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|WAYLAYING THE DAWN
THE most beautiful place which can be found on earth of a June morning is a New England pasture, and fortunate are we New Englanders who love the open in the fact that, whatever town or city may be our home, the old-time pastures lie still at our very doors.
The way to the one that I know best lies through the yard of an old, old house, a yard that stands hospitably always open. It swings along by the ancient barn and turns a right angle by a worn-out field. Then you enter an old lane leading to what has been for more than a century a cow pasture. Here the close-cropped turf is like a lawn between the gray and mossy old stone fences that the farmer of a century and more gone grubbed from the rocky fields and made into metes and bounds. There they stand to-day, just as he set them, grim mementos of toil which the softening hand of time has made beautiful. Where cattle still travel such lanes day by day these walls are undecorated, but many of the lanes are untraveled and have been so these fifty years. Such are garlanded with woodbine, sentineled by red cedars, and fragrant with the breath of wild rose, azalea, and clethra.
Side by side with this lawn-like lane is another which was once traversed by the cattle of the next farm, but which has not been used for a lifetime. In this the wild things of the wood are untrammeled, save by one another, and they hold it in riotous possession. Just as the first lane is tame and sleek this other is wild and unkempt. The raspberry and blackberry tangle catches you by the leg if you enter, as if to hold you until birch and alder, cedar and sassafras, look you over and decide whether or not you are of their lodge. If you give them the right grip you may pass. If not, you will be well switched and scratched before you are allowed to go on.
Here the wild grape climbs unpruned from wall to cedar, from cedar to birch and from birch to oak, whence it sends its witching fragrance far on the morning air. You may stalk a wild grape in bloom a mile by the scent and be well rewarded by finding the very place where the air tingles with it.
is wild, and the wild things of the woods that come on fleet wing and
nimble foot frequent it. You may never see a partridge in the sleek
lane, and if by chance the red fox crosses it he does so gingerly and
as if it were hot under foot. In the other, however, the fox may slink
for an hour unscared, waiting with watchful eye on the neighboring
chicken coop, the red squirrel builds his nest in the cedar, and the
partridge leads her young brood among the blackberry bushes of an early
The azalea sends out its white fragrance from the one lane, and never a buttercup, even, nods to the wind in the other; yet you love the smooth shorn one best. It talks to you of the homely life of the farm, the lazy cattle drowsing contentedly to the barn at milking time while the farmer's boy sings as he puts up the bars behind them. You love it best because, however much you may love the wild things, the lure of the home-leading and well-trodden paths is strong upon you. It is more than a sturdy, rough-built stone wall that separates the two lanes; there is all the long road from the wilderness down to civilization between them.
For the story the pasture teaches us, more than anything else is the story of low the fathers wrested the dominion of the New England earth from the wilderness and of the way in which the wilderness hems their world about and not only waits the opportunity to spring upon us and regain possession, but invests our fields like an Invading army and takes by stealth what it may not win by force.
The pasture bars divide the world of the smooth-trodden lane and the close-shorn fields from the picket line of the wilderness. Let us pause a moment upon the line of demarcation. Behind us are the entrenchments of civilization, the farmhouse and barn and other buildings, -- its fort. The town road is the military way leading from fortified camp to fortified camp, the mowing field its glacis, and the stone walls its outer entrenchments. These the cohorts of the wilderness continually dare, and are kept from carrying only by the vigilance of the farmer and his men.
Let but this vigilance relax for a year, a spring month even, and bramble and bayberry, sweet fern and wild rose, daring scouts that they are, will have a foothold that they will yield only with death. Close upon these will follow the birches, the light infantry which rushes to the advance line as soon as the scouts have found the foothold.
These intrench and hold the field desperately until pine and hickory, maple and oak, sturdy men of the main line of battle, arrive, and almost before you know it the farm is reclaimed. The wilderness has regained its lost ground and the cosmos of the wild has wiped out that curious chaos which we call Civilization.
In this debatable land of the pasture, this Tom Tiddler's ground where the fight between man and the encroaching wilderness goes yearly in favor of the wilderness, dwell the pasture people. The woodchuck, the rabbit, and even the fox have their burrows here, the woodchuck and the rabbit finding the farmer's clover field and garden patch a convenient foraging ground, the fox finding the chicken coop and the rabbit equally convenient.
The pasture is the happy hunting-ground of the hawks and owls, though they dwell by preference in the deep wood, the nearer approaching to the forest primeval the better, but the crow often nests in a pine among a group of several in the pasture. The pasture is peculiarly the home of scores of varieties of what one might term the half wild birds, the thrushes from honest robin down to the catbird, warblers, finches, and a host of others who are as shy of the deep woods as they are of the highway; and here, in those magic hours that come between the first faint flush of dawn and sunrise; you may hear the full chorus of their matins swell in triumphant jubilation.
Here in Eastern Massachusetts the dawn comes early, very early, in June. It will be a little before three that if you watch the east you will see it flush a bit like the coming of color on the face of a dark-tressed maiden who has had sudden news of the coming of her lover. This flush of color fades again soon, and it is evident that it is all a mistake, for the darkness grows thicker than ever, and night, like that of the Apocalypse, is upon the face of the world. The dawn is long coming and you wait for it. Joshua evidently has arisen and is holding the sun in Syria as of old, that he may have time further to confound his enemies.
No one believes that there will be dawn at all. You cannot prove it by the wood thrush. He sings best, indeed he sings only, in the shadow, and often even in the darkest night he will send out a bell-like note or two that has a soothing, sleepy tintinnabulation as of cow-bells shaken afar off by drowsy cattle. No, the wood thrush is not a reliable witness, but if you are wise in the ways of field and pasture before dawn, you may take evidence from the chipping sparrow. He is the earliest as he is one of the smallest of the morn-waking birds. In his case the least shall be first. I do not know if he really sees the dawn or if he smells it. There is a change in the air before there is in the sky, and perhaps he notes it. Perhaps, too, being smaller, he needs less sleep than the other birds, and his gentle inquiring note is a plaint that the night is long rather than a prophecy that it is ending. But it is he that first predicts with certainty the coming day, and it will be many minutes after his first call before the growing luminosity, a sort of pale halo that looms slowly about all things, tells you that the sun is indeed coming. Even then you are likely to . hear no other bird note for what seems a long time. .
Then from a treetop in the open comes a sort of surprised ejaculation, as if some one said, “Why, bless me! It is morning already,” and then a burst of song from the full throat of a robin. It is as if he were the chorister of a choir invisible, for he pipes but a single strain before from treetop to treetop, near and heaven only knows how far, bursts forth the mingled melody of a great chorus of robins ringing clarion notes of jubilee.
They have the overture to themselves all along in the open, for there the song sparrow does not sing till some ten minutes later. Of these again you shall hear a single bird, followed by a chorus in the next breath, and close upon the heels of the sparrow voice come the notes of innumerable warblers of many kinds whose songs you shall not distinguish one from another and name unless you are an expert. Behind these again come the chewinks and thrashers, not so early risers by any means, and very late the catbird. The catbird is clever but, like many clever people, he is lazy.
Over to the other side of the pasture, a mile from the lane as the crow flies, is a swamp which is part of the pasture, indeed, but a part of the wilderness beyond, also. It was on the edge of this that I had chosen to meet the dawn, picking my way to it through the darkness in part by scent, for the swamp has a musky fragrance of its own, which it sends far on the night air. Coming down the slope to it you pass through a tangle of scrub oak that leads you to a lower region of alders snarled with greenbrier -- “horse brier” we call it familiarly.
Here the ground begins to be soft, occasional clumps of sphagnum moss, which is like a gray-brown carpet of velvet, not yet made up, but tacked together with yellow bastings of the goldthread. Among the scrub oaks a stately pine here and there shoulders up, sending you a reassuring sniff of pitchy aroma. The scrub oaks know their allotted ground and cease wandering when their toes touch swamp water, but the pines are more venturesome, and often lift with their roots little mounds of firm brown carpeted ground in the midst of the quaky sphagnum. Slender cedars crowd in from the swamp toward these pines, plumed like vassal knights that rally to the support of their overlord.
On one of these pine islands on the edge of the swamp an oven bird had built her nest, and on this particular night in June she was in much distress because she could not get into it. The oven bird builds a nest on the ground among low bushes and vines, choosing often a spot where pine needles are scattered among the dead leaves. She roofs this nest with care -- and dried grass -- and builds a tunnel-like entrance to it so that you may see neither the eggs nor the bird sitting on them. You may step on an oven bird's nest before you will see it, even when looking for it, and you may know for a certainty that it is within a definite small patch of ground, and yet hunt long before you find it. The mother bird had been frightened from her nest by the crush of my foot at its side in the darkness, and she did not dare come back, for I had unwittingly sat down beneath the pine almost across the entrance. Frightened for her nest as well as herself, she fluttered about like a bird ghost, now dozing in the thicket for a time, then waking to strangeness and fear, and making her plaint again.
The wood thrush, brooding her eggs in the thicket near by, heard it and was wakeful, and her mate, never far off, now and again lifted his head from beneath his wing and drowsily tintinnabulated a reassuring note or two, but I did not stir. I was not sure that I was the cause of the oven bird's trouble, and if so to move about in the darkness might well bring her worse disaster.
The false dawn reddened and vanished, the gray of the real dawn was streaked and flushed with rosy light shot through with gold, and a thousand voices of jubilee rang from treetop to treetop the whole pasture through and far out into the wood beyond, and still I waited, stretched motionless. A man might have thought me dead, the victim of some midnight tragedy, but the denizens of the pasture are wiser in their own province than that.
In the gray of that first dusk, that was hardly streaked with the reassuring red of dawn, a crow slipped silent and bat-like from the top of a neighboring pine. In that twilight of early dawn you could not see him continually as he flapped along. The motions of his wings gave him strange appearances and disappearances as if he dodged back and forth, flitting up under cover of pillars of mist, yet there was no mist there, only the uncertainties of early light which seems to come in squads rather than in company front. This crow turned suddenly in his flight as he neared my pine island in the swamp and lighted in noiseless excitement on a dead limb. A moment he craned his neck, peering sharply at my motionless figure. The crow is at times a scavenger, and if there were dead men about he wanted to know it. For that matter if there was anything else about he wanted to know it, for the crow is likewise a gossip. A moment then he gazed at the motionless figure, then he vaulted from the limb and the vigor of his call resounded far and near as he flapped away eastward into the crimson.
“Hi! Hi! Hi!” he shouted. “Fellow citizens, there's a man in the woods here. He is motionless, but he is only making believe dead. Look out for him!”
Far and near the cry rang and was taken up by others of his tribe who passed the word along. “There's a man in the woods!” they shouted, “look out for him.” The birds singing near by ceased their songs for a moment that they might have a look at the man, for they understand the crow's note of warning as well as if they too spoke his language.
The thrushes were singing now, and after a while the catbird, lazy reprobate, awoke. He too, like the crow, is a gossip, and more than that he is a tease. He shook his head a little to straighten the ruffled feathers of the neck, disturbed by their position for the night. He stretched one leg and the wing on that side simultaneously, then the other leg and the other wing, a bird yawn as expressive as the human one. Then he cocked his head on one side with a gesture of pleased surprise and excitement and said, “Mi-a-aw!” He too had seen the invader of the swamp. The catbird is a good singer, that is, a good mimic. His taste is good, too, for he imitates only the best. Here in the North he imitates the brown thrush, no doubt, all things considered, our best vocalist. So well does he imitate him that you shall not say of a surety that this is the catbird singing and yonder is the thrush. In the South he imitates the mocking-bird with equal fidelity. You would say on casual acquaintance that he was our ablest singer and most exemplary bird as he masquerades in the voices of others, but let him once be frightened, or angered, or over-excited about anything and the reprobate part of him reasserts itself and he says “Mia-aw!” Hence his name, the catbird.
The catbird, however, has the courage of his convictions, and one of these convictions is that he has the right to the satisfaction of an ungovernable and enormous curiosity. Bait your bird trap in the woods with something which strikes a bird as a curiosity that courts immediate investigation and you will catch a catbird. Other birds might start for it but the catbird would distance them. So, after saying “Mi-a-aw!” a few times and drawing no response to his challenge, he flew up to a twig within a foot of my head, sat there a moment, motionless except his beady black eyes which traversed my form from foot to head, finally resting on my eyes. Inadvertently I winked; that was the only motion I made, but it was enough. With a flirt of his tail and a nip of his wings the catbird was through the thicket and out on the other side like a gray flash, scolding away at the top of his voice and seeming to shout as the crow had, “There's a man in the wood! There's a man in the wood! Look out for him!”
The crimson and gold of the dawn had softened and diffused into diaphanous mother-of-pearl mists of early day. The June morning miracle was complete and it was high time I allowed the oven bird to come back and be assured that her nest and eggs were safe.
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