Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
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AFTER THE SUMMER.
JOCUND country harvests; blessed dying days of the spent year, — how delightful, seen from an upland, was the exuberance of your finished vegetation! Farms were like gardens, with patches of corn and later grain and clover and soft-tinted second grass. Orchards were full of apple heaps; pumpkins and squashes dotted the fields; sumachs flaunted by the roadside and outlined the walls; forests were aflame; bushes kindled in field and pasture. The earth was alive with workers. The life of every household seemed to have poured itself out upon the landscape, to which, beyond the brightness given to it by the deep-dyed colors of the perfected year, was added that after-glow of the summer, which marks the true harvest days. These days are the richest of the year, for they hold its dying, its life, and its resurrection. They are full of its miracles. The incoming season is pushing out the old; and the husks which are thrust out in the process, the stubble of the cornfields, the withered vines and weeds, the things that have been blighted by frost, or sapped by the fruits which they have borne, lie thick on the brown earth. The refuse of the outgone life and its incoming fruits are fused together in a sort of mellowed glory, — a final and transient burst of brightness from the spent season, which is giving back to the farmer tenfold for his labors.
To one driving at night through the country, what can surpass its beauty, the offspring of its devastation? Over all, fair and solemn and stately, watches the harvest moon. There is a gray glitter to everything. Objects bristle in the clear, cold air. Shadows beset wood and highway, and lie upon rock and hillock and field and pasture. Shadows lurk in corners, stalk before and stretch out behind. The whole landscape takes life. Trees and fences seem to move, and far-away objects play pranks with your horse. Every sound is crisp in this night air. The frisking of your little dog through the wayside bushes snaps their twigs like the click of pistols. Anything stirring in the wood, or out of it, sends an echo flying over the resonant fields. Farm-houses and barns are bright with harvest lights. Distance and moonlight lend charm to mild festivities, and girls, seen from the highway, move and work amongst their sheaves with a classic grace. If the doors of the barns are shut, then from cracks and crevices and gable windows streams the ruddy light, and merry as bells burst out the singing voices of young men and maidens. Their songs are mostly quaint ballads, swelling full upon the night air.
One of these old barns was an attractive place, with its ceiling lofty and cobwebbed, its gable-windows far up and dusty and dim, its walls flanked on either side by solid mows of sweet-smelling hay, which clung to the boards and beams way up to the rafters. It was full of the odor of the dried ferns and flowers that had been entangled and cut down with the grasses; and ladders and working-tools, leaning against its mows, blended in beauty with its many-shaded browns, as did every senseless thing and dumb beast and living man within its walls.
Behold an ancient husking-party, — merry gathering. The barn is dimly lighted by candles in tin Ianthorns, hung high on pegs. The homely structure suffers a night-change into a lofty hall, with arches and stained roof and fretted beams. A new life seems to be born into the withered grass. It clings to and twines about the jagged wood with a fantastic carving. A whole year has gone into the mixing of the colors of this picture, in the shadows of which sit the huskers of the corn harvest. The brawny arms of young men and the plump arms of maidens keep time to their music. Some are breaking the ears from the stalk; others are stripping the husks from the ear, lightening their tasks with the babble of flying tongues. Stout men bear brimful baskets of golden ears to the granary; heaps of cast-off stacks are made compact; crisp white husks pile up against the shoulders of the girls and fly about their ears; cheeks grow red and eyes brighten; spirits rise; jokes are cracked; pranks played; and many a flirtation plied with unconscious grace; The end comes at length, the last basket is sent out, the husking is over. The thrifty farmer, who has slyly put back his clock and delayed his supper, blows a horn, and just as the lanthorns begin perhaps to wane, out from the barn burst the rustic merrymakers, eager for the harmless festivities of farm-house parlor and kitchen.
The supper is abundant, homely, and wholesome, and the huskers, with appetites sharpened by labor, partake heartily of it. The hardy workers keep no late hours, and midnight finds the farm-house silent and deserted, whilst groups of merry youths send their chatter and laughter echoing back from lane and field.
On the morrow the host will go out early to inspect his granary, and make right any careless assorting of ears. The stalks will be stowed away on highest mow for future feed. If kindly disposed, he will leave the ragged butts to be picked over by careful housewives. How forlorn these women looked, with shawls pinned over their heads, rummaging for white husks; intent, silent, plying their task with bare and sinewy arms, their wrinkled, careworn faces tanned by exposure, it was hard to think of them as having once been rosy, laughing girls, handsome helpers at bygone huskings. They tramped along the highway with crowded baskets and bundles, satisfied, and unconscious that in thus taking up the fag-end of the harvest they were only gray workers and bearers of burdens. Their husks made sweet beds, and the mats they plaited were serviceable and cleanly.
Busy, prudent, working woman! the same thrift which has spread her joints and hardened her face has also helped to build her comfortable home; Here are the shining pans on the bench beside her; the kitchen-garden, just beyond, alive with bees; the water-barrel, half buried in sunflowers; the plantains and burdocks; the wood-pile, tossed about, with axe and chopping-block near it, — all incidents of a pleasant picture, for this is the backdoor of a farm-house, and this woman the simple housewife, whose walk in life is with these homely things.
She was plump and fair and rosy-cheeked once. In childhood she roamed the fields and pastures, and went to the village school. As she grew older she had much heart in rustic merriment. She showed taste in dress and a love for flowers. A natural grace was born in her. Something called gentility came to her, so that the garments she wore fitted and became her. She had her little romance, begun and ended at an apple-bee or husking. Dressed in her prettiest frock, with a bright ribbon at her throat, she was then most unlike this hard-faced woman standing by her door. Here she is a background to part of her belongings. She has burnished the pans, and weeded the garden, and dipped water from the barrel day after day. Suns have risen and set, years have begun and ended, and the wearisome cares have also come round in never-varying procession, until she has gotten to be what you now see her, a patient, faded worker, — the spinner and weaver and purveyor of a household.
These hand-maidens of nature, isolated from art, unconsciously expressed much beauty in their humble wares. The webs they wove were unadulterated, pliant, and lustrous; their dyes, drawn from homely weeds, were rich and tenacious; their polished bowls, scooped out from knotted wood, were prettier than any silver plate; their flax-wheels were stringed instruments; and many things of their daily handling were elegant for shape or color.
Who has ever seen a more pleasing sitting-room than that of many an old-fashioned country-house, with its deep-toned homespun carpet, its dark mahogany, its tall clock in the corner, its narrow mantel, high up, filled with sea-shells and a stray vase or two; its low walls; its windows shaded by lilacs and overhanging elms? The brass knobs on drawers and doors, and in chimney-corners, were pleasant spots of brightness. The brass-tipped, lion-clawed table-legs were the best-made things of their kind. The clock in the corner, with its quaint machinery, its involved registering, and its loud ticking, was the unlying chronicler which was to last long after the family died, — a thing beautiful for the richness of its material and the stately expression of its form. A soft brown pervaded the room, which was brightened through its windows by more perfect landscapes than could be bought for money, perfumed by scents which no art could bind up for sale; The curtains and carpets, the threads of which were dyed with barks and weeds, had the wild color of things which had grown in fields and woods.
Farm-houses were busy as bee-hives in autumn with the peculiar work of the season. Their sunny sides were hung with strings of sliced apples and pumpkins; yards were littered with barrels and casks and loaded carts; sheds were crammed with the outpouring of the year. The women were eagerly taking up the loose-lying threads of their work, chopping, pickling, preserving, assorting their butter and cheese for the market, setting their dyes, and making their woollen webs into garments.
When the harvests had been gathered in, the mellow flavor of them seemed to pervade the whole house; and there was not a room which was not in some way graced by the products of the past year. The garret was crammed, and the kitchen beams were hung thick with earth-grown things: strings of bright peppers, bunches of herbs, long-necked squashes, braided seed-corn, and much else precious to the farmer, — summer forage of his fields. The most valued gifts of his farm were kept here, in sight and out of reach, — the sacred seedlings of the coming year. The cellar beneath was full of the fatness of the past season. From its bins came the odor of many field crops; out of casks and barrels the scent of the year's vintage.
The farmer is planted in his chimney-corner. His year's work is over, his harvest is gathered in. Asleep by his hearth-stone, with the ruddy firelight dancing over him, he is a picture of calm content, — an honest man, with few wants, enriched by nature, and so made happy by her. His room is also fire-gilded into a place of rare delight. The fruits which he has by hard labor wrought out of the earth's bosom, strung over and around him, cling like carved things to the beams and walls; so that, without knowing it, this homely man sits, a life study, by his own hearth-stone.
With the ending of the harvest peace seemed to fall upon the farm-houses; they were filled with the glow of blazing fires and the interning of the out-of-doors life. It was a simple, sweet life. Memories of winter evenings spent at my grandfather's come back to me; They bring to me the glory of age, the simplest forms of domestic life, and the beauty of winter landscapes. They give to me a perfect fireside picture in a quaintly-furnished room, in the chimney-corner of which sits an old man with flowing white hair, a beautiful old man. Outside, to the far-away horizon, stretches the undulating, snow-covered landscape, on which, in gray outline upon a white ground, one sees many beautiful things which were hidden by the verdure of summer; many shapes which have been revealed by the dying of leaves and grass. Skeleton trees and bushes and naked woods seem to be thrust out in aerial mezzotint — soft, gray, and shadowy. The piercing firelight streams through the windows, and stretches out and joins hands with the moonbeams, and goes dancing over field and pasture, even to the far-off hills.