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ALONG THE SALT MARSHES
When the wind is east Sumner's Islands seems to tug at its moorings like a cruiser swinging at a short hawser in the shelter of Stony beach. If you will stand on the tip of its gray rock prow and face the sea it is hard not to feel the rise and fall of surges under you, and in fancy you have one ear cocked for the boatswain's whistle and the call to the watch to bear a hand and get the anchor aboard. Just a moment and you will feel the pulse of the screw, hear the clink-clank of shovels and slice-bars, tinkling faintly up the ventilator; one bell will sound in the engine room and under slowest speed she will fall away from the sheltering beach, round the fragrant greenery of the Glades rocks and, free from their buttressing, prance exultantly to four bells and a jingle out into the surgent tumult of the roaring sea. Wow! but the fancy sets your blood to bubbling and your pulse to swinging in rhythm with the long surges that leap about Minot's and froth white over Chest ledge and the Willies, that come on to drown the inner Osher rocks in exultant whirlpools and fluff the loose stones of the beach into a foam that ripples over the breakwater into the road that snuggles behind it.
But that is when the wind is east and really blows, when November has stripped the oak and hickory upper works of the cruiser bare of leaves and she stands grim in her gray war-paint, ready for the winter's battles. Now she is gay in summer greenery and many a string of flower signals flutters from mast head and signal yard. You must go astern to get the wind in your face, for now it sings gently in from the west across a mile of salt marsh, pools of imprisoned tide where night-herons feed and tiny crabs and cobblers scurry -to shelter beneath the mud at the jar of your footfall, winding creeks that twice a day brim with silver water, and levels of quivering marsh grass, to Cohasset harbor and the green hillsides of the Jerusalem road.
The island is an island by courtesy only at this time of year, aground in the green marsh. The bashful tides of summer yearn shyly toward it, and twice every twenty-four hours stretch soft white arms up the creeks from Cohasset harbor to the east and the west and fondle it. They hold it close at the hour of flood, but hand does not clasp hand about it, and the dry sand that links it to the beach and the breakwater is not wet. When the autumn winds shall come and the sea shakes itself out of its summer lethargy and asserts its power and will not be denied, it is different. At such times it roars over the beach and the breakwater and drowns the white sands that have kept the hands of its summer tides apart. It marches deep green up Cohasset harbor and brims the slender creeks. It passes their limits at a leap, and swirls in defiant, dogged depths over the drowned marshes. Then the island is an island in very truth, and the sea takes his love upon his broad bosom and rocks it, not always so tenderly. No man can guess the power of the floods and the deep sea currents herded by an easterly gale till he has seen the leaping of the flood tide at such a time.
Now it is a time of July gentleness and fripperies of color. The salt marsh, to be sure, never lacks these, even in the dead of winter, when high tides continually load it with sea ice, and then receding leave it piled with fantastic hummocks and pressure ridges like the Arctic sea. It has gleams of emerald and azure welling from its hummocks under gray skies. The tattered crimson of windy sunsets gets tangled in its floes and flutters in ragged beauty, and it treasures the sun's gold in the dusk of still evenings. Spring tints it with soft graygreens and autumn seems to use it for a mixing pot for the coloring of the October woods. All their flame and gold are there, toned to soft warm browns and tender olives just flecked with crimson and with yellow flame.
Looking westward from the island at high tide this morning you could see already deep hints of this coming autumn coloring, swelling out of the deep green of grasses that make up the main carpeting of the marsh, touches of brown and olive that are singularly pleasing to the eye under the summer blue of the sky and its fleecy flecking of white clouds. Amid these, scattered here and there, round eye-like pools reflect this summer blue and fleecy whiteness and. all along the island's verge and that of other islands and the borders of the Glades was the pink of wild roses and morning glories, both of which seem to thrive better and bloom later in the season here than inland. But the softest and loveliest coloring that the marsh will ever get is that which the gray mists of early morning seem to have brought in and left like a fragrant memory of themselves, the lavender gray of the marsh-rosemary. "There's rosemary; that's for remembrance," said Ophelia, and many a lover of sea and marsh-side will carry longest in memory the gentle sadness that the tint of the sea-lavender gives the marsh when all its other colors are still those of the flush joy of summer. Remembering Ophelia, marsh-rosemary seems its best name, though you have a right to sea-lavender if you wish. If the sea fogs did not bring it as an essence of the first glimpse of dawn in gray ocean spaces, then I am convinced that the loving tides bear it as a gift to the island and scatter it shyly at its feet, after dark.
You have but to wander about the shores of the island at the marsh line to find strange evidence of this gift-bearing propensity of the shy tides. Trinkets of all sorts that they gather in travels in distant seas the tides bring and lay lovingly at the roots of black oak and sweet gum, hickory and stag-horn sumac. Here is bamboo that for all I know grew near the head waters of the Orinoco, though it may have sprouted in the Bahamas, floated north by the Gulf Stream, shunted from its warm edge into the chill of the Labrador current and drawn thence by the Cohasset tides. Beside this lies a cask ripped from the deck of a Gloucester fishing schooner that sought the halibut even on the chill banks that lie just south of the point of Greenland. And so they come, chips from a Maine shipyard, wreckage from a Bermuda reef, and a thousand tiny things picked up at points between.
But the tides bring to the marsh and the island in it, to all shores that they touch here on our Atlantic seaboard, more than this. They bear deep in their emerald hearts, generated in their cool, clear depths, a rich vivific principle that bears vigor to all that they touch and sends rich emanations forth on the air beyond. Today on the inland hills and land-bound pastures the sun beat in sullen insolence and the wind from the west scorched and wilted the life in all things. The same wind, coming to me across two miles of salt marsh, had in its cool, salty aroma a life-giving principle that set the pulse to bounding and renewed vigor. It had gathered up from the marsh this tonic of the tides, this elixir vitae which all the doctors of the world have sought in vain. Some day some one of them, wiser than the rest, will distil its potency from the cool salt of sea tides, and humanity, poor hitherto, will find itself rich in possibilities of physical immortality. Sea captains have a foolish custom of settling down at eighty to enjoy life on shore, else there is no knowing how long they would live. They have breathed the aroma of this life-giving essence all their lives.
Yet the sea itself is dead; it is a vast accumulation of the product of complete combustion, hydrogen burnt out. But just as dead worlds, which are the molecules of infinite space, shocking together, burst into spiral nebulae of flame which are the beginnings of live suns and planets and all luxuriant life thereon, so it seems as if the atoms of sea water, ever rushing to restless collision, burst continually into renewed life. All forms are in it, from the mightiest mammals to the protozoa which the microscope suspects rather than surely discovers. Every time molecule touches molecule in the depths, a new spark of tiny life must flare up, else never so many could inhabit the water. The coarser aggregations of these we see in bewildering profusion and variety every time the tides fall back and leave the rocks bare. At the bottom of the ebb I like to climb perilously down the rough Glades cliffs to life-brooding pools and inlets, where lazy waves swirl or are for a brief hour cut off. At the half-tide line the rock that is a reddish granite becomes chalky white with the shells of barnacles that cover every inch of space from there down. Acorn-like, they cluster closer than ever acorns did on the most prolific oak. After the tides reach them as they rise, the whole surface of the rock must be fuzzy with their curved cirri of tongues which protrude and lap the rising waves. Their number is legion, yet how infinite must be the fine floating life, so fine that we cannot note that it clouds the limpid water, on which these sessile gray creatures feed.
Below a certain level these are crowded out by the mussels which grow in such dense accumulations that they cling not only to the rock but to one another and to stubby brown seaweed till they are like nothing so much as pods of bees swarming about their queen. So dense is this grouping of living creatures that the inner ones are smothered by their crowding fellows and serve merely as a foundation on which these build. Even among these swarm starfishes and limpets and other crustaceans, and streamers of kelp squirm out from the rock where they keep slender hold, to sway in the restless water, just as all the rocks above a certain depth and below a certain height are olive black with dense hangings of rockweed while in depths that are just awash at low tide they are olive brown with unending mats of Irish moss. These are but the forms of overwhelming life that meet the eye on first descending into the cool depths. To name all that may be noted in just the pause of a single ebb would be to become a catalogue.
Yet howsoever vivid the life or astounding by its multiplicity it is not impressions of these that linger long after one has come up from the bottom of the ebb. It is rather that here one has breathed the air of the deep life laboratory of the world, that into his lungs and pores and all through his marrow has thrilled a breath of that subtle essence, that life renewing principle which Fernando de Soto sought in the fountain of youth which he thought bubbled from Florida sands but which in reality foamed beneath his furrowing keel as he ploughed the sea in search of it. It is the same thrill which the wilting west wind steeps from the salt marsh as it comes across, some baffling and alluring ether distilled from under-sea caverns where cool green mermen tend emerald fires. The scent of it levitates from the wash of every wave and if you will watch with pure eyes and clear sight you may of moonlight nights see white-bodied mermaids flashing through the combers to drink of it. No wonder these are immortal.
Nor can you take from the things of the sea this life-giving essence, once they have attained it through growth during immersion in its depths, though perchance, as Emerson sang, "they left their beauty on the shore, with the sun and the sand and the wild uproar." The shell on the mantel shelf of the mariner's inland home may be unsightly and out of place. But put your ear to it. Out of the common noises of the day, it weaves for you the song of the deep tides, the murmur of ocean caves and the croon of the breakers on the outer reef, and dull indeed is your inner ear if you cannot hear these things, and at the sound see the perfect curl of green waves and smell that cool fragrance which comes only from their breaking.
To the marshes in summer come the farmers from far inland, making holiday for themselves while they work. They cut the short salt hay that seems so stiff and tough, that is so soft and velvety, in fact, and pile it on their wains and take it home to the cattle that like it better than any English hay that they can cut from the carefully tilled home fields. Indeed the cattle ought to like this hay. It is soft as the autumn rowen, and mixed with all the delicate, fragrant herbs of the marsh. The tang of the sea salt is in it, and no man knows what delicate essence borne far on the wandering tides to the flavoring of its fibre. No matter how long you may leave this hay in the mow you have but to stir it to get the soft rich flavor of the sea and breathe a little of that salty vigor which seems to go to the seasoning of the best of life. I have an idea the cattle love it for this too, and as they chew its cud inherited memory stirs within them, and they roam the marshes with the aurochs and tingle with the savage joy of freedom.
Out along the rocks to seaward at low tide go the mossers and with long rakes rip the carragheen from its hold and load their dories with its golden-brown masses. Then they bring it ashore and spread it out in the sun as the farmers do their hay, that it may dry and bleach. Just as the salt hay, touched for a brief happy hour at each tide with the cool strength of the sea, retains the flavor of it always, so the Irish moss that grows in the depths and is hardly awash at the lowest of the ebb, overflows with it and is so bursting with this fragrance of the unknown that no change that comes to it can drive it out. When the wind is off-shore and you may not scent the sea, when the sun bakes the hot sand and dries the blood so that it seems as if the only way to prolong life is to wade out neck deep in the surges and there stay until the wind comes from the east again, you have but to go to the leeward of these piles of bleaching carragheen to find it giving forth the same cooling fragrance which the tides have made a part of its structure. You may take this moss home with you and cook it, but the heat of your fire will no more destroy its essence than did the heat of the sun, and in your first mouthful of the produce, which may in appearance give no hint of its origin, you taste the cool sea depths and feel yourself nourished as if with some vital principle.
It is no wonder that under the glare of the midsummer sun people forsake the arid uplands and the vast, heat scorched plains of the interior and find renewed life and vitality on the borders of the Atlantic seaboard. The sea in the beginning was the mother of all life and we do not know what forms of future perfection she is now nourishing as filmy protoplasm in her depths. She gives us cool fogs to the reopening of our shrivelled pores and just by walking along shore we are touched by this vivific principle which gives such riotous life to all things. There is a saying among Eastern Massachusetts farmer folk that if you will bathe three times in the salt water during the summer you will not feel the cold of the coming winter. Thus is the old myth revived and the modern Achilles may find invulnerability beneath the Styx, nor need his heel be left above the tide for his undoing. And the sea has more than that to give us, more than physical well-being and invulnerability to the arrows of the winter winds. Out of the green depths come still the mysterious and the unknown and up over the blue rim sail day by day argosies laden with romance. Thus it has always been nor can the peopling of many lands and the finding and exploring of all continents and islands check this. However it may be with the cattle it is this which gives tang to our salt hay and touches the reviving coolness of the spray and the east wind with the rainbow magic of dreams.