Here to return to
ABOVE THE BIRDS
IN the course of my seven days at the summit of Mount Washington I listed six species of birds. A few snowbirds — three or four — were to be found almost always in the neighborhood of the stables; a myrtle warbler was seen on the climb up the cone from the Lakes of the Clouds; twice I heard a goldfinch passing somewhere overhead; a sharp-shinned hawk, as I took it to be, showed itself one day, none too clearly, flying through the mist; and the next afternoon, as I sat in the rear of the old Tip-Top House waiting for the glories of the sunset, a sparrow hawk shot past me so near as to display not only his rusty tail, but the black bands on the side of his neck. Here are five species. The sixth was one that, rightly or wrongly, I should not have expected to find in so treeless a place. I speak of the red-breasted (or Canadian) nuthatch. On two mornings, as all hands were out upon the platform at sunrise, we heard the characteristic nasal calls of this northern forester, and saw two birds scrambling about the roofs of the buildings; and more than once at other times I noticed one or two on the wing. The species is very common this season in Franconia, — where it was extremely scarce a year ago, — and I was pleased at the summit when a lady standing near me remarked to her husband, “Why, that is the note we have been hearing so continually at the Rangeleys.” It was so incessant there, she told me, as to be almost a trouble. Let us hope that this autumnal abundance in New Hampshire foreshadows a nuthatch winter in Massachusetts.
The all but total absence of birds at the summit was a most striking thing. It helped greatly to intensify the loneliness and the silence; that wonderful mountain silence no leaf to rustle, no brook to murmur, no bird to sing — which, wherever I walked, I was always stopping to listen to. I should love to praise it, but language for such a purpose would need to be found on the spot, the stillness itself suggesting the words; and I came down from the summit more than a week ago. It must have been, I think, something like that apocalyptic “silence in heaven.”
As for the birds, I should have felt their absence more disagreeably but for the fact that I had a novel and absorbing occupation with which to enliven my walks, and even to beguile effectually what otherwise might have been the idle odds and ends of the day. For the nonce I had turned entomological collector. My search was for rare Alpine insects. Not that I knew anything about them; it would have been all one to me if most of what I saw had been created out of nothing the day before; but I was in learned company and needed no science of my own. My part was to carry a “cyanide bottle” and put into it any beetle, moth, fly, or other insect — ants and spiders excepted — on which I could lay my ignorant fingers. The possessor of the learning — enough and to spare for the two of us — has made many collecting visits to the summit; her list of Mount Washington species numbers more than sixteen hundred, if I remember the figures correctly, and no inconsiderable proportion of them are honored with her name. A proud lot they would be, if they knew it. But the end is not yet; there are many winged mountaineers still to be pinned, and in the prosecution of such an enterprise, so she gave me to understand, two bottles are better than one, no matter who carries the second one. Her language was rather encouraging than complimentary, it might have seemed, but I did not mind; and for seven days I was never without a bottle about my person except when I lay in bed.
If I went down to the Lakes of the Clouds, for example, the poison-bottle went with me; and the looker-on, had there been one, — as luckily there was n’t, — might have seen me on my knees, with hands outstretched over the water, struggling to snatch from the surface a poor, unhappy “skater,” or a “lucky-bug” (it really was lucky, for it got away while the skater perished), as a possible prize for my lady’s cork-lined box. On all my jaunts down the carriage-road (and they were many, longer or shorter, that route offering the readiest means of escape from the frequent summit-capping cloud) the same scientific vial was my companion. If a grasshopper jumped (not the common one with banded legs, of which I saw a superfluity, but a handsome, rare-looking green fellow, making me think of Leigh Hunt’s “green little vaulter in the sunny grass”), I stole murderously after him, and with a reckless clutch at the stunted bush on which he had settled I gathered him in and put him to sleep. (This was well done, for he was really of a wingless Alpine species, and only my employer’s third specimen of his kind.) If a “daddy-long-legs,” prayerless friend of my childhood, crawled across the way, he, too, hapless creature, with legs so superfluously numerous and elongated that he could not hurry, even to save his life, fell a victim to my uninstructed zeal. He died easily, for all his undevout habits, but the sacrifice was useless. He proved to be no longer among the entomologist’s desiderata, though he also is Alpine, and it is not many years since she herself discovered him here, an insect till then unregistered by human science.
All caterpillars I was bidden to bring in alive; and so, of course, I did, rolling them up in scraps of soft paper and committing them tenderly to a pocket. My chief business, however, after I had breathed the air, eaten my fill of mountain blueberries (“Happy,” said I, “is the mouth that feeds on such manna”), and looked my fill at the northern peaks, — for I was not employed by the day, but by the piece, and could steal an hour to myself now and then with a clear conscience, — my principal occupation, I say, was to pry under the boulders for beetles. “Leave no stone unturned,” the entomologist had said, with her fine gift of laconic quotation; but she could not have intended the commission to be taken literally. The stones were too many, and human existence is too brief. She meant no more than that I should use a reasonable diligence; and so much I surely did, till the ends of my fingers were in danger of being skinned alive. Down on all fours I got, lifted a stone quickly, fastened an eagle eye upon the exposed hollow, and if a dark object, no matter how small or how large, was seen to be scurrying to its burrow, I thrust my fingers into the dirt in frantic efforts to seize it. I knew not which were common and which rare; my only course was to let none escape. But many were too swift for me, with all my efforts, and of all that I captured in this manner I am not sure that one was “worth mounting.” I quote those last two words partly by way of emphasis. They stood for the lowest round in the ladder of my entomological ambition. What I most of all desired was to discover a new species; next I coveted a species new to New England; after that a species new to Mount Washington; and last of all a specimen worth saving, or, as my employer said, “worth mounting” — in short, worth a pin.
My most productive field, like her own, was about the front of the hotel itself. In warm afternoons flies, beetles, moths and what not are known to drop out of the invisible, from nobody can tell where, upon the windows or the white clapboards of the house. Here, not once, but with something like regularity, insects have been captured, the like of which have never been seen elsewhere except in the West Indies or Mexico, in Greenland or among the Rocky Mountains. How such wanderers come, and why, are among the things that no man knoweth. Enough that they are known to come. And who could tell but one might have come for me? Here, at all events, was my golden opportunity. Let me not miss it. If by chance, therefore, the lady herself stepped inside for a minute or two, I hastened to take her place. Tourists by the dozen might be watching me curiously, or even derisively, my equanimity was undisturbed. Science is a shield. Vial in hand (my vade-mecum I called it, Latin being in the air), I walked along the platform, with my eyes upon the glass and the paint, and woe to the unlucky insect that was there taking the sun. The yawning mouth of a bottle was clapped over him, the world swam before his eyes, and long before he knew it he was on his way to be a specimen. Strange things happen to insects, though they are not the only ones who have found perdition in a bottle.
Sometimes I climbed the stairs to the upper floors of the observatory. No matter how high I went, the higher the better. In the warm hours of the day the air at the very top was almost a cloud of tiny wings. “Excelsior” is the insects’ watchword. Once, in the upper room, I bottled carelessly a small black-and-white moth. Its appearance was ordinary enough; no doubt it was common; but it was an insect, and hit or miss I took it in. And in due course it went into the entomologist’s hands with the rest of the catch. She emptied the vial, and passed an unexciting comment or two upon the few flies and beetles it contained; perhaps she remarked that one of them might be worth mounting — I do not remember precisely; it was a way she had of egging me on; but the next morning she said: “You didn’t tell me anything about the lovely moth you took yesterday.” I was obliged to stop and think. “Oh, that little black-and-white thing,” I said. Yes, that was the one — “new to the summit.” If I was not proud, then pride does not dwell in earthly minds. This, I confide, was not my only contribution to the fauna of our highest New England mountain; I seem to remember a short-winged beetle also; but the moth, being in the Lepidoptera, is my especial glory. I wish I could recall its name, that I might print it here for the reading of future generations.
With such pursuits did I improve the spare hours of my Mount Washington week. I have no thought of boasting. At least I would not seem to do so. It was little enough that I accomplished, or could hope to accomplish, hampered as I was by my ignorance. Probably I shall never have a beetle, much less a moth, named after me; but with that precious black-and-white rarity in mind I feel that even in the way of entomology I have not lived altogether in vain.
Scientific studies apart, the best hours of the week (after some spent along the carriage-road, resting here and there upon a boulder to enjoy the magnificent, ever-shifting prospect, and some — not hours, alas, but minutes — spent in eating the ambrosial, banana-savored, soul-satisfying berries of Vaccinium cœspitosum) — my best hours, I say, were perhaps those of a certain wonderful evening. The air was warm, no breath stirring, the sky clear, and the half world below us, as we walked the hotel platform, lay covered with white clouds, on which the full moon was shining. The stillness, the mildness, the brightness, the sense of elevation, and the bewitching, unearthly scene, all this was like an evening in fairyland. For the time being, it is to be feared, even the rarest of moths would have seemed a matter of secondary importance. Such is the power of beauty. So truly was it born to make other things forgotten.