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Footing it in Franconia
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RED LEAF DAYS
WHITE MOUNTAIN woods are generally at their brightest in the last few days of September. This year I had but a week or so to stay among them, and timed my visit accordingly, arriving on the 22d. As I drove over the hills from Littleton to Franconia there were only scattered bits of high color in sight — a single tree here and there, which for some reason had hung out its autumnal flag in advance of its fellows. It seemed almost impossible that all the world would be aglow within a week; but I had no real misgivings. Seed time and harvest would not fail. The leaves would ripen in their time. And so the event proved. Day by day the change went visibly forward (visibly yet invisibly, as the hands go round the face of a clock), till by the 30th the colors were as brilliant as one could wish, though with less than the usual proportion of yellow.
The white birches, which should have supplied that hue, were practically leafless. A small caterpillar (the larva of a tiny moth, one of the Microlepidoptera) had eaten the greenness from every white-birch leaf in the whole country roundabout. One side of Mount Cleveland, for example, looked from a distance as if a fire had swept over it. It was a real devastation; yet, to my surprise, as the maple groves turned red the total effect was little, if at all, less beautiful than in ordinary seasons. The leafless purplish patches gave a certain indefinable openness to the woods, and the eye felt the duller spaces as almost a relief. I could never have believed that destruction so widespread and lamentable could work so little damage to the appearance of the landscape. As the old Hebrew said, everything is beautiful in its time.
We were four at table, and in front of the evening fireplace, but in footing it we were only two. Sometimes we walked side by side; sometimes we were rods apart. When we felt like it we talked; then we went on a piece in silence, as Christians should. Let me never have a traveling companion who cannot now and then keep himself company. The ideal man for such a rôle is one who is wiser than yourself, yet not too wise, lest there be lack of reciprocity, and you find yourself no better than a boy rusticating with a tutor. He should be even-tempered, also, well furnished with philosophy, loving fair weather and good living, but taking things as they come; and withal, while not unwilling to intimate his own preference as to the day’s route and other matters, he should be always ready to defer with all cheerfulness to his partner’s wish. “The ideal man,” I say; but I am thinking of a real one.
We have become well known in the valley, after many years; so that, although we are almost the only walkers there, our ambulatory eccentricity has mostly ceased to provoke comment. At all events, the people no longer look upon us as men broken out of Bedlam. Time, we may say, has established our innocence. If a recent corner expresses concern as we go past, some older resident reassures him. “They are harmless,” he says. “There used to be three of them. They pull weeds, as you see; the older one has his hands full of them now. Yes, they are branches of thorn bushes. They always carry opera glasses, too. We used to think they were looking for land to buy. Old—, up on the hill in Lisbon, tried to sell them his farm at a fancy figure, but they did n’t bite. I reckon they know a thing or two, for all their queer ways. One of ‘em knows how to write, anyhow; he is always taking out pencil and paper. There I you see how he does. He sets down a word or two, and away he goes again.”
It is all true. We looked at plants, and sometimes gathered them. The botanist had thorn bushes on his mind, the genus Cratægus being a hard one, and, as I judged, newly under revision. I professed no knowledge upon so recondite a subject, but was proud to serve the cause of science by pointing out a bush here and there. One hot afternoon, too, after a pretty long forenoon jaunt, I nearly walked my legs off, as the strong old saying is, following my leader far up the Landaff Valley (“down Easton way”) to visit a bush of which some one had brought him word. It was an excellent specimen, the best we had yet seen; but it was nothing new, and by no means so handsome or so interesting as one found afterward by accident on our way to Bethlehem. That was indeed a beauty, and its abundant fruit a miracle of color.
Once I detected an aster which the botanist had passed by and yet, upon a second look, thought worth taking home; it was probably Lindleyanus, he said, and the event proved it; and at another time my eye caught. by the wayside a bunch of chokecherry shrubs hung with yellow dusters. We were in a carriage at the time, four old Franconian, and not one of us had ever seen such a thing here, before. Three of us had never seen such a thing anywhere; for my own part, I was in a state of something like excitement; but the Cratægus collector, who knows American trees if anybody does, said: “Yes, the yellow variety is growing in the Arnold Arboretum, and is mentioned in the latest edition of Gray’s Manual.” Bushes have been found at Dedham, Massachusetts, it appears. The maker of the Manual seems not to have been aware of their having been noticed anywhere else; but since my return home I have been informed that they are not uncommon in the neighborhood of Montreal, where yellow chokecherries are “found with the ordinary form in the markets”!
That last statement is bewildering. Is there anything that somebody, somewhere, does not find edible? I have heard of eaters of arsenic and of slate pencils; but chokecherries for sale in a market! If the reader’s mouth does not pucker at the words he must be wanting in imagination.
In Franconia even the birds seemed to refuse such a tongue-tying diet. The shrubs loaded with fruit, some of it red (wine color), some of it black, — the latter color predominating, I think, — stood along the roadside mile upon mile. Sooner or later, I dare say, the birds must have recourse to them; how else do the bushes get planted so universally? But at the time of our visit there was a sufficiency of better fare. Rum cherries were still plentiful, and birds, like boys in an apple orchard, and like sensible people anywhere, take the best first.
It surprised me, while I was here some years ago, to discover how fond woodpeckers of all kinds are of rum cherries. Even the pileated could not keep away from the trees, but came close about the house to frequent them. One unfortunate fellow, I regret to say, came once too often. The sapsuckers, it was noticed, went about the business after a method of their own. Each cherry was carried to the trunk of a tree or to a telegraph pole, where it was wedged into a crevice, and eaten with all the regular woodpeckerish attitudes and motions. Doubtless it tasted better so. And the bird might well enough have said that he was behaving no differently from human beings, who for the most part do not swallow fruit under the branches, but take it indoors and feast upon it at leisure, and with something like ceremony. The trunk of a tree is a woodpecker’s table.
And for all that, Franconia woodpeckers are not so conservative as not to be able to take up with substantial improvements. They know a good thing when they see it. These same sapsuckers, or one of them, was not slow to discover that one of our crew, an entomological collector, had set up here and there pieces of board besmeared with a mixture of rum and sugar. And having made the discovery, he was not backward about improving it. He went the round of the boards with as much regularity as the moth collector himself, and with even greater frequency. And no wonder. Here was a feast indeed; victuals and drink together; insects preserved in rum. Happy bird! As the most famous of sentimental travelers said on a very different occasion, “How I envied him his feelings!” For there seems to be no doubt that sapsuckers love a liquid sweetness, and take means of their own to secure it.
On our present trip my walking mate and I stopped to examine a hemlock trunk, the bark of which a woodpecker of some kind, almost certainly a sapsucker, had riddled with holes till it looked like a nutmeg grater; and the most noticeable thing about it was that the punctures — past counting — were all on the south side of the tree, where the sap may be presumed to run earliest and most freely. Why this particular tree was chosen and the others left is a different question, to which I attempt no answer, though I have little doubt that the maker of the holes could have given one. To vary a half-true Bible text, “All the labor of a woodpecker is for his mouth;” and labor so prolonged as that which had been expended upon this hemlock was very unlikely to have been laid out without a reason. Every judge of rum cherries knows that some trees bear incomparably better fruit than others growing close beside them; and why should a woodpecker, a specialist of specialists, be less intelligent touching hemlock trees and the varying quality of their juices? A creature who is beholden to nobody from the time he is three weeks old is not to be looked down upon by beings who live, half of them, in danger of starvation or the poorhouse.
The end of summer is the top of the year with the birds. Their numbers are then at the full. After that, for six months and more, the tide ebbs. Winter and the long migratory journeys waste them like the plagues of Egypt. Not more than half of all that start southward ever live to come back again.
Of this every bird-lover takes sorrowful account. It is part of his autumnal feeling. If he sees a flock of bobolinks or of red-winged blackbirds, he thinks of the Southern rice fields, where myriads of both species — “rice-birds,” one as much as the other — will be shot without mercy. A sky full of swallows calls up a picture of thousands lying dead at once, in Florida or elsewhere, after a winter storm. A September humming-bird leaves him wondering over its approaching flight to Central America or to Cuba. Will the tiny thing ever accomplish that amazing passage and find its way home again to New England? Perhaps it will; but more likely not.
For the present, nevertheless, the birds are all in high spirits, warbling, twittering, feeding, chasing each other playfully about, as if life were nothing but holiday. Little they know of the future. And almost as little know we. Blessed ignorance I It gives us all, birds and men alike, many a good hour. If my playmate of long ago had foreseen that he was to die at twenty, he would never have been the happy boy that I remember. Those few bright years he had, though he had no more. So much was saved from the wreck.
Thoughts of this kind come to me as I recall an exhilarating half hour of our recent stay in Franconia. It was on the first morning, immediately after breakfast. We were barely out of the hotel yard before we turned into a bit of larch and alder swamp by the shore of Gale River. We could do nothing else. The air was full of chirps and twitters, while the swaying, feathery tops of the larches were alive with flocks of whispering waxwings, the greater part of them birds of the present year, still wearing the stripes which in the case of so many species are marks of juvenility. If individual animals still pass through a development answering to that which the race as a whole has undergone — if young animals, in other words, resemble their remote ancestors — then the evolution of birds’ plumage must have gone pretty steadily in the direction of plainness. Robins, we must believe, once had spotted breasts, as most of their more immediate relatives have to this day, and chipping sparrows and white-throats were streaked like our present song sparrows and baywings. If the world lasts long enough (who knows?) all birds may become monochromatic. Wing-bars and all such convenient marks of distinction will have vanished. Then, surely, amateurish ornithologists will have their hands full to name all the birds without a gun. Then if, by any miraculous chance, a copy of some nineteenth century manual of ornithology shall be discovered, and some great linguist shall succeed in translating it, what a book of riddles it’ will prove I Savants will form theories without number concerning it, settling down, perhaps, after a thousand years of controversy, upon the belief that the author of the ancient work was a man afflicted with color blindness. If not, how came he to describe the scarlet tanager as having black wings and tail, and the brown thrasher a streaked breast?
These are afterthoughts. At the moment we were busy, eyes and ears, taking a census of the swamp. Besides the waxwings, which were much the most numerous, as well as the most in sight — “tree-toppers,” one of my word-making friends calls them — there were robins, song sparrows, white-throats, field sparrows, goldfinches, myrtle warblers, a Maryland yellow-throat, a black-throated green, a Nashville warbler, a Philadelphia vireo, two or three solitary vireos, one or more catbirds, as many olive-backed thrushes, a white-breasted nuthatch, and a sapsucker. Others, in all likelihood, escaped us.
In and out among the bushes we made our way, one calling to the other softly at each new development.
“What was that?” said I. “Wasn’t that a bobolink?”
“It sounded like it,” answered the other listener.
“But it can’t be. Hark!”
The quick, musical drop of sound — a “stillicidious” note, my friend called it — was heard again. No; it was not from the sky, as we had thought at first, but from a thicket of alders just behind us. Then we recognized it, and laughed at ourselves. It was the staccato whistle of an olive-backed thrush, a sweet familiarity, over which I should have supposed it impossible for either of us to be puzzled.
star of the flock, as some readers will not need to be told, having
marked the unexpected name in the foregoing list, was the
Philadelphia vireo. What a bright minute it is in a man’s vacation
when such a stranger suddenly hops upon a branch before his eyes! He
feels almost like quoting Beats. “Then felt I,” he might say, not
with full seriousness, perhaps,
“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken.”
Yet how unconcerned the bird seems! To him it is all one. He knows nothing of his spectator’s emotions. Rarity? What is that? He has been among birds of his own kind ever since he came out of the egg. Sedately he moves from twig to twig, thinking only of another insect. This minute is to him no better than any other. And the man’s nerves are tingling with excitement.
“You will hardly believe me,” said my companion, who had hastened forward to look at the stranger, “but this is the second one I have ever seen.”
But why should I not believe him? It was only my third one. Philadelphia vireos do not feed in every bush. Be it added, however, that I saw another before the week was out.
There were many more birds here now than I had found six or seven weeks before; but there was much less music. In early August hermit thrushes sang in sundry places and at all hours; now a faint chuck was the most that we heard from them, and that but once. And still our September vacation was far from being a silent one. Song sparrows, vesper sparrows, white.. throats, goldfinches, robins, solitary vireos, chickadees (whose whistle is among the sweetest of wild music, I being judge), phoebes, and a catbird, all these sang more or less frequently, and more or less well, though all except the goldfinches and the chickadees were noticeably out of voice. Once a grouse drummed, and once a flicker called hi, hi, just as in springtime; and every warm day set the hylas peeping. Once, too, a ruby-crowned kinglet sang for us with all freedom, and once a gold-crest. The latter’s song is a very indifferent performance, hardly to be called musical in any proper sense of the word; nothing but his ordinary zee-zee-zee, with a hurried, jumbled, ineffective coda; yet it suggests, and indeed is much like, a certain few notes of the ruby-crown’s universally admired tune. The two songs axe evidently of a common origin, though the ruby-crown’s is so immeasurably superior that one of my friends seemed almost offended with me, not long ago, when I asked him to notice the resemblance between the two. None the less, the resemblance is real. The homeliest man may bear a family likeness to his handsome brother, though it may show itself only at times, and chance acquaintances may easily be unaware of its existence.
The breeziest voice of the week was a pileated woodpecker’s — a flicker’s resonant hi, hi, in a fuller and clearer tone; and one of the most welcome voices was that of an olive-backed thrush. We were strolling past a roadside tangle of shrubbery when some unseen bird close by us began to warble confusedly (I was going to say autumnally, this kind of formless improvisation being so characteristic of the autumnal season), in a barely audible voice. My first thought was of a song sparrow; but that could hardly be, and I looked at my companion to see what he would suggest. He was in doubt also. Then, all at once, in the midst of the vocal jumble, our ears caught a familiar strain. “Yes, yes,” said I, “a Swainson thrush,” and I fell to whistling the tune softly for the benefit of the performer, whom I fancied, rightly or wrongly, to be a youngster at his practice. Young or old, the echo seemed not to put him out, and we stood still again to enjoy the lesson; disconnected, unrelated notes, and then, of a sudden, the regular Swainson measure. I had not heard it before since the May migration.
Every bird season has peculiarities of its own, in Franconia as elsewhere. This fall, for example, there were no crossbills, even at Lonesome Lake, where we have commonly found both species. White-crowned sparrows were rare; perhaps we were a little too early for the main flight. We saw one bird on September 23, and two on the 26th. Another noticeable thing was a surprising scarcity of red-bellied nuthatches. We spoke often of the great contrast in this respect between the present season and that of three years ago. Then all the woods, both here and at Moosilauke, fairly swarmed with these birds, till it seemed as if all the Canadian nuthatches of North America were holding a White Mountain congress. The air was full of their nasal calls. Now we could travel all day without hearing so much as a syllable. The tide, for some reason, had set in another direction, and Franconia was so much the poorer.