Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Here to return to
The Footpath Way
Return to the Previous Chapter
FIVE DAYS ON MOUNT MANSFIELD.
I WENT up the mountain from the village of Stowe in very ignoble fashion, — in a wagon, — and was three hours on the passage. One of the “hands” at the Summit House occupied the front seat with the driver, and we were hardly out of the village before a seasonable toothache put him in mind of his pipe. Would smoking be offensive to me? he inquired. What could I say, having had an aching tooth before now myself? It was a pleasure almost beyond the luxury of breathing mountain air to see the misery of a fellow-mortal so quickly assuaged. The driver, a sturdy young Vermonter, was a man of different spirit. He had never used tobacco nor drunk a glass of “liquor,” I heard him saying. Somebody had once offered him fifty cents to smoke a cigar.
“Why didn’t you take it?” asked his companion in a tone of wonder.
“Well, I'm not that kind of a fellow, to be bought for fifty cents.”
As we approached the base of the mountain, a white-throated sparrow was piping by the roadside.
“I love to hear that bird sing,” said the driver.
It was now my turn to be surprised. Our man of principle was also a man of sentiment.
“What do you call him?” I inquired, as soon as I could recover myself.
“Whistling Jack,” he answered; a new name to me, and a good one; it would take a nicer ear than mine to discriminate with certainty between a white-throat’s voice and a school-boy’s whistle.
The morning had promised well, but before we emerged from the forest as we neared the summit we drove into a cloud, and, shortly afterward, into a pouring rain. In the office of the hotel I found a company of eight persons, four men and four women, drying themselves about the stove. They had left a village twenty miles away at two o’clock that morning in an open wagon for an excursion to the summit. Like myself, they had driven into a cloud, and up to this time had seen nothing more distant than the stable just across the road, within a stone’s toss of the window, and even that only by glimpses. One of the party was a doctor, who must be at home that night. Hour after hour they watched the clouds, or rather the rain (we were so beclouded that the clouds could not be seen), and debated the situation. Finally, at three o’clock, they got into their open wagon, the rain pelting them fiercely, and started for the base. Doubtless they soon descended into clear weather, but not till they were well drenched. Verily the clouds are no respecters of persons. It is nothing to them how far you have come, nor how worthy your errand. So I reflected, having nothing better to do, when my wagonful of pilgrims had dropped out of sight in the fog — as a pebble drops into the lake — leaving me with the house to myself; and presently, as I sat at the window, I heard a white-throated sparrow singing outside. Here was one, at least, whom the rain could not discourage. A wild and yet a sweet and home-felt strain is this of “Whistling Jack,” — a mountain bird, well used to mountain weather, and, just now too happy to forego his music, no matter how the storm might rage. I myself had been in a cloud often enough to feel no great degree of discomfort or lowness of spirits. I had not decided to spend the precious hours of a brief vacation upon a mountain-top without taking into account the ‘additional risk of unfavorable weather in such a place. Let the clouds do their worst; I could be patient and wait for the sun. But this whistling philosopher outside spoke of something better than patience, and I thanked him for the timely word.
Toward noon of the next day the rain ceased, the cloud vanished, and I made haste to clamber up the rocky peak — the Nose, so called — at the base of which the hotel is situated. Yes, there stretched Lake Champlain, visible for almost its entire length, and beyond it loomed the Adirondacks. I was glad I had come. I could sing now. It does a man good to look afar off.
Even before the fog lifted I had discovered, to my no small gratification, that the evergreens immediately about the house were full of gray-cheeked thrushes, a close colony, strictly confined to the low trees at the top of the mountain. They were calling at all hours, yeep, yeep, somewhat in the manner of young chickens; and after supper, as it grew dark, I stood on the piazza while they sang in full chorus. At least six of them were in tune at once. Wee-o, wee-o, tit-ti wee-o, something like this the music ran, with many variations; a most ethereal sound, at the very top of the scale, but faint and sweet; quite in tune also with my mood, for I had just come in from gazing long at the sunset, with Lake Champlain like a sea of gold for perhaps a hundred miles, and a stretch of the St. Lawrence showing far away in the north. During the afternoon, too, I had been over the long crest of the mountain to the northern peak, the highest point, belittled in local phraseology as the Chin; a delightful jaunt of two miles, with magnificent prospects all the way. It was like walking on the ridge-pole of Vermont, a truly exhilarating experience.
All in all, though the forenoon had been so rainy, I had lived a long day, and now, if ever, could appreciate the singing of this characteristic northern songster, himself such a lover of mountains as never to be heard, here in New England, at least, and in summer-time, except amid the dwindling spruce forests of the upper slopes. I have never before seen him so familiar. On the Mount Washington range and on Mount Lafayette it is easy enough to hear his music, but one rarely gets more than a flying glimpse of the bird. Here, as I say, he was never out of hearing, and . seldom long out of sight, even from the door-step. The young were already leaving the nest, and undoubtedly the birds had disposed themselves for the season before the unpainted, inoffensive-looking little hotel showed any signs of occupancy. The very next year a friend of mine visited the place and could discover no trace of them. They had found their human neighbors a vexation, perhaps, and on returning from their winter’s sojourn in Costa Rica, or where not, had sought summer quarters on some less trodden peak.
Not so was it with the myrtle warblers, I venture to assert, though on this point I have never taken my friend’s testimony. Perfectly at home as they are in the wildest and most desolate places, they manifest a particular fondness for the immediate vicinity of houses, delighting especially to fly about the gutters of the roof and against the window panes. Here, at the Summit House, they were constantly to be seen hawking back and forth against the side of the building, as barn swallows are given to doing in the streets of cities. The rude structure was doubly serviceable, — to me a shelter, and to the birds a fly-trap. I have never observed any other warbler thus making free with human habitations.
This yellow-rump, or myrtle bird, is one of the thrifty members of his great family, and next to the black-poll is the most numerous representative of his tribe in Massachusetts during the spring and fall migrations; a beautiful little creature, with a characteristic flight and call, and for a song a pretty trill suggestive of the snow-bird’s. Within two or three years he has been added to the summer fauna of Massachusetts, and as a son of the Bay State I rejoice in his presence and heartily bid him welcome. We shall never have too many of such citizens. I esteem him, also, as the only one of his delicate, insectivorous race who has the hardihood to spend the winter — sparingly, but with something like regularity — within the limits of New England. He has a genius for adapting himself to circumstances; picking up his daily food in the depths of a mountain forest or off the panes of a dwelling-house, and wintering, as may suit his fancy or convenience, in the West Indies or along the sea-coast of Massachusetts.
One advantage of a sojourn at the summit of any of our wooded New England mountains is the easy access thus afforded to the upper forest. While I was here upon Mount Mansfield I spent some happy hours almost every day in sauntering down the road for a mile or two, looking and listening. Just after leaving the house it was possible to hear three kinds of thrushes singing at once, — gray-cheeks, olive-backs, and hermits. Of the three the hermit is beyond comparison the finest singer, both as to voice and tune. His song, given always in three detached measures, each higher than the one before it, is distinguished by an exquisite liquidity, the presence of d and l, I should say, as contrasted with the inferior t sound of the gray-cheek. If it has less variety, and perhaps less rapture, than the song of the wood-thrush, it is marked by greater simplicity and ease; and if it does not breathe the ineffable tranquillity of the veery’s strain, it comes to my ear, at least, with a still nobler message. The hermit’s note is aspiration rather than repose. “Peace, peace!” says the veery, but the hermit’s word is, “Higher, higher!” “Spiritual songs,” I call them both, with no thought of profaning the apostolic phrase.
I had been listening to thrush music (I think I could listen to it forever), and at a bend of the road had turned to admire the wooded side of the mountain, just here spread out before me, miles and miles of magnificent hanging forest, when I was attracted by a noise as of something gnawing — a borer under the bark of a fallen spruce lying at my feet. Such an industrious and contented sound! No doubt the grub would have said, “Yes, I could do this forever.” What knew he of the beauties of the picture at which I was gazing? The very light with which to see it would have been a torture to him. Heaven itself was under the close bark of that decaying log. So, peradventure, may we ourselves be living in darkness without knowing it, while spiritual intelligences look on with wondering pity to see us so in love with our prison-house. Well, yonder panorama was beautiful to me, at all events, however it might look to more exalted beings, and, like my brother under the spruce-tree bark, I would make the best of life as I found it.
This way my thoughts were running when all at once two birds dashed by me — a blackpoll warbler in hot pursuit of an olive-backed thrush. The thrush alighted in a tree and commenced singing, and the warbler sat by and waited, following the universal rule that a larger bird is never to be attacked except when on the wing. The thrush repeated his strain once or twice, and then flew to another tree, the little fellow after him with all speed. Again the olive-back perched and sang, and again the black-poll waited. Three times these manoeuvres were repeated, before the birds passed out of my range. Some wrong-doing, real or fancied, on the part of the larger bird, had excited the ire of the warbler. Why should he be imposed upon, simply because he was small? The thrush, meantime, disdaining to defend himself, would only stop now and then to sing, as if to show to the world (every creature is the centre of a world) that such an insect persecution could never ruffle his spirit. Birds are to be commiserated, perhaps, on having such an excess of what we call human nature; but the misfortune certainly renders them the more interesting to us, who see our more amiable weaknesses so often reflected in their behavior.
For the sympathetic observer every kind of bird has its own temperament. On one of my jaunts down this Mount Mansfield road I happened to espy a Canada jay in a thick spruce. He was on one of the lower branches, but pretty soon began mounting the tree, keeping near the bole and going up limb by limb in absolute silence, exactly in the manner of our common blue jay. I was glad to see him, but more desirous to hear his voice, the loud, harsh scream with which the books credit him, and which, a priori, I should have little hesitation in ascribing to any member of his tribe. I waited till I grew impatient. Then I started hastily toward him, making as much commotion as possible in pushing through the undergrowth. It was a clever scheme, but the bird was not to be surprised into uttering so much as an exclamation. He dropped out of his tree, flew a little distance to a lower and less conspicuous perch, and there I finally left him. Once before, on Mount Clinton, I had seen him, and had been treated with the same studied silence. And later, I fell in with a little family party on the side of Mount Washington, and they, too, refused me so much as a note. Probably I was too near the birds in every case, though in the third instance there was no attempt at skulking, nor any symptom of nervousness. I have often been impressed and amused by the blue jay’s habit in this respect. No bird could well be noisier than he when the noisy mood takes him; but come upon him suddenly at close quarters, and he will be as still as the grave itself. He has a double gift, of eloquence and silence, — silver and gold — and no doubt his Canadian cousin is equally well endowed.
The reader may complain, perhaps, that I speak only of trifles. Why go to a mountain-top to look at warblers and thrushes? I am not careful to justify myself. I love a mountain-top, and go there because I love to be there. It is good, I think, to be lifted above the every-day level, and to enjoy the society — and the absence of society — which the heights afford. Looking over my notes of this excursion, I come upon the following sentence: “To sit on a stone beside a mountain road, with olive-backed thrushes piping on every side, the ear catching now and then the distant tinkle of a winter wren’s tune, or the nearer zee, zee, zee of black-poll warblers, while white-throated sparrows call cheerily out of the spruce forest — this is to be in another world.”
This sense of distance and strangeness is not to be obtained, in my case at all events, by a few hours’ stay in such a spot. I must pitch my tent there, for at least a night or two. I cannot even see the prospect at first, much less feel the spirit of the place. There must be time for the old life to drop off, as it were, while eye and ear grow wonted to novel sights and sounds. Doubtless I did take note of trivial things, — the call of a bird and the fragrance of a flower. It was a pleasing relief after living so long with men whose minds were all the time full of those serious and absorbing questions, “What shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?”
I remember with special pleasure a profusion of white orchids (Habenaria dilatata) which bordered the roadside not far from the top, their spikes of waxy snow-white flowers giving out a rich, spicy odor hardly to be distinguished from the scent of carnation pinks. I remember, too, how the whole summit, from the Nose to the Chin, was sprinkled with the modest and beautiful Greenland sandwort, springing up in every little patch of thin soil, where nothing else would flourish, and blossoming even under the door-step of the hotel. Unpretending as it is, this little alpine adventurer makes the most of its beauty. The blossoms are not crowded into close heads, so as to lose their individual attractiveness, like the florets of the golden-rod, for example; nor are they set in a stiff spike, after the manlier of the orchid just now mentioned. At the same time the plant does not trust to the single flower to bring it into notice. It grows in a pretty tuft, and throws out its blossoms in a graceful, loose cluster. The eye is caught by the cluster, and yet each flower shows by itself, and its own proper loveliness is in no way sacrificed to the general effect. How wise, too, is the sandwort in its choice of a dwelling-place! In the valley it would be lost amid the crowd. On the bare, brown mountain-top its scattered tufts of green and white appeal to all corners.
To what extent, if at all, the sandwort depends upon the service of insects for its fertilization, I do not know, but it certainly has no scarcity of such visitors. “Bees will soar for bloom high as the highest peak of Mansfield;” so runs an entry in my notebook, with a pardonable adaptation of Wordsworth’s line; and I was glad to notice that even the splendid black-and-yellow butterfly (Turnus), which was often to be seen sucking honey from the fragrant orchids, did not disdain to sip also from the sandwort’s cup. This large and elegant butterfly — our largest — is thoroughly at home on our New England mountains, sailing over the very loftiest peaks, and making its way through the forests with a strong and steady flight. Many a time have I taken a second look at one, as it has threaded the treetops over my head, thinking to see a bird. Besides the Turnus, I noted here the nettle tortoise-shell butterfly (Vanessa Milberti — a showy insect, and the more attractive to me as being comparatively a stranger); the common cabbage butterfly; the yellow Philodice; the copper; and, much more abundant than any of these, a large orange-red fritillary (Aphrodite, I suppose), gorgeously bedecked with spots of silver on the under surface of the wings. All these evidently knew that plenty of flowers were to be found along this seemingly barren, rocky crest. Whether they have any less sensuous motive for loving to wander over such heights, who will presume to determine? It may very well be that their almost ethereal structure — such spread of wing with such lightness of body — is only the outward sign of gracious thoughts and feelings, of a sensitiveness to beauty far surpassing anything of which we ourselves are capable. What a contrast between them and the grub gnawing ceaselessly under the spruce-tree bark! Can the highest angel be as far above the lowest man? And yet (how mysteriously suggestive would the fact be, if only it were new to us!) this same light-winged Aphrodite, flitting from blossom to blossom in the mountain breeze, was but a few days ago an ugly, crawling thing, close cousin to the borer. Since then it has fallen asleep and been changed, — a parable, past all doubt, though as yet we lack eyes to read it.
I have spoken hitherto as if I were the only sojourner at the summit, but there was another man, though I seldom saw him; a kind of hermit, living in a little shanty under the lee of the Nose. Almost as a matter of course he was reputed to be of good family and to read Greek, and the fact that he now and then received a bank draft evidently gave him a respectable standing in the eye of the hotel clerk. Something — something of a very romantic nature, we may be sure — had driven him away from the companionship of his fellows, but he still found it convenient to be within reach of human society. Like all such solitaries, he had some half-insane notions. He could not sleep indoors, not for a night; it would ruin his health, if I. understood him correctly; and because of wild animals — bears and what not — he made his bed on the roof of his hermitage. I had often dreamed of the enjoyment of a life in the woods all by one’s self, but such a mode of existence did not gain in attractiveness as I saw it here in the concrete example. On the whole I was well satisfied to sleep in the hotel and eat at the hotel table. Liberty is good, but I thought it might be undesirable to be a slave to my own freedom.
Two or three times a wagon-load of tourists appeared at the hotel. They strolled about the summit, admired the prospect, picked a bunch of sandwort, perhaps, but especially they went to see the snow. They had been at much trouble to stand upon the highest land in Vermont, and now that they were here, they wished to do or see something unique, something that should mark the day as eventful. So they were piloted to a cave midway between the Nose and the Chin, into which the sun never peeped, and wherein a snow-bank still lingered. The mountain was grand, the landscape was magnificent, but to eat a handful of snow and throw a snow-ball in the middle of July —this was almost like being at the North Pole; it would be something to talk about after getting home.
One visitor I rejoiced to see, though a stranger. I was on the Nose in the afternoon, enjoying once more the view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, when I descried two men far off toward the Chin. They had come up the mountain, not by the carriage road, but by a trail on the opposite side, and plainly were in no haste, though the afternoon was wearing away. As I watched their movements, a mile or two in the distance, I said to myself, “Good! they are botanists.” So it proved; or rather one of them was a botanist, — a college professor on a pedestrian collecting-excursion. We compared notes after supper and walked together the next morning, enjoying that peculiar good fellowship which nothing but a kindred interest and an unexpected meeting in a lonesome place can make possible. Then he started down the carriage road with the design of exploring Smugglers’ Notch, and I have never seen or heard from him since. I hope he is still botanizing on the shores of time, and finding many a precious rarity; and should he ever read this reference to himself, may it be with a feeling as kindly as that with which the lines are written.
That afternoon I followed him, somewhat unexpectedly. I went down, as I had come up, on wheels; but I will not say in ignoble fashion, for the driver — the hotel proprietor himself — was in haste, the carriage had no brake, and the speed with which we rattled down the steep pitches and round the sharp curves, with the certainty that if anything should break, the horse would run and our days would be ended, — these things, and especially the latter consideration, of which I thought and the other man spoke, made the descent one of pleasurable excitement. We reached the base in safety and I was left at the nearest farmhouse, where by dint of some persuasion the housewife was induced to give me a lodging for the night, so that on the morrow I might make a long day in Smugglers’ Notch, a famous botanical resort between Mount Mansfield and Mount Sterling, which I had for years been desirous of visiting.
I would gladly have stayed longer on the heights, but it was pleasant also to be once more in the lowlands; to walk out after supper and look up instead of down, while the chimney swifts darted hither and thither with their merry, breathless cacklings. How welcome, too, were the hearty music of the robin and the carol of the grass finch! After all, I thought, home is in the valley; but the whistle of the white-throat reminded me that I was not yet back in Massachusetts.