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CHAPTER SIXTEENTH

BEES AND BUCKWHEAT

THE great storm of yesterday cleared the air as well as cleaned the beaches, and the river was fresh and sparkling as though the tempest had added new life, so that the listless midsummery water was now as champagne, "with beaded bubbles winking at the brim." The air was heavy with sweetness and with song, the fields and meadows painted as the rose. The buckwheat was in bloom, and a million bees were humming. The pasture was gay with pink gerardia, or reflected the summer sky where the day-flower blossomed. There was no commingling of these late flowers. Each had its own acre, exercised squatter sovereignty, and allowed no trespassing. The only evidence of man's interference, except the buckwheat-field, was a dilapidated worm-fence, and this is one of several instances where beauty increases hand in hand with decay. The older such a fence, the better; when merely a support for Virginia creeper or the rank trumpet-vine, it is worthy the rambler's regard. Wild life long ago learned what a safe snug-harbor such ruined fences offer. It puzzles even a mink to thread their mazes, and the shy rabbit that has its "form" in a brier-hidden hollow of the crooked line feels that it is safe.

There are traces of these old fences of which no record remains, placed perhaps by the very earliest settler in a tract that he had cleared and which has since gone back to an almost primitive state. In an old woodland I once traced a fence by the long line of cypripediums in bloom, which were thriving in the mould of decayed fence-rails, a pretty if not permanent monument to departed worth.

A word more of these old fences in winter. When the snow beats across the field, it stops here and gracefully curves above it, arching the rails and vines until all is hidden, unless it be some lonely projecting stake, by which alone it communicates with the outside world. I rashly attempted once to go across-lots over a new country, and made a discovery. The snow-bound fence was but a drift, I thought, but it proved to be far different. The thick mat of hardy growths had kept back the snow, which was but a roof and did not wholly exclude the light. For some distance I could dimly make out the various growths, and each little cedar stood up as a sentinel. A loud word sounded and resounded as if I had spoken in an empty room or shouted in a long tunnel. The coldest day in the year could not inconvenience any creature that took shelter here, and I found later that life, both furred and feathered, knew the old fence far better than I did.

But this is the last day but one of August, and so nominally the end of summer. Only nominally, for these flowery meadows and sweet-scented fields contradict the almanac. This quiet nook in the Delaware meadows offers no intimation of autumn until October, and late in the month at that. The bees and buckwheat will see to this, or seem to, which is just as much to the purpose. To-day along the old worm-fence are many kingbirds, and, although mute, they are not moping. There is too much insert life astir for that. With them are orioles and bluebirds, the whole making a loose flock of perhaps a hundred birds. The bluebirds are singing, but in a half-hearted, melancholy way, reminding me of an old man who spent his time when over ninety in humming "Auld Lang Syne." Before the buckwheat has lost its freshness these birds will all be gone, but at what time the bluebirds part company with the others I do not know. They certainly do not regularly migrate, as do the others. There was a colony of them that lived for years in and about my barn, and one was as sure to see them in January as in June. No English sparrows could have been more permanently fixed.

When the buckwheat is ripe and the fields and meadows are brown, there will be other birds to take their place. Tree-sparrows from Canada and white-throats from New England will make these same fields merry with music, and the tangle about the old fence will ring with gladness. But it is August still, and why anticipate? High overhead there are black specks in the air, and we can mark their course, as they pass, by the bell-like chink-chink that comes floating earthward. It is one of the sounds that recall the past rather than refer to the present. The reed-bird of to-day was a bobolink last May. His roundelay that told then of a long summer to come is now but a single note of regret that the promised summer is a thing of the past. It is the Alpha and Omega of the year's song-tide. Not that we have no other songs when the reed-bird has flown to the Carolina rice-fields. While I write, a song-sparrow is reciting reminiscences of last May, and there will be ringing rounds of bird-rejoicing from November to April. Still, the initial thought holds good: bobolink in May, and only a reed-bird in August; the beginning and the end; the herald of Summer's birth and her chief mourner; Alpha and Omega.

Where the brook that drains the meadow finds its way, the little rail-birds have congregated. Many spent their summer along the Musketaquid, where Thoreau spent his best days, but they bring no message from New England. They very seldom speak above a whisper. Not so the king-rail. He chatters as he threads the marsh and dodges the great blue harrier that sweeps above the cat-tail grasses and has to be content with a sparrow or a mouse.

These late August days are too often over-full, and one sees and hears too much, so very much that it is hard to give proper heed to any one of the many sights and sounds. But how much harder to turn your back upon it! All too soon the sun sinks into the golden clouds of the western sky.

That was a happy day when the buckwheat was threshed in the field, on a cool, clear, crisp October morning. The thumping of the flails on the temporary floor put the world in good humor. No bird within hearing but sang to its time-keeping. Even the crows cawed more methodically, and squirrels barked at the same instant that the flail sent a shower of brown kernels dancing in the air. The quails came near, as if impatient for the grains eyes less sharp than theirs would fail to find. It was something at such a time to lie in the gathering heap of straw and join in the work so far as to look on. That is a boy's privilege which we seldom are anxious to outgrow. A nooning at such a time meant a fire to warm the dinner, and the scanty time allowed was none too short for the threshers to indulge in weather prognostications. This is as much a habit as eating, and to forego it would be as unnatural as to forego the taking of food. As the threshers ate, they scanned the surroundings, and not a tree, bush, or wilted weed but was held to bear evidence that the coming winter would be "open" or "hard," as the oldest man present saw fit to predict. No one disputed him, and no one remembered a week later what he had said, so the old man's reputation was safe.

The buckwheat threshed, the rest is all a matter of plain prose. Stay! In the coming Indian summer there was always a bee-hunt. The old man whom we saw in the buckwheat-field in October was our dependence for wild honey, which we fancied was better than that from the hives. He always went alone, carrying a wooden pail and a long, slender oaken staff. How he found the bee-trees so readily was a question much discussed. "He smells it," some one suggested; "He hears 'em a-buzzin'," others remarked. Knowing when he was going, I once followed on the sly and solved the mystery. He went without hesitation or turning of the head to a hollow beech, and straightway commenced operations. I did not stay to witness this, but came away recalling many a Sunday afternoon's stroll with him in these same woods. What he had seen in August he had remembered in December, and, wise man that he was, said nothing meanwhile. Why, indeed, should he throw aside the opportunity to pose as one having superior knowledge, when others were so persistent in asserting it of him? There is that much vanity in all men.

But a year later his superior knowledge failed him. I had found the same tree in my solitary rambles, and was there ahead of him. Still, I never enjoyed my triumph. I felt very far from complimented when he remarked, as an excuse for his failure, that "a skunk had been at the only bee-tree in the woods. He saw signs of the varmint all about;" and when he said this he looked directly at me, with his nose in the air.

It is winter now, and when in the early morning I find cakes and honey upon the breakfast-table, excellent as they are in their way, they are the better that they call up the wide landscape of those latter August days and of frosty October, for I see less of the morning meal before me than of bees and buckwheat.


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