Here to return to
A GREEN MOUNTAIN CORN-FIELD.
Thus, without theft, I reap another's field. — SIDNEY LANIER.
I WAS passing some days of idleness in a shallow Vermont valley, situated at an elevation of fifteen or sixteen hundred feet, circled by wooded hills, and intersected by an old turnpike, which connects the towns near Lake Champlain with the region beyond the mountains. Small farmhouses stood here and there along the highway, while others were scattered at wide intervals over the lower slopes of the outlying hills.
With all the brightness and freshness of early summer upon it, it was indeed an enchanting picture; but even so, one could not altogether put aside a feeling of something like commiseration for the people who, year in and year out, from babyhood to old age, found in this narrow vale, with its severity of weather, and its scarcity of social comforts and opportunities, their only experience of what we fondly call this wide, wide world.
From my inn I had walked eastward for perhaps a mile; then at the little schoolhouse had taken a cross-road, which presently began to climb. Here I passed two or three cottages (one of them boasting the singularity of paint), and after a while came to another, which appeared to be the last, as the road not far beyond struck into the ancient forest. First, however, it ran up to a small plateau, where, out of sight from the house, lay a scanty quarter of an acre, in which the old parable, “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear,” was in the primary stage of its fresh annual fulfillment. The ground was but newly cleared, and the brambles still felt themselves its true and rightful possessors. Who was this puny-looking, good-for-nothing foreigner, that they should be turned out of house and home for his accommodation? So they seemed to be asking among themselves, as they lifted up their heads here and there in the midst of the pale-green shoots. The crows, on the other hand, bade the new comer welcome, — as the wolf welcomes the lamb. Against these hungry lovers of his crop (who loved not unwisely, but too well), the farmer had fenced his field with a single string, stretched from corner to corner. He must put extraordinary faith in the considerateness of the birds, a looker-on might think; such a barrier as this could be, at the most, nothing more than a polite hint of ownership, a delicate reminder against thoughtless trespassing, a courteously indirect suggestion to such as needed not a physical, but only a moral, restraint. Or one might take it as an appeal to some known or fancied superstitiousness on the crows' part; as if the white cord were a kind of fetich, with which they would never presume to meddle. But the rustic would have laughed at all such far-fetched cockneyish inferences. This strange-seeming device of his was simply an attempt to take the suspicious in their own suspiciousness; to set before Corvus a hindrance so unmistakably insufficient that he would mistrust it as a cover for some deep-laid and deadly plot. Probably the scheme had not been crowned with complete success in the present instance, for from a pole in the middle of the inclosure a dead crow was dangling in the breeze. This was a more business-like signal than the other; even a cockney could hardly be in doubt as to its meaning; and the farmer, when I afterwards met him, assured me that it had answered its purpose to perfection. The crow is nobody's fool. “Live and learn “is his motto; and he does both, but especially the former, in a way to excite the admiration of all disinterested observers. In the long struggle between human ingenuity and corvine sagacity, it is doubtful which has thus far obtained the upper hand. Nor have I ever quite convinced myself which of the contestants has the better case. “The crow is a thief,” the planter declares; “he should confine himself to a wild diet, or else sow his own garden.” “Yes, yes,” Corvus makes reply; “but if I steal your corn, you first stole my land.” Unlike his cousin the raven, — who, along with the Indian, has retreated before the pale-face, — the crow is no ultra-conservative. Civilization and modern ideas are not in the least distasteful to him. He has an unfeigned respect for agriculture, and in fact may be said himself to have set up as gentleman-farmer, letting out his land on shares, and seldom failing to get his full half of the crop; and, like the shrewd manager that he is, he insures himself against drought and other mischances by taking his moiety early in the season. As I plant no acres myself, I perhaps find it easier than some of my fellow-citizens to bear with the faults and appreciate the virtues of this sable aboriginal. Long may he live, I say, this true lover of his native land, to try the patience and sharpen the wits of his would-be exterminators.
The crow's is only the common lot. The whole earth is one field of war. Every creature's place upon it is coveted by some other creature. Plants and animals alike subsist by elbowing their rivals out of the way. Man, if he plants a corn-field, puts in no more grains than will probably have room to grow and thrive. But Nature, in her abhorrence of a vacuum, stands at no waste. She believes in competition, and feels no qualms at seeing the weak go to the wall.
“The good old rule
Sufficeth her, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.”
If she wishes a single oak, she drops acorns without number. Her recklessness equals that of some ambitious military despot, to whom ten thousand or a hundred thousand dead soldiers count as nothing, if only the campaign be fought through to victory.
Man's economy and Nature's prodigality, — here they were in typical operation, side by side. The corn was in hills “uniformly spaced, and evidently the proprietor had already been at work with plough and hoe, lest the weeds should spring up and choke it; but just beyond stood a perfect thicket of wild-cherry shrubs, so huddled together that not one in twenty could possibly find room in which to develop. If they were not all of them stunted beyond recovery, it would be only because a few of the sturdiest should succeed in crowding down and killing off their weaker competitors.
The import of this apparent wastefulness and cruelty of Nature, her seeming indifference to the welfare of the individual, is a question on which it is not pleasant, and, as I think, not profitable, to dwell. We see but parts of her ways, and it must be unsafe to criticise the working of a single wheel here or there, when we have absolutely no means of knowing how each fits into the grand design, and, for that matter, can only guess at the grand design itself. Rather let us content ourselves with the prudent saying of that ancient agnostic, Bildad the Shuhite: “We are but of yesterday, and know nothing.” The wisest of us are more or less foolish, by nature and of necessity; but it seems a gratuitous superfluity of folly to ignore our own ignorance. For one, then, I am in no mood to propose, much less to undertake, any grand revolution in the order of natural events. Indeed, as far as I am personally concerned, I fear it would be found but a dubious improvement if the wildness were quite taken out of the world, — if its wilderness, according to the word of the prophet, were to become all like Eden. Tameness is not the only good quality, whether of land or of human nature.
As I sat on my comfortable log (the noble old tree had not been cut down for nothing), birds of many kinds came and went about me. Wordsworth's couplet would have suited my case: —
“The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure;”
but I could hardly have rounded out the quotation; for, joyful as I believed the creatures to be, many of their motions were plainly not “thrills of pleasure,” but tokens of fear. It was now the very heyday of life with them, when they are at once happiest and most wary. There were secrets to be kept close; eggs and little ones, whose whereabouts must on no account be divulged. For the birds, too, not less than the corn, the bramble, and the cherry, not less even than the saint, find this earthly life a daily warfare.
The artless ditty of the mourning warbler came to my ears at intervals out of a tangle of shrubbery, and once or twice he allowed me glimpses of his quaint attire. I would gladly have seen and heard much more of him, but he evaded all my attempts at familiarity. Nor could I blame him for his furtive behavior. How was he to be certain that I was no collector, but only an innocent admirer of birds in the bush? Sought after as his carcass is by every New England ornithologist, the mourning warbler exercises only a reasonable discretion in fighting shy of every animal that walks upright.
It is evident, however, that for birds, as for ourselves, the same thing often has both a bright and a dark side. If men are sometimes heartless, and never to be altogether confided in, yet at the same time their doings are in various respects conducive to the happiness and increase of feathered life; and this not only in the case of some of the more familiar species, but even in that of many which still retain all their natural shyness of human society. A clearing like that in which I was now resting offers an excellent illustration of this; for it is a rule without exceptions that in such a place one may see and hear more birds in half an hour than are likely to be met with in the course of a long day's tramp through the unbroken forest. The mourning warbler himself likes a roadside copse better than a deep wood, jealous as he may be of man's approach. Up to a certain point, civilization is a blessing, even to birds. Beyond a certain point, for aught I know, it may be nothing but a curse, even to men.
Here, then, I sat, now taken up with the beautiful landscape, and anon turning my head to behold some fowl of the air. I might have mused with Emerson, —
“Knows he who tills this lonely field,
To reap its scanty corn,
What mystic fruit his acres yield
At midnight and at morn,”
— only “mystic fruit” would have been rather too high-sounding a phrase for my commonplace cogitations. Hermit thrushes, olive-backed thrushes, and veeries, with sundry warblers and a scarlet tanager, sang in chorus from the woods behind me, while in front bluebirds, robins, song sparrows, vesper sparrows, and chippers were doing their best to transform this fresh Vermont clearing into a time-worn Massachusetts pasture; assisted meanwhile by a goldfinch who flew over my head with an ecstatic burst of melody, and a linnet who fell to warbling with characteristic fluency from a neighboring tree-top. At least two pairs of rose-breasted grosbeaks had summer quarters here; and busy enough they looked, flitting from one side of the garden to another, yet not too busy for a tune between whiles. One of the males was in really gorgeous plumage. The rose-color had run over, as it were (like Aaron's “precious ointment”), and spilled all down his breast. It is hard for me ever to think of this brilliant, tropically dressed grosbeak as a true Northerner; and here once more I was for the moment surprised to hear him and the olive-backed thrush singing together in the same wood. Could such neighborliness have any patriotic significance? I was almost ready to ask. Across the corn-field a Traill's flycatcher was tossing up his head pertly, and vociferating kwee-kwee. I took it for a challenge: “Find my nest if you can, brother!” But I found nothing. Nor was I more successful with a humming-bird, who had chosen the tip of a charred stub, only a few rods from my seat, for his favorite perch. Again and again I saw him there preening his feathers, and once or twice I tried to inveigle him into betraying his secret. Either his house was further off than I suspected, however, or else he was too cunning to fall into my snare. At any rate, he permitted me to trample all about the spot, without manifesting the first symptom of uneasiness.
What a traveler the humming-bird is! I myself had come perhaps three hundred miles, and had accounted it a long, tiresome journey, notwithstanding I had been brought nearly all the way in a carriage elaborately contrived for comfort, and moving over iron rails. But this tiny insect-like creature spent last winter in Central America, or it may be in Cuba, and now here he sat, perfectly at home again in this Green Mountain nook; and next autumn he will be off again betimes, as the merest matter of course, for another thousand-mile flight. Verily, a marvelous spirit and energy may be contained within a few ounces of flesh! But if Trochilus be indeed Prospero's servant in disguise, as one of our poets makes out, why, then, to be sure, his flittings back and forth are little to wonder at. How slow, overgrown, and clumsy human beings must look in his eyes! I wonder if he is never tempted to laugh at us. Who knows but humming-birds have it for a by-word, “As awkward as a man”?
My ruminations were suddenly broken in upon by the approach of a carriage, driven by a boy of perhaps ten years, a son of the farmer from whose land I was, as it were, gathering the first fruits. We had made each other's acquaintance the day before, and now, as he surmounted the hill, he stopped to inquire politely whether I would ride with him. Yes, I answered, I would gladly be carried into the forest a little way. It proved a very little way indeed; for the road was heavy from recent rains, and the poor old hack was so short of breath that he could barely drag us along, and at every slump of the wheels came to a dead standstill. “Pity for a horse o'er-driven “soon compelled me to take to the woods, in spite of the protestations of my charioteer, who assured me that his steed could trot “like everything,” if he only would. It is an extremely unpatriotic Vermonter, I suspect (I have never yet discovered him), who will not brag a little over his horse; and I was rather pleased than otherwise to hear my flaxen-haired friend set forth the good points of his beast, even while he confessed that the “heaves” were pretty bad. I was glad, too, to find the youngster in a general way something of an optimist. When I asked him how long the land had been cleared, he pointed to one corner of it, and responded, using the pronoun with perfect naïveté, “We cleared up that piece last fall; “and on my inquiring whether it was not hard work, he replied, in a tone of absolute satisfaction, Oh, yes, but you get your pay for it.” Evidently he believed in Green Mountain land, which I thought a very fortunate circumstance. Be content with such things as ye have,” said the Apostle; and it is certainly easier to obey the precept if one looks upon his own things as the best in the world. My youthful philosopher seemed to consider it altogether natural and reasonable that prosperity, instead of coming of itself, should have to be earned by the sweat of the brow. Perhaps the crow and the cherry-tree are equally unsophisticated. Perhaps, too, men's fates are less uneven than is sometimes supposed. For I could not help thinking that if this boy should retain his present view of things, he would pass his days more happily than many a so-called favorite of fortune.
On my way back to the inn I met an old man from the lowlands, driving over the mountains for the first time since boyhood. “You have a pretty good farming country here,” he called out cheerily, — “a little rolling.” He took me for a native, and I hope to be forgiven for not disclaiming the compliment.
As I write, I find myself wondering how my nameless farmer's crop is prospered. In my corner of the world we have lately been afflicted with drought. I hope it has been otherwise on his hillside plateau. In my thought, at all events, his corn is now fully tasseled, and waves in a pleasant mountain wind, all green and shining.