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THE ROAD TO MUDDY POND
TWO days of greedy south wind had licked up the crisp snow till all the fields and southerly slopes were bare. Then came the lull before the north wind should come back, a lull in which you had but to sniff the air to smell the coming spring; its faint perfume crisped with a frosty odor that lured the senses like a flavor of stephanotis frappé. It was a day that tempts a man to take staff and scrip and climb the hills due south to meet the romance the two days' wind has brought from far down the map, perhaps from Venezuela and the highlands that border the banks of Orinoco. By noon the north wind will be driving it back again, though bits of it will still be tangled in southerly facing corners of the hills.
Such a day is fine for cedar swamps. The boggy morasses under foot will be firm with the winter's ice still, but the warm wind has swept all things clear of snow. Into the most tangled depths you may penetrate with at least firm footing. Where in summer the treacherous mosses wait to let you through into black depths of soft muck that have no bottom, you may walk in safety on the way that the winter has laid for you.
It is not a time of year to find new things, this season of mid-February, and yet I had hardly faced the bewildering sun a mile before, seeking the cool depths of a hemlock-clad northern hillside to rest my eyes from the glare, I found a yellow birch all hung with fluffy tassels, as if the wine aroma of the air had fooled it into foliage. Now the yellow birch is not exactly rare in our woods, here west of Boston, but it is rare enough to be called occasional. Where the Betula alba is as common, almost, as the grass under foot, the Betula lutea may not occur once in a square mile. I know it only on cold northern hillsides or in dense swamps where cool springs bathe its roots all summer long. There the silvery yellow, silky shreds of its outer bark mark its trunk as a thing of beauty, winter or summer. You feel like stroking these curls as if they were those of a flaxen-haired youngster lost in the deep woods and brave but a bit troubled and in need of comfort from one who knows. That is the only impression the yellow birch had ever made on me in all my greetings of it, yet here it was wearing a semblance of young leaves in this wine-sweet February air.
Even after the cool depths of the woods had cured my eyes of the sun glare the illusion remained and I had to climb the tree and pluck some of this foliage before I was sure what it could be. Surely eyes and no eyes have we all, for, in all my life, I had never noticed what happens in winter to the catkins of the yellow birch. Instead of hanging rigid like wee cones, as do those of the white birch, giving up seeds and scales to sprinkle the snow or the bare earth as the creatures of the woods have need of them, these had shed their fleur-de-lis scales and then held them fluttering in the wind, each by a tiny thread. On looking at them closely I saw the slim, rat-tail spindle sticking out, its surface file-like with the sockets of seed and scale, but the effect of the whole was that of fluffy tan-colored tassels hung along the twigs. Here and there among these fleur-de-lis the round, flat, wing-margined seeds were still tangled by the two pistils which still remained, seeming like tiny black roots, or something like those hooks by which the tick-seed fastens to you for a free ride.
Surely the wilderness families have strongly marked individuality. Both the white and yellow birches must hold their seeds and scatter them little by little the whole season through, that they may have the better chance to germinate and continue the race, and I can never see why they should not do it in the same way. But they do not. Perhaps this infinite variability, is arranged wisely so that people who blunder about with half seeing eyes may now and then have them opened a little wider and so he pleased and teased into blundering on. Another season I shall watch the yellow birches and find, if I can, on what winter date their catkins blossom into tassels.
The gravelly ridges of the woodland I tramped as I faced the golden sun again are singularly like waves of the sea. They roll here and rise to toppling pinnacles there and tumble about in a confusion that seems at once inextricable and as if it had in it some rude but unfathomed order. Surely as at sea every seventh wave is the highest; or is it the ninth, or the third? Just as at sea, the horizon is by no means a level line. Wave-strewn ridges shoulder up into it and now and then a peak lifts that is a cumulation of waves all rushing toward a common center through some obscure prompting of the surface pulsations. Sometimes at sea your ship rises on one of these aggregations of waves and you see yawning in front of it a veritable gulf; or the ship slips down into this gulf and the toppling pinnacle whelms it and the captain reports a tidal wave to the hydrographic office, if he is fortunate enough to reach it. So along my route southward the terminal and lateral moraines, drumlins, and kames rolled and toppled and leapt upward till they had swung me to a pinnacled ridge whence I looked down into a stanza from the Idylls of the King. Along a way like this once rode scornful and petulant Lynette, followed by great-hearted Gareth, newly knighted, on his first quest;
That is the way Tennyson saw it, and the counterpart of the gulf, out of which looked the round-eyed mere, lay at my feet. Long years ago some first settler, lacking certainly Tennyson's outlook, stupidly cognizant only of the worst that his prodding pole could stir up, named the wee gem of a lake "Muddy Pond." Here surely was another man with eyes and no eyes. Round the margin's lip, summer and winter, rolls the bronze green sphagnum, its delicate tips simulating shaggy forest growth of hoary pine and fir. Nestling in its gray-gold heart are the delicate pink wonder-orchids of late May, the callopogon and arethusa. Here the pitcher plant holds its purple-veined cups to the summer rain and traps the insects that slide down its velvety lip and may not climb again against this same velvet, become suddenly a spiny chevaux-de-frise. All about are set the wickets of the bog-hobble, the Nesæa verticillata, which in July will blossom into pink-purple flags – decorations, I dare say, of wood-goblins who play at cricket here on the soft turf of a midsummer-night's tournament.
Of a summer day this tiny bowl is a mile-deep sapphire, holding the sky in its heart. When thunder clouds hang threatening over it, it is a black pearl with evanescent gleams of silver playing in its calm depths; and always the dense green of the swamp cedars that rim its golden bog-edge round are a setting of Alexandrite stone such as they mine in the heart of the Ceylon mountains, decked with lighter pencilings of chrysoprase and beryl. And some man, looking upon all this, saw only the mud beneath it! Probably he trotted the bog and only knew the wickets of the Nesæa verticillata were there because they tripped him. And I'll warrant the goblins, sitting cross-legged in the deepest shadows of the cedars, waiting for midnight and their game, mocked him with elfin laughter – and all he heard was frogs.
Looking down upon it this brilliant February day, with a tiny cloud drawn across the sun, it was a pearl. The winter and the distance made the bog edging pure gold in which it shone with all the white radiance of its opaque, foot-thick ice. Anon the sun came out and what had been a pearl gathered subtle fires of blue and red in its crystalline heart and flashed opaline tints back at me that changed again as I plunged down the hill toward it, and it lay a Norwegian sunstone shooting forth fire-yellow glows as the rays of the sun caught the right angle. Nor was the ice less beautiful when I stood on it. Here opaqueness wove sprightly patterns with crystalline purity. The surface was smooth under foot and yet these patterns rose and fell in the ice itself, and it was hard to believe they were not carved intaglio and then the surface iced over to a level. It was no prettier ice than I had crossed on the big pond, but its setting brought out the beauty.
Ice grown old, after all, is far more beautiful than young ice. Character is built into it. Living has taught it the highest form of art, which is to repeat beauty without sameness. What designs might the makers of floor coverings win from this surface if they would but study it, and how trite and tame in comparison seem their tiresome interweaving of square and circle and their endless repetition!
This solid floor, woven by winter witchery, goes on through the spongy surface of the bog, mingling with it, yet by some necromancy never interfering with its own intricate patterns of growth. The sphagnum fluffs up through it with its delicate fiber unharmed. The pitcher plants sit jauntily holding their ewers to the sky, filled with ice instead of water, to be sure, but uncracked and waiting in rows as if for bogle bellboys to rush with them to unseen guests. I found one flower-scape with its nodding head still persistent. The seed pod had cracked along the sides, but the umbrella-like style was still there, opened and inverted, and it had caught many of the seeds that the pod had spilled and was holding them for a more favorable season, without doubt.
Everywhere the solemn cassandra pushed its black twigs up through the moss and held its leathery leaves, brown and discouraged, drooping yet persistent. The cassandra always reminds me of thin, elderly New England spinsters who enjoy poor health. It is so homely and solemn; even in joyous June it never cracks a smile, but is just as lugubrious and sallow and barely holds on to an unprofitable life. And all about, indeed in many places crowding the very life out of it, grow these brave, virid, white cedars. You'd think it might catch geniality from them. Their footing is as precarious as its own. Of course, now, the ice has set all things in its firm grip, but in summer there is little enough to hold up the swamp cedars and it is only by entwining their roots and growing them firmly together in a mat that they are able to keep their sprightly uprightness. So closely are the young trees set on the edge of their grove that it is difficult to penetrate their intertwining branches, and even when you have passed this barrier you find the trunks so close that often there is no room to go between them. Here all branches have passed and the straight trunks run upward in close parallels making all their struggle at the top. And a struggle it has been indeed for all that are now alive. You may note this by the bare poles of those that have lagged behind a little in the fight and lost the magic touch of sunlight on their tops. These are dead and bare, and their companions have so immediately taken up their slender space that you wonder how the dead ones ever got so far as they did. It is a very solemn temple under these cedars. The living wall the dead within the catacombs and the sighing of the motionless leaves above your head still leaves you in doubt. It may be trees that sorrow for dead neighbors or gasp in the struggle to retain their own breathing space.
Little obstructs your passage, now that the firm ice is underfoot, unless it is the too close set tree trunks. Goldthread and partridge berry creep in the moss that mounds about the very stumps of the cedars, but no other vine or shrub seems to have the vitality to grow here, or if it had it has wisely used it to flee to more sunny uplands. Not even in tropical jungles have I seen the struggle for existence so fierce as it is among these too closely set swamp cedars. One in ten eventually survives and makes a marketable growth. Other things bring them to disaster than the choking crowding of their neighbors, however. Here and there you can see big trees that lurch in strange fashion, some this way and some that. This is most often true of a pine that by some chance has grown among them. The cause is the uncertain footing of the slimpsy bog. As they get heavier and taller they cannot find sufficient anchorage in the yielding wallop beneath their roots, and sooner or later a wind comes that tips them over. But I found in places among the sheltering larger trees, groups of young ones, cedars, that could have suffered from no wind, they were so well protected and walled round by their elders. These were laid down in brief windrows all in the same direction, and I wonder still what force accomplished it. If it had been a tropical jungle I should have said that here a hippopotamus wandered up out of the depths and back again, or here an elephant fled from some retired statesman, but these are not beasts of our frozen forests.
In one place was another tropical suggestion that was a bit startling. This was the cast skin of a snake that must have been four inches in diameter. It was only the white bark of a dead birch that had fallen and rotted, as to its heartwood, all away, but the tougher bark remained, dangling in white folds just as a snake's skin does when cast.
But this is not the place to see the swamp cedars at their best. You are on their gloomy side now. Toward the vivifying sun they turn every cheerful atom within them and as you look down on them as the sun does from some near by southern ridge you get. the full effect of their close-set masses of living green and realize the enormous virility within them.
It seems to me that our toughest tree here in eastern Massachusetts is the red cedar. It grows on storm-swept rock cliffs where nothing else but lichens can seem to find a foothold. Yet close behind it I class this dweller in the rich, moist peat bogs. I find that many botanists do not differentiate this tree that I call swamp cedar from the red cedar, Juniperus virginiana yet it is nearer this than it is to the arbor vitæ which is the so-called cedar of the Maine woods. But it is not the red cedar in one important particular. It does not have that wonderful red fragrant heart-wood that the red cedar has. That alone, it seems to me, should give it a separate standing botanically. Then its leaves are flatter and more of the arbor vitæ type than those of the red cedar. And there you have it; but I know what happened. Long ages ago, when staid and sober evergreens were more frisky than they are now some particularly handsome young arbor vitæ lass came down from the north woods and met and loved one of our husky red cedars. How could she help it? Then there was a secret trip to Providence, or whatever place was the Gretna Green of those days, and the elopers settled down in Plymouth County, or perhaps here in Norfolk. That would account for my white cedar, and it is the only way I can do it.
I was two miles further toward the Plymouth woods and was broiling a chop for my dinner on the fork of a witch-hazel stick over the lovely clear flame of dry white pine logs, when I came across the second new thing of my experience in the winter woods. That was black snow. It was on the northerly edge of an open meadow, a spot so tangled with wild rose and other slender shrubs that it was next to impossible to penetrate it. For some reason the south wind had failed to carry off all the snow here, and a thin coating of it lay on the ground. There was a bit of open water on the edge of the tangle, and I noticed that this was covered with a black coating. Going down to look closer I found that the snow as far as I could look into the meadow was covered with this same surface, making it fairly black. It looked quite like the soot from black coal, but when I poked at it with my finger to see if it smutted it hopped nimbly away. The open pool and the snow all about it was covered with tiny black fleas or some similar skipping minute insect. I was curious about these tiny black creatures, and I folded many of them carefully in a leaf of my note book, creasing the edges firmly so that I might keep them tight, and put them in my scrip. I intended to put them under a microscope and see how many legs they had for all this wonderful skipping; but they had too many for me. When I got home the paper was blank. They had all skipped.
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