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Footing it in Franconia
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A DAY IN JUNE
ALL signs threatened a day of midsummer heat, though it was only the 2d of June. Before breakfast, even, the news seemed to have got abroad; so that there was something like a dearth of music under my windows, where heretofore there had been almost a surfeit. The warbling vireo in the poplar, which had teased my ear morning after morning, getting shamelessly in the way of his betters, had for once fallen silent; unless, indeed, he had sung his stint before I woke, or had gone elsewhere to practice. The comparative stillness enabled me to hear voices from the hillside across the meadow, while I turned over in my mind a thought concerning the nature of those sounds — a class by themselves, some of them by no means unmusical — which are particularly enjoyable when borne to us from a distance: crow voices, the baying of hounds, cowbell tinkles, and the like. The nasal, high-pitched, penetrating call of the little Canadian nuthatch is one of the best examples of what I mean. Ank, ank: the sounds issue from the depths of trackless woods, miles and miles away as it seems, just reaching us, without a breath to spare; dying upon the very tympanum, like a spent runner who drops exhausted at the goal, touching it only with his finger tips. Yet the ear is not fretted. It makes no attempt to hear more. Ank, ank: that is the whole story, and we see the bird as plainly as if he hung from a cone at the top of the next fir tree.
“No tramping to-day,” said my friends from the cottage as we met at table. They had been reading the thermometer, which is the modern equivalent for observing the wind and regarding the clouds. But my vacation, unlike theirs, was not an all-summer affair. It was fast running out, and there were still many things to be seen and done. Immediately after breakfast, therefore, with an umbrella and a luncheon, I started for the Notch. I would reverse the usual route, going by way of the railroad — reached by a woodland trail above “Chase’s” — and returning by the highway. Of itself this is only a forenoon’s jaunt, but I meant to piece it out by numerous waits — for coolness and listening — and sundry by-excursions, especially by a search for Selkirk’s violet and an hour or two on Bald Mountain. If the black flies and the mosquitoes would let me choose my own gait, I would risk the danger of sunstroke.
As I come out upon the grassy plain, after the first bit of sharp ascent, a pleasant breeze is stirring, and with the umbrella over my head, and a halt as often as the shade of a tree, the sight of a flower, or the sound of music invites me, I go on with great comfort. Now I am detained by a close bed of dwarf cornel, every face looking straight upward, the waxen white “flowers” inclosing each a bunch of dark pin-points. Now a lovely clear-winged moth hovers over a dandelion head; and a pleasing sight it is, to see his transparent wings beating themselves into a haze about his brown body. And now, by way of contrast, one of our tiny sky-blue butterflies rises from the ground and with a pretty unsteadiness flits carelessly before me, twinkling over the sand.
A bluebird drops into the white birch under which I am standing, and lets fall a few notes of his contralto warble. A delicious voice. For purity and a certain affectionateness it would be hard to name its superior. A vesper sparrow sings from the grass land; and from the woods beyond a jay is screaming. His, by the bye, is another of the voices that are bettered by distance, although, for my own part, I like the ring of it, near or far. Now a song sparrow breaks out in his breezy, characteristically abrupt manner. He is a bird with fine gifts of cheeriness and versatility; but when he sets himself against the vesper, as now, it is like prose against poetry, plain talk against music. So it seems to me at this moment, I mean to say. At another time, in another mood, I might tone down the comparison, though I could never say less than that the vesper is my favorite. His gifts are sweetness and perfection.
So I cross the level fields to Chase’s, where I stand a few minutes before the little front-yard flower-garden, always with many pretty things in it. One of those natural gardeners, the good woman must be, who have a knack of making plants blossom. And just beyond, in the shelter of the first tree, I stop again to take off my hat, put down my umbrella, and speak coaxingly to a suspicious pointer (being a friend of all dogs except surly ones), which after much backing and filling gets his cool nose into my palm. We are on excellent terms, I flatter myself, but at that moment some notion strikes me and I take out my notebook and pencil. Instantly he starts away and sets up a furious bark, looking first at me, then toward the house, circling about me all the while, at a rod’s distance, in a quiver of excitement. “Help! help!” he cries. “Here’s a villain of some sort. I’ve never seen the like. A spy at the very least.” And though he quiets down when I put up the book, there is no more friendliness for this time. Man writing, as Carlyle would have said, is a doubtful character.
Another stage, to the edge of the woods, and I rest again, the breeze encouraging me. A second bluebird is caroling. Every additional one is cause for thankfulness. Imagine a place where bluebirds should be as thick as English sparrows are in our American cities! Imagine heaven! A crested flycatcher screams, an olive-side calls pip, pip, a robin cackles, an oven-bird recites his piece with schoolboy emphasis, an alder flycatcher queeps, and a vesper sparrow sings. And at the end, as if for good measure, a Maryland yellow-throat adds his witchery, witchery. The breeze comes to me over broad beds of hay-scented fern, and at my feet are bunchberry blossoms and the white star-flower. At this moment, nevertheless, the cooling, insect-dispersing wind is better than all things else. Such is one effect of hot weather, setting comfort above poetry.
I leave the wind behind, and take my way into the wood, where there is nothing in particular to delay me except an occasional windfall, which must be clambered over or beaten about. Half an hour, more or less, of lazy traveling, and I come out upon the railroad at the big sugar-maple grove. This is one of the sights of the country in the bright-leaf season, say the first week of October; something, I have never concluded what, giving to its colors a most remarkable depth and richness. Putting times together, I must have spent hours in admiring it, now from different points on the Butter Hill round, now from Bald Mountain. At present every leaf of it is freshly green, and somewhere within it dwells a wood thrush, for whose golden voice I sit down in the shade to listen. He is in no haste, and no more am I. Let him take his time. Other birds also are a little under the weather, as it appears; but the silence cannot last. A scarlet tanager’s voice is the first to break it. High as the temperature is, he is still hoarse. And so is the black-throated blue warbler that follows him. A pine siskin passes overhead on some errand, announcing himself as he goes. There is no need for him to speak twice. Then come three warblers, — a Nashville, a magnolia, and a blue yellow-back; and after them a piece of larger game, a smallish hawk. He breaks out of the dense wood behind me, perches for half a minute in an open maple, where I can see that he has prey of some kind in his talons, and then, taking wing, ascends in circles into the sky, and so disappears. That is locomotion of a sort to make a man and his umbrella envious.
A rose-breasted grosbeak, invisible (but I can see him), is warbling not far off. He has taken the tanager’s tune — which is the robin’s as well — and smoothed it and smoothed it, and sweetened it and sweetened it, till it is smoother than oil and sweeter than honey. I admire it for what it is, a miracle of mellifluency; if you call it perfect, I can only acquiesce; but I cannot say that it stirs or kindles me. Perhaps I haven’t a sweet ear. And hark! the wood thrush gives voice: only a few strains, but enough to show him still present. Now I am free to trudge along up the railroad track, pondering as I go upon the old question why railway sleepers axe always too far apart for one step and not far enough for two. At short intervals I pause at the sound of a mourning warbler’s brief song, pretty in itself, and noticeable for its trick of a rolled r. Some of the birds add a concluding measure of quick notes, like wit, wit, wit. It is long since I have seen so many at once. In truth, I have never seen so many except on one occasion, on the side of Mount Washington. That was ten years ago. One a year, on the average, shows itself to me during the spring passage — none in autumn. Well I remember my first one. Twenty years have elapsed since that late May morning, but I could go to the very spot, I think, though I have not been near it for more than half that time. A good thing it is that we can still enjoy the good things of past years, or of what we call past years.
And a good thing is a railroad, though the sleepers be spaced on purpose for a foot passenger’s discomfort. Without this one, over which at this early date no trains are running, I should hardly be traversing these miles of rough mountain country on a day of tropical sultriness. The clear line of the track gives me not only passage and a breeze, but an opening into the sky, and at least twice as many bird sights and bird sounds as the unbroken forest would furnish.1 I drink at the section men’s well — an ice-cold spring inclosed in a bottomless barrel — cross the brook which, gloriously alive and beautiful, comes dashing over its boulders down the White-cross Ravine, fifty feet below me as I guess, and stop in the burning on the other side to listen for woodpeckers and brown creepers. The latter are strangely rare hereabout, and this seems an ideal spot in which to look for them. So I cannot help thinking as I see from how many of the trunks — burned to death and left standing — the bark has warped in long, loose flakes, as if to provide nesting sites for a whole colony of creepers. But the birds are not here; or, if they are, they do not mean that an inquisitive stranger shall know it. An olive-sided flycatcher calls, rather far off, making me suspicious for an instant of a red cross-bill, and a white-throated sparrow whistles out of the gulch below me; but I listen in vain for the quick tseep which would put an eighty-seventh name into my vacation catalogue.
Here is the round-leaved violet, one pale bright, shy blossom. How pleased I am to see it! Hobble-bush and wild red cherry are still in bloom. White Mountain dogwood, we might almost call the hobble-bush; so well it fills the place, in flowering time, of Cornus florida in the Alleghanies. In the twilight of the woods, as in the darkness of evening, no color shows so far as white; which, for aught I know, may be one of the reasons why, relatively speaking, white flowers are so much more common in the forest than in the open country. In my eyes, nevertheless, the leaves of the hobble-bush — leaves and leaf-buds — are, if anything, prettier than the blossoms. Such beauty of shape, such expansiveness, such elegance of crimpling, and such exceeding richness of hue, whether in youth or age! If the bush refuses transplantation, as I have read that it does, I am glad of it. My sympathies are with all things, plants, animals, and men, that insist upon their native freedom, in their native country, with a touch, or more than a touch, of native savagery. Civilization is well enough, within limits; but why be in haste to have all the world a garden? It will be some time yet, I hope, before every valley is exalted.
With progress of this industriously indolent sort it is nearly noon by the time I turn into the footpath that leads down to Echo Lake. Here the air is full of toad voices; a chorus of long-drawn trills in the shrillest of musical tones. If the creatures (the sandy shore and its immediate shallows are thick with them) are attempting to set up an echo, they meet with no success. At all events I hear no response, though the fault may easily be in my hearing, insusceptible as it is to vibrations above a certain pitch of fineness. What ethereal music it would be, an echo of toad trills from the grand sounding-board of Eagle Cliff! In the density of my ignorance I am surprised to find such numbers of these humble, half-domesticated, garden-loving batrachians congregated here in the wilderness. If the day were less mid-summery, and were not already mortgaged to other plans, I would go down to Profile Lake to see whether the same thing is going on there. I should have looked upon these lovely sheets of mountain water as spawning-places for trout. But toads! — that seems another matter. If I am surprised at their presence, however, they seem equally so at mine. And who knows? They were here first. Perhaps I am the intruder. I wish them no harm in any case. If black flies form any considerable part of their diet, they could not multiply too rapidly, though every note of every trill were good for a polliwog, and every polliwog should grow into the portliest of toads.
I spoke a little warmly, perhaps, at the end of the forenoon chapter. Echo Lake, at the foot of it, is one of the places where I love best to linger, and to-day it was more attractive even than usual; the air of the clearest, the sun bright, the mountain woods all in young leaf, the water shining. But the black flies, which had left me undisturbed on the railroad, though I sat still by the half hour, once I reached the lake would allow me no rest.
It was twelve days since my first visit. The snow was gone, and the trailing arbutus had dropped its last blossoms; but both kinds of shadbush, standing in the hollow where a snow-bank had lain ten days ago, were still in fresh bloom. Pink lady’s-slippers were common (more buds than blossoms as yet), and the pink rhodora also; with gold-thread, star-flower, dwarf cornel, housonia, and the painted trillium. Chokeberry bushes were topped with handsome clusters of round, purplish buds.
The brightest and prettiest thing here, however, was not a flower, but a bird; a Blackburnian warbler fluttering along before me in the low bushes — an extraordinary act of grace on the part of this haunter of treetops — as if on purpose to show himself. He was worth showing. His throat was like a jewel. A bay-breast, always deserving of notice, was singing among the. evergreens near by. So I believed, but the flies were so hot after me that I made no attempt to assure myself. I was fairly chased away from the water-side. One place after another I fled to, seeking one where the breeze should rid me of my tormentors, till at last, in desperation, I took to the piazza of the little shop — now unoccupied — at which the summer tourist buys birch-bark souvenirs, with ginger-beer, perhaps, and other potables. There I finished my luncheon, still having a skirmish with the enemy’s scouts now and then, but thankful to be out of the thick of the battle. The rippling lake shone before me, a few swifts were shooting to and fro above it, but for the time my enjoyment of all such things was gone. That half hour of black-fly persecution had dissipated the happy mood in which the forenoon had been passed, and there was no recovering it by force of will. A military man would have said, perhaps, that I had lost my morale. Something had happened to me, call it what you will. But if one string was broken, my bow had another. Quiet meditation being impossible, I was all the readier to go in search of Selkirk’s violet, the possible finding of which was one of the motives that had brought me into the mountains thus early. To look for flowers is not a question of mood, but of patience. To look at them, so as to feel their beauty and meaning, is another business, not to be conducted successfully while poisonous insects are fretting one’s temper to madness.
If I went about this botanical errand doubtingly, let the reader hold me excused. He has heard of a needle in a haystack. The case of my violets was similar. The one man who had seen them was now dead. Years before, he had pointed out to me casually (or like a dunce I had heard him casually) the place where he was accustomed to leave the road in going after them — which was always long before my arrival. This place I believed that I remembered within perhaps half a mile. My only resource, therefore, was to plunge into the forest, practically endless on its further side, and as well as I could, in an hour or so, look the land over for that distance. Success would be a piece of almost incredible luck, no doubt; but what then? I was here, the hour was to spare, and the woods were worth a visit, violets or no violets. So I plunged in, and, following the general course of the road, swept the ground right and left with my eye, turning this way and that as bowlders and tangles impeded my steps, or as the sight of something like violet leaves attracted me.
Well, for good or ill, it is a short story. There were plenty of violets, but all of the common white sort, and when I emerged into the road again my hands were empty. “Small,” “rare,” says the Manual. My failure was not ignominious, — or I would keep it to myself, — and I count upon trying again another season. And one thing I had found: my peace of mind. Subjectively, as we say, my hunt had prospered. Now I could climb Bald Mountain with good hope of an hour or two of serene enjoyment at the summit.
The climb is short, though the upper half of it is steep enough to merit the name, and the “mountain” (it will pardon me the quotation marks) is no more than a point of rocks, an outlying spur of Lafayette. Its attractiveness is due not to its altitude, but to the exceptional felicity of its situation; commanding the lake and the Notch, and the broad Franconia Valley, together with a splendid panorama of broken country and mountain forest; and over all, close at hand, the solemn, bare peak of Lafayette.
I took my time for the ascent (blessed be all-day jaunts, say I), minding the mossy boulders, the fern-beds, and the trees (many of them old friends of mine — it is more than twenty years since I began going up and down here), and especially the violets. It was surprising, not to say amusing, now that I had violets in my eye, how ubiquitous the little blanda had suddenly become. Almost it might be said that there was nothing else in the whole forest. So true it is that seeing or not seeing is mostly a matter of prepossession. As for the birds, this was their hour of after-dinner silence. I recall only a golden-crowned kinglet zeeing among the low evergreens about the cone. He was the first one of my whole vacation trip, and slipped at once into the eighty-seventh place in my catalogue, the place I had tried so hard to induce the brown creeper to take possession of two hours before. Creeper or kinglet, it was all one to me, though the kinglet is the handsomer of the two, and much the less prosaic in his dietary methods. In fact, now that the subject suggests itself, the two birds present a really striking contrast: one so preternaturally quick and so continually in motion, the other so comparatively lethargic. Every one to his trade. Let the creeper stick to his bark. Quick or slow, he should still have been Number 88, and thrice welcome, if he would have given me half an excuse for counting him. As things were, he kept out of my reckoning to the end.
“This is the best thing I have had yet.”
So I said to myself as I turned to look about me at the summit. It was only half past two, the day was gloriously fair, the breeze not too strong, yet ample for creature comforts, — coolness and freedom, — and the place all my own. If I had missed Selkirk’s violet, I had found his solitude. The joists of the little open summer-house were scrawled thickly with names and initials, but the scribblers and carvers had gone with last year’s birds. I might sing or shout, and there would be none to hear me. But I did neither. I was glad to be still and look.
There lay Echo Lake, shimmering in the sun. Beyond was the hotel, its windows still boarded for winter, and on either side of it rose the mountain walls. The White Cross still kept something of its shape on Lafayette, the only snow left in sight, though almost the whole peak had been white ten days before. The cross itself must be fast going. With my glass I could see the water pouring from it in a flood. And how plainly I could follow the trail up the rocky cone of the mountain! Those were good days when I climbed it, lifting myself step by step up that long, steep, boulder-covered slope. I should love to be there now. I wonder what flowers are already in bloom. It must be too early for the diapensia and the Greenland sandwort, I imagine. Yet I am not sure. Mountain flowers are quick to answer when the sun speaks to them. Thousands of years they have been learning to make the most of a brief season. Plants of the same species bloom earlier here than in level Massachusetts. After all, alpine plants, hurried and harried as they are, true children of poverty, have perhaps the best of it. “Blessed are ye poor” may have been spoken to them also. Hardy mountaineers, blossoming in the very face of heaven, with no earthly admirers except the butterflies. I remember the splendors of the Lapland azalea in middle June, with rocks and snow for neighbors. So it will be this year, for Wisdom never faileth. I look and look, till almost I am there on the heights, my feet standing on a carpet of blooming willows and birches, and the world, like another carpet, outspread below.
But there is much else to delight me. Even here, so far below the crest of Lafayette, I am above the world. Yonder is one of my pair of deserted farms. Good hours I have had in them. Beyond is the Chase clearing, and still beyond, over another tract of woods, are the pasture lands along the road to “Mears’s.” Then comes the line of the Bethlehem road, marked by a house at long intervals — and thankful am I for the length of them. There I see my house; one of several that I have picked out for purchase, at one time and another, but have never come to the point of paying for, still less of occupying. When my friends and I have wandered irresponsibly about this country it has pleased us to be like children, and play the old game of make-believe. Some of the farmers would be astonished to know how many times their houses have been sold over their heads, and they never the wiser. Further away, a little to the right, I see the pretty farms — romantic farms, I mean, attractive to outsiders — of which I have so often taken my share of the crop from Mount Agassiz, at the base of which they nestle. To the left of all this are the village of Franconia and the group of Sugar Hill hotels, with the Landaff Valley (how green it is!) below them in the middle distance. Nearer still is the Franconia Valley, with the Tucker Brook alders, and far down toward Littleton bright reaches of Gale River.
All this fills me with exquisite pleasure. But longer than at anything else I look at the mountain forest just below me. So soft and bright this world of treetops all newly green! I have no thoughts about it; there is nothing to say; but the feeling it gives me is like what I imagine of heaven itself. I can only look and be happy.
About me are stunted, faded spruces, with here and there among them a balsam-fir, wonderfully vivid and fresh in the comparison; and after a time I discover that the short upper branches of the spruces have put forth new cones, soft to the touch as yet, and of a delicate, purplish color, the tint varying greatly, whether from difference of age or for other reasons I cannot presume to say. In this low wood, somewhere near by, a blackpoll warbler, not long from South America, I suppose, is lisping softly to himself. A myrtle warbler, less recently come, and from a less distance, has taken possession of a dead treetop, hardly higher than a man’s head, from which he makes an occasional sally after a passing insect. Between whiles he sings. Once I heard a snowbird, as I thought; but it was only the myrtle warbler when I came to look. An oven-bird shoots into the air out of the forest below for a burst of aerial afternoon music. I heard the preluding strain, and, glancing up, caught him at once, the sunlight happening to strike him perfectly. All the morning he has been speaking prose; now he is a poet; a division of the day from which the rest of us might take a lesson. But for his afternoon rôle he needs a name. “Oven-bird” goes somewhat heavily in a lyric: —
“Hark! hark! the oven-bird at heaven’s gate sings”
you would hardly recognize that for Shakespeare.
As I shift my position, trying one after another of the seats which the rocks offer for my convenience, I notice that the three-toothed five-finger — a mountain lover, if there ever was one — is in bud, and the blueberry in blossom. The myrtle warbler sings by the hour, a soft, dreamy trill, a sound of pure contentment; and two red-eyed vireos, one here, one there, preach with equal persistency. They have taken the same text, I think, and it might have been made for them: “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little.” Right or wrong, the warbler’s lullaby is more to my taste than the vireos’ exhortation. A magnolia warbler, out of sight among the evergreens, is making an afternoon of it likewise. His song is a mere nothing; hardly to be called a “line;” but if all the people who have nothing extraordinary to say were to hold their peace, what would ears be good for? The race might become deaf, as races of fish have gone blind through living in caverns.
These are exactly such birds as one might have expected to find here. And the same may be said of a Swainson thrush and a pine siskin. A black-billed cuckoo and a Maryland yellow-throat, on the other hand, the yellow-throat especially, seem less in place. What can have brought the latter to this dry, rocky hilltop is more than I can imagine. A big black-and-yellow butterfly (Turnus) goes sailing high overhead, borne on the wind. For so unsteady a steersman he is a bold mariner. A second look at him, and he is out of sight. Common as he is, he is one of my perennial admirations. The peak of Lafayette is no more a miracle. All the flowers up there know him.
it is time to go. I have been here an hour and a half, and am
determined to have no hurrying on the way homeward, over the old
Notch road. Let the day be all alike, a day of leisure and of dreams.
A last look about me, a few rods of picking my steep course downward
over the rocks at the very top, and I am in the woods. Here, “my
distance and horizon gone,” I please myself with looking at bits of
the world’s beauty; especially at sprays of young leaves, breaking
a twig here and a twig there to carry in my hand; a spray of budded
mountain maple or of yellow birch. Texture, color, shape, veining and
folding — all is a piece of Nature’s perfect work. No less
beautiful — I stop again and again before a bed of them — are the
dainty branching beech-ferns. There is no telling how pretty they are
on their slender shining stems. And all the way I am taking leave of
the road. I may never see it again. “Good-by, old friend,” I say;
and the trees and the brook seem to answer me, “Good by.”
1 I was once walking over these same miles of sleepers with a bird-loving man, when he recalled a reminiscence of his boyhood. One of his teachers was remarking upon the need of seeking things in their appropriate places. “Now if you wanted to see birds,” he said, by way of illustration, “you wouldn’t go to a railroad track.” “Which is the very place we do go to,” my companion added.