Here to return to
A NOVEMBER CHRONICLE.
I’ve gathered young spring-leaves, and flowers gay. — KEATS.
I LOOKED forward to the month with peculiar interest, as it was many years since I had passed a November in the country, and now that it is over I am moved to publish its praises: partly, as I hope, out of feelings of gratitude, and partly because it is an agreeable kind of originality to commend what everybody else has been in the habit of decrying.
In the first place, then, it was a month of pleasant weather; something too much of wind and dust (the dust for only the first ten days) being almost the only drawback. To me, with my prepossessions, it was little short of marvelous how many of the days were nearly or quite cloudless. The only snow fell on the 11th. I saw a few flakes in the afternoon, just enough to be counted, and there must have been another slight flurry after dark, as the grass showed white in favorable spots early the next morning. Making allowance for the shortness of the days, I doubt whether there has been a month during the past year in which a man could comfortably spend more of his time in out-of-door exercise.
The trees were mostly bare before the end of October, but the apple and cherry trees still kept their branches green (they are foreigners, and perhaps have been used to a longer season), and the younger growth of gray birches lighted up the woodlands with pale yellow. Of course the oak-leaves were still hanging, also; and for that matter they are hanging yet, and will be for months to come, let the north wind blow as it may. I wonder whether their winter rustling sounds as cold in other ears as in mine. My own feeling is most likely the result of boyish associations. How often I waded painfully through the forest paths, my feet and hands half frozen, while these ghosts of summer shivered sympathetically on every side as they saw me pass! I wonder, too, what can be the explanation of this unnatural oak-tree habit. The leaves are dead; why should they not obey the general law, — “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”? Is our summer too short to ripen them, and so to perfect the articulation? Whatever its cause, their singular behavior does much to beautify the landscape; particularly in such a district as mine, where the rocky hills are, so many of them, covered with young oak forests, which, especially for the first half of November, before the foliage is altogether faded, are dressed in subdued shades of maroon, beautiful at all hours, but touched into positive glory by the level rays of the afternoon sun.
I began on the very first day of the month to make a list of the plants found in bloom, and happening, a week afterward, to be in the company of two experienced botanical collectors, I asked them how many species I was likely to find. One said thirty. The other, after a little hesitation, replied, I don't know, but I shouldn’t think you could find a dozen.” Well, it is true that November is not distinctively a floral month in Massachusetts, but before its thirty days were over I had catalogued seventy-three species, though for six of these, to be sure, I have to thank one of the collectors just now mentioned. Indeed, I found thirty-nine sorts on my first afternoon ramble; and even as late as the 27th and 28th I counted twelve. All in all, there is little doubt that at least a hundred kinds of plants were in bloom about me during the month.
Having called my record a chronicle, I should be guilty of an almost wanton disregard of scriptural models if I did not fill it largely with names, and accordingly I do not hesitate to subjoin a full list of these my November flowers; omitting Latin titles, — somewhat unwillingly, I confess, — except where the vernacular is wanting altogether, or else is more than commonly ambiguous: — creeping buttercup, tall buttercup, field larkspur, celandine, pale corydalis, hedge mustard, shepherd's-purse, wild peppergrass, sea-rocket, wild radish, common blue violet, bird-foot violet, pansy, Deptford pink, common chickweed, larger mouse-ear chickweed, sand spurrey, knawel, common mallow, herb-robert, storksbill, red clover, alsyke, white clover, white sweet clover, black medick, white avens, common cinque-foil, silvery cinque-foil, witch-hazel, common evening-primrose, smaller evening-primrose, carrot, blue-stemmed golden-rod, white golden-rod (or silvery-rod), seaside golden-rod, Solidago juncea, Solidago rugosa, dusty golden-rod, early golden-rod, corymbed aster, wavy-leaved aster, heart-leaved aster, many-flowered aster, Aster vimineus, Aster diffusus, New York aster, Aster puniceus, narrow-leaved aster, fleabane, horse-weed, everlasting, cud weed, cone-flower, may weed, yarrow, tansy, groundsel, burdock, Canada thistle, fall dandelion, common dandelion, sow thistle, Indian tobacco, bell-flower (Campanula rapunculoides), fringed gentian, wild toad-flax, butter and eggs, self-heal, motherwort, jointweed, doorweed, and ladies' tresses (Spiranthes cernua).
Here, then, we have seventy-three species, all but one of which (Spiranthes cernua) are of the class of exogens. Twenty-two orders are represented, the great autumnal family of the Compositæ naturally taking the lead, with thirty species (sixteen of them asters and goldenrods), while the mustard, pink, and pulse families come next, with five species each. The large and hardy heath family is wanting altogether. Out of the whole number about forty-three are indigenous. Witch-hazel is the only shrub, and, as might have been expected, there is no climbing plant.
In setting down such a list one feels it a pity that so few of the golden-rods and asters have any specific designation in English. Under this feeling, I have presumed myself to name two of the golden-rods, Solidago Canadensis and Solidago nemoralis. With us, at all events, the former is the first of its genus to blossom, and may appropriately enough wear the title of early golden-rod, while the latter must have been noticed by everybody for its peculiar grayish, “dusty-miller” foliage. It has, moreover, an exceptional right to a vernacular name, being both one of the commonest and one of the showiest of our roadside weeds. Till something better is proposed, therefore, let us call it the dusty golden-rod.
It must in fairness be acknowledged that I did not stand upon the quality of my specimens. Many of them were nothing but accidental and not very reputable-looking laggards; but in November, especially if one is making a list, a blossom is a blossom. The greater part of the asters and golden-rods, I think, were plants that had been broken down by one means or another, and now, at this late day, had put forth a few stunted sprays. The narrow-leaved aster (Aster linariifolius) seemed peculiarly out of season, and was represented by only two heads, but these sufficed to bring the mouth-filling name into my catalogue. Of the two species of native violets I saw but a single blossom each. My pansy (common enough in gardens, and blooming well into December) was, of course, found by the roadside, and the larkspur likewise, as I made nothing of any but wild plants.
At this time of the year one must not expect to pick flowers anywhere and everywhere, and a majority of all my seventy-three species (perhaps as many as two thirds) were found only in one or more of three particular places. The first of these was along a newly laid-out road through a tract of woodland; the second was a sheltered wayside nook between high banks; and the third was at the seashore. At this last place, on the 8th of the month, I came unexpectedly upon a field fairly yellow with fall dandelions and silvery cinque-foils, and affording also my only specimens of burdock, Canada thistle, cone-flower, and the smaller evening-primrose; in addition to which were the many-flowered aster, yarrow, red clover, and sow thistle. In truth, the grassy hillside was quite like a garden, although there was no apparent reason why it should be so favored. The larger evening-primrose, of which I saw two stalks, one of them bearing six or eight blossoms, was growing among the rocks just below the edge of the cliff, in company with abundance of sow thistle, all perfectly fresh; while along the gravelly edge of the bank, just above them, was the groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), looking as bright and thrifty as if it had been the first of August instead of near the middle of November.
Perhaps my most surprising bit of good luck was the finding of the Deptford pink. Of this, for some inscrutable reason, one plant still remained green and showed several rosy blossoms, while all its fellows, far and near, were long since bleached and dead. Fortune has her favorites, even among pinks. The frail-looking, early-blooming corydalis (we have few plants that appear less able to bear exposure) was in excellent condition up to the very end of the month, though the one patch then explored was destitute of flowers. These were as pretty as could be — prettier even than in May, I thought — on the 16th, and no doubt might have been found on the 30th, with careful search. The little geranium known as herb-robert is a neighbor of the corydalis, and, like it, stands the cold remarkably well. Its reddening, finely cut leaves were fresh and flourishing, but though I often looked for its flowers, I found only one during the entire month. The storks-bill, its less known cousin, does not grow within my limits, but came to me from Essex County, through the kindness of a friend, being one of the six species contributed by her, as I have before mentioned.
The hardiness of some of these late bloomers is surprising. It is now the 2d of December, and yesterday the temperature fell about thirty degrees below the freezing-point, yet I notice shepherd's-purse, peppergrass, chickweed, and knawel still bearing fresh-looking flowers. Nor are they the only plants that seem thus impervious to cold. The prostrate young St. John's-wort shoots, for instance, all uncovered and delicate as they are, appear not to know that winter with all its rigors is upon them.
It was impossible not to sympathize admiringly with some of my belated asters and golden-rods. Their perseverance was truly pathetic. They had been hindered, but they meant to finish their appointed task, nevertheless, in spite of short days and cold weather. I have especially in mind a plant of Solidago juncea. The species is normally one of the earliest, following hard upon Solidago Canadensis, but for some reason this particular specimen did not begin to flower till after the first heavy frosts. Indeed, when I first noticed it, the stem leaves were already frost-bitten; yet it kept on putting forth blossoms for at least a fortnight. Whatever may be true of the lilies of the field, this golden-rod was certainly a toiler, and of the most persistent sort.
Early in the month the large and hardy Antiopa butterflies were still not uncommon in the woods, and on the 3d — a delightful, summer-like day, in which I made a pilgrimage to Walden — I observed a single clouded-sulphur (Philodice), looking none the worse for the low temperature of the night before, when the smaller ponds had frozen over for the first time.
Of course I kept account of the birds as well as of the flowers, but the number, both of individuals and of species, proved to be surprisingly small, the total list being as follows: — great black-backed gull, American herring gull, ruffed grouse, downy woodpecker, flicker, blue jay, crow, horned lark, purple finch, red crossbill, goldfinch, snow bunting, Ipswich sparrow, white-throated sparrow, tree sparrow, snowbird, song sparrow, fox sparrow, Northern shrike, myrtle warbler, brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, chickadee, golden-crowned kinglet, and robin. Here are only twenty-five species; a meagre catalogue, which might have been longer, it is true, but for the patriotism or prejudice (who will presume always to decide between these two feelings, one of them so given to counterfeiting the other?) which would not allow me to piece it out with the name of that all too numerous parasite, the so-called English sparrow.
My best ornithological day was the 17th, which, with a friend like-minded, I passed at Ipswich Beach. The special object of our search was the Ipswich sparrow, a bird unknown to science until 1868, when it was discovered at this very place by Mr. Maynard. Since then it has been found to be a regular fall and winter visitant along the Atlantic coast, passing at least as far south as New Jersey. It is a mystery how the creature could so long have escaped detection. One cannot help querying whether there can be another case like it. Who knows? Science, even in its flourishing modern estate, falls a trifle short of omniscience.
My comrade and I separated for a little, losing sight of each other among the sand-hills, and when we came together again he reported that he had seen the sparrow. He had happened upon it unobserved, and had been favored with excellent opportunities for scrutinizing it carefully through a glass at short range; and being familiar with its appearance through a study of cabinet specimens, he had no doubt whatever of its identity. This was within five minutes of our arrival, and naturally we anticipated no difficulty in finding others; but for two or three hours we followed the chase in vain. Twice, to be sure, a sparrow of some sort flew up in front of us, but in both cases it got away without our obtaining so much as a peep at it. Up and down the beach we went, exploring the basins and sliding down the smooth, steep hills. Every step was interesting, but it began to look as if I must go home without seeing Ammodramus princeps. But patience was destined to have its reward, and just as we were traversing the upper part of the beach for the last time, I caught a glimpse of a bird skulking in the grass before us. He had seen us first, and was already on the move, ducking behind the scattered tufts of beach-grass, crouching and running by turns; but we got satisfactory observations, nevertheless, and he proved to be, like the other, an Ipswich sparrow. He did not rise, but finally made off through the grass without uttering a sound. Then we examined his footprints, and found them to be, so far as could be made out, the same as we had been noticing all about among the hills.
Meanwhile, our perambulations had not been in vain. Flocks of snow buntings were seen here and there, and we spent a long time in watching a trio of horned larks. These were feeding amid some stranded rubbish, and apparently felt not the slightest suspicion of the two men who stood fifteen or twenty feet off, eying their motions. It was too bad they could not hear our complimentary remarks about their costumes, so tastefully trimmed with black and yellow. Our loudest exclamations, however, were called forth by a dense flock of sea-gulls at the distant end of the beach. How many hundreds there were I should not dare to guess, but when they rose in a body their white wings really filled the air, and with the bright sunlight upon them they made, for a landsman, a spectacle to be remembered.
Altogether it was a high day for two enthusiasts, though no doubt it would have looked foolish enough to ordinary mortals, our spending several dollars of money and a whole day of time, — in November, at that, — all for the sake of ogling a few birds, not one of which we even attempted to shoot.
But what then? Tastes will differ; and as for enthusiasm, it is worth more than money and learning put together (so I believe, at least, without having experimented with the other two) as a producer of happiness. For my own part, I mean to be enthusiastic as long as possible, foreseeing only too well that high spirits cannot last forever.
The sand-hills themselves would have repaid all our trouble. Years ago this land just back of the beach was covered with forest, while at one end of it was a flourishing farm. Then when man, with his customary foolishness, cut off the forest, Nature revenged herself by burying his farm. We did not verify the fact, but according to the published accounts of the matter it used to be possible to walk over the grave of an old orchard, and pick here and there an apple from some topmost branch still jutting out through the sand.
Among the dunes we found abundance of a little red, heath-like plant, still in full blossom. Neither of us recognized it, but it turned out to be jointweed (Polygonum articulatum), and made a famous addition to my November flower catalogue.
In connection with all this I ought, perhaps, to say a word about our Ipswich driver, especially as naturalists are sometimes reprehended for taking so much interest in all other creatures, and so little in their fellow-men. As we drew near the beach, which is some five miles from the town, we began to find the roads quite under water, with the sea still rising. We remarked the fact, the more as we were to return on foot, whereupon the man said that the tide was uncommonly high on account of the heavy rain of the day before! A little afterward, when we came in sight of a flock of gulls, he gravely informed us that they were “some kind of ducks”! He had lived by the seashore all his life, I suppose, and of course felt entirely competent to instruct two innocent cockneys such as he had in his wagon.
Four days after this I made a trip to Nahant. If Ammodramus princeps was at Ipswich, why should it not be at other similar places? True enough, I found the birds feeding beside the road that runs along the beach. I chased them about for an hour or two in a cold high wind, and stared at them till I was satisfied. They fed much of the time upon the golden-rods, alighted freely upon the fence-posts (which is what some writers would lead us never to expect), and often made use of the regular family tseep. Two of them kept persistently together, as if they were mated. One staggered me by showing a blotch in the middle of the breast, a mark that none of the published descriptions mention, but which I have since found exemplified in one of the skins at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, in Cambridge.
“A day is happily spent that shows me any bird I never saw alive before.” So says Dr. Coues, and he would be a poor ornithologist who could not echo the sentiment. The Ipswich sparrow was the third such bird that I had seen during the year without going out of New England, the other two being the Tennessee warbler and the Philadelphia vireo.
Of the remainder of my November list there is not much to be said. Robins were very scarce after the first week. My last glimpse of them was on the 20th, when I saw two. Tree sparrows, snowbirds, chickadees, kinglets, crows, and jays were oftenest met with, while the shrike, myrtle warbler, purple finch, and song sparrow were represented by one individual each. My song sparrow was not seen till the 28th, after I had given him up. He did not sing (of course he scolded; the song sparrow can always do that), but the mere sight of him was enough to suggest thoughts of springtime, especially as he happened to be in the neighborhood of some Pickering hylas, which were then in full cry for the only time during the month. Near the end of the month many wild geese flew over the town, but, thanks to a rebellious tooth (how happy are the birds in this respect!), I was shut indoors, and knew the fact only by hearsay. I did, however, see a small flock on the 30th of October, an exceptionally early date. As it chanced, I was walking at the time with one of my neighbors, a man more than forty years old, and he assured me that he had never seen such a thing before.
For music, I one day heard a goldfinch warbling a few strains, and on the 21st a chickadee repeated his clear phoebe whistle two or three times. The chickadees are always musical, — there is no need to say that; but I heard them sing only on this one morning.
Altogether, with the cloudless, mild days, the birds, the tree-frogs, the butterflies, and the flowers, November did not seem the bleak and cheerless season it has commonly been painted. Still it was not exactly like summer. On the last day I saw some very small boys skating on the Cambridge marshes, and the next morning December showed its hand promptly, sending the mercury down to within two or three degrees of zero.