Here to return to
A GOOD–BY TO WINTER
WINTER is not quite done, but it will be by the time this “Clerk” is printed. That is to say, my winter will be done. In this respect, as in many others, I am a conservative. My calendar is of the old school. “There are four seasons in the year — spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter.” So we began our school compositions; and by “spring” we meant the spring months — March, April, and May. The temperature might belie the almanac; there might be “six weeks' sledding in March;” but when March began, spring began.
And by the way, what a capital subject that was — “The Seasons”! A theme without beginning and without end; a theme to be taken seriously or humorously, in prose or verse; a theme of universal interest. Best of all, there was no difficulty about the first sentence. No need to sit for half an hour chewing the end of one's pencil and waiting for inspiration. Down it went: “There are four seasons in the year — spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter.” We never omitted to say “autumn or fall;” the synonymy helped out the page, and gave us the more time in which to consider what we should say next. That is the great difficulty in authorship. On that shoal many a good ship has struck. A man who always has something to say next is bound to get on — as a “space writer,” if as nothing else.
Our opening remark was not strictly original, but we did not mind. It was true, if it wasn’t new; and without being told, I think we had discovered — by intuition, I suppose — what older heads seem to have learned by rule, that it is good rhetoric, so to speak, to begin with a quotation. I was pleased, the other day, to see a brilliant essayist commending it as an excellent and becoming practice to leapfrog into one's subject over the back of some famous predecessor. Such was our custom, for better or worse, till a certain master (I am tempted to name him, but forbear) announced just before the fatal day, that compositions on “The Seasons” would no longer be accepted. That was cruelty to authors. He spoke with a smile, but it was a smile of malice. I have never forgiven him. He is living still, a preacher of the gospel. When Saturday night comes, and he finds himself hard put to it for the morrow's sermon (as I have no doubt he often does — I hope so, at all events), does he never remember the day when with the word of his mouth he deprived thirty or forty young innocents of their easiest and best appreciated text? He is righteously punished. Let him preach to himself, some Sunday, from Numbers xxxii. 23, “Be sure your sin will find you out.”
Why shouldn’t one write about the seasons, I wonder. There is scarcely anything more important, or more universally interesting, than the weather. Ten to one it was the first thing we all thought of this morning. And the seasons are nothing but weather in large packages — weather at wholesale. Their changes are our epochs, our date-points. But for them, all days being alike, there would be no calendar. It is well known that people who live in the tropics seldom know their own age. How should they, with nothing to distinguish one time of year from another? Young or old, they have never learned that “there are four seasons in the year.”
We are better off. Life with us is not all in the present tense. As Hamlet said, we look before and after. (Hence it is, I suppose, that we have “such large discourse,” and continue, some of us, to write compositions.) We live by expectation.
Behold,” says the weather, “I make all things new.” Every day is another one, and every season also. At this very minute a miraculous change is at hand. A great and effectual door is about to swing on its hinges, and I, for one, wish to be awake to see it; not to wake up by and by and find the door wide open.
So far from wearying of the seasons as an old story, I am more intensely interested in. them than ever. If any of my fellow citizens are not just now thinking daily of the passing of winter and the advent of spring, I should like to know what they are made of. For myself, I am like a man in jail. My term is about to expire, and I am notching off the days one by one on a stick. “Three more,” say I; “two more.” “Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.” And I am ready to hang my cap on the horns of the moon.
“You are too much in haste,” some man will say; the same that said, “How are the dead raised up?” But I know better. It is one happy effect of ornithological habits that they shorten the winter. There will be no spring flowers for a good while yet, but there will be spring birds within a fortnight, perhaps within a week; nay, there may be some before night. Indeed, I have just come in from a two-hour jaunt, and at almost every step my ears were open for the first vernal note. I have seen bluebirds, before now, earlier than this; and what has happened once may happen again. So, while the wind blew softly from the southwest, and all the hills were mantled with a dreamy haze, I chose a course that would take me past one apple orchard after another; and, as I say, my ears (which I often think are better ornithologists than their owner, — if he is their owner) kept themselves wide awake. If that sweet voice, “Purity, purity” (with all bird lovers I thank Mr. Burroughs for the word) — if that heavenly voice, the gentlest of prophets, was on the breeze, they meant to hear it.
They heard nothing, but that is not to say that they listened to no purpose. They heard nothing, and they heard much; for there is an ear within the ear, and the new year's voice — which is the bluebird's — was in the deepest and truest sense already audible. The ornithologist failed to catch it; for him Sialia sialis is still to look for; but the other man was in better luck.
The “new year's voice,” I say; for the year begins with spring. We had the seasons in their true order when we were schoolchildren — “spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter.” It must have been some very old and prosy chronologist that arranged their progression as our almanacs now give it. The young are better instructed. Does not the Scripture say, “The last shall be first”?
And within three days — I can hardly believe it — the
old year will be done. So let it be. Its passing brings us so much nearer the
grave; worse yet, perhaps, it leaves us with our winter's work half
accomplished; but our eyes are forward. After all, our work is not important.
We are twice too busy; living as our neighbors do, rather than according to the
law of our own being; playing the fool (there is no fool like the busy one);
selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. The great thing, especially in
springtime, is to lie wide open to the life that enfolds us, while the “gentle
deities” show us, for our delight,
“The lore of colors and of sounds,
The innumerable tenements of beauty.”
Yes, that is the wisdom we should pray for. The youngest of us will not see many springs. Let us see the most that we can of this one. So much there will be to look at! Now, of all times, we may say with one of old, “Lord, that I might receive my sight.” What a new world we should find ourselves living in! I can hardly imagine it.