Here to return to
A MORNING IN THE NORTH WOODS.
THE electric car left me near the Tennessee, — at “Riverview,” — and thence I walked into the woods, meaning to make a circuit among the hills, and at my convenience board an inward-bound car somewhere between that point and the city. The weather was of the kind that birds love: warm and still, after heavy showers, with the sun now and then breaking through the clouds. The country was a suburb in its first estate: that is to say, a land company had laid out miles of streets, but as yet there were no houses, and the woods remained unharmed. That was a very comfortable stage of the business to a man on my errand. The roads gave the visitor convenience of access, — a ready means of moving about with his eyes in the air, — and at the same time, by making the place more open, they made it more birdy; for birds, even the greater part of wood birds, like the borders of a forest better than its darker recesses.
One thing I soon perceived: the rain had left the roads in a condition of unspeakable adhesiveness. The red clay balled up my heels as if it had been moist snow, till I pitched forward as I walked. I fancied that I understood pretty well the sensations of a young lady in high-heeled shoes. One moment, too, my feet were weighted with lead; then the mass fell off in a sudden big lump, and my next few steps were on air. A graceful, steady, self-possessed gait was out of the question. As for abstaining from all appearance of evil — well, as another and more comfortable Scripture says, “There is a time for everything.” However, I was not disposed to complain. We read much about the tribulations of Northern soldiers on the march in Virginia, — of entire armies mud-bound and helpless. Henceforth I shall have some better idea of what such statements mean. In that part of the world, I am assured, rubber overshoes have to be tied on the feet with strings. Mother Earth does not believe in such effeminacies, and takes it upon herself to pull them off.
The seventeen-year locusts made the air ring. Heard at the right distance, the sound bas a curious resemblance, noticed again and again, to the far-away, barely audible buzz of an electric car. For a week the air of the valley woods had been full of it. I wondered over it for a day or two, with no suspicion of its origin. Then, as I waited for a car at the base of Missionary Ridge, a colored man who stood beside me on the platform gave me, without meaning it, a lesson in natural history.
“The locums are goin’ it, this mornin’, ain’t they?” he said.
“The locums?” I answered, in a tone of inquiry.
“Yes. Don’t you hear ‘em?”
He meant my mysterious universal hum, it appeared. But even then I did not know that he spoke of the big, red-eyed cicada that I had picked off a fence a day or two before and looked at for a moment with ignorant curiosity. And even when, by dint of using my own eyes, I learned so much, I was still unaware that this cicada was the famous seventeen-year locust. Here in the north woods I more than once passed near a swarm of the insects. At short range the noise loses its musical character; so that it would be easy to hear it without divining any connection between it and the grand pervasive hum of the universal chorus.
One of the first birds at which I stopped to look was a Kentucky warbler, walking about the ground and pausing now and then to sing; one of six or seven seen and heard during the forenoon. Few birds are more freely and easily observed. I mean in open woodlands with clear margins, such as I was now exploring. In a mountain forest, where they haunt brookside jungles of laurel and rhododendron, the story is different, as a matter of course. How it happens that the same bird is equally at home in surroundings so dissimilar is a question I make no attempt to answer.
All the hill woods, mostly oak, were dry and stony; but after a while I came unexpectedly to a valley, a place of another sort; not moist, to be sure, but looking as if it had been moist at some time or other; and with pleasant grassy openings and another set of trees — red maples, persimmons, and sweet-gums. Here was a fine bunch of birds, including many migrants, and I went softly hither and thither, scanning the branches of one tree after another, as a note or the stirring of a leaf attracted me, ready every minute for the sight of something new and wonderful. I found nothing, — nothing new and wonderful, I mean, — but I had all the exhilaration of the chase. In the company, nearly all of them in song, were wood thrushes, a silent palm warbler (red-poll), a magnolia warbler, three Canadian flycatchers, many black-polls, one or two redstarts, a chestnut-sided warbler, a black-and-white creeper, a field sparrow, a yellow-throated vireo, a wood pewee, an Acadian flycatcher, and two or more yellow-billed cuckoos. The red-poll was of a very pale complexion (but I assert nothing as to its exact identity, specific or sub-specific), and seemed to me unreasonably late. It was the 11th of May, and birds of its kind had been passing through Massachusetts by the middle of April. Chestnut-sides were scarce enough to be interesting, and it was good to hear this lover of berry fields and the gray birch singing from a sweet-gum.
When at last I turned away from the grassy glade, — where cattle were pasturing, as I now remember, — and went back among the dry hills (through the powdery soil of which the almost daily showers seemed to run as through a sieve), I presently caught sight of a scarlet tanager — a beauty, and, except on the mountains, a rarity. Then I stopped — on a street corner! — to admire the singing of a Bachman’s finch, wishing also to compare his plumage with that of a bird seen and greatly enjoyed a few days before at Chickamauga. To judge from my limited observation, this is one of the sparrows — the song sparrow being another — which exhibit a strange diversity of individual coloration; as if the fashion were not yet fully set, or perhaps were being outgrown. The bird here in the north woods, so far as color and markings went, might well enough have been of a different species from that of the Chickamauga singer, yet there was no reason to suspect the presence of more than one variety of Peucæa, so far as I knew, and the music of the two birds was precisely the same. A wonderfully sweet and various tune it is; with sometimes a highly ventriloquial effect, as if the different measures or phrases came from different points. It opens like the song heard in the Florida flat-woods, but is even more varied, both in voice and in musical form. So it seemed to me, I mean to say; but hearing the two a year apart, I cannot speak without reserve. It is pleasanter — as well as safer — to praise both singers than to exalt one to the pulling down of the other. In appearance, Bachman’s finch is one of the dullest, dingiest, least prepossessing members of its great family; but its voice and musical genius make it a treasure, especially in this comparatively sparrowless country of eastern Tennessee.
I have remarked that I found this bird upon a street comer. Unhappily my notes do not enable me to be more specific. It may have been at the corner of Court and Tremont Streets, or, possibly, at the junction of Tremont and Dartmouth Streets. All these names appear in my memoranda. Boston people should have had a hand in this business, I said to myself. It was on Federal Street (so much I put down) that I saw my only Tennessee rose-breasted grosbeak. He, or rather she, was the most interesting bird of the forenoon, and matched the one Baltimore oriole seen at Chickamauga. I heard the familiar click, as of rusty shears, and straightway took chase. For some minutes my search was in vain, and once I feared I had been fooled. A bird flew out of the right tree, as I thought, but showed yellow, and the next moment set up the clippiticlip call of the summer tanager. Could that bird have also a note like the rose-breast’s? It was not impossible, of course, for one does not exhaust the vocabulary of a bird in a month’s acquaintance; but I could not think it likely, thick as tanagers had been about me; and soon the click was repeated, and this time I put my eye on its author, — a feminine rose-breast. Perhaps it was nothing more than an accident that she was my only specimen; but so showy a bird, with so lovely a song and so distinctive a signal, could hardly have escaped notice had it been in any degree common.
Wood thrushes sang on all sides. They had need to be abundant and free-hearted, since they stand in that region for the whole thrush family. Blue golden-winged warblers, too, were generously distributed, and, as happens to me now and then in Massachusetts, I found one with a song so absurdly peculiar that I spent some time in making sure of its author. It is to be hoped that this tendency to individual variation will persist and increase in the case of this species till something more melodious than its present sibilant monotony is evolved; till beauty and art are mated, as they ought to be. Who would not love to hear the music of all our birds a few millions of years hence? What a singer the hermit thrush will be, for example, when his tune is equal to his voice! Indigo-birds, white-eyed vireos and prairie warblers abounded. As for the chats, they saluted me on the right and on the left, till I said, “Chats, Chattanooga,” and felt almost as if Nature had perpetrated a huge fantastic pun on her own account. If I could have had the ear of the enterprising owners of this embryo suburb, — a syndicate, I dare say they call themselves, — I would have suggested to them to name it “Chat City.”
I wandered carelessly about, now following a bird over a rounded hill (one, I remember, was covered literally from end to end with the common brake, — Pteris, — which will give the reader an idea of its sterility), now keeping to the road. In such a soil flowers were naturally scarce; but I noticed houstonia, phlox, hieracium, senecio, pentstemon, and specularia. Like the brake, the names are suggestive of barrenness. The senecio (ragwort), a species with finely cut leaves (S. millefolium), was first seen on Missionary Ridge. There, as here, it had a strange, misplaced appearance in my eyes, looking much like our familiar S. aureus, but growing in dry woods!
So the morning passed. The hours were far too brief, and I would have stretched them into the afternoon, but that my trunk was packed for Walden’s Ridge. It was necessary to think of getting back to the city, and I took a quicker pace. Two more Kentucky warblers detained me for a moment; a quail sprang up from under my feet; and on the other side of the way an oven-bird sang — the only one found in the valley. Then I came to the car-track; but somehow things wore an unexpected look, and a preacher, very black, solemn, and shiny, gave me to understand, in answer to a question, that the city lay not where I thought, but in an opposite direction. Instead of making a circuit I had cut straight across the country (an unusual form of bewilderment), and had come to another railway. But no harm was done. In that corner of the world all roads lead to Chattanooga.