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Old Plymouth Trails
OLD PLYMOUTH TRAILS
So sang Felicia D. Hemans in the early years of the last century and she has been much derided by the thoughtless and irreverent who have said that the landing of the Pilgrims was not on a stern and rock-bound coast. Such scoffers evidently never sailed in by White Horse beach and "Hither Manomet" when a winter northeaster was shouldering the deep sea tides up against the cliff and a surly gale snatched the foam from high-crested waves and sent it singing and stinging inland. Could they have done this it would have been easy to understand that the coast here is stern and rock-bound in very truth. The rocks are not those of solid granite ledges, continuous portions of the great earth's lithosphere of which the coast is built farther north, at Scituate, Nahant, Rockport and farther on; but it is rockbound with massed granite boulders, glacier rounded, water-worn, but inexpressibly stern.
All Plymouth is made up of the results of pilgrimage. How many scores of fathoms deep the real Plymouth shore lies I do not know. It is down there somewhere where it cooled into bathylithic crust back in the gray dawn of time when the earth was made. There it is part of the same ledge of which Scituate and Cohasset are built. All above that is terminal moraine, rock detritus piled upon rock foundation by the glacier. Plymouth Rock itself thus came joy riding from some ledge up Boston way, alighting from this first and greatest New England Transportation System only a few hundred thousand years before Mary Chilton arrived to set foot upon it.
Tide and tempest grind pebbles to shifting sand and give and take away beach and bar yearly, but they do not move the boulders very fast. Manomet shore and even Plymouth beach are rock-bound with these, large and small, today as they were when the Pilgrims fought their desperate, sea-beset way by them through the dusk of a winter northeaster and froze in safety under the lee of Clark's Island.
He who would see Plymouth and the Pilgrim land about it as the Pilgrims saw it may do so. Nature holds grimly onto her own and sedulously heals the scars that man makes. Beat to windward in the December twilight following that first trail of the Pilgrim pinnace, listen to the sullen boom of the breakers on the cliff, hear the growl of the surf-mauled pebbles on Plymouth beach, feel the sting of the freezing spray and the bitter grip of the north wind and you shall find this first Pilgrim trail the same today as it was three hundred years ago.
Plymouth is a manufacturing city, a residence town, a resort and a thriving business centre all in one. Except in its carefully preserved shrines you shall find little suggestion of the Pilgrims themselves, but you have only to step out of town to find their very land all about you, traces of their occupancy, the very marks of their feet, worn in the earth itself. A trail cuts easily into the forest mould. Once well worn there centuries fail to remove it. The paths the Pilgrims trod radiate from Plymouth to a score of places far and near. They tramped to Sandwich and the canal region, to Middleboro, Bridgewater and Duxbury as we know them now, to Boston; sooner or later to all the world. Some of the trails they trod may be forgotten, some of them are main-travelled highways, others remain narrow footpath ways through a country beautiful and often as unsophisticated as it was when the feet of the first Pilgrims pressed them. Therein lies for all the world the chief charm of the Old Colony region. Along the old Pilgrim trails you may step from modern culture and its acme of civilization through the pasture lands of the Pilgrims into glimpses of the forest primeval. The Pilgrims' boulders, their kettle-hole ponds, mossy swamps and ferny hillsides, here and there their very forest trees, await you still. For Indian and panther you need not look; wolf or bear you will hardly see; the wild turkeys are gone; otherwise the wild life of the forest remains.
The first Pilgrim land trail is today Leyden street, leading from the water's edge to their fort on Burial Hill. You may follow it, though the marks of Pilgrim feet are buried beneath city pavement, save perhaps on the crest of the hill itself, and though bluebird and robin flutter shyly to its upper end in spring as, did their pilgrim fathers before them, the arbutus, from earliest days to this the Plymouth flower, no longer grows on its margin. He who has not longed to pick a mayflower in Plymouth on Mayday is not a New Englander. That is perhaps why the arbutus no longer grows along byways of the old town as once it did. Instead you must seek the Pilgrim paths out of town to find it.
One of these leads down along shore, over Manomet and on through Plymouth woods toward the old trysting place with the Dutch traders. The men of New Amsterdam, journeying in boats along Long Island Sound and up Buzzards Bay met the Plymouth men yearly and held a most decorous carnival of barter. Tradition has it that the Plymouth men made the trip by sea to the nearest point on the Bay shore. I do not know if the meeting place is known, but I know a moss-grown and gnarled red cedar on the margin of Buttermilk Bay, as we now call it, which I am sure was growing there when the first swapping of commodities took place and in the shade of whose branches the grave and sturdy traders may have sat.
Here and there in Pilgrim land you find a tree like that, one that by some chance the axe of the woodman has spared as one generation of wood cutters followed another, that still stands where the seed fell, no man knows how many centuries ago. We have trees in eastern Massachusetts to whom a thousand years is but as yesterday when it is passed, many on which the centuries have rested lightly. I think this Onset cedar one of these.
The road that leads from Plymouth to it is vexed daily by innumerable wheels; of a summer holiday the wayside watcher may count the motors by the thousand; yet you have but to step a rod or two off its tarred, tire-beaten surface to find wild woodland as primitive as it was three hundred years ago. The spring seeking motorist finds his first mayflowers there as the grade leads up Manomet heights and may expect them by the roadside anywhere, after that. The old trail to Sandwich saunters along here, but those who built for modern traffic took little heed of old-time footpath ways. They gouged the hills, they filled the hollows and drew their long black scar behind for mile after mile.
Like the deer and the wild fowl the old trails care little for this. They wander on their own gentle, untrammelled way, hither and yon, here beset by heavy forest growth, there a tangle of greenbrier and scrub oaks, losing you often, picking you up again when you least expect it, but always leading you off the humdrum highway of today into the gentle wildernesses of old time romance. You find them margined with marks of the pioneer. It may be just a hollow which was once his tiny cellar-hole or a rectangular mound where the logs of his cabin tumbled into the mould, perhaps a moss-grown, weather-beaten house itself with its barberry bush or its lilac still holding firmly where the pioneer householder set it. These old trails of the Plymouth woods may be just of one family's making, leading from house to pasture and woodlot, or they may be bits of an old-time footpath way first worked out by the Indians themselves no one knows how many centuries ago. Find me an eskar in Plymouth county, a "hogback ridge" as our forbears were wont to call it, and the chances are fair that along its narrow summit edge I'll show you an Indian trail. Sometimes the Pilgrim paths adopted these and later made them roadways.
As you go southward in this region you find traces of an ancient type of fencing that I have not seen elsewhere. It may have been a hedgemaker's trick, brought from the old country. The Cape pioneers slashed young white oaks growing along the road margin, bent them, say two feet above the ground, without severing, and laid them level, the tops bound tight with withes to the next trunk. Thus they had a fence that would restrain cattle and that grew stouter as the years went by. You find these trees growing thus today, their trunks a foot or two in diameter, bending at right angles just above ground and stretching horizontally, while what were once limbs now grow trunks from the grotesque butt. A remnant of fence like this along an almost obliterated trail in an ancient wood gives a hobgoblin character to the place.
The heath family, all the way from clethra which begins it to cranberry which ends it, dwells in beauty and diversity all about in the Plymouth woods, making them fragrant the year round. Some of them help feed the world, notably the cranberries and the huckleberries of a score of varieties from the pale, inch high, earliest sweet blueberries growing on the dry hillsides to the giants of the deep swamp, hanging out of reach above your head sometimes and as big as a thumb end. These provide manna for all who will gather it, from late June till early September, when the checkerberries ripen, to hang on all winter. Others make the world better for their beauty and fragrance and of these the ground laurel, the trailing arbutus, the mayflower, is best known and loved.
It is easy to fancy some sombre Pilgrim, weary with the woes of that first winter, his heart hungry for "the may" of English hedgerows, stepping forth some raw April morning which as yet showed no sign of opening spring buds, stopping as his feet rustled in brown oak leaves up Town Brook way, puzzled by the endearing, enticing fragrance on the wings of the raw wind. I always think of him as stopping for a moment to dream of home, looking about in a discouraged way for hawthorn which he knows is not there, then spying the little cluster of evergreen leaves with their pink and white blossoms nestling among the oak leaves at his very feet and kneeling to pluck and sniff them in some thing like adoration. It may not have been that way at all, but someone found that first mayflower and loved and named it.
The world at large, hurtling through Plymouth in its high-powered motor cars, stops along the road over Manomet and finds its arbutus there each May. I like to look for mine along the path that Billington took to his "sea," a way that leads out of Leyden street and up along Town Brook. I think the second oldest of the Plymouth land trails lies up that way. If the first was to and from the fort the second surely lay up along the brook, and I have an idea the Indians had preceded them in the making of this.
A great terminal moraine once blocked off Billington sea from the ocean, but Town Brook released it. Long before the Pilgrims came it had cut its valley through the great wall of gravel and occupied it in peace till latter day highways and factories came to vex it. In spite of these, unhampered bits of the original brook show in Plymouth itself and you are not far out of town before you see more of it.
It flows out of the "sea" unhindered now save by pickerel weed and sagittaria, rush and meadow grasses, and in woodsy places by brook alder, clethra, huckleberry and spice-bush that lean into it as they wrestle with greenbrier and clematis. The mayflower snuggles into the leaves along its drier upper margins, here and there, and is to be found on the borders of the "sea" more plentifully. Plymouth has done well in making of this region a park, beautifying it mainly by letting it alone, merely cutting new Pilgrim trails through it. Billington's path along the pond shore is thus made easy for your feet and is marked with his name that you may not miss it. But if you would see the real Billington path, made for him by generations of Indians before his day but the one that I believe he trod, you will look nearer the water's edge. There, tangled amidst undergrowth now, buried deep in brown autumn leaves, it is yet visible enough, cut into the soft sand of the pond bank. In places it is cut deep. In places it is all but obliterated or vanishes altogether for a little way, perhaps divides into two or three as the local needs of moccasined travellers called for, but all along the pond margin it goes. This is an old Plymouth trail indeed, linking the Plymouth of today with that of the time of the Pilgrims, and long before. There are many such that lead out of Plymouth, glimpsing for us the world of three hundred years ago mirrored in the eyes, the ideas, the ideals of today. Let us search them out.