Here to return to
AT NATURAL BRIDGE
WITH the exception of a tedious delay at East Radford it was a very enjoyable forenoon’s ride from Pulaski to Natural Bridge, through a country everywhere interesting, and for much of the distance gloriously wild and beautiful. Splendid hillside patches of mingled Judas-tree and flowering dogwood — one of a bright peach-bloom color, the other royal masses of pure white — brightened parts of the way south of Roanoke. There, also, hovering over a grassy field, were the first bobolinks of the season. From Buchanan northward (new ground to me by daylight) we had the company of mountains and the James River, the road following the windings of a narrow bank between the base of the ridge and the water. It surprised me to see the James so large and full at such a distance from its mouth, — almost as wide, I thought, as the Tennessee at Chattanooga. Shortly before reaching the Natural Bridge station the train stopped for water, and on getting off the steps of the car I heard a Maryland yellow-throat singing just below me at the foot of the bank, and in a minute more a kingfisher flew across the stream, — two additional names for my vacation catalogue. Then, while I waited at the station for a carriage from the hotel, — two miles and a half away, — I added still another. In the cloudy sky, between me and the sun, was a bird which in that blinding light might have passed for a buzzard, only that a swallow was pursuing it. Seeing that sign, I raised my glass and found the bird a fish-hawk. Trifles these things were, perhaps, with mountains and a river in sight; but that depends upon one’s scale of values. To me it is not so clear that a pile of earth is more an object of wonder than a swallow that soars above it; and for better or worse, mountains or no mountains, I kept an ornithological eye open.
On the way to the Bridge (myself the only passenger) the colored driver of the wagon picked up a brother of his own race, who happened to be traveling in the same direction and was thankful for a lift. And a real amusement and pleasure it was to listen to the two men’s palaver, especially to their “Mistering” of each other at every turn of the dialogue. I never saw two schoolmasters, even, who could do more in half an hour for the maintenance and increase of their mutual dignity. It was “Mr. Brown” and “Mr. Smith” with every other breath, until the second man was set down at his own gate. From their appearance they must have been of an age to remember the days “before the war,” and I did not think it surprising that men who had once been pieces of property should be disposed to make the most of their present condition of manhood, and so to give and take, between themselves, as many reminders and tokens of it as the brevity of their remaining time would permit.
Once at the hotel, installed (literally) in my little room, the only window of which was in the door, — opening upon the piazza, for all the world as a prison cell opens upon its corridor, — once domiciled, I say, and a bite taken, I bought a season ticket of admission to the glen,” and went down the path and a flight of steps, amid a flock of trilling goldfinches and past a row of lordly arbor-vitæ trees, to the brook, and up the bank of the brook to the famous bridge. Of this, considered by itself, I shall attempt no description. The material facts are, in the language of the guidebook, that it is “a huge monolithic arch, 215 feet high, 100 feet wide, and 90 feet in span, crossing the ravine of Cedar Brook.” Magnificent as it is, there is, for me at least, not much to say concerning it, or concerning my sensations in the presence of it. Not that it disappointed me. On the contrary, it was from the first more imposing than I had expected to find it. I loved to look at it, from one side and from the other, from beneath and from above. I walked under it and over it (on the public highway, for it is a bridge not only in name, but in fact) many times, by sunlight and by moonlight, and should be glad to do the same many times more; but perhaps my taste is peculiar; at all events, such “wonders of nature” do not charm me or wear with me like a beautiful landscape. It was so, I remember, at Ausable Chasm; interesting, grand, impressive, but a place in which I had no passion for staying, no sense of exquisite delight or solemnity. In Burlington, just across Lake Champlain, I could sit by the hour, even on the flat roof of the hotel, and gaze upon the blue water and the blue Adirondacks beyond, — the sight was a feast of beauty; but this cleft in the rocks, — well, I was glad to walk through it and to shoot the rapids; there was nothing to be said in disparagement of the place, but it put me under no spell. I fear it would be the same with those marvelous Colorado canons and “gardens of the gods.” A wooded mountain side, a green valley, running water, a lake with islands, best of all, perhaps (for me, that is, and taking the years together), a New England hill pasture, with boulders and red cedars, berry bushes and fern patches, the whole bounded by stone walls and bordered with gray birches and pitch pines, — for sights to live with, let me have these and things like them in preference to any of nature’s more freakish work, which appeals rather to curiosity than to the imagination and the affections.
Having gone under the arch (and looked in vain for Washington’s initials on the wall), the visitor to Natural Bridge finds himself following up the brook — a lively stream — between lofty precipitous cliffs, that turn to steep wooded slopes as he proceeds. If he is like me, he pursues the path to the end, stopping here and there, — at the saltpetre cave, at Hemlock Island, and at Lost River, if nowhere else, — till he comes to the end at the falls, a distance of a mile, more or less. That is my way always. I must go straight through the place once; then, the edge of my curiosity dulled, I am in a condition to see and enjoy.
The ravine is a botanist’s paradise: that, I should say, must be the first thought of every appreciative tourist. The elevation (fifteen hundred feet), the latitude, and the limestone rocks work together to that end. In a stay of a week I could see, of course, but one set of flowers; and in my preoccupation I passed many herbs and shrubs, mostly out of bloom, the names of which I neither knew nor attempted to discover. One of the things that struck my admiration on the instant was the beauty of the columbine as here displayed; a favorite with me always, for more reasons than one, but never beheld in all its loveliness till now. If the election could be held here, and on the 1st of May, there would be no great difficulty in securing a unanimous vote for Aquilegia Canadensis as the national flower.” It was in its glory at the time of my earlier visits, brightening the face of the cliffs, not in a mass, but in scattered sprays, as high as the eyesight could follow it; looking, even under the opera-glass, as if it grew out of the rock itself. With it were sedges, ferns, and much of a tufted white flower, which at first I made no question must be the common early saxifrage. When I came upon it within reach, however, I saw at once that it was a plant of quite another sort, some member of the troublesome mustard family, — Draba ramosissima, as afterward turned out. It was wonderful how closely it simulated the appearance of Saxifraga Virginiensis, though the illusion was helped, no doubt, by the habit I am in of seeing columbine and saxifrage together.
The ground in many places was almost a mat of violets, three kinds of which were in special profusion: the tall, fragrant white Canadensis, the long-spurred rostrata,— of a very pale blue, with darker streaks and a darker centre (like our blue meadow violets in that respect), — and the common palmata. The long-spurred violet was new to me, and both for that reason and for itself peculiarly attractive. As I passed up the glen on the right of the brook beyond Hemlock Island, so called, carpeted with partridge-berry vines bearing a wondrous crop (“See the berries!” my notebook says), I began to find here and there the large trillium (T. grandiflorum), some of the blossoms clear white, others of a delicate rosy tint. The rosy ones had been open longer than the others, it appeared; for the flowers blush with age, — a very modest and graceful habit. Like the spurred violet, the trillium is a plant also of northern New England, but happily for my present enjoyment I had never seen it there. And the same is to be said of the large yellow bell-wort, which was here the trillium’s neighbor, and looked only a little less distinguished than the trillium itself.
If I were to name all the plants I saw, or even all that attracted my particular notice, the non-botanical reader would quit me for a tiresome chronicler. Hepatica and bloodroot had dropped their last petals; but anemone and rue anemone were still in bloom, with cranesbill, spring beauty, ragwort, mitrewort, robin’s plantain, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger (two thick handsome leaves hiding a dark-purplish three-horned urn of an occult and almost sinister aspect), two or more showy chickweeds, two kinds of white stone-crop (Sedum ternatum and S. Nevii, the latter a novelty), mandrake (sheltering its precious round bud under an umbrella, though to-day it neither rained nor shone), pepper-root, gill-over-the-ground (where did it come from, I wondered), Dutchman’s breeches (the leaves only), Orchis spectabilis (which I did not know till after a few days it blossomed), and many more. A new shrub — almost a tree — was the bladder-nut, with drooping clusters of small whitish flowers, like bunches of currant blossoms in their manner of growth and general appearance; especially dear to humble-bees, which would not be done with a branch even while I carried it in my hand.
In one place, as I stooped to examine a boulder covered thickly with the tiny walking fern, of which the ravine contains a great abundance, — faded, ill conditioned, and homely, but curious, and, better still, a stranger, — I found the ground littered with bright yellowish magnolia petals; and if I looked into the sky for a passing bird, it was almost as likely as not that I should find myself looking through the branches of a soaring tulip-tree, — a piece of magnificence that is one of the most constant of my Alleghanian admirations. All the upper part of the glen is pervaded by a dull rumbling or moaning sound, — the voice of Lost River, out of which the tourist is supposed to have drunk at the only point where it shows itself (and there only to those who look for it), a quarter of a mile back. Another all-pervasive thing is the wholesome fragrance of arbor-vitæ. It is fitting, surely, that the tree of life should be growing in this floral paradise. There are few places, I imagine, where it flourishes better.
On my way back toward the bridge I discovered, as was to be expected, many things that had been overlooked on my way out; and every successive visit was similarly rewarded. A pleasing sight at the bridge itself was the continual fluttering of butterflies — Turnus and his smaller and paler brother Ajax, especially — against the face of the cliffs, sipping from the deep honey-jars of the columbines. Here, too, I often stopped awhile to enjoy the doings of several pairs of rough-winged swallows that had their nests in a row of holes in the rock, between two of the strata. Most romantic homes they looked, under the overhanging ledge, — a narrow platform below, ferns and sedges nodding overhead, with tall arborvitae trees a little higher on the cliff, and water dropping continually before the doors. One of the nests, I noticed, had directly in front of it a patch of low green moss, the neatest of door-mats. The holes were only a few feet above the level of the stream, but there was no approach to them without wading; for which reason, perhaps, the owners paid little attention to me, even when I got as near them as I could. In and out they went, quite at their ease, resting now and then upon a jutting shelf, or perching in the branches of some tree near at hand. Once three of them sat side by side before one of the openings, which after all may have admitted to some sizable cavern wherein different pairs were living together. They are the least beautiful of swallows, but for this time, at all events, they had displayed a remarkably pretty taste in the choice of a nesting-site.
The birds of Cedar Creek, however, were not the rough-wings, but the Louisiana water thrushes. On my first jaunt through the ravine (May 1) I counted seven of them, here one and there another, the greater part in free song; and while I never found so many again at any one visit, I was never there without seeing and hearing at least two or three. It was exactly such a spot as the water thrush loves, — a quick stream, with boulders and abundant vegetation. The song, I am sorry to be obliged to confess, as I have confessed before, is not to me all that it appears to be to other listeners; probably not all that a longer acquaintance and a more intimate association would make it. It is loud and ringing, — for a warbler’s song, I mean; in that respect well adapted to the bird’s ordinary surroundings, being easily heard above the noise of a pretty lively brook. It is heard the better, too, because of its remarkably disconnected, staccato character. Every note is by itself. Though the bird haunts the vicinity of running water, there is no trace of fluidity in its utterance. No bird-song could be less flowing. It neither gurgles nor runs smoothly, note merging into note. It would be too much to call it declamatory, perhaps, but it goes some way in that direction. At least we may call it emphatic. At different times I wrote it down in different words, none of which could be expected to do more than assist, first the writer’s memory, and then the reader’s imagination, to recall and divine the rhythm and general form of the melody. For that — I speak for myself — a verbal transcription, imperfect as it must be, in the nature of the case, is likely to prove more intelligible, and therefore more useful, than any attempt to reproduce the music itself by a resort to musical notation. As most frequently heard here, the song consisted of eight notes, like “Come — come — come — come, — you’re a beauty,” delivered rather slowly. “Lazily “was the word I sometimes employed, but “slowly “is perhaps better, though it is true that the song is cool and, so to speak, very unpassionate. Dynamically I marked it <>, while the variations in pitch may be indicated roughly thus: - - - -_ _ _ _ -. Two of the lower notes, the fifth and sixth, were shorter than the others, — half as long, if my ear and memory are to be trusted. Sometimes a bird would break out into a bit of flourish at the end, but to my thinking such improvised cadenzas, as they had every appearance of being, only detracted from the simplicity of the strain without adding anything appreciable to its beauty or its effectiveness.
This song, which the reader will perhaps blame me for trying thus to analyze (I shall not blame him), very soon grew to be almost a part of the glen; so that I never recall the brook and the cliffs without seeming to hear it rising clear and sweet above the brawling of the current; and when I hear it, I can see the birds flitting up or down the creek, just in advance of me, with sharp chips of alarm or displeasure; now balancing uneasily on a boulder in mid-stream (a posterior bodily fluctuation, half graceful, half comical, slanderously spoken of as teetering) and singing a measure or two, now taking to an overhanging branch, sometimes at a considerable height, for the same tuneful purpose. One acrobatic fellow, I remember, walked for some distance along the seemingly perpendicular face of the cliff, slipping now and then on the wet surface and having to “wing it “for a space, yet still pausing at short intervals to let out a song. In truth, the happy creatures were just then brimming over with music; and if I seem to praise their efforts but grudgingly, it is to be said, on the other hand, in justice to the song and to myself, that my appreciation of it grew as the days passed. Whatever else might be true of it, it was the voice of the place.
Of birds beside the rough-wings and the water thrushes there were surprisingly few in the glen, though, to be sure, there may well have been many more than I found trace of. The splashing of a mountain brook is very pleasing music, — more pleasing, in itself considered, than the great majority of bird-songs, perhaps, — but an ornithological’ hobbyist may easily have too much of it. I call to mind how increasingly vexatious, and at last all but intolerable, a turbulent Vermont stream (a branch of Wait’s River) became to me, some years ago, as it followed my road persistently mile after mile in the course of a May vacation. One gets on the track of the smaller birds through hearing their faint calls in the bushes and treetops; and how was I to catch such indispensable signals with this everlasting uproar in my ears? So it was here in Cedar Creek ravine; it would have to be a pretty loud voice to be heard above the din of the hurrying water. And the birds, on their side, had something of the same difficulty; or so I judged from the unconventional behavior of a blue yellow-backed warbler that flitted through the hanging branches of a tree within a few inches of my hat, having plainly no suspicion of a human being’s proximity. The tufted titmouse could be heard, of course. He would make a first-rate auctioneer, it seemed to me, with his penetrating, indefatigable voice and his genius for repetition. Now and then, too, I caught the sharp, sermonizing tones of a red-eyed vireo. Once an ovenbird near me mounted a tree hastily, branch by branch, and threw himself from the top for a burst of his afternoon medley; and at the bridge a phoebe sat calling. These, with a pair of cardinal grosbeaks, were all the birds I saw in the glen during my first day’s visit.
In fact, I had the place pretty nearly to myself, not only on this first day, but for the entire week. Once in a great while a human visitor was encountered, but for the most part I went up and down the path with no disturbance to my meditations. Happily for me, the Bridge was now in its dull season. Many tourists had been here. The trunks of the older trees, the beeches especially, were scarred thickly with inglorious initials, some of them so far from the ground that the authors of them must have stood on one another’s shoulders in their determination to get above the crowd. (In work of this kind an inch or two makes all the difference between renown and obscurity.) The fact was emblematic, I thought. So do men hoist and boost themselves into fame, not only in Cedar Creek ravine, but in the “great world,” as we call it, outside. Who so lowly-minded as not to believe that he could make a name for himself if only he had a stepladder? At the arch, likewise, such autographers had been busy ever since Washington’s day. I peeped into a crevice to obtain a closer view of a tiny fern, and there before me was a penciled name, invisible till I came thus near to it. One of the meek the writer must have been; a lead pencil, and so fine a hand! Dumphy of New Orleans. Why should I not second his modest bid for immortality? A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches. By all means let Dumphy of New Orleans be remembered.
As for Washington’s “G. W.,” the letters are said to be still decipherable by those who know exactly where to look and exactly what to look for; but I can testify to nothing of myself. I was told where the initials were; one was much plainer than the other, my informant said, — which seemed to imply that one of them, at least, was more or less a matter of faith; he would go down with me some day and point them out; but the hour convenient to both of us never came, and so, although I almost always spent a minute or two in the search as I passed under the arch, I never detected them or anything that I could even imagine to stand for them. I have had experience enough of such things, however, to be aware that my failure proves nothing as against the witness of other men’s eyesight. Certainly I know of no ground for doubting that Washington cut his initials on the cliff; and if he did, it seems reasonable to believe that tradition would have preserved a knowledge of the place, and so have made it possible to find then now in all their inevitable indistinctness after so long an exposure to the wear of the elements. Neither do I esteem it anything but a natural and worthy curiosity for the visitor to wish to see them; and I may add my hope that all young men who are destined to achieve Washington’s measure of distinction will cut their names large and deep in every such wall, for the benefit of future generations. As for the rest of us, if we must scratch our names in stone or carve them on the bark of trees, let us seek some sequestered nook, where the sight of our doings will neither be an offense to others nor make of ourselves a laughingstock.
I have said that I discovered Dumphy of New Orleans while leaning against the cliff to peer into a crevice in search of a diminutive fern. This fern was of much interest to me, being nothing less than the wall-rue spleen wort (Asplenium Ruta-muraria), for which I had looked without success in years past on the limestone cliffs of northern Vermont, at Willoughby and elsewhere. The fronds, stipe and all, last-year plants in full fruit, were less than three inches in length. Another fern, one size larger, but equally new and interesting, was the purple-stemmed cliff-brake (Peliæa atropurpurea), which also had eluded my search in its New England habitat. Both these rarities (plants which will grow only on limestone cannot easily be degraded into commonness) I could have gathered here in moderate numbers, but of course collecting is not permitted; in the nature of the case it cannot be, in a spot so frequented by curiosity-seekers. It was pleasure enough for me, at any rate, to see them.
Along the bottom of the ravine I had remarked a profusion of a strikingly beautiful larger fern (but still “smallish,” as my pencil says), with showy red stems and a most graceful curving or drooping habit. This I could not make out for a time; but it proved to be, as I soon began to suspect, Cystopteris bulbifera, to my thinking one of the loveliest of all things that grow. I had seen it abundant at Willoughby, Vermont, and at Owl’s Head, Canada, ten years before; but either my memory was playing me a trick, or there was here a very considerable diminution in the length of the fronds, accompanied by a decided heightening in the color of the stalk and rhachis. Before long, however, I found a specimen already beginning to show its bulblets, and these, with a study of Dr. Eaton’s description, left me in no doubt as to the plant’s identity.
What other ferns may have been growing in the ravine I cannot now pretend to say. I remember the Christmas fern, a goodly supply of the dainty little Asplenium trichomanes, and tufts of what I took with reasonable certainty for Cystopteris fragilis in its early spring stage, than which few things can be more graceful. On the upper edge of the ravine, when I left the place one day by following a maze of zigzag cattle-paths up the steep slope, and found myself, to my surprise, directly in the rear of the hotel, I came upon a dense patch of a smallish, very narrow, dark-stemmed fern, new to my eyes, — the hairy lip-fern, so called (Cheilanthes vestita). These fronds, too, like those of the cliff-brake and the wall-rue spleenwort, were of last year’s growth, thickly covered on the back with brown “fruit-dots,” and altogether having much the appearance of dry herbarium specimens; but they were good to look at, nevertheless. Here, as in the case of Pellæa atropurpurea, it was a question not only of a new species, but of a new genus.
From my account of the scarcity of birds in Cedar Creek ravine the reader will have already inferred, perhaps, that I did not spend my days there, great as were its botanical attractions. My last morning’s experience at Pulaski, the evidence there seen that the vernal migration was at full tide, or near it, had brought on a pretty acute attack of ornithological fever, — a spring disease which I am happy to believe has become almost an epidemic in some parts of the United States within recent years, — and not even the sight of new ferns and new flowers could allay its symptoms. I had counted upon finding a similar state of things here, — all the woods astir with wings. Instead of that, I found the fields alive with chipping sparrows, the air full of chimney swifts, the shade trees in front of the hotel vocal with goldfinch notes, and, comparatively speaking, nothing else. By the end of the second day I was fast becoming disconsolate. “No birds here,” I wrote in my journal. “I have tried woods of all sorts. A very few parula warblers, two or three red-eyed vireos, one yellow-throated vireo, seven Louisiana water thrushes in the glen, one prairie warbler, and a few oven-birds! No Bewick wrens. Two purple finches and one or two phoebes have been the only additions to my Virginia list.” A pitiful tale. Vacations are short and precious, and it goes hard with us to see them running to waste.
The next evening (May 3) it was the same story continued. “It is marvelous, the difference between this beautiful place, diversified with fields and woods, — hard wood, cedar, pine, — it is marvelous, the difference between this heavenly spot and Pulaski in the matter of birds. There I registered six new arrivals in half an hour Wednesday morning; here I have made but six additions to my list in two full days. There is scarcely a sign of warbler migration. Was it that in Pulaski the woods were comparatively small, and the birds had to congregate in them? Or does Pulaski lie in a route of migration?” Wild surmises, both of them; but wisdom is not to be looked for in a fever patient.
“Six additions in two full days,” I wrote; but the second day was not yet full. As evening came on I went out to stand awhile upon the bridge; and while I listened to the brawling of the creek and admired the beautiful scene below me, the moon shining straight down upon it, a nighthawk called from the sky, and afterward — not from the sky — a whippoorwill. Here, then, were two more names for my catalogue; but even so, — six or eight, — it was a beggarly rate of increase in such a favored spot and in the very nick of the season. The “six additions,” it may ease the reader’s curiosity to know, were the Carolina wren, the summer tanager, the purple finch, the indigo bunting, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, and the phoebe.
One compensation there was for the ornithological barrenness of these first few days: I had the more leisure for botany. And the hours were not thrown away, although at the time I was almost ready to think they were, with so many of them devoted to ransacking the Manual; for a man who does not collect specimens to carry home with him must, as it were, drive his field work and his closet work abreast; he must study out his findings as he goes along. On the evening of the second day, for example, I wrote in my journal thus, — the final entry under that date, as the reader may guess: “In bed. Strange how we flatter ourselves with a knowledge of names. I have spent much time to-day looking up the names of flowers and ferns, and somehow feel as if I had learned something in so doing. Really, however, I have learned only that some one else has seen the things before me, and called them so and so. At best that is nearly all I have learned.” But after setting down the results of my investigations, especially of those having to do with the pretty draba and the bulbiferous fern, I concluded in a less positive strain: “Well, the hunt for names does quicken observation and help to relate and classify things.” That was a qualification well put in. The whole truth was never written on one side of the leaf. If all our botany were Latin names, as Emerson says, we should have little to boast of; yet even that would be one degree better than nothing, as Emerson himself felt when he visited a museum and saw the cases of shells. “I was hungry for names,” he remarks; and so have all men of intelligence been since the day of the first systematic, name-conferring naturalist, the man who dwelt in Eden. Let us be thankful for manuals, I say, that offer on easy terms a speaking acquaintance, if nothing more, with the world of beauty about us. Things take their value from comparison, and my own ignorance was but a little while ago so absolute that now I am proud to know so much as a name.
Meanwhile, to come back to Natural Bridge, I had found the country of a most engaging sort. In truth, while the bridge itself is the “feature “of the place, as we speak in these days, it is by no means its only, or, as I should say, its principal attraction, so far, at least, as a leisurely visit is concerned. A man may see it and go, — as most tourists do; but if he stays, he will find that the region round about not only has charms of its own, but is one of the prettiest he has ever set eyes on; and that, I should think, though he be neither a botanist, nor an ornithologist, nor any other kind of natural historian. For myself, at all events, I had already come to that conclusion, notwithstanding I had yet to see some of the most beautiful parts of the country, and was, besides, far too much concerned about the birds (the absentees in particular) and the flowers to have quieted down to any adequate appreciation of the general landscape. I have never yet learned to see a prospect on the first day, or while in the eager expectation of new things, although, like every one else, I can exclaim with a measure of shallow sincerity, “Beautiful! beautiful!” even at the first moment.
As my mood now was, at any rate, fine scenery did not satisfy me; and on the morning of May 4, after two days and a half of botanical surfeit and ornithological starvation, I panted my trunk preparatory to going elsewhere. First, however, I would try the woods once more, if perchance something might have happened overnight. Otherwise, so I informed the landlord, I would return in season for an early luncheon, and should expect to be driven to the station for the noon train northward.
I went to a promising-looking hill covered with hard-wood forest, a spot already visited more than once, — Buck Hill I heard it called afterward, — and was no sooner well in the woods than it became evident that something had happened. The treetops were swarming with birds, and I had my hands full with trying to see and name them. Old trees are grand creations, — among the noblest works of God, I often think; but for a bird-gazer they have one disheartening drawback, especially when, as now, the birds not only take to the topmost boughs (even the hummer and the magnolia warbler, so my notes say, went with the multitude to do evil), but, to make matters worse, are on the move northward or southward, or flitting in simple restlessness from hill to hill. However, I did my best with them while the fun lasted. Then all in a moment they were gone, though I did not see them go; and nothing was left but the wearisome iterations of oven-birds and red-eyes where just now were so many singers and talkers, among which, for aught I could tell, there might have been some that it would have been worth the price of a long vacation to scrape even a treetop acquaintance with.
Indeed, it was certain that one member of the flock was a rarity, if not an absolute novelty. That was the most exciting and by all odds the most deplorable incident of the whole affair. I had obtained several glimpses of him, but had been unable to determine his identity; a warbler, past all reasonable doubt, with pure white under parts (the upper parts quite invisible) except for a black or blackish line, barely made out, across the lower throat or the upper breast. He, of course, had vanished with the rest, the more was the pity. I had made a guess at him, to be sure; it is a poor naturalist who cannot do as much as that (but a really good naturalist would “form a hypothesis,” I suppose) under almost any circumstances. I had called him a cerulean warbler. Once in my life I had seen a bird of that species, but only for a minute. If he wore a black breast-band, I did not see it, or else had forgotten it. If I could only have had a look at this fellow’s back and wings! As it was, I was not likely ever to know him, though the printed description would either demolish or add a degree of plausibility to my offhand conjecture.
The better course, after losing a bevy of wanderers in this way, is perhaps to remain where one is and await the arrival of another detachment of the migratory host. This advice, or something like it, I seem to remember having read, at all events; but I have never schooled myself to such a pitch of quietism. For a time, indeed, I could not believe that the birds were lost, and must hunt the hilltop over in the hope of another chance at them. An empty hope. So I did what I always do: the game having flown, I took my own departure also. I should not find the same flock again, but with good luck — which now it was easy to expect — I might find another; and except for the single mysterious stranger, that would be better still. One thing I was sure of, — Natural Bridge was not to be left out of the warbler migration; and one thing I forgot entirely, — that I had planned to leave it by the noonday train.
My useless chase over the broad hilltop had brought me to the side opposite the one by which I had ascended, and to save time, as I persuaded myself, I plunged down, as best I could, without a trail, — a piece of expensive economy, almost of course. In the first place, this haphazardous descent took me longer than it would have done to retrace my steps; and in the second place, I was compelled for much of the distance to force my way through troublesome underbrush, in doing which I made of necessity — being a white man — no little noise, and so was the less likely to hear the note of any small bird, or to come close upon him without putting him to flight. In general, let the bird-gazer keep to the path, except in open woods, or as some specific errand may lead him away from it. In one way and another, nevertheless, I got down at last, and after beating over a piece of pine wood, with little or no result, I crossed a field and a road, and entered a second tract of hardwood forest.
The trees were comfortably low, with much convenient shrubbery, and after a little, seeing myself at the centre of things, as it were, I dropped into a seat and allowed the birds to gather about me. At my back was a bunch of white-throated sparrows. From the same quarter a chat whistled now and then, and white-breasted nuthatches and a Carolina chickadee did likewise, the last with a noticeable variation in his tune, which had dwindled to three notes. Here, as on the hill I had just left, wood pewees and Acadian flycatchers announced themselves, in tones so dissimilar as to suggest no hint of blood relationship. The wood pewee is surely the gentleman of the family, so far as the voice may serve as an indication of character. In dress and personal appearance he is a flycatcher of the flycatchers; but what a contrast between his soft, plaintive, exquisitely modulated whistle, the very expression of refinement, and the wild, rasping, over-emphatic vociferations that characterize the family in general! The more praise to him. The Acadians seemed to have come northward in a body. Nothing had been seen or heard of them before, but from this morning they abounded in all directions. In a single night they had taken possession of the woods. Here was the first Canadian warbler of the season, singing from a perch so uncommonly elevated (he is a lover of bushy thickets rather than of trees) that for a time it did not come to me who he was, — so exceedingly earnest and voluble. A black-throated blue warbler almost brushed my elbow. Redstarts were never so splendid, I thought, the white of the dogwood blossoms, now in their prime, setting off the black and orange of the birds in a most brilliant manner, as was true also of the deep vermilion of the summer tanager. A Blackburnian warbler, whose flame-colored throat needs no setting but its own, had fallen into a lyrical mood very unusual for him, and sang almost continuously for at least half an hour, — a poor little song in a thin little voice, but full of pleasant suggestions in every note. The first Swainson thrush was present, with no companion of his own kind, so far as appeared. I prolonged my stay on purpose to hear him sing, but was obliged to content myself with the sight of him and the sound of his sweet, quick whistle.
All the while, as I watched one favorite another would come between us. Once it was a humming-bird, a bit of animate beauty that must always be attended to; and once, when the place had of a sudden fallen silent, and I had taken out a book, I was startled by a flash of white among the branches, — a red-headed woodpecker, in superb color, new for the year, and on all accounts welcome. He remained for a time in silence, and then in silence departed (he had been almost too near me before he knew it); but having gone, he began a little way off to play the tree-frog for my amusement. After him a hairy woodpecker made his appearance, with sharp, peremptory signals, highly characteristic; and then, from some point near by, a rose-breasted grosbeak’s hic was heard.
It was high noon before I was done with “receiving” (one of the prettiest “functions” of the year, though none of the newspapers got wind of it), and returned to the hotel, where the landlord smiled when I told him that some friends of mine had arrived, and I should stay a few days longer.
My enjoyment of the country about the Bridge may be said to have begun with my settling down for a more leisurely stay. Hurry and discontent are poor helps to appreciation. That afternoon, the morning having been devoted to ornithological excitements, I strolled over to Mount Jefferson, and spent an hour in the observatory, where a delicious breeze was blowing. The “mountain” proved to be nothing more than a round grassy hilltop, — the highest point in a sheep-pasture, — but it offered, nevertheless, a wide and charming prospect: mountains near and far, a world of green hills, with here and there a level stretch, most restful to the eye, of the James River valley, in the great Valley of Virginia. Up from the surrounding field came the tinkle of sheep-bells, and down in one corner of it young men were slowly gathering, some in wagons, some on horseback, for a game of ball. There was to be a match “that evening,” I had been told, between the Bridge nine (I am sorry not to remember its name) and the Buena Vistas. It turned out, however, so I learned the next day, that a supposed case of smallpox at Buena Vista had made such an interchange of athletic courtesies inexpedient for the time being, and the Bridge men were obliged to be content with a trial of skill among themselves, for which they chose up (“picked off”) after the usual fashion, the two leaders deciding which should have the first choice by the old Yankee test of grasping a bat alternately hand over hand, till one of them should be able to cover the end of it with his thumb. Such things were pleasant to hear of. I accepted them as of patriotic significance, tokens of national unity. My informant, by the way, was the same man, a young West Virginian, who had told me where to look for Washington’s initials on the wall of the bridge. My specialties appealed to him in a measure, and he confessed that he wished he were a botanist. He was always very fond of flowers. His side had been victorious in the ball game, he said, in answer to my inquiry. Some of the players must have come from a considerable distance, it seemed, as there was no sign of a village or even of a hamlet, so far as I had discovered, anywhere in the neighborhood. The Bridge is not in any township, but simply in Rockbridge County, after a Virginia custom quite foreign to a New Englander’s notions of geographical propriety.
The prospect from Mount Jefferson was beautiful, as I have said, but on my return I happened upon one that pleased me better. I had been down through Cedar Creek ravine, and had taken my own way out, up the right-hand slope through the woods, noting the flowers as I walked, especially the blue-eyed grass and the scarlet catchfly (battlefield pink), a marvelous bit of color, and was following the edge of the cliff toward the hotel, when, finding myself still with time to spare, I sat down to rest and be quiet. By accident I chose a spot where between ragged, homely cedars I looked straight down the glen — over a stretch of the brook far below — to the bridge, through which could be seen wooded hills backed by Thunder Mountain, long and massive, just now mostly in shadow, like the rest of the world, but having its lower slopes touched with an exquisite half-light, which produced a kind of prismatic effect upon the freshly green foliage. It was an enchanting spectacle and a delightful hour. Now my eye settled upon the ravine and the brook, now upon the arch of the bridge, now upon the hills beyond. And now, as I continued to look, the particulars fell into place, — dropping in a sense out of sight, — and the scene became one. By and by the light increased upon the broad precipitous face of the mountain, softness and beauty inexpressible, while the remainder of the landscape lay in deep shadow.
I fell to wondering, at last, what it is that constitutes the peculiar attractiveness of a limited view — limited in breadth, not in depth — as compared with a panorama of half the horizon. The only answer I gave myself was that, for the supreme enjoyment of beauty, the eye must be at rest, satisfied, with no temptation to wander. We are finite creatures with infinite desires. The sight must go far, — to the rim of the world, or to some grand interposing object so remote as to be of itself a natural and satisfying limit of vision; and the eye must be held to that point, not by a distracting exercise of the will, but by the quieting constraint of circumstances.
Let my theorizing be true or false, I greatly enjoyed the picture; the deep, dark, wooded ravine, with the line of water running through it lengthwise, the magnificent stone arch, the low hills in the middle distance, and Thunder Mountain a background for the whole. The mountain, as has been said, was a long ridge, not a peak; and sharp as it looked from this point of view, it was very likely flat at the top. Like Lookout Mountain and Walden’s Ridge, it might, for anything I knew, be roomy enough to bold one or two Massachusetts counties upon its summit. While I sat gazing at it the sun went down and left it of a deep sombre blue. Then, of a sudden, a small heron flew past, and a pileated woodpecker somewhere behind me set up a prolonged and lusty shout; and a few minutes later I was startled to see between me and the sunset sky a flock of six big herons flying slowly in single file, like so many pelicans. From their size they should have been Ardea herodias, but in that light there was no telling of colors. It was a ghostly procession, so silent and unexpected, worthy of the place and of the hour. I was beginning to feel at home. A wood thrush sang for me as I continued my course to the hotel, and my spirit sang with him. I ‘m glad I am alive,” my pencil wrote of its own accord at the end of the day’s jottings.
I woke the next morning to the lively music of a whippoorwill, — the same, I suppose, that had sung me to sleep the evening before. He performed that service faithfully as long as I remained at the Bridge, and always to my unmixed satisfaction. Whippoorwills are among my best birds, and of recent years I have had too little of them. Immediately after breakfast I must go again to the roadside wood, and then to Buck Hill, as a dog must go again to bark under a tree up which he has once driven a cat or a squirrel. But there is no duplicating of experiences. The birds — the flocks of travelers — were not there. Chats were calling ceow, ceow, with the true countryman’s twang; and what was much better, a Swainson thrush was singing. Better still, a pair of blue yellow-backed warblers (the most abundant representatives of the family thus far) had begun the construction of a nest in a black-walnut- tree, suspending it from a rather large branch (“as big as my thumb”) at a height of perhaps twenty feet. It was little more than a frame as yet, the light shining through it everywhere; and the bird, perhaps because of my presence, seemed in no haste about its completion. I saw her bring what looked like a piece of lichen and adjust it into place (though she carried it elsewhere first — with wonderful slyness!), but my patience gave out before she came back with a second one.
On Buck Hill, in the comparative absence of birds, I amused myself with a “dry land tarrapin,” as my West Virginia acquaintance had called it (otherwise known as a box turtle), a creature which I had seen several times in my wanderings, and had asked him about; a new species to me, of a peculiarly humpbacked appearance, and curious for its habit of shutting itself up in its case when disturbed, the anterior third of the lower shell being jointed for that purpose. A phlegmatic customer, it seemed to be; looking at me with dull, unspeculative eyes, and sometimes responding to a pretty violent nudge with only a partial closing of its lid. It is very fond of may apples (mandrake), I was told, and is really one of the “features” of the dry hill woods. I ran upon it continually.
A lazy afternoon jaunt over a lonely wood road, untried before, yielded little of mentionable interest except the sight of a blue grosbeak budding the upper branches of a tree in the manner of a purple finch or a rose-breast. I call him a blue grosbeak, as I called him at the time; but he went into my book that evening with a damnatory question mark attached to his name. He had been rather far away and pretty high; and the possibilities of error magnified themselves on second thought, till I said to myself, “Well, he may have been an indigo-bird, after all.” Second thought is the mother of uncertainty; and uncertainties are poor things for a man’s comfort. The seasons were met here; for even while I busied myself with the blue grosbeak (as he pretty surely was, for all my want of assurance) a crossbill flew over with loud calls.
In the same place I heard a tremendous hammering a little on one side of me, so vigorous a piece of work that I was persuaded the workman could be nobody but a pileated woodpecker. A long time I stood with my gaze fastened upon the tree from which the noise seemed to come. Would the fellow never show himself? Yes, he put his head out from behind a limb at last (what a fiery crest!), saw me on the instant, and was gone like a flash. Then from a little distance he set up a resounding halloo. This was only the second time that birds of his kind had been seen hereabout, but the voice had been heard daily, and more than once I had noticed what I could have no doubt were nest-holes of their making. One of these, on Buck Hill, — freshly cut, if appearances went for anything, — I undertook to play the spy upon; but if the nest was indeed in use the birds were too wary for me, or I was very unfortunate in my choice of hours. Time was precious, and the secret seemed likely to cost more than it would bring, with so many other matters inviting my attention. Nest or no nest, I was glad to be within the frequent sound of that wild, ringing, long-drawn shout, a true voice of the wilderness; as if the Hebrew prophecy were fulfilled, and the mountains and the hills had found a tongue.
It was not until the sixth day that I went to Lincoln Heights, a place worth all the rest of the countryside, I soon came to think, with the single exception of Cedar Creek ravine. A winding wood road carried me thither (the distance may be two miles; but I have little idea what it is, though I covered it once or twice a day for the next four days), and might have been made — half made, just to my liking — for my private convenience. I believe I never met any one upon it, going or coming.
The glory of the spot is its trees; but with me, as things fell out, these took in the order of time a second place. My first admiration was not for them, admirable as they were, but for a few birds in the tops of them. In short, at my first approach to the Heights (there is no thought of climbing, but only the most gradual of ascents) I began to hear from the branches overhead, now here, now there, an occasional weak warbler’s song that set my curiosity on edge. It was not the parula’s (blue yellow-back’s), but like it. What should it be, then, except the cerulean’s? By and by I caught a glimpse of a bird, clear white below, with a dark line across the breast; and yes, I saw what I was looking for, — though the bird flew to another branch the next moment, — black streaks along the sides of the body. There were at least eight or ten others like him in the treetops; and it was a neck-breaking half-hour that I passed in watching them, determined as I was to gain a view not only of the under parts, but of the back and wings. The labor and difficulty of the search were increased indefinitely by the confusing presence of numerous other warblers of various kinds in the same lofty branches, making it inevitable that many opera-glass shots should be wasted. It is no help to a man’s equanimity at such a time to spend a priceless three minutes — any one of which may be the last — in getting the glass upon a tiny thing that flits incessantly from one leafy twig to another, only to find in the end that it is nothing but a myrtle warbler; a pretty creature, no doubt, but of no more consequence just now than an English sparrow. To-day, however, the birds favored me; no untimely whim hurried them away to another wood, and patience had its reward. Little by little my purpose was accomplished and my mind cleared of all uncertainty. Then I took out my pencil to characterize the song while it was still in my ears, and still new. “Greatly like one of the more broken forms of the parula’s,” I wrote, a bird repeating it at that very instant by way of confirmation. “I can imagine a fairly sharp ear being deceived by it, especially in a place like this, where parulas have been singing from morning till night, until the listener has tired of them and become listless.” This sentence the reader may keep in mind, if he will, to glance back upon for his amusement in the light of a subsequent experience which it will be my duty to relate before I have done with my story.
Between the migratory “transients “and the birds already at home, the place was pretty full of wings. A Swainson thrush sang, and from a bushy slope came a nasal thrush voice that should have been a veery’s. I took chase at once, and caught a glimpse of a reddish-brown bird darting out of sight before me. Do my best, I could find nothing more of it. If it was a veery, as I suppose, it was the only one I saw in Virginia, where the species, from Dr. Rives’s account of the matter, seems to be a rather uncommon migrant. Unhappily, I could not bring my scientific conscience to list it on so hurried a sight, even with the note as corroborative testimony. That, for aught I could positively assert, might have been a gray-cheek’s, while the reddish color might with equal possibility have belonged to a wood thrush, clear as it had seemed at the moment that what I was looking at was the back of the bird itself, and not the back of its head. Doubt is credulous. All kinds of negatives are plausible to it, and once it has adopted one it will maintain it in the face of the five senses.
On the opposite side of the path, in the bushy angles of a Virginia fence, a hooded warbler showed himself, furtive and silent, — my only Bridge specimen, to my great surprise; and near him was a female black-throated blue, a queer-looking body, like nothing in particular, yet labeled past mistake, which I can never see without a kind of wonder. Among the treetop birds were Blackburnian warblers, black-throated greens and blues, chestnut-sides, redstarts, myrtle-birds, red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos, and indigo-birds. Many white-throated sparrows still lingered; singing flat, as usual, — the only birds I know of that find it impossible to hold the pitch. The defect has its favorable side; it makes their concerts amusing. I remember seeing a quiet gentleman thrown into fits of uncontrollable laughter by the rehearsal of a spring flock, bird after bird starting the tune, and not one in ten of them keeping its whistle true to the conclusion of the measure. All these things, — though they may seem not many, — with the long rests and numerous side excursions that went with them, consumed the morning hours before I knew it, so that I was hardly at the end of the way before it was time to return for dinner.
For the afternoon nothing was to be thought of but another visit to the same place, — “the finest place I have seen yet, and the finest walk.” So I had put down the morning’s discovery. The cerulean warbler I found spoken of by Dr. Rives as “accidental or very rare;” in the light of which entry the dozen or so of specimens seen and heard during the forenoon acquired a fresh interest.
The second jaunt, because it was a second one, could be taken more at leisure; and as the birds gave me less employment, my eyes were more upon the trees. These, as I had felt before, were a wonder and a comfort; it was a benediction to walk under them, as if one were within the precincts of a holy place: oaks for the most part (of several kinds), with black walnut, shagbark, tulip, chestnut, and other species, set irregularly, or rather left standing irregularly, two or three deep, beside the road on either hand; a royal uphill avenue, which near the top became an open grove. Except in Florida, I had never seen a more magnificent growth. Some of the trees had grapevines and Virginia creeper clinging about them. Up one huge oak, with strange flaky bark, like a shagbark-tree’s (a white oak, nevertheless, to judge from its half-grown leaves), a grapevine had mounted for a height of forty feet, as I estimated the distance, not making use of the bole, but of the limbs, seeming to leap from one to another, even when they were ten feet apart. It must have been of the tree’s age, I suppose, and had grown with its growth. In the shadow of these giants, yet not overshadowed by them, were flowering dogwoods and redbuds. It is a pretty habit these two have of growing side by side, as if they knew the value of contrasted colors.
At a point on the edge of the grove I turned to enjoy the prospect southward: mountains everywhere, with the more pointed of the twin Peaks of Otter showing between two oaks that barely gave it room; all the mountains radiantly beautiful, with cloud shadows flecking their wooded slopes. Not a house was in sight; but in one place beyond the middle-distance hills a thin blue smoke was rising. There, doubtless, lay the valley of the James. Just before me, on the left of the open field, stood a peculiarly graceful dogwood, all in a glory of white, one fan-shaped branch above another, — a miracle of loveliness. The eye that saw it was satisfied with seeing. Beyond it a chat played the clown (knowing no better, even to-day), and a rose-breast began warbling. It seemed a tender story, — sweetness beyond words, and happiness without a shadow. From a second point, a little farther on, the entire southern horizon came into view, with both the Peaks of Otter visible; a truly enchanting picture, the sky full of sunlight and floating white clouds.
In a treetop behind me a cerulean warbler had been singing, but flew away as I turned about. My only sight of him was on the wing, a mere speck in the air. Afterward a parula gave out his tune, running the notes straight upward and snapping them off at the end in whiplash fashion, as much as to say, “Now see if you can tell the difference.” And then, just as I was ready to leave the grove, stepping along a footpath through a bramble patch, I descried almost at my feet a warbler, — a female by her look and demeanor, and a stranger; blue and white, with dark streakings along the sides. I lost her soon; but she had seemed to be looking for nest materials, and of course I waited for her to return. This she presently did, and now I saw her strip bits of bark from plant stems till she had her bill full of short pieces. Carrying these, she disappeared in a bramble and grapevine thicket. I waited, but she did not come back. Then I stole into the place after her, and in a moment there she was before me; but without complaint or any symptom of perturbation she passed quietly along, and again I lost her. I kept my position till I was tired, and then went back to the wood and sat down; and in a few minutes — how it happened I could not tell — there she stood once more, wearing the same innocent, preoccupied air. This time I saw her fly down the slope and disappear in a clump of undergrowth. I followed, took a seat, waited, and continued to wait. All was in vain. That was the last of her. She had played her cards well, or perhaps I had played mine poorly; and finally I turned my steps homeward, where a comparison of my notes with Dr. Coues’s description proved the bird to be, as I had believed, a female cerulean warbler. Her nest would probably be the first one of its kind ever found in Virginia.
On the way a male sang and showed himself. Now, too, I discovered for the first time that there were tupelo-trees among the large oaks and walnuts; much smaller than they, and for that reason, it is to be supposed, not noticed in my three previous passages along the avenue. They are particular favorites of mine, and I made them sincere apologies. In another place was a patch of what I knew must be the fragrant sumach, something I had wished to see for many years: low, upright shrubs, yet resembling poison ivy so closely that for a minute I shrank from gathering a specimen, although I was certain beyond a peradventure that the plant was not poison ivy and could not be noxious to the touch; just as people in general, through force of early instruction and example (miscalled instinct), shiver at the thought of handling a snake, though it be of some kind which they know to be as harmless as a kitten. While in chase of the cerulean, also, I had stumbled on several bunches of cancer-root (Conopholis), rising out of the dead leaves, a dozen or more of stems in each close bunch; queer, unwholesome-looking, yellowish things, reminding me of ears of rice-corn, so called. I had never seen the plant till the day before.
The next morning my course was beyond discussion or argument. I must go again to Lincoln Heights. The thought of the female cerulean warbler and her nest would not suffer me to do anything else. But for that matter, I should probably have taken the same path had I never seen her. The trees, the prospects, and the general birdiness of the place were of themselves an irresistible attraction. On the way I skirted a grove of small pines, standing between the road and the edge of Cedar Creek ravine: dull, scrubby trees, like pitch-pines, but less bright in color; of the same kind as those amid which, on Cameron Hill and Lookout Mountain, in Tennessee, there had been so notable a gathering of warblers the year before. Pinus pungens, Table Mountain pine, I suppose they were, though it must be acknowledged that I was never at the pains to settle the point. Here at Natural Bridge I had found all such woods deserted day after day, till I had ceased to think them worth looking into. Now, however, as I idled past, I caught the faint sibilant notes of a bird-song, and stopped to listen. Not a blackpoll’s, I said to myself, but wonderfully near it. And then it flashed into my mind what a friend had told me a few years before. “When you hear a song that is like the blackpoll’s, but different,” he had said, “look the bird up. It will most likely be a Cape May.” He was one of the lucky men (almost the only one of my acquaintance) who had heard that rare warbler’s voice. I turned aside, of course, and made a cautious entry among the pines. The bird continued its singing. Yes, it was like the blackpoll’s, but with a zip rather than a zee. Nearer and nearer I crept, inch by inch. If the fellow were a Cape May, it would be carelessness inexcusable not to make sure of the fact. And soon I had my glass upon him, — in high plumage, red cheeks and all. He had not been disturbed in the least, and kept up his music till I had had my fill and could stay no longer, — all the while in low branches and in clear view. Few songs could be less interesting in themselves, but few could have been more welcome, — for the better part of twenty years I had been listening for it: about five notes, a little louder and more emphatic than the blackpoll’s, it seemed to me, but still faint and, as I expressed it to myself, “next to nothing.” The handsome creature — olive and bright yellow, boldly marked with black and white — remained the whole time in one tree, traveling over the limbs in a rather listless fashion, and singing almost incessantly. He was my hundredth Virginia bird, — as my list then stood, question marks included, — and the second one whose song I had heard for the first time on this vacation trip. The day had begun prosperously.
After such a stirring up, a man’s ears are apt to be abnormally sensitive, not to say imaginative; then, if ever, he will hear wonders: for which reason, it may be, I had turned but a corner or two before I was stopped by another set of notes, a strain that I knew, or felt that I ought to know, but could not place a name upon at the moment. This bird, too, was run down without difficulty, and proved to be a magnolia warbler, — another yellow - rump, like the Cape May and the myrtle-bird. The song, unlike its owner, is but slightly marked, and to make matters worse, is heard by me only in the season of the bird’s spring passage; but I laughed at myself for not recognizing it. I was still in a mood for discoveries, however, and within half an hour was again in eager chase, this time over a crazy zigzag fence into a dense thicket, all for a black-and - white creeper (my fiftieth specimen, perhaps, in the last fortnight), whose notes, as they came to me from a distance, sounded like a creeper’s, to be sure, but with such a measure of difference as kept me on nettles till the author of them was in sight. I felt like a fool, as the common expression is, but was having “a good time,” notwithstanding.
Here were the first trailing blackberry blossoms. The season was making haste. “Come, children, it is the 7th of May,” I seemed to hear the “bud-crowned spring “saying. The woods had burst into almost full leaf within a week. This morning, also, I found the first flowers of the Dodecatheon; three plants, each with only one bloom as yet; white, odd-looking, pointed, — like a stylographic pen, my profane clerical fancy suggested. American cowslip and shooting star the flower is called in the Manual. American cyclamen would hit it pretty well, I thought, its most striking peculiarity being the reflexed, cyclamenic carriage of the petals. I had been wondering what those broad root-leaves were, as I passed them here and there in the woods. The present was only my second sight of the blossom in a wild state, the first one having been on the battlefield of Chickamauga. It is matter for thankfulness, an enrichment of the memory, when a pretty flower is thus associated with a famous place.
Among the old trees on the Heights a cerulean warbler and a blue yellow-back were singing nearly in the same breath. If I did not become lastingly familiar with the distinction between the two songs, it was not to be the birds’ fault. A second cerulean (or possibly the same one; it was impossible to be certain on that point, nor did it matter) was near the grapevine tangle, and at the moment of my approach was holding a controversy with a creeper. He had reserved the spot, as it appeared, and was insisting upon his claim. My spirits rose. It was this clump of shrubbery that I had come to sit beside, on the chance of seeing again, and tracking to her nest, the female whose behavior had so excited my hopes the afternoon before. “Nest small and neat, in fork of a bough 20-50 feet from the ground:” so I had read in the Key, and henceforth knew what I was to look for. For a full hour I remained on guard. Twice the male cerulean chased some other bird about in a manner extremely suspicious; but he kept her (or him) so constantly on the move that I had no fair sight of her plumage. Beyond that my vigil went for nothing. I must try again. If a man cannot waste an hour once in a while, he had better not undertake the finding of birds’ nests.
For the walk homeward I took a course of my own down the open face of the hill, climbing a fence or two (I could tell far in advance the safest places at which to get over — the soundest spots — by seeing the lumps of dry red clay left on the rails by the boots of previous travelers across lots), past prairie warblers and my first Natural Bridge bluebird, to the bottom of the valley. Then, finding myself ahead of time, I turned aside to see what might be in the woods of Buck Hill. There was little to mention: a blossom of the exquisite vernal fleur-de-lis, not before noticed here, and at the top two cerulean warblers in full song. I had begun by this time to believe that this rare Virginia species would turn out to be pretty common hereabout in appropriate places.
Partly to test the truth of this opinion I planned an afternoon trip to a more distant eminence, which, like Buck Hill and Lincoln Heights, was covered with a deciduous forest. In the valley woods a grouse was drumming — a pretty frequent sound here — and Swainson thrushes were singing. These “New Hampshire thrushes,” by the bye, are singers of the most generous sort, not only at home, but on their travels, all statements to the contrary notwithstanding. From May 5 to May 12 — including the latter half of my stay at Natural Bridge, two days at Afton, and one day in the cemetery woods at Arlington — I have them marked as singing daily, and one day at the Bridge they were heard in four widely separate places.
The hill for which I had set out lay on the left of the road, and between me and it stood a row of negro cabins. As I came opposite them I suddenly caught from the hillsides the notes of a Nashville warbler, — or so I believed. This was a bird not yet included in my Virginia list. I had puzzled over its absence — the country seeming in all respects adapted to it — till I consulted Dr. Rives, by whom it is set down as “rare.” Even then, emboldened by more than one happy experience, I told myself that I ought to find it. It is common enough in New England; why should it skip Virginia? And here it was; only I must go through the formality of a visual inspection, especially as just now the song came from rather far away. I entered one of the house-yards, — nobody objecting except a dog, — climbed the rear fence, and posted up the steep, rocky hill, past a humming-bird sipping at a violet, and by and by lifted my glass upon the singer, which had been in voice all the while. By this time I was practically sure of its identity. In imagination I could already see its bright yellow breast. The name was as good as down in my book, — Helminthophila ruficapilla. But the glass, having no imagination, showed me a white breast with a dark line across it, — a cerulean warbler! Verily, an ear is a vain thing for safety. See your bird, I say, and take a second look; and then go back and look again. In another tree a parula warbler was singing. About him, by good luck, I made no mistake. As for the other bird, even after I had seen his white breast, his tune — with which he was literally spilling over — continued to sound amazingly Nashvillian; though there are few warbler songs with which I should have supposed myself more thoroughly acquainted than with this same clearly characterized Nashville ditty, — a hurried measure followed by a still more hurried trill. Perhaps this particular cerulean had a note peculiarly his own. I should be glad to think so. Perhaps, on the other hand, the fault was all with the man who heard it; in which case the less said the better. In either event, my theory as to the cerulean’s commonness was in a fair way to be verified. It was well I had that comfort.
Before I could get down the hill again I must stop to listen to a gnatcatcher’s squeaky voice, and the next moment I saw the bird, and another with him. The second one proceeded immediately to a nest, — conspicuously displayed on an oak branch, — while her mate hovered about, squeaking in the most affectionate manner. Then away they flew in company, and after a long absence were back again for another turn at building. They were making a joy of their labor, the male especially; but it is true he made little else of it. With him I was at once taken captive, — so happy, so proud, and so devoted. A paragon of amorous behavior, I called him; having the French idea of “assistance,” no doubt, but a lover in every movement. Never was the good old-fashioned phrase “waiting upon her” more prettily illustrated. Birds are imaginative creatures, says Richard Jefferies, and I believe it; and this fellow, I am sure, had endowed his spouse with all the graces of all the birds that ever were or ever will be. In other words, he was truly in love. The nest was already shingled throughout with bits of gray lichen, laid on so skillfully that Father Time himself might have done it. That is the right way. Let the house look as if it were a growth, a something native to the spot, only less old than the ground it rests on. The gnatcatcher’s nest is always a work of art. Gnatcatcher eggs could hardly be counted upon to hatch in any other.
As I passed up the road, on my way homeward, a flock of eight nighthawks were swimming overhead. Their genius runs, not to architecture, but to grace of aerial motion. They do not shoot like the swifts, nor skim and dart like the swallows, nor circle on level wings like the hawks, but have an easy, slow-seeming, wavering, gracefully “limping” flight, which is strictly their own. At the same time two buzzards met in midair, one going with the breeze, the other against it. I could have told the fact, without other knowledge of the wind’s course, by the different carriage of the two pairs of wings. So “the bird trims her to the gale.”
Having the cerulean warbler question still upon my mind, and seeing another hardwood hill within easy reach, I turned my steps thither. Yes, I was hardly there before I heard a bird singing; but the reader may be sure I did not take my ear’s word for it. This was the fourth hilltop I had visited to-day, and on every one the “rare” warbler (but it is well known to be abundant in West Virginia) had been found without so much as a five-minute search.
The next thing, of course, was to find the nest, and so establish the fact of the birds’ breeding. For that I had one day left; and it may be said at once that I spent the greater share of the next forenoon in the vicinity of the grapevine thicket, before mentioned, on Lincoln Heights. A male cerulean was there, — I both heard and saw him, — but no female showed herself; and when at last my patience ran out, I gave up the point for good. She had been seen in the diligent collection of building materials, and that, considered as evidence, was nearly the same as a discovery of the nest itself. With that I must be content. The comfortable way of finding birds’ nests is to happen upon them. A regular hunt — a “dead set,” as we call it — is apt to be a discouraging business.
My present attempt, it is true, was a quiet, inactive piece of work, little more than an idle waiting for the lady of the nest to “give herself away;” and even that was relieved by much looking at mountain prospects and frequent turns in the surrounding woods. Once a crossbill called and a cardinal whistled almost in the same breath, — a kind of northern and southern duet. Then a cuckoo and a dove fell to cooing on opposite sides of me; very different sounds, though in our poverty we designate them by the same word. The dove’s voice is a thousand times more plaintive than the cuckoo’s, and to hear it, no matter how near, might come from a mile away; as I have known the little ground dove to be “mourning” from a fig-tree at my elbow while I was endeavoring to sight it far down the field. The dove’s note is the voice of the future or of the past, I am not certain which. A few rods from the spot where I had taken my station, a single deerberry bush (Vaccinium stamineum) was in profuse bloom, and made a really pretty show; loose sprays of white flaring blossoms all hanging downward, each with its cluster of long protruding stamens, till the bush, I thought, was like a miniature candelabrum of electric lights. As Thoreau might have said, for so homely a plant the deerberry is very handsome. Either from association or for some other reason, it wears always a certain common look. When we see an azalea shrub or even an apple-tree in bloom, we seem to see the very object of its being. The flower calls for no ulterior result, though it may have one; its fruit is in itself. But a blossoming blueberry bush, no matter of what kind, looks like a plant that was made to bear something edible, a plant whose end is use rather than beauty.
If the forenoon had been indolent, the noonday hour was more so. I descended the hill by a way different from any I had yet taken, and found myself at the foot in a public road running through a cultivated valley. The day was peculiarly comfortable, with a bright sun and a temperate breeze— ideal weather for such inactivities as I was engaged in. Coming to an old cherry-tree, I rested awhile in its shadow. A farmhouse was not far off, with apple-trees before it, a barn across the way, and two or three men at work in the sloping ploughed field beyond. To one as lazy as I then was, it is almost a luxury to see other men hoeing or ploughing, so they be far enough off to become a part of the landscape. Near the barn stood a venerable weeping willow, huge of girth, a very patriarch, yet still green as youth itself. Here were good farm-loving birds, a pleasant society. A pair of house wrens came at once to look at the stranger, and one of them interested me by dusting itself in the road. Two kingbirds were about the apple-trees (apple-tree flycatchers would be my name for them, if a name were in order), now sitting quiet for a brief space, now scaling the heavens, as if to see how nearly perpendicular a bird’s flight could be made, and then tumbling about ecstatically with rapid vociferations, after the half-crazy manner of their kind. The kingbird is plentifully endowed not only with spirit, but with spirits. A goldfinch sang and twittered in the softest voice, and a catbird mewed. From a quince bush, a little farther off, a wild bobolinkian strain was repeated again and again, — an orchard oriole, I thought most likely. I went nearer (to the shade of a low cedar), and soon had him in sight, — a young male in yellow plumage, with a black throat-patch. The song was extremely taking, and the more I heard it, the more it seemed to have the true bobolink ring. The quince bushes were in pale pink bloom, and the branches of a tall snowball-tree in the unfenced front yard of the house fairly drooped under their load of white globular clusters. Just opposite was a sweet-brier bush, “the pastoral eglantine,” half dead like others that I had noticed here, and like the whole tribe of its New England brothers and sisters. Here as in Massachusetts a blight was upon them; they were living with difficulty. It would be good, I thought, to see the sweet-brier once where it flourishes; where the beauty of the plant matches the beauty and sweetness of the rose it bears. Can it be that it is not quite hardy even in Virginia?
My seat under the snowball-tree (to the coolness of which I had moved from under the cedar) had presently to be given up. The women of the house became aware of me, and out of a bashful regard for my own comfort I took the road again. Soon I passed a double house, with painted doors and two-sash windows! And in one of the windows were lace curtains! It was wonderful, — I was obliged to confess it, in spite of a deep-seated masculine prejudice against all such contrivances, — it was wonderful what an air of elegance they conferred, though the paint of the doors was to be considered, of course, in the same connection.
By this time the road was approaching the slope of Buck Hill, and high noon as it was, I must run up for another half-hour among the old trees at the top, — with no special result except to disturb a summer tanager, who fired off volley after volley of objurgatory expletives, and altogether seemed to be in a terrible state of mind. His excitement was all for nothing; unless — what was likely enough — it served to give him favor in the eyes of his mate, who may be presumed to have been somewhere within hearing. Lovers, I believe, are supposed to welcome an opportunity to play the hero.
My last afternoon at the Bridge was devoted to a longish tramp into a new piece of country, where for an hour I had hopes of adding at least a name or two to my Virginia bird-list, which for twenty-four hours had been at a standstill. I came unexpectedly upon a mill, and what was of greater account, a millpond, — “a long, dirty pond,” as my uncivil pencil describes it. Here were swallows, as might have been foreseen, but the most careful scrutiny revealed nothing beyond the two species already catalogued, — the barn swallow and the rough-wing. Here, too, in an apple orchard, were a Baltimore oriole gathering straws, a phoebe, a golden warbler, and several warbling vireos, the only ones so far noticed with the exception of a single bird at Pulaski. About the border of the pond were spotted sandpipers (no solitaries, to my disappointment) and two male song sparrows. This last species I saw but twice in Virginia, — along the bushy shore of the creek at Pulaski, and here beside this millpond. Wherever the song sparrow is scarce, it is likely to be restricted to the immediate neighborhood of water. Even in Massachusetts it is pretty evident that such places are its first choice. As I sometimes say, the song sparrow likes a swamp as well as the swamp sparrow; but the species being so exceedingly abundant, there are not swampy spots enough to go round, and the majority of the birds have to shift as they can, along bushy fence-rows and in pastures and scrub-lands.
The building interested me almost as much as the sandpipers and the sparrows. It was painted red, and served not only as a mill, but as a post-office (“Red Mills”) and a “department store,” with its sign, “Dry Goods, Groceries, &c.” A tablet informed the passer-by that the mill had been “established” in 1798, destroyed in 1881, and reopened in 1891; and on the same tablet, or another, was the motto, “Laborare est orare.” I regretted not to meet the proprietor, but he was nowhere in sight, and I felt a scruple about intruding upon the time of a man who was at once postmaster, miller, farmer, storekeeper, and scholar. With that motto before me, — “Apologia pro vita sua,” he might have called it, — such an intrusion would have seemed a sacrilege.
What I remember best about the whole establishment is the song of a blue-gray gnatcatcher, to which I stopped to listen under a low savin-tree on a bluff above the mill. He was directly over my head, singing somewhat in the manner of a catbird, but I had almost to hold my breath to hear him. It was amazing that a bird’s voice could be spun so fine. A mere shadow of a sound, I was ready to say. It was only by the happiest accident that I did not miss it altogether. Then, when the fellow had finished his music, he began squeaking in that peculiarly teasing manner of his, and kept it up till I was weary. The gnatcatcher is a creature by himself, a miniature bird, wonderfully slender, with a strangely long tail, which he carries jauntily and makes the most of on all occasions. But if he only knew it, his chief claim to distinction is his singing voice. If the humming-bird’s is attenuated in the same proportion (and who can assert the contrary?), he may be the finest vocalist in the world, and we none the wiser.
I was to start northward by the next noonday train, and had already laid out my forenoon’s work. Before breakfast I took my last look at the famous bridge, and my last stroll through Cedar Creek ravine. I had been there every day, I think, and had always found something new. This time it was a slippery-elm-tree by the saltpetre cave. I had brought away a twig, and was sitting in my door putting a lens upon it and upon a sedum specimen, when the veranda was suddenly taken possession of by a dozen or more of young men. They were just up from the railway station, and were deep in a discussion of ways and means, — tickets, luncheons, and time-tables. Then, in a momentary lull in the talk, I heard a quiet voice say, “Sedum.” They were a company of Johns Hopkins men out upon a geological trip. So I learned at noon when we met at the railway station; and a pleasant botanical hour I had with one or two of them as we rode northward. Now, on the piazza, they did not tarry long; time was precious to them also; and as soon as they had gone down to the bridge I set off in the opposite direction. My final ramble was to be to Lincoln Heights, to see once more that magnificent avenue of trees and that beautiful mountain prospect. The cerulean warbler was singing as usual, but there was no sign of his mate, though I could not do less than to wait a little while by the grapevine thicket in a vain hope of her appearance. Here, as in the ravine, I had not yet seen everything. Straight before me stood a locust tree, every branch hung with long, fragrant white clusters. I had overlooked it completely till now. If I learned nothing else in Virginia, I ought to have learned something about my limitations as an “observer.” But I need not have traveled so far for such a purpose. Wisdom so common as that may be picked up any day in a man’s own door-yard.