Autumn in Franconia
THAT afternoon I took the Landaff Valley round, down the village street nearly to the junction of Gale River and Ham Branch, then up the Ham Branch (or Landaff) Valley to a crossroad on the left, and so back to the road from the Profile Notch, and by that home again. The jaunt, which is one of our Franconia favorites, is peculiar for being substantially level; with no more uphill and downhill than would be included in a walk of the same distance — perhaps six miles — almost anywhere in southern New England.
The first thing a man is likely to notice as he passes the last of the village houses, and finds himself skirting the bank of Ham Branch (which looks to be nearly or quite as full as the river into which it empties itself), is the color of the water. Gale River is fresh from the hills, and ripples over its stony bed as clear as crystal. The branch, on the contrary, has been flowing for some time through a flat meadowy valley, where it has taken on a rich earthy hue, to which it might be natural to apply a less honorable sounding word, perhaps, if it were a question of some neutral stream, in whose character and reputation I felt no personal, friendly interest.
Just as I came to it, that afternoon, I saw to my surprise a white admiral butterfly sunning itself upon an alder leaf. I hope the reader knows the species, — Limenitis Arthemis, sometimes called the banded purple, — one of the prettiest and showiest of New England insects, four black or blackish wings crossed by a broad white band. It was much out of season now, I felt sure, both from what my entomological friends had told me, and from my own recollections of previous years, and I was seized with a foolish desire to capture it as a sort of trophy. It lay just beyond my reach, and I disturbed it, in hopes it would settle nearer the ground. Twice it disappointed me. Then I threw a stick toward it, aiming not wisely but too well, and this time startled it so badly that it rose straight into the air, sailed across the stream, and came to rest far up in a tall elm. " You were never cut out for a collector of insects,” I said to myself, recalling my experience of the forenoon ; but I was glad to have seen the creature, — the first one for several years, — and went on my way as happy as a child in thinking of it. In the second half of a man’s century he may be thankful for almost anything that, for the time being, lifts twoscore of years off his back. The best part of most of us, I think, is the boy that was born with us. So far I am a Wordsworthian : —
Bound each to each by natural piety.”
A little way up the valley we come to an ancient mill and a bridge; a new bridge it is now, but I remember an old one, and a fright that I once had upon it. With a fellow itinerant — a learned man, whose life was valuable — I stopped here to rest of a summer noon, and my companion, with an eye to shady comfort, clambered over the edge of the bridge and out upon a joist which projected over the stream. There he sat down with his back against a pillar and his legs stretched before him on the joist. He has a theory, concerning which I have heard him discourse more than once, — something in his own attitude suggesting the theme, — that when a man, after walking, “ puts his feet up,” he is acting not merely upon a natural impulse, but in accordance with a sound physiological principle; and in accordance with that principle he was acting now, as well as the circumstances of the case would permit. We chatted awhile : then he fell silent; and after a time I turned my head, and saw him clean gone in a doze. The seat was barely wide enough to hold him. What if he should move in his sleep, or start up suddenly on being awakened ? I looked at the rocks below, and shivered. I dared not disturb him, and could only sit in a kind of stupid terror and wait for him to open his eyes. Happily his nap did not last long, and came to a quiet termination; so that the cause of science suffered no loss that day ; but I can never go by the place without thinking of what might have happened.
Here, likewise, on an autumnal forenoon, two or three years ago, I had another memorable experience ; nothing less (nothing more, the reader may say) than the song of a hermit thrush. It was in the season after bluebirds and hermits had been killed in such dreadful numbers (almost exterminated, we thought then) by cold and snow at the South. I had scarcely seen a hermit all the year, and was approaching the bridge, of a pleasant late September morning, when I heard a thrush’s voice. I stopped instantly. The note was repeated ; and there the bird stood in a low roadside tree; the next minute he began singing in a kind of reminiscential half-voice, — the soul of a year’s music distilled in a few drops of sound, — such as birds of many kinds so frequently drop into in the fall. That, too, I am sure to remember as often as I pass this way.
In truth, all my Franconia rambles (I am tempted to write the name in three syllables, as I sometimes speak it, following the example of Fishin’ Jimmy and other local worthies), — all my “ Francony ” rambles, I say, are by this time full of these miserly delights. It is really a gain, perhaps, that I make the round of them but once a year. Some things are wisely kept choice.
To get all the goodness out of a piece of country, return to it again and again, till every corner of it is alive with memories ; but do not see it too often, nor make your stay in it too long. The hermit thrush’s voice is all the sweeter because he is a hermit.
This afternoon I do not cross the bridge, but keep to the valley road, which soon runs for some distance along the edge of a hackmatack swamp ; full of graceful, pencil-tipped, feathery trees, with here and there a dead one, on purpose for woodpeckers and hawks. A hairy woodpecker is on one of them at this moment, now hammering the trunk with his powerful beak (hammer and chisel in one), now lifting up his voice in a way to be heard for half a mile. To judge from his ordinary tone and manner, Dryobates villosus has no need to cultivate decision of character. Every word is peremptory, and every action speaks of energy and a mind made up.
In this larch swamp, though I have never really explored it, I have seen, first and last, a good many things. Here grows much of the pear-leaved willow (Salix balsamifera). I notice a few bushes even now as I pass, the reddish twigs each with a tuft of yellowing, redstemmed leaves at the tip. Here, one June, a Tennessee warbler sang to me ; and there are only two other places in the world in which I have been thus favored. Here, — a little farther up the valley, — on a rainy September forenoon, I once sat for an hour in the midst of as pretty a flock of birds as a man could wish to see : south-going travelers of many sorts, whom the fortunes of the road had thrown together. Here they were, lying by for a day’s rest in this favorable spot ; flitting to and fro, chirping, singing, feeding, playfully quarreling, as if life, even in rainy weather and in migration time, were all a pleasure trip. It was a sight to cure low spirits. I sat on the hay just within the open side of a barn which stands here in the woods, quite by itself, and watched them till I almost felt myself of their company. I have forgotten their names, though I listed them carefully enough, beyond a doubt, but it will be long before I forget my delight in the birds themselves. Ours may be an evil world, as the pessimists and the preachers find so much comfort in maintaining, but there is one thing to be said in its favor : its happy days are the longest remembered. The pain I suffered years ago I cannot any longer make real to myself, even if I would, but the joys of that time are still almost as good as new, when occasion calls them up. Some of them, indeed, seem to have sweetened with age. This is especially the case, I think, with simple and natural pleasures ; which may be considered as a good reason why every man should be, if he can, a lover of nature,—a sympathizer, that is to say, with the life of the world about him. The less artificial our joys, the more likelihood of their staying by us.
Not to blink at the truth, nevertheless, I must add a circumstance which, till this moment, I had clean forgotten. I was still watching the birds, with perhaps a dozen species in sight close at hand, when suddenly I observed a something come over them, and on the instant a large hawk skimmed the tops of the trees. In one second every bird was gone, — vanished, as if at the touch of a necromancer’s wand. I did not see them fly ; there was no rush of wings ; but the place was empty; and though I waited for them, they did not reappear. Two or three, indeed, I may have seen afterward, but the flock was gone. my holiday, at all events, or that part of it, was done, — shadowed by a hawk’s wing. Undoubtedly a few minutes of safety put the birds all in comfortable spirits again, however ; and anyhow, it bears out my theory of remembered happiness, that this less cheerful part of the story had so completely passed out of mind. Memory, like a sundial, had marked only the bright hour.
Beyond this lonely barn the soil of the valley becomes drier and sandier. Here are two or three houses, with broad hayfields about them, in which live many vesper sparrows. No doubt they have lived here longer than any of their present human neighbors. Even now they flit along the wayside in advance of the foot-passenger, running a space, after their manner, and anon taking wing to alight upon a fence rail. Their year is done, but they linger still a few days, out of love for the ancestral fields, or, it may be, in dread of the long journey, from which some of them will pretty certainly never come back.
All the way up the road, though no mention has been made of it, my eyes have been upon the low, bright-colored hills beyond the river, — sugar-maple orchards all in yellow and red, a gorgeous display, — or upon the mountains in front, Kinsman and the more distant Moosilauke. The green meadow is a good place in which to look for marsh hawks, — as well as of great use as a foreground, — and the hill woods beyond are the resort of pileated woodpeckers. I have often seen and heard them here, but there is no sign of them to-day.
Though these fine birds are generally described — one book following another, alter the usual fashion—as frequenters oi the wilderness, and though it is true that they have forsaken the more thickly settled parts of the country, I think I have never once seen them in the depths of the forest. To the best of my recollection none of our Franconia men have ever reported them from Mount Lafayette or from the Lonesome Lake region. On the other hand, we meet them with greater or less regularity in the more open valley woods, often directly upon the roadside ; not only in the Landaff Valley, but on the outskirts of the village toward Littleton and on the Bethlehem road. In this latter place I remember seeing a fellow prancing about the trunk of a small orchard tree within twenty rods of a house ; and not so very infrequently, especially in the rum-cherry season, they make their appearance in the immediate vicinity of the hotel; for they, like some of their relatives, notably the sapsucker, are true cherrybirds. In Vermont, too, I have found their freshly cut “ peck-holes ” on the very skirts of the village. And at the South, so far as 1 have been able to observe, the story is the same. About Natural Bridge, Virginia, for example, a loosely settled country, with plenty of woodland but no extensive forests, the birds were constantly in evidence. In short, untamable as they look, and little as they may like a town, they seem to find themselves best off, as birds in general do, on the borders of civilization. They have something of Thoreau’s mind, we may say : lovers of the wild, they are yet not quite at home in the wilderness, and prefer the woodman’s path to the logger’s.
Not far ahead, on the other side of the way, — to return to the Landaff Valley, — is a red maple grove, more brilliant even than the sugar orchards. It ripens its leaves earlier than they, as we have always noticed, and is already past the acme of its annual splendor ; so that some of the trees have a peculiarly delicate and lovely purplish tint, a real bloom, never seen, I think, except on the red maple, and there only after the leaves have begun to curl and fade. Opposite it (after whistling in vain for a dog with whom, in years past, I have been accustomed to be friendly at one of the houses — he must be dead, or gone, or grown reserved with age), I take the crossroad before mentioned ; and now, face to face with Lafayette, I stop under a favorite pine tree to enjoy the prospect and the stillness : no sound but the chirping of crickets, the peeping of hylas, and the hardly less musical hammering of a distant carpenter. Along the wayside are many gray birches (of the kind called white birches in Massachusetts, the kind from which Yankee schoolboys snatch a fearful joy by ‘"swinging off” their tops), the only ones I remember about Franconia; for which reason I sometimes call the road Gray Birch Road ; and just beyond them I stop again. Here is a bit for a painter : a lovely vista, such as makes a man wish for a brush and the skill to use it. The road dips into a little hollow, turns gently, and passes out of sight within the shadow of a wood. And above the overarching trees rises the pyramidal mass of Mount Cannon, its middle part set with dark evergreens, which are flanked on either side with broad patches of light yellow, — poplars or birches. The sun is getting down, and its level rays flood the whole mountain forest with light.
Into the shadow I go, following the road, and after a turn or two come out at a small clearing and a house. “ Rocky Farm,” we might name it; for the land is sprinkled over with huge boulders, as if giants bad been at play here. Whoever settled the place first must have chosen the site for its outlook rather than for any hope of its fertility. I sit down on one of the stones and take my fill of the mountain glory : Garfield, Lafayette, Cannon, Kinsman, Moosilauke, — a grand horizonful. Cannon is almost within reach of the hand, as it looks ; but the arm might need to be two miles long.
Just here the road makes a sudden bend, passes again into light woods, and presently emerges upon a little knoll overlooking the upper Franconia meadows. This is the noblest prospect of the afternoon, and late as the hour is growing I must lean against the fence rail — for there is a house at this point also — and gaze upon it. The green meadow is spread at my feet, flaming maple woods range themselves beyond it, and behind them, close at hand, loom the sombre mountains. I had forgotten that this part of the road was so " viewly,” to borrow a local word, and am thankful to have reached it at so favorable a moment. Now the shadow of the low hills at my back overspreads the valley, while the upper world beyond is aglow with light and color.
It is five o’clock, and I must be getting homeward. Down at the valley level the evening chill strikes me, after the exceptional warmth of the day, and by the time Tucker Brook is crossed the bare summit of Lafayette is of a deep rosy purple, — the rest of the world sunless. The day is over, and the remaining miles are taken somewhat hurriedly, although I stop below the Profile House farm to look for a fresh bunch of dumb foxglove, — not easy to find in the open at this late date, many as the plants are, — and at one or two other places to pluck a tempting maple twig. Sated with the magnificence of autumnal forests, hill after hill splashed with color, the eye loves to withdraw itself now and then to rest upon the perfection of a blossom or a leaf. Wagonloads of tourists come down the Notch road, the usual nightly procession, some silent, some boisterously singing. Among the most distressing of all the noises that human beings make is this vulgar shouting of “ sacred music ” along the public highway. This time the hymn is Jerusalem the Golden, after the upper notes of which an unhappy female voice is vainly reaching, like a boy who has lost his wind in shinning up a tree, and with his last gasping effort still finds the lowest branch just beyond the clutch of his fingers.
I hear her shriek, and then a lucky turn in the road takes her out of hearing, and I listen again to the still small voice of the brook, which, whether it 舠 knows ” or not, has the grace to make no fuss about it.
Let that one human discord be forgotten. It had been a glorious day; few lovelier were ever made : a day without a cloud (literally), and almost without a breath; a day to walk, and a day to sit still ; a long feast of beauty ; and withal, it had for me a perfect conclusion, as if Nature herself were setting a benediction upon the hours. As I neared the end of my jaunt, the hotel already in sight, Venus in all her splendor hung low in the west, the full moon was showing its rim above the trees in the east, and at the same moment a vesper sparrow somewhere in the darkening fields broke out with its evening song. Five or six times it sang, and then fell silent. It was enough. The beauty of the day was complete.
The next day, October 1, was no less delightful : mild, still, and cloudless; so that it was pleasant to lounge upon the piazza in the early morning, looking at Lafayette, — good business of itself, — and listening to the warble of a bluebird, the soft chips of myrtle warblers, or the distant gobbling of a turkey down at one of the river farms ; while now and then a farmer drove past from his morning errand at the creamery, with one or two tall milk-cans standing behind him in the open, one-seated carriage. If you see a man on foot as far from the village as this, you may set him down, in ornithological language, as a summer resident or a transient visitor. Franconians, to the manner born, are otherwise minded, and will “ hitch up ” for a quarter of a mile.
As I take the Notch road after breakfast the temperature is summer-like, and the foliage, I think, must have reached its brightest. Above the Profile House farm, on the edge of the golf links, where the whole Franconia Valley lies exposed, I seat myself on the wall, inside the natural hedge that borders the highway, to admire the scene : a long verdant meadow, flanked by low hills covered, mile after mile, with vivid reds and yellows; splendor beyond words ; a pageant glorious to behold, but happily of brief duration. Human senses would weary of it, though the eye loves color as the palate loves spices and sweets, or, by force of looking at it, would lose all delicacy of perception and taste.
Even yet the world, viewed in broad spaces, wears a clean, fresh aspect; but near at hand the herbage and shrubbery are all in the sere and yellow leaf. So I am saying to myself when I start at the sound of a Hudsonian chickadee’s nasal voice speaking straight into my ear. The saucy chit has dropped into the low poplar sapling over my head, and surprised at what he discovers underneath lets fall a hasty Sick-a-day-day. His dress, like his voice, compares unfavorably with that of his cousin, our familiar blackcap. In fact, I might say of him, with his dirty brown headdress, what I was thinking of the roadside vegetation : he looks dingy, out of condition, frayed, discolored, belated, frost-bitten. But I am delighted to see him, — for the first time at any such level as this, — and thank my stars that I sat down to rest and cool off on this hard but convenient boulder.
A chipmunk thinks I have sat here long enough, and feels no bashfulness about telling me so. Why should he ? Frankness is esteemed a point of good manners in all natural society. A man shoots down the hill behind me on a bicycle, coasting like the wind, and another, driving up, salutes him by name, and then turns to cry after him in a ringing voice, 舠 How be ye ? ” The emphatic verb bespeaks a real solicitude on the questioner’s part ; but he is half a mile too late ; he might as well have shouted to the man in the moon. Presently two men in a buggy come up the road, talking in breezy up-country fashion about some one whose name they use freely, — a name well known hereabout, — and with whom they appear to have business relations. “ He got up this morning like a 舒 舒 thousand of brick,” one of them says. A disagreeable person to work for, I should suppose. And all the while a child behind the hedge is taking notes. Queer things we could print, if it were allowable to report verbatim.
When this free-spoken pair is far enough in the lead I go back to the road again, traveling slowly and keeping to the shady side, with my coat on my arm. As the climb grows steeper the weather grows more and more like August ; and hark ! a cicada is shrilling in one of the forest trees, — a long-drawn, heat-laden, midsummer cry. I will tell the entomologist about it, I promise myself. The circumstance must be very unusual, and cannot fail to interest her. (But she takes it as a matter of course. It is hard to bring news to a specialist.)
So I go on, up Hardscrabble and Little Hardscrabble, stopping like a shortwinded horse tit every water-bar, and thankful for every bird-note that calls me to a halt between times. An ornithological preoccupation is a capital resource when the road is getting the better of you. The brook likewise must be minded, and some of the more memorable of the wayside trees. A mountain road has one decided and inalienable advantage, I remark inwardly : the most perversely opinionated highway surveyor in the world cannot straighten it. How fast the leaves are falling, though the air scarcely stirs among them. In some places I walk through a real shower of gold. Theirs is an easy death. And how many times I have been up and down this road ! Summer and autumn I have traveled it. And in what pleasant company ! Now I am alone ; but then, the solitude itself is an excellent companionship. We are having a pretty good time of it, I think, — the trees, the brook, the winding road, the yellow birch leaves, and the human pilgrim, who feels himself one with them all. I hope they would not disown a poor relation.
It is ten o’clock. Slowly as I have come, not a wagonload of tourists has caught up with me; and at the Bald Mountain path I leave the highway, having a sudden notion to go to Echo Lake by the way of Artist’s Bluff, so called, a rocky cliff that rises abruptly from the lower end of the lake. The trail conducts me through a veritable fernery, one long slope being thickly set with perfectly fresh shield - ferns, — Aspidium spinulosum and perhaps A. dilatatum, though I do not concern myself to be sure of it. From the bluff the lake is at my feet, but what mostly fills my eye is the woods on the lower side of Mount Cannon. There is no language to express the kind of pleasure I take in them : so soft, so bright, so various in their hues, — dark green, light green, russet, yellow, red, — all drowned in sunshine, yet veiled perceptibly with haze even at this slight distance. If there is anything in nature more exquisitely, ravishingly beautiful than an old mountainside forest looked at from above, I do not know where to find it.
Down at the lakeside there is beauty of another kind: the level blue water, the clean gray shallows about its margin, the reflections of bright mountains — Eagle Cliff and Mount Cannon — in its face, and soaring into the sky, on either side and in front, the mountains themselves. And how softly the ground is matted under the shrubbery and trees: twin - flower, partridge berry, creeping snowberry, gold-thread, oxalis, dwarf cornel, checkerberry, trailing arbutus. The very names ought to be a means of grace to the pen that writes them.
White-throats and a single winter wren scold at me behind my back as I sit on a spruce log, but for some reason there are few birds here to-day. The fact is exceptional. As a rule, I have found the bushes populous, and once, I remember, not many days later than this, there were fox sparrows with the rest. I am hoping some time to find a stray phalarope swimming in the lake. That would be a sight worth seeing. The lake itself is always here, at any rate, especially now that the summer people are gone ; and if the wind is right and the sun out, so that a man can sit still with comfort (to-day my coat is superfluous), the absence of other things does not greatly matter.
This clean waterside must have many four-footed visitors, particularly in the twilight and after dark. Deer and bears are common inhabitants of the mountain woods ; but for my eyes there are nothing but squirrels, with once in a long while a piece of wilder game. Twice only, in Franconia, have I come within sight of a fox. Once I was alone, in the wood-road to Sinclair’s Mills. I rounded a curve, and there the fellow stood in the middle of the way smelling at something in the rut. After a bit (my glass had covered him instantly) he raised his head and looked down the road in a direction opposite to mine. Then he turned, saw me, started slightly, stood quite still for a fraction of a minute (I wondered why), and vanished in the woods, his white brush waving me farewell. He was gone so instantaneously that it was hard to believe he had really been there.
That was a pretty good look (at a fox), but far less satisfying than the other of my Franconia experiences. With two friends I had come down through the forest from the Notch railroad by a rather blind loggers’ trail, heading for a pair of abandoned farms, grassy fields in which it is needful to give heed to one’s steps for fear of bear-traps. As we emerged into the first clearing a fox was not more than five or six rods before us, feeding in the grass. Her eyes were on her work, the wind was in our favor, and notwithstanding two of us were almost wholly exposed, we stood there on the edge of the forest for the better part of half an hour, glasses up, passing comments upon her behavior. Evidently she was lunching upon insects, — grasshoppers or crickets, I suppose,— and so taken up was she with this agreeable employment that she walked directly toward us and passed within ten yards of our position, stopping every few steps for a fresh capture. The sunlight, which shone squarely in her face, seemed to affect her unpleasantly ; at all events she blinked a good deal. Her manner of stepping about, her motions in catching her prey, — driving her nose deep into the grass and pushing it home, — and in short her whole behavior, were more catlike than doglike, or so we all thought. Plainly she had no idea of abbreviating her repast, nor did she betray the slightest grain of suspiciousness or wariness, never once casting an eye about in search of possible enemies. A dog in his own dooryard could not have seemed less apprehensive of danger. As often as she approached the surrounding wood she turned and hunted back across the field. We might have played the spy upon her indefinitely ; but it was always the same thing over again, and by and by, when she passed for a little out of sight behind a tuft of bushes, we followed, careless of the result, and, as it seemed, got into her wind. She started on the instant, ran gracefully up a little incline, still in the grass land, turned for the first time to look at us, and disappeared in the forest. A pretty creature she surely was, and from all we saw of her she might have been accounted a very useful farm-hand ; but perhaps, as farmers sometimes say of unprofitable cattle, she would soon have “ eaten her head off ” in the poultry yard. She was not fearless,—like a woodchuck that once walked up to me and smelled of my boot, as I stood still in the road near the Crawford House, — but simply off her guard ; and our finding her in such a mood was simply a bit of good luck. Some day, possibly, we shall catch a weasel asleep.
In a vacation season, like our annual fortnight in New Hampshire, there is no predicting which jaunt, if any, will turn out superior to all the rest. It may be a longer and comparatively newer one (although in Franconia we find few new ones now, partly because we no longer seek them — the old is better, we are apt to say when any innovation is suggested) ; or, thanks to something in the day or something in the mood, it may be one of the shortest and most familiar. And when it is over, there may be a sweetness in the memory, but little to talk about; little “ incident,” as editors say, little that goes naturally into a notebook. In other words, the best walk, for us, is the one in which we are happiest, the one in which we feel the most, not of necessity the one in which we see the most ; or, to put it differently still, the one in which we do see the most, but with
Which is the bliss of Solitude.”
Whatever we may call ourselves at home, among the mountains we are lovers of pleasure. Our day’s work is to be happy. We take our text from the good Longfellow, as theologians take theirs from Scripture : —
We are not anxious to learn anything; our thoughts run not upon wisdom; if we take note of a plant or a bird, it is rather for the fun of it than for any scholarly purpose. We are boys out of school. I speak of myself and of the man I have called my walking mate. The two collectors of insects, of course, are more serious-minded. “No day without a beetle,” is their motto, and their absorption, even in Franconia, is in adding to the world’s stock of knowledge. Let them be respected accordingly. Our creed is more frankly hedonistic ; and their virtue — I am free to confess it — shines the brighter for the contrast.
This year, nevertheless, old Franconia had for us, also, one most welcome novelty, the story of which I have kept, like the good wine, — a pretty small glassful. I am aware, — for the end of the feast. I had never enjoyed the old things better. Eight or nine years ago, writing — in this magazine — of June in Franconia, I expressed a fear that our delight in the beauty of nature might grow to be less keenly felt with advancing age ; that we might ultimately be driven to a more scientific use of the outward world, putting the exercise of curiosity, what we call somewhat loftily the acquisition of knowledge, in the place of rapturous contemplation. So it may yet fall out, to be sure, since age is still advancing, but as far as present indications go, nothing of the sort seems at all imminent. I begin to believe, in fact, that things will turn the other way ; that curiosity will rather lose its edge, and the power of beauty strike deeper and deeper home. So may it be ! Then we shall not be dead while we live. Sure I am that the glory of mountains, the splendor of autumnal forests, the sweetness of valley prospects, were never more rapturously felt by me than during the season just ended. And still, as I started just now to say, I had special joy this year in a new specimen, an additional bird for my memory and notebook.
The forenoon of September 26, my fourth day, I spent on Garnet Hill. The grand circuit of that hill is one of the best esteemed of our longer expeditions. Formerly we did it always between breakfast and dinner, having to speed the pace a little uncomfortably for the last four or five miles ; but times have begun to alter with us, or perhaps we have profited by experience ; for the last few years, at any rate, we have made the trip an all-day affair, dining on Sunset Hill, and loitering down through the Landaff Valley — with a side excursion, it may be, to fill up the hours — in the afternoon. This trip, being, as I say, one of those we most set by, I was determined to hold in reserve against the arrival of my fellow foot-traveler ; but there is also a pleasant shorter course, not round the hill, but, so to speak, over one side of it: out by the way of what I call High Bridge Road (never having heard any name for it), and back by the road — hardly more than a lane for much of its length — which traverses the hill diagonally on its northeastern slope, and joins the regular Sugar Hill highway a little below the Franconia Inn.
I left the Littleton road for the road to the Streeter neighborhood, crossed Gale River by a bridge pitched with much labor at a great height above it (a good indication of the swelling to which mountain streams are subject), passed two or three retired valley farms (where were eight or ten sleek young calves, one of which, rather to my surprise, ate from my hand a sprig of mint as if she liked the savor of it), and then began a long, steep climb. For much of the distance the road — narrow and very little traveled — is lined with dense alder and willow thickets, excellent cover for birds. It was partly with this place in my eye that I had chosen my route, remembering an hour of much interest here some years ago with a large flock of migrants. To-day, as it happened, the bushes were comparatively birdless. White-throats and snowbirds were present, of course, and ruby-crowned kinglets, with a solitary vireo or two, but nothing out of the ordinary. The prospect, however, without being magnificent or — for Franconia — extensive, was full of attractiveness. Gale River hastening through a gorge overhung with forest, directly on my right, Streeter Pond farther away (two deer had been shot beside it that morning, as I learned before night, — news of that degree of importance travels fast), and the gay-colored hills toward Littleton and Bethlehem, — maple grove on maple grove, with all their banners flying, —these made a delightsome panorama, shifting with every twist in the road and with every rod of the ascent ; so that I had excuse more than sufficient for continually stopping to breathe and face about. In one place I remarked a goodly bed of coltsfoot leaves, noticeable for their angular shape as well as for their peculiar shade of green. I wished for a blossom. If the dandelion sometimes anticipates the season, why not the coltsfoot ? But I found no sign of flower or bud. Probably the plant is of a less impatient habit ; but I have seen it so seldom that all my ideas about it are no better than guesswork. Along the wayside was maidenhair fern, also, which I do not come upon any too often in this mountain country.
Midway of the hill stands a solitary house, where I found ray approach spied upon through a crack between the curtain and the sash of what seemed to be a parlor window; a flattering attention which, after the manner of high public functionaries, I took as a tribute not to myself, but to the rôle I was playing. No doubt travelers on foot are rare on that difficult, out-of-the-way road, and the walker rather than the man was what filled my lady’s eye ; unless, as may easily have been true, she was expecting to see a peddler’s pack. At this point the road crooks a sharp elbow, and henceforth passes through cultivated country, — orchards and ploughed land, grass fields and pasturage ; still without houses, however, and having a pleasant natural hedgerow of trees and shrubbery. In one of the orchards was a great congregation of sparrows and myrtle warblers, with sapsuckers, flickers, downy woodpeckers, solitary vireos, and f forget what else, though I sat on the wall for some time refreshing myself with their cheerful society. I agreed with them that life was still a good thing.
Then came ray novelty. I was but a little way past this aviary of an apple orchard when I approached a pile of brush, — dry branches which had been heaped against the roadside bank some years ago, and up through which bushes and weeds were growing. My eyes sought it instinctively, and at the same moment a bird moved inside. A sparrow, alone; a sparrow, and a new one ! “ A Lincoln finch ! ” I thought; and just then the creature turned, and I saw his forward parts : a streaked breast with a bright, well-defined buff band across it, as if the streaks had been marked in first and then a wash of yellowish had been laid on over them. Yes, a Lincoln finch ! He was out of sight almost before I saw him, however, and after a bit of feverish waiting I squeaked. He did not come up to look at me, as I hoped he would do, but the sudden noise startled him, and he moved slightly, enough so that my eye again found him. This time, also, I saw his head and his breast, and then he was lost again. Again I waited. Then I squeaked, waited, and squeaked again, louder and longer than before. No answer, and no sign of movement. You might have sworn there was no bird there; and perhaps you would not have perjured yourself ; for presently I stepped up to the brush-heap and trampled it over, and still there was no sign of life. Above the brush was a low stone wall, and beyond that a bare ploughed field. How the fellow had slipped away there was no telling. And that was the end of the story. But I had seen him, and he was a Lincoln finch. It was a shabby interview he had granted me, after keeping me waiting for almost twenty years; but then, I repeated for my comfort, I had seen him.
He was less confusingly like a song sparrow than I had been prepared to find him. His general color (one of a bird’s best, marks in life, hard as it may be to derive an exact idea of it from printed descriptions), gray with a greenish tinge,—a little suggestive of Henslow’s bunting, as it struck me, — this, I thought, supposing it to be constant, ought to catch the eye at a glance. Henceforth I should know what to look for, and might expect better luck; although, if this particular bird’s behavior was to be taken as a criterion, the books had been quite within the mark in emphasizing the sly and elusive habit of the species, and the consequent difficulty of prolonged and satisfactory observation of it.
The Lincoln finch, or Lincoln sparrow, the reader should know, is a congener of the song sparrow and the swamp sparrow, a native mostly of the far north, and while common enough as a migrant in many parts of the United States, is, or is generally supposed to be, something of a rarity in the Eastern States.
Meanwhile, having beaten the brush over, and looked up the roadside and down the roadside and over the wall, I went on my way, stopping once for a feast of blackberries, — as many and as good as a man could ask for, long, slender, sweet, and dead ripe; and at the top of the road I cut across a hayfield to the lane before mentioned, that should take me back to the Sugar Hill highway. Now the prospects were in front of me, there was no more steepness of grade, I had seen Tom Lincoln’s finch,1 and the day was brighter than ever. Every sparrow that stirred I must put my glass on ; but not one was of the right complexion.
Then, in a sugar grove not far from the Franconia Inn, I found myself all at once in the midst of one of those traveling flocks that make so delightful a break in a bird-lover’s day. I was in the midst of it, I say ; but the real fact was that the birds were passing through the grove between me and the sky. For the time being the branches were astir with wings. Such minutes are exciting. “ Now or never,” a man says to himself. Every second is precious. At this precise moment a warbler is above your head, far up in the topmost bough perhaps, half hidden by a leaf. If you miss him, he is gone forever. If you make him out, well and good ; he may be a rarity, a prize long waited for; or, quite as likely, while busy with him you may let a ten times rarer one pass along unnoticed. In this game, as in any other, a man must run his chances ; though there is skill as well as luck in it, without doubt, and one player will take a trick or two more than another, with the same hand.
In the present instance, so far as my canvass showed, the 舠 wave ” was made up of myrtle warblers, blackpolls, baybreasts, black-throated greens, a chestnut-side, a Maryland yellow-throat, redeyed vireos, solitary vireos, one or more scarlet tanagers (in undress, of coarse, and pretty late by my reckoning), rubycrowned kinglets, chickadees, winter wrens, goldfinches, song sparrows, and flickers. The last three or four species, it is probable enough, were in the grove only by accident, and are hardly to be counted as part of the south-bound caravan. Several of the species were in good force, and doubtless some species eluded me altogether. No man can look all ways at once ; and in autumn the eyes must do not only their own work, but that of the ears as well.
All the while the birds hastened on, flitting from tree to tree, feeding a minute and then away, following the stream. I was especially glad of the baybreasts, of which there were two at least, both very distinctly marked, though in nothing like their spring plumage. I saw only one other specimen this fall, but the name is usually in my autumnal Franconia list. The chestnut - side, on the other hand, was the first one I had ever found here at this season, and was correspondingly welcome.
After all, a catalogue of names gives but a meagre idea of such a flock, except to those who have seen similar ones, and amused themselves with them in a similar manner. But I had had the fun, whether I can make any one else appreciate it or not, and between it and my joy over the Lincoln finch I went home in high feather.
Five days longer I followed the road alone. Every time a sparrow darted into the bushes too quickly for me to name him, I thought of Melospiza lincolni. Once, indeed, on the Bethlehem road, I believed that I really saw a bird of that species ; but it was in the act of disappearing, and no amount of pains or patience — or no amount that I had to spare — could procure me a second glimpse.
On the sixth day came my friend, the second foot-passenger, and was told of my good fortune ; and together we began forthwith to walk — and look at sparrows. This, also, was vain, until the morning of October 4. I was out first. A robin was cackling from a tall treetop, as I stepped upon the piazza, and a song sparrow sang from a cluster of bushes across the way. Other birds were there, and I went over to have a look at them : two or three white-throats, as many song sparrows, and a white-crown. Then by squeaking I called into sight two swamp sparrows (migrants newly come, they must be, to be found in such a place), and directly afterward up hopped a small grayish sparrow, seen at a glance to be like my bird of nine days before,—like him in looks, but not in behavior. He conducted himself in the most accommodating manner, was full of curiosity, not in the least shy, and afforded me every opportunity to look him over to my heart’s content.
In the midst of it all I heard my comrade’s footfall on the piazza, and gave him a whistle. He came at once, wading through the wet grass in his slippers. He knew from my attitude — so he firmly declared afterward — that it was a Lincoln finch I was gazing at! And just as he drew near, the sparrow, sitting in full view and facing us, in a way to show off his peculiar marks to the best advantage, uttered a single cheep, thoroughly distinctive, or at least quite unlike any sparrow’s note with which I am familiar ; as characteristic, I should say, as the song sparrow’s tut. Then he dropped to the ground. “ Yes, I saw him, and heard the note,” my companion said ; and he hastened into the house for his boots and his opera-glass. In a few minutes he was back again, fully equipped, and we set ourselves to coax the fellow into making another display of himself. Sure enough, he responded almost immediately, and we had another satisfying observation of him, though this time he kept silence. I was especially interested to find, what I had on general considerations suspected, that Lincoln finches were like other members of their family. Take them right (by themselves, and without startling them to begin with), and they could be as complaisant as one could desire, no matter how timid and elusive they might be under different conditions. Our bird was certainly a jewel. For a while he pleased us by perching side by side with a song sparrow. 舠 You see how much smaller I am,” he might have been saying ; “ you may know me partly by that.”
And we fancied we should know him thereafter ; but a novice’s knowledge is only a novice’s, as we were to be freshly reminded that very day. Our jaunt was round Garnet Hill, the all-day expedition before referred to. I will not rehearse the story of it; but while we were on the farther side of the hill, somewhere in Lisbon, we found the roadsides swarming with sparrows, — a mixed flock, song sparrows, field sparrows, chippers, and white-crowns. Among them one of ns by and by detected a grayish, smallish bird, and we began hunting him, from bush to bush and from one side of the road to the other, carrying on all the while an eager debate as to his identity. Now we were sure of him, and now everything was unsettled. His breast was streaked and had a yellow band across it. His color and size were right, as well as we could say, — so decidedly so that there was no difficulty whatever in picking him out at a glance after losing him in a flying bunch ; but some of his motions were pretty song-sparrow-like, and what my fellow observer was most staggered by, he showed a blotch, a running together of the dark streaks, in the middle of the breast,—a point very characteristic of the song sparrow, but not mentioned in book descriptions of Melospiza lincolni. So we chased him and discussed him (that was the time for a gun, the professional will say), till he got away from us for good.
Was he a Lincoln finch ? Who knows ? We left the question open. But I believe he was. The main reason, not to say the only one, for our uncertainty was the pectoral blotch ; and that, I have since learned, is often seen in specimens of Melospiza lincolni. Why the manuals make no reference to it I cannot tell; as I cannot tell why they omit the same point in describing the savanna sparrow. In scientific books, as in “ popular ’ magazine articles, many things must no doubt be passed over for lack of room. In any case, it is not the worst misfortune that could befall us to have some things left for our own finding out.
And after all, the question was not of supreme importance. Though I was delighted to have seen a new bird, and doubly delighted to have seen it in Franconia, the great joy of my visit was not in any such fragment of knowledge, but in that bright and glorious world ; mountains and valleys beautiful in themselves, and endeared by the memory of happy days among them. Sometimes I wonder whether the pleasures of memory may not be worth the price of growing old.
- “ I named it Tom’s Finch,”says Audubon, “ in honor of our friend Lincoln, who was a great favorite among us.”↩