Birds, Flowers, and People
“ I 'D rather do anything than to pack,” said a North Carolina mountain man. His tone bespoke a fullness of experience ; as if a farm-bred Yankee were to say, “ I 'd rather do anything than to pick stones in cold weather.” He had found me talking with a third man by the wayside on a sultry forenoon. The third man carried a bag of corn on his back, and was on his way from Horse Cove to Highlands (valleys are coves in that part of the South), up the long steep mountain side down which, with frequent stops for admiration of the world below, I had been lazily traveling. He was sick, he told me ; and as his appearance corroborated his words, I had been trying to persuade him to leave his load where it was, trust its safety to Providence, and go home. Just then it happened that mountaineer number two came along and delivered himself as above quoted.
He was going to Highlands, also. He had been “putting in a week” trying to buy a cow to replace one that had mired herself and broken her neck. “ I would rather have paid down twenty-five dollars in gold,” he declared. (The air was full of political silver talk ; but gold is the standard, after all, when men come to business.) He knew the invalid, it appeared; for presently he turned into a trail, a short cut through the woods, which till now had escaped my notice, and remarked, “ Well, John, I guess I ’ll take the narrow way ; ” and off he went up the slope, while the other man and I continued our dialogue, — I still playing the part of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Christian still unconvinced, but not indisposed to parley.
He wished to know where I had come from ; and when I told him, he said, “Massachusetts ! Well, I reckon it’s right hot down there now.” He held the common belief of the mountain people that the rest of the earth’s surface is mostly uninhabitable in summertime. One morning, I remember, I said something to an idler on the village sidewalk about the cool night we had just passed. I meant my little speech as a kind of local compliment, but he took me up at once. It was “ pretty hot,” he thought, — about as hot a night as he ever knew. He did n’t see how folks lived down in Charleston ; and I partly agreed with him. He had been “ borned right here,” and had never been farther away than to Seneca; and from his manner of expressing himself I inferred that he hoped never to find himself so far from home again. This was in the midst of a “ heated term,” when the mercury, at four o’clock in the afternoon, registered 74° on the hotel piazza.
However, it was many degrees warmer than that in Horse Cove (at a considerably lower level) on the day of which I am writing, and a sick man with a bag of corn on his back had good reason to rest halfway up the climb. He had killed “a pretty rattlesnake ” a little way back, he told me. “ Very dangerous they are,” he added, with an evident kindly desire to put a stranger on his guard. As we separated, a man on horseback turned a corner in the road above us, and on looking round, a few minutes later, I was relieved to see that he had lent the pack-bearer his horse, and was pursuing his own way on foot. And now I thought, not of Bunyan’s parable, but of an older and better one.
Though the primary interest of my trip to the North Carolina mountains was rather with the fauna and flora than with the population (as we call it, in our lofty human way of speaking, having no doubt that we are the people), I found, first and last, no small pleasure in the men, women, and children, as I fell in with them out of doors here and there, in the course of my daily perambulations. Poverty-cursed as they looked (the universal “ packing ” by both sexes over those up-and-down roads, and the shiftless, comfortless appearance of the cabins, were proof enough of a pinched estate), they seemed to be laudably industrious, and, as the world goes, enjoyers of life. If they said little, it was perhaps rather my fault than theirs (the key must fit the lock), and certainly they treated me with nothing but kindness.
More than a fortnight after my interview with the invalid, just described, I was returning to the hotel from an early morning jaunt down the Walhalla road, when I met a man driving a pair of dwarfish steers hitched to a pair of wheels, on the axle-tree of which was fastened a rude, widely ventilated, homemade box, with an odd-shaped, homemade basket hung on one side of it, — the driver, literally, on the box. I greeted him, and he pulled up. “ Well, I see you are still here,” he said, after a good-morning. “ You have seen me before ? ” I replied. He was sallow and thin, — the usual mountaineer’s condition, — but wore the pleasantest of smiles. “ Yes ; I saw you down in the Cove with the sick man.” He was the pilgrim who took the “ narrow way,” and was hunting for a cow, though I should not have remembered him. And now, peeping through one of the holes in the box, I saw that he had a calf inside. “ A Jersey ? ” asked I. “Part Jersey,” he answered. Mr. S— (one of the villagers, whom by this time I counted as a friend, a white-haired, youngish veteran of the civil war, on the Union side, a neighbor I had “ taken to ” from the moment I saw him), Mr. S— had given the calf to the man’s father-in-law, and he, the son-in-law, had driven up to the village to fetch it home. He lived about six miles out, on a side road. I inquired about the two or three houses in sight in the valley clearing below us. It was the “ Webb settlement,” he told me ; “ so we always call it.” I remarked that all hands seemed to have plenty of children. “ Yes, plenty of children,” he responded, with a laugh ; and away he drove.
It was only a few minutes before another man appeared, a foot passenger this time, walking at a smart pace, with an umbrella on his shoulder, and a new pair of boots slung across it. “ You travel faster than I do,” said I. “ Yes, sir,” he answered, smiling (all men like the name of being active), “ I go pretty peart when I go.” He, too, had six miles before him, and believed it would “ begin to rain after a bit.” It would have been an imposition upon good nature to detain him. There was a bend in the road just below, and in another minute I heard him spanking round it at a lively trot.
Five minutes more, and a second pedestrian hove in sight. He, likewise, was in haste. “ You are all in a hurry to-day,” I said to him. I was in pursuit of acquaintance, and in such places it is the part of wisdom, and of good manners as well, to make the most of chance opportunities. “Yes, sir,” he made answer, slackening his pace ; “ I want to get my road done. I ’ve got till Saturday, and I want to get it done;” and he put on steam again, and was gone. His countenance was familiar, but I could not tell where I had seen him, — one of the fathers of the Webb settlement, perhaps. The mountaineers, all thin, all light-complexioned, and all wearing the same drab homespun, look confusingly alike to a newcomer. Whoever the stranger was, he had evidently undertaken to build some part of the new road, and was returning from the village with supplies. In one hand he carried two heavy drills, and under the other arm a strip of pork, a piece of brown paper wrapped about the middle of it, and the long ends dangling. It did my vacationer’s heart good to see men so cheerfully industrious; but I thought it a reproach to the order of the world that so much hard work should yield so little of comfort. But then, who knows which was the more comfortable, — the idle, criticising tourist or the sweating laborer ? For the time being, at all events, the laborer had the air of a person inwardly well off. A mountain man with a “ contract " was not likely to be envious even of a boarder at “ Mrs. Davis’s,” as the hotel is locally, and very properly, called.
As I went on, passing the height of land and beginning my descent homeward, I met two other foot passengers, — two women : one old and fat, — the only fat mountaineer of either sex seen in North Carolina, — with a red face and a staff ; the other young, slightly built and pale, carrying an old-fashioned shotgun (the ramrod projecting) over her right shoulder. Both wore sunbonnets, and the younger had a braid of hair hanging down her back. With her slender figure, her colorless face, her serious look, and the long musket, she would have made a subject for a painter. This pair I could think of no excuse for accosting, much as I should have enjoyed hearing them talk.1 Shortly after they had gone, I stopped to speak with a small boy who was climbing the hill, with a mewing kitten hugged tightly to his breast. He was taking it home to his cat, he said. She brought in mice and things, and wanted something to give them to. The little fellow was still young enough to understand the mother instinct.
That was a truly social walk. I had never before found one of those mountain roads half so populous. Once, indeed, I drove all day without seeing a passenger of any sort, until, near the end of the afternoon and within a mile or two of the town, I met a solitary horseman.
The new road, of which I have spoken, and concerning which I heard so much said on all hands, was really not quite that, but rather a new laying out — with loops here and there to avoid the steeper pitches — of the road from Walhalla, over which I had driven on my entrance into the mountains. My friend Mr. S— had made the surveys for the work, and the whole town was looking forward eagerly to its completion. Toward sunset, on a Sunday afternoon, I had been out of the village in an opposite direction, and was sitting by the wayside in the Stewart woods, full of flowers and music, where I loved often to linger, when three men approached on foot. “ How far have you come ? ” I inquired. “ From Franklin,” — about twenty miles distant, — they answered. They were going to work “ on the new road up at Stooly ” (Satulah Mountain), or so I understood the oldest of the trio, who acted throughout as spokesman. (In my part of the country it is only the professionally idle who walk twenty miles at a stretch.) “ Well,” said I, none too politely, being nothing but an outsider, “ I hope you ’ll make it better than it was when I came up.” He replied, quite good-humoredly, that they were making a good road of it this time. And so they were, comparatively speaking; for I went over the mountain one day on purpose to see it, after I knew who had laid it out, and had begun to feel a personal interest in its success. One of the men carried a hoe, and one a small tin clock. They had no other baggage, I think. When a man works on the road, he needs a hoe to work with, and a timepiece to tell him when to begin and when to leave off. So I thought to myself; but I am bound to add that these workmen seemed to be going to their task as if it were a privilege. It eases labor to feel that one is doing a good job. That makes the difference, so we used to be told, by Carlyle or some one else, between an artist and an artisan; and I see no reason why such encouraging distinctions should not apply to road-menders as well as to menders of philosophy. There is no such thing as drudgery, even for a man with a hoe, so long as quality is the end in view.
Whatever else was to be said of the roads hereabout, — and the question is of paramount importance in such a country, where mails and supplies must be transported thirty miles (a two days’ journey for loaded wagons), — they were almost ideally perfect from a walking naturalist’s point of view ; neither sandy nor muddy, the two evils of Southern roads in general, and conducting the traveler at once into wild and shady places. The village is closely built, and no matter in which direction I turned, the houses were quickly behind me, and I was as truly in the woods as if I had made a day’s march from civilization. A straggling town, with miles of outlying farms and pasture lands, through the sunny stretches of which a man must make his way forenoon and afternoon, is a state of things at once so usual and so disheartening that the point may well be among the earliest to be considered in planning a Southern vacation.
In a new country an ornithologist thinks first of all of the birds peculiar to it, if any such there are ; and I was no sooner off the hotel piazza for my first ante-breakfast stroll at Highlands than I was on the watch for Carolina snowbirds and mountain solitary vireos, two varieties (“ subspecies ” is the more modern word) originally described a few years ago, by Mr. Brewster,2 from specimens taken at this very place. I had gone perhaps a quarter of a mile over the road by which I had driven into the town, after dark, on the evening before, when I was conscious that a bird had flown out from under the overhanging bank just behind me. I turned hastily, and on the instant put my eye upon the nest. My ear, as it happened, had marked the spot precisely. “ Here it is,” I thought, and in a fraction of a minute more the anxious mother showed herself, — a snowbird. The nest looked somewhat larger than those I had seen in New Hampshire, but that may have been a fault of memory.3 It contained young birds and a single egg. I was in great luck, I said to myself ; but in truth, as a longer experience showed, the birds were so numerous all about me that it would have been no very difficult undertaking to find a nest or two almost any day.
Birds which had been isolated (separated from the parent stock) long enough to have taken on some constant physical peculiarity — without which they could not be entitled to a distinctive name, though it were only a third one — might be presumed to have acquired at the same time some slight but real idiosyncrasy of voice and language. But if this is true of the Carolina junco, I failed to satisfy myself of the fact. On the first day, indeed, I wrote with perfect confidence, “ The song is clearly distinguishable from that of the northern bird, —less musical, more woodeny and chippery ; " more like the chipping sparrow’s, I meant to say. If I had come away then, with one bird’s trill to go upon, that would have been my verdict, to be printed, when the time came, without misgiving. But further observation brought further light, or, if the reader will, further obscurity. Some individuals were better singers than others, — so much was to be expected ; but taking them together, their music was that of ordinary snowbirds such as I had always listened to. For aught my ears told me, I might have been in Franconia. This is not to assert that the Alleghanian junco has not developed a voice in some measure its own ; I believe it has ; probability has more authority than personal experience with me in matters of this kind ; but the change is as yet too inconsiderable for my senses to appreciate on a short acquaintance, with no opportunity for a direct comparison. In such cases, it is perhaps true that one needs to trust the first lively impression, — which has, undeniably, its own peculiar value, — or to wait the result of absolute familiarity. My stay of three weeks gave me neither one thing nor another ; it was long enough to dissipate my first feeling of certainty, but not long enough to yield a revised and settled judgment.
The mountain vireo ( Vireo solitarius alticola), like the Carolina snowbird, may properly be called a native of Highlands ; and, like the snowbird, it proved to be common. My first sight of it was in the hotel yard, but I found it—single pairs—everywhere. A look at the feathers of the back through an operaglass showed at once the principal distinction — apart from a superiority in size, not perceptible at a distance — on which its subspecific identity is based ; but though to its original describer its song sounded very much finer than the northern bird’s, I could not bring myself to the same conclusion. I should never have remarked in it anything out of the common. Once, to be sure, I heard notes which led me to say, “ There ! that voice is more like a yellow-throat’s, — fuller and rounder than a typical solitary’s ; ” but that might have happened anywhere, and at all other times, although I had the point continually in mind, I could only pronounce the song to be exactly what my ear was accustomed to, — sweet and everything that was beautiful, but a solitary vireo’s song, and nothing else. And this, to my thinking, is praise enough. There is no bird - song within my acquaintance that excels the solitary’s in a certain intimate expressiveness, affectionateness, home-felt happiness, and purity. Not that it has all imaginable excellencies, — the unearthly, spiritual quality of the best of our woodland thrush music, for example ; but such as it is, an utterance of love and love’s felicity, it leaves nothing to ask for. What a contrast between it and the red-eye’s comparatively meaningless and feelingless music ! And yet, so far as mere form is concerned, the two songs may be considered as built upon the same model, if not variations of the same theme. There must be a world-wide difference between the two species, one would say, in the matter of character and temperament.
My arrival at Highlands seemed to have been coincident with that of an extraordinary throng of rose-breasted grosbeaks. For the first few days, especially, the whole countryside was alive with them, till I felt as if I had never seen grosbeaks before. Their warbling was incessant; so incessant, and at the same time so exceedingly smooth and sweet, — “mellifluous” is precisely the word,— that I welcomed it almost as a relief when the greater part of the chorus moved on. After such a surfeit of honeyed fluency, I was prepared better than ever to appreciate certain of our humbler musicians, — with a touch of roughness in the voice and something of brokenness in the tune; birds, for instance, like the black-throated green warbler, the yellowthroated vireo, and the scarlet tanager. But if I was glad the crowd had gone, I was glad also that a goodly sprinkling of the birds had remained ; so that there was never a day when I did not see and hear them. The rose-breast is a lovely singer. In my criticism of him I am to be understood as meaning no more than this : that he, like every other artist, has the defects of his good qualities. Smoothness is a virtue in music as in writing; but it is not the only virtue, nor the one that wears longest.
After the grosbeaks, whose great abundance was but transitory, two of the most numerous birds were the Canadian flycatching warbler and the blackthroated blue,—two Northerners, as I had always thought of them. Every mountain stream was overhung, mile after mile, by a tangle of rhododendron and laurel, and out of every such tangle came the hoarse, drawling kree, kree, kree of the black-throated blue, and the sharp, vivacious, half-wrennish song of the Canadian flycatcher. I had never seen either species in anything near such numbers ; and I may include the Blackburnian warbler in the same statement. Concerning the black-throated blue, it is to be said that within a year or two the Alleghanian bird has been discriminated by Dr. Coues as a local race, with a designation of its own, — Dendroica cærulescens cairnsi, — the points of distinction being its smaller size and the color of the middle back, black instead of blue. I cannot recollect that I perceived anything peculiar about its notes, nor, so far as appears, did Mr. Brewster do so ; yet it would not surprise me if such peculiarities were found to exist. The best of ears (and there can be very few to surpass Mr. Brewster’s, I am sure) cannot take heed of everything, especially in a strange piece of country, with a voice out of every bush calling for attention.
A few birds, too familiar to have attracted any particular notice on their own account, became interesting because of the fact that they were not included among those found here by Mr. Brewster. One of these was the Maryland yellow-throat, of which Mr. Brewster saw no signs above a level of 2100 feet. (The elevation of Highlands, I may remind the reader, is 3800 feet.) At the time of my visit, the song, witchery, witchery, witchery, or fidgety, fidgety, fidgety (every listener will transliterate the dactyls for himself), was to be heard daily from the hotel piazza, though so far away that, with Mr. Brewster’s negative experience in mind, I deferred listing the name till, after two or three days, I found leisure to go down to the swamp out of which the notes, whatever they were, evidently proceeded. Then it transpired that at least five males were in song, in four different places. Later (May 25) I happened upon one in still another and more distant spot. Probably the species had come in since Mr. Brewster’s day (eleven years before), with some change of local conditions, — the cutting down of a piece of forest, perhaps, and the formation of a bushy swamp in its place. A villager closely observant of such things, and well acquainted with the bird, assured me from his own recollection of the matter (and he remembered Mr. Brewster’s visit well) that such was pretty certainly the case.
Another bird seen almost daily, though in limited numbers, was the red-winged blackbird, which Mr. Brewster noticed only in a few places in the lower valleys. It seemed well within the range of probability that the same changes which had brought in one lover of sedgy tussocks and button-bushes should have attracted also another. I made no search for nests, but the fact that the birds were seen constantly from May 7 to May 27 may be taken as reasonably conclusive evidence that they were on their breeding-grounds.
Two or more pairs of phœbes had settled in the neighborhood, and two or more pairs of parula warblers. The former were not found by Mr. Brewster above a level of 3000 feet, and the latter he missed at Highlands, although, as he says, the presence of trees hung with usnea lichens made their absence a surprise.
Hardly less rememberable than these differences of experience was one striking coincidence. On the 25th of May, when I had been at Highlands more than a fortnight, I was sitting on the veranda waiting for the dinner-bell, and reading the praises of " free silver ” in a Georgia newspaper, when I jumped to my feet at the whistle of a Baltimore oriole. I started at once in pursuit, and presently came up with the fellow, a resplendent old male, in a patch of shrubbery bordering the hotel grounds. I kept as near him as I could (in Massachusetts he would scarcely have drawn a second look), and even followed him across the street into a neighbor’s yard. He was the only one I had seen (he was piping again the next morning, the last of my stay), and on referring to Mr. Brewster’s paper I found that he too met with one bird here,4 and in exactly the same spot. The keeper of the hotel remembered the circumstance, and the pleasure of Mr. Brewster over it. In my case, at any rate, the lateness and unexpectedness of the bird’s appearance, together with what a certain scholarly friend of mine would have called his “ uniquity,” made him the bringer of a most agreeable noonday excitement. Where he had come from, and whether he had brought a mate with him, were questions I had no means of answering. He reminded me of my one Georgia oriole, on the field of Chickamauga.
The road to Horse Cove, of which I have already spoken, offered easy access to a lower and more summery level, the land at this point dropping almost perpendicularly for about a thousand feet. In half an hour the pedestrian was in a new climate, with something like a new fauna about him. Here were such birds as the Kentucky warbler, the hooded warbler, the cardinal grosbeak, and the Acadian flycatcher, none of them to be discovered on the plateau above. Here, also, — but this may have been nothing more than an accident, — were the only bluebirds (a single family) that I saw anywhere until, on my journey out of the mountains, I descended into the beautiful Cullowhee Valley.
At Highlands the birds were a mixed lot, Southerners and Northerners delightfully jumbled : a few Carolina wrens (one was heard whistling from the summit of Whiteside !) ; a single Bewick wren, singing and dodging along a fence in the heart of the village; tufted titmice ; Carolina chickadees; Louisiana water thrushes and turkey buzzards: and on the other side of the account, brown creepers, red-bellied nuthatches, blackthroated blues, Canada warblers, Blackburnians, snowbirds, and olive-sided flycatchers.
An unexpected thing was the commonness of blue golden-winged warblers, chats, and brown thrashers (the chats less common than the other two) at an elevation of 3800 feet. Still more numerous, in song continually, even on the summit of Satulah, were the chestnut-sided warblers, although Mr. Brewster, in his tour through the region, “ rarely saw more than one or two in any single day : ” a third instance, as seemed likely, of a species that had taken advantage of new local conditions — an increase of shrubby clearings, in the present case — within the last ten years. Here, as everywhere, the presence of some birds and the absence of others were provocative of questions. Why should the Kentucky warbler sing from rhododendron thickets halfway up the slope at the head of Horse Cove, and never be tempted into other thickets, in all respects like them, just over the brow of the cliff, 500 feet higher ? Why should the summer yellow-bird, which pushes its hardy spring flight beyond the Arctic circle, restrict itself here in the Carolinas to the low valley lands (I saw it at Walhalla and in the Cullowhee Valley), and never once choose a nesting-site in appropriate surroundings at a little higher level ? Why should the chat and the blue golden wing find life agreeable at Highlands, and their regular neighbors, the prairie warbler and the white-eyed vireo, so persistently refuse to follow them ? And why, in the first half of May, was there so strange a dearth of migrants in these attractive mountain woods ? — a few blackpoll warblers (last seen on the 18th), a single myrtle-bird (on the 7th), and a crowd of rose-breasted grosbeaks and Blackburnian warblers (on the 8th and 9th, especially) being almost the only ones to fall under my notice. After all, one of the best birds I saw, not forgetting the Wilson’s phalarope, — my adventure with which has been detailed in an earlier paper, — was a song sparrow singing from a dense swampy thicket on the 25th of May. So far as I am aware, no bird of his kind has ever before been reported in summer from a point so far south. He looked natural, but not in the least commonplace, as, after a long wait on my part, — for the sake of absolute certainty, — he hopped out into sight. I was proud to have made one discovery!
In such a place, so limited in the range of its physical conditions, — a village surrounded by forest, — the birds, however numerous they might be, counted as individuals, were sure to be of comparatively few species. Omitting such as were certainly, or almost certainly, migrants or strays, — the blackpoll, the myrtle-bird, the barn swallow, the kingbird, the solitary sandpiper, and the phalarope, — and such as were found only at a lower level, in Horse Cove and elsewhere ; omitting, too, all birds of prey, — few, and for the most part but imperfectly identified; restricting myself to birds fully made out and believed to be summering in the immediate neighborhood of Highlands; omitting the raven, of course, — I counted but fiftynine species.
All things considered, I was not inconsolable at finding my ornithological activities in some measure abridged. I had the more time, though still much too little, for other pursuits. It would have been good to spend the whole of it upon the plants, or in admiring the beauties of the country itself. As it was, I plucked a blossom here and there, stored up a few of the more striking of them in the memory, and enjoyed many an hour in gazing upon the new wild world, where, no matter how far I climbed, there was nothing to be seen on all sides but a sea of hills, wave rising beyond wave to the horizon’s rim.
The horizon was never far off. I was twice on Satulah and twice on Whiteside, from which latter point, by all accounts, I should have had one of the most extensive and beautiful prospects to be obtained in North Carolina ; but I had fallen upon one of those “ spells of weather,” common in mountainous places, which make a visitor feel as if nothing were so rare as a transparent atmosphere. For ordinary lowland purposes the days were no doubt favorable enough: a pleasing, wholesome alternation of rain and shine, wind and calm, with no lack of thunder and lightning, and once, at least, a lively hailstorm. “ Weather like this I have never seen elsewhere. Such air! ” So I wrote in my enthusiasm, thinking of physical comfort, — a man who wished to walk and sit still by turns, and be neither sunstruck nor chilled ; but withal, there was never an hour of clear distance till the morning I came away, when mountain ascents were no longer to be thought of. The world was all in a cover of mist, and the outlying hills, one beyond another, with the haze settling into the valleys between them, were, as I say, like the billows of the sea. Nothing could have been more beautiful, perhaps ; but a curtain is a curtain, and I longed to see it rise. A change of wind, a puff from the northwest, and creation would indeed have “ widened in man’s view.” That was not to be, and all those lofty North Carolina peaks — of which, to a New Englander, there seem to be so many5 — were seen by me only from railway trains and from the hotel veranda at Asheville, on my journey homeward. On Satulah and Whiteside I was forced to please myself with the glory of the foreground. What lay beyond the mist was matter for dreams.
But even as things were, I was not so badly used. There was more beauty in sight than I could begin to see, and, notwithstanding the comparative narrowness of the outlook, — partly because of it, —■ one of my most enjoyable forenoons was spent on the broad, open, slightly rounded summit of Satulah. Here and there (" more here than there,” my pencil says) a solitary cabin was visible, or a bit of road, a ribbon of brown amidst the green of the forest, but no village, nor so much as a hamlet. The only other signs of human existence were a light smoke, barely distinguishable, rising from Horse Cove as I guessed, and, for a few minutes, a man whom my eye fell upon most unexpectedly, a motionless speck, though he was walking, far down the Walhalla road. I turned my glass that way, and behold, he had the usual bag of grain on his back.
The date was May 12. I had been in Highlands less than a week, and my thoughts still ran upon ravens, the birds which, more even than the southern snowbird and the mountain vireo, I had come hither to seek. They were said often to fly over, and this surely should be a place to see them. They could not escape me, if they passed within a mile. But though I kept an eye out, as we say, and an ear open, it was a vigil thrown away. Buzzards, swifts, and a bunch of twittering goldfinches were all the birds that “ flew over.” A chestnut-sided warbler sang so persistently from the mountain side just below that his sharp voice became almost a trouble. From the same quarter rose the songs of an oven-bird, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and a scarlet tanager. On the summit itself were snowbirds and chewinks ; and once, to my delight, a field sparrow gave out a measure or two. After all, go where you will, you will hear few voices that wear better than his, — clear, smooth, most agreeably modulated, and temperately sweet.
The only trees I remember at the very top of the mountain were a few dwarfed and distorted pines and white oaks, — enough to remind a Yankee that he was not in New Hampshire. On the other hand, here grew our Massachusetts huckleberry (Gaylussacia resinosa), which I had seen nowhere below, where a great abundance of the buckberry — so I think I heard it called (G. ursina), — taller bushes, more comfortable to pick from, with larger blossoms — seemed to have taken its place. I should have been glad to try the fruit, which was described as of excellent quality. On that point, with no thought of boasting, I could have spoken as an expert. With the huckleberry was chokeberry, another New England acquaintance, fair to look upon, but a hypocrite, — “ by their fruits ye shall know them ; ” and underneath, among the stones, were common yellow five-fingers, bird-foot violets, and leaves of trailing arbutus, three-toothed potentilla (a true mountain-lover), checkerberry, and galax. With them, but deserving a sentence by themselves, were the exquisite vernal iris and the scarlet painted cup, otherwise known as the Indian’s paint-brush and prairie fire, splendid for color, and in these parts, to my astonishment, a frequenter of the forest. I should have looked for it only in grassy meadows. Here and there grew close patches of the pretty, alpine-looking sand myrtle (Leiophyllum buxifolium), thickly covered with small white flowers, — a plant which I had seen for the first time the day before on the summit of Whiteside. Mountain heather I called it, finding no English name in Chapman’s Flora. Stunted laurel bushes in small bud were scattered over the summit. A little later they would make the place a flower garden. A single roseacacia tree had already done its best in that direction, with a full crop of gorgeous rose-purple clusters. The winds had twisted it and kept it down, but could not hinder its fruitfulness.
These things, and others like them, I noticed between times. For the most part, my eyes were upon the grand panorama, a wilderness of hazy, forest-covered mountains, as far as the eye could go ; nameless to me, all of them, with the exception of the two most conspicuous, — Whiteside on the one hand, and Rabun Bald on the other. For my comfort a delicious light breeze was stirring, and the sky, as it should be when one climbs for distant prospects, was sprinkled with small cumulus clouds, which in turn dappled the hills with movingshadows. One thing brought home to me a truth which in our dullness we ordinarily forget: that the earth itself is but a shadow, a something that appeareth, changeth, and passeth away. The rocks at my feet were full of pot-holes, such as I had seen a day or two before, the water still swirling in them, at Cullasajah Falls. As universal time is reckoned, — if it is reckoned, — old Satulah and all that forest-covered world which I saw, or thought I saw, from it, were but of yesterday, a “ divine improvisation,” and would be gone to-morrow.
More beautiful than the round prospect from Satulah, though perhaps less stimulating to the imagination, was the view from the edge of the mountain wall at the head of Horse Cove. Here, under a chestnut tree, I spent the greater part of a half day, the valley with its road and its four or five houses straight at my feet. A dark precipice of bare rock bounded it on the right, a green mountain on the left, and in the distance southward were ridges and peaks without number. A few of the nearer hills I knew the names of by this time: Fodderstack, Bearpen, Hogback, Chimneytop, Terrapin, Shortoff, Scaly, and Whiteside. Satulah was the only fine name in the lot; and that, for a guess, is aboriginal. The North American Indians had a genius for names, as the Greeks had for sculpture and poetry, and will be remembered for it.
I had come to the brow of the cliffs, at a place called Lover’s Leap, in search of a particular kind of rhododendron. It bore a small flower, my informant had said, and grew hereabout only in this one spot. It proved to be R. punctatum, new to me, and now (May 23) in early blossom. Four days afterward, in the Cullowhee and Tuckaseegee valleys, I saw riverbanks and roadsides lined with it ; very pretty, of course, being a rhododendron, but not to be compared in that respect with the purple rhododendron or mountain rose-bay (R. Catawbiense). That, also, was to be found here, but very sparingly, as far as I could discover. I felicitated myself on having seen it in its glory on the mountains of southeastern Tennessee. The common large rhododendron (R. maximum) stood in thickets along all the brooks. I must have walked and driven past a hundred miles of it, on the present trip, it seemed to me ; but I have never been at the South late enough to see it in flower.
What I shall remember longest about the flora of Highlands — and there is no part of eastern North America that is botanically richer, I suppose — is the azaleas. When I drove up from Walhalla, on the 6th of May, the woods were bright, mile after mile, with the common pink species (A. nudiflora) ; and at Highlands, in some of the dooryards, I found in full bloom a much lovelier kind, — also pink, and also leafless,— A. Vaseyi as it turned out : a rare and lately discovered plant, of which the village people are justly proud. I could not visit its wild habitat without a guide, they told me. Within a week or so after my arrival the real glory of the spring was upon us : the woods were lighted up everywhere with the flamecolored azalea ; and before it was gone, — while it was still at its height, indeed, — the familiar sweet-scented white azalea (A. viscosa), the “ swamp pink ” of my boyhood, came forward to keep it company and lend it contrast. By that time I had seen all the rhododendrons and azaleas mentioned in Chapman’s Flora, including A. arborescens, a tardy bloomer, which a botanical collector, with whom I was favored to spend a day on the road, pointed out to me in the bud.
The splendor of A. calendulacea, as displayed here, is never to be forgotten; nor is it to be in the least imagined by those who have seen a few stunted specimens of the plant in northern gardens. The color ranges from light straw-color to the brightest and deepest orange, and the bushes, thousands on thousands, no two of them alike, stand, not in rows or clusters, but broadly spaced, each by itself, throughout the hillside woods.
They were never out of sight, and I never could have enough of them. Wherever I went, I was always stopping short before one bush and another ; admiring this one for the brilliancy or delicacy of its floral tints, and that one for its bold and pleasing habit. For as the plants do not grow in close ranks, so they do not put forth their flowers in a mass. They know a trick better than that. Thousands of shrubs, but every one in its own place, to be separately looked at; and on every shrub a few sprays of bloom, each well apart from all the others ; one twig bearing nothing but leaves, another full of blossoms ; a short branch here, a longer one there; and again, a smooth straight stem shooting far aloft, holding at the tip a bunch of leaves and flowers ; everything free, unstudied, and most irregularly graceful, as if the bushes had each an individuality as well as a tint of its own.
One walk on Satulah — not to the summit, but by a roundabout course through the woods to a bold cliff on the southern side (all the mountains, as a rule, are rounded on the north, and break off sharply on the south) — was literally a walk through an azalea show: first the flame-colored, bushes beyond count and variety beyond description; and then, a little higher, a plentiful display of the white viscosa, more familiar and less showy, but hardly less attractive.
Better even than this wild Satulah garden was a smaller one nearer home : a triangular hillside, broad at the base and pointed at the top, as if it were one face of a pyramid ; covered loosely with grand old trees, — oaks, chestnuts, and maples ; the ground densely matted with freshly grown ferns, largely the cinnamon osmunda, clusters of lively green and warm brown intermixed ; and everywhere, under the trees and above the ferns, mountain laurel and flame-colored azalea, — the laurel blooms pale pink, almost white, and the azalea clusters yellow of every conceivable degree of depth and brightness. A zigzag fence bounded the wood below, and the land rose at a steep angle, so that the whole was held aloft, as it were, for the beholder’s convenience. It was a wonder of beauty, with nothing in the least to mar its perfection, — the fairest piece of earth my eye ever rested upon. The human owner of it, Mr. Selleck (why should I not please myself by naming him, a landowner who knew the worth of his possession !), had asked me to go and see it; and for his sake and its own, as well as for my own sake and the reader’s, I wish I could show it as it was. It rises before me at this moment, like the rhododendron cliffs on Walden’s Ridge, and will do so, I hope, to my dying day.
- On a different road, and on a Sunday morning, I met a young colored woman, — an unusual sight, colored people being personæ non grates in the mountains. We bade each other good-morning, as Christians should. My notebook, I see, records her as dressed in her best clothes, — a blue gown, I think, — with a handsome light-colored silk parasol in one hand, and a tin pail in the other.↩
- The Auk, vol. iii. pp. 108 and 111.↩
- My first, impression was correct. Mr. Brewster, as I now notice, says of the nest that it is “ larger and composed of coarser material ” than that of Junco hyemalis.↩
- “ At Highlands I saw a single male, — an unusually brilliant one, — which I was told was the only bird of the kind in the vicinity.”↩
- According to a publication of the State Board of Agriculture, North Carolina contains forty-three peaks more than 6000 feet high, eighty-two others more than 5000 feet high, and an “ innumerable " multitude the altitude of which is between 4000 and 5000 feet.↩