Here to return to
FOR the month past my weekly talk has been more or less a traveler's tale — of things among the mountains and at the seaside. Now, on this bright afternoon in the last week of October, a month that every outdoor man saddens to see coming to an end (like May, it is never half long enough), let me note a little of what is passing in the lanes and byroads nearer home.
Leaves are rustling below and above. As is true sometimes in higher circles, they seem to grow loquacious with age; the slightest occasion, the merest nudge of suggestion, the faintest puff of the spirit sets them off. For me they will never talk too much. I love their preaching seven days in the week. The driest of them never teased my ears with a dry sermon. I scuff along the path On purpose to stir them up. “Your turn will come next,” I hear them saying; but the message does not sound like bad news. I listen to it with a kind of pleasure, as to solemn music. If the doctor or the clergyman had brought me the same word, my spirit might have risen in rebellion; but the falling leaf may say what it likes. It has poet's leave.
How gracefully they come to the ground, here one and there another; slowly, slowly, with leisurely dips and turns, as if the breeze loved them and would buoy them up till the last inevitable moment. Children of air and sunshine, they must return to the dust. So all things move in circles, — life and death, death and life. Happy leaves! they depart without formalities, with no funereal trappings. The wind whispers to them, and they follow.
As I watch them falling, a gray squirrel startles me. I rejoice to see him. He, too, is a falling leaf. In truth, his living presence takes me by surprise. So many gunners have been in this wood of late, all so murderously equipped, that I had thought every squirrel must before this time have gone into the game-bag. Be careful, young fellow; you will need all your spryness and cunning, all your knack of keeping on the invisible side of the trunk, or your frolic will end in sudden blackness. This is autumn, the sickly season for squirrels and birds. “The law is off,” and the gun is loaded to kill you. Take a friend's advice, and fight shy of everything that walks upright “in the image of God.”
Yonder round-topped sweet-birch tree is one of October's masterpieces; a sheaf of yellow leaves with the sun on them. How they shine! Yet it is not so much they as the sunlight. Nay, it is both. Let the leaves have the honor that belongs to them. In a week they will all be under foot. Today they are bright as the sun, and airy and frolicsome as so many butterflies. Blessed are my eyes that see them. And look! how the light (what a painter it is!) glorifies the lower trunk of the white oak just beyond. The furrowed gray bark is so perfect a piece of absolute beauty that, if it were framed and set up in a gallery, the crowd — or the few that are better than a crowd — would be always before it. So cheap and universal are visual delights, so little dependent upon place or season — sunlight and the bark of a tree!
In the branches overhead are chestnut-loving blackbirds, every one with a crack in his voice. Far away a crow is cawing, and from another direction a jay screams. These speak to the world at large. Half the township may hear what they have to offer. I like them; may their speech never be a whit softer or more musical; but if comparisons are in order, I give my first vote for less public — more intimate — birds, such as speak only to the grove or the copse. And even as I confess my preference, a bluebird's note confirms it: a voice that caresses the ear; such a tone as no human mouth or humanly invented instrument can ever produce the like of. He has no need to sing. His simplest talk is music.
Here, by the wayside, a few asters have sprung up after the scythe, and are freshly in flower. How blue they are! And how much handsomer a few stalks of them look now than a full acre did two months ago. So acceptable is scarcity. There is nothing to equal it for the heightening of values. It is only the poor who know what money is worth. It is only in October and November that we feel all the charm of Aster lævis. I think of Bridget Elia's lament over the “good old times” when she and her cousin were “not quite so rich.” Then the spending of a few shillings had a zest about it. A purchase was an event, a kind of festival. I believe in Bridget's philosophy; for the asters teach the same; yes, and the goldenrods also. They, too, have come up in the wake of the scythe, and still dwarfed, having no time to attain their natural growth, as if they knew that winter was upon them, are already topped with yellow. I carry home a scanty half handful of the two, asters and goldenrods, as treasure-trove. They are sure to be welcome. When all the fields were bright with such things, they seemed hardly worth house-room. This late harvest of blossoms is one small compensation for all the ugliness inflicted upon the landscape by the habit — inveterate with highway “commissioners” — of mowing back-country roadsides. As if stubble were prettier than a hedge!
Now I pass two long-armed white oaks, which I never come near without thinking of a friend of mine and of theirs who used to walk hereabouts with me; a real tree lover, who loves not species, not white oaks and red oaks, but individual trees, and goes to see them as one goes to see a man or a woman. This pair he always called the twins. They have summered and wintered each other for a hundred years. Who knows — putting the matter on grounds of pure science — whether they do not enjoy each other's companionship? Who knows that trees have no kind of sentience? Not I. We take a world of things for granted; and if all our neighbors chance to do the same, we let the general assumption pass for certainty. If trees do know anything, I would wager that it is something worth knowing, something quite as good as is to be found in any newspaper.
Here are red maples as bare as December, and yonder is one that is almost in full leaf; and by some freak of originality every leaf is bright yellow. Three days more and it will be naked also. Under it are white-alder bushes (Clethra) clothed in dark purple, and tall blueberry bushes all in red, with yellow shadings by way of contrast. This is in a swampy spot, where a lonesome hyla is peeping. Just beyond, the drier ground is reddened — under the trees — with huckleberry and dangleberry. Nobody who has not attended to the matter would imagine how much of the brightness of our New England autumn — one of the pageants of the world — is due to these lowly bushes, which most people think of solely as useful in the production of pies and puddings. Without being mown, the huckleberry bears a second crop — a crop of color. It is twice blest; it blesses him that eats and him that looks. In many parts of New England, at least, the autumnal landscape could better spare the maples than the blueberries and the huckleberries. Rum-cherry trees and shrubs — more shrubs than trees — are dressed in lovely shades of yellow and salmon. Spice-bushes wear plain yellow of a peculiarly delicate cast. I roll a leaf in my hand and find it still spicy. A bush looks handsomer, I believe, if it is known to smell good. The same thought came to me a week ago while I was admiring the sassafras leaves. They were then just at the point of ripeness. Now they have turned to a dead brown. The maple's way is in better taste — to shed its leaves while they are still bright and fresh. They are under my feet now, a carpet of red and yellow.
One of the oddest bits of fall coloration (I cannot profess greatly to like it) is the ghostly white — greenish white — of Roxbury waxwork leaves. It is unique in these parts, so far as I can recall, but is almost identical with the pallor of striped maple foliage (Acer Pennsylvanicum) as one sees it in the White Mountains. Waxwork pigments all go to the berries, it appears. These are showy enough to suit the most barbaric taste, and are among the things that speak to me strongest of far-away times, when my childish feet were just beginning to wander in nature's garden. The sight of them reminds me of what a long time I have lived.
A gust of wind strikes a tall willow just as I approach it. See the leaves tumble! Thick and fast they come, a leafy shower, with none of those pretty, hesitating, parachute-like reluctances which we noticed the rounder and lighter birch leaves practicing half an hour ago. The willow leaves, narrow and pointed, fall more like arrows. I am put in mind, I cannot tell why, of an early morning hour, years ago, when I happened to cross a city garden after the first killing frost, and stopped near a Kentucky coffee tree. Its foliage had been struck with death. Not a breath was stirring, but the leaves, already blackened and curled, dropped in one continuous rain. The tree was out of its latitude, and had been caught with its year's work half done. The frost was a tragedy. This breeze among the willow branches is nothing so bad as that. Its errand is all in the order of nature. It calls those who are ready.
My meditations are still running with the season, still playing with mortality, when a blue jay quits a branch near by (I had not seen him) and flies off in silence. The jay is a knowing bird. No need to tell him that there is a time for everything under the sun. He has proverbial philosophy to spare. Hark! he has found his voice; like a saucy schoolboy, who waits till he is at a safe distance and then puts his thumb to his nose, and cries “Yaah, yaah!”
Well, the reader may thank him for one thing. He has made an end of my autumnal sermon, the text of which, if any one cares to look for it, may be found in the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah, at the sixth verse.