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ENGLISH WOODS: A CONTRAST
ONE cannot well overpraise the rural and pastoral beauty of England — the beauty of her fields, parks, downs, holms. In England you shall see at its full that of which you catch only glimpses in this country, the broad, beaming, hospitable beauty of a perfectly cultivated landscape. Indeed, to see England is to take one's fill of the orderly, the permanent, the well-kept in the works of man, and of the continent, the beneficent, the uniform, in the works of nature. It is to see the most perfect bit of garden lawn extended till it covers an empire; it is to see the history of two thousand years written in grass and verdure, and in the lines of the landscape; a continent concentrated into a state, the deserts and waste places left out, every rood of it swarming with life; the pith and marrow of wide tracts compacted into narrow fields and recruited and forwarded by the most vigilant husbandry. Those fields look stall-fed, those cattle beam contentment, those rivers have never left their banks; those mountains are the paradise of shepherds; those open forest glades, half sylvan, half pastoral, clean, stately, full of long vistas and cathedral-like aisles, — where else can one find beauty like that? The wild and the savage flee away. The rocks pull the green turf over them like coverlids; the hills are plump with vegetable mould, and when they bend this way or that, their sides are wrinkled and dimpled like the forms of fatted sheep. And fatted they are; not merely by the care of man, but by the elements themselves; the sky rains fertility upon them; there is no wear and tear as with our alternately flooded, parched, and frozen hilltops; the soil accumulates, the mould deepens; the matted turf binds it and yearly adds to it.
All this is not simply because man is or has been so potent in the landscape (this is but half the truth), but because the very mood and humor of Nature herself is domestic and human. She seems to have grown up with man and taken on his look and ways. Her spirit is that of the full, placid stream that you may lead through your garden or conduct by your doorstep without other danger than a wet sill or a soaked flower-plot, at rare intervals. It is the opulent nature of the southern seas, brought by the Gulf Stream, and reproduced and perpetuated here under these cool northern skies, the fangs and the poison taken out; full, but no longer feverish; lusty, but no longer lewd.
Yet there is a certain beauty of nature to be had in much fuller measure in our own country than in England, — the beauty of the wild, the aboriginal, — the beauty of primitive forests, — the beauty of lichen-covered rocks and ledges. The lichen is one of the lowest and humblest forms of vegetable growth, but think how much it adds to the beauty of all our wild scenery, giving to our mountain walls and drift boulders the softest and most pleasing tints. The rocky escarpments of New York and New England hills are frescoed by Time himself, painted as with the brush of the eternal elements. But the lichen is much less conspicuous in England, and plays no such part in her natural scenery. The climate is too damp. The rocks in Wales and Northumberland and in Scotland are dark and cold and unattractive. The trees in the woods do not wear the mottled suit of soft gray ours do. The bark of the British beech is smooth and close-fitting, and often tinged with a green mould. The Scotch pine is clad as in a ragged suit of leather. Nature uses mosses instead of lichens. The old walls and housetops are covered with moss — a higher form of vegetation than lichens. Its decay soon accumulates a little soil or vegetable mould, which presently supports flowering plants.
Neither are there any rocks in England worth mentioning; no granite boulders, no fern-decked or moss-covered fragments scattered through the woods, as with us. They have all been used up for building purposes, or for road-making, or else have quite dissolved in the humid climate. I saw rocks in Wales, quite a profusion of them in the pass of Llanberis, but they were tame indeed in comparison with such rock scenery as that say at Lake Mohunk, in the Shawangunk range in New York. There are passes in the Catskills that for the grandeur of wildness and savageness far surpass anything the Welsh mountains have to show. Then for exquisite and thrilling beauty, probably one of our mottled rocky walls with the dicentra blooming from little niches and shelves in April, and the columbine thrusting out from seams and crevices clusters of its orange bells in May, with ferns and mosses clinging here and there, and the woodbine tracing a delicate green line across its face, cannot be matched anywhere in the world.
Then, in our woods, apart from their treasures of rocks, there is a certain beauty and purity unknown in England, a certain delicacy and sweetness, and charm of unsophisticated nature, that are native to our forests.
The pastoral or field life of nature in England is so rank and full that no woods or forests that I was able to find could hold their own against it for a moment. It flooded them like a tide. The grass grows luxuriantly in the thick woods, and where the grass fails, the coarse bracken takes its place. There was no wood spirit, no wild wood air. Our forests shut their doors against the fields; they shut out the strong light and the heat. Where the land has been long cleared, the woods put out a screen of low branches, or else a brushy growth starts up along their borders that guards and protects their privacy. Lift or part away these branches, and step inside, and you are in another world; new plants, new flowers, new birds, new animals, new insects, new sounds, new odors; in fact, an entirely different atmosphere and presence. Dry leaves cover the ground, delicate ferns and mosses drape the rocks, shy, delicate flowers gleam out here and there, the slender brown wood-frog leaps nimbly away from your feet, the little red newt fills its infantile pipe, or hides under a leaf, the ruffed grouse bursts up before you, the gray squirrel leaps from tree to tree, the wood pewee utters its plaintive cry, the little warblers lisp and dart amid the branches, and sooner or later the mosquito demands his fee. Our woods suggest new arts, new pleasures, a new mode of life. English parks and groves, when the sun shines, suggest a perpetual picnic, or Maying party; but no one, I imagine, thinks of camping out in English woods. The constant rains, the darkened skies, the low temperature, make the interior of a forest as uninviting as an underground passage. I wondered what became of the dry leaves that are such a feature and give out such a pleasing odor in our woods. They are probably raked up and carried away; or, if left upon the ground, are quickly resolved into mould by the damp climate.
While in Scotland I explored a large tract of woodland, mainly of Scotch fir, that covers a hill near Ecclefechan, but it was grassy and uninviting. In one of the parks of the Duke of Hamilton I found a deep wooded gorge through which flowed the river Avon (I saw four rivers of this name in Great Britain), a branch of the Clyde, — a dark, rock-paved stream, the color of brown stout. It was the wildest bit of forest scenery I saw anywhere. I almost imagined myself on the headwaters of the Hudson or the Penobscot. The stillness, the solitude, the wild boiling waters, were impressive; but the woods had no charm; there were no flowers, no birds; the sylvan folk had moved away long ago, and their house was cold and inhospitable. I sat a half-hour in their dark nettle-grown halls by the verge of the creek, to see if they were stirring anywhere, but they were not. I did, indeed, hear part of a wren's song, and the call of the sandpiper; but that was all. Not one purely wood voice or sound or odor. But looking into the air a few yards below me, there leapt one of those matchless stone bridges, clearing the profound gulf and carrying the road over as securely as if upon the geological strata. It was the bow of art and civilization set against nature's wildness. In the woods beyond, I came suddenly upon the ruins of an old castle, with great trees growing out of it, and rabbits burrowing beneath it. One learns that it takes more than a collection of trees to make a forest, as we know it in this country. Unless they house that spirit of wildness and purity like a temple, they fail to satisfy. In walking to Selborne, I skirted Wolmer Forest, but it had an uninviting look. The Hanger on the hill above Selborne, which remains nearly as it was in White's time, — a thrifty forest of beeches, — I explored, but found it like the others, without any distinctive woodsy attraction — only so much soil covered with dripping beeches, too dense for a park and too tame for a forest. The soil is a greasy, slippery clay, and down the steepest part of the hill, amid the trees, the boys have a slide that serves them for summer "coastings." Hardly a leaf, hardly a twig or branch, to be found. In White's time, the poor people used to pick up the sticks the crows dropped in building their nests, and they probably do so yet. When one comes upon the glades beyond the Hanger, the mingling of groves and grassy common, the eye is fully content. The beech, which is the prevailing tree here, as it is in many other parts of England, is a much finer tree than the American beech. The deep limestone soil seems especially adapted to it. It grows as large as our elm, with much the same manner of branching. The trunk is not patched and mottled with gray, like ours, but is often tinged with a fine deep green mould. The beeches that stand across the road in front of Wordsworth's house, at Rydal Mount, have boles nearly as green as the surrounding hills. The bark of this tree is smooth and close-fitting, and shows that muscular, athletic character of the tree beneath it which justifies Spenser's phrase, "the warlike beech." These beeches develop finely in the open, and make superb shade-trees along the highway. All the great historical forests of England — Shrewsbury Forest, the Forest of Dean, New Forest, etc. — have practically disappeared. Remnants of them remain here and there, but the country they once occupied is now essentially pastoral.
It is noteworthy that there is little or no love of woods as such in English poetry; no fond mention of them, and dwelling upon them. The muse of Britain's rural poetry has none of the wide-eyedness and furtiveness of the sylvan creatures; she is rather a gentle, wholesome, slightly stupid divinity of the fields. Milton sings the praises of
"Arched walks of twilight groves."
But his wood is a "drear wood,"
"The nodding horror of whose shady brows
Threats the forlorn and wandering passenger."
"Very desolation dwells
By grots and caverns shagg'd with horrid shade."
Shakespeare refers to the "ruthless, vast, and horrid wood," — a fit place for robbery, rapine, and murder. Indeed, English poetry is pretty well colored with the memory of the time when the woods were the hiding-places of robbers and outlaws, and were the scenes of all manner of dark deeds. The only thing I recall in Shakespeare that gives a faint whiff of our forest life occurs in "All's Well That Ends Well," where the clown says to Lafeu, "I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire." That great fire is American; wood is too scarce in Europe. Francis Higginson wrote in 1630: "New England may boast of the element of fire more than all the rest; for all Europe is not able to afford to make so great fires as New England. A poor servant, that is to possess but fifty acres, may afford to give more wood for fire, as good as the world yields, than many noblemen in England." In many parts of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, the same royal fires may still be indulged in. In the chief nature-poet of England, Wordsworth, there is no line that has the subtle aroma of the deep woods. After seeing his country, one can recognize its features, its spirit, all through his poems — its impressive solitudes, its lonely tarns, its silent fells, its green dales, its voiceful waterfalls; but there are no woods there to speak of; the mountains appear to have always been treeless, and the poet's muse has never felt the spell of this phase of nature — the mystery and attraction of the indoors of aboriginal wildness. Likewise in Tennyson there is the breath of the wold, but not of the woods.
Among our own poets, two at least of the more eminent have listened to the siren of our primitive woods. I refer to Bryant and Emerson. Though so different, there is an Indian's love of forests and forest-solidtudes in them both. Neither Bryant's "Forest Hymn" nor Emerson's "Woodnotes" could have been written by an English poet. The "Woodnotes" savor of our vast Northern pine forests, amid which one walks with distended pupil, and a boding, alert sense.
Emerson's muse is urbane, but it is that wise urbanity that is at home in the woods as well as in the town, and can make a garden of a forest.
On the other hand, we have no pastoral poetry in the English sense, because we have no pastoral nature as overpowering as the English have. When the muse of our poetry is not imitative, it often has a piny, woodsy flavor, that is unknown in the older literatures. The gentle muse of Longfellow, so civil, so cultivated; yet how it delighted in all legends and echoes and Arcadian dreams, that date from the forest primeval. Thoreau was a wood-genius — the spirit of some Indian poet or prophet, graduated at Harvard College, but never losing his taste for the wild. The shy, mystical genius of Hawthorne was never more at home than when in the woods. Read the forest-scenes in the "Scarlet Letter." They are among the most suggestive in the book.