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THE PROSPERITY OF A WALK
A BIRD lover's daily rations during a New England winter are somewhat like Robinson Crusoe's on his island in the wet season.
I eat a bunch of raisins for my breakfast,” he says, a piece of goat's flesh or of the turtle for my dinner, and two or three of the turtle's eggs for my supper.” Such a fare was ample for health, perhaps; and probably every item of it was sufficiently appetizing, in itself considered; but after the first week or two it must have begun to smack of monotony. The castaway might have complained with some of old, “My soul loatheth this light bread.” He might have complained, I say; I do not remember that he did. What I do remember is that when, moved by pious feeling, he was on the point of thanking God for having brought him to that place, he suddenly restrained himself, or an influence from without restrained him.
“I know not what it was,” he says, “but something shocked my mind at that thought, and I durst not speak the words. 'How canst thou be such a hypocrite?' said I.”
So I imagine that most bird-gazing men would hesitate to thank the Divine Providence for a northern winter, with its rigors, its inordinate length, and its destitution. They put up with it, make the best of it, grumble over it as politely as may be; but they are not so piously false-tongued as to profess that they like it.
By the last of December they have begun, not exactly to tire of chickadees and blue jays, but to sigh for something else, something to go with these, something by way of variety. “Where are the crossbills,” they ask, “and the redpoll linnets, and the pine grosbeaks?” All these circumpolar species are too uncertain by half, or, better say, by two thirds. Summering at the apex of the globe, so to speak, with Europe, Asia, and America equally at their elbow, they seem to flit southward along whatever meridian happens to take their fancy. Once in a while chance brings them our way, but only once in a while. Last winter we had redpolls and both kinds of crossbills, the white-wings for the first time in many years. They made a bright season. This winter, to the best of my knowledge, not one of these hyperborean species has sent so much as a deputation for our enlivenment.
And to make matters worse, even our regular local stand-bys seem to be less numerous than usual. Tree sparrows and snowbirds are both abnormally scarce, by my reckoning. As for the Canadian nuthatches, which helped us out so nobly a year ago, they are not only absent now, but were so throughout the fall. I have not seen nor heard one in Massachusetts since the middle of May, a most unusual — to the best of my recollection a quite unprecedented — state of things. I should like very much to know the explanation of the mystery.
The daily birds at present, as I find them, are the chickadee (which deserves to head all lists), the Carolina nuthatch, the downy woodpecker, the crow, and the jay. Less regularly, but pretty frequently (every day, if the walk is long enough), one meets with tree sparrows, goldfinches, snowbirds, brown creepers, flickers, and golden-crowned kinglets. Twice since December came in I have seen a shrike. Once I heard a single pine finch passing, invisible, far overhead. On the same day (December 2) I caught the fine staccato calls of a purple finch, without seeing the author of them. On the 2d and 3d three or four rusty blackbirds were unexpectedly in the neighborhood. Quail and grouse are never absent, of course, but I happen to have seen neither of them of late, though one day I heard the breezy quoiting of a quail, greatly to my pleasure. On the 14th I came upon a single robin in the woods, the first since November 21. He was perched in a leafless treetop, and was calling at the top of his voice, as if he had friends, or hoped that he had, somewhere within hearing. The sight was rather dispiriting than otherwise. He looked unhappy, in a cold wind, with the sky clouded. He had better have gone south before this time, I thought. Half an hour afterward I heard the quick, emphatic, answer-demanding challenge of a hairy woodpecker (as much louder and sharper than the downy's as the bird is bigger), and on starting in his direction saw him take wing. Him I should never think of commiserating. He can look out for himself. These, with English sparrows (“the poor ye have always with you”), Old Squaws, herring gulls, and loons, make up my December list of twenty-two species. It might be worse, I suppose. I remember the remark of a friend of mine on a similar occasion. “Well,” said he, “the month is only half gone. You ought to see as many more before the end of it.” He was strong in arithmetic, but weak in ornithology. If bird lists could be made on his plan, we should have our hands full in the dullest season. Even in January, I would engage to find more than three hundred species within a mile of my doorstep.
As matters are, we must come back (we cannot do so too often, in winter especially) to the good and wholesome doctrine that pleasure is not in proportion to numbers or rarity. It depends upon the kind and degree of sympathy excited. One day, in one mood, you will derive more inspiration from a five-minute chat with a chickadee than on another day, in some mood of dryness, you would get from the sight of nightingales and birds of paradise. Worldlings and matter-of-fact men do not know it, but what quiet nature lovers (not scenery hunting tourists) go to nature in search of is not the excitement of novelty, but a refreshment of the sensibilities. You may call it comfort, consolation, tranquility, peace of mind, a vision of truth, an uplifting of the heart, a stillness of the soul, a quickening of the imagination, what you will. It is of different shades, and so may be named in different words. It is theirs who have the secret, and the rest would not divine your meaning though your speech were transparency itself.
To my thinking, no one, not even Thoreau, or Jefferies, or Wordsworth, ever said a truer word about it than Keats dropped in one of his letters. Nothing in his poems is more deeply poetical. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” he says, “or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in his existence and pick about the gravel.” There you have the soul of the matter. “I take part in his existence.” When you do that, the bird or the flower may be never so common or so humble. Your walk has prospered.