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THE spring of this, our new year of 1909, is set by the wise makers of calendars to begin at the vernal equinox, say the twenty-first of March, but the weatherwise know that on that date eastern Massachusetts is still in the thrall of winter, and spring, as they see it, is not due till a month later.
Yet they are both wrong, and we need but go into the woods now to prove it. The spring in fact is already here. The new life in which it is to express itself in a thousand forms is already growing and much of it had its beginning in late August or early September of last year. The wind out of the north may retard it indeed, but it needs but a touch of the south wind to start it in motion again, and the deep snows that are yet to come and bury it so that the waves of arctic atmosphere that may roll over its head for weeks will never be able to touch it are a help.
Many a hardy little spring plant blooms first, not in April as we are apt to think, but more likely in January, though it may be two feet deep beneath the snow and ice and unseen by any living creature. To go no farther than my own garden, I have known a late January thaw, rapidly carrying off deep snow, to reveal the "ladies' delights" in bloom beneath an overarching crust of ice. The warm snow blankets had effectually insulated the autumn grown buds from the zero temperature two feet above, and the warmth of the earth beneath had not only passed through the frost but melted a little cavern beneath the snow, and there the hardy plants had responded to the impulse of the spring that was already with them.
In this wise the chickweed blooms the year round though rarely are circumstances such that we note it in the winter months. Now and then the hepatica opens shy blue eyes beneath the enfolding snow and it is common in times of open weather in midwinter to read newspaper reports of the blooming of dandelions in December, or January. These are just as much in bloom on other winters but the snow covers them from sight and it takes a thaw which sweeps the ground clear of snow to reveal them.
It is good now and then to get a green Christmas such as we have just had, for in it we may go forth into the fields and realize that the spring has not retreated to the Bahamas, but merely to the soil, whence it slips, full of warmth thrill, on any sunshiny day. If we but seek the right places we need search long to find April all about us, though they may be cutting ten-inch ice on the pond and winter overcoats be the prevailing wear.
To-day I found young and thrifty plants, green and succulent, of two varieties of fern that are not common in my neighborhood and that I had never suspected in that location. I had passed them amid the universal green of summer without noticing them, but now their color stood out among the prevailing browns and grays as vividly as yellow blossoms do in a June meadow.
Yet I sought the greater ferns of my acquaintance in vain in many an accustomed place. Down by the fountain head is a spot where the black muck, cushioned with yielding sphagnum, slopes gently upward to firmer ground beneath the maples till these give way to the birches on the drier hillside. Here the ostrich fern waved its seven-foot fronds in feathery beauty amid the musky twilight of the swamp all summer long.
It was as if giants,
had driven a hundred green shuttlecocks to land in the woodcock-haunted
shelter. The tangle of their fronds was chin high and you smashed your
way through their woody stipes with difficulty, so strong and thick
were they. Now they have vanished and scarcely a trace of their
presence remains. Brown and brittle stalks rise a little from the earth
here and there, and if you search among fallen leaves you may find the
ends of their rootstalks with the growth for next year coiled in
compact bundles there, ready to unfold.
From these rootstalks spring in all directions slender underground runners whence will grow new plants. But none of this is visible. The only reminder of that once luxurious thicket is the brittle, brown stalks that still, here and there, protrude from the fallen leaves.
It is difficult to see where they all went, but there is something savoring of the supernatural about ferns, anyway. Shakspeare says: "We have the receipt of fern-seed; we walk invisible." For men to use this receipt the seed must be garnered on St. John's eve in a white napkin with such and such incantations properly recited. The Struthiopteris germanica had plenty of fern-seed on St. John's eve. It must have used the old-time incantations with success, for all the giant shuttlecocks that thronged the swale with a close-set tangle of feathery green have vanished.
I sought another moist and shady woodland where all the early spring the ground was a warm pinky brown with the fuzz of uncurling fiddle heads, and later the brown, leaf-carpeted earth was hidden in a delicate lace patterned of the young fronds of the cinnamon and the interrupted fern. To this woodland came the yellow-warblers for the soft fuzz for use in nest building, it compacting readily into a felt-like mass that is at once yielding and durable. The cinnamon fern when it has reached any size has an underground stump that is as woody and tough almost as that of a tree. Its strong fronds are next to those of the ostrich-fern in the woody vigor of their stipes. Surely these might have lasted.
Yet not one form of fern life was visible in this once thronged wood. Like the ostrich ferns they had poured their own fern-seed on their heads and whispered the correct incantation at the coming of the first chill wind. I am inclined to think it all happened in a jiffy, when happen it did, for I have been back and forth through that part of the wood all the fall and I cannot recall the day on which they were first missing. It seems as if I would have noticed their gradual crumbling and decay.
The same is true of the clumps of Osmunda regalis that grew here and there along the pond shore. Rightly named "regalis" they stood in royal beauty four or five feet tall and leaning over the water's edge admired the bipinnate grace of their fronds, while the tallest stalks bore aloft the clusters of spore cases that looked like long spikes of plumed flowers. No wonder the plant which is common to England also drew the notice of Wordsworth, who refers to it as –
Flowering fern it is rightly named, too, but it had flowered and gone, and I found of all its regal beauty but a single stalk with brown spore-cases held rigidly aloft among a tangle of brown leaves and bog grass.
Then I looked for the sensitive fern. This with its slender, creeping rootstock sending up single fronds is less woody than any of the others and I began to suspect that it would have disappeared utterly. So the sterile fronds had. There was no trace of them in spots that in summer were a perfect tangle. But this was not true of the fertile stalks. Here and there these, like the one of the royal fern, stood erect and bore their close-lipped spore eases, seal-brown and stiff, high above dead leaves and other decay of fragile annuals.
All this made a disheartening fern chase, and I turned to the steep side of the hemlock-shaded northern hill, sure of one hardy variety that would have no use for invisibility, however chill the north wind might blow. No smile of direct sunlight ever touches this hill. It is set so steep that only the mid-summer midday sun overtops its slant and this the dense hemlock foliage shuts out. No woodland grasses grow in its dense shadow and only here and there the partridge berry and the pyrola creep down, a little from the top of the ridge where some sunlight slips in. Yet in its densest part the Christmas fern revels and throws up fronds that seem to catch some of their dark beauty from the deep green twilight of the place. In the spring these stand in varying degrees of erectness, but autumn seems to bring a change in the cellular structure of the lower part of the stipe and weaken it so that the fronds fall flat upon the earth. They lose none of their firm texture or color, however, and be the temperature ever so low or the snow ever so deep they undergo no further change till the next spring fronds are well under way. Sometimes even in mid-summer you may find the fronds of the year before, somewhat fungi-encumbered and darkened with age, but still green.
No other fern grows in the denser portions of this hemlock twilight, though the Christmas fern clings close to it and does not spread to the more open glades on other portions of the hill. Another northern hill of similar steepness but shaded by an old growth of pines through which certain sunlight filters during most of the day has specimens of the Polystichum acrostichoides growing only in its most sheltered nooks from which they do not seem to spread even to the brighter spots near by on the same declivity. Hence I infer that the plant prefers the twilight, and does not thrive in even occasional sunlight.
Just at the base of this second hill, however, where cool springs begin to bubble forth in the mottled shadow, I caught a gleam of a lighter, lovelier green that was like a dapple of sunlight on clumps of Christmas ferns, and I came near passing it by for that. Then, because I had never seen this fern growing in a dapple of sunlight, I went to it and found that I had chanced upon a group of the spinulose wood fern. The plumose fronds showed no more winter effects than did those of the Christmas ferns.
The keen frosts had not shrivelled them, nor was there any hint of the brown that might come with the ripening of leaves or the departure of sap.
Like the other ferns they had suffered a failing of tissues near the base of the stipe, but pinnules, midribs and rachis were as softly, radiantly green as they had been under the full warmth of the summer sun. Owing to this failure of tissues in the stipe they lay flat to the ground, but they were still beautiful, perhaps more so than they had been when they stood more erect in summer, and were obscured and hidden by the other green things of the wood. I know I tramped within a few feet of them again and again last summer without noticing them, yet to-day they caught my eye a long way off, and held it in admiration even after a long and close inspection.
Farther down in the very swamp, laid flat along the sphagnum and oftentimes frozen to it, were fronds of the crested shield-fern and the patches of these tolled me far from my find and it was only on coming back for another look that I discovered the prettiest thing about it. That was, near by and half sheltered by tips of the elder fronds, young plants of the same variety, just advancing from the prothallus stage and having one or two miniature fronds like those of the parent plant but not more than two or three inches long.
These looked so tiny as compared with the mature ferns, but were so erect and confident, so fresh and green and very much alive though the temperature about them night after night had been far below freezing and their roots then stood in ice, that it was worth a journey, just to look at them. How their tender tissues had stood the temperature of ten above zero that had surrounded them a few nights before is more than I can answer. The faintest touch of frost kills the fronds of the great seemingly tough cinnamon and ostrich ferns. Yet these dainty little plants of Nephrodium spinulosum with their miniature fronds of tender lacework had not even wilted or cowered before deep and continued cold as had the stalks of their elders of the same species, but stood erect, nonchalant and seemingly eagerly growing still.
We may say if we will that it is all a part of that magic of youth that makes a million miracles each spring but that does not explain it. Why should these so strong and full of life when the fronds of the hay-scented fern, for instance, have been shrivelled to dry and crumbling brown fragments under the same conditions? I cannot answer this either.
Last of all I thought of the polypodys that grow in the rock crevices all down along the glen, and went to see how they fared. It has been a hard year for these little fellows. There must have been weeks at a time during the scorching days of the long summer's drought that their roots, clinging precariously in rock crevices and dependent for moisture wholly on rain and dew, were dry to the tips. The very heat of the rock itself tinder the blister of the sun would not only evaporate all moisture, but would so remain in the rock all night as to prevent any dew from condensing on it.
I had seen the polypodys at midday curled up on themselves seemingly nothing but dried tissues that could never be again infused with the breath of green life. Yet, let there come but the briefest of showers and you would see them uncurl, lift their fronds to the breeze; and go on as cheerily as their lower level neighbors the lady-ferns whose pinnules flashed in the drip of the splashing stream and whose roots bathed in the shallows.
The summer must have weakened them. Were they the sort to shrivel at the touch of the freezing wind and vanish into the fern-seed magic of invisibility? Not they. The slender crevice of black dirt in which their roots grow was black adamant with frost, but the polypodys swayed in the biting wind as jauntily as they had in the soft airs of summer and were as green and unharmed by the winter thus far as the Christmas ferns had been.
While I gazed at them, admiring their toughness and courage, my eye caught a bit of greenery on the rock high above and I had found the second unexpected fern of my winter day's hunt, for there from a crevice dripped the rounded, finely crenate, dark green pinnae of Asplenium trichomanes, the maidenhair spleenwort.
Many a day during the summer had I sat on that ledge, listening to the prattle of the brook down the glen and watching the demoiselle flies flit coquettishly up and down stream while the dragonflies with masculine directness darted hither and thither. The polypodys must have often dropped their fern-seed on my head, bet the magic that they invoked with it must have been of the sort that made not me, but the little fern above invisible, for it remained for this winter day of a green Christmas week to show me its fragile beauty still green and undisturbed in the winter weather. No other evidence was needed, nor could I have any so good, to prove that spring is indeed here before the winter comes, and though the cold and snow may retard they cannot prevent it from reaching the full beauty and climax of maturity.
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