Here to return to
IN THE CAMBRIDGE SWAMP
ONCE a year, at least, I must visit the great swamp in Cambridge, one of the institutions of the city, as distinctive, not to say as famous, as the university itself. It is sure to show me something out of the ordinary run (its courses in ornithology are said to be better than any the university offers); and even if I were disappointed on that score, I should still find the visit worth while for the sake of old times, and old friends, and the good things I remember. At the present minute I am thinking especially of that enthusiastic, wise-hearted, finely gifted, greatly lamented nature-lover, Frank Bolles, whom I met here for the first time one evening when it was too dark to see his face. We had come on the same errand, to watch the strange aerial evolutions of the April snipe. Who could have supposed then that he would be dead so soon, and the world so much the poorer?
Now it is July. The tall swamp rose. bushes are in full flower, here and there a clump, the morning sun heightening their beauty, though for the most part there is no getting near them without wading to the knees. More accessible, as well as more numerous, are the trailing morning-glory vines (Convolvulus sepium), with showy, trumpet-shaped, pink-and-white blossoms; and in one place I stop to notice a watery-stemmed touch-me-not, or jewel-weed, from which a solitary frail-looking, orange-colored flower is hanging — the first of the year. What thousands on thousands will follow it; no meadow's edge or boggy spot will be without them. The pendent jewel makes me think of hummingbirds, which is another reason for liking to look at it. Years ago I used to plant some of its red and white congeners (balsams, we called them) in a child's garden. I wish I were a botanist; I am always wishing so; but I am thankful to know enough of the science to be able to recognize a few such relationships between native “weeds” and cultivated exotics. Somehow the weeds look less weedy for that knowledge; as the most commonplace of mortals becomes interesting to average humanity if it is whispered about that he is fourth cousin to the king. The world is not yet so democratic that anything, even a plant, can be rated altogether by itself.
The gravelly banks of the railroad, on which I go dry-shod through the swamp, are covered with a forest of chicory; a thrifty immigrant, tall, coarse, scraggy, awkward, homely, anything you will, but a great brightener of our American waysides on sunny midsummer forenoons. It attracts much notice, and presumably gives much pleasure, to judge by the number of persons who ask me its name. May the town fathers spare it! The bees and the goldfinches will thank them, if nobody else. Here I am interested to see that a goodly number of the plants — but not more than one in fifty, perhaps — bear full crops of pure white flowers; a rarity to me, though I am well used to pink ones. Gray's Man ual, by the by, a Cambridge book, makes no mention of white flowers, while Britton and Brown's Illustrated Flora says nothing about a pink variety. In a multitude of books there is safety, or, if not quite that, something less of danger. The pink and the white flowers are reversions to former less highly developed states, I suppose, if certain modern theories are to be trusted. I have read somewhere that the acid of ants turns the blue of chicory blossoms to a bright red, and that European children are accustomed to throw the flowers into ant hills to watch the transformation. Perhaps some young American reader will be moved to try the experiment.
The best plants, however, those that I enjoy most for to-day, at all events, are the cat-tails. How they flourish! — “like a tree planted by the rivers of water.” And how straight they grow! They must be among the righteous. We may almost say that they make the swamp. Certainly, when they are gone the swamp will be gone. Both kinds are here, the broad-leaved and the narrow-leaved, equally rank, though angustfolia has perhaps a little the better of the other in point of height. The two can be distinguished at a glance, and afar off, by a difference in color, if by nothing else. “Cat-tails” and “flags,” the Manual and the Illustrated Flora call them; but I was brought up to say “cat-o'-nine-tails,” with strong emphasis on the numeral, and am glad to find that more romantic-sounding name recognized by the latest big dictionary. Not that the name has any particular appropriateness; but like my fellows, I have been trained to venerate a dictionary, especially an “unabridged,” as hardly less sacred than the Bible, and am still much relieved whenever my own usage, past or present, happens to be supported by such authority.
Rankness is the swamp's note, we may say. Look at the spatter-dock leaves and the pickerel weed! The tropics themselves could hardly do better. And what a maze and tangle of vegetation! — as if the earth could produce more than the air could find room for. So much for plenty of water and a wholesome depth of black mud. One thinks of the scriptural phrase about paths that “drop fatness.”
Ever since I arrived, the short, hurried, gurgling trill of the long-billed marsh wren has been in my ears. If I have been here an hour, I must have heard that sound five hundred times. Once only, and only for an instant, I saw one of the singers. I have not been on the watch for them, to be sure; but if it had been earlier in the season I should have seen them whether I tried to do so or not. It must be that the little aerial song-flights, then so common and so cheerful to look at, are now mostly over.
In such a place, however, populous as it is, one does not expect to see many birds — blackbirds being left out of the reckoning — at any time. Swamp ornithology is mainly a matter of “earsight.” Birds that live in cat-tail beds and button-bush thickets are very little on the wing. Here a least bittern may coo day after day, and season after season, and it will be half a lifetime before you see him do it. I have made inquiries far and near in the likeliest quarters, and have yet to learn, even at second hand, of any man who has ever had that good fortune. Once, for five minutes, I entertained a lively hope of accomplishing the feat myself, but the bird was too wary for me; and a miss is as good as a mile. No doubt I shall die without the sight.
So the Carolina rail will whistle and the Virginia rail call the pigs, but it will be a memorable hour when you detect either of them in the act. You will hear the sounds often enough; I hear them to-day; and much less frequently you will see the birds stepping with dainty caution along a favorite runway, or feeding about the edges of their cover. But to see them utter the familiar notes, that is another story.
This morning I see on the wing a night heron (so I call him, without professing absolute certainty), a bittern (flying from one side of the railroad tracks to the other), and a little green heron, but no rail of either species, although I sit still in favorable places — where at other times I have seen them — with exemplary patience. In hunting of this kind, patience must be mixed with luck. It pleases my imagination to think what numbers Of birds there are all about me, each busy with its day's work, and not One of them visible for an instant, even by chance.
I go to the top of a grassy mound, and seat myself where I have a lengthwise view of a ditch. Here, ten years ago, more or less, I saw my first gallinule. We had heard his outcries for some days (I speak of myself and two better men), and a visiting New York ornithologist had told us that they were probably the work of a gallinule. They came always from the most inaccessible parts of the swamp, where it seemed hopeless to wade in pursuit of the bird, since we wished to see him alive; but turning the question over in my mind, I bethought myself of this low hilltop, with its command of an open stretch of water between a broad expanse of cat-tails and a wood. Hither I came, therefore. If there was any virtue in waiting, the thing should be done. And sure enough, in no very long time out paddled the bird, with those queer bobbing motions which I was to grow familiar with afterward — a Florida gallinule, with a red plate on his forehead. Again and again I saw him (patience was easy now), and when I had seen enough — for that time — and was on my way back to the railway station, I met the foremost of New England ornithologists coming down the track. He was on the same hunt, and together we returned to the place I had left; and together we saw the bird. A week or two later he found the nest, and a Massachusetts record was established.
This, I say, was ten years ago. To-day there is no gallinule, or none for me. The best thing I hear, the most characteristically swampy, is the odd diminuendo whistle of a Carolina rail. “We are all here,” he says; “you ought to come oftener.” And I think I will.