with weather and wind; Give me to stride through the snow; Give me the feel of the chill on my cheeks, And the glow and the glory within!"
The joy of winter: the downright joy of winter! I tramped to-day through miles of open, snow-clad country. I slipped in the ruts of the roads or ploughed through the drifts in the fields with such a sense of adventure as I cannot describe.
Day before yesterday we had a heavy north wind with stinging gusts of snow. Yesterday fell bright and cold with snow lying fine and crumbly like sugar. To the east of the house where I shovelled a path the heaps are nearly as high as my shoulder....
This perfect morning a faint purplish haze is upon all the hills, with bright sunshine and still, cold air through which the chimney smoke rises straight upward. Hungry crows flap across the fields, or with unaccustomed daring settle close in upon the manure heaps around the barns. All the hillsides glisten and sparkle like cloth of gold, each glass knob on the telephone poles is like a resplendent jewel, and the long morning shadows of the trees lie blue upon the snow. Horses' feet crunch upon the road as the early farmers go by with milk for the creamery—the frosty breath of each driver fluttering aside like a white scarf. Through the still air ordinary voices cut sharply and clearly, and a laugh bounds out across the open country with a kind of superabundance of joy. I see two men beating their arms as they follow their wood sled. They are bantering one another noisily. I see a man shovelling snow from his barn doors; as each shovelful rises and scatters, the sun catches it for an instant and it falls, a silvery shower. ... I tramped to-day through miles of it: and whether in broken roads or spotless fields, had great joy of it. It was good to stride through opposing drifts and to catch the tingling air upon one's face. The spring is beautiful indeed, and one is happy at autumn, but of all the year no other mornings set the blood to racing like these; none gives a greater sense of youth, strength, or of the general goodness of the earth.
Give me the winter: give me the winter! Not all winter, but just winter enough, just what nature sends.
...Dry air in the throat so cold at first as to make one cough; and dry, sharp, tingling air in the nostrils; frost on beard and eyebrows; cheeks red and crusty, so that to wrinkle them hurts: but all the body within aglow with warmth and health. Twice the ordinary ozone in the air, so that one wishes to whistle or sing, and if the fingers grow chill, what are shoulders for but to beat them around!
* * * * *
It is a strange and yet familiar experience how all things present their opposites. Do you enjoy the winter? Your neighbour loathes or fears it. Do you enjoy life? To your friend it is a sorrow and a heaviness. Even to you it is not always alike. Though the world itself is the same to-day as it was yesterday and will be to-morrow—the same snowy fields and polar hills, the same wintry stars, the same infinitely alluring variety of people—yet to-day you, that were a god, have become a grieving child.
Even at moments when we are well pleased with the earth we often have a wistful feeling that we should conceal it lest it hurt those borne down by circumstances too great or too sad for them. What is there to offer one who cannot respond gladly to the beauty of the fields, or opens his heart widely to the beckoning of friends? And we ask ourselves: Have I been tried as this man has? Would I be happy then? Have I been wrung with sorrow, worn down by ill-health, buffeted with injustice as this man has? Would I be happy then?
I saw on my walk to-day an old woman with a crossed shawl upon her breast creeping out painfully to feed her hens. She lives on a small, ill-kept farm I have known for years. She is old and poor and asthmatic, and the cold bites through her with the sharpness of knives. The path to the hen-house is a kind of via dolorosa, a terror of slipperiness and cold. She might avoid it: her son, worthless as he is, might do it for her, but she clings to it as she clings to her life. It is the last reason for staying here! But the white fields and drifted roads are never joyfully met, never desired. She spends half the summer dreading the return of winter from the severities of which she cannot escape.