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of a Naturalist
LITERARY PILGRIMAGES OF A NATURALIST
IN OLD MARSHFIELD
Glimpses of the Country about the Daniel Webster Place
Down in Marshfield early morning brings to the roadside troops of blue-eyed chicory blooms, shy memories of fair Pilgrim children who once trod these ways. They do not stay long with the wanderer, these early morning blooms. The turmoil and heat of the mid-summer day close them, but the dreams they bring ramble with the roads in happy freedom from all care among drumlins and kames, vanishing in the flooding heat of some wood-enclosed pasture corner to spring laughingly back again as the way tops a hill and gives a glimpse of the purple velvet of the sea. No wonder Peregrine White, the first fair-skinned child born in New England, strayed from the boundaries of Plymouth and chose his home here. No wonder Daniel Webster, New England's most vivid great man, wandering southward over the hills in search of a country home two centuries later, fixed upon the spot just below Black Mount, looking down upon Green Harbor marshes and the sea, and chose this for his abiding-place.
The statesman and orator, whose words still ring across the years to us, with the trumpet sounding in them even from the printed page, may well have breathed inspiration for them from the winds that come from seaward across the aromatic marshes. There is cool truthfulness in these winds, and understanding of the depths, and the salty, wild flavor of the untamed marsh gives them a tang of primal vitality. Breasting them at mid-day from under the wilt of summer heat you seem to drink air rather than to breathe it, and find intoxication in the draught. I never heard a robin sing in mid-flight, soaring upward like a skylark, till I came to this bit of sweet New England country. The east wind drifted into him as he sat on a treetop caroling, and he spread his wings to it and fluttered upward, Pouring out round notes of melody as lie went. most famous speeches were composed while he tramped these hills and marshes and sailed the blue velvet of the outlying sea, and their richest phrases soar as they sing, even as did the robin.
You may come to Black Mount with its panoramic view of the Webster farm, the surrounding pastures and marshes and the little Pilgrim cemetery where he lies buried, from either the Marshfield railway station or that of Green Harbor, both a mile or more away by road. A better route lay for me through the woods by paths flecked with sunlight and dappled with shadow, paths which the Pilgrims' descendants first sought out and which are as fair to-day to our feet as they were to theirs. One can easily fancy Peregrine and his wife picking berries along here on days when the farm work allowed them freedom, the children frolicking about with them and eating or spilling half they picked, as the children do on these hills now. Voices and laughter rang through the woods as I passed, and there is small blame to the pickers if they do eat the berries as fast as they pick them. They never taste quite so good as on this direct route from producer to consumer. Along this path you may have your choice of varieties as you go, from the pale blue ones that grow so very near the earth on their tiny bushes that they seem the salt of it, giving the day its zest, through the low-bush-blacks, crisp with seeds and aromatic in flavor as if smoked with the incense of the sweet fern, to those other black ones that grow on the high bushes and rightfully take the name of huckleberry. The soil of these sandy hills map be thin and not worth farming, but it produces fruit whose quality puts to shame the product of well-cultivated gardens. The good bishop of England who once said, "Doubtless God could have produced a better berry than the strawberry, but doubtless He never did," never ate blueberries from the bush in a New England pasture.
From the summit of Black Mount the grassy hill slopes sharply beneath your feet to the road and beyond this to the home acres of the Webster place, the roof tree far below you and the house snuggling among the trees that the great statesman loved, many of which he planted. A little farther on stands a great barn with huge mows and the big hay doors front and rear always hospitably open to the scores of barn swallows that build on the beams up next the roof. In no barn have I found quite so many swallows at home. At every vantage point on a beam, wherever a corner of a timber or a locking pin protrudes to give a support, nests have been built, generation following generation till some of the structures are curious, deep, inverted mud pyramids, topped with straw and grass and lined with feathers, downy beds for the clamorous voting. I can think of no finer picture of rural peace than such a barn as this, the cool wind sighing gently through the wide doors, the beams stretching across the cavernous space above dotted with the gray nests, the air full of the friendly, homey twittering of the birds, some resting and preening their feathers on the beams, others swinging in amazing flight down and out through the doors to skim the grass of the neighboring fields and marshes for food, then flashing back again to the hungry nestlings. Such barns grow fewer year by year here in eastern Massachusetts, and the pleasant intimacy of the barn swallows is but a happy recollection in the mind of many of us, more is the pity. It is worth a trip to Marshfield just to foregather with such a colony.
Eastward again the eye passes over wide mowing fields, rough pastures and hills clad with short, brown grass and red cedars, the thousand-tree orchard of Baldwin apples which Webster planted, the tiny Pilgrim cemetery on a little hillock where he lies buried among the pioneers of the place, the brown-green marshes flecked with the silver of the full tide, to the deep, velvety blue rim of the sea, which sweeps in its splendid curve uninterrupted from north to south. Behind your back is the rich green of Massachusetts woodland, beneath your feet this landscape of pasture, field and marsh, scarcely changed since Webster's day, changed but little indeed since the days of Peregrine White and his pioneer neighbors, and rimming it round the deep sapphire romance of the sea. Across this blue romance of sea the winds of the world, fresh and vital with brine, come to woo you on your way. They croon in your ears the strange sagas that the blood of no wanderer can resist, and you know something of the lure that led the vikings of old ever onward to new shores as you plunge down the grassy slope to meet them. The stately beauty of the home place may thrall you for a while beneath the trees and the friendly great barn try to lull you to contentment with the cradle songs of the swallows, but the marsh adds its wild, free tang to the muted trumpets which these east winds blow in your ears, and so you fare onward through a country of enchantment, toward the ocean.
Webster's well house, where still the ancient spring flows, cool and clear, gave me a drink as I went by. The dyke which borders his cranberry bog and separates it from a tiny pond where white pond lilies floated and perfumed the air, gave further progress eastward, and soon I passed naturally into an old, old path which led me purposefully in the desired direction. Without looking for it I had found the footpath way which rambles from the farm across country to Green Harbor, where the statesman kept his boats, a path without doubt often trodden by his feet in seaward excursions. He could have found no pleasanter way. The pastures which lie between upland and marsh in this region are covered with a wild, free growth of shrub and vine which no herds, however ravenous, can keep down. The best that the cattle can do with them is to beat paths through the lush tangle along which wild grasses find room to work upward toward the light and add to the browse. Here the greenbrier grows greener and more briery than anywhere else that I know, and the stag-horn sumac emulates it in vigor of growth if not in convolutions. In places these reach almost the dignity of young trees, and the pinnate leaves spread a wide, fernlike shade as I walked beneath the antler-like branches. The stag-horn sumac is surely rightly named. Its antlers are covered now with an exquisite, deep, soft velvet which clothes them to the leafbud tips and along the very petioles of the leaves. Now it is a clear green which with later growth will become purple and pass into brown, the promise of autumn showing now in a slight purple tinge on the sun-ripened petioles of the older leaves. This soft fuzz clothes the crowded, conical heads of bloom also, heads that are of the same sweet pink as the petals of the wild roses which grow near by as you may see if you will hold one up against the other. But the pink of the wild rose seems flat against that of the sumac, for it has only a smooth surface on which to show itself, while that of the sumac is full of soft, shadowy withdrawals and shows a yellow background in the interstices of the blossom spike.
Skirting this jungle so aromatic with scent of sassafras and bayberry, perfumed with wild rose and azalea, pulsing with the flight of unseen birds in its cool depth and echoing with their song, the path crosses a brook that gently chuckles to itself over its escape from the monotony of a big mowing field to the salt freedom of the marsh, then suddenly breasts the steep northern side of a drumlin. Here the press of toiling feet has been supplemented by the wash of torrential rains till the narrow way becomes a miniature chasm in places, worn down in the gravel among great red cedars, hoary with age and lichens. To know the slow growth of a red cedar and to calculate the age of these by dividing their present bulk with the slight increase that each year brings is to place the birth of these trees far back in the centuries. Not one hundred years will account for it, nor two, and I am quite sure that these trees were growing where they now stand when Peregrine White's mother first embarked on the Mayflower at Southampton. Webster's path may have gone through them then, and no one knows how long before, for it is worn deep not only on the steep hillsides where the rains have helped it but in level reaches beyond where only the passing and repassing of feet through centuries would have done it. It was as direct a route from the hills to the mouth of Cut River at Green Harbor before the white man's time as after, and if I am not mistaken the red men trod it long before the first ship's keel furrowed Plymouth Bay.
As I topped the rise I found myself in a hilltop pasture a half-mile long which covers the rest of the hill. Once it was a cultivated field, and the corn-hills of the last planter still show in spots, these, like the rest of it, now overgrown with close-set grass and crisp reindeer lichen. The patriarchal cedars I had left behind, old men of their tribe sitting solemn and motionless in council. Here I had come upon a vast but scattered concourse of young people, lithe and slender folk who seemed to stroll gayly all about the place. Here were plumed youths and debonair maidens regarding one another, family groups, mothers with children at the knee and other little folk in the very attitude of playing romping games. But there were tinier folk than these, too small to be real cedars, gamboling among the others, as if underworld sprites also in cedar guise had come forth to join the festivities. Nowhere else have I seen such a merry concourse of cedars as on the long top of this hill that some Pilgrim father first cleared for a cornfield two centuries and a half ago. Here and there little groups of wee wild rose shrubs seemed to dance up and scatter perfume about their feet in tribute, then stand motionless like diffident children, finger in mouth, stolid and uncommunicative. Hilltops are often lonely, but this one could never be. It gladdens with its quaint fancies. Through a veritable picnic of young cedars I tramped down the eastward slope to the dusty road that leads on to Green Harbor and the slumbrous uproar of the surf.
Telling the pearls on this rosary of a path in the homeward direction one is led beyond the homestead and on, by a slenderer, less trodden way to the old Pilgrim cemetery where the great man lies buried among the pioneers of the neighborhood, Peregrine White, the Winslows, and a host of others whose fame has not gone so far perhaps, but those names may be written in the final domesday book in letters as large as his. Nor does any storied monument recite the deeds of the statesman or bear his name higher than that of his fellows. A simple slab with the name only stands above the mound beneath which he lies, and in the side of this mound a woodchuck has his burrow, seeming to emphasize by his presence the cosy friendliness of the little spot. It is a hillock, just a little way from the house, just a little way from the big orchard which Webster loved so well, surrounded by pasture and cranberry bog and with the marsh drawing lovingly up to it on one side. Over this marsh comes the free salt air of the sea, but a little more gently to the lowly hillock than to the summit of Black Mount. Because of this loitering gentleness it has time to drop among the lingerers there all the wild aromas and soft perfumes of the marsh and pasture and bring all the soothing sounds of life to ears that for all I know hear them dreamily and approve. Quail, the first I have heard in New England for a long time, whistled cheerily one to another from nearby thickets. Nor did these seem fearful of man. One whistled as a wagon rattled by his hiding place on the dusty winding road, and held his perch beneath a berry bush till I approached so near that I could hear the full inflection of the soft note with which he prefixed his "bob white," see the swell of his white throat and the tilt of his head as he sent forth the call. A pair of mourning doves crooned in the old apple orchard and flew on whistling wings as I approached too near. I have heard heartache in the tones of these birds, but here their mourning seemed only the gentle sorrow of a mother's tones as she soothes a weary child, a mourning that voiced love and sympathy rather than pain. On a tree nearby a great-crested flycatcher sat and seemed to say to himself, "grief, grief." These were the only notes of sorrow that the place held. All else in sky and field, marsh and hillside, seemed to thrill with a gentle optimism, and the hillock itself rested amidst this in a patriarchal peace and simplicity that became it well. Memory of this gentle peace and simplicity lingers long and runs like a tender refrain through the harmony of fragrant, vivid life that marks this lovely section of old Marshfield.
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