Here to return to
A MOUNTAIN–SIDE RAMBLE.
I will go lose myself. — SHAKESPEARE.
THERE are two sayings of Scripture which to my mind seem peculiarly appropriate for pleasant Sundays, — “Behold the fowls of the air,” and “Consider the lilies.” The first is a morning text, as anybody may see, while the second is more conveniently practiced upon later in the day, when the dew is off the grass. With certain of the more esoteric doctrines of the Bible (the duty of turning the other cheek, for example, or of selling all that one has and giving to the poor) we may sometimes be troubled what to do, — unless, like the world in general, we turn them over to Count Tolstoï and his followers; but such precepts as I have quoted nobody is likely ever to quarrel with, least of all any “natural man.” For myself, I find them always a comfort, no matter what my mood or condition, while their observance becomes doubly agreeable when I am away from home; the thought of beholding a strange species of fowl, or of considering a new sort of lily, proving even more attractive than the prospect of listening to a new minister, or, what is somewhat less probable, of hearing a new sermon.
Thus it was with me, not long ago, when I found myself suddenly left alone at a small hotel in the Franconia Valley. The day was lowery, as days in the mountains are apt to be; but when duty goes along with inclination, a possible sprinkling is no very serious hindrance. Besides, a fortnight of “catching weather” had brought me into a state of something like philosophical indifference. I must be reckoned either with the just or with the unjust, — so I had come to reason, — and of course must expect now and then to be rained on. Accordingly, after dinner I tucked my faithful umbrella under my arm, and started up the Notch road.
I had in view a quiet, meditative ramble, in harmony with the spirit of the day, and could think of nothing more to the purpose than a visit to a pair of deserted farms, out in the woods on the mountain-side. The lonesome fields and the crumbling houses would touch my imagination, and perhaps chasten my spirit. Thither would I go, and “consider the lilies.” I am never much of a literalist, — except when a strict construction favors the argument, — and in the present instance it did not strike me as at all essential that I should find any specimens of the genus Lilium. One of the humbler representatives of the great and noble family of the Liliaceæ — the pretty clintonia, now a little out of season, or even the Indian cucumber-root — would come fairly within the spirit of the text; while, if worst came to worst, there would certainly be no scarcity of grass, itself nothing but a kind of degenerate lily, if some recent theories may be trusted.
I followed the highway for a mile or two, and then took a wood-road (a cart-path “I should call it, if I dared to speak in my own tongue wherein I was born) running into the forest on the left. This brought me before long to a “pair of bars,” over which I clambered into a grassy field, the first of the two ancient clearings I had come out to see. The scanty acres must have been wrested from the encompassing forest at no small cost of patience and hard labor; and after all, they had proved not to pay for their tillage. A waste of energy, as things now looked; but who is to judge of such matters? It is not given to every man to see the work of his hands established. A good many of us, I suspect, might be thankful to know that anything we have ever done would be found worthy of mention fifty years hence, though the mention were only by way of pointing a moral.
The old barn was long ago blown down, and as I mounted the fence a woodchuck went scampering out of sight among the timbers. The place was not entirely uninhabited, as it seemed, in spite of appearances: and as I turned toward the house, the door of which stood uninvitingly open, there sat a second woodchuck in the doorway, facing me, intent and motionless, full of wonderment, no doubt, at the unspeakable impertinence of such an intrusion. I was glad to see Mm, at any rate, and made haste to tell him so; greeting him in the rather unceremonious language wherewith the now famous titmouse is said to have addressed our foremost American gentleman and philosopher:
Good day, good sir!
Fine afternoon, old passenger!
Happy to meet you in these places.”
But the churlish fellow had no notion of doing the honors, and by the time I had advanced two or three paces he whisked about and vanished inside the door. “Well done!” I thought. “Great is evolution. Woodchucks used to be cave-dwellers, but they are getting to live above ground, like the rest of us. So does history repeat itself. Who knows how soon they may be putting up cottages on their own account?” Perhaps I gave the creature more credit than really belonged to him. I followed him into the house, but he was nowhere to be seen, and it is not unlikely that he lived in a cave, after all. Nearly half the flooring had rotted away, and there was nothing to hinder his getting into the cellar. He may have taken the old farmhouse as a convenient portico for his burrow, a sort of storm-porch, as it were. In his eyes this may be the final end and aim, the teleological purpose, of all such board-and-shingle edifices. Mr. Ruskin seems to hold that a house falls short of its highest usefulness until it has become a ruin; and who knows but woodchucks may be of the same opinion?
This particular house was in two parts, one of them considerably more ancient than the other. This older portion it was, of which the floor had so badly (or so well) fallen into decay; while the ceiling, as if in a spirit of emulation, had settled till it described almost a semicircle of convexity. To look at it, one felt as if the law of gravity were actually being imposed upon.
It must have marked an epoch in the history of the household, this doubling of its quarters. Things were looking well with the man. His crops were good, his family increasing; his wife had begun to find the house uncomfortably small; they could afford to enlarge it. Hence this addition, this “new part,” as no doubt they were in the habit of calling it, with pardonable satisfaction. It was more substantially built than the original dwelling, and possessed, what I dare say its mistress had set her heart upon, one plastered room. The “new part”! How ironical the words sounded, as I repeated them to myself! If things would only stay new, or if it were men's houses only that grew old!
The people who lived here had little occasion to hang their walls with pictures. When they wanted something to look at, they had but to go to the window and gaze upon the upper slopes of Mount Lafayette and Mount Cannon, rising in beauty beyond the intervening forest. But every New England woman must have a bit of flower garden, no matter what her surroundings; and even here I was glad to notice, just in front of the door, a clump of cinnamon rose-bushes, all uncared for, of course, but flourishing as in a kind of immortal youth (this old-fashioned rose must be one of Time's favorites), and just now bright with blossoms. For sentiment's sake I plucked one, thinking of the hands that did the same years ago, and ere this, in all likelihood, were under the sod; thinking, too, of other hands, long, long vanished, and of a white rose-bush that used to stand beside another door.
On both sides of the house were apple trees, a few of them still in good trim, but the greater number decrepit after years of buffeting by mountain storms. A phoebe sat quietly on the ridge-pole, and a chipper was singing from the orchard. What knew they of time, or of time's mutations? The house might grow old, — the house and the trees; but if the same misfortune ever befalls phoebes and sparrows, we are, fortunately, none the wiser. To human eyes they are always young and fresh, like the buttercups that bespangled the grass before me, or like the sun that shone brightly upon the tranquil scene.
Turning away from the house and the grassy field about it, I got over a stone wall into a pasture fast growing up to wood: spruces, white pines, red pines, paper birches, and larches, with a profusion of meadow-sweet sprinkled everywhere among them. A nervous flicker started at my approach, stopped for an instant to reconnoitre, and then made off in haste. A hermit thrush was singing, and the bird that is called the “preacher” — who takes no summer vacation, but holds forth in “God's first temple” for the seven days of every week — was delivering his homily with all earnestness. He must preach, it seemed, whether men would hear or forbear. He had already announced his text, but I could not certainly make out what it was. “Here we have no continuing city,” perhaps; or it might have been, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity.” It should have been one of these, or so I thought; but, as all church-goers must have observed, the connection between text and sermon is sometimes more or less recondite, and once in a while, like the doctrine of the sermon itself, requires to be taken on faith. In the present instance, indeed, as no doubt in many others, the pew was quite as likely to be at fault as the pulpit. The red-eye's eloquence was never very persuasive to my ear. Its short sentences, its tiresome upward inflections, its everlasting repetitiousness, and its sharp, querulous tone long since became to me an old story; and I have always thought that whoever dubbed this vireo the “preacher” could have had no very exalted opinion of the clergy.
I stayed not to listen, therefore, but kept on through the wood, while a purple finch pitched a tune on one side of the path (he appeared to feel no compunctions about interrupting the red-eye's exhortation), and a squirrel sprung his rattle on the other; and presently I came to the second farm: a large clearing, bounded by the forest on all hands, but after these many years still yielding a very respectable hay-crop (so does the good that men do live after them), and with a house and barn still standing at the lower end. I reached the house just in time to escape a shower, making an enforced obeisance as I entered. It was but the ghost of a dwelling, — the door off its hinges, and no glass in the four small windows; but it had a substantial quality about it, notwithstanding, as a not very tall man was liable at any moment to be reminded should he carry himself a trifle too proudly under the big unhewn timbers. It is better to stoop than to bump your head, they seemed to be saying. Hither came no tourists but the rabbits; and they, it was plain, were not so much tourists as permanent residents. As I looked at the blank walls and door-posts, after a fortnight's experience among the mountains, I felt grateful at the sight of boards on which Brown of Boston and Smith of Smithfield had not yet inscribed their illustrious names. I had left the city in search of rest and seclusion. For the time, in the presence of Nature herself, I would gladly have forgotten the very existence of my all-too-famous countrymen; and I rejoiced accordingly to have found one lonely spot to which their restless feet bad not yet penetrated. Tall grass grew untrodden quite up to the door-sill; raspberry vines thrust their arms in at the pane-less windows; there was neither paint nor plastering; and the tiny cupboard was so bare that it set my irreverent fancy to quoting Mother Goose in the midst of my most serious moralizings.
The owner of this farm, like his neighbor, had planted an apple orchard, and his wife a patch of cinnamon roses; and, not to treat one better than another, I picked a rose here also. There is no lover of flowers but likes to have his garden noticed, and the good housewife would have been pleased, I knew, could she have seen me looking carefully for her handsomest and sweetest bud.
By this time the shower was over, and a song-sparrow was giving thanks. I might never have another opportunity to follow up an old forest path, of which I had heard vague reports as leading from this point to the railway. “It starts from the upper corner of the farm,” my informant had said. To the upper corner I went, therefore, through the rank, wet grass. But I found no sign of what I was looking for, and with some heartfelt but unreportable soliloquizings, to the effect that a countryman's directions, like dreams, are always to be read backwards, I started straight down toward the lower corner, saying to myself that I ought to have had the wit to take that course in the beginning. Sure enough, the path was there, badly overgrown with bushes and young trees, but still traceable. A few rods, and I came to the brook. The bridge was mostly gone, as I had been forewarned it probably would be, but a single big log answered a foot passenger's requirements. Once across the bridge, however, I could discover no sign of a trail. But what of that? The sun was shining; I had only to keep it at my back, and I was sure to bring up at the railroad. So I set out, and for a while traveled on bravely. Then I began to bethink myself that I was not going up-hill quite so fast as it seemed I ought to be doing. Was I really approaching the railway, after all? Or had I started in a wrong direction (being in the woods at the time), and was I heading along the mountain-side in such a course that I might walk all night, and all the while be only plunging deeper and deeper into the forest? The suggestion was not pleasurable. If I could only see the mountain! But the thick foliage put that out of the question.
After a short debate with myself I concluded to be prudent, and make my way back to the brook while I still had the sun to guide me; for I now called to mind the showering of the day, and the strong likelihood that the sky might at any moment be overcast. Even as things were, there was no assurance that I might not strike the brook at some distance from the bridge, and so at some distance from the trail, with no means of determining whether it was above or below me. I began my retreat, and pretty soon, luckily or unluckily, — I am not yet certain which, — in some unaccountable manner my feet found themselves again in the path.
Now, then, I would carry out my original intention, and I turned straight about. For a while the path held clear. Then it was blocked by a big tree that had toppled into it lengthwise. I must go round the obstruction, and pick up the trail at the other end. But the trail would not be picked up. It had faded out or run into the ground. Finally, when I was just on the point of owning myself beaten, my eyes all at once fell upon it, running along before me. A second experience of the same kind set me thinking how long it would take to go a mile or two at this rate (it was already half past four o'clock), even if I did not in the end lose my way altogether. But I kept on till I was stopped, not by a single windfall, but by a tangle of half a dozen. This time I hunted for a continuation of the path on the further side till I was out of patience, and then determined to be done with the foolish business, and go back by the way I had come. A very sensible resolve, but when I came to put it into execution it turned out to be too late. The path was lost entirely. I must fall back upon the sun; and if the truth is to be told, I commenced feeling slightly uncomfortable. The bushes were, wet; my clothing was drenched; I had neither compass nor matches; it certainly would be anything but agreeable to spend the night in the forest.
Happily there was, for the present, no great danger of matters coming to such a pass. If the sun would only shine for half an hour longer I could reach the brook (I could probably reach it without the sun), and even if I missed the bridge I could follow the stream out of the woods before dark. I was not frightened, but I was beginning to tremble lest I should be. The loss of the path was in itself little to worry about. But what if I should lose my wits also, as many a man had done in circumstances no worse, and with consequences most disastrous? Unpleasant stories came into my head, and I remember repeating to myself more than once (candor is better than felicity of phrase), “Be careful, now; don't get rattled!” Then, having thus pulled myself together, as an Englishman would say, I faced the sun and began “stepping westward,” though with no thought of Wordsworth's poem. A spectator might have suspected that if I was not “rattled,” I was at least not far from it. “Now who is this,” he might have queried,
“Whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week?”
Meanwhile I was, of course, on the lookout for any signs of the missing path, and after a time I descried in the distance, on one side, what looked like a patch of bushes growing in the midst of the forest. I made for it, and, as I expected, found myself once more on the trail. This time I held it, reached the bridge, crossed it, and, still keeping up my pace, was presently out in the sunshine of the old farm, startling a brood of young partridges on the way. Happy birds! They were never afraid of passing a night in the woods. A most absurd notion! But man, as he is the strongest of all animals, so is he also the weakest and most defenseless.
This last reflection is an afterthought, I freely acknowledge. At the moment I was taken up with the peacefulness of the pastoral scene into which I had so happily emerged, and was in no mood to envy anybody. How bright and cheerful the ragworts and buttercups looked, and what sweet and homelike music the robin made, singing from one of the apple-trees! The cool north wind wafted the spicy odor of the cinnamon roses to my nostrils; but — alas for the prosaic fact! — the same cool wind struck through my saturated garments, bidding me move on. The pessimistic preacher was right when he said, “Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.” I wonder whether he was ever bewildered in a dark wood. From boyhood I have loved the forest, with its silence, its shadows, and its deep isolation, but for the present I had had my fill of such mercies.
As I came out upon the highway, it occurred to me what Emerson says of Thoreau, — that “he could not bear to hear the sound of his own steps, and therefore never willingly walked in the road.” My own taste, I was obliged to admit, was somewhat less fastidious. Indeed, my boots, soaked through and through as they were, made very grateful music striking along the gravel. And after supper, while walking back and forth upon the piazza, in all the luxury of slippers and a winter overcoat, I turned more than once from the glories of the sunset to gaze upon the black slope of Lafayette, thinking within myself how much less comfortable I should be up yonder in the depths of the forest, so dark and wet, without company, without fire, without overcoat, and without supper. After all, mere animal comfort is not to be despised. Let us be thankful, I said, for the good things of life, of no matter what grade; yes, though they be only a change of clothing and a summer hotel.
It was laughable how my quiet ramble had turned out. My friend, the red-eyed vireo, may or may not have stuck to his text; but if he had seen me in the midst of my retreat, dashing through the bushes and clambering over the fallen trees, he certainly never would have guessed mine. “Consider the lilies,” indeed! He was more likely to think of a familiar Old Testament scripture: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”