Absalom's Wreath

I AM having a picnic, a solitary picnic in Dalen. Our milk girl, Sigga, escorted me past the bull that lives in the outfields, and then I tramped on alone for an hour and reached the Valley of the Delectable Mountains. In a semicircle stand the fjelds facing the rising of the September sun, their highest ridges lightly powdered with the first snow, their lower slopes seamed by scores of little brooks “that tumble as they run.” When peat is to be cut, and the wild sheep captured for wool-pulling and for the autumn slaughter, then people come to Dalen. But to-day I see only a few black sheep, the kittiwakes and gulls on the sea rocks, and curlew quavering above the heather. Dalen is exclusive, reserved, and has an undefinable charm. Nowhere else has afternoon tea, made over a fire of peat, so fine a flavor; in no other valley does one feel that mingled sense of mystery and of brooding peace. The only disturbing element is a Nikon who lives in neighboring waters. His attributes vary according to the narrator’s fancy, but all agree on the length of his tail, his black hue, and his disagreeable habit of appearing suddenly, snatching up some unhappy man or woman, and diving with his victim to the bottom of the sea. One saving idiosyncrasy he has, however. He cannot “thole” to hear his own name. Can you but look him in the eye, and say calmly, but firmly, “Nikon!” he will recoil in affright down to his fishy home.

But this is a digression. The reason of my solitary picnic is that little Absalom is dead and will be buried tomorrow, and some wreath or cross should lie on his coffin. In Viderö, the most northern island of the Faroes, there is not a tree or shrub or square foot of garden; it is the 15th of September, and we are near sixty-three degrees north latitude. But of heather there is a plenty in sheltered Dalen, where it dares to grow a foot high, and surely, I thought, some last flowers can be found there, also, for little Absalom’s wreath.

I stopped on my way to shake hands with the father and mother. Absalom lay in an unpainted pine coffin, a cross marked in ink on the lid. He wore his best fur cap and a muslin shroud with a cross made of pink ribbon stitched above his breast. The Pastor is in faraway Denmark, but to-morrow Absalom will be carried to the graveyard on the sea cliffs, we singing psalms all the way, and next month, when the Pastor returns, he will pray and cast earth on the grave, saying, “From earth art thou come; to earth shalt thou go; from earth shalt thou rise again.”

When I first looked about me in Dalen the prospect was discouraging. The heather bells hung brown and dry; only the bent, turning to russet and ochre, gave color to the slopes. But kneeling down by the little burns, I found, under the overhanging banks, some scanty heather blossoms, belated by the shade and the proximity of the cold water. Then I scrambled up to a small ravine that looked promising, and slid down its steep sides, holding fast to heather twigs. I explored that ravine au fond, finding a flower here and there in the clefts and among the heather, and now, tired and hungry, I am perched on the hillside, and with an appreciative appetite, eating barley bread and cheese and cold fried cod, my treasures by my side. Here are tiny pink polygalas and intensely blue ones like a scrap of southern sky; that cosmopolitan, the crowberry, golden tormentillas (my sheepskin moccasins are tanned with tormentilla roots), a narrow-leaved polypody fern called by the Faroe folk Trodla-Kampar: under it the “little people ” are supposed to dwell, and prudence dictates that we tread softly where it grows, for they are quick of temper and malicious when annoyed. Here is an arctic form of the field gentian (Gentiana campestris), dull lilac in color; the common lady’s-mantle and the alpine species (Alchemilla alpina), little St. John’s-wort, stonecrop, the calluna heather, and the crimson bells of the cinerea heather. Not a bad display for the middle of September in latitude sixty-three.

And yet it is not the latitude that limits the flora so much as the storms. Iceland, farther north, has a greater number of both species and individuals. Her summers are warmer, and she is large enough to afford some protection from the sea winds. But these islands in a storm district well up toward the Circle have conditions peculiarly their own. The Gulf Stream, mingling with the Icelandic Polar Current, causes dense fogs ; it rains on three hundred days of the year, and the area is too small to check the momentum of the gales. They rush through the fjords, searching out every nook and cranny; through open - ings in the fjelds they fall, writhing and whirling down upon the lowlands as the dreaded kast - vinds, and where can the poor plants find shelter? And not only the sea gales, but the sea itself, for when the air is filled with flying spray, and even the brooks run brackish, many species are cut down as by a frost.

The first flower of spring, however, cares nothing for the salt spray. Were you to come to Dalen on May-day you would find the white cochlearia, hardy and honey-scented, growing in clefts of the shore crags. The little English daisy is open about the same time in the home fields and on the grassy boathouse roofs. A few days later, open the sweet-scented marsh violet, the dog violet (Viola sylvestris), polygalas, shepherd’s purse, a veronica, lady’s-smock (Cardamine pratensis), the little starry saxifrage, and the moss campion, a charming flower, which I fancy grows on the highest of our White Mountains. It has an innocent, wide-eyed look, and varies in color from bluish white to deep crimson; I have seen a thousand growing in a space of twelve inches on a cushion of moss-green leaves, and not a blossom more than half an inch in height.

Soon after the middle of May the show of the marsh marigold begins. Never have I seen such big fat ones; many have eight, nine, or ten petals, and are two inches and a half in diameter. They grow usually in the gröfter, or little ditches that drain the infields. Most of the cultivated land in the Faroes is divided into long strips from eight to twelve feet in width, extending down the hill slopes. These, for better drainage, are made about two feet higher on one side than on the other, so that a cross section of a field would have the shape of a saw. Between these strips run the gröfter, and when the flowers are in full bloom and, as often happens, there is a bit of marsh land at the bottom, the effect is of little golden brooks running down to a pond of gold. “ Pure color is rest of heart, ” wrote Richard Jefferies. After the long dusk of winter this radiance of yellow and orange delights the eye and cheers the soul. It makes the most striking color note of the round year, in fact, the only bright one except when the gay, flaunting ragged robins in June blossom also in the gröfter.

As the season advances it is interesting to see how the wave of plant life mounts from the sea to the fjelds. By St. John’s Day, all the lower levels have their fullest bloom ; the first part of July it is summer on the Broekke, or grassy slopes that crown the terraces of basaltic rocks on the fjeld sides. These terraces, or Hamre as they are called, begin generally at a height of from six hundred to a thousand feet. In the latter part of July and the first week of August the flowers have opened on the summits. The plants grow leisurely, and remain in bloom much longer than with us, for there are no hot days to hasten their departure. The largest, tallest species are those of “high summertide, ” the wild geraniums, angelica, hawkweeds, buttercups, spiraea, ragged robin, sorrels, yarrow, red campion, Matricaria inodora var. borealis, or “Baldur’s flower,” and an orchid (Orchis maculata) that grows slim and tall in the gröfter and stockyard, but only about two inches high in the open. The sea-thrift also adapts itself to circumstances. It sometimes has a height of six inches at sea level, and on exposed heights is a mere button of a flower, with no appreciable stem. Mother Nature exercises great prudence in her arrangements; the juicy angelica she puts in the gröfter and ravines, the polypody fern under heather and among thick grasses, the aspidium ferns in clefts and under overhanging rocks. She seldom permits a flower to be more than three inches high in the wide exposed places. Wild thyme, white bedstraw, yellow rattle, eye-bright, bird’s-foot trefoil, brunella, buttercups, saxifrages, all grow there in dwarfed form, and the plants that are exposed to all the winds of heaven on the fjeld tops open during the quietest time of the year. Upon the Broekke we find in their season many of the flowers of lower levels, together with Thalictrum, Azalea procumbens, Cornus suecica, Sibbaldia procumbens, alpine veronica, alpine alchemilla, the herb-willow, the saxifrages nivalis, rivularis, decipiens, and oppo-sitifolia, Arabis petrœa, Dr aba hirta, Cerastium edmondstonii, the vacciniums myrtillus and uliginosum, Gnaphalium supinum (beginning at about 2000 feet), and many small inconspicuous plants. The pretty and rare Dryas octopetala and the Iceland poppy are found from 800 feet upwards.

All these Arctic species grow also on the summits of the fjelds either on rocky wastes, well fastened down by strong roots, or in the protecting grimmia heath, a close thick carpet composed of the moss Grimmia patens and other kinds.

Considering all disadvantages of climate, latitude, and small area, the number of species of native vascular plants, 277, is a goodly one. In addition there are forty species that have been introduced by man. The flora resembles that of northern Scotland: indeed only ten of the Faroe species are lacking in Scotland. Many, however, that are rare there, and found only on the highest mountains, are here very common and grow at low levels.

There are many small plants which a botanist would at once notice, but only the flowers I have mentioned would attract the attention of the non-scientific observer. I have a speaking acquaintance with but few of the grasses, I regret to say, and as for the 338 kinds of mosses, no one could be more densely ignorant than I. Yet even an ignoramus can admire their graceful forms and charming tones. They grow most luxuriantly over the hidden little rills, and shine with vivid green far up the fjeld sides. There are always pretty things to be found among them: butterwort, and saxifrages, epilobiums, rodiola, etc. One must tread cautiously where they grow. To-day I was about to step on a firm-looking green patch when a sudden impulse prompted me to test the spot first with my field staff. “Plup ! ” sank the staff, with an ugly sucking sound, over the top as I held it in my fingers. How much deeper it would have gone I do not know, but the staff measures five feet two inches, one inch above my head.

None of the Faroe fields are of great altitude. The highest, Slattaratind, is only 2700 feet high. The Delectable Mountains (that is not their Faroe name) are from 2000 to 2450 feet. But the effect of a mountain is largely dependent on its latitude and the distance above the spectator’s eye. Here they are usually seen from sea level, and the utter absence of trees and bushes adds to their apparent height. And when snow rests upon sea cliffs that rise 2000 perpendicular feet from the surf-line, with mists wreathing their rugged summits, and the observer is looking upwards from a little four-man boat tossing in the sea below, I think he would not care to have one cubit added to their stature.

Dalen is almost silent these September days. From the sea rocks, softened by distance, comes a confused babble of kittiwakes; “ whip-poor-will !” they cry shrilly, with tremendous emphasis on the first and last syllables. From time to time I have heard the cry of a raven, clearer, more metallic, than that of the hooded crows. Both are thieves and murderers of the young and of the helpless. Were one of these wild sheep to fall on her back in a little hollow, so that she could not raise herself, it would not be long before her eyes would be plucked out and her stomach torn open. Only a month ago, a full-grown healthy sheep was brought in dying, her side mangled by a raven. I am glad to see that an anxious father, a black-backed gull, is harrying the raven out of Dalen. He, too, occasionally kills lambs, but does not torture a helpless sheep. A beautiful bird he is, with shining white breast, black cap and back, and white wing tips. He has a red spot by his lower bill. The legend says that once he ate a dead man’s flesh, and ever since he has borne this blood-red spot. Now he has come back, laughing with a monotonous bass voice, and is so flushed with victory that he must needs pretend to take umbrage at my opera glass and swoop down close to my face with a rush that makes me wince. The young bird is almost as large as his father, but has gray plumage. “Phe-a! Phe-a !” he cries in his baby voice, circling slowly in mid-air, a powerful,broad-winged bird.

There is one inhabitant of the outfield who leads a peaceful life for the reason that, though he prefers harmony and order, he is always prepared for war and always ready to take the initiative in case of any “onpleasantness. ” That is the tjaldur, or oyster-catcher. The Faroe folk do not kill him, because he nests in the same wild uplands where the mother sheep graze and the lambs are born. If any raven approaches he is attacked by the valiant oyster-catcher and routed ignominiously. Altogether he is a successful bird: he is good eating (though on no account would we eat him) ; he is striking in his good looks, cheerful, brave, and a defender of his young and, incidentally, of the weaklings of the flocks. Were he less warlike in disposition and of weaker build, I suppose he would assume like the curlew, rock pipits, snipe, etc., the general tones of the outfields, their grays and browns and russets. But as it is, his vermilion legs and long strong bill, and dazzling black and white plumage, can be seen far afield. One must note also that the other warrior, the black-backed gull, has the same conspicuous plumage. What matters it if they are seen of all men ? They are well able to take care of themselves.

Dalen is a favorite place for the myra-snipa, or marsh snipe. They are quiet now, and make no sign until I almost tread upon them, when they burst up through the heather like a bomb and scurry away with a fretful cry. In June, however, we can see and hear them at night, and during the day in still, foggy weather. Then they make that peculiar noise which a year ago I thought was a cry or call. A friend, writing from America, first enlightened me. She quotes, I think, from Mr. Frank M. Chapman’s Handbook: —

“In the springtime, and occasionally in the autumn also, Wilson’s snipe mounts to a considerable height above his favorite meadows, and darts downward with great velocity, making at each descent a low yet penetrating tremulous sound that suggests the winnowing of a domestic pigeon’s wings, or, if heard at a distance, the bleating of a goat, and which is thought to be produced by the rushing of the air through the wings of the snipe.”

This is written of the Gallinago delicata, and the Faroe species is called Gallinago media, but the intricacies of comparative nomenclature are not to be unraveled in this remote island with no books at command. One day last June while resting in the heather, and looking upwards, I saw a myra-snipa flying overhead in a series of vertical V’s. Part of the time his flight was noiseless, but occasionally he descended with great velocity, and then came that peculiar ventriloquistic sound, “as though the air laughed ” I wrote at the time in my notebook. Only yesterday, in a story by the Danish author Herr Sophus Bauditz, I read in a description of the heaths of Jutland this passage : “If you lie down near the edge of the marsh you will hear suddenly over you, around you, now on one side, now on the other, an infinitely weak and infinitely penetrating sound; you know not whence it comes; it is as though the air itself laughed around you.”

What a wreath we could have made in Dalen on one of those days in June; then only the frequent rains and the distance from the base of food supplies prevented us from becoming a “permanency” in Dalen. As it was, “Our Lady ” (as the peasants call the Pastorinde) and I have several times returned home reluctantly at midnight, I humming sadly, —

“ And does it not seem hard to you
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day ? ”

As we passed close to the sea cliffs we could hear the eider ducks cooing just beyond the surf, and the puffins on the sea cliffs chuckling to themselves with a jolly fat “ur-r-r-r! ” and could see them moving about in circles with careful dancing steps, and then falling suddenly into quiet and solemn musings. Who that ever had the privilege of knowing a puffin did not love him?

Yet were you to come here even in June I doubt if you would feel the spell. “Grim, barren, desolate.” I can fancy these words your judgment. Can we ever give the full measure of appreciation to the unfamiliar ? Washington Irving looking for the first time on Sir Walter’s beloved hills was impressed only by their sadness. And yet, compared to the Faroes, the Border land is a land of fatness.

“Where shilfas sing and cushats croon, ” the flowery shrubs and stately trees follow the courses of the burns. To appreciate our “marcies ” here, a certain lapse of time is required wherein to forget those of other lands. We must look to sea and sky for grace of form and motion and beauty of color, and put from mind the thought of forests and gardens and freely growing green things. Trees, — they are the hardest to forget; trees and the glory of the changing foliage, the pageant of Indian summer that is beginning now at home: and oh, to scuffle up leaves again and smell their crisp and pungent fragrance, and in November blasts to see them “march a million strong.”

Of all the birds of summer, about twenty-one will remain with us during the long, dark winter that is closing in upon us. The hooded crows will wax bold and impudent, and wrangle over bones at the cottage doors. The ravens are more wary; perhaps they have an inherited distrust of man, from the old days of the noebbe-told, the bill tax, when every man between the ages of fifteen and fifty was required to give every year a raven’s bill to the magistrates, or pay a fine.

Black-backed gulls, the lesser blackbacked, the common and the herring gulls, a few kittiwakes, the fulmar petrel, and the land-rail winter here.

The pretty rock-doves live all the year round up among the cliff recesses; wrens, starlings, rock pipits, snowbirds, cormorants, eider ducks, black guillemots, a few red-throated divers, northern divers, dunlins, mallards, and myrasnipa make up the list of the assured winter residents. In addition there will be strays, blown here by gales; not rarely the English blackbird appears, the black-cap, the bullfinch, and the little golden-crested kinglet. Last winter in Thorshavn I found myself thinking (with no apparent connection in the train of ideas) of Tewkesbury Abbey; suddenly I became conscious of a robin’s song, and looking from my window saw a storm-driven waif singing as sweet a song as that I heard on the April morning when I saw my first English church and first English robin in Tewkesbury, the old village of John Halifax, Gentleman. The courage and endurance of these tiny birds is one of the marvels of nature. The seas rage and the gales howl, and there are all kinds of tragic experiences, and suddenly a round ball of fluffy feathers appears out of the commotion and sings a careless, cheerful song.

The dark days will soon be here: each morning the sun takes a step toward the south, and a November day will come when we shall see a bright and winking eye peeping for one moment above the eastern ridge of Malling-fjail; two hours later another wink above the western ridge, and the next day only a brightness in the sky. “Baldur the Beautiful” will be — not dead, — but very, very low, and for two months and a half not one glimpse of his face shall we see, not one sunbeam will fall upon the little turf-covered Parsonage of Onegjaard.

But a chill creeps over Dalen, and I find that I am sitting in shadow; the sun shines now only on the cliffs of distant Fuglö. Sigga will be waiting at the dike to escort me past the bull again. The Delectable Mountains are turning black, the clouds are falling low, the curlew are silent, the kittiwakes have put to sea. Now if Nikon should appear would I have the nerve to confront him, and put him to flight by the terror of his own name ? Decidedly it is time for me to join Sigga at the dike.

“Ak du! Ak du! ” exclaims Sigga, peering into my basket, “what a beautiful wreath we shall make for little Absalom! ”

Elizabeth Taylor.