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AT THE ISLES OF SHOALS
The Island and the Garden which Celia Thaxter Loved
The poppies that grow in Celia Thaxter's garden nod bright heads in welcome to all who come. It is as if the sunny presence of their mistress dwelt always in the spot, finding voice in these blooms which are so delicate, yet so regnant in spirit. To these all the other flowers which speak of the homely virtues, marigolds and red geraniums, coreopsis and pinks and love-in-a-mist, seem subordinate at first approach, though they occupy the bulk of the garden, which seems to epitomize the life of the mistress who tended it so long. There is no square of it without its rich aroma of love and womanliness, yet it is the vivid personality of the poppies, flowers for dreams, which touches first the comer from the outside world.
Celia Thaxter's home at the Isle of Shoals
Round about the garden lies Appledore, the largest of the Isles of Shoals, rocked gently on the bosom of blue seas, its margin flashing with beryl and pearl where rocks and breakers touch, its rounded ridges white and green again with the granite of which it is built and the verdure Neith which it is clothed. Over it all bends the blue of the summer sky, and as you look up to this from the little garden it seems to lean lovingly upon the hill which is the island's highest part, heaven so near that the scent of the flowers may easily pass to it by way of the little winding path. To climb this path yourself is to find the sky not so near after all. Standing on the summit, you realize first the depth of its great dome and the wide sweep of sea that rims the islands round. Here are but gray ledges that rise out of an immensity which dwarfs them. Far to the north and west is a thin, blue line of land that lifts in the farthest distance the peaks of the White Mountains. All else is but a vast expanse of sea that seems as if it might rise in a storm and overwhelm these rocks that it has washed so white and smooth. Somewhere to the eastward of our coast lies, they tell us, the lost Atlantis, submerged beneath this great sweep of blue that smiles beryl and laughs pearl-white in wave crests, knows but this granite dome of Appledore on which we seem to loom so high in air is the westernmost peak of the vanished continent? We are but seventy-five feet above the sea's surface. It must be the thought of its depths that gives us the feeling of being upon a mountain peak. For all that, this height and distance so make us dominate the other islands that they seem but ledges, wave-washed reefs in comparison, and one wonders how such of them as have buildings on them hold them during the sweep of winter gales and full-moon tides.
In the smile of summer it is easy to forget this. It is but a step from the rough rocks of the island to the dense verdure of its shrubbery. At first one wonders where the soil came from that nourishes herb and shrub in such profusion. Here among the gray granite grow most of the beauties of any shore-sheltered New England pasture. Here is elder showing white, lace-like blooms, bayberry and staghorn sumac each striving to overtop the other, wild cherry and shadbush, and beneath and around these low-bush black huckleberries, raspberries and blackberries, the last two blessing the tangle with fruit. Among the grasses grow yarrow, St. John's wort, mullein, toad-flax, cranesbill, evening primrose and other herbs, while Virginia creeper and fragrant clematis make many a spot a bower of climbing vines. Not only do all these familiar pasture folk grow here, but in many instances they seem to grow with a luxuriance that exceeds that of their favorite shore locations. Their tangle makes passage difficult except by established paths, and the road which circumnavigates the island is cut almost as much through the compacted shrubbery as through the rough rocks along the tops of the cliffs. Rainfall collects in the hollows of the granite in some places and makes miniature marshes, and in one spot a tiny pond which is big enough to supply ice to the islanders, filling to the brim with the winter rains and in some winters freezing pretty nearly solid. In August this pond, which is high in the middle of the island, is dry, its bottom green with rushes and its sides rampant with the spears of the blue flag.
Often in the tiny valleys in the heart of the island, surrounded by its dense shrubbery, you lose sight of the sea, but you cannot forget it. However still the day, you can hear the deep breathing of the tides, sighing as they sleep, and a mystical murmur running through the swish of the breakers, that is the song of the deep sea waves, riding steadily in shore, ruffled but in no wise impeded by the west winds that vainly press them in the contrary direction. However rich the perfume of the clematis the wind brings with it the cool, soothing odor that is born of wild gardens deep in the brine and loosed with nascent oxygen as the curling wave crushes to a smother of white foam. It may be that the breathing of this nascent oxygen and the unknown life-giving principles in this deep sea odor gives the plants of Appledore their vigor and luxuriance of growth. Certainly it would not seem to be the soil that does it. Down on the westward shore of the island, in an angle of the white granite, where there was but a thin crevice for its roots and no sign of humus, I found a single yarrow growing. Its leaves were so luxuriant, yet delicate, so fern-like and beautiful, such feathery fronds of soft, rich green as to make one, though knowing it but yarrow, yet half believe it a tropic fern by some strange chance transplanted to the rugged ledges of the lonely island. With something in the air, and perhaps in the granite, that makes this common roadside plant develop such luxuriance, it is no wonder that other common pasture folk, goldenrod and aster, morning glory and wild parsnip, and a dozen others, growing in abundant soil in the tiny levels and hollows, are taller and fuller of leaf and petal than elsewhere. In the richness and beauty of the yarrow leaves growing in the very hollow of the granite's hand, as in the height and splendor of the Shirley poppies in the little garden, one seems to find a parallel to Celia Thaxter, whose own character, nurtured on the same sea air, sheltered in the hollow hand of the same granite, grew equally rich and beautiful.
All Appledore, indeed all the Isles of Shoals are built of this rock, which is white in the distance, but which near to shows silver fleckings of mica that flash in the sun. Through the granite run narrow veins of quartz that is as hard as flint, but that has scattered among its crystals also a silvering of these mica flecks which are in strange contrast to the tiny pin points of a softer, darker rock which one finds evenly sprinkled through the white. This dark rock softens to wind and weather first and leaves these white cliffs honeycombed with the tiniest of fissures, so that they are as rough to the hand as sandpaper. Dykes of trap run through the island, and as this rock too is softer than its casing the winds and waves of centuries have worn it away, leaving chasms down which you may walk to the tide, between the sheer cliffs. One such chasm runs quite across Appledore from east to west near the northern end of the island, almost cutting off a round dome of granite from its fellow rock. The soil lies rich in this narrow hollow between ledges, and many things grow in it, lush with leaves and beautiful with bloom. Here the shadbush had already ripened its fruit. Here the island's one apple tree grows vigorously, though it dares not lift its head above the level of the rocks against which it snuggles, lest the zero gales of winter nip it off. Crowding round it grow wild cherry and wild rose, elder and sumac and huckleberry and chokeberry, all eager to fend it from rough winds in that friendliness which seems, like foliage, to flourish in the place. Here is a soft turf of grass in which grow violets and dandelions, both spring and fall, and plantain, cinquefoil and evening primrose have come to make the place homelike. If rough winds blow here rougher rocks fend them off, and though they may whistle over the tops of these in the little valley between there is quiet, and floods of sunshine gather and well up till the place is full.
This tiny valley dips toward the sea at the west and broadens to a meadow where I fancy the islanders have at some time grown cranberries, for a few plants remain. For the most part, however, this meadow is set thick with the green spears of the bog rushes which grow so close together that there is little room for anything else. To crush your way in among these is to pass through a very forest of dark green lances whose tips stretch upward to stab your chin, yet burst into bloom from the sides near these tips, as if the full life within them which could not be restrained yet which finds no outlet in leaves, exploded in a lance pennant of olive-brown beauty.
A Maryland yellow-throat whose nest stands empty in the grass on the borders of this little, lance-serried marsh fluttered and chirped and clung among these rushes and front the top of a near-by bayberry shrub a song sparrow trilled a note or two, despite the fact that it is moulting time and few birds have the heart to sing in dishabille. Nightfall brought no sound of frog voices from this little marsh, yet I cannot fancy it in spring without a hyla or two to pipe flute notes from its margin. Near this I found the one ophidian of the island, a beautiful, slender, graceful green snake, little more than a foot long. This lovely little creature feeds on crickets and insect larvae and is the very gentlest snake that ever crawled. Jarred by my footfall in the grass he glided away among the tangle, trusting to his coloration, which is a perfect grass green, to hide him, which it soon did. If Appledore must have its serpent no sweeter-natured nor lovelier variety could be found. If modern Eves sit upon the rocks of moonlight nights and listen to this one's promptings one can scarcely blame them.
Under the eaves and under the verandas of the houses are the nests of barn swallows, gray mud stippled up against a rafter, the fast-growing young almost crowding one another out. So gently familiar are these birds, and so little afraid of people, that one has built a nest under the frequented piazza of the big hotel, and the parent birds flit back and forth unconcerned by the rows of guests that often take chairs and watch the nestlings for long periods. Not only do the parents feed their young while thus watched by crowds but a few feet away, but they fly in under the veranda and capture food right over the heads of the promenaders with equal freedom from fear. Barn swallows are usually friendly, confiding birds. They seem here to have caught the sense of protection and safety which comes to all on the little island, and become even more fearless. It is much the same way with the tree swallows, which, having no hollow trees, build in bird boxes all about. These already have young in flight. Standing on the cliffs you see their steel blue backs as they swirl with the little waves in and out among the rockweed at low tide, seeking their food very close to land or water.
Often the young sit on some safe pinnacle and are fed there, the old bird flashing up, twittering, delivering a message and a mouthful at the same time, then flashing away again, whirling and wheeling, never beyond call of the eager fledgling. Often the fledgling soars into space, hardly to be distinguished then from the older bird, and twitters back and forth near the parent. Then when the latter comes with a mouthful the former simply poises fluttering while the old bird dashes up, twitters and feeds, and is off again in the flash of an eye, so fleet of motion, so agile of turn, that it puzzles the watcher to follow the of flight.
At the bottom of the tide the rocks over which the tree swallows swirl with the waves are a golden olive with the sun-touched tips of the carrageen. Higher up the boulders lift their heads with the air-celled rockweed falling all about them like wet hair. Some of these tresses hang down in golden luxuriance, others are dark, almost black, as if blondes and brunettes were to be found among tide rocks as among men. Between these rocks are still pools of brine where mussels and crabs wait the deliverance of the full sea and kelp waves its long, dark-olive, ruffle-margined banners. Down among these with the ear close to the smooth, undulating surface you may catch the eerie plaint of the whistling buoy Off the channel some miles to landward, telling its loneliness in recurrent moans.
Up on the rocks again in the bright sunlight, one finds the land birds numerous, chief among which are the song sparrows. In the secluded peace of the place these also, evidently making their summer home here and nesting in the shrubbery that is all about, have lost most of their fear of man and will approach very near to gather crumbs about your feet. A small flock of robins goes by, stopping a moment to feed, then taking wing again as if practising for that southward migration which will begin before very long. Olive-sided flycatchers, already working toward the sun, flit to catch flies and light alternately almost as if playing leapfrog from bush to bush. So far as I have observed, the olive-sided flycatchers do most of their migrating thus, hippety-hop from perch to perch, with a fly well caught at every hop and well swallowed at every perch. A kingbird sat haughtily, as if mounted, on a stub, monarch of all he surveyed, now and then giving his piercing little cry and sailing out to the destruction of a moth or beetle, then sailing leisurely back again. A lone gull fished and cried lonesomely in the surf, and a few pairs of sandpipers slipped with twinkling feet along the rocks, feeding in the moist path of the receding wave and lifting on long, slender wings to safety at the crash of the next one. These were the only day birds to be found of a pleasant day at Appledore. Monarch butterflies were plentiful, migrants these over the seven miles or more of sea between the island and the mainland. A few cabbage butterflies fluttered white wings over the Cruciferae which grow in the vegetable gardens of the place. The cabbage butterflies may well be natives, and so might that other which danced away so rapidly that I could not be sure of him, though I am confident that he was either a hunter's butterfly or an angle-wing. Yet these, too, may have come from the mainland on a still day or with the wind right and not too strong, such extraordinary distances do these seemingly frail and impotent insects cover sometimes. Honey bees from hives ashore make a regular business of flying to the islands and back laden with honey. Students of bees ordinarily give them a range of two and a half to four miles, yet these Appledore bees must come at least seven miles and probably ten for their harvesting.
At nightfall three great blue herons came flapping out from the mainland to fish among the kelp and rockweed of the outlying reefs. All along the western horizon the soft blue line of land began to melt into the steel blue of the sea that the sunset fire seemed then to temper to a violet hardness. The southwest wind had blown the sky full of blowsy cumulus clouds that were touched with fire from the setting sun, yet in the main had the color of the steel sea, as if they were the flaked dross from its melting. Then the sun for a moment burned through the thin blue line of land and set the sea ablaze with a gentle radiance of crimson and gold that slipped along the level miles and wrapped the blessed isles in its arms, radiant arms that unclasped themselves in a moment, lifted above the islands in benediction and then passed. The poppies in Celia Thaxter's garden folded their two inner petals like slim hands, clasped in prayer, lifted trustfully to the sky.
A little way from the garden that she loved and tended so long is Celia Thaxter's grave, on a knoll to which the sky bends so gently that it seems as if you might step off into it. Up to the smooth turf of this knoll crowd all the pasture shrubs that she loved, sheltering it from the wind on three sides and letting the sun smile in upon it all day long without hindrance. The sumacs come nearest as if they were the very guard of honor, but close behind them press the wild roses, the St. John's-wort, the evening primroses and even the shy white clover slipping in between the others, very close to the ground, and tossing soft perfumes out over the brown grass. On the grave itself someone in loving remembrance scatters the petals of red geranium, which seems of all things the home-loving, home-keeping flower. The poppies are for poets' dreams which write themselves in the dancing morning wind, clasp hands in prayer at sunset, and flutter away, Red geraniums seem born of the fireside where home has been since fire first came down out of heaven. Dreams and hearth-fire both were dear to the sweet lady of Appledore, and both flowers commemorate her there.
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