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A HUNT FOR THE PYXIE
NO storm raged to defeat a long-cherished plan, and we must laugh at threatening clouds or miss many an outing. In dreams the pyxie had been blooming for weeks, and to prove that not all dreams go by contraries, I started on a flower-hunt. This is not always so tame and adventure-less a matter as one might think. There are wood-blooms that scorn even a trace of man's interference, and the pyxie is one of them. Nature alone can provide its wants, and only where Nature holds undisputed sway can it be found. To find this beautiful flower we must plunge into the wilderness.
It was a long tramp, but never wanting a purpose for every step taken. Each turn in the path offered something new, and if ever for a moment a trace of weariness was felt, it was because even to our hungry eyes the wilderness was overfull. Bewildering multitudes are more to be feared than possible dangers. There is no escape from the former. Not a tree or bush, not a bird or blossom, but to-day offered excellent reason why with them we should spend our time; and how often they all spoke at once!
Except the ceaseless rattle of small frogs, there was no sound, for that sad sighing of the tall pines seems but the rhythmic breathing of silence; or, passing from the wet grounds to the higher, drier, and more barren trans, we heard only the crisp crackling of the reindeer-moss we crushed at every step. Although
"It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking,"
we gave no thought to possible danger, — for rattlesnakes are still to be found. Not even when we stooped to pick the bright berries of winter-green did we think of a coiled serpent buried in dead leaves; and what opportunity for murder the serpent had as we buried our faces in pillows of pink and pearly arbutus!
At last we reached South River (in Southern New Jersey), and just here was no place to tarry, unless to court melancholy. It was not required that my companion should enumerate the reasons why the one-time farm along the river-bank had been abandoned. A glance at the surrounding fields told the whole story. There was, indeed, barrenness, — and very different, this, from what obtains in localities near by to which the same term is applied. In the so-called pine barrens there is a luxuriant vegetation; but here about the deserted house and out-building there was nothing but glistening sand, moss, and those pallid grasses that suggest death rather than life, however feeble. And how widely different is it to be surrounded by ruin wrought by man, and to be in a forest where man has never been! Could I not have turned my back upon the scene and looked out only upon the river, the day's pleasure would have vanished. But we were soon away, and a naturalist's paradise was spread before us. What constitutes such a place? Not necessarily one where man has never been: it will suffice if Nature has withstood his interference; and this is true of these pine barrens, this weedy wilderness, this silent battle-field where the struggle for existence never ceases, and yet, as we see it, peaceful as the fleecy clouds that fleck an April sky.
Though the wind that swept the wide reach of waters close at hand still smacked of wintry weather, there was a welcome warmth on shore. The oaks even hinted of the coming leaf. Their buds were so far swollen that the sharp outlines of bare twigs against the sky were rounded off. The ruddy stems of the blueberry bushes gave to the river-bank a fire-like glow, and yet more telling was the wealth of bright golden glow where the tall Indian grass waved in all its glory. The repellent desolation of midwinter, so common to our cold-soil upland fields, was wholly wanting here; for, while nothing strongly suggested life as we think of it, even in early spring, yet nothing recalled death, the familiar feature of a midwinter landscape.
The scattered cedars were not gloomy today. Their green-black foliage stood out in bold relief, a fitting background to the picture of Spring's promises. That the sea was not far off is evident, for even here, a dozen miles from the ocean, many of these trees were bent and squatty at the top, as are all those that face the fury of storms along the coast. Every one harbored north-bound migrating birds; restless, warbling kinglets principally. No other tree seemed to attract these pretty birds, many a flock passing by scores of oaks to the next cedar in their line of march. The clustered pines were not similarly favored, not a bird of any kind appearing about them, and life of all kinds was wholly absent in the long aisles between their stately trunks. Our path led us through one great grove where every tree grew straight and tall as a ship's mast. The light that filled this wood was strangely beautiful. Nothing stood out distinctly. To have passed here in the gloaming would have tried weak nerves. Even in the glare of noonday my imagination was abnormally active, every stunted shrub and prostrate log assuming some startling shape. Think of such a place after sunset! Let an owl whoop in your ears when hedged in by thick-set trees! Philosophize as one will in daylight, it goes for little now, and the days of Indians, cougars, and all ill-natured beasts come trooping back. This distrust of darkness is not mere cowardice, and I would accept no one's statement that he is wholly free of it. Every sound becomes unduly significant when we are alone in a wilderness; often unpleasantly so, even during the day, and
"in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!"
Out of the pines and into the oak woods: the change was very abrupt, and as complete as possible. Every feature of the surroundings was bathed in light now, and the emergence from the pine forest's gloom restored our spirits. We are ever craving variety, and there was positive beauty in every stunted oak's ugliness, and from them we needed but to turn our heads to see thrifty magnolias near the river-bank. These have no special enemy, now that the beavers are gone, and thrive in the black mud by the water's edge; better, by far, than the gum-trees near them, for these were heavy laden with pallid mistletoe, — to me a most repugnant growth.
We reached open country at last, and here were birds without number. How quickly all else fades at such a time! The whole valley trembled with the ringing whistle of a thousand red-wings. A few swallows — the first of their kind to return — darted over the wide waters and rested on projecting branches of trees that floods had stranded on the islands. The sprightly kill-deers ran with such dainty steps over the sand that I could not find their footprints. They, too, were pioneer birds, but none the less light-hearted because alone. They sang with all their last year's earnestness, scattering music among the marshes where frogs were now holding high carnival. They were very tame, at least so far as we were concerned, but a little in doubt as to what a stray hawk might be about. But they left us only to make room for others, and whether we looked riverward or landward mattered not: it was birds, birds, birds! Here a hundred sparrows in an oak, there a troop of snow-birds in the bushes, a whistling titmouse sounding his piercing notes, the plaintive bluebird floating overhead, the laugh of the loon at the bend of the river, and buzzards searching for stranded herring where the seine had been drawn.
A flock of herons, too, passed overhead, and, had they not seen us, might have stopped here on the river-shore. What an addition to a landscape! and yet now so seldom seen. No birds can be more harmless than they, yet not even the hawks are subject to greater persecution. Not long since these birds were abundant, and a "heronry" was one of the "sights" of many a neighborhood; but people now scarcely know what a "heronry" is. The very word suggests how rapidly our large birds are disappearing, and their roosting-places, where hundreds gathered and nested, too, in season, are matters of "ancient history." In fear and trembling, the herons that linger about our watercourses singly seek secluded trees wherein to rest, and, I fear, even then sleep with one eye open. A fancy, on the part of women, for heron plumes has wrought a deal of mischief.
But where is the pyxie? We knew it must be near at hand, but why make haste to find it? All else was so beautiful here, why not wait even until another day? The river-bank was itself a study. At the top, sand of snowy whiteness; then a ribbon of clay over which water trickled carrying iron in solution, that was slowly cementing a sand stratum beneath, where every degree of density could be found, from solid rock to a paste-like mass that we took pleasure in moulding into fantastic shapes, thereby renewing our dirt-pie days.
A little later in the year, this bluff, now streaked and spotted, will be green with the broad-leaved sundews, curious carnivorous plants that here take the place of grasses. There is a filiform sundew that grows near by, where the ground is high, if not dry; but it, too, waits for warmer days. Not so the pyxie. Almost at first glance, as we left the bluff, we saw it, sparkling white, nestled among the gray mats of reindeer-moss, or fringed by shining winter-green still laden with its crimson fruit.
Here the earth was strangely carpeted. Sphagnum, beautiful by reason of rich color, gray-green moss, and the object of our long tramp, — pyxie. No botany does it justice, passing it by with the mere mention of its barbarous name, Pyxidanthera barbulata. It might be thought the meanest of all weeds, but is, in truth, the chiefest glory of this wonderful region.
Is it strange we regretted that Time would not slacken his pace? I know not where else, in these northern regions, so much is to be seen, and so soon. Spring, elsewhere, is the round year's strangest child, often too forward, and too often backward; but her accomplishments here and now are beyond criticism. Such perfect work, and yet she is not out of her teens. The day was April 1.