Betwixt a Smile and Tear: A Calendar Without Dates

I FIND the spring, even proud pied April, is not averse to long memories and backward glimpses into the quiet years. In truth, there is a point of time when the vernal season, like youthful humanity, seems prone to brooding and to gentle melancholy of reminiscence, as though it found its Intimations of Immortality in the tokens vouchsafed of a preëxistence. The spring looks back, and we look back with it. And so, the keeper of a desultory year-book may perhaps be indulged in gathering from it. here and there, leaves bearing the date of many Aprils past; while seasonable sunbeam, light shadow, and fleeting rain are invoked to illuminate the transient page. Special entries are not noted ; they are all, however, within the thirty days which April hath, in the ancient rote rule. Special localities are not indicated ; but Aprilian caprice permits them, now to be the shore of a Western lake, now more near the “road of the bold,” now the country or countryvillage, and perhaps even the stony precinct of the great city.


“ Winter-sorry ” describes the worn and wan look of nature just after the great snows are gone, and before the first traces of reviving life. The spirit of humankind, too, is a little winter-sorry at that time. But this torpid interval is past. To-day, we feel life to be stirring from root to uttermost branch. There are April lights in the hazy gray sky, nooks and alcoves of pale opal and amber, sudden glooms, sudden radiances, and soft punctuation of rain between these phases. I hear the patter of the fitful raindrops rather than see them, the atmosphere itself being of rain color.

The rain is past, and all nature has the appearance of having been hung or spread out to dry in the thorough-going west wind. The air is warm, but only in draughts is it so, or as if by importations from summer latitudes; for it is constantly crossed by cold vapors from the soaked and yet chilly earth, so that one entertains at once a vernal glow and a wintry shiver. The wrinkled pools in the meadows and pastures are driven by the wind into mimic surge, and the slender grass blades that have shot up prodigiously to fathom the height of these shallow pools are laid along the ruffled surface. The sodden leaves of last fall are being plucked up from their three months’ repose, and are sent abroad by the sportive wind for flocks of living things. In fact, they rise from the ground all together, much like the sudden starts made by feeding companies of the English sparrows, or other small birds dead-leaf colored. Dead leaves! But the air is almost portentous with the flight and numbers of them ! Do not they belong to those old parchment books which the Sibyl cast away, and which contained both history and prophecy ? The wind utters them abroad ; but no one can read, no one now understands them.

In our world of waters, also, it is early spring. I shall not soon forget the sight I had of the lake this morning, — that vast half-moon figure of seamed and scarred ice. Far out on this expanse was the semblance of a band of watery gray and white, — the free channel with its burden of broken ice. The beach was unusually wide, and the solid lake lay upon it with a scalloped edge, just as the retiring wave had frozen. It was a novel adventure to climb the crest of such a wave, and from that point of vantage look out over the frozen field. But these immobile surges on the shore were beginning to feel the force of the vernal sun at last, and their shelving edges wore already considerably worn away, thus producing many small shallow porches or caves set with stalactites of ice. Least rillets and cascades of melting water glided down from these transient cliffs of the winter’s building. It seemed suitable to speak of the time of water-drops,” as in Esquimau parlance set down by Dr. Kane ; for was not our frozen deep at last yielding to the higher sun and more clement winds?

To-day I beard the song sparrow in the willows by the creek, just as I heard him, or one of his fluttering feather, springs ago, singing alternate songs with a distant rival. In the musical duello this little bird has no equal that I know of ; so patient is he, so pertinacious, so animated, throughout the entire performance. I heard, too, the notes of the grass finch, — at least those two initial notes of his song that suggest a lazy seesaw. Did I hear, also, the liquid allegretto of the wren, from the orchard? The meadow lark’s was well discerned in the mélange of bird voices ; in it, but not of it, —

The meadow lark that laves with pure, clear sound
The greening hollows and the wintry hillside bound.

Nearer than ever before came the mourning dove’s melancholy, slow intoning ; bewilderment and unsatisfied inquiry its language. With this, too, I heard a sound, half sighing, half painful indrawing of the breath, between the notes of inquiry. One would be moved to say that the bird is heart-broken, and this just at tlie dawn of the spring and better days. A robin sat on a low branch, softly whistling, to whomsoever it concerned, about nest-making. There was no heart-break in her note. She had the appearance of wearing whiskers, having in her bill a large sheaf of grass. How, with this encumbrance, she contrived to whistle, I cannot guess. At this time of the year, the feathered folk have enough to do,—enough of social and domestic employment to make their singing-time a luxury. A pair of bluebirds were crying and fluttering about a knot-hole in the old willow. I watched, to learn the cause of their anxiety. First one, then the other, would poise in air, with quivering wings, before the cavity, as though challenging some ambushed party. I disturbed their movements a little to give their enemy a chance to reconnoitre, when behold a woodpecker bobbed its head out of the knot-hole, uttering several sharp squeaks, like a mouse, but louder. Then the male bluebird flew at the woodpecker, and away both went to decide their differences by a duel in the air; the female bluebird staying composedly in the willow.

I have been listening with new delight and speculation to the song of the redshouldered blackbird. This, it seems to me, consists of several distinct tones, blending agreeably as in a harmony of thirds. It has the quality of the mouthorgan prized by children. Certainly, to my ear, the bird was accomplishing a feat equivalent to a vocalist singing at one and the same time what is written on the tenor and on the bass staff. But I remember that the humming of the bee has often impressed me with a similar quality of composite melody, — as though I were listening to a little choir singing far away, the sounds of the several voices coming as one through mellowing distance.

On the way home, I found a dead robin, and yielded him funeral rites, remembering what had been done by his relatives, the English robins, for the Babes in the Wood; nor was his tiny requiem wanting.

Thou shalt have a little bed
Made for thee, and overspread
With brown leaves for coverlet,
Which the tearful dew has wet.
I, among the songs of spring,
Will miss the song thou didst not sing.

I see time as a stream slipping by me. I forget that I am not as sure to sit upon its banks forever as the stream is sure to flow forever. Others are bold by rushing forward. It is almost as great presumption to remain behind, and to be a Bold Loiterer.

O brave and swift, I give ye hail,
With whom nor sloth nor doubt prevail!
Your feet tread out adventurous ways,
And days to dawn shall speak your praise,
Still bounding on, with shining face,
All fates to challenge, or embrace.
But leave me here to mine own lot,—
But leave me here, and censure not!
So bold are ye — so bold am I
Who dare to halt while time fleets by!

“Vernat humus, floresque et mollia pabula surgunt.”

That old miracle of the growing grass ! How much has it drunk to-day from the heavenly fountains ? How many shades deeper in color to-night than it showed this morning ? It is so vividly green where it borders the road that the wet ground takes on a reddish tint by law of complement.

The maples are in blossom. Many of the trees, standing out against the clear western sky, and thick set with swollen buds, have the appearance of harboring swarms of bees. A higher polish is put, day by day, on the branches and twigs of the peach-trees. The buds of the cherry-trees are encased in a rich brown enamel. Brambles are reddening, and the stems of the sumach look like those of the moss rose, being clothed with a gluey furze which stains the hands as with soot. A faint flame of low heat springs up through the ashes of the year. Henceforward it will but deepen in blossoming tree and wine-colored leaf-buds, until it is finally lost in impatient freshets of greenness, put out by the inrolling summertide.

This morning I heard a blue jay trying to whistle the robin’s tune, in short, rather ineffective chirrups (or cheer-ups) ; and he attempted imitation not only of the robin, but of the grackle as well. I did not know before that the blue jay possessed mimetic talent. Perhaps it is the gift of the spring. However this may be, his long, strident winter war-cry of a note has given place usually to a somewhat plaintive creaking cry, with a little jangle of bells at the close. I should mention that the blue jay, when uttering this peculiar note, has a curious gymnastic trick of bobbing up and down, like a toy bird on a wire. It is very amusing to see several of these birds performing this new singing exercise and bobbing in concert. One is reminded of the blackbird and his antics, which seem to have reference to the production of the characteristic vocal sounds he indulges in.

I sit on the fallen (or felled) trunk of the old sycamore, the fragments of his stalwart arms lying around on the ground or piled up for cord wood. His heart was sound, I see by the solid and smooth grain of the stump. This I note of the sycamore: the branches nearest the top of the tree are the lightest in color, the bark ripening there flrst, and falling off ; while nearer the ground the bark is thicker, and. apparently, not so soon shed. With the sycamore went the black walnut and the bladder-nut shrubs, and the clambering and caressing thickets of bittersweet. The ash-tree hanging over the water is not taken yet, but he seems to be pulling his roots out of the bank, and to be leaning more heavily forward, as though grief-stricken at the ruin wrought around him. The high water laughs and gurgles among the intricacies of the roots, and collects thereunder its foolish treasures of yellow-white foam. The sun’s reflection in the stream is like the fusion of gold and silver ingots, liquid and inconstant, or like an intolerably bright cirrus cloud, irregular and confused in outline, which the water would fain drown, but cannot. This submerged sunshine, as I sit on the bank, is often darted up into my face, as though some mischievous urchin under the bank were practicing with a bit of broken lookingglass, directing the flash towards me.

What simple, kindly pleasure Mother Nature has provided me in a certain low, springy pasture on the south side of the woods, where every winter the chopper exercises his discretion, slowly decimating the old graybeard and infirm trees ! There are some stumps of wild cherry there, or of maple, with posthumous offshoots growing up around them, — such hope of a tree if it be cut down! All the better if the chopping has been done lately, so that there shall be a débris of sweet and fresh-smelling chips. In the sunshiny pools that lie about this pasture batrachian felicity has no stint. The water seems drinking itself, with much bubbling suspiration, with nasal and guttural variations. The chorus of frogs ! — or might it not be as well a symphony performed by a company of ancient afternoon sleepers snoring out an invocation to Morpheus? On this sunny wood border are the first installments of wild flowers. What low but sightly knolls, dressed with the first blue violets, adder’s-tongue, and cress, or displaying the mysterious little drama of the springing mandrake in all stages of development, waxen pyramid, praying monk, and the Chinese mandarin with raised umbrellas at the last!

Great Morning ! may I be
Thy joyous votary!
So shall my spirit mount
To bathe within the fount,
That bursts through night and spills
Splendor upon the hills.
May I, like Memnon, lift
A voice above the drift
Of desert levels drear,
Though none but thee should hear.
Possess me of a joy
Fierce noon cannot destroy,
If I must stay behind.
Or else, give me, to bind
On these slow, mortal feet,
The wings of Hermes fleet;
And I will follow far
On the rose way thy car,
And, as we rush along,
The Hours will teach their song!

Two great isolators are late night, and early morning, but different. He who walks alone at night seems to himself to be a watcher, the sentinel of a camp of sleepers. He who walks in the early morning is, in his fancy, allowed to be a participant in matutinal mysteries, an auxiliary light-bringer and reorganizer of a lapsed and oblivious world. The first moment of awaking, after a long night’s sleep, is as a watershed, or high dividing ridge, down which go the currents of thought in contrary directions, — these to the deep of yesterday and unremembering abysmal shadow, those to the bright main sea of the coming day. Something of mere mental fashion, of whim or prejudice, has become obsolete during the reign of sleep ; some goad or irritation ceases to trouble; some craving is assuaged, or something lacked is seen to be unessential. There is now no obscurity or evasiveness of memory, no confusion of purpose or desire, no feather’s weight on the sensitive scales of conscience.

Such thoughts came to me on first waking. And moreover this : if an interval of sleep, if the common nightly truce to conscious existence, can so recreate and rejoice us, what shall not the deep sleep of all do ? We shall be all the better and brighter for death, I thought.

This morning, as I threw open my window, in came the mornings of long ago. The languishing, vivacious, fitful April air so subtly played on the chords of reminiscence ! In that moment I was old in many springs glancingly seen in long vista. But soon the intervening years dropped out of the perspective, and I was spirited away to childhood’s happy vernal places : a region of rolling farm land, orchard and woods ; a little stream winding out of the green near distance, to be lost in far meadows, themselves lost in sunny haze ; for sounds, the tinkle of sheep-bells, the bleating of young lambs, while, like the distant laughter that might run around some amphitheatre (as a child, I thought of the circus-tent), there comes the antiphonal crowing of the cocks from neighboring farms.

Always, what pleasant intimations and solicitings of the fancy come to me with the early morning ! A single thread of a spider’s web thrown across the window pane is singularly beguiling to my eye. The wind gently stirs, without breaking, the gluey thread; the sun glances upon it, turning it now to amber, now to ruby. I can see this shining filament either as a floating bridge for the sylphs, or as a lance thrown in elfin challenge by a hand ethereal and invisible.

This evening there was a distinct zodiacal light. This mysterious ghostly mountain, or " sugar loaf,” that leans towards the southern heaven, what is it? One of the domes of Valhalla, a watchtower of the warrior shades ? Or shall we merely say, Spring’s early candlelight. or her taper to light her up betimes in the morning? In its quality of faint adumbration, it suggests the weak shadow which any object throws on the wall when there are many lamps in the room.

The comforting unity and simplicity of the night picture appeal to me, especially of the night picture in winter, or in early spring, before the leaves have come upon the trees. To-night, a halfmoon, like a bright flying mask (of Thalia), hurries through clouds that bear a hint of iridescence woven into their frail texture; a few brilliant stars in the glimpses of the deep night blue. This is all, when you except the treetops with their clinging swarms of swollen leaf-buds, which, however, do not now show as they did against the glow of the sunset sky. Contemplative quiet is in the air. It looks like a night of the nights primeval, the work of creation suspended until the morrow.

A crow winging its way across Manhattan Island, incurious and undelaying, across defile after defile of the stony and clattering streets, is perhaps no remarkable sight. But to me it was a piece of live heraldry ; I wished to know what provoked his transit. I did not inquire of those whom I met, “ Did you know that a crow flew over New York this morning ? ” but the speculative interest the voyager excited in my mind remained through the day.

Yielding to desultoriness and idleness, this rainy morning, I look out of my window, and observe the castaway and collapsed umbrellas that strew the city street, after the gusty rainstorm of last night; they look like so many dilapidated bats after a nocturnal orgy. In the city, alas, there is little difference in the quality of the rain, be it November’s or April’s. How different where there is anything to give it welcome! But the big stone pillars, and the flagging of the piazza upon which my window opens, look saturate with the moisture. Then I think of some solitary rough old landmark stone of the lonely fields, in the steady rain. Has not such a stone sometimes looked to me as though it enjoyed the flood from heaven, even like some organic creature of fleshy or vegetable tissues ? At least, it seemed to be generously aware of the enjoyment felt by the lichen garden it supported on its north side.

What is the service of the rain ?
We in the city want the sun!
Upon the wires that pass the pane
The idle drops together run.
I watch them idly; and below,
’Twixt wet and wind, in struggle vain,
I watch the crowd toil to and fro.
What is the service of the rain ?
Somewhere in hollows, slow and still
The great drops bead upon the whips
Of willow, while the brooks upfill,
And to the dead turf lay their lips.
Then, all about the fields, unseen,
The Spring will go with naked feet,
And make small winding paths of green,
And even the dead leaves smell sweet !
Then, buds like eyes begin to peer,
Tbe bladed grass takes heart again ;
There may be violets, too ! But here
What is the service of the rain ?

There is no sense of spring, approaching or realized, in the unalterable bosom of the sea, — at least, none that I can discern. But this may be because I have been wonted to the spectacle of the sun warming the sculptured Galatea into responsive and mobile life, of Erie awaking after her winter sleep. There may be unobvious changes betokening vernal impulse in the heart of great Neptune. There may be spring wild flowers in the deep meadows beloved of the young mermaid. Why should not all seaweeds, as well as land vegetation, have their seasons of florescence, of seeding, and of rest from growth ? But if the sea has no revelation to make of springtime processes within his own domain, his touch upon the land is not unsympathetic. I have nowhere seen a more living green than that of yonder marshes, which twice a day feel the salt kisses of the sea.

The combination of ocean, rock, and bold openness of landscape here on the New England coast gives different skies from those observed inland, sublimer effects of cloud-massing, diviner coloring in the sunsets. Here I am more often put in mind of great old Chapman and his Jovian wonder-work in the lines, —

“ As when from top of some steep hill the
Lightener strips a cloud,
And lets a great sky out of heaven! ”

I have just heard the story of their Scotch governess, whom my friends remember to have wept the nights through, but who brightened visibly on foggy days ; for, as she said, they reminded her of home. She loved mist and rain, and, very suitably, had been in love with a blind man. She would have gone into transports with the weather to-day. A white and nubilous wilderness! Why has no one described that sense we have, in the mist, of vast reaches and sublime distances which, unmeasured and unexplored, may stretch illimitably from our very door? Imagination invents the landscape and scene beyond and out of sight, plains, mountains, frowning cliffs, still and dark forests ; strange meetings with creatures of fable seem possible. One listens, too, in expectation of unwonted sounds. To-day, I hear only the rhythmical pulsings of the sea on the shore, in the midst of all this vagueness, like the metronome for some silent music, — the melodies unheard, that are sweeter.

A snipe’s nest in the border of the salt marsh, under a little sheaf of dry grasses left by the high water of a few weeks ago. Eggs colored like the mottled field of grasses and earth all around ; white with brown blotches. The nest is made in what is scarcely a dimple of the ground, and is a mere displacing of the surrounding grasses, — the lowliest domicile in the neighborhood ! Blessed are the poor in spirit, and Blessed are the meek ! The meekest things I know are the snipe and its nest. Yet these seem, more than any other objects in the landscape, to relate themselves to the universal ; to the polished floor of the sea at sunset, to the vastness of the sky and the freedom of the air. At evening, more especially, fancy is called upon to represent the peace, the heaven-guarded serenity, of that nest, as the mother snipe, with a last “ peet-weet,” sinks under the “ protective coloring ” of the grassy roof which covers herself and her hope of the coming brood.

To-day, April looks over into May, and, at what she sees there, laughs like a child. It would be bad faith, and like old ice clinging to some last footholds of winter in the woods, if we of the human world would not melt in and fuse with the general current of joy.

Away with old sorrow, away with dim tears,
That were shed all in vain for the wreckage of years!
It is spring in the land, it is spring at the morn!
The forest forgets the leaf sodden and lost,
The grass forgets the fell scythe of the frost,
And the green of the bramble creeps over its thorn.
Ah, see in the fields the white flocks stray !
They forget the cold hill where they shivering lay ;
The ewe has forgotten her lamb that died !
And the bird — oh, listen ! —remembers not
The mate it loved by the fowler was shot!
They forget — they are glad ! Who is it would chide ?
Doth the old leaf fret at the new-budding leaf ?
Who knows that the dead desire our long grief ?
Peace be to memory, truce be to fears!
We have wept, and shall weep, but here, at the height
Of the spring and the morn, we lay hold on delight!
Away with old sorrow, away with dim tears !

Edith M. Thomas.