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"THE OLD OAKEN BUCKET"
Its Home in an Unspoiled Corner of Pilgrim Land
It is not often that the scenes of a man's childhood remain measurably intact when that childhood occurred something over a century ago. Yet that is the case with Samuel Woodworth, whose detached name I fancy not one man in a thousand would recall, even among well-read people. Yet you have but to mention "The Old Oaken Bucket" and you get an answering smile of recognition from the veriest ignoramus. Even if he cannot recall the words he can whistle the tune.
People given to moralizing are apt to take instances like this for a topic and wind up with the familiar aphorism, "Such is fame!" And such it seems to be, rightfully enough I dare say. Here was a man of journalistic training and literary instincts who must have figured fairly large in the New York journalistic world of his day. He wrote novels, plays, operas and a vast amount of miscellaneous matter. He founded one journal after another, among these the New York Mirror, yet the world recalls him only by way of the little song, sweated out of him by the heat of an August day in New York. Those things that the poets "dash off" at one sitting are usually, rightfully, the cause of editorial derision. Now and then, it seems, something is wrung out of a man's heart at a single twist that taps the deep springs of immortality.
Governor Bradford, writing of Plymouth Colony, early regretted that his Pilgrims were little content to stay within easy reach of Plymouth Rock but remained Pilgrims still, migrating through the woods and along shore to seek new and better farms. This was but the further expression of that wanderlust which had brought so many of the followers of the Pilgrims over seas. The spirit of adventure manned many a ship that followed the Mayflower to Massachusetts Bay, and the descendants of these adventurous migrants have since explored and settled the country to the very tip of Alaska.
One of the first of these early impulses to move on took Pilgrims to Scituate, and here in 1636 an ancestor of Woodworth dug and stoned a well, thirty-six feet deep, in that little corner of the present town now known as Greenbush. The Pilgrim settlers and farmers marked their trails behind them with stones that stand as their most lasting physical memorial to this day. One can but fancy that the glaciers which built the land the Pilgrims were to occupy, grinding, mixing, sifting soil from a thousand miles of back country and dropping it in southeastern Massachusetts, moved on ball-bearings, so numerous are the rounded boulders they dropped behind them in this fertile mixture. The stronger and richer the soil the more of these boulders are to be found in it, and the Pilgrim farmers had a double task in the clearing of their farms. They must not only fell the trees and remove the stumps, but they must go deeper and get out the rocks before their plows could furrow it. How well they set their stubborn wills to the grubbing of these rocks we know as we look upon their fields, to this day bound in neat parallelograms of gray granite, each round stone set upon two others, as the Pilgrims taught their sons to place them, little disturbed by stormy centuries that have merely served to garland them with ivy, clematis and woodbine.
Wild things of the woods have come to know and love these old stone walls. Chipmunks, woodchucks, foxes even, find refuge and make their homes in the artificial galleries thus enduringly placed, and the wild flowers of the field snuggle up to them to escape the farmer's scythe, paying for their shelter in beauty and fragrance. Close to the walls, however well shorn the field, the winds of this first day of October toss yellow curls of goldenrod blooms, while the asters, children of the year's late prime, open wide, roguish blue eyes among them. Particularly do these wayside children love to ramble along one of the old stonewalled lanes leading from the pasture to the cow barn, as if they came up with the cows night after night, and lingered outside only because the barn is closed on them before they managed to loiter in.
"The cot of my father, the dairy house nigh it,
are gone, but the old barn still stands in its wonted place and to it come the cattle by the same old lane, the cattle lane that has been such since that pioneer set the gray stones as a fence on either side of it, nearly three hundred years ago. Up and down this lane the farm boys of one generation after another have whistled and dreamed dreams while the cattle went quickly forth to pasture in the morning or loitered back at milking time, nor hardly has one stone slipped from another in the passing of the centuries. Yet they have been there a long time, those stones, the gray lichens have grown black on their sides and they long ago seem to have settled together with an air of finality A newly built stone wall does not look like this. It is an excrescence, an artificial boundary. These stone walls are nothing like that. They look as if the glacier had intended that they should rest there, a part of the rock-ribbed arrangement of the earth as it left it. So with all these gray stone walls that bound the farm and the road. They long ago lost the air of having been put in place by man and have lapsed into the primeval arrangement of valleys and moraines, a logical result of first causes. There is a restful, old-home feeling about the old barn and this old lane, and it is no wonder the wild flowers that have strolled into it love to remain.
All September it has been golden with the velvety yellow blooms of the fall dandelion, a milky way of yellow stars that twinkled as the wee winds slip through the pasture bars and wander down the lane. Now, with October at hand, they pale a little at the thought of coming winter, as the stars do at the approach of dawn, and here and there is one that is shivering into white pappus, ready to vanish, ghost like, down the wind. But these are but few; most of them hold their gold bravely toward the sun still and valiantly deny that there is anything to be afraid of. The grass is as green and velvety there as in spring, but the other denizens of this lane know that winter is coming and show it. The cinnamon and royal ferns that have come up from the meadow in times past and now snuggle their roots down between the very stones of the foundation of the wall, know it, for they have paled to a wan, tan brown, as delicately beautiful as you shall find on any autumn-tinted tree of the forest. The woodbine is a deep, rich red, and the poison ivy that helps it garland the old walls has ripened its leaves to the loveliest apple reds and yellows that can be found. There are sweeter-natured things than this poison ivy which beautifies old walls and fences at this time of year, but nothing that gives us quite such softly delectable tints of ripeness. It seems as if these ought to tempt us from the cheek of some rarely palatable fruit rather than the poisonous leaf of this vixenish vine.
"The wide-spreading pond and the mill that stood by it" have long since done their work and the mill of Woodworth's day has passed. Yet the pond remains in all respects as he knew it, the deep tangled wildwood lining its one shore, the road and a fringe of houses skirting the other, and below it another mill, long since fallen into disuse and decay, for the one that Woodworth recalled was a product of the century before the last one. Over the stones of the old dam the water trickles down and meets the salt tides of the sea, and here at a step the boy of more than a century ago passed from one country of romance to another. Up stream lie to-day as they did then the rolling billows of land, fertile fields, wooded hills and the tangle of swamp and thicket that is, I believe, more luxuriant in those parts of Plymouth County where the forest comes down to the sea than in any other place. I have never found, in tropical jungle or the warmer countries of the temperate zone, such matted areas of richly growing shrub and vine as you meet in these Plymouth County bottom lands where the fresh water comes down to meet the salt. Fox grapes luxuriate there and woodbine and convolvulus climb and twine, but the toughest of the tangle is due to the greenbrier, to penetrate which one needs to use a machete as much as ever Cuban did in Camaguay. The greenbrier is tough and its thorns repellent, yet its glossy smilax leaves are beautifully decorative and its close-set bunches of deep blue fruit, now ripe, please the eye if not the palate. Thickets like these border the pasture paths in this rich bottom land walling in the wanderer with high tapestried walls of vivid green, richly patterned with varied leaves and flowers the long summer through. Somewhere there may be a more beautiful country than such pasture land. Wandering far I have failed to find it.
When the east wind blows in on this lovely country of pasture, field and woodland it brings the roar of the sea and the smell of it. The breakers that smash against the boulder-strewn base of Third Cliff send the call of the wide spaces of the earth into the secluded glades, and match the lure of their odors against the fragrance of the woods. And here between the two lies the level stretch of the salt marsh, the no-man's land, the Tom Tiddler's ground, which the sea may seize but never quite possess, which the country may invade but never overrun. The marsh is a little border world of itself, with its own plants, its own birds, even its own air. It infuses into the cool rich breath of the sea a tonic fragrance of its own, and there is a rich harmony in the coloring of its wide levels that more than matches any beauty that the land or the sea has to give. Colors drawn from the weeds of the deep sea caves and the clear depths of cool brine, olives and browns and greens, keen grays and soft blues, are in the marsh, shaded and toned to an individuality of their own, as tonic to the eye as its ozonic odors are to the sense of smell.
Through these comes the full tide twice a day, bringing the salt, cool tang of its kisses to the feet of the old dam, there to meet those of the stream brought far front cool springs in the hills and daily perfumed with the petals of some newly ripened wild flower, caltha in the spring, wild rose ill the summer, clematis now, with aster and witch hazel still to come. No wonder "the wide-spreading pond and the mill that stood by it; the bridge and the rock where the cataract fell," were strongly fixed on the memory of one who had in boyhood been familiar with these scenes. The farm of his ancestors may not have held these by deed, nor the level wonder of the marsh, and the blue reaches of the sea beyond, but it held them, nevertheless, and the man that owned the one had an inalienable right to the other. Nor need the passer in this unspoiled, half-forgotten corner of Pilgrim land be without them, though he merely rent a room by the day or come with staff and scrip for but an afternoon.
It was about these, too, that "The Old Oaken Bucket" was written, though the words of the poem da not say so, nor, I fancy, did the author realize it. The water from the old well cooled the throat of his memory with these and sparkled with them to the eye of it as he recalled the dripping bucket. Without the background there were no picture, however we forget it in the vivid figures in the foreground. The background of Woodworth's picture remains much as he left it when, a boy in his teens, he started for Boston to make the fortune he was later to find in New York. Of the figures he painted in the immediate foreground, some remain vivid still, after the lapse of a century. It is not so with the orchard. The great trees that still bear good fruit that they toss over into the lane up by the old barn are vigorous in an old age that might well seem to go back and include the beginning of the nineteenth century, but it does not. The trees were planted since the poet's day. One tree only of the orchard he knew remains. That stands just within the wall at the road, a stone's toss from the well, bearing on its topmost growth old-fashioned russets. But this tree was top-grafted some time in the early years of the last century. Before that it was of a now forgotten variety known to our great-grandfathers as "high top." Of late sprouts from below the graft on this old tree have come to maturity, and the visitor to the place may taste the same apples, with their sweet and pleasant flavor, that pleased the palate of the poet a century and more ago.
The old oaken bucket itself has passed and been replaced many a time since Woodworth's day; the wooden well-curb and the sweep, swinging in the upright crotch, have come and gone and come again. Curb and bucket and sweep are there today, similar in form and appearance no doubt and equally useful for the drawing of water, as near like those of which the poet wrote as is the water of to-day like that of his time. Even at the well itself the lapse of a century has left but one thing permanent. That is the cylinder of stone that walls it in. Here again, as in the walls surrounding the ancient fields, the stones that were the ball bearings of the glacier serve as the enduring monument of the pioneer. And in these we have the most lasting one that he could raise to himself. In the passing of enough centuries the slow heaving of frost and subsidence of thaw may throw out of alignment the carefully laid old stone walls. Nature herself in her own good time will throw down and scatter these tables of stone in which the early settlers wrote their laws of the fields. New owners will change those laws and use the stones for the foundations of other enterprises and thus in time will pass these monuments to the memories of the earliest occupants. It is not so with the old wells. They may fall into disuse, be covered over and filled in and forgotten. But the carefully laid cylinders of stone that enclosed them will remain out of reach of frost, untouched by man through indefinite centuries. Thirty, fifty, in some instances sixty and more feet beneath the surface they lie, and the man of a thousand years hence will find these memorials of early occupancy intact if he will but dig in the right place for them. The old well is the first settler's most enduring monument. I fancy the poem will outlast that, not for its singing quality which early caused it to be set to music that has lived along with the words, though that might well justify a green old age; not for its beauty of diction or its purity of thought, but because it voices a sentiment that the whole of humanity understands and approves. None so proud and none so mean but he knows the taste of that draught of cool water and the gratitude it inspires. To lean over the curb of the pioneer's well is to see your own face reflected as if with that of all mankind in a little circle that is the counterpart of the sky overhead. And out of the blue depths shines the gratitude of all mankind for thirst well quenched. Adam, or whatever the first man was called, thus gave thanks on his knees for a first draught from some clear spring and saw the sky reflected as he did so. Even the thoughts which "Home, Sweet Home" inspires do not go quite so far back to the beginnings of the race, nor is that song any more likely to live to remote times than is "The Old Oaken Bucket."
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