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| "Dust on thy mantle! dust,
Bright Summer, on thy livery of green!
A tarnish as of rust
Dims thy late brilliant sheen."
William D. Gallagher.
WHEN an inscrutable Providence has fixed the bounds of one's habitation during the major part of the year within city walls, a brief annual outing, most salutary for mind and body, and to be accepted with all thankfulness, is yet apt to become an annual aggravation as well, for one who has an ambition to utilize the occasion for the prosecution of either botany or ornithology, inasmuch as he finds himself, at the conventional season for such recreation, quite in the condition of the dog that eats only the crumbs that fall from Nature's bountiful table; or, if we vary the figure, and dignify him with the position of an invited guest, he fares no better, as he finds that in sitting down at the table in midsummer, he comes to the feast rather "between the courses" — the roast-beef has been cleared away, and nothing else brought on.
Botany knows less of times and seasons than ornithology, for inflorescence is continuous, even if not equally interesting and abundant, from early spring till late in the fall. Yet its volume of life, too, is fullest in June, after which the current runs low till its last gorgeous "composite" outburst in autumn. In bird-life the summer season lies "between the waves," and has a less positive character, perhaps we may say, than even winter itself. But in passing from the limited area and opportunity of city life to the broad acres of the country, the midsummer stagnation signifies less, and gives opportunity for new research. The various birds have such distinct tastes in regard to their surroundings, that the conditions of the Ramble must needs be uninviting to many of the most familiar varieties in the country, and a brief digression from city limits into open fields and rural highways will bring a few of them into view, and extend the acquaintance with some that were only transiently in the Park.
In an old historic
town of New
England, whose early records deal with the Indians and the
Revolutionary War, and whose latter-day fame rests upon the fact that
it is in the very depths of Nature, and signally exempt from all
artificial means of exhilaration, with the delightful possibilities
and monotonous impossibilities of every sleepy old country town, I
often found myself on the banks of a winding, elm-shaded river —
one of those streamlets whose restful, constant flow is a most
alluring invitation to the most intense laziness. A flock of bank
swallows visited the spot quite as often as myself, and from
more practical and urgent motives; and, concluding that they
lived in the neighborhood, I one day followed up the stream to a
point where the banks rose high and sandy from the water's edge.
Here, I thought, if I knew anything of the domiciliary tastes of bank
swallows, would be a most eligible site for their residence; and
jumping down to the river's edge, and casting my eye along the steep,
sandy wall, I soon discovered a. large number of their excavations in
the hard, fine sand — clean, round holes, looking at a distance as
if a number of cannon-balls had been shot into the bank from the
opposite shore. They were just large enough to admit my hand, and so
deep that I could in many cases thrust in my arm up to the shoulder,
and with my fingers just touch the end, where the excavation became a
little larger. As the young had already been hatched and the abodes
abandoned, I did not consider that I was making myself liable
for home-breaking, nor that it was an act of vandalism to draw out a
quantity of feathers and fine roots — the material commonly
used in their nests. Many of the nests contained little or none
of this material, which seemed almost superfluous, considering the
swallows are to be
congratulated for the instinct that prompts them to select such a
singular location for their abode — so comfortable and thoroughly
protected, impervious to rain and wind.
Hovering about the same stream could be seen the belted kingfisher, very much of a waterfowl in instinct and physiognomy, if not in anatomy. Alighting upon a bush close beside me, his amazement at discovering the intrusion (of course I was the intruder, not he) made him motionless for an instant, and then with awkward grace and coarse cry he dashed out of sight down the stream. In a neighboring bank I found his nest, or that of some other kingfisher, modelled after that of the bank swallow, but much larger and deeper — a straight tunnel at least five feet long.
Along this stream I often found a pair of sandpipers, with their ludicrous, teetering bodies and bobbing heads, half walking, half running at the water's edge on the other shore. It seemed a little remarkable that, whichever side of the stream I might be on, those tilting little sandpipers were sure to be on the opposite side — so like some folks. A phoebe also was lingering about the water. It was no holiday for him, he had a keen eye to business, and was making frequent sallies from the branch of an ancient, Calvinistic oak gnarled with age, and scarred with adversity, but grim and defiant to the outermost twig; beneath whose angular shade on a stretch of sloping green I lay and watched the shallow, eddying current, whose incessant flow seemed to palliate my own supreme idleness.
A drove of cows returning home from pasture, lazily stopping here and there to browse, and one after the other splashing through the water with true bovine dignity and enjoyment, or standing in its delicious coolness — luxuriant trees growing from the margin, and casting long shadows as the sun declined — a troop of red-winged blackbirds flying about and chattering loudly as they settled in the trees, with now and then the daintier tone of some mellow-voiced goldfinches — cliff and bank swallows with flinty notes coursing up and down, now high in air, now skimming the water, — the perpetual ruralist finds nothing in these commonplace occurrences worth the mention (quite likely he does not see them); but the gilded shops of the city do not contain their equal. Nature never strains for an effect — we often fail to realize she has made an effect until we recall the scene — she has no display-windows for her wares. Her beauty eludes rather than seeks observation, seeming to exist quite as a matter of course, and for its own sake, without a thought whether a human eye sees and admires or not, but everything in its sort perfect, without a front side and a back side, which is man's confession of a low standard.
In pastoral scenery Nature's chef-d' oeuvre is the cow. Mr. Burroughs calls it "our rural divinity;" — gentle, guileless, honest, and unworldly, how the clumsy, patient beast embodies the chief attractive qualities of that childhood of which it is the great nourisher the world over. And I believe, too, there is more honest, homely sense of the beauty of nature in those great, mild eyes of the cow — the serene, benevolent, equanimous cow — than in any other animal. As has been said of Wisdom, so we may say of her, "Her ways are ways of pleasantness," and all her paths are picturesque.
The world always puts a premium upon individuality, even when its manifestations are somewhat repugnant to man's finer instincts. For that reason we often admire where we know we ought to reprobate, and become extremely weary of that which we must confess is highly virtuous.
A bird, one of whose chief attractions is an eccentricity of depravity, quite abundant in the more open places, and by its habits conspicuous quite out of proportion to its size, is the so-called "king-bird" — a name far too royal for a sleek little fellow only seven inches long, playing the gentlemanly villain's part, with a bill murderous only of bugs and butterflies, but his heart ready to fire up at an instant's notice into the savageness of a hawk. Almost all of the smaller birds, proverbially timid at all other times of the year, are noted for becoming surprisingly bold, and almost oblivious of their own safety, in defence of their young; but with this occasion past, all their courage flies. In the case of the king-bird, however, such spasmodic valor seems to have become chronic, degenerating into mere pugnacity, which is the impulse to contention without the motive. With the irresistible vehemence of a hornet it will dash upon any of its fellows, big or little, putting crows, hawks, and eagles to rout by its sheer audacity. The diseased valor of this bird reminds one of pugnacious philanthropists, in whom the continual opposition they have encountered has developed a spirit of warfare that prompts them to champion any good cause in which they may be sure of hard lighting.
This is one of the commonest birds in bushy pastures and along the roadsides, a veritable highwayman, conspicuous on telegraph wires running across country, always perching in a prominent spot where it can see the luckless insects flying about, at which it makes a dash, bringing its prey back to its post of observation. The jingle of metallic sounds they utter on the wing is far from unmusical, though a bit satirical; but is not in any sense a song. Like the other flycatchers they are not gregarious, being seen only in pairs or singly, and are easily recognized by the white band on the tip of the tail, while the upper side is almost black, the under side a dull white, and in its plumage and the peculiarly erect position of all fly catchers, presenting a very spruce appearance. It has an interesting and unusual method of bathing. Instead of standing in shallow water and dipping itself; like other birds, it flies from its perch directly into the stream, dashing the water over its back, returning to its place, and repeating the performance several times. A pair of them could be often seen performing their ablutions in the stream I so often visited.
One could hardly enjoy a gentler call from slumber than the soft, delicious warble of the bluebird, as it often came in at my window at early dawn. It requires no imagination to see in this bird nature's type of a meek and quiet spirit. If the king-bird is one of the chief sinners, the bluebird certainly ranks among the highest of the feathered saints — a Nathaniel indeed, in whom is no guile. Its mellow, coaxing love-note is one of the most affectionate sounds in nature, and matches the delicate gentleness of its ways, making it the favorite alike of poet and peasant. Passing from the atmosphere of other birds to this is like the quick transition from the noisy cataract to the restfulness of the deep and quiet pool. It lingers about the orchard like a benediction of Nature, and when it is gone, its memory remains as immaculate and suggestive as its own cerulean color.
Objects which manifest themselves through the different bodily senses do not seem to stand upon any comparable basis, but science is beginning to show a marvellous unity in this respect, and the correlation of motion and heat, which once would have been deemed an absurdity, is now evident enough. Fancy sometimes sees what science later proves, and if objects of sight and hearing shall likewise be shown to have an essential force in common, it may some time be no surprise to detect the ethereal warble of the bluebird melting into that most spirituelle of all colors, the vanishing violet.
Of all the more pretentious bird-songs I have ever listened to, that of the purple finch seems the most virile, gladsome, and melodious: as gushing as that of the goldfinch, but less sentimental; vigorous and not satiating; not formless in modulation, but with a piquant rhythmic phrase, a tripping measure that instantly catches the ear and stirs the blood, a genuine and delightful "invitation to the dance." During the first few days of my country-life they were quite numerous among the apple-trees and the wayside elms and maples, holding a continuous high carnival: so brimful of delight that it seemed as if they must dissolve in song. Their merriment is infectious, and their joy as transparent as that of a child — the purest in the world, for no sorrow is lurking in their hearts. Emerson's words concerning the chickadee can with almost equal aptness be addressed to the purple finch:
No winter in thy year."
Although with its silence from fall until spring one cannot say of the finch as of the chickadee, that it is no respecter of seasons.
I shall long remember the welcome that one of these finches seemed most graciously to give me, as it flew to a branch of an apple-tree almost within hand-reach, just after my arrival, and began to carol deliciously, as if to say, "Glad to see you, glad to see you, ha, ha, ha! hope you'll have a jolly time! "After a few days the whole flock suddenly ceased singing, almost as if by a preconcerted signal. I think they must have left the neighborhood, or else had received some bad news.
Half of the charm of bird-songs is in the fact that in their varying qualities they reproduce such diverse scenes in nature. There is a noonday brightness in the purple finch's melody, whose radiant notes are like the sunbeams playing among the tremulous leaves. In the wood thrush there is indeed no overpowering ecstasy as in the ardent finch, but what a rich, reposeful dignity — a liquid coolness in that rippling cadence-phrase, the song par excellence of twilight and deep woods.
A bird that comes very enthusiastically introduced, but with which, I regret to say, I have only a passing acquaintance as yet, is a handsome, gifted, and striking individual, renowned in prose and poetry as a most dashing, happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, a feathered extravaganza, an intoxicated soloist, an artistic comedian — the bobolink, called in his southern winter quarters the "rice-bird," from the character of his diet, and in the Middle States on his migrations the "reed-bird."
I accidentally discovered only two of them this summer in watching a large flock of red-winged blackbirds, with whom they seemed to have fallen in company, and it was then too late in the season to witness and hear their peculiar acrobatic vocalization. This is the most beautiful creature in black and white to be found among our song-birds, and as far as I could observe, happily unconscious of his fine looks. As one compares the male, attired in glossy black, and so curiously but elegantly decorated in buff and white, with the dingy, lustreless, ginghamed female, it looks like fresh evidence that the ways of Providence are unequal. It being my misfortune that the bobolink's ways and mine have converged so little in the past, I shall sedulously seek him out, trusting he will not be averse to receiving me among his numerous list of friends and admirers.
In the same field where I found the bobolinks it was haying-time; and as I roamed about (in criminal idleness, from an agricultural point of view), I overheard one farmer call out to another, "What is that fellow looking at, over there?" "O, the birds!" was the reply. "That is another of those fellows from the city!" I was in doubt, from the tone in which this was said, which of the three he held in greatest contempt — the birds, the city, or myself. His sweeping remark very skilfully laid us all pretty nearly equally low. As a candid expression of opinion I heard nothing superior to it all summer.
But I have an easy and reasonable revenge in remarking, how like the unappreciated pearls mentioned in Scripture are the beauties of nature in the eyes of the average soil-tiller. With all due regard for the many notable exceptions (perhaps sufficient to prevent any sweeping allegations), how often, nevertheless, do we find the farmer not only without sympathy, but with an undisguised contempt, for any stray scientist or artist — for anyone in fact whom he finds crossing his domains with his line of vision lying higher than potatoes and corn.
In view of the fact that a farmer's life in its essential character is undeniably poetic, alluring many in the various learned professions with the hope that before they end their days they may be able, in some measure, to adopt this most primitive and natural pursuit; why is it that those who actually cultivate the soil so generally develop only the dull and prosy side of life? No other occupation presents the ideal and the real side of it in such diametrical opposition. In the acres of vegetables, broad fields of waving grain, the smell of new-mown hay, the running brook, the hills and plains, where one hears at intervals the lowing of the herd and the hum of insects,
"And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,"
— in these daily associations, and with the quietness brooding over a farmer's life, what can there be to contract his sympathies, shorten his outlook, and harden him to all the finer influences of nature?
An eminent English writer somewhat disparages this class of laborers, in alluding to "the honesty and the narrow-mindedness of the agriculturalists." It is a little anomalous that sound morals and narrow minds should develop out of the same soil, like the self-same fountain sending forth sweet water and bitter. It would be unreasonable to expect that, without special intellectual training, this honorable class of people would in any systematic manner, and in a scientific spirit, contemplate the objects and operations of nature. But it would seem as if there might be a peculiar responsiveness to those influences that come, not through books and technical training, but absorbed imperceptibly from a permanently surrounding atmosphere, developing at least a spirit of poetry, and refining the sentiment, if not enlarging the mind. There are notable instances where pastoral life has produced such results. That these instances are exceptional, can only be regarded as one of the proofs that, as the electrician would say, between senses and susceptibilities there is no "short circuit," or at best only an insufficient connection, and that we must expect sentiment to wait upon intellect, and the technically uneducated to be apathetic.
It is not at all unlikely that Wordsworth may have been on some occasion nettled by the rude jostling of a prosaic nature, causing him in one of his poems to represent a rural resident as saying:
"These Tourists, heaven preserve us! needs must live
A profitable life: some glance along,
Rapid and gay as if the earth were air,
And they were butterflies to wheel about
Long as the summer lasted: some, as wise,
Perched on the forehead of a jutting crag,
Pencil in hand and book upon the knee,
Will look and scribble, scribble on and look,
Until a man might travel twelve stout miles,
Or reap an acre of his neighbor's corn."
In view of my experience on more than one occasion, there can be no unkind insinuation in the suggestion that if "one of those fellows from the city," wandering through some farming district, notes a novel effect of nature in earth or air, or espies a strange plant or a rare bird, he will soon discover that he is full as likely to have his inquiries pleasantly and intelligently solved by applying to someone else than the occupant of the grounds. Each one knows best the inevitable drudgery of his own vocation, but of all pursuits there seems to be none that holds its follower in the thraldom of a more jaded and spiritless service than that intrinsically noblest of all callings, soil-culture.
When Nature made the blue jay she must have done it as an object-lesson, to show how greatly good looks will always be discounted by ill-manners. "What a handsome creature!" one will say, before he knows him. "What a rascal!" after he knows him. A more polished knave than its congener the crow, one will be likely to have even less respect for it by as much as its first impression is more favorable, and its claims more pretentious. Whoever has heard its discordant cry sounding through the woods, noted its half defiant, half guilty air as it slinks among the trees, and caught it in the barbarous act of destroying the eggs or killing the young of other birds, will only ask contemptuously, with Shakespeare,
Because his feathers are more beautiful?"
And he is indeed a beauty, with that rich expanse of blue that looks like a bit of sky fluttering among the trees. It is an unusual color among our birds, and I have somewhere read that it is never found in the birds of England. With us the jay is the most conspicuous instance, and we have besides the blue-bird, the black-throated blue, and the blue yellow-backed warblers, one or two other warblers with a noticeable trace of it, the indigo-bird, and the blue grosbeak, which is almost indigo, but rarely found so far north as New York.
Different as the jay's note is from that of the crow, it resembles it in the characteristic hoarseness of the latter, and certain anatomical minutiæ have caused science to put them in the same family, along with ravens, rooks, daws, and magpies. In his treatment of other birds and in his thievish propensities, the jay is a general nuisance, and with the exception of his fine plumage, the purpose of his creation is quite as mysterious as that of some human individuals.
To turn to a humbler but more satisfying species, there is no bird that gathers into melody the reposeful sentiment of quiet country life at evening, when Nature seems in a sabbatic mood, like the little vesper sparrow or bay-winged bunting, chanting a most refreshing cadence in the cool of the day, to banish the memory of its heat and burden. It has a characterless, threadbare sort of garb, the conventional sparrow-suit, but is quite readily distinguished from its kindred by the pure white outer tail-feathers prominently displayed as it flies along a little in advance of the traveller through open fields and country roads. There is something in its tone that links it with the sprightly song sparrow, but how different the mood, and the effect upon the listener! The song sparrow so cheery and ecstatic, the vesper sparrow so serene and pastoral, and its tone so pure, the last phrase of its simple melody with such a luscious, oily smoothness and delicacy; perhaps pensive, but not at all shadowed by sadness. Its influence is like that of a placid stream, whose gentle current serves to rest rather than arouse the mind. If the song sparrow typifies the morning, the vesper sparrow represents the quiet evening that follows a well-spent day. And yet — so do all nobler moods blend and enhance each other — I have been hardly less pleased with the gentle serenade of this evening-bird at earliest dawn, through the summer, as it perched on a telegraph wire in front of my window; while throughout the day, in quiet walks through lane and pasture, it most delightfully punctuates the silence.
While we are in the mood of humble things, we cannot fail to revert to that unassuming and ever-present summer friend, like a neat and modest weed that thrives in every path — "the chipper." Without a song, save in its heart, from twig and fence the live-long summer, it has done its best with its one note — its one talent — to bring cheer into the world; and justice demands that it be judged by its effort rather than by its accomplishment.
A night and twilight sound that always makes one pause and listen is the call of the whippoorwill, a bird most rarely seen, yet probably familiar to every one by name. By day it lingers in secluded places, on the ground or perching on the lower branches, and in the night, insectivorous like its congener the night -hawk, it sallies forth in quest of prey upon the wing; but whereas the night-hawk roams about far up in the sky, the whippoorwill remains near the ground, and is besides strictly a nocturnal bird like the owls. Audubon, in his account of this bird, says, "Its flight is so light and noiseless, that while it is passing within a few feet of a person, the motion of its wings is not heard by him, and merely produces a gentle undulation in the air. During all this time it utters a low murmuring sound, by which alone it can be discovered in the dark when passing within a few yards of one, and which I have often heard when walking or riding through the barrens at night."
One of these birds was in the woods opposite my house: possibly there were two, but as I could never find them, and as they never interrupted each other in conversation, I had no means of proving the duality.
A writer, in speaking of the chimes of a certain town in Europe, says — "Day and night are set to music." It is equally true that in nature day and night are set to music, but with a more characteristic difference in the music of the two seasons than is ever produced by artificial chimes. The sounds of night are quite as apt to the occasion as those of day. What could be more ill-timed in the darkness than the clear whistle of the white-throat, or the warble of the purple finch? Neither could the sombre call of owl, and whippoorwill, and night-hawk blend with full sunlight. Crickets and katydids are vocal undulations of darkness, and the croaking of frogs, to be most effective, must have a background of gloom and water. Daylight is accompanied by vivacious, ringing tones; night, by harsh, strident, and hoarse noises. The robin stands sentinel at the gates of day and night, his mellow warble greeting the first gleam of morning light, and bidding a farewell when day is done.
Almost always, in my rambles in one direction, I could hear, and often see, that not uncommon but irregularly distributed bird, the Virginia partridge — a good-looking, gamey specimen (gamey in the flesh, not in the spirit), and familiarly known as "Bob-white" so-called from the fact that the whistled note of the bird strongly resembles that name, which is commonly uttered twice. As one hears this masculine name called again and again, with no response, he would infer that it is uttered by the female, and that "Bob" is very indifferent and ill-mannered to make no reply. But it should be remembered that in the feathered world loquacity is the characteristic of the male, and not of the female, so that these loud ringing notes from the pasture will be rightfully attributed to him rather than to her.
The color of the bird is so complicated as to be difficult of exact description; but the impression at a distance is that of a reddish-brown; the head of the male with black and white trimmings which the female modestly foregoes. Its length is about that of the robin, but with a succulent, meaty build that makes it appear larger. Wherever it resorts it is permanent almost the year round, being said to retire toward the sea-shore for two or three weeks in the fall, after which it returns to its original haunts.
Wilson gives an interesting account of the stratagem of the partridge when, as she leads about her family, becoming aware of danger, she uses "every artifice she is mistress of to entice the person into pursuit of herself; uttering at the same time certain peculiar notes of alarm, well understood by the young, who dive separately among the grass, and secrete themselves till the danger is over; and the parent having decoyed the pursuer to a safe distance, returns by a circuitous route, to collect and lead them off. This well-known manœuvre, which nine times in ten is successful, is honorable to the feelings and judgment of the bird, but a severe satire on man. The affectionate mother, as if sensible of the avaricious cruelty of his nature, tempts him with a larger prize, to save her more helpless offspring; and pays him, as avarice and cruelty ought always to be paid, with mortification and disappointment."
Having accorded the due need of praise to the female, in the foregoing account, it is only fair that I should do equal justice to her lord and master, by quoting the following eulogy from another writer, who says of him, "He is willing to take any amount of the family responsibility. Nature cannot ask too much of him: he will whistle to two or three wives if necessary; and he will even accept the law of Moses, and assume the part of husband toward his brother's widow. Should his wife propose a family of fifteen instead of nine, he does not complain; and, moreover, having escorted his young family about for a short time, he is ready to go through this once or even twice more. In fact, he carries his amiability and industry so far as often to introduce a half-grown family to the rigors of winter, so that it is not uncommon to find a covey of these little ' cheepers,' when hardly able to fly, even in November." He is thus a pattern of mingled patience and gallantry such as is seldom equalled.