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Autumn Studies

( Originally Published 1908 )

Early in August we are surprised each year by the glowing leaves on the tupelo, a little patch of scarlet gleaming in the swamp, while the high blueberry is still in fruit and the silver-rod is making its appearance. By the time the wood-lilies have faded in the huckleberry pasture, the red bunchberries add their bit of color to the carpet on the edge of the swamp. The large berries of the clintonia turn that rare shade of blue which they retain but a short time, growing darker as they ripen. This delicate bloom appears later on the berries of the smilax, the frost-grapes, the savin and the viburnums ; but in the clintonia there is an admixture of some tint lacking in these, which gives a finer blue, as though there were reflected here some remoter depths of the heavens, a bit of ethereal and celestial color imprisoned for a moment. Mountain-holly is now in its prime, its berries of a deep cherry, perhaps one of the richest reds to be found in nature, as those of the clintonia present one of the rarest blues, equaled only by gentians and bluebirds. Both berries, of course, wear their true colors only in their prime and lose them on becoming overripe. In the swamps the little yellow and brown cyperus is in flower and the leaves of the small, pale St.-John's wort have reddened to a brilliant hue, while young bullfrogs and pickerel-frogs sun themselves on the lily-pads and dream away the mellow hours.

While the dog-days are disappointing in respect to bird life, there are compensations. The charm of this season lies in the mushrooms. Though these last through October, they are more in evidence in August, and take on prominence then because of a diminishing flora and the withdrawal from view of a large number of birds. It is a second spring hot, moist and fungus a blooming of the mushroom world. Old stumps and dead branches blossom gaily, and bring forth a tropic flora. Decay is seen to be the matrix of beauty. The logs of corduroy roads through the swamp are incrusted with a shelf fungus (P. versicolor) of marvelous hues. These, spread like open fans, are fastened to the wood by the pileus itself, as by the handle. Some are banded in seal-brown and amber, the surface having the lustrous, changeful effects of a cat's eye. Others are striped in violet and deep green ; still others in green and mauve, and some in ochre and tawny hues, while over all there is a play of light as on watered silk.

It requires somewhat of the heroic spirit to discover whether a mushroom is edible or not. But we may feast our eyes on the amanita, and all other mushrooms, with no fear of consequences. The mycologist seems to overlook the finer and esthetic value of mushrooms. They are beautiful to look upon surely this is one important qualification. What more attractive these misty days than the deadly amanita the "destroying angel"? How it gleams in the woods! How it lures with its terrible beauty ! But they who are tempted to taste must be wholly given over to the pleasures of the table. It was not made for the stomach, but to be digested and assimilated by mental processes alone and the perception of beauty there-by nourished and sustained.

How clean and wholesome is the pasture mushroom the mushroom with its white flesh, pink gills, and cap from which the skin peels as readily as from a fig. The same field is often sprinkled over with puffballs looking as fresh as new-laid eggs, as they poke out of the close-cropped turf. Some species are thus eminently wholesome and inviting, while others have a loathsome fungoid personality and affect one like the sight of reptiles. They express the fact that they are of the lower orders the slimy world. Mushrooms are indeed almost as varied in outline and color as flowers. Red species of russula vie with the rose, with ripe cherries, or the cheeks of Bartlett pears, while the green russula is of richer, more velvety hue than any unripe fruit. The grotesque forms of boleti have a kind of fascination. One comes to distinguish minute differences and to cherish these odd and sometimes graceful shapes, as a connoisseur might his bronzes or antique vases.

Many of the mosses are fruiting at this season, but they, for the most part, belong to that mysterious and unfathomable world of the compound microscope. Yet here are some, be it said with joy, that so proclaim themselves as to be known of all men. Such we can take home to us as friends of our leisure and landmarks in our excursions. These at least we have reclaimed from science. In the shadowy sea of Latin names these few green isles appear —peat-moss, broom-moss, hair-cap and fern-moss. Like miniature smilax are the mniums, marvelous little trailing beauties, while of all vegetable elves the silvery bryum has the greatest witchery, with young drooping pea-green capsules like so many fairy pipes. A miniature jungle is the fern-moss, a forest of tree ferns at our very doors— Ceylon and Java in our wood lot. It is only a difference of dimension. A patch of this is as rich and luxuriant as any jungle of bamboos on the lower slope of the Himalaya, and a spider might as easily lose himself in one as a man in the other.

With what a fine garment of green does Nature clothe the trunks of swamp-maples and some black birches. It is a true woodland costume be-fitting their sylvan life; a snug garment tightly wrapped about the trunk as though to protect the vital parts of the body while the extremities are bared to the winds. Woven in woodland looms of mosses and lichens, it forever replenishes itself, the holes mended and the bare spots renewed as by deft and invisible weavers.

Where do the birds go in August? Never an oriole's note nor a bluebird's warble. All the more we appreciate the faithful redeye and the wood-pewee. The importunate twittering of young birds with their speckled breasts and half-grown tails is in evidence ; they at least do not hesitate to make themselves known. But in September are bright days when there come waves of birds. The returning warblers rove in little bands, and companies of young field- and chipping-sparrows flit in and out among the bayberries and alight in the path.

In their dull, autumn colors the warblers have an unfamiliar look. They come disguised in winter cloaks which, if you do not know their little mannerisms, may be effective enough. With provoking celerity they flit in and out the thick foliage, and you dance attendance; now this way and now that, stumbling over pasture stones or plunging into the midst of blackberry and rose thickets, to be detained at last by the persuasive catbrier. Again you go forth to find the game has stolen away and not a warbler is to be seen. Such are the exigencies of bird study in September; yet in a few days other flocks may arrive. Every faintest clue is valuable to the ornithologist who honestly refrains from the gun. Were it not for the peculiar jerking of the tail, one would hardly recognize the yellowpoll in his dull suit. The fly-catchers frequently declare their identity through mannerisms. Were it not for difference of manner and voice, the phoebe and the pewee might easily be confused; so also the redeye and the warbling vireo. I have known the redeye for years, but can never make out his red eye, unless it be a glass one.

Now comes the winter wren, peeping and prying round about a mossy tussock like a little mouse, but far more self-contained. His wee tail is elevated and his whole demeanor pert. What a picture he makes, prying about in the hair-caps, his head little higher than the capsules,— a ruddy, rich-hued, speckled little fellow. If only he would give us a measure of that fabled song, that Orphean strain of the far North and of the mountain tops, which is denied to dwellers on these lower levels ! There are songs to be heard only on Parnassus.

These are the days of journeying seeds. In spring it was blowing pollen ; in early autumn, mushroom spores ; and now winged seeds flying before the wind. Those of the hop-hornbeam are done up in little papery bags which, though incapable of an extended flight, manage to sail out and away from the parent tree. Even the small seeds of birch and alder, compact as they are, have wings provided, for no ambitious flight, to be sure, but a gentle excursion only, such as the broad-winged maple seed may take when its hour arrives. Acorns will fall directly below the tree, perhaps roll some little distance on uneven ground and lie in rich confusion — a symbol of plenty. For any further transportation they must depend upon the wings of the jay and the feet of the squirrel. In this respect the sweet acorns of the white oak have the better chance, while at the same time they run the greater risk of being eaten. Jays constantly carry acorns, and may frequently drop them. Gray squirrels bury them, and recover a surprising number later when the snow is on the ground. They know wherein the white are superior and are as well informed about acorns as are we about apples or the varieties of squash. The white oak acorn is to them Hubbard squash or Baldwin apple.

When Nature planned that the nut trees should bear as they do, she doubtless considered the squirrel and the boy that was to be. She had no idea of deriving a thousand seedlings from a hickory, but perhaps one only, and allowing for those that should come to naught, the boys and the squirrels might have the rest — to say nothing of weevils, which get ahead of both when it comes to chestnuts, being on hand to lay their eggs in the flower. When the boy arrives, it is to find them already in possession — surely nine-tenths of the law in this case. The chestnut-bur was seemingly designed as a means of protection rather than of transportation,— unless it be that in remote times the tertiary monkey got them in his coat, or perhaps slyly pelted the mastodon with these monster burs, and they were thus conveyed, as now a dog will carry beggar-ticks. As a protection it does not serve against its most insidious foe, the larva of the weevil, which works not from with-out but from within. Nature has treated the butternut better by surrounding it with a husk, as food for the grubs, which are content to go no deeper. One is a case of armed resistance, the other of diplomacy, and diplomacy wins.

How evidently all Nature is flowing. It is as though we stood on the banks of a river and saw pass — today arbutus, tomorrow, columbines, and later, goldenrod. The last is hardly gone before the advance guard of skunk-cabbage appears again. Autumn nourishes a vigorous brood whole acres of wild sunflowers, acres again of joepye-weed, and salt marshes aglow with the great rose-mallow. Presently there will be only asters and goldenrod everywhere purple and gold; royal robes worn not for long, to give way to the sober dress of early winter a monk's garb.

Early in September the common brakes turn, imparting a faint glow to the woods. Dicksonia has a brighter hue, and patches surrounding a pasture boulder fairly seem to emit light. But this is as nothing to the splendor of cinnamon-ferns in the open bogs, now dry, and the spagnum withered and sear. It is as if the smouldering earth-fires leapt at the touch of autumn and glowed in these stately fronds. In the woods is always a predominance of yellow at this season; so lately somber and damp, heavy with the mustiness and humidity of the dog-days, they are now full of imprisoned sunshine. As by a touch of enchantment, the falling of the lower leaves on all shrubbery and in brier thickets has suddenly given us distances, larger perspective and new vistas, where before we were hedged in between dense green walls. Aspen, shadbush, blackberry, birch and hickory all incline to yellow, mottled and speckled more or less with brown. Ochre, umber, sienna, gamboge are on Nature's palette ; soon she will replace these with crimson and scarlet. Already there is a touch of vermilion in the brilliant poison-ivy ; and she has spilled drops of scarlet everywhere on the out-skirts of the woods, along a wall, over a fence, up in a pine, in the very midst of a radiant gleaming hickory wherever the Virginia creeper grows.

Nature works deftly, at first with delicate brush touching a shadbush, a clump of osmunda, or again only a leaf, a spot of color, a patch here and a streak there; but the day of transfiguration approaches. Early October sees the stag-horn sumacs fairly scintillate with color. At last the whole color-box is upset and runs red down a hillside huckleberry patch, meeting a yellow streak in a ravine and spreading out over the swamps, a sea of scarlet and gold. Every year Nature starts out in this modest fashion and ends in an upset and riot of color. We should know her ways by this time, but though her plan is the same she varies the details infinitely and there are always surprises.

These same earth-fires which blazed in the osmunda now glow deep red in the dwarf sumacs — a dull, fierce flame, as if for the nonce Pluto's fires shone through the thin shell of earth. The poison-ivy is in glory, and no tupelo, no sugar-maple, can rival its scarlet and vermilion. Earth indeed wears a jewel now. But there is nowhere a warmer, mellower tint than the shadbush has caught and held, not brilliant nor showy, not a shining mark in the woods, but a cheery sight that warms the cockles of your heart. Little clumps of the maple-leaved viburnum are now of a delicate smoky pink, while the ash turns an indescribable hue a greenish maroon or purplish green if such there be.

Already the hickory leaves are falling, detaching themselves one by one and floating leisurely to earth. It will now be our gentle pleasure to walk through crisp and rustling leaves. Barberries are ripe, and old-fashioned folk gather them for jelly or preserve them in molasses, wherein they are as so many shoe-pegs drowned in sweetness. The solitary sandpiper comes again to preside briefly over the ponds a lone, wild spirit. Little flocks of coots scud low over the water, and in the dark, spongy humus of the hemlock swamp, red squirrels are digging caches and concealing the small cones, a dozen or more in a place. Such are the signs of the times.

Yet another sign the last effort of the dying year is the witch-hazel, which sheds its leaves and stands arrayed in yellow blossoms. A brave suggestion is this flower of the late autumn, blossoming when all else is in the sear and yellow, that it may bear seed in another year. When all others have given up and are retreating, this one comes forth as much as to say it is never too late. There is a very witchery in the crinkled yellow flower born of the old year in a frosty world; a borean child brought hither on the wings of the North wind ; a sturdy blossom that will not show itself till it hears the music of rustling leaves.

Late in autumn the white pines shed their needles and lay down a new carpet. No turning of the old here, but every year another fresh, wholesome, fragrant; a plain, well-wearing ground-work that never offends the eye and on which is traced from time to time a rare and original design. It is now a scarlet tupelo or a maple leaf dropped here and there, and again a creeping mitchella with a red berry or two, or a clump of ground-pine and a drift of beech and scarlet oak leaves. On occasion appears a solitary gleaming amanita. Over the rich seal-brown of ancient hemlock stumps is a tracery of the gray-green cladonia with its scarlet fruiting cups. What are Tabriz, Daghestan, Bokhara and the rest to this? These odorous pine-needles are the magic carpet which gently conveys one into the sylvan world of faun and nymph. Now it is a sunbath we want rather than a cold dip, to bask in the warmth like any cottontail. To lie in some sheltered spot while the frost is taking off the last leaves, and become saturated with sunlight, is a mellowing process, and ripens one, as tomatoes are ripened on the window-sill or grapes on the trellis.

As the vivid hues of the red maple fade in the swamp and are replaced by the soft silvery gray and purplish sheen of the bark, the oaks on the hillside become ruddy. The coloring is rich and subdued, rather than brilliant and glowing as at first — mahogany and maroon set off by the purple mists of Indian summer. And now at last branches are bare and leaves rustle underfoot.

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