Here to return to
A NOOK IN THE ALLEGHANIES
I LEFT Boston at nine o’clock on the morning of April 23, and reached Pulaski, in southwestern Virginia, at ten o’clock the next forenoon, exactly on schedule time, — or within five minutes of it, to give the railroad no more than its due. It was a journey to meet the spring, — which for a Massachusetts man is always a month tardy, — and as such it was speedily rewarded. Even in Connecticut there were vernal signs, a dash of greenness here and there in the meadows, and generous sproutings of skunk cabbage about the edges of the swamps; and once out of Jersey City we were almost in a green world. At Bound Brook, I think it was, the train stopped where a Norway maple opposite my window stood all in a yellow mist of blossoms, and chimney swifts were shooting hither and thither athwart the bright afternoon sky. By the time Philadelphia was reached, or by the time we were done with running in and out of its several stations, the night had commenced falling, and I saw nothing more of the world, with all that famous valley of the Shenandoah, till I left my berth at Roanoke. There the orchards — apple-trees and peach-trees together — were in full bloom, and on the slopes of the hills, as we pushed in among them, rounding curve after curve, shone gorgeous red patches of the Judas-tree, with sprinklings of columbines, violets, marsh-marigolds, and dandelions, and splashes of deep orange-yellow, — clusters of some flower then unknown to me, but pretty certainly the Indian puccoon; not the daintiest of blossoms, perhaps, but among the most effective under such fugitive, arm’s-length conditions. A plaguing kind of pleasure it is to ride past such things at a speed which makes a good look at then impossible, as once, for the better part of a long forenoon, in the flatwoods of Florida and southern Georgia, I rode through swampy places bright with splendid pitcher-plants, of a species I had never seen and knew nothing about; straining my eyes to make out the yellow blossoms, deploring the speed of the train, — which, nevertheless, brought me into Macon several hours after I should have been in Atlanta, — wishing for my Chapman’s Flora (packed away in my trunk, of course), and bewailing the certainty that I was losing the only opportunity I should ever have to see so interesting a novelty. And still, — I can say it now, — half a look is better than no vision.
For fifty miles beyond Roanoke we traveled southward; but an ascent of a thousand feet offset, and more than offset, the change of latitude, so that at Pulaski we found the apple-trees not yet in flower, but showing the pink of the buds. The venerable, pleasingly unsymmetrical sugar maples in the yard of the inn (the reputed, and real, comforts of which had drawn me to this particular spot) were hung full of pale yellow tassels, and vocal with honey-bees. Spring was here, and I felt myself welcome.
Till luncheon should be ready, I strayed into the border of the wood behind the town, and, wandering quite at a venture, came by good luck upon a path which followed the tortuous, deeply worn bed of a brook through a narrow pass between steep, sparsely wooded, rocky hills. Along the bank grew plenty of the common rhododendron, now in early bud, and on either side of the path were trailing arbutus and other early flowers. Yes, I had found the spring, not summer. And the birds bore the same testimony: thrashers, chippers, field sparrows, black-and-white creepers, and a Carolina chickadee. Summer birds, like summer flowers, were yet to come. A brief song, repeated at intervals from the ragged, half-cleared hillside near a house, as I returned to the village, puzzled me agreeably. It should be the voice of a Bewick’s wren, I thought, but the notes seemed not to tally exactly with my recollections of a year ago, on Missionary Ridge. However, I made only a half-hearted attempt to decide the point. There would be time enough for such investigations by and by. Meanwhile, it would be a poor beginning to take a first walk in a new country without bringing back at least one uncertainty for expectation to feed upon. It is always part of to-day’s wisdom to leave something for to-morrow’s search. So I seem to remember reasoning with myself; but perhaps a thought of the noonday luncheon had something to do with my temporizing mood.
In any case no harm came of it. The singer was at home for the season, and the very next morning I went up the hill and made sure of him: a Bewick’s wren, as I had guessed. I heard him there on sundry occasions afterward. Sometimes he sang one tune, sometimes another. The song heard on the first day, and most frequently, perhaps, at other times, consisted of a prolonged indrawn whistle, followed by a trill or jumble of notes (not many birds trill, I suppose, in the technical sense of that word), as if the fellow had picked up his music from two masters, — a Bachman finch and a song sparrow. It soon transpired, greatly to my satisfaction, that this was one of the characteristic songsters of the town. One bird sang daily not far from my window (the first time I heard him I ran out in haste, looking for some new sparrow, and only came to my senses when halfway across the lawn), and I never walked far in the town (the city, I ought in civility to say) without passing at least two or three. Sometimes as many as that would be within hearing at once. They preferred the town to the woods and fields, it was evident, and for a singing-perch chose indifferently a fence picket, the roof of a hen-coop, a chimney-top, or the ridgepole of one of the churches, — which latter, by the bye, were most unchristianly numerous. The people are to be congratulated upon having so jolly and pretty a singer playing hide-and-seek — the wren’s game always — in their house-yards and caroling under their windows. As a musician he far outshines the more widely known house wren, though that bird, too, is excellent company, with his pert ways, at once furtive and familiar, and his merry gurgle of a tune. If he would only come back to our sparrow-cursed Massachusetts gardens and orchards, as I still hope he will some time do, I for one would never twit him upon his inferiority to his Bewickian cousin or to anybody else.
The city itself would have repaid study, if only for its unlikeness to cities in general. It had not “descended out of heaven,” so much was plain, though this is not what I mean by its unlikeness to other places; neither did it seem to have grown up after the old-fashioned method, a “slow result of time,” — first a hamlet, then a village, then a town, and last of all a city. On the contrary, it bore all the marks of something built to order; in the strictest sense, a city made with hands. And so, in fact, it is; one of the more fortunate survivals of what the people of southwestern Virginia are accustomed to speak of significantly as “the boom,” — a grand attempt, now a thing of the past, but still bitterly remembered, to make everybody rich by a concerted and enthusiastic multiplication of nothing by nothing.
Such a community, I repeat, would have been an interesting and very proper study; “but I had not come southward in a studious mood. I meant to be idle, having a gift in that direction which I am seldom able to cultivate as it deserves. It is one of the best of gifts. I could never fall in with what the poet Gray says of it in one of his letters. “Take my word and experience upon it,” he writes, “doing nothing is a most amusing business, and yet neither something nor nothing gives me any pleasure.” He begins bravely, although the trivial word “amusing” wakens a distrust of his sincerity; but what a pitiful conclusion! How quickly the boom collapses! It is to be said for him, however, that he was only twenty years old at the time, and a relish for sentiment and reverie — that is to say, for the pleasures of idleness — is apt to be little developed at that immature age. I had passed that point by some years; I was sure I could enjoy a week of dreaming; and, unlike Bewick’s wren, I took to the woods.
To that end I returned again and again to the brookside path, on which I had so fortunately stumbled. A man on my errand could have asked nothing better, unless, perchance, there had been a mile or two more of it. Following it past two or three tumble-down cabins, the stroller was at once out of the world; a single bend in the course of the brook, and the hills closed in behind him, and the town might have been a thousand miles away. Life itself is such a path as this, I reflected. The forest shuts behind us, and is open only at our feet, with here and there a flower or a butterfly or a strain of music to take up our thoughts, as we travel on toward the clearing at the end. For the first day or two the deciduous woods still showed no signs of leafage, but tall, tree-like shadbushes were in flower, — fair brides, veiled as no princess ever was, — and a solitary red maple stood blushing at its own premature fruitfulness. Here a man walked between acres of hepatica and trailing arbutus, — the brook dividing them, — while the path was strewn with violets, anemones, buttercups, bloodroot, and houstonia. In one place was a patch of some new yellow flowers, like five - fingers, but more upright, and growing on bracted stapes; barren strawberries (Waldsteinia) Dr. Gray told me they were called, and one more Latin name had blossomed into a picture. A manual of botany, annotated with place-names and dates, gets after a time to be truly excellent reading, a refreshment to the soul, in winter especially, as name after name calls up the living plant and all the wild beauty that goes with it. And with the thought of the barren strawberry I can see, what I had all but forgotten, though it was one of the first things I noticed, the sloping ground covered with large, round, shiny, purplish-green (evergreen) leaves, all exquisitely crinkled and toothed. With nothing but the leaves to depend upon, I could only conjecture the plant to be galax, a name which caught my eye by the sheerest accident, as I turned the pages of the Manual looking for something else; but the conjecture turned out to be a sound one, as the sagacious reader will have already inferred from the fact of its mention.
In such a place there was no taking many steps without a halt. My gait was rather a progressive standing still than an actual progress; so that it mattered little whither or how far the path might carry me. I was not going somewhere, — I was already there; or rather, I was both at once. Every stroller will know what I mean. Fruition and expectation were on my tongue together; to risk an unscriptural paradox, what I saw I yet hoped for. The brook, tumbling noisily downward, — in some places over almost regular flights of stone steps, — now in broad sunshine, now in the shade of pines and hemlocks and rhododendrons, was of itself a cheerful companionship, its inarticulate speech chiming in well with thoughts that were not so much thoughts as dumb sensations.
Here and there my footsteps disturbed a tiny blue butterfly, a bumblebee, or an emerald beetle, — lovers of the sun all of them, and therefore haunters of the path. Once a grouse sprang up just before me, and at another time I stopped to gain sight of a winter wren, whose querulous little song-sparrow - like note betrayed his presence under the overhanging sod of the bank, where he dodged in and out, pausing between whiles upon a projecting root, to emphasize his displeasure by nervous gesticulatory bobbings. He meant I should know what he thought of me; and I would gladly have returned the compliment, but saw no way of doing so. It is a fault in the constitution of the world that we receive so much pleasure from innocent wild creatures, and can never thank them in return. Black-and-white creepers were singing at short intervals, and several pairs of hooded warblers seemed already to have made themselves at home among the rhododendron bushes. Just a year before I had taken my fill of their music on Walden’s Ridge, in Tennessee. Then it became almost an old story; now, if the truth must be told, I mistook the voice for a stranger’s. It was much better than I remembered it; fuller, sweeter, less wiry. Perhaps the birds sang better here in Virginia, I tried to think; but that comfortable explanation had nothing else in its favor. It was more probable, I was bound to conclude, that the superior quality of the Kentucky warbler’s music, which was all the time in my ears on Walden’s Ridge, had put me unjustly out of conceit with the performance of its less taking neighbor. At all events, I now voted the latter a singer of decided merit, and was ready to unsay pretty much all that I had formerly said against it. I went so far, indeed, as to grow sarcastic at my own expense, for in my field memoranda I find this entry: “The hooded warbler’s song is very little like the redstart’s, in spite of what Torrey has written.” Verily the pencil is mightier than the pen, and a note in the field is worth two in the study. Yet that, after all, is an unfair way of putting the matter, since the Tennessee note also was made in the field. Let one note correct the other; or, better still, let each stand for whatever of truth it expresses. Happily, there is no final judgment on such themes. One thing I remarked with equal surprise and pleasure: the song reminded me again and again of the singing of Swainson’s thrush; not by any resemblance between the two voices, it need hardly be said, but by a similarity in form. Oven-birds were here, speaking their pieces in earnest schoolroom fashion; a few chippering snowbirds excited my curiosity (common Junco hyemalis, for aught I could discover, but I profess no certainty on so nice a point); and here and there a flock of migrating white-throated sparrows bestirred themselves lazily, as I brushed too near their browsing-places.
So I dallied along, accompanied by a staid, good-natured, woodchuck-loving collie (he had joined me on the hotel piazza, with a friendly look in his face, as much as to say, “The top of the morning to you, stranger. If you are out for a walk, I’m your dog”), till presently I came to a clearing. Here the path all at once disappeared, and I made no serious effort to pick it up again. Why should I go farther? I could never be farther from the world, nor was I likely to find anywhere a more inviting spot; and so, climbing the stony hillside, over beds of trailing arbutus bloom and past bunches of birdfoot violets, I sat down in the sun, on a cushion of long, dry grass.
The gentlest of zephyrs was stirring, the very breath of spring, soft and of a delicious temperature. My New England cheeks, winter-crusted and still half benumbed, felt it only in intermittent puffs, but the pine leaves, more sensitive, kept up a continuous murmur. Close about me — close enough, but not too close — stood the hills. At my back, filling the horizon in that direction, stretched an unbroken ridge, some hundreds of feet loftier than my own position, and several miles in length, up the almost perpendicular slope of which, a very rampart for steepness, ranks of evergreen trees were pushing in narrow file. Elsewhere the land rose in separate elevations; some of them, pale with distance, showing through a gap, or peeping over the shoulder of a less remote neighbor. Nothing else was in sight; and there I sat alone, under the blue sky, — alone, yet with no lack of unobtrusive society.
At brief intervals a field sparrow somewhere down the hillside gave out a sweet and artless strain, clear as running water and soft as the breath of springtime. How gently it caressed the ear! The place and the day had found a voice. Once a grouse drummed, — one of the most restful of all natural sounds, to me at least, drumming” though it be, speaking always of fair weather and woodsy quietness and peace; and once, to my surprise, I heard a clatter of crossbill notes, though I saw nothing of the birds, — restless souls, wanderers up and down the earth, and, after the habit of restless souls in general, gregarious to the last. A buzzard drifted across the sky. Like the swan on still St. Mary’s Lake, he floated double, bird and shadow. A flicker shouted, and a chewink, under the sweet-fern and laurel bushes, stopped his scratching once in a while to address by name a mate or fellow traveler. A Canadian nuthatch, calling softly, hung back downward from a pine cone; and, nearer by, a solitary vireo sat preening his feathers, with sweet soliloquistic chattering, “the very sound of happy thoughts.” I was with him in feeling, though no match for him in the expression of it.
Again and again I took the brookside path, and spent an hour of dreams in this sunny clearing among the hills. Day by day the sun’s heat did its work, melting the snow of the shadbushes and the bloodroot, and bringing out the first scattered flushes of yellowish-green on the lofty tulip-trees, while splashes of lively purple soon made me aware that the ground in some places was as thick with fringed polygala as it was in other places with hepatica and arbutus. No doubt, the fair procession, beauty following beauty, would last the season through. A white violet, new to me (Viola striata), was sprinkled along the path, and on the second day, as I went up the hill to my usual seat, I dropped upon my knees before a perfect vision of loveliness, — a dwarf iris, only two or three inches above the ground, of an exquisite, truly heavenly shade, bluish-purple or violet-blue, standing alone in the midst of the brown last year’s grass. Unless it may have been by the cloudberry on Mount Clinton, I was never so taken captive by a blossom. I worshiped it in silence, — the grass a natural prayer-rug, — feeling all the while as if I were looking upon a flower just created. It would not be found in Gray, I told myself. But it was; and before many days, almost to my sorrow, it grew to be fairly common. Once I happened upon a white specimen, as to which, likewise, the Manual had been before me. New flowers are almost as rare as new thoughts.
It was amid the dead grass and rust-colored stones of this same hillside that I found, also, the velvety, pansy-like variety of the birdfoot violet, here and there a plant surrounded by its relatives of the more every-day sort. This was my first sight of it; but I saw it afterward at Natural Bridge, and again at Afton, from which I infer that it must be rather common in the mountain region of Virginia, notwithstanding Dr. Gray, who, as I now notice, speaks as if Maryland were its southern limit. Indeed, to judge from my hasty experience, Alleghanian Virginia is a thriving-place of the violet family in general. In my very brief visit, I was too busy (or too idle, but my idleness was really of a busy complexion) to give the point as much attention as I now wish I had given to it, else I am sure I could furnish the particulars to bear out my statement. At Pulaski, without any thought of making a list, I remarked abundance of Viola pedata, V. palmata, and V. sagittata, with V. pubescens, V. canna Muhlenbergii, and four forms new to my eyes, — V. pedata bicolor and V. striata, just mentioned, V. hastata and V. pubescens scabriuscula. If to these be added V. Canadensis and V. rostrata, both of them common at Natural Bridge, we have at least a pretty good assortment to be picked up by a transient visitor, whose eyes, moreover, were oftener in the trees than on the ground.
My single white novelty, V. striata, grew in numbers under the maples in the grounds of the inn. The two yellow ones were found farther away, and were the means of more excitement. I had gone down the creek, one afternoon, to the neighborhood of the second furnace (two smelting-furnaces being, as far as a stranger could judge, the main reason of the town’s existence), and thence had taken a side-road that runs among the hills in the direction of Peak Knob, the highest point near Pulaski. A lucky misdirection, or misunderstanding, sent me too far to the right, and there my eye rested suddenly upon a bank covered with strange-looking yellow violets; like pubescens in their manner of growth, but noticeably different in the shape of the leaves, and noticeably not pubescent. A reference to the Manual, on my return to the hotel, showed them to be V. hastata, — “rare;” and that magic word, so inspiriting to all collectors, made it indispensable that I should visit the place again, with a view to additional specimens. The next morning it rained heavily, and the road, true to its Virginian character, was a discouragement to travel, a diabolical misconjunction of slipperiness and supreme adhesiveness; but I had come prepared for such difficulties, and anyhow, in vacation time and in a strange country, there was no staying all day within doors. I had gathered my specimens, of which, happily, there was no lack, and was wandering about under an umbrella among the dripping bushes, seeing what I could see, thinking more of birds than of blossoms, when behold! I stumbled upon a second novelty, still another yellow violet, suggestive neither of V. pubescens nor of anything else that I had ever seen. It went into the box (I could find but two or three plants), and then I felt that it might rain never so hard, the day was saved.
A hurried reference to the Manual brought me no satisfaction, and I dispatched one of the plants forthwith to a friendly authority, for whom a comparison with herbarium specimens would supply any conceivable gaps in his own knowledge. “Here is something not described in Gray’s Manual,” I wrote to him, “unless,” I added (not to be caught napping, if I could help it), “it be V. pubescens scabriuscula.” And I made bold to say further, in my unscientific enthusiasm, that whatever the plant might or might not turn out to be, I did not believe it was properly to be considered as a variety of V. pubescens. In appearance and habit it was too unlike that familiar Massachusetts species. If he could see it growing, I was persuaded he would be of the same opinion, though I was well enough aware of my entire unfitness for meddling with such high questions.
He replied at once, knowing the symptoms of collector’s fever, it is to be presumed, and the value of a prompt treatment. The violet was V. pubescens scabriuscula, he said, — at least, it was the plant so designated by the Manual; but he went on to tell me, for my comfort, that some botanists accepted it as of specific rank, and that my own impression about it would very likely prove to be correct. Since then I have been glad to find this view of the question supported by Messrs. Britton and Brown in their new Illustrated Flora, where the plant is listed as V. scabriuscula. As to all of which it may be subjoined that the less a man knows, the prouder he feels at having made a good guess. It would be too bad if so common an evil as ignorance were not attended by some slight compensations.
These novelties in violets, so interesting to the finder, if to nobody else (though since the time here spoken of he has seen the “rare” hastata growing broadcast, literally by the acre, in the woodlands of southwestern North Carolina), were gathered, as before said, not far from the foot of Peak Knob. From the moment of my arrival in Pulaski I had had my eye upon that eminence, the highest of the hills round about, looking to be, as I was told it was, a thousand feet above the valley level, or some three thousand feet above tide-water. I call it Peak Knob, but that was not the name I first heard for it. On the second afternoon of my stay I had gone through the town and over some shadeless fields beyond, following a crooked, hard-baked, deeply rutted road, till I found myself in a fine piece of old woods, — oaks, tulip-trees (poplars, the Southern people call them), black walnuts, and the like; leafless now, all of them, and silent as the grave, but certain a few days hence to be alive with wings and vocal with spring music. In imagination I was already beholding them populous with chats, indigo-birds, wood pewees, wood thrushes, and warblers (it is one of our ornithological pleasures to make such anticipatory catalogues in unfamiliar places), when my prophetic vision was interrupted by the approach of a cart, in which sat a man driving a pair of oxen by means of a single rope line. He stopped at once on being accosted, and we talked of this and that; the inquisitive traveler asking such questions as came into his head, and the wood-carter answering them one by one in a neighborly, unhurried spirit. Along with the rest of my interrogatories I inquired the name of the high mountain yonder, beyond the valley. That is Peach Knob,” he replied, — or so I understood him. “Peach Knob?” said I. Why is that? Because of the peaches raised there?” “No, they just call it that,” he answered; but he added, as an afterthought, that there were some peach orchards, he believed, on the southern slope. Perhaps he had said “Peak Knob,” and was too polite to correct a stranger’s hardness of hearing. At all events, the mountain appeared to be generally known by that more reasonable-sounding if somewhat tautological appellation.
By whatever name it should be called, I was on my way to scale it when I found the roadside bright with hastate-leaved violets, as before described. My mistaken course, and some ill-considered attempts I made to correct the same by striking across lots, took me so far out of the way, and so much increased the labor of the ascent, that the afternoon was already growing short when I reached the crest of the ridge below the actual peak, or knob; and as my mood was not of the most ambitious, and the clouds had begun threatening rain, I gave over the climb at that point, and sat down on the edge of the ridge, having the wood behind me, to regain my breath and enjoy the landscape.
A little below, on the knolls halfway up the mountain, was a settlement of colored mountaineers, a dozen or so of scattered houses, each surrounded by a garden and orchard patch, — apple-trees, cherry-trees, and a few peach-trees, with currant and gooseberry bushes; a really thrifty-seeming alpine hamlet, with a maze of winding bypaths and half-worn carriage-roads making down from it to the highway below. With or without reason, it struck me as a thing to be surprised at, this colony of blank highlanders.
The distance was all a grand confusion of mountains, one crowding another on the horizon; some nearer, some farther away, with one lofty and massive peak in the northeast lording it over the rest. Close at hand in the valley, at my left, lay the city of Pulaski, with its furnaces, — a mile or two apart, having a stretch of open country between, — its lazy creek, and its multitudinous churches. A Pulaskian would find it hard to miss of heaven, it seemed to me. Everywhere else the foreground was a grassy, pastoral country, broken by occasional patches of leafless woods, and showing here and there a solitary house, — a scene widely unlike that from any Massachusetts mountain of anything near the same altitude. Hereabout (and one reads the same story in traveling over the State) men do not huddle together in towns, and get their bread by making things in factories, but are still mostly tillers of the soil, planters and graziers, with elbow-room and breathing-space. The more cities and villages, the more woods, — such appears to be the law. In Massachusetts there are six or seven times as many inhabitants to the square mile as there are in Virginia; yet Massachusetts seen from its hilltops is all a forest, and Virginia a cleared country.
Rain began falling by the time the valley was reached, on my return, and coming to a store in the vicinity of the lower furnace, — the one store of that suburb, so far as I could discover, — I stepped inside, partly for shelter, partly to see the people at their Saturday shopping. A glance at the walls and the show-cases made it plain that one store was enough. You had only to ask for what you wanted: a shotgun, a revolver, a violin case, a shovel, a plug of tobacco, a pound of sugar, a coffee-pot, a dress pattern, a ribbon, a necktie, a pair of trousers, or what not. The merchant might have written over his door, “Humani nihil alien;” if he had been a city shopkeeper, he might even have called his establishment a department store, and filled the Sunday newspapers with the wonders of it. Then it would have been but a step to the governor’s chair, or possibly to a seat in the national council.
The place was like a beehive; customers of both sexes and both colors going and coming with a ceaseless buzz of gossip and bargaining, while the proprietor and his clerks — two of them smoking cigarettes — bustled to and fro behind the counters, improving the shining hour. One strapping young colored man standing near me inquired for suspenders, and, on having an assortment placed before him, selected without hesitation (it is a good customer who knows his own mind) a brilliant yellow pair embroidered or edged with equally brilliant red. Having bought them, at an outlay of twelve cents, he proceeded to the piazza, where he took off his coat and put them on. That was what he had bought them for. His taste was impressionistic, I thought. He believed in the primary colors. And why quarrel with him?” Dear child of Nature, let them rail,” I was ready to say. It is not Mother Nature, but Dame Fashion, another person altogether, and a most ridiculous old body, who prescribes that masculine humanity shall never consider itself “dressed “except in funereal black and white.
What Nature herself thinks of colors, and what freedom she uses in mixing them, was to be newly impressed upon me this very afternoon, on my walk homeward. In a wet place near the edge of the woods, at some distance from the road, — so sticky after the rain that I was thankful to keep away from it, — I came suddenly upon a truly magnificent display of Virginia lungwort, a flower that I half remembered to have seen at one time and another in gardens, but here growing in a garden of its own, and after a manner to put cultivation to the blush. The homely place, nothing but the muddy border of a pool, was glorified by it; the flowers a vivid blue or bluish-purple, and the buds bright pink. The plants are of a weedy sort, little to my fancy, and the blossoms, taken by themselves, are not to be compared for an instant with such modest woodland beauties as were spoken of a few pages back, trailing arbutus, fringed polygala, and the vernal fleur-de-lis; but the color, seen thus in the mass, and come upon thus unexpectedly, was a memorable piece of splendor. Such pictures, humble as they may seem, and little as they may be regarded at the time, are often among the best rewards of travel. Memory has ways of her own, and treasures what trifles she will.
And with another of her trifles let me be done with this part of my story. There was still the end of the afternoon to spare, and, the rain being over, I skirted the woods, walking and standing still by turns, till all at once out of a thicket just before me came the voice of a bird, — a brown thrasher, I took it to be, — running over his song in the very smallest of undertones; phrase after phrase, each with its natural emphasis and cadence, but all barely audible, though the singer could be only a few feet away. It was wonderful, the beauty of the muted voice and the fluency and perfection of the tune. The music ceased; and then, after a moment, I heard, several times repeated, still only a breath of sound, the mew of a catbird. With that I drew a step or two nearer, and there the bird sat, motionless and demure, as if music and a listener were things equally remote from his consciousness. What was in his thoughts I know not. He may have been tuning up, simply, making sure of his technique, rehearsing upon a dumb keyboard. Possibly, as men and women do, he had sung without knowing it, -- dreaming of a last year’s mate or of summer days coming, — or out of mere comfortable vacancy of mind. Catbirds are not among my dearest favorites; a little too fussy, somewhat too well aware of themselves, I generally think; more than a little too fragmentary in their effusions, beginning and beginning, and never getting under way, like an improviser who cannot find his theme; but this bird in the Alleghanies sang as bewitching a song as my ears ever listened to.
My spring campaign in Virginia was planned in the spirit of the old war-time bulletin, “All quiet on the Potomac; “happiness was to be its end, and idleness its means; and so far, at least, as my stay at Pulaski was concerned, this peaceful design was well carried out. There was nothing there to induce excessive activity: no glorious mountain summit whose daily beckoning must sooner or later be heeded; no long forest roads of the kind that will not let a man’s imagination alone till he has seen the end of them. The town itself is small and compact, so that it was no great jaunt to get away from it, and such woods as especially invited exploration lay close at hand. In short, it was a place where even a walking naturalist found it easy to go slowly, and to spend a due share of every day in sitting still, which latter occupation, so it be engaged in neither upon a piazza nor on a lawn, is one of the best uses of those fullest parts of a busy man’s life, his so-called vacations.
The measure of my indolence may be estimated from the fact that the one really picturesque road in the neighborhood was left undiscovered till nearly the last day of my sojourn. It takes its departure from the village1 within a quarter of a mile of the hotel, and the friendly manager of the house, who seemed himself to have some idea of such pleasures as I was in quest of, commended its charms to me very shortly after my arrival. So I recollected afterward, but for the time I somehow allowed the significance of his words to escape me, else I should, no doubt, have traveled the road again and again. As things were, I spent but a single forenoon upon it, and went only as far as the “height of land.”
The mountain road, as the townspeople call it, runs over the long ridge which fills the horizon east of Pulaski, and down into the valley on the other side. It has its beginning, at least, in a gap similar in all respects to the one, some half a mile to the northward, into which I had so many times followed a footpath, as already fully set forth. The traveler has first to pass half a dozen or more of cabins, where, if he is a stranger, he will probably find himself watched out of sight with flattering unanimity by the curious inmates. In my time, at all events, a solitary foot-passenger seemed to be regarded as nothing short of a phenomenon. What was more agreeable, I met here a little procession of happy-looking black children returning to the town loaded with big branches of flowering apple-trees; a sight which for some reason put me in mind of a child, a tiny thing, — a veritable pickaninny, — whom I had passed, some years before, near Tallahassee, and who pleased me by exclaiming to a companion, as a dove cooed in the distance, “Listen dat mournin’ dove!” I wondered whether such children, living nearer to nature than some of us, might not be peculiarly susceptible to natural sights and sounds.
Before one of the last cabins stood three white children, and as they gazed at me fixedly I wished them “Good-morning;” but they stared and answered nothing. Then, when I had passed, a woman’s sharp voice called from within, “Why don’t you speak when anybody speaks to you? I’d have some manners, if I was you.” And I perceived that if the boys and girls were growing up in rustic diffidence (not the most ill-mannered condition in the world, by any means), it was not for lack of careful maternal instruction.
This gap, like its fellow, had its own brook, which after a time the road left on one side and began climbing the mountain by a steeper and more direct course than the water had followed. Here were more of the rare hastate-leaved violets, and another bunch of the barren strawberry, with hepatica, fringed polygala, mitrewort, bloodroot, and a pretty show of a remarkably large and handsome chickweed, of which I had seen much also in other places, — Stellaria pubera, or great chickweed,” as I made it out.
I was admiring these lowly beauties as I idled along (there was little else to admire just then, the wood being scrubby and the ground lately burned over), when I came to a standstill at the sound of a strange song from the bushy hillside a few paces behind me. The bird, whatever it was, had let me go by, — as birds so often do, — and then had broken out into music. I turned back at once, and made short work of the mystery, — a worm-eating warbler. Thanks to the fire, there was no cover for it, had it desired any. I had seen a bird of the same species a few days previously on the opposite side of the town, — looking like a red-eyed vireo rigged out with a fanciful striped head-dress, — and sixteen years before I had fallen in with a few specimens in the District of Columbia, but this was my first hearing of the song. The queer little creature was picking about the ground, feeding, but every minute or two mounted some low perch, — a few inches seemed to satisfy its ambition, — and delivered itself of a simple, short trill, similar to the pine warbler’s for length and form, but in a guttural voice decidedly unlike the pine warbler’s clear, musical whistle. It was not a very pleasing song, in itself considered, but I was very much pleased to hear it; for let the worldly-minded say what they will, a new bird-song is an event. With a single exception, it was the only new one, I believe, of my Virginia trip.
The worm-eating warbler, it may be worth while to add, is one of the less widely known members of its numerous family; plainness itself in its appearance, save for its showy cap, and very lowly and sedate in its habits. The few that I have ever had sight of, perhaps a dozen in all, have been on the ground or close to it, though one, I remember, was traveling about the lower part of a tree-trunk after the manner of a black-and-white creeper; and all observers, so far as I know, agree in pronouncing the song an exceptionally meagre and dry affair. Ordinarily it has been likened to that of the chipper, but my bird had nothing like the chipper’s gift of continuance.
This worm-eater’s song must count as the best ornithological incident of the forenoon, since nothing else is quite so good as absolute novelty; but I was glad also to see for the first time hereabouts four commoner birds, — the pileated woodpecker, the sapsucker (yellow-bellied woodpecker), the rose-breasted grosbeak, and the black-throated blue warbler. I had undertaken a local list, of course, — a lazier kind of collecting, — and so was thankful for small favors. In the way of putting a shine upon common things the collecting spirit is second only to genius. I was glad to see them, I say; but, to be exact, I saw only three out of the four. The big woodpecker was heard, not seen. And while I stood still, hoping that he would repeat himself, and possibly show himself, I heard a chorus of crossbill notes, — like the cries of barnyard chickens a few weeks old, — and, looking up, descried the authors of them, a flock of ten birds flying across the valley. They were not new, even to my Pulaski notebook, but they gave me, for all that, an exhilarating sensation of unexpectedness. Crossbills are associated in my mind with Massachusetts winters and New Hampshire summers and autumns. On the 30th of April, and in southwestern Virginia, — a long way from New Hampshire to the mind of a creature whose handiest mode of locomotion is by rail, — they seemed out of place and out of season; the more so because, to the best of my knowledge, there were no very high mountains or extensive coniferous forests anywhere in the neighborhood. However, my sensation of surprise, agreeable though it was, and therefore not to be regretted, had, on reflection, no very good reason to give for itself. Crossbills are a kind of gypsies among birds, and one ought not to be astonished, I suppose, at meeting them almost anywhere. Some days after this (May 12), in the national cemetery at Arlington (across the Potomac from Washington), I glanced up into a low spruce-tree in response to the call of an orchard oriole, and there, at work upon the cones, hung a flock of five crossbills, three of them in red plumage. They were feeding, and had no thought of doing anything else. For the half-hour that I stayed by them — some other interesting birds, a true migratory wave, in fact, being near at hand — they remained in that treetop without uttering a syllable; and two hours later, when I came down the same path again, they had moved but two trees away, and were still eating in silence, paying absolutely no heed to me as I walked under them. Many kinds of northward-bound migrants were in the cemetery woods. Perhaps these ravenous crossbills2 were of the party. I took them for stragglers, at any rate, not remembering at the time that birds of their sort are believed to have bred, at least in one instance, within the District of Columbia. Probably they were stragglers, but whether from the forests of the North or from the peaks of the southern Alleghanies is of course a point beyond my ken.
So far as our present knowledge of them goes, crossbills seem in a peculiar sense to be a law unto themselves. In northern New England they are said to lay their eggs in late winter or early spring, when the temperature is liable, or even certain, to run many degrees below zero. Yet, if the notion takes them, a pair will raise a brood in Massachusetts or in Maryland in the middle of May; which strikes me, I am bound to say, as a far more reasonable and Christian-like proceeding. And the same erratic quality pertains to their ordinary, every - day behavior. Even their simplest flight from one hill to another, as I witnessed it here in Virginia, for example, has an air of being all a matter of chance. Now they tack to the right, now to the left, now in close order, now every one for himself; no member of the flock appearing to know just how the course lies, and all hands calling incessantly, as the only means of coming into port together.
When I spoke just now of the worm-eating warbler’s song as almost the only new one heard in Virginia, I ought perhaps to have guarded my words. I meant to say that the worm-eater was almost the only species that I there heard sing for the first time, — a somewhat different matter; for new songs, happily, — songs new to the individual listener, — are by no means so infrequent as the songs of new birds. On the very forenoon of which I am now writing, I heard another strain that was every whit as novel to my ear as the worm-eater’s, — as novel, indeed, as if it had been the work of some bird from the other side of the planet. Again and again it was given out, at tantalizing intervals, and I could not so much as guess at the identity of the singer; partly, it may be, because of the feverish anxiety I was in lest he should get away from me in that endless mountain-side forest. Every repetition I thought would be the last, and the bird gone forever. Finally, as I edged nearer and nearer, half a step at once, with infinite precaution, I caught a glimpse of a chickadee. A chickadee! Could he be doing that? Yes; for I watched him, and saw it done. And these were the notes, or the best that my pencil could make of them: twee, twee, twee (very quick), twitty, twitty, — the first measure in a thin, wire-drawn tone, the second a full, clear whistle. Sometimes the three twees were slurred almost into one. Altogether, the effect was most singular. I had never heard anything in the least resembling it, familiar as I had thought myself for some years with the normal four-syllabled song of Parus carolinensis. For the moment I was half disposed to be angry, — so much excitement, and so absurd an outcome; but on the whole it is very good fun to be fooled in this way by a bird who happens to have invented a tune of his own. Besides, we are all believers in originality, — are we not? — whatever our own practice.
Human travelers were infrequent enough to be little more than a welcome diversion: two young men on horseback; a solitary foot-passenger, who kindly pointed out a trail by which a long elbow in the road could be saved on the descent; and, near the top of the mountain, a four-horse cart, the driver of which was riding one of the wheel-horses. At the summit I chose a seat (not the first one of the jaunt, by any means) and surveyed the valley beyond. It lay directly at my feet, the mountain dropping to it almost at a bound, and the stunted budding trees offered the least possible obstruction to the view. Narrow as the valley was, there was nothing else to be seen in that direction. Immediately behind it dense clouds hung so low that from my altitude there was no looking under them. In one respect it was better so, as sometimes, for the undistracted enjoyment of it, a single painting is better than a gallery.
There was nothing peculiar or striking in the scene, nothing in the slightest degree romantic or extraordinary: a common patch of earth, without so much as the play of sunlight and shadow to set it off; a pretty valley, closely shut in between a mountain and a cloud; a quiet, grassy place, fenced into small farms, the few scattered houses, perhaps half a dozen, each with its cluster of outbuildings and its orchard of blossoming fruit-trees. Here and there cattle were grazing, guinea fowls were calling potrack in tones which not even the magic of distance could render musical, and once the loud baa of a sheep came all the way up the mountain side. If the best reward of climbing be to look afar off, the next best is to look down thus into a tiny valley of a world. In either case, the gazer must take time enough, and be free enough in his spirit, to become a part of what he sees. Then he may hope to carry something of it home with him.
It was soon after quitting the summit, on my return, — for I left the valley a picture (I can see it yet), and turned back by the way I had come, — that I fell in with the grosbeaks before alluded to: a single taciturn female with two handsome males in devoted and tuneful attendance upon her. Happy creature! Among birds, so far as I have ever been able to gather, the gentler and more backward sex have never to wait for admirers. Their only anxiety lies in choosing one rather than another. That, no doubt, must be sometimes a trouble, since, as this imperfect world is constituted, choice includes rejection.
The law is general. Even in the modern pastime which we dignify as the observation of nature “there is no evading it. If we see one thing, we for that reason are blind to another. I had ascended this mountain road at a snail’s pace, never walking many rods together without a halt, — whatever was to be seen, I meant to see it; yet now, on my way down, my eyes fell all at once upon a bank thickly set with plants quite unknown to me. There they stood, in all the charms of novelty, waiting to be discovered: low shrubs, perhaps two feet in height, of a very odd appearance, — not conspicuous, exactly, but decidedly noticeable, — covered with drooping racemes of small chocolate-colored flowers. They were directly upon the roadside. With half an eye, a man would have found it hard work to miss them. “The observation of nature”! Verily it is a great study, and its devotees acquire an amazing sharpness of vision. How many other things, equally strange and interesting, had I left unseen, both going and coming? I ought perhaps to have been surprised and humiliated by such an experience; but I cannot say that either emotion was what could be called poignant. I have been living with myself for a good many years; and besides, as was remarked just now, all our doings are under the universal law of selection and exclusion. On the whole, I am glad of it. Life will relish the longer for our not finding everything at once.
The identity of the shrub was quickly made out, the vivid yellow of the inner bark furnishing a clue which spared me the labor of a formal “analysis.” It was Xanthorrhiza apiifolia, shrub yellow-root, — a name long familiar to my eye from having been read so many times in turning the leaves of the Manual, on one hunt and another. With a new song and a new flowering plant, the mountain road had used me pretty well, after all my neglect of it.
My one new bird at Pulaski — and the only one seen in Virginia — was stumbled upon in a grassy field on the farther border of the town. I had set out to spend an hour or two in a small wood beyond the brickyard, and was cutting the corner of a field by a footpath, still feeling myself in the city, and not yet on the alert, when a bird flew up before me, crossed the street, and dropped on the other side of the wall. Half seen as it was, its appearance suggested nothing in particular; but it seemed not to be an English sparrow, — too common here, as it is getting to be everywhere, — and of course it might be worth attention. It is one capital advantage of being away from home that we take additional encouragement to investigate whatever falls in our way. Before I could get to the wall, however, the bird rose, along with two or three Britishers, and perched before me in a thorn-bush. Then I saw at a glance that it must be a lark sparrow (Chondestes). With those magnificent headstripes it could hardly be anything else. What a prince it looked! — a prince in most ignoble company. It would have held its rank even among white-crowns, of which it made me think not only by its head-markings, but by its general color and — what was perhaps only the same thing — a certain cleanness of aspect. Presently it flew back to the field out of which I had frightened it; and there in the short grass it continued feeding for a long half-hour, while I stood, glass in hand, ogling it, and making penciled notes of its plumage, point by point, for comparison with Dr. Coues’s description after I should return to the inn. I was almost directly under the windows of a house, — of a Sunday afternoon, — but that did not matter. Two or three carriages passed along the street, but I let them go. A new bird is a new bird. And it must be admitted that neither the occupants of the house nor the people in the carriages betrayed the slightest curiosity as to my unconventional behavior. The bird, for its part, minded me little more. It was engrossed with its dinner, and uttered no sound beyond two or three tseeps, in which I could recognize nothing distinctive. Its silence was a disappointment; and since I could not waste the afternoon in watching a bird, no matter how new and handsome, that would do nothing but eat grass seed (or something else), I finally took the road again and passed on. I did not see it afterward, though, under fresh accessions of curiosity, and for the chance of hearing it sing, I went in search of it twice.
From a reference to Dr. Rives’s Catalogue of the Birds of the Virginias, which I had brought with me, I learned, what I thought I knew already, that the lark sparrow, abundantly at home in the interior of North America, is merely an accidental visitor in Virginia. The only records cited by Dr. Rives are those of two specimens, one captured, the other seen, in and near Washington. It seemed like a perversity of fate that I, hardly more than an accidental visitor myself, should be shown a bird which Dr. Rives — the ornithologist of the state, we may fairly call him — had never seen within the state limits. But it was not for me to complain; and for that matter, it is nothing new to say that it takes a green hand to make discoveries. I knew a man, only a few years ago, who, one season, was so uninstructed that he called me out to see a Henslow’s bunting, which proved to be a song sparrow; but the very next year he found a snowbird summering a few miles from Boston (there was no mistake this time), — a thing utterly without precedent. In the same way, I knew of one lad who discovered a brown thrasher wintering in Massachusetts, the only recorded instance; and of another who went to an ornithologist of experience begging him to come into the woods and see a most wonderful many-colored bird, which turned out, to the experienced man’s astonishment, to be nothing less rare than a nonpareil bunting! Providence favors the beginner, or so it seems; and the beginner, on his part, is prepared to be favored, because to him everything is worth looking at.
Dr. Rives’s catalogue helped me to a somewhat lively interest in another bird, one so much an old story to me for many years that of itself its presence or absence here would scarcely have received a second thought. I speak of the blue golden-winged warbler. It is common in Massachusetts, — in that part of it, at least, where I happen to live,— and I have found it abundant in eastern Tennessee. That it should be at home here in southwestern Virginia, so near the Tennessee line and in a country so well adapted to its tastes, would have appeared to me the most natural thing in the world. But when I had noted my first specimens—on this same Sunday afternoon — and was back at the hotel, I took up the catalogue to check the name; and there I found the bird entered as a rare migrant, with only one record of its capture in Virginia proper, and that near Washington. Dr. Rives had never met with it!
This was on the 28th of April. Two days later I noticed one or two more, — probably two, but there was no certainty that I had not run upon the same bird twice; and on the morning of May 1, in a last hurried visit to the woods, I saw two together. All were males in full plumage, and one of the last two was singing. The warbler migration was just coming on, and I could not help believing that with a little time blue golden-wings would grow to be fairly numerous. That, of course, was matter of conjecture. I found no sign of the species at Natural Bridge, which is about a hundred miles from Pulaski in a northeasterly direction. In Massachusetts this beautiful warbler’s distribution is decidedly local, and its commonness is believed to have increased greatly in the last twenty years. Possibly the same may be true in Virginia. Possibly, too, my seeing of five or six specimens, on opposite sides of the city, was nothing but a happy chance, and my inference from it a pure delusion.
I have implied that the warbler migration was approaching its height on the 1st of May. In point of fact, however, the brevity of my visit — and perhaps also its date, neither quite early enough nor quite late enough — rendered it impossible for me to gather much as to the course of this always interesting movement, or even to understand the significance of the little of it that came under my eye. My first day’s walks — very short and altogether at haphazard, and that of the afternoon as good as thrown away — showed but three species of warblers; an anomalous state of things, especially as two of the birds were the oven-bird and the golden warbler, neither of them to be reckoned among the early comers of the family. The next day I saw six other species, including such prompt ones as the pine-creeper and the myrtle bird, and such a comparatively tardy one as the Blackburnian. On the 26th three additional names were listed, — the blue yellow-back, the chestnut-side, and the worm-eater. Not until the fourth day was anything seen or heard of the black-throated green. This fact of itself would establish the worthlessness of any conclusions that might be drawn from the progress of events as I had noted them.
On the 28th, when my first blue golden-wings made their appearance, there were present also in the same place three palm warblers, — my only meeting with them in Virginia, where Dr. Rives marks them “not common.” With them, or in the same small wood, were a group of silent red-eyed vireos, several yellow-throated vireos, also silent, myrtle birds, one or two Blackburnians, one or two chestnut-sides, two or three redstarts, and one oven-bird, with black-and-white creepers, and something like a flock (a rare sight for me) of white-breasted nuthatches, — a typical body of migrants, to which may be added, though less clearly members of the same party, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, white-throated sparrows, Carolina doves, flickers, downy woodpeckers, and brown thrashers.
It is a curious circumstance, universally observed, that warblers, with a few partial exceptions, — blackpolls and myrtle birds especially, — travel thus in mixed companies; so that a flock of twenty birds may be found to contain representatives of six, eight, or ten species. Whatever its explanation, the habit is one to be thankful for from the field student’s point of view. The pleasurable excitement which the semi-annual warbler movement affords him is at least several times greater than it could be if each species made the journey by itself. Every observer must have realized, for example, how comparatively uninteresting the blackpoll migration is, particularly in the autumn. Comparatively uninteresting, I say; for even with the birch-trees swarming with black-polls, each exactly like its fellow, the hope, slight as it may be, of lighting upon a stray baybreast among them may encourage a man to keep up his scrutiny, leveling his glass upon bird after bird, looking for a dash of telltale color along the flanks, till at last he says, “Nothing but blackpolls,” and turns away in search of more stirring adventures.
Students of natural history, like less favored people, should cultivate philosophy; and the primary lesson of philosophy is to make the best of things as they are. If an expected bird fails us, we are not therefore without resources and compensations; we may be interested in the fact of its absence; and so long as we are interested, though it be only in the endurance of privation, life has still something left for us. Herein, in part, lies the value to the traveling student of a local list of the things in his own line. It enables him to keep in view what he is missing, and so to increase the sum of his sensations. One of my surprises at Pulaski (and a surprise is better than nothing, even if it be on the wrong side of the account) was the absence of the phoebe, — “almost everywhere a common summer resident,” says Dr. Rives. Another unexpected thing was the absence of the white-eyed vireo, —also a “common summer resident,” — for which portions of the surrounding country seemed to be admirably suited. I should have thought, too, that Carolina wrens would have been here, — a pair or two, at least. As it was, Bewick seemed to have the field mostly to himself, although a house wren was singing on the morning of May 1, and I have already mentioned a winter wren which was seen on three or four occasions. He, however, may be assumed to have taken his departure northward (or southward) very soon after my final sight of him. Thrashers and catbirds are wrens, I know, — though I doubt whether they know it, — but it has not yet become natural for me to speak of them under that designation. The mockingbird, another big wren, I did not find here, nor had I supposed myself likely to do so. Robins were common, I was glad to see, — one pair were building a nest in the vines of the hotel veranda, — and several pairs of song sparrows appeared to have established themselves along the banks of the creek north of the city. I saw them nowhere else. One need not go much beyond Virginia to find these omnipresent New Englanders endowed with all the attractions of rarity.
Two or three spotted sandpipers about the stony bed of the creek (a dribbling stream at present, though within a month or so it had carried away bridges and set houses adrift), and a few killdeer plovers there and in the dry fields beyond, were the only water birds seen at Pulaski. One of the killdeers gave me a pretty display of what I took to be his antics as a wooer. I was returning over the grassy hills, where on the way out a colored boy’s dog in advance of me had stirred up several killdeers, when suddenly I heard a strange humming noise, — a sort of double-tonguing, I called it to myself, — and very soon recognized in it, as I thought, something of the killdeer’s vocal quality. Sure enough, as I drew near the place I found the fellow in the midst of a real lover’s ecstasy; his tail straight in the air, fully spread (the value of the bright cinnamon-colored rump and tail feathers being at once apparent), and he spinning round like a dervish, almost as if standing on his head (it was a wonder how he did it), all the while emitting that quick throbbing whistle. His mate (that was, or was to be) maintained an air of perfect indifference, — maidenly reserve it might have been called, for aught I know, by a spectator possessed of a charitable imagination, — as female birds generally do in such cases; unless, as often happens, they repel their adorers with beak and claw. I have seen courtships that looked more ridiculous, because more humanlike, — the flicker’s, for example, — but never a crazier one, or one less describable. In the language of the boards, it was a star performance.
The same birds amused me at another time by their senseless conduct in the stony margins of the creek, where they had taken refuge when I pressed them too nearly. There they squatted close among the pebbles, as other plovers do, till it was all but impossible to tell feather from stone, though I had watched the whole proceeding; yet while they stood thus motionless and practically invisible (no cinnamon color in sight, now!), they could not for their lives keep their tongues still, but every little while uttered loud, characteristic cries. Their behavior was a mixture of shrewdness and stupidity such as even human beings would have been hard put to it to surpass.
Swallows were scarce, almost of course. A few pairs of rough-wings were most likely at home in the city or near it, and more than once two or three barn swallows were noticed hawking up and down the creek. There was small prospect of their settling hereabout, from any indications that I could discover. Chimney swifts, happily, were better provided for; pretty good substitutes for swallows, — so good, indeed, that people in general do not know the difference. And even an ornithologist may be glad to confess that the rarity of swallows throughout the Alleghanies is not an unmitigated misfortune, if it be connected in any way with the immunity of the same region from the plague of mosquitoes. It would be difficult to exaggerate the luxury to a dreaming naturalist, used to New England forests, of woods in which he can lounge at his ease, in warm weather, with no mosquito, black fly, or midge — “more formidable than wolves,” as Thoreau says — to disturb his meditations.
By far the most characteristic birds of the city were the Bewick wrens, of whose town-loving habits I have already spoken. Constantly as I heard them, I could never become accustomed to the unwrennish character of their music. Again and again, when the bird happened to be a little way off, so that only the concluding measure of his tune reached me, I caught myself thinking of him as a song sparrow. If I had been in Massachusetts, I should certainly have passed on without a suspicion of the truth.
The tall old rock maples in the hotel yard — decaying at the tops — were occupied by a colony of bronzed grackles, busy and noisy from morning till night; excellent company, as they stalked about the lawn under my windows. In the same trees a gorgeous Baltimore oriole whistled for three or four days, and once I heard there a warbling vireo. Neither oriole nor vireo was detected elsewhere.
Of my seventy-five Pulaski species (April 24–May 1), eighteen were warblers and fifteen belonged to the sparrow-finch family. Six of the seventy-five names were added in a bunch at the very last moment, making me think with lively regret how much more respectable my list would be if I could remain a week or two longer. With my trunk packed and everything ready for my departure, I ran out once more to the border of the woods, at the point where I had first entered them a week before; and there, in the trees and shrubbery along the brookside path, I found myself all at once surrounded by a most interesting bevy of fresh arrivals, among which a hurried investigation disclosed a scarlet tanager, a humming-bird, a house wren, a chat, a wood pewee, and a Louisiana water thrush. The pewee was calling and the house wren singing (an unspeakable convenience when a man has but ten minutes in which to take the census of a thicket full of birds), and the water thrush, as he flew up the stream, keeping just ahead of me among the rhododendrons, stopped every few minutes to sing his prettiest, as if he were overjoyed to be once more at home after a winter’s absence. I did not wonder at his happiness. The spot had been made for him. I was as sorry to leave it, perhaps, as he was glad to get back to it.
And while I followed the water thrush, Bruce, the hotel collie, my true friend of a week, whose frequent companionship on the mountain road and elsewhere has been too much ignored, was having a livelier chase on his own account, — a chase which I found time to enjoy, for the minute that it lasted, in spite of my preoccupation. He had stolen out of the house by a back door, and followed me to the woods without an invitation, — though he might have had one, since, being non-ornithological in his pursuits, he was never in the way, — and now was thrown into a sudden frenzy by the starting up before him of a rabbit. Hearing his bark, I turned about in season to see the two creatures going at lightning speed up the hillside, the rabbit’s “cotton tail” (a fine “mark of direction,” as naturalists say) immediately in front of the collie’s nose. Once the rabbit ran plump into a log, and for an instant was fairly off its legs. I trembled for its safety; but it recovered itself, and in a moment more disappeared from view. Then after a few minutes Bruce came back, panting. It had been a great morning for him as well as for me, — a morning to haunt his after-dinner dreams, and set his legs twitching, for a week to come. I hope he has found many another walking guest and “fellow woodlander” since then, with whom to enjoy the pleasures of the road and the excitement of the chase.
For myself, there was no leisure for sentiment. I posted back to the inn on the run, and only after boarding the train was able to make a minute of the good things which the rim of the forest had shown me.
It was quite as well so. With prudent forethought, my farewell to the brook path and the clearing at the head of it had been taken the afternoon before. Here, again, Fortune smiled upon me. After three days of cloudiness and rain the sun was once more shining, and I took my usual seat on the dry grassy knoll among the rusty boulders for a last look at the world about me, — this peaceful, sequestered nook in the Alleghanies, into which by so happy a chance I had wandered on my first morning in Virginia. (How well I remembered the years when Virginia was anything but an abode of quietness!) The arbutus was still in plentiful bloom, and the dwarf fleur-de-lis also. On my way up the slope I had stopped to admire a close bunch of a dozen blossoms. The same soft breeze was blowing, and the same field sparrow chanting. Yes, and the same buzzard floated overhead and dropped the same moving shadow upon the hillside. Now a prairie warbler sang or a hyla peeped, but mostly the air was silent, except for the murmur of pine needles and the faint rustling of dry oak leaves. And all around me stood the hills, the nearest of them, to-day, blue with haze.
For a while I went farther up the slope, to a spot where I could look through a break in the circle and out upon the world. In one direction were green fields and blossoming apple-trees, and beyond them, of course, a wilderness of mountains. But I returned soon to my lower seat. It was pleasanter there, where I was quite shut in. The ground about me was sprinkled with low azalea bushes, unnoticed a week ago, now brightening with clustered pink buds. What a picture the hill would make a few days hence, and again, later still, when the laurel should come into its glory!
Parting is sweet pain. It must be a mark of inferiority, I suppose, to be fonder of places than of persons, — as cats are inferior to dogs. But then, on a vacation one goes to see places. And right or wrong, so it was. Kindly as the hotel people had treated me, — and none could have been kinder or more efficient, — there was nothing in Pulaski that I left with half so much regret, or have remembered half so often, as this hollow among the hills, wherein a man could look and listen and be quiet, with no thought of anything new or strange, contented for the time with the old thoughts and the old dreams.___________________________
1 Pulaski, or Pulaski City (the place goes by both names, — the second a reminiscence of its “booming" days, I should suppose), is so intermediate in size and appearance that I find myself speaking of it by turns as village, town, and city, with no thought of inconsistency or special inappropriateness.
2 Mr. H. W. Renshaw once told me about a flock that appeared in winter in the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution, so exhausted that they could be picked off the trees like apples.