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Familiar Features of the Roadside
AUTUMN FLOWERS, SQUIRRELS, AND AUTUMN COLORS.
EARLY in the autumn, on the shady roadside where the golden-rod grows, it is quite likely that we shall find the pretty three-leaved vine called the hog peanut (Amphicarpæa monoica) twisting its stems about every available tall weed. It is one of those peculiar plants which has two kinds of flowers — a pretty little lilac one in a nodding cluster which rarely ripens fruit, and a subterranean one without petals and somewhat pear-shaped, from which results a seed resembling a peanut. The leaves are very light green and without gloss. The name, which is derived from the Greek, signifies “both kinds of fruit,” as the flower above ground occasionally produces a miniature pea-like pod containing three or four seeds in addition to the one beneath ground which produces the “peanut.” There is still another similar vine called the groundnut or wild bean (Apios tuberosa), which we will find climbing over the roadside thickets. This is the one that Whittier’s barefoot boy could find for us as easily as a botanist; he knew better than anyone else
Where the groundnut trails its vine.
It bears from three to seven ovate lance-shaped leaflets, and rich clusters of beanlike blossoms, dull purple-brown in color, and somewhat violet-scented; they bloom in late summer and through September. The groundnut is quite common in low ground through the North, from Maine to Minnesota. I have drawn with the vine a bit of Whittier’s country; a glimpse of the beautiful Merrimac River not far from Newburyport, Mass.
Among our blue wild flowers there are none prettier than the gentians which appear in the autumn months. The fringed gentian (Gentiana crinita) is the most beautiful of the species, although I do not consider its color as striking as that of some of the other less handsomely formed gentians. The “fringed lids,” as Bryant calls them, of this flower constitute its essential point of beauty.
The common closed gentian (Gentiana Andrewsii) is far more interesting in color if not in character; the blue is variable and is broken by plaits of white where the corolla is folded together. The flower is perhaps one of the most puzzling and interesting subjects of our floral world. How the blossom is fertilized, whether it depends entirely upon itself or upon insects for the proper disposition of its pollen, is a question which has never been satisfactorily answered. But a casual glance at the flower persuades us to believe that it takes care of itself. If we doubt its conservative character, let us try to force our way to the stamens and learn how difficult the task is, for the corolla must be torn to pieces to do so. Yet the bumblebee finds a way in. This persistent little plunderer will take a flower by storming the citadel if necessary! Mr. Clarence M. Weed has witnessed the struggle, and I quote what he says: “With some difficulty it thrust its tongue through the valves of the nearest blossom; then it pushed in its head and body until only the hind legs and the tip of the abdomen were sticking out. In this position it made the circuit of the blossom and then emerged, resting a moment to brush the pollen from its head and thorax into the pollen baskets before flying to a neighboring aster.” Gray has also said that he has seen the bumblebee force its way into a closed gentian, but during a number of seasons I have watched in vain to catch the robber in the act.
Still another beautiful blue flower we will find common in the Northwest; this is Gentiana puberula, whose color is equal to the azure-violet of the sky at sundown on a cold September evening. The corolla is vase-shaped, topped by five pointed divisions. The plant is from eight to fifteen inches high, and the stem is mostly rough with tiny fine hairs at the top. The leaves are stiff and long lance-shaped. This species of gentian is common in the vicinity of Minneapolis, the Minnehaha Falls in the country of Hiawatha, and on the dry borders of the great wheatfields of Minnesota. The soapwort gentian (Gentiana Saponaria) is another Western species which we will occasionally see on the roadsides near damp woods from New York west to Minnesota. The light lilac-blue corolla is but slightly open, and the five blunt lobes or divisions are almost erect. The leaves are broad lance-shaped and rough-edged. The stem is smooth and about a foot or eighteen inches high.
The five-flowered gentian (Gentiana quinqueflora) is a slender-stemmed branching plant with broad lance-shaped leaves partly clasping the stem, and clusters of five flowers at the summit, pale lilac-blue; the corolla is funnel-formed with five bristle-tipped lobes. This flower is found on hillsides from Maine to Illinois; it grows in the vicinity of Lake Mohunk, and commonly through the Shawangunk Mountains. It is also found in the northern hills of New Jersey.
Whoever heard of a stone wall bordering the hillside highway which passes through the North country without its chipmunk? Perhaps the zigzag rail fence may enjoy the exclusive reputation of being a distinctly American institution, but the green-gray stone wall, with its bittersweet, squirrel, and woodchuck, I consider no less a product of American soil. The like of it we will not see in the old country.
Italy is full of glaring, plastered, forbidding walls and barren, walled-in roads with never a touch of rural life or interest for passing travelers.1 The country is worn out with the poverty of its inhabitants, and exhausted of every green thing that ought to grow on the wayside.
We do not appreciate our native land, with its wealth of green plants and its multitude of trees, nor do we realize the boundless life and liberty of our fields and woods and open roads. The ferns, golden-rods, asters, and gentians which grow by the wayside, the birds and squirrels which scamper over the fence rails, the woodchuck who burrows beneath the stone wall, the pretty green snake which winds sinuously among the grassy borders, the tree cricket, and the piping hyla — these all testify to an abundance of wild life which is unknown in the old country.
Our little striped squirrel or chipmunk2 (Tamias striatus) is one of the most interesting creatures of his kind in the world. His color is chestnut-red, and down his back run three distinct, almost black bands with the two outermost marked down the middle with a line of white. The little creature is astonishingly spry and moves with a jerk or else sits upright with his hands crossed before his breast. His tail is narrow and not very long; indeed, he is altogether different from the pictures which we see in English books of the European squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).
He is passably tame, and I have no difficulty in watching him for hours together at a distance of not more than four feet as I am at work in my garden. Should I happen to be in his path he will not trouble himself to take a circuitous route, but will skip fearlessly across my toes. Of sunflower seeds he is extremely fond, and the butternuts which are so common among the old pasture lands of the southern White Mountains are his trees of plenty.
The chipmunk is a stone wall squirrel. He is a very poor tree climber, and when he meets the red squirrel on a low bough he instantly concedes to him the right of way. But on the stone wall he will chase his red cousin from Dan to Beersheba, although I have never yet found him engaged in a fight to protect his right of eminent domain. On the contrary, I have long since concluded that the chickaree or red squirrel3 (Sciurus4 Hudsonius), quite a little larger than the chipmunk, and of an even, burnt sienna-red color, with a black streak on his flank, is an aggressive and quarrelsome individual, disposed to attack his chipmunk cousin or one of his own species on the slightest provocation. I have seen him chase another squirrel around the trunk of a butternut, which was his castle and home, no less than twenty-five times in the space of half a minute. He has a noble fashion of vociferously claiming whole tracts of wooded country as exclusively his own — at least we may believe so if we have learned to understand his words and actions. On the highway he is a bit more respectful and does not attempt to interfere with a passing wheelman, but in the woods he swears roundly at any base intruder. Somebody has likened his scolding to the winding of a clock — a not far-fetched simile; but what an outrageously asthmatic clock, and what a dreadful need of grease on the mainspring! When we enter the wood in nominal possession of the red squirrel this is about the kind of greeting we may expect: “Wretches! wretches — both, chuck which, chuck which, chuck which, chuck ‘em out! quick, quick, quick! Chuck which-which-chuck-which, chuck-which, chuck which, chuck ‘em both out quick, quick, quick, chuck——” and with a whistle of alarm he disappears around the other side of the tree just as a pebble has been sent within a yard of his saucy chin! The red squirrel’s voice is threatening; there is no mistaking the fury of his wrath which visibly quakes his whole body to the very tip of his tail.
The large gray squirrel (Sciurus Carolinensis) I do not find as plentiful in Campton as the other two species; for several seasons past, very few have appeared in the wood or on the roadside. In Roxbury, a part of Boston, they are quite common among the trees on some of the old estates, and they are often seen in the hemlock grove in the Arnold arboretum. Nothing can be more graceful than their scalloped lines of flight along a tree bough.
The gray squirrel is a sociable little animal who likes the company of a man with a few nuts in his pocket. One can not walk across the square in Richmond, Va., without encountering two or three tame individuals who regard a man as a species of animated nut tree created for his especial benefit!
If we will watch a squirrel closely we may observe him tuck away two or three small nuts in his cheeks and carry another in his teeth. Last summer one of my friendly chipmunks made six journeys within two hours from a certain corner of the house to his nest beneath a fence post by the road, for the purpose of transferring his summer stores. One would suppose upon beholding his bulgy cheeks that he was afflicted with a severe form of mumps.
The flying squirrel (Sciuropterus volucella) is a tiny, gray, silky-furred creature, often made a great pet of. His eyes are round and liquid, and his chubby little face is expressively intelligent. This squirrel is a most remarkable trapezist; he takes a flying leap from the top of one tree to another, and covers forty or fifty feet with ease. It is recorded that he can leap one hundred and fifty feet! He is active mostly at sundown, and sleeps during a greater part of the day. A little pet I once owned would sleep comfortably during the day in my pocket or the elbow of my sleeve, but was ready for a grand scamper in the evening.
The flying squirrel is furnished with a marvelously expansive skin which greatly aids him in his aerial exploits. He is common entirely across the continent.
Not far from the roadside, by some stream which proceeds from the woods, we may possibly see the splendid color of the bright-red flower called Oswego tea or bee balm (Monarda didyma). But this is generally beyond its prime by the first of September; still, we may find an occasional flower here and there. The blossoms — something like those of our garden salvia in form — are clustered at the top of the stem. This handsome wild flower is common from New England to Michigan. I have often found it on the borders of damp woods in the vicinity of Stony Clove and Shandaken, in the southern Catskills. It has a somewhat hairy, angled stem, and opposite-growing, ovate-pointed leaves emitting an aromatic odor if crushed. The smaller leaves near the flower cluster are tinged reddish. Oswego tea and its garden relative, Salvia splendens, which comes from Brazil, belong to the Mint family.
By the close of September we are compensated for the loss of the brighter wild flowers by the glorious red, orange, yellow, and maroon of the turning leaves. The brilliant hues of autumnal foliage are produced mostly by the action of the cold atmosphere on the chlorophyll or green matter in the microscopic leaf cell. Chlorophyll is a marvelously complex substance difficult to analyze. It is found in solution in an oil which fills the interstices of what is called the chloroplasts (the masses of spongy substance which fill the cells beneath the upper skin of the leaf). By a chemical change, therefore, the green color of a leaf is destroyed, and a red or yellow color takes its place. But the scientific fact is less interesting to us than the æsthetic result of the change.
Any one can see the splendid even yellow of the sugar maple or the sober scarlet of the red maple, but it takes a trained eye to discover all the complexity of color that there is on the roadside in early October, when the sky is clear and blue. The gray birch and the white birch are turned a brilliant golden yellow; the white trunks are spotted with palest of violet-blue shadows. The lichen-covered rocks in the stone wall are not gray, but green-gray of a sagey tone spotted with bits of brownish crimson. The beech bole is a mixture of pearly white and bluish gray, broadly spread with lilac shadows, and the leaves are the palest possible Naples yellow. The Virginia creeper (Ampelopsis quinquefolia) bas turned not a pure crimson, but a deep, rich, cardinal red and maroon, and the berries with stems of coral-red are a misty cadet-blue. Everywhere the shadows on the roadside are bluish, and not a hint of black or neutral gray is visible. I can not prove this, of course, by bluntly asserting the fact, but I could demonstrate the truth of the statement by the aid of my paint-box and a bit of white paper. If we cut a small hole in the paper and at arm’s length view the shadow through it we will certainly see the blue.
The full color of a tree or a mountain can not be measured if our attention is distracted by details of form which we see with remarkable ease. Subtility of color is not so readily perceived. It needs two pictures of the maple-lined road, one showing its June color and the other its October color, to prove that the light which shines in our faces and the shadow which lies ahead of us across the road are radically different in these two months because of the change in color of the leaves. Light on the country road is colored far more than we think it is, and as a natural consequence the shadows are colored.
I said that we saw details of form with astonishing ease, and that attention devoted to these prevented our seeing subtility of color. To prove this let me again suggest that we turn our heads upside down and look at the distant trees and mountains. I imagine that this will be the best way to wean our eyes from petty details, and show us a little more of the subtile color which is present in shadows, and the fire color which illumines autumn leaves; there is no mistaking the universal presence of it in Nature. Let me quote the testimony of Ruskin, who, at least the impressionist must acknowledge, misleads no one in the following statement about shadows: “Painters who have no eye for color have greatly confused and falsified the practice of art by the theory that shadow is an absence of color. Shadow is, on the contrary, necessary to the full presence of color, for every color is a diminished quantity or energy of light. And, practically, it follows from what I have just told you (that every light in a painting is a shadow to higher lights, and every shadow a light to lower shadows) that also every color in painting must be a shadow to some brighter color, and a light to some darker one — all the while being a positive color itself.” I am sure that the most thoughtful and considerate student of Nature must acknowledge her prodigal use of color nothing less than masterful. Where we least expect to find it there it lies in an amazing complexity of delicacy and strength. Landscape, flower, and bird are suffused with no end of it, and but rarely if ever show a hint of true black.5
In beast, bird, and fish, it is a curious and invariable fact that their underneath parts are extremely pale — almost white. Their safety is, in a great measure, dependent upon this lightened color which overcomes the shadow that must inevitably throw the creature into conspicuous relief, and thereby render its discovery by enemies the more probable. Not long since the artist Mr. Abbott Thayer, by a series of experiments with a number of objects painted light or dark beneath, demonstrated the fact that animals were greatly protected by their underneath light color. He proved that the object painted light beneath was lost to view much sooner than the one painted dark.
Color is a very active and important part of Nature’s plan in the preservation of life as well as the presentation of beauty. The gentle little grass-green snake (Cyclophis vernalis) glides harmlessly through the field unobserved except for the disturbance he creates among the weeds and grass leaves. Why he is not left alone it is hard to understand. No creature could possibly be more harmless. The cowbird (Molothrus ater) is far more deserving of our animosity, for she lays her eggs in other birds’ nests, and her young ones are the cause of the death of many an interesting brood. If people would only learn to let innocent snakes and toads live, we would have our farmers complaining less of destructive insects and worms. Poisonous snakes do not exist, so far as I know, among the White Mountains, and during the many seasons I have spent in the Catskills and at Lake George I have never met more than two rattlesnakes. It may be well enough to kill these and the treacherous copperheads, but the others should be allowed to live. Fully ninety per cent of the poor murdered reptiles I have seen by the roadside were perfectly harmless, and doubtlessly their loss was the gain of thousands of insects injurious to the farmers’ crops.
The splendid color of the October landscape is æsthetic; that of snakes, butterflies, beetles, birds, and flowers is beautiful only as far as it is brilliant, or pure, or variegated. The atmosphere throws a veil of mystery over the hues of mountain, river, meadow, and tree in autumn, so that there is complexity in every tint. Every object is a mosaic of tiny colors, with a bit of purple here, orange there, and green yonder, as the case may be. But how is one to believe that, if color is so impalpable a thing that one must needs stand on one’s head to see it? Well, there is no gain without pain. He who is told that a certain thing is extraordinary, must believe the fact until he knows the truth of it by self-acquired knowledge.
There is no short road to knowledge. If, by the wayside, we are unwilling to devote a great deal of time and attention to Nature, we must be content to travel blindly on without a taste of that broader, better life which in seeing and knowing possesses all things. The botanist, the entomologist, and the ornithologist are in possession of that greater knowledge of life which is equivalent to a power over all things. The impressionist has in his possession the key to Nature’s mysteries of color. The power and the key are not beyond our reach._____________________________
1 I might add also that they lack bucolic interest, but for the fact that Italian shepherds do exist!
2 This is the so-called Eastern chipmunk. The four-striped chipmunk (T. quadrivittus) is commonest, perhaps, in the Mississippi Valley, and is more widely distributed over the country; he has four whitish stripes upon his back inclosed within five black ones. Of course, the stripes of T. striatus can be counted as five black and two white, as well as the three compound stripes I have described.
3 His range is throughout North America as far as the forests extend.
4 This name in Greek means “he who is under the shadow of his tail,” which hardly applies to our short-tailed chipmunk and chickaree.
5 Not even the crow is truly black. I have shown this in a previous chapter.