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SOME time in the night the tender gray spring mists that the hot afternoon sun had coaxed up from all the meadowy places realized that they were deserted, lost in the darkness. The young moon had gone decorously to bed at nine o'clock, pulling certain cloud puffs of white down over even the tip of her nose, that she might not be tempted to come out and dance with these lovely pale creatures.
They were dancing then, but later they trembled together in fright, for the kindly stars, their shining eyes grown tremulous with tender tears, vanished too, withdrawn behind the black haze which the north wind sends before it. A nimbus, wind-blown from distant mountain tops, was spreading over the zenith, and through it the gentle spring mists heard resound the crack of doom, the voice of the north wind itself, made up of echoes of crashing ice floes out of Hudson's Bay and the Arctic. Then the spring mists fled to earth again, but had no strength left to enter in. Instead, they lay there dead, covering all things a half-inch deep with soft bodies of purest white, and we looked forth in the morning and said that there had been a robin-snow.
It is a pity that those gentle, innocent gray-blue spring mists should die, even to be lovely in death as they are, but it is their way of getting back home. In the morning the repentant sun came and dissolved the white, silent ones into gentle tears, -- dayborn dew that slipped down among the grass roots and laid moist cheeks close to daisy and violet buds as they went by, and almost loved them into bloom. A few more robin-snows and they will all be out. Very likely somewhere a dandelion, some sturdy, rough-and-ready youngster, quivered into yellow florescence at the caress. Robin-snows and the cajoling sun of the last week of March often make summer enough for this honest, fearless flower.
Quite likely the tender joy of the mists at getting back safe to earth under the caress of the eager sun, and their terror of the north wind, which still rumbles by in the upper air, are both nascent on such days, for you have but to go out to feel them, and they inevitably lead you out of the raw mire of the highways, across the wind-swept pasture, into wood roads.
These on such days have an atmosphere of their own. Here the thrill of the sun is as potent as the push of the X-ray. It slips through clothes and flesh, nor do bones stay it till it tingles in the marrow, a vitalizing fire that is soothed and nourished by the soft essence of those dead mists, now glowing upward from the moist humus. No wonder the woodland things come to life and grow again at the touch! The north wind may howl high above. Here under the trees the soft airs that breathe out of Eden touch you and you know that just round the curve of the road is the very gate itself.
My way to the most secret and withdrawn country of these wood roads always leads me across Ponkapog brook at the spot where rest the ruins of the old mill. It is three-quarters of a century or more since it ground grist, and of its timbers scarcely a moss-grown remnant remains. The gate to the old dam has been gone almost as long, but the waters do not forget. Every year the spring floods bring down what driftwood the pond banks can spare and bar their own course with it at this spot. The water rises as high as of old, for a brief time.
It is as if the brook paid a memorial tribute thus yearly to the honest labor of the pioneers, now long gone. For a time it lasts, then the cementing bonds of dead leaves fail and the black flood roars through to the sea. Come two months later and where its highest rim touched you will find that it planted flowers in loving remembrance also, and saxifrage and dwarf blue violet lean in fragrant affection over the waters. I like to think that on Memorial day at least the stream makes echo of the clank of the old-time mill-wheel in its liquid prattle, and that the shuttle of reflected sunshine dancing back and forth is a glorified ghost of the old wheels whirling once more in memory of the miller and his neighbors.
Farther on I reach the pond shore, and on the narrow ridge which marks the old-time high tide of winter ice pressure, a dry moraine always, though running through marshy land, I strike what must be the oldest trail in this part of the country. Here is a path which was traveled before the time of the Norman conquest, or, for that matter, before Caesar led his victorious legions into Gaul. Here the first Indians trod dry-footed when they went back and forth about the pond in . their hunting and fishing, for then, as now, it was a natural causeway.
To-day a stranger, seeking his way about the pond for the first time, would not fail to find it, and the habitual wood-rover of the region, old or young, knows its every turn. Upon this to-day, between the marsh and the bog in the alluring spring sunshine, I found a whole bird convention. Such an uproar! It was as if the suffragettes in one grand concerted movement had swooped down upon Parliament by the air-ship route, as the cable says they threaten, and were in the heat of battering down its walls of deafness with racket and roaring, after the fashion of the attempt on Jericho of old.
The blackbirds were in the greatest numbers and made the most noise individually. There were a hundred of them, more or less, sitting about in the trees and bushes, a few on the ground, and all of them practicing every call or song that blackbird was ever known to make. All the harsh croaking of frogs that as young birds they heard from the nest by the bog they voiced in their calls; all the liquid melody of gentle brooks tinkling over shallows, and the piping of winds in hollow marsh reeds, they reproduced in their songs, and the whole was jumbled in this uproarious medley. They even shamed a robin or two into singing, -- the first time I have heard these laggards do it this year, though they have been here in force for some weeks.
There seemed to be no cause for this other than the joy of living. It was just an impromptu concert in honor of the spring. I think I never noticed before how vigorously the blackbird uses his tail at one of these concerts. All the long black tails present worked up and down as if each were a pump-handle working a bellows to supply wind for the pipings. It reminded me of the church organ-loft, and the labors of the boy when the choir is in full swing and the organist has everything opened up and is dancing on the pedal notes to keep up. Either side of this trail the wood should be a paradise for woodpeckers, for the trees are here allowed to grow old without interference. In birch and maple stubs the flickers have dug hole after hole, sometimes all up and down a single trunk. The downy woodpeckers have been active also and the chickadees have reared many a nestful of fluffy chicks in the same neighborhood. Yet, with all the opportunity that the flickers have had to bore in soft decaying wood for food or for shelter, I see that they have also dug a round hole through the inch boards in the peak of the old cranberry house. This, too, was probably for shelter, for many flickers winter with us, and there would be room in the old cranberry house-loft for a whole community, but I wonder sometimes if there is not another reason.
Just as beavers and squirrels must gnaw to keep their teeth from growing , too long, so I sometimes think that woodpeckers need to hammer about so much, whether for food or not, to keep their bills in good condition. It is difficult to otherwise account for their continual practice. I knew a flicker once who used to drum a half-hour at a time on a sheet-iron ventilator on the roof of a building. I think he did it to keep his bill properly calloused and his muscle up, so that when he did tackle a shagbark tree with a fat, inch-long borer waiting in its heart-wood the chips would fly.
This low pond-batik moraine with its immemorial trail leads all along the north side of the pond, skirting the shoreward edge of the great bog nicely. It takes you through the Talbot plains where tan-brown levels stretch far to the northward, seeming to shrink suddenly back from the overhanging bulk of Great Blue Hill, and it leads again into the tall oak woods, where later the warbling vireos will swing in the topmost branches and cheer the solemn arches with their gentle carols. By-and-by the bog ends and the path marks the dividing line between the bulrushes, marsh grass, bag-hobble wickets, and mingled debris of last summer's thoroughwort, and joepye weed, and marsh St. John's-wort on the one hand, and the soft pinky grays of the wood on the other.
The climbing sun shines in here fervently, and the clear waters lap on the sand and croon among the water weeds with all the semblance of summer. No wonder the wild ducks linger long. The pond is full of them, -- black ducks and sheldrake, -- quacking and whistling back and forth, sometimes forty of them in the air at once, and taking no notice of the wanderer on the bank. It seems to be their jubilee day as well as that of the birds on shore.
Thus by way of the long trail teeming with spring life I reach the enchanted country of the wood roads. Here are no pastures reclaimed, no ancient cellar holes to show the path of the pioneer. Woodland it was when the first Englishman came to Cape Cod; woodland it remains to-day. Somewhere in its depths the barred owls are nesting, and I hear the shrill paean of a hawk as he harries the distant hillside. But for the most part there is a gentle silence, a dignified quiet that befits the solitude. It is the hush of the elder years dwelling in places somewhat man-harried indeed, but never by man possessed. In this country to the east of Ponkapog Pond lingered longest the moose and bear. The fox makes it his home and his hunting-ground still; I find his trail still warm, and in summer you should tread with care, for an occasional rattlesnake trails his slow length among the rocks. The most that man has ever done here is to shoot and chop trees. The echoes of axe and gun die away soon, the trees grow up again, and man's only mark is the wood roads:
Roads in this world are supposed to lead from somewhere to somewhere else, but no suspicion of such definiteness of purpose can ever be attached to wood roads, unless you are willing to say that they lead from the land of humdrum to the country of romance. Sometimes, in following them, you unexpectedly come out on the highway, but far more often you have better luck, and the plain trail grows gently vague, shimmers away to nothing, and you find yourself, perhaps, in a beech grove, out of which is no path. You can hear the young trees titter at your embarrassment, but you cannot find the path that led you among them.
Perhaps in all your future wanderings you may not come upon that beech grove again, for the wood roads wind and interlace and play strange tricks on all outsiders. Particularly over in this region wood-lot owners sometimes lose their wood-lots, and are able to get track of them only after prolonged search, tumbling upon them then more by accident than wit. Sometimes a wood road innocently leads you round a hill and slyly slips you into itself again through a gap in the thicket. Thus, before you know it, you may have gone around the hill any number of times, as strangers get coursing in revolving doors in the entrances to city buildings and continue to revolve until rescued.
Nor can you tell where the most sedate and straightforward one which you can pick out will lead you, except that you know it will be continually through a land of delight, and that Eden is bound to be just ahead of you.
It is difficult to understand, though, in all seriousness, how these roads persist. Wood cut off over extensive areas grows up again in thirty or forty years and fills in the gap in the forest till no trace of it remains, yet the roads by which it was carted to the highway, leading once as directly as possible, seem still to have some subtle power of resistance whereby they are not overgrown, though they lose their directness. After a few years it seems as if, glad to be relieved of any responsibility, they took to strolling aimlessly about, meeting one another and separating again casually.
I never see a wood-cart coming out with a load, yet the road seems as definite in marking as it did a half-century ago. But that is one of the fascinations of the region. You take the same road as usual, and by it you come out at some strange and hitherto unheard-of garden of delight. It is like the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, where one story leads into another and you wander on with always a new climax just ahead of you.
Out of the great pudding-stone boulders of this region, of which you may find specimens as large as an ordinary dwelling-house standing in lonely dignity, you may see cunning workmen making soil for the nourishment of these forest trees. Here will be a round blot of yellow-gray lichen, perhaps a Parmelia conspersa, clinging to the smoothest surface of flint with ease and sending down its microscopic rhizoids into the tiniest crevice between the round pebble, which is the plum, and the slate which makes the body of the pudding.
On another part of the boulder you may find a slanting surface, where the parmelia's work is already done. Its tiny root-organs have dissolved off and split away enough of the slate to loosen some tiny pebbles, which fall to the ground as gravel, leaving hollows in which dew and dead lichens make a soil for the roots of soft pads of mosses. Some of the boulders over here are like Western buttes, densely tenanted by these hardy cliff-dwellers, the many-footed rock lovers finding foothold where you would hardly think the lichens even would survive.
I never tramp these roads, which it sometimes seems as if the pukwudgies moved about in the night for the confusion of men, without being lost, at least for a time, and finding a new boulder to worship. Once, thus lost, I found a little gem of a pond, which hides in the hollows a half-mile or so east from Ponkapog Pond. This, too, I fear the pukwudgies move about in the night, for I hear of many men who have found it once and sought it again in vain.
To-day I came upon it once more, -- a cup of clear water in the hollow of the forest's hand, smiling up at the sky with neither inlet or outlet. The black ducks had found it, too. They greeted my approaching footsteps with quacks of alarm, and I had hardly rounded the bushes on the bank before sixteen of them, with much splashing, rose heavily into the air and sailed off toward the big pond.
Even in their fright I noticed that they went out as the animals did from the ark, -- two by two, -- and I smiled, for it is one more sign of spring. I noticed the crows in couples to-day for the first time. A few black duck breed hereabout, and the little pond with the button-bushes growing along one shallow shore as thick as mangroves in a West India swamp might well be considered by house-hunting couples. Sitting under a mountain laurel whose leaves furnish the only shade on the bank, I watched quietly for nearly half an hour. Then there was a soft swish of sailing wings, and a pair dropped lightly in without splash enough to be heard. Yet there was little to see, after all. They simply sat mirrored in the motionless water for another half-hour by the town clock, looking adoration into one another's eyes, then snuggled close and swam in among the buttonbushes as if with one foot. That was all. It was a veritable quaker-meeting love-making; but just the same I shall look for the nest among the button-bush mangroves in another month, and I do hope that pukwudgies will not have mixed the wood roads and hidden the pond so well that I cannot find it.
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