( Originally Published 1908 )
Improvement easily becomes an affectation, from which all healthy natures suffer periodic reactions that take them to the mountains and the forest, to those primeval estates loved of wild bees, of the phoebe and the wren. One feels a sympathy with those renegade plants known as garden escapes star of Bethlehem, bouncing-bet, and the rest which have run away from the garden for the freedom of the woods and highways. The conventionalities of spade and hoe are odious to them. They wander far from the assemblage of the elect; they will live wild and free, these Philistines, following the open road wherever it may lead, with a sort of tramp instinct. Even the staid and domestic apple will break away from the fold to seek the unregenerate society of the pastures.
The hemlock woods, the meadow and the bog are wild gardens which require no cultivating themselves, but only a certain cultivation and appreciation in us, which they repay with gentle and unfailing interest year after year. What we get from them will depend on what we take to them.
Flowers are nothing away from their haunts. We must have the field in which the clover blossomed bees and all, the cranberry-bog, the mossy bank of the violet, the white birch on which the polyporus grew. Take, for example, the clintonia, solitary amidst fallen spruce logs on the mountain slope. Imagine it transferred to a trim garden ! If you' have really seen that flower of the solitudes, you have seen the mossy rock overhanging it, the spruce cones lying thick about; sniffed the balsam and heard the veery on the mountain. Or consider this mountain sheep pasture with its clumps of stunted spruce and balsam, its scattered boulders and patches of sensitive fern, its reddening sorrel and running cinquefoil ; bluets lie over the ground like a light fall of snow; pasture stones are incrusted with parmelias and set in a frame of hair-cap moss and reindeer lichens, incomparable mosaics ; wild strawberries nestle among dainty speedwells, half hidden under the bent grass. It is a whole, an homogeneous piece of work, like a tapestry. There is not a bog-rush nor a buttercup to be spared.
From the first fragrant spicebush to the last witch-hazel, no cultivated shrub is to be compared with them, for the virtue of the wild is not to be transplanted and is never imprisoned in flower-beds. These shrubs of the pasture have a personality derived from immemorial contact with the virgin and uncultivated soil. They have been nourished by the very juices of earth and by the bone and sinew of the mountains. If you would have the barberry, you must move the pasture itself. It is of wild gardens solely, an untamed and untamable beauty. And so it is with the dogwood, for what is this but sunshine in the May woods rifts of light breaking here and there through the overarching green of oak and tulip trees? It were as easy to catch sunbeams as to carry this away.
The mountain is the mother of these wild gar-dens ; a vigorous dame to bring forth so gentle a brood--as the slopes of Vesuvius produce a mellow wine which has taken only a kindly warmth from the raging heart of the volcano. All her fairest virtues have blossomed in her children; her graces would remain unsuspected but for them. Let the gods but fling down a bit of rock anywhere and presently, after a few ages, it shall dissolve into violets and anemones. Grind it to powder by the wayside and you have only made it into thistles and burdock ; scatter it over the fields and it becomes daisies and sunflowers.
Imperceptibly, granite melts at its outer edge into a fringe of dicksonia and wild rose. Lime-stone will bring forth a richer garden than sandstone, as though, like the rock-maple, it had more sweetness in its veins than another. Some of the most delightful gardens arise from disintegrating basalt. Perchance this rock retains a little of its old volcanic heat and has more of the finer graces in its make-up than that which was coldly laid down under water. Fiery lava, tempered and mollified by Time, has become kindly and amenable. Where was only desolation, after countless days the dicentra hangs out its white flags in truce to the warring elements. The sand hillocks of the terminal moraine are the chosen land of mountain laurel, and there are untold acres where this constitutes almost the sole undergrowth. What a hanging garden, when, on a level with the eye, one continuous bloom spreads through the twilight of the woods— the single buds like miniature urns of rose quartz so delicately are they sculptured, here a warm rosy tint and there a ghostly pallid blossom. This soil, the detritus of glacial torrents, despite its many washings, has not given up all its gold, but is rich in arbutus and in pedata violets. It is, after all, granite, the mother-lode of the earth ; granite after endless transmutations but still retaining some of its virtues.
To the first flowers belongs a charm, the most exquisite of any, something tender and appealing, as though they enshrined the fairest virtues of the year its modesty, its purity, its sweetness in violets, anemones and bloodroot. This charm, so elusive, has never been described, nor shall be in-deed. It is like music which is a language in itself and will bear no translation. The bee must approach these with some humility and more gentleness than is shown to the sturdy blossoms of summer. They are eminently the ''gentle race" of flowers, born in the enchanted tine.
We go with hungry eyes at this season. By midsummer we have been well feasted and no longer see individual blossoms so much as masses of bloom. Bloodroot and hepatica are like the dewdrops of early morning which disappear before the sun. They can be found just once in a year; after that they will not appear the same. It is cheering to come upon such a fair company of spring beauty where but a few days since were none ; to enter a stretch of woodland and find it populous with these friends of a lifetime, now returned to their old haunts. We do not commonly reflect that they have been under the snow all the while. Scattered among them, the anemones lie in drifts, like a late flurry of snow and quite as evanescent, lingering in the shadows only. These are the delicate children of April ; May is their foster-mother. Contact with them is like the glimpse of a spirituelle face. But the adder's-tongue which nestles by the brook has more fire in its veins than the rest. Its spotted leaves give it an almost feline beauty as it droops with the southern languor of the lily.
Serenity dwells with the woodland flowers. There is about them some subtle refinement and exclusiveness. They appear fit symbols of lowliness and modesty. A strip of woodland beside the turn-pike is like an ancient chapel left amid the din and hubbub of city streets. The sturdier plants, both coarse and gay, halt at the edge of the wood. Within, the light is subdued ; nothing obtrudes upon the eye or ear. It is obvious that the cathedral had its origin in the forest. What a fair and devout congregation has jack-in-the-pulpit, where the Canada violet stands side by side with the medeola and the painted trillium. The medeola declines its unfertilized flower, so that its maiden life is hid from view beneath the tri-leaved canopy, and only in its mature and matronly days does it begin to ascend and take a position where the seed shall crown the plant and be in evidence. From what insect despoiler is this shy virgin so carefully hid?
It seems as if the light that penetrates these woods has undergone a change, or been deprived of some of its rays, so that the wood flowers are nourished by a finer food than the rest, as with ambrosia. It is perhaps the subdued light which inspires a certain solemn and hymn-like quality in the notes of wood birds, as in the thrushes and the altogether didactic tone of the redeye. There is here none of that self assertiveness among the flowers that is to be observed among certain groups of plants ; the competitive spirit is lacking. Solomon's seal, bellworts and twisted stalk, like medeola, are rather at pains to conceal themselves. There is no self-advertising among them. What could be more unassuming than goldthread and wood-sorrel? They live close to the soil of which they are the offspring a rich, odorous soil, black with the accumulated nutriment of centuries. He must be in hot haste indeed who treads on a patch of mountain wood-sorrel, such is its mute, appealing beauty. It holds the eye and stays the foot of every saunterer in the woods.
But follow the by-roads in early summer and you shall have very different company. It is here you will find the sturdy travelers, who will go the length of any road in all weathers; and there are none more cheerful and uncomplaining. They have no fault to find; the world suits them very well. You must be prepared to greet mullein and bur-dock as equals. Here on the road they are as good as any ; they hobnob with the rose. Wild carrot borders the dusty lanes with a fringe of lacework a real lace from the deft hand of Nature. There is no brighter gold than the St.-John's-wort, albeit it will not pass current in the town.
The winds sow the fairest hedge by the road-side — the winds and the birds ; it seems that they take kindly to these wayfarers. They are the good fairies who plant elder and blackberry and scatter the wild rose. Timothy and redtop and witch-grass are the very children of AEolus. The pollen-bearing wind mothers the grass and plantain; the seed-carrying wind distributes the thistle and willow. Birds are very willing to carry cherry-pits provided they may have the cherry for their trouble.
The breeze comes laden with thistle-down, such fragile craft embark on these untried seas with all sails set. The story of such a seed would read like a fairy tale. Has not the wind whispered daily to it as its silken sail was spread? And the seed has tugged at its moorings like any boat till these were loosed and she was off, beating in and out among the high blueberries and shadbushes of the pastures, at last sailing clear of all such reefs and ascending in air to drift out into the open. How it rises and falls on the currents, like a ship riding the long swells of the sea; again it drives free before the wind to settle down at last in some pasture. If, perchance, such a seed fall on stony ground it is no great matter. The marvelous silken sail will now fall away, for the craft has reached port, no more forever to sail these seas. On occasion one is caught in a spider's web, where-upon the spider comes out to see what luck. Evidently all is not fish that comes to her net. But the self-reliant crane's bill looks neither to bird nor beast nor again to the winds of heaven, for it does its own planting, flinging the seeds away with almost an intelligent and conscious action.
This relation between the wind and the plants of the field is an agreeable stimulus to the imagination, in a matter-of-fad day when fairies are not so common as of old. Consider how the breezes have blown the pollen of the pine and later are to help carry the seed They thus serve the trees of the forest and the grass of the prairie. These same winds urge the fruit that it should leave the parent tree. "Come, follow us ! " say they, and first gently draw, then roughly compel, till the apple falls. They whisper all through the summer to the leaves so green, and at length, on October days, draw them irresistibly.
Verily of wild gardens there is no end ; our estates are without number. But among them all the mountain is unique, for to ascend is like going northward, and at the same time to reverse the season. One, which I climbed the middle of June, is little more than four thousand feet, and yet, whereas in the valley there were daisies and wild carrot, on the summit the wild red cherry was just in bloom. In that short distance one walked upward or rather backward from the middle of June to late April. Another four thousand feet would have carried one back into the depths of winter. The seasons are thus with us throughout the summer; we have only to go up in the air after them.
Warblers were nesting on the mountain slopes which would otherwise hardly have been found at that season this side of Canada, such as the black-throated blue, the magnolia and myrtle. The winter wren was fairly abundant, and on the very summit a snowbird had her nest. About half way up, the butternuts of the ravine gave way to spruce and balsam. As the ascent continued, mountain-maple and mountain-ash suggested higher latitudes. But what impressed one most was the subtle recession to the early year. The seasons having fairly begun to revolve, it was as though some power were slowly turning them back again.
Some hundred feet or more up the face of an overhanging cliff, a bower of columbines hung out into the grim ravine. They were clustered just under the brink, gems of the first water in a rude setting. The red blossoms glowed faintly against the bald cliff like rubies set in the walls of a rock temple. From under the roots of the clinging spruce a small stream slid like molten glass over the escarpment above and burst into spray, gently undulating like a fine veil, as it descended to the pool below with the dominant and strenuous song of the waterfall.
Probably honey bees do not leave their mountain meadows for this dim twilight region, though they may possibly become acquainted with these hanging gardens on their way to some bee-tree in the woods. It is left to the wandering bumblebee to fertilize most woodland flowers, and in the case of the columbine, perhaps to the humming-bird. On the same cliff were tufts of the alpine woodsia and dense patches of rock-brake but these stand in no need of the bee.
When, at some three thousand feet, wood-anemones were blooming, summer slipped gently away and April took its place. It seemed quite natural then to find adder's-tongue and to see wake-robins and bunchberry everywhere. The last part of the ascent might have been through a swamp, so strong was the suggestion of swamp life. Spagnum grew in places along the trail, and the fern moss was in evidence on the rocks. False hellebore was abundant, and on the very top stood a poison sumac — a typical bog plant. Yet the summit was rocky and covered for the most part with stunted balsam as thickly matted together as a hedge. The mountain pokes its cold head up into the clouds, and is continually refreshed by the dews of heaven. In some unaccountable manner the swamp plants, as if guided by instinct, ascend and find their natural environment at the top.
When I descended, it was to leave spring behind with every step, not again to meet her in that year.