— A spring is a hostelry which, lone and hidden though it may be, yet lacks not for guests. Its good wine needs no bush ; wherever it lies deep and translucent in a bowl of ancient brown earth, or trickles softly along a little hollowed pathway, there all the furred and feathered denizens round about come regularly to partake. We may go into the woods, and be almost Startled by the silence and apparent absence of life: there is no song or movement of a bird, no whisk of a squirrel’s tail along the boughs. But if we seek out a familiar spring a little away from the path, and stand motionless for a few moments among the antique mossy furniture of rocks and tree trunks, we shall be pretty sure of some sign that the suspension of animation is not quite so complete as we had imagined. The shy creatures of the underbrush are half lured from their covert to drink at the spring ; the dwellers in the topmost branches overhead come now and then to earth at its margin.
The sportsman, taking account of the prospects for game in a new country, makes a spring his starting-point, examines all the footprints in its neighborhood, and waits in some ambush for the sure return of its frequenters, who are thus betrayed by their necessities. If animals and birds could forego food and drink, they might elude many an enemy ; but Nature appears to frown upon a safe and negative policy ; she will not allow of too close prying into the adversary’s game, but incites each player to make his own moves. The favorites of civilization may find it essential to good manners to dissemble their love for good cheer, to deck it with ribbons and call it by finer names ; but birds and beasts, like the majority of human beings, have too sharp a contest in the struggle for existence to coquet with their hunger and thirst. The bird, with its high organization, living at a rate which leaves the New Yorker far behind, must incessantly repair the vitality which it is incessantly working off. This constant need is a constant source of danger, but the need is an affirmation which cannot be ignored.
Yet hunting and hunted as they are, the “ smale foules maken melodie,” and to our keenest observation wear in attitude and motion an almost continual gladness. If we stand aside after slaking our thirst at the spring and watch the manners and aspect of the other guests, the conviction steals over us which came to Wordsworth sitting in the grove, “ that there was pleasure there.” The little jerk and quiver of the head which sends the beaded drops along the bill is as good as a grace; there is exultance in the dip into the cool water, followed by another and another plunge, by triumphant screams and much shaking and ruffling of plumage. It is hardly fanciful to suppose that bodies, like spirits,
But to fine issues.”
In that intense vitality of the bird there is not alone a semblance, but a vast possibility, of joyousness. A sort of rapture and luxury in the very satisfaction of its necessities seems the primal instinct of every creature; and if the bird’s faculties are sharpened and concentrated towards a single end, if its activities are largely absorbed in the getting of food, it exhibits in the finding something which, remote as it may be in kind from the gratitude enjoined upon human beings, is no unhandsome substitute for it.
Speaking of gratitude, what a trick this delicious spring water has of welling through the fancy months or years after we have imbibed it, and coming fresh and cool upon the memory after a long and dusty interval! We recall the arduous tramp that lay behind ; the heat and thirst; the search, long in vain, for relief; and finally the discovery of a little pool at the root of a tree, and the joy with which we greeted it, plunging drinking-cup or hands into its coolness, or, if that seemed too half hearted a fashion, lying prone to meet it face to face. And then, if our journey was downward from the mountain or between its ridges, at a point where the waters begin to gather, perhaps a little farther on, lay a second fairy cup, and then a third, and we drank from those also, not for the satisfaction of thirst, but out of pure enjoyment. Utility and poetry meet at the spring : it brings to one of the most urgent of physical needs a relief so grateful and pleasant that the body must needs call the mind to share the feast. Many of us — would that the number were far greater! — go through life with no experience worthy the name of hunger ; but thirst is quicker in its operations, and as democratic as the mosquito ; it is an arrow which we have all had in our flesh.
The boy in the fairy tale followed the brook to its fountain-head, and found that it all came out of a nutshell, buried in the ground, which he stopped up with moss and carried away with him for future emergencies. No fairy tale of tradition or of science can heighten or dispel this miracle of the flowing of water out of solid ground. It is no wonder that legend stood in awe at the smiting of the rock, or that superstition bent before the hazel twig ; and when we have penetrated to the strata through which the rain oozes drop by drop, or to the subterranean chambers where it gathers for the overflow, we have reached not a final cause, but the dark and hidden root of this wonderful blossoming. Above and below subtle agencies of nature combine to keep it daily fresh and ever mysterious.
Around a spring we find the first tint of verdure which comes to the sodden brown of the meadows. That moment when the green, already vivid, lies in patches in the damp places ; when a suspicion of yellow is beginning to steal over the lawns ; when the sky is of a softer blue and the earth has shaken off her frosts, if only temporarily, and left her hard grays for a richer brown ; when the crow-blackbirds fill the trees with their vociferous greeting, which has a rusty and difficult sound, like a remnant of winter in the throat, — that is to me a delicious epoch, with all its chilliness. When I was young, the first warm day was an engagement which it had been sacrilege to break, a joy which had the imperative force of a duty. It must be spent under the open sky, consecrated to some favorite spot where I could note the first stirrings of the sap, and find a sure, familiar record of the advance of spring. We love best what we loved first; and perhaps part of my delight in lingering about the sources of a rivulet comes from the fact that my earliest passion was for a half-wooded inclosure known as the “spring lot.” It was the goal to which I turned as a child, when the sky was radiantly soft, with fleecy, summer-like clouds, and the stirring of the south wind in the treetops was a call to my baby soul. The thought that it was “ really and truly ” spring, that the world was growing beautiful again, made my lonely stroll to the lot a succession of blissful stations. I lingered in the lane, where the ferns began to have a newer look, and on the bridge over the little river, bordered by yellow-tasseled willows and swishing with a pleasant murmur against its grassy banks. There are many pieces of sheer good-fortune for children of luck in this world : it is well to have been born rich or handsome, or to have the talents which command the prizes of life. But it is perhaps no less happy and supreme a gift to have been born a child of the universe ; to have known in early childhood brooks, mountains, and sea; to have felt the companionship of the sky, and in listening to its thunder to have heard deep calling unto deep. There is often an incommunicable and half-unconscious sense of these things in the heart of a child, wholly apart from any training or habit of observation. It is a seed which any soil will quicken ; the commonest landscape will be food for it as fine as the Alps. In fact, there is sometimes with the child as with the artist a sort of instinctive selection of the humbler phase. Among the memories of a journey through Switzerland in my childhood, that of a woodland bank at Rosemlani, covered with moss and with tiny pink flowers, remains to me as having afforded at least as keen a pleasure as the glacier itself, and the image of Mont Blanc had no power to efface the delights of the “ spring lot.” The power upon us of a scene or thought lies partly in the extent of our intimacy with it.
In the “spring lot” I knew every tree and stone, the bubbling of the cold, clear water in the pool, and the tumbles and ripples of the tiny brook which carried its overflow to the river. The earliest hepaticas and blood-roots opened within that charmed circle ; not close to the water, for flowers seldom grow immediately about a spring, but a little back, in the thicket of alder bushes and hazels. This little copse was always full of whispers and soft undertones, and once when I was standing near its edge, along with the murmurs of the breeze there came to my ears a terrible voice : “ Little girl, what are you doing here ? ”
It was the Widow Lee, standing grim and awful a few feet away, with a hatchet in her hand. She owned the acres from which I gathered my “ mystic fruit,” and had come out to trim the bushes. Her question may have had no harsher prompting than curiosity, but to my imagination her gaunt figure haunted the spot ever after, and there was a terror in the joy with which I listened to the wind in the trees, a fear lest it should bring at any moment a repetition of that freezing question, “ Little girl, what are you doing here ? ” Henceforth my spring was troubled ; its waters were tainted with the terrors and perplexities which belong on the mundane side of the gate of the Garden of Eden.