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HILLS IN MIDWINTER
TOWARD morning the south rain, whose downpour was the climax of the January thaw, ceased, and in the warm silence that followed Great Blue Hill seemed like a gigantic puffball growing out of the moist twilight into the dryer upper atmosphere of dawn. Standing on its rounded dome you had a singular sense of being swung with it upward and eastward to meet the light. At such times the whirling of the earth on its axis is so very real that one wonders that the ancients did not discover it long before they did. Surely their mountaineers must have known.
After a little the battlemented donjon of the observatory looms clear and you begin to notice other details of the gray earth beneath your feet. The south wind has brought and left with you for a brief space the atmosphere of the Bermudas, and you need only the joyous hubbub of bird songs to think it June instead of January. Instead there is a breathless silence that is like resignation and a portent all in one. Breathing this soft air in the golden glow of daybreak it seems as if there could never be such things as zero temperature and northwest gales; but the whole top of the hill keeps silence. It knows.
As the day grows brighter you can see the little scrub-oaks that make the summit plateau their home crouch and settle themselves together for the endurance test which is their winter lot. They have opened their hearts to the south rain while it lasted, but they know what to expect the moment it is gone. They studied the weather from Blue Hill summit long before the observatory was thought of.
All trees love the hill, but few can endure its winter rigors. You can see where the hickories and red cedars have swarmed up the steep from all sides, and as you note how the scrub-oaks compact themselves you will see also the cedars holding the rim of rock as did that thin red line of Scottish Highlanders at Inkermann, all dwarfed and crippled with the struggle till they seem far different trees from the debonair slim and sprightly red cedars of the alluvial plain. You can fairly see them clench their teeth and hang on.
Yet they love the rocks that they have gripped for some hundreds of years, and but death will part them. There are red cedars growing out of the gray granite near the southern rim of Blue Hill that I believe were there when Bartholomew Gosnold stepped ashore, the first Englishman to set foot on the soil of Massachusetts. No such age belongs to the hickories that have managed to get head and shoulders above the rim of the plateau, yet they too have lost their slender straightness. The cold and the summit winds have pressed them back upon themselves till they are stubby, bigheaded dwarfs.
Of how the other trees climb the hill we shall learn more if we begin at the bottom, and we could have no better day in which to look them up than this, for the south rain has swept the ground bare of all snow and left us for a space this temperature of the Carolinas rather than that of Labrador, which is our usual portion in January. Indeed, from the sunny plain which stretches from the southern base of the rock declivity you can see where even tender and jocund plants once began the climb most jauntily.
Stalwart yellow gerardias, six feet tall some of them, grow in the rich black mould that makes steps upward through the rock jumble. From August till the frost caught them they scattered sunshine all along beneath the hickories and chestnuts, maples and white oaks, tipping it out of golden bowls to be shattered into the mists of goldenrod blooms that followed after. These gerardias, though dry and dead, stand now, and will stand despite gales and snow all winter long, boldly lifting brown seed pods aloft, pods that grin in the teeth of bitter gales and send their chaffy seeds floating up the slope to plant the sunshine banner a little farther aloft for next year. Many centuries they have been at it, but few of then: have climbed far, yet they so love the hill that they cling tenaciously to the ground they have gained and seem to grow more vigorously there than on less rugged soil.
The roughest ledges of the hill jut boldly to the southward, showing gray granite shoulders to the sun and making this side almost a sheer rock precipice. Yet here the Highlander cedars have chosen to make their climb in battalions, plaiding the gray surface with russet brown and olive green, clinging tenaciously by toe-tips where it would seem as if only air-plants might find nourishment. No other trees dare the bare granite steep, though hickories flank the cedars wherever the slopes of the ridge have crumbled a little and given a better foothold of black soil.
Strange to say, the purple wood-grass that surely loves sandy plains best has sent little scouting parties up with the hickories, and here and there occupies tiny plateaus among the ledges well up toward the ridge, often rimmed round with the purplish green of the mountain cranberry. At the bottom of the gullies the maples began the climb, but they did not last long. Red and white oaks have won farther up, but stopped invariably before the summit of the gully was reached.
From the beautiful Eliot Memorial Bridge, near the eastern limits of the summit plateau of Blue Hill, you catch a wonderful glimpse southeasterly right down a narrow ravine to a wider valley, and thence down again to a glow of white ice which is Houghton's Pond. The bare trees no longer hide one another and you see where they made a flank movement in force for the summit, swarming over the wider upland valley, and narrowing to a wild charge of great chestnuts up the gully. These chestnuts do not seem to stand rooted. They sway this way and that and seem to hurrah and wave flags in the wild excitement of a desperate and hopeful venture. They are motionless, of course, but they have all the semblance of splendid action that genius has given to sculpture, and they add romance to the most picturesque spot on the range. Yet never a chestnut top is lifted above the ridge which tops the gully. To it they came in all the fine enthusiasm of a well-planned and concerted advance, but stopped so suddenly that you see them in splendid action still, as if with one foot in the air for the step that should take them above the ridge.
The north wind of the ages has stopped them right there where their tops are just far enough above the level of the ridge edge to be safe from it. You see them best by climbing down the little gully among evergreen wood ferns which grow in the rich, moist soil among the rocks, the only touches of green unless you happen upon some polypodys seemingly growing out of the rock itself.
Right among the chestnuts the semblance changes again with the harlequin-like magic of the woods. The big trees are no longer fixed in the attitude of desperate charge upon a rampart, as you saw them from above. Among them they seem to be tipsy bacchanals who have chosen the little secluded glen for a place of revelry, and are reeling about it like clumsy woodsmen in a big-footed dance. A chestnut tree standing by itself on a plain is as stately and dignified as a village patriarch. Grouped together in level, rich woodland, chestnuts are prim and almost lady-like. Why these particular trees in the little glen at the east side of Blue Hill summit should skip about in clumsy riot is more than I can tell, but they certainly seem to do it, and I am not the only one who has seen it and been shocked by it.
Right near by is a company of schoolgirl beeches, very straight and slim and fair-skinned and pale. These have drawn together in a shivering group and show every symptom of feminine dignity, very young and quite outraged. They whisper and draw themselves up to the full tenuity of their height and you can hear the dry snip of indignation in their voices long before you reach them. No doubt they thought to have the glen all to themselves for a proper picnic with prunes and pickles, and here are these great fellows thus misbehaving! It is a shame and the park police should put a stop to it. The beeches are so frosty in their indignant withdrawal that the icy whispering of their dry leaves sounds like fast falling sleet. Slip among them when you are next on the hill, shut your eyes and listen. The day may be as sunny and warm as a winter day can be, but you will think you hear the snow falling fast and will be sorry you have not brought your fur muffler.
As for the chestnuts, I suspect they drank mountain dew at the illicit still just below the gully. Surely no springs should have a license to do business among the hilltops of this granite range. Yet they well up freely among the lesser spurs that lie between Great Blue and Hancock, and their moisture, drawn from cool depths to little ponds where the southern sun shines in and the north and west winds are held back by granite ridges, make rallying places for all kinds of wood and pasture people that have yearned for mountain heights, but could not stand the rigors of the summits. There are three of these little ponds on the heights of the range almost within a stone's throw of one another. It may be that the seepage from surrounding ledges accounts for their flow of water, but I am more inclined to think that cracks in the backbone of the hills let the water flow up from subterranean depths. The margins of two of them are the happy home of greenbrier which grows in tropical luxuriance all about, so binding the bushes together with its spiny twine that it is almost impossible to pass through them to the water. Button-ball and high-bush blueberry grow with it and hold out their branches for its smilax-like decoration, and the solemn and secretive witch-hazel stalks meditatively about wherever the overhead foliage is dense enough to make the mysterious twilight that it best loves. It strolls up the gully beneath the shade of the chestnuts and you can but fancy it smiling sardonically at their revelry and the prim indignation of the schoolgirl beeches. Here and there swamp maples, strangely out of place on hilltops, glow gray in the dusk as you stand below them, or blush red in the clear sun as you look at their branch tips from the cliffs. It is a picturesque little three-spurred peak lying here between Great Blue and Hancock so sheltered and warm in the midday sun that it is only by watching the sky that you know it is winter, though the ice is white and strong, on the little ponds.
I think you can get the best view of all of Great Blue Hill from the summit of the lesser hill beyond the spurs and ponds and south of Hancock, just overhanging Houghton's Pond. There you see the forest-clad slope sweep grandly up to form this broad upland valley, wrinkle a bit with the folds where lie the three little ponds, then rise again most majestically all along the steep side of the hill. At this time of year it is one broad, majestic mass of the warm gray of bare tree trunks in which rock ridges stand indistinct in purer color, while here and there clustering twig masses purple it. You can see the black shadows in the face of the cliff where stands the little glen in which the chestnuts disport, and down near the highest of the three ponds is a beautiful little splash of white all flushed with pink. This marks the location of a croup of young birches, the only ones I find on the heights of the range.
Midday had passed and with it the genial warmth that the south wind had brought us. Instead romping northern breezes had a tang in them and torn clouds sailed swiftly into view over the summit of Great Blue, rushing deep blue shadows across the warm grays of the landscape. The age-old battle of sun and wind was going on on every summit of the range. Climbing the southerly slope of Hancock it was hard to believe it winter. You got either season on the summit of the plateau according to which you chose, but standing on the rim of the precipice, which faces north you had no doubts.
From your feet to the foot of the hill in this direction it was winter indeed. Yet here was the greenest spot in the whole range. Scrambling perilously down the face of the cliff I touched rich green vegetation with either hand and stood amid luxuriance at the bottom. For here you are at the meeting place of ferns.
Little sunshine reaches the face of this cliff in the high noon of a midsummer day. No direct ray touches it all winter long, yet in the chill twilight the polypodys swarm all along the summit of the ridge and drip and dance down and stretch out their hands to neighbor ferns that climb cheerily to meet them out of the moist shadows below. These are the evergreen wood ferns. In the rich black frozen earth of the lower woodland they grow in profusion. On the rocky acclivity they hold each coign of vantage and splash the plaid of gray rock and brown leaves with their rich green. Where cliff meets rock jumble the two draw together and fraternize, and the polypodys come farther off the cliff than I have often seen them, and the wood ferns grow in slenderer crevices of the bare rock than anywhere else that I know.
The sun was gone from all the little ravines on the way back from Hancock to Great Blue, and the chill of the fern-festooned shadow of the cliff that I had just left seemed to go with me all along. It was especially dark and chill in the little gully and I reached the summit of the big hill too late to find the sun. There, where daybreak had breathed of spring, nightfall shivered in the bite of winter winds. A million electric glints splintered the purple dusk to northward, but there was no warmth in them even when fused into the glow of the great city. With the shadow of night the cruel grip of winter had shut down on die hilltop and I knew again, as I had known in the golden glow of the morning, that it was midwinter. The dwarfed and storm-toughened shrubs seemed to crouch a little closer to the adamantine earth, and their frost-stiffened twigs sang in the bitter north wind. I felt the chill in my own marrow and eagerly tramped the ringing granite toward home.
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