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THE DAY THAT SUMMER CAME BACK
THE summer came back to-day, trailing gossamer garments over the pasture and adding the romance of August to the glamour of the mid-October woods. Where luminous purples hung deep in the shadows of the distance it painted them with a soft gray-blue bloom like that upon the grape. The undulating hills were as soft with it as if they were waves of the sub-tropic reaches of the Gulf Stream, where a wonderful film of purple efflorescence shimmers as far as eye may see.
The tan of hickories and the tawny yellow of chestnuts seem to break through this haze as the floating gulf weed does off Turk's Island or among the Bahamas, and when birds lift from the tree tops and sail away, it is as if a school of flying fishes were darting across your steamer's prow. The softly-breathing southern air is welling up from this mid-ocean river of mysterious romance and floating films of dreams all along our too clear-cut hills.
To-morrow the wind will be in the northwest again, the morning sun will glint on fields that are hoar with frost, and in the afternoon the Blue Hills will be blue no more, but brown with the rustling tannin of dead scrub oak leaves seen too clearly, — gray with granite angles, and sharply cut against a sky from which all dreams have fled. We had thought the summer too long and too hot, we welcomed the crispness and vigor of autumn, but to-day we walked abroad with joy in the warmth that again thrills us as with a fine touch of youth come back, and as little crinkles of heat shimmer upward from the brown fields we push forward, eager to bathe in it all once more.
All the out-door world seems dreamy with the same delight. The blue jays flutter back and forth on softer wing, and their usual strident clangor is subdued to an almost caressing babble, in which you think you hear the tones of spring love-making. They know the feel of nesting weather, and though it is but for a day it soothes them to happy response. This morning a robin, sure that spring had come again, sat up on the elm tree outside my window and greeted it with full-throated song, just as he had in June, and all day long there has been twittering of birds in the pasture and the forest.
Only a few of our host of summer visitor song birds remain, and the great wave of southward migration has passed us, yet to-day the pasture was vocal with the twittering of late passing warblers, and some even sang, sotto voce, to a sand-dance accompaniment of rustling leaves. The myrtle warblers were busy among the blue-gray, waxy, aromatic berries of the bayberry, which is their favorite food. The crop is good this year, portions of the pasture being almost blue with the close-set berries, and I think the myrtle warblers will linger long with us. Indeed, they have been reported as staying all winter when the bayberry supply is ample and sheltered from the worst of the north winds.
If they do the robins will stay with them, for the crop of cedar berries is a good one also. Almost all the red cedars have some, and some are so thick-set with them that their bronze-green, now yellow ing a little with the lessening sap, is all lightened up with an alluring blue. I do not blame the robins for lingering long with the cedar berries, I like them myself. They are a little dry, but very pleasantly sweet; and after the sweetness is gone there lingers on the palate a spicy aromatic flavor which is most enticing.
Some of our Norfolk County swamps are so thickly set with swamp white cedars that it is almost impossible for a man to push his way through their young growth. That north wind that can cut its way to the heart of these must be keen indeed, and here, when the berries are plentiful, you may find not only robins, but now and then a bluebird, and more frequently partridge woodpeckers, all winter long.
We had a killing frost only a night or two ago, the thermometer in sheltered positions marking twenty-five to twenty-eight degrees. It withered the grape leaves and took all tender things of the gardens and fields. Such a temperature for a long autumn night one would think would be death to those frail creatures of summer, — the butterflies. Yet to-day I saw a monarch soaring on strong red wings about the top of a great pine tree, sixty feet in air, seemingly seeking food among the resinous tips.
Across the fields a sulphur flitted his dainty way like a yellow fleck of animated sunshine. A few grizzled goldenrod and frost-bitten asters still bloom feebly for him, but in the swamp, undismayed, the witch-hazel twists its soft, yellow petal fingers and sends out dainty perfume for his delectation. Over at the clubhouse a hunter's butterfly and two well-preserved specimens of the painted lady sunned themselves in warm spots on the shingles.
In spite of the summerlike quality of the day these seemed anxious. Now and then they fluttered eagerly about the building trying window fastenings and poking their heads into cracks, seemingly trying desperately to get in. They tried on the shady sides of the building as well as on the sunny, and though I cannot prove that it was not mere aimless wandering, it seemed to me to be done with a definite design. I think the painted ladies were hunting shelter in expectation that the day was a weather breeder. I think they knew that more cold weather was sure to follow, and though they had found shelter in which they were able to weather the first cold snap, they feared lest the next be too much for them, and hoped to get inside in some crevice next to a stove funnel.
Some butterflies, notably the Antiopa vanessa, which appears sometimes on warm days in February, winter successfully. Probably the vanessa is particularly resistant to cold. Probably also he has a peculiar faculty for finding shelter and safety, and I think the two hardy examples of Pyrameis cardui showed signs of some of the same instinct.
Later, in the full heat of the afternoon, when the thermometer stood at eighty degrees, I stood by the side of a long, straight country road leading north and south. One monarch butterfly after another was soaring along this road, seemingly not in haste, but making, nevertheless, a speed of six or seven miles an hour. And every one of them was heading due south on the trail of the one ahead, as if in a game of follow-your-leader. Was the leader a wise old butterfly who had made the long southern road before, and were these others monarchs of this year's growth following him that they might reach the goal in safety?
Someone wiser than I may answer this, but if he does I shall ask him how he knows.
The Anosia plexippus, which is another name for the monarch, has fluttered about this road all summer long, never going outside his usual round from one flower clump to another. The cold snap of three days before may have wakened primal instincts in him and sent him on his southern migration, just as these may have set the Pyrameis to fluttering about the clubhouse, where there might be sheltered spots in which to try to pass the winter in safety. Or the compelling force may have been something entirely different. Who can ever know?
All along the borders of the swamp the witch-hazel is working out its peculiar and mysterious destiny. It is not this belated summer day, however, that has brought out its fragrant yellow blossoms. They unfolded just as cheerfully in the killing frost of three nights ago. Witch-hazel nuts are ripe now, the witch-faced husks splitting open and showing the glossy black kernels within, about as big as an apple seed, shaped like the enticing black eyes of the witch herself.
All among these nuts grow the scrawny blooms, sending out a delicate fragrance which is as soft and fragile as that of early spring flowers, — a refined and pleasing scent that brings a thought of far-away apple blossoms. Yet on this sunny day you may not catch this odor unless you put your face close to the flowers, for the vigor of the sun draws up the smell of tannin from all the dry leaves underfoot till the whole world seems a tea factory. Should the rustle of these leaves in the light autumn breeze be the silken swish of trailing Oriental garments, and slant-eyed people appear under pyramid hats and begin to gather them and pack them in chests marked with strange pencilings like those on the end of a red-winged blackbird's egg, I for one would not be surprised.
The blackbird himself is an Oriental mystic in disguise, and he marks the names of his children in Chinese characters round the big end of each egg. The next time you look into a blackbird's nest you notice if this is not so.
If you wish the odor of the witch-hazel blooms you must go to the swamp a morning after a showery night. Then the odor of the dead leaves will have been all washed out of the air, and the faint, fine fragrance of the latest flowers of the season flits daintily out to greet you as you fare down the path.
Yet, though flowers are rare on the third week in October and the pungency of dead leaves pervades the swamp, the upland pastures have a fine fragrance of their own, — a perfume so dainty and alluring that you look for its source in bewilderment, knowing that at this time of year no flowering shrub, no slender-blossoming vine, remains to float it down the wind.
It is not the pitchy aroma of the white pines. These have just carpeted all the floors of their house anew with last year's leaves. The new ones are not pitchy, and that resinous smell which the midsummer sun distills is hardly to be noticed in the wood. Nor are the pasture cedars to be thanked. Their prim, close-wrapping branches give forth a woodsy smell when bruised. It is not a perfume, and it comes only with turmoil. The soft southern wind bears no particle of it to your wistful senses. The hemlocks stand, beautiful but darkly morose, on the north side of the hill, and give forth no scent.
I searched the pasture long before I found it. Coming out from under the white pines into an open glade on the more barren soil, where the pitch pines begin to climb the slope, it always seemed stronger than anywhere else, It was as if rose-crowned Cytherea and all her attendant nymphs had just passed from perfumed baths and gone upward through the wood, If the soft moss had shown the heel marks of dainty sandals I should not have looked further. It was as possible that the garments of passing nymphs should have shed sweet odors on the glade as that these should float serenely there when all the flowers were dead. I paused among the pitch pines to consider the matter, and one of them thrust its branch tip directly into my face.
Then I thought I knew. The same fragrance emanated from the pitch-pine branch, stronger, indeed, somewhat more resinous, I thought, but practically the same. Six clubs crown the tip of every pitch-pine branch, one standing erect like a plume in the center, five arranged about its base at equal distances, not unlike a five-pointed star. These are the new shoots for next year, in rudimentary form to be sure, but all modeled carefully on what is to be.
There is the vigorous stem and the leaves as green as they will ever be again, indeed I think greener. The whole thing, which will be a perfect shoot a foot long, is compacted into a solid club less than an inch in length. Enclosing this is a fibrous husk which wraps it from all cold. Howsoever bitter the weather the life warmth of the young shoots is most carefully protected by this wrapping. But there is more than this. An air-tight, waterproof coating of hardened pitch is outside of the whole, completing an exceedingly neat, tasteful, and effective seal.
The pitch-pine mother trees have completed their preserving and now sit back and radiate perfume in satisfaction and kindly good will toward the whole world, for this slightly resinous sweetness does not come at all from the pitch-covered buds on the branch tips as I first thought. It seems to emanate from the whole tree. Cut a branch and take it home with you. Strip leaves and buds from it if you will; then smell the wood, It is there. But more than from anywhere else it seems to come from the mature leaves, — those which have borne the burden and the heat of the summer, and now are losing their rich green in a ripening which befits maturity and work well clone.
All the evergreens take on this slight tendency to a mellow yellow as the autumn waxes. It is due, no doubt, to the lessening of the sap in the leaves. All winter they will hold it, and when the joy of spring sends his lifeblood bounding back again, it will fade and leave them vigorously green once more.
Crossing the glade again on my homeward way I plucked branches of juniper so thickly studded with blue berries that there seemed scarcely room for the scaly-pointed leaves, and in so doing I stumbled upon the real secret of the dainty odor left by the goddess and her train. For the matured shoots and leaves of the juniper give off a fragrance that is as much more dainty than that of the pitch pine as that is more dainty than the strongly resinous odor of the white pine when cut or bruised.
Cytherea must have smiled upon the humbler juniper as she passed, and the dwarfed and stunted shrub must have caught the warmth of her eyes full in the heart, for it sits snug as the clays shorten and radiates a happiness that is perfume, and sends the thought of the goddess to all who pass that way. The stronger odor of the pitch pine carries it far on the soft south wind across the glade and down the path through the pasture, but this is only the vehicle. The dainty essence of perfume which stops you as if a soft hand fell upon your arm floats from the loving heart of the rough and lowly juniper.
The sun of this day on which summer carne back set in a pale sky that flushed with a tint of rose leaves, burning long before it died to ashes, — the cool, gray ashes of autumn twilight. Against this the slender tracery of birch twigs stood outlined delicately. Some leaves still cling to the birches, and these were silhouetted against the pale-rose glow in a soft haze that made a shadowy presentment of springtime all along the western sky. The year in its second childhood thus slips happily away from us in dreams of its youth. Through the August midday of the pitch-pine grove we pass to the home path among the birches, and though October dusk slips its cool hand into ours, it is only to lead us toward a western horizon where springtime seems still to wait for us wistfully.