Pasture Herb and Meadow Swath
THE pasture is the living-room of Nature, where common daily avocations go on round hearthstones made hot by the sun ; where the sounds are trivial, the silences familiar, and life an affair of cheerful activity rather than of solemnity or high insight. It is the meetingpoint of civilization and wildness, as the pastoral life has been for nations the link between barbarism and agriculture. The cows troop soberly up from the farmyard to join the tinkle of their bells to that of the rivulet which tumbles down from the mountain, losing its deep, cool privacy to spread itself thinly on grassy terraces, wind among the bushes, stand here and there in open pools, and perhaps go to naught in the parched, porous soil. The pasture itself slants skyward, and was once part of the mountain. Its shadows have been torn away; its rocks lie revealed, bare-shouldered, bleached, and seamed by the weather, and covered with papery lichen in place of their ancient moss. They long, perhaps, to revert to the old wildness, but in vain. “ They have submitted to a new control.” The change is almost climatic. A new fauna and flora have grown up around them. It is the era of the herb and the grasshopper. The mushrooms, and cool ferns, and the shy wood warblers are left behind and above on the mountain.
Between the rocks the soil is pungent with the spice of sweet-fern, mint, and pennyroyal, with now and then an aromatic patch of brown needles under a clump of pine-trees. The flowers are of the homely sort: yellow St. John’s wort and mullein, straggling white - starred cinquefoil, and in damp spots a few of the little faint blue Quaker ladies, or “ innocents,” as they are called in some parts, — we must go back to Charles Lamb for the connection between the two appellations, — not clustered together as in their native meadows, but peeping out shyly, one at a time, unconscious and unobtrusive. What place have their tiny stems and gold-eyed crosses in a region where everything is for use, where the clustered pink bells of the huckleberry are storing up future pies, and the herbs seem fashioned in the ground with a view to their winter sojourn in the garret ? The old women are right to stand by their herb tea. Nature has seemingly lent herself to a multitude of systems and quackeries. The fruits of knowledge have been often baneful, and those of cultivated ignorance have destroyed their thousands. But she planted the pennyroyal on open ground close to the farmhouse, and invited the good people to gather it for its pungent odor, and to tie its trim spikes into a homely bouquet. If the brews concocted of it have less efficacy than the fresh mountain air which blows over it all summer, they yet retain something of the summer’s spice in their simplicity. And there are housewives, plenty of them, in dear New England who have the strength and wholesomeness of the herbs in their souls, whether or not their bodily vigor be the result of sage or boneset, and from whose hands one would receive a cup of bitterness almost as joyfully as a square of delicious brown gingerbread or a doughnut just out of the pan. There are things in life more palatable than the herbs which leave no such sweetness behind.
Among the rocks and hollows of the pasture, society is, perhaps, as nearly upon a communistic basis as we can find it in Nature outside the bee-cell and the ant-hill. There are no rich holdings. The thin blond grass is free to all, and gives nourishment to the cows, who spend the long day in threading their way between rocks and bushes, cropping mouthfuls of its sweetness as they go, and weaving a network of objectless paths through the swampy growths and sweet-fern. The chipmunks keep house under the bowlders, and scamper out to sun themselves, in kittenish attitudes, on rocky ledges. In summer they vary their diet of nuts by an occasional berry. I watched one lately helping himself to the lowest raspberry from a low-hanging branch, picking it daintily with his forepaws, and holding it up to eat as if it were a nut. They are the tamest of our wild creatures. I have known one to come daily from his hole in the garden wall to join the chickens at mealtime ; by degrees he became venturesome, and once or twice he crossed the threshold of the farmhouse, and picked up from the kitchen floor crumbs that must have had a new flavor to his palate.
Another pasture mammal, though he is also a denizen of the meadow, and was christened in the copse, is the woodchuck. He is not to be lured by the wiles of civilization ; he takes kindly to its fruits, but will none of its yoke. I held an interview, brief but half intimate, with a woodchuck the other day, in which my fancy was captivated by that idea of a possible kinship with wild four-footed things that haunted Hawthorne and Thoreau ; but I could perceive that the comradeship was all on one side, and that my companion received but small pleasure, and had no intention of imparting any. It was on a logging road which struck away from the pasture into a wood. A half-grown woodchuck advanced from under the trees to the edge of the path, and stopped on seeing me. He held three leaves in his teeth. I also called a halt, and we stood looking at each other. His little nose quivered with a motion all its own, and his round body rose and fell in longer waves of respiration. Both of us shirked the initiative for a time ; at last I withdrew a little to give him confidence and an opportunity to resume his way, but he did not budge. He may have been paralyzed in his little woodchuck heart, but he did not look frightened. At the risk of being set down as unpoetic in my conclusions, I will say that he looked like a shrewd Yankee woodchuck, who waited to see his neighbor’s pile before making his own. Impelled by a curiosity to see how far his terror or his courage would go, I stepped up to him and took one of the leaves from between his teeth. He made a little snap at my hand, then drew himself together and chattered at me with a wild gleam in his eye, “a countenance more ” in anger than expressive of fear or any other sentiment. It was not till I had removed to a distance and waited for some moments that he took to his heels, and then they carried him down the wooded slope at a pace which put further intercourse out of the question.
No, they do not want us in those alien spheres. We are broadening our sympathies to small purpose as far as any save ourselves are concerned, and tendering them where there is neither craving nor need. Even the internal relations of the pasture Mir are not always as friendly as the soft blending of sounds and odors would lead us to imagine. Its inhabitants are, after all, bread-winners, and though the competition implied in that fact appears to be a cheerful one, we cannot look into it without perceiving the existence of the little rift which for us has well-nigh destroyed the music. When we get the statistics of the pasture herbs, we find that the ground they occupy was won by hard fighting, and covers a multitude of slain. Now and again, in the open daylight of the pasture, there are fierce struggles with darkness. One day I came upon a small chintz-patterned snake in the act of devouring a toad. He took his meal slowly and with relish, drawing his elastic body forward over his prey, wrinkle by wrinkle, as a glove is drawn over a hand, and opening his mouth with satisfaction as the living mass within moved from one curve to another. Such sights suggest to us that the cruelties of life may have their root in something deeper than a social form, and that in clamoring as we do for their extinction, we may be combating a law that is central and eternal. The means for soothing and mitigating lie all about us, and are not to be disregarded; invitations to forget or to rise above them are in every breath and ray of light. The beauty of life lies open ; its sanctity and sweetness are inherent, but Amiel was looking into a real abyss when he wrote that “ la profondeur est austère et formidable.” It is for the soul to take account, to reconcile or to accept.
But here in the pasture we remember Emerson’s saying that “ life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy.” The ants labor all day over humps and hillocks with their heavy burdens. The cricket and grasshopper take long leaps across each other’s acres, and the bee covers them all on invisible lines of railroad, whirring with swift accuracy from one flower-station to another. The wild strawberry hangs, racy and vermilion, above the tufts of moss. Checkerberries and ground pine creep down from the woods, and join with the deep clubmoss to drape the knolls. The purple finch and the indigo bird sing in the pasture, and make a festival in its colors with their warm crimson and brilliant blue. The black-winged yellow bird flies past, singing, as he goes, a melody cadenced to the short rolls and dips of his flight; tossed like a little golden ball from one unseen hand to another, and on to a third, for his course often describes a sort of triangle, he throws out his notes as he goes, turns, and begins again. The robin and bluebird belong to the orchard and the lawn, but I have twice found the robin nesting on the ground in pasture land : once in a clump of brake, and once in the ruffle of blueberry-bushes that bordered a flat rocky ledge on a hill-top. But the native and true poet of the pasture is the song sparrow. He was reared in the midst of it under a tuft of grass or sweet-fern, and pours out his song from a fence, a bush or a savin-tree: his aspirations go no higher; his art is simple enough ; yet none of our birds has the same joyous, every-day ecstacy. He begins his pasture ballads before the snow has melted from the hollows; he celebrates the coming of spring, of morning, and of rest, and not infrequently “ puts in his little heavenly word ” amid the silence and lethargy of a summer noon. He does not soar and chant like the lark between “the kindred points of heaven and home ; ” but he is very near home, and is a reminder of heaven on slopes where the mullein spreads its flannel leaves to the ground and points upward with its “ silent finger,” and the sky space above looks almost too large for the knarled and hollowed acreage. Home in pasture regions is an old-fashioned place, not utterly remote from heaven.
If the pasture gives us the prose and strong-grained common sense of life, and the mountains hold its austerer poetry, the meadows have caught much of its color on their broad, moist palettes. Hues blend and colors change with the moving of the year and the passing of every breeze; the green which is tender in spring, dazzling and almost hard in early summer, becomes, as the season proceeds, only the ground on which the embroidery is wrought. There are impetuous rushes of silver across its surface, waves of amber-red, delicate pencilings made by slender, purple-seeded grasses. The dandelion reigns, grows gray, and dies. The buttercup spreads its yellow, and gives way in turn to the clustered lilies and the tawny rudbeckias, in which the yellow is not only deepened in tone, but matched with its counterpart of grave maroon. The meadow-rue waves its white plumes above the grass, and here and there are patches of lush clover that hold fast their own purpled rose-color, and merely nod their heads in response to a wind which lays the meadow grass in broad sweeps at its feet.
Is it a fancy that the birds which haunt the meadow fly horizontally ? We cannot well hold them to the point, but the song that in our American meadows takes the place of the skylark’s is that gay trill of the bobolink, uttered as he hovers above the grass in short level flights; the swallows skim hither and thither, dipping as into an ocean, and following all day long the waving shadows of the grass; and above the hawk soars in circles, or a heron flies across with deeply flapping wings. All these belong more intimately to the meadow than even the hosts of little sparrows and finches which seem to turn up more suddenly and abundantly than ever at haying time, and take possession of the haycocks as gayly as children.
We are loth to let the grass go when it is ripe for haying, lest all the rich color should be wiped out, but Nature can be trusted with the preparation of the palette; a day or two of dryer, lighter tints, and the green and gold are back again, settling in stalk and stubble and nascent blade, and laying a new mantle of beauty over the bare field. And what a delight it is to wake up some July morning to the burr and click of the mowing-machine on its first trip of the season, and, looking out, to see the scalloped swaths lying green and silvery in the early hot sunshine ! One cannot write of haying after Tolstoï, for the whole rich experience, sensation, sight, and action is stored up, with all its summer heat, in his easy, wonderful pages. We who cherish our own writers side by side with our native daily life may he pardoned if a feeling that is almost disappointment is mixed with the delight of finding the sweetest and most familiar event of our rural life written down for us, within the last ten or twelve years, by a novelist of the other hemisphere. We are tempted to forget that haying is an episode of all rural life the world over, so closely is it bound up in our heart with New England meadows and workers. Haying brings the meadow for a season under the utilitarian idea, and nearer to the pasture. The farmer declares that he does n’t see why city folks talk about the poetry of haying ; they would n’t find much poetry in it if they had to work as he does, fifteen hours a day, with showers coming up, and the crop to be sometimes hustled in at short notice or lost altogether. But the farmer cannot take the poetry out for us or make even so homely a draught as molasses, ginger, and water, in a huge earthen jug, anything but delicious to the warm, passionate thirst that sun and exercise have given. The meadow itself sanctions the poetic view. I have raked hay at sunset when that simple occupation seemed like a solemn rite performed in a temple of glory. The crimson that lay on the mountains from summit to base was only a materialization of the living light which filled and flooded the plain : the atmosphere held color as a glass holds wine, and in walking one had the sensation of moving through its strong fluid gold as a swimmer through the blue of the sea. It was like being caught up into the clouds to share in their suffusion of radiance and mystery. That was an ordinary sunset, one of the marvels of every day : a more unusual manifestation of meadow glory came to me one evening in October, on the wide sea marshes, which for freedom of outlook and suggestion come next to the mountain tops. A haze of Indian summer was in the air. The sun was sinking, soft and yellow, across the marsh, when, as he touched its horizon, a flood of gold poured across, forming, from the meadow-pinks at my feet to the town which lay steeped in sunset three miles away, a broad highway of dazzling light. It was as if a glittering veil had been thrown over the marsh on which one could walk as upon a carpet; and the veil was there, though the fairiest footfall would have broken through its meshes. It was the gossamer spun by innumerable meadow spiders, which had caught the light in its network, and gave it back from every thread. They had toiled and spun for their glory, these meaner dwellers on the marsh, but to them, as to the lilies, it came in a way not wholly calculable, shed from above and beyond the effort and longing of the day.