A Search for the Pleiades
THE newspapers describe a throng of tourists as passing through the White Mountains all summer long; but we forget that, when tried by the standard of Swiss or Scotch hill-country, ours is still unexplored and unopened. Even the laborious Appalachian Club has as yet barely called attention to a few of the wilder recesses. Half a mile to the right or left of many a much-traveled pathway lies the untamed and shaggy wilderness, traversed here and there, at intervals of years, by some hunter or trapper, but too high in air for the lumberman or trout-fisherman, and unseen by the tourist. It is the realm of the shy deer and bear, of the nocturnal loup-cervier and catamount; one may thread his way through it for many hours without coming upon the truce of a human being.
It was in such a region, on the side of Mount Moosilauke, that I went to seek for the Pleiades.
Few of the White Mountains have a summit so fine and characteristic in formation as is that of Moosilauke. After you ascend above the more luxuriant vegetation, and find yourself in a cooler zone, passing, as it were, from summer back to spring, — leaving, for instance, the ripe red raspberries below, and perceiving them still green above, — after you have come to interrupted groves and ever-dwindling trees, you step out at length upon a bare and narrow ridge. With one bold curve, it sweeps away in air, and leads the eye to a little summit half a mile beyond, on which the Tip-Top House, a low stone building, clings. There can be nothing finer than this curving crest, raised nearly five thousand feet above the sealevel, and just wide enough to hold the rough wagon road built some years since to the top. As you traverse it, you seem to walk along the heights of heaven. Looking down, you see on one hand all the fertile valley of the Connecticut and the broad farms of Vermont; and on the other side there lie spread all Maine and New Hampshire. Within the embrace of this bending ridge, held as in its arm, there drops a precipitous gorge, densely wooded and utterly pathless, and it was in this wild depth, known locally as the Jobildunk Ravine, that the Pleiades were to be sought.
Little, the historian of Warren, describes this ravine as “ wild and hideous,” and estimates its depth at three thousand feet. Osgood’s White Mountain Guide Book says that it is “ one of the wildest places in the State, but is difficult to explore on account of its forests,” and adds that “ in its upper part are the woodland beauties of the Seven Cascades.” At the two hotels, on the side of the mountain we found no very definite knowledge of these cascades, and they were confounded with certain other waterfalls on Baker’s River, several miles away. At the last field meeting of the Appalachian Club, however, an interesting report had been presented by Rev. G. H. Scott, of Plymouth, N. H., who, with Rev. H. O. Ladd, of Hopkinton, had once spent the night on top of Moosilauke, and had descended into Jobildunk Ravine next day for fishing purposes, and had come upon these falls; after which they had followed Gorge Brook, as it is called, through the forest to Baker’s River, and so on to the village of Warren. These two clerical explorers, it appeared, were so delighted with the beauty of the cascades as to feel moved to do all that could be done for them in recognition ; so in due form, by what may be called a self-acting baptis mal process, — since the brook itself furnished the font,— they christened the sisterhood “ the Pleiades.” Such was the region we wished to visit.
The rule as to the inevitable exaggeration of the unseen — omne ignotum pro mirifico — applies only to the person nearest to the wonder, and for all others is reversed. The larger your estimate of the size of your unlanded trout, the more derisively small is the guess of your fellow-fishermen. As with unseen trout, so with waterfalls unvisited ; and Mr. Scott soon found that he must inspect his newly-christened cascades again, and take with him witnesses. I went as one of these, having as our guide James Merrill, of the Breezy Point House, who had long hunted and trapped through all that region, and had, many years ago, passed by these falls, though he was now by no means sure of their precise position.
It was the hottest day of the summer ; the breeziness of the hotel which was our rendezvous lay that day in its name only, and the mercury on the piazza stood at 85° Fahrenheit in the shade. As we had come from Plymouth, N. H., in the morning, we could not set off ou our walk until a little before noon, and must stop presently to eat our lunch. When we resumed our march, it was still within that period of the day when, as the ancients fabled, the great god Pan sleeps, and must not be awakened, and when even wood-paths are apt to be unshaded ; and as we climbed we found ourselves zigzagging from side to side, to make the most of every bit of shade, — beating up to shadowward, as it were, instead of to windward. Our guide walked on before us, erect and manly, wearing one of those broad canvas hats which are characteristic of this region, and furnish one of our few glimpses of picturesque costume. He had led for years the genuinely out-door life which belongs to our mountaineers. As a rule, farmers are far less rich in conversation than sea-side people, — sailors, pilots, fishermen; the rural lives are rather monotonous and uneventful; but when you come where the farms actually abut upon untamed forest, the art of conversation revives, and James Merrill was as good as Thoreau, so far as the habit of observation could carry him.
He showed us, in the occasional deposits of soft mud by the water bars on the mountain road, how to distinguish squirrel-tracks, sable-tracks, bear-tracks. A bear had passed, as he proved to us, within a few days, had weighed about one hundred and seventy-five pounds, and was probably two years old. He pointed out to us where, in sandy places, the young partridges had nestled and fluttered like hens in the path, and where the hedgehogs had gnawed and torn the roots in the wood. He told us how these little “ quill-pigs,” as they are popularly called, defend themselves with their tails, thrashing them about till the nose of a dog or other animal is full of bristles ; the dogs instinctively fear this, and seize the creature by the head, where the bristles turn the other way, and cannot hurt. The hedgehog is in winter the chief food of the “ fisher-cat,” and this in turn is trapped for its fur. This small quadruped is jet-black, with a few white hairs ; is as large as a large cat, but is shaped like a mink, having short legs. The fisher-cat and sable — pronounced uniformly “ saple ” — climb trees like cats, in pursuit of squirrels, and will run from tree to tree as easily as the game they hunt, though unable to spring like them through the air. Both of these species are active and daring, venturing sometimes into the hunters’ camps at night in search of food. The ordinary wild-cat, or “bobcat,” or “ lucivee ” (loup-cervier) is also found on Moosilauke, but not the larger “ catamount,” or that half-mythical beast known among Maine lumbermen as the “Indian devil.” This bob-cat is often as large to the eye as a Newfoundland dog, but its fur is so deceptively thick that it really does not weigh more than thirty pounds. Merrill was eloquent about its shriek at night. “ When you hear it near you,” he said, “it makes every hair stand up straight, and you feel about as big as your finger, I have heard it when it made me feel as if my hat was two feet from my head. It is as much bigger than the house-cat’s noise as that is bigger than a canary’s.”
Of the larger animals, the deer is still hunted in this region, although the present laws, which protect these animals from January 1st to August 1st, have cut off the snow-hunting, which was the most profitable. Before this legislation, Merrill had once taken three deer alive in a single day, pursuing them in snowshoes with a dog, when the slender hoofs cut through the crusted snow, and they could be overtaken. When thrown down in the snow the deer defend themselves actively with their hoofs, which are used very swiftly and cut like razors. The best way to quiet them is to hold their heads down by the ears, and after this has been done for fifteen or twenty minutes they will usually submit, and can afterwards be led along, although sometimes the old bucks will fight, from first to last, so furiously that the hunter, entangled in his snow-shoes, must kill his opponent in self-defense. Of bears not more than three or four are annually taken here, — a bounty of ten dollars being paid, — but a good many visit the region, keeping in the valley between Moosilauke and Carr’s Mountain, and always attracted by ponds and sloughs, in which they wallow, and by berrypastures, among which they feed. The foot-prints we saw — in which the claws, by the way, were to be clearly distinguished— were near a large patch of wild raspberries. Wolves are pretty well exterminated from this whole region. The last report of one was several years ago, when some unknown animal devastated the sheep-folds. A mighty hunter from beyond the mountain was offered forty dollars by the farmers, in addition to the legal bounty of half that sum, for the destruction of the wolf. He brought in the head, as by law required, and received the money; but avowed, a year or two later, that he had only exhibited the head of a harmless dog, peculiarly wolf-like in appearance, which he had bought for a dollar in a distant hamlet. However, the sheep-folds were thenceforth left unmolested, though the unseen enemy was never trapped.
Many of our guide’s facts were before known to us, but some were wholly new, as when he told us that a deer, if forced into water too shallow for his long legs, will swim easily on his side, instead of wading. There is always pleasure in listening to the simplest woodcraft from those who habitually live by its pursuit, — those who know nothing of books, but supply observations for the bookmakers. Such talk links us with the Rocky Mountains, and with Scott’s novels and the great French forests in old days of royal hunting. All the “ venerers, prickers, and verderers ” of romance have now come down to a few plain incidents like these, but no matter ; so long as there is a squirrel on a bough or a partridge in the woods, it will keep us in contact with that healthful out-door nature which is the background of all our civilization. Thus discoursing, at any rate, we toiled up the mountain beneath an increasing shade. It was pretty to observe the graceful effect of the increased elevation on the wild flowers. At the base, this being August 2d, I sought in vain among the wood-sorrel and dwarf-cornel leaves for a single blossom ; when half-way up, we saw them beginning to spangle the green beds ; and at the top they were in fullest bloom, amid the linnæa and mountain cranberry. It was strange also to see meadow plants, like the snake-head and American hellebore, growing abundantly in dry places at an elevation of four thousand feet; and even to find lingering blossoms of the latter, which we are accustomed to regard as an early spring flower. The longer one lives, the less rigid appear the rules and forms of external nature ; she seems to bid her wild flowers bloom where she will, and almost when she will, and to delight in setting at naught the most careful assertions of the botanists. The time may come, perhaps, when one can pluck passion-flowers off a glacier without surprise, so fearless are nature’s combinations.
All the party had climbed Moosilauke before, and there had been a good deal of debate as to whether, for our present purpose, we should leave the mountain path far down, and strike through the forest for the base of the cascades, or whether we should ascend nearly to the summit, and search downward for the uppermost falls. The latter counsel at length prevailed, and even the point of departure was fixed upon. There are on Moosilauke several springs of water, along its upper regions, — each kindly provided by some good Samaritan with sheets of birch bark, such as Samaria never saw, but such as the New Hampshire woodsman easily twists into a cup. At the highest of these springs — said popularly, but wrongly, to be the origin of the very brook in question — we left the carriage - road, and struck boldly downwards into the unbroken woods. In two minutes we seemed wholly beyond reach of the steep height we were leaving behind us, so sharp was the descent. It seemed as irretraceable as a plunge over Niagara, and all civilized and sheltered life was as absolutely withdrawn. Beneath us and around us was a craggy world of bowlders and broken rock, all united into one continuous and treacherous surface by an emerald garment of the softest moss. Our feet sank and slipped in it; it was a delicious cushion on which to leap from rock to rock; but the leaps were too dangerous, for none could tell by the eye whether there was any foot-hold. Meantime we were twisting and writhing our bodies among closely-set trees, never very large, since it was too high in air for that, but tough and firmly knit, their branches being stunted into a magnificent vigor. Their insecurity was in their foot-hold among those mossy rocks: in some cases they had so wrenched and griped their roots into the crevices as to seem a part of the mountain side, while other trees were scarcely more than poised upon the rocks, and were wholly unable to bear the weight of a man. The brook soon disappeared beneath the rocks, leaving only moisture enough for the beautiful slender spikes of the northern white orchis (Platanthera dilatata), which we afterwards found abundantly throughout the watercourses of the ravine. Still we descended ; it seemed like slipping cautiously down the interminable steeple of a gigantic church, on which bowlders had somehow stayed themselves, and trees and moss had contrived to grow. The great danger was of going forward headlong, with a sudden insertion of one’s feet in a sharp cleft of these beautiful, treacherous, moss-hidden rocks. It was a positive relief to tread occasionally upon some prostrate tree-trunk, green with ferns and half decayed, yet bristling with spiked branches, and giving a safe though difficult bridge, as it slanted down the hill-side. Meanwhile, we could see nothing overhead or outward, so dense were the trunks and boughs ; and we had only an occasional glimpse of the broad hat of our guide, still descending without remorse. Once, when we had halted, and some one had expressed fervent gratitude that we had not to reascend that formidable ravine, Merrill looked round with a chuckle, and said, “ It would be easier to go up there again than to go back the way you expect to go.” We too looked round and up. The suggestion seemed like that of reclimbing the church steeple already mentioned, and holding on by the moss as we went up. Any distance, any form of descent, should be welcomed, we resolved, rather than attempt that “ wild and hideous ” climb.
During all this time we had listened vainly for the brook, which should be rippling somewhere below. If it was there, every step of our stumbling progress brought us nearer to it, but no one knew just where to find it, and there was a perpetual murmur in the trees, drowning all minor sounds. At length a softer plash, as of plunging waters, mingled in the strain, and almost before we knew it we stood in a green dell, where all the shaggy terrors of the precipitous ravine suddenly vanished, as if they had never been. We stood with level feet, at last, beside a little stream, on whose flat and mossy rocks it seemed as if nothing rougher than the moccasined foot of an Indian had ever rested. As far up and down as the woods disclosed them extended a series of dainty waterfalls,— never high or sweeping, like the Artists’ Fall in North Conway, or the far bolder Llama Falls near Lake Dunmore in Vermont, but more like the graceful Chase Cascades in Brattleborough, as they were while yet unspoiled. As for the precise number of these cascades in Jobildunk Ravine, it was of no consequence ; the brook dropped almost continuously from ledge to ledge, and there might be seven or seventeen, as one chose to count them for purposes of baptism. At any rate, our lost Pleiades were found.
When we had once reached them, instantaneous was the change in our condition. No longer slipping and staggering down the craggy ravine, amid tangled roots and trunks, seeking in vain for a footing, until, as in Lowell’s description of old-time Cambridge mud, one’s legs became mere corkscrews to extract one’s boots, — no longer thus afflicted, we trod on smooth slabs of rock, cushioned with velvet moss, that would have invited repose but for the delicate rills of trickling water that preserved its emerald hue. What matter for these! — they cooled our feet; and very sweet was the forest chill that made an atmosphere about the stream. A lingering “ Peabody-bird ” welcomed us from the ravine, now silent with summer. Above and below us spread the cascades: some spanned by forest trunks, long since fallen, but still green with mosses ; others open to the sky, and with only a suggestive rill of water ; while others, again, held even this little stream invisible, murmuring beneath the rocks. We could not have asked for a sweeter rest after our descent, or for a lovelier bower of peace, than we found in the valley of the Seven Cascades.
There is nothing in nature so shy and virginal as a cascade in primeval woods; it seems alone with its own beauty, and unfit for any ruder contact than that of the deer which comes, timid and lonely as itself, to drink at its pure basin. On this particular day, it must be owned, we could have wished for our wood nymph an ampler garment of water. Still there was enough to adorn her beauty, and we could readily accept the apologies of our friend, the original explorer, who had seen her, so to speak, in full flow of drapery. But it is the beauty of a cascade, as of a lake, that it adapts itself easily to any margin ; nor did the beauty of this scene of peace require for its full appreciation the severe prelude of fatigue through which we had passed.
The immediate question before us was that which the English poet Faber long since set to music, “ Up a stream or down ? ” We had struck the cascades, it was guessed, about half-way up their course ; and they were, at any rate, so much nearer the top of the ravine than the bottom that it was a question which route to pursue. We could follow them up and reach the summit, thence descending the mountain by the ordinary road ; or we could follow the stream itself down, an easier but perhaps longer route, especially with a guide not thoroughly familiar with the way. It was already half past four, and, being on the eastern or shadowy slope of Moosilauke, we could not safely count on more than two hours of time. Deciding, at last, to ascend, we pressed on in the path of the brook, our feet treading
Ages ago it crenelled,”
as Browning has it. A few turns of the stream brought us to the most beautiful cascade of all. Looking upward, we saw a green cave or grotto, built with the regularity of art, and arching towards us over the little pool into which its waters fell. The cascade came from an overhanging ledge, precisely as if the arch which surmounted the cave had lost its key-stone, and the water passed through between two mossy slabs. The fall was of eight or ten feet only, but the hollow cave which received it — a grotto all emerald with glistening moss — gave it a beauty that nothing was needed to enhance except the solitary deer which should have been, but was not, drinking in that still place.
The brook soon left us, dwindling to a gurgle among the stones, and then vanishing, while we pushed on towards upper air, our guide marking the trees for future explorers, or for a possible pathway. We noted how skillfully he “ spotted ” with his axe, — the word “ blaze ” is rarely used, in this sense, in New England, —not cutting deeply in, as a novice would have done, but simply scarring the bark, and thus leaving a more unmistakable mark for future years than if the wood itself were indented. The wall we were climbing grew rapidly steeper, until it was the counterpart of that we had descended ; and though the fatigue of the ascent was doubtless greater, we yet knew better what we were doing, and the risk of broken limbs was less. At intervals we had glimpses of the ridge above us, still seeming incredibly far away, and gradually swathed in such a dimness that we knew, although we could not see, that the vapors must be gathering in the air. Still we toiled on, up mossy dells, palisaded with the shy white orchis, until suddenly a shout from some one above caused me to look round, and I saw a sight of exquisite beauty. An opening in the woods showed the ravine behind us, dark, almost black, with shadow ; but beyond this the sunlight was so poured on the eastern slope of Mount Washington and his companions as to make them glisten in double prominence, and it was almost impossible to believe that they were not snow-covered, — I do not mean coated with continuous and dazzling snow, like Mont Blanc, but rather clad in that scattered and sprinkled whiteness which clings upon the terrible peak of the Matterhorn. As we went a step farther, the trees hid this fair sight, and we entered a domain of utter shadow, fitly preparing us for the change that was presently to come, in the drama of the day.
Climbing a few steps higher, I saw clearly — for we were now getting above the trees — the meaning of the deepening blackness and the weird light. A storm was upon us, — such a storm as explained the superstitions of Indians about these mountain summits, and their refusal to climb them. The sky was all obscured, — not densely black, as with a thunder-cloud, but lighter than the already dark ravine; yet there were flashes of lightning in it, and murmurings of thunder. Its chief terror appeared to lie not in darkness, but in motion. All immediately around us was absolutely still, yet on the side of the ravine toward the Tip-Top House there was in the woods a roar that I can only describe as ferocious ; it seemed as if the force which made that sound could sweep from the ravine below us the whole forest that clothed it, and count the work a trifle. Meantime, upon the mountain-crest the mass of pale cloud was accumulating, and suddenly, as with one word of command, it was unloosed. We saw a detached body of cloud, that seemed to obey an order of its own and have its own separate work to do, come sweeping down into the ravine beside us, — not toward us, — with a sense of power and direction that no wings of eagles could symbolize, and an effect of swiftness such as no swallow’s flight, no rush of railway train, could represent. I knew that it was a filmy, bodiless thing, — that if it changed direction and came toward us we should know it but as rain and wind; yet as I watched it, the Oriental hymns to the storm-gods seemed too little for an invocation of its power, and one could fancy a great army of men halting and retreating before its awful majesty. “ The charge of the six hundred! ’’called one of my companions. The clouds went first, the rain followed; we could see it pouring in great sheets between us and the side of the ravine, and yet we escaped for a time. At last it reached us.
It came with a discharge like that from a steam fire-engine, yet we were by this time so warm that we welcomed it for our bodies’ sake ; we were like men working at a great conflagration, who beseech the engines to play on them. Yet the instinct of self-protection for a moment prevailed; and the dwarf sprucetrees under which we could easily shelter ourselves made a dry defense. But what was the use ? Every atom of vegetation must soon be saturated, and we were now where we must crawl through it, and under it, and over it, to reach the top. We were in the region known as “scrub,” — above where trees could be trees, but where they were condensed into stiff bushes, gnarled spikes, holding in every twig the vigor of a limb. Vegetation driven to its alpine stronghold does its worst at last, before it vanishes and leaves you in free air. You must clamber above it, you must burrow through it; you cannot stop to find out whether it is branch or root on which you are treading, since they seem equally rugged. Sometimes, in creeping beneath a bough, I found myself trailing my wet breast over some exquisite bed of wood-sorrel and linnæa, the sweet pink flowers fading unseen where no eye had looked on their race before.
At last, as with magic, all obstruction vanished, and I stood in increasing darkness on the bare ridge, with thousands of feet of stormy vapor spreading and sinking on either hand.
So great was the sense of freedom — for there was now nothing before us but a descent of five miles by the rough carriage-road to Merrill’s — that I remember no feeling except of exhilaration. I had nothing on but a thin tennis-shirt and trowsers, with shoes and stockings all saturated; but I recall a distinct savage enjoyment in the pelting of the cold rain, mixed with a slight hail, upon my shoulders. Fatigue seemed to vanish ; we all felt as if at the beginning of our day’s work. Nature presently responded to our mood ; already the veil of cloud was thin over the western outlook, and soon it burst away into soft, rosy fragments. The vast valley of the Connecticut, with nearly all of Vermont, lay visible before us; lakes glistened, grain fields spread, glimpses of rivers showed themselves. It was like a vast battle-field in the multiplicity of little vapors that hung like smokes over detached points ; and on distant hills lay level bars of absolutely golden light. The Green Mountains and the far Adirondacks and the curious Notch in which lies Willoughby Lake were all closely shrouded with these gorgeous splendors ; and, as we looked down from above, it was as if the sunset itself lay in state. Yet glittering raindrops were still falling on us, and we were glad to speed rapidly downward, away from this bright scene, to the mountain’s foot, there to seek dry clothing, made up from many wardrobes, at the Breezy Point House, and to take our way by the mountain wagon to the railway station. The next day we felt a certain triumph amidst our bruises. We were not exactly like Keats’s
When a new planet swims into his ken,”
but we had at least re-discovered the Pleiades.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson.