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Footing it in Franconia
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A VISIT TO MOUNT AGASSIZ
MOUNT AGASSIZ is rather a hill than a mountain; there is no glory to be won in climbing it, unless, perhaps, by very small children and elderly ladies; but if a man is in search of a soul-filling prospect he may climb higher and see less. The road to it, furthermore (I speak as a Franconian), is one of those that pay the walker as he goes along. Every rod of the five miles is worth traveling for its own sake, especially on a bright and comfortable August morning such as the Fates had this time sent me. It was eight o’clock when I set out, and with a sandwich in my pocket I meant to be in no haste. If invitations to linger by the way were as many and as pressing as I hoped for, a mile and a quarter to the hour would be excellent speed.
Red crossbills and pine siskins were calling in the larch trees near the house as I left the piazza. The siskins have never been a frequent sight with me in the summer season, and finding almost at once a flock in the grass by the roadside, feeding upon seeds, as well as I could make out, and delightfully fearless, I stopped for a few minutes to look them over. Some of the number showed much more yellow than others, but none of them could have been dressed more strictly in the fashion if their costumes had come straight from Paris. Every bird was in stripes.
Both they and the crossbills are what writers upon such themes agree to pronounce “erratic” and “irregular.” Of most birds it can be foretold that they will be in certain places at certain times; their orbits are known; but crossbills and siskins wander through space as the whim takes them. If they have any schedule of times and seasons, men have yet to discover it. When I come to Franconia, for example, I never can tell whether or not I shall find them; a piece of ignorance to be thankful for, like many another. The less knowledge, within limits, the more surprise; and the more surprise — also within limits — the more pleasure. At present I can hardly put my head out of the door without hearing the wheezy calls of siskins and the importunate cackles of crossbills. They are among the commonest and most voluble inhabitants of the valley, and seem even commoner and more talkative than they really are because they are so incessantly on the move.
An alder flycatcher is calling as I go up the first hill (he, too, is very common and very free with his voice, although, unlike siskin and crossbill, he knows where he belongs, and is to be found there, and nowhere else), and when I reach the plateau a sapsucker alights near the foot of a telegraph post just before me; a bird in Quakerish drab, with no trace of red upon either crown or throat. He (or she) is only two or three months old, I suppose, like more than half of all the birds now about us. Not far beyond, as the road runs into light woods, with a swampy tract by a brook on the lower side, I hear a chickadee’s voice and look up to see also two Canadian warblers, bits of pure loveliness, the first ones of my present visit. I talk to them, and one, his curiosity responsive to mine, comes near to listen. The Canadian warbler, I have long noticed, has the bump of inquisitiveness exceptionally well developed.
So I go on — a few rods of progress and a few minutes’ halt. If there are no birds to look at, there are always flowers, leaves, and berries: goldthread leaves, the prettiest of the pretty — it is a joy to praise them; and dwarf cornel berries, gorgeous rosettes; and long-stemmed mountain-holly berries, of a color indescribable, fairly beyond praising; and bear-plums, the deep-blue berries of the clintonia. And while the eye feasts upon color the ear feasts upon music: a distant brook babbling downhill among stones, and a breath of air whispering in a thousand treetops; noises that are really a superior kind of silence, speaking of deeper and better things than our human speech has words for. Quietness, peace, contentment, we say; but such vocables, good as they are, are but poor renderings of this natural chorus of barely audible sounds. If you are still enough to hear it — inwardly still enough — as may once in a long while happen, you feel things that tongue of man never uttered. Life itself is less sweet. Now and then, as I listen, I seem to hear a voice saying, “Blessed are the dead.” I foretaste a something better than this separate, contracted, individual state of being which we call life, and to which in ordinary moods we cling so fondly. To drop back into the Universal, to lose life in Order to find it, this would be heaven; and for the moment, with this musical woodsy silence in my ears, I am almost there. Yet it must be that I express myself awkwardly, for I am never so much a lover of earth as at such a moment. Life is good. I feel it so now. Fair are the white birch stems; fair are the gray-green poplars. This is my third day, and my spirit is getting in tune.
In the white-pine grove, where a few small birds are stirring noiselessly among the upper branches, my attention is taken by clusters of the ghostly, colorless plant which men know as the Indian pipe (its real name, of necessity, is quite beyond human ken); the flowers, every head bowed, just breaking through a bed of last year’s needles, while a bumblebee, a capable economic botanist, visits them one by one. Then, as I emerge from the grove on its sunny edge, I catch a sudden pungent odor of balsam. It rises from the dry leaves, the sunlight having somehow set it free. In the shade of the wood nothing of the kind was perceptible. The fact strikes me curiously as one that I have often been half consciously aware of, but now for the first time really notice. On the instant I am taken far back. It is a July noon; I am trudging homeward, and in my proud boyish hand is a basket of shining black huckleberries carefully rounded over. The sense of smell is naturally a sentimentalist; or perhaps the olfactory nerves have some occult connection with the seat of memory.
Here is one of my favorite spots: a level grassy field, with a ruined house and barn behind me, between the road and a swampy patch, and in front “all the mountains,” from Moosilauke to Adams. How many times I have stopped here to admire them I look at them now, and then fall to watching the bluebirds and the barn swallows, that are here at home. A Boston lady holds the legal title to the property (be it said in her honor that she bought it to save the pine wood from destruction), but the birds are its actual owners. Six bluebirds sit in a row on the wire, while the swallows go twittering over the field. Once I fancy that I hear the sharp call of a horned lark; but the note is not repeated, and though I beat the grass over I discover nothing.1
Beyond this level clearing the road winds to the left and begins its climb to the height of land, whence it pitches down into Bethlehem village. Every stage of the course is familiar. Here a pileated woodpecker once came out of the woods and disported himself about the trunk of an apple tree for my delectation — mine and a friend’s who walked with me; here a hare sat quiet till I was close upon him, and then scampered across the field with flying jumps; here is a backward valley prospect that I never can have enough of; and here, just over the wall, I once surprised myself by finding a bunch of yellow lady’s-slippers. All this, and much else, I now live over again. So advantageous is it to walk in one’s own steps. Many times as I have come this way, I have never come in fairer weather.
And what is this? It looks like a haying-bee. Eight horses and two yokes of oxen, with several empty “hay-riggings” and as many buggies, stand in confused order beside the road, and over the . wall men are mowing, spreading, and turning. It is some widow’s grass field, I imagine, and her loyal neighbors have assembled to harvest the crop. Human nature is not so bad, after all. So I am saying, with the inexpensive charity natural to a sentimental traveler, when I find myself near a group of younger men who are bantering one of their number (I am behind a bushy screen), mixing their talk plentifully with oaths; such a vulgar, stupid, witless repetition of sacred names — without one saving touch of originality or picturesqueness — as our honest, thoroughbred, rustic New Englander may challenge the world to equal. These can be no workers for charity, I conclude; and when I inquire of a man who overtakes me on the road (with an invitation to ride), he says: “Oh, no, that is Mr. Blank’s farm, and those are all his hired men. He is about the richest man in Bethlehem.” So my pretty idyl vanishes in smoke; the smoke, I am tempted to say, of burning brimstone. I have one consolation, such as it is: the men are Bethlehemites, not Fran-(Ionians, though I am not so certain that a swearing match between the two towns would prove altogether one-sided. It is nothing new, of course, that beautiful scenery does not always refine those who live near it. It works to that end, within its measure, I am bound to believe, for those who see it; but “there’s the rub.”
Whether men see it or not, the landscape takes no heed. There it stretches as I turn to look, spaces of level green valley, with mountains and hills round about — mountains and valleys each made perfect by the other. I sit down once more in a favorable spot, where every line of the picture falls true, and drink my fill of its loveliness, while a hermit thrush out of the hill woods yonder blesses my ears with music. I have Emerson’s wish — “health and a day.”
At high noon, as I had planned, I came to the top of the mountain. The observatory was full of chattering tourists, while three individuals of the same genus stood on the rocks below, two men and a woman, the men taking turns in the use — or abuse — of a horn, with which they were trying to rouse the echo (a really good one, as I could testify) from Mount Cleveland and the higher peaks beyond. Their attempts were mostly failures. Either the breath wandered about uneasily inside the brazen tube, moaning like a soul in pain — abortive mutterings, but no “toot” — or, if a blast now and then came forth, it was of so low a pitch that the mountains, whose vocal register, it appears, is rather tenor than bass, were unable to return it effectively. “I can’t get it high enough,” one of the men said. But they had large endowments of perseverance — a virtue that runs often to pernicious excess — and seemingly would never have given over their efforts, only that a gentleman’s voice from the observatory finally called out, in a tone of long-suffering politeness, “Won’t you please let up on that horn, just for a little while?” The horn-blowers, not to be outdone in civility, answered at once with a good-natured affirmative, and a heavenly silence, a silence that might be felt, descended upon our ears. Neither blower nor pleader will ever know how heartily he was thanked by a man who lay upon the rocks a little distance below the summit, looking down into the Franconia Valley.
The scene is of exquisite beauty; beauty, moreover, of a kind that I especially love; but for the first half-hour I looked without seeing. It is always so with me in such places, I cannot tell why. Formerly I laid my disability to the fact that the eye had first to satisfy its natural curiosity concerning the details of a strange landscape; its instinctive desire to orient itself by attention to topographical particulars; and no doubt considerations of this nature may be supposed to enter more or less into the problem. But Mount Agassiz offered me nothing to be puzzled over; I felt no need of orientation nor any stirrings of inquisitiveness. On my left was the Mount Washington range, in front were Lafayette and Moosilauke, with the valley intervening, and on the right, haze-covered to-day, rose peak after peak of the Green Mountains. These things I knew beforehand. I had not come to this Pisgah-top to study a lesson in geography, but to enjoy the sight of my eyes.
Still I must practice patience. Time — indispensable Time — is a servant that cannot be hurried, nor can his share of any work be done by the cleverest substitute. “Beautiful!” I said, and felt the word; but the beauty did not come home to the spirit, filling and satisfying it. I wonder at people who scramble to such a peak, stare about them for a quarter of an hour, and run down again contented. Either the plate is preternaturally sensitive, or the picture cannot have been taken.
For myself, I have learned to wait; and so I did now. A few birds flitted about the summit: two or three snowbirds, to whom the unusual presence of a man was plainly a trouble (“Why can’t he stay up in the observatory, like the rest of his kind?”); a myrtle warbler, chirping softly as he passed; a white-throat, whistling now and then from somewhere down the cliffs; an alder flycatcher, calling quay-queer (a surprising place this dry mountain-top seemed for a lover of swampy thickets); an occasional barn swallow or chimney swift, shooting to and fro under the sky; and once a sparrow hawk, welcome for his rarity, sailing away from me down the valley, showing a rusty tail.
By and by, seeing that the crowd had gone, I clambered up the rocks, eating blueberries by the way, and mounted the stairs to the observatory, where the keeper of the place was talking with two men (a musician and a commercial traveler, if my practice as an observer” counted for anything), who had lingered to survey the panorama. The conversation turned upon the usual topics, especially the Mount Washington Railway. Four or five trains were descending the track, one close behind the other, and it became a matter of absorbing interest to make them out through the small telescope and a field glass. Why be at the trouble to climb so high, at the cost of so much wind, unless you do your best to take in whatever is visible? “Yes, I can see one — two — three — Oh, yes, there’s the fourth, just leaving the summit.” So the talk ran on, with minor variations which may easily be imagined. One important question related to the name of a certain small sheet of water; another to a road that curved invitingly over a grassy hilltop; another to the exact whereabouts of a rich man’s fine estate (questions about rich men are always pertinent), the red roofs of which could be found by searching for them.
I took my full share of the discussion, but half an hour of it sufficed, and I went back again to commune with myself upon the rocks. The sunshine was warm, but the breeze tempered it till I found it good. And the familiar scene was lovelier than ever, I began to think. Here at my feet stood the little house, down upon which I had looked with such rememberable pleasure on my first visit to Agassiz, I know not how many years ago. Then a man was cutting wood before the door. Now there is nobody to be seen; but the place must still be inhabited, for I hear the tinkle of a cowbell somewhere in the woods, and a horse is pasturing nearer by. Only three or four other houses are in sight — not reckoning the big hotel and a few far-away roofs in Franconia — and very inviting they look, neatly painted, with smooth, level fields about them. It is my own elevation that levels the fields, I am quite aware (when I stop to think of it), as it is distance that softens the contours of the mountains, and the lapse of time that smooths the rough places out of past years; but for the hour I take things as the eye sees them. We come to these visionary altitudes, not to look at realities but at pictures. Distance is a famous hand with the brush. To omit details and to fill the canvas with atmosphere, these are the secrets of his art. A comfortable thing it is to lie here at my ease and yield myself to the great painter’s enchantments.
My eye wanders over the landscape, but not uneasily; nay, it can hardly be said to wander at all; it rests here and there, not trying to see, but seeing. Now it is upon the road, spaces of which show at intervals, while I imagine the rest — a sentimental journey; now upon a far-off grassy clearing among woods (Mears’s or Chase’s), homely enough, and lonely enough — and familiar enough — to fit the mood of the hour; now upon the distant level reaches of the Landaff Valley. But the beauty of the scene is not so much in this or that as in all together. I say now, as I said twenty years ago, “This is the kind of prospect for me:” a broken valley, fields and woods intermingled, with mountains circumscribing it all; a splendid panorama seen from. above, but not from too far above; from a hill, that is to say, rather than from a mountain.
An hour of this luxury and I return to the tower, where the musician and the keeper are still in conference. The keeper, especially, is a man much after my own mind. He knows the people who live in the three houses below us, and speaks of them racily, yet in a tone of brotherly kindness. I call his attention to two women whom I have descried in the nearest pasture, a bushy place, yellow with goldenrod and pointed with young larches and firs. They wear men’s wide-brimmed straw hats (a black-and-tan collie is with them), and one carries a broad tin dish, which she holds in one hand, while she picks berries with the other. Pretty awkward business, an old berry-picker thinks.
Yes, the keeper of the tower says, they are Mrs.— and Miss—; one lives in the first house, the other in the second. Now they are leaving the pasture, stopping once in a while to strip an uncommonly inviting bush (so I interpret their movements), and we follow them with our eyes. The older one, a portly body, walks halfway across a broad field with her companion, seeing her so far homeward, — and perhaps finishing a savory dish of gossip, — and then returns to her own house, still accompanied by the dog. Scarcity of neighbors conduces to neighborliness.
The men who live in such houses, the keeper tells me, are very wide-awake and well informed, reading their weekly newspaper with thoroughness, and always ready for rational talk on current topics. They are not rich, of course, in the down-country sense of the word, and see very little money, subsisting mainly upon the produce of the farm; a matter of twenty-five dollars a year may cover all their expenditures; but they are better fed, and really live in more comfort, than a great part of the folks who live in cities. I am glad to believe it; and I like the man’s way of standing by his neighbors. In fact, I think highly of him as a person of a good heart and no small discrimination; and therefore I am all the gladder when, having left the summit and stopped for a minute in the shade of a tree, I overhear him say to the musician, “That old man enjoys himself; he’s a nice old man.” “Thank you,” say I, not aloud, but with deep inward sincerity; “that’s one of the best compliments I’ve had for many a day.” Blessings on this mountain air, that makes human speech unintentionally audible. An old man that enjoys himself is pretty near to my ideal of respectable senility. “Thank you,” I repeat; “that’s praise, and faith, I’ll print it.” And so I will, pleasing myself, let the ungentle reader — if I have one — think what he may. A good name is more to brag of than a million of money.
I am enjoying myself (why not?), and I loiter down the road with a
light heart (an old man should be used to going downhill), pausing by
the way to notice a little group — a family party, it is reasonable
to guess — of golden-crowned kinglets. One of them, the only one I
see fully, has a plain crown, showing neither black stripes nor
central orange patch. But for his unmistakable zee-zee-zee,
which he is considerate enough to utter while I am looking at him, he
might be taken for a ruby-crown. So the lover of beauty and the
hobbyist descend the hill together, keeping step like inseparable
friends. And so may it be to the end of the chapter.
1 Four days afterward (August 9) I found larks of the present season in the Landaff Valley, where I had watched their parents with so much pleasure in May, as I have described in a previous chapter. These August birds were feeding upon oats in the road, like so many English sparrows.