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NATURE'S MEMORIAL DAY
How Earth and Sky Observe this National Holiday
In my town the little "God's Acre" in which the pioneers snuggled to sleep under the protecting shadow of their first rough church has grown over hill and dale to a score of acres. The church long since moved out of its own yard, as if to give the pioneers room, yet lingers gently within a stone's throw, as a mother waits within sound of her children. Where once the rough oak timbers stood squarely upon their field-stone foundations century-old graves stretch restfully side by side, and gray lichens cling so close to the blue slate of headstones that the twain become one, and the very names of the sleepers beneath are hidden and forgotten. Shoulder to shoulder these old stones stand and lean friendlily one on another, as brothers to whom the kindly elder years have brought surcease of all differences. The early settlers were bold in their beliefs and battled sturdily for them while it was time to fight. The ancient records and traditions will tell you of stern warfare waged between man and man and clan and clan. Then, the battles well fought, they laid themselves down side by side in a forgiving neighborliness that is the most lasting inscription on the plain stones that mark their rest. Peace is most secure between those who have fought best, and the Memorial Day spirit is no mere growth of our later years. It was born in the scheme of all good, just as battles were.
Nature voices for us only kindly memories. Whatever the chisel may have graven on these rude slate stones, the kindly sun and rain and the slow sobbing of the earth's bosom under frost and thaw have taught them "de mortuis nil nisi bonum" till they voice it in phrases which none who pass may fail to read. The lichens have written it and the actions of the slate speak louder than the words of the inscriptions. We in our Memorial Day offerings tell for a brief hour only what the good gray earth has been saying the year through, and we say it best, as she does, in flowers and tears. Nature's Memorial Days began with the first grave and have continued ever since. Ours, which began with our mourning for dead heroes of the Civil War, has extended since to those of all wars and moves yearly nearer to Nature's all-forgiving, all-loving teaching. Our lesson will be complete when we understand that all who have lived are heroes and that toward all who are dead we should bear constant loving remembrance. The sun and the rain lead the gentler things of earth to this all through the old cemetery where, since the pioneers of the town, have come the heroes of the Revolution, of 1812, the Civil War, and of countless un-uniformed battles of daily life before and since.
All the morning of Memorial Day children, and often their elders, glean from field and wood, from garden and greenhouse, flowers for the decking of graves, and later the thinning ranks of Grand Army men march to martial music and place upon the graves of dead comrades the flag for which they fought and garlands of remembrance. For these the mowing fields give gladly the white and gold of their buttercups and daisies, the hillsides the blue of their violets, the woodlands the feathery white and glossy green of the smilacina. It always seems as if these blossomed their best for the occasion. But beyond all other flowers in profusion and beauty for the ceremony is the lilac. This shrub, I am convinced, knows that its best service to man is in garlands for Memorial Day, and rarely does it fail in the service. There come years in which the spring is cold and backward and blossoming shrubs are weeks behind their accustomed time of bloom, but the lilacs press bravely forward, hopeful even at the very last moment, and manage to put forth flowers by the thirtieth of 'May. On other years, like this, all things are three weeks or more ahead of season, yet the lilacs hold steadfastly on, and when their need is felt there they are to be gathered in armfuls from willing bushes that go cheerfully at work again to repair the wrecked stems and provide buds for the garnering of another year. The lilac should be the flower of poets and heroes, and as we are all that, however humble our heroism or however shyly- hidden our poetry, it is fitting that it should be commonest for the decorations of Memorial Day.
For the lilac, for all its buxom profusion and its ability to take care of itself in neglected fields and woods where the garden in which it was once delicately nurtured is grown up to grass, the house to which it belonged is crumbled to rum, and wild woodland things crowd and choke it, is of royal lineage. In the garden of what prince of prehistoric days it first bloomed I cannot say, but it was beloved of Babylonian kings and mingled its perfume with that of the roses in Persepolis when Persia was a seat of learning and refinement, while western Europe was vet to emerge from savagery and America was not even a dream. There Jamshid, founder of the then mighty city, Rustam the hero who defended it all his life from barbarian invaders, Sadi the poet in his rose garden, Omar with his "jug of wine and thou" watching the stars and writing his fond, cynical; keen verses, and even Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, barbarian conquerors out of the mysterious farther east, must have sat beneath its shade from time to time as the centuries dreamed on and dreamed their own dreams of conquest, of love or of service, under the spell of its fond, pervading perfume. Dreams these should be, of love, if you will, of constancy, and of hope and yearning toward high ideals, for all these breathe from the true heart of the lilac to-day, nor has the passing of three centuries changed the subtle essences of the flower or their meaning one whit. How far these have gone to the changing of the hearts of men in that time one may not say, but surely the fragrance sighs through the Gulistan and the Rubaiyat and the culture and refinement that the Persia of those days has sent down the years to us in their records was greater than that of any other nation of the time. From this mother land of the lilac spread westward the belief in one God. There the learned men taught to princes and nobles a due reverence for parents and aged persons, a paternal affection for the whole human species and a compassionate tenderness even for the brute creation. There before the sovereign in state might appear the humblest peasant for justice, and the youth of the land were taught fortitude, clemency, justice, prudence, to ride a horse, use the bow and speak the truth. With the odor of these things that of the lilac filled the air there through centuries of springs. What more fitting flower could we lay upon the graves of our heroes, whether of the Civil War or the Revolution, whether wearing the blue or the gray, or the homespun of the battle of every-day workshop, farm or home. There is more of symbolism in its giving than we heed. With the loving remembrance of friends of to-day goes a greeting from heroes of an age long gone but not forgotten.
There is no remembrance of civilization, no aura of human nobility about the smilacina, which in my regard comes next as a flower for Memorial Day. Hardly the violet could he more modest. Its tiny spike of white bloom is borne only a few inches high on a two-leaved stalk, the leaves in shape and gloss reminding one of the florist's smilax, whence probably the name. Yet its very simplicity makes it peculiarly a flower for garlands. The leaves, growing on the stalk itself, make just the right amount of green, and a nosegay or a wreath of smilacina alone has a dainty beauty that few flowers could thus give. The misty white blooms on the glossy green seem like shattered tears of gentle spirits of the woods bringing their tribute of sorrow to the fallen heroes. Nor are the blooms of this plant which the school children have gathered and which the veterans have placed on the graves the only ones that are there. All along one side of this cemetery the woods themselves press their sheltering beauty, and in them the earth is garlanded with smilacina blooms. Passing from Memorial Day observances to these I often think that the forest itself decorates in honor of its own whose resting places would be otherwise unmarked. It may he for the people of an elder race all other traces of whom are lost that the tiny, lovely flower.'; group their white and green, or for the humbler creatures of the wood who would otherwise lack tokens of mourning, but the smilacina certainly decorates the mounds in all woodlands with mystic tracings which have their own meaning. But it does more than this. In modest beauty it slips shyly out from the sheltering friendliness of the pines and stands with bowed head on many a dewy Memorial Day- morning by such mounds as it may reach, in all gentle friendliness.
Shyer yet are the saxifrages which sometimes stand near by. These I have seen, clad as if in Confederate gray, by a mound which veterans had marked with a Union flag and along which tiny blue violets nestled lovingly. So, surely, they stand in mute respect and nestle as lovingly by many another spot where the remembered one fought as bravely beneath another flag. Long ago the good brown earth taught the blue and the gray to thus fraternize, and though we forgot it for a time the lesson came soon back to us with renewed force. The saxifrages and the smilacina have not ventured far out of the all-sheltering wood, but the Confederate gray is borne all over the score of memorial acres by the wild immortelles, everlasting, as the children call them, and no caretaker's rake or lawnmower can keep these down, or clip the violets so close that their blue fails to nestle lovingly where heroes lie. All over the place from spring until autumn these two set their garlands side by side, as do those who mourn on the one Memorial Day of the year. Thus constant are the sun and rain and the tiny herbs of the brown earth.
As the boldest soldiers in the fray held oftenest the foremost ramparts and felt themselves fortunate in their position, so I think it must be with those veterans who rest nearest the brow of the hill, where it seems as if they could look forth over miles of beautiful forests to the blue hills which are other ramparts on the horizon. Here of an early morning of this misty May they might well think they saw gray troopers form and advance in battalions that sweep clown from the hills to eastward and charge over the treetops of the vale below. Through the distance they can hear the bugle calls of thrushes, and with trained ears thus know in what formation the advance will be made and when. Well may they feel the old-time thrill of desperate conflict as the advance sweeps up their hill and the misty gray legions swarm over it until the fight must need be hand to hand. Yet rarely does a day pass without final victory for the blue. The misty legions fall back and vanish before the flashing cavalry of the sun and the blue battalions of the clear sky swarm forth and drive the enemy in full retreat before them. Thus to them again out of the shades may come Gettysburg, or Antietam, or Port Hudson.
I like best, though, to think of them here as resting in camp with no thought of battles past or to come, the mists that rise meaning no more than the smoke of comrades' campfires, the bird bugle calls only those of the day's routine. From a hundred treetops they may hear the robins sound the reveille. From their hilltop these bugle notes should wake even the soundest sleepers. No other bird is so well fitted for this call. There is a sprightly persistence in the robin's song of a morning, a recurrence of rollicking refrain which reminds one strongly of the awakening notes of the bugle as they ring through the camp when the last of the night watches is ended and the new day calls all to be up and stirring. The robins are peculiarly the buglers of the reveille. No bird sings earlier, and when the full chorus is in swing there is little chance for any other bird to be heard. No wonder the sun gets up betimes.
The day calls, the assembly, the retreat, the mess call and a score of others are left to other birds than the robins. The thrush may pipe them. Grosbeak, tanager or warbler may trill the familiar melodies for all these, and a host of others sing at any hour of the day in tree or shrub or in the pine woods that stand in a phalanx, like a company under arms, pressing close up to the brow of the hill. Sometimes I hear these in the sweet, flowing warble of the purple finch which is not rare hereabouts, but more often in the notes of the warbling vireos which frequent the tops of the shade trees. These are all-day buglers, piping clear for all occasions in firm, rich, continuous notes of whose meaning there can be no doubt, once you have learned the calls. Nearing these and seeing the white marble of the newer comers stretch far beyond the slate headstones, over hill and dale, it is not difficult to believe these indeed the tents of an army corps and to think I hear in response to the bugle the marching tread of feet that have been resting long. The tramp of the boys in blue on Memorial Day, as they march and countermarch, passing from station to station, the ringing call of the bugle that sang across Southern fields all through Grant's campaign could not seem much more real.
When the busy day is ended it is the wood thrush that sings taps. The dropping sun reflected from polished white marble lights campfires from tent to tent, fires that shall burn low to glowworm embers presently, their smoke curling up in night mists from the dewy ground. It is then that the friendly forest seems to crowd closer as if to surround the camp with a host of faithful guards. Then out of its violet dusk rings the call of the wood thrush, a call full of gentle mystery, of faith and longing, at once so sad and so sweetly hopeful that it seems to voice all human sorrow for mortality and all human, wistful belief in immortality. "Come to me," it pipes in tintinnabulating richness out of the deepening dusk. "Good night; good night; all's well; good night." No sweeter music than taps ever rang from bugle or from throat of wood thrush when deepening twilight falls upon this white-tented corner of fame's eternal camping ground. The buttercups that stray lovingly among the graves of the pioneers give up their gold to the sky that sends its tears to dew their round eyes. All day the good gray earth and the brave blue sky have held memorial service, and as the last note of taps rings from the throat of the thrush deep in the sheltering wood the night takes up the service with wet eyes.
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