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UP THE CREEK
THERE is greater merit in the little word "up" than in "down." If, when in a place new to me, I am asked to go "up the creek," my heart leaps, but there is less enthusiasm when it is suggested to go down the stream. One seems to mean going into the country, the other into the town. All this is illogical, of course, but what of that? The fans of a case like this have not the value of my idle fancies. After all, there is a peculiar merit in going up-stream. It is something to be going deeper and deeper into the heart of the country. It is akin to getting at the foundations of things.
In the case of small inland streams, generally, the mouth is a commonplace affair. The features that charm shrink from the fateful spot, and we are put in a condition of anticipation at the start which, happily, proves one of abundant realization at the finish.
A certain midsummer Saturday was not an ideal one for an outing, but with most excellent company I ventured up the creek. It was my friend's suggestion, so I was free from responsibility. Having promised nothing, I could in no wise be justly held accountable. Vain thought! Directly I suffered in their estimation because, at mere beck and nod, polliwogs were not forthcoming and fishes refused to swim into my hand. What strange things we fancy of our neighbors! Because I love the wild life about me, one young friend thought me a magician who could command the whole creek's fauna by mere word of mouth. It proved an empty day in one respect, animal life scarcely showing itself. To offer explanations was of no avail, and one of the little company recast her opinions. Perhaps she even entertains some doubt as to my having ever seen a bird or fish or the coveted polliwog.
It is one thing to be able to give the name and touch upon the habits of some captured creature, and quite another to command its immediate presence when we enter its haunts. This always should, and probably never will, be remembered.
But what of the creek, the one-time Big-Bird Creek of the Delaware Indians? With ill-timed strokes we pulled our languid oars, and passed many a tree, jutting meadow, or abandoned wharf worthy of more than a moment's contemplation. But, lured by the treasure still beyond our reach, we went on and on, until the trickling waters of a hillside spring proved too much for us, and, turning our prow landward, we stopped to rest.
Among old trees that afforded grateful shade, a spring that bubbled from an aged chestnut's wrinkled roots, a bit of babbling brook that too soon reached the creek and was lost, and, beyond all, wide-spreading meadows, boundless from our point of view — what more need one ask? To our credit, be it said, we were satisfied, except, perhaps, that here, as all along our course, polliwogs were perverse. Birds, however, considerately came and went, and even the shy cuckoo deigned to reply when we imitated his dolorous clucking. A cardinal grosbeak, too, drew near and whistled a welcome, and once eyed us with much interest as we sat lunching on the grass. What did he think of us? Eating, with him, is so different a matter, and perhaps he could give us a few useful hints. The trite remark, "Fingers came before forks," has a significance in the woods, if not in the town. While eating we listened, and I heard the voices of nine different birds. Some merely chirped in passing, it is true, but the marsh-wrens in the cat-tail thicket just across the creek were not silent for a moment. Here in the valley of the Delaware, as I recently found them on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the wrens are quite nocturnal, and I would have been glad to have heard them sing in the moonlight again; for our enthusiasm would have been strengthened by a few such glimpses of the night side of Nature.
No bird is so welcome to a mid-day camp as the white-eyed vireo, and we were fortunate in having one with us while we tarried at the spring. Not even ninety degrees in the shade has any effect upon him, and this unflagging energy reacts upon the listener. We could at least be so far alive as to give him our attention. Mid-clay heat, however, does affect many a song-bird, and now that nesting is well-nigh over, the open woods are deserted for hidden cool retreats, where the songster takes its ease, as we, far from town, are taking ours. There is much in common between birds and men.
How, as we lingered over our glasses, counting the lemon-seeds embedded in sugar, we would have enjoyed a wood-thrush's splendid song or a rose-breasted grosbeak's matchless melody! but the to-whee of the pipilo scratching among dead leaves, the plaint of an inquisitive cat-bird threading the briers, the whir of a humming-bird vainly seeking flowers, — these did not pass for nothing; and yet there was comparative silence that suggested a sleeping rather than a wakeful, active world.
Here let me give him who loves an outing a useful hint: be not so anxious for what may be that you overlook that which is spread before you. More than once to-day our discussion of the "silence" of a midsummer noontide drowned the voices of singing-birds near by.
How often it has been intimated to us that "two's company and three's a crowd"! but to really see and hear what transpires in the haunts of wild life, one is company and two's a crowd. We cannot heed Nature and fellow-man at the same moment; and as to the comparative value of their communications, each must judge for himself.
Certainly the human voice is a sound which animals are slow to appreciate. How often have I stood in silence before birds and small animals and they have shown no fear! A movement of my arms would put them on guard, perhaps; but a word spoken, and away they sped. Not a bird, I have noticed, is startled by the bellow of a bull or the neigh of a horse, and yet my own voice filled them with fear. Even snakes that knew me well and paid no attention to my movements were startled at words loudly spoken. It is a bit humiliating to think that in the estimation of many a wild animal our bark is worse than our bite.
A midsummer noontide has surely some merit, and when I failed to find fish, frog, or salamander for my young friend, it became necessary to point to some feature of the spot that made it worth a visit. To my discomfiture, I could find nothing. Trees have been talked of overmuch, and there were no wild flowers. The August bloom gave, as yet, only a hint of what was coming. I had hit upon a most unlucky interim during which no man should go upon a picnic. In despair and empty-handed, we took to our boat and started up the creek. It was a fortunate move, for straightway the waters offered that which I had vainly sought for on shore. Here were flowers in abundance. The pickerel-weed was in bloom, the dull-yellow blossoms of the spatterdock dotted the muddy shores, bindweed here and there offered a single flower as we passed by, and never was golden-dodder more luxuriant. Still, it is always a little disappointing when Flora has the world to herself, and while we were afloat it was left to a few crows and a single heron to prove that she had not quite undisputed sway.
Up the creek with many a turn and twist, and now on a grassy knoll we land again, where a wonderful spring pours a great volume of sparkling water into the creek. Here at last we have an object lesson that should bear fruit when we recall the day. Not a cupful of this clear cold water could we catch but contained a few grains of sand, and for so many centuries has this carrying of sand grains been in progress that now a great ridge has choked the channel where once rode ships at anchor. An obscure back-country creek now, but less than two centuries ago the scene of busy industry. Perhaps no one is now living who saw the last sail that whitened the landscape. Pages of old ledgers, a bit of diary, and old deeds tell us something of the place; but the grassy knoll itself gives no hint of the fart that upon it once stood a warehouse. Yet a busy place it was in early colonial times, and now utterly neglected.
It is difficult to realize how very unsubstantial is much of man's work. As we sat upon the grassy slope, watching the outgoing tide as it rippled and broke in a long line of sparkling bubbles, I rebuilt, for the moment, the projecting wharf, of which but a single log remains, and had the quaint shallops of pre-Revolutionary time riding at anchor. There were heard, in fact, the cry of a heron and the wild scream of a hawk; but these, in fancy, were the hum of human voices and the tramp of busy feet.
The scattered stones that just peeped above the grass were not chance bowlders rolled from the hill near by, but the door-step and foundation of the one-time warehouse. The days of buying, selling, and getting gain came back, in fancy, and I was more the sturdy colonist than the effeminate descendant. But has the present no merit? We had the summer breeze that came freighted with the odors gathered from the forest and the stream, and there were thrushes rejoicing in our hearing that the hill-sides were again as Nature made them. It meant much to us to tarry in the shade of venerable trees spared by the merchants that once collected here, whose names are now utterly forgotten. Stay! there are two reminders of ancient glory. A beech that overhangs the brook has its bark well scarred, and, now beyond decipherment, there are initials of many prominent naturalists of Philadelphia. A few rods up-stream is another beech that has remained unchanged. On it can be seen the initials T. A. C., 1819; those of the celebrated paleontologist, Conrad, born near here in 1803.
The shadows lengthen; the cooler hours of eventide draw on; the languid thrushes are again abroad; music fills the air. We are homeward bound and hurrying down-stream.
Our minds are not so receptive as when we started. How shrunken to a few rods is every mile! Trees, flowers, and birds are scarcely heeded; but the good gathered as we went up the creek we bring away, and, once again in the dusty village street, we realize that we have but to turn our back upon the town to find the world a picture.