Here to return to
IN THE OLD PATHS
FOR men who know how to bear themselves company there are few better ways of improving a holiday, especially a home-keeping, home-coming, family feast, like our autumnal Thanksgiving, than to walk in one's own childish steps — up through the old cattle pasture behind the old homestead, into the old woods. Every jutting stone in the path — and there are many — is just where it was. Your feet remember them perfectly (as your hand remembers which way the door-knob turns, though you yourself might be puzzled to tell), and of their own accord take a zigzag course among them, coming down without fail in the clear intermediary spaces. Or if, by chance, in some peculiarly awkward spot, the toe of your boot forgets itself, the jar only helps you to feel the more at home. You say with the poet, “I have been here before.” Some things are unaltered, you are glad to find. The largest of the trees have been felled, but nobody has dug out the protruding boulders or blasted away the outcropping ledges. One good word we may say for death. It lasts well. It is nothing like a vapor.
Not a rod of the way but talks to you of something. Here, on the left, down in the hollow by the swamp, you used to set snares. Once — fateful day! — you found a partridge in the noose. Then what a fury possessed you! If you had shot your first elephant you could hardly have been more completely beside yourself. It was a cruel sight; you felt it so; but you had caught a partridge! With all your boyish unskillfulness you had lured the unhappy bird to his death. A spray of red barberries had been too bright for his resistance. He discovered his mistake when the cord began to pull. “Oh, why was I such a fool!” he thought; just as you have thought more than once since then, when you have run your own neck into some snare of the fowler.
Yonder, on the right, grew little scattered patches of trailing arbutus. Every spring you gathered a few blossoms, going thither day after day, watching for them to open. And the patches are there still. Some of them are no broader than a dinner plate, and the largest of them would not cover the top of a bushel basket. For more than fifty years — perhaps for more than five hundred — they have looked as they do now; a few score of leaves and an annual crop of a dozen or two of flowers. Their endurance, with so many greedy hands after them, is one of the miracles. Probably they are older than any tree in the township. It isn’t the tall things that live longest.
Here the path goes through an opening in a rude stone wall, which was tumbling down as long ago as you can remember. Beyond it, in your day, stood a dense pine wood, a darksome, solemn place, where you went quietly. Now, not a pine is left. A mere wilderness of hardwood scrub. The old “cart-path,” which at this point swerved to the left, has grown over till there is no following it. But the loss does not matter. You take a trail among the boulders, a trail familiar to you of old; the same that you took in winter, skates in hand, bound for Jason Halfbrook's meadow. Many a merry hour you spent there, heedless of the cold. You could skate then, or thought you could. The backward circle, the “Dutch roll,” the “spread-eagle,” these and other wonders were in your repertory. They were feats to be proud of, and you made the most of them. Nor need you feel ashamed now at the recollection. When the Preacher said, “There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works,” he was not thinking exclusively of an author and his books. You did well to be proud while you were able. It was pride, in part, that kept you warm. Now, if you stand beside a city skating-resort, you see young fellows performing feats that throw all your old-fashioned, countrified accomplishments into the shade. You look on, openmouthed. Boys of to-day have better skates than you had. Perhaps they have better legs. One thing they do not have, — a better time.
This morning, however, you are not going to the Halfbrook meadow. There is no ice, or none that will bear a man's weight; and perhaps you would not skate if there were. Do I take you to be too old? No, not that; but you are out of practice. I should hate to see you risking yourself well over on the outer edge, or attempting a sudden turnabout. And you agree with me, I imagine, for you quit the trail at the Town Path (the compositor will please allow the capitals — the path deserves them) and turn your steps northward. The path, I say, deserves a proper name. It is not strictly a highway, I am aware; if you were to stumble into a hole here, the town could not be held liable for damages; but it is a pretty ancient thoroughfare, nevertheless, a reasonably straight course through the woods by the long way of them. Generation after generation has traveled it. You are walking not only in your own footsteps, but in those of your ancestors, who must have gone this way many a time to speak and vote at town meeting. Some of the oldest of them are buried in this very wood, less than half a mile back; a resting-place such as you would like pretty well for yourself when the time comes.
You follow the path till it brings you near to a cliff. This is one of the places you had in your eye on setting out. This land is yours, and you have come to look at it.
A strange thing it is, an astonishing impertinence, that a man should assume to own a piece of the earth; himself no better than a wayfarer upon it; alighting for a moment only; coming he knows not whence, going he knows not whither. Yet convention allows the claim. Men have agreed to foster one another's illusions in this regard, as in so many others. They knew, blindly, before any one had the wit to say it in so many words, that “life is the art of being well deceived.” And so they have made you owner of this acre or two of woodland. All the power of the State would be at your service, if necessary, in maintaining the title.
These tall pine trees are yours. You have sovereignty over them, to use a word that is just now sweet in the American mouth. You may do anything you like with them. They are older than you, I should guess, and in the order of nature they will long outlive you; for aught I know, also, it may be true, what Thoreau said (profanely, as some thought), that they will go to as high a heaven; but for the time being they have no rights that you are under the slightest obligation to consider. You may kill them to-morrow, and nobody will accuse you of murder. You may turn all their beauty to ashes, and it will be nobody's business to remonstrate. The trees are yours.
I hope, notwithstanding, that you do not quite think so. I would rather believe that you look upon your so-called proprietorship as little more than a convenient legal fiction; of use, possibly, against human trespassers, but having no force as against the right of the trees to live a tree's life and fulfill a tree's end.
One of them, I perceive, is dead already. Like many a human being we have known, it had a poor start; no more than “half a chance,” as the saying goes. It struck root on a ledge, in a cleft of rock, and after a struggle of twenty or thirty years has found the conditions too hard for it. Its neighbors all appear to be doing well, with the exception of one that had its upper half blown away a few years ago by a disrespectful wind. The wind is an anarchist; it bloweth where it listeth, with small regard for human sovereignty.
Your land, to my eye, is of a piece with all the land round about; or it would be, only for its tall gray cliff. That is indeed a beauty, a true distinction; not so tall as it was forty or fifty years ago, of course, but still a brave and picturesque sight. I should like the illusion of owning a thing like that myself. And the brook just beyond, so narrow and so lively, — that, too, you may reasonably be proud of, though it is nothing but a wet-weather stream, coming from the hill and tumbling musically downward into Dyer's Run, past one boulder and another, from late autumn till late spring, and then going dry. You have only pleasant memories of it, for you were oftenest here in the wet season. It has always been one of your singularities, I remember, to be less in the woods in summer than at other times.
Now you have crossed your own boundary; but who would know it? You yourself seem not to feel the transition. The wood is one; and really it is all yours, as it is any man's who has eyes to enjoy it. Appreciation is ownership.
So you go on, pausing here and there to admire a lichen-covered boulder or stump (there is nothing prettier, look where you will), a cluster of ferns, a few sprouts of holly, a sprinkling of pyrola leaves (green with the greenness of all the summers of the world), or a bed of fruit-bespangled partridge-berry vine, till by and by you begin to feel the overshadowing, illusion-dispelling, soul-absorbing presence of the wood itself. The voice of eternity is speaking in the pine leaves. Your own identity slips away from you as you listen. You are part of the whole; nay, you are not so much a part of it as lost in it. The raindrop has fallen into the sea. For a moment you seem almost to divine a meaning in that bold, pantheistical, much neglected scripture, “That God may be all in all.”
For a moment only. Then a cord snaps, and you come back to your puny self and its limitations. You are looking at this and that, just as before. A chickadee chirps, and you answer him. You are you again, a man who used to be a boy. These are the old paths, and you are still in the body. You will prove it an hour hence at the dinner-table.