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The Forest

( Originally Published 1908 )

One who is accustomed only to our eastern woods can have little idea of the true forest as it occurs in the Sierra Nevada, which is a world of itself, as distinct from any idea of the " woods" as the snow peaks, the colossal granite domes and the great canons of the Sierra are different from the mild topography of the Berkshires.

Here is a forest primeval such as was never known east of the Cascade, not, at least, since that remote period when the sequoia flourished in Greenland. Man wanders, a mere pygmy, in a Brobdingnagian world of vast columnar trunks. This is the true home of the great conifers, the sequoia, silver fir, sugar-pine and Douglas spruce, the magnificent of the earth. There is no wilderness of saplings as in the woods, and the general openness of the forest is remarkable, so that one has far-reaching vistas through splendid arches and is able to appreciate the size and character of individual trees.

Distinct from all others, the sequoias are a race apart. The big tree and the redwood of the Coast Range are the only surviving members of that ancient family, the giants of the foreworld. Their immense trunks might be the fluted columns of some noble order of architecture, surviving its builders like the marble temples of Greece, columns three hundred feet high and thirty feet through at the base. Such a vast nave, such majestic aisles, such sublime spires, only the forest cathedrals know. Symmetrical silver firs, giant cedars and spruce grow side by side with sugar-pines of vast and irregular outline, whose huge branches, like outstretched arms, hold aloft the splendid cones such is the ancient wood.

It is doubtful if these giant conifers are really as companionable as our eastern beeches and maples and oaks. The company is almost too grandiose; their dignity is overpowering. One could never, for instance, form such a pleasant acquaintance with a great sugar-pine as with a slender white birch. Fatherly white oaks and village elms seem to ally themselves with man as protecting deities of the wood. But this great race of trees has little affinity with our world. Be that as it may, there is perhaps no loftier association in Nature than conta& with the forest. It is the force of a tremendous personality — calm, inspiring, majestic. Like the sea, 1t is not to be grasped in its entirety, and the mind responds to it, as some giant sugar pine to the wind. These sequoias, which may easily be from two to four thousand years old, have seen men come and go as so many squirrels, or as bubbles on the stream ; they have outlived empires, and may again.

As the forest inspires in sensitive minds the religious sentiment, so does it impose upon all alike, silence. Self-effacement is the law. Wild animals merge into their environment and have acquired protective coloration through force of necessity. The Indian has come to imitate them; it has become second nature to him to move stealthily, to stand and sit immovable for long at a time, to speak little. To the woodsman, silence is more congenial than speech ; his wood life has made him alert; he has the habit of listening, and talk interferes.

Another influence is for sanity. It cannot fail to communicate a little of its imperturbable calm, that stable equilibrium of the granite ledge and the great tree trunks. There being none of the external and artificial excitations which constantly play on the mind in cities, a tremendous force of complex suggestion is removed, and the thought naturally works more simply and directly. The multiplicity of desires lies dormant. Everything conspires for simplicity, as in the city all things are in conspiracy against it.

A certain resourcefulness is the portion of the woodsman, a little of the independence and dexterity of the Indian, but more than this, an intellectual and spiritual resourcefulness. It devolves upon him in the solitude to become acquainted with himself— to be his own friend. A sturdy content grows out of this association with the forest. He does not require to be amused. It does not necessarily promote an unsocial state, but it does make him independent of much society. Thus the forest has its finer or spiritual influence.

Even greater is the suggestion of primitive vigor. The display of vast rude strength induces a robust state of mind quite as readily as the open-air life gives appetite and sleep. With the savage this influence is direst and may almost be classed as instinct. With the refined and cultivated mind it must first pierce the outer shell, the veneer, and filter into the subconscious depths, as the sunlight penetrates the forest twilight and brings to life dormant seeds lying there. A new class of ideas comes to life. The seeds of thought planted long ago in the nomadic period of evolution in the hunter stage germinate under the forest influence and send forth shoots. It is memory the race-memory coming blindly to the surface, and amounts to a reversion, not so great, however, but it may be wholesome. We speak of men being animal when they are sensual or dissipated, unmindful that animals are neither, but eminently sane, rendering a complete and unconscious obedience to the laws of Nature. Some men make the mistake of trying to take the city to the wilderness, and, as a result, get neither one nor the other. The forest has its luxuries, and they consist, in a measure, of freedom from those things considered luxuries in the city.

Here in the Sierras we live in a wickiup, a sort of a roofless wigwam. The camp overlooks the forest in which the canons and ranges are as folds and wrinkles. Neighbors are few, for animals conceal themselves, while song-birds are not properly of the forest, but seek the clearing and the settlement. An Oregon snowbird has her nest near by and comes hopping about on her marketing expeditions. A pair of lazuli-finches also live on the edge of the clearing, and the male is, perhaps, the most beautiful bird in the forest. His demure little mate is seldom seen, as she is preoccupied with her domestic cares, but he constantly flits about in the chaparral, where he gleams in the sunlight like a jewel.

One other neighbor we have, an Audubon hermit-thrush, which might be a voice merely like Echo haunting the mountain and no bird at all. He appears to sing in the twilight only, and his song, like that of all thrushes, is spiritual and unworldly. A single white lily, tall and branching, stands near the camp, and day after day opens its ghostly racemes in the dusk to white moths which come flitting out of the forest like winged Psyches; and with the opening of the spirit-like flower comes the vesper song of the thrush.

Night in the forest is a spell, an enchantment. It descends suddenly and envelopes us in darkness, tangible and real. The wickiup stands at the edge of a little clearing, and, as we roll ourselves in our blankets, we seem to float in inky blackness, while the pines are like beetling cliffs against the starlit heavens. Darkness and light confront each other ; it is as if we hovered between them and had made our camp for the night on the borderland. But with the dawn, that luminous world has vanished and we are again under the familiar pines.

One is impressed most by the wonderful stillness of the night. Not only is the world blotted out in the enveloping darkness, but it is voiceless, and there prevails absolute silence. Rarely this is broken by the yapping of coyotes, or a dry twig snaps sharply under the foot of some animal.

Not until the wind rises does the forest recover its voice. During the day there is always music; it is as constant as noise in the city. Impalpable currents descend from the empyrean to caress only the tops of the tallest pines, coming no nearer to earth than this, and while all is silent below there arises a distant chant in the tree tops, which have been touched by an invisible hand and made to respond to moods of the sky. Full and resonant, yet with that muffled quality of tone which makes it appear always to come from a distance, the rhythmic force of this chant sways one like the vibrations of an orchestra. Starting at some center, as if at a signal, these tremulous waves of sound recede farther and farther into the forest and die away in a sigh.

Here the tendency grows on one to wander in the early morning and again in late afternoon, to become crepuscular, like the animals, and to stay in camp in the middle of the day. Deer do not stir abroad in the heat, nor do fish bite, nor birds sing. This love of dawn and twilight is partly inspired by fear of man, but it is none the less natural. At daybreak the deer go down the canons to the salt-licks, as surreptitiously as nymphs going to bathe. It is their witching hour, as midnight is the owls.

To arise at dawn should be an occasion; to make it usual would mean the sacrifice of the more subtle impressions, the mind is so readily blunted by the habitual.

Like a black mantle the great forest lies over the earth 'as I roll myself in my blankets beside the fire. That little flaring light appears to be the only one in this dark wilderness, 'reclaiming a minute portion of space and making it habitable. Wherever one may be in the forest, it is only necessary to gather a few dry sticks and strike a match. The signal summons the genii, servant of the woodsman. More properly one should use a flint, or rub two sticks together. He allies himself with man against the hosts of darkness and defies the wilderness; a merry fellow, his laugh may be heard in the crackling flames. All through the night he entertains with his merry gossip and with pictures he shows in the fire. At times he reveals his own glowing face in the embers, but quickly assumes the head of a bear or a lynx, or melts away in the flames, to reappear presently in another spot.

When I awake, the morning-star hangs low in the heavens like a great lamp, its light an infinitely pure and serene radiance with no suggestion of heat or combustion, made to appeal to some higher vision. A heap of cold gray ashes is all that is left of the fire, in the center a single glowing spot, which may have been the eye of the genii of the night. The black mantle has been lifted, and the earth is illumined by a faint glow, as if solely by the reflected rays of that planet. Unspeakably soft is this light, the forerunner of the dawn, in which the forest is bathed and from which one derives a peculiar satisfaction.

Imperceptibly, almost, it fades, and is replaced by one of a different quality — the light of day which creeps over the world until at length one is aware that that other, which was neither of the night nor of the day, has gone. Long pale lines of fog and fleecy banks of clouds now evolve upon the horizon. The earth remains suffused in this cold light, which fascinates and still repels, making the ranges look distant and severe, and giving to the whole face of Nature an unsympathetic look. It is the beauty of marble, a Gorgon beauty, which chills the heart. In that scene is no note of human passion. Those pale clouds, cold and gray as the ashes of the fire, seem to lure to some beyond, as if they would draw one from the world of life and warmth to some region of cold and death.

Presently comes a faint blush in the sky and over the hills, a new warmth of light, as if blood now ran in those marble veins. It is the foreglow, which is to the sunrise what the afterglow is to the sunset. Color is again born into the world, and the earth is once more alive and sympathetic. As the sun rises, dawn, the exquisite dawn, the most ethereal thing that mortal eyes shall ever behold, flees away into the uttermost parts of space. The mystical, alluring quality slowly dies, and it is once more the matter-of-fad light of day.

With the appearance of the sun these subtle impressions vanish, like a dream vague and unreal. Nature reasserts herself in the robust sense of existence ; now the smell of frying bacon, the comforting effect of the morning coffee in a tin cup, are the real and important things. Physical life is enough in itself so concentrated, vigorous, aggressive it is. The mere breathing, seeing, tasting are more in themselves than is possible under other conditions. How good the resiny odor of the forest ! How exhilarating the scene in its pure savagery ! How stimulating the morning air ! How the stream lures as I get down the trout-rod, and climbing out on a sugar-pine log cast a brown hackle on the swirling glassy flood !

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