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Footing it in Franconia
FIVE or six hours of pleasant railway travel, up the course of one river valley after another, — the Merrimac, the Pemigewasset, the Baker, the Connecticut, and finally the Ammonoosuc, — not to forget the best hour of all, on the shores of Lake Winnipisaukee, the spacious blue water now lying full in the sun, now half concealed by a fringe of woods, with mountains and hills, Chocorua, Paugus, and the rest, shifting their places beyond it, appearing and disappearing as the train follows the winding track, — five or six hours of this delightful panoramic journey, and we leave the ears at Littleton. Then a few miles in a carriage up a long, steep hill through a glorious autumn-scented forest, the horses pausing for breath as one water-bar after another is surmounted, and we are at the height of land, where two or three highland farmers have cleared some rocky acres, built houses and painted them, and planted gardens and orchards. As we reach this happy clearing all the mountains stand facing us on the horizon, and below, between us and Lafayette, lies the valley of Franconia, toward which, again through stretches of forest, we rapidly descend. At the bottom of the way Gale River comes dancing to meet us, babbling among its boulders, — more boulders than water at this end of the summer heats, — in its cheerful uphill progress. Its uphill progress, I say, and repeat it; and if any reader disputes the word, then he has never been there and seen the water for himself, or else he is an unfortunate who has lost his child’s heart (without which there is no kingdom of heaven for a man), and no longer lives by faith in his own senses. On the spot I have called the attention of many to it, and they have every one agreed with me. Mountain rivers have attributes of their own; or, possibly, the mountains themselves lay some spell upon the running water or upon the beholder’s eyesight. Be that as it may, Lafayette all the while draws nearer and nearer, we going one way and Gale River the other, until, after leaving the village houses behind us, we alight almost at its base. Solemn and magnificent, it is yet most companionable, standing thus in front of one’s door, the first thing to be looked at in the morning, and the last at night.
The last thing to be thought of at night is the weather, — the weather and what goes with it and depends upon it, the question of the next day’s programme. In a hill country meteorological prognostications are proverbially difficult; but we have learned to “hit it right” once in a while; and, right or wrong, we never omit our evening forecast. “It looks like a fair day to-morrow,” says one. “Well,” answers the other, with no thought of discourtesy in the use of the subjunctive particle, “if it is, what say you to walking to Bethlehem by the way of Wallace Hill, and taking in Mount Agassiz on our return after dinner?” Or the prophet speaks more doubtfully, and the other says, “Oh well, if it is cloudy and threatening, we will go the Landaff Valley round, and see what birds are in the larch swamp. If it seems to have set in for a steady rain, we can try the Butter Hill road.”
And so it goes. In Franconia it must be a very bad half day indeed when we fail to stretch our legs with a five or six mile jaunt. I speak of those of us who foot it. The more ease-loving, or less uneasy members of the party, who keep their carriage, are naturally less independent of outside conditions. When it rains they amuse themselves indoors; a pitch of sensibleness which the rest of us may sometimes regard with a shade of envy, perhaps, though we have never admitted as much to each other, much less to any one else. To plod through the mud is more exhilarating than to sit before a fire; and we leave the question of reasonableness and animal comfort on one side. Time is short, and we decline to waste it on theoretical considerations.
Our company, as I say, is divided: carriage people and pedestrians, we may call them; or, if you like, drivers and footmen. The walkers are now no more than the others. Formerly — till this present autumn — they were three. Now, alas, one of them walks no longer on earth. The hills that knew him so well know him no more. The asters and goldenrods bloom, but he comes not to gather them. The maples redden, but he comes not to see them. Yet in a better and truer sense he is with us still; for we remember him, and continually talk of him. If we pass a sphagnum bog, we think how at this point he used to turn aside and put a few mosses into his box. Some professor in Germany, or a scholar in New Haven, had asked him to collect additional specimens. In those days of his sphagnum absorption we called him sometimes the “sphagnostic.”
If we come down a certain steep pitch in the road from Garnet Hill, we remind each other that here he always stopped to look for Aster Lindleyanus, telling us meanwhile how problematical the identity of the plant really was. Professor So-and-So had pronounced it Lindleyanus, but Doctor Somebody-Else believed it to be only an odd form of a commoner species. In the Wallace Hill woods, I remember how we spent an afternoon there, he and I, only two years ago, searching for an orchid which just then had come newly under discussion among botanists, and how pleased he was when for once my eyes were luckier than his. If we are on the Landaff road, my companion asks, “Do you remember the Sunday noon when we went home and told E— that this wood was full of his rare willow? And how he posted over here by himself, directly after dinner, to see it? And how he said, in a tone of whimsical entreaty, ‘Please don’t find it anywhere else; we mustn’t let it become too common’?” Oh yes, I remember; and my companion knows he has no need to remind me of it; but he loves to talk of the absent, — and he knows I love to hear him.
That willow I can never see anywhere without thinking of the man who first told me about it. Whether I pass the single small specimen between Franconia and the Profile House, so close upon the highway that the road-menders are continually cutting it back, or the one on the Bethlehem road, or the great cluster of stems on Wallace Hill, it will always be his willow.
And indeed this whole beautiful hill country is his. How happy he was in it! I used sometimes to talk to him about the glories of our Southern mountains, — Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia; but he was never to be enticed away even in thought. “I think I shall never go out of New England again,” he would answer, with a smile; and he never did, though in his youth he had traveled more widely than I am ever likely to do. The very roadsides here must miss him, and wonder why he no longer passes, with his botanical box slung over his shoulder and an opera-glass in his hand, — equally ready for a plant or a bird. He was always looking for something, and always finding it. With his happiness, his goodness, his gentle dignity, his philosophic temper, his knowledge of his own mind, his love of all things beautiful, he has made Franconia a dear place for all of us who knew him here.
To me, as to all of us, it is dear also for its own sake. This season I returned to it alone, — with no walking mate, I mean to say. He was to join me later, but for eight or ten days I was to follow the road by myself. At night I must make my own forecast of the weather and lay out my own morrow.
The first day was one of the good ones, fair and still. As I came out upon the piazza before breakfast and looked up at Lafayette, a solitary vireo was phrasing sweetly from the bushes on one side of the house, and two or three vesper sparrows were remembering the summer from the open fields on the other side. It was the 22d of September, and by this time the birds knew how to appreciate a day of brightness and warmth.
Seeing them in such a mood, I determined to spend the forenoon in their society. I would take the road to Sinclair’s Mills, — a woodsy jaunt, yet not too much in the forest, always birdy from one end to the other.
“This is living!” I found myself repeating aloud, as I went up the longish hill to the plateau above Gale River, on the Bethlehem road. “This is living!” No more books, no more manuscripts, — my own or other people’s, — no more errands to the city. How good the air was! How glorious the mountains, unclouded, but hazy! How fragrant the ripening herbage in the shelter of the woods! — an odor caught for an instant, and then gone again; something that came of itself, not to be detected, much less traced to its source, by any effort or waiting. The forests were still green, — I had to look closely to find here and there the first touch of red or yellow; but the flowering season was mostly over, a few ragged asters and goldenrods being the chief brighteners of the wayside. About the sunnier patches of them, about the asters especially, insects were hovering, still drinking honey before it should be too late: yellow butterflies, bumble-bees (of some northern kind, apparently, marked with orange, and not so large as our common Massachusetts fellow), with swarms of smaller creatures of many sorts. If I stopped to attend to it, each aster bunch was a world by itself. And more than once I did stop. There was no haste; I had chosen my route partly with a view to just such idling; and the birds were, and were likely to be, nothing but old favorites. And they proved to be not many, after all. The best of them were the winter wrens, which I thought I had never seen more numerous; every one fretting, tut, tut, in their characteristic manner, without a note of song.
On my way back, the sun being higher, there were many butterflies in the road, flat on the sand, with wings outspread. If ever there is comfort in the world, the butterfly feels it at such times. Here and there half a dozen or more of yellow ones would be huddled about a damp spot. There were mourning-cloaks, also, and many small angle-wings, some species of Grapta, I knew not which, of a peculiarly bright red. Once or twice, wishing a name for them, I essayed to catch a specimen under my hat; but it seemed a small business, at which I was only half ashamed to find myself grown inexpert.
The forenoon was not without its tragedy, nevertheless. As I came out into the open, on my return from the river woods toward the Bethlehem road, a carriage stopped across the field; a man jumped out, gun in hand, ran up to an unoccupied house standing there by itself, with a tract of low meadow behind it, peeped cautiously round the corner, lifted his gun, leveled it upon something with the quickness of a practiced marksman, and fired. Then down the grassy slope he went on the run out of sight, and in a minute reappeared, holding a crow by its claw. He took the trophy into the carriage with him, — two ladies and a second man occupying the other seats, — and as I emerged from the pine wood, fifteen minutes afterward, I found it lying in the middle of the road. Its shining feathers would fly no more; but its death had brightened the day of some of the lords and ladies of creation. What happier fate could a crow ask for?
One of my first desires, this time (there is always something in particular on my mind when I go to Franconia), was to revisit Lonesome Lake, a romantic sheet of water lying deep in the wilderness on the back side of Mount Cannon, at an elevation of perhaps twenty-eight hundred feet, or something less than a thousand feet above the level of Profile Notch. One of its two owners, fortunately, is of our Franconia company; and when I spoke of my intention of visiting it again, he bade me drive up with his man, who would be going that way within a day or two. Late as the season was getting, he still went up to the lake once or twice a week, it appeared, keeping watch over the cabin, boathouse, and so forth. The plan suited my convenience perfectly. We drove to the foot of the bridle path, off the Notch road; the man put a saddle on the horse and rode up, and I followed on foot.
The climb is longer or shorter, as the climber may elect. A pedestrian would do it in thirty minutes, or a little less, I suppose; a nature-loving stroller may profitably be two hours about it. There must be at least a hundred trees along the path, which a sensitive man might be glad to stop and commune with: ancient birches, beeches, and spruces, any one of which, if it could talk, or rather if we had ears to hear it, would tell us things not to be read in any book. Hundreds of years many of the spruces must have stood there. Some of them, in all likelihood, were of a good height long before any white man set foot on this continent. Many of them were already old before they ever saw a paleface. What dwarfs and weaklings these restless creatures are, that once in a while come puffing up the hillside, halting every few minutes to get their breath and stare foolishly about! What murderer’s curse is on them, that they have no home, no abiding-place, where they can stay and get their growth?
It is a precious and solemn stillness that falls upon a man in these lofty woods. Across the narrow pass, as he looks through the branches, are the long, rugged upper slopes of Lafayette, torn with slides and gashed into deep ravines. Far over his head soar the trees, tall, branchless trunks pushing upward and upward, seeking the sun. In their leafy tops the wind murmurs, and here and there a bird is stirring. Now a chickadee lisps, or a nuthatch calls to his fellow. Out of the tangled, round-leaved hobble-bushes underneath an occasional robin may start with a quick note of surprise, or a flock of white-throats or snowbirds will fly up one by one to gaze at the intruder. In one place I hear the faint smooth-voiced signals of a group of Swainson thrushes and the chuck of a hermit. A few siskins (rarer than usual this year, it seems to me) pass overhead, sounding their curious, long-drawn whistle, as if they were blowing through a fine-toothed comb. Further up, I stand still at the tapping of a woodpecker just before me. Yes, there he is, on a dead spruce. A sapsucker, I call him at the first glance. But I raise my glass. No, it is not a sapsucker, but a bird of one of the three-toed species; a male, for I see his yellow crown-patch. His back is black. And now, of a sudden, a second one joins him. I am in great luck. This is a bird I have never seen before except once, and that many years ago on Mount Washington, in Tuckerman’s Ravine. The pair are gone too soon, and, patiently as I linger about the spot, I see no more of them. A pity they could not have broken silence. It is little we know of a bird or of a man till we hear him speak.
At the lake there are certain to be numbers of birds; not water birds, for the most part, — though I steal forward quietly at the last, hoping to surprise a duck or two, or a few sandpipers, as sometimes I have done, — but birds of the woods. The water makes a break in the wilderness, — a natural rendezvous, as we may say; it lets in the sun, also, and attracts insects; and birds of many kinds seem to enjoy its neighborhood. I do not wonder. To-day I notice first a large flock of white-throats, and a smaller flock of cedar-birds. The latter, when I first discover them, are in the conical tops of the tall spruces, whence they rise into the air, one after another, with a peculiar motion, as if a hand had tossed them aloft. They are catching insects, a business at which no bird can be more graceful, I think, though some may have been at it longer and more exclusively. Their behavior is suggestive of play rather than of a serious occupation. Near the white-throats are snowbirds, and in the firs by the lakeside chickadees are stirring, among which, to my great satisfaction, I presently hear a few Hudsonian voices. Sick-a-day-day, they call, and soon a little brown headed fellow is directly at my elbow. I stretch out my hand, and chirp encouragingly. He comes within three or four feet of it, and looks and looks at me, but is not to be coaxed nearer. Sick-a-day-day-day, he calls again (“I don’t like strangers,” he means to tell me), and away he flits. He is almost always here, and right glad I am to see him on my annual visit. I have never been favored with a sight of him further south.
The lake is like a mirror, and I sit in the boat with the sun on my back (as comfortable as a butterfly), listening and looking. What else can I do? I have pulled out far enough to bring the top of Lafayette into view above the trees, and have put down the oars. The birds are mostly invisible. Chickadees can be heard talking among themselves, a flicker calls wicker, wicker, whatever that means, and once a kingfisher springs his rattle. Red squirrels seem to be ubiquitous, full of sauciness and chatter. How very often their clocks need winding! A few big dragon-flies are still shooting over the water. But the best thing of all is the place itself: the solitude, the brooding sky (the lake’s own, it seems to be), the solemn mountain top, the encircling forest, the musical woodsy stillness. The rowan trees were never so bright with berries. Here and there one still holds full of green leaves, with the ripe red clusters shining everywhere among them.
After luncheon I must sit for a while in the forest itself. Every breath in the treetops, unfelt at my level, brings down a sprinkling of yellow birch leaves, each with a faint rustle, like a whispered good-by, as it strikes against the twigs in its fall. Every one preaches its sermon, arid I know the text, — “We all do fade.” May the rest of us be as happy as the leaves, and fade only when the time is ripe. A nuthatch, busy with his day’s work, passes near me. Small as he is, I hear his wing-beats. A squirrel jumps upon the very log on which I am seated, but is off in a jiffy on catching sight of so unexpected a neighbor. So short a log is not big enough for two of us, he thinks. By and by I hear a bird stirring on a branch overhead, and look up to find him a red-eyed vireo. One of the belated, he must be, according to my almanac. He peers down at me with inquisitive, sidelong glances. A man! — in such a place! — and sitting still! I like to believe that he, as well as I, feels a pleasurable surprise at the unlooked-for encounter. We call him the preacher, but he is not sermonizing today, perhaps because the falling leaves have taken the words out of his mouth.
It is one of the best things about a place like this that it gives a man a most unusual feeling of remoteness and isolation. To be here is not the same as to be in some equally wild and silent spot nearer to human habitations. The sense of the climb we have made, of the wilderness we have traversed, still folds us about. The fever and the fret, so constant with us as to be mostly unrealized or taken for the normal state of man, are for the moment gone, and peace settles upon the heart. For myself, at least, there is an unspeakable sweetness in such an hour. I could stay here, forever, I think, till I became a tree. That feeling I have often had, — a state of ravishment, a kind of absorption into the life of things about me. It will not last, and I know it will not; but it is like heaven, for the time it is on me, — a foretaste, perhaps, of the true Nirvana.
Yet to-day — so self-contradictory a creature is man — there were some things I missed. The dreamer was still a hobbyist, and the hobbyist had been in the Lonesome Lake woods before; and he wondered what had become of the crossbills. The common red ones were always here, I should have said, and on more than one visit I had found the rarer and lovelier white-winged species. Now, in all the forest chorus, not a cross- bill’s note was audible.
One day, bright like this, I was sitting at luncheon on the sunny stoop of the cabin, facing the water, when I caught a sudden glimpse of a white-wing, as I felt sure, about some small decaying gray logs on the edge of the lake just before me, the remains of a disused landing. The next moment the bird dropped ont of sight between two of them. I sat motionless, glass in hand, and eyes fixed (so I could almost have made oath) upon the spot where he had disappeared. I fancied he was at his bath. Minute after minute elapsed. There was no sign of him, and at last I left my seat and made my way stealthily down to the shore. Nothing rose. I tramped over the logs, with no result. It was like magic, — the work of some evil spirit. I began almost to believe that my eyes had been made the fools of the other senses. If I had seen a bird there, where in the name of reason could it have gone? It could not have dropped into the water, seeking winter quarters in the mud at the bottom, according to the notions of our old-time ornithologists
Half an hour afterward, having finished my luncheon, I went into the woods along the path; and there, presently, I discovered a mixed flock of crossbills, — red ones and white-wings, — feeding so quietly that till now I had not suspected their presence. My waterside bird was doubtless among them; and doubtless my eyes had not been fixed upon the place of his disappearance quite so uninterruptedly as I had imagined. It was not the first time that such a thing had happened to me. How frequently have we all seen a bird dart into a bit of cover, and never come out! If we are watchful and clever, we are not the only ones.
Luck has no little to do with a bird-lover’s success or failure in any particular walk. If we go and go, patience will have its wages; but if we can go but once or twice, we must take what Fortune sends, be it little or much. So it had been with me and the three-toed woodpeckers, that morning. I had chanced to arrive at that precise point in the path just at the moment when they chanced to alight upon that dead spruce, — one tree among a million. What had been there ten minutes before, and what came ten minutes after, I shall never know. So it was again on the descent, which I protracted as much as possible, for love of the woods and for the hope of what I might find in them. I was perhaps halfway down when I heard thrush calls near by: the whistle of an olive-back and the chuck of a hermit, both strongly characteristic, slight as they seem. I halted, of course, and on the instant some large bird flew past me and perched in full sight, only a few rods away. There he sat facing me, a barred owl, his black eyes staring straight into mine. How big and solemn they looked! Never tell me that the barred owl cannot see by daylight.
The thrushes had followed him. It was he, and not a human intruder, to whom they had been addressing themselves. Soon the owl flew a little further away (it was wonderful how large he looked in the air), the thrushes still after him; and in a few minutes more he took wing again. This time several robins joined the hermit and the olive-back, and all hands disappeared up the mountain side. Probably the pursuers were largely reinforced as the chase proceeded, and I imagined the big fellow pretty thoroughly mobbed before he got safely away. Every small bird has his opinion of an owl.
What interested me as much as anything connected with the whole affair was the fact that the olive-back, even in his excitement, made use of nothing but his mellow staccato whistle, such as he employs against the most inoffensive of chance human disturbers. Like the chickadee, and perhaps some other birds, he is musical, and not over-emphatic, even in his anger.
Again and again I rested to admire the glory of Mount Lafayette, which loomed more grandly than ever, I was ready to declare, seen thus partially and from this point of vantage. Twice, at least, I had been on its summit in such a fall day, — once on the 1st of October, and again, the year afterward, on a date two days earlier. That October day was one of the fairest I ever knew, both in itself (and perfect weather is a rare thing, try as we may to speak nothing but good of the doings of Providence) and in the pleasure it brought me.
For the next year’s ascent, which I remember more in detail, we chose — a brother Franconian and myself — a morning when the tops of the mountains, as seen from the valley lands, were white with frost or snow. We wished to find out for ourselves which it was, and just how the mountain looked under such wintry conditions.
The spectacle would have repaid us for a harder climb. A cold northwest wind (it was still blowing) had swept over the summit and coated everything it struck, foliage and rocks alike, with a thick frost (half an inch or more in depth, if my memory is to be trusted), white as snow, but almost as hard as ice. The effect was strangely beautiful. A dwarf fir tree, for instance, would be snow white on one side and bright green on the other. As we looked along the sharp ridge running to the South Peak, so called (the very ridge at the face of which I was now gazing from the Lonesome Lake path), one slope was white, the other green. Summer and winter were divided by an inch.
We nestled in the shelter of the rocks, on the south side of the summit, courting the sun and avoiding the wind, and lay there for two hours, exulting in the prospect, and between times nibbling our luncheon, which latter we “topped off” with a famous dessert of berries, gathered on the spot: three sorts of blueberries, and, for a sour, the mountain cranberry. The blueberries were Vaccinium uliginosum, V. cæspitosum, and V. Pennsylvanicum (there is no doing without the Latin names), their comparative abundance being in the order given. The first two were really plentiful. All of them, of course, grew on dwarf bushes, matting the ground between the boulders. At that exposed height not even a blueberry bush ventures to stand upright. One of them, V. cæspitosum, was both a surprise and a luxury, the small berries having a most deliciously rich fruity flavor, like the choicest of bananas! Probably no botanical writer has ever mentioned the point, and I have great satisfaction in supplying the deficiency, apprehending no rush of epicures to the place in consequence. About the fact itself there can be no manner of doubt. My companion fully agreed with me, and he is not only a botanist of international repute, but a most capable gastronomer. Much the poorest berry of the three was the Pennsylvanian, the common low blueberry of Massachusetts. “Strawberry huckleberry” it used to be called in my day by Old Colony children, with a double disregard of scientific proprieties. Even thus late in the season the Greenland sandwort was in perfectly fresh bloom; but the high cold wind made it a poor “bird day,” though I remember a white-throated sparrow singing cheerily near Eagle Lake, and a large hawk or eagle floating high over the summit. At the sight my fellow traveler broke out,
On that point, as concerning the fine qualities of the cespitose blueberry, we were fully agreed.
Even in Franconia, however, most of our days are spent, not in mountain paths, but in the valley and lower hill roads. We keep out of the mountains partly because we love to look at them (“I pitch my walk low, but my prospects high,” says an old poet), and partly, perhaps, because the paths to their summits have seemed to fall out of repair, and even to become steeper, with the lapse of years. One of my good trips, this autumn, was over the road toward Littleton, and then back in the direction of Bethlehem as far as the end of the Indian Brook road. That, as I planned it, would be no more than six or seven miles, at the most, and there I was to be met by the driving members of the club, who would bring me home for the midday meal, — an altogether comfortable arrangement. It is good to have time to spare, so that one can daily along, fearful only of arriving at the end of the way too soon. Such was now my favored condition, and I made the most of it. If I crossed a brook, I stayed awhile to listen to it and moralize its song. If a flock of bluebirds and sparrows were twittering about a farmer’s barn, I lingered a little to watch their doings. When a white-crowned sparrow or a partridge showed itself in the road in advance of me, that was reason enough for another halt. It is a pretty picture: a partridge caught unexpectedly in the open, its ruff erect, and its tail, fully spread, snapping nervously with every quick, furtive step. And the fine old trees in the Littleton hill woods were of themselves sufficient, on a warm day like this, to detain any one who was neither a worldling nor a man sent for the doctor. They detained me, at all events; and very glad I was to sit down more than once for a good season with them.
And so the hours passed. At the top of the road, in the clearing by the farms, I met a pale, straight-backed young fellow under a military hat. “You look like a man from Cuba or from Chickamauga,” I ventured to say. “Chickamauga,” he answered laconically, and marched on. Whether it was typhoid fever or simple “malaria” that had whitened his face there was no chance to inquire. He was munching an apple, which at that moment was also my own occupation. I had just stopped under a promising-looking tree, whose generous branches spilled their crop over the roadside wall, — excellent “common fruit,” as Franconian say, mellow, but with a lively, ungrafted tang. Here in this sunny stretch of road were more of my small Grapta butterflies, and presently I came upon a splendid tortoise-shell (Vanessa milberti). That I would certainly have captured had I been armed with a net. I had seen two like it the day before, to the surprise of my friends the carriage people, ardent entomological collectors, both of them. They had found not a single specimen the whole season through. “There are some advantages in beating out the miles on foot,” I said to myself. I have never seen this strikingly handsome butterfly in Massachusetts, as I once did its rival in beauty, the banded purple (Arthemis); and even here in the hill country it is never so common as to lose that precious bloom which rarity puts upon whatever it touches.
As I turned down the Bethlehem road, the valley and hill prospects on the left became increasingly beautiful. Here I passed hermit thrushes (it was good to see them already so numerous again, after the destruction that had wasted them a few winters ago), a catbird or two, and a few ruby-crowned kinglets, — some of them singing, — and before long found myself within the limits of a rich man’s red farm; fences, houses, barns, poultry coops, and the rest, all painted of the same deep color, as if to say, “All this is mine.” I remembered the estate well, and have never grudged the owner of it his lordly possessions. I enjoy them, also, in my own way. He keeps his roads in apple-pie order, without meddling with their natural beauty (I wish our Massachusetts “highway surveyors” all worked under his orders, or were endowed with his taste), and is at pains to save his woods from the hands of the spoiler. “Please do not peel bark from the birch trees,” — so the signs read; and I say Amen. He has splendid flower gardens, too, and plants them well out upon the wayside for all men to enjoy. Long may it be before his soul is required of him.
By this time I was in the very prettiest of the red-farm woods. Hermit thrushes were there, also, standing upright in the middle of the road, and in the forest hylas were peeping, one of them a real champion for the loudness of his tone. How full of glory the place was, with the sunlight sifting through the bright leaves and flickering upon the shining birch trunks! If I were an artist, I think I would paint wood interiors.
My forenoon’s walk was ended. Another turn in the road, and I saw the carriage before me, the driver minding the horses, and the passengers’ seat vacant. The entomologists had gone into the woods looking for specimens, and there I joined them. They were in search of beetles, they said, and had no objection to my assistance; I had better look for decaying toadstools. This was easy work, I thought; but, as is always the way with my efforts at insect collecting, I could find nothing to the purpose. The best I could do was to bring mushrooms full of maggots (larvæ, the carrier of the cyanide and alcohol bottles called them), and what was desired was the beetles which the larvæ turned into. Once I announced a small spider, but the bottle-holder said, No, it was not a spider, but a mite; and there was no disputing an expert, who had published a list of Franconia spiders, — one hundred and forty-nine species! (She had wished very much for one more name, she told me, but her friend and assistant had remarked that the odd number would look more honest 1) However, it is a poor sort of man who cannot enjoy the sight of another’s learning, and the exposure of his own ignorance. It was worth something to see a first-rate, thoroughly equipped “insectarian” at work and to hear her talk. I should have been proud even to hold one of her smaller phials, but they were all adjusted beyond the need, or even the comfortable possibility, of such assistance. There was nothing for it but to play the looker-on and listener. In that part I hope I was less of a failure.
The enthusiastic pursuit of special knowledge, persisted in year after year, is a phenomenon as well worth study as the song and nesting habits of a thrush or a sparrow; and I gladly put myself to school, not only this forenoon, but as often as I found the opportunity. One day my mentor told me that she hoped she had discovered a new flea! She kept, as I knew, a couple of pet deer-mice, and it seemed that some almost microscopic fleas had left them for a bunch of cotton wherein the mice were accustomed to roll themselves up in the daytime. These minute creatures the entomologist had pounced upon, clapped into a bottle, and sent off straightway to the American flea specialist, who lived somewhere in Alabama. In a few days she should hear from him, and perhaps, if the species were undescribed, there would be a flea named in her honor.1
Distinctions of that nature are almost every-day matters with her. How many species already bear her name she has never told me. I suspect they are so numerous and so frequent that she herself can hardly keep track of them. Think of the pleasure of walking about the earth and being able to say, as an insect chirps, “Listen! that is one of my species, — named after me, you know.” Such specific honors, I say, are common in her case, — common almost to satiety. But to have a genus named for her, — that was glory of a different rank, glory that can never fall to the same person but once; for generic names are unique. Once given, they are patented, as it were. They can never be used again — for genera, that is — in any branch of natural science. To our Franconia entomologist this honor came, by what seemed a poetic justice, in the Lepidoptera, the order in which she began her researches. Hers is a genus of moths. I trust they are not of the kind that “corrupt.”
Thinking how above measure I should be exalted in such circumstances, I am surprised that she wears her laurels so meekly. Not that she affects to conceal her gratification; she is as happy over her genus, perhaps, as over the new édition de luxe of her most famous story; for an entomologist may be also a novelist, if she has a mind to be, as Charles Lamb would have said; but she knows how to carry it off lightly. She and the botanist of the party, my “walking mate,” who, I am proud to say, is similarly distinguished, often laugh together about their generic namesakes (his is of the large and noble Compositæ family); and then, sometimes, the lady will turn to me.
“It is too bad you can never have a genus,” she will say in her bantering tone; “the name is already taken up, you know.”
“Yes, indeed, I know it,” I answer her. An older member of the family, a —th cousin, carried off the prize many years ago, and the rest of us are left to get on as best we can, without the hope of such dignities. When I was in Florida I took pains to see the tree, — the family evergreen, we may call it. Though it is said to have an ill smell, it is handsome, and we count it an honor.
“But then, perhaps you would never have had a genus named for you, anyhow,” the entomologist continues, still bent upon mischief.
And there we leave the matter. Let the shoemaker stick to his last. Some of us were not born to shine at badinage, or as collectors of beetles. For myself, in this bright September weather I have no ambitions. It is enough, I think, to be a follower of the road, breathing the breath of life and seeing the beauty of the world.
In the afternoon I took the Landaff Valley round, down the village street nearly to the junction of Gale River and Ham Branch, then up the Ham Branch (or Landaff) Valley to a crossroad on the left, and so back to the road from the Profile Notch, and by that home again. The jaunt, which is one of our Franconia favorites, is peculiar for being substantially level; with no more uphill and downhill than would be included in a walk of the same distance — perhaps six miles — almost anywhere in southern New England.
The first thing a man is likely to notice as he passes the last of the village houses, and finds himself skirting the bank of Ham Branch (which looks to be nearly or quite as full as the river into which it empties itself), is the color of the water. Gale River is fresh from the hills, and ripples over its stony bed as clear as crystal. The branch, on the contrary, has been flowing for some time through a flat meadowy valley, where it has taken on a rich earthy hue, to which it might be natural to apply a less honorable sounding word, perhaps, if it were a question of some neutral stream, in whose character and reputation I felt no personal, friendly interest.
Just as I came to it, that afternoon, I saw to my surprise a white admiral butterfly sunning itself upon an alder leaf. I hope the reader knows the species, — Limenitis Arthemis, sometimes called the banded purple, — one of the prettiest and showiest of New England insects, four black or blackish wings crossed by a broad white band. It was much out of season now, I felt sure, both from what my entomological friends had told me, and from my own recollections of previous years, and I was seized with a foolish desire to capture it as a sort of trophy. It lay just beyond my reach, and I disturbed it, in hopes it would settle nearer the ground. Twice it disappointed me. Then I threw a stick toward it, aiming not wisely but too well, and this time startled it so badly that it rose straight into the air, sailed across the stream, and came to rest far up in a tall elm. “You were never cut out for a collector of insects,” I said to myself, recalling my experience of the forenoon; but I was glad to have seen the creature, — the first one for several years, — and went on my way as happy as a child in thinking of it. In the second half of a man’s century he may be thankful for almost anything that, for the time being, lifts twoscore of years off his back. The best part of most of us, I think, is the boy that was born with us. So far I am a Wordsworthian;
“And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.”
A little way up the valley we come to an ancient mill and a bridge; a new bridge it is now, but I remember an old one, and a fright that I once had upon it. With a fellow itinerant — a learned man, whose life was valuable — I stopped here to rest of a summer noon, and my companion, with an eye to shady comfort, clambered over the edge of the bridge and out upon a joist which projected over the stream. There he sat down with his back against a pillar and his legs stretched before him on the joist. He has a theory, concerning which I have heard him discourse more than once, — something in his own attitude suggesting the theme, — that when a man, after walking, “puts his feet up,” he is acting not merely upon a natural impulse, but in accordance with a sound physiological principle; and in accordance with that principle he was acting now, as well as the circumstances of the case would permit. We chatted awhile; then he fell silent; and after a time I turned my head, and saw him clean gone in a doze. The seat was barely wide enough to hold him. What if he should move in his sleep, or start up suddenly on being awakened? I looked at the rocks below, and shivered. I dared not disturb him, and could only sit in a kind of stupid terror and wait for him to open his eyes. Happily his nap did not last long, and came to a quiet termination; so that the cause of science suffered no loss that day; but I can never go by the place without thinking of what might have happened.
Here, likewise, on an autumnal forenoon, two or three years ago, I had another memorable experience; nothing less (nothing more, the reader may say) than the song of a hermit thrush. It was in the season after bluebirds and hermits had been killed in such dreadful numbers (almost exterminated, we thought then) by cold and snow at the South. I had scarcely seen a hermit all the year, and was approaching the bridge, of a pleasant late September morning, when I heard a thrush’s voice. I stopped instantly. The note was repeated; and there the bird stood in a low roadside tree; the next minute he began singing in a kind of reminiscential half-voice, — the soul of a year’s music distilled in a few drops of sound, — such as birds of many kinds so frequently drop into in the fall. That, too, I am sure to remember as often as I pass this way.
In truth, all my Franconia rambles (I am tempted to write the name in three syllables, as I sometimes speak it, following the example of Fishin’ Jimmy and other local worthies), — all my “Francony” rambles, I say, are by this time full of these miserly delights. It is really a gain, perhaps, that I make the round of them but once a year. Some things are wisely kept choice.
“Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare.”
To get all the goodness out of a piece of country, return to it again and again, till every corner of it is alive with memories; but do not see it too often, nor make your stay in it too long. The hermit thrush’s voice is all the sweeter because he is a hermit.
This afternoon I do not cross the bridge, but keep to the valley road, which soon runs for some distance along the edge of a hackmatack swamp; full of graceful, pencil-tipped, feathery trees, with here and there a dead one, on purpose for woodpeckers and hawks. A hairy woodpecker is on one of them at this moment, now hammering the trunk with his powerful beak (hammer and chisel in one), now lifting up his voice in a way to be heard for half a mile. To judge from his ordinary tone and manner, Dryobates villosus has no need to cultivate decision of character. Every word is peremptory, and every action speaks of energy and a mind made up.
In this larch swamp, though I have never really explored it, I have seen, first and last, a good many things. Here grows much of the pear-leaved willow (Salix balsamifera). I notice a few bushes even now as I pass, the reddish twigs each with a tuft of yellowing, red-stemmed leaves at the tip. Here, one June, a Tennessee warbler sang to me; and there are only two other places in the world in which I have been thus favored. Here, — a little farther up the valley, — on a rainy September forenoon, I once sat for an hour in the midst of as pretty a flock of birds as a man could wish to see: south-going travelers of many sorts, whom the fortunes of the road had thrown together.
Here they were, lying by for a day’s rest in this favorable spot; flitting to and fro, chirping, singing, feeding, playfully quarreling, as if life, even in rainy weather and in migration time, were all a pleasure trip. It was a sight to cure low spirits. I sat on the hay just within the open side of a barn which stands here in the woods, quite by itself, and watched them till I almost felt myself of their company. I have forgotten their names, though I listed them carefully enough, beyond a doubt; but it will be long before I forget my delight in the birds themselves. Ours may be an evil world, as the pessimists and the preachers find so much comfort in maintaining, but there is one thing to be said in its favor: its happy days are the longest remembered. The pain I suffered years ago I cannot any longer make real to myself, even if I would, but the joys of that time are still almost as good as new, when occasion calls them up. Some of them, indeed, seem to have sweetened with age. This is especially the case, I think, with simple and natural pleasures; which may be considered as a good reason why every man should be, if he can, a lover of nature, — a sympathizer, that is to say, with the life of the world about him. The less artificial our joys, the more likelihood of their staying by us.
Not to blink at the truth, nevertheless, I must add a circumstance which, till this moment, I had clean forgotten. I was still watching the birds, with perhaps a dozen species in sight close at hand, when suddenly I observed a something come over them, and on the instant a large hawk skimmed the tops of the trees. In one second every bird was gone, — vanished, as if at the touch of a necromancer’s wand. I did not see them fly; there was no rush of wings; but the place was empty; and though I waited for them, they did not reappear. Two or three, indeed, I may have seen afterward, but the flock was gone. My holiday, at all events, or that part of it, was done, — shadowed by a hawk’s wing. Undoubtedly a few minutes of safety put the birds all in comfortable spirits again, however; and anyhow, it bears out my theory of remembered happiness, that this less cheerful part of the story had so completely passed out of mind. Memory, like a sundial, had marked only the bright hour.
Beyond this lonely barn the soil of the valley becomes drier and sandier. Here are two or three houses, with broad hayfields about them, in which live many vesper sparrows. No doubt they have lived here longer than any of their present human neighbors. Even now they flit along the wayside in advance of the foot-passenger, running a space, after their manner, and anon taking wing to alight upon a fence rail. Their year is done, but they linger still a few days, out of love for the ancestral fields, or, it may be, in dread of the long journey, from which some of them will pretty certainly never come back.
All the way up the road, though no mention has been made of it, my eyes have been upon the low, bright-colored hills beyond the river, — sugar-maple orchards all in yellow and red, a gorgeous display, — or upon the mountains in front, Kinsman and the more distant Moosilauke. The green meadow is a good place in which to look for marsh hawks, — as well as of great use as a foreground, — and the bill woods beyond are the resort of pileated woodpeckers. I have often seen and heard them here, but there is no sign of them to-day.
Though these fine birds are generally described — one book following another, after the usual fashion — as frequenters of the wilderness, and though it is true that they have forsaken the more thickly settled parts of the country, I think I have never once seen them in the depths of the forest. To the best of my recollection none of our Franconia men have ever reported them from Mount Lafayette or from the Lonesome Lake region. On the other hand, we meet them with greater or less regularity in the more open valley woods, often directly upon the roadside; not only in the Landaff Valley, but on the outskirts of the village toward Littleton and on the Bethlehem road. In this latter place I remember seeing a fellow prancing about the trunk of a small orchard tree within twenty rods of a house; and not so very infrequently, especially in the rum-cherry season, they make their appearance in the immediate vicinity of the hotel; for they, like some of their relatives, notably the sapsucker, are true cherry-birds. In Vermont, too, I have found their freshly cut “peck-holes” on the very skirts of the village. And at the South, so far as I have been able to observe, the story is the same. About Natural Bridge, Virginia, for example, a loosely settled country, with plenty of woodland but no extensive forests, the birds were constantly in evidence. In short, untamable as they look, and little as they may like a town, they seem to find themselves best off, as birds in general do, on the borders of civilization. They have something of Thoreau’s mind, we may say: lovers of the wild, they are yet not quite at home in the wilderness, and prefer the woodman’s path to the logger’s.
Not far ahead, on the other side of the way, — to return to the Landaff Valley, — is a red maple grove, more brilliant even than the sugar orchards. It ripens its leaves earlier than they, as we have always noticed, and is already past the acme of its annual splendor; so that some of the trees have a peculiarly delicate and lovely purplish tint, a real bloom, never seen, I think, except on the red maple, and there only after the leaves have begun to curl and fade. Opposite it (after whistling in vain for a dog with whom in years past, I have been accustomed to be friendly at one of the houses — he must be dead, or gone, or grown reserved with age), I take the crossroad before mentioned; and now, face to face with Lafayette, I stop under a favorite pine tree to enjoy the prospect and the stillness: no sound but the chirping of crickets, the peeping of hylas, and the hardly less musical hammering of a distant carpenter.
Along the wayside are many gray birches (of the kind called white birches in Massachusetts, the kind from which Yankee schoolboys snatch a fearful joy by “swinging off” their tops), the only ones I remember about Franconia; for which reason I sometimes call the road Gray Birch Road; and just beyond them I stop again. Here is a bit for a painter: a lovely vista, such as makes a man wish for a brush and the skill to use it. The road dips into a little hollow, turns gently, and passes out of sight within the shadow of a wood. And above the overarching trees rises the pyramidal mass of Mount Cannon, its middle part set with dark evergreens, which are flanked on either side with broad patches of light yellow, — poplars or birches. The sun is getting down, and its level rays flood the whole mountain forest with light.
Into the shadow I go, following the road, and after a turn or two come out at a small clearing and a house. “Rocky Farm,” we might name it; for the land is sprinkled over with huge boulders, as if giants had been at play here. Whoever settled the place first must have chosen the site for its outlook rather than for any hope of its fertility. I sit down on one of the stones and take my fill of the mountain glory: Garfield, Lafayette, Cannon, Kinsman, Moosilauke, a grand horizonful. Cannon is almost within reach of the hand, as it looks; but the arm might need to be two miles long.
Just here the road makes a sudden bend, passes again into light woods, and presently emerges upon a little knoll overlooking the upper Franconia meadows. This is the noblest prospect of the afternoon, and late as the hour is growing I must lean against the fence rail — for there is a house at this point also — and gaze upon it. The green meadow is spread at my feet, flaming maple woods range themselves beyond it, and behind them, close at band, loom the sombre mountains. I had forgotten that this part of the road was so “viewly,” to borrow a local word, and am thankful to have reached it at so favorable a moment. Now the shadow of the low hills at my back overspreads the valley, while the upper world beyond is aglow with light and color.
It is five o’clock, and I must be getting homeward. Down at the valley level the evening chill strikes me, after the exceptional warmth of the day, and by the time Tucker Brook is crossed the bare summit of Lafayette is of a deep rosy purple, — the rest of the world sunless. The day is over, and the remaining miles are taken somewhat hurriedly, although I stop below the Profile House farm to look for a fresh bunch of dumb foxglove, — not easy to find in the open at this late date, many as the plants are, — and at one or two other places to pluck a tempting maple twig. Sated with the magnificence of autumnal forests, hill after hill splashed with color, the eye loves to withdraw itself now and then to rest upon the perfection of a blossom or a leaf. Wagonloads of tourists come down the Notch road, the usual nightly procession, some silent, some boisterously singing. Among the most distressing of all the noises that human beings make is this vulgar shouting of “sacred music” along the public highway. This time the hymn is Jerusalem the Golden, after the upper notes of which an unhappy female voice is vainly reaching, like a boy who has lost his wind in shinning up a tree, and with his last gasping effort still finds the lowest branch just beyond the clutch of his fingers.
“I know not, oh, I know not,”
I hear her shriek, and then a lucky turn in the road takes her out of hearing, and I listen again to the still small voice of the brook, which, whether it “knows” or not, has the grace to make no fuss about it.
Let that one human discord be forgotten. It had been a glorious day; few lovelier were ever made: a day without a cloud (literally), and almost without a breath; a day to walk, and a day to sit still; a long feast of beauty; and withal, it had for me a perfect conclusion, as if Nature herself were setting a benediction upon the hours. As I neared the end of my jaunt, the hotel already in sight, Venus in all her splendor hung low in the west, the full moon was showing its rim above the trees in the east, and at the same moment a vesper sparrow somewhere in the darkening fields broke out with its evening song. Five or six times it sang, and then fell silent. It was enough. The beauty of the day was complete.
The next day, October 1, was no less delightful: mild, still, and cloudless; so that it was pleasant to lounge upon the piazza in the early morning, looking at Lafayette, — good business of itself, — and listening to the warble of a bluebird, the soft chips of myrtle warblers, or the distant gobbling of a turkey down at one of the river farms; while now and then a farmer drove past from his morning errand at the creamery, with one or two tall milk-cans standing behind him in the open, one-seated carriage. If you see a man on foot as far from the village as this, you may set him down, in ornithological language, as a summer resident or a transient visitor. Franconians, to the manner born, are otherwise minded, and will “hitch up” for a quarter of a mile. As good John Bunyan said, “This is a valley that nobody walks in, but those that love a pilgrim’s life.”
As I take the Notch road after breakfast the temperature is summer-like, and the foliage, I think, must have reached its brightest. Above the Profile House farm, on the edge of the golf links, where the whole Franconia Valley lies exposed, I seat myself on the wall, inside a natural hedge that borders the highway, to admire the scene: a long verdant meadow, flanked by low hills covered, mile after mile, with vivid reds and yellows; splendor beyond words; a pageant glorious to behold, but happily of brief duration. Human senses would weary of it, though the eye loves color as the palate loves spices and sweets, or, by force of looking at it, would lose all delicacy of perception and taste.
Even yet the world, viewed in broad spaces, wears a clean, fresh aspect; but near at hand the herbage and shrubbery are all in the sere and yellow leaf. So I am saying to myself when I start at the sound of a Hudsonian chickadee’s nasal voice speaking straight into my ear. The saucy chit has dropped into the low poplar sapling over my head, and surprised at what he discovers underneath, lets fall a hasty Sick-a-day-day. His dress, like his voice, compares unfavorably with that of his cousin, our familiar blackcap. In fact, I might say of him, with his dirty brown headdress, what I was thinking of the roadside vegetation: he looks dingy, out of condition, frayed, discolored, belated, frost-bitten. But I am delighted to see him, — for the first time at any such level as this, — and thank my stars that I sat down to rest and cool off on this hard but convenient boulder.
A chipmunk thinks I have sat here long enough, and feels no bashfulness about telling me so. Why should he? Frankness is esteemed a point of good manners in all natural society. A man shoots down the hill behind me on a bicycle, coasting like the wind, and another, driving up, salutes him by name, and then turns to cry after him in a ringing voice, “How be ye?” The emphatic verb bespeaks a real solicitude on the questioner’s part; but he is half a mile too late; he might as well have shouted to the man in the moon. Presently two men in a buggy come up the road, talking in breezy up-country fashion about some one whose name they use freely, — a name well known hereabout, — and with whom they appear to have business relations. “He got up this morning like a — — thousand of brick,” one of them says. A disagreeable person to work for, I should suppose. And all the while a child behind the hedge is taking notes. Queer things we could print, if it were allowable to report verbatim.
When this free-spoken pair is far enough in the lead I go back to the road again, traveling slowly and keeping to the shady side, with my coat on my arm. As the climb grows steeper the weather grows more and more like August; and hark! a cicada is shrilling in one of the forest trees, — a long drawn, heat-laden, midsummer cry. I will tell the entomologist about it, I promise myself. The circumstance must be very unusual, and cannot fail to interest her. (But she takes it as a matter of course. It is hard to bring news to a specialist.)
So I go on, up Hardscrabble and Little Hardscrabble, stopping like a short-winded horse at every water-bar, and thankful for every bird-note that calls me to a halt between times. An ornithological preoccupation is a capital resource when the road is getting the better of you. The brook likewise must be minded, and some of the more memorable of the wayside trees. A mountain road has one decided and inalienable advantage, I remark inwardly: the most perversely opinionated highway surveyor in the world cannot straighten it. How fast the leaves are falling, though the air scarcely stirs among them! In some places I walk through a real shower of gold. Theirs is an easy death. And how many times I have been up and down this road! Summer and autumn I have traveled it. And in what pleasant company! Now I am alone; but then, the solitude itself is an excellent companionship. We are having a pretty good time of it, I think, — the trees, the brook, the winding road, the yellow birch leaves, and the human pilgrim, who feels himself one with them all. I hope they would not disown a poor relation.
It is ten o’clock. Slowly as I have come, not a wagonload of tourists has caught up with me; and at the Bald Mountain path I leave the highway, having a sudden notion to go to Echo Lake by the way of Artist’s Bluff, so called, a rocky cliff that rises abruptly from the lower end of the lake. The trail conducts me through a veritable fernery, one long slope being thickly set with perfectly fresh shield-ferns, — Aspidium spinulosum and perhaps A. dilatatum, though I do not concern myself to be sure of it. From the bluff the lake is at my feet, but what mostly fills my eye is the woods on the lower side of Mount Cannon. There is no language to express the kind of pleasure I take in them: so soft, so bright, so various in their hues, — dark green, light green, russet, yellow, red, — all drowned in sunshine, yet veiled perceptibly with haze even at this slight distance. If there is anything in nature more exquisitely, ravishingly beautiful than an old mountainside forest looked at from above, I do not know where to find it.
Down at the lakeside there is beauty of another kind: the level blue water, the clean gray shallows about its margin, the reflections of bright mountains — Eagle Cliff and Mount Cannon — in its face, and soaring into the sky, on either side and in front, the mountains themselves. And how softly the ground is matted under the shrubbery and trees: twin-flower, partridge berry, creeping snowberry, gold-thread, oxalis, dwarf cornel, checkerberry, trailing arbutus! The very names ought to be a means of grace to the pen that writes them.
White-throats and a single winter wren scold at me behind my back as I sit on a spruce log, but for some reason there are few birds here to-day. The fact is exceptional. As a rule, I have found the bushes populous, and once, I remember, not many days later than this, there were fox sparrows with the rest. I am hoping some time to find a stray phalarope swimming in the lake. That would be a sight worth seeing. The lake itself is always here, at any rate, especially now that the summer people are gone; and if the wind is right and the sun out, so that a man can sit still with comfort (to-day my coat is superfluous), the absence of other things does not greatly matter.
This clean waterside must have many four-footed visitors, particularly in the twilight and after dark. Deer and bears are common inhabitants of the mountain woods; but for my eyes there is nothing but squirrels, with once in a long while a piece of wilder game. Twice only, in Franconia, have I come within sight of a fox. Once I was alone, in the wood-road to Sinclair’s Mills. I rounded a curve, and there the fellow stood in the middle of the way, smelling at something in the rut. After a bit (my glass had covered him instantly) he raised his head and looked down the road in a direction opposite to mine. Then he turned, saw me, started slightly, stood quite still for a fraction of a minute (I wondered why), and vanished in the woods, his white brush waving me farewell. He was gone so instantaneously that it was hard to believe he bad really been there.
That was a pretty good look (at a fox), but far less satisfying than the other of my Franconia experiences. With two friends I had come down through the forest from the Notch railroad by a rather blind loggers’ trail, heading for a pair of abandoned farms, grassy fields in which it is needful to give heed to one’s steps for fear of bear-traps. As we emerged into the first clearing a fox was not more than five or six rods before us, feeding in the grass. Her eyes were on her work, the wind was in our favor, and notwithstanding two of us were almost wholly exposed, we stood there on the edge of the forest for the better part of half an hour, glasses up, passing comments upon her behavior. Evidently she was lunching upon insects, — grasshoppers or crickets, I suppose, — and so taken up was she with this agreeable employment that she walked directly toward us and passed within ten yards of our position, stopping every few steps for a fresh capture. The sunlight, which shone squarely in her face, seemed to affect her unpleasantly; at all events she blinked a good deal. Her manner of stepping about, her motions in catching her prey, — driving her nose deep into the grass and pushing it home, — and in short her whole behavior, were more catlike than doglike, or so we all thought. Plainly she had no idea of abbreviating her repast, nor did she betray the slightest grain of suspiciousness or wariness, never once casting an eye about in search of possible enemies. A dog in his own dooryard could not have seemed less apprehensive of danger. As often as she approached the surrounding wood she turned and hunted back across the field. We might have played the spy upon her indefinitely; but it was always the same thing over again, and by and by, when she passed for a little out of sight behind a tuft of bushes, we followed, careless of the result, and, as it seemed, got into her wind. She started on the instant, ran gracefully up a little incline, still in the grass land, turned for the first time to look at us, and disappeared in the forest. A pretty creature she surely was, and from all we saw of her she might have been accounted a very useful farm-hand; but perhaps, as farmers sometimes say of unprofitable cattle, she would soon have “eaten her head off” in the poultry yard. She was not fearless, — like a woodchuck that once walked up to me and smelled of my boot, as I stood still in the road near the Crawford House, — but simply off her guard; and our finding her in such a mood was simply a bit of good luck. Some day, possibly, we shall catch a weasel asleep.
In a vacation season, like our annual fortnight in New Hampshire, there is no predicting which jaunt, if any, will turn out superior to all the rest. It may be a longer and comparatively newer one (although in Franconia we find few new ones now, partly because we no longer seek them — the old is better, we are apt to say when any innovation is suggested); or, thanks to something in the day or something in the mood, it may be one of the shortest and most familiar. And when it is over, there may be a sweetness in the memory, but little to talk about; little “incident,” as editors say, little that goes naturally into a notebook. In other words, the best walk, for us, is the one in which we are happiest, the one in which we feel the most, not of necessity the one in which we see the most; or, to put it differently still, the one in which we do see the most, but with
Whatever we may call ourselves at home, among the mountains we are lovers of pleasure. Our day’s work is to be happy. We take our text from the good Longfellow as theologians take theirs from Scripture:
“Enjoyment, and not sorrow, is our destined end.”
We are not anxious to learn anything; our thoughts run not upon wisdom; if we take note of a plant or a bird, it is rather for the fun of it than for any scholarly purpose. We are boys out of school. I speak of myself and of the man I have called my walking mate. The two collectors of insects, of course, are more serious-minded. “No day without a beetle,” is their motto, and their absorption, even in Franconia, is in adding to the world’s stock of knowledge. Let them be respected accordingly. Our creed is more frankly hedonistic; and their virtue — I am free to confess it — shines the brighter for the contrast.
This year, nevertheless, old Franconia had for us, also, one most welcome novelty, the story of which I have kept, like the good wine, — a pretty small glassful, I am aware, — for the end of the feast. I had never enjoyed the old things better. Eight or nine years ago, writing — in this magazine2 — of June in Franconia, I expressed a fear that our delight in the beauty of nature might grow to be less keenly felt with advancing age; that we might ultimately be driven to a more scientific use of the outward world, putting the exercise of curiosity, what we call somewhat loftily the acquisition of knowledge, in the place of rapturous contemplation. So it may yet fall out, to be sure, since age is still advancing, but as far as present indications go, nothing of the sort seems at all imminent. I begin to believe, in fact, that things will turn the other way; that curiosity will rather lose its edge, and the power of beauty strike deeper and deeper home. So may it be I Then we shall not be dead while we live. Sure I am that the glory of mountains, the splendor of autumnal forests, the sweetness of valley prospects, were never more rapturously felt by me than during the season just ended. And still, as I started just now to say, I had special joy this year in a new specimen, an additional bird for my memory and notebook.
The forenoon of September 26, my fourth day, I spent on Garnet Hill. The grand circuit of that hill is one of the best esteemed of our longer expeditions. Formerly we did it always between breakfast and dinner, having to speed the pace a little uncomfortably for the last four or five miles; but times have begun to alter with us, or perhaps we have profited by experience; for the last few years, at any rate, we have made the trip an all-day affair, dining on Sunset Hill, and loitering down through the Landaff Valley — with a side excursion, it’ may be, to fill up the hours — in the afternoon. This trip, being, as I say, one of those we most set by, I was determined to hold in reserve against the arrival of my fellow foot-traveler; but there is also a pleasant shorter course, not round the hill, but, so to speak, over one side of it: out by the way of what I call High Bridge Road (never having heard any name for it), and back by the road — hardly more than a lane for much of its length — which traverses the hill diagonally on its northeastern slope, and joins the regular Sugar Hill highway a little below the Franconia Inn.
I left the Littleton road for the road to the Streeter neighborhood, crossed Gale River by a bridge pitched with much labor at a great height above it (a good indication of the swelling to which mountain streams are subject), passed two or three retired valley farms (where were eight or ten sleek young calves, one of which, rather to my surprise, ate from my hand a sprig of mint as if she liked the savor of it), and then began a long, steep climb. For much of the distance the road — narrow and very little traveled — is lined with dense alder and willow thickets, excellent cover for birds. It was partly with this place in my eye that I had chosen my route, remembering an hour of much interest here some years ago with a large flock of migrants. To-day, as it happened, the bushes were comparatively bird-less. White-throats and snowbirds were present, of course, and ruby-crowned kinglets, with a solitary vireo or two, but nothing out of the ordinary. The prospect, however, without being magnificent or — for Franconia — extensive, was full of attractiveness. Gale River hastening through a gorge overhung with forest, directly on my right, Streeter Pond farther away (two deer had been shot beside it that morning, as I learned before night, — news of that degree of importance travels fast), and the gay-colored hills toward Littleton and Bethlehem, — maple grove on maple grove, with all their banners flying, — these made a delightsome panorama, shifting with every twist in the road and with every rod of the ascent; so that I had excuse more than sufficient for continually stopping to breathe and face about. In one place I remarked a goodly bed of coltsfoot leaves, noticeable for their angular shape as well as for their peculiar shade of green. I wished for a blossom. If the dandelion sometimes anticipates the season, why not the coltsfoot? But I found no sign of flower or bud. Probably the plant is of a less impatient habit; but I have seen it so seldom that all my ideas about it are no better than guesswork. Along the wayside was maiden-hair fern, also, which I do not come upon any too often in this mountain country.
Midway of the hill stands a solitary house, where I found my approach spied upon through a crack between the curtain and the sash of what seemed to be a parlor window; a flattering attention which, after the manner of high public functionaries, I took as a tribute not to myself, but to the rôle I was playing. No doubt travelers on foot are rare on that difficult, out-of-the-way road, and the walker rather than the man was what filled my lady’s eye; unless, as may easily have been true, she was expecting to see a peddler’s pack. At this point the road crooks a sharp elbow, and henceforth passes through cultivated country, — orchards and ploughed land, grass fields and pasturage; still without houses, however, and having a pleasant natural hedgerow of trees and shrubbery. In one of the orchards was a great congregation of sparrows and myrtle warblers, with sapsuckers, flickers, downy woodpeckers, solitary vireos, and I forget what else, though I sat on the wall for some time refreshing myself with their cheerful society. I agreed with them that life was still a good thing.
Then came my novelty. I was but a little way past this aviary of an apple orchard when I approached a pile of brush, — dry branches which had been heaped against the roadside bank some years ago, and up through which bushes and weeds were growing. My eyes sought it instinctively, and at the same moment a bird moved inside. A sparrow, alone; a sparrow, and a new one! “A Lincoln finch!” I thought; and just then the creature turned, and I saw his forward parts: a streaked breast with a bright, well-defined buff band across it, as if the streaks had been marked in first and then a wash of yellowish had been laid on over them. Yes, a Lincoln finch I He was out of sight almost before I saw him, however, and after a bit of feverish waiting I squeaked. He did not come up to look at me, as I hoped he would do, but the sudden noise startled him, and he moved slightly, enough so that my eye again found him. This time, also, I saw his head and his breast, and then he was lost again. Again I waited. Then I squeaked, waited, and squeaked again, louder and longer than before. No answer, and no sign of movement. You might have sworn there was no bird there; and perhaps you would not have perjured yourself; for presently I stepped up to the brush-heap and trampled it over, and still there was no sign of life. Above the brush was a low stone wall, and beyond that a bare ploughed field. How the fellow had slipped away there was no telling. And that was the end of the story. But I had seen him, and he was a Lincoln finch. It was a shabby interview he had granted me, after keeping me waiting for almost twenty years; but then, I repeated for my comfort, I had seen him.
He was less confusingly like a song sparrow than I had been prepared to find him. His general color (one of a bird’s best marks in life, hard as it may be to derive an exact idea of it from printed descriptions), gray with a greenish tinge, — a little suggestive of Henslow’s bunting, as it struck me, — this, I thought, supposing it to be constant, ought to catch the eye at a glance. Henceforth I should know what to look for, and might expect better luck; although, if this particular bird’s behavior was to be taken as a criterion, the books bad been quite within the mark in emphasizing the sly and elusive habit of the species, and the consequent difficulty of prolonged and satisfactory observation of it.
The Lincoln finch, or Lincoln sparrow, the reader should know, is a congener of the song sparrow and the swamp sparrow, a native mostly of the far north, and while common enough as a migrant in many parts of the United States, is, or is generally supposed to be, something of a rarity in the Eastern States.
Meanwhile, having beaten the brush over, and looked up the roadside and down the roadside and over the wall, I went on my way, stopping once for a feast of blackberries, — as many and as good as a man could ask for, long, slender, sweet, and dead ripe; and at the top of the road I cut across a hayfield to the lane before mentioned, that should take me back to the Sugar Hill highway. Now the prospects were in front of me, there was no more steepness of grade, I had seen Tom Lincoln’s finch,3 and the day was brighter than ever. Every sparrow that stirred I must put my glass on; but not one was of the right complexion.
Then, in a sugar grove not far from the Franconia Inn, I found myself all at once in the midst of one of those traveling flocks that make so delightful a break in a bird-lover’s day. I was in the midst of it, I say; but the real fact was that the birds were passing through the grove between me and the sky. For the time being the branches were astir with wings. Such minutes are exciting. “Now or never,” a man says to himself. Every second is precious. At this precise moment a warbler is above your head, far up in the topmost bough perhaps, half hidden by a leaf. If you miss him, he is gone forever. If you make him out, well and good; he may be a rarity, a prize long waited for; or, quite as likely, while busy with him you may let a ten times rarer one pass unnoticed. In this game, as in any other, a man must run his chances; though there is skill as well as luck in it, without doubt, and one player will take a trick or two more than another, with the same hand.
In the present instance, so far as my canvass showed, the “wave” was made up of myrtle warblers, blackpolls, baybreasts, black-throated greens, a chestnut-side, a Maryland yellow-throat, red-eyed vireos, solitary vireos, one or more scarlet tanagers (in undress, of course, and pretty late by my reckoning), ruby-crowned kinglets, chickadees, winter wrens, goldfinches, song sparrows, and flickers. The last three or four species, it is probable enough, were in the grove only by accident, and are hardly to be counted as part of the south-bound caravan. Several of the species were in good force, and doubtless some species eluded me altogether. No man can look all ways at once; and in autumn the eyes must do not only their own work, but that of the ears as well.
All the while the birds hastened on, flitting from tree to tree, feeding a minute and then away, following the stream. I was especially glad of the baybreasts, of which there were two at least, both very distinctly marked, though in nothing like their spring plumage. I saw only one other specimen this fall, but the name is usually in my autumnal Franconia list. The chestnut-side, on the other hand, was the first one I had ever found here at this season, and was correspondingly welcome.
After all, a catalogue of names gives but a meagre idea of such a flock, except to those who have seen similar ones, and amused themselves with them in a similar manner. But I had had the fun, whether I can make any one else appreciate it or not, and between it and my joy over the Lincoln finch I went home in high feather.
Five days longer I followed the road alone. Every time a sparrow darted into the bushes too quickly for me to name him, I thought of Melospiza lincolni. Once, indeed, on the Bethlehem road, I believed that I really saw a bird of that species; but it was in the act of disappearing, and no amount of pains or patience — or no amount that I had to spare — could procure me a second glimpse.
On the sixth day came my friend, the second foot-passenger, and was told of my good fortune; and together we began forthwith to walk — and look at sparrows. This, also, was vain, until the morning of October 4. I was out first. A robin was cackling from a tall treetop, as I stepped upon the piazza, and a song sparrow sang from a cluster of bushes across the way. Other birds were there, and I went over to have a look at them: two or three white-throats, as many song sparrows, and a white-crown. Then by squeaking I called into sight two swamp sparrows (migrants newly come, they must be, to be found in such a place), and directly afterward up hopped a small grayish sparrow, seen at a glance to be like my bird of nine days before, — like him in looks, but not in behavior. He conducted himself in the most accommodating manner, was full of curiosity, not in the least shy, and afforded me every opportunity to look him over to my heart’s content.
In the midst of it all I heard my comrade’s footfall on the piazza, and gave him a whistle. He came at once, wading through the wet grass in his slippers. He knew from my attitude — so he firmly declared afterward — that it was a Lincoln finch I was gazing at! And just as he drew near, the sparrow, sitting in full view and facing us, in a way to show off his peculiar marks to the best advantage, uttered a single cheep, thoroughly distinctive, or at least quite unlike any sparrow’s note with which I am familiar; as characteristic, I should say, as the song sparrow’s tut. Then he dropped to the ground. “Yes, I saw him, and heard the note,” my companion said; and he hastened into the house for his boots and his opera-glass. In a few minutes he was back again, fully equipped, and we set ourselves to coax the fellow into making another display of himself. Sure enough, he responded almost immediately, and we had another satisfying observation of him, though this time he kept silence. I was especially interested to find, what I had on general considerations suspected, that Lincoln finches were like other members of their family. Take them right (by themselves, and without startling them to begin with), and they could be as complaisant as one could desire, no matter how timid and elusive they might be under different conditions. Our bird was certainly a jewel. For a while he pleased us by perching side by side with a song sparrow. “You see how much smaller I am,” he might have been saying; “you may know me partly by that.”
And we fancied we should know him thereafter; but a novice’s knowledge is only a novice’s, as we were to be freshly reminded that very day. Our jaunt was round Garnet Hill, the all-day expedition before referred to. I will not rehearse the story of it; but while we were on the farther side of the hill, somewhere in Lisbon, we found the roadsides swarming with sparrows, — a mixed flock, song sparrows, field sparrows, chippers, and white-crowns. Among them one of us by and by detected a grayish, smallish bird, and we began hunting him, from bush to bush and from one side of the road to the other, carrying on all the while an eager debate as to his identity. Now we were sure of him, and now everything was unsettled. His breast was streaked and had a yellow band across it. His color and size were right, as well as we could say, — so decidedly so that there was no difficulty whatever in picking him out at a glance after losing him in a flying bunch; but some of his motions were pretty song-sparrow-like, and what my fellow observer was most staggered by, he showed a blotch, a running together of the dark streaks, in the middle of the breast, — a point very characteristic of the song sparrow, but not mentioned in book descriptions of Melospiza lincolni. So we chased him and discussed him (that was the time for a gun, the professional will say), till he got away from us for good.
Was he a Lincoln finch? Who knows? We left the question open. But I believe he was. The main reason, not to say the only one, for our uncertainty was the pectoral blotch; and that, I have since learned, is often seen in specimens of Melospiza lincolni. Why the manuals make no reference to it I cannot tell; as I cannot tell why they omit the same point in describing the savanna sparrow. In scientific books, as in “popular” magazine articles, many things must no doubt be passed over for lack of room. In any case, it is not the worst misfortune that could befall us to have some things left for our own finding out.
after all, the question was not of supreme importance. Though I was
delighted to have seen a new bird, and doubly delighted to have seen
it in Franconia, the great joy of my visit was not in any such
fragment of knowledge, but in that bright and glorious world;
mountains and valleys beautiful in themselves, and endeared by the
memory of happy days among them. Sometimes I wonder whether the
pleasures of memory may not be worth the price of growing old.
1 The species was not new. A Maine collector had anticipated her, I believe. Whether his name was given to the Bee I did not learn or have forgotten.
2 The Atlantic Monthly.
3 “I named it Tom’s Finch,” says Audubon, “in honor of our friend Lincoln, who was a great favorite among us.”