Here to return to
AN OWL’S HEAD HOLIDAY.
MY trip to Lake Memphremagog was by the way, and was not expected to detain me for more than twenty-four hours; but when I went ashore at the Owl’s Head Mountain-House, and saw what a lodge in the wilderness it was, I said to myself, Go to, this is the place; Mount Mansfield will stand _for another year at least, and I will waste no more of my precious fortnight amid dust and cinders. Here were to be enjoyed many of the comforts of civilization, with something of the wildness and freedom of a camp. Out of one of the windows of my large, well-furnished room I could throw a stone into the trackless forest, where, any time I chose, I could make the most of a laborious half-hour in traveling half a mile. The other two opened upon a piazza, whence the lake was to be seen stretching away northward for ten or fifteen miles, with Mount Orford and his supporting hills in the near background; while I had only to walk the length of the piazza to look round the corner of the house at Owl’s Head itself, at whose base we were. The hotel had less than a dozen guests and no piano, and there was neither carriage-road nor railway within sight or hearing. Yes, this was the place where I would spend the eight days which yet remained to me of idle time.
Of the eight days five were what are called unpleasant; but the unseasonable cold, which drove the stayers in the house to huddle about the fire, struck the mosquitoes with a torpor which made strolling in the woods a double luxury; while the rain was chiefly of the showery sort, such as a rubber coat and old clothes render comparatively harmless. Not that I failed to take a hand with my associates in grumbling about the weather. Table-talk would speedily come to an end in such circumstances if people were forbidden to criticise the order of nature; and it is not for me to boast any peculiar sanctity in this respect. But when all was over, it had to be acknowledged that I, for one, had been kept in-doors very little. In fact, if the whole truth were told, it would probably appear that my fellow boarders, seeing my persistency in disregarding the inclemency of the elements, soon came to look upon me as decidedly odd, though perhaps not absolutely demented. At any rate, I was rather glad than otherwise to think so. In those long days there must often have been a dearth of topics for profitable conversation, no matter how outrageous the weather, and it was a pleasure to believe that this little idiosyncracy of mine might answer to fill here and there a gap. For what generous person does not rejoice to feel that even in his absence he may be doing something for the comfort and well-being of his brothers and sisters? As Seneca said, “Man is born for mutual assistance.”
According to Osgood’s “New England,” the summit of Owl’s Head is 2,743 feet above the level of the lake, and the path to it is a mile and a half and thirty rods in length. It may seem niggardly not to throw off the last petty fraction; and indeed we might well enough let it pass if it were at the beginning of the route, — if the path, that is, were thirty rods and a mile and a half long. But this, it will be observed, is not the case; and it is a fact perfectly well attested, though perhaps not yet scientifically accounted for (many things are known to be true which for the present cannot be mathematically demonstrated), that near the top of a mountain thirty rods are equivalent to a good deal more than four hundred and ninety-five feet. Let the guide-book’s specification stand, therefore, in all its surveyor-like exactness. After making the climb four times in the course of eight days, I am not disposed to abate so much as a jot from the official figures. Rather than do that I would pin my faith to an unprofessional-looking sign-board in the rear of the hotel, on which the legend runs, “Summit of Owl’s Head 2 1/4 miles.” For aught I know, indeed (in such a world as this, uncertainty is a principal mark of intelligence), — for aught I know, both measurements may be correct; which fact, if once it were established, would easily and naturally explain how it came to pass that I myself found the distance so much greater on some days than on others; although, for that matter, which of the two would be actually longer, a path which should rise 2,743 feet in a mile and a half, or one that should cover two miles and a quarter in reaching the same elevation, is a question to which different pedestrians would likely enough return contradictory answers.1
Yet let me not be thought to magnify so small a feat as the ascent of Owl’s Head, a mountain which the ladies of the Appalachian Club may be presumed to look upon as hardly better than a hillock. The guide-book’s “thirty rods” have betrayed me into saying more than I intended. It would have been enough had I mentioned that the way is in many places steep, while at the time of my visit the constant rains kept it in a muddy, treacherous condition. I remember still the undignified and uncomfortable celerity with which, on one occasion, I took my seat in what was little better than the rocky bed of a brook, such a place as I should by no means have selected for the purpose had I been granted even a single moment for deliberation.
“Hills draw like heaven” (as applied to some of us, it may be feared that this is rather an understatement), and it could not have been more than fifteen minutes after I landed from the Lady of the Lake — “the Old Lady,” as one of the fishermen irreverently called her — before I was on my way to the summit.
I was delighted then, as I was afterwards, whenever I entered the woods, with the extraordinary profusion and variety of the ferns. Among the rest, and one of the most abundant, was the beautiful Cystopteris bulbifera; its long, narrow, pale green, delicately cut, Dicksonia-like fronds bending toward the ground at the tip, as if about to take root for a new start, in the walking-fern’s manner. Some of these could not have been less than four feet in length (including the stipe), and I picked one which measured about two feet and a half, and bore twenty-five bulblets underneath. Half a mile from the start, or thereabouts, the path skirts what I should call the fernery; a circular space, perhaps one hundred and fifty feet in diameter, set in the midst of the primeval forest, but itself containing no tree or shrub of any sort, — nothing but one dense mass of ferns. In the centre was a patch of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), while around this, and filling nearly the entire circle, was a magnificent thicket of the ostrich fern (Onoclea struthiopteris), with sensibilis growing hidden and scattered underneath. About the edge were various other species, notably Aspidium Goldianum, which I here found for the first time, and Aspidium aculeatum, var. Braunii. All in all, it was a curious and pretty sight, —this tiny tarn filled with ferns instead of water, — one worth going a good distance to see, and sure to attract the notice of the least observant traveler.2
Ferns are mostly of a gregarious habit. Here at Owl’s Head, for instance, might be seen in one place a rock thickly matted with the common polypody; in another a patch of the maiden-hair; in still another a plenty of the Christmas fern, or a smaller group of one of the beech ferns (Phegopteris polypodioides or Phegopteris Dryopteris). Our grape-ferns or moonworts, on the other hand, covet more elbow-room. The largest species (Botrychium Virginianum), although never growing in anything like a bed or tuft, was nevertheless common throughout the woods; you could gather a handful almost anywhere; but I found only one plant of Botrychium lanceolatum, and only two of Botrychium matricariæfolium (and these a long distance apart), even though, on account of their rarity and because I had never before seen the latter, I spent considerable time, first and last, in hunting for them. What can these diminutive hermits have ever done or suffered, that they should choose thus to live and die, each by itself, in the vast solitude of a mountain forest?
It was already the middle of July, so that I was too late for the better part of the wood flowers. The oxalis (Oxalis acetosella), or wood-sorrel was in bloom, however, carpeting the ground in many places. I plucked a blossom now and then to admire the loveliness of the white cup, with its fine purple lines and golden spots. If each had been painted on purpose for a queen, they could not have been more daintily touched. Yet here they were, opening by the thousand, with no human eye to look upon them. Quite as common (Wordsworth’s expression, “Ground flowers in flocks,” would have suited either) was the alpine enchanter’s night-shade (Circæa alpina); a most frail and delicate thing, though it has little other beauty. Who would ever mistrust, to see it, that it would prove to be connected in any way with the flaunting willow-herb, or fireweed? But such incongruities are not confined to the “vegetable kingdom.” The wood-nettle was growing everywhere; a juicy-looking but coarse weed, resembling our common roadside nettles only in its blossoms. The cattle had found out what I never should have surmised, — having had a taste of its sting, — that it is good for food; there were great patches of it, as likewise of the pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida), which had been browsed over by them. It seemed to me that some of the ferns, the hay-scented for example, ought to have suited them better; but they passed these all by, as far as I could detect. About the edges of the woods, and in favorable positions well up the mountain-side, the flowering raspberry was flourishing; making no display of itself, but offering to any who should choose to turn aside and look at them a few blossoms such as, for beauty and fragrance, are worthy to be, as they really are, cousin to the rose. On one of my rambles I came upon some plants of a strangely slim and prim aspect; nothing but a straight, erect, military-looking, needle-like stalk, bearing a spike of pods at the top, and clasped at the middle by two small stemless leaves. By some occult means (perhaps their growing with Tiarella had something to do with the matter) I felt at once that these must be the mitre-wort (Mitella diphylla). My prophetic soul was not always thus explicit and infallible, however. Other novelties I saw, about which I could make no such happy impromptu guess. And here the manual afforded little assistance; for it has not yet been found practicable to “analyze,” and so to identify plants simply by the stem and foliage, — although I remember to have been told, to be sure, of a young lady who professed that at her college the instruction in botany was so thorough that it was possible for the student to name any plant in the world from seeing only a single leaf! But her college was not Harvard, and Professor Gray has probably never so much as heard of such an admirable method.
On the whole, it is good to have the curiosity piqued with here and there a vegetable stranger, — its name and even its family relationship a mystery. The leaf is nothing extraordinary, perhaps, yet who knows but that the bloom may be of the rarest beauty? Or the leaf is of a gracious shape and texture, but how shall we tell whether the flower will correspond with it? No; we must do with them as with chance acquaintances of our own kind. The man looks every inch a gentleman; his face alone seems a sufficient guaranty of good-breeding and intelligence; but none the less, — and not forgetting that charity thinketh no evil, — we shall do well to wait till we have heard him talk and seen how he will behave, before we put a final label upon him. Wait for the blossom and the fruit (the blossom is the fruit in its first stage); for the old rule is still the true one, — alike in botany and in morals, — “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
What a world within a world the forest is! Under the trees were the shrubs, — knee-high rock-maples making the ground verdant for acres together, or dwarf thickets of yew, now bearing green acorn-like berries; while below these was a variegated carpet, oxalis and the flower of Linnæus, ferns and club-mosses (the glossy Lycopodium lucidulum was especially plentiful), to say nothing of the true mosses and the lichens.
Of all these things I should have seen more, no doubt, had not my head been so much of the time in the tree-tops. For yonder were the birds; and how could I be expected to notice what lay at my feet, while I was watching intently for a glimpse of the warbler that flitted from twig to twig amid the foliage of some beech or maple, the very lowest branch of which, likely enough, was fifty or sixty feet above the ground. It was in this way (so I choose to believe, at any rate) that I walked four or five times directly over the acute-leaved hepatica before I finally discovered it, notwithstanding it was one of the plants for which I had all the while been on the lookout.
I said that the birds were in the tree-tops; but of course there were exceptions. Here and there was a thrush, feeding on the ground; or an oven-bird might be seen picking his devious way through the underwoods, in paths of his own, and with a gait of studied and “sanctimonious” originality. In the list of the lowly must be put the winter wrens also; one need never look skyward for them. For a minute or two during my first ascent of Owl’s Head I had lively hopes of finding one of their nests. Two or three of the birds were scolding earnestly right about my feet, as it were, and their cries redoubled, or so I imagined, when I approached a certain large, moss-grown stump. This I looked over carefully on all sides, putting my fingers into every possible hole and crevice, till it became evident that nothing was to be gained by further search. (What a long chapter we could write, any of us who are ornithologists, about the nests we did not find!) It dawned upon me a little later that I had been fooled; that it was not the nest which had been in question at all. That, wherever it was, had been forsaken some days before; and the birds were parents and young, the former distracting my attention by their outcries, while at the same moment they were ordering the youngsters to make off as quickly as possible, lest yonder hungry fiend should catch and devour them. If wrens ever laugh, this pair must have done so that evening, as they recalled to each other my eager fumbling of that innocent old stump. This opinion as to the meaning of their conduct was confirmed in the course of a few days, when I came upon another similar group. These were at first quite unaware of my presence; and a very pretty family picture they made, in their snuggery of overthrown trees, the father breaking out into a song once in a while, or helping his mate to feed the young, who were already able to pick up a good part of their own living. Before long, however, one of the pair caught sight of the intruder, and then all at once the scene changed. The old birds chattered and scolded, bobbing up and down in their own ridiculous manner (although, considered by itself, this gesture is perhaps no more laughable than some which other orators are applauded for making), and soon the place was silent and to all appearance deserted.
Notwithstanding Owl’s Head is in Canada, the birds, as I soon found, were not such as characterize the “Canadian Fauna.” Olive-backed thrushes, black-poll warblers, crossbills, pine linnets,’ and Canada jays, all of which I had myself seen in the White Mountains, were none of them here; but instead, to my surprise, were wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and wood pewees, — the two latter species in comparative abundance. My first wood thrush was seen for a moment only, and although he had given me a plain sight of his back, I concluded that my eyes must once more have played me false. But within a day or two, when half-way down the mountain path, I heard the well-known strain ringing through the woods. It was unquestionably that, and nothing else, for I sat down upon a convenient log and listened for ten minutes or more, while the singer ran through all those inimitable variations which infallibly distinguish the wood thrush’s song from every other. And afterward, to make assurance doubly sure, I again saw the bird in the best possible position, and at short range. On looking into the subject, indeed, I learned that his being here was nothing wonderful; since, while it is true, as far as the sea-coast is concerned, that he seldom ventures north of Massachusetts, it is none the less down in the books that he does pass the summer in Lower Canada, reaching it, probably, by way of the valley of the St. Lawrence.
A few robins were about the hotel, and I saw a single veery in the woods, but the only members of the thrush family that were present in large numbers were the hermits. These sang everywhere and at all hours. On the summit, even at mid-day, I was invariably serenaded by them. In fact they seemed more abundant there than anywhere else; but they were often to be heard by the lake-side, and in our apple orchard, and once at least one of them sang at some length from a birch-tree within a few feet of the piazza, between it and the bowling alley. As far as I have ever been able to discover, the hermit, for all his name and consequent reputation, is less timorous and more approachable than any other New England representative of his “sub-genus.”
On this trip I settled once more a question which I had already settled several times, — the question, namely, whether the wood thrush or the hermit is the better singer. This time my decision was in favor of the former. How the case would have turned had the conditions been reversed, had there been a hundred of the wood thrushes for one of the hermits, of course I cannot tell. So true is a certain old Latin proverb, that in matters of this sort it is impossible for a man to agree even with himself for any long time together.
The conspicuous birds, noticed by everybody, were a family of hawks. The visitor might have no appreciation of music; he might go up the mountain and down again without minding the thrushes or the wrens, — for there is nothing about the human ear more wonderful than its ability not to hear; but these hawks passed a good part of every day in screaming, and were bound to be attended to by all but the stone-deaf. A native of the region pointed out a ledge, on which, according to his account, they had made their nest for more than thirty years. “We call them mountain hawks,” he said, in answer to an inquiry. The keepers of the hotel, naturally enough, called them eagles; while a young Canadian, who one day overtook me as I neared the summit, and spent an hour there in my company, pronounced them fish-hawks. I asked him, carelessly, how he could be sure of that, and he replied, after a little hesitation, “Why, they are all the time over the lake; and besides, they sometimes dive into the water and come up with a fish.” The last item would have been good evidence, no doubt. My difficulty was that I had never seen them near the lake, and what was more conclusive, their heads were dark-colored, if not really black. A few minutes after this conversation I happened to have my glass upon one of them as he approached the mountain at some distance below us, when my comrade asked, “Looking at that bird?” “Yes,” I answered; on which he continued, in a matter-of-fact tone, “That’s a crow;” plainly thinking that, as I appeared to be slightly inquisitive about such matters, it would be a kindness to tell me a thing or two. I made bold to intimate that the bird had a barred tail, and must, I thought, be one of the hawks. He did not dispute the point; and, in truth, he was a modest and well-mannered young gentleman. I liked him in that he knew both how to converse and how to be silent; without which latter qualification, indeed, not even an angel would be a desirable mountain-top companion. He gave me information about the surrounding country such as I was very glad to get; and in the case of the hawks my advantage over him, if any, was mainly in this, — that my lack of knowledge partook somewhat more fully than his of the nature of Lord Bacon’s “learned ignorance, that knows itself.”
Whatever the birds may have been, “mountain hawks,” “fish-hawks,” or duck-hawks, their aerial evolutions, as seen from the summit, were beautiful beyond description. One day in particular three of them were performing together. For a time they chased each other this way and that at lightning speed, screaming wildly, though whether in sport or anger I could not determine. Then they floated majestically, high above us, while now and then one would set his wings and shoot down, down, till the precipitous side of the mountain hid him from view; only to reappear a minute afterward, soaring again, with no apparent effort, to his former height.
One of these noisy fellows served me an excellent turn. It was the last day of my visit, and I had just taken my farewell look at the enchanting prospect from the summit, when I heard the lisp of a brown creeper. This was the first of his kind that I had seen here, and I stopped immediately to watch him, in hopes he would sing. Creeper-like he tried one tree after another in quick succession, till at last, while he was exploring a dead spruce which had toppled half-way to the ground, a hawk screamed loudly overhead. Instantly the little creature flattened himself against the trunk, spreading his wings to their very utmost and ducking his head until, though I had been all the while eying his motions through a glass at the distance of only a few rods, it was almost impossible to believe that yonder tiny brown fleck upon the bark was really a bird and not a lichen. He remained in this posture for perhaps a minute, only putting up his head two or three times to peer cautiously round. Unless I misjudged him, he did not discriminate between the screech of the hawk and the ank, ank of a nuthatch, which followed it; and this, with an indefinable something in his manner, made me suspect him of being a young bird. Young or old, however, he had learned one lesson well, at all events, one which I hoped would keep him out of the talons of his enemies for long days to come.
It was pleasant to see how cheerfully he resumed work as soon as the alarm was over. This danger was escaped, at any rate; and why should he make himself miserable with worrying about the next? He had the true philosophy. We who pity the birds for their numberless perils are ourselves in no better case. Consumption, fevers, accidents, enemies of every name are continually lying in wait for our destruction. We walk surrounded with them; seeing them not, to be sure, but knowing, all the same, that they are there; yet feeling, too, like the birds, that in some way or other we shall elude them a while longer, and holding at second hand the truth which these humble. creatures practice upon instinctively, — Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Not far from this spot, on a previous occasion, I had very unexpectedly come face to face with another of the creeper’s blood-thirsty persecutors. It happened that a warbler was singing in a lofty birch, and being in doubt about the song (which was a little like the Nashville’s, but longer in each of its two parts and ending with a less confused flourish), I was of course very desirous to see the singer. But to catch sight of a small bird amid thick foliage, fifty feet or more above you, is not an easy matter, as I believe I have already once remarked. So when I grew weary of the attempt, I bethought myself to try the efficacy of an old device, well known to all collectors, and proceeded to imitate, as well as I could, the cries of some bird in distress. My warbler was imperturbable. He had no nest or young to be anxious about, and kept on singing. But pretty soon I was apprised of something in the air, coming toward me, and looking up, beheld a large owl who appeared to be dropping straight upon my head. He saw me in time to avoid such a catastrophe, however, and, describing a graceful curve, alighted on a low branch near by, and stared at me as only an owl can. Then away he went, while at the same instant a jay dashed into the thicket and out again, shouting derisively, “I saw you! I saw you!” Evidently the trick was a good one, and moderately well played; in further confirmation of which the owl hooted twice in response to some peculiarly happy efforts on my part, and then actually came back again for another look. This proved sufficient, and he quickly disappeared; retiring to his leafy covert or hollow tree, to meditate, no doubt, on the strange creature whose unseasonable noises had disturbed his afternoon slumbers. Likely enough he could not readily fall asleep again for wondering how I could possibly find my way through the woods in the darkness of daylight. So difficult is it, we may suppose, for even an owl to put himself in another’s place and see with another’s eyes.
This little episode over, I turned again to the birch-tree, and fortunately the warbler’s throat was of too fiery a color to remain long concealed; though it was at once a pleasure and an annoyance to find myself still unacquainted with at least one song out of the Blackburnian’s repertory. In times past I had carefully attended to his music, and within only a few days, in the White Mountain Notch, I had taken note of two of its variations; but here was still another, which neither began with zillup, zillup, nor ended with zip, zip, — notes which I had come to look upon as the Blackburnian’s sign-vocal. Yet it must have been my fault, not his, that I failed to recognize him; for every bird’s voice has something characteristic about it, just as every human voice has tones and inflections which those who are sufficiently familiar with its owner will infallibly detect. The ear feels them, although words cannot describe them. Articulate speech is but a modern invention, as it were, in comparison with the five senses; and since practice makes perfect, it is natural enough that every one of the five should easily, and as a matter of course, perceive shades of difference so slight that language, in its present rudimentary state, cannot begin to take account of them.
The other warblers at Owl’s Head, as far as they came under my notice, were the black-and-white creeper, the blue yellow-backed warbler, the Nashville, the black-throated green, the black-throated blue, the yellow-rumped, the chestnut-sided, the oven-bird (already spoken of), the small-billed water thrush, the Maryland yellow-throat, the Canadian flycatcher, and the redstart.
The water thrush (I saw only one individual) was by the lake-side, and within a rod or two of the bowling alley. What a strange, composite . creature he is! thrush, warbler, and sandpiper all in one; with such a bare-footed, bare-legged appearance, too, as if he must always be ready to wade; and such a Saint Vitus’s dance! His must be a curious history. In particular, I should like to know the origin of his teetering habit, which seems to put him among the beach birds. Can it be that such frequenters of shallow water are rendered less conspicuous by this wave-like, up-and-down motion, and have actually adopted it as a means of defense, just as they and many more have taken on a color harmonizing with that of their ordinary surroundings?3
The black-throated blue warblers were common, and like most of their tribe were waiting upon offspring just out of the nest. I watched one as he offered his charge a rather large insect. The awkward fledgeling let it fall three times; and still the parent picked it up again, only chirping mildly, as if to say, “Come, come, my beauty, don’t be quite so bungling.” But even in the midst of their family cares, they still found leisure for music; and as they and the black-throated greens were often singing together, I had excellent opportunities to compare the songs of the two species. The voices, while both very peculiar, are at the same time so nearly alike that it was impossible for me on hearing the first note of either strain to tell whose it was. With the voice the similarity ends, however; for the organ does not make the singer, and while the blue seldom attempts more than a harsh, monotonous kree, kree, kree, the green possesses the true lyrical gift, so that few of our birds have a more engaging song than his simple Trees, trees, murmuring trees, or if you choose to understand it so, Sleep, sleep, pretty one, sleep.4
I saw little of the blue yellow-backed warbler, but whenever I took the mountain path I was certain to hear his whimsical upward-running song, broken off at the end with a smart snap. He seemed to have chosen the neighborhood of the fernery for his peculiar haunt, a piece of good taste quite in accord with his general character. Nothing could well be more beautiful than this bird’s plumage; and his nest, which is “globular, with an entrance on one side,” is described as a wonder of elegance; while in grace of movement not even the titmouse can surpass him. Strange that such an exquisite should have so fantastic a song.
I have spoken of the rainy weather. There were times when the piazza was as far out-of-doors as it was expedient to venture. But even then I was not without excellent feathered society. Red-eyed vireos (one pair had their nest within twenty feet of the hotel), chippers, song sparrows, snow birds, robins, waxwings, and phoebes were to be seen almost any moment, while the hermit thrushes, as I have before mentioned, paid us occasional visits. The most familiar of our door-yard friends, however, to my surprise, were the yellow-rumped warblers. Till now I had never found them at home except in the forests of the White Mountains; but here they were, playing the rôle which in Massachusetts we are accustomed to see taken by the summer yellow-birds, and by no others of the family. At first, knowing that this species was said to build in low evergreens, I looked suspiciously at some small spruces which lined the walk to the pier; but after a while I happened to see one of the birds flying into a rock-maple with something in his bill, and following him with my eye, beheld him alight on the edge of his nest. About four feet from the ground,” the book said (the latest book, too); but this lawless pair had chosen a position which could hardly be less than ten times that height, — considerably higher, at all events, than the eaves of the three-story house. It was out of reach in the small topmost branches, but I watched its owners at my leisure, as the maple was not more than two rods from my window. At this time the nestlings were nearly ready to fly, and in the course of a day or two I saw one of them sitting in a tree in the midst of a drenching rain. On my offering to lay hold of him he dropped into the grass, and when I picked him up both parents began to fly about me excitedly, with loud outcries. The male, especially, went nearly frantic, entering the bowling alley where I happened to be, and alighting on the floor; then, taking to the bole of a tree, he fluttered helplessly upon it, spreading his wings and tail, seeming to say as plainly as words could have done, “Look, you monster! here’s another young bird that can’t fly; why don’t you come and catch him?” The acting was admirable, —all save the spreading of the tail; that was a false note, for the youngster in my hand had no tail feathers at all. I put the fellow upon a tree, whence he quickly flew to the ground (he could fly down but not up), and soon both parents were again supplying him with food. The poor thing had not eaten a morsel for possibly ten minutes, a very long fast for a bird of his age. I hoped he would fall into the hands of no worse enemy than myself, but the chances seemed against him. The first few days after quitting the nest must be full of perils for such helpless innocents.
For the credit of my own sex I was pleased to notice that it was the father-bird who manifested the deepest concern and the readiest wit, not to say the greatest courage; but I am obliged in candor to acknowledge that this feature of the case surprised me not a little.
In what language shall I speak of the song of these familiar myrtle warblers, so that my praise may correspond in some degree with the gracious and beautiful simplicity of the strain itself? For music to be heard constantly, right under one’s window, it could scarcely be improved; sweet, brief, and remarkably unobtrusive, without sharpness or emphasis; a trill not altogether unlike the pine-creeping warbler’s, but less matter-of-fact and business-like. I used to listen to it before I rose in the morning, and it was to be heard at intervals all day long. Occasionally it was given in an absent-minded, meditative way, in a kind of half-voice, as if the happy creature had no thought of what he was doing. Then it was at its best, but one needed to be near the singer.
In a clearing back of the hotel, but surrounded by the forest, were always a goodly company of birds, among the rest a family of yellow-bellied woodpeckers; and in a second similar place were white-throated sparrows, Maryland yellow-throats, and chestnut-sided warblers, the last two feeding their young.
Immature warblers are a puzzling set. The birds themselves have no difficulty, I suppose; but seeing young and old together, and noting how unlike they are, I have before now been reminded of Launcelot Gobbo’s saying, “It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
While traversing the woods between these two clearings I saw, as I thought, a chimney swift fly out of the top of a tree which had been broken off at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet. I stopped, and pretty soon the thing was repeated; but even then I was not quick enough to be certain whether the bird really came from the stump or only out of the forest behind it. Accordingly, after sounding the trunk to make sure it was hollow, I sat down in a clump of raspberry bushes, where I should be sufficiently concealed, and awaited further developments. I waited and waited, while the mosquitoes, seeing how sheltered I was from the breeze, gathered about my head in swarms. A winter wren at my elbow struck up to sing, going over and over with his exquisite tune; and a scarlet tanager, also, not far off, did what he could — which was somewhat less than the wren’s — to relieve the tedium of my situation. Finally, when my patience was well-nigh exhausted, — for the afternoon was wearing away and I had some distance to walk, — a swift flew past me from behind, and, with none of that poising over the entrance such as is commonly seen when a swift goes down a chimney, went straight into the trunk. In half a minute or less he reappeared without a sound, and was out of sight in a second. Then I picked up my rubber coat, and with a blessing on the wren and the tanager, and a malediction on the mosquitoes (so unjust does self-interest make us), started homeward.
Conservatives and radicals! Even the swifts, it seems, are divided into these two classes. “Hollow trees were good enough for our fathers; who are we that we should assume to know more than all the generations before us? To change is not of necessity to make progress. Let those who will, take up with smoky chimneys; for our part we prefer the old way.”
Thus far the conservatives; but now comes the party of modern ideas. “All that is very well,” say they. “Our ancestors were worthy folk enough; they did the best they could in their time. But the world moves, and wise birds will move with it. Why should we make a fetish out of some dead forefather’s example? We are alive now. To refuse to take advantage of increased light and improved conditions may look like filial piety in the eyes of some: to us such conduct appears nothing better than a distrust of the Divine Providence, a subtle form of atheism. What are chimneys for, pray? And as for soot and smoke, we were made to live in them. Otherwise, let some of our opponents be kind enough to explain why we were created with black feathers.”
So, in brief, the discussion runs; with the usual result, no doubt, that each side convinces itself.
We may assume, however, that these old-school and new-school swifts do not carry their disagreement so far as actually to refuse to hold fellowship with one another. Conscience is but imperfectly developed in birds, as yet, and they can hardly feel each other’s sins and errors of belief (if indeed these things be two, and not one) quite so keenly as men are accustomed to do.
After all, it is something to be grateful for, this diversity of habit. We could not spare the swifts from our villages, and it would be too bad to lose them out of ‘the Northern forests. May they live and thrive, both parties of them.
1 The guide-book allows two hours for the mile and a half on Owl’s Head, while it gives only an hour and a half for the three miles up Mount Clinton — from the Crawford House.
2 To bear out what has been said in the text concerning the abundance of ferns at Owl’s Head, I subjoin a list of the species observed; premising that the first interest of my trip was not botanical, and that I explored but a very small section of the woods: —
3 This bird (Siurus nævius) is remarkable for the promptness with which he sets out on his autumnal journey, appearing in Eastern Massachusetts early in August. Last year (1884) one was in my door-yard on the morning of the 7th. I heard his loud chip, and looking out of the window, saw him first on the ground and then in an ash-tree near a crowd of house sparrows. The latter were scolding at him with their usual cordiality, while he, on his part, seemed under some kind of fascination, returning again and again to walk as closely as he dared about the blustering crew. His curiosity was laughable. Evidently he thought, considering what an ado the sparrows were making, that something serious must be going on, something worth any bird’s while to turn aside for a moment to look into. The innocent recluse! if he had lived where I do he would have grown used to such “windy congresses.”
4 After all that has been said about the “pathetic fallacy,” so called, it remains true that Nature speaks to us according to our mood. With all her “various language” she “cannot talk and find ears too.” And so it happens that some, listening to the black-throated green warbler, have brought back a report of “Cheese, cheese, a little more cheese.” Prosaic and hungry souls! This voice out of the pine-trees was not for them. They have caught the rhythm but missed the poetry.