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Field Days in California
A BIRD–GAZER AT THE GRAND CAÑON
THE bird-gazer is peculiar. This is not spoken of bird-gazers in general, who may be much like other people, for aught we know, but of a certain particular member of the fraternity, the adventures of whose mind in the face of one of the undisputed wonders of the world are here to be briefly recounted.
He is a lover of scenery. At least, he so regards himself. As he goes about among his fellows, he finds few who spend more time, or seem to experience more delight, in looking at the beauty that surrounds them. He would not rank himself, of course, with the eloquent specialists in this line, — with Wordsworth or Thoreau, to cite two widely dissimilar examples; but, as compared with the general run of more or less intelligent men, he seldom finds occasion to feel ashamed of himself for anything like indifference to the “goings-on of earth and sky.” He is as likely as almost any one he knows to consume a half-hour over a sunset, or to sit a long while under the charm of a Massachusetts meadow or a New Hampshire valley. Common beauty appeals to him. His spirit is refreshed by it. He relishes it, to use a word that he himself uses often. But with all this (and here we come to the peculiarity), the exceptional and the stupendous are apt to leave him comparatively unaffected. As he says sometimes, meaning, perhaps, to justify his eccentricity, he admires the grace of the human figure, but takes no particular interest in giants or dwarfs. These excite curiosity, as a matter of course, but for his part he would not go far out of his way to stare at them.
The comparison is rather beside the mark. He would own as much himself. Indeed, he had come a long distance out of his way to see the Grand Cañon of the Colorado. But, after all, to hear some of the things he began by saying about it (though you would not have heard them, since he had the discretion to say them to himself), you might have inferred that this stupendous rift in the earth’s surface was to him, for the moment, at least, a something rather monstrous than beautiful.
He reached the Cañon on a bright Saturday morning in December. All day Thursday he had ridden over the prairies of Kansas, gazing out of the car window, and repeating with “relish” Stevenson’s line,
“Under the wide and starry sky.”
There were no stars in sight, naturally enough, but that did not concern him. It was the word “wide” that pleased his imagination. Whether he should die gladly when the time came, as Stevenson felt so sure of doing, he was unprepared to say; but for the present hour, at any rate, he was living gladly, profoundly enjoying the sense of vastness with which that wide Kansas sky inspired him. A wide sky it surely was, with scarcely so much as an apple tree to narrow it. As often as not there was nothing to point the horizon but a haycock or two an unknown number of miles away.
Some of his travelling companions seemed to find the prospect depressing, and the day of the longest, but the bird-gazer passed the hours in surprising content. He almost believed that he should like to live in Kansas, New Englander though he is. Unbroken horizons appeared to agree with him.
At midnight, or thereabout, he woke to hear the engines puffing as if out of breath. The grade must be steep. Unless he was deceived, he could feel the inclination of the car as he lay in bed. Then up went the curtain. Hills loomed all about, with here and there a solitary pine tree standing in the moonlight like a sentry. “You are in Colorado,” one of them said; and the gazer knew it. No more prairie. The earth was all heaved up into hills. And just then the train ran into the darkness of a tunnel, and when it emerged, the traveler was in New Mexico.
All that day he journeyed among hills, now near, now far, now high, now low, now wooded, now bare as so many gravel heaps (“not mountains, just buttes,” a train-hand told him), now in ranges, now solitary. Indian villages, a long run along the Rio Grande, a stop at Albuquerque, brilliantly colored cliffs and crags, a gorgeous sunset, — indeed, it was a memorable, many-featured day. And in the morning, after miles of level pine forest, — the Coconino Plateau, — he was at the Grand Cañon, where he had desired to be.
He was not disappointed. Wise men seldom are. He had known perfectly well that he should not see the wonder and glory of the place at a first look. His mind is slow, and he has lived with it long enough to have learned a little of its weakness. The Cañon was astounding, unspeakable. Words were never made that could express it. And the shapes and the colors! “Magnificent! Magnificent!” he said. “But it is too much like the pictures. I must wait till they have been forgotten, and I can see the Cañon for itself.”
So he wandered off into the woods, an endless forest of pines and cedars. Perhaps he should find a bird or two. And so it was; he had gone but a little way before he came upon a flock of snowbirds. But they were not the snowbirds he was accustomed to see in New England. Some among them had black heads and breasts, with rather dull brown backs, and a suffusion of the same color along the sides of the body. Lovely creatures they were; perfectly natural, — true snowbirds to anybody’s eye, — yet recognizable instantly as something quite new and strange. And some were all of an exquisite soft gray, as well above as below, except that they had bright chestnut-brown backs and black lores, — that is to say, a black spot on each side of the head between the eye and the bill. These were neater even than the others, if that were possible, and decidedly more striking a novelty. Our pilgrim was at once in high spirits. What bird-man but would have been? On getting back to the hotel and the Handbook, he would know what to call his new acquaintances. So he promised himself; but as things turned out, the question was not so simple as he had assumed. He was obliged to see the black-headed one (the Sierra junco) again to make sure of a detail he had omitted to note; while as for the gray one, it was not till he had studied the birds and the book for two days that he was fully settled how to name it.
The race of juncos is highly variable in this Western country (eleven species and subspecies), and there were several nice points demanding attention. Luckily the birds could always be found with a little searching; and the oftener they were seen, the prettier they looked, especially the lighter-colored one, the gray-headed junco, as ornithologists name it. After all, thought the bird-gazer, the Quaker taste in colors is not half so bad as it might be. But it was wonderful how much that little patch of black (a clever beauty-spot, such as he seemed to remember having seen ladies wear) heightened and set off the bird’s general appearance. He greatly enjoyed the sight of both species, as they fed in the road or under the sage-brush bushes, snapping their tails open nervously at short intervals (as fine ladies do their fans), just like their Eastern relatives.
“Yes, yes,” he said, with a sense of relief; “I may be a little slow with cañons, but I do not need a week or two in which to appreciate the beauty of a snowbird. This is something within my capacity.”
It is no small part of the comfort and success of life to recognize one’s limitations and be reconciled to them.
This first ramble, which did not extend far, disclosed surprisingly little of animal life. At an elevation of seven thousand feet winter is winter, even in Arizona. The mixed flock of snowbirds just mentioned, a jack rabbit that bounded off into the woods with flying leaps, and a bevy of chickadees that got away from the rambler before their specific identity could be established, these were all.
Then, as he returned in the direction of the hotel, his attention was taken by a two-story house which some one — a photographer, by the sign over the door — had built on a narrow shelf, barely wide enough to hold it, a little below the top of the Cañon wall, and he went down the footpath, the beginning of Bright Angel Trail, as it turned out, to inspect it. A knock brought a young man up from below, with an invitation to enter. An eerie perch it was, and no mistake. From the second-story back door, which had neither steps nor balcony, but opened upon space, one had only to leap over a narrow wooden platform, one story below, to land upon the rocks, a thousand feet, perhaps, down the Cañon.
The photographer was explaining the superior advantages of the site for artistic purposes, when a jay dropped into a pine tree just out of reach; a crestless, long-tailed jay, wearing a beautiful fan-shaped decoration on its front; seen at a glance to be a congener of the Florida jay, whose exceeding tameness and other odd ways make so lively an impression upon visitors along the east coast of that peninsula. On being asked if it was often seen, the man replied, “Oh, yes, it is common here. But it isn’t a jay, is it?” he added; and, being assured that such was the case, he said, “Well, we have another jay much bigger than this.” At the moment it did not occur to the visitor to ask for particulars; but it transpired later, as he had suspected it would, knowing from the Handbook what kinds of jays might on general grounds be looked for in this region, that the “much bigger” bird was the long-crested jay, which at the most measures about a quarter of an inch more than the one, the Woodhouse jay by name, about which he and the photographer had been conferring. A capital example, it seemed, of how much a certain style and carriage (with a lordly crest) can do in the way of swelling a bird’s, as well as a man’s, apparent size and importance. Have we not read somewhere that Napoleon could on occasion look some inches taller than he really was?
Meanwhile, as soon as luncheon was disposed of, the bird-gazer, still with jays troubling his mind, started along the rim of the Cañon, picking his way among stones, dodging the deeper snows and the softer mud-spots, toward O’Neill’s Point, which could be seen, a mile or so eastward, jutting out over the abyss, as if on purpose for a spectator’s convenience. So he walked, stopping every few steps to look and listen, the stupendous chasm on one side and the pine and cedar forest on the other. Mostly, as in duty bound, he gave his thoughts to the Cañon; but if a bird so much as peeped, his eyes were after it.
It was during this jaunt, indeed, that he made the acquaintance of the mountain chickadee and the gray titmouse, two Westerners well worth any man’s knowing. The mountain chickadee, with whose striking portrait he had long been familiar, is a pretty close duplicate of the common black-capped chickadee of the Northeastern States, except that the black side of its head is broken by a noticeable white stripe above the eye. If all birds were thus plainly tagged, the lister’s work would, perhaps, be almost too easy. At least, it would be much less exciting.
This mountain chickadee has the familiar dee-dee of the Eastern bird, — though in a recognizably different tone and with a different prefatory note, — a sweet, thin-voiced, two-syllabled whistle, or song, and the characteristic hurried set of sharp, top-of-the-scale, sibilant notes, which, as we may conclude, led the Indians of Maine — so Thoreau tells us — to call the chickadee Keecunnilessu.
The gray titmouse is gray throughout, eschewing all ornament except a smart little backward-pointing crest of gray feathers. In general shape, and especially in something about the setting of the eye, it suggests that monotonous and persistent whistler, the tufted tit of the Southeastern States. Both these novelties, as well as the slender-billed nuthatch (the common white-breasted nuthatch, with variations, especially of a vocal sort), which seemed to be traveling with them, were to prove regular, every-day birds in the forest hereabout.
All in all, whatever he might yet think of the Cañon, our rambler’s first day on its rim could be accepted as fairly successful, with five new species added to his slender stock of ornithological knowledge.
The next morning, bright and early (or rather dark and early, for he had breakfasted and was in the woods long before sunrise), he took the road in the opposite direction. He would go to Rowe’s Point, — another natural observatory to which all guests of the hotel are presumed to drive, — partly to see the Cañon, and partly to see the forest and its inhabitants. The trees, as has been said, are mostly — almost entirely pines and cedars. The pines along the Cañon’s edge (there are two taller species, “yellow” and “black,” in the slightly lower valleys of the plateau) are small, with extremely short leaves, — so short that very young trees look confusingly like firs, — two to the sheath, and prickly cones hardly bigger than peas. Piñons, the stranger was afterward bidden to call them, which he proceeded to do, with lively satisfaction. It is always a pleasure to find a name out of a book beginning to mean something. The cedars, many of them ancient-looking (a thousand years old, some of them might well enough be), and loaded with mistletoe, bear a general resemblance to the red cedar of the East (though their berries are much larger), and are remarkable, even at first glance, for branching literally at the ground, making one feel as if the earth must have been filled in about them after they were grown.
Here and there was an abundance of a shrub, or small tree, which, the photographer had informed the newcomer, was known locally as the Mexican quinine bush, still showing its last season’s straw-colored flowers, — many stamens and six prodigiously long, feathered styles in a spreading, bell-shaped, five-lobed corolla. The foliage was much like a cedar’s in appearance, and when crushed yielded a resiny, colorless substance and an extraordinarily pungent and persistent, agreeably medicinal odor.
The bird-gazer was noting these details (the last-mentioned bush, especially, being a most interesting one, with which he hoped some time or other to come to a better understanding), and now and then pushing out to the brink of the Cañon, every point affording a change of prospect, when, to his surprise, he found himself at the end of his jaunt.
Here, surely, was a grand outlook. He was glad he had come. The Cañon was beginning to fasten its hold upon him. Far down (a good part of a mile down) could be seen a stretch of the Colorado River, and now for the first time he heard its voice, the only sound that had yet reached him out of the abyss.
“The silent Cañon,” he had caught himself murmuring the day before. Indeed, its silence had impressed him almost as much as its extent, its wealth of color, and its strange architectural forms, which last, one may almost say, are what chiefly give to the Cañon its peculiar character. One gazes upon the huge, symmetrical artificial-looking constructions (“like the visible dream of an architect gone mad”), and thinks of Coleridge’s lines — at least our bird-gazer thought of them:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Scores of times he had repeated the verses to himself during the last day or two (they are worth repeating for their music, though no less a critic than William Hazlitt pronounced the poem “a mixture of raving and driveling”), and now, when he saw the sacred river, its muddiness visible a mile away, the sight gave him an unpleasant shock. The river that the opium-eating poet saw could never have been of that complexion.
Some such romantic feeling as this was upon him, perhaps, when, happening to turn his head, he beheld close behind him, at the tip of a low, dead tree, the form of a strange bird. “Now, pray, what can you be?” he exclaimed under his breath; and in one moment the Cañon was a thousand miles off. Some distance back he had heard a musical chorus, suggestive to his ear of a chorus of pine grosbeaks, and then had seen the flock for an instant, as it flew across a clear space among the trees, moving toward the rim of the Cañon. And now here was a bird right before him, a finch of some kind, a female, in all probability (if it had only been a male in bright diagnostic plumage!), streaked with dark underneath, sporting a long tail (for a finch), and for its best mark having a broad whitish or grayish band over the eye. So much he saw, and then it was gone, uttering as it flew the same notes that he had heard from the flock shortly before. Probably it was one of the various purple finches, — Cassin’s, as likely as any, a species due in this general region, and having a longish tail. “Probably!” — that is an uncomfortable word for a bird-gazer, but in the present case there seemed no possibility of bettering it; and, when all is said, probability is a kind of half-loaf, to say the worst of it, a little better than nothing.
THE GRAND CAÑON
Photograph by George R. King
Anyhow, the bird was gone, and gone for good, and with it had departed for the time being all the gazer’s interest in the sacred river, and in the gaudy colors and bizarre shapes of the great chasm. A path beckoned him into the woods, and, with birds in his eye, he took it. It was well he did, for he had hardly more than started before he stopped short. Hark! Wasn’t that a robin’s note? Yes, somewhere before him, out among the low piñons, the bird was cackling at short intervals, — the very same cackle that a Massachusetts robin utters when it finds itself astray from the flock. Half a dozen times or more the anxious sounds were repeated, while the listener edged this way and that, more anxious than the bird, twice over, scanning the tops of the trees for a sight of the ruddy breast. He saw nothing, and anon all was silent. The bird had eluded him. A Western robin, he supposed it must have been, and as such he would have given something for a sight of it. Well, if he lived a week or two longer, he should be in California, and there, with any kind of luck, he would find out for himself, what no book had ever been considerate enough to tell him, whether the calls of propinqua are so exactly the same as those of plain migratoria. Meantime he had added another name to his Grand Cañon list, and was back at the Point for another turn with the Eighth Wonder.
And then, as frequently before and after, he laughed quietly at his foolish self, so taken with the sight of a bird, and so inadequately moved by all this transcendent spectacle of form and color. Verily, as common wisdom has it, it takes all kinds to make a world; and among the all kinds there must needs be a few odd ones.
But for all his laughing, he was really not quite so absurdly insensible as he was perversely inclined to make out. The Wonder was growing upon him. He looked at it oftener and longer, and with something more of pleasurable emotion, though it was still too monstrous, too strange, too little related to any natural feeling. He should need to live on its rim for months or years before it would affect him according to its deserts. Nay, he should have to spend long whiles down in its depths; for though the present slipperiness of the steep, snow-covered trail made the descent seem an imprudent venture for so chronic a graybeard, yet he did more than once go down the first few zigzags, — far enough to feel the awful stillness and loneliness of the place, and to realize something of the power of those frowning walls over the human spirit.
At such times it was, especially, that he felt a desire to come here again, in a more propitious season, and to spend some days, at least, on one of those lower plateaus, or on the bank of some far-down stream. Birds and flowers would fill the place, the cañon wren would sing to him, and the short, shut-in days would pass over his head like a dream. Even as it was, there is no telling how far down he might sooner or later have ventured, the desire increasing upon him, but for a wild, all-day snow-storm, which, for the remainder of his stay, put all such projects out of the question.
An hour after hearing the robin, while on his return to the hotel, he came upon another bird of about the same degree of novelty, — a brown creeper, looking almost as New-Englandish as the robin’s voice had sounded; the same pepper-and-salt coat, the same faint, quick zeep, a mere nothing of a sound, yet known on the instant for what it is, anywhere on the continent, and the same trick of beginning always at the bottom of the tree and hitching its way upward. Yet it was not exactly the bird of New England, after all; for when the observer met with it again, as he did on sundry occasions (always a single bird, — another characteristic trait), he perceived, or fancied he perceived, that its coat was of a lighter shade than he had been accustomed to see. The Rocky Mountain creeper, the book instructed him to call it, and the name sounded sweet to him. At almost the same minute, too, he had his first clear sight of another Rocky Mountain bird, — the Rocky Mountain hairy woodpecker. This was to prove one of the very common inhabitants of the plateau. Its emphatic, perfectly natural-sounding calls were heard many times daily, and would have passed without remark anywhere in the East. In personal appearance, however, the bird is clearly enough distinguished, even at first sight, by the all but solid blackness of its wings.
After luncheon the bird-gazer again took the field (the altitude was congenial to him, and there was no staying indoors), and was soon in a fever of excitement over two jays that were chasing each other about in the tops of some tall yellow pines. It was evident at once that they were extremely dark in color and had most extraordinarily conspicuous topknots. “The long-crested,” he said to himself, one of the birds he most earnestly desired to see. “Now is my chance,” he thought; and it should not be his fault if he missed it.
From tree to tree the birds went, now together, now separately, uttering a kind of grunting note, strangely suggestive of the gray squirrel, ridiculous as the comparison may sound; and still he could never get either of them with a satisfactory light on its face, which, he knew, should be marked (if his opinion as to their identity was correct) by narrow up-and-down white lines on the forehead, and a little patch of the same color over each eye.
At last one dropped to the ground, a happy chance, and began feeding on something found there; and now, after patient stalking, our man had his field-glass on the bird under the best of conditions. All the marks were present. And what a beauty! (and what a crest!) — one of the most striking of all North American birds, of itself a sufficient reward for his winter visit to the Grand Cañon. If he were to tell the truth, he would, perhaps, confess that the sight of it afforded him — for the moment — almost as keen a pleasure as that of the Cañon itself. And he might have said as much of a flock of eight or ten pygmy nuthatches, engaging creatures, seen on three occasions, with notes all of a finch-like quality (in that respect like those of the little brown-headed nuthatches of the Southern States), and one — a note of alarm, it seemed — almost or quite indistinguishable from the sharp kip, kip of the red crossbill. The hobbyist, — and why should any of us feel like shirking the name, since we are all hobbyists of one sort or another, — the hobbyist, lucky man, has joys with which no stranger intermeddleth.
Every one to whom our particular hobbyist ventured to speak upon the subject assured him that there were no birds here at this season; and indeed, for long spells together, this seemed, even to him, to be something like true. The Coconino forest is so almost boundless that the winter denizens of it, mostly moving about in little companies, are by no means “enough to go round,” as one of the hobbyist’s outdoor cronies is given to saying. So it was that our bird-gazer often sauntered for an hour without being rewarded by so much as a lisp; yet he felt sure all the while, and the result always bore out his faith, that even here, and in winter, and on this very day, time and patience could not be spent altogether in vain. If he saw nothing, as sometimes was true, on the two or three miles to Rowe’s Point, for example, why, there was still the chance of something on the return. The very spot that had been vacant at eight o’clock might be astir with wings an hour or two later; for, as we say, winter birds, with no family duties to tie them, and the cool weather to enliven them, are continually on the go.
Thus it happened that the bird-gazer, retracing his steps after a long jaunt that had shown him nothing (nothing in his special line, that is to say; there is always something for a sensible pair of eyes to look at), was brought to the suddenest kind of standstill by the sight of two or three birds on the ground a few rods in advance. “Bluebirds! Bluebirds!” he said. And so they were, here in the very midst of the wood, impossible as the encounter seemed to a man accustomed only to the bluebird of the East, which might almost as soon be looked for upon a millpond as in a forest. His glass covered one of them. All its visible under parts were blue! It moved out of sight, and the glass was leveled upon another, and then upon another, as opportunity offered. And all but the first one had the regular red-earth breast, with blue throats and bellies, and reddish or chestnut-colored backs. Then, to the observer’s sorrow, they suddenly took wing with a chorus of sweet, perfectly familiar calls, and in a moment were gone. The all-blue one (the mountain, or arctic, bluebird, as it is called) was new to him. The others, of the kind known as the chestnut-backed bluebird, he had seen once or twice on a previous visit to the Southwest. Whether on the deserts of southern Arizona, or here in the mountain forests of northern Arizona, they were good to meet.
If only they would have stayed a bit to be looked at, or if they could have been pursued, as in New England one pursues the first spring bluebird from apple orchard to apple orchard for pure joy of seeing and hearing it! But they were gone whither there was no such thing as following them, — into the Cañon, to judge by the course taken, — and neither they, nor any like them, were seen or heard afterward.
They had not been alone, however, and the bird-gazer was still for a few minutes abundantly busy. Mountain chickadees were lisping and deeing, and one of them gave out once, as if on purpose for the Yankee listener’s benefit, his brief, musical whistle. “Thank you,” said the Yankee; “do it again.” But the singer, as singers will, refused the encore. One or two nuthatches and a hairy woodpecker were with the group, almost as a matter of course, and at the last minute the tiniest bunch of feathers was seen fluttering about the twigs of a pine. None but a kinglet could dance on the wing in just that tricksy fashion; and, true enough, a kinglet it was, a goldcrest, seen for a glance or two only, but, even so, revealing a strangely conspicuous white or whitish band on the side of the crown. Another Rocky Mountain stranger, if you please, the Rocky Mountain goldcrest. Two new birds within five minutes. Perhaps the bird-gazer did not go on his way rejoicing! The road was rough, — frozen every night, and muddy to desperation every afternoon, — but a hobby could still be ridden over it with comfort.
And here seems a good place in which to mention one of the Yankee visitor’s meteorological surprises. Somebody had spoken to him of cold weather lately at the Cañon, — zero or under, — and he mentioned the report to his friend the photographer. “Oh, yes,” was the answer; “probably the mercury has not been far from zero for the last two mornings.”
The visitor intimated incredulity; he had been strolling in the woods before sunrise on both the mornings in question, standing still a considerable part of the time to make notes or listen, and never once thinking of ears or fingers; upon which the photographer smiled and advised him to consult the railroad station-master, who, it appeared, had a government thermometer, and was the official keeper of the local weather record. Well, the station-master was complaisant, although an official, and, on turning to his tally-sheet, found that on the two previous mornings the glass had registered respectively zero and two above zero.
The man from Massachusetts was dumb. He had heard, as every one has, of the efficacy of a dry atmosphere in tempering the impression of cold, but he found at this minute that he had never really taken it in. If he had known the standing of the thermometer he certainly would not have worn his summer hat, and would probably have thought it prudent now and then to try his ears. Three or four mornings afterward, though the mercury was only a few degrees lower (five degrees below zero), he confesses that he did not loiter. With a raw wind from the north and the air full of snow, a somewhat rapid gait was taken, as by instinct. In fact, the weather was so much like home that it almost made him homesick — for California.
On the second of the two mornings first mentioned, he had sauntered to O’Neill’s Point, and had remarked, as before, how the white frost covered everything (sign of a warm, pleasant, day in New England), giving an extra touch of pallor even to the pallid sage-brush. He had remarked, also, how warmly an old Indian squaw was wrapped as she came riding through the woods on horseback. “Good morning,” said the bird-gazer, as they met. “Umph,” said the squaw. Ah, she doesn’t understand English, thought the bird-gazer, and he tried her with “Buenos dias.” “Umph,” she answered again; and the two parted as strangers. He might have had better luck with a chickadee.
Only the commoner birds had been found, till, on the return, in a break in the forest, of which break the sage-brush, always straitened for room, had taken possession, he suddenly descried a flock of extremely small birds of a sort entirely strange to him: slender gray birds, with long tails, — like gnatcatchers in that respect, — and some possible, poorly seen darker patch on the side of the head. He looked at them, and looked again (their activity was incessant, and the looks were of the briefest), and then, with a chorus of little nothings, they all took wing. And the bird-gazer, of course, followed on. Twice he came up with them. “Bush-tits,” he said to himself; “they can be nothing else.” And bush-tits they were, as he feels confident (but he will be surer, he hopes, when he gets to California), of the species known as lead-colored. It was a shame they should have been so restless. There was plenty of sage-brush, on the seeds of which they seemed to be feeding; but, like winter birds in general, they must take a bite here and a bite there, as if, by sampling the same thing in a dozen places, they somehow secured variety. They were gone, at all events, and the bird-gazer was starting back, half jubilant, half disconsolate, toward the road, when, from almost under his feet, a jack rabbit sprang up and, with a leap or two over the sage-brush bushes (a great leg with the hurdles is the jack rabbit), took his black tail out of sight.
Such, by the reader’s leave, were some of the trifles with which a Yankee bird-gazer beguiled his long-anticipated, much-talked-about week at the Grand Cañon of the Colorado!
Stevenson begins one of his early essays by remarking, “It is a difficult matter to make the most of any given place.” Of course it is; and not only difficult, but impossible, as he would have known, had he been a few years older. There will always remain a corner unexplored, a point of view not taken, a phase of modest beauty imperfectly appreciated. Thoreau himself, it is safe to assert, did not make the most of Concord. And after that what hope is there for the rest of us? Of course, then, the bird-gazer did not make the most of the Grand Cañon. How could he, with the little time at his disposal, the unfavorable season, the exceptionally inclement weather of the latter half of his stay (it was twelve degrees below zero on the last morning, and his farewell communings were nothing like so leisurely as he could have wished), and, chiefest of all, the peculiar limitations of his own nature?
No doubt he might have used words about it, — there is many a fine adjective in the dictionary; but adjectives of themselves prove nothing, unless it be, too often, their user’s imbecility. “Isn’t it pretty?” he heard a lady ask; and, since he was not addressed, he did not reply, as it was on his tongue’s end to do, “No, my dear madam, it is not pretty.” On another occasion a man pronounced it “a right nice view,”1 and this time the bird-gazer could only nod a despairing assent.
How the place ought to affect beholders he does not assume to decide; some in one way, perhaps, and some in another. For his own part, if now and then, when he might have been admiring the painted walls and the yawning abyss, he found his eyes resting of their own accord upon the snow-covered San Francisco peaks on the southern horizon, who shall say that he was necessarily in the wrong? A mountain two miles high is a commoner sight than a ravine a mile deep; but since when has commonness or uncommonness been taken as a test of beauty or grandeur? Let every man be pleased with that which pleases him; and as far as possible, — which probably will not be very far, — unless he has the difficult grace of silence, let him tell the truth.
As for the bird-gazer himself, it must be acknowledged, since he calls for truth-telling, that even to the last there remained with him a question whether it lay within the power of this barbaric display of shape and color ever to evoke those deeper, tenderer, more serene and blissful moods of rapturous contemplation, such as, ever and anon, when the time is right, descend upon the waiting soul, responsive to the still, small voice of the commonest and most familiar of humble landscapes.
So let it be, he said, and he stands by it grandeur to visit, but modest beauty to be at home with.
1 It was something to his credit that he didn’t say “awfully nice,” a locution which at this minute the bird-gazer hears from the lips of a lady of his acquaintance. She knows better, no doubt, but cannot help following the fashion in the use of words more than in the purchase of hats, though hats and words be alike barbarous.