Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
MAKE an early start if you wish an eventful outing. Why know the world only when the day is middle-aged or old? A wise German has said, "The morning hour has gold in its mouth." For many a rod after leaving the wharf the river still
smoked," and the scanty glimpses between the rolling clouds of mist spurred the imagination. There was nothing certain beyond the gunwales. The pale-yellow color of the water near at hand and the deep-green and even black of that in the distance had no daytime suggestiveness. It was not yet the familiar river with its noonday glitter of blue and silver.
It is not strange that the initial adventure to which the above-mentioned conditions naturally gave rise occurred while this state of uncertainty continued. Very soon I ran upon a snag. To strike such an object in mid-river was rather startling. Was I not in or near the channel? Steamboats come puffing and plowing here and sailing craft pass up and down, so my only care had been to avoid them; but now there came in my path the twisted trunk of an old forest tree and held me fast. All the while the mist rose and fell, giving no inkling of my whereabouts. In the dim, misty light what a strange sea-monster this resurrected tree-trunk seemed to be! Its thick green coat of silky threads lay closely as the shining fur of the otter, a mane of eel-grass floated on the water, the gnarly growths where branches once had been glistened as huge eyes, and broken limbs were horns that threatened quick destruction. There was motion, too. Slowly it rose above the water and then as slowly sunk from view. Could it be possible that some long-necked saurian of the Jersey marls had come to life? Nonsense; and yet so real did it seem that I was ready for the river-horse to rise
"from the waves beneath,
And grin through the grate of his spiky teeth."
With such an uncanny keeper, I was held a prisoner. At last I struck it with an oar to beat it back, and rocked the frail boat until I feared plunging into the deep water and deeper mud beneath. Deep water? It suddenly occurred to me to try its depth, and the truth was plain. I was far from the channel, and might with safety have waded to the shore. As usual, I had rashly jumped at conclusions. The mouth of an inflowing creek was near at hand, and this sunken tree, a relic of some forgotten freshet, had been lying here in the mud for several years. The tide lifted and let fall the trunk, but the root-mass was still strongly embedded. I knew the spot of old, and now, fearing nothing, was rational again.
Such sunken trees, however, are well calculated to alarm the unthinking. It is said of one yet lying in the mud of Crosswicks Creek, that it rose so quickly once as to overturn a boat. This is not improbable. That occurrence, if true, happened a century ago, and the same tree has since badly frightened more than one old farmer. I am told this of one of them who had anchored his boat here one frosty October morning and commenced fishing. While half asleep, or but half sober, the tree slowly raised up and tilted the boat so that its occupant felt compelled to swim. His view of the offending monster was much like my own fevered vision of to-day. He not only swam ashore, but ran a mile over a soft marsh. To him the sea-serpent was a reality, although he saw it in the creek.
It is of interest to note that among the early settlers of this region, for at least three generations, the impression was prevalent that there might be some monster lurking in the deep holes of the creek or in the river. The last of the old hunters and fishermen of this region, who had spent all his life in a boat or prowling along shore, was ever talking of a "king tortle" that for forty years had defied all his efforts to capture it. "Mostly, it only shows its top shell, but I have seen it fair and square, head and legs, and I don't know as I care to get very close, neither." This was his unvaried remark whenever I broached the subject. To have suggested that it was a sunken log, or in some other way tried to explain the matter, would only have brought about his ill will. I once attempted it, very cautiously, but he effectually shut me up by remarking, "When this here creek runs dry and you can walk over its bottom, you'll larn a thing or two that ain't down in your books yet, and ain't goin' to be." The old man was right. I do not believe in "king tortles," but there certainly is "a thing or two" not yet in the books. Stay! How big do our snappers grow? Is the father of them all still hiding in the channel of Crosswicks Creek?
A description in an old manuscript journal, of the general aspect of the country as seen from the river, bears upon this subject of strange wild beasts and monsters of the deep, as well as on that of sunken trees that endangered passing shallops.
"As we pass up the river," this observant writer records, "we are so shut in by the great trees that grow even to the edge of the water, that what may lye in the interior is not to be known. That there be fertile land, the Indians tell us, but their narrow paths are toilsome to travel and there are none [of these people] now that seem willing to guide us. As we approached Warns-worth's the channel was often very close to the shore, and at one time we were held by the great trees that overhung the bank and by one that had been fallen a long time and was now lodged in the water. As I looked towards the shore, I exclaimed, ' Here we are indeed in a great wilderness. What strangeness is concealed in this boundless wood? what wonder may at any time issue from it, or fierce monster not be lurking in the waters beneath us?' Through the day the cries of both birds and beasts were heard, but not always. It was often so strangely quiet that we were more affected thereby than by the sounds that at times issued forth. At night there was great howling, as we were told, of wolves, and the hooting of owls, and often there plunged into the stream wild stags that swam near to our boat. But greater than all else, to our discomfort, were the great sunken trunks of trees that were across the channel, where the water was of no great depth."
What a change! and would that this old traveller could revisit the Delaware to-day. My boat is free again and the mists are gone. Through the trees are sifted the level sunbeams. There is at least a chance now to compare notes. The forest is now a field, the trackless marsh a meadow; wild life is largely a thing of the past; silence, both day and night, replaces sound. No, not that; but only the minor sounds are left. There are still the cry of the fish-hawk and the sweet song of the thrush. No stags now swim the river, but there remain the mink and the musk-rat. It has not been long since I saw a migration of meadow-mice, and at night, I am sure, many an animal dares to breast the stream, a mile wide though it be. Too cunning to expose itself by day, it risks its life at night; and how tragic the result when, nearly at the journey's end, it is seized by a lurking foe; dragged down, it may be, by a snake or a turtle!
The world is just as full of tragedy as ever, and, let us hope, as full of comedy. In a bit of yonder marsh, above which bends the tall wild rice, there is daily enacted scene after scene as full of import as those which caused the very forest to tremble when the wolf and panther quarrelled over the elk or deer that had fallen.
It has been insisted upon that a goal-less journey is necessarily a waste of time. If on foot, we must keep forever on the go; if in a boat, we must keep bending to the oars. It is this miserable fallacy that makes so many an out-door man and woman lose more than half of that for which they went into the fields. Who cares if you did see a chippy at every turn and Rushed a bittern at the edge of the marsh? If you had been there before them, and these birds did the walking, you would have gone home the wiser. It is not the mere fact that there are birds that concerns us, but what are they doing? why arc they doing it? This the town-pent people are ever anxious to know, and the fans cannot be gathered if you are forever on the move. Suppose I rush across the river and back, what have I seen? The bottom of the boat. I came to see the river and the sky above, and if this is of no interest to the reader, let him turn the leaf.
Does every storm follow the track of the sun? As the sun rose there were clouds in the east and south and a haziness over the western sky. Had I asked a farmer as to the weather probabilities, he would have looked everywhere but due north. Why does he always ignore that quarter? There may be great banks of cloud there, but they go for nothing. "Sou-east" and "sou-west" are forever rung in your ears, but never a word of the north. Sometimes I have thought it may be for this reason that about half the time the farmer is all wrong, and the heaviest rains come when he is most sure that the day will be clear.
Looking upward, for the sky was clear in that direction now, I saw that there were birds so far above me that they appeared as mere specks. Very black when first seen, but occasionally they flashed as stars seen by day from the bottom of a well. They could not be followed, except one that swept swiftly earthward, and the spreading tail and curve of wings told me it was a fish-hawk. What a glorious outlook from its ever-changing point of view! From its height, it could have seen the mountains and the ocean, and the long reach of river valley as well. If the mists obscure it all, why should a bird linger in the upper air? The prosy matter of food-getting has nothing to do with it. While in camp on Chesapeake Bay, I noticed that the fish-hawks were not always fishing, and often the air rang with their strange cries while soaring so far overhead as to be plainly seen only with a field-glass. Every movement suggested freedom from care as they romped in the fields of space. It is not strange that they scream, or laugh, shall we say? when speeding along at such rate and in no danger of collision. If I mistake not, the cry of exultation is coincident with the downward swoop, and I thought of old-time yelling when dashing down a snow-clad hill-side; but how sober was the work of dragging the sled up-hill! The hawks, I thought, were silent when upward bound. If so, there is something akin to humanity in the hawk nature.
I have called the cry of the fish-hawk a "laugh," but, from a human stand-point, do birds laugh? It is extremely doubtful, though I recall a pet sparrow-hawk that was given to playing tricks, as I called them, and the whole family believed that this bird actually laughed. Muggins, as we named him, had a fancy for pouncing upon the top of my head and, leaning forward, snapping his beak in my face. Once an old uncle came into the room and was treated in this fashion. Never having seen the bird before, he was greatly astonished, and indignant beyond measure when the hawk, being rudely brushed off, carried away his wig. Now the bird was no less astonished than the man, and when he saw the wig dangling from his claws he gave a loud cackle, unlike anything we had ever heard before, and which was, I imagine, more an expression of amusement than of surprise. I think this, because afterwards I often played the game of wig with him, to the bird's delight, and he always "laughed" as he carried off the prize. On the contrary, the unsuccessful attempt to remove natural hair elicited no such expression, but sometimes a squeal of disgust.
In the Spectator of October 1, 189z, page 444, I find a most thoughtful article, entitled "The Animal Sense of Humor," and I quote as follows: "The power of laughter is peculiar to man, and the sense of humor may be said, generally speaking, to be also his special property." Again, "We never saw the slightest approach to amusement in one animal at the mistakes of another, though dogs, so far as we can venture to interpret their thoughts, do really feel amusement at the mistakes of men." Possibly the author is right, but do not cats show a sense of humor at the rough? and-tumble gambols of their kittens? Is not the sly cuff on the ear that sends a kitten sprawling indicative of a sense of fun on the part of tabby? Our author says, "so far as we can venture to interpret their thoughts." "Ay, there's the rub." No one can tell how far it is safe to venture, but I go a great deal beyond my neighbors. Our author concludes, "In animals, as in man, humor is the result of civilization, and not as we understand it, a natural and spontaneous development." I cannot subscribe to this. I know little of domestic animals, but have got the idea of an animal's sense of humor from wild life, and confirmed it by what I have seen of cats and dogs.
While I have been drifting, and using my eyes and ears instead of legs and arms, as is advocated, the clouds, too, have been creeping this way, and, while the morning is yet fresh, it is certainly going to rain. Had I consulted the barometer, I would have known this; but then, knowing it, might I not have stayed at home? Why not enjoy part of a day? That the rain will soon be here does not diminish one's pleasure, unless there is a fear of getting wet, and this is all too common. I hope that it does not mean that you have but one suit of clothes.
The approaching rain, the increasing cloudiness, the shut-in appearance, made the river exceedingly attractive. With the down-dropping clouds dropped down the birds, and the swallows now skimmed the water as they had been skimming the sky. The fish-hawks departed, but a host of land-birds crossed the stream, as if comparing the shelter afforded by the cedars on one side and pines on the other. These birds chattered as they flew by, and turned their heads up- and downstream, as if curious as to all that might be going on. Suddenly the water ceased to be rippled, and far down-stream a cloud appeared to have reached the river. It was the rain. It seemed to march very slowly, and every drop made a dimple on the river's breast. Then I could hear the on-coming host, the sound having a distinct bell-like tinkle as each drop touched the surface and disappeared. A curious effete, too, was produced by the wind or the varying density of the cloud above, in that the drops were very near together where I happened to be, and much farther apart and larger some distance beyond the boat. I could of course make no measurements, but appearances suggested that in the middle of the river the drops were less numerous in the proportion of one to five. Does it usually rain harder over land than over water? Heretofore I had seen the rain upon the river while on shore, and was now very glad to have been caught adrift, so as to observe it from a new point of view. It was a beautiful sight, well worth the thorough wetting that I got and which drove me home soon after with pleasant thoughts of my goalless journey.