Here to return to
IN THE MOUNT LAFAYETTE FOREST
IT is one of the cool mornings that descend rather suddenly upon our White Mountain country with the coming of autumn; cool mornings that are liable to be followed by warm days. I was in doubt how to dress as I set out, and for the first mile or two almost regretted that I had not taken an extra garment. Then all at once the sun broke through the clouds, and even the one coat became superfluous and was thrown over my arm. This state of things lasted till I had crossed the golf links and entered the woods. At that point the sun withdrew his shining, and now, between the clouds and the shadow and dampness of the forest, I have put on my coat again and buttoned it up; and what counts for more, I am driven to walk less slowly than one would always prefer to do in such a place.
A fresh breeze stirs the tree-tops, so that I am not without music, let the birds be as silent as they will. Nearly or quite the only voice I have so far heard was that of an unseen Maryland yellow-throat, some distance back, who sprang into the air and delivered himself of a song with variations, all in his most rapturous June manner. Why the fellow should have been in anything like an ecstasy at that precise moment is quite beyond my guessing. Possibly it would be equally beyond his, if he were to stop to think about it. Some sudden stirring of memory, perhaps. Natural beings seldom know just why they are happy. I recall the fact, unthought of till now, that I have not heard a yellow-throat sing before for several weeks, though I have seen the birds often. They are among the late stayers, and at this season have a more or less lonesome look, being commonly found not as members of a flock or family, after the manner of autumnal warblers in general, but here and there one, dodging about in a roadside thicket, or peeping out curiously at a casual passer-by.
Just as I am remarking upon the unusual silence my ear catches in the far distance the song of a white-throated sparrow. So very far off it is that the sound barely reaches me. Indeed, I do not so much hear it as become vaguely conscious that I should hear it if the bird were ever so little nearer. Yet I am sure he sang — as sure as if I had seen him. Probably experienced readers will divine what I mean, although I seem unable to express it.
The road is bordered with the dead tops of trees, thrown there in heaps by the road-makers. They form an unsightly hedge, which birds of various kinds resort to for cover.. At this minute two winter wrens, pert-looking, bob-tailed things, scold at me out of it. My passing is a trespass, they consider, and they tell me so with emphasis. For the sake of stirring them up to protest even more vigorously (such an eloquent gesticulatory manner as they have), I stand still and squeak to them. Few birds can be quiet under such insults; and the winter wren is not one of them. There is nothing phlegmatic about his disposition. He is like some beings of a higher class: it takes very little to set him in a flutter. So I squeak and squeak, and the pair vociferate tut, tut, till I have had enough and go on my way laughing. Touchy people were made for teasing.
I have hardly started before a hairy woodpecker’s sharp signal is heard, and within a minute a sapsucker on the opposite side of the way utters a snarling note, which by a slight effort of the imagination might be taken for the voice of an angry cat. To my ear it is not in the smallest degree woodpeckerish. I see the bird a moment later as he flies across the road.
In a mountain-side forest like this, near the mountain’s foot, the traveler, if he is not climbing the slope but crossing it transversely, is certain to come now and then upon a brook. I am on the edge of one now, and as the sun at this moment shines out between two clouds I stand still to enjoy the warmth while it lasts, and at the same time to hear the singing of the water. Good music, I call it, and fear no contradiction. It has the quality of some of the best verse — liquidity. It is broken unevenly into syllables, yet it is true to the beat, and it flows. In short, it is smooth, yet not too smooth — with the smoothness of water, not of oil. It speaks to every boulder as it passes. I wish my ear were more at home in the language.
There is seldom a minute when, if I pause to listen, I cannot hear from one direction or another the quaint, homely, twangy, countryfied, yet to me always agreeable voice of Canadian nuthatches. At frequent intervals one or two come near enough so that I see them creeping about over the trees, bodies bent, heads down, always in search of a mouthful, yet keeping up, every one, his share of the universal chorus. As well as I can judge, all the evergreen forests of this Northern country are now alive with these pretty creatures; for they really are pretty. In fact, there are few forest birds for whom I cherish a kindlier feeling. It is too bad they do not summer in our Massachusetts woods, though possibly I should care less for them if they made themselves neighborly the whole year long, like their relatives, the white-breasts.
A goldfinch is passing far above, dropping music as he goes. He is one of the high-fliers. Wherever you may happen to be, at the summit of Mount Washington or where not, you will pretty often hear his sweet voice as he wanders under the sky, dipping and rising, dipping and rising, voice and wing keeping step together.
Here and there one or two clouded-sulphur butterflies (Philodice) take wing as I disturb them. They have been most extraordinarily abundant of late. A fortnight ago we drove for almost a whole forenoon through clouds of them, bunches of twenty or more constantly rising from damp spots of earth by the wayside; and in a meadow all bespangled with purple asters they were so thick as almost to conceal the flowers. Twinkling in the sunlight, they looked a thousand times more like stars than the asters themselves. Even the entomologists of the valley, in whose company I was driving, had never seen the like. Here in this shaded road such lovers of the sun are naturally less numerous. In truth, the wonder is that they should be here at all. And yet the wonder is not so very great; they wander at their own will, and the will of the wind. Only last week, I am told, in the midst of a driving snowstorm, one took shelter in the Summit House on Mount Washington. After all, a butterfly is not exactly a fool; it knows enough to go into the house when it snows.
Now I come upon a few snowbirds, hopping in silence about the twigs of a brush-heap, snapping their tails nervously, as if proud to show the white feather; and shortly beyond are two or three white-throated sparrows. They also are silent. Perhaps they perceive that a red squirrel close by is talking enough for them and himself too. He says a good many things, some of which I feel sure would be highly interesting to a competent listener. Among forest folk, as among church folk, the rule is, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” As for me, I can only lament my deficiency. A solitary vireo is chattering sweetly (with him music is its own reward), and all the while, whoever else speaks or keeps silence, the nuthatch chorus goes on. Taking New England together, we may safely say that just at present hundreds of thousands, yea, millions of ank-anks go up to heaven every minute of every day, from sunrise to sunset.
I walk but a few rods farther before I am delighted by the sight of four winter wrens in an overturned tree-top. In my experience it is something extremely out of the common course to see so many together, and — as I did with the two a quarter of a mile back — I work upon this quartet’s sensibilities till they fairly dance with curiosity and indignation. I wonder if they are a family group.
I bethink myself that I am saying nothing about the forest itself. Its presence is felt rather than seen, a grateful solemnity; but the temperature will not suffer me to sit down and enjoy it as a Christian should. And just here I emerge into territory over which a fire has swept within a few years. Under these dead trees I get the sun again, and can go slowly. Nothing in the way of physical comfort is more grateful than warmth after coolness, unless it be coolness after warmth. A pine siskin calls, the first for some weeks, and another hairy woodpecker shows himself. Not a warbler has been seen since I entered the woods. Of the flycatchers, too, — olive-sides and wood pewees, — which were always conspicuous in this burning in August and early September, there is neither sight nor sound. Their season is done. Crossbill notes lead me to look upward, and I see four birds flying past. Restless, nomadic souls! Like the saints, they have “no continuing city.”
Another half-mile in the leafy forest, and I reach the foot of Echo Lake, where as I pass a cluster of balsam firs I am saluted by the busy, hurried calls of golden-crowned kinglets. A wren is here also, irritable as ever, and hearing a chickadee’s voice, I whistle and chirp to him. If I can set him to scolding, all the birds in the neighborhood will flock this way to ascertain what the trouble is. The device works to a charm; in half a minute the excitement is intense. Nuthatches, white-throats, chickadees, kinglets, and wren, all take a hand in vituperating the intruder, and a youthful redstart comes from the opposite side of the way to satisfy his more gentle curiosity. One creature, strangely enough, remains neutral: a red squirrel, who sits on end at the top of a stump and gazes at me in silence. He holds one hand upon his heart, like an opera singer, and looks and looks. “You sentimental goose!” I say; “who taught you that trick?” and I laugh at him and pass on. This is near the corner of the old Notch road, and as I round it and face the cold northerly wind I button my coat about me and start homeward at a quicker pace.