On Going a-Maying
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
IF, as says that prince of tramps, Robert Louis Stevenson, “ a walking tour should be gone upon alone,” with a visit to the spring woods it is otherwise. The joy of the forest is never full till it is shared. And yet beware with whom you share it! For it is not every one who is qualified to go a-Maying.
The unregenerate worldling shivers lonesome in the April woods. The bare, unfriendly stretch of dead leaves and mummied boughs depresses him. The stillness makes him nervous. Unkindly drafts creep round him and chill his soul. Spiteful branches flick his eyes ; gnarled roots entangle his toes ; quaggy ground sucks off his overshoes ; briers sting his ankles ; and all manner of disreputable tramp burs attach themselves to his garments. He is an abused man. All Nature is in conspiracy against him. Nor is he less unfriendly to himself. He tears his clothes on treacherous barbed wire; slivers his palms on gone-to-seed fence rails ; strains his back grubbing after dwarfish wild flowers ; does a hard day’s work, and carries home a pitiful handful of disconsolate blooms, a consuming thirst, and a disillusioned soul.
Hear what the poet Hovey says of the springtime: —
I have need of the sky.
I have business with the grass.’ ”
The above-described worldling has no business with the grass, no right in the woods, no part in the sky. He belongs to the great army of the Unqualified.
Now, to go a-Maying with an unqualified person is to become for the time being unqualified yourself. The light shivers out of the sky, the color out of the landscape, under the baleful influence of an unbelieving eye. The selection of a fit companion becomes, therefore, a matter of no light moment.
As a rule, it is safest not to choose a scientist. Of course, there is all the difference between a mere botanist and a student of plant ways that there is between a psychologist and a student of human nature. But the hard literalness of the prying scientific spirit is fatal to the mystery of the woods. Neither should I select an inveterate literary man, eternally on the outlook for “ material.” No celebrity was ever more shy of the notebook than is Dame Nature. She even turns a cold shoulder on the luckless companion of him who “gathers some of Nature’s gold and mints it.” No more should I elect to go a-Maying with a cooing sentimentalist. To pull the violets up and call them “ dear ” is to taint the fine aroma of the woods. Least of all should I choose a confirmed pedestrian, his pedometer in his pocket, his soul in his muscles, his eye on his watch. For to enjoy the woods you must have literally all the time there is.
What, then, are the requisites for an ideal companion ? First, an untraditional mind, a soul prepared for swift whims and sudden flights, for unreasoned changes of unreasoned purpose. For it must not be supposed that Maying can be set about in cold blood. It will not do to say, “ On Thursday next, Deo volente, I purpose to go a-Maying.” As well say, “ At sixteen minutes after five, to-morrow afternoon, I propose to write a sonnet.” Maying is an art, and, like all other arts, must wait on inspiration. When the “ old spring fret is on you ” you must go, and go at once. If duty thunders “ No! ” so much the better; for there is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing else to do. The true son of the woods has a patent detachable conscience. He is past master of the fine art of truancy.
Then he must know how to taste to the full the bliss of anticipation. There are more unsearchable thrills in a steamer rug than in the length and breadth of Europe. So half the ecstasy of the woods is to be found on the way thither. Woodsward bound, the accomplished “ Mayer ” (if I may be allowed the expression) indulges in mild delirium. What matter that his fellow passengers regard him as an escaped lunatic ? He feels like an escaped lunatic !
Halloos along the hillsides and unhoods
The falcon in his will.”
Beyond this mad freakishness, he must have the genius of hope ; for truly to see the spring woods one must seek them while yet it is winter. The most impossible month to go a-Maying in is May. To wait until the leaves are out and the woods flushed with the coarser exuberance of bloom is to miss the fine spiritual essence of spring. Therefore the inspired woodsman has the ability to delight in the abundance of things hoped for, the prophecy of things to come. Nature’s modest first offerings he accepts as a delicious surprise.
Then he is prepared to take time for the experience. Fresh from the world of musty ledgers and foaming steins, he does not expect to find himself in tune with Nature all at once. He is content to bathe his mind in the infinite quiet of the forest, and wait for his eyes to be opened that he may see. He knows how to be silent; how to lie full length in placid torpidity, breathed on by small faint airs, soothed by the lisp of leaves, sharing “ all the lassitude of happy things.”
Sensitive though he be to Nature in her towering moods, he must feel no less the subtle beauty of her humbler handiwork. The tender contours of knoll and hollow, the intricate weaving of slender black boughs against a luminous sky, the soft red-browns and old yellows of dried meadow grasses, the flash of a scarlet lichen, the thrill of a bluebird’s liquid note, the startling purity of the hepatica’s creams and pinks and azures, the whisk of a silver squirrel, the downy coil of a baby fern, — all these touch a chord as responsive as that which thrills to the glory of cloud mass and mountain majesty.
Then the ideal woods comrade is the soul of unpracticality and sweet irresponsibility. He has no schedule for the return trip. The lightest impulse sways his will. An unreasoning acquisitiveness keeps him slaving for hours at the accumulation of things he does n’t want; for, having slipped the leash of common sense, he appreciates the transcendent value of the unessential.
But perhaps his most distinctive characteristic is an uncanonical glee at getting into mud and mischief. The true woodsman has no dignity. He knows the awful joy of having liberties taken with his sacred person. Obstacles raise his spirits. There is nothing he enjoys so much as missing a train. And if he is forced to go home with hands unsoiled and clothes unrent, his cup is something less than full.
Such is the paragon of companions for the woods. And if, perchance, you have searched out such a miracle of nicely balanced whims and sentiments and sympathies, hold him fast! The gods cannot be trusted to confer that boon a second time.