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FAMILIAR FEATURES OF THE ROADSIDE
THE • FLOWERS • SHRUBS • BIRDS • AND • INSECTS
F. SCHUYLER MATHEWS
AUTHOR OF FAMILIAR FLOWERS OF FIELD AND GARDEN,
FAMILIAR TREES AND THEIR LEAVES, THE BEAUTIFUL FLOWER GARDEN, ETC.
WITH ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY DRAWINGS BY THE AUTHOR,
AND MANY OF THE SONGS OF OUR COMMON BIRDS AND INSECTS
By D. APPLETON AND COMPANY.
IT might be possible to find a wider field for the study of Nature than the highway, but in many respects certainly not a better one; for, if we keep on traveling, we will have eventually seen and heard about everything that is worth seeing and hearing in the wide world.
What kind of a country is that without a road? Hardly an interesting or beautiful one, and very probably a barren, trackless waste; certainly not a wilderness, for that, with its wealth of wild life, its solemn forests and majestic mountains, is most frequently the objective point for which the road was built.
The road will lead us everywhere; to the top of the loftiest mountain, to the margin of the sea, across peat bogs, through primeval forests, over green meadows, along ferny pastures, down shady glens, over pleasant hills, beside silvery lakes and gliding, shining rivers, over rushing brooks, and, finally — we must read the next guideboard, for that tells where the end is — “To town,” just the place we wish to get out of, so we can see something.
Yes, see something else besides brick walls and stone pavements, and hear something different from the ceaseless din of the busy, restless town. How delightful to hear and know the voice of every bird, and to see and know the face of every flower, as we pass over the highway which crosses the open fields! We know the whistle of the locomotive, but we do not recognize the whistle of the peeping hyla in spring. We may know the chirp of the English sparrow, but the voice of the Peabody bird, his American cousin, is an unfamiliar one. There is yarrow, tansy, thorn apple, and wild carrot in every empty lot within the city limits; all these we can name, although each is a tramp from the old country, but our own dainty pipsissewa and twin flower are strange, new characters. It is well that there is much for some of us to learn.
Fortunately, there are extremely few who know every wild flower and who can name every shrub by its leaf, and every bird, frog, cricket, and grasshopper by his song. If there were such a man, how intolerably wise he would be! The world is wide, and creation is infinite; we should not expect to know everything under the sun. There is not and there never was a student of Nature so perfectly gifted and equipped that he could master all the branches of his profession. Practical and theoretical knowledge are rarely, if ever, fully and equally developed. The patience and ability to pursue a thoroughly systematical course of investigation is possessed by very few; a penetrative mind may be greatly hampered in the search for truth by an imperfectly developed sense of tone and color. So far as tone and color are concerned, there are very few people, anyway, who can hear and see with absolute accuracy. How many are there who, without instrumental aid, can whistle with perfect pitch the key of C? How many can remember a given color and match it by memory months later? Yet the ability to do either of these things unquestionably belongs to the perfectly gifted and equipped student of Nature; but even with this ability, there is still nearly everything for the student to master if he would really know Nature. There are a thousand facts never to Le learned from books, which only grassy meadows and dimly lit forests can teach; yet it is quite as true that one may live under the shadow of the forest for a lifetime, and through lack of interest never learn the secret of its hidden life.
So it happens that a fullness of wisdom can never be possessed by any one individual; as a consequence, complete knowledge accrues through a number of channels each one of which is supplied by some specialist; but the source of all knowledge is Nature. Ours, then, is the boundless opportunity of learning directly from the borders of the road many simple and interesting facts; I say boundless, because the small beginning opens expansively toward a larger study of Nature, which becomes more and more attractive the further we advance.
One of the first things which impresses the observer of Nature is her infinitude. There is a new kind of a bug on some stick or stone in every county we enter. There are countless miniature butterflies (Hesperia) flitting among the weeds and grasses, no two of which are alike. A well-known butterfly crosses our path, and scarcely is he gone before two new ones appear, neither of which we can recollect ever having seen before. The tree toad’s familiar voice pipes in the swamp, but there are other voices piping with it whose origin we can not trace to their proper source. To every one thing we know, or think we know, there are twenty others which we are quite sure we do not know. A wild rose, we thought, was simply a wild rose; but we learn that there are a dozen species, each one of which has a very distinct character of its own. Eglantine we thought we knew, but here is a specimen closely resembling it which proves to be quite a different flower. The little frog called the Savannah cricket chirps his cricketlike chirp in New Jersey, and we imagine we hear him in New Hampshire; but no — it is another larger frog with a similar voice. We thought a cricket was simply a cricket with a chirp the same the world over; not so! there are crickets and crickets, and each species has it own song. The whip-poor-will certainly seems to sing the same familiar old tune North and South; perhaps he does, but in three or four evenings, after having listened attentively, we discover that every song is different, not only in key, but in construction, octaves occurring in some, and thirds or fifths occurring in others. No two robins sing precisely the same melody; no two Wilson thrushes roll out their double-toned notes in exactly the same way.
Always variety, endless variety; never any senseless repetition in Nature; she gives us a serial story which is never fully told. Month succeeds month, chapter succeeds chapter, and ever there is something new. The few records contained in the following pages are only an introduction to a boundless world whose story would fill a library of astounding magnitude! But the little that I have given comes straight from the country highways and byways, and many things are drawn beside the pictures of their own homes.
I hope the scraps of music which I have introduced will stimulate a little interest in a somewhat neglected phase of wild life. We certainly have very meager records of bird music, and until the notes of our singing birds are completely and fully recorded, we will never possess a complete knowledge of the birds themselves. However imperfect the average ear is in catching and retaining a musical tone, it is impossible to believe that there are many too dull to distinguish apart the songs of the warbling and the red-eyed vireos. We might as well persuade ourselves that a person with average good eyesight can not tell a square apart from a triangle. I might record a dozen songs of as many red-eyed vireos, and although each would be different from the other, the general principle of construction would remain the same in all. A record of the warbling vireo’s music would also reveal its individuality. To the unfortunate person who could not read music the difference in the appearance of the written music of these two birds would not only be perfectly apparent, but as marked as the difference between a triangle and a square.
I regret that the limits of the book would not enable me to include many other birds, crickets, and frogs; their music is interesting and beautiful; but I had to draw the line somewhere, and as a consequence the bright-winged, sweet-songed redstart, and the graceful, clucking American cuckoo, which, by the way, is not a bit like its European relative, for it does not steal a march on other birds’ nests — these fell on the other side of the line!
The record of the music of Swainson’s thrush is meager but reliable; that of the hermit thrush does full justice to his musical thirds but not to his brilliant fifths. The song sparrow, with the prominent spot in the middle of his breast which is easily distinguished by the aid of the opera glass, is fairly represented by his music; the other sparrows are legion, and would require a volume for anything like a complete record. One of them, however, is separated from all the rest by the simple and striking character of his song. The white-throated sparrow, or Peabody bird, as he is called, is an extremely interesting little fellow who, if we respond to his call, will follow us for a mile or more, singing from treetop to treetop; and those who are willing to undertake the arduous climb through Tuckerman’s Ravine at the foot of Mount Washington for the sake of a charming bit of bird music and grand mountain scenery will be amply repaid for their toilsome jaunt by some of his sweetest melodies.
I desire to express my grateful acknowledgments to Dr. B. L. Robinson and his assistants, Mr. Fernald and Mr. Greenman, who gave me convenient access to many specimens of the Harvard herbarium; to Mr. Samuel Henshaw of the Agassiz Museum, who provided me with many of the entomological specimens which I have sketched; and to Mr. W. Faxon, without whose advice my bird sketches would have lacked certain important points. I should also explain that the unusual employment of capitals in the specific names of birds, a proceeding contrary to ornithological rule, is due to an effort to maintain consistency throughout the book; as there are more flowers than birds mentioned, it seemed to me advisable to adopt the botanist’s principle with reference to names.
But after all, “ What’s in a name? “ If the flower and the bird are unmistakably identified, all is properly put. The best thing about the hermit thrush is his inimitable, silvery song; the worst thing about him is his ponderous Latin name! If I could illuminate his music as it deserved, the notes would be of burnished gold set in bars of silver!
F. SCHUYLER MATHEWS.
EL FUREIDIS, BLAIR, CAMPTON, N. H.
MOUNT WASHINGTON IN SPRING.
The home of the Peabody bird.
LIST OF FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS.