Here to return to
LATE SUMMER NOTES
ON this bright morning I am passing fields and kitchen gardens that I have not seen since a month ago. Then the fields were newly mown stubble-fields, such as all men who knew anything of the luxury of a barefooted boyhood must have in vivid remembrance. (How gingerly, with what a sudden slackening of the pace, we walked over them, if circumstances made such a venture necessary, —in pursuit of a lost ball, or on our way to the swimming-hole, — setting the foot down softly and stepping high! I can see the action at this minute, as plainly as I see yonder fence-post.) Now the first thing that strikes the eye is the lively green of the aftermath. It looks as soft as a velvet carpet. I remember what I used to hear in haying time, that cattle like the second crop best. I should think they would.
Grass is man's patient friend. Directly or indirectly, we may say, he subsists upon it. Nay, the Scripture itself declares as much, in one of its most familiar texts. It is good to see it so quick to recover from the cruel work of the scythe, so responsive to the midsummer rains, its color so deep, its leaves so full of sap. It is this spirit of hopefulness, this patience under injury, that makes shaven lawns possible.
As to the beauty of grass, no man appreciates it, I suppose, unless he has lived where grass does not grow. “When I go back to New England,” said an exile in Florida, “I will ask for no garden. Let me have grass about the house, and I can do without roses.”
The century ends with an apple year; and every tree is in the fashion. The old, the decrepit, the solitary, not one of them all but got the word in season; as there is no woman in Christendom but learns somehow, before it is too late, whether sleeves are to be worn loose or tight. Along the roadside, in the swamp, in the orchard, everywhere the story is the same. Apple trees are all freemasons. This hollow shell of a trunk, with one last battered limb keeping it alive, received its cue with the rest.
In the orchard, where the trees are younger and more pliable, a man would hardly know them for the same he saw there in May and June; so altered are they in shape, so smoothly rounded at the top, so like Babylonian willows in the droop of the branches. Baldwins are turning red — greenish red — and russets are already rusty. “Yes,” says the owner of the orchard, “and much good will it do me.” Apples are an “aggravating crop,” he declares. “First there are none; and then there are so many that you cannot sell them.” Human nature is never satisfied; and, for one, I think it seldom has reason to be.
A bobolink, which seems to be somewhere overhead, drops a few notes in passing. “I am off,” he says. “Sorry to go, but I know where there is a rice-field.” From the orchard come the voices of bluebirds and kingbirds. 'Not a bird is in song; and what is more melancholy, the road and the fields are thick with English sparrows.
Now I stop at the smell of growing corn, which is only another kind of grass, though the farmer may not suspect the fact, and perhaps would not believe you if you told him of it; more than he would believe you if you told him that clover is not grass. He and his cow know better. A queer set these botanists, who get their notions from books! Corn or grass, here grow some acres of it, well tasseled (“all tosselled out”), with the wind stirring the leaves to make them shine. Does the odor, with which the breeze is loaded, come from the blossoms, or from the substance of the plant itself? A new question for me. I climb the fence and put my nose to one of the tassels. No, it is not in them, I think. It must be in the stalk and leaves; and I adopt this opinion the more readily because the odor itself — the memory of which is part of every country boy's inheritance — is like that of a vegetable rather than of a flower, a smell rather than a perfume. I seem to recall that the stalk smelled just so when we cut it into lengths for cornstalk fiddles; and the nose, as everyone must have remarked, has a good memory, for the reason, probably, that it is so near the brain.
I turn the corner, and go from the garden to the wild. First, however, I rest for a few minutes under a wide-branching oak opposite the site of a vanished house. You would know there had been a house here at some time, even if you did not see the cellar-hole, by the old maid's pinks along the fence. How fresh they look! And how becomingly they blush! They are worthy of their name. Age cannot wither them. Less handsome than carnations, if you will, but faithful, home-loving souls; not requiring to be waited upon, but given rather to waiting upon others. Like mayweed and catnip, they are what I have heard called “folksy plants;” though on second thought I should rather say “homey.” There is something of the cat about them; a kind of local constancy; they stay by the old place, let the people go where they will. Probably they would grow in front of a new house, — even a Queen Anne cottage, so called, — if necessity were laid upon them, but who could imagine it? It would be shameful to subject them to such indignity. They are survivals, livers in the past, lovers of things as they were, charter members, I should say, of the Society of Colonial Dames.
As I come to the edge of the swamp I see a leaf move, and by squeaking draw into sight a redstart. The pretty creature peeps at me furtively, wondering what new sort of man it can be that makes noises of that kind. To all appearance she is very desirous not to be seen; yet she spreads her tail every few seconds so as to display its bright markings. Probably the action has grown to be habitual and, as it were, automatic. A bird may be unconsciously coquettish, I suppose, as well as a woman or a man. It is a handsome tail, anyhow.
Somewhere just behind me a red-eyed vireo is singing in a peculiar manner; repeating his hackneyed measure with all his customary speed, — forty or fifty times a minute, — but with no more than half his customary voice, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. I wish he would sing so always. It would be an easy way of increasing his popularity.
Not far down the road are three roughly dressed men, — of the genus tramp, if I read the signs aright, — coming toward me; and I notice with pleasure that when they reach the narrow wooden bridge over the brook they turn aside, as by a common impulse, to lean over the rail and look down into the water. When I get there I shall do the same thing. So will every man that comes along, unless he happens to be on “business.”
Running water is one of the universal parables, appealing to something primitive and ineradicable in human nature. Day and night it preaches — sermons without words. It is every man's friend. The most stolid find it good company. For that reason, largely, men love to fish. They are poets without knowing it. They have never read a line of verse since they outgrew Mother Goose; they never consciously admire a landscape; they care nothing for a picture, unless it is a caricature, or tells a story; but they cannot cross moving water without feeling its charm.
Well, in that sense of the word, I too am a poet. The tramps and I have met and passed each other, and I am on the bridge. The current is almost imperceptible (like the passage of time), and the black water is all a tangle of cresses and other plants. Lucky bugs dart hither and thither upon its surface, quick to start and quick to stop (quick to quarrel, also, — like butterflies, — so that two of them can hardly meet without a momentary set-to), full of life, and, for anything that I know, full of thought; true poets, perhaps, in ways of their own; for why should man be so narrow-minded as to assume that his way is of necessity the only one?
On either side of the brook, as it winds through the swamp, are acres of the stately Joe Pye weed, or purple boneset, one of the tallest of herbs. I am beginning to think well of its color, — which is something like what ladies know as “crushed strawberry,” if I mistake not, — though I used to look upon it rather disdainfully and call it faded. The plant would be better esteemed in that regard, I dare say, if it did not so often invite comparison with the cardinal flower. I note it as one of the favorites of the milkweed butterfly.
Here on the very edge of the brook is the swamp loosestrife, its curving stems all reaching for the water, set with rosy bloom. My attention is drawn to it by the humming of bees, a busy, contented, content-producing sound. How different from the hum of the factory that I passed an hour ago, through the open windows of which I saw men hurrying over “piece-work,” every stroke like every other, every man a machine, or part of a machine, rather, for doing one thing. I wonder whether the dreariness of the modern “factory system” may not have had something to do with the origin and rapid development of our nineteenth-century breed of peripatetic thieves and beggars.
Above the music of the bees I hear, of a sudden, a louder hum. “A hummingbird,” I say, and turn to look at a jewel-weed. Yes, the bird is there, trying the blossoms one after another. Then she drops to rest upon an alder twig (always a dead one) directly under my nose, where I see her darting out her long tongue, which flashes in the sunlight. I say “she.” She has a whitish throat, and is either a female or a male of the present season. Did any one ever see a hummingbird without a thrill of pleasure? Not I.As I go on I note, half sadly, half gladly, some tokens of waning summer; especially a few first blossoms of two of the handsomest of our blue asters, lævis and patens. Soon the dusty goldenrod will be out, and then, whatever the almanac-makers may say, autumn will have come. Every dry roadside will publish the fact.