Running-Water Notes

I DOUBT if it were a magic bird, as told in the legend, that sang Saint Felix out of the memory of his generation : it is quite as likely that, having traced some river or small stream to its headwaters, he lingered listening to the drop that wears away the stone, and so fell into a half-century reverie. Running water is the only true flowing philosopher, — the smoothest arguer of the perpetual flux and transition of all created things, saying, —

“All things are as they seem to all,
And all things flow as a stream.”

It is itself a current paradox. It is now here at your feet, gossiping over sand and pebble; it is there, slipping softly around a rushy cape ; and it is yonder, just blending with the crisp spray of the last wave on the beach of the lake. Its form and color are but circumstances : the one due to marginal accident and the momentary caprice of the wind ; the other, to the complexion of the sky or to overhanging umbrage. Who can say but that its beginning and its ending are one, — the water-drop in the bosom of the cloud ?

We readily consent that the Muses had their birth and rearing in the neighborhood of certain springs and streams. This was a wise provision for their subsequent musical education, since it was intended, no doubt, that they should gather the rudiments from such contenial sources. The Greeks left us no account (as they well might have done) of the technical drill pursued by the nine sisters. However, we may suppose that they wrote off their scores from the fluent dictation of their favorite cascades and streams, and that they scanned, or “sang,” all such exercises by the laws of liquid quantity and accent. Perhaps at the same time, the better to measure the feet and mark the cæsural pauses, they danced, as they sang, over the rippled surface of the stream. Nor did the Muses alone love springs and running water, but it would seem that the philharmonic societies of their descendants have had their haunts in like localities : or was it mere chance that Homer should have lived by the river Meles (hence Melesigenes) ; that Plato should have had his retirement

“where Ilissus rolls
His whispering stream; ”

or that Shakespeare, to all time, should be " the Sweet Swan of Avon” ?

Consider the vocality and vocabulary of the water: it has its open vowels, its mutes, labials, and sub-vocals, and, if one listen attentively, its little repetend of favorite syllables and alliterations. Like Demosthenes, it knows the use and advantage of pebbles, and has, by this simple experiment, so purified its utterance that nowhere else is Nature’s idiom spoken so finely. What a list of onomatopoetic words we have caught from its talkative lips! Babbling, purling, murmuring, gurgling, are some of the adjectives borrowed from this vernacular ; and some have even heard the " chuckling brooks,” — an expression which well describes a certain confidential, sotto voce gayety and self-content I have often heard in the parley of the water.

From time to time, musical virtuosos and composers, fancying they had discovered the key-note of Niagara, have given us symphonious snatches of its eternal organ harmonies. Some time, it may be that all these scattered arias, with many more which have never been published, will be collected and edited as the complete opera of the great cataract ! Less ambitious, I have often tried to unravel the melodious vagaries of a summer stream ; to classify its sounds, and report their sequence and recurrence. I shall not forget how once, when I was thus occupied, a small bird flew far out on a branch overhanging the water, turned its arch eye on me, then on the dancing notes of my music lesson, and poured out a rippling similitude of song that was plainly meant as an æolian rendition of the theme, or motive, running through the water. I was under double obligation to the little musician, since, in addition to its sweet and clever charity, it put me in possession of the discovery that all of Nature’s minstrels are under the same orchestra drill, and capable, at pleasure, of exchanging parts. There was once a naiad (own daughter of celestial Aquarius), who, as often as the rain fell and the eave-spouts frothed and overran, used to come and dance under a poet’s roof. It was a part of her pretty jugglery to imitate the liquid warble of the wood-thrush, bobolink, and other pleasing wild-bird notes. No matter how far inland, any one who lives by the “ great deep ” of a dense wood may hear the roar of the sea when the tide of the wind sweeps in on his coast. Shutting my eyes, I could always readily hear, in the crackling of a brush fire in the garden, the quick and sharp accentuation of rain on the roof.

There are certain English and Old English appellatives of running water which one would fain transplant to local usage on this side the Atlantic. How suitable that a swift, boiling stream, surcharged with spring rain, should be called a brawl, or a fine sunlit thread of a rill embroidering green meadows a floss, or any other small, unconsidered stream a beck! In New England you shall hear only of the brook, and past an indeterminate meridian westward, only of the creek (colloquially deformed into “ crick”). Indian Creek is a sort of John Smith in the nomenclature of Western streams. Rocky Rivers and Rocky Runs are also frequent enough.

Where streams abound, there, for the most part, will be found sylvan amenity and kindly, cultivated soil. The Nile alone saves Egypt from being an extension of Sahara. Without some water-power at hand, cities may not be built, nor industries and arts be pushed forward : yet I should say no site is hopelessly inland if there runs past it a stream of sufficient current to carry a raft. There is maritime promise in the smallest rivulet: trust it; in time it will bear your wares and commodities to the sea and the highways of commerce. The course of a river, or of a river tributary, suggests a journey of pleasure. Notice how it scdects the choicest neighborhoods in its course, the richest fields, the suavest parts of the woods. If it winds about a country village, with picturesque white spire and houses hid to the roof in greenery, it seems to have made this deflection out of its own affable and social spirit. The dam and the mill-wheel it understands as a challenge of its speed and agility, and so leaps and caracoles nimbly over them. All bridges which it passes under it takes as wickets set up in sport.

The motion of water, whether of the ocean billow or of the brook’s ripple, is only an endless prolongation or reproduction of the line of beauty. There are no right angles in the profile of the sea-coast or river margin ; no rectangular pebbles on the beach or in the bed of a stream. The hollow chamber in which the oyster is lodged might have been formed by the union of two waves, magically hardened at the moment of contact; colored without like the ooze of the earth, within like the deep sea pearl. The fish conforms in shape and symmetry to its living element, and is, in this respect, scarcely more than a wave, or combination of waves. It moves in curves and ripples, in little whirls and eddies, faithfully repeating all the inflections of the water. Even in the least detail it is homogeneous; else, why should the scale of the fish be scalloped rather than serrate ? As to color, has it not the vanishing tints of the rainbow; or might it not be thought the thinnest lamina pared away from a pearl, a transparent rose petal, the finger-nail of Venus?

It is not improbable that the fish furnished the first shipwright with some excellent suggestions about nautical architecture. This shipwright, who was both idealist and utilitarian, had observed the length and slenderness of the fish ; its curved sides and tapering extremities, corresponding with the stern and prow of his subsequent invention ; also, the fins, which he at first reproduced in rough-hewn paddles, prototypical of genuine oars. Then, perhaps, a paradoxical notion dawning upon his mind that aerial swimming and aquatic flying were much the same things, he added to his floating craft the wings of the bird as well as the fins of the fish ; and soon thereafter began to take the winds into account, to venture out on the broad seas ; and finally discovered

“India and the golden Chersonese,
And utmost Indian isle, Taprobane.”

The scaly appearance of a sheet of water wrinkled by the wind has already been noticed by another. It needed only this slight suggestion to point out to me the glistening broadside of an old gray dragon sunning himself between the banks. Do dolphins inhabit fresh water? Just under the surface, at the bend of the creek, I see a quivering opalescent or iridescent mass, which I take to be a specimen of this rare fish, unless, indeed, it should prove only a large flat stone, veined and mottled by sunbeams shot through the thin veil of hurrying waters. Equally suggestive are those luminous reflections of ripples cast on that smooth clay bank. Narrow shimmering lines in constant wavy motion, they seem the web which some spider is vainly trying to pin to the bank. They are, properly, “netted sunbeams.” Water oozing from between two obstructing stones, and slowly spreading out into the current, has the appearance of a tress of some colorless water-grass floating under the surface. I was once pleased to see how a drift of soft brown sand gently sloping to the water’s edge, with its reflection directly beneath, presented the perfect figure of a tight-shut clam-shell, — a design peculiarly suited to the locality.

In cooler and deeper retirement, on languid summer afternoons, this flowing philosopher sometimes geometrizes. It is always of circles, — circles intersecting, tangent, or inclusive. A fish darting to the surface affords the central starting-point of a circle whose radius and circumference are incalculable, since the eye fails to detect where it fades into nothingness. Multiplied intersections there may be, but without one curve marring the smooth expansion of another. There are hints of infinity to be gathered from this transient water ring, as well as from the orb of the horizon at sea.

Sometimes I bait the fish, but without rod or hook, and merely to coax them together in small inquisitive schools, that I may study their behavior and their medium of communication. In this way I enjoy the same opportunities for reverie and speculation as the angler, without indulging in his cruelty or forerelish of the table. I discover that the amusements of the minnows and those of the small birds are quite similar, with only this difference : that the former, in darting and girding at one another, make their retreats behind stones and under little sand bars, instead of hiding among the bushes and tilting over thistle tops. It would seem that fish are no less quick in the senses of hearing and seeing than the birds themselves. They start at your shadow thrown over the bank, at your voice, or at the slightest agitation of the water.

“ If you but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again.”

When they first came up in the spring, I thought they looked unusually lean and shadowy, as though having struggled through a hungry hibernation. They were readily voracious of anything I might throw to them.

There were fish taken under my observation, though not by line or net. I did not fish, yet I felt warranted in sharing the triumphs of the sport when, for the space of ten minutes or more, I had maintained most cautious silence, while that accomplished angler, the kingfisher, perched on a sightly elm branch over the water, was patiently waiting the chance of an eligible haul. I had, meanwhile, a good opportunity for observing this to me wholly wild and unrelated adventurous bird. Its great head and mobile crest, like a helmet of feathers, its dark-blue glossy coat and white neck-cloth, make it a sufficiently striking individual anywhere. No wonder the kingfisher is specially honored by poetic legend. I must admit that whenever I chanced to see this bird about the stream it was faultless, halcyon weather. I occasionally saw a sandpiper (familiarly, “ walk-up-the-creek ”) hunting a solitary meal along the margin. I had good reason, also, to suspect that even the blackbird now and then helped himself to a bonne bouche from the water. Then, did I not see the fish, acting on the “law of talons,” come to the surface, and take their prey from the life of the air? This was the fate in store for many a luxurious water-flv skimming about the sunshiny pools, like a drop or bead of animated quicksilver. The insect races born of the water, and leading a hovering existence above it, had always a curious interest for me. What, for instance, can he more piquing to a speculative eye than to watch the ceaseless shiftings or pourings of a swarm of gnats? Is there any rallying point or centre in this filmy system? Apparently there are no odds between the attraction and repulsion governing the movements of the midget nebula, and I could never be satisfied as to whether unanimity or dissent were implied. Nor could I quite justify by my ear the verse which says,

“ Then, in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows,” since, although I could vouch for the vocal powers of a single gnat humming with unpleasant familiarity, I have never detected any proof of concerted musical sound among a swarm of these motes. Yet I doubt not the poet is right.

There is a larger species of mosquito (not the common pest), which I should think might some time have enjoyed religious honors, since, when it drinks, it falls upon its knees! A flight of these gauzy-winged creatures through a shaft of sunlight might conjure up for any fanciful eye the vision of “ pert fairies and dapper elves.” Of the dragon-fly (which might be the inlaid phantasm of some insect that flourished summers ago), I know of no description so delicately apt as the following : —

“ A wind-born blossom, blown about,
Drops quiveringly down as though to die;
Then lifts and wavers on, as if in doubt
Whether to fan its wings or fly without.”

Where is the stream so hunted down by civilization that it cannot afford hospitality to at least one hermit musk-rat? The only water animal extant of the wild fauna that was here in the red man’s day, he will eventually have to follow in the oblivious wake of the beaver and otter. It is no small satisfaction that I am occasionally favored with a glimpse of this now rare “oldest inhabitant.” Swimming leisurely with the current, and carrying in his mouth a ted of grass for thatching purposes, or a bunch of greens for dinner, he disappears under the bank. So unwieldy are his motions, and so lazily does the water draw after him, that I am half inclined to believe him a pygmean copy of some long extinct river mammoth. Oftener at night I hear him splashing about in the dark and cool stream, safe from discovery and molestation.

Hot, white days of drought there were in the middle of the summer, when, in places, the bed of the creek was as dry as the highway ; vacant, except for a ghostly semblance of ripples running above its yellow clay and stones. The fountain of this stream was in the sun and heated air. Walking along the abandoned water-road, I speculated idly about the fate of the minnows and trout. Had they been able, in season, to take a short cut to the lake or to deeper streams, as is related, in a pretty but apocryphal story, of a species of fish in China, fitted by nature to take short overland journeys ?

Much might justly he said in praise of the willow. Its graceful, undulating lines show that it has not in vain been associated with the stream. It practices and poses over its glass as though it hoped some time to become a water nymph. Summer heat cannot impair its fresh and vivid green, — only the sharp edge of the frost can do that; and even when the leaves have fallen away there remains a beautiful anatomy of stems and branches, whose warm brown affords a pleasing relief to November grayness.

At intervals I met the genius of decorative art (a fine, mincing lady) hunting about the weedy margin for botanical patterns suitable for reproduction in æsthetic fabrics and paper hangings. She chose willow catkins, cattail flag ; the flowers and feathery afterbloom of the clematis, golden-rod, and aster, and showed great anxiety to procure some lily pads and buds that grew in a sluggish cove ; but for some reason, unknown to me as well as to the genii loci, she slighted a host of plants as suggestive for ornate designs as any she accepted. She took no notice of the jewel weed (which the stream was not ashamed to reflect, in its velvet, leopardlike magnificence) ; nor had she any eyes for the roving intricacies of the greenbrier and wild-balsam apple. She also left untouched whole families of curious beaked grasses and sedges, with spindles full of flax or silk unwinding to the breeze.

It is nothing strange that the earlier races of men should have believed in loreleis and undines, nixies and kelpies. I cannot say that I have not, myself, had glimpses of all these water-spirits. But the watered green silk in which the lorelei and the undine were dressed was almost indistinguishable in color and texture from the willow’s reflection; and the nixie was so often hidden under a crumbling bank and net-work of black roots that I could not be sure whether I caught the gleam of his malicious eye, or whether it was only a fleck of sunshine I saw exploring the watery shade. About the kelpie I am more positive. When the creek was high and wrathful under the scourge of the “line storm,” it could have been nothing else than the kelpie’s wild, shaggy mane that I saw'; nothing else that I heard but his hoarse, ill-boding roar.

In this season of the year, I became aware that our stream, like the Nile, had its mysterious floating islands, luxuriant plots set with grass and fern and mint (instead of lotus and papyrus), and lodged upon pieces of drift washed down by the spring floods. All summer securely moored in the shallow water, they were now rent up by the roots, and swept out of all geographical account. Snow-like accumulations of whipped-up foam gathered in lee-side nooks where the current ran less strong, remaining there for many hours together, like some fairy fleet riding at anchor. When the stream had fallen, I often found this accumulation deposited on the sand in a grayish-white drift, dry and volatile as ashes, dispersing at the slightest gust. It suggested that some strange, unwitnessed rite of incineration had been performed there.

When the winter had come in all power, and had driven nature down into her garrison of clods, and had laid siege thereto with frost-fire and sword, the philosopher of whom I have spoken could still, at times, be heard in the drear silence of snowy fields and snowy air. He had nothing to say that could not fitly have been said in the ear of summer. Moreover, there was nearly always one clear crystal window of his dwelling open sunward, looking through which I could see his bright and mobile countenance, unperplexed by weather changes.

Edith M. Thomas.