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SPRING-TIME AND HAYING.
THERE is no end to the coquetry of a New England spring. Some early March morning you look out upon a waste of snow. You are weary of it; you long to see life and growth and verdure come into the dead landscape. Old winter flings back against the pane scuds of snow and sleet. Then come dark days, clinging mists and warm rains, trying to patience and evil for invalids. Little water channels, with a melancholy gurgle, undermine the snow-banks. There is everywhere a gradual subsidence of surface. Tops of tall rocks peep out; highways get to be wellnigh impassable; cellars grow wet; brooks begin to roar and rivers to rise; there is a universal sizzling and steaming. This grizzly, dispiriting commotion is the birth-throe of spring. Shortly the mossy housetops begin to smoke; the fields and pastures are full of bare knolls and patches; fences, which have been winter-buried, once more zigzag through the landscape, and dark lines mark the lanes and highways. Leaf-buds swell, and the frosts of the night melt before the morning sunshine. Little boys trundle their sap-buckets through the pastures, and you see that the yearly marvel of verdure is being inwrought into the branches and twigs of the bare forests. Another season of seed-time and harvest will be born unto you.
Chimney corners are deserted; farmers begin to bestir themselves. They sort over their seeds, put in repair their farm utensils, and, before they get fully harnessed to their out-of-door work, attend to their town affairs. What country-bred boy or girl does not remember that yearly meeting, when all the voters of the town swarmed about its great, bare hall, and cast into the ballot-box those tickets the making up of which had cost months of logic in the village stores and much hard feeling among honest neighbors? All the children were politicians that day; and the moderator, generally chosen for his loud voice, was as distinguished to them as if he had been made President of the whole republic. The elective process was a slow one; often so hotly contested that the count for representative to General Court was hardly reached at nightfall. The little boys who peddled molasses candy (most of it badly burned) gave out the bulletins of its progress. The clumpy drifts had to be cut down beforehand to make the roads passable, over which, when their votes were needed, the feeble old men were taken at the expense of their party. The breaking up of the meeting was shown, to waiting housewives, by the thickening on the highway of returning farmers, most of them laden with budgets of gingerbread and candy. The women were as anxious for news as if there had been a great battle, and the zest of the day, to the children, was only surpassed by that of the annual muster.
This muster, or "training day," as it was more often called, was their best holiday, when the militia was drilled in a vacant lot of some fortunate town. What child ever forgot that show when once seen? As an early experience or a remembered picture, what could surpass it? How real the soldiers were with their muskets and bright uniforms! What a great man the captain was! And the drum-major, who ever saw his like? What a marvel of discipline the soldiers showed! what uniformity of step! what skill in evolution! what success of officers in horsemanship! All day long they went through their drills, and the gaping crowd stared and marvelled, half taking this play for a real thing and these men for true soldiers. Before daylight, from the country miles around, wagons full of living freight began to pour into the field, until it was half packed with sight-seers. These wagons were drawn close up by the wall as a safe place for the girls and younger children. The unharnessed horses, to be kept quiet with hay, were tied close by, and the larger boys got astride the wall or climbed into neighboring trees. Booths were put up, and pedlers' carts stood thick in an inner ring. Gingerbread and candy were the staple articles of trade, with such bright gauds as would be likely to catch an uncritical eye. It was the custom for lasses to receive presents on this day, and because of this many a hard-earned penny was foolishly spent. It was amusing to see the plain farmers going about with their red bandanna handkerchiefs (show things) full of gingerbread, the extent of their day's dissipation. It was good gingerbread, with a sort of training flavor, which died out with the giving up of the custom of the day. At noon, when the soldiers dispersed for dinner, the most adventurous boys followed the great officers to the tavern, and looked in at the windows to see them eat, whispering to each other of the prowess of these dangerous men. It was not considered respectable for young girls to wander about among the crowd, so they lunched in the wagons, or on the greensward by them, and their nooning was the harvest of the dealers in gingerbread.
The climax of the drill was the firing off of the guns, which brought many an urchin down from his perch as quickly as if he had been shot in the head. Unbred horses did not relish the day, and were constantly making little side stampedes, no less exciting than the drill itself. A shower took all the feather and glory out of the show, and sent soldiers flying in front of the crowd. Before nightfall parties got mixed. Soldiers mistook themselves for citizens, and citizens forgot the deference due to soldiers. It was generally growing to be truly warlike, when at order of the great captain the trainers, led by music of bugle and drum, marched magnificently from the field. The crowd waited. Men, women, and children seemed to devour with their eyes this departing glory; this toy pageant, which had given them a merry day; this mock soldiery, which had simulated patriotic virtue; this thing, which was not foolish because it was so real to them. When it had fairly passed out of sight each went his and her own way, and, almost before the drum had stopped playing its marching tune, the field was deserted.
By the first of May morning sunshine begins to have power, and through your windows comes the gladsome gush of spring birds. The buried life of nature has burst its cerements; the earth is mellowing; trees are leaving, and sods are waiting to be turned. Here and there, under the shady side of fences or on distant hill-tops, lie strips of dingy snow. You do not mind them, for your feet walk over crisp mosses and tender grass; you rustle aside last year's perished leaves for arbutus, and close beside these same snow-strips you find violets. Anon the landscape grows picturesque with the blue frocks and red shirts of farm laborers, with ploughs and bonfires and oxen and children and slowly-moving carts.
To the farmer there seems to be no end to spring labor. Sowing and planting over, the upspringing seed is to be carefully watched and tended. Each day brings its weight of ever-varying cares. The New England farmer of moderate means truly gets his bread by the sweat of his brow. The vegetables and grains, which make up so large a portion of his fare, are raised by dint of prudent forecast, and the bringing to bear of much practical philosophy upon stingy soil. In the spring, my grandfather and his one man-servant, with an occasional day of foreign help, were equal to the work of the farm. But in haying-time, thrice a day, a score or more of stout-limbed laborers gathered around my grandfather's board, and the cupboard in the brown kitchen groaned under its weight of hearty viands. Sudden showers brought over willing neighbors, and now and then a traveller would stop a day or two to lend a helping hand. My grandmother held these "transients" in low esteem.
These old New England farmers were apt to be "close" with their money. Who could blame them if they were? The gains of most of them came by slow accretions, and their lives were at warfare with the elements. They were generous in personal service, and where they would grudgingly give you a penny, they did not hesitate to use their strength for you. They were watchful to help with your exposed harvest, and they pitched and pulled and tugged and sweat for you without thought of reward. They were a well-informed class. Seen planting and hoeing their corn and potatoes, in dusty and uncouth attire, they seemed like patient animals. In talking with them one was astonished at their intelligence, begotten of their application and their dealings with nature. They had been well taught geography, grammar, and arithmetic. If a broad provincialism marred their speech, it was not because they knew little of the construction of language. They were apt with rules, and were better versed in the laws, which ought to have moulded their words, than many men and women of politer tongue. They were learned in whatever pertained to their craft, only that their knowledge was marred by a certain obstinate credulity. Students of almanacs, they became weatherwise from watching the clouds. Clinging to the traditions of their fathers, they were still not unskilful chemists for the soils which made up their own farms. They learned from practice the right rotation of crops, and thriftily turned their farm-waste into food for their fields. They cared little for trees or shrubs or flowers, but readily fenced out for the housewife a sunny garden-patch. Weeds infested their fields and marred their crops; children trampled down their grass; thieving birds pecked at their corn and grain. They were a much-tried race, with sun and wind as often working them ill as good, yet they kept their courage and tempers marvellously well. Rough, with an undercurrent of softness; not cultivated yet wise; nursed by nature and led by Bible precepts; above all they pleased you by the healthy content with which they accepted their condition.
In winter, sitting on wooden benches by the stoves of country stores, they used to discourse and take counsel together. They much loved discussion, and party spirit ran high. Affairs of town and State and nation were handled with rude but close logic. These stores were queer places, full of all sorts of commodities, smelling strong of codfish, molasses, and snuff, and too often of New England rum. In long summer afternoons the humbler class of farmers' wives went to them to exchange dairy products for dry goods and groceries. A fresh supply of "storekeepers'" wares made a great stir. The women overlooked and talked about the meagre stock, and strung washed samples of its calicoes upon their window-sills to dry. They used to go past my grandfather's, to the store beyond the miller's red cottage, with wooden boxes tied up in squares of white cotton. These were full of butter. The more opulent of them drove clumsy wagons filled with various farm products good for barter.
Simple shoppers, but makers of rare bargains, inasmuch as the stuffs you bought brought you solid comfort and true delight. They washed well and wore well, and the silk and sheen, which were not in their real texture, were imparted to them by the satisfaction which you had in them. Country maidens fitted their calicoes with care, and wore them with exquisite neatness. If they overrated the fineness, the dyes and the becomingness of the fabrics, it was because their color blindness and their worldly ignorance helped them to be made satisfied and happy by very little things. They were as acceptable to each other and to their sweethearts in calico as they would have been, fashion taught, in silks and laces.
The candies of these stores were the delight of children. The red and white hearts shut up in dingy, brass-mouthed jars were in reality stale, but to the buyers of them the freshness which they lacked was given to them by their rarity.
The keepers of the stores, having leisure, were apt to be men of much intelligence. I found one of them, on an August day, sitting just outside his shop, his chair tilted back against the wall, so wrapped up in a translation of Homer's Iliad that he had no ear for a bargain. His recreation only illustrated what is ever true of country life, that it holds in silence and humility many thinkers. This store was perched upon a hill, in an out-of-the-way place. All the inhabitants of the little village seemed to be either at work or play in its adjoining fields. He sat there alone, an old man, tall, massive, white-haired, his face beneficent with the peace of an untroubled life. He peered from over his iron-bound spectacles, keeping his place in his book with his forefinger, and answered my questions in an abstracted way, as if I were a bother to him. He was a beautiful picture of a vigorous happy old age. The pomps and vanities and vexations of society were nothing to him, and yet he was consorting with the best; and the glory of intellect and of age, and the bright splendor of the summer's day, wrapped him about like a garment.
The rum of those country stores made terrible drunkards, whose vices and idiosyncrasies were brought out, by their isolation, with clear-cut distinctness. Their wives were white-faced, hopeless women; their houses were dismal with the signs of a drunkard's unthrift. The whole tragedy was so plainly stamped that he who ran might read. No home was ever so little of a home as that of a drunkard in the country; no life ever seemed so utterly unnatural, so warped a life as his. The very blessings of his inheritance mocked at him. Space and quiet and sunshine and verdure, and every other thing which especially marks country life, only made more apparent his poverty and degradation. One could always tell the home of a drunkard, with its clapboards and shingles slipping off; its windows stuffed with rags; its unhinged doors; its tumbling outbuildings, shattered, ragged, leaning, tottering, solemn with the unutterable pathos of a lost life.
If you have never lived in the country, you can have no idea what grim and strange and repulsive spectacles these men become, on the surface of its pure, calm, undemonstrative life. I recall three who, on town-meeting and training days, used to stagger up and down the highways. Children shrank from them as if they had been lepers. One of them had children of his own, who grew up rough and wicked, and became the outlaws of the neighborhood; to whom the fair landscape was only a field for plunder, and against whom the hearts of all the village people seemed to be turned. God forgive them! circumstance was hard upon them, — they were only drunkard's children.
Another was once possessed of a brilliant intellect. Poor, lost man! his house was the forlornest of all; perched high on a hill, tumbling, and fluttering with rags. His large and once valuable farm was overrun with brambles. His wife was never seen outside her wretched home. Her existence grew to be a sort of myth. She died and was buried, and no one missed her.
Jim, who danced in his cups, was foolish and diverting to the youngsters; still his antics seemed disgustingly uncouth in the decorous quiet of a country town.
When a young child, I went to the sale of a drunkard's home with the lawyer who had the foreclosure of a mortgage upon it. If I live to be a hundred years old I shall never forget that sale. The place had once been a fruitful one, and had come down from father to son through several generations. Drunkenness had wrested it from the hands of him from whom it was to be sold. The man's wife was a handsome but heart-broken woman. I shall never behold a look of more utter despair than that which her face wore that day. It was a harsh scene: I see and hear it all, — the mocking sunbeams; the loud voice of the auctioneer; the coarse laughter of the crowd; the woman, pacing the floor, sighing, never speaking, and as ghastly as if she had been among the dead. The final bid came. With one wail she went out of the room, and I never saw her more.
The processes by which the year brings about her miracles are full of beauty. The humblest farm laborer can take no working posture which will not be picturesque, framed into a spring landscape. I recall the grain-sower flinging broadcast his seed; frolicksome urchins dropping the sprouting bulbs; bonfires from last year's stubble and new clearings, giving brown shadow to outlying verdure. Hoeing and ploughing and carting and cutting and digging; the men who worked, and the works they fashioned, were moulded into the earth's form and substance. It was as if the country were an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, constantly changing old forms and hues into new shades and shapes.
Its marvels began with the breaking up of brooks, when they started to roar and tumble and overflow their banks. The fish, which at night flashed by in these spring waters, gave a transient sport to men and boys, who sought for them by light of pitchpine torches. Flitting about with nets and spears, in the uncertain blaze of their bonfires, their loud shouts heard above the roaring of the stream, they gave a weird aspect to the valley; a charming exaggeration of the untamed scenery of early spring-time.
Nothing gives more expression to a field or pasture than one of these brooks. Its wonders never cease. Its spring fury and overflow last but a few days. It is, in fact, a most placid thing, rippling over smooth pebbles or pliant grass, pure, transparent, and enticing. It is prettiest when running, in and out its tortuous way, through pasture-knolls, full of rocky fords, its banks rich with ferns and wild flag and orchis, — or, better still, through the heart of an old wood, where it grows mysterious, and hugs to its soggy sides such plants as love shade and moisture. A brook is one of the friendliest, sweetest things you can stumble upon in your wanderings; and the one which you first knew is remembered with much tenderness, — the dense woodland from whence it came; the ferns and pallid grass, which were half dragged out with it; the pebbly bed, into which it widened; the dark pool, beloved by trout; the show of coltsfoot, beset by housewives; the sharp-pointed rocks, which helped you over; the patch of orchis, and the long stretch of rushes; the mint and the bog onions, — but why go on? for this babbler was my brook and not yours!
As the season wore on grasses grew stout and tall; heavy showers lodged them; and truant boys and girls made unthrifty paths through the fields. Farmers began to whet their scythes and plant their grindstones under shady trees; sure signs of coming haying. The delights of those hayings have outlasted years, and the aroma of them still pervades every ripened field. Time has not changed the teeming life of nature. When I see little heads bobbing up and down in yonder meadow yellow with buttercups, I remember that strawberries used to grow where buttercups blossomed. New shadows are chasing each other over ripening grain; familiar fruits lie everywhere; the forest-trees, just as they used, overlap each other with shaded folds of intense verdure. Fulness of sunshine falls everywhere on fulness of vegetation. Back to me, through the features of the present, come memories of the past.
Late in June I hear a familiar sound, — the sharp click of a scythe making a beginning of the mid-year harvest. The year is waxing old. The yellow stubble of the first-mown field tells that; and it has a suggestive desolateness. What odor so sweet as that of new-mown hay? It is the breath of the dying grass, of which there is no wisp so small that, when I sever it, it shall not send forth this delicious scent to tell me of bygone days of abundant and beautiful harvests.
Of all the waste luxuriance which the earth pours forth in her yearly ripening, this is the most beautiful and beautifying. Lying broadcast upon fields, threading them in careless windrows; flung together in heaps; trailing from ladened carts; crowning oxen and laborers with fantastic wreaths; in whatever place it finds or flings itself, it is the same delightful, sweet-scented, dying grass. There is no earth so flat, no landscape so tame, that its yearly hay harvest shall not undulate it into lines of beauty. Up and down the dusty highway, jolting about uneven fields, the homely carts used to go, gathering up their precious loads, slowly wreathing their rails and wheels and shafts.
I can see my grandfather wiping the sweat from his brow, and curiously eying the sky, — treacherous sky, playing pranks with the best plans and labors, but all-creative in putting new life into a summer landscape. Piling up, snow-white, these clouds come, some hot August afternoon, out of the horizon, very beautiful at first, but treacherous, and the dread of hay-makers. They at once define their edges with a soft-tinted rose color, and grow apace. They roll on, with stately march, towards the zenith, right over the anxious workers and waiting harvests. Growing angry, getting lurid, overlapping each other with brazen folds, threatening, they sound their warning of low-muttered thunder, condense their brightness into vivid lightning, and the whole sky grows dense and black with pent-up waters.
Farmers used to fly to each other's aid at such times, running like bees about the fields, goading and urging on their laggard oxen, — Broad and Bright and Cherry and Star. Carts strained and groaned like living things; clouds flew higher and higher; little children tugged in the eager race; the hay blew out in long streamers with the wild winds; the scurrying drops came thicker and thicker; the storm burst at last; when, as if by magic, men and oxen and teams vanished, and the wind and rain had their way with the mown and unmown grasses left in the fields.
The noonings were bright features of a haying landscape. At summons of horn, away went the workers through lanes and highways to their noontide meal. More often, to save time, they took it in the field. I see and hear it all, — men stretching their brawny limbs upon the hay-heaps; oxen chewing the new-mown grass under shadow of their loads; barefooted boys and girls scudding about with lunch-pails and pitchers; the drone of bees; the chirrup of grasshoppers; the babbling of the brook; the lapping of the mill-pond; and many undertones of nature brought out by the unusual quiet of this hour. Oh the peace, the glory, given by those summer noonings to the tired bodies and cramped souls of working men! Whether they knew it or not, something of the fervor of the meridian sunshine, something of the earnestness of the mid-day nature, something of the fulness of the midyear harvest went into them, through their senses, and bore fruit in thankfulness and patience. Something of the narrowness of their ordinary lives went out of them unawares.
The nooning over, bustle again prevailed. There was no faltering, no let up, until the horn gave notice of the evening meal. Then, through lanes and highway, fields let out their workers, who cheered their homeward way with simple talk. They went over the day's labors; forecasted the sky, and planned the toils of the morrow; prone all to the rest of the coming night. Into the barns were shoved the ladened racks, to be emptied in the early morning; down into the west sank the sun; over the beautiful creation of the harvest fell the older beauty of night; and unto weariness, and to the patience of labor, past and to come, floated, with noiseless motion, sweet, dreamless, strength-giving sleep.