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THE LAND OF SPRUCE
THE seamed and wrinkled face of Katahdin, brown and weather-beaten, looks over twenty-five miles of unbroken forest eastward to "Number One" plantation, through which runs the fine gray line of the Patten road. Southward for miles upon miles, northward for miles upon other miles it stretches, taut and straight as a bowstring, narrow as a creed, and as inexorable.
On either side of it, here and there, the hand of man has hewn an open space for a farm. Yet you may stand on the summit of the ridge at Number One and look eastward for forty miles and see only the unbroken green of the forest, with the black lances of the firs and spruce stabbing the sky. The thin gray road seems about to be crushed and wiped off the world by these green eastern and western millstones which press upon it. They smooth off the boundaries of the farm spaces, roll over fences, and crush them into the black earth beneath. The lone farmer fights valiantly against this, but sooner or later old age gets him, or a fire burns his buildings; then the forest rolls majestically on and over him.
That is what it has done up on Number One. On the long white line of the Patten road a single house and farm buildings remain. These mark General Winfield Scott's farthest north during the Aroostook war, three-quarters of a century ago, when Maine and New Brunswick quarreled over boundary lines. I can but fancy that the general, who had traveled that long, thin line of straight road, from Bangor to Lincoln, to Mattawamkeag, and thence to Number One, up hill and down dale, with never a curve to rest the eye or avoid a hill, sighed thankfully when he learned that he need not reach his journey's end.
Along this road in his day, and for fifty years after, trailed the tote teams laden with goods for northern Aroostook, returning weighted with the products of the forest. Four and six-horse teams they were, and they traveled sometimes a dozen in a procession, doubling hitches at some steep pitch and hauling the wagons over, one by one. The road was a busy one then, and the old taverns strung along at intervals of a dozen miles or so rang with life. To-day those that remain are bleak and deserted, and only a few remain. The others have been burned at one time or another.
Along this road came Thoreau on his trip into the Maine woods, and you may yet see the doorstone on which he stood and looked across to the store across the street, which was so diminutive that the stout proprietor, as he said, had to come out to let a customer in. Thoreau might well have been surprised could he have known the volume of business done in this diminutive store, which was really only the office of the big barn behind, which held the goods in bulk. No wonder a proprietor waxes fat when people hitch up and drive fifteen or twenty miles to trade at his store, the only one within that distance.
To-day of South Moluncus not much more than the thresholds remains, the whole village having been wiped out by fire. But the glory of the place had departed long since. The railroad which brings civilization and prosperity to some places takes it away from others; and Mattawamkeag and Kingman thrive, while South Moluncus and other once busy little centers in the virgin forest along the old Patten road are like the cities of old Greece, but memories and ash heaps. The porcupine noses unmolested in many a cellar along the narrow way, the deer browse undisturbed on the apple trees, and over the once prosperous farms passes the resistless, majestic march of the forest.
It cannot subdue that thin gray line of road, because the hand of man is set to the keeping of it open; but it crowds to the wheelruts, and in places where the pitch is steep and later builders have deviated from the straight line and made a curve so that the hill might be climbed more easily, it has swooped upon this untraveled bit and made forest of it again with amazing celerity.
That is the one astounding thing in this whole region of northern Maine, — the regenerative power of the forest. What could stand before the surgent growth of its young trees? Men with axes have been hacking at the giants of the wood up here for two centuries and more. The goliaths have been laid low indeed, yet for one tree that stood on a given space along the hillsides and in the valleys of Number One a century ago five stand to-day.
They are giants no more, it is true, but they are splendid trees; and just as the Liliputians might prevail where Gulliver was bound, so these trees hold their own against man and even press in on his clearings and wipe them out. There must be many more lumbermen with axes along the Macwahoc, the Moluncus, and the Mattawamkeag before this beautiful region will fail of its forest.
Over on the ridge, some miles to the westward of the Macwahoc-Kingman road, stands a sole survivor of the oldtime pumpkin pines. Forty and fifty feet from the earth toward its limbs the birches and beeches lift whispering leaves. Timber and cat-spruce and resinous fir spire higher yet and fling incense toward him. Sixty and seventy feet they reach, growing tenuous to the tip of nothingness, yet the stately column of his trunk soars half a hundred feet beyond their tops, lonely and unapproachable.
It was to forests of such trees as these that our great-grandfathers brought their axes, — a forest that we unlucky moderns may see here in our dreams only. We are fortunate in having the stumps left, for they still stand along the Moluncus in much the same form that they stood when the lumberman's axe was yet pitchy with their chips. The roots are still sound wood, and it may be another half-century before they decay and add to the richness of the dense forest mold about them.
The stumps, five or six feet in diameter, and often as high as your head, showing in what depth of snow our ancestors worked at their logging, hold their shape in many instances. Around the base is a circular ring of dark rich mold which was once the bark on the stump. This has in every case fallen off and crumbled to humus, leaving the heart-wood exposed. Mosses gray and green cling to this and cover it, and because it retains its shape you might almost think it sound, but a kick or a stab with your walking-stick will prove the opposite, It is but punk, standing in the breathless, windless silence of the wood, mute monument to a glory that is departed, waiting itself to pass on at a touch.
What the glory and solemnity of the Maine forest must have been when these giants were the columns to the temple of the woods we can but dream. In the dense shade of their dark, interlocking boughs no deciduous growth could thrive, and their own lower branches died for lack of sunlight and passed in time, leaving behind no scars to mar the splendid columns that rose fifty or sixty feet clear without knob or limb.
Out of these lofty, silent spaces must have stepped the tall gods of the red men, nor can one imagine the Indians themselves traversing them in other than silent reverence. Nor yet can we of a stronger race stand among their moss-grown stumps to-day without feeling the worshipful awe of the forest strong upon us. The gods are gone indeed, but the demigods remain. The spruces and firs, foster children of the great pines, stand close-set upon the ground that they once occupied and rear again the temple toward heaven in pinnacles and spires where once were darkly-vaulted domes.
You may worship here still, as I feel that you might have worshiped under the great pines, and I can but feel, too, that among the firs the wood gods are nearer and more gently kind than they may have been among the elder trees. The giant on the ridge, looming so high in cold reserve, seems too lonely and far away for human companionship. The spruces and firs are your friends, while yet the deep wood which they make loses no whit of its solemn nobility.
The timber-spruce, as it is commonly called, seems to drop its lower limbs a little more readily than its darker boughed brother, which goes by the name of cat-spruce among the local lumbermen, to thus prepare itself for the lumberman's axe as yielding a timber in which at a given age are fewer knots. White and black spruce, the botanists call them, they and the lumbermen definitely distinguishing between the two by minute differences, which to the new-comer in the big wood are not so easily appreciable.
You may know the fir more readily. It seems to me a tree of a finer, sweeter soul than any other evergreen. George Kimball, the novelist, who wrote "Piney Home" about the people who dwell among the quaint farms and silent stretches of interminable forests along the Moluncus and Macwahoc, puts it pithily and prettily when he says: "The spruces wear their hair pompadour; the firs part theirs in the middle."
The fir, indeed, is a Quaker lady among evergreen trees, with her hair so smoothly parted, her dark, unassuming, yet beautiful garb, and that soothing, alluring, healing fragrance which floats ever about her like an atmosphere of sincerity and loveliness. It seems as if all the wounds of all the other denizens of the wood might be brought to her to heal, so loving is her presence, so benign the soothing influence that floats from her amber tears.
The sap of all trees has something of goodness and delight in it. The maples bear sugar that is more than sweetness; it has in it some Attic salt that makes the imagination smack its lips. The brew of the birch is more than beer; it is the embodiment of a flavor that bears dreams of rosy mornings on woody ridges that look down on the golden glory of the primeval world. So the faint fragrance of the fir floats like a divine presence from a loving heart that would fain clasp to itself the wounded and stricken of the world and dress their wounds and make them whole again. No wonder custom has adopted the fir for the Christmas tree. There is no tree so fit to bear loving gifts to all the world.
The spruce partridge, as he is commonly called up here, the Canada grouse (Dendragapus canadensis) of the scientists, is a bird that I find very common and amazingly unafraid tinder the spruce and fir in these northern woods. He is a smaller, grayer, darker bird than the ruffed grouse which is the familiar bird of our home woods. Up here they call the latter "birch partridge," because he feeds on birch buds, while the spruce partridge feeds on the , tips of the spruce. The birch partridge is more wary. As at home, he thunders up from the underbrush and shoots himself across space and into the shelter of the farther wood like an indignant cannonball.
The spruce partridge winds along the brakes and undergrowth just ahead of you, or in the more open space under the dense evergreens flutters up into the lower branches, and seems to think himself secure there. I have stood among a flock of these beautiful creatures while they called faintly and reassuringly to one another, — so near that I might see every minute detail of plumage. Then, before they flew, I stepped quietly up and touched the soft feathers of the one on the lowest branch.
Seems to think himself secure there
Then, indeed, panic fear seemed to strike the flock at one blow, and they whirred into the dense green of some tender, motherly firs, whose arms closed about them and hid them from all rude intrusion. These birds are smaller than the ruffed grouse, though they are plump and beautiful creatures, and, because they feed on the spruce tips, are said to have flesh too strongly spiced to be palatable, I am glad of that. After the friendly way in which they received me into their community, to shoot and eat them would be a good deal like going out and bagging the neighborhood children on their way to primary school.
You soon get to feel that way about the deer up here in the Macwahoc woods. All along the lumber roads you may see their tracks, their keen hoofs cutting pointed marks in the soft mold of the wayside, If you have come silently and the wind is right you may swing a curve and be in time to hear a buck stamp and blow before he sees you and flips his flag and bounds off into the brush. Or you may see a slender doe pirouette like a ballet-dancing wood nymph and float away, with a stiff-legged, dappled fawn prancing after.
The creatures of the wilderness, when startled, seem to have a singular scorn of earth. You hardly note that they spurn it from beneath them as they depart. The coyote and jack-rabbit of the western plains do not seem to run; they simply float over the sage-brush, to your following vision much as a hawk does, only far swifter. So I have seen a fox sail along, seemingly about three feet in the air all the time, over a Massachusetts pasture, It is amazingly like flight. A startled Macwahoc deer in the same way seems to unconsciously acquire the true principle of the aeroplane.
In among the hackmatacks and arbor vitae in the lower land the golden-winged woodpeckers are gathering in numbers in preparation for their fall migration southward. You may hear the vigorous note of the approaching single bird as he stops for a moment on a spruce top, "Kee-yer, kee-yer, kee-yer," he shouts, with the accent on the yer. It has all the loud nasal twang of the stage Yankee, and the bird is as ludicrously awkward in his ways, sometimes.
If you step softly through the swamp you may find a group of them going through a grotesque dance, seemingly for their own amusement. They spread their tails stiffly, walk along limbs with mincingly awkward gait, and bob and bow to one another, saying, meanwhile, "Wee tew, wee tew, wee tew." It is an amusing performance, and is apt to be interrupted by your guffaw of laughter, at which, whirls of white, gold, and black, with a dash of red, they fly away to repeat the performance in some undiscovered retreat.
The flicker, which is another of the fifty-seven varieties of alias under which the golden-winged woodpecker sometimes travels, is, I believe, the most brainy of the woodpecker tribe. Having brains he has also humor, and from the time he takes his first flight from the high hole in some woodland stub till pigeon hawk or barred owl cuts short his flickering, he is making a joke of things.
Like the flickers, the crows of northern Maine migrate southward in winter. The deep, long-remaining snows cover their sources of food too deep, and they find the clam flats of the coast a sure refuge and a well-stocked larder. Just now they are waxing fat on grasshoppers, marching in long lines across the open fields, lines from which no careless hopper may escape, and croaking contentment as they go.
They will stay until the snows drive them, however, and even in winter an occasional scout makes a quick flight north just to see how the land lies, It is but a half-day's trip up and back, I wish I might, too, be able to reach the land of the mother firs as easily when I feel the need of them. However, the aeroplane is in the incubator, and, unless the Wrights go wrong, perhaps next year or the year after I shall.