At Natural Bridge, Virginia
WITH the exception of a tedious delay at East Radford it was a very enjoyable forenoon’s ride from Pulaski to Natural Bridge, through a country everywhere interesting, and for much of the distance gloriously wild and beautiful. Splendid hillside patches of mingled Judas-tree and flowering dogwood — one of a bright peach-bloom color, the other royal masses of pure white — brightened parts of the way south of Roanoke. There, also, hovering over a grassy field, were the first bobolinks of the season. From Buchanan northward (new ground to me by daylight) we had the company of mountains and the James River, the road following the windings of a narrow bank between the base of the ridge and the water. It surprised me to see the James so large and full at such a distance from its mouth, — almost as wide, I thought, as the Tennessee at Chattanooga. Shortly before reaching the Natural Bridge station the train stopped for water, and on getting off the steps of the car I heard a Maryland yellowthroat singing just below me at the foot of the bank, and in a minute more a kingfisher flew across the stream, — two additional names for my vacation catalogue. Then, while I waited at the station for a carriage from the hotel, — two miles and a half away, — I added still another. In the cloudy sky, between me and the sun, was a bird which in that blinding light might have passed for a buzzard, only that a swallow was pursuing it. Seeing that sign, I raised my glass and found the bird a fishhawk. Trifles these things were, perhaps, with mountains and a river in sight; but that depends upon one’s scale of values. To me it is not so clear that a pile of earth is more an object of wonder than a swallow that soars above it; and for better or worse, mountains or no mountains, I kept an ornithological eye open.
On the way to the Bridge (myself the only passenger) the colored driver of the wagon picked up a brother of his own race, who happened to be traveling in the same direction and was thankful for a lift. And a real amusement and pleasure it was to listen to the two men’s palaver, especially to their “ Mistering ” of each other at every turn of the dialogue. I never saw two schoolmasters, even, who could do more in half an hour for the maintenance and increase of their mutual dignity. It was “ Mr. Brown” and “ Mr. Smith ” with every other breath, until the second man was set down at his own gate. From their appearance they must have been of an age to remember the days “ before the war,” and I did not think it surprising that men who had once been pieces of property should be disposed to make the most of their present condition of manhood, and so to give and take, between themselves, as many reminders and tokens of it as the brevity of their remaining time would permit.
Once at the hotel, installed (literally) in my little room, the only window of which was in the door, — opening upon the piazza, for all the world as a prison cell opens upon its corridor, — once domiciled, I say, and a bite taken, I bought a season ticket of admission to the “ glen,” and went down the path and a flight of steps, amid a flock of trilling goldfinches and past a row of lordly arbor-vitæ trees, to the brook, and up the bank of the brook to the famous bridge. Of this, considered by itself, I shall attempt no description. The material facts are, in the language of the guidebook, that it is “ a huge monolithic arch, 215 feet high, 100 feet wide, and 90 feet in span, crossing the ravine of Cedar Brook.” Magnificent as it is, there is, for me at least, not much to say concerning it, or concerning my sensations in the presence of it. Not that it disappointed me. On the contrary, it was from the first more imposing than I had expected to find it. I loved to look at it, from one side and from the other, from beneath and from above. I walked under it and over it (on the public highway, for it is a bridge not only in name, but in fact) many times, by sunlight and by moonlight, and should be glad to do the same many times more ; but perhaps my taste is peculiar; at all events, such “ wonders of nature ” do not charm me or wear with me like a beautiful landscape. It was so, I remember, at Ausable Chasm ; interesting, grand, impressive, but a place in which I had no passion for staying, no sense of exquisite delight or solemnity. In Burlington, just across Lake Champlain, I could sit by the hour, even on the flat roof of the hotel, and gaze upon the blue water and the blue Adirondacks beyond, — the sight was a feast of beauty; but this cleft in the rocks, — well, I was glad to walk through it and to shoot the rapids ; there was nothing to be said in disparagement of the place, but it put me under no spell. I fear it would be the same with those marvelous Colorado cañons and “ gardens of the gods.” A wooded mountain side, a green valley, running water, a lake with islands, best of all, perhaps (for me, that is, and taking the years together), a New England hill pasture, with boulders and red cedars, berry bushes and fern patches, the whole bounded by stone walls and bordered with gray birches and pitch pines, — for sights to live with, let me have these and things like them in preference to any of nature’s more freakish work, which appeals rather to curiosity than to the imagination and the affections.
Having gone under the arch (and looked in vain for Washington’s initials on the wall), the visitor to Natural Bridge finds himself following up the brook — a lively stream — between lofty precipitous cliffs, that turn to steep wooded slopes as he proceeds. If he is like me, he pursues the path to the end, stopping here and there, — at the saltpetre cave, at Hemlock Island, and at Lost River, if nowhere else, — till he comes to the end at the falls, a distance of a mile, more or less. That is my way always. I must go straight through the place once ; then, the edge of my curiosity dulled, I am in a condition to see and enjoy.
The ravine is a botanist’s paradise : that, I should say, must be the first thought of every appreciative tourist. The elevation (fifteen hundred feet), the latitude, and the limestone rocks work together to that end. In a stay of a week I could see, of course, but one set of flowers ; and in my preoccupation I passed many herbs and shrubs, mostly out of bloom, the names of which I neither knew nor attempted to discover. One of the things that struck my admiration on the instant was the beauty of the columbine as here displayed ; a favorite with me always, for more reasons than one, but never beheld in all its loveliness till now. If the election could be held here, and on the 1st of May, there would be no great difficulty in securing a unanimous vote for Aquilegia Canadensis as the “national flower.” It was in its glory at the time of my earlier visits, brightening the face of the cliffs, not in a mass, but in scattered sprays, as high as the eyesight could follow it; looking, even under the opera-glass, as if it grew out of the rock itself. With it were sedges, ferns, and much of a tufted white flower, which at first I made no question must be the common early saxifrage. When I came upon it within reach, however, I saw at once that it was a plant of quite another sort, some member of the troublesome mustard family, — Draba ramosissima, as afterward turned out. It was wonderful how closely it simulated the appearance of Saxifraga Virginiensis, though the illusion was helped, no doubt, by the habit I am in of seeing columbine and saxifrage together.
The ground in many places was almost a mat of violets, three kinds of which were in special profusion : the tall, fragrant white Canadensis, the longspurred rostrata, — of a very pale blue, with darker streaks and a darker centre (like our blue meadow violets in that respect), — and the common palmata. The long-spurred violet was new to me, and both for that reason and for itself peculiarly attractive. As I passed up the glen on the right of the brook beyond Hemlock Island, so called, carpeted with partridge-berry vines bearing a wondrous crop (“ See the berries ! ” my notebook says), I began to find here and there the large trillium (T. grandiflorum), some of the blossoms clear white, others of a delicate rosy tint. The rosy ones had been open longer than the others, it appeared ; for the flowers blush with age, — a very modest and graceful habit. Like the spurred violet, the trillium is a plant also of northern New England, but happily for my present enjoyment I had never seen it there. And the same is to be said of the large yellow bellwort, which was here the trillium’s neighbor, and looked only a little less distinguished than the trillium itself.
If I were to name all the plants I saw, or even all that attracted my particular notice, the non-botanical reader would quit me for a tiresome chronicler. Hepatica and bloodroot had dropped their last petals; but anemone and rue anemone were still in bloom, with cranesbill, spring beauty, ragwort, mitrewort, robin’s plantain, Jack-in - the - pulpit, wild ginger (two thick handsome leaves hiding a dark-purplish three-horned urn of an occult and almost sinister aspect), two or more showy chickweeds, two kinds of white stone-crop (Sedum ternatum and S. Nevii, the latter a novelty), mandrake (sheltering its precious round bud under an umbrella, though to-day it neither rained nor shone), pepper-root, gill-over-the-ground (where did it come from, I wondered), Dutchman’s breeches (the leaves only). Orchis spectabilis (which I did not know till after a few days it blossomed), and many more. A new shrub — almost a tree — was the bladder-nut, with drooping clusters of small whitish flowers, like bunches of currant blossoms in their manner of growth and general appearance ; especially dear to humble-bees, which would not be done with a branch even while I carried it in my hand. In one place, as I stooped to examine a boulder covered thickly with the tiny walking fern, of which the ravine contains a great abundance, — faded, ill conditioned, and homely, but curious, and, better still, a stranger, — I found the ground littered with bright yellowish magnolia petals ; and if I looked into the sky for a passing bird, it was almost as likely as not that I should find myself looking through the branches of a soaring tulip-tree, — a piece of magnificence that is one of the most constant of my Alleghanian admirations. All the upper part of the glen is pervaded by a dull rumbling or moaning sound, — the voice of Lost River, out of which the tourist is supposed to have drunk at the only point where it shows itself (and there only to those who look for it), a quarter of a mile back. Another all-pervasive thing is the wholesome fragrance of arbor-vitæ. It is fitting, surely, that the tree of life should be growing in this floral paradise. There are few places, I imagine, where it flourishes better.
On my way back toward the bridge I discovered, as was to be expected, many things that had been overlooked on my way out; and every successive visit was similarly rewarded. A pleasing sight at the bridge itself was the continual fluttering of butterflies—Turnus and his smaller and paler brother Ajax, especially — against the face of the cliffs, sipping from the deep honey-jars of the columbines. Here, too, I often stopped awhile to enjoy the doings of several pairs of rough-winged swallows that had their nests in a row of holes in the rock, between two of the strata. Most romantic homes they looked, under the overhanging ledge, — a narrow platform below, ferns and sedges nodding overhead, with tall arbor-vitæ trees a little higher on the cliff, and water dropping continually before the doors. One of the nests, I noticed, had directly in front of it a patch of low green moss, the neatest of door-mats. The holes were only a few feet above the level of the stream, but there was no approach to them without wading; for which reason, perhaps, the owners paid little attention to me, even when I got as near them as I could. In and out they went, quite at their ease, resting now and then upon a jutting shelf, or perching in the branches of some tree near at hand. Once three of them sat side by side before one of the openings, which after all may have admitted to some sizable cavern wherein different pairs were living together. They are the least beautiful of swallows, but for this time, at all events, they had displayed a remarkably pretty taste in the choice of a nesting-site.
The birds of Cedar Creek, however, were not the rough-wings, but the Louisiana water thrushes. On my first jaunt through the ravine (May 1) I counted seven of them, here one and there another, the greater part in free song; and while I never found so many again at any one visit, I was never there without seeing and hearing at least two or three. It was exactly such a spot as the water thrush loves, — a quick stream, with boulders and abundant vegetation. The song, I am sorry to be obliged to confess, as I have confessed before, is not to me all that it appears to be to other listeners; probably not all that a longer acquaintance and a more intimate association would make it. It is loud and ringing, — for a warbler’s song, I mean ; in that respect well adapted to the bird’s ordinary surroundings, being easily heard above the noise of a pretty lively brook. It is heard the better, too, because of its remarkably disconnected, staccato character. Every note is by itself. Though the bird haunts the vicinity of running water, there is no trace of fluidity in its utterance. No bird-song could be less flowing. It neither gurgles nor runs smoothly, note merging into note. It would be too much to call it declamatory, perhaps, but it goes some way in that direction. At least we may call it emphatic. At different times I wrote it down in different words, none of which could be expected to do more than assist, first the writer’s memory, and then the reader’s imagination, to recall and divine the rhythm and general form of the melody. For that — I speak for myself — a verbal transcription, imperfect as it must be, in the nature of the case, is likely to prove more intelligible, and therefore more useful, than any attempt to reproduce the music itself by a resort to musical notation. As most frequently heard here, the song consisted of eight notes, like “ Come — come — come — come, — you ’re a beauty,” delivered rather slowly. “ Lazily ” was the word I sometimes employed, but “slowly” is perhaps better, though it is true that the song is cool and, so to speak, very unpassionate. Dynamically I marked it -, while the variations in pitch may be indicated roughly thus: —. Two of the lower notes, the fifth and sixth, were shorter than the others, — half as long, if my ear and memory are to be trusted. Sometimes a bird would break out into a bit of flourish at the end, but to my thinking such improvised cadenzas, as they had every appearance of being, only detracted from the simplicity of the strain without adding anything appreciable to its beauty or its effectiveness.
This song, which the reader will perhaps blame me for trying thus to analyze (I shall not blame him), very soon grew to be almost a part of the glen ; so that I never recall the brook and the cliffs without seeming to hear it rising clear and sweet above the brawling of the current; and when I hear it, I can see the birds flitting up or down the creek, just in advance of me, with sharp chips of alarm or displeasure ; now balancing uneasily on a boulder in mid-stream (a posterior bodily fluctuation, half graceful, half comical, slanderously spoken of as teetering) and singing a measure or two, now taking to an overhanging branch, sometimes at a considerable height, for the same tuneful purpose. One acrobatic fellow, I remember, walked for some distance along the seemingly perpendicular face of the cliff, slipping now and then on the wet surface and having to “ wing it ” for a space, yet still pausing at short intervals to let out a song. In truth, the happy creatures were just then brimming over with music; and if I seem to praise their efforts but grudgingly, it is to be said, on the other hand, in justice to the song and to myself, that my appreciation of it grew as the days passed. Whatever else might be true of it, it was the voice of the place.
Of birds beside the rough-wings and the water thrushes there were surprisingly few in the glen, though, to be sure, there may well have been many more than I found trace of. The splashing of a mountain brook is very pleasing music, — more pleasing, in itself considered, than the great majority of bird-songs, perhaps, — but an ornithological hobbyist may easily have too much of it. I call to mind how increasingly vexatious, and at last all but intolerable, a turbulent Vermont stream (a branch of Wait’s River) became to me, some years ago, as it followed my road persistently mile after mile in the course of a May vacation. One gets on the track of the smaller birds through hearing their faint calls in the bushes and treetops; and how was I to catch such indispensable signals with this everlasting uproar in my ears? So it was here in Cedar Creek ravine; it would have to be a pretty loud voice to be heard above the din of the hurrying water. And the birds, on their side, had something of the same difficulty ; or so I judged from the unconventional behavior of a blue yellow-backed warbler that flitted through the hanging branches of a tree within a few inches of my hat, having plainly no suspicion of a human being’s proximity. The tufted titmouse could be heard, of course. He would make a first-rate auctioneer, it seemed to me, with his penetrating, indefatigable voice and his genius for repetition. Now and then, too, I caught the sharp, sermonizing tones of a red-eyed vireo. Once an oven-bird near me mounted a tree hastily, branch by branch, and threw himself from the top for a burst of his afternoon medley; and at the bridge a phœbe sat calling. These, with a pair of cardinal grosbeaks, were all the birds I saw in the glen during my first day’s visit.
In fact, I had the place pretty nearly to myself, not only on this first day, but for the entire week. Once in a great while a human visitor was encountered, but for the most part I went up and down the path with no disturbance to my meditations. Happily for me, the Bridge was now in its dull season. Many tourists had been here. The trunks of the older trees, the beeches especially, were scarred thickly with inglorious initials, some of them so far from the ground that the authors of them must have stood on one another’s shoulders in their determination to get above the crowd. (In work of this kind an inch or two makes all the difference between renown and obscurity.) The fact was emblematic, I thought. So do men hoist and boost themselves into fame, not only in Cedar Creek ravine, but in the “great world,” as we call it, outside. Who so lowlyminded as not to believe that he could make a name for himself if only he had a step-ladder ? At the arch, likewise, such autographers had been busy ever since Washington’s day. I peeped into a crevice to obtain a closer view of a tiny fern, and there before me was a penciled name, invisible till I came thus near to it. One of the meek the writer must have been ; a lead pencil, and so fine a hand! Dumphy of New Orleans. Why should I not second his modest bid for immortality ? A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches. By all means let Dumphy of New Orleans be remembered.
As for Washington’s “ G. W.,” the letters are said to be still decipherable by those who know exactly where to look and exactly what to look for ; but I can testify to nothing of myself. I was told where the initials were; one was much plainer than the other, my informant said, — which seemed to imply that one of them, at least, was more or less a matter of faith ; he would go down with me some day and point them out; but the hour convenient to both of us never came, and so, although I almost always spent a minute or two in the search as I passed under the arch, I never detected them or anything that I could even imagine to stand for them. I have had experience enough of such things, however, to be aware that my failure proves nothing as against the witness of other men’s eyesight. Certainly I know of no ground for doubting that Washington cut his initials on the cliff; and if he did, it seems reasonable to believe that tradition would have preserved a knowledge of the place, and so have made it possible to find them now in all their inevitable indistinctness after so long an exposure to the wear of the elements. Neither do I esteem it anything but a natural and worthy curiosity for the visitor to wish to see them; and I may add my hope that all young men who are destined to achieve Washington’s measure of distinction will cut their names large and deep in every such wall, for the benefit of future generations. As for the rest of us, if we must scratch our names in stone or carve them on the bark of trees, let us seek some sequestered nook, where the sight of our doings will neither be an offense to others nor make us a laughing-stock.
I have said that I discovered Dumphy of New Orleans while leaning against the cliff to peer into a crevice in search of a diminutive fern. This fern was of much interest to me, being nothing less than the wall-rue spleenwort (Asplenium Ruta-muraria), for which I had looked without success in years past on the limestone cliffs of northern Vermont, at Willoughby and elsewhere. The fronds, stipe and all, last - year plants in full fruit, were less than three inches in length. Another fern, one size larger, but equally new and interesting, was the purplestemmed cliff-brake (Pellœa atropurpurea), which also had eluded my search in its New England habitat. Both these rarities (plants which will grow only on limestone cannot easily be degraded into commonness) I could have gathered here in moderate numbers, but of course collecting is not permitted ; it cannot be, in a spot so frequented by curiosity-seekers. It was pleasure enough for me, at any rate, to see them.
Along the bottom of the ravine I had remarked a profusion of a strikingly beautiful larger fern (but still “ smallish, ” as my pencil says), with showy red stems and a most graceful curving or drooping habit. This I could not make out for a time ; but it proved to be, as I soon began to suspect, Cystopteris bulbifera, to my thinking one of the loveliest of all things that grow. I had seen it abundant at Willoughby, Vermont, and at Owl’s Head, Canada, ten years before ; but either my memory was playing me a trick, or there was here a very considerable diminution in the length of the fronds, accompanied by a decided heightening in the color of the stalk and rhachis. Before long, however, I found a specimen already beginning to show its bulblets, and these, with a study of Dr. Eaton’s description, left me in no doubt as to the plant’s identity.
What other ferns may have been growing in the ravine I cannot now pretend to say. I remember the Christmas fern, a goodly supply of the dainty little Asplenium trichomanes, and tufts of what I took with reasonable certainty for Cystopteris fragilis in its early spring stage, than which few things can be more graceful. On the upper edge of the ravine, when I left the place one day by following a maze of zigzag cattlepaths up the steep slope, and found myself, to my surprise, directly in the rear of the hotel, I came upon a dense patch of a smallish, very narrow, dark-stemmed fern, new to my eyes, — the hairy lipfern, so called (Cheilanthes vestita). These fronds, too, like those of the cliffbrake and the wall-rue spleenwort, were of last year’s growth, thickly covered on the back with brown “ fruit-dots,” and altogether having much the appearance of dry herbarium specimens ; but they were good to look at, nevertheless. Here, as in the case of Pellæa atropurpurea, it was a question not only of a new species, but of a new genus.
From my account of the scarcity of birds in Cedar Creek ravine the reader will have already inferred, perhaps, that I did not spend my days there, great as were its botanical attractions. My last morning’s experience at Pulaski, the evidence there seen that the vernal migration was at full tide, or near it, had brought on a pretty acute attack of ornithological fever,—a spring disease which I am happy to believe has become almost an epidemic in some parts of the United States within recent years, — and not even the sight of new ferns and new flowers could allay its symptoms. I had counted upon finding a similar state of things here, — all the woods astir with wings. Instead of that, I found the fields alive with chipping sparrows, the air full of chimney swifts, the shade trees in front of the hotel vocal with goldfinch notes, and, comparatively speaking, nothing else. By the end of the second day I was fast becoming disconsolate. 41 No birds here,” I wrote in my journal. 44 I have tried woods of all sorts. A very few parula warblers, two or three red - eyed vireos, one yellow - throated vireo, seven Louisiana water thrushes in the glen, one prairie warbler, and a few oven-birds! No Bewick wrens. Two purple finches and one or two phœbes have been the only additions to my Virginia list.” A pitiful tale. Vacations are short and precious, and it goes hard with us to see them running to waste.
The next evening (May 3) it was the same story continued. 44 It is marvelous, the difference between this beautiful place, diversified with fields and woods, — hard wood, cedar, pine, — it is marvelous, the difference between this heavenly spot and Pulaski in the matter of birds. There I registered six new arrivals in half an hour Wednesday morning ; here I have made but six additions to my list in two full days. There is scarcely a sign of warbler migration. Was it that in Pulaski the woods were comparatively small, and the birds had to congregate in them ? Or does Pulaski lie in a route of migration ? ” Wild surmises, both of them ; but wisdom is not to be looked for in a fever patient.
“ Six additions in two full days,” I wrote; but the second day was not yet full. As evening came on I went out to stand awhile upon the bridge ; and while I listened to the brawling of the creek and admired the beautiful scene below me, the moon shining straight down upon it, a nighthawk called from the sky, and afterward — not from the sky — a whippoorwill. Here, then, were two more names for my catalogue ; but even so, — six or eight, — it was a beggarly rate of increase in such a favored spot and in the very nick of the season. The “ six additions, ” it may ease the reader’s curiosity to know, were the Carolina wren, the summer tanager, the purple finch, the indigo bunting, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, and the phœbe.
One compensation there was for the ornithological barrenness of these first few days : I had the more leisure for botany. And the hours were not thrown away, although at the time I was almost ready to think they were, with so many of them devoted to ransacking the Manual ; for a man who does not collect specimens to carry home with him must, as it were, drive his field work and his closet work abreast; he must study out his findings as he goes along. On the evening of the second day, for example, I wrote in my journal thus, —the final entry under that date, as the reader may guess : “ In bed. Strange how we flatter ourselves with a knowledge of names. I have spent much time to-day looking up the names of flowers and ferns, and somehow feel as if I had learned something in so doing. Really, however, I have learned only that some one else has seen the things before me, and called them so and so. At best that is nearly all I have learned.” But after setting down the results of my investigations, especially of those having to do with the pretty draba and the bulbiferous fern, I concluded in a less positive strain : “ Well, the hunt for names does quicken observation and help to relate and classify things.” That was a qualification well put in. The whole truth was never written on one side of the leaf. If all our botany were Latin names, as Emerson says, we should have little to boast of; yet even that would be one degree better than nothing, as Emerson himself felt when he visited a museum and saw the cases of shells. “ I was hungry for names,” he remarks. So have all men of intelligence been since the day of the first systematic, nameconferring naturalist, the man who dwelt in Eden. Let us be thankful for manuals, I say, that offer on easy terms a speaking acquaintance, if nothing more, with the world of beauty about us. Things take their value from comparison, and my own ignorance was but a little while ago so absolute that now I am proud to know so much as a name.
Meanwhile, to come back to Natural Bridge, I had found the country of a most engaging sort. In truth, while the bridge itself is the “feature” of the place, as we speak in these days, it is by no means its only, or, as I should say, its principal attraction, so far, at least, as a leisurely visit is concerned. A man may see it and go, — as most tourists do; but if he stays, he will find that the region round about not only has charms of its own, but is one of the prettiest he has ever set eyes on ; and that, I should think, though he be neither a botanist, nor an ornithologist, nor any other kind of natural historian. For myself, at all events, I had already come to that conclusion, notwithstanding I had yet to see some of the most beautiful parts of the country, and was, besides, far too much concerned about the birds (the absentees in particular) and the flowers to have quieted down to any adequate appreciation of the general landscape. I have never yet learned to see a prospect on the first day, or while in the eager expectation of new things, although, like every one else, I can exclaim with a measure of shallow sincerity, “ Beautiful! beautiful ! ” even at the first moment.
As my mood now was, at any rate, fine scenery did not satisfy me ; and on the morning of May 4, after two days and a half of botanical surfeit and ornithological starvation, I packed my trunk preparatory to going elsewhere. First, however, I would try the woods once more, if perchance something might have happened overnight. Otherwise, so I informed the landlord, I would return in season for an early luncheon, and should expect to be driven to the station for the noon train northward.
I went to a promising-looking bill covered with hard-wood forest, a spot already visited more than once, — Buck Hill I heard it called afterward, —and was no sooner well in the woods than it became evident that something had happened. The treetops were swarming with birds, and I had my hands full with trying to see and name them. Old trees are grand creations, — among the noblest works of God, I often think ; but for a bird-gazer they have one disheartening drawback, especially when, as now, the birds not only take to the topmost boughs (even the hummer and the magnolia warbler, so my notes say, went with the multitude to do evil), but, to make matters worse, are on the move northward or southward, or flitting in simple restlessness from hill to hill. However, I did my best with them while the fun lasted. Then all in a moment they were gone, though I did not see them go ; and nothing was left but the wearisome iterations of oven-birds and red-eyes where just now were so many singers and talkers, among which, for aught I could tell, there might have been some that it would have been worth the price of a long vacation to scrape even a treetop acquaintance with.
Indeed, it was certain that one member of the flock was a rarity, if not an absolute novelty. That was the most exciting and by all odds the most deplorable incident of the whole affair. I had obtained several glimpses of him, but had been unable to determine his identity; a warbler, past all reasonable doubt, with pure white under parts (the upper parts quite invisible) except for a black or blackish line, barely made out, across the lower throat or the upper breast. He, of course, had vanished with the rest, the more was the pity. I had made a guess at him, to be sure ; it is a poor naturalist who cannot do as much as that (but a really good naturalist would “ form a hypothesis,” I suppose) under almost any circumstances. I had called him a cerulean warbler. Once in my life I had seen a bird of that species, but only for a minute. If he wore a black breast-band, I did not see it, or else had forgotten it. If I could only have had a look at this fellow’s back and wings ! As it was, I was not likely ever to know him, though the printed description would either demolish or add a degree of plausibility to my offhand conjecture.
The better course, after losing a bevy of wanderers in this way, is perhaps to remain where one is and await the arrival of another detachment of the migratory host. This advice, or something like it, I seem to remember having read, at all events ; but I have never schooled myself to such a pitch of quietism. For a time, indeed, I could not believe that the birds were lost, and must hunt the hilltop over in the hope of another chance at them. An empty hope. So I did what I always do : the game having flown, I took my own departure also. I should not find the same flock again, but with good luck — which now it was easy to expect — I might find another ; and except for the single mysterious stranger, that would be better still. One thing I was sure of, — Natural Bridge was not to be left out of the warbler migration; and one thing I forgot entirely, — that I had planned to leave it by the noonday train.
My useless chase over the broad hilltop had brought me to the side opposite the one by which I had ascended, and to save time, as I persuaded myself, I plunged down, as best I could, without a trail, — a piece of expensive economy, almost of course. In the first place, this haphazardous descent took me longer than it would have done to retrace my steps ; and in the second place, I was compelled for much of the distance to force my way through troublesome underbrush, in doing which I made of necessity — being a white man — no little noise, and so was the less likely to hear the note of any small bird, or to come close upon him without putting him to flight. In general, let the bird - gazer keep to the path, except in open woods, or as some specific errand may lead him away from it. In one way and another, nevertheless, I got down at last, and after beating over a piece of pine wood, with little or no result, I crossed a field and a road, and entered a second tract of hardwood forest.
The trees were comfortably low, with much convenient shrubbery, and after a little, seeing myself at the centre of things, as it were, I dropped into a seat and allowed the birds to gather about me. At my back was a bunch of whitethroated sparrows. From the same quarter a chat whistled now and then, and white - breasted nuthatches and a Carolina chickadee did likewise, the last with a noticeable variation in his tune, which had dwindled to three notes. Here, as on the hill I had just left, wood pewees and Acadian flycatchers announced themselves, in tones so dissimilar as to suggest no hint of blood relationship. The wood pewee is surely the gentleman of the family, so far as the voice may serve as an indication of character. In dress and personal appearance he is a flycatcher of the flycatchers ; but what a contrast between his soft, plaintive, exquisitely modulated whistle, the very expression of refinement, and the wild, rasping, over-emphatic vociferations that characterize the family in general ! The more praise to him. The Acadians seemed to have come northward in a body. Nothing had been seen or heard of them before, but from this morning they abounded in all directions. In a single night they had taken possession of the woods. Here was the first Canadian warbler of the season, singing from a perch so uncommonly elevated (he is a lover of bushy thickets rather than of trees) that for a time it did not come to me who he was,—so exceedingly earnest and voluble. A black - throated blue warbler almost brushed my elbow. Redstarts were never so splendid, I thought, the white of the dogwood blossoms, now in their prime, setting off the black and orange of the birds in a most brilliant manner, as was true also of the deep vermilion of the summer tanager. A Blackburnian warbler, whose flame - colored throat needs no setting but its own, had fallen into a lyrical mood very unusual for him, and sang almost continuously for at least half an hour, — a poor little song in a thin little voice, but full of pleasant suggestions in every note. The first Swainson thrush was present, with no companion of his own kind, so far as appeared. I prolonged my stay on purpose to hear him sing, but was obliged to content myself with the sight of him and the sound of his sweet, quick whistle.
All the while, as I watched one favorite another would come between us. Ouce it was a humming-bird, a bit of animate beauty that must always be attended to ; and once, when the place had of a sudden fallen silent, and I had taken out a book, I was startled by a flash of white among the branches, — a red-headed woodpecker, in superb color, new for the year, and on all accounts welcome. He remained for a time in silence, and then in silence departed (he had been almost too near me before he knew it) ; but having gone, he began a little way off to play the tree-frog for my amusement. After him a hairy woodpecker made his appearance, with sharp, peremptory signals, highly characteristic ; and then, from some point near by, a rose-breasted grosbeak’s hic was heard.
It was high noon before I was done with “ receiving ” (one of the prettiest “ functions" of the year, though none of the newspapers got wind of it), and returned to the hotel, where the landlord smiled when I told him that some friends of mine had arrived, and I should stay a few days longer.