Here to return to
ON THE NORTH SHORE AGAIN
IF you have once seen a picture, says Emerson somewhere, never look at it again. He means that hours of insight are so rare that a really high and satisfying experience with a book, picture, landscape, or other object of beauty is to be accepted as final, a favor of Providence which we have no warrant to expect repeated. If you have seen a thing, therefore, really seen it and communed with the soul of it, let that suffice you. Attempts to live the hour over a second time will only result in failure, or, worse yet, will cast a shadow over what ought to have been a permanently luminous recollection.
There is a modicum of sound philosophy in the advice. We must take it as the counsel of an idealist, and follow it or not as occasion bids. The words of such men, as one of them was given to saying, are only for those who have ears to hear. We may be sure of one thing: poems, landscapes, pictures, and all other works of art (art human or superhuman) are never to be exhausted by one look, or by a hundred. If a man is good for anything, and the poem or the landscape is good for anything, he will find new meanings with new perusals. In other words, we may turn upon Emerson and say: “Yes, but then, you know, we never do see a picture — a picture that is a picture.”
As was related a week ago, I spent the 12th of October on the North Shore. I brought back the remembrance of a glorious piece of the world's beauty. In outline, I had it in my mind. But I knew perfectly, both at the time and afterward, that I had not really made it my own. I had been too much taken up with other things. The eye does not see the landscape; nor does the mind see it. The eye is the lens, the mind is the plate. The landscape prints itself upon the mind, through the eye. But the mind must be sensitive and still, and — what is oftener forgotten — the exposure must be sufficiently prolonged. The clearest-eyed genius ever born never saw a landscape in ten minutes.
On all grounds, then, I was entitled to another look. And this time, perhaps, the Lapland longspurs would be there to be enjoyed with the rest. I would go again, therefore; and on the morning of the 18th, long before daylight, judging by the quietness of the trees outside that the wind had gone down (for wind is a serious hindrance to quiet pleasure at the seashore in autumn, and visits must be timed accordingly), I determined to set out in good season and secure a longish day. Venus and the old moon were growing pale in the east when I started forth, and three hours afterward I was footing it through Ipswich village toward East Street and the sea.
As I crossed the marsh and approached the gate, a stranger overtook me. We managed the business together, one pulling the gate to, the other tending the hook and staple, and we spoke of the unusual greenness of the hills before us, on which flocks and herds were grazing. “There’s better feed now than there’s been all summer,” the stranger said. It was easy to believe it. Those broad-backed, grassy hills are one of the glories of the North Shore.
I followed the road as it led me among them. A savanna sparrow had been dodging along the edge of a ditch near the gate; titlark voices at once became common, and after a turn or two I saw before me a bunch of shore larks dusting themselves in the sandy middle of the track. They were making thorough work of it, crowding their breasts and necks, and even the sides of their heads into the soil, with much shaking of feathers afterward.
The road brought me to a beach, where were two or three houses, and, across the way, a pond stocked with wooden geese and ducks, with an underground blind for gunners in the side of the hill. Some delights are so keen that it is worth elaborate preparations to enjoy them. Here the titlarks were in extraordinary force, and I lingered about the spot for half an hour, awaiting the longspurs that might be hoped for in their company. Hoped for, but nothing more. I was still too early, perhaps.
Well, their absence, the fact of it once accepted, left me free-minded for the main object of my trip. I would go up the hill, over the grass, and take the prospect northward. A narrow depression, down which a brook trickled with a pleasant, companionable noise, as if it were talking to itself, afforded me shelter from the wind, and at the same time bounded my outlook on either side, as a frame bounds a picture. The hill fell away sharply to the water just beyond my feet, and up and down the inlet gulls were flying. Once, to my pleasure, two black-backed “coffin-bearers” passed, the only ones I was able to discover among the thousands of herring gulls that filled the air and the water, and crowded the sand-bars, the whole day long. Across the blue water were miles of brown marsh, and beyond the marsh rose wooded hills veiled with haze, the bright autumnal colors shining through. Crickets were still musical, buttercups and dandelions starred the turf, and once a yellow butterfly (Philodice) flitted near. The summer was gone, but here were some of its children to keep it remembered. Titlarks walked daintily about the grass, or balanced themselves upon the boulders, and once I turned my head just in time to see a marsh hawk sailing over the hill at my back, his white rump showing.
When I had left the hills behind me, and was again skirting the muddy flats, I found myself all at once near a few sandpipers, —a dozen, more or less, of white-rumps, — one with a foot dragging, one with a leg held up, and beside them a single red-back, or dunlin, staggering on one leg, the same bird, it seemed likely, that I had pitied a week ago. I pitied him still. Ornithology, studied under such conditions, was no longer the cheerful, exhilarating science to which I am accustomed. It was more like sociology.
Perhaps I am sentimental. If so, may I be forgiven. There is no man but has his weakness. The dunlin was nothing, I knew; one among thousands; a few ounces of flesh with feathers on it; what if he did suffer? It was none of my business. Why should I take other men's amusements sadly? The bird was greatly inferior to the being who shot him; at least that is the commonly accepted theory; and the superior, as every one but an anarchist must admit, has the rights of superiority. And for all that, the dunlin seemed a pretty innocent, and I wished that he had two good legs. As for his being only one of thousands, so am I — and no very fine one either; but I shouldn’t like to be shot at from behind a wall; and when I have a toothache, the sense of my personal insignificance is of small use in dulling the pain. Poor dunlin!
I allowed myself two hours from the gate back to the railroad station, though it is less than an hour's walk. Some of the fairest views are to be obtained from the-road; and there, I told myself, I should be sheltered from the wind and could sit still at my ease. The first half of the distance, too, would take me between pleasant hedgerows, in which are many things worthy of a stroller's notice.
For some time, indeed, I did little but stop and look behind. The marshes pulled me about: so level, so expansive, so richly brown, so pointed with haycocks (once, the notion taking me, I counted far enough to see that there were more than two hundred in sight), and so beautifully backed by the golden autumnal hills. I can see them yet, though I have nothing to say about them.
“The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!”
Trains of gulls went flying up the inlet as the tide went out. They live by the sea's almanac as truly as the clam-diggers, two of whom I had watched, an hour before, sailing across the inlet in a rude boat (more picturesque by half than a gentleman's yacht), and setting about their day's work on a shoal newly uncovered. Thank Heaven, there are still some occupations that cannot be carried on in a factory.
The roadsides were bright with gay-colored fruits: barberries, thorn apples, Roxbury waxwork, and rose-hips. Of thorn bushes there were at least two kinds; one already bare-branched, with scattered small fruit; the other still in leaf, and loaded with gorgeous clusters of large red apples. More interesting to me than any of these were the frost grapes; familiar acquaintances of an Old Colony boyhood, but now grown to be strangers. They were shining black, ripe and juicy (of the size of peas), and if their sweetness failed to tempt the palate, that, for aught I know, may have been the eater's fault rather than theirs. Why might not their quality be of a too excellent sort, beyond his too effeminate powers of appreciation? Is there any certainty that man's taste is final in such matters? Was my own criticism of them anything more than a piece of unscientific, inconclusive impressionism?
Surely they were not without a tang. The most exacting mouth could not deny them individuality. I tried them, and retried them; but after all, they seemed most in place on the vines. To me, in the old days, they were known only as frost grapes. Others, it appears, have called them chicken grapes, possum grapes, and winter grapes. No doubt they find customers before the season is over. Thoreau should have liked them and praised them, but I do not recall them in his books. Probably they do not grow in Concord. They are of his kin, at all events, wildings of the wild. I wish I had brought. a bunch or two home with me. In my present mood I believe they would “go to the spot.”
But if I was glad to see the frost grapes, I was gladder still to see a certain hickory tree. I was scarcely off the marsh before I came to it, and had hardly put my eye upon it before I said to myself (although so far as I could have specified, it looked like any other hickory; but there is a kind of knowledge, or half knowledge, that does not rest upon specifications), “There! That should be a bitternut tree.” Now the bitternut is not to be called a rarity, I am assured; but somehow I had never found it, notwithstanding I was a nut-gatherer in my youth, and have continued to be one to this clay, an early taste for wild forage being one of the virtues that are seldom outgrown. Well, something distracted my attention just then, and I contented myself with putting a leaf and a handful of nuts into my pocket. Only on getting home did I crack one and find it bitter. Now, several days afterward, I have cracked another, and tested it more fully. The shell is extremely thin, — like a pecan nut's for fragility, — and the meat, which is large and full, is both bitter and puckery, suggesting the brown inner partitions of a pecan shell, which the eater learns so carefully to avoid. In outward appearance the nut is a pig-nut pure and simple, the reader being supposed to be enough of a countryman to know that pig-nuts, like wild fruits in general, vary interminably in size, shape, and goodness.
Pretty butter-and-eggs still bloomed beside the stone wall, and the “folksy may-weed” was plentiful about a barnyard. Out from the midst of it scampered a rabbit as I approached the fence to look over. He disappeared in the cornfield, his white tailtip showing last, and I wondered where he belonged, as there seemed to be neither wood nor shrubbery within convenient distance.
Just beyond this point (after noticing a downy woodpecker in a Balm-o'-Gilead tree, if the careful compositor will allow me that euphonious Old Colony contraction), I had stopped to pick up a shagbark when five children, the oldest a girl of nine or ten, came down the road together.
“Out of school, so early?” said I.
“No,” was the instantaneous response; “we've got the whooping cough.”
“Ah, that's better than going to school, isn’t it?” said I, not so careful of my moral influence as a descendant of the Puritans ought to have been, perhaps; but I spoke from impulse, remembering myself how I also was tempted.
“Yes,” said one of the children; “No,” said another; and the reader may believe which he will, looking into his own childish heart, if he can still find it, as I hope he can.
Apple trees were loaded; hollyhocks, marigolds, and even tender cannas and dahlias, still brightened the gardens (so much for being near the sea, even on the North Shore), but what I most admired were the handsome yellow quinces in many of the door-yards. Quince preserve must be a favorite dish in Ipswich. I thought I should like to live here. I could smell the golden fruit — in my mind's nose — clean across the way. And when I reached the village square I stopped (no, I walked slowly) to watch a real Old Colony game that I had not seen played for many a day. Two young men had stuck a jackknife into the hard earthen sidewalk and were “pitching cents.” It was like an old daguerreotype. One of the gamesters was having hard luck, but was taking it merrily. “I owe you six,” I heard him say, as his coin stood on edge and rolled perversely away from the knife-blade.
This was very near to “Meeting-house Green.” I hope I am doing no harm to speak of it.