Here to return to
I REMEMBER the first man I ever saw sitting still by himself out of doors. What his name was I do not know. I never knew. He was a stranger, who came to visit in our village when I was perhaps ten years old. I had crossed a field, and gone over a low hill (not so low then as now), and there, in the shade of an apple tree, I beheld this stranger, not fishing, nor digging, nor eating an apple, nor picking berries, nor setting snares, but sitting still. It was almost like seeing a ghost. I doubt if I was ever the same boy afterward. Here was a new kind of man. I wondered if he was a poet! Even then I think I had heard that poets sometimes acted strangely, and saw things invisible to others' ken.
I should not have been surprised, I suppose, to have found a man looking at a picture, some nice, high-colored “chromo,” such as was a fashionable parlor ornament in our rural neighborhood, where there was more theology to the square foot (and no preacher then extant with orthodoxy strait enough to satisfy it, though some could still make the blood curdle) than there was of art or poetry to the square acre; but to be looking at Nat Shaw's hayfield and the old unpainted house beyond — that marked the stranger at once as not belonging in the ranks of common men. If he was not a poet, he must be at least a scholar. Perhaps he was going to be a minister, for he seemed too young to be one already. A minister had to think, of course (so I thought then), else how could he preach? and perhaps this man was meditating a sermon. I fancied I should like to hear a sermon that had been studied out of doors.
Times have changed with me. Now I sit out of doors myself, and by myself, and look for half an hour together at a tree, or a bunch of trees, or a lazy brook, or a stretch of green meadow. And I know that such things can be enjoyed by one who is neither a poet nor a preacher, but just a quite ordinary, uneducated mortal, who happens, by the grace of God, to have had his eyes opened to natural beauty and his heart made sensitive to the delights of solitude. I have learned that it is possible to enjoy scenery at home as well as abroad, — scenery without mountains or waterfalls; scenery that no tourist would call “fine;” a bit of green valley, an ancient apple orchard, a woodland vista, an acre of marsh, a cattle pasture. In fact, I have observed that painters choose quiet subjects like these oftener than any of the more exceptional and stupendous manifestations of nature. Perhaps it is because such subjects are easier; but I suspect not. I suspect, indeed, that they are harder, and are preferred because, to the painter's eye, they are more permanently beautiful.
At this very moment I am looking at a patch of meadow inclosing a shallow pool of standing water, over the surface of which a high wind is chasing little waves. A few low alders are near it, and the grass is green all about. That of itself is a sight, to make a man happy. For the world just now is consumed with drought. All the uplands are sere, and every roadside bush is begrimed with dust. I have come through the woods to this convenient knoll on purpose to find relief from the prevailing desolation — to rest my eyes upon green grass. For the eye loves green grass as well, almost, as the throat loves cold water.
Even in my boyish country neighborhood, though nobody, or nobody that I knew (which may have been a very different matter), did what I am now doing, there were some, I think (one or two, at least), who in their own way indulged much the same tastes that I have come to felicitate myself upon possessing. I remember one man, dead long since, who was continually walking the fields and woods, always with a spaniel at his heels, alone except for that company. He often carried a gun, and in autumn he snared partridges (how I envied him his skill!); but I believe, as I look back, that best and first of all he must have loved the woods and the silence. He was supposed to have his faults. No doubt he had. I have since discovered that most men are in the same category. I believe he used to “drink,” as our word was then. But I think now that I should have liked to know him, and should have found him congenial, if I had been mature enough, and could have got below the protective crust which naturally grows over a man whose ways of life and thought are different from those of all the people about him. I have little question that when he was out of the sight of the world he was accustomed to sit as I do to-day, and look and look and dream.
One thing he did not dream of, — that a boy to whom he had never spoken would be thinking of him forty years after he had taken his last ramble and snared his last grouse.
“An idler,” said his busier neighbors, though he earned his own living and paid his own scot.
“A misspent life,” said the clergy, though he harmed no one.
But who can tell? “Who knoweth the interpretation of a thing?” Perhaps his, also, was — for him — a good philosophy. As one of the ancients said, “A man's mind is wont to tell him more than seven men that sit upon a tower.” If we are not born alike, why should we be bound to live alike? “A handful with quietness” is not so bad a portion.
Yes, but time is precious. Time once past never returns.
We must make the best of it, therefore.
By making more shoes.
Nay, that is not so certain.
The sun is getting low. Longer and longer tree-shadows come creeping over the grass, making the light beyond them so much the brighter and lovelier. The oak leaves shimmer as the wind twists the branches. The green aftermath is of all exquisite shades. A beautiful bit of the world. The meadow is like a cup. For an hour I have been drinking life out of it.
Now I will return home by a narrow path, well-worn, but barely wide enough for a man's steps; a path that nobody uses, so far as I know, except myself. Till within a year or two it belonged to a hermit, who kept it in the neatest possible condition. That was his chief employment. His path was the apple of his eye. He was as jealous over it as the most fastidious of village householders is over his front-yard lawn. Not a pebble, nor so much as an acorn, must disfigure it. Fallen twigs were his special abhorrence, though he treated them handsomely. Little piles or stacks of them were scattered at short intervals along the way, neatly corded up, every stick in line. I noticed these mysterious accumulations before I had ever seen the maker of them, and wondered not a little who could have been to so much seemingly aimless trouble. At first I imagined that some one must have laid the wood together with a view to carrying it home for the kitchen stove. But the bits were too small, no bigger round, many of them, than a man's little finger; not even Goody Blake could have thought such things worth pilfering for firewood; and besides, it was plain that many of them had lain where they were over at least one winter.
The affair remained a riddle until I saw the man himself. This I did but a few times, a long way apart, and always at a little distance. Generally his eyes were fastened on the ground. Sometimes he had a stick in his hand, and was brushing leaves and other litter out of the path. Perhaps he had married a model housekeeper in his youth, and had gone mad over the spring cleaning. He always saw me before I could get within easy speaking range; and he had the true woodman's knack of making himself suddenly invisible. Sometimes I was almost ready to believe that he had dropped into the ground. Evidently he did not mean to be talked with. Perhaps he feared that should ask impertinent questions. More likely he thought me crazy. If not, why should I be wandering alone about the woods to no purpose? I had no path to keep in order.
And perhaps I am a little crazy. Medical men insist upon it that the milder forms of insanity are much more nearly universal than is commonly supposed. Perfectly sound minds, I understand them to intimate, are quite as rare as perfectly sound bodies. At that rate there cannot be more than two or three truly sane men in this small town; and the probabilities are that I am not one of them.