Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
fern was red on the mountain,
The cloud was low in the sky,
And we knew that the year was failing,
That the wintry time was nigh."
OF all the forms of vegetable life none is so fit to be a type of manhood as the tree. What nobler object in nature than a grand old elm or oak? What a sense of companionship it gives, — almost the air of dignified personality, that commands more than æsthetic admiration, it challenges respect. What a combination of distinct and harmonious qualities in the giant and immovable trunk, the graceful, sweeping branches, and the tender, luxuriant, and refreshing foliage. The stately elm, reigning alone upon the grassy plain, or standing by the dusty highway — how like a venerable patriarch it seems to spread its arms in an umbrageous benediction, inviting one to pause and rest in its cooling shadows, and luring the timid birds to nest and sing in its branches — the best symbol of character that the poet could find in nature when he said, — "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water." What an emblem of stability and vigor, of dignity and grace, as it endures from generation to generation, now haughtily and stiffly defying the blasts of winter, and again, in gracious and responsive mood, gently swaying in the summer breeze. Hardly less criminal than the wanton extinction of animal life is the needless destruction of one of these splendid growths, with its heritage of years and its beneficent mission. And when such a landmark of a century has been laid low by the lightning or the woodman's axe, it excites a feeling akin to that with which we look upon a prostrate and lifeless human form.
How many human moods are symbolized by the trees: the weeping willow, the ambitious poplar, the mournful cypress, the courtly elm, the silent, thoughtful pine, the stern and rugged oak. Of all the trees, the poets seem to find the oak most picturesque and human; distant, grand, defiant, like the eagle among the birds; angular and rigorous, a type of puritanism; its brusque manners in sharp contrast to the suavity of the elm; a Carlylean tree — that sort of being whose friends are few, but of the strongest sort; asking no favors, but not unwilling after its grim fashion to do a kindness. The massive, belligerent character of this tree makes it a favorite theme of many a poet. Who does not recall some counterpart of one described in Spenser's lines: —
"There grew an aged tree on the green,
A goodly Oak sometime had it been,
With arms full strong and largely displayed,
But of their leaves they were disarray'd:
The body big and mightily plight,
Thoroughly rooted and of wondrous height;
Whilom had been the king of the field,
And mochel mast to the husband did yield,
And with his nuts larded many a swine;
But now the gray moss marred his rine,
His bared boughs were beaten with storms,
His top was bald and wasted with worms,
His honour decay'd, his branches sere."
In this storm-beaten oak one sees a type of old King Lear, iron-hearted to challenge all the furious blasts of ill-fortune, until at last rent by the lightnings, and swept away in the bitter floods of filial ingratitude.
The same poet also makes the oak the monarch of its kind in that quaint and descriptive catalogue of trees: —
"The sailing Pine; the Cedar, proud and tall ;
The vine-prop Elm; the Poplar never dry;
The builder Oak, sole king of forests all;
The Aspen, good for staves; the Cypress, funeral;
The Laurel, meed of mighty conquerors
And poets sage; the Fir, that weepeth still;
The Willow, worn of hopeless paramours;
The Yew, obedient to the bender's will;
The Birch, for shafts; the Sallow, for the mill;
The Myrrh, sweet bleeding in the bitter wound;
The warlike Beech; the Ash, for nothing ill;
The fruitful Olive, and the Plantane round;
The carver Holm; the Maple, seldom inward sound."
Each has its individuality, but personality seems most pronounced in the "sole king of forests all," and justifies the phrase, the spirit of the Oak.
When one sees a mighty tree uprooted or cut down, it seems impossible not to feel that suddenly some force has been abstracted from nature--annihilated; but perhaps this is a mistaken notion. Certain natural forces have been proved to be so essentially alike as to be convertible the one into the other, and heat ceases to be heat only to reappear in some other mode of power. If this be true of the inferior forces, it is reasonable to suppose the same holds good of the immensely superior vital force of plants and animals; and if there be no such thing as the extinction of those baser things called matter, heat, or light, we must believe that vitality of whatever sort is in its essence no less inextinguishable.
Of all the warblers, the most abundant and persistent in the spring and fall migrations is the yellow-rump, which I have met occasionally through the month. As before remarked, this is the only warbler that can be occasionally found in the Northern States during the winter. On the 5th, a large flock of bluebirds appeared, as far as I can learn, for the first time this year in the Park, where for some reason they seem to be of rare occurrence even as migrants. They were presumably an excursion party on their way South, stopping only over the Sabbath, for they were gone the next day. During their stay they consorted with the robins, their cousins-in-science.
The approach of the winter season was emphasized on the 9th by the first appearance of the chickadee, the light-hearted winter guest, and a large flock of fox sparrows was found mingled with white-throats on the 18th, and remained through the month, but only once did I hear a snatch of their delicious and half melancholy song. The hermit thrush is silently lurking about the shrubbery — first of all the thrushes to arrive in spring, and now the last to disappear. Now and then a robin or two can be seen flying about, but most of them have gone south, while the few that remain are fast drifting into winter seclusion. The month has also brought a flock of herring-gulls from the north.
My note-book records the singing of the white-throats and song sparrows in the milder days of the month. The annual "harvest-festival" (this year on the 30th) was the occasion of an unusually loud anthem of "thanksgiving" from the song sparrow, as I was walking through the Park — one of those atoms of coincidence that linger long in the memory, like a word fitly spoken. This was the last full burst of song I heard this year; and thus the sparrow closed the season, as he ushered in the spring; reminding one of the dandelion — the flower that gilds both edges of the year.
The dandelion and song sparrow seem to strike hands across the chasm that separates the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Lowly and unpretentious, like its musical analogue, the dandelion is the earliest of all the flowers in spring to appear in every open place; it is summed up in its blossom, like the sparrow in its song; with the same delightful persistence, in its mute, bright way it tells its simple tale through spring, summer, and autumn — a golden thread to bind the months from April to November, until at last it punctuates the long year's inflorescence with a shining period.
The dandelion is witness to the fact how much of truth there is involved, and often unperceived, in common things. How many had ever noticed, until Darwin (I think it was he) called attention to the clear purpose of a peculiarity in this plant — which everyone must wonder he had not noticed for himself — viz., that the short and commonly drooping stem of the blossom becomes much elongated and erect as the seeds ripen, with the evident design of raising its head above the grass or other surrounding vegetation, and affording free exposure to the winds to scatter the feathery seeds? We have all seen millions of these yellow disks — spatters of molten sun-drops — close to the ground, and noted the tall pedestals supporting the subsequent downy spheres, without a thought of any significance in the change. This lowly weed can at least teach us the lesson not to call anything in nature common, in the contemptuous sense.
In spring the ornithologist is ravenous for the sight of bright colors. There is starvation in his eye, that has lived the winter long upon a diet of black and white, gray and brown. How it absorbs the ruddy tinge of the first robin and the delicious hue of the early bluebird, as the thirsty earth drinks water; and when, soon after, the yellow red-poll appeared, never before had yellow seemed so rich. There is a luxuriance in the brilliant tints that comports with the mood of a softer climate, with its foliage, fruits, and flowers. But, after all, black and white are more vigorous, and the eye, after being satiated with summer delicacies, finds equally welcome the plainer fare that comes with the crisp, invigorating weather.
Then, too, it is a pleasure to get back one's winter friends, which are quite as companionable, if not as vocal, as the more talented "guests of summer." Indeed, the greater rarity of the winter birds establishes a peculiar sense of fellowship that one is less likely to feel in summer; while there is that impression of superior virility in the character of the former that compensates for the lack of other charms.
The stream of ornithological pleasure flows more evenly through the whole year than the uninitiated would imagine; for one winter-bird counts for ten in summer, rarity in gratification carries its own compensation of intensity, and — a constant quantity the year round — one always cherishes the exhilarating expectancy of the unexpected.
Variety is not half so essential a spice of life as expectancy. Indeed, from the cradle to the grave anticipation is more than a spice, it is a large part of the very subsistence of life. We all live more in the fairer to-morrow than in to-day, and find more exhilaration in reaching forth for new fruit, than in enjoying the fruit in hand — in casting the fly, than in counting the fish in the basket. One of the best things to be said about immortality is, that it means a future never drawn upon.