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Laughing Waters

( Originally Published 1908 )

There are days when the sea is austere and unapproachable, when its mood is too lofty and severe. But the pond, fringed with alders and button-bushes, smiles in the sunshine and is friendly and inviting. It is more on the level of our everyday thought. Not always are we consoled by the vast and sublime, and we crave even more the companionable and social aspects of Nature. Grim though the surroundings of granite ledge and somber pines, the nestling pond is winsome, notwithstanding. Never forbidding, never altogether distant in its mood, even though frozen, it is a cheerful and alluring personality to which we are drawn from afar.

About a pond as about a mountain there is a kind of magnetism. A new field of discovery, there is ever the hope that from a new scene we shall gain a fresh impression. Every pond holds out this possibility and invites exploration of its shores, as if there were the promised land. But over and above this is that element of personality, a charm purely feminine, and eluding any attempt to hold it.

Peculiarly sensitive to light and air, a pond is susceptible of little moods that do not come to the sea. It is the eye of the landscape. Dawn, high noon and dusk are each reflected there. Its afternoon mood is not like that of the morning any more than is our own. The more passive it is, the more perfectly it reflects the heavens. At all time it draws to itself light from the sky, and when the surrounding woods are swallowed in the advancing darkness, still gleams with a faint opalescence. These pale glimmers illumine the bogs, where a pool has caught and retained the daylight, or rather the spectral light of dawn. One appears to look through this serene and reflecting surface into the heart of some other wood, darkly mysterious and impenetrable, which vanishes when the wind blows, as if the curtain were drawn.

Gently as snowflakes, the leaves detach them-selves and settle on the ponds, to sail away like diminutive barks upon those friendly seas. Numberless sails of scarlet and gold softly scud before the breeze, threading the inlets between the button-bushes and crowding the miniature bays ; oriental craft these, of rich aspect caciques and royal barges upon some Golden Horn. Here and there, one more venturesome steers boldly out into the open, carried by favoring winds, and makes some foreign port among the lily-pads. You may become enamored of a winsome pond on October days, a mystical beauty veiled in autumn haze, only to find her mood changed for the reserve and uncommunicativeness of winter.

When the pond freezes over we experience something of that feeling which comes with the first snow, a delightful sense of novelty, briefly entertained each season. The water has suddenly lost its mobility and become passive and expressionless, as one in a hypnotic state. A great calm has settled upon the earth ; the winter sleep is in the air and the ponds have succumbed with the woodchuck. Only the chickadees, scolding and gossiping in the pitch-pines, seem to be awake and unaffected by the change. A cold bluish light pervades the leafless woods, reflected from the snow and appearing to emanate from the ground rather than the sky. The earth is wrapped in silence, yet it is not austere nor repellent. One feels this stillness, which appeals to some sixth sense, and is more acceptable at times than any music, is itself the most heavenly music.

Far across the valley the steam of a passing locomotive rises slowly, and then, like the opening of a flower, unfolds in snow-white voluptuous petals and remains as if carved in the still air. A shaft of light reaches the eye from a distant pool of molten silver at the base of purple hills. All around are little sparkling lights of icicles, flashing their pure rays in the sun. It is the magic water, the protean thing so full of light, laughter and music. Once it was laughter; now in the silence it is light.

All at once the pond is alive with skaters, its solitary aspect transformed by this merry invasion. Boys cutting figure eights suggest whirligigs. Myriad black figures, clear cut in the pale light, move in and out with undulating rhythm, as on a surface of polished steel. The pond, now more companionable than ever, becomes a playground, and we never so much as reflect upon the strangeness of it. Something there is in this unbending on the. part of Nature which puts us in a good humor, for certainly people are never more good-natured than on the ice. Their habitual stiffness melts away as readily as ice melts in the sun. They experience a thaw and become democratic.

To skate over meadows and into inaccessible bogs gives one a taste for exploration. It is a new freedom and perhaps the next thing to flying. Seen through the clear "black" ice, familiar objects have an added interest; the pebbles on the bottom, the spagnum, the lily-pads, all give the impression of being severed from our world, though so plainly in view. The skater glides in and out amongst cassandra and andromeda, clethra and black alders wintry jungles, enlivened only by red winterberries where in summer is the haunt of the rose pogonia and the white-fringed orchis. Who would imagine now that the swamp was capable of producing anything so exquisite, that it held beneath the ice the seeds of such beauty ?

The most friendly voice in Nature is the song of the brook. Not the wind in the pines, not the voice of the sea, can compare with this for true sociability. These are always somewhat remote, somewhat mystical in our ears, but the song of the brook is cheerfulness itself. Its bonhomie is irresistible. It gradually prevails over any whim and wins us to a sociable and contented mood.

Though the world may seem discordant enough, there is always this wholesome note.

No two brooks are alike. As the result of the character of the country through which they flow, they impress one as having strongly defined personalities. A creek flowing sluggishly through the alluvial districts of the South is insipid compared to a mountain stream in New England. Your mountain brook is a strong, salient personality which dominates the Iandscape. It sweeps in bold curves about the base of cliffs, and contracts into a mere mill race cut in the distorted schist and gneiss. Its suggestion is wholly of savage strength, a rude, forceful thing of the wilderness; its song a masterful strain, a triumphant chant of power. Again, there are merry little streams tinkling in the sunlight.

In cutting down its channel, the brook may reach a stratum seemingly richer than any above, so that in April its banks become a garden. While scarcely a flower is to be seen on the hillsides, the fertile floor of the ravine is carpeted with spurred violets, groundnut and spring beauties.

One such as this falls into a glen over a little precipice, spreading itself out like a fine veil which ceaselessly undulates in the breeze, and now and again floats away in mist ere it can reach the pool below. Under the overhanging rock, Alpine wood-sia and cliff-brake thickly cluster, while on narrow shelves are hanging gardens of dicentra, and in the crannies, little patches of mountain saxifrage.

Below is a golden sheen where the spicebush is in flower, and a shimmer of pale green about the early willows. From the glen comes the song of the ruby kinglet, bubbling up and dying away. Incomparably wild, it seems to express the abandon of a spirit ever free. All the while the companionable brook gurgles and tinkles its reposeful melody, and the white veil of the waterfall undulates softly in its dark cavern. The air is full of that indescribable suggestion of spring, which is like hashish, and casts a glamor over the world. Gradually one is imbued with a sylvan consciousness and attains to a rapt and intimate point of view.

It is curious, as one follows down the ravine, to hear the different voices. The brook seems as if inhabited by a number of spirits throughout its length, some whispering, some laughing, others singing. Not only are the voices pitched in various keys, but the quality of tone differs essentially. Some are loud and portentous; others, melodious, liquid gurgles. In one place the voice implies an intimate and confidential mood, so gentle, so exquisite, that the full import of the musical conversation is felt only in midstream, whispers and murmurs which have almost a ventriloquial effect.

Countless bubbles glide down the current and vanish one by one. Sunbeams dance over the rapids and out upon the pool, and then, as the sun goes under a cloud, the stream as quickly takes on a somber mood. Presently comes the melodious patter of rain-drops on the ground, an even, sustained note, very different from any voice of the brook as it dimples and answers the rain, one soft voice replying to the other. Already little pools form in hollows of the rock and reflet light, so that the face of Nature is perceptibly brighter.

Considering this aspect of the streams, it is easy to see how the primitive mind came to personify them, since the brooks have motion, voice and expression, ripple and laugh in the sunshine and are responsive to the wind and the sky. They are still divinities to the fisherman with whom he comes into an ever closer affiliation, as gentle and poetic as he may be qualified to enjoy. The murmuring waters, the whispering trees, the silver and cupreous gleams of trout are the fads with which he becomes enamored, while he loses affinity with the world, which slips into the background.

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