Here to return to
WATCHING THE PROCESSION
IT begins to go by my door about the first of March, and is three full months in passing. The participants are all in uniform, each after his kind, some in the brightest of colors, some in Quakerish grays and browns. They seem not to stand very strictly upon the order of their com ing; red-coats and blue-coats travel side by side. Like the flowers, they have a calendar of their own, and in their own way are punctual, but their movements are not to be predicted with anything like mathematical nicety. Of some companies of them I am never certain which will precede the other, just as I can never tell whether, in a particular season, the anemone or the five-finger will come first into bloom. They need no bands of music, no drum-corps nor fifers. The whole procession, indeed, is itself a band of music, a grand army of singers and players on instruments. They sing many tunes; each uniform has a tune of its own, but, unlike what happens in military and masonic parades, there is never any jangling, no matter how near together the different bands may be marching.
As I said, the pageant lasts for three months. It is fortunate for me, perhaps, that it lasts no longer; for the truth is, I have grown so fond of watching it that I find it hard to attend to my daily work so long as the show continues. If I go inside for half a day, to read or to write, I am all the time thinking of what is going on outside. Who knows what I may be missing at this very minute? I keep by me a prospectus of the festival, a list of all who are expected to take part in it, and, like most watchers of such parades, I have my personal favorites for whom I am always on the lookout. One thing troubles me: there is never a year that I do not miss a good many (a bad many, I feel like saying) of those whose names appear in the announcements. Some of them, indeed, I have never seen. If they are really in the ranks, it must be that their numbers are very small; for the printed pro gramme tells exactly how they will be dressed, and I am sure I should recognize them if they came within sight. Some of them, I fancy, do not keep their engagements.
I spoke, to begin with, of their passing my door. But I spoke figuratively. Some, it is true, do pass my door, and even tarry for a day or two under my windows, but to see others I have to go into the woods. Some I find only in deep, almost impenetrable swamps, dodging in and out among thick bushes and cat-tails. A good many follow the coast. I watch them running along the sea-beach on the edge of the surf, or walking sedately over muddy flats where I need rubber boots in which to follow them. Some are silent during the day, but as darkness comes on indulge in music and queer aerial dancing.
Many travel altogether by night, resting and feeding in the daytime. It is pleasant to stand out of doors in the evening, and hear them call ing to each other overhead as they hasten north ward; for at this time of the year, I have forgotten to say, they are always traveling in a northerly direction.
The procession, as such, has no definite ter minus. It breaks up gradually by the dropping out of its members here and there. Each of them knows pretty well where he is going. This one, who came perhaps from Cuba, means to stop in Massachusetts; that one, after a winter in Central America, has in view a certain swamp or meadow, or, it may be, some mountain-top, in New Hampshire; another will not be at home till he reaches the furthermost coast of Labrador or the banks of the Saskatchewan. The prospectus of which I spoke, and of which every reader ought to have a copy, tells, in a general way, whither each company is bound, but the members of the same company often scatter themselves over several degrees of latitude.
Some of the companies move compactly, and are only two or three days, more or less, in pass ing a given point. You must be in the woods, for example, on the 12th or 13th of May, or you will miss them altogether. Others straggle along for a whole month. You begin to think, perhaps, that they mean to stay with you all summer, but some morning you wake up to the fact that the last one has gone.
It is curious how few people see this army of travelers. They pass by thousands and hundreds of thousands. More than a hundred different companies go through every town in Massachusetts between March 1 and June 1. They dress gayly — not a few of them seem to have borrowed Joseph’s coat — and are full of music, yet somehow their advent excites little remark. Perhaps it is because, for the most part, they flit from bush to bush and from tree to tree, here one and there one. If some year they should form in line, and move in close order along the public streets, what a stir they would excite! For a day or two the newspapers would be full of the sensation, and possibly the baseball reporters would be compelled for once to shorten their accounts of Battum’s “wonderful left-hand catch” and Ketchum’s “phenomenal slide to the second base.” It is just as well, I dare say, that nothing of this kind should ever happen, for it is hard to see how the great reading public could bear even the temporary loss of such interesting and instructive narratives.
Meantime, though the greater part of the people pay no heed to these “birds of passage,” some of us are never tired of watching them. I myself used to be fond of gazing at military and political parades. In my time I have seen a good many real soldiers and a good many make-believes. But as age comes on, I find myself, rightly or wrongly, caring less and less for such spectacles. It will never be so, I think, with the procession of which I am now writing. I have never watched it with more enthusiasm than this very year. It is only just over, but I am already beginning to count upon its autumnal return, and by the middle of August shall be looking every day for its advance couriers.
Till then I shall please myself with observing the ways of such of the host as have happened to drop out of the procession in my immediate neighborhood. One of them I can hear singing at this very moment. He and his wife spent the winter in Mexico, as well as I can determine, and have been back with us since the 11th of May. They have pitched their tent for the summer in the top of a tall elm directly in front of my door, and just now are much occupied with household cares. The little husband (Vireo gilvus he is called in the official programme, but I have heard him spoken of, not inappropriately, as the warbling vireo) takes upon himself his full share of the family drudgery, and it is very pretty indeed to see him sitting in the tent and singing at his work. He sets us all, as I think, an excellent example.