Here to return to
AN AFTERNOON BY THE RIVER.
To an idler desirous of seeing wild life on easy terms Chattanooga offers this advantage, that electric cars take him quickly out of the city in different directions, and drop him in the woods. In this way, on an afternoon too sultry for extended travel on foot, I visited a wooded hillside on the further bank of the Tennessee, a few miles above the town.
The car was still turning street corner after street corner, making its zigzag course toward the bridge, when I noticed a rustic old gentleman at my side looking intently at the floor. Apparently he suspected something amiss. He was unused to the ways of electricity, I thought, — a verdancy by no means inexcusable. But as he leaned farther forward, and looked and listened with more and more absorption, the matter — not his ignorance, but his simple-hearted betrayal of it — began to seem amusing. For myself, to be sure, I knew nothing about electricity, but I had wit enough to sit still and let the car run; a degree of sophistication which passes pretty well as a substitute for wisdom in a world where men are distinguished from children not so much by more knowledge as by less curiosity. In the present instance, however, as the event proved, the dunce’s cap belonged on the other head. My countryman’s stare was less verdant than his next neighbor’s smile; for in a few minutes the conductor was taking up a trap door at our feet, to get at the works, some part of which had fallen out of gear, though they were still running. Twice the car was stopped for a better examination into the difficulty, and at last a new wedge, or something else, was inserted, and we proceeded on our way, while the motorman who had done the job busied himself with removing from his coat, as best he could, the oil with which it had become besmeared in the course of the operation. It was rather hard, he thought, to have to spoil his clothes in repair-shop work of that kind, especially as he was paid nothing for it, and had to find himself. As for my rustic-looking seat-mate, he was an old hand at the business, it appeared, and his practiced ear had detected a jar in the machinery.
We left the car in company, he and I, at the end of the route, and pretty soon it transpired that he was an old Union soldier, of Massachusetts parentage, but born in Canada and a member of a Michigan regiment. Just how these autobiographical details came to be mentioned I fail now to remember, but in that country, where so much history had been made, it was hard to keep the past out of one’s conversation. He had been in Sheridan’s force when it stormed Missionary Ridge. As they went up the heights, he said, they were between two fires; as much in danger from Federal bullets as front Confederate; “but Sheridan kept right on.” An old woman who lived on the Ridge told him that she asked General Bragg if the Yankees would take the hill. “Take the hill!” said Bragg; “they could as well fly.” Just then she saw the blue-coats coming, and pointed them out to the General. He looked at them, put spurs to his home, “and,” added the woman, “I ain’t seen him since.” All of which, for aught I know, may be true.
The talkative veteran was now on his way to find an old friend of his who lived somewhere around here, he didn’t know just where; and as my course lay in the same general direction we went across lots and up the hill together, he rehearsing the past, and I gladly putting myself to school. In my time history was studied from textbooks; but the lecture system is better. By and by we approached a solitary cabin, on the dilapidated piazza of which sat the very man for whom my companion was looking. “Very sick to-day,” he said, in response to a greeting. His appearance harmonized with his words, — and with the piazza; and his manners were pitched on the same key; so that it was in a downright surly tone that he pointed out a gate through which I could make an exit toward the woods on the other side of the house. I had asked the way, and was glad to take it. Not that I was greatly offended. A sick man on one of his bad days has some excuse for a little impatience; a far better excuse than I should have for alluding to the matter at this late date, if I did not improve the occasion to add that this was the only bit of anything like incivility that I have ever received at the South, where I have certainly not been slow to ask questions of all sorts of people.
A little jaunt along a foot-path brought me unexpectedly to a second cabin, uninhabited. It was built of boards, not logs, with the usual outside chimney at one end, a broad veranda, a door, and no window; a house to fill a social economist with admiration at the low terms to which civilized life can be reduced. Thoreau himself was outdone, though the veranda, it must be confessed, seemed a dispensable bit of fashionable conformity, with forest trees on all sides crowding the roof. Half the floor had fallen away; yet the house could not have been long unoccupied, for at one end the wall was hung with newspapers, among which was a Boston “weekly” less than two years old. From it looked the portrait of a New England college president, and at the head of the page stood a list of “eminent contributors.” I ran the names over, but somehow, in these wild and natural surroundings, they did not seem so very impressive. I think it has been said before, perhaps by Thoreau, that most of what we call literature wears an artificial and unimportant look when taken out-of-doors.
Near this cabin I struck a road (“a sort of road,” according to my notebook) through the woods, following which I shortly came to a grave-yard, or rather to a bunch of graves, for there was no inclosure, nor even a clearing. One grave — or it may have been a tiny family lot — was surrounded by a curb of stone. The others, with a single exception, were marked only by low mounds of gravel. The one exception was a grave with a head-board, — the grave of “Little Theodosia,” a year and some months old. “Theodosia!” — even into a windowless cabin a baby brings romance. Under the name and the two dates was this legend: “She is happy.” Of ten inscriptions on marble monuments nine will be found less simply appropriate.
By a circuitous course the wood road brought me to a larger cabin, in a larger clearing. Here a pleasant-spoken, neighborly woman, with a child in her arms, called off her dog, and pointed out a path beyond a pair of bars. That path, she said, would carry me to the river, — to the water’s edge. And so it did, down a pleasant wooded hillside, which an unwonted profusion of bushes and ferns made exceptionally attractive. At the end of the path a lordly elm and a lordlier buttonwood, both of them loaded with lusty vines (besides clusters of mistletoe, I believe), gave me shelter from the sun while I sat and gazed at the strong eager current of the Tennessee hurrying onward without a ripple. As my foot touched the beach a duck — I could not tell of what kind — sprang out of the water and went dashing off. She had learned her lesson. In the duck’s primer one of the first questions is: “What is a man?” and the answer follows: “Man is a gun-bearing animal.” In the treetops a golden warbler and a redstart were singing. Then I heard a puffing of steam, and by and by a tug came round a turn, pushing laboriously up stream a loaded barge. It was the Ocoee of Chattanooga, and the two or three mariners on board seemed to find the sight of a stranger in that unlooked-for place a welcome break in the monotony of their inland voyage.
On the bushy, ferny slope, as I returned, two Kentucky warblers were singing in opposite directions. So I called them, at all events. But they were too far away to be gone after, as my mood then was, and soon I began to wonder whether I might not be mistaken. Possibly they were Carolina wrens, whose cherry is not altogether unlike the Kentucky’s klurwee. The question will perhaps seem unreasonable to readers long familiar with the two birds; but let them put themselves in a stranger’s place, remembering that this was only his third or fourth hearing of the Kentucky’s music. As the doubt grew on me (and nothing grows faster than doubt) I sat down and listened. Yes, they were Kentuckies; but anon the uncertainty came back, and I kept my seat. Then a sound of humming-bird wings interrupted my cogitations, and in another moment the bird was before me, sipping at a scarlet catchfly, — battlefield pink. I caught the flash of his throat. It was as red as the flower — beyond which there is nothing to be said. Then he vanished (rather than went away), as hummingbirds do; but in ten minutes he was there again. I was glad to see him. Birds of his kind were rare about Chattanooga, though afterwards, in the forests of Walden’s Ridge, they became as common as I ever saw them anywhere. The two invisible Kentuckies wore out my patience, but as I came to the bars another sang near me. Him, by good luck, I saw in the act, and for the time, at least, my doubts were quieted.
In the woods and thickets, as I sauntered along, I heard blue golden-winged warblers, two more Kentuckies, a blue-gray gnat-catcher, a Bachman’s finch, a wood pewee, a quail, and the inevitable chats, indigo-birds, prairie warblers, and white-eyed vireos. Then, as I drew near the car track, I descended again to the river-bank and walked in the shade of lofty buttonwoods, willows, and white maples, with mistletoe perched in the upper branches, and poison ivy climbing far up the trunks; the whole standing in great contrast to the comparatively stunted growth, mainly oak, — and largely black jack, — on the dry soil of the hillside. Across the river were broad, level fields, brown with cultivation, in which men were at work, and from the same direction came loud rasping cries of batrachians of some kind. For aught that my ear could detect, they might be common toads uttering their mysterious, discordant midsummer screams in full chorus. Here were more indigo-birds, with red-eyes, white-eyes, lisping black-poll warblers, redstarts, a yellow-billed cuckoo (furtive as ever, like a bird with an evil conscience), catbirds, a thrasher, a veery in song (a luxury in these parts), orchard orioles, goldfinches, and chippers. A bluebird was gathering straws, and a carrion crow, one of two seen in Tennessee, was soaring high over the river.
The “pavilion,” at the terminus of the car route, was deserted, and I sat on the piazza enjoying the really beautiful prospect — the river, the woods, and tho cultivated fields, The land hereabout was all in the market. In truth, the selling of building lots seemed to be one of the principal industries of Chattanooga; and I was not surprised to find the good-humored young fellow behind the counter — with its usual appetizing display of cigars, drinks, and confectionery — full of the glories and imminent possibilities of this particular “suburb.” He believed in the river. Folks would come this way, where it was high and cool. (On that particular afternoon, to be sure, it was neither very high nor very cool, but of course the weather isn’t always good anywhere.) “Lookout Mountain ain’t what it used to be,” he said, in a burst of confidence, “It’s done seen its best days, Yes, sir, it ‘a done seen its best days.” It was not for a stranger, with no investment in view, to take sides in such competitions and rivalries, I believed in the river and the mountain both, and hoped that both would survive their present exploitation. I liked his talk better when it turned upon himself. Nothing is more exhilarating than an honest bit of personal brag. He was never sick, he told me, He knew nothing of aches or pains. He could do anything without getting tired. Save for his slavery to the counter, he seemed almost as well off as the birds.