Here to return to
A QUIET AFTERNOON
AFTER running hither and thither in search of beauty or novelty, try a turn in the nearest wood. So my good genius whispered to me just now; and here I am. I believe it was good advice.
This venerable chestnut tree, with its deeply furrowed, shadow-haunted, lichen-covered bark of soft, lovely grays and grayish greens, is as stately and handsome as ever. How often I have stopped to admire it, summer and winter, especially in late afternoon, when the level sunlight gives it a beauty beyond the reach of words. Many a time I have gone out of my way to see it, as I would have gone to see some remembered landscape by a great painter.
There is no feeling proud in such company. Anything that can stand still and grow, filling its allotted place and contented to fill it, is enough to put our futile human restlessness to the blush. The wind has long ago blown away some of its branches, but it does not mind. It is busy with its year's work. I see the young burrs, no bigger than the end of my little finger. When the nuts are ripe the tree will let them fall and think no more about them. How different from a man! When he does a good thing, if by chance he ever does, he must put his hands behind his ears in hopes to hear somebody praising him. Mountains and trees make me humble. I feel like a poor relation.
The pitch-pines are no longer at their best estate. They are brightest when we need their brightness most, in late winter and early spring. This year, at least, the summer sun has faded them badly; but their fragrance is like an elixir. It is one of the glories of pine needles, one of the things in which they excel the rest of us, that they smell sweet, not “in the dust” exactly, but after they are dead.
A nuthatch in one of the trees calls “Tut, tut, tut,” and is so near me that I hear his claws scratching over the dry bark. A busy and cheerful body. Just beyond him a scar. let tanager is posed on a low, leafless twig. Like the pine leaves, he looks out of condition. I am sure I have seen brighter ones. He is silent, but his mate, somewhere in the oak branches over my head, keeps up an emphatic chip-cherr, chip-cherr. Yes, I see her now, and the red one has gone up to perch at her side. She cocks her head, looking at me first out of one eye and then out of the other, and repeats the operation two or three times, like a puzzled microscopist squinting at a doubtful specimen; and all the while she continues to call, though I know nothing of what she means. Once her mate approaches too near, and she opens her bill at him in silence. He understands the sign and keeps his distance. I admire his spirit. It is better than taking a city.
The earliest of the yellow gerardias is in bloom, and a pretty desmodium, also (D. nudiflorum), with a loose raceme of small pink flowers, like miniature sweet-pea blossoms, on a slender leafless stalk. These are in the wood, amidst the underbrush. As I come out into a dry, grassy field I find the meadow-beauty; an odd creature, with a tangle of long stamens; bright-colored, showy in its intention, so to speak, but rather curious than beautiful, in spite of its name; especially because the petals have not the grace to fall when they are done, but hang, withered and discolored, to spoil the grace of later corners. The prettiest thing about it all, after the freshly opened first flower, is the urn-shaped capsule. That, to me, is of really classic elegance.
Now I have crossed the road and am seated on a chestnut stump, with my back against a tree, on the edge of a broad, rolling, closely cropped cattle-pasture, a piece of genuine New England. Scattered loosely over it are young, straight, slender-waisted, shoulder-high cedars, and on my right hand is a big patch of hardhack, growing in tufts of a dozen stalks each, every one tipped with an arrow-head of pink blossoms. The whole pasture is full of sunshine. Down at the lower end is a long, narrow, irregular-shaped pond. I cannot see it because of a natural hedge against the fence-row on my left; but somehow the landscape takes an added beauty from the water's presence. The truth is, perhaps, that I do see it.
High overhead a few barn swallows and chimney swifts are scaling, each with happy-sounding twitters after its kind. A jay screams, but so far off as merely to emphasize the stillness. Once in a while a song sparrow pipes; a cheerful, honest voice. When there is nothing better to do I look at the hardhack. The spiræas are a fine set; many of them are honored in gardens; but few are more to my liking, after all, than this old friend (and enemy) of my boyhood. Whether it is really useful as an herb out of which to make medicinal “tea” I feel no competency to say, though I have drunk my share of the decoction. It is not a virulent poison: so much I feel reasonably sure of. Hardhack, thoroughwort, and pennyroyal, — with the o left out, — these were the family herbalist's trinity in my day. Now, in these better times of pellets and homœopathic allopathy, children hardly know what medicine-taking means. We remember, we of an older generation. “Pinch your nose and swallow it, and I will give you a cent.” Does that sound vulgar in the nice ears of modern readers? Well, we earned our money.
Now an oriole's clear August fife is heard. A short month, and he will be gone. And hark! A most exquisite strain by one of the best of field sparrows. I have never found an adjective quite good enough for that bit of common music. I believe there is none. Nor can I think of any at this moment with which to express the beauty of this summer afternoon. Fairer weather was never seen in any corner of the world. Four crows fly over the field in company. The hindmost of them has a hard time with a redwing, which strikes again and again. “Give it to him!” say I. Between crow and man I am for the crow; but between the crow and the smaller bird I am always for the smaller bird. Whether I am right or wrong is not the question here. This is not my day for arguing, but for feeling.
How pretty the hardhack is! Though it stands up rather stiff, it feels every breath Of wind. Its beauty grows on me as I look, which is enough of itself to make this a profitable afternoon. There is no beauty so welcome as new beauty in an old friend.
A kingbird, one of two or three hereabout, comes to sit on a branch over my head. He is full of twitters, which sound as if they might be full of meaning; but there is no interpreter. He, too, like the oriole, is on his last month. I have great respect for kingbirds. A phoebe shows herself in the hedge, flirting her tail airily as she alights. “Pretty well, I thank you,” she might be saying. Every kind of bird has motions of its own, no doubt, if we look sharply enough. The phœbe's may be seen of all men.
I had meant to go out and sit awhile under the spreading white oak yonder, on the upper side of the pasture, near the huckleberry patches; but why should I? Well enough is well enough, I say to myself; and it sounds like good philosophy, in weather like this. It may never set the millpond on fire; but then, I don't wish to set it on fire.
And although I go on mentioning particulars, a flower, a bird, a bird's note, it is none of these that I am really enjoying. It is the day — the brightness and the quiet, and the comfort of a perfect temperature. Great is weather. No man is to blame for talking about it, unless his talk is twaddle. Out-of-door people know that few things are more important. A quail's whistle, a thought too strenuous, perhaps, for such an hour, — a breezy quoit, — breaks my disquisition none too soon; else I might have been brought in guilty under my own ruling.
As I get over the fence, on my start homeward, I notice a thrifty clump of chokecherry shrubs on the other side of the way, hung with ripening clusters, every cherry a jewel as the sun strikes it. They may hang “for all me,” as schoolboys say. My country-bred taste is pretty catholic in matters of this kind, but it extends not to chokecherries. They should be eaten by campaign orators as a check upon fluency.