copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)                                             

Click Here to return to
Woodland Paths
Content Page

Click Here to return
to last Chapter



JUST as in midsummer the people of the little pasture and woodland hollows must envy those of the hilltop their cool, breezy outlook, so in mid-April the thought must be reversed. For still the warfare between the north wind and the sun which began in February skirmishes and reached its Gettysburg in late March, goes fitfully on, with Appomattox hardly in sight.

The South is to win in this fratricidal struggle though, and in the summer millennium of peace and prosperity the two forces will join hands and work for the good of the whole land. Already the warriors of the North are driven to the hilltops, where they still shout defiance, and whence they rush in determined raids on the valleys below. It is a losing fight, for all day long the golden forces of the sun roll up the land and fill all the hollows and hold them in serene warmth and peace. However hard last night's frost, however stiff the gale overhead, I can always find bowl-shaped depressions where summer already coaxes the winter-worn woodland.

The very first squatters in this land, whose presence antedates those people of record who held land by deeds and grants, seem to have found and loved these little sun-warmed hollows too, for in them I find the only traces of this pioneer occupation. Records in ink or on parchment of these pioneers are few, indeed, and these which they left on the land itself are but slight. Here a depression may show where a tiny cellar was dug, though no trace of stone work will be found. It was easier for the pioneer to frame his cellar wall of logs, just as he built those of the house above it.

You may find by careful search the worn path to the spring nearby, for that which is written on the earth itself remains visible long after inscriptions on stone are gone. The wind and the sun, the frost and the rain, will erase the carving from your marble tablet. But the path across a plain, once worn deep and firm by many passing feet, will always show its tracing to the discerning eye. Perhaps a huge old apple-tree stump may have lasted till now, even showing faint signs of life, and round about what was the immediate dooryard the trees of the wood may cluster; but they will hold back and leave some open space, as if they still respected invisible bounds set by the long departed human occupant. There seem to be many such sleepy hollows in my town, spots where dreams dwell and the once trodden earth clings tenaciously to the prints of long-vanished feet. Over their tops to-day, the north wind sings his war song, but his failing arrows fall to earth harmless, for golden troops of sunshine roll over the southern rim and fill the space below with quivering delight.

Just to walk about in this sunshine is a pleasure, and to sit in the pioneer's hollow land and let it flood your marrow is to be thrilled with a primal joy that is the first the race has to remember. It antedates the first man by unknown millions of years. The same sun touched with the same joy the first primordial cell. With the thrill the one quivered into two and thus came the origin of species.

To-day in such a hollow and under such a sun the pageant of woodland life passed before me, much as it may have passed before the pioneer as he sat on his log doorstep and rested perhaps from labors in the cornfield, whose hills of earth still checker the level, sandy plain behind his hollow. Strange that the brawny, seventeenth-century adventurer should be but vanished dust and a dream, while the loam that he stirred with careless hoe holds the form that he gave it more than two hundred years ago! Five or six times his cornfield has matured a forest, and the great trees have been cut down and carted away, and yet the corn hills linger. Thus easily does the clay outlast the potter.

When I first marched into the tiny clearing the place was silent, brown and deserted, but that is the way of the woodland, and we soon learn to understand it. A certain aboriginal courtesy is required before you are allowed to become one of the company. Thus among the Eskimos you enter an assembly and sit quietly a moment until one of those already present notices and speaks to you. In this way you are admitted to fellowship. It is very bad taste for the newcomer to speak first.

So at first I noticed only the brown of last year's grasses, the dead stems of goldenrod and aster, of St. John's-wort and mullein. A tiny cloud slid across the face of the sun and a scout of the north wind blew down the slope and chilled the golden glow of sunlight with which the hollow had seemed filled to the brim. Looking down into it from a sheltered spot on the rim, I had thought the place full of dreams of June. As I sat down in the shadow on the pioneer's grass-plot with the scouting north wind at my back, it was rather a recollection of November.

A dead leaf, frightened by that scurrying wind, dashed down over the tree tops and lighted, a brown splash on the pale, dead grass. Then all in a moment the cloud blew by, the north wind saw the .enemy all about him in force and dashed over the rim of the hill, the amber warmth of the sun descending and filling the cup to the brim with the gentle ecstasy of returning summer.

In the still radiance the brown leaf floated into the air again, hovered a moment before my very eyes, and lighted near by on the gray bones of what had once been the pioneer's apple tree. Thus I received my introduction. I had been spoken to by one of the people of the place, received my accolade as it were, and was privileged to see clearly. For the brown leaf was not a brown leaf at all, but a hunter's butterfly.

It is astonishing to find already so many forms of frail life stirring in the sun, though just a night or two ago the thermometer registered ten degrees of frost, and the ground was frozen solid the next morning. Here was my hunter's butterfly, a wee dab of pulpy cell that a touch of my finger could crush, borne on wings of gossamer frailness that might be whipped to tatters by a wind-snapped twig, yet sailing serenely about, defying anything to harm him.

The strange part of it is that he has been somewhere hereabouts all winter long. All about in the pastures are the frail ghosts of last year's cudweed, on which as a caterpillar he fed. But it is six months at least since he cast off his chrysalis skin and emerged in his present form to face bitter winds and a constantly lowering temperature, days of chilling rain, smothering snow, and ice that coated all things with an inch-thick armor for days. All the wrecks that these might have caused him he has in some mysterious fashion escaped, and here he is, as merry as a grig.

He did not seem to be hungry, unless, like me, he was eager to devour the sunshine. He sat on the gray, weather-worn, fallen trunk of the ancient apple tree, his wings gently rising and falling, while I noted the beauty of his rich reds with their black and white markings and margins of black just tipped with a blueish tinge on the tips of the fore wings. Then he closed them for a minute, showing me the dark blurring of the under parts that had made me think him a dead leaf as he blew over the ridge with the wind, though now I could note the blue ocelli of the after wings.

It was only for a moment that he rested motionless thus, and it was 'hard not to think him a chip of ancient bark or a fragment of a leaf, then he flipped himself into the air and was off over the hill again in a tremendous hurry. All butterflies get occasional aerograms and go off as if on a matter of life or death in response to the messages, but it seems as if these overwinter chaps were especially subject to them in the first warm days. Later an angle-wing came down into my valley, but he did not stay long enough for me to find out which of the Graptas he was, -- whether the question mark or the comma, Grapta interrogationis or Grapta comma. I should call him the comma, for his stop was of the shortest, if it were not that my doubt of his identity leaves me with the query.

The rush of his business was even greater than that of Pyrameis huntera, and with one flip of his crooked-edged wings he was out of sight.

Three other butterflies I saw during the day in the neighborhood of my sunny hollow. One, the mourning cloak, Vanessa antiopa, I always expect to see on warm days in the sunny brown woods of April, and am rarely disappointed. Another which took the air from the hillocked ground of the two-century-old cornfield I thought to be Vanessa j-album, more familiarly known, perhaps, as the Compton tortoise. I would have been glad to know this surely, for this butterfly is rather rare here; but bless me, he went off over the hills at a rate that shamed the flipperty angle-wing. These dilly-dallying butterflies of the poet, indeed! They are the busiest creatures of the whole woodland. Last of all was a little red chap that shot through the rich gold of the sunlight quite like an agitated bullet, his motor doing its very prettiest with the muffler off and both propellers roaring. Orville Wright could not have caught him. It was but a brief glimpse that I got, but I took him for one of the skippers, perhaps the silver-spotted, which is common here, though I have never seen one so early before. He was burly, thick-necked, short-winged, which is characteristic of the hesperids.

I would be glad to know what these early butterflies find to eat. Certain flowers are now in bloom, but you never find a mourning cloak or a hunter, a question mark or a painted lady fluttering about them. The bees are in the willow blooms and the alder catkins after pollen. The maples are in bloom. You can find hepaticas and violets, chickweed, crocus, snowdrop, and, I dare say, dandelions in blossom, and almost every day some new shrub or shy herb sends perfumed invitation out on the messenger winds.

     Yet I find April butterflies most partial to such sunny spots as the ancient corn field, where pines and scrub oaks will give no hint of bloom for weeks to come, and only dry lichens seem to flourish on the twig and chip-encumbered earth. Here the dainty cladonias thrive, the brown-fruited lifting tiny cups to the sun, while the scarlet-crested help this and the fringed variety to make crisp, tiny, fairy gardens that will show you great beauty if you will put your nose to the earth as the butterfly does in looking at them.

     Perhaps these earliest spring butterflies sip from brown cups or draw from frost-moistened scarlet crests some potent elixir     which warms the cockles of their wee hearts during the frigid nights of our Massachusetts Aprils. I hope so. I never catch them sipping honey at this time from any of the recognized sources. Perhaps the full flow of sap which is fairly bursting the young limbs of all trees now leaks enough to give syrup for the tasting, and they are thus more fortunate than their brethren, who will come later and dance attendance on lilac and milkweed. Maple sugar is better than honey.

There will be blossoms enough for them in the little hollow by and by, though at first it looked so brown and sere. Little by little, after my initiation at the antennae of Pyrameis huntera, I began to see them, a rosette of green under my elbow, perhaps, or a serrate tip farther on. All under the brown grass the green rosettes of biennials and perennials have waited all winter long for a time like this. Out of the cores of growth built with slow labor in the increasing chill of autumn they are now sending new leaves, one after another in rapid succession, that top the brown grasses and begin to wreathe them with the tender green of spring.

There is joy in their very coloring as they stretch up to meet the enfolding warmth of the sun. Here an early buttercup waves a cleft and somewhat pinnate hand to me with jaunty assurance, though in the heart of its cluster is as yet no sign of the ascending stem that is to bear the glossy, yellow bloom aloft. Dandelion leaves shake their notched spears all about, proud that their buds are already visible, though still tucked down in the heart of the plant and showing no sign of yellow.

Here are the wee strawberry-like leaves of the cinquefoil, pale counterpart of the buttercup to which it looks up in gentle envy and admiration. The cinquefoil follows hard upon the heels of the violet, and already its buds are eager to be up and open. The linear root leaves of aster and goldenrod sit snug and green, growing a bit, but in no hurry to appear above the brown vegetation of last year. Their watch comes late, and there is no reason for them to be stirring thus early. And so the growth of lush green leaves is pushing up all over the dooryard of the old-time settler getting ahead of the lazy wood grasses that have hardly begun to put out tiny spears that eventually will stab through the old fog and help the others to make a new tapestry carpet for the empty woodland spaces.

Loveliest of all these now, and, indeed, the most germane to the spot, is the mullein. All winter long it has sat serene and self-sufficient, under the snow, armor-encased in pellucid ice, or in the bare, bitter nights when the stars of heaven were one solid coruscation of silver and the still cold bit very deep. Clad in kersey like the pioneer, its homespun clothing has defied the weather; holding the cold away from its thin leaf with all this padding of matted wool which makes the plant seem so rough and coarse. In the summer it will defy the fierce heat of the July sun with the same armor, sitting here with its feet in the burning sand and its tall spike tossing back the sunshine with a laugh from its golden efflorescence.

Like the pioneer, the mullein came from the Old World, well fitted to bear the rigors and defy the dangers of the New. Like him it took root, and its seed holds the land in the rough places, brave and beautiful, though rough-coated, tender at heart, and helpful always.

So, when the sun has gone over the western ridge and the north wind scouts have again mustered courage to invade the place, I leave the little hollow to the wilderness that still enfolds dreams of the one-time occupant. In its sheltered nooks some of the day's golden warmth will remain, even until the sun comes again. I cannot tell where my busy butterflies will spend the night, but if I were one of them I should flip back into the dooryard of the pioneer's homestead and cuddle down in the great heart of one of those rosettes of mullein leaves, there to slumber, warm and serene, wrapped to the eyes in its blankets of soft wool.

Click the book image to continue to the next chapter