UNLESS we live in the country the woods play but a small part in our lives. We see them only in the summer holidays, perhaps not even then ; we become as strangers to their beauty, and for longer or shorter periods forget to think of them. And yet, aside from all physical consequences, what a dreary world it would be, were there no forests ! Our thought would be parched and restless, and, so to speak, without eyelids. The busiest and most persistently urban among us would lose an horizon restful to the eye, a curtain of green and peaceful recollections.
To the wild creatures who inhabit it the wood is full of terrors. It is at once a covert and a snare, a place of refuge and of lurking danger. The tree that shelters the small bird conceals the movements of his enemy, the owl, the squirrel, or the black snake; there is protection beneath the underbrush, but no certitude as to what lies on the other side of its leafage. Everything in the wood appears to be in a perpetual state of watchfulness or of easily routed security. The sparrow by the roadside will accept you for a listener, if you keep within bounds of the auditorium; transgress them a little, and he measures off another dozen feet to the next post, and begins the concert afresh. The chipmunk, after his first start and scurry, pauses to eye the intruder before slipping into his hole, and the glance is often an assured one. But the wood bird and squirrel have no low curiosity and no desire to be seen; they are up and away at the first alarm. The only birds who are careless of a new presence in the woods are the tiny warblers and fly-catching tribes, who live first floor below the stars and take small note of events in the rez-de-chaussée, and the chickadee, who brings in from orchard and pasture a fund of cheerful audacity to be paid out among the shadows.
Do not we ourselves, on entering the wood, take on a certain increase of susceptibility and alertness analogous to this deepened timidity and caution of the birds ? Have we no wood-fears ? They may be definite and substantial or altogether vague, but I think that most of us have felt some quaver of this innate distrust, this readiness to take alarm in the forest. “ See his little breast heave,” I once said, pointing out to a startled maiden a chipmunk, who, in the flurry of his own terror, had been the cause of hers. “ I don’t wonder at it,” she replied fervently. “ Mine does.” There are all degrees of this sensitiveness, according to the fineness or cultivation of the imagination. There are people who suspect every unfamiliar leaf or berry of malicious intent to poison them, who will hardly pluck a flower without challenge, and are more wary of drinking at a mountain stream than of imbibing the filtered liquid which usurps the name of water in the city. And country people have more shrinkings and small superstitions, albeit of a homelier and more absolvable sort, than the most urban of excursionists. The children, on returning from a day’s berrying, or “ plumming,” as they quaintly call it in some parts, report of hearing a bear in the forest border, and are half convinced that their escape to the sunlight has been a narrow one. Toads and snakes are not looked upon with more favor by those nearest to their haunts. What a venerable cult is that fear of snakes ! It is as old as the oldest religion ; it is so wide-spread that we can almost call it universal, and has roots so deep that it is impossible to tell whether they are fastened in instinct or in tradition. The fact that it is shared by birds and other animals points to the former source ; but if the feeling had not its rise in tradition, it has certainly been among the most potent factors in creating it. The vivid emeralds and harmonious wood-tints of the snake, his patterned spots and stripes, his reproduction in almost every movement of Hogarth’s line of beauty, win for him no admiration. Even his innocence is no shield to him; the world will not be brought to believe it. Take away his fangs and reduce him to a puny size, the aversion he inspires is there all the same, illogical yet ineradicable.
Thus it is with the majority of the sensations which I term wood-fears. Apart from all vulgar, tangible apprehension of being bitten or stung, there exist a host of tiny intangible “fearlets,” which tease our imaginations or lurk unsuspected in the background of our consciousness. Alone in the forest, we listen and keep a lookout; there is a course to be shaped ; we are alive to every whisper; we startle the partridge, and are startled by him in turn. An unexplained noise has everywhere an unfriendly sound, and under the trees noises do not so readily explain themselves as in the open country. The very screams and bellowings of the farm-yard, familiar as they are, sound new and unaccountable when heard at intervals across a wooded ridge or valley. Sometimes it is the creaking and soughing of the boughs; the tree-tops, on a windy day, give forth unearthly moans. I have found the cause of a recurrent and perplexing cry in a rude instrument formed by the crossing of two branches, of which the one sawed upon the other like a violin bow drawn across a string. Both bow and string, stout and tough of fibre, were worn and polished by long practice of that solitary note. Even the lightest wood has its hushed twitterings, its vanishings and inexplicable rustlings.
“The copse-depths into tittle noises start.”
I remember as a child being made curious, then awed, and gradually frightened by a low sound resembling a gentle, regular breathing, which proceeded from under an alder-bush on the edge of a swampy thicket. I drew nearer and peeped in. The only live thing visible was a brown thrush, who indeed was skulking away, as if caught in the act ; but I knew that was only his usual conscious, embarrassed air, and refused to suspect him of any connection with the disturbance. No other culprit appeared, and yet the even respirations continued, till my courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozed away, and I fled, not from an apparition, but from a vibration.
More appalling than any sound is the silence and lonesomeness of the deep forest. One is haunted by the antiquity which is symboled in long moss beards, and which lies visible all around in huge decaying trees, the unburied ancestors of the monarchs who are still standing strong in their girth of rings. It suggests the Palæozoic era and the formation of coal to see those great trunks, hewn down by time and tempest, half sunken in the earth, and already perhaps many seasons on in the existence which is theirs after death. Covered with mosses and bright fungi, they seem still half sentient and more wrought upon by age than the coal itself, which has forgotten and become inorganic so long ago that years do not count. Among those aged generations the mountain climber is an anachronism as well as an intruder, and is confronted at every step by the question what he doth there. Time has put obstacles in his way : to make any progress, he must clamber over logs, tack around bowlders, and avoid impenetrable places. There silence reigns, with a break now and then, which leaves it to settle again deeper than before. Even so busy and cheerful a sound as the woodpecker’s hammer divides and intensifies the stillness with a certain solemnity.
In ancient days of superstition the croaking of a raven foreboded ill-hap. If there were an index expurgatory of New England birds, the jay, for all his heavenly plumage, would have to be placed in it. There are few bird notes more weird than that high scream of his, heard in the autumn across the brown fields or through the arches of the pine grove. It rings through all the aisles, making the quietude like a hush of apprehension.
There are moments when, on entering the woods, one seems to have broken in upon some high festivity of Nature. A few hours before, in the same spot, life was suspended ; one could walk from end to end of the wood path and hear not a breath, detect no movement save of noiseless insects or a little leaf-hued frog, in complexion like his carpet. That was at the noontide solstice, when a rose - colored light filtered through broad leaves, and one could fancy siestas in progress behind the jalousies of green. But later in the day what groupings and activities ! Squirrels start and scuttle off, thrushes beat a hasty retreat through the underbrush, partridges spring up with a sudden rustle of fright and indignation, and go whirring away in loud protest. You have disturbed the wood-gods at their feast, the fairies at a gathering, and your sense of intrusion is stronger than when you walked through the empty halls while they slept. There is something in these sylvan scatterings which suggests almost irresistibly the breaking-up of a fairy dance or a flight of shy nymphs. In early morning such interruptions give hints of a whole night of revelry, and tempt us to believe a little in “ the good people,” and half regret their banishment from power. The pale nymphs dancing at dawn, in a landscape of Corot’s, — are they not formed from the dawn itself, from the first shafts and glimmerings of light on the forest’s edge ? And may not myths have been evolved in the same manner ?
But of all imaginations that have peopled the woods, Shakespeare has most exquisitely fitted his creations into their shadows and sun-flecks, their green glades and nooks. Mr. Burroughs, in one of his delightful papers on the natural history of the poets, has paid tribute to the wonderful accuracy of Shakespeare’s incidental characterizations of birds and plants. But beyond this intimate knowledge of herb and songster and creeping thing, there is in his outdoor comedies a breadth of greenery, a sense of the manifold harmonies and repose of the forest, a consciousness of its many tints and meanings. The oaks spread lovingly over Rosalind and the flowers grow about Perdita. Their speech does not disturb the quiet, nor ring false among the boughs. They jest and love; they were born in courts and must return thither ; yet they belong to the greenwood, and we are never quite reconciled to seeing them on the stage. To find Shakespeare face to face, however, with the woods and the sky, we turn to The Tempest. I have always had a fancy that in this play, as in the Sonnets, the poet “unlocked his heart,” but that time or our own dullness has sealed it again. The Tempest seems to me more indicative of our relations to Nature than any other writing. We see in it her terrors, her beauty, and her inscrutableness. We are wrought upon by a spell; but submit to it reverently, and it is a kindly spell, while all our counterspells and petty insubordinations dash themselves against it and end in failure. I have often questioned whether these paltry fears and startings in the woods are not punishments, marks of a departure from Nature and cessation of familiar intimate intercourse with her. But read in the light of The Tempest, they may be partly signs of election ; calls to reverence and to wholesome fear; reminders of the mystery which lies about us, and which we are apt to forget in the sunlight, though it is there in its solemnity no less than in the shadow.