Here to return to
OLD COLONY BERRY PASTURES
THE last holiday of the century found me in the place where I was born, with weather made on purpose for out-of-door pleasures — warm, bright, and still. A sudden inspiration took me. I would go to see the old berry pastures — not all of them (the forenoon would hardly be long enough for that), but two or three of the nearest, on opposite sides of the same back road. It would be a kind of second boyhood.
As I traveled the road itself, past two or three houses that were not there in the old time, two at least of the older wayside trees greeted me with the season's compliments. Or possibly it was I that greeted them. In this kind of intercourse, it is hard to tell speaker from hearer. We greeted each other, let us say, though they are the older, and by good rights should have spoken first. They have held their own exceedingly well, far better than the clerk who is writing about them, and for anything that appears, bid fair to be hale and hearty at the next century‑mark.
One is a pear tree; none of your modern, high-bred, superfine, French-named dwarfs, rather shrubs than trees, twenty of which may grow, without crowding, in a scanty back garden, but a burly, black-barked, stubby-branched, round-topped giant. It looks today exactly as it did when my boyish legs first took me by it. In these many years it has borne thousands of bushels of pears, all of which must have served some use, I suppose, in the grand economy of things, though I have no idea what. No man, woman, or child, I am reasonably sure, ever had the hardihood to eat one. And still the tree holds up its head and wears a brave, unashamed, undiscourageable look. Long may it stand in its corner, a relic and remembrancer of Puritanic times.
The other is an apple tree, one of those beneficent creations, good Samaritans among fruit trees, that bear a toothsome, early-ripening crop, and spill a generous portion of it on the roadward side of the wall. I remember it perfectly — the fruit, I mean — color, shape, and flavor. Every year I see apples of the same name in the market, but somehow I can never buy any that look or taste half so good as those that I used in lucky moments to find here, waiting for me, in the roadside grass.
Those were Old Testament times in New England. Gleanings belonged to “the poor and the stranger.” Who could dispute our title? We believed in special providences; and edible windfalls on the nigh side of the fence were among the chiefest of them. Schoolboys of the present day, I take for granted, are brought up under a different code. They would go past such temptations with their hands in their pockets and without a squint sideways. They apprehend no difference between “picking up” an apple and stealing one. Such is the evolution of morality. The day of the gleaner is past. Naomi and Ruth have become mythical personages, as much so as Romulus and Remus.
I was going first to Harvey White's pasture (not to dwell unsafely upon confessions that begin to seem like thin ice), and by and by came to the wood-path leading to it. How perfectly I remembered the place: this speedy, uphill curve to the left, rounding the hill; this dense bunch of low-branched evergreens a little farther on, under which, with our pails full (or half full — we could not work miracles, though we lived under the Mosaic economy), we used to creep for rest and shade while trudging homeward on blazing summer noons. But the path was surprisingly overgrown. At short intervals thorny smilax vines (cat-briers) were sprawling over the very middle of it, and had to be edged through cautiously. The appearance of things grew less and less familiar. I must be on the right track, but surely I had gone far enough. The broad clearing should be close at hand. I went on and on. Yes, here was the old stone wall between Harvey White's pasture and Pine-tree pasture. But the pastures themselves? They were not here. Then it came over me, with all the force and suddenness of a direct revelation, that forty years is a long time. In less time than that a pasture may become a forest. I pushed about a little, in one direction and another, and finding nothing but woods, returned to the path and retraced my steps. I might as well try to find my own lost youth as those well-remembered huckleberry patches.
Even in that far-away time — so the recollection comes to me now — the place was not strictly a pasture. It had been such, no doubt, and Harvey White, whoever he was, had owned it. Probably his cattle had once been pastured there. Now he owned no land, being nothing but a clod himself, and this broad clearing would not have kept a single cow from starvation. The wilderness was claiming its own again. Instead of the grass had come up the huckleberry bushes, the New England heather. These, with a sprinkling of blackberry vines, barberry bushes, and savins, filled the place from end to end. We knew them all. In the season we gathered huckleberries, blackberries, and barberries (the last made what some gastronomic cobbler called felicitously “shoe-peg sauce”), while the young cone-shaped cedars were of use as landmarks. We could leave a pail or basket in the shelter of one, and with good luck have no great difficulty in finding it again.
That was forty years ago. Now, the huckleberry bushes have followed the grass. Massachusetts land belongs to the woods. Clear it never so thoroughly, and with half a chance the trees will have it back again. If you will climb any Massachusetts hill, not directly upon the seashore, — and I am not certain that even that exception need be made, — you will see the truth of this at once. Something like it, I remember, was the first thing I thought of when I stood first on Mount Wachusett. There lay the whole State, so to speak, outspread below; and it was all a forest.
In this very Old Colony town many acres that were once excellent pasturage are now so perfectly reconverted to woodland that no ordinary walker over them would suspect that they had ever been anything else. If this has happened within twenty miles of Boston, within half the lifetime of a man, there seems to be no great danger that the State will ever be deforested; and those of us who love wild things, and look upon civilization as a mixed good, may be cheered accordingly,
For to-day, however, I had something else in my eye; and once back in the road I started for the entrance to what we children knew familiarly as “Millstone” — that is to say, Millstone Pasture; a large, irregular clearing, or half clearing, distinguished by the presence of two broad flat boulders, lying one upon the other. This was among the best of our foraging grounds; a boy's wild orchard — orchard and garden in one. Here we gathered all the berries before named, and besides them checkerberries (boxberries), dangleberries, and grapes.
The path leading into it was still open, but there was no need to go far to discover that here, as in Harvey White's, the wood had got the upper hand of everything else.
“I should starve here,” I said to myself, “at the very height of the berry season.” Nothing looked natural — nothing but the superimposed boulders. They had suffered no change, or none except an inevitable “subjective” dwindling. As for the old apple orchard near them (in which I shot my last bird upwards of twenty years ago), it was more like a cedar grove, although by searching for them one could still discover a few stumps and ruins of what had once been apple trees. “Perish your civilization!” Mother Nature seemed to be saying. “Give me a few years, and I will undo the whole of it.” I was half glad to hear her. The planter of the orchard was dead long ago, and his work had followed him.
But the holly trees! They are Nature's own children. I would have a look at them, remembering perfectly, I thought, the exact spot where a pretty bunch used to grow. And I found them, after a protracted search — but no longer a pretty clump. One tree was perhaps fifteen feet high — a beanpole, which still put forth at the very top a few branchlets, one or two feet in length, just to prove itself alive. The rest of the bunch had been cut down to the ground. All that remained was a few suckers, each with a spray of green leaves. The sight was pitiful. Poor trees! They were surrounded by a dense wood, instead of standing in the open, as they had done in my day. And between the competition of the pines and the knives and axes of collectors of Christmas greenery, they were nigh to extermination. By and by, however, before many years, the pines will fall under the axe. Then, I dare say, the old holly roots will have their turn again. Then, too, the checkerberry vines will enjoy a few years of fruitfulness. So the wheel of fortune goes round, all the world over, in the wood no less than in the city. There is no scotching it. As well try to scotch the earth itself. All things are at seesaw.
“They say the lion and the lizard keep
If such things have happened, if Nineveh and Babylon flourished and came to naught, why wonder at the decline and fall of Old Colony berry pastures?