Here to return to
AN IDLE AFTERNOON
I HAVE heard of a man who invariably begins his letters, whether of friendship or business, with a bulletin of the day’s weather: it rains, or it shines; it is cold or warm; and to my way of thinking it is far from certain that the custom is not commendable. It is fair to sender and receiver alike that the mental conditions under which an epistle is written should be understood; and there is no man — or no ordinary man, such as most of us have the happiness to deal with — whose thoughts and language are not more or less colored by those skyey influences the sum of which we designate by the interrogative name of weather. I say “interrogative,” because I assume, although, having no dictionary by me, I cannot verify the assumption, that the word “weather” is only a corruption or variant of the older word “whether;” the thing itself being an entity so variable and doubtful that remarks about it fall naturally, and almost of necessity, into a discussion of probabilities, in other words, of “whether.”
As to the weather here in Tucson, I could fill all my letters with it, and still leave a world of things unsaid. Its fluctuations are so constant that they tend to become monotonous; as Thoreau said of one of his Concord days, that it was so wet you might almost call it dry.
Three or four mornings ago, for example, I started early for a seven-mile tramp across the desert. I wore overcoat and woolen gloves, and needed them. It was so cool, indeed, that I left word for an extra garment to be put into the carriage that was to come out and fetch me back at noon.
That same afternoon I walked down into the valley of the Santa Cruz. The sun was blazing, and the heat intense. The few cottonwood trees scattered along the road were still leafless (I had left my umbrella at home—for the last time) and the only shelter to be found was on the northeasterly side of the telegraph poles. I believe I never before complained of such obstructions that they were not big enough; but everything comes round in its turn. My thoughts ran back to the time when a boy of my acquaintance used to trudge homeward from berry-picking excursions on burning July noons. Also I thought of that comfortable Hebrew text about the “shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” The man who wrote that might have lived in Arizona.
out of sheer desperation, I stepped into the yard of a little adobe house, and
being obliged to walk almost to the door, said to the motherly-
Forty-eight hours later we had a snowfall, — the third within ten days, — the whole world white, with “storm rubbers” barely equal to the emergency; and the next morning, the snow having gone, ice was thick in a big tub of water outside my door.
“Cold?” said an Illinois gentleman, with whom I fell into conversation yesterday, “I’ve been here three weeks, and in that time I’ve suffered more from cold than in all my forty years.”
I suspect that he exaggerated. For my own part, I haven’t suffered from cold. It is the occasional heat that makes me fearful of homesickness. Three days like that one afternoon would set me packing. All of which may seem not very important to a chance reader; but unless he is of a hopelessly unimaginative turn he can perhaps conceive how interesting and important it must be to the parties directly concerned, especially if he remembers that this is a winter resort, where weather is the one thing needful.
But what a perfect afternoon we had yesterday! — cool, yet not too cool; and warm, yet not too warm; with a softness and yet a gently bracing, uplifting, pulse-quickening, life-reviving quality in the air; and the sky, too, clear, but not too clear, so that wisps of cloud floated here and there over the bare, steep sides of the Santa Catalinas, giving them beauty. I was out upon the desert in a mood of absolute indolence, contented to walk a mile an hour, and breathe and breathe, and look. At such times it seems hardly too much to say, strange as the words may sound, that I am falling in love with the desert, a desert bounded only by mountains. Already I can believe that men are fascinated by it (the right men), and having once been here cannot long stay away.
Looking and dreaming, the bird-gazer within me pretty well laid asleep, suddenly I heard a strange voice in the air, thin, insect-like, unknown. By the time it had sounded twice the sleeper was wide-awake, with his opera-glass in play. The voice came from yonder thin clump of creosote bushes. Yes, the bird flits into sight — a gnatcatcher; and being a gnatcatcher, with such a note, it must be “the other one,” known as the plumbeous, which I have been looking for ever since my arrival in Tucson. And so it was — a pretty creature with a jaunty black cap. I shall know him henceforth, I hope, even without seeing him. We are fortunate, both of us, I take leave to say, to have made each other’s acquaintance on so ideal an afternoon.
The gnatcatcher disappeared, and the dreamer was just dozing off again, when two large birds were seen to be having a hot encounter high overhead. This time the field-glass came into requisition. A raven was teasing a red-tailed hawk, with all a raven’s pertinacity and spite. Again and again and again he swooped upon him, while the hawk ducked and turned to avoid the stroke. Why the big fellow, biggest of all our hawks, larger and stronger in every way than the raven, did not face his tormentor and lay him out was a mystery. I confess, I should have been glad to see him do it. Instead, he made off toward the mountains, and after a long chase and much croaking, the raven turned away.
This also had passed out of mind, and I was on my way homeward, barely putting one foot before the other, enjoying the air and the sun, — and the mountains, — when, happening to glance upward, I beheld a grand sight. “That’s the golden eagle,” I said aloud (in the desert a man soon falls into the neighborly habit of talking to himself), and one look through the field-glass proved the words correct. The great bird was in perfect light, sailing in circles, so that his upper parts came every minute into full view as he swung about, the old gold of the head and neck, as well as the contrasted brown and black of the wings, perfectly displayed, with nothing left for guesswork. I was all eyes, and watched him and watched him, admiring especially the firm set of his wings, till he, too, sailed away, not chased, but moving of his own royal will, and dropped at last out of sight behind the rolling desert.
He was my first golden eagle, in some respects one of the noblest of all North American birds. I knew him to be not uncommon in the mountains, and had hoped some day to see him passing, especially when I should be far out on the edge of the foothills; and behold, here he was on my idle afternoon, close at home. Who says that the lame and the lazy are not provided for?
My dreamy saunter was turning out ornithological in spite of myself, and as if the gnatcatcher and the eagle had not done enough to that end, the ubiquitous raven now took a hand at the business. My thoughts were just settling back into vacancy, when the ravens were seen to be commencing their regular afternoon progress to their roosting grounds, wherever those may be, on the other side of the city. A detachment of some scores was already on the move. And presently I observed what was to me a strange and interesting thing, although, for aught I can affirm to the contrary, it may be only an every-day occurrence.
A great part of the birds were playing by twos, one chasing the other, as if engaged in a frolic to which all parties were perfectly accustomed. I had not expected such a pitch of levity on the part of these black-suited, and as I should have thought, rather gloomy-natured scavengers. But they were going to roost, and like children at the hour of bedtime, they were making a lark of it. Perhaps the day’s picking had been uncommonly good; they had been over by a certain cattle slaughtering establishment; something, at all events, had put them in high spirits, and so Tom was having it out with Dick, and Bob with Harry. To look at them, it seemed as much fun as a pillow-fight, and as I have said, the greater part of the flock were engaged in it.
But the point I started to speak of was not the game itself, but a certain acrobatic feat by which it was accompanied. Again and again, in the course of their doublings and duckings, I saw the birds turn what looked to be a complete sidewise somersault. It may have been an optical illusion; probably it was; but if so, it was absolute. Sure I am that more than once I saw a bird flat on his back in the air (as flat on his back as ever a swimmer was in water), and to all appearance, as I say, he did not turn back, but came up like a flash on the other side. Fact or illusion, clean over or halfway over, it was a clever trick, and I could not wonder that the birds seemed to take pleasure in its repetition. I imagined they were as proud of it as a young gymnast ever was of his newly acquired back handspring. And why not? A man must be extremely well contented with himself, or possess a feeble imagination, not to feel sometimes a twinge of envy at sight of a bird’s superiorities.1
And while one flock of ravens were playing “it” in this brilliant fashion, another and larger flock were sailing in mazy circles after the manner of sea-gulls; a fascinating spectacle, to be witnessed here every afternoon by any who will be at the trouble to look up. More than once I have watched hundreds of the birds thus engaged, not all at the same elevation, be it understood, but circle above circle — a kind of Jacob’s ladder — till the top ones were almost at heaven’s gate. It is a good time to be out on the desert when the ravens are going to roost. And what with their soarings and tumblings, I have begun to think that perhaps the big hawk was not such an absolute fool, after all, to decline an aerial combat. The white-necked raven may be only a little larger kind of crow, but he is a wonder on the wing.
1 The trick was seen to fuller advantage on subsequent occasions, and I came to the settled conclusion that the birds turned but halfway over; that is to say, they lay on their backs for an instant, and then, as by the recoil of a spring, recovered themselves. How they acquired the trick, and for what purpose they practice it, are questions beyond my answering. Since my return home, indeed, I have discovered that Gilbert White, who noted so many things, noted this same habit on the part of the European raven. According to him, the birds “lose the centre of gravity” while “scratching themselves with one foot.” How he knows this he does not inform us, and I must confess myself unconvinced.