BUDS AND BIRD VOICES
From "Mosses From An Old Manse"
Balmy Spring--weeks later than we expected and months later than we longed for her--comes at last to revive the moss on the roof and walls of our old mansion. She peeps brightly into my study-window, inviting me to throw it open and create a summer atmosphere by the intermixture of her genial breath with the black and cheerless comfort of the stove. As the casement ascends, forth into infinite space fly the innumerable forms of thought or fancy that have kept me company in the retirement of this little chamber during the sluggish lapse of wintry weather; visions, gay, grotesque, and sad; pictures of real life, tinted with nature's homely gray and russet; scenes in dreamland, bedizened with rainbow hues which faded before they were well laid on,--all these may vanish now, and leave me to mould a fresh existence out of sunshine, Brooding Meditation may flap her dusky wings and take her owl-like Right, blinking amid the cheerfulness of noontide. Such companions befit the season of frosted window-panes and crackling fires, when the blast howls through the black-ash trees of our avenue and the drifting snow-storm chokes up the wood-paths and fills the highway from stone wall to stone wall. In the spring and summer time all sombre thoughts should follow the winter northward with the sombre and thoughtful crows. The old paradisiacal economy of life is again in force; we live, not to think or to labor, but for the simple end of being happy. Nothing for the present hour is worthy of man's infinite capacity save to imbibe the warm smile of heaven and sympathize with the reviving earth.
The present Spring comes onward with fleeter footsteps, because Winter lingered so unconscionably long that with her best diligence she can hardly retrieve half the allotted period of her reign. It is but a fortnight since I stood on the brink of our swollen river and beheld the accumulated ice of four frozen months go down the stream. Except in streaks here and there upon the hillsides, the whole visible universe was then covered with deep snow, the nethermost layer of which had been deposited by an early December storm. It was a sight to make the beholder torpid, in the impossibility of imagining how this vast white napkin was to be removed from the face of the corpse-like world in less time than had been required to spread it there. But who can estimate the power of gentle influences, whether amid material desolation or the moral winter of man's heart? There have been no tempestuous rains, even no sultry days, but a constant breath of southern winds, with now a day of kindly sunshine, and now a no less kindly mist or a soft descent of showers, in which a smile and a blessing seemed to have been steeped. The snow has vanished as if by magic; whatever heaps may be hidden in the woods and deep gorges of the hills, only two solitary specks remain in the landscape; and those I shall almost regret to miss when to-morrow I look for them in vain. Never before, methinks, has spring pressed so closely on the footsteps of retreating winter. Along the roadside the green blades of grass have sprouted on the very edge of the snow-drifts. The pastures and mowing-fields have not vet assumed a general aspect of verdure; but neither have they the cheerless-brown tint which they wear in latter autumn when vegetation has entirely ceased; there is now a faint shadow of life, gradually brightening into the warm reality. Some tracts in a happy exposure,--as, for instance, yonder southwestern slope of an orchard, in front of that old red farm-house beyond the river,--such patches of land already wear a beautiful and tender green, to which no future luxuriance can add a charm. It looks unreal; a prophecy, a hope, a transitory effect of sonic peculiar light, which will vanish with the slightest motion of the eye. But beauty is never a delusion; not these verdant tracts, but the dark and barren landscape all around them, is a shadow and a dream. Each moment wins seine portion of the earth from death to life; a sudden gleam of verdure brightens along the sunny slope of a bank which an instant ago was brown and bare. You look again, and behold an apparition of green grass!
The trees in our orchard and elsewhere are as yet naked, but already appear full of life and vegetable blood. It seems as if by one magic touch they might instantaneously burst into full foliage, and that the wind which now sighs through their naked branches might make sudden music amid innumerable leaves. The mossgrown willow-tree which for forty years past has overshadowed these western windows will be among the first to put on its green attire. There are some objections to the willow; it is not a dry and cleanly tree, and impresses the beholder with an association of sliminess. No trees, I think, are perfectly agreeable as companions unless they have glossy leaves, dry bark, and a firm and hard texture of trunk and branches. But the willow is almost the earliest to gladden us with the promise and reality of beauty in its graceful and delicate foliage, and the last to scatter its yellow yet scarcely withered leaves upon the ground. All through the winter, too, its yellow twigs give it a sunny aspect, which is not without a cheering influence even in the grayest and gloomiest day. Beneath a clouded sky it faithfully remembers the sunshine. Our old house would lose a charm were the willow to be cut down, with its golden crown over the snow-covered roof and its heap of summer verdure.
The lilac-shrubs under my study-windows are likewise almost in leaf: in two or three days more I may put forth my hand and pluck the topmost bough in its freshest green. These lilacs are very aged, and have lost the luxuriant foliage of their prime. The heart, or the judgment, or the moral sense, or the taste is dissatisfied with their present aspect. Old age is not venerable when it embodies itself in lilacs, rose-bushes, or any other ornamental shrub; it seems as if such plants, as they grow only for beauty, ought to flourish always in immortal youth, or, at least, to die before their sad decrepitude. Trees of beauty are trees of paradise, and therefore not subject to decay by their original nature, though they have lost that precious birthright by being transplanted to an earthly soil. There is a kind of ludicrous unfitness in the idea of a time-stricken and grandfatherly lilac-bush. The analogy holds good in human life. Persons who can only be graceful and ornamental --who can give the world nothing but flowers--should die young, and never be seen with gray hair and wrinkles, any more than the flower-shrubs with mossy bark and blighted foliage, like the lilacs under my window. Not that beauty is worthy of less than immortality; no, the beautiful should live forever,--and thence, perhaps, the sense of impropriety when we see it triumphed over by time. Apple-trees, on the other hand, grow old without reproach. Let them live as long as they may, and contort themselves into whatever perversity of shape they please, and deck their withered limbs with a springtime gaudiness of pink blossoms; still they are respectable, even if they afford us only an apple or two in a season. Those few apples--or, at all events, the remembrance of apples in bygone years--are the atonement which utilitarianism inexorably demands for the privilege of lengthened life. Human flower-shrubs, if they will grow old on earth, should, besides their lovely blossoms, bear some kind of fruit that will satisfy earthly appetites, else neither man nor the decorum of nature will deem it fit that the moss should gather on them.
One of the first things that strikes
the attention when the white sheet of winter is withdrawn is the neglect and
disarray that lay hidden beneath it.
Nature is not cleanly according to our prejudices. The beauty of preceding years, now
transformed to brown and blighted deformity, obstructs the brightening
loveliness of the present hour. Our
avenue is strewn with the whole crop of autumn's withered leaves. There are quantities of decayed branches
which one tempest after another has flung down, black and rotten, and one or
two with the ruin of a bird's-nest clinging to them. In the garden are the dried bean-vines, the brown
stalks of the asparagus-bed, and melancholy old cabbages which were frozen into
the soil before their unthrifty cultivator could find time to gather them. How invariably, throughout all the forms of
life, do we find these intermingled memorials of death! On the soil of thought and in the garden of
the heart, as well as in the sensual world, he withered leaves,--the ideas and
feelings that we have done with. There
is no wind strong enough to sweep them away; infinite space will not garner
then from our sight. What mean
they? Why may we not be permitted to
live and enjoy, as if this were the first life and our own the primal
enjoyment, instead of treading always on these dry hones and mouldering relics,
from the aged accumulation of which springs all that now appears so young and
new? Sweet must have been the springtime
What an unlooked-for flight was this from our shadowy avenue of black-ash and balm of Gilead trees into the infinite! Now we have our feet again upon the turf. Nowhere does the grass spring up so industriously as in this homely yard, along the base of the stone wall, and in the sheltered nooks of the buildings, and especially around the southern doorstep,--a locality which seems particularly favorable to its growth, for it is already tall enough to bend over and wave in the wind. I observe that several weeds--and most frequently a plant that stains the fingers with its yellow juice--have survived and retained their freshness and sap throughout the winter. One knows not how they have deserved such an exception from the common lot of their race. They are now the patriarchs of the departed year, and may preach mortality to the present generation of flowers and weeds.
Among the delights of spring, how is it possible to forget the birds? Even the crows were welcome as the sable harbingers of a brighter and livelier race. They visited us before the snow was off, but seem mostly to have betaken themselves to remote depths of the woods, which they haunt all summer long. Many a time shall I disturb them there, and feel as if I had intruded among a company of silent worshippers, as they sit in Sabbath stillness among the tree-tops. Their voices, when they speak, are in admirable accordance with the tranquil solitude of a summer afternoon; and resounding so far above the head, their loud clamor increases the religious quiet of the scene instead of breaking it. A crow, however, has no real pretensions to religion, in spite of his gravity of mien and black attire; he is certainly a thief, and probably an infidel. The gulls are far more respectable, in a moral point of view. These denizens of seabeaten rocks and haunters of the lonely beach come up our inland river at this season, and soar high overhead, flapping their broad wings in the upper sunshine. They are among the most picturesque of birds, because they so float and rest upon the air as to become almost stationary parts of the landscape. The imagination has time to grow acquainted with them; they have not flitted away in a moment. You go up among the clouds and greet these lofty-flighted gulls, and repose confidently with them upon the sustaining atmosphere. Duck's have their haunts along the solitary places of the river, and alight in flocks upon the broad bosom of the overflowed meadows. Their flight is too rapid and determined for the eye to catch enjoyment from it, although it never fails to stir up the heart with the sportsman's ineradicable instinct. They have now gone farther northward, but will visit us again in autumn.
The smaller birds,--the little songsters of the woods, and
those that haunt man's dwellings and claim human friendship by building their
nests under the sheltering eaves or among the orchard trees,--these require a
touch more delicate and a gentler heart than mine to do them justice. Their outburst of melody is like a brook let
loose from wintry chains. We need not
deem it a too high and solemn word to call it a hymn of praise to the Creator;
since Nature, who pictures the reviving year in so many sights of beauty, has
expressed the sentiment of renewed life in no other sound save the notes of
these blessed birds. Their music,
however, just now, seems to be incidental, and not the result of a set
purpose. They are discussing the economy
of life and love and the site and architecture of their summer residences, and
have no time to sit on a twig and pour forth solemn hymns, or overtures,
operas, symphonies, and waltzes. Anxious
questions are asked; grave subjects are settled in quick and animated debate;
and only by occasional accident, as from pure ecstasy, does a rich warble roll
its tiny waves of golden sound through the atmosphere. Their little bodies are as busy as their
voices; they are all a constant flutter and restlessness. Even when two or three retreat to a tree-top
to hold council, they wag their tails and heads all the time with the
irrepressible activity of their nature, which perhaps renders their brief span
of life in reality as long as the patriarchal age of sluggish man. The blackbirds, three species of which
consort together, are the noisiest of all our feathered citizens. Great companies of them--more than the famous
"four-and-twenty" whom Mother Goose has immortalized--congregate in
contiguous treetops and vociferate with all the clamor and confusion of a
turbulent political meeting. Politics,
certainly, must be the occasion of such tumultuous debates; but still, unlike
all other politicians, they instil melody into their individual utterances and
produce harmony as a general effect. Of
all bird voices, none are more sweet and cheerful to my ear than those of
swallows, in the dim, sunstreaked interior of a lofty barn; they address the
heart with even a closer sympathy than robin-redbreast. But, indeed, all these winged people, that dwell in the vicinity of homesteads, seem to
partake of human nature, and possess the germ, if not the development, of
immortal souls. We hear them saying
their melodious prayers at morning's blush and eventide. A little while ago, in the deep of night,
there came the lively thrill of a bird's note from a neighboring tree,--a real
song, such as greets the purple dawn or mingles with the yellow sunshine. What could the little bird mean by pouring it
forth at midnight? Probably the music gushed out of the midst of a dream in
which he fancied himself in paradise with his mate, but suddenly awoke on a
cold leafless bough, with a
Insects are among the earliest births of sprung. Multitudes of I know not what species appeared long ago on the surface of the snow. Clouds of them, almost too minute for sight, hover in a beam of sunshine, and vanish, as if annihilated, when they pass into the shade. A mosquito has already been heard to sound the small horror of his bugle-horn. Wasps infest the sunny windows of the house. A bee entered one of the chambers with a prophecy of flowers. Rare butterflies came before the snow was off, flaunting in the chill breeze, and looking forlorn and all astray, in spite of the magnificence of their dark velvet cloaks, with golden borders.
The fields and wood-paths have as yet few charms to entice the wanderer. In a walk, the other day, I found no violets, nor anemones, nor anything in the likeness of a flower. It was worth while, however, to ascend our opposite hill for the sake of gaining a general idea of the advance of spring, which I had hitherto been studying in its minute developments. The river lay around me in a semicircle, overflowing all the meadows which give it its Indian name, and offering a noble breadth to sparkle in the sunbeams. Along the hither shore a row of trees stood up to their knees in water; and afar off, on the surface of the stream, tufts of bushes thrust up their heads, as it were, to breathe. The most striking objects were great solitary trees here and there, with a mile-wide waste of water all around them. The curtailment of the trunk, by its immersion in the river, quite destroys the fair proportions of the tree, and thus makes us sensible of a regularity and propriety in the usual forms of nature. The flood of the present season--though it never amounts to a freshet on our quiet stream--has encroached farther upon the land than any previous one for at least a score of years. It has overflowed stone fences, and even rendered a portion of the highway navigable for boats.
The waters, however, are now gradually subsiding; islands become annexed to the mainland; and other islands emerge, like new creations, from the watery waste. The scene supplies an admirable image of the receding of the Nile, except that there is no deposit of black slime; or of Noah's flood, only that there is a freshness and novelty in these recovered portions of the continent which give the impression of a world just made rather than of one so polluted that a deluge had been requisite to purify it. These upspringing islands are the greenest spots in the landscape; the first gleam of sunlight suffices to cover them with verdure.