The Earth-Spirit's Voices

— Sometimes it is difficult to keep from believing that the earth has voices, “mystic, wonderful,” whose weird message continually tries to get itself delivered to our ear.

Every one has had the experience of standing in the midst of the woods, some still summer day, when the leaves and sprays hung motionless, and the silence was profound. Presently you are aware of a stir in the tree-tops. It is not so much an audible sound, at first, as an invisible movement, apprehended only by the most delicate tentacles of the sense of hearing. Then it rises to a soft murmur, and dies away. Again you hear it, farther off this time, but approaching. It is the Voice of the woods. But this is not all. I have fancied that beneath this murmurous surf-sound there lurks a still more mysterious undertone; as if there were other Voices, never daring to speak with each other except when the wind is blowing to mask their presence. With each other — or is it not rather that they are trying to communicate with our human spirit ? As I hear them, I imagine troops of little eager faces, pressing as near me as they dare, or as they are permitted, watching for the swelling of the wind, and hushing each other as it falls to silence.

But the message, if indeed there be one that the earth-spirit is thus trying to deliver, will hardly be conveyed by these delicate elves of the wood. They are too timid, too fearful of the quiet, and conditioned upon other sounds which mask but confuse their burden.

I think that the message will ultimately be conveyed by the Voices of the river. Their music, for one thing, is nearest that of human speech. I remember one night when we were camped by the McCloud River, deep in the heart of the redwood forest in northern California. There was no moon. Far above us the great plumy tops of the redwoods, own kin to the giant trees of the Sierras, rose like cathedral roof and towers, and hid the starlight. The aisles below were empty and silent, and mysterious with that soul of shadow that haunts the solitary woods at night. The aisles were silent, but not the choir. For, a stone’s-throw to the right, the Voices of the clear, deep river were talking and laughing all night long. They were perfectly human tones. There would run on for a few moments an even, continuous babble; then out of it would rise a mingled peal of musical laughter, like bells, or clear pebbles striking together, or tinkling of ice, yet all the time human. Then there would run merry chucklings up and down the river; and then a shout would arise, away down stream, and another ; and then all the hurrying Voices would talk loudly together ; and then a moment’s quiet; and then, again, inextinguishable laughter.

If I had lain there alone, perhaps I might have understood some fragment of this inarticulate music, or speech. But perhaps, too, I might have paid for it by never hearing mortal accents more; so weirdly this tumult of elfin syllables wrought upon me, even well companioned as I was, there in the dimness and unearthly solitude of the starlit forest.

I never heard these Voices of the river again till one night they rose from the orchestra, in the Rhine Nymphs’ song. I do not think Wagner understood them, any more than I ; he merely transcribed them from the river. It was strange to think that there they were, in uncomprehended echo, again appealing to mortal spirits across the barrier of the limited human intelligence.

At sea also, I once heard this unavailing cry. It was a hundred miles, and more, from the coast of Brazil. The night was clear starlight, the breeze light and steady, so that we were sailing silently. The stillness, indeed, was so unusual that we were all leaning at the weather rail, listening to it, and peering far off into the vanishing waste of waves. Suddenly a distant cry arose from the night; no one could say where, or how. Then it was twice repeated : not a human cry, that is certain ; perhaps a sea-bird’s, but not like that of any bird or beast I ever heard. If it expressed anything, it was not pain nor fear, but some intense, infinitely lonely desire.

It is no wonder the Greeks felt the earth to be a spirit. If we are not all pantheists, the wonder is that we are not all mythologists, at least. Sometimes it has seemed to me as these following lines endeavor to express : —


As some poor child whose soul is windowless,
Having not hearing, speech, nor sight, sits lone
In her dark, silent life, till cometh one
With a most patient heart, who tries to guess
Some hidden way to help her helplessness ;
And, yearning for that spirit shut in stone,
A crystal that has never seen the sun,
Smooths now the hair, and now the hand will press,
Or gives a key to touch, then letters raised,
Its symbol; then an apple, or a ring,
And again letters, —so, all blind and dumb,
We wait; the kindly smiles of summer come,
And soft winds touch our cheek, and thrushes sing;
The world-heart yearns, but we stand dull and dazed.
At another time the relation of the world to the human spirit has seemed to be more truthfully hinted at in lines like these:—


As some poor Indian woman
A captive child receives.
And warms it in her bosom,
And o’er its weeping grieves ;
And comforts it with kisses,
And strives to understand
Its eager, lonely babble,
Fondling the little hand, —
So Earth, our foster-mother,
Yearns for us, with her great
Wild heart, and croons in murmurs
Low, inarticulate.
She knows we are white captives,
Her dusky race above,
But the deep, childless bosom
Throbs with its brooding love.