Ember Days

NOT the specified Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of ecclesiastical observance. The Ember Days we note date back of any calendar, Christian or Pagan. They are ushered in by a series of brief-lighted, half-hearted, jaundiced days, post-autumnal in their temper, and yet not due winter. The fire of the year slowly smoulders out, dropping into corroded brands and ashes on the earth, and escaping upwards in smoke and vapor of fog. The vital spark in man’s heart and brain suffers by sympathy with the season, and needs some fanning to keep it in genial play. Premonitions of winter sleep steal over us, urging the propriety of looking about for a snug hibernaculum. The Muse has nothing to say, unless to clap approval at the sentiment pronounced by the pleasant balladist: —

“ When the ways are heavy with mire and rut,
In November fogs, in December snows;
When the north wind howls, and the doors are shut,
There is place, and enough, for the pains of prose! ”

To distinguish the month of November, we would call it a mélange of all ill weathers. It contains days borrowed from February and March, days of fickle variety, like a shrewd and imbittered April. By the falling of the leaves, after much miserable temporizing, we are brought face to face with the austere heavens and a long reckoning of inclemencies. This is the November which some one has rightly named “ Eatheart.”

It is wonderful how the grass contrives to double the season. It has two spring-times, and grows bravely up to the very threshold of winter, both on the vernal and autumnal side. In some places, it may have communicated its courageous spirit to neighboring plants. This November blue violet, does it not sweetly and acceptably apologize for the absence of blue overhead ? Here and there the dandelion still contributes its pennyworth of sunshine. These signs of nature’s vernal feeling in the dead of the year affect us with some such surprise as we have at seeing the summer-time constellations rising before dawn of a winter day. But the pushing thriftiness of the grass cannot mask the prevailing soberness of the season. In pastures, and about the fence corners everywhere, the golden-rod and other weeds of rank flowerage during the autumn now stand with hoary or black tops, like a row of snuffed-out candles, once used for an illumination. Here is the milkweed, with its pods set so as to represent a bevy of birds ; but the wind is plucking off their silken white plumage, and sending it wastefully adrift through the field. Here, a shabby thistle is putting out a last purple pretense of decayed royalty. “ Poverty grass,” with its straight, wispy bents, bleached white, and standing in even parallels, looks like the threads of a warp in the loom. But there is not so much as a spider to put in a gossamer filling. I sometimes hear a faint thin note in the grass, much like the rattling of small seeds in a dry husk: this, I fancy, may be the lay of the last cricket. Once in a long interval, my foot starts up a decrepit grasshopper, frost-bitten and rheumatic, — possibly the old immortal Tithonus of the fable. Here a puff-ball, grown to prodigious size, and torn or burst open at the top, is sifting its fine, snuff-colored dust into the wind. It suggests diablerie; indeed, the brown elves must use it as a censer in their unhallowed midnight incantations. Weird and eldritch suggestions are plenty on every side. If you walk in the woods, you are startled by mysterious small sounds, — Panic noises, which you cannot readily trace to an origin. That old rustic practical joker, who in his day has frightened so many a solitary traveler, was never more alive and maliciously inventive than now. He it is, undoubtedly, who sends the partridge detonating through the dry leaves directly in our path ; who sets the woodpecker to dispatching telegraphic messages, with a hollow tap, tap, on some sonorous trunk close by; who makes the trees groan humanly among their upper branches, and the dry leaves on the scrub oak discourse gibberish. Sometimes, where the fallen leaves are glued together with mildew, one detaches itself from the sodden company, and turns deliberately over, with a beckoning motion. Then I see the brown, charm-weaving hand of some ancient earth sibyl. On a hard-bound December evening, the low, faint shudder running through the crisp leaves and grasses brings to mind a certain awesome Scripture: " Thou shalt be brought down, . . . and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.”

I notice that a white bloom has gathered on the raspberry briers, modifying their burnt-senna color to a delicate flesh-tint; indeed, it would seem that all vegetable life, designing to brave the winter through, had grown, for that purpose, a kind of tough, unsensitive scarfskin. Even the trees appear to have gained a thicker rind, and their upper branches and whole stem system look, in the sunshine, as though they had been brushed over with some preservative lubricant or varnish. On every hand, nature strengthens her position, or, if forced to yield ground, covers safely her retreat. Let none be uneasy on her account. “ Young buds sleep at the root’s white core,” and the future leaf rocks securely in its cradle on the treetop. Now, before the deep snow flings to the door, I would like to visit the winter dormitory of every hibernating creature, — would follow home the chipmunk which I caught yesterday filling his impudent cheeks with corn from the crib ; I have a natural curiosity to know how his granary is planned. No less would it be worth while to ascertain how and where the bumble-bee and the yellow-jacket and the solitary-bee are temporarily embalmed, in spices and cerements of their own providing. What lodgings have been engaged by the bullfrog and his mellower-voiced rival, the hyla ? Are there any “ birds of a feather ” tumbled together at the bottom of some old chestnut stump, for the astonished farmer to exhume about Candlemas Day ? Above all, I would like to know whether there are any swallows done up in clay at the bed of the stream, as White of Selborne was so desirous of proving, some time ago ; and whether the cricket has laid in a good supply of fodder, or merely chews over his summer cud. I am the more concerned to push investigation in this quarter since I have read an old scientific authority which claims that the insect has the same number and arrangement of stomachs enjoyed by the Order Ruminantia!

Here comes the woodpecker, with his sharp, mouse-like note, seeking the honest living due him in nature’s economy. It is plain that neither a chrysalis case, nor a cocoon shroud, nor even the narrowest cranny in the bark of a tree is a safe mode of retirement. But I know something that the woodpecker, with all his foraging penetration, perhaps does not know. If he would split with his bill those dry stalks of boneset close down to the root, he would get for his pains, every time, a fine fat grub.

Frequently, in the early morning, at this time of the year, one hears the high, shrill clamor of the bluejay, spreading his wings on the stream of the north wind and crying a defiance; it is the very voice of winter. Until late in the season, and occasionally during the milder winter weather, I hear the coarse guffaw of the crow at a long distance through the woods. Is there not a true sardonic inflection in the note of the crow ? What lazy contempt and derision it expresses ! He is called Jaques, in our Forest of Arden. How ridiculously he caricatures the gait of human kind. I remember to have seen a man chasing a lamed crow over a plowed field, and to have been impressed by the ludicrous similarity of their motions. The blackcoated man, by a ruse of fancy, became a larger species of crow, while his corvine thiefship appeared as a smart little personage in black broadcloth. Some time before the advent of settled cold weather, I find the chickadees and snowbirds comfortably hobnobbing in the woods. They regard me with the eye of a quondam acquaintance. I conclude we have met before, and shall meet again, when the deep snow drives them to accept the charity of us villagers. Now and then, the Bohemian waxwing comes “ berrying ” in our woods, but remains no long time, having come down from the North on a limited ticket. His note is poor and small; in this respect following the immelodious rule of all our hibernating birds.

Each spring, I am grieved to note the inroad that has been made upon the timber during the fall and winter previous. It seems to me that the nobility is first to go, and I wonder how it is that the woodman’s axe refuses to taste of aught less than the fairest and tallestgrown of the forest. Is there no penalty attached to arboricide ? If I were in the chopper’s place, I should fear that Sylvan would hurl the falling shaft my waxy, and crush me beneath it. Down go the beech, the oak, and the ash; down goes the maple, notwithstanding its veins of kindness. The ground is scattered over with splinters and chips, white or pinkish, clean and sweet-smelling. What further destiny is in store for this deposed and mutilated majesty? The oracle of Dodona could not have foretold. Part, sound sleepers under the tracks of the last new railway; part to be floated down the Lakes, out through the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and over the “ road of the bold ” to England ; part to remain here, and become a patient power in the lands, converted to tools in the hands of the farmer; still another part to be consumed on our hearths, — an extravagant and guilty luxury, we are inclined to think. Unhesitatingly, we pronounce coal the cheaper fuel. Of this wood quarry, the forest of old time, there still remains an abundant supply. If man had existed previous to the Carboniferous period, it is a question whether there would have been any coal for the present day, since he would have taken care, then, as now, that the woods should be cleared away.

Occasionally, the axe discloses the fact that a great and flourishing tree was quite corrupt at the core ; that it lived for years with a heart of sawdust. Nature has her laugh at us, and propounds the following: Pray, how will this fact fit into your object-lessons, my little philosopher ? Will you teach your pupils that even from hearts unsound right growths may sometimes proceed ? But when we have wrinkled our brows over the embarrassing problem long enough, she will tell us, most likely, that a tree’s heart is where a man’s heart should be, all abroad in free circulation, in branches, stems, and leaves, — in radiating sympathies and enthusiasm, if we look upon the human side of the question.

He has hardly become acquainted with the whole tree who has known it only in its summer phases. He is no true lover of the woods who ceases to go to them when the leaves have dropped away, and the garrulous dryad has retired to sleep. I would know my friends in their adversity and hardihood. Some invaluable intimations are reached down on that lichened north or northeast side of a sage, weather-beaten old tree. To one who enjoys their winter society each tree of the forest has its distinct individuality, no less now than when it flourished under the sign of the leaf. There are all degrees of muscularity, all shades between grayness and brownness, beside delicate differences in pose and deportment, to pronounce the tree. This is the “builder oak,” that throws such energy into its strong, upreaching arms ; this, the beech, distinguished by the lateral precision of its branches ; this, the soft maple, recognizable by its poised lightness and round contour. Who knows not the “ vineprop ” elm, with its lofty grace and slight benedictive droop, the oriole’s nest still swinging from the end of some branch? Bring us the nest of the bird, and we will do our best to tell you what tree afforded the site. We dare to do this, because we chanced, last spring, to he present at a congress convened by the birds, to discuss the comparative advantages for nest-building presented by various trees. The smooth, gray stem of the ash looks not unlike an old churchyard slab, with here and there a frill of lichen, or a patch of moss. The bark of the cucumber-tree is arranged in fine scales, as though the tree had put on an hibernal coat of mail. “ The Dorian column of the sycamore ” stands out in white relief against the dark background of the deeper woods. This tree casts its bark as well as its leaves. Are you a skilled archæologist ? Read what is written on that scrap of parchment, — a true Saxon book, direct from the bark of the tree. It is thought to contain the tree’s esoteric doctrines, its notes and comments, thrown off in its summer leisure. Even the pine and the hemlock are deciduous, though they manage to shift the old garment for the new so adroitly that none of their neighbors discover the sleight.

The west wind, in summer time a delicious boon, becomes at this season a scourge, with a threefold lash of sleet, hail, and snow ; for the most of our heavy winter storms rise from this quarter. Our trees have wrestled so long with this wind that they are permanently warped towards the east, as may be seen by running the eye over their profiles; there is even a perceptible scantiness in the growth of their branches on the side exposed to the prevailing wind. What mighty battles have I seen and heard waged between the trees and the west wind, — an Iliad fought in fields of the air. I cannot understand, when I hear the wind characterized as “ lonesome ” and “ melancholy.” It is the great traveler, who not only has been around the earth, but has circumnavigated some of the nearer stars, returning with a traveler’s zest for story-telling. There is heraldry in the wind, mysterious errantry. It is possible that our snow - topped pine, gently nodding to its black shadow in the moonlight, has just received advices from that tropical palm, its legendary love. A high wind calls the imagination to come up higher. What has the poet of nature to do with the island valley of Avilion, — with a region

“Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly "?

If we have neither mountains, trees, streams, nor the sea in our prospect, we have at least the sky and the wind: the one, with its clouds, to paint pictures for us, the other to sing us songs. The morning was bound in blue and gold. Wherever the long shafts of the sun fell, a gold-stone sparkle followed ; but the shadows had the tint of the lilac, or of an aerified amethyst. There were flowers on the dry stalks of plants that had been out of bloom for months past. Every blade of grass was shot full of minute crystalline barbs. The children of Aurora perceived that manna had fallen in the night, and went forth to gather it; but they wisely carried neither scrip nor basket, knowing they could lay none by for the morrow. In May we indeed believed, with the Rosicrucians, that there might be an immortal virtue in May-dew ; in December we discovered it was lodged in the frost. On first waking we drew aside the curtain, and found on the windowpane a glorious emblazonry of summer trees, flowers, and tangled thickets. How was it ? Had we dreamed of summer ? And then, did the spirit of cold and the breath of a sleeper convey the phantasmal dream to the pane, and there leave it to crystallize under the keen surveillance of the stars ? I was shown, last winter, the photograph of a singularly beautiful frost-piece, and required to name the original. Before I hit the truth, I was successively reminded of a fern plot in the woods, a garden of deep-sea plants, and an imprint of fossil vegetation. This seemed to me additional proof that nature has only a few fine forms, which she works over and over, with unwearying delight. We read that a whole tropical flora lies buried under the Greenland glacier. It is this fact, perhaps, that is whitely hinted at in all the works of the frost.

Living not far from a great lake, locked in its winter sleep, I sometimes fall into the impression that our coast line runs coincident with the arctic circle, and that Wrangel Land, and the icy mausoleum of so much brave polar research, might be reached by an hour’s journey due northward. Yonder is the frozen deep ; for aught I know, it is the limit of discovery. Instead of the “unmeasured laughter of the waves,” there is dead silence, or only the astonished whistle of the north wind, as it sweeps over surges it cannot drive, — “ white caps ” that sparkle, but are without power to burst into spray. The voicelessness of the lake is the first impression obtained ; the next is of the vast sunken perspective it presents. It vividly suggests the crater of a burnt-out volcano. Frequent drifts of snow and caked ice, mixed with sand sifted in from the beach, answer to the lava and ashes of bygone volcanic eruptions. If the lake has frozen under a stiff norther, our beach will be filled with a wild arabesque sculpture and architecture. There sits the fatal mermaidon, now spellbound herself, a creature of glassy shreds and tatters; there is a shaggy triton blowing a soundless horn; and here is the arm “ clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,” reaching up Excalibar, whose hilt sparkles with pure diamonds ! Here are ice-caves and narrow cloister walks, niches and shrines ; and here (by a bold upward fling of the tortured water in freezing) is a veritable wigwam, a piece of poetic justice in the elements, commemorating the far-away Indian occupancy of the shore. In the offing there will be one or more jagged ramparts of ice, and beyond, at the furthest reach of the eye, a dark, steel-blue hint of free waters, though frequently no such channel is visible from the shore. This irregular fence of ice, of which I have spoken, suggests the Giant’s Causeway, or the fantastic desolation of the Dakota Bad Lands. The frozen drift along the shore has, in rigorous seasons, considerable permanency. The sun is the mildest-mannered iconoclast (a lesson to those who believe in the sledgehammer). He rarely takes by storm the enemy’s stronghold. His method is gradually and almost imperceptibly to create angles, thus multiplying the points of attack ; to girdle the shaft with strategic beams, so that when it falls, it seems to have toppled by reason of its own unbalanced gravity. I have sometimes imagined there was a sunny flaw in the ice itself, a surreptitious spark of inclosed caloric, which, no less than the outward ray, works towards dissolution. Can we discover any correlation existing between the icicle and the iceberg? Only this : that the form of the icicle follows that of the stalactite, while the iceberg is a kind of immense movable stalagmite.

I watch with interest the first tendency towards solidification in a stream of water. Notice how sluggishly the current drags along; how dark and mantling it looks, like some dense liquid slowly cooling off. Large hubbies collect on the surface. Next, fine crystal bayonets and spears are thrust out from the margin, as though they would impale and hold the unwilling current. Dipping reeds and willow whips are soon glazed over, and made the nuclei of small glacial reefs ; the web spreads, and the stream is firmly woven under. The old ice of pools in the woods, partially thawed, will show us some delicate etchings. Lift up this water-soaked leaf of beech or of maple, and you find its graven likeness on the ice where it has rested for half the whiter. Beech burs and hickory nuts have also carved clean-cut intaglios.

It is past the solstice, — close upon the crumbling verge of the year. At last, there falls a snow, the fibre of which has been well tested in yonder laboratory of the heavens. No “sugarsnow ” this, to melt in our cup ! It has come to stay. Its siege will not be so long as in New England, nor will its depth be so great or so uniform in this locality ; but it suffices. The houses, muffled at foundation and eaves, look low as pictures of Swiss chalets, — so low that it seems possible to rest one’s elbow on the roof, and look about on the village beneath. The woods in the distance are mere hedge-rows, and there are no longer fences to divide claims. Imagination adds a good rod to the breadth of an untracked road in winter. The storm has isolated us, but not unkindly. We are retired citizens, cosy habitants, and we now ask that our apples, nuts, and cider may not be wanting in the four hours’ stretch of the winter evening. Thus modestly we propose desipere in loco. There is no misanthropy in our retirement; on the contrary, we seem to have withdrawn ourselves for the sole purpose of considering how we may love our neighbor still better. We fancy him engaged in the same benevolent meditations. There is even an expression of good-will toward us in the affable curve of the smoke that comes from his chimney. At night our fireside and that mellow star, our evening lamp, can scarcely be contained within doors ; at least, looking out at the window, I see their charitable image, constant and bright, under the rocking trees, in the blue winter dusk. If we spoke of “ the dead of the year,” it was a mistake. The embers are well covered over.

Edith M. Thomas.