An Old Road
I FALL in with persons, now and then, who profess to care nothing for a path when walking in the woods. They do not choose to travel in other people’s footsteps, — nay, nor even in their own, —but count it their mission to lay out a new road every time they go afield. They are welcome to their freak. My own genius for adventure is less highly developed ; and, to be frank, I have never learned to look upon affectation and whim as synonymous with originality. In my eyes, it is nothing against a hill that other men have climbed it before me ; and if their feet have worn a trail, so much the better. I not only reach the summit more easily, but have company on the way, — company none the less, to my mind, perhaps, for being silent and invisible. It is well enough to Strike into the trackless forest once in a while ; to wander you know not whither, and come out you know not where; to lie down in a strange place, and for the hour imagine yourself the explorer of a new continent: but if the mind be awake (as, alas, too often it is not), you may walk where you will, in never so well known a corner, and you will see new things, and think new thoughts, and return to your house a new man, which, I venture to believe, is after all the main consideration. Indeed, if your stirring abroad is to be more than mere muscular exercise, you will find a positive advantage in making use of some well-worn and familiar path. The feet will follow it mechanically, and so the mind — that is, the walker himself — will be left undistracted. That, to my thinking, is the real tour of discovery wherein one keeps to the beaten road, looks at the customary sights, but brings home a new idea.
There are inward moods, as well as outward conditions, in which an old, half - disused, bush - bordered road becomes the saunterer’s paradise. I have several such in my eye at this moment, but especially one, in which my feet, years ago, grew to feel at home. It is an almost ideal loitering-place, or would be, if only it were somewhat longer. How many hundreds of times have I traveled it, spring and summer, autumn and winter! As I go over it now, the days of my youth come back to me, clothed all of them in that soft, benignant light which nothing but distance can bestow, whether upon hills or days. This gracious effect is heightened, no doubt, by the fact that for a good while past my visits to the place have been only occasional. Memory and imagination are true yoke-fellows, and between them are always preparing some new pleasure for us, as often as we allow them opportunity. The other day, for instance, as I came to the top of the hill just beyond the river, I turned suddenly to the right, looking for an old pear-tree. I had not thought of it for years, and the more I have since tried to recall its appearance and exact whereabouts, the less confident have I grown that it ever had any material existence ; but somehow, just at that moment my mouth seemed to recollect it; and in general I have come to put faith in such involuntary and, if I may say so, sensible joggings of the memory. I wonder whether the tree ever was there — or anywhere. At all events, the thought of it gave me for the moment a pleasure more real than any taste in the mouth, were it never so sweet. Thank fortune, imaginative delights are as far as possible from being imaginary.
The river just mentioned runs under the road, and, as will readily be inferred, is one of its foremost attractions. I speak of it as a “ river ” with some misgivings. It is a rather large brook or a very small river ; but a man who has never been able to leap across it has perhaps no right to deny it the more honorable appellation. Its source is a spacious and beautiful sheet of water, which heretofore has been known as a “pond,” but which I should be glad to believe would hereafter be put upon the maps as Lake Wessagusset. This brook or river, call it whichever you please, goes meandering through the township in a northeasterly direction, turning the wheels of half a dozen mills, more or less, on its way ; a sluggish stream, too lazy to work, you would think ; passing much of its time in flat, grassy meadows, where it idles along as if it realized that the end of its course was near, and felt in no haste to lose itself in the salt sea. Out of this stream I pulled goodly numbers of perch, pickerel, shiners, flatfish, and hornpouts, while I was still careless-hearted enough (“ Heaven lies about us in our infancy ”) to enjoy this very amiable and semi-religious form of “ sport; ” and as the river intersects at least seven roads that came within my boyish beat, I must have crossed it thousands of times; in addition to which I have spent days in paddling and bathing in it. Altogether, it is one of my most familiar friends ; and — what one cannot say of all familiar friends — I do not remember that it ever served me the slightest ill-turn. It passes under the road of which I am now discoursing, in a double channel (the bridge being supported midway by a stone wall), and then broadens out into an artificial shallow, through which travelers may drive if they will, to let their horses drink out of the stream. First and last, I have improved many a shining hour on this bridge, leaning industriously over the railing. I can see the rocky bed at this moment, — yes, and the very shape and position of some of the stones, as I saw them thirty years ago ; especially of one, on which we used to balance ourselves to dip up the water or to peer under the bridge. In those days, if we essayed to be uncommonly adventurous, we waded through this low and somewhat dark passage ; a gruesome proceeding, as we were compelled to stoop a little, short as we were, to save our heads, while the road, to our imagination, seemed in momentary danger of caving in upon us. Courage, like all other human virtues, is but a relative attribute. Possibly the heroic deeds which in our grown-up estate we take pride in are not greatly more meritorious or wonderful than were some of the childish ventures at the recollection of which we now condescend to feel amused.
On the surface of the brook flourished two kinds of insects, whose manner of life we never tired of watching. One sort had long, wide-spreading legs, and by us were known as “ skaters,” from their movements (to this day, I blush to confess, I have no other name for them) ; the others were flat, shining, orbicular or oblong, lead-colored bugs, — “ lucky bugs,” I have heard them called, — and lay flat upon the water, as if quite without limbs; but they darted over the brook, and even against the current, with noticeable activity, and doubtless were well supplied with paddles. Once in a while we saw a fish here, but only on rare occasions. The great unfailing attraction of the place, then as now, was the flowing water, forever spending and never spent. The insects lived upon it; apparently they had no power to leave it for an instant; but they were not carried away by it. Happy creatures! We, alas, sporting upon the river of time, can neither dive below the surface nor mount into the ether, and, unlike the insects (“ lucky bugs,” indeed !), we have no option but to move with the tide. We have less liberty than the green flags, even, which grow in scattered tufts in the bed of the brook; whose leaves point forever down stream, like so many index fingers, as if they said, “ Yes, yes, that is the way to the sea ; that way we all must go ; ” while for themselves, nevertheless, they manage to hold on by their roots, victorious even while professing to yield.
To my mind the river is alive. Reason about it as I will, I never can make it otherwise. I could sooner believe in water nymphs than in many existences which are commonly treated as much more certain matters of fact. I could believe in them, I say ; but in reality I do not. My communings are not with any haunter of the river, but with the living soul of the river itself. It lags under the vine-covered alders, hastens through the bridge, then slips carelessly down a little descent, where it breaks into singing, then into a mill-pond and out again, and so on and on, through one experience after another; and all the time it is not dead water, but a river, a thing of life and motion. After all, it is not for me to say what is alive, and what dead. As yet, indeed, I do not so much as know what life is. In certain moods, in what I fondly call my better moments, I feel measurably sure of being alive myself ; but even on that point, for aught I can tell, the brook may entertain some private doubts.
Just beyond the bridge is an ancient apple orchard. This was already falling into decay when I was a boy, and the many years that have elapsed since then have nearly completed its demolition ; although I dare say the present generation of schoolboys still find it worth while to clamber over the wall, as they journey back and forth. Probably it will be no surprise to the owner of the place if I tell him that before I was twelve years old I knew the taste of all his apples. In fact, the orchard was so sequestered, so remote from any house, — especially from its proprietor’s, — that it hardly seemed a sin to rob it. It was not so much an orchard as a bit of woodland ; and besides, we never shook the trees, but only helped ourselves to windfalls, and it must be a severe moralist who calls that stealing. Why should the fruit drop off, if not to he picked up ? In my time, at all events, such appropriations were never accounted robbery, though the providential absence of the owner was unquestionably a thing to be thankful for. He would never begrudge us the apples, of course, for he was rich and presumably generous; but it was quite as well for him to be somewhere else while we were gathering up these favors which the winds of heaven had shaken down for our benefit. There is something of the special pleader in most of us, it is to be feared, whether young or old. If we are put to it, we can draw a very fine distinction (in our own favor), no matter how obtuse we may seem on ordinary occasions.
Remembering how voracious and undiscriminating my juvenile appetite was, I cannot help wondering that I am still alive, — a feeling which I doubt not is shared by many a man who, like myself, had a country bringing-up. We must have been born with something more than a spark of life, else it would certainly have been smothered long ago by the fuel so recklessly heaped upon it. But we lived out-of-doors, took abundant exercise, were not studious overmuch (as all boys and girls are charged with being nowadays), and had little to worry about, which may go far to explain the mystery.
It provokes a smile to reckon up the many places along this old road that are indissolubly connected in my mind with the question of something to eat. At the foot of the orchard just now spoken of, for example, is a dilapidated stone wall, between it and the river. Over this, as well as over the bushes beside it, straggled a small wild grapevine, bearing every year a scanty crop of white grapes. These, to our unsophisticated palates, were delicious, if only they got ripe. That was the rub ; and as a rule we gathered our share of them (which was all there were) while they were yet several stages short of that desirable consummation, not deeming it prudent to leave them longer, lest some hungrier soul should get the start of us. Graping, as we called it, was one of our regular autumn industries, and there were few vines within the circle of our perambulations which did not feel our fingers tugging at them at least once a year. Some of them hung well over the river; others took refuge in the tops of trees ; but by hook or by crook, we usually got the better of such perversities. No doubt the fruit was all bad enough; but some of it was sweeter (or less sour) than other. Perhaps the best vine was one which covered a certain superannuated apple-tree, half a mile west of our river-side orchard, before mentioned. Here I might have been seen by the hour, eagerly yet cautiously venturing out upon the decayed and doubtful limbs, in quest of this or that peculiarly tempting bunch. These grapes were purple (how well some things are remembered !), and were sweeter then than Isabellas or Catawbas are now. Such is the degeneracy of vines in these modern days !
Altogether more important than the grapes were the huckleberries, for which, also, we four times out of five took this same famous by-road. Speaking roughly, I may say that we depended upon seven pastures for our supplies, and were accustomed to visit them in something like regular order. It is kindly provided that huckleberry bushes have an exceptionally strong tendency to vary. We possessed no theories upon the subject, and knew nothing of disputed questions about species and varieties ; but we were not without a good degree of practical information. Here was a bunch of bushes, for instance, covered with black, shiny, pear-shaped berries, very numerous, but very small. They would do moderately well in default of better. Another patch, perhaps but a few rods removed, bore large globular berries, less glossy than the others, but still black. These, as we expressed it, “ filled up ” much faster than the others, though not nearly so “ thick.” Blue berries (not blueberries, but blue huckleberries) were common enough, and we knew one small cluster of plants, the fruit of which was white, a variety that I have since found noted by Doctor Gray as very rare. Unhappily, this freak made so little impression upon me as a boy that while I am clear as to the fact, and feel sure of the pasture, I have no distinct recollection of the exact spot where the eccentric bushes grew. I should like to know whether they still persist. Gray’s Manual, by the way, makes no mention of the blue varieties, but lays it down succintly that the fruit of Gaylussacia resinosa is black.
The difference we cared most about, however, related not to color, shape, or size, but to the time of ripening. Diversity of habit in this regard was indeed a great piece of good fortune, not to be rightly appreciated without horrible imaginings of how short the season of berry pies and puddings would be if all the berries matured at once. You may be sure we never forgot where the early sorts were to be found, and where the late. What hours upon hours we spent in the broiling sun, picking into some half-pint vessel, and emptying that into a larger receptacle, safely stowed away under some cedar-tree or barberry-bush. How proud we were of our heaped-up pails ! How carefully we discarded from the top every half-ripe or otherwise imperfect specimen! (So early do welltaught Yankee children develop one qualification for the diaconate.) The sun had certain minor errands to look after, we might have admitted, even in those midsummer days, but his principal business was to ripen huckleberries. So it seemed then. And now —well, men are but children still, and for them, too, their own little round is the centre of the world.
All these pastures had names, of course, well understood by us children, though I am not sure how generally they would have been recognized by the townspeople. The first in order was River Pasture, the owner of which turned his cattle into it, and every few years mowed the bushes, with the result that the berries, whenever there were any, were uncommonly large and handsome. Not far beyond this (the entrance was through a “ pair of bars,” beside a spreading white oak) was Millstone Pasture. This was a large, straggling place, half pasture, half wood, full of nooks and corners, with by-paths running hither and thither, and named after two large bowlders, which lay one on top of the other. We used to clamber upon these to eat our luncheon, thinking within ourselves, meanwhile, that the Indians must have been men of prodigious strength. At that time, though I scarcely know how to own it, glacial action was a thing by us unheard of. We are wiser now, — on that point, at any rate. Two of the other pastures were called respectively after the railroad and a big pine-tree (there was a big pine-tree in W—— once, for I myself have seen the stump), while the remainder took their names from their owners, real or reputed ; and as some of these appellations were rather disrespectfully abbreviated, it may be as well to omit setting them down in print.
To all these places we resorted a little later in the season for blackberries, and later still for barberries. In one or two of them we set snares, also, but without materially lessening the quantity of game. The rabbits, especially, always helped themselves to the bait, and left us the noose. At this distance of time I do not begrudge them their good fortune. I hope they are all alive yet, including the youngster that we once caught in our hands and brought home, and then, in a fit of contrition, carried back again to its native heath.
All in all, the berries that we prized most, perhaps, were those that came first, and were at the same time least abundant. Yankee children will understand at once that I mean the checkerberries, or, as we were more accustomed to call them, the boxberries. The very first mild days in March, if the snow happened to be mostly gone, saw us on this same old road, bound for one of the places where we thought ourselves most likely to find a few (possibly a pint or two, but more probably a handful or two) of these humble but spicy fruits. Not that the plants were not plentiful enough in all directions, but it was only in certain spots (or rather in very uncertain spots, since these were continually shifting) that they were ever in good bearing condition. We came after a while to understand that the best crops were produced for two or three years after the cutting off of the wood in suitable localities. Letting in the sunlight seems to have the effect of starting into sudden fruitfulness this hardy, persistent little plant, although I never could discover that it thrived better for growing permanently in an open, sunny field. Perhaps it requires an unexpected change of condition, a providential nudge, as it were, to jog it into activity, like some poets. Whatever the explanation, we used now and then in recent clearings (and nowhere else) to find the ground fairly red with berries. Those were redletter days in our calendar. How handsome such a patch of rose-color was (though we made haste to despoil it), circling an old stump or a bowlder! The berries were pleasant to the eye and good for food; but after all, their principal attractiveness lay in the fact that they came right upon the heels of winter. They were the first-fruits of the new year (ripened the year before, to be sure), and to our thinking were fit to be offered upon any altar, no matter how sacred.
I have called the subject of my loving meditations a by-road. Formerly it was the main thoroughfare between two villages, but shortly after my acquaintance with it began a new and more direct one was laid out. Yet the old road, half deserted as it is, has not altogether escaped the ruthless hand of the improver. Within my time it has been widened throughout, and in one place a new section has been built to cut off a curve. Fortunately, however, the discarded portion still remains, well grown up to grass, and closely encroached upon by willows, alders, sumachs, barberries, dogwoods, smilax, clethra, azalea, button-bush, birches, and what not, yet still passable even for carriages, and more inviting than ever to lazy pedestrians like myself. On this cast-off section is a cosy, grassy nook, shaded by a cluster of red cedars. This was one of our favorite way-stations on summer noons. It gives me a comfortable, restful feeling to look into it even now, as if my weary limbs had reminiscences of their own connected with the place.
Right at this point stands an ancient russet-apple tree, which seems no older and brings forth no smaller apples now than it did when I first knew it. How natural it looks in every knot and branch ! Strange, too, that it should be so, since I do not recall its ever contributing the first mouthful to my pleasures as a schoolboy gastronomer. In those times I judged a tree solely by the New Testament standard, very literally interpreted, — “ By their fruits ye shall know them.” Now I have other tests, and can value an old acquaintance of this kind for its picturesqueness, though its apples be bitter as wormwood.
I am making too much of the food question, and will therefore say nothing of strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, cranberries (which last were delicious, as we took them out of their icy ovens in the spring), pig-nuts, hazelnuts, acorns, and the rest. Yet I will not pass by a small clump of dangleberry bushes (a September luxury not common in our neighborhood) and a lofty pear-tree. The latter, in truth, hardly belongs under this head; for though it bore superabundant crops of pears, not even a child was ever known to eat one. We called them iron pears, perhaps because nothing but the hottest fire could be expected to reduce them to a condition of softness. My mouth is all in a pucker at the mere thought of the rusty-green bullets. It did seem a pity they should be so outrageously hard, so absolutely untoothsome ; for the tree, as I say, was a big one and provokingly prolific, and, moreover, stood squarely upon the roadside. What a godsend we should have found it, had its fruit been a few degrees less stony ! Such incongruities and disappointments go far to convince me that the creation is indeed, as some theologians have taught, under a curse.
My appetite for wild fruits has grown dull with age, but meanwhile my affection for the old road has not lessened, but rather increased. In itself the place is nowise remarkable, a common country back road (its very name is Back Street) ; but all the same I “ take pleasure in its stones, and favor the dust thereof.” There are none of us so matter of fact and unsentimental, I hope, as never to have experienced the force of old associations in gilding the most ordinary objects. For my own part, I protest I would give more for a single stunted cluster of orange-red berries from a certain small vine of Roxbury wax-work, near the entrance to Millstone Pasture aforesaid, than for a bushel of larger and handsomer specimens from some alien source. This old vine still holds on, I am happy to see, though it appears to have made no growth in twenty years. Long may it be spared! It was within a few rods of it, beside the path that runs into the pasture, that I shot my first bird. Newly armed with a shot-gun, and on murder bent, I turned in here; and as luck would have it, there sat the innocent creature in a birch. The temptation was too great. There followed a moment of excitement, a nervous aim, a bang, and a cat-bird’s song was hushed forever. A mean and cruel act, which I confess with shame, and have done my best to atone for by speaking here and there a good word for this poorly appreciated member of our native choir. I should be glad to believe that the schoolboys of the present day are more tender-hearted than those with whom I mixed ; but I am not without my doubts. As Darwin showed, all animals in the embryonic stage tend to reproduce ancestral characteristics ; and our Anglo-Saxon ancestors (how easy it seems to believe it!) were barbarians.
This same Millstone Pasture, by the bye, was a place of special resort at Christmas time. Here grew plenty of the trailing plant which we knew simply as “ evergreen,” but which now, in my superior wisdom, I call Lycopodium complanatum. This, indeed, was common in various directions, but the holly was much less easily found, and grew here more freely than anywhere else. The unhappy trees had a hard shift to live, so broken down were they with each recurring December; and the more berries they produced, the worse for them. Their anticipations of Christmas must have been strangely different from those of us toy-loving, candy-eating children. But who thinks of sympathizing with a tree ?
As for the wayside flowers, they are, as becomes the place, of the very commonest and most old-fashioned sorts, more welcome to my eye than the choicest of rarities : golden-rods and asters in great variety and profusion, hardhack and meadow-sweet, St. John’s wort and loosestrife, violets and anemones, selfheal and cranesbill, and especially the lovely but little-known purple gerardia. These, with their natural companions and allies, make to me a garden of delights, whereunto my feet, as far as they find opportunity, do continually resort. What flowers ought a New Englander to love, if not such as are characteristic of New England ?
And yet, proudly and affectionately as I talk of it, Back Street is not what it once was. I have already mentioned the straightening, as also the widening, both of them sorry improvements. Furthermore, there was formerly a huge (as I remember it) and beautifully proportioned hemlock-tree, at which I used to gaze admiringly in the first years of my wandering hither. What millions of tiny cones hung from its pendulous branches ! The magnificent creation should have been protected by legislative enactment, if necessary ; but no, almost as long ago as I can remember, long before I attained to grammar-school dignities, the owner of the land (so he thought himself, no doubt) turned the tree into firewood. And worse yet, the stately pine grove that flourished across the way, with mossy bowlders underneath and a most delightsome density of shade, — this, too, like the patriarchal hemlock, has been cut off in the midst of its usefulness.
And my sad thoughts doth cheer! ”
Now there is nothing on the whole hillside but a thicket of young hard-wood trees (I would say deciduous, but in New England, alas, all trees are deciduous), through which my dog loves to prowl, but which warns me to keep the road. Such devastations are not to be prevented, I suppose, but at least there is no law against my bewailing them.
Even in its present decadence, however, my road, as I said to begin with, is a kind of saunterer’s paradise. When we come to particulars, indeed, it is nothing to boast of ; but waiving particulars, and taking it for all in all, there is no highway upon the planet where I better enjoy an idle hour. There is a boy of perhaps ten years whose companionship is out of all reason dear to me; and nowhere am I surer to find him at my side, hand in hand, than in this same lonely road, although I know very well that those who meet or pass me here see only one person, and that a man of several times ten years. But thank Heaven, we are not always alone when we seem to be.