Here to return to
PICTURE AND SONG
WHAT seek we in Florida? The same that we seek everywhere — sensations. Life is made of them. In proportion as they are lively and pleasurable we find it good. The higher their quality, the nobler the part that feels them, the less physical they are, the less they have to do with eating and drinking and being clothed, the more truly we are alive and not dead.
Most of the people that we meet in Florida are vacationers like ourselves. At home they may be in the wool business, in shoes, or in dyestuffs; here they have no occupation but to amuse themselves. In the daytime they fish, play golf, drive, or lounge upon the hotel piazza. In the evening they sit in the lobby, listen (possibly) to the music, admire (or not) the gowns and jewels of the ladies (the self-sacrificing creatures are all on parade, like so many Queens of Sheba), take a hand at cards, or gossip about something or nothing with a traveling companion or a chance acquaintance. At the worst they dawdle over a newspaper or a novel, and consume the hour in smoke. To judge by appearances their sensations are not poignant, though the anglers and the golfers, and even the shuffle-board players, no doubt have their exciting moments; but on the whole the winter passes rather quickly. When there is nothing else to do, and the time drags, one can always cheer one’s self by thinking how intemperate the season is at home. The most refreshing parts of the Northern newspapers are their reports of snowstorms and blizzards.
For my own part, I admire the ladies’ gowns (in one sense or other of the word, who could help it?), but what my untutored mind is most taken with is the beauty of the natural world, the world as God made it, rather than as man, even the man-milliner, has improved it. I love to look up or down the moss-hung vista of the river road (I am still at Ormond), or, turning my head, to gaze across the smooth water at the freshly green, happy-looking oak woods and the overtopping pines. These are pictures that I hope never to forget.
The other day an old friend, a settler in these parts, rowed me down the river a few miles. There we took an untraveled road through the forest, and by and by came suddenly to a clearing, in the middle of which stood an abandoned house. The place had once been an orange orchard, I suppose; and even now, although there was hardly so much as a stump left to tell the tale, it remained in its own way a paradise of beauty. From end to end the five or six sandy acres were thickly overgrown with Drummond’s phlox, all in fullest bloom, a rosy wilderness.
It was a pretty show. We exclaimed over it, and gathered handfuls of the lovely flowers, but as we rowed homeward we were favored with a spectacle to which it would be a profanation to apply such epithets. The afternoon, which began doubtfully, had turned out a marvel of perfection. The wind had gone down, the river was like glass, and the level rays of the sun touched all the shore woods to an almost unearthly beauty. And withal, the sky was full of the softest, most exquisitely shaded, finely broken clouds. It was an hour such as comes once and is never repeated. In my mind the memory of it has already taken its place beside the memory of a sunset seen many years ago from a Massachusetts mountain-top. These are some of the “sensations” of which I spoke. They are the sufficient rewards of travel, though now and then, the Fates favoring, we may have them at home also, without money and without price.
The next day, or the next but one, I strolled about two miles up the river northward, to the house where, on my first day at Ormond, I had seen a Cherokee rosebush just breaking into flower. This time it was at the top of its glory, such a glory as I have no hope of describing. At a moderate calculation the mound of leafy stems must have borne four or five thousand roses, every one the very image of purity and sweetness. Those who are familiar with the Cherokee rose will perhaps be able to imagine the picture of loveliness here presented; and such readers will be glad to know that a lover of beauty (not an idle, time-killing tourist, but a man at home and at work), having heard my report of the bush, walked four or five miles on purpose to see it, and declared himself amply repaid for his labor. “The poetry of earth is never dead;” and there is never wanting some poet’s soul to enjoy it, and so to make it twice alive.
Though it is near the end of March there is comparatively little sign of bird migration. Chuck-will’s-widows — Southern whippoorwills, if one chooses to call them so — have arrived and are abundantly in voice. The nights are scarcely long enough for all they have to say. I hear of a cottager who is awakened by one so persistently and so early in the morning that he is devising means to kill it. I hope he will not succeed, although if the bird is close to his open window and begins to unburden himself at half-past two, as one does within hearing from my bed, I cannot very seriously blame him for the attempt. He goes out in his night-clothes, I am told, and tries to “shoo” it away; but the bird has a message, as truly as Poe’s raven, and is bound to deliver it, whether men will hear or forbear.
On the morning of March 26, in an ante-breakfast stroll, I found among the pines immediately in the rear of the hotel the first summer tanager of the season. The splendid creature, bright red throughout, was flitting from tree to tree, singing a measure or two from each. He acted as if he were happy to be back in Ormond, and I did not wonder. A red-eyed vireo was singing on the 15th, and since then birds of the same kind have become moderately common. Considering that the red-eye is not supposed to winter anywhere in the United States (I saw nothing of it at Miami), and arrives so late in New England, it seems to have reached Ormond surprisingly early.
For some time the woods have been alive in spots with busy crowds of warblers. Parulas especially have been present in enormous force, and have sung literally in chorus. I have seen many yellow-throated warblers also, and many myrtles, with a fair sprinkling of prairies and black-and-white creepers. But the birds that have sung best — after the mocker and the thrasher, perhaps — are not spring comers, but our faithful winter friends, the cardinal grosbeak and the Carolina wren. Indeed, of all Southern songsters I believe that the cardinal stands first in my affections. Sweetness, tenderness, affectionateness, and variety, these are his gifts, and they are good ones, even if they are not the highest.
Out in the flatwoods, a few days ago, we suddenly heard, coming from a thicket of dwarf palmetto on the edge of water, a quite unexpected strain, a loud, short trill. “What was that?” asked my companions, as we looked at one another; for there were three pairs of field-glasses in the carriage. “It sounded like a swamp sparrow,” said I, with doubt in my voice. At that moment the measure was given out again, prefaced this time by a peculiar indrawn whistle. Then the truth flashed upon me. It was the song of a pine-wood sparrow. I had not heard it for many years. In the same place meadow larks were in tune, bluebirds warbled, and pine warblers and brown-headed nuthatches were in voice among the pine trees. Here, too, I was glad to hear, for the first time in Florida, the caw of a real crow, a bird with a roof to his mouth and a voice that sounded like home.
Such are some of a bird-loving man’s early spring pleasures in this Southern country. I do not mean to praise the season unduly. New England can beat it when the time comes; at least, I know one New Englander who thinks so; but not in March.