Here to return to
A RAMBLER'S LEASE.
MY REAL ESTATE.
Yet some did think that he had little business here. — WORDSWORTH.
EVERY autumn the town of W——— sends me a tax-bill, a kindly remembrance for which I never fail of feeling grateful. It is pleasant to know that after all these years there still remains one man in the old town who cherishes my memory, — though it be only “this publican.” Besides, to speak frankly, there is a measure of satisfaction in being reminded now and then of my dignity as a landed proprietor. One may be never so rich in stocks and bonds, government consols and what not, but, acceptable as such “securities” are, they are after all not quite the same as a section of the solid globe itself. True, this species of what we may call astronomic or planetary property will sometimes prove comparatively unremunerative. Here in New England (I know not what may be true elsewhere) there is a class of people whom it is common to hear gossiped about compassionately as “land poor.” But, however scanty the income to be derived from it, a landed investment is at least substantial. It will never fail its possessor entirely. If it starve him, it will offer him a grave. It has the prime quality of permanence. At the very worst, it will last as long as it is needed. Railroads may be “wrecked,” banks be broken, governments become bankrupt, and we be left to mourn; but when the earth departs we shall go with it. Yes, the ancient form of speech is correct, — land is real; as the modern phrase goes, translating Latin into Saxon, land is the thing; and though we can scarcely reckon it among the necessaries of life, since so many do without it, we may surely esteem it one of the least dispensable of luxuries.
But I was beginning to speak of my tax-bill, and must not omit to mention a further advantage of real estate over other forms of property. It is certain not to be overlooked by the town assessors. Its proprietor is never shut up to the necessity of either advertising his own good fortune, or else submitting to pay less than his rightful share of the public expenses, — a merciful deliverance, for in such a strait, where either modesty or integrity must go to the wall, it is hard for human nature to be sure of itself.
To my thinking there is no call upon a man's purse which should be responded to with greater alacrity than this of the tax-gatherer. In what cause ought we to spend freely, if not in that of home and country? I have heard, indeed, of some who do not agree with me in this feeling. Possibly tax-rates are now and then exorbitant. Possibly, too, my own view of the subject might be different were my quota of the public levy more considerable. This year, for instance, I am called upon for seventy-three cents; if the demand were for as many dollars, who knows whether I might not welcome it with less enthusiasm? On such a point it would be unbecoming for me to speak. Enough that even with my fraction of a dollar I am able to rejoice that I have a share in all the town's multifarious outlay. If an additional fire-engine is bought, or a new school-house built, or the public library replenished, it is done in part out of my pocket.
however, let me make a single exception. I seldom go home (such
language still escapes me involuntarily) without finding that one or
another of the old roads has been newly repaired. I hope that no mill
of my annual seventy or eighty cents goes into work of that sort. The
roads — such as I have in mind — are out of the way and little
traveled, and, in my opinion, were better left to take care of
themselves. There is no artist but will testify that a crooked road
is more picturesque than a straight one; while a natural border of
alder bushes, grape-vines, Roxbury waxwork, Virginia creeper, wild
cherry, and such like is an inexpensive decoration of the very best
sort, such as the Village Improvement Society ought never to allow
any highway surveyor to lay his hands on, unless in some downright
exigency. What a short-sighted policy it is that provides for the
comfort of the feet, but makes no account of those more intellectual
and spiritual pleasures which enter through the eye! It may be
answered, I know, that in matters of general concern it is necessary
to consult the greatest good of the greatest number; and that, while
all the inhabitants of the town are supplied with feet, comparatively
few of them have eyes. There is force in this, it must be admitted.
Possibly the highway surveyor (the highwayman, I was near to writing)
is not so altogether wrong in his “improvements.” At all events,
it is not worth while for me to make the question one of conscience,
and go to jail rather than pay my taxes, as Thoreau did. Let it
suffice to enter my protest. Whatever others may desire, for myself,
as often as I revisit W———,
I wish to be able to repeat with unction the words of W———'s
only poet,1 —
How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood!”
And how am I to do that, if the scenes “have been modernized past recognition?
My own landed possessions are happily remote from roads. Not till long after my day will the “tide of progress” bring them “into the market,” as the real-estate brokers are fond of saying. I have never yet been troubled with the importunities of would-be purchasers. Indeed, it is a principal recommendation of woodland property that one's sense of proprietorship is so little liable to be disturbed. I often reflect how altered the case would be were my fraction of an acre in some peculiarly desirable location near the centre of the village. Then I could hardly avoid knowing that the neighbors were given to speculating among themselves about my probable selling price; once in a while I should be confronted with a downright offer; and what assurance could I feel that somebody would not finally tempt me beyond my strength, and actually buy me out? As it is, my land is mine; and, unless extreme poverty overtakes me, mine it is reasonably certain to remain, till death shall separate us.
Whatever contributes to render life interesting and enjoyable goes so far toward making difficult its final inevitable surrender; and it must be confessed that the thought of my wood-lot increases my otherwise natural regret at being already so well along on my journey. In a sense I feel my own existence to be bound up with that of my pine-trees; or, to speak more exactly, that their existence is bound up with mine. For it is a sort of unwritten but inexorable law in W———, as in fact it appears to be throughout New England, that no pine must ever be allowed to reach more than half its normal growth; so that my trees are certain to fall under the axe as soon as their present owner is out of the way. I am not much given to superstition. There are no longer any dryads, it is to be presumed; and if there were, it is not clear that they would be likely to take up with pines; but for all that, I cherish an almost affectionate regard for any trees with which I have become familiar. I have mourned the untimely fate of many; and now, seeing that I have been entrusted with the guardianship of these few, I hold myself under a kind of sacred obligation to live as long as possible, for their sakes.
It is now a little less than a fortnight since I paid them a visit. The path runs through the wood for perhaps half a mile; and, as I sauntered along, I heard every few rods the thump of falling acorns, though there was barely wind enough to sway the tree-tops. “Mother Earth has begun her harvesting in good earnest,” I thought. The present is what the squirrels call a good year. They will laugh and grow fat. Their oak orchards have seldom done better, the chestnut oaks in particular, the handsome, rosy-tipped acorns of which are noticeably abundant.
This interesting tree, so like the chestnut itself in both bark and leaf, is unfortunately not to be found in my own lot; at any rate, I have never discovered it there, although it grows freely only a short distance away. But I have never explored the ground with anything like thoroughness, and, to tell the truth, am not at all certain that I know just where the boundaries run. In this respect my real estate is not unlike my intellectual possessions; concerning which I often find it impossible to determine what is actually mine and what another's. I have written an essay before now, and at the end been more or less in doubt where to set the quotation marks. For that matter, indeed, I incline to believe that the whole tract of woods in the midst of which my little spot is situated belongs to me quite as really as to the various persons who claim the legal ownership. Not many of these latter, I am confident, get a better annual income from the property than I do; and even in law, we are told, possession counts for nine points out of the ten. They are never to be found at home when I call, and I feel no scruple about carrying away whatever I please. My treasures, be it said, however, are chiefly of an impalpable sort, — mostly thoughts and feelings, though with a few flowers and ferns now and then; the one set about as valuable as the other, the proprietors of the land would probably think.
In one aspect of the case, the lot which is more strictly my own is just now in a very interesting condition, though one that, unhappily, is far from being uncommon. Except the pines already mentioned (only six or eight in number), the wood was entirely cut off a few years before I came into possession, and at present the place is covered with a thicket of vines, bushes, and young trees, all engaged in an almost desperate struggle for existence. When the ground was cleared, every seed in it bestirred itself and came up; others made haste to enter from without; and ever since then the battle has been going on. It is curious to consider how changed the appearance of things will be at the end of fifty years, should nature be left till then to take its course. By that time the contest will for the most part be over. At least nineteen twentieths of all the plants that enlisted in the fight will have been killed, and where now is a dense mass of shrubbery will be a grove of lordly trees, with the ground underneath broad-spaced and clear. A noble result; but achieved at what a cost! If one were likely himself to live so long, it would be worth while to catalogue the species now in the field, for the sake of comparing the list with a similar one of half a century later. The contrast would be an impressive sermon on the mutability of mundane things. But we shall be past the need of preaching, most of us, before that day arrives, and not unlikely shall have been ourselves preached about in enforcement of the same trite theme.
Thoughts of this kind came to me the other afternoon, as I stood in the path (what is known as the town path cuts the lot in two) and looked about. So much was going on in this bit of earth, itself the very centre of the universe to multitudes of living things. The city out of which I had come was not more densely populous. Here at my elbow stood a group of sassafras saplings, remnants of a race that has held the ground for nobody knows how long. One of my earliest recollections of the place is of coming hither to dig for fragrant roots. At that time it had never dawned upon me that the owner of the land would some day die, and leave it to me, his heir. How hard and rocky the ground was! And how hard we worked for a very little bark! Yet few of my pleasures have lasted better. The spicy taste is in my mouth still. Even in those days I remarked the glossy green twigs of this elegant species, as well as the unique and beautiful variety of its leaves, — some entire and oval, others mitten-shaped, and others yet three-lobed; an extremely pretty bit of originality, suiting admirably with the general comely habit of this tree. There are some trees, as some men, that seem born to dress well.
Along with the sassafras I was delighted to find one or two small specimens of the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), — another original genius, and one which I now for the first time became acquainted with as a tenant of my own. Its deeply veined leaves are not in any way remarkable (unless it be for their varied autumnal tints), and are all fashioned after one pattern. Its blossoms, too, are small and inconspicuous; but these it sets round with large white bracts (universally mistaken for petals by the uninitiated), and in flowering time it is beyond comparison the showiest tree in the woods, while its fruit is the brightest of coral red. I hope these saplings of mine may hold their own in the struggle for life, and be flourishing in all their beauty when my successor goes to look at them fifty years hence.
Having spoken of the originality of the sassafras and the dogwood, I must not fail to mention their more abundant neighbor, the witch-hazel, or harnamelis. In comparison with its wild freak of singularity, the modest idiosyncrasies of the other two seem almost conventional. Why, if not for sheer oddity's sake, should any bush in this latitude hold back its blossoms till near the edge of winter? As I looked at the half-grown buds, clustered in the axils of the yellow leaves, they appeared to be waiting for the latter to fall, that they might have the sunlight all to themselves. They will need it, one would say, in our bleak November weather.
Overfull of life as my wild garden patch was, it would not have kept its (human) possessor very long from starvation. One or two barberry bushes made a brave show of fruitfulness; but the handsome clusters were not yet ripe, and even at their best they are more ornamental than nutritive, — though, after the frost has cooked them, one may go farther and fare worse. A few stunted maple-leaved viburnums (this plant's originality is imitative, — a not uncommon sort, by the bye) proffered scanty cymes of dark purplish drupes. Here and there was a spike of red berries, belonging to the false Solomon's-seal or false spikenard (what a pity this worthy herb should not have some less negative title!); but these it would have been a shame to steal from the grouse. Not far off a single black alder was reddening its fruit, which all the while it hugged close to the stem, as if in dread lest some chance traveler should be attracted by the bright color. It need not have trembled, for this time at least. I had just dined, and was tempted by nothing save two belated blackberries, the very last of the year's crop, and a single sassafras leaf, mucilaginous and savory, admirable as a relish. A few pigeon-berries might have been found, I dare say, had I searched for them, and possibly a few sporadic checkerberries; while right before my eyes was a vine loaded with large bunches of very small frost-grapes, such as for hardness would have served well enough for school-boys' marbles. Everything has its favorable side, however; and probably the birds counted it a blessing that the grapes were small and hard and sour; else greedy men would have come with baskets and carried them all away. Except some scattered rose-hips, I have enumerated everything that looked edible, I believe, though a hungry man's eyes might have lengthened the list materially. The cherry-trees, hickories, and oaks were not yet in bearing, as the horticultural phrase is; but I was glad to run upon a clump of bayberry bushes, which offer nothing good to eat, to be sure, but are excellent to smell of. The leaves always seem to invite crushing, and I never withhold my hand.
Among the crowd of young trees — scrub oaks, red oaks, white oaks, cedars, ashes, hickories, birches, maples, aspens, sumachs, and hornbeams— was a single tupelo. The distinguished name honors my catalogue, but I am half sorry to have it there. For, with all its sturdiness, the tupelo does not bear competition, and I foresee plainly that my unlucky adventurer will inevitably find itself overshadowed by more rapid growers, and be dwarfed and deformed, if not killed outright. Some of the very strongest natures (and the remark is of general application) require to be planted in the open, where they can be free to develop in their own way and at leisure. But this representative of Nyssa multiflora took the only chance that offered, I presume, as the rest of us must do.
Happy the humble! who aspire not to lofty things, demanding the lapse of years for their fulfillment, but are content to set before themselves some lesser task, such as the brevity of a single season may suffice to accomplish. Here were the asters and golden-rods already finishing their course in glory, while the tupelo was still barely getting under way in a race which, however prolonged, was all but certain to terminate in failure. Of the golden-rods I noted four species, including the white — which might appropriately be called silvery-rod — and the blue-stemmed. The latter (Solidago cæsia) is to my eye the prettiest of all that grow with us, though it is nearly the least obtrusive. It is rarely, if ever, found outside of woods, and ought to bear some name (sylvan golden-rod, perhaps) indicative of the fact.
As a rule, fall flowers have little delicacy and fragrance. They are children of the summer; and, loving the sun, have had almost an excess of good fortune. With such pampering, it is no wonder they grow rank and coarse. They would be more than human, I was going to say, if they did not. It is left for stern winter's progeny, the blossoms of early spring-time, who struggle upward through the snow and are blown upon by chilly winds, — it is left for these gentle creatures, at once so hardy and so frail, to illustrate the sweet uses of adversity.
All in all, it was a motley company which I beheld thus huddled together in my speck of forest clearing. Even the lands beyond the sea were represented, for here stood mullein and yarrow, contesting the ground with oaks and hickories. The smaller wood flowers were not wanting, of course, though none of them were now in bloom. Pyrola and winter-green, violets (the common blue sort and the leafy-stemmed yellow), strawberry and five-finger, saxifrage and columbine, rock-rose and bed-straw, self-heal and wood-sorrel, — these, and no doubt many more, were there, filling the chinks otherwise unoccupied.
My assortment of ferns is small, but I noted seven species: the brake, the polypody, the hay-scented, and four species of shield-ferns, — Aspidium Noveboracense, Aspidium spinulosum, variety intermedium, Aspidium marginale, and the Christmas fern, Aspidium acrostichoides. The last named is the one of which I am proudest. For years I have been in the habit of coming hither at Christmas time to gather the fronds, which are then as bright and fresh as in June. Two of the others, the polypody and Aspidium marginale, are evergreen also, but they are coarser in texture and of a less lively color. Writing of these flowerless beauties, I am tempted to exclaim again, Happy the humble! The brake is much the largest and stoutest of the seven, but it is by a long time the first to be cut down before the frost.
Should I ever meet with reverses, as the wealthiest and most prudent are liable to do, and be compelled to part with my woodland inheritance, I shall count it expedient to seek a purchaser in the spring. At that season its charms are greatly enhanced by a lively brook. This comes tumbling down the hill-side, dashing against the bowlders (of which the land has plenty), and altogether acting like a thing not born to die; but alas, the early summer sees it make an end, to wait the melting of next winter's snow. Many a happy hour did I, as a youngster, pass upon its banks, watching with wonder the swarms of tiny insects which darkened the foam and the snow, and even filmed the surface of the brook itself. I marveled then, as I do now, why such creatures should be out so early. Possibly our very prompt March friend, the phoebe, could suggest an explanation.
A break in the forest is of interest not only to such plants as I have been remarking upon, but also to various species of birds. No doubt the towhee, the brown thrush, and the cat-bird found out this spot years ago, and have been using it ever since for summer quarters. Indeed, a cat-bird snarled at me for an intruder this very September afternoon, though he himself was most likely nothing more than a chance pilgrim going South. This member of the noble wren family and near cousin of the mocking-bird would be better esteemed if he were to drop that favorite feline call of his. But this is his bit of originality (imitative, like the maple-leaved viburnum's), and perhaps, if justice were done, it would be put down to his credit rather than made an occasion of ill-will.
Once during the afternoon a company of chickadees happened in upon me; and, taking my cue from the newspaper folk, I immediately essayed an interview. My imitation of their conversational notes was hardly begun before one of the birds flew toward me, and, alighting near by, proceeded to answer my calls with a mimicry so exact, as fairly to be startling. To all appearance the quick-witted fellow had taken the game into his own hands. Instead of my deceiving him, he would probably go back and entertain his associates with amusing accounts of how cleverly he had fooled a stranger, out yonder in the bushes.
It would have seemed a graceful and appropriate acknowledgment of my rightful ownership of the land on which the catbird and the titmice were foraging, had they greeted me with songs. But it would hardly have been courteous for me to propose the matter, and evidently it did not occur to them. At all events, I heard no music except the hoarse and solemn asseverations of the katydids, the gentler message of the crickets, and in the distance an occasional roll-call of the grouse. My dog — who is a much better sportsman than myself, but whose companionship, I am ashamed to see, has not till now been mentioned — was all the while making forays hither and thither into the surrounding woods; and once in a while I heard, what is the best of all music in his ears, th e whir of partridge wings. Likely as not he thought it a queer freak on my part to spend the afternoon thus idly, when with a gun I might have been so much more profitably employed. He could not know that I was satiating myself with a miser's delights, feasting my eyes upon my own. In truth, I fancy he takes it for granted that the whole forest belongs to me — and to him. Perhaps it does. As I said just now, I sometimes think so myself.______________________________________
1 Since this essay was originally published (in the Atlantic Monthly) I have been assured that the author of The Old Oaken Bucket was not born in W———, but in the next town. Being convinced against my will, however, and finding the biographical dictionaries divided upon the point, I conclude to let the text stand unaltered.