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OUT of the violet dusk of some June dawn you will see the summer coming over the hills from the south and you will know her from the spring at sight. I do not know how. I doubt if the whip-poor-will, who has a jealous eye on the dawn and its signs, for its first appearance means bedtime and surcease from labor for him, knows. Yet he feels her presence, for he waits it as a sign to select the spot for his nest.
The whip-poor-will is hardly a home builder. He just occupies a flat for the summer, a place that seems no more fit for a home than any other flat. Just as I often wonder how apartment-house dwellers find their way back at dinner-time, in spite of the bewildering sameness of the surroundings, so it seems to me quite miraculous that the whip-poor-will can find the way back to the eggs or young at daybreak. Nest there is none. It is simply a spot picked, seemingly, at random, on the brown last year's leaves, or the bare rock of the pasture.
But the whip-poor-will has been here since early May, and till now has not offered to take an apartment. Yesterday, without doubt, he saw the summer coming and picked his site. By to-morrow or next day you might find the two eggs there -- if you are a wizard. It takes such to find a whip-poor-will's eggs. You might look at them and never see them, so well do they match the ground on which they lie, -- more like pebbles than anything else, with their dull white obscurely marked with lilac and brownish-gray spots. I sometimes think the mother bird herself fails to find them and that may be one reason why whip-poor-wills do not seem to increase in numbers.
Like the whip-poor-will the scarlet tanager waits sight of the coming of summer before he begins his nest. It is odd that the two should have even this habit in common, for otherwise they are far apart. The tanager is essentially a bird of the daylight, his very colors born of the sun. I rarely hear him or see his scarlet flame until the sunlight is on his tree top to make him seem all the more vivid. Then as the day waxes, and the robins one by one cease their singing, he takes up their song and continues it, often until the robins return to the choir as the afternoon shadows lengthen. The tanager's song is singularly like that of the robin, only more leisurely and refined. After you have become familiar with it you begin to feel that the robin is a very huckster of a soloist.
"Kill 'im, cure 'im, give 'im physic," is what the early settlers thought the robin sang to them. It always seems to me as if he sang, "Cherries; berries; strawberries. Buy a box; buy a box." You might translate the scarlet tanager's song into either set of words but you would not. Instead, you would ponder long to find a phrase whose gentle refinement should express just the quality of it. Then I think you would give it up, as I always do, content to feel its pure serenity, which is quite beyond words.
The tanager is just about beginning the weaving of his home, which is as gentle and refined in structure as his song. You may see through it if you get just the right position from below, yet it is well built and strong, woven of slender selected twigs and tendrils, a delicate cup, just big enough to hold the three or four eggs of tender blue with their rufous-brown markings, and the olive-green. mother bird. The tanager's life is as open as the day, and as he watches southward from his pine tree top you may well mark the coming of summer by the beginning of that nest well out on a lower pine bough.
And if you are not fortunate enough to have a tanager in your pine grove you might well take the time from another bird, as different from the scarlet flame of the tree top as the tanager is from the whip-poor-will; that is the wood pewee. As the whip-poor-will loves the darkness and the tanager the bright sun of the topmost boughs of the grove, so the wood pewee loves the resinous depths of the pines, where in the hot twilight of a summer midday he pipes his cheerful little three-note song. Like the cicada, he seems to sing best when it is hottest, and the thought of his song inevitably brings to mind the drone of the summer-loving insect, the prattle of the brook at the foot of the hill, and the lazy dappling of the sunlight as it falls perpendicularly to the feathery fronds of the cinnamon ferns far below.
He who would find humming birds' nests would do well to first take a course in hunting those of the wood pewee. The two seem to have the same type of mind when it comes to nest-building, though the wood pewee's is five times the size of the other and proportionally easy to find. Each saddles his nest on a limb and covers it outside with gray lichens from the trees nearby, so that from below it looks like merely a lichen-covered knot. As the wood pewee loves to sing his song in the shadows of the upper levels of the deep pine wood, so he loves to look down as he sings upon his nest on a limb below, usually twenty or more feet from the ground.
Such humming birds' nests as I have found have been made of fern wool or the pappus of the blooms of dandelions or other compositae just compacted together and lichen-covered. The wood pewee builds of moss and fine fiber, grass and rootlets, using the lichen covering for the outside, as does the humming bird. It is a beautiful nest, a rustic home which perfectly fits the dead pine limb on which you often find it, and its surroundings, a nest as rustic as the grove and the bird.
These two, the tanager and the wood pewee, I know are already picking the limbs for their nests and having an eye out for available material, for I know that they have had the first word that summer is here. I got it myself from the southerly slope of Blue Hill, a spot to which I like to climb as the lookout goes to the cross-trees, whence the southerly outlook is far and you may sight the sails of spring or summer while yet they are hull down below the horizon of the season.
All creatures love to climb. Here along the rocky path the young gerardias have found a foothold, and put forth strange sinuate or pinnatifid leaves that puzzle you to identify them until you note the last year's stalks and seed-pods, now empty but persistent. Exuberance and young life often take frolicsome ways of expending their vitality. When the gerardias are two months older, and have settled down to the growing of those wonderful yellow bells which fill the woodland with golden delight, their stem leaves will lose all this riot of outline and coloration and settle down to plain, smooth-edged green. The blossoms may need a foil, but will brook no rival on their own stem.
The path that I take to my southerly looking masthead soon leaves the gerardias behind. They need alluvium and a certain fertility and moisture, and the crevices of the rock are not for them. There as I climb among the cedars I pass the withered stalks of the saxifrage that a month ago made the crevices white. Now only an occasional belated blossom, scraggly and worn as if with dissipation, seems hastening to reach oblivion with its fellows.
But the wild columbine still holds horns of honey plenty for the sipping of moth and butterfly, whose proboscides are long enough to reach the ultimate tip where it is stored. You may have a mouthful of honey if you will bite off the tiny bulbs at the very ends of these cornucopias, -- a honey that has a fragrant sweetness that is unsurpassed in flavor. Nor are the bees behind you in knowledge. They may not reach the honey through the mouth of the horn, but they, too, can bite, and many a flower shows it, now that their season is passing. Their coral red and yellow glows with a rich radiance in the dusk under the cedars, and they have climbed far higher than the gerardias.
With the columbine, right up onto the very ledges themselves, have come the barberry bushes. They must have seen the summer coming, and they were the first to pass the hint on to me, for they have hung themselves with all the gold in their jewel boxes, pendant racemes of exquisite jewel work everywhere, their sprays of tender green grouping and swaying in the wind, nodding and smiling, decked with earrings, brooches, bracelets, and beads, all cunningly wrought of solid gold. Barberry bushes love the rough pasture and even these rougher rocks, yet they bring to them only grace and elegance and refinement, and receive no hint of uncouthness or barbarity from their surroundings.
These and a score of other herbs and shrubs clamber blithely upward and clothe the rocky hillside with beauty, but the queen of the place is the flowering dogwood. No other shrub has such airy blitheness of decorative beauty. There is something about the set of the leaves that suggests green-clad sprites about to dance for joy, but now every dainty branch is as if thronged with white butterflies, poising for flight. No other plant shows such a spirituality of delight as this now that it knows that the summer is here. On the plain below the poplars shimmer and quiver translucent green in the ecstasy of young leaves all tremulous with happiness and the tingle of surgent sap. Yet neither tree nor shrub nor any flowering herb seems to so stand on tiptoe for a flight into the blue heaven above, blossom and leaf and branch and trunk, as does this dainty delight of the shady hillside, the flowering dogwood.
The summer does not explode as does the spring. The spring promises and delays, approaches and withdraws, coquettes until we are in despair, then suddenly swoops upon us and smothers in the delight of her full presence. But the summer comes genially and graciously forward, announced by a thousand heralds. To-day you could not find on hillside or in lowland a spot that did not glow with the fact. On a bare ledge, where the gnarled cedars have held the rim of the hill all winter long against the gales and zero weather, I thought I might find a pause in the universal story. Here should be only gray rock and a rim of brown cedars, as much the furniture of winter as of summer. But I had forgotten the outlook.
On the fields far below, the tall grass, so green that it was fairly blue in comparison with the yellow of young leaves, rushed forward before the wind like a green flood of roaring water. Across the plain and up the slopes it poured as the waters of Niagara pour down the slope to the brink of the fall. Even the white foam of the rapids was simulated in the silvery-green flashes that raced with the breeze. Only summer grass thus flows. No other season can give it such vivid motion.
To me there came too a dozen summer messengers. Two or three varieties of transparent winged dragon flies swirled in and out of the little bay of sunshine. A fulvous and black butterfly lighted on the rock at my feet and gently, rhythmically raised and lowered his wings. It was as expressive of satisfaction as smacking the lips would be. Again and again he slipped away and then sailed back, leaving me still in doubt as to whether he was the lovely little Melitaea harrisi, or Phyciodes nycteis, both of which are very solemn names for pretty little butterflies which fly about as a signal that summer is already beginning to glow about us.
By and by the joy of the spot seemed to soothe him and he settled down for a longer stay, folding his wings and proving to me that he was nycteis without question, for there on his hind wing was distinctly the mark of the silver crescent. Butterflies should have been popular when knighthood was in flower, for each carries the heraldic blazon of his house where all may see.
Soon I found my seat on the rock disputed by a pair of dusky-wings. I had found the earlier dusky-wings of the woodland paths skittish and unwilling to let me get to close quarters with them. This may have been because I made the advances. I had been seated but a moment when this pair that had dashed madly away at my approach dashed as madly back and very nearly lighted on me, then they dashed away again.
Soon, however, they came back in more friendly fashion and settled down within reach of my hand, where I could observe them at leisure. Then I saw that this was to me a new variety of the dusky-wing, the Thanaos persius instead of Thanaos brizo, as I had thought. Persius' dusky-wing had climbed the hill as I had, to see if summer was coming, and had found it here. The pale corydalis which nodded columbine-like heads of softest coral red and yellow knew it too, and drowsed in the sunshine as did the butterflies, but I went on, seeking more evidence.
On the shore of Hoosic-whissic Pond a wood thrush sits on her nest in a greenbrier clump, within ten feet of noisy picnickers. Bravely she sits and shields her eggs, nor does she stir for all the riot about her. I poked my head within the tangle till my face was within two feet of her, and still she did not move: Her throat swelled a little, and a questioning look came into her eyes.
The wood thrush is a shy bird at ordinary times, but not when sitting on her nest. Then she seems to suddenly acquire a modest boldness that is as becoming as the gentle shyness of other times. We looked at one another in mutual friendliness. I noted the bright cinnamon brown of the head fading on the back to a soft olive brown, the whole having the smoothness and perfect fit of a lady's glove. The white throat and some of the black markings on the white breast were visible above the rim of the nest, and her bill pointed skyward in the trustful, prayerful attitude of all birds on the nest. Brooding maternity has the same prayerful sweetness of attitude in the wood thrush that it has in the human mother. It always suggests white hands clasped and raised in prayer and thanksgiving.
While I watched the wood thrush, a quick gleam of gold and black caught my eye as it danced by in the sunshine outside the thicket. Here was a promise of summer, indeed, and I followed it on, leaving the brooding thrush to her happiness. It led across the open sandy plain to the south, and into the deep wood beyond.
On the way the cinquefoil and buttercups, the strawberry blossoms and the running blackberries were gay with fluttering little red butterflies the coppers and the crescent spots, and whites and blues, a kaleidoscope of shifting colors but it was not until I got into the deep golden shade of the dense wood that I saw the fulfilment of the promise.
Her bill pointed skyward in the trustful, prayerful attitude of all birds on the nest
Here in the glow of sunlight so strained and etherealized by passing through fluttering green that it was all one mist of color, a vivid heart of chrysoprase, I found the wood full of great yellow butterflies, dozens of them dancing up and down in the soft radiance, and lighting to put gorgeous yellow blossoms on twigs that could never put forth such beauty again. Here was the summer, coming sedately through the gold-green spaces of the wood with scores of golden spirits dancing joyously about her. The "tiger swallowtail," Papilio turnus, as the lepidopterists have named him, is the most beautiful of all our butterflies, painted in gold with black margins, and a single touch of scarlet cunningly applied to each wing. All the glow of summer seems to be concentrated in him, and his presence is the final test of hers.
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