IN the woods the months follow each other after the manner of Indians, single file, gliding abruptly into sight, pausing, then flitting away into the thickets again, — how slowly, how swiftly! The particular April I am recalling came in that unexpected, stealthy fashion, and — moved by the instinct of a thousand ancestral Aprils — began to look for the trail that should lead towards summer. A large, persuasive warmth invaded earth and sky; civilization became hateful; nothing seemed wise but to go forth and listen for the footsteps of the maiden season shyly advancing through the trance - stilled woods. So, at least, thought the inmates of a certain microscopic household in the suburban city of Cambridge, as they drooped in the heavy atmosphere of culture and criticism. For a time, the householder struggled with his sylvan yearnings, and even so far recovered himself as to go to a coal-dealer’s and order a fresh supply of fuel. “ It may seem superfluous,” he said to the others, “ to think of fires on a day like this, but my experience of the New England climate has developed an austere conscience in the matter of weather.
To fall into hopes of a balmy air before the last of May savors of original sin: I have been guilty of it, and must expiate my fault by buying another ton of Lackawanna.”
Early in the afternoon, however, the three, friends yielded to the morning’s impulse, and started out in search of the Waverley Oaks. There were the householder and his wife, whom we may call, in view of their romantic tendencies, Dorastus and Fawnia; and with them went one who was older than themselves and whom they therefore spoke of as the child, in order to subordinate his dignity to their own. They had just time to reach Porter’s Station before the promised train came glittering and groaning up from Boston. It was short, consisting of a baggage-car and two cars for passengers,— a pert, spry, swallow - like train just fitted for summer travel. The excursionists met it in a congenial mood, flew a short distance with it, and quitted it within a few minutes, at Waverley. It must be understood that they were not the sort of persons to bungle matters by inquiring their way; nor had they procured any topographical guide. What a folly it would have been to bring out on such an expedition any device so gross as a county map! Maps are a specious imposture of modern life, for they compel us to know about all the roads we don’t want to follow; exactly as we are forced to read in the newspapers things which concern some one else much more than ourselves, or as we are expected to prattle knowingly of science and of particular books simply because another person can talk better about those things than we can. So, with a pleasant irresponsibility, we took the wrong turning at once, and set our faces in the general direction of home, without knowing that the oaks were only a few rods on the other side. When I say we, I of course mean Dorastus and Fawnia and their companion; wherever I slip into the first person plural, it should be understood as a dramatic contrivance for making it appear that I was of the party. The child gathered from the highway a handful of stones, which he threw at trees, fences, and stray animals, “to give force,” as he said, to his remarks about them; and this petrified emphasis was so absorbing that we were soon misled into striking off on another false scent, through a spacious grove on the southwest flank of Wellington Hill. We followed a wide, grassy opening between the trees that curtained us on either side with their cold, faded gray. The track had seemingly no object but that of serving us in our wanderings; and a mountain butterfly now guided, now pursued us, as if to insure a gentle safe-conduct through the deserted precinct. A turning to the left caused some confusion, till this little lancer of the air carried his pennant in that direction; and similarly he led us to the right again, beyond, where the path narrowed insidiously to a lessening vista between white-birch saplings crowned with purpling twigs. This, as we found, ended suddenly at a maple-tree abutting on a thick stone-wall and lifting its head to look over a broad bare field toward the Harvard Memorial and many-roofed Boston heaped upon its sea - side hill, The child at once embraced the treetrunk and began to climb, announcing that he was “the squirrel Adjidaumo,” mentioned in Hiawatha. “ All others are counterfeit,” he assured us; and in proof of this he uttered from his perch among the boughs a remarkable succession of sounds to illustrate these lines: —
In and out among the branches,
Coughed and chattered from the oak-tree.”
“ But the oak-tree is just what we miss, in your performance,” criticised Fawnia.
“ I ’ll soon provide that,” replied the child, busily surveying the adjacent country from his tree-top. “ You can’t expect me to be a squirrel and an oak-tree both at once.” But at this moment we espied a stout Irishwoman picturesquely dressed, standing a whitish mass among the thicket-mazes not far off, snared like a large bird in a fowler’s net. Her dress was of bright printed stuff (though not the same that this essay consists of), which was drawn in rich folds across her ample breast and back; but the skirt was rolled up succinctly in a bunch behind, leaving in view the white petticoat, and she had a quaint cap on her head. As for her face, it was bewitchingly tinted the color of a newly dug potato that shows its dusky golden skin through a frank and engaging disguise of dirt. A flat, straw-matted sack with twisted, pliant handles lay near her on the ground, partly filled with sticks of dead wood gathered for fuel; but at present she was wholly absorbed in waiting to be spoken to. We thought ourselves far enough astray, by this, to make it quite safe to ask her where the oaks were. She promptly pointed to the region we had come from, and said, “ Down there, in a field.”
“ I thought they were on a hill,” said Dorastus.
“ Well, yes,” she assented, “I suppose it is a hill.” She evidently understood that it made no real difference where she put the oaks just for that one day. The child, having slid down out of the maple, now advanced with Fawnia, and the old woman’s mind began to work on a fresh tack. “ I should think you must have been here before,” she said.
“Why?” demanded the child, in a melodramatic tone, as if anticipating a “ long-lost mother.”
“ Because so many people come this way in summer,” was the answer.
I suppose the ancient, earthy dame felt as if nearly all the people in Boston must have passed before her eyes in years gone by, and was not aware that a new generation had been growing up. We concluded that she had taken her stand there to watch for the earliest summer skylarkers so as to be assured that spring had really returned, as we of the city wait to be convinced by the logic of bluebirds and robins. Satisfied with these discoveries, and remembering that as spring harbingers we ought not to linger long, we strolled off once more through the grove.
“I find,” observed Dorastus, growing thoughtful, “that trees, like children, reveal peculiarities of character more frankly in their budding-time than at maturer stages.” And truly it seemed more than a fancy, for the shapes all around us were almost more interesting than anything offered by a forest in perfect leaf. Fully exposed to view, the long, pensile boughs of the ash looked so much like a woman’s graceful arms that we saw how natural it is to give that tree a feminine impersonation. Tennyson touches this sentiment beautifully where he speaks of a maiden who lingers to clothe her heart with love: —
To clothe itself, when all the woods are green.”
Young oaks, too, crowded about us; but they were like athletes in the palœstra, sinewy, yet supple, and awaiting their turn to wrestle. An oak is as radically man-like as an ash is in league with womankind. But, on the whole, the hickories were more entertaining. The oak and the ash posed themselves for our admiration with a more or less conscious grace; but the hickory has to provide directly for the feeding of men and women, and instead of trying to look like either it is all absorbed in its own arboreal activity. What a multitudinous and busy aspect it has, when seen at a little distance! Small, short branches strike out from the boughs with astonishing readiness; the twigs are a host, short, tough, curvilinear, fairly skipping from the parent stem in their excess of vitality; and the boughs, which make sudden turns as if called by their affairs in many directions, still maintain that gracefulness that belongs to resourceful bodies. In some places they bend slightly earthward at the extremity, as if practicing how best to drop the nuts when they shall ripen; but at other times, mindful of pilfering urchins, they spring far up alongside the trunk. That precaution will not avail, of course, when the fatal hour and the barefoot boy arrive together. But in the mean time the cautious and thrifty tree has nothing to offer except buds, thick and brief in shape, at once exquisitely soft and perfectly hardy in appearance, their texture firm but fine, their color a delicate mouse-tint edged with purple where the leaf turns open.
At last we came to an edge of the hill where the timber had been slowly worn away, and where the land drops to the railroad. A view from this point grouped together the Bunker Hill granite shaft, the Old South spire, the State House dome, and the Harvard Memorial again, the tall shaft of which with its distant argillaceous glitter suggests the gleam of those forgotten weapons wielded by the brave youths whom this pile is built to honor. The landscape at our feet and just beyond was fresh and pleasant in its cold young-maidenly way. The grass-fields on the opposite hilly rise were of a pale dead yellow, like flowers left long since on a grave. Two or three unpainted fences sped in that direction, carrying rigid lines of shining yellow across the vista. Down in the intervening bottom-land the thick black earth broke up through vestiges of last year’s herbage with an almost portentous air; but over it in parts was spread a plantation of birches black and white, their tops budding faintly rosy above a woof of innumerous fine, gray, thread-like shoots and twigs. Among the Belmont villas an apple orchard unrolled its square of chilly purple; the groves at a distance were like flat, dark surfaces full of closely curling lines. Some of the houses added picturesqueness to the scene, but most — as the case always is in America — were possessed of a vindictive ugliness.
But so omnipotent was the exquisite spell of spring that in spite of the houses it was delicious to sit there musing. Fawnia sketched. Dorastus said he was going to write. But it seemed that he could produce nothing original that afternoon.
At last they set, out in search of the child, who had been dispatched some time before to discover a homeward route. After a considerable tramp, assisted by much hallooing, they found him serenely abiding on a stone at the roadside below the hill. He had encountered an available gate and path, of which he had been making a drawing for half an hour or so, with utter disregard for the mission on which he had been sent. Keen were the reproaches hurled at him by his youngers; to which he replied by drawing himself up rigidly, with one hand pointing in the approved style eastward, and solemnly reciting the words: “Three miles to Cambridge.” Indeed, so repentant was he that he continued to make a sign-post of himself at every available point along the whole walk back to town; and it is fair to presume that by his energy he saved us from ever getting sight of the trees we had set out to find.
OUR inquiry concerning the whereabouts and character of the Waverley Oaks proved to have various branches, for Dorastus or myself made frequent attempts, and all in vain, to reach them. Once I got to the bare hill-side again, in company with a friend, and we picked columbines and saxifrage and violets, all growing together there. But some children who were also picking said: “ We ’re getting these flowers for a little boy who fell down in Greece and got very lame, and his family, some of them, live next door to us, and they ’re going to send them in a letter, and ” — It happened that we knew very well about the little boy, whom we identified by questions to the children; and this coincidence was so singular that we contributed some of our flowers and at once returned home, knowing that it was not well to seek the further surprise of the oaks, on that occasion.
But at last I found myself, one day, walking up the Concord road, with a professor of science at my side whom I could trust implicitly, for he was a poet as well as a mathematician, — one of those rare characters whom a prejudiced and specializing modern spirit forces to conceal their most ideal tendencies. A red-headed linnet greeted us from the bushes near the highway, as if inviting us to throw some chance loop of song over his shining neck; but he speedily vanished again; and so we came to the Waverley Oaks. This is not very explicit; but when one has got to the oaks, it is not profitable to discuss how the thing was accomplished. There is nothing mean or secretive about these great trees, but they are so peculiarly situated between railroad and highway that it is the easiest thing in the world to overlook them.
When you first catch sight of them they do not look surprisingly large. A ruined group of “ bony button-woods ” on the other side of the turnpike will very likely attract more of your attention to its haggard array of gaunt, white, tottering forms. A depression of the land, along which a shallow streamlet scuffles, separates us from the oaks; and though they stand in the open, being scattered on a low green ridge, the intervening hollow seems to put them out of the way. My scientific friend explained that the ridge, which runs out from higher land like a military earth-work, is thought to be the moraine of some ancient glacier. I could not see where the ice came from: but, not being particular about my glaciers, I was grateful even for an unaccountable one, and still more grateful that it had grown tired of sitting under the trees before we came there. The frigid monster has left, another memento in the shape of a swampy pool sheltered by a curve of the moraine and haunted by a kingfisher, whom I have more than once seen skimming over it with predatory haste, while the sharp notes that he let fall in flying seemed to trace his course through the air as with a dotted line. But prehistoric associations are not endearing; and it seems strange that when the mind can pierce so far into the past of this spot, the heart should be unable to find any sweet or homely reminiscence connecting these old barky existences with the human life that has so long been going on all around them.
In the trunk of one of the oaks which fell or was cut down a few years ago an eminent New England poet, who observes such matters, counted, I think, between four and five hundred annual rings. The bigger members of the group probably date back still farther, — perhaps reach the antiquity of a thousand years; so that it would have been perfectly easy for the red men to attach some wild tradition to them. They had several centuries at their disposal for developing legends. But the besottedly prosaic natives of Massachusetts allowed themselves to be nearly exterminated by small-pox just before the Pilgrims landed, and this ill-timed acquiescence of theirs has robbed us of whatever accumulations of story may have been made before that period. The only scrap that remains is a tame antiquarian rumor to the effect that Indians once used to encamp under the liberal porch of stretching boughs that arch this turfy bank. Speculating on the origin of the mighty boles I have sometimes wished that they might be referred to some forgotten order of oak-revering priests. But the honest disciple of nature soon finds it a relief and refreshment not to have any burden of age — long recollections weighing on him here. It matters little what you think of, under Waverley Oaks. Mosses and lichens, in such a place, furnish an ample history, and I have found the substance of innumerable dreams in the gray and twisted ends of limbs that have fallen to the earth and lain untouched, retaining precisely the form they had had while resting on the sir. From these I learned how exactly death may carry out and preserve the forms of life. And if life, in all its loftiest and most splendid growths, can fade so utterly into ashes, — this very power of decaying is so miraculous, that I argue from it another miracle of generation out of the ashes. The one marvel must be balanced by the other, unless the universe is top-heavy, and no better than a stone falling forever in one direction through space.
We soon found that associations of our own germinated and shot up so thickly around the venerable oaks that if I were to give an account of them all, the ramifications of this paper would push out through the covers of the magazine, ruining its classic compactness, as I remember to have seen the roof and wall of an old Mexican house perforated by a tree which the occupants had inadvertently allowed to grow up inside of their dwelling instead of outside. But it is important to notice one festal excursion for which the trees furnished a nucleus. Dorastus had been for a long while hinting that he was going to write a, profound essay about the Waverley Oaks, and at last a day was appointed for a picnic on the old moraine, at which he should read his manuscript. Dorastus and Fawnia, having been given supervision over some children orphaned by an absence of their parents at the Centennial Exhibition, rescued the young creatures from the perils of school and carried them off with the excursion party. In this they were abetted by the child and by a certain friendly philosopher who had got on the right side of the Cosmos by printing a large work about it. This wise man, too, not content with solving or discussing the problems of life already extant, had provided himself with several small human problems of the most captivating kind, in the persons of his children. These likewise we took, being satisfied that however many uncertainties of existence our party comprised, a sufficient response would be yielded to all by the inarticulate oracle of the oaks. Forth, then, we went in a great vehicle technically called a “ three-seater.” Telescopically arranged on three broad seats one behind another, we had much the same sense of power that the occupants of a Roman trireme must have felt when rowing into battle; but the peacefulness of our errand was an advantage the more on our side. It was on that lovely afternoon of summer that, having unyoked our steeds in the green covert of a light grove by the way, and formed a bivouac of the driver beside the vacant carriage, we explored the picturesque vicinity. Dorastus had informed us that the rivulet near the oaks was the same Beaver Brook which rippled into verse, years ago, as the poet Lowell stood watching it: —
Sweet Beaver, child of forest still,
Heaps its small pitcher to the ear,
And gently waits the miller’s will.”
He fancied that the verses might have had their origin in the thickly wooded miniature glen, higher up, where, according to the poem,
Its busy, never-ceasing burr.”
So we made our way thither. But the mill has crumbled now into a loose heap of stones, from which a shattered and parched-looking wheel hangs suspended over the water. A sinister train of vegetation adds to the sentiment of the place, by sprinkling deadly-nightshade, with its lurking purple blooms, along the rock ledges, and the gray mill wall is mantled with poison-ivy. Just peeping into sight beyond the mill was a cottage which had been built by an artist, and we at once inferred that he had let the mill fall to pieces, in the interests of painting. It was delightful, also, to see the liveliness of the brook which he had thus set free from bondage: it poured down from a pond above and played merrily at hide-and-seek with all the rocks that it encountered. But as we walked from the pond across the cottage grounds towards a return road, a group of ferocious hounds came hotly in pursuit of us, threatening to make serious havoc with evolutionary thought, and to tear a perceptible gap in magazine literature. The women and children fled, and very dramatically got over the stone-wall, while the philosopher and Dorastus paused and faced the furious dogs. The eye which had not quailed before Kant and Hegel and Herbert Spencer was not lacking in self - possession now. And something in the magazinist’s look evidently betrayed to the four-footed assailants that he meant to turn them into “ material.” By the time they reached the two men, they began abjectly to fawn; philosophy and fiction had overcome brute force. But the child was disappointed; he had retired to make a safe sketch of canine forms in savage action, and could not reconcile himself to the mild event. We diverted him, nevertheless, as we went along back to the oaks, by pointing out a resemblance to England in the scenery and the excellent hard roads; for we knew he liked England. “ By the way,” said Dorastus, “when the English poet, Clough, was walking along this road, a few years ago, a red fox crossed his path. Was not that a graceful tribute to his nationality?”
“You should keep those interesting little facts for your essay,” said the thrifty Fawnia; and Dorastus became meditative.
The lunch was various and large; but again intellect triumphed, and the substances known as bread, chicken, olives, etc., were vanquished. Some one tremblingly recalled Mr. Ruskin’s indignation at people who feast in the face of nature; but on the other side was cited the tradition of the Homeric heroes, ές ήέ λλλλ каТаδνТа δаινυυТ', — " feasting till set of sun.” The poet always reminds us that on those occasions “ neither did the soul suffer want; ” and in order to complete the parallel, Dorastus began his essay, while the rest of us smoked. He had something to say about the early worship and the religions symbolism of trees: the cruciform sal of the Hindoos, the Scandinavian ash-tree Ygdrasil, and the sacred Egyptian peach - tree from which the goddess Athor fed the soul enfranchised by death. He touched upon the terebinth of Abraham, the oaktrees of Dodona, Eliot’s oak on which Longfellow has since written a sonnet. “ The Persians,” he went on, “ figured the life of the universe by a tree; the early Christians made it a mystic symbol; and it was deeper than mere trope in Virgil to speak of a big tree that sent its roots down to hell and its branches to the stars. How shall I reverently enough speak of the awe that invests those olives in the garden of Gethsemane? It was a beautiful superstition that made the Glastonbury Thorn to flower only at Christmas; and equally impressive was that other which told that the cross of Calvary was wrought of aspen wood, and that all trees of this kind had shuddered and trembled ever since. The pine, the palm, the sycamore have all been holy trees; and in short a volume is needed to treat this theme aright. But let us consider the simpler personal influences of trees. They differ almost as much as human beings, and there are days when they are all utterly unsympathetic. Do you remember Coleridge’s verses? —
Who never more shall see an aspen-grove
Shiver in sunshine, but his feeble heart
Shall flow away like a dissolving thing?'
So strong are one’s responses to the influence of trees. But they most often fill us with immeasurable strength. Once, when Waverley Oaks put on that graygold beauty of their early leaves, and the dim white blood-root blossoms by the old wall were disappearing, I came hither and renewed all the noblest impulses of my life. And have they not aspects which correspond to the needs of all who come to them for counsel and benison? Then, the changes of the season! First the softly crimsoned, crinkled unfolding of budding leaves as delicate and rosy as the fingers of a baby’s hand; next the summer’s wildering masquerades of green; and lastly the autumn, when the year seems to meet these giants with a solitude as ancient as their own. Few human countenances give so profound a sense of age as these furrowed boles with fibres all ‘ inveterately convolved,’ like those of Wordsworth’s famous yews; yet they send more of youthfulness into our veins than any but the sweetest feminine face has power to give.
“ The oak is the noblest of trees. It is from this alone that the chemists can get what they call the ‘ spirit of wood.' Think, too, what a part this species has played in the history of navies. In 1839 by the way, the commissioners of land revenue in England computed that a seventy-four ship of the line required two thousand tons of oak; and as a tree yielding a ton must he about seventy-five years old, and only forty of this size can usually be found on an acre of land, the ship of the line absorbed the product of fifty acres. Both æsthetically and materially do the oak and all its fellows rank high. Why do we not more openly and generally reverence and protect such gifts? A tree is an outpost of man, getting nearer to heaven and all creatures of sky and meadow than he can. O mighty oak, huge accumulator of sunshine and companion of all weathers, you stand forth there all the year, catching the strength and grace, the various temperament, the multitudinous cadences of the seasons, and preserving them in your vast, puissant form! All these you gather for me.” What followed, Dorastus said he had written in winter. “ Even now, majestic amid the snows, you rally the wasted legions of your leaves against the freezing wind, and in the cold midwinter light they flash like brandished steel. Would it were possible for you also to combat man; for, though he knows you are his ally, he is apt to fall treacherously upon you with the axe.
“ Trees, we know, are the regulators of our water supply: the planting of forests in Egypt created there a brisk trade in umbrellas. They prevent drought and inundation, they shelter us and our animals from sun and rain. There was once in Labes, in Spain, an oak with a hollow in the trunk having a circumference of twenty-one feet, in which as many as thirty sheep would seek refuge during storms. Trees call the lightning away; they mitigate malarial harms, and are by some considered not merely regenerators but almost the creators of the best part of Our atmosphere. They form natural conservatories where fruits can flourish that disappear when the woods are cut down; they harbor birds which protect our crops from bugs and insects; they clothe banks of stone with rich soil, by the shedding of leaves and by sending their roots always lower to draw up life - supplying salts. Yet even these uses fail to bring them into favor with our special American barbarism, or unemotional insanity of cutting down. We ought also to consider the moral effect of trees. Greatly should I reverence the man who had passed a life-time near these oaks, and could tell me all about them during that term. I believe we must yet have an arboreal prophet, a preacher of tree-worship in a modern and Christian and poetic sense. The great appreciator of the Waverley Oaks is still to come. When he has done his work, in some future generation may be seen free man growing up amid free nature. How many virtues of strong humility and rugged self-denial these lusty wardens would encourage, how many robust men and generous women might be dedicated to ampler lives, in a community reverencing such great examples of development! When trees have their rights, man will be nobler and his own welfare more secure. Let the republic cherish its greatest.”
“ Men or trees? ” queried the child, fastidiously. (Dorastus deigned no answer.) “ I don’t think your essay has the right tone: it is n’t misanthropic, like Thoreau.”
“That’s the best of it,” said the philosopher. “ He has given the human side of tree-life. And really men are very much like trees: for though we may rise high by the reason, as a sort of trunk, we have to put forth the branches and leafage of faith and imagination before we can make the heavenly influences a part of our substance.”
The rest seemed to concur in this opinion. What Dorastus had said about a prophet of trees, however, set me thinking. After this time I looked eagerly in the faces of men and women, expecting to find the harbinger of a new era. But all who knew the oaks seemed to have a conviction that they alone could understand them. One afternoon, I found myself again on the moraine, and sitting down beneath my favorite tree I mused upon this peculiar vanity. October had softly tanned the southern sky, and beyond the horizon great white arms of cloud uplifted themselves in outspread lines, suggesting the image of some mighty oak that had perished from the earth and taken to a ghostly existence. The real oaks balanced their sharp bronze leaves above me, and the barberry-bushes around were filled with their acrid clusters. An elm not far off formed a great sheet of orange, against which the swallows shone blue as they darted about, seeming to carry here and there a color-echo of the sky. All at once a slight sound took my attention. It came from so far up in the oak that I was uncertain whether I had really heard anything. Then there was a faint tap and a rustle, somewhat nearer; again silence, and the tap was repeated twice. Something was evidently falling through the hush, touching the boughs and grazing many a leaf as it came. At last, it cleared the final impediments, and a small object struck sharply at my shoulder. It was an acorn. Finally, then, after so much communing with the oaks, had I received from their chief a token of friendly recognition and welcome?