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TO-DAY I remind myself forcibly of Samuel Pickwick, Esq., G. C., M. P. C., whose paper entitled "Speculations on the Sources of the Hampstead Ponds" was received with such enthusiasm on the part of the Pickwick Club, for I have made new discoveries of the sources of Ponkapog Pond. These are quite as astounding to me as were the Hampstead revelations to the Pickwick Club, and just as those sent Mr. Pickwick and his friends forth on new voyages, so these led me to a hitherto undiscovered country.
In spite of our increasing population and our progressive business activity, there are portions of eastern Massachusetts towns that are forgotten. Often these are large tracts where the foot of man rarely treads and the creatures of the wilderness roam and prey, breed and die undisturbed by civilization. They may hear the hoot of the factory whistle morning, noon, and evening, or the faint echoes of the distant roar of trains, but they give no heed.
Their world is the wilderness and their problem that of living with their forest neighbors. Man hardly enters into their arrangements. Now and then one of these tracts has a past that is related to humanity, though the casual passer would never suspect it. The wilderness sweeps over the trail of man gleefully. and his monuments must be built high and strong or they will be swept away with a rapidity that is startling.
It is only by perpetual efforts that we hold on to our landmarks. The rain will come in between the shingles and, beginning with the roof, sweep your house into the cellar just a mass of brown mold before you know it. Then the frost and sun tumble the cellar wall in upon it, and where once your proud dwelling stood is a grass-grown hollow. To-day's generation trips on the capstone of what was the tower of its ancestors and thinks it merely a projection of the earth's rib, which it is and to which it has returned.
I fancy every old Massachusetts town has these woodland places that were once the hopeful clearings of early settlers. Now and then, roaming the deep wood where only the creatures of the primal forest seem to have freehold tenure, I find an alien has strayed from the elder years, a hermit of the wood and of our own time. I know a purple lilac that dwells thus serenely, miles from present day habitations, in a scrub forest that was fifty years ago a stretch of cathedral pines. Only long search showed me the faint hollow in the brown earth which was once the narrow cellar of a wee house. No record of an early householder here remains other than that planted by the hopeful housewife's hand, -- the lilac shrub.
For more than a century it has held the ground where its fellow-pioneers planted it, holding close within its pinky heart-wood memories of English lanes white with hawthorne and, far beyond these, indistinct recollections of rose-perfumed Persian gardens, the home of its race. Perhaps upon its ancestral root rested the feet of Omar Khayyam when he wrote:
And when like her, O Saki, you shall pass
Among the guests star-scattered on the grass,
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made one -- turn down an empty glass.
Perhaps within the fragrance of a blossom that sprang from the same stock old Cromwell and his Ironsides paused some May morning and breathed deep and sang a surly hymn. We propagate the lilac from the root, not the seed, and the same sap has flowed through the veins of the present strain for a thousand years. A whiff of lilac perfume in a woodland tangle next month, and out of the wilderness we step, from one ancient garden to another, back by centuries into the pleasant places of a world long gone.
To many a New England child the smell of lilacs brings homesickness, and he does not know why. It is because it is the May odor of the vanished home garden, not only of Myles and Priscilla of Plymouth, but of a thousand generations of his own stock before them.
The woodland of to-day's discoveries is not such. I do not believe pioneer ever stoned a cellar in its depths, and if the Indian set his teepee here it was only in passing. Now and then the harrying hand of man has cut off its greater growth and let the sunlight in on its roots, that the adventitious buds may have a chance, and newer and stronger trunks tower upward eventually, but the shadows that dapple its brown-leaf mold carry no dreams of human domination.
The vexation of axe and gun, and even the searing scar of flame, are only minor incidents in the great work of the wood, whose ultimate purpose no man knows. We see the rocks disintegrated and the hollows filled with richer soil, that the forest may grow taller and more surely shelter the gentler things of earth. We find it holding back the waters in its cunningly contrived bogs, and hiding medicinal plants in its hollows, waiting always with benediction in its leaves for the comforting of weary men; but we feel when we know the woods best that these, too, are but its casual benefits; its great purpose lies deeper, and the more we seek it the better we know we are.
Great men come out of the forests of the earth. If they are not born there they seek the place before coming to their greatness. Lincoln hews rails, Washington surveys and scouts, and Roosevelt ranches in the Western wilderness. Perhaps it is for these and their kin that the woods exist. It is always Peter the Hermit that leads the crusade, and without crusades the world were a poor place. It seems as if all our prophets must wrestle at least forty days in the wilderness before coming forth with brows white with the mark of immortality.
It lies at the southeast corner of the pond, beginning at the little bogs, from which it springs abruptly. Along the water's edge of these bogs picknickers row their boats all summer long, and catch fish and eat sandwiches. Inland, a foot or two, the duck hunter in the autumn treads precariously along the quaking surface with his eyes on the margin, or perhaps on the ducks that swim in the open pond, but rarely does any one penetrate the bog-carpeted swamp of great cedars just back of this quaking margin.
And this is strange. The passion for exploration is born in all hearts. We are prompted to go to Tibet, or seek the sources of the Nile, or penetrate the jungles that lie between the Amazon and the Orinoco. I have felt this impulse strongly myself, and longing for distant lands have passed unnoticed this opportunity right at hand for penetrating an untrodden wilderness. With most of us the undiscovered country lies just a step off the beaten track. So across the rolling bog and into the twilight greenness beneath the cedars I sailed to-day, venturing as Columbus did over a known sea to an unknown, and thence to a new world, -- one where straight, limbless cedar trunks stand close like temple columns under a gray-green roof of twigs and leaves.
All the upper tones are gray and green, for this is the world of the mosses and lichens. The ground is built of them, and the temple columns are so covered with their arabesques and bas-reliefs, so daintily frescoed and carved, that it seems as if here were a museum of all designs for the beautifying of interiors that ever occurred. And as all the tree trunks are gray and green till the texture and color of bark is hardly to be discerned, so the carpeting of the floor of this temple and the upholstering of its furniture is brown and green. The thin rays of the sun that filter through here and there are greenish gold, till the whole gives an under-water atmosphere to the place, and you walk about as a diver might on the sea-bottom, with things new and strange floating at every hand.
Mosses in the ordinary woodland we are apt to pass with unseeing eye. They decorate rocks and trees, dead stumps and earth with such unobtrusive good taste that we come back feeling the beauty of the woodland, and not at all knowing what made it. Some fence corner or group of trees or shrubs or a stump has touched us with its beauty, and so well dressed it is in its moss clothes that we have not seen them at all, but have come away only with the recollection of how well the rock or the stump looked, and we cannot say whether it wore a plaid or a check or just plain goods.
In this swamp, however, it is as if the whole woodland wardrobe were hung up for inspection, an Easter opening of all kinds of wood wear. Here the Usnea barbata trails its old man's beard from the cedar limbs well up in the arches above the pillars, its drooping softness having the effect of delicate tapestry. Clinging lichens, those delicate unions of algal cells and fond fungi, paint the northerly sides of the tree trunks all the way down, while the freer-growing fringe or fleck the southern exposures. Parmelias to north, cetrarias and stictas to the south might well guide the wanderer, giving him the points of the compass and leading him thus to his path again.
Under foot the sphagnums build the bog and hold chief sway, but other common varieties dispute the footing with them. Here is the acutifolia with its pointed leaves giving the tufts the appearance of a bunch of pointed petaled chrysanthemums, the greens and purples softly shading into one another and showing a fine contrast with the drier, yellower portions of the plant. Here, too; is the edelweiss -- like squarrosum in its. loosely-crowded clusters of bluish green, and the robust cymbifolium.
All these grow from their own debris in the wettest portions of the footing. Wherever there is, in this many-colored and lovely carpet, a dead cedar trunk the dainty cedar moss, creeping everywhere, has occupied the space with its delicate fern-like leaves, making of all ugly rotten wood the loveliest furnishing imaginable for these solemn, twilight spaces. Cushion mosses pad with their bluish-green velvet hassocks here and there, and, sitting on one of them that I might put all my wit into seeing, I noted for the first time, though growing all about me, in fact, a moss that I had never seen before, -- the mnium.
Its delicate, translucent green leaves are little like those of a moss at first sight. One thinks it rather some rare and delicate flowering plant of the wet bog, now but thrusting up its delicate leaves, to bloom later. I dare say the mnium punctatum is a common bog moss. Very likely I have trampled it ruthlessly under foot before this in following some more showy denizen of the deep woods; but to find it thus, exploring a new swamp for the first time, it gave me as great pleasure as I might have had in finding a new orchid hiding about the sources of the Orinoco.
It was the sphagnums that led me to the brookside and caused me to recall that lusty scientist, Mr. Pickwick, and his discovery of the sources of the Hampstead ponds. And while I stood and wondered I saw a second brook, only a little further on, also flowing downward into the sphagnum and losing itself in the bog, to pass beneath the cedar roots and moss debris and enter the pond.
Some ancient traveler, perhaps Marco Polo, passing from Babylon to Bagdad, coming first upon the Euphrates and then the Tigris, may have felt some of the amazement and delight which I had in this discovery. Never before had I known of a brook entering the pond. It had always been a sheet of water self-contained and sufficient in itself, fed, I thought, by springs beneath its own surface. I had paddled by and tramped over the mouths of these two brooks a hundred times and never knew before why the pond always smiled and dimpled as I went by. No wonder it laughs; it has kept that same joke on ninety-nine of a hundred of the people who frequent it, and I am not sure there is another hundredth.
It seemed as if all the woodland burst into guffaws of laughter, now that the joke was out and there was no further need of keeping quiet about it. The cedars rocked in the west wind with suppressed merriment and a couple of red squirrels snickered like school children and tore up and down the lichen-covered trunks and fell off into a swamp birch and had hardly strength to hold on, so breathless were they. A pair of crows looking up nesting material, haw-hawed right out over my head till they had to stop flapping and sail, they were so weak from it, and a whole flock of chickadee tittered all along behind my back for a quarter of a mile as I went on tip the swamp on the left bank of the Euphrates.
It was amusing, and after a little I could see the joke and laugh myself. The Tigris was on my right, and by-and-by the two began to prattle down over a hard bottom from higher ground. Only for a little way, though, for here we came to another wide swamp which the swamp maple and birch, the ground having been cut over within a few years.
And right here I ran into a full chorus, a raucous cacophony, an Homeric din that sounded as if all the rough-voiced goblins between Blue Hill and the Berkshires were assembled in convention up stream and had just heard the story, particularly well told. I knew them. They were the wood frogs, holding their annual convention, indeed, in the water all along the marshy margin of the swamp. Once a year they come down, as people go to the seashore, disporting themselves in the waves and making very merry about it. They were not laughing at me. They were simply shouting their happiness at being thawed out and finding it springtime once more.
Their voices, pitched about an octave below middle C, and all on one note, two traversed under low sprouts of sound not unlike a great flock of ducks gabbling wildly, but they are really more nearly musical than that. After the convention is over they go back to the woods, where you will find them sitting among the leaves, though you will never see them till they see you. And when you do see them they are in the air. They have surprisingly long legs and can jump tremendously, turning in the air as they go, so that, having landed, their next leap will take them in a new direction. The earth seems to swallow them as they touch it, for their coloration is that of the brown leaves, and they leap from one invisibility to the next.
Beyond the frog chorus I found my stream again, dancing daintily along hemlock shaded shallows and rippling over slate ledges in the latticed shade of oak and maple twigs, and here another voice called me, a staccato whistle with a suspicion of a trill in it now and then, the voice of the very spirit of the spring woodland, -- the hyla. I have called it a whistle, yet it is hardly that; it is rather the soft rich tone of a pipe, such as Pan might have imitated when he first blew into the hollow reed on the brook margin.
He is a shy fellow, this inch-long brown frog that swells his throat till it is like a balloon and pipes forth this mellow note, and he is even more invisible than the wood-frog. You may seek him diligently for years and not find him, for his voice is that of a ventriloquist and he seems to send it hither and thither. It is as if this were a trick of some frisky Ariel of the wood that danced about and whistled, now before and now behind you. When the trill comes in it you may well think the tricksy spirit is laughing at you so that his voice shakes. It would be no surprise if some trilling note ended in a giggle and Ariel himself should float by you on the mocking air.
The great chorus of spring peepers is to come later; now, but an occasional one has waked from his frosty nest beneath the woodland leaves and come down to the water margin to sing. Nor do I know whether it was the ventriloquial call of one that sounded now ahead and now behind, now above and now below, or whether relays of jovial invisible sprites passed me on from pool to pool. What I do know is that, a mile or more beyond its outlet tinder the ooze of the little bog, I found the source of my Euphrates in springs that boil clear through the sand and send forth the cool, pure water for the delectation of all who will come to drink.
Here upon the margin I heard another chorus that repaid me for all the rough laughter of the wood-goblin frogs, -- the plaintive melodies of a little flock of vesper sparrows, newly arrived and very happy about it. These come later than the song sparrows, and bring a quality of wistfulness in their song which in this differs from the bluff heartiness of the earlier bird. It is as if their joy in the strong sun and the awakening of creation was tempered and softened to a touch of tears at some gentle remembrance. The vesper sparrows recall the vanished happiness of past summers in their greeting to that which comes.
After that my way led me home through the purpling woodland toward the golden greeting of the sunset. I had tasted to the full the joy of exploration and discovery. I doubt if Humboldt felt any better coming back from his exploration of the sources of the Caspian. My Euphrates I know; my Tigris I have reserved for future, perhaps even greater joy of tracing to its source in the mystic depths of, to me, untrodden woodland.
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