An Idler on Missionary Ridge

I REACHED Chattanooga in the evening of April 26, in the midst of a rattling thunder-shower, — which, to look back upon it, seems to have been prophetic, — and the next morning, after an early breakfast, took an electric car for Missionary Ridge. Among my fellow-passengers were four Louisiana veterans fresh from their annual reunion at Birmingham, where, doubtless, their hearts had been kindled by much fervent oratory, as well as by much private talk of those bygone days when they did everything but die for the cause they loved. As the car mounted the Ridge, one of them called his companions’ attention to a place down the valley where “ the Rebels and the Yankees” (his own words) used to meet to play cards. “ A regular gambling-hole,” he called it. Their boys brought back lots of coffee. In another direction was a spot where the Rebels once “ had a regular picnic,” killing some extraordinary number of Yankees in some incredibly brief time. I interrupted the conversation, and at the same time made myself known as a stranger and a Northerner, by inquiring after the whereabouts of Orchard Knob, General Grant’s headquarters ; and the same man, who seemed to be the spokesman of the party, after pointing out the place, a savin-sprinkled knoll between us and the city, kindly invited me to go with him and his comrades up to the tower, — on the site of General Bragg’s headquarters, — where he would show me the whole battlefield and tell me about the fight.

We left the car together for that purpose, and walked up the slope to the foot of the observatory, — an open structure of iron, erected by the national government ; but just then my ear caught somewhere beyond us the song of a Bachman’s finch, — a song I had heard a year before in the pine woods of Florida, and, in my ignorance, was unprepared for here. I must see the bird and make sure of its identity. It led me a little chase, and when I had seen it I must look also at a summer tanager, a chat, and so on, one thing leading to another ; and by the time I returned to the observatory the veterans had come down and were under some apple-trees, from one of which the spokesman was cutting a big walking-stick. He had stood under those trees — which were now in bloom — thirty years before, he said, with General Bragg himself.

I was sorry to have missed his story of the battle, and ashamed to have seemed ungrateful and rude, but I forget what apology I offered. At this distance it is hard to see how I could have got out of the affair with much dignity. I might have heard all about the battle from a man who was there, and instead I went off to listen to a sparrow singing in a bush. I thought, to be sure, that the men would be longer upon the observatory, and that I should still be in season. Probably that was my excuse. if I made one ; and in all likelihood the veteran was too completely taken up with his own concerns to think twice about the vagaries of a stray Yankee, who seemed to be an odd stick, to say nothing worse of him. Well, the loss, such as it was, was mine, not his ; and I have lost too much time in the way of business to fret over a little lost (or saved) in the way of pleasure. As for any apparent lack of patriotic feeling, I suppose that the noblest patriot in the world, if he chanced to be also an ornithologist, would notice a bird even amid the smoke of battle ; and why should not I do as much on a field from which the battle smoke had vanished thirty years before ?

So I reason now ; at the time I had no leisure for such sophistries. Every moment brought some fresh distraction. The long hill — woodland, brambly pasture, and shrubby dooryard — was a nest of singing birds ; and when at last I climbed the tower, I came down again almost as suddenly as my Louisiana friends had done. The landscape, — the city and its suburbs, the river, the mountains, — all this would be here to-morrow; just now there were other things to look at. Here in the grass, almost under my nose, were a pair of Bewick wrens, hopping and walking by turns, as song sparrows may sometimes be found doing; conscious through and through of my presence, yet affecting to ignore it ; carrying themselves with an indescribable and pretty demureness, as if a nest were something never dreamed of by birds of their kind ; the female, nevertheless, having at that moment her beak bristling with straws, while the male, a proud young husband, hovered officiously about her, with a continual sweetly possessive manner and an occasional burst of song. Till yesterday Bewick’s wren had been nothing but a name to me. Then, somewhere after crossing the state line, the train stopped at a station, and suddenly through the open window came a song. “ That’s a Bewick wren,” I said to myself, as I stepped across the aisle to look out; and there he stood, on the fence beside the track, his long tail striking the eye on the instant. He sang again, and once again, before the train started. Tennessee was beginning well with a visiting bird-gazer.

There must be some wrennish quality about the Bewick’s song, it would seem ; else how did I recognize it so promptly ? And yet, so far as I am able to give an account of my own impressions, it had in my ears no resemblance to any wren song I had ever heard. I think it never suggested to me any music except the song sparrow’s. The truth is, I suppose, that we feel resemblances and relationships of which the mind takes no cognizance.

I wandered at a venture down the further slope, turning this way and that as a song invited me. Here were Southerners and Northerners fraternally commingled : summer tanagers, Carolina wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, cardinal grosbeaks, chats, Bachman finches, field sparrows, chippers, white-throated sparrows, chewinks, indigo buntings, blaokpoll warblers, myrtle-birds, prairie warblers, a Maryland yellow-throat, a bay-breasted warbler, a black-and-white creeper, a redstart, brown thrushes, catbirds, a single mocking-bird, wood thrushes, redeyed vireos, white-eyed vireos, wood pewees, a quail, and, in the air, purple martins and turkey buzzards. On the Ridge, as well as near the foot on our way up, a mocking-bird and a wood thrush sang within hearing of each other. Comparison as between birds so dissimilar is useless and out of place ; but how shall a man avoid it ? The mockingbird is a great vocalist, — yes, and a great singer ; but to my Northern ears the wood thrush carried the day with his voice.

Having climbed the Ridge again, — though climbing might be thought rather too laborious a word for so gradual a slope, — and started down on the side toward the city, I came to a patch of blackberry vines, in the midst of which sat a thrasher on her nest, all a mother’s anxiety in her staring yellow eyes. Close by her stood an olive-backed thrush. There, too, was my first hooded warbler, a female. She escaped me the next instant, though I made an eager chase, not knowing yet how common birds of her sort were to prove in that Chattanooga country.

In my delight at finding Missionary Ridge so happy a hunting-ground for an opera-glass naturalist, I went thither again the very next morning. This time some Virginia veterans were in the car (they all wore badges), and when we had left it, and were about separating, — after a bit of talk about the battle, of course, — one of them, with almost painful scrupulosity, insisted upon assuring me that if the thing were all to be done over again, he should do just as before. One of his comrades, seeing me a Northerner, interrupted him more than once in a vain attempt to smooth matters over. They had buried the hatchet, he said ; let bygones be bygones. But the first man was not to be cajoled with a phrase. He spoke without passion, with no raising of the voice, quite simply and amicably : he too accepted the result; the thing never would be done over again ; only let his position be understood, — he had nothing to take back. It was impossible not to respect such conscientiousness. For my own part, at any rate, I felt no prompting to argue against it, being myself sufficiently “ opinionated ” to appreciate a difficulty which some obstinate people experience in altering their convictions as circumstances change, or accepting the failure of a cause as proof of its injustice. If a man is not too obstinate, to be sure, time and the course of events may bring him new light; but that is another matter. Once, when the men were talking among themselves, I overheard one say, as he pointed down the hill, “ The Rebels were there, and the Union men yonder.” That careless recurrence of the word “ Rebel ” came to me as a surprise.

The principal excitement of the morning was a glimpse of a Kentucky warbler, a bird most peculiarly desired. I had finished my jaunt, and was standing beside the bramble patch not far from the railway, where I had seen the hooded warbler the day before, when the splendid creature flashed into sight, saw me, uttered a volley of quick, clear notes, and vanished up the hillside. I ran after him, but might as well have remained where I was. “ He is a beauty ! ” I find written in my notebook. And so he is, — clothed in lustrous olive and the most gorgeous of yellows with trimmings of black, all in the best of taste, with nothing patchy, nothing fantastic or even fanciful. I was again impressed with the abundance of chats, indigo - birds, and white-eyed vireos. Bachman sparrows were numerous, also, in appropriate localities, — dry and bushy, — and I noted a bluebird, a yellow-throated vireo, and, shouting from a dead treetop, a great - crested flycatcher.

My most vivid recollection of this second visit, however, is of the power of the sun, an old enemy of mine, by whom, in my ignorance of spring weather in Tennessee, I allowed myself to be taken at a cruel noonday disadvantage. Even now, in the deep frigidity of a Massachusetts winter, I cannot think of Missionary Ridge without seeing again those long stretches of burning sunshine, wherein the least spot of shade was like a palm in the desert. In every such shelter I used to stand awhile, bareheaded ; then, marking the next similar haven, so many rods ahead, I would hoist my umbrella and push forward, cringing at every step as if I were crossing a field under fire. Possibly I exaggerate, but, if I do, it is very little ; and though it be an abuse of an exquisite poem, I say over to myself again and again a couplet of Miss Guiney’s: —

“ Weather on a sunny ridge,
Showery weather, far from here.”

In truth, early as the season was, the excessive heat, combined with a trying dog-day humidity, sadly circumscribed all my Tennessee rambles. As for my umbrella, my obligations to it were such that nothing but a dread of plagiarism has restrained me from entitling this sketch An Umbrella on Missionary Ridge. Nature never intended me for a tropical explorer. Often I did nothing more than seek a shady retreat and stay there, letting the birds come to me, if they would.

Improved after this indolent fashion, one of the hottest of my forenoons became also one of the most enjoyable. I left the car midway up the Ridge, — at the angle of the Y, — and, passing my thrasher’s blackberry tangle and descending a wooded slope, found myself unexpectedly in a pleasant place, half wood, half grassy field, through which ran a tiny streamlet, the first one I had seen in this dry and thirsty land. Near the streamlet, on the edge of the wood, quite by itself, stood a cabin of most forlorn appearance, with a garden patch under the window, — if there was a window, as to which I do not remember, and the chances seem against it, — the whole closely and meanly surrounded by a fence. In the door stood an aged white woman, looking every whit as old and forlorn as the cabin, with a tall mastiff on one side of her and a black cat on the other.

“ Your dog and cat are good friends,” I remarked, feeling it polite to speak even to a stranger in so lonesome a spot.

“ Yes,” she answered gruffly, “ they ’re good friends, only once in a while he wants to kill her.”

She said nothing more, and her manner did not encourage further attempts at neighborly intercourse; but as I passed the cabin now and then during the forenoon, the birds leading me about, I heard her muttering often and at considerable length to her hens and ducks. Evidently she enjoyed conversation as well as most people, only she liked to pick her own company. She was “ Aunt Tilly,” I learned afterwards, and had lived there by herself for many years; one of the characters of the city, a fortune-teller, whose professional services were in frequent request.

In this favored nook, especially along the watercourse, were many birds, some of them at home for the summer, but the greater part, no doubt, lying over for a day or two on their long northward journey. Not one of them but was interesting to me here in a new country, however familiar it might have become in New England. Here were at least eleven kinds of warblers : blackpolls of both sexes, black-throated blues, chestnut-sides, myrtle-birds, golden warblers, black-and-white creepers, redstarts (have we anything handsomer ?), Maryland yellow-throats, blue golden-wings, chats, and Kentuckies. Here were blue-gray gnatcatchers, bluebirds, wood thrushes, veeries, an olive-backed thrush, catbirds, thrashers, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, a Carolina chickadee, summer tanagers uncounted, orchard orioles, field sparrows, chippers, a Bachman sparrow (unseen), a cardinal, a chewink, flocks of indigo-birds and goldfinches, red-eyed vireos, white-eyed vireos, a yellow-throated vireo, kingbirds, and a crested flycatcher.

In an oak at the corner of Aunt Tilly’s cabin a pair of gnatcatchers had built a nest; an exquisite piece of work, large and curiously cylindrical, — not tapering at the base, — set off with a profusion of gray lichens, and saddled upon one limb directly under another, as if for shelter. If the gnatcatcher is not a great singer (his voice is slender, like himself), he is near the head of his profession as an architect and a builder. Twice, in the most senseless manner, one of the birds — the female, I had no doubt, in spite of the adjective just applied to her conduct — stood beside the nest and scolded at me; then, having freed her mind and attracted my attention, she got inside and began pecking here and there at the rim, apparently giving it the final touches. The tufted tits whistled unseen with all their characteristic monotony. The veerics and the olive-back kept silence, but the wood thrushes, as was their daily habit, made the woods ring. One of them was building a nest.

Most admired of all were the Kentucky warblers, of which there were at least five. It was my first real sight of them, and, fortunately, they were not in the least bashful. They spent the time mostly on the ground, in open, grassy places, especially about the roots of trees and thorn-bushes, — the latter now snowy with bloom, — once in a while hopping a few inches up the bole, as if to pick off insects. In movement and attitude they made me think often of the Connecticut warbler, although when startled they took a higher perch. Once I saw one of them under a pretty tuft of the showy blue baptisia (B. australis), — a new bird in the shadow of a new flower! Who says that life is an old story ? From the general manner of the birds, — more easily felt than defined, — as well as from their presence in a group and their silence, I inferred, rightly or wrongly, that they had but recently arrived. For aught I yet knew, they might be nothing but wayfarers, — a happy uncertainty which made them only the more interesting. Of their beauty I have already spoken. It would be impossible to speak of it too highly.

As I took the car at noon, I caught sight of a wonderfully bright blood-red flower on the bank above the track, and, as I was the only passenger, the conductor kindly waited for me to run up and pluck it. It turned out to be a catchfly, and, like the Kentucky warbler, it became common a little later. “ Indian pink,” one of my Walden’s Ridge friends said it was called ; a pretty name, but to me “ battlefield pink ” or “ carnage pink ” would have seemed more appropriate.

I had found an aviary, I thought, this open grove of Aunt Tilly’s, with its treasure of a brook, and at the earliest opportunity I went that way again. Indeed, I went more than once. But the birds were no longer there. What I had seen was mainly a flock of “ transients,” a migratory “ wave.” On the farther side of the Ridge, however, I by and by discovered a spot more permanently attractive, — a little valley in the hillside. Here was a spring, and from it, nearly dry as it was, there still oozed a slender rill, which trickled halfway down the slope before losing itself in the sand, and here and there dribbled into a basin commodious enough for a small bird’s bath. Several times I idled away an hour or two in this retreat, under the shadow of red maples, sweet gums, sycamores, and tupelos, making an occasional sortie into the sun as an adventurous mood came over me or a distant bird-call proved an irresistible attraction.

They were pleasant hours, but I recall them with a sense of waste and discomfort. In familiar surroundings, such waitings upon Nature’s mood are profitable, wholesome for body and soul; but in vacation time, and away from home, with new paths beckoning a man this way and that, and a new bird, for aught he can tell, singing beyond the next hill, — at such a time, I think, sitting still becomes a burden, and the cheerful practice of “ a wise passiveness ” a virtue beyond the comfortable reach of ordinary flesh and blood. Along the upper edge of the glen a road ran downward into the valley east of the Ridge, and now and then a carriage or a horseman passed. It would have been good to follow them. All that valley country. as I surveyed it from the railway and the tower, had an air of invitingness: beautiful woods, with footpaths and unfrequented roads. In them I must have found birds, flowers, and many a delightful nook. If the Fates could have sent me one cool day !

Yet for all my complaining, I have lived few more enjoyable Sunday forenoons than one that I passed most inactively in this same hillside hollow. As I descended the bank to the spring, two or three goldfinches were singing (goldfinch voices go uncommonly well in chorus, and the birds seem to know it); a female tanager sat before me calling clippity, clippity ; a field sparrow, a mocking wren, and a catbird sang in as many different directions ; and a pair of thrashers — whose nest could not be far away — flitted nervously about, uttering characteristic moaning whistles. If they felt half as badly as their behavior indicated, their case was tragical indeed ; but at the moment, instead of pitying them, I fell to wondering just when it is that the thrasher smacks (all friends of his are familiar with his resounding imitation of a kiss), and when it is that he whistles. I have never made out, although I believe I know pretty well the states of mind thus expressed. The thrasher is to a peculiar degree a bird of passion ; ecstatic in song, furious in anger, irresistibly pitiful in lamentation. How any man can rob a thrasher’s nest with that heartbroken whistle in his ears is more than I can imagine.

Indigo-birds are here, of course. Their number is one of the marvels of this country, — though indeed the country seems made for them, as it is also for chats and white-eyed vireos. A bit farther down the valley, as I come to the maples and tupelos, with their grateful density of shade, a wood pewee sings, and then a wood thrush. At the same moment, an Acadian flycatcher, who is always here (his nest is building overhead, as. after a while, I discover), salutes me with a quick, spiteful note. “ No trespassing,” he says. Landowners are pretty much alike. I pass on, but not far, and beside a little thicket I take up my stand, and wait. It is pleasant here, and patience will be rewarded. Yes, there is a magnolia warbler, my second

Tennessee specimen ; a great beauty, but without that final perfection of good taste (simplicity) which distinguishes the Kentucky. I see him, and he is gone, and I am not to be drawn into a chase. Now I have a glimpse of a thrush; an olive-back, from what I can see, but I cannot be sure. Still I keep my place. A blue-gray gnatcatcher is drawling somewhere in the leafy treetops. Thence, too, a cuckoo fires off a lively fusillade of kuks, — a yellow-bill, by that token. Next a blackpoll warbler shows himself, still far from home, though he has already traveled a long way northward ; and then, in one of the basins of the stream (if we may call it a stream, in which there is no semblance of a current), a chat comes to wash himself. Now I see the thrush again ; or rather, I hear him whistle, and by moving a step or two I get him with my eye. He is an olive-back, as his whistle of itself would prove ; and presently he begins to sing, to my intense delight. Soon two others are in voice with him. Am I on Missionary Ridge or in the Crawford Notch ? I stand motionless, and listen and listen, but my enjoyment is interrupted by a new pleasure. A warbler, — evidently a female, from a certain quietness and plainness, — and, as I take it, a blue-winged yellow, though I have never seen a female of that species, comes to the edge of the water, and in another minute her mate is beside her. Him there is no mistaking. They fly away in a bit of lovers’ quarrel, a favorite pastime with mated birds. And look ! there is a scarlet tanager ; the same gorgeous fellow, I suppose, that was here two days ago, and the only one I have seen in this lower country. What a beauty he is ! One of the finest; handsomer, so I think, than the handsomest of his all-red cousins. Now he calls chip-cherr, and now he breaks into song. There he falls behind ; his cousin’s voice is less hoarse, and his style less labored and jerky.

Now straight before me up a woody aisle, an olive-backed thrush stands in full view and a perfect light, facing me and singing, a lovely chorister. Looking at him, I catch a flutter of yellow and black among the leaves by the streamlet; a Kentucky warbler, I suspect, but I dare not go forward to see, for now the thrushes are in chorus again. By and by he comes up from his bath, and falls to dressing his feathers : not a Kentucky, after all, but a Canadian flycatcher, my first one here. He, too, is an exquisite, with fine colors finely laid on, and a most becoming jet necklace. While I am admiring him, a blue yellowback begins to practice his scales — still a little blurred, and needing practice, a critic might say — somewhere at my right among the hillside oaks; another exquisite, a beauty among beauties. I see him, though he is out of sight. And what seems odd, at this very moment his rival as a singer of the scale, the prairie warbler, breaks out on the other side of me. Like the chat and the indigo-bird, he is abundantly at home hereabout.

All this woodland music is set off by spaces of silence, sweeter almost than the music itself. Here is peace unbroken ; here is a delicious coolness, while the sun blazes upon the dusty road above me. How amiable a power is contrast — on its softer side ! I think of the eager, bloody, sweaty, raging men who once stormed up these slopes, killing and being killed. The birds know nothing of all that. It might have been thousands of years ago. The very trees have forgotten it. Two or three cows come feeding down the glade, with the lazy tinkle of a bell. And now my new friend, the blue-winged yellow warbler, sings across the path (across the aisle, I was going to say), but only two or three times, and with only two insignificant lisping syllables. The chary soul! He sings to the eye, I suppose. I go over to look at him, and my sudden movement startles the thrushes, who, finding themselves again in the singers’ gallery, cannot refrain from another chorus. At the same moment the Canadian warbler comes into sight again, this time in a tupelo. The blue-wings are found without difficulty ; they have a call like the black-and-white creeper’s. A single rough-winged swallow skims above the treetops. I have seen him here before, and one or two others like him. Compared with New England, this corner of Tennessee seems but poorly supplied with swallows.

As I return to the bed of the valley, a female cardinal grosbeak flutters suspiciously about a thicket of tall blackberry vines. Her nest should be there, I think, but a hasty look reveals nothing. Again I come upon the Canadian warbler. If there is only one here, he is often in my way. I sit down upon the leaning, almost horizontal bole of a large tupelo, — a new tree to me, but common in this country. The thick dark-colored bark is broken deeply into innumerable small geometrical figures, giving the tree a noticeable, venerable appearance, as wrinkles lend distinction and character to an old man’s face. Another species, which, as far as I can tell, should be our familiar tupelo of Massachusetts, is equally common, — a smaller tree with larger leaves. The moisture here, slight as it now is, gives the place a vegetation of its own and a peculiar density of leafage. From one of the smaller tupelos (I repeat that word as often as I can, for the music of it) cross-vine streamers are swinging, full of red-and-yellow bells. Scattered thinly over the ground are yellow starflowers, the common houstonia, a pink phlox, and some unknown dark yellow blossom a little like the fall dandelion, — Cynthia, I guess.

My thoughts are recalled by a strong, sharp chip in a voice I do not recognize, — a Kentucky warbler’s, as presently turns out. He walks about the ground amid the short, thin grass, seemingly in the most placid of moods ; but at every few steps, for some inscrutable reason, he comes out with that quick, peremptory call. And all the while I keep saying to myself, “ What a beauty ! ” But my forenoon is past. I rise to go, and at the motion he takes flight. Near the spring the goldfinches are still in full chorus, and just beyond them in the path is a mourning dove.

That was a good season : hymns without words, “ a sermon not made with hands,” and the world shut out. Three days afterward, fast as my vacation was running away, I went to the same place again. The olive-backed thrushes were still singing, to my surprise, and the Kentucky warblers were still feeding in the grass. The scarlet tanager sang (it is curious how much oftener I mention him than the comparatively unfamiliar, but here extremely common summer tanager), the cuckoo called, the Acadian flycatcher was building her nest, — on a horizontal limb of a maple, — and a goldfinch warbled as if he could never cease. A veery sang, also (I heard but one other in Tennessee), with a chestnut-sided warbler, two redstarts (one of them in the modest garb of his mother), a Carolina chickadee, a mocking wren, a pine warbler, a prairie warbler, and a catbird. In time, probably, all the birds for a mile around might have been heard or seen beside that scanty rill.

To-day, however, my mood was less Sundayish than before, and in spite of the heat I ventured across an open pasture,— where a Bachman’s finch was singing an ingenious set of variations, and a rabbit stamped with a sudden loudness that made me jump, — and then through a piece of wood, till I came to another hollow like the one I had left, but without water, and therefore less thickly shaded. Here was the inevitable thicket of brambles (since I speak so much of chats and indigo-birds, the presence of a sufficiency of blackberry bushes may be taken for granted), and I waited to see what it would bring forth. A field sparrow sang from the hillside, — a sweet and modest tune that went straight to the heart, and had nothing to fear from a comparison with Bachman’s finch or any other. What a contrast in this respect between him and his gentle-seeming but belligerent and tuneless cousin whom we call “chippy”!1 Here, likewise, were a pair of complaining Carolina wrens and an Acadian flycatcher. A thrush excited my curiosity, having the look of a graycheek, but showing a buff eye-ring ; and while I was coaxing him to whistle, and so declare himself,—often a ready means of identification, and preferable on all accounts to shooting the bird, — there came a furious outburst from the depths of the brier patch, with a grand flurry of wings: a large bird and two smaller ones engaged in sudden battle, as well as I could make out. At the close of the mêlée, which ended as abruptly as it had begun, the thicket showed two wrens, a white-throated sparrow, and a female cardinal. The cardinal flew away ; the affair was no business of hers, apparently ; but in a minute she was back again, scolding. Then, while my back was turned, everything became quiet ; and on my stepping up to reconnoitre, there she sat in her nest with four eggs under her. At that moment a chat’s loud voice was heard, and, turning quickly, I caught the fellow in the midst of a brilliant display of his clownish tricks, ridiculous, indescribable. At a little distance, it is hard to believe that it can be a bird, that dancing, shapeless thing, balancing itself in the air with dangling legs and prancing, swaying motions. Well, that is the chat’s way. What more need be said ? Every creature must express himself, and birds no less than other poets are entitled to an occasional “ fine frenzy.”

My little excursion had brought me nothing new, and, like all my similar ventures on Missionary Ridge, it ended in defeat. The sun was too much for me ; to use a word suggested by the place, it carried too many guns. I took a long and comfortable siesta under a magnificent chestnut oak. Then it was near noon, and, with my umbrella spread, I mounted the hill to the railway, and waited for a car.

Bradford Torrey.

  1. If I could have my way, he should be known as the doorstep sparrow. The name would fit him to a nicety.