Here to return to
A FAVORITE ROUND
AFTER three clays of heat, a cool morning. I take an electric car, leave it at a point five miles away, and in a semicircular course come round to the track again a mile or two nearer home. This is one of my favorite walks, such as every stroller finds for himself, affording a pleasant variety within comfortable distance.
First I come to a plain on which are hayfields, gardens, and apple orchards; an open, sunny place where, in the season, one may hope to find the first bluebird, the first vesper sparrow, or the first bobolink. A spot where things like these have happened to one has henceforth a charm of its own. Memory walks beside us, as it were, and makes good all present deficiencies.
I am hardly here this morning before the tiny, rough voice of a yellow-winged sparrow reaches me from a field in which the new‑mown grass lies in windrows. Grass or stubble, he can still be happy, it appears. The grasshopper sparrow — to give him his better name — is one of the quaintest of songsters, his musical effort being more like an insect's than a bird's; yet he is as fully inspired, as completely absorbed in his work, to look at him, as any mockingbird or thrush. I watched one a few days ago as lie sat at the top of a dwarf pear tree. How seriously he took himself! No “minor poet” of a human sort ever surpassed him in that respect; head thrown back, and bill most amazingly wide open, all for that ragged thread of a tune, which nevertheless was decidedly emphatic and could be heard a surprisingly long distance. I smiled at him, but he did not mind. When minor poets cease writing, then, we may guess, the grasshopper sparrow will quit singing. Far be the day. To be a poet is to be a poet, and distinctions of major and minor are of trifling consequence. The yellow-wing counts with the savanna, but is smaller and has even less of a voice. Impoverished grass fields are. his favorite breeding-places, and he is generally a colonist.
This morning (it is July 10) the vesper sparrow is singing here also, with the song sparrow and the chipper. And while I am listening to them — but mainly to the vesper — the sickle stroke (as I believe Mr. Burroughs calls it) of a meadow lark cuts the air. It is a good concert, vesper sparrow and lark going most harmoniously together; and to make it better still, a bobolink pours out one copious strain. Him I am especially glad to hear. After the grass is cut one feels as if bobolink days were over.
However, the grass is not all cut yet. I hear the rattle of a distant mowing-machine as I walk, and by and by come in sight of a man swinging a scythe. That is the poetry of farming — from the spectator's point of view; and I think from the mower's also, when he is cutting his own grass and is his own master. I like to watch him, at all events. Every motion he makes is as familiar to me as the swaying of branches in the wind. How long will it be, I wonder, before young people will be asking their seniors what a scythe was like, and how a man used it? Pictures of it will look odd enough, we may be sure, after the thing itself is forgotten.
While I am watching the mower (now he pauses a moment, and with the blade of his scythe tosses a troublesome tangle of grass out of his way, with exactly the motion that I have seen other mowers use a thousand times; but I look in vain for him to put the end of the snathe to the ground, pick up a handful of grass, and wipe down the blade) while I am watching him a bluebird breaks into song, and a kingbird flutters away from his perch on a fence-wire. After all, the glory of a bird is his wings; and the kingbird knows it. In another field men are spreading hay — with pitchforks, I mean; and that, too, is poetry. In truth, by the old processes, hay could not be made except with graceful motions, unless it were by a novice, some man from the city or out of a shop. A green hand with a rake, it must be confessed, is a subject for laughter rather than for rhymes. The secret of graceful raking is like the secret of graceful writing, — a light touch.
Raspberries and thimbleberries are getting ripe (they do not need to be “dead ripe,” thimbleberries especially, for an old country boy), and meadow-sweet and mullein are in bloom. Hardhack, standing near them, has not begun to show the pink.
Now I turn the corner, leaving the farms behind, and as I do so I bethink myself of a bed of yellow galium just beyond. It ought to be in blossom. And so it is — the prettiest sight of the morning, and of many mornings. I stand beside it, admiring its beauty and inhaling its faint, wholesomely sweet odor. Bedstraw, it is called. If it will keep that fragrance, why should mattresses ever be filled with anything else? This is the only patch of the kind that I know, and I felicitate myself upon having happened along at just the right minute to see it in all its sweetness and beauty. Year after year it blooms here on this roadside, and nowhere else; millions of tiny flowers of a really exquisite color, yellow with much of green in it, a shade for which in my ignorance I have no name.
The road soon runs into a swamp, and I stop on the bridge. Swamp sparrows are trilling on either side of me — a spontaneous, effortless kind of music, like water running downhill. A phoebe chides me gently; passengers are expected to use the bridge to cross the brook upon, she intimates, not as a lounging-place, especially as her nest is underneath. Yellow bladderworts lift their pretty hoods above the slimy, black water, and among them lies a turtle, thrusting his head out to enjoy the sun. Once I see him raise a foreclaw and scratch the underside of his neck. The most sluggish and cold-blooded animal that ever lived must now and then be taken with an itching, I suppose.
Beyond the bridge the woods are full of white azalea (they are full of it now, that is to say, so long as the bushes are in blossom), but I listen in vain for the song of a Canadian warbler, whom I know to be living somewhere in its shadow. A chickadee, looking as if she had been through the wars, her plumage all blackened and bedraggled, makes remarks to me as I pass. The cares of maternity have spoiled her beauty, and perhaps ruffled her temper, for the time being. A veery snarls, and a thrasher's resonant kiss makes me smile. If he knew it, he would smile in his turn, perhaps, at my “pathetic fallacy.” The absence of music here, just where I expected it most confidently, is disappointing, but I do not stay to grieve over the loss. As the road climbs to dry ground again, I remark how close to its edge the rabbit-foot clover is growing. It is at its prettiest now, the grayish green heads tipped with pink. If it were as uncommon as the yellow bedstraw, perhaps I should think it quite as beautiful. I have known it since I have known anything (“pussies,” we called it), but I never dreamed of its being a clover till I began to use a botany book. All the way along I notice how it cleaves to the very edge of the track. Let me have the poorest place,” it says. And it thrives there. Such is the inheritance of the meek.
Here in the pine woods a black-throated green warbler is dreaming audibly, and, better still, a solitary vireo, the only one I have heard for a month or more, sings a few strains, with that sweet, falling cadence of which he alone has the secret. From a bushy tract, where fire has blackened everything, a chewink speaks his name, and then falls to repeating a peculiarly jaunty variation of the family tune. Dignity is hardly the chewink's strong point. Now a field sparrow gives out a measure. There is an artist! Few can excel him, though many can make more show. Like the vesper sparrow, he has a gift of sweet and holy simplicity. And what can be better than that? Overhead, hurrying with might and main toward the woods, flies a crow, with four kingbirds after him. Perhaps he suffers for his own misdeeds; perhaps for those of his race. All crows look alike to kingbirds, I suspect.
This, and much beside, while I rest in the shade of a pine, taking the beauty of the clouds and listening to the wind in the treetops. The best part of every ramble is the part that escapes the notebook.