Here to return to
NEW ENGLAND WINTER.
While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons, I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. — THOREAU.
THOSE who will have us all to be studying the Sacred Books of the East, and other such literature, are given to laying it down as an axiom that whoever knows only one religion knows none at all,—an assertion, I am bound to acknowledge, that commends itself to my reason, notwithstanding the somewhat serious inferences fairly deducible from it touching the nature and worth of certain convictions of my own, which I have been wont to look upon as religious. I cannot profess ever to have pried into the mysteries of any faith except Christianity. So, of course, I do not understand even that. And the people about me, so far as I can discover, are all in the same predicament. Yet I would fain believe that we are not exactly heathen. Some of my neighbors (none too many of them, I confess) are charitable and devout. They must be pleasing to their Creator, I say to myself, unless He is hard to please. Sometimes I go so far as to think that possibly a man may be religious without knowing even his own religion. Let us hope so. Otherwise, we of the laity are assuredly undone.
And what is true of creeds and churches is true likewise of countries and climates. We grow wise by comparison of one thing with another, not by direct and exclusive contemplation of one thing by itself. Human knowledge is relative, not absolute, and the inveterate stayer at home is but a poor judge of his own birthplace.
All this I have in lively remembrance as I sit down to record some impressions of our New England winter. With what propriety do I discourse upon winter in Massachusetts, having never passed one anywhere else? Had I spent a portion of my life where roses bloom the year round, then, to be sure, I might assume to say something to the purpose about snow and ice.
But if the tillers of paper “wrote only of such topics as they possessed full and accurate acquaintance with, how would the Scripture be fulfilled? “Of making many books” there surely would be an end, and that speedily. I venture to think, moreover, that a man may never have set foot beyond the boundaries of his native city, and yet prove a reasonably competent guide to its streets and by-ways. His information is circumscribed, but such as it is, it is precise and to the point. Though he assure you soberly that the principal thoroughfare of his tenth-rate town is more magnificent than any in New York or London, you may none the less depend upon him to pilot you safely out of its most intricate and bewildering corner. Indeed, he might fairly claim membership in what is, at present, one of the most flourishing of intellectual guilds: I mean the sect of the specialists; whose creed is that one may know something without knowing everything, and who choose for their motto: Remain ignorant in order that you may learn.
In this half-developed world there is nothing so perfect as to be past a liability to drawbacks and exceptions. The best of beef is poisonous to some eaters, and strawberries are an abomination to others; and in like manner there is no climate, nor any single feature of any climate, but by some constitutions it will be found unendurable. The earth is to be populated throughout, so it would appear; and to that end sundry necessary precautions have been taken against human inertia. A certain proportion of boys must be born with a propensity for wandering and adventure; and the most favored spot must not contain within itself all conceivable advantages. If everybody could stand the rigors of New England weather, what would become of the rest of the continent?
Unless I misjudge myself, I should soon tire of perpetual summer. Like the ungrateful Israelites with the manna, my soul would loathe such light bread. To my provincial mind, as I believe, nothing else could ever quite take the place of a rotation of the seasons. There should be rain and shine, cold and heat. A change from good weather to bad, and back again, is on the whole better than unbroken good weather. Dullness to set off brightness, night to give relief to the day, such is the wise order of nature; and I do not account it altogether a token of depravity that honest people, who love a paradox without knowing it, find perfection, of no matter how innocent a sort, just a little wearisome. Therefore, I say, let me have a year made up of well-defined contrasts; in short, a New England year, of four clearly marked seasons.
It is often alleged, I know, that we really have only three seasons; that winter leaps into the lap of summer, and spring is nothing but a myth of the almanac makers. I shall credit this story when I am convinced of the truth of another statement, equally current and equally well vouched, that every successive summer is the hottest (or the coldest) for the last twenty-five years. As there is no subject so much talked about as the weather, so, almost of course, there is none so much lied about. Winter claims most of March, as the astronomers give it leave to do, I believe; but April and May, despite a snow-storm or two in the former, and a torrid week in the latter, are neither summer nor winter, but spring; somewhat fickle, it is true, more or less uncertain of itself, but still retaining its personal identity.
As for our actual winter, it may enhance its value in our eyes if we take into account that the three other seasons all depend upon it for their peculiar charms. In the case of spring this dependence is palpable to every one. Berate as we may its backwardness and deceit, muffle ourselves never so pettishly against its harsh breath, yea, even deny it all claim to its own proper title, yet anon it gets the better of our discontent, and we thank our stars that we have lived to see again the greening of the grass, and to hear once more the song of a bird. A mild day in March is like a foretaste of heaven; the first robin seems an angel; while saxifrage, anemones, and dandelions win kindly notice from many a matter-of-fact countryman who lets all the June roses go by him unregarded. It is pleasures of this kind, natural, wholesome, and universal, that largely make up the total of human happiness. Our instinct for them only strengthens with age. They are like the “divine ideas” of Olympian bards, —
“Which always find us young,
And always keep us so.”
All this glory of the revival would be wanting but for the previous months of desolation. The hepatica is not more beautiful than many another flower, but it takes us when we are hungry for the sight of a blossom. What can we do? When it peeps out of its bed of withered leaves, puts off its furs, and opens to the sunlight its little purple cup, we have no choice but to love it as we cannot love the handsomer and more fragrant hosts that follow in its train.
And as winter over and gone sets in brighter relief the warmth and resurrection of springtime, so does the shadow of its approach lend a real if somewhat indefinable attractiveness to the fall months. The blooming of the late flowers, the ripening of leaf and fruit, the frosty air, the flocking of birds, all the thousand signs of the autumnal season take on a kind of pathetic and solemn interest, as being but prelusive to the whiteness and deadness so soon to cover the earth. Indeed, if there were no winter, there could be neither spring nor autumn; nay, nor any summer. Leave out the snow and ice, and the whole round year would be metamorphosed; or, rather, the year itself would pass away, and nothing be left but time.
I am not yet a convert to the pessimistic doctrine that “all pleasure is merely relief from pain;” but I gladly believe that pain has its use in heightening subsequent happiness, and that one man's evil qualities (mine, for example) may partly atone for themselves by setting off the amiable characteristics of worthier men around him. It consoles me to feel that my neighbors seem better to themselves and to each other because of the abrupt antithesis between their dispositions and mine. It is better than nothing, if my failure can serve as a background for their virtuous success. With reverent thankfulness do I acknowledge the gracious and far-reaching frugality which, by one means and another, saves even my foolishness and imperfection from running altogether to waste.
Viewed in this light, as an offset or foil for the remainder of the year, we may say that the worse the winter is, the better it is. Within reasonable limits, it can hardly be too long or too rigorous. And just here, as it appears to me, our New England climate shows most admirably. Without being unendurably hot or insufferably cold, it does offer us an abundant contrast. An opposition of one hundred and twenty-five degrees between January and July ought to be enough, one would say, to impress even the dullest imagination.
But winter has its positively favorable side, and is not to be passed off with merely negative compliments; as if it were like a toothache or a tiresome sermon, — something of which the only good word to be said is, that it cannot last forever. It is not to be charged as a defect upon cold weather that some people find it to disagree with them. We might as well chide the hill for putting a sick man out of breath. It is with persons as with plants: some are hardy, others not. The date-palm cannot be made to grow in Massachusetts; but is Massachusetts to blame for the palm-tree's incapacity? All things of which the specific office is to promote strength (exercise, food, climate) presuppose a degree of strength sufficient for their use. So it is with cold weather. Its proper effect is to brace and invigorate the system; but there must be vigor to start with. The law is universal: “To him that hath shall be given.”
Enough, then, of apologies and negative considerations. There was never a good Yankee, of moderately robust health, and under fifty years of age, that did not welcome cold weather as a friend. Ask the school-boys, especially such as live in country places, whether summer or winter brings the greater pleasure. Two to one they will vote for winter. Or look back over your own childhood, and see whether the sports of winter-time do not seem, in the retrospect, to have been the very crown of the year. How vivid my own recollections are! Other seasons had their own distinctive felicities; the year was full of delights; but we watched for the first snow-fall and the first ice as eagerly as I now see elderly and sickly people watching for the first symptoms of summer. As well as I can remember, winter was never too long nor too cold, whatever may have been true of a single day now and then, when the old school-house, with its one small stove, and its eight or ten large windows, ought, in all reason, to have been condemned as uninhabitable. But the frolics out-of-doors! It makes the blood tingle even now to think of them. How brief the days were! How cruel the authority that kept us in the house after dark, while so many of our mates were still “sliding down hill” (we knew nothing of “coasting” where I was born), or skating in the meadow! Childhood in the sunny South must be a very tame affair, New England youngsters being judges.
Trifles of this kind, if any be moved to call them such, are not to be sneered out of court. Fifteen years form no small part of a human life, and whatever helps us to grow up happy contributes in no slight degree to keep us happy to the end. “When I became a man I put away childish things”? Yes, it may be; but the very things that I boast of outgrowing have made me what I am. In truth, when it comes to such a question as this, I confess to putting more faith in the verdict of healthy children than in the unanimous theories and groans of whole congresses of valetudinarians. I am not yet so old nor so feeble but I gaze with something of my youthful enthusiasm upon the first snow. It quickens my pulse to see the ponds frozen over, although my skates long since went out of commission; and I still find comfort in a tramp of five or six miles, with the path none too good, and the mercury half-way between the freezing point and zero. I like the buffeting of the north wind, and am not indisposed once in a while to wrestle with the frost for the possession of my own ears. Well as I love to loiter, I rejoice also in weather which makes loitering impossible; which puts new springs into a man's legs, and sets him spinning over the course whether he will or no. It will be otherwise with me by and by, I suppose, seeing how my venerable fellow-citizens are affected, but for the present nothing renews my physical youth more surely than a low temperature; a fact which I welcome as evidence that I am not yet going downhill, however closely I may be nearing the summit.
Winter does us the honor to assume that we are not weaklings. Summer may coddle and flatter, but cold weather is no sentimentalist. Its kindest and tenderest mood has something of a stoical severity about it. It lays its finger without mercy on our most vulnerable and sensitive spots. But withal, as I have said, if we really possess any reserved strength, it knows how to bring it out and make the most of it. What a fullness of vitality do we suddenly develop as we come into close quarters with this well-intentioned but rough and ready antagonist! In fine, winter is one of those rare and invaluable friends of whom Emerson speaks, who enable us to do what we can. To its good offices it is largely attributable, no doubt, that in the long run the inhabitants of temperate regions have always been too powerful for their rivals within the tropics. Frigidity is like poverty, a blessing to those who can bear it.
Winter in New England is not a time for gathering flowers out-of-doors, though, taking the years together, there is no month of the twelve wherein one may not pick a few blossoms even in Massachusetts; but if it effaces one set of pictures, it paints for us another; and a wise and liberal taste will reckon itself a debtor to both. To say nothing of the half-dozen mornings on which every tree and bush is arrayed in all the splendor of diamonds, or the other half-dozen when they bow themselves under masses of new-fallen snow, — making no account of such exceptional pageants, which, indeed, are often so destructive as to lose much of their glory in the eyes of provident spectators, — I, for my own part, find a beauty in the very commonest of winter landscapes. Let the ground be altogether white, or altogether brown, or let it be covered so thinly that the grass-blades show dark above the snow; in any case, white or brown, or white and brown, to me it is all beautiful; beautiful in itself, and also by contrast with the greenness before and after; while, as for the trees, I like them so well in their state of undress that I question sometimes whether their leafy garments do not conceal more loveliness than they confer. We are grateful, of course, to pines and spruces; but what if all trees were evergreen? A questionable improvement, surely. No; suggestive and solemn as the falling of the leaves must ever be to us who read our own destiny in the annual parable, it would be sadder still if there were no such alternation, no diversity, but only one monotonous year on year of changeless verdure.
Winter beauty, such as I have been hinting at, is not far to seek, whether by townsman or rustic. Bostonians have only to cross the Mill-Dam, — a rather too fashionable promenade, it is true, but even here one may be tolerably certain of elbow-room on a January morning. Often have I taken this road to health and happiness, waxing enthusiastic as I have proceeded, admiring the snow-bound scene with a fervor which the most opulent of summer landscapes seldom excites; and, pushing on with increasing exhilaration, have brought up at last on Corey Hill, where the inquisitive north-wind has very likely abbreviated my stay, but has never yet spoiled my rapture at the wonderful white world underneath.
Economy has its pleasures, it is said, for all healthily constituted minds. We like, all of us, to make much out of little; to do a notable piece of work with ordinary tools; to treat a meagre and commonplace theme in such a manner that whoever begins to read has no alternative but to finish; to tempt an epicure with the daintiest of repasts out of the simplest and fewest of every-day materials; to paint a picture which has nothing in it, but compels the eye; in a word, to demonstrate to others, and not less to ourselves, that the secret of success lies in the man and not in the stuff. It is good, once in a while, to take advantage of a disadvantage to show what we can do.
On the same principle we are glad to find ourselves, if only not too often, in unpropitious circumstances. Otherwise how should we ever make proof of our philosophy? It heightens my confidence in the goodness at the heart of things to see how, as if by instinct, men of sound natures inevitably right the scale in seasons of loss and scarcity. If half the fortune disappears, the other half straightway doubles in value. Faith easily puts aside calculation, and proves, off-hand, that a part is equal to the whole.
Thus it is with me as a lover of out-door life, and especially as a field student of ornithology. At no time of the year does the fellowship of the birds afford me keener enjoyment than in the dead of winter. In June one may see them everywhere, and hear them at all hours; a few more or a few less are nothing to make account of; but in January the sight of a single brown creeper is sufficient to brighten the day, and the twittering of half a dozen goldfinches is like the music of angels.
As a certain outspoken philosopher would not visit some of his relatives because he disliked to be alone, so do I in my jaunts avoid the highway whenever it is possible, even in midwinter. What so lonesome as the presence of people with whom we must not speak, or, worse yet, with whom we must speak, but only about the weather and like exciting topics! As I have intimated, however, it is usually the public street or nothing with me during the cold season. All the more grateful am I, therefore, to those familiar winter birds, some of whom are sure to bid me good morning out of the hedges and shade-trees as I go past. Not unlikely a shrike sits motionless and dumb upon a telegraph wire, or in contrary mood whistles and chirrups industriously from some tree-top. He is no angel, that is plain enough; but none the less I am glad to meet him. If he fails of being lovable, he is at least a study. It is wonderful how abruptly his whim changes; how disconnected his behavior seems; how quickly and unexpectedly he can pass from the most perfect quiescence into a fit of most intense activity. I came upon such a fellow the other day in crossing the Common, who, just as I espied him, swooped upon a bunch of sparrows in an elm. He missed his aim, and in half a minute made a second attempt upon a similar group in another tree. This time he singled out one of the flock, and took chase after it; but the terrified creature ducked and turned, and finally got away, whereupon the shrike betook himself to a perch, and fell to making all manner of noises, — squeaks, whistles, twitters, and what not, — hopping about nervously meanwhile. The passers-by all stopped to look at the show (perhaps because they saw me staring upward), till finally a laborer yielded to the school-boy instinct and let fly a stone. The scamp was not greatly frightened by this demonstration, and merely flew to the tip of one of the tall cotton-woods, where he immediately resumed his vocal practice.
It ought to be helpful to a man's independence of spirit to fall in once in a while with such a self-reliant and nonchalant brother. For one, I wish I were better able to profit by his example. He seems made for hard times and short rations. Doubtless it is a delusion of the fancy, but he and winter are so connected in my thought that I can hardly conceive of him as knowing what summer means, or as caring to know.
To a person of my tastes it is one of winter's capital recommendations that it brings its own birds with it, thus affording sundry ornithological pleasures which otherwise one would be compelled to go without. The tree-sparrows, for instance, are very good cold-weather acquaintances of mine. There is nothing peculiarly taking about their dress or demeanor; but they are steady-going, good-humored, diligent people, whose presence you may always depend upon. I lately witnessed a very pretty trick of theirs. It was in the marsh just over the fence from Beacon Street, where a company of the birds, a dozen perhaps, were breakfasting off the seeds of evening primrose. Less skillful acrobats than their neighbors and frequent traveling companions, the red-poll linnets, it is not easy for them to feed while hanging upon the pods. So, taking the weeds one by one, they alighted at the very tip, and then with various twitchings and stampings shook the stalk as violently as possible, after which they dropped quickly upon the snow to gather up the results of their labors. As I say, it was an extremely pretty performance, and by itself would have rewarded me for my morning tramp, putting me in mind, as it did, of happy hours long since past, when I climbed into the tops of nut-trees on business of the same sort. One of the principal uses of friendship, human or other, is this of keeping the heart young.
I hope I am not lacking in a wholesome disrespect for sentimentality and affectation; for artificial ecstasies over sunsets and landscapes, birds and flowers; the fashionable cant of nature-worship, which is enough almost to seal a true worshiper's lips under a vow of everlasting silence. But such repugnances belong to the library and the parlor, and are left behind when a man goes abroad, either by himself or in any other really good company. For my own part the first lisp of a chickadee out of a wayside thicket disperses with a breath all such unhappy and unhallowed recollections. Here is a voice sincere, and the response is instantaneous and irresistible.
It would be a breach of good manners, an inexcusable ingratitude, to write never so briefly of the New England winter without noting this, the most engaging and characteristic enlivener of our winter woods; who revels in snow and ice, and is never lacking in abundant measures of faith and cheerfulness, enough not only for himself, but for any chance wayfarer of our own kind. He is every whit as independent as the shrike, but in how opposite a manner! — with a self-reliance that is never self-sufficiency, and bravery that offers no suspicion of bravado. Happy in himself, he is at the same time of a most companionable spirit. Perfect little philosopher! What a paradise New England would be if all her inhabitants were like him!
In such a winter climate as ours it is emphatically true that we “know not what shall be on the morrow.” The season is not straitened in its resources, and caters to all tastes in a way which some may look upon as fickleness, but which I prefer to regard as catholicity. Its days are of many types, and it spreads them out before us like a patient shopkeeper, — as if it recognized in the Yankee a customer hard to suit. I do not mean to affirm that the weather and I are never at odds; but all in all, in the long run and theoretically, I approve its methods. What a humdrum round life would be if nothing ever happened but the expected! I wonder if there are beings anywhere who have forgotten how it feels to be surprised. The children of this world, at all events, were not intended for any such condition of fixity. When there is no longer anything new under the sun, it will be time to get above it.
Even in so simple and regular a proceeding as a morning walk, one wishes always to see something new, or failing of that, something old in a new light; an easy enough task, if one has eyes. For as we cannot drink twice of the same river, so we cannot twice take the same ramble. I went over the same course yesterday and to-day; but yesterday's landscape and sky were different from to-day's. I saw different birds, and had different thoughts; and after all, the principal part of a walk is what goes on in the mind. Still, the activities of the intellect are greatly under the influence of external surroundings, a fact which makes largely in favor of a varied year like that we have been praising. The experience of it tends to widen and diversify the thinking of men. In a smaller degree it answers the same end as travel. For aught I know, it may possibly have its little share in the onerous task of liberalizing systems of theology. Who shall say that our New England climate, with its frequent and extreme contrasts, — what I have called its habit of catholicity, — may not have had more or less to do with that diffusion of free thought which has made the home of the Pilgrims the birthplace of heresies without number? The suggestion is fanciful, perhaps. Let it pass. Such profundities do not come within my province. Only I must believe that, even in the matter of weather, it is good for us to be educated out of bigotry into a large-minded toleration. Hence it is, in part, that I give my suffrage for our Massachusetts winter, which not only widens the scope of the year, but contains within itself a variety well-nigh endless.
I have kept my subject out-of-doors. It is well always to have at least one point of originality. Let it be mine, in the present instance, that I have said nothing about the pleasures of the fireside, about long evenings and drawn curtains. If I were in winter's place, I should not greatly care to hear people tell how comfortable they could make themselves by jealously shutting me out. Their speech might be eloquent, and their language eulogistic; but somehow I should not feel that they were praising me.