Here to return to
A DAY IN THE WOODS
I WAS well within the truth when I said, a week ago, that there could not be many places in Florida where a walking man would find his wants so generously provided for as at Ormond. Here he may spend a half day in idling over a round of a mile or two, — sea beach, river bank, and woodland, — or he may foot it as industriously as he pleases from morning till night; and the next day and the day after he will have plenty of invitations to “fresh woods,” though hardly to “pastures new.” Pastures, whether new or old, he may look for elsewhere.
But at Ormond a man may not only walk, he may drive; and this forenoon (March 19) a pair of horses have taken me over such a road as I do not expect soon to find the like of, either in Florida or anywhere else; a course of twelve or fifteen miles, the whole of it (as soon as the bridge over the Halifax was crossed) through most beautiful forest. The road was wide enough for the carriage and no more; soft as a carpet, so that the wheels made no noise, with big trunks of pines, palmettoes, oaks, sweet-gums, magnolias, and what not crowding upon the track so closely that we could almost put out our hands and touch them as we passed. In the whole distance, to the best of my recollection, we met neither carriage nor foot-passenger.
We drove as we pleased, stopped as we pleased, talked or kept silence, listened to the birds, admired the flowers and the new leafage (there are no words wherewith to intimate its freshness and beauty), and withal dreamed of the time when all the land about us was the scene of busy labors, when sugar and rice and cotton were cultivated here by hundreds of slaves, and those who owned the land, as they imagined, had no thought of a day when the forest should again claim all their fair possessions. We drove to Mount Oswald, so called, near the mouth of the Tomoka River, thence over the famous old causeway, set with palmettoes, to Buckhead Bluff, at which point the King’s road to St. Augustine is supposed (or known) to have crossed the river a hundred years ago. I was glad to see the river (I shall see more of it, if I live a day or two longer), but the great thing was the forest, with its present beauty and its whisperings of past romance.
Now it is afternoon, and I am in the same woods. No lover of wild life ever drove over a beautiful country road for the first time without saying to himself again and again, “I must come this way on foot.” A carriage is well enough in its place, but really to see things a man must be on his own legs. Immediately after luncheon, therefore, with a merry company of golfers (a flourishing sect in Florida), I took the little one-horse street-car to the railway station, and now, having crossed a narrow field and left the golfers at their afternoon devotions, I am in the Volusia road, in the noblest of hammock woods.
The first half-mile of the way I have walked over more than once already, and having in mind the shortness of the afternoon I quicken my steps. The doing so is no hardship. For the last forty-eight hours the wind has blown from the north; during the night the mercury settled to 38°; and though it is considerably warmer than that now, a pretty brisk movement is still not uncomfortable.
Here I pass a mournful sight — an old orange grove, of which nothing remains but the sandy soil and a few blackened stumps. The “great freeze” of six or seven years ago killed the trees to the roots. Nearly opposite, to add to the forlornness of the impression, stands a deserted house; and not far along is another, that looks only less unthrifty and disconsolate, with an old woman smoking a pipe on the piazza. It would be a strict moralist who should grudge her that one comfort.
Now I have left the last human habitation behind me, and in front stretches the narrow road arched with greenness, running away and away till it runs out of sight. What lofty oaks and sweet-gums! And what beautiful lichens cover them with wise-looking hieroglyphics! If we could only decipher their meaning! I note especially the ribbed, muscular-seeming trunks of the hornbeams, one of which, the largest, is riddled with uncountable perforations, the work of some sap-loving woodpecker; and I turn about more than once to admire the proportions of a magnificent magnolia, one of the largest I have ever seen. My thanks to the highway surveyor who went a few feet out of his way to leave it standing. A rod or two more, and I stop to look up at some exceptionally tall pines and live-oaks, a noticeable group, in the altitude of which I have before found a pleasure.
How they soar, as if to see which shall go highest! And as high as the oak branches go, so high the gray moss follows.
Now I am at the fork of the road. My course is to the right. “Old Stage Road to Buckhead Bluff on the Tomoka River at the crossing of the ‘old King’s road’ to St. Augustine.” So the guideboard reads, with commendable particularity. “Old” is the word. Even the wind in the tree-tops seems to be whispering stories of things that happened long, long ago. And the trees answer, “Yes, so the fathers have told us.” To think of all those busy people! And every one of them dead!
Here is a bit of clearing where the sun strikes in. It feels good. This is the right kind of outdoor weather — shade not uncomfortable and the sun’s heat welcome. A white-eyed chewink, happy Floridian, is whistling from the brush. Holly trees are common, and the sweet-bay is everywhere. Its shining leaves are of a most salubrious odor, as if they might be for the healing of the nations. I am continually plucking them and rolling them in my fingers.
And yonder is the maker of the clearing — a colored man, standing beside a woodpile. I hail him to remark that it is a fine day, and he answers, “Yes, very nice.” Strange that when two men meet for the only time in their lives they should find nothing more important to communicate than that it rains, or that the sun is shining. But weather is the thing, after all, especially in Florida. Perhaps it deserves all that is said about it. Anyhow, the woodcutter and the stroller have expressed a feeling of neighborliness and have told each other no lies.
With every rod the wood changes from glory to glory. I remark with special joy a grove of tall, slender, smooth-barked water-oaks, every one in new leaf. Height rather than girth is their aim. “We must have the sun,” they say, “and we climb to get it.” How good the sun is, let their leaves testify; those millions on millions of shining leaves, every one new. Yes, every one new. I cannot write the word too often. And many times as I write it, the Northern reader will have but an insufficient sense of its meaning. Such freshness and greenness! Neither memory nor imagination can body it forth. Happy are the eyes that behold the miracle twice in a single spring. It is like doubling one’s year.
A Carolina wren whistles, near at hand, but invisible (invisibility is the wren’s trick), and a red-eyed vireo, farther away, has begun his reiterative, summer-long exhortation. I was taken by surprise, two or three days ago, when I heard the first of his kind in this same hammock; I was not looking for him so early. His irrepressible cousin, the white-eye, has been abundantly vocal for at least two months. At this very minute one is rehearsing a strain with a pretty and decidedly original quirk at the end. And, by the by, I notice that many white-eyes hereabout practice a deceptive imitation of the crested flycatcher’s loud whistle, while others, or perhaps the same ones, sometimes begin with a broken measure, such as I think I never heard from a Massachusetts white-eye, strongly suggestive of the summer tanager. Call him pert, saucy, a chatter-box, Old Volubility, what you will, the white-eye is indisputably a genius.
But for to-day, and for me, none of the birds sing quite so feelingly or so well as the wind in the tree-tops. I stop again and again to listen to it, and would stop oftener still but for the brevity of the afternoon and the uncertainty I am in as to the length of the walk before me.
Hickory nuts, split in halves and lying blackened in the sand, lead me to look upward. Yes, there are the trees, still with bare boughs. Their tender leafage does well to be late in sprouting, even in this Southern country. There is no tree but knows a thing or two. Every kind has a wisdom of its own. Experientia docet is true of them as of us.
And now I suddenly find myself nearing the railroad, and having consulted my watch conclude to go back over the sleepers. It will be my shortest course, and will have the further advantage of taking me past a swamp, on the edge of which I caught glimpses of sora rails a few days ago. This time I will be more cautious in my approaches.
A cardinal is whistling, a checker-back is chattering, many warblers are in the sunny treetops, and from somewhere in the depths of the forest comes the deep, oracular voice of an owl, though the sun is at least half an hour high. Whoo, whoo, who-who, he calls. I love to hear him. On the wire fence is a yellow jessamine vine, still sporting a few last blossoms, and for rods together the sandy railway embankment is draped with exquisite white “bramble roses,” the flowers of the creeping blackberry. Later comers will find berries on the vines, but perhaps I have the better part of the crop.
I am well satisfied, at all events, and am still feasting upon the sight when out of the tall grass on my left hand comes a rail’s voice — the voice of one crying in the wilderness. I am drawing near the swamp, and make haste to cover with my field-glass the spaces of open water among the dead flags. Yes, there are birds — one, two, three, four. But they are not rails. I see as much as that before I have finished my count. Three of them are swimming. They are gallinules; and when one of them turns, and the sunlight strikes him, I see the red plate on his forehead. They are Florida gallinules, my first ones for nine years. My glass follows their movements jealously till the thunder of an approaching train startles them and they fly to the shelter of the tall grass. I shall come this way again, and not only see but hear them. Their language is various and interesting, though most of it has the accent of the barnyard.
A pileated woodpecker crosses the track just before me, with all his colors flying, a pair of bluebirds sit in their accustomed place upon the telegraph wire, and from the neighboring pines I catch the finch-like twitters of a brown-headed nuthatch. This is close upon the railway station and the golf links. My afternoon is done, but the golf players are still making the most of daylight. I blush to confess it, but there are some enthusiasms with which even that of a strolling naturalist will hardly endure comparison.