(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Old Plymouth Trails
Click Here To Return
To the Previous Chapter
VOICES OF THE BROOKSIDE
For two hundred years the water has rippled over the sill on which once firmly set the gate to the old milldam. Of the mill, save this, no sliver of wood remains, and even the tradition of the miller and his work is gone. We merely know that here stood one of the grist mills of the early pioneers, a mill to which the neighbors brought their corn in sacks, perchance upon their shoulders, and after the wheel had turned and the grist was ground, carried the meal off in the same way. Thus rapidly does the smoothing hand of time wipeout man and his works.
But still the water ripples over the old, brown oak sill, and he who listens may hear the brook telling a story all day long in purling undertones. I fancy its language a simple one, too, but its words of one syllable tumble so swiftly over one another that, in spite of their liquid purity of tone, I never quite catch them. It is the brook's rapidity of utterance that troubles me. I am quite sure, always, that if I really got the syllables and wrote them down I should, with study, be able to translate it all. It ought not to be half so difficult as these hieroglyphic and cuneiform inscriptions on stone and brick buried in Assyrian ruins for ten thousand years, more or less, and now blithely put into modern speech by the Egyptologists.
The brook writes for me, too. On every placid pool at the foot of some race of ripples it mixes Morse-code dots and dashes with stenographic curves, all written in white foam on the smooth black mirror of the surface. Nor does it end there, so eager it is to call its message to my notice. Through the quiver of sun and shade it sends heliograph flashes to me on the bank, making again the dots and dashes of the Morse-code alphabet, yet still with such lightning-like rapidity that my dull eye fails to read. Only the foam writing gives brief opportunity for one to study the characters and decide what they mean: Sometimes there it is not difficult to find words in the Morse-code and phrases in the stenographic curves though I have no more than a word or a brief phrase before the current rearranges the puzzle and I must begin all over again. I doubt not many brookside idlers have done as much as that. I fancy many a summer couple, say a brave telegraph clerk and a fair stenographer, have worked out as much as "I love you" and "God bless our home" long before this.
After all, the brook is shallow and it is probable that it prattles merely the gossip of today and yesterday and the days gone by. Yet even so it might give me the story of this mill that so long ago stood upon its bank, something of the talk of the miller and his customer and the events of their time, matter I can get from no printed book nor from the tongue of man now living. Could I but get this I should have a rare book indeed, for nothing is so vivid to the reader as the true story of the plain life, the words and deeds of folk who lived a hundred or more years ago. The plain tales of Boswell, Pepys, Samuel Sewall, will live when all the series of six best sellers that have ever been are drifting dust.
The brook tells me more of nature than it does of man, perhaps because it has known man for so short a time, though I should say shows rather than tells. A hundred forms of life live in it and on it, while through the air above float a thousand more, or the evidences of them. Downstream come the scents of the flowers in bloom above. Just a week or two ago the dominant odor among these was the sticky sweetness of the azalea. It is an odor that breathes of laziness. Only the hot, damp breath of the swamp carries it and lulls to languor and to sensuous dreams. Mid-August is near and though here and there a belated azalea bloom still glows white in the dusk of the swamp its odor seems to have no power to ride the wind. Instead a cleaner, finer perfume dances in rhythmic motion down the dell, swaying in sprightly time to the under rhythm of the brook's tone, a scent that seems to laugh as it greets you, yet in no wise losing its inherent, gentle dignity. The wild clematis is the fairest maiden of the woodland. She, I am convinced, knows all the brook says and loves to listen to it, twining her arms about the alder shrubs, bending low 'till her starry eyes are mirrored in the dimpled surface beneath her, and always sending this teasing, dainty perfume out upon the breeze that it may call to her new friends. Long ago the Greeks named the Clematis Virgin's Power, but our wild variety is more than that. It is the virgin.
To smell the perfume of the clematis on the lazy wind and to watch the myriad people of the brook is joy enough for an August afternoon. Bird songs come to me from the trees overhead, far and near, some of them melodious, others songs only by courtesy. Down stream a red-eyed vireo preaches persistently in an elm top. Across the pasture I hear the rich voice of an oriole stopping his caterpillar hunting long enough to trill a round phrase or two from the apple-tree bough. A flock of chickadees, old and young, comes through, nervously active in their hunting and with voices in which there is a tang of the coming autumn. Up in the pines a blue jay clamors with the same clarion ring in his tones. I do not know whether the different quality is in the air, or in the birds, but I am sure that after the first of August is past I could tell it by the notes of these two even if I had lost all track of the calendar. A black and white creeping warbler comes head first down a nearby tree, and then sits right side up a moment to squeak the half-dozen squeaks which are his best in the way of melody. Like a fine accompaniment the brook's voice blends with all these, mellows and supplements them till in the woodland symphony there is no jarring note. Nature has this wonderful faculty for soothing and harmonizing in all things. She will take colors that placed side by side in silks would cry to heaven for a separation, and combine them in a flower group, or sometimes indeed in a single flower, so skilfully that we accept the whole as beautiful without a question.
While I enjoy these things an eddy of wind brings from down the stream the fresh, moist smell of the water itself, and running through this I note just a suggestion of musk. All the other scents and sounds have been of a soothing quality, especially in combination with each other. In this suggestion of musk is something which bids one sit up and watch out. By and by I see the beast, a muskrat, steamboating his way up the rapids like a furry Maid-of-the-Mist, or perhaps I should say a submarine, that navigates the surface with but little bulk exposed. Presently he proves himself a submarine by diving in a shallow. I see his paws stirring up mud and presently again he comes to the surface with a fresh-water clam. Clams in August are good, though I confess I have never tried the freshwater variety. The muskrat knows, however, that these are good. He sits up on a rock, washes the mud carefully from his catch, opens it as readily as if his incisors were a knife, smacks his lips over the last of its contents, peers into the empty shell as if he hoped to find a pearl, drops them and bustles on his way. I do not know his errand and I doubt if he does, but I know it was an important one by the way he goes on it.
The passing of the beast, however, upset the life of the shallow, amber pool. The mud of his digging had no more than cleared away before the under-water creatures of the place, jackals on the lion's spoor, came forward, eager to feast on the remnants of his meal. Bream, sunning themselves on the shallow margins of the other side, give a sinuous swish to their tails and dart up. A yellow perch poises, slips forward a yard, poises again and then thinking the place safe, comes forward for his share. In beauty and intelligence the yellow perch is easily the king of the brook waters and I can but admire his coloring, not only for its beauty but for its protective value. His dark back makes him almost invisible from directly above. Should you get a glimpse of his side you might well think it but the ripple of sunlight and shadow in the water, so well is this simulated by the broad bands of green and yellow which run from the dark back down the sides. It is only when he turns far on his side and gives you a glimpse of red fin and white belly that he is plainly visible, and only desperate need will make him thus turn.
After perch and bream have left, satisfied, a little group of thumbling hornpouts come and grub and dabble in the muddy hole whence the unio came, feeding upon I know not what; probably tiny infusoriae of the fresh water. These little black cats are the busiest folk of the brook at this time of the year, and just whence they come or whither they go I cannot say. If you fish the waters with angle worms you will not pull out one of these little fellows till the summer is fairly on. Then, dog days having arrived, you will get a chance to catch nothing else, so long as one of them remains in the pool you choose. They are great angle-worm chasers and will get across a pool and grab a bait before any other denizen of the place can possibly get to it. Their agility is the more surprising when one remembers that the grown hornpout is but a sluggish chap and that they are not built on lines that presage swiftness. You may catch the big horn pouts at any season, but these little chaps are peculiar to the dog days. I have an idea they hibernate in the mud at bottom until warm weather calls them forth, and that by next spring, so voracious is their appetite and such their agility in satisfying it, they are as big as the others of their kind. So eager are these gourmands for bait that if but one is in a pool you may catch him, throw him back and catch him again times without number, provided the hook does not happen to injure his tough jaw.
Such a glimpse of the submarine life of the brook the muskrat has given me with the musky odor of his passing. After a little all is quiet down there and I have a chance to admire the life which flits above the surface. The hawking dragonflies weave gossamer fabrics of dreams in their unending flight to and fro and the lull of the forest symphony bids one yield to these as the waning afternoon builds up its shadows from all hollows and glens. In the open pastures the heat still quivers, but here the woodland deities are building night, block on block, for the cooling and soothing of the world. The heliographing ceases. The foam writing blurs in the shadows. Down long aisles of perfumed green the voice of the wood thrush rings mellow and serene. Here is a woodland chorister who sings of peace and calls to holy thoughts, voicing the evening prayer of the woodland world. As his angelus rings out I fancy all wild heads bowed in adoration. Certainly the wood thrush's call touches that chord in the human breast. To listen to it with open heart is to know all things are for good and that a peace from mystic spaces far above the woodland is descending upon it. Heard through this sang the tone of the brook's voice changes and instead of swift-syllabled gossip I seem to hear it softly crooning a hymn.