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THE PASTURE IN NOVEMBER
In late autumn the pasture is a place of ghosts, yet ghosts so friendly withal that one walks among them unafraid. November is the month of transition when many of the pasture folk pass on to another, perhaps a better life. The bluejays stop their harsh teasing screams now and then to toll a clear, musical passing bell for these, and the nuthatches are goblin gabriels blowing eerie trumps of resurrection to which the spirits of the bee people drone a second as they wing their way onward. The great white town of the white-faced hornets is conspicuous on the blueberry bush down in the far corner and within it are the husks of a few of its once roaringly busy inhabitants. But it is very quiet and only a few of the husks remain. The others are scattered the pasture over and on them the shrubs drop red fruit and wreathed beauty or autumn leaves, in memoriam. The bumblebees, the yellow-jackets and many another variety of scintillant, fairy-winged wild bee are with them. Their summer, like ours, is gone, and they with it, though a few of the young queen mothers are safely tucked away in warm crevices, to sleep secure until May wakes them for the peopling of the place once more.
I had thought May with its tender pastels of young color and its bubbling joy of spring song the most beautiful month in this gentle world of out-of-doors, but that was in May. Now I am convinced that November in its ethereal serenity is loveliest. May held but the vivid joy of ecstatic expectation; November speaks with the peace of fulfilment and the calm understanding of those who look with clear eyes into another world.
Between midnight and dawn I fancy the pasture folk who are still this side the pale get their farthest glimpse into the world which lies beyond. The pasture on whose bosom they dwell sleeps deeply then, its breathing not even faintly rustling the frost-browned leaves of the white oaks, not even sighing those ancient, druidical hymns through the pine tops. Sometimes as I stand with them I try to feel this bosom rise and fall in the slow rhythm of deep slumber, but even on such nights with the senses aquiver with expectation of the unknown I fail. I dare say the fox that slips along the winding paths at dawn and the little screech owl that calls lonelily to his mate note without noticing these and many other things in which our human perception fails. Man cultivates his brains to the dulling of his senses and builds a wall of useless possessions, attainments and entertainment about him till he hears only a few things and sees but through tiny chinks like the prisoner in a dungeon. Yet we are not altogether endungeoned. We are beginning to know our danger and cry "back to the woods," which may yet be the slogan of our next emancipation. It is a long path back for some of us and to cover it at a bound has its dangers. The earthworm shrivels in the sudden sun and to leap from the city block to the depths of the woods is to suffer from the "growing pains" of awakening, atrophied senses. The half-way ground is the pasture which once was the forest, which later was man's, and where now nature and human-nature mingle in friendly truce. In the depths of the woods the town draws me toward itself. In the city I long for the woods, In the pasture is the smiling truce of the two forces.
In the one I know best, as in most of our New England pastures, the cattle have long ceased to browse and men came only because nature draws them thither. The wild creatures seem to sense this and to lose much of their woodland fear of me. Last night, in the first promise of the gray of dawn a fox barked at my camp door, scratching at the threshold as if he were the house dog, asking to be let in out of the cold and lie at the fire. I heard the barnyard roosters faintly crowing in the distance, but a little screech owl called clearly on a limb just beyond the ridge-pole. The roosters' cry had in it nothing but self-gratulatory bombast. I know town-dwarfed men that talk like that. The owl's call was to his mate, as was the roosters', but there was no bombast in its plaint, just a mournfulness of endearment, a touch of tears at the silence and delay. After a little the other came and all the mournfulness went out of the tone. Instead there was cooing in its quality as the two talked reassuringly a moment. The first call is of six or eight notes that start high and tremulo down the owl's diatonic scale to a low one that has a round, flute-like quality though the whole sounds as if it were made somewhere else and were merely echoing from the wood. The bird is as hard to locate by sound as an echo would be and is usually much nearer than it seems when I hear him. The second call is the last note of the first one, three or four times repeated with such rapidity that it has a flute-like reverberation that is almost like a round and very musical purr. The cry of this bird has been called eerie and disquieting, but I do not think it so, even in the loneliness of the question call. The satisfied one is as gentle and cuddly as one can find among birds.
The pasture ghosts of still November nights are apt to be most portentous between the hours of midnight and dawn. The giants of eld stall noiselessly about them, figures of gray mist out of a world of silence. Sometimes they rise like simulacrums of ancient forest trees out of grassy spots that by day were cosey with sunshine and enclosed by barberry bushes hung with coral fruit and prim cedars, spots where no tree has stood these hundred years. Anon they change to dim figures of preposterous beasts, called back to earth for a brief hour while the old moon, worn and thin, rises through them, a nebulous red crescent, and the stars fade, yet show dimly through like the moon, proving that these are but disembodied monsters. Sometimes they wait till dawn bids them dematerialize before it. More often winter, which is most apt to steal in upon us late at night in November, breaks their backs with the weight of his cold and spreads them as hoar frost upon all things below, showing us how thin and of little substance they really are. Sometimes this breakage comes with the first gleams of morning light and I feel the chill of their passing as they sink slowly to the grass. They are beautiful in their eerie suggestions as they flout my three o'clock in the morning courage, but lovelier far when they sparkle on the grass and shrubs under the sudden flare of the rising sun. I fancy that with clearer light all our gorgons and chimeras dire will become but sparkling fairies, for these certainly do. Twig and leaf and grass spear bend with the clusters of them. I see the fluff of their ermine garments, their tossing white plumes, and get the glint of their jewels, breaking up the white light into multiple rainbows that flash all the pasture world with a dainty glamour of romance. Just as the touch of winter, slipping down from the far north tinder cover of darkness, first raises these spectres, then lays them, so the sun makes their cheery, frostwork beauty a marvel of delight for a brief time, then sends it back to the earth whence it sprang and wipes away all tears from the eyes of the shrubs and grasses that weep at losing such delicate beauty.
In those crisp morning hours of early sunlight all the ghosts are laid. The winter chill which made them has frozen them all out of the air. The twigs and leaves that gave them refuge have wept and kissed them good-bye at the shout of the oncoming sun and no suggestion from the world beyond meets the eye. The ghost chill is frozen out of the sky with the ghosts; the wine of the morning is so poured through the dry air that you must drink it to the lees whether you will or not. Such mornings as you have had in April you may get in November, nor hardly can you tell without the assistance of the almanac which season it is. The bare twigs have the flush of expectancy on them, the blushing hope of new buds, as soon as the leaves of the year are off them. It may not be so bright and winning, but you will not note the difference, for it is there, painted during the ripening of this year's leaves. If it were not that some of these still cling the illusion might be complete.
There too, to be sure, are the brown stems of the pasture goldenrod standing stiffly as if to state with grim definiteness that all rainbow hopes are folly and there will be no more blossoming for them. Their leaves are dun and sere where they have not already fallen and their tops that in early September were such soft cumulus clouds of golden yellow are but scrawny clots of brown, draggled by the tears in which the sudden sun has drowned the pasture. Yet these least of all should be pessimistic in November, for as the sun dries their tears another summer comes back to them and to us, Indian summer, which is the finest season of the year. The Indian winter of the dark hours before dawn steals dawn with all spears pointed for the massacre of the summer flowers that still linger unprotected, and the white magic of its own cold changes the spears to delicate, tiny frost fronds and blooms on all the outdoor world. Then, with the full day, comes Indian summer, slipping along all the pasture paths and lingering in the sheltered hollows among the evergreens. In her presence all the sorrowing plants seem to lift their heads and a new blossom time comes back to the brown, despondent goldenrod. A warmth glows in its pith which is as dear as that of its prime yet has in it some of the stir of autumn crispness. Under its power the draggled clots that once were flowers lift, fluff out, bud and bloom as does the magic plant under the potent spell of the sorcerer of the Far East. You may see on such Indian summer mornings the florets of these dead goldenrod stems lifting and spreading and before your very eyes the plant bursts into bloom once more. These blooms are the day-time ghosts with which the November pastures are full, misty gray flowers that stand on the same receptacles that held the yellow blooms of late summer, but are lovelier far than the first blossoms were. Each dewy night, each rainy day, they shrivel and seem to pass but the warmth of the sun and the drying wind need but a brief hour in which to bring them all out again. After Indian summer has gone for good and the December snows are deep the stiff stems will still hold these renewing gray blooms above the drifts and make all the pasture beautiful with the ghosts of summer flowers. Nor, lovely as they are to my eye, will they be less beautiful to the winter chippies, the goldfinches, juncos and a host of other seed-eating birds who will find them bountifully spread for their delectation all the winter through. On rainy days I like to bring these brawn stems into camp and, setting them by the glow of the open fire, see them bloom as they dry out. It is a most magical flowering and to be one's own wizard is one of the delightful, privileges of being a November sojourner in the pasture.
For all the Indian winter which some nights ago brought us a temperature of twenty degrees and left ice a half-inch thick on shallow pools many of the pasture folk hold their summer attire well. The wild apple trees have hardly made a change, holding plentiful leaves whose green is dulled by a little, and otherwise defies the season. The bayberry has leaves as glossy green and unmarked by any sign of approaching winter as it held in August, and though the taller wild cherry trees show autumnal tints the younger ones are still in fresh green. This tendency of the young sprouts to hold on and deny the winter I note on many young trees. The birches are in the main bare but the young wood at the very tops, and the tips of sprouts from the stumps of trees that have been cut, still hold leaves whose pale yellow simulates flowers, as if the trees, like the witch-hazel, had decided to bloom only at the very last moment, preferring the Indian summer to that which came to us in the full flush of June. So it is with the blueberry shrubs. The pinky-red top twigs hold their foliage still but they have sent some of their own flush up into these leaves and they hang there like pasture poinsettias, waiting to be part of the red of Christmas decorations. The meadow-sweet is in the bloom again, but instead of pinky white racemes topping the whorled green on its brown stalk the leaves themselves bloom in pale yellow with pinky flushes that make it as truly a sweet thing of the meadow as when it called the bees in July. The red alders add the coral of their berries and the barberries give the deep rich red of their fruit through which the sun shines with the ruby effect of stained glass windows, The November pasture is less profuse in its colors than it is in earlier autumn but one sees farther in it, and clearer. There are times when the gray walls of its maples and hickories stand illumined by the sunlight slanting through the vivid colors of its remaining foliage till the place glows with rich lights and seems a cathedral in which one ought to be able to hear the roll of anthems and the chant of bowed worshippers.
Such are its changing moods on November nights and days. The constant features are the pines and cedars. Summer and winter alike these stand unchanged, types of constancy and vigor. Yet, though there is no change, one who loves them both can at a time of year see a certain variation. This comes with the spire-like cedars, that stand so erect and point ever heavenward in close-drawn robes of priestly solemnity, in early May. Then for a few brief days the glow of spring sunshine gets into their blood and they gleam with hidden bloom through the olive green of their gowns, lighting up like sombre faces that unexpectedly smile and are flooded with sunlight. The pines, too, bloom in spring, but conspicuously on their branch tips. The candles they light then serve only to accentuate the sober, dark green of their gowns. But in September, the pines shed their last year's leaves that have grown a little dull and rusty with long service, and now stand forth clean and more vividly green than at any other time of year.
The deciduous trees follow the fashions and change their suits for the prevailing mode three or four times a year, yet it is true of them that nature unadorned is adorned the most. There is a beauty in the bare wood standing revealed in November that they never had in the flush of June or the glory of early October. There is nothing in flower or leaf that can match the exquisite harmony of the bark tints, nor can the foliage in mass so please the eye as the delicate tracery of twigs and the matchless contour of tapering limbs. In the November birch or maple the dryad herself stands revealed.
It is not so with the pines. They change gowns so decorously and the new one is so like the old in its simple lines and perfect good taste that we are unaware of the transition. There is a perfection of dignity and serenity about a free-grown pasture pine that I find equalled in no other tree. These are druids of eld, if you will, harpers hoar, plucking wild symphonies from the tense wires of the storm wind's three-stringed harp. Yet the dryad dwells within them as well, and on gentler days they show her in many phases of queenly womanhood. They mother the romping shrubs, the slender, maidenly birches, the maples, vainglorious in their dainty spring colors, their voluminous summer robes, their gorgeous autumn gowns, and they do it all with a kindly dignity that endears, while they stand high above all these in their perfection of simplicity. They can be tender without unbending, and in their soothing shadow is balm for all wounds. Tonight the sky is black with rain that tramps with its thousand feet on the camp roof and marches endlessly on. The wind is from the east and the pines sing its song of wild and lonely spaces. Yet one great tree that was old with the wisdom of the world before I was born stretches a limb to the camp window, and in the flicker of the firelight I see it stroke it caressingly with soft leaf fingers and twigs that bend back at the stroke. It is like the hand of a child reaching to its mother's breast with wordless love and tenderness inexpressible. The caress makes a lullaby of the weird song above, and in it I hear no longer the lonely cry of ghostly space, but only one more expression of the homely peace and mother love that seems to dwell always in the sheltered nooks of the pasture.