Here to return to
THE CLERK OF THE WOODS
A SHORT MONTH
MAY is the shortest month in the year. February is at least twice as long. For a month is like a movement of a symphony; and when we speak of the length of a piece of music we are not thinking of the number of notes in it, but of the time it takes to play them. May is a scherzo, and goes like the wind. Yesterday it was just beginning, and to-day it is almost done. “If we could only hold it back!” an outdoor friend of mine used to say. And I say so, too. At the most generous calculation I cannot have more than a hundred more of such months to hope for, and I wish the Master's baton would not hurry the tempo. But who knows? Perhaps there will be another series of concerts, in a better music hall.
The world hereabout will never be more beautiful than it was eight or ten days ago, with the sugar maples and the Norway maples in bloom and the tall valley willows in young yellow-green leaf. And now forsythia is having its turn. How thick it is! I should not have believed it half so common. Every dooryard is bright with its sunny splendor. “Sunshine bush,” it deserves to be called, with no thought of disrespect for Mr. Forsyth, whoever he may have been. I look at the show while it lasts. In a week or two the bushes will all have gone out of commission, so to speak, till the year comes round again. Shrubs are much in the case of men and women; the amount of attention they receive depends mainly on the dress they happen to have on at the moment. In my next-door neighbor's yard there is a forsythia bush, not exceptionally large or handsome, that gives me as much pleasure as one of those wonderful tulip beds of which the Boston city gardeners make so much account. Are a million tulips, all of one color, crowded tightly together and bordered by a row of other tulips, all of another color, really so much more beautiful than a hundred or two, of various tints, loosely and naturally disposed? I ask the question without answering it, though I could answer it easily enough, so far as my own taste is concerned.
Already there is much to admire in the wild garden. Spice-bush blossoms have come and gone, and now the misty shad-blow is beginning to whiten all the hedges and the borders of the wood, while sassafras trees have put forth pretty clusters of yellowish flowers for the few that will come out to see them. Sun-bright, cold-footed cowslips still hold their color along shaded brooks. “Marsh marigolds,” some critical people tell us we must call them. That is a good name, too; but the flowers are no more marigolds than cowslips, and with or without reason (partly, it may be, because my unregenerate nature resents the “must”), I like the word I was brought up with. Anemones and violets are becoming plentiful, and the first columbines already swing from the clefts Of outcropping ledges. With them one is almost certain to find the saxifrage. The two are fast friends, though very unlike; the columbine drooping and swaying so gracefully, its honey-jars upside down, the saxifrage holding upright its cluster of tiny white cups, like so many wine-glasses on a tray. Both are children's flowers, — an honorable class, — and have in themselves, to my apprehension, a kind of childish innocence and sweetness. If we picked no other blossoms, clown in the Old Colony, we always picked these two — these and the nodding anemone and the pink lady's-slipper.
This showy orchid, by the way, I was pleased a year ago to see in bloom side by side with the trailing arbutus. One was near the end of its flowering season, the other just at the beginning, but there they stood, within a few yards of each other. This was in the Franconia Notch, at the foot of Echo Lake, where plants bloom when they can, rather than according to any calendar known to down-country people; where within the space of a dozen yards you may see the dwarf cornel, for example, in all stages of growth; here, where a snowbank stayed late, just peeping out of the ground, and there, in a sunnier spot, already in full bloom.
In May the birds come home. This is really what makes the month so short. There is no time to see half that is going on. In this town alone it would take a score of good walkers, good lookers, and good listeners to welcome all the pretty creatures that will this month return from their winter's exile. Some came in March, of course, and more in April; but now they are coming in troops. It is great fun to see them; a pleasure inexpressible to wake in the morning, as I did this morning (May 8), and still lying in bed, to hear the first breezy fifing of a Baltimore oriole, just back over night after an eight months' absence. Birds must be lovers of home to continue living in a climate where life is possible to them only four months of the year.
Six days ago (May 2) a rose-breasted grosbeak gladdened the morning in a similar manner, though he was a little farther away, so that I did not hear him until I stepped out upon the piazza. I stood still a minute or two, listening to the sweet “rolling” warble, and then crossed the street to have a look at the rose color. It was just as bright as I remembered it.
Golden warblers (summer yellow-birds) made their appearance on the last day of April. The next morning one had dropped into an ideal summering place, a bit of thicket beside a pond and a lively brook, — good shelter, good bathing, and plenty of insects, — and from the first moment seemed to have no thought of looking farther. I see and hear him every time I pass the spot. The same leafless thicket (but it will be leafy enough by and by) is now inhabited by a catbird. I found him on the 6th, already much at home, feeding, singing, and mewing. Between him and his small, high-colored neighbor there is no sign of rivalry or ill-feeling; but if another catbird or a second warbler should propose settlement in that clump of shrubbery, I have no doubt there would be trouble.
May-day brought me the yellow-throated vireo, the parula warbler, the white-throated sparrow, and the least flycatcher, the last two pretty late, by my reckoning. On the 2d came the warbling vireo, the veery, — a single silent bird, the only one I have yet seen, — the kingbird, the Maryland yellow‑throat, the oven-bird, and the chestnut-sided warbler, in addition to the grosbeak before mentioned. Then followed a spell of cold, unfavorable weather, and nothing more was listed until the 6th. That clay I saw a Nashville warbler, — several days tardy, — a catbird, and a Swainson thrush. On May 7, I heard my first prairie warbler, and today has brought the oriole, the wood thrush, one silent red-eyed vireo (it is good to know that this voluble “preacher” can be silent), and the redstart. It never happened to me before, I think, to see the Swainson thrush earlier than the wood. That I have done so this season is doubtless the result of some accident, on one side or the other. The Swainson was a little ahead of his regular schedule, I feel sure; but on the other hand, it may almost be taken for granted that a few wood thrushes have been in the neighborhood for several days. The probability that any single observer will light upon the very first silent bird of a given species that drops into a township must be slight indeed. What we see, we tell of; but that is only the smallest part of what happens.
Some of our winter birds still go about in flocks, notably the waxwings, the goldfinches, and the purple finches. Two days ago I noticed a goldfinch that was almost in full nuptial dress; as bright as he ever would be, I should say, but with the black and the yellow still running together a little here and there. Purple finches are living high — in two senses — just at present, feeding on the pendent flower-buds of tall beech trees. A bunch of six or eight that I watched the other day were literally stuffing themselves, till I thought of turkeys stuffed with chestnuts. Their capacity was marvelous, and I left them still feasting. All the while one of them kept up a happy musical chatter. There is no reason, I suppose, why a poet should not be a good feeder.