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RAIN IN THE MOUNTAINS
The Gods, Half-Gods and Pixies to be Seen as the Storm Passes
There are other beauties in the high mountains than those of fair days which show blue peaks pointing skyward in the infinite distance. Now and then a northeaster comes sweeping grandly down from Labrador, swathing the peaks in mist wraiths torn from the weltering waves of Baffin's Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then he who knows the storm only from the sea level finds in it a new mystery and delight. On the heights you stand shoulder to shoulder with the clouds themselves, seeing the gray genie stalk from summit to summit or anon swoop down and bear a mountain away to cloud castles that build themselves in a moment and vanish again in a breath. At the sea level the storm rumbles on high above your head, tossing down upon you what it will; here you are among the mysteries of its motion, sometimes almost above their level, and through rifts in the clouds you may get glimpses of their sun-gilded upper portions and see the storm as the sky does for a moment from above. Again the clouds coast to the valleys and wrap even them in the matrix of mist out of which rain is made.
Sunset light on the Southern Peaks, seen from the summit of Mount Washington
Most beautiful is such a storm in the hours of its passing, when the main cohorts have swept by, when the rear guard and camp follower clouds pass at wider and wider intervals and more and more sun comes to paint their folds with rose and flash the meadows and dripping woods with scattered gems set in most vivid green. Far off the high hills loom mightier and more mysterious than ever, for their shoulders still pass into the storm and the imagination gives them unrevealed majesties of height, built upon the blue-black cloud plateaus that hide them. No wonder the great gods dwelt on Mount Olympus. So they do on cloud-capped Mount Washington, on Carrigain, Lafayette and Carter Dome.
In time of storm lesser divinities may well come down to the valleys, and when the passing clouds are mingled with the coming sunshine is the time to look for trolls in the woodland paths, pixies by the stream, and to find, in the very blossoming shrubs and graceful trees of the level river meadows a personality that is as nearly human as that which the Greeks gave their gods. Who can know the elms of the Conway and Intervale meadows without loving them for their femininity? Each one "walks a goddess and she looks a queen." Yet each one flutters feminine fripperies with a dainty grace such as never yet stepped from motor car at the most fashionable hostelry between Bretton Woods and Poland Spring. The summer visitors who wear hobble skirts on the piazzas and along the lawns of the most luxurious mountain hotels need not think they are the first to flaunt this curious inflorescence of fashion before the stony stare of the peaks. The river-bottom elms have worn their peek-a-boo garments of green that way ever since they began to grow up in the meadows. Nor can the newcomers vie in grace, however clever their artifice, with these slim mountain maids, than whom no dryads of any grove have ever combined caprice and dignity into more bewitching beauty. The meadow elms are the queens of all summer exhibitions of the perfect art of wearing clothes.
The elms of the deep wood are far more simply dressed, losing not one whit of dignity by it, as he who intrudes upon them in their cool, shadowy bowers may know. But these elms of the sandy intervales where the sun would otherwise touch them with the full warmth of his admiration are dressed for the world, all in fluffy ruffles of green that flow yet sheathe, that clothe in all dignity yet are of such exquisite cut and proper fashion that the highest art of Fifth Avenue has nothing to match them. To look beyond these to the hillsides is to see the firs and spruces as prim Puritans of an elder day wearing the high, pointed caps of witch-women and conical skirts that follow the flaring lines of a time long gone; and the maples and beeches are roundly, frankly, bourgeois, grafting the balloon sleeves of a quarter of a century ago upon the bulge of hoop-skirts such as some of our great-grandmothers wore in conscious pride. But the meadow elms! Sylph-like and teasingly sweet, fluffy, fashionable and fascinating, yet robed throughout in a gentle dignity such as might well be the aura of purity and nobility, no tree in all the mountain world can quite match them.
In these valleys among the high hills the man from the lowland regions is apt to miss and long for the sheen of placid waters. All descents are so abrupt that streams rush impetuously always downward toward the sea, carrying with them whatever may obstruct, whether flotsam of blown leaves or the very granite ledges themselves if they impede the advance too long. They burst ledges, smash boulders to pebbles and grind pebbles to sand and then to silt and spread it over the meadows where the elms grow or hurry it on to make deltas and vex ships on the very sea itself. If they may not smash the ledges or the boulders they slowly dissolve them or more rapidly wear them away by constant scouring with the passing sand of their freshets, and always in the ravines they have dug sounds the uproar of their perpetual attrition and unrest. Far away this comes intermittently in a soothing sibilation which seems to be saying to itself "Hush, hush." It is as if one heard the voices of little mother levels of still pools trying to quiet the fretful child-foam of the cascades.
But sitting on the rock itself by the stream as it dashes down one gets, through this, a deep vibration which has almost too few beats to the second to be a tone, that is as much a jar as a sound, the deep diapason of the quivering granite itself. A beaten ledge responds like a mighty gong with a humming roar that is strangely disproportionate to the means employed to produce the sound. Sometimes to stamp with the foot over a rounded surface of earth-covered granite is to produce an answering, drumlike boom that makes one suspect that he stands on a thin film of rock over a cavern. The music of a fall has many parts. One of these is the sand-dance sibilation of the shuffling waters, another this boom of the rock drum on which the green flood beats with padded blows.
As the heart of the listener is tuned so it answers to the mingled voices of the waters. One may hear in them the well-harmonized parts of a runic lullaby and be soothed to peace and belief in all things good by the music. To many another their perpetual turmoil and unrest find too loud an echo from the depths within him, and he longs for still lakes that look friendlily up to him with the blue of the sky in their clear eyes, fringed with the dark-pencilled lashes of firs beneath the brow of the hill, The valleys of the high white hills have so few of these that one may count them on the fingers of a hand. "Echo Lake" or "Mirror Lake" we find them named, and all summer long they have their throng of admirers, who in the lowland regions would pass such tiny tarns with little thought of their beauty. They may be so set that they mirror no mountain peak, Their echo may be no more silvery in tone or more frequently repeated than one would get if he blew a bugle in some dusty, forgotten city square where red brick blocks would toss the call from one to another, yet the little lakes have a charm of placid personality that the cataracts cannot give.
Some day, without doubt, man will fill the blind ravines of the upper mountain region with a thousand eyes of these, binding the waters for use and thereby adding to their beauty, Every narrow ravine has its stream, dashing uproariously downward. It needs but a barrier of boulders set in cement to make at once a little lake and a cascade. The water, set for a moment to turn a turbine, will again dash on with its full gift of flashing foam and musical, uproar for all who watch and listen, but its momentary restraint will have helped the men of the mountains with power and have helped the hills themselves to greater permanency and added beauty. Man must do this if he would keep the beauty of the hills whence cometh his strength, or indeed if he would keep the hills themselves. The black spruce growth that once clothed them from base to summit, holding the winter's snow and ice beneath their sheltering boughs to melt slowly almost all summer long, making deep, cool shadows for the growth of water-holding, spongy mosses, he has ruthlessly cut away. For many years, winter after winter, out of the Glen Ellis River Valley, right up under the slope of the Presidential Range, went half a hundred million feet of this growth, and in all the other valleys where spruce remained it was the same. The sudden freshets are more sudden, the disintegrating droughts more severe now because of this, and by these the very mountains themselves are torn down.
Such a little lake, built not to turn a wheel but to please the eye of the lovers of mountain beauty, has lately been made just north of Jackson, There it sits in a little bowl of a hollow among spruce-clad hills and its waters purl gently over a cement dam, to splash for the square-tailed trout under the shadows farther down the ravine. Creatures that already knew the little stream and the marshy hollow where the lake had welled have taken kindly to its presence, but the wider ranging woodland folk are still surprised at finding it there and shy about trusting themselves on it or its borders. It is too young to be adopted by the water birds that have known the region long. The sandpipers that move leisurely north up Ellis River, feeding and teetering as they go, do not light in on the borders of the new-born lake, and though the loons have no doubt seen it as they fly over, they, too, go by, I have never yet seen a loon plunge over the ridge to ripple its waters with his splash or set the goblin echoes of the forest laughing with his eerie cry. A mountain lake without one loon is lonely, In the tiny "mirror lake," which is a mountain tarn that has been an eye to the woodland for countless centuries over beyond the southeast slope of Kearsarge, a loon family dwells, and I watch them from the summit, diving, feeding and making great sport in their world. Over on Chocorua there are two such, and I fancy they are equally numerous on all still waters of the high mountain world, but they have not yet trusted this new-born mountain lake, nor have the spotted sandpipers come to nest among the ferns on its margin.
But the little lake mirrors many a bird wing nevertheless, mainly those of the eave swallows that nest in a long row under the eaves of a Jackson barn, These know that man loves them, and the things that he has made, whether barn roofs or little lakes, are to be adopted and used without fear. So they swoop over the fir tops and skim the surface of the unruffled waters, dipping to touch their own reflections and twittering mightily about it as they sweep the dust of tiny insects out of the shimmering air. Nor does the lake mirror lack for the reflection of many even more beautiful wings. When the sun breaks through the passing storm a thousand gauzy, white-bodied dragon-flies magically appear. They cluster on sunny margins and dash into the air and clash wings in infinitesimal rustlings. Their fellows of a score of varieties of coloration and shape are here too, spirits of the air but children of its love for the waters and born of the lake itself. While the storm passes I watch their miracles of recreation. When the sun lights up the shallow margins they come swimming beneath the surface, strange little slender submarines with filmy propellers behind and round conning towers in front. They come to a projecting twig and climb up on this with hitherto unsuspected legs till they are many inches above the surface, where the sun and wind will dry them.
How do they know the appointed time? Whence comes this impulse to leave the water which has been their home since the first faint beginnings of individuality were theirs? There is no answer to these questions in any depth to which scientific investigation has yet probed. Yet the impulse is there and they do know the appointed time, Moreover they know if they have obeyed the promptings of the impulse too soon. Now and then one climbs out and rests for a moment, then in a sudden panic lets go his hold on the twig and drops into the water again, scuttling back to the depths in haste. For him the hour has not yet struck. But most of them come out to stay. They cling motionless with the sun drying their backs and filling them with such new life and vigor that they burst. The submarine is itself a shell, and as it bursts out of it comes the life that animated it, in a new form, to dry and stretch its wings and presently dart into the air on them, henceforth a creature of the sun, Behind each remains its water-world husk, still clinging to the twig to which it crawled. Sometimes I put a finger into the water in front of the swimming insect, and it as readily crawls out on that as on a twig, but neither of us has yet had patience to wait thus till the transformation is complete.
The larger dragon-flies, with their clashing wings and darting flight, which is so swift sometimes that the eye fails to record it clearly, seeing the insect at the beginning and again at the end but unable to receive an impression of the passage, seem well named. Here are small creatures, indeed, but veritable dragons nevertheless that may well carry apprehension to the human watcher as well as to the tiny midges, which they capture in this darting flight and summarily devour. It may be that they will not sew up the mouth of the boy that swears in their presence, but no boy is to be blamed if he believes that they can, Their gorgon-like build and their uncanny swiftness of motion might well prompt the superstitious to believe that they could be a terror to evil-doers, But no one could think the gentle demoiselles capable of wrong, though they are dragon-flies too and are born of the same waters and eat tiny insects in the same way. Appearances count for much with all of us, and the demoiselles flit so softly and fold their wings on alighting in such prayerful demureness of attitude that they seem instead the good folk of the fairy world that margins the little lake, created to bring rewards to the good rather than to punish evil.
Thus by the man-made mountain tarn one may find the dragons and the pixies that man has made too, out of the débris of dreams that the race has accumulated since it too grew up out of placid waters which in ages past seem to have sheltered all elementary forms of life as it shelters the dragon-fly nymphs before they have grown up to use their wings. While the storm wraps the world in the illusions of romance the half-gods of Greek myth stalk the mist-entangled meadows and shout in the winding valleys, across the mountain streams. As the storm breaks, the clouds pass, and the sun floods the thin air with his gold, these mayhap, like the pixie dreams, will vanish. The half-gods go, but the gods arrive. The eye lifts with the clouds to wider and wider spaces and greater and greater heights, up stepping-stones of glistening cliffs, along rugged ranges to where the peaks sit enthroned in splendor, the great gods themselves. Vulcan looms vaguely by his black anvil, the distant storm swathing him in the smoke of his forge fire. The chariot of Apollo rides beyond, his arrows flashing far and fast. Cytherea passes with the clouds and flames them with her opalescent presence, and high over all, mighty and storm-compelling, sits Zeus himself, enthroned in white majesty on the carved nimbus of the passing rain.
Clouds on Mount Washington, from the Glen Road, Jackson