The Point Of View
( Originally Published 1908 )
Nature is in herself a perpetual invitation : the birds call, the trees beckon and the winds whisper to us. After the unfeeling pavements, the yielding springy turf of the fields has a sympathy with the feet and invites us to walk. It is good to hear again the fine long-drawn note of the meadowlark voice of the early year, the first blue-bird's warble, the field-sparrow's trill, the untamed melody of the kinglet — a magic flute in the wilderness and to see the ruby crown of the beloved sprite. It is good to inhale the mint crushed underfoot and to roll between the fingers the new leaves of the sweetbrier ; to see again the first anemones the wind-children, the mandrake's canopies, the nestling erythronium and the spring beauty, like a delicate carpet ; or to seek the clintonia in its secluded haunts, and to feel the old childlike joy at sight of lady's-slippers.
It is worth while to be out-of-doors all of one day, now and then, and to really know what is morning and what evening ; to observe the progress of the day as one might attend a spectacle, though this requires leisure and a free mind. The spirit of the woods will not lend itself to a mere fair-weather devotion. You must cast in your lot with the wild and take such weather as befalls. If you do not now and then spend a day in the snow, you miss some impressions that no fair weather can give. When you have walked for a time in the spring shower, you have a new and larger sympathy with the fields. The shining leaves, glistening twigs, jeweled cobwebs and the gentle cadence of the falling rain all tell you it is no time to stay indoors.
Life in the woods sharpens the nose, the eyes, the ears. There are nose-feasts, eye-feasts, ear-feasts. What if the frost-grapes are sour they are fair to look at. Some things are for the palate and some for the eye. The fragrance of blackberries is as delicate as the flavor, a spicy aroma, a woodsy bouquet, and to eat without seeing or smelling is to lose much. Clustered cherries, so lustrous black with their red stems, refresh the inner and the outer man. You may safely become a gourmand with respect to these wild flavors.
Their virtue is of the volatile sort that will not stand bottling ; it will not enter into essence or tincture. You must yourself go out and pick the cherry under a September sky and in the presence of the first glowing leaves of sumac and Virginia creeper.
Does not the bayberry revive and exhilarate the walker, as smelling-salts restore fainting women? You have but to roll the waxen berry in the fingers, or crush the leaf, to feel that indefinable thrill which belongs to the woods, to the open air--the free life. Another vigorous and stimulating odor is the fragrance of green butternuts, which contains the goodness, the sweetness, the very marrow of the woods, and calls out the natural and unaffected, as a strain of music arouses the heroic. The tartness of the barberry matches the crispness of the air and rebukes the lack of vigor in us. No true child can resist the lure of winter-green berries, while to nibble the bark of a fresh young sassafras shoot admits us to some closer association with Nature. A whiff of balsam is an invitation to share the abandon of the woods, and awakens memories of the halcyon days, the shining hours, when nutting and berrying were the real things of life.
One who is possessed with the idea of finding a certain bird or plant is in a fair way to the discovery, and sooner or later each will come into the field of vision. How the robin discovers the worm is a mystery to be explained on the score of attention; it is perfect concentration on a single point, with faculties trained in that direction. That the footsteps of ants were audible had not occurred to me till one day in watching the progress of the annual raid of the red ants upon the black colonies, I plainly heard the patter of their feet, as the column marched at double-quick over the floor of dry leaves. There are many sounds in Nature that only become evident when we give absolute attention, when we become all ear, as there are things seen only when we become for the time an eye.
Sensitive and sympathetic natures rarely confuse one person with another, whereas the cold or obtuse really never see the finer distinctions in a face. They make poor observers. Any one unacquainted with birds will show by an attempted description that he has not in the least seen the bird. I have known old lumbermen who had not noticed the difference in the needles of the species of pine, nor the leaves of oaks ; but they knew the difference in the quality of the wood well enough, because that appealed to their interest and held their attention.
Preparedness adds zest to the walk and enriches it, precisely as a broad culture and a fund of information enlarge the view of the traveler. Not-withstanding what may be in the woods, it takes some understanding and some interest to see it. An unprepared person will see little; an uninterested person will see nothing. To many of the villagers the wood-lot is a remote and unfamiliar wilderness, and the warblers and vireos as unknown as any tropic bird. We should at least know the kinglets by their caste-mark whether it be red or yellow and the oriole by the colors of his ancient line.
Given a certain preparedness even the rocks become instinct with suggestion. They are more than stone,— even historical reminders, which in-cite one to long and pleasing trains of thought. In the mountains I came upon a flat ledge of shale which showed ripple marks of an earlier sea than any we know, a far-off Devonian ocean which once washed this primitive beach. They had long parted company, and now the beach was up among the spruce and balsams,— such vicissitudes are there in the fortunes of all. The ancient waters had left their mark, that however high the rock might go, it should none the less speak of the mother sea. Again, the traces of glaciation on ledges and boulders appeal to the imagination with a peculiar eloquence. What a mighty cosmic plane was that which smoothed these granite ledges! It planed off New England as if it were a knot on a plank, and scattered over it the dust and chips of the workshop. These ledges serve as a fairly accurate compass, and are at least more reliable than the lichens on the trees.
Some men have an eye for trees and an inborn sympathy with these rooted giants, as if the same sap ran in their own veins. To them trees have a personality quite as animals have, and, to be sure, there are ''characters" among trees. I knew a solitary yellow pine which towered in the landscape, the last of its race. Its vast columnar trunk seemed to loom and expand as one approached. Always there was distant music in the boughs above, a noble strain descending from the clouds. Its song was more majestic than that of any other tree, and fell upon the listening ear with the far-off cadence of the surf, but sweeter and more lyrical, as if it might proceed from some celestial harp. Though there was not a breeze stirring be-low, this vast tree hummed its mighty song. Apparently its branches had penetrated to another world than this, some sphere of unceasing melody.
There is a difference in the voices of trees. Some with difficulty utter any note, or answer to the storm alone; others only sigh and shiver. There are days when they gently murmur together, as if a rumor of general interest had reached them. Again the woods are silent, until one enters a grove of white pines, when on the instant a sweet low chant falls on the ear. Come upon the aspen on quiet days and it is all of a tremor, in a little ecstasy by itself, while the rest are mute. Trees change their songs with the season. In winter the whistling, rattling, roaring of hickories and oaks is a veritable witch-song, beside which the voices of midsummer days are as the cooing of doves. During a quiet snowfall, the white crystals sifting through the pines convey the idea of a gentle sociability somewhere in the branches overhead, the softly whispered and amiable gossip of pine-needles and snowflakes, old cronies who have not met in the past eight months.
The woods offer unlimited opportunity for making acquaintances, and nothing else stimulates the interest more than this. The keenest pleasure is in meeting a new bird: a rare and subtle stimulus not to be defined, to be experienced only and cherished as a memory. You stand in the midst of one of the mixed flocks of autumn winter visitants with a sprinkling of warblers, and perhaps a blue-headed vireo and a pair of silent thrushes and recognize old friends, with a chance of discovering a stranger. It calls out the zest for the woods like an appetite for dinner a finer, more ethereal appetite, which is satisfied through the eye and ear. Occasionally the blue-headed vireo may be heard, though the season is far advanced, and the little Parula warbler indulges in a spiritual and melodious reverie, as if he already had visions of another spring and was communicating in a state of trance and ecstasy his prophetic thought.
One supremely mellow day the last of October, there came a pair of hermits to a secluded spot, flitting into a white oak, where they remained regarding me with round bright eyes. In due season they crossed to the pine under which I sat, where-upon one, directly over my head, began cautiously descending from branch to branch through the lower dead limbs until he was but a few feet from my face. Here he sat, regarding me in a gentle friendly way and talking to himself in an undertone or was he talking to me? The impelling force continued to draw my little friend it was mutual did he but know, a true case of love at sight for at last, with an indescribable little flutter, he dropped from his perch with the evident intent of alighting upon me, but changed his course directly in my face, and with a swift motion of the wings darted into the shrubbery. Upon a near view the spell had broken, and he was again the timid solitary thrush.
It is because the wild life is so shy and elusive that the unexpected encounters have such charm. They are altogether clandestine and romantic. You may stroll time and again without the least encouragement, as though wholly ostracized from this society ; and then some morning you are welcomed on every hand and admitted to the inner circle of the wood life. About the woods there is ever an enticing mystery. They invite us to enter as though they concealed some treasure we sought. A race dwells here apart, and we turn aside for that silent and refreshing company. When they speak, their speech is lyrical. There are men who have never known any friendship in Nature ; others again who never outgrow the love of birds and flowers, who preserve some youthfulness and innocence which keeps them in touch with wild life. Over and above a healthy curiosity, or any scientific acquaintance, it is the companionship of the woods and fields which counts — a real friendship for birds and bees and flowers. Let us remember the woods in the days of our youth, that we may have this unfailing resource in later years.