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Footing it in Franconia
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A QUIET MORNING
IT is Sunday, May 26, the brightest, pleasantest, most comfortable of forenoons. I am seated in the sun at the base of an ancient stone wall, near the road that runs along the hillside above the Landaff Valley. Behind me is a little farmhouse, long since gone to ruin. At my feet, rather steeply inclined, is an old cattle pasture thickly strewn with massive boulders. The prospect is one of those that I love best. In the foreground, directly below, is the valley, freshly green, and, as it looks from this height, as level as a floor. Alder rows mark the winding course of the river, and on the farther side, close against the forest, runs a road, though the eye, of itself, would hardly know it.
Across the valley are the glorious newly clad woods, more beautiful than words can begin to tell; and beyond them rise the mountains: Moosilauke, far enough away to be blue; the shapely Kinsman range, at whose long green slopes no man need tire of looking; rocky Lafayette, directly in front of me; Haystack, with its leaning knob; the sombre Twins and the more Alpine-looking Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Farther to the north are the low hills of Cleveland and Agassiz. A magnificent horizon. Lafayette, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams are still flecked with snow. And over the mountains is the sky, with high white clouds, cirrus and cumulus. I look first at the mountains, then at the valley, which is filled with sunlight as a cup is filled with wine. The level foreground is the essential thing. Without it the grandest of mountain prospects is never quite complete.
Swallows circle about me continually, a phoebe calls at short intervals, and less often I hear the sweet voice of a bluebird. Both phoebe and bluebird are most delightfully plentiful in all this fair mountain country. They are of my own mind: they like old farms within sight of hills. Crows caw, a jay screams, and now and then the hurrying drumbeats of a grouse come to my ears. Somewhere in the big sugar grove behind me a great-crested flycatcher has been shouting almost ever since I sat down. The “great screaming flycatcher,” he should be called. His voice is more to the point than his crest. He loves the sound of it.
How radiantly beautiful the red maple groves are just now! I can see two, one near, the other far off, both in varying shades of red, yellow, and green. The earth wears them as ornaments, and is as proud of them, I dare believe, as of the Parthenon. They are bright, but not too bright. They speak of youth — and the eye hears them. A red-eye preaches as if he knew the day of the week. What a gift of reiteration! “Buy the truth,” he says. “Going, going!” But it is never gone. Down the valley road goes an open carriage. In it are a man and a woman, the woman with a parasol over her head. A song sparrow sings his little tune, and the bluebird gives himself up to warbling. Few voices can surpass his for sweetness and expressiveness. The grouse drums again (let every bird be happy in his own way), a myrtle warbler trills (a talker to himself), and a passing goldfinch drops a melodious measure. All the chokecherry bushes are now in white. The day may be Whitsunday for all that my unchurchly mind can say. Red cherries, which whitened the world a few days ago, are fast following the shadbushes, which have been out of flower for a week. Apple trees, too, have passed the height of their splendor. The vernal procession moves like a man in haste.
The sun grows warm. I will betake myself to the maple grove and sit in the shadow; but first I notice in the grass by the wall an abundance of tiny veronica flowers (speedwell) — white, streaked with purple, as I perceive when I pluck one. Not a line but runs true. Everything is beautiful in its time; the little speedwell no less than the valley and the mountain. A red squirrel, far out on a tilting elm spray, is eating his fill of the green fruit. Mother Earth takes care of her children. She raises elm seeds as man raises wheat. And foolish man wonders sometimes at what he thinks her waste of vital energy.
I have found a seat upon a prostrate maple trunk, one of the fathers of the grove, so huge of girth that it was almost a gymnastic feat to climb into my position. Here I can see the valley and the mountains only in parts, between the leafy intervening branches. Which way of seeing is the better I will not seek to determine. Both are good — both are better than either. A flycatcher near me is saying chebec with such emphasis that though I cannot see him I can imagine that he is almost snapping his head off at every utterance. Much farther away is a relative of his; we call him the olive-side. (I wonder what name the birds have for us.) Que-quee-o, he whistles in the clearest of tones. He is one of the good ones. And how well his voice “carries” — as if one grove were speaking to another!
About my feet are creamy white tiarella spires and pretty blue violets. The air is full of the hum of insects, but they are all innocent. I sit under my own beech and maple tree, with none to molest or make me afraid. How many times I have heard something like that on a Sunday forenoon Year in and out, our dear old preacher could never get through his “long prayer” without it. He would not be sorry to know that I think of him now in this natural temple.
An unseen Nashville warbler suddenly announces himself. “If you must scribble,” he says, “my name is as good as anybody’s.” The little flycatcher has not yet dislocated his neck. Chebec, chebec, he vociferates. The swallows no longer come about me. They care not for groves. They are for the open sky, the grass fields, and the sun; but I hear them twittering overhead. If I could be a bird, I think I would be a swallow. Hark! Yes, there is the syllabled whistle of a white-breasted nuthatch. He must go into my vacation bird-list — No. 79, Sitta carolinensis. If he would have shown himself sooner he should have had a higher place. And now, to my surprise, I hear the rollicking voice of a bobolink. The meadow below contains many of his happy kind, and one of them bas come up within hearing to brighten my page.
All the time I have sat here I have been hoping to hear the hearty, “full-throated” note of a yellow-throated vireo. This is the only place in Franconia where I have ever heard it — two years ago this month. But the bird seems not to be here now, and I must not stay longer. My companion, who has gone higher up the hill to visit a thorn bush, will be expecting me on the bridge by the old grist-mill.
Before I can get away, however, I add another name to my bird-list, — a welcome name, the wood pewee’s. He has just arrived from the South, I suppose. What a sweetly modulated, plaintive-sounding whistle! How different from the bobolink’s “jest and youthful jollity!” And now the crested breaks out again all at once, alter a long silence. There is a still stronger contrast. Four flycatchers are in voice together: the crested, the olive-sided, the least, and the wood pewee. I have heard them all within the space of a minute. As soon as I am in the valley I shall hear the alder flycatcher, and when, braving the mosquitoes, I venture into the tamarack swamp a little way to look at the Cape May warbler (I know the very spot) I shall doubtless hear the yellow-belly. These, with the kingbird and the phoebe, which are about all the farms, make the full New Hampshire contingent. No doubt there are flies enough for all of them.
As I start to leave the grove, stepping over beds of round-leaved violets and spring beauties, both out of flower already, I start at the sound of an unmusical note, which I do not immediately recognize, but which in another instant I settle upon as a sapsucker’s. This is a bird at whose absence my companion and I have frequently expressed surprise, remembering how common we have found him in previous visits. I go in pursuit at once, and presently come upon him. He is in extremely bright plumage, his crown and his throat blood red. He goes down straightway as No. 81. I am having a prosperous day. Three new names within half an hour I Idling in a sugar orchard is good for a man’s bird-list as well as for his soul.
An oven-bird is declaiming, a blue yellow-back is practicing scales, and a field sparrow is chanting. And even as I pencil their names a nuthatch (the very one I have been hearing) flies to a maple trunk and alights for a moment at the door of his nest. Without question he passed a morsel to his brooding mate, though I was not quick enough to see him. Yes, within a minute or two he is there again; but the sitting bird does not appear at the entrance; her mate thrusts his bill into the door instead. The happy pair! There is much family life of the best sort in a wood like this. No doubt there are husbands and wives, so called, in Franconia as well as in other places, who might profitably heed the old injunction, “Behold the fowls of the air.”