Nature Study

IT is the fashion, and society is out of doors with book and glass. Modes and fabrics are not more contagious. Thus the world moves : we have changed our hand-shake and our calling-cards, we give our brides showers, and we study Nature. Sometimes we forget our manners, claiming vulgar and impertinent acquaintance with the wood-gods. There are stories of an authentic young woman who thought Nature nice: and all the rest of us capitalize Nature as we used to rubricate art; we patronize our thrushes, we chaperon the lady’s slipper. Some of us are earnest seekers: among whom the long bow is drawn, insomuch that the profane scoff at us, and the fabulists of gun and rod are put to school. “You bird men are all liars, ” said my friend the Philistine the other day. “One of you says, ‘ I heard the bow-legged sandpiper this morning, ’ and the other answers, ‘ Oh, I heard him day before yesterday. ’ ” The next development should be personally conducted excursions. If we have books to tell us how to listen to Liszt, we may expect How to Believe the Bobolink; and they that tell us how to look at pictures, except the late Mr. Whistler, will help us to attain the right Mongolian of a seeing eye in the wildwood. Meanwhile, if Pan in reality be not dead, he must experience the novel sensation of blushing.

It does not matter much what children play, so they play in the sun: and I submit that all this is good. For if it does not serve science, it serves art, a service by no means less. We shall never be done, one must suppose, with these quarrels of our own making between art and science. Gods of life, they do not quarrel. We cry, “War, war! ” but there is no war. To say that the artist may exceed Nature is the confusion of tongues. “The light that never was on sea or land, ” we have all seen it, or God pity the blind! Our Rosalinds are high as our hearts: five feet, ten feet, no man can measure her for me. “Overdrawn ” and “too highly colored ” are words which signify nothing: a thing may be drawn wrong, but not overdrawn; the color may be wrong, but it cannot be too pure and clear, it cannot surpass the right. To use the words argues against one’s self. I once saw a scarlet tanager flash across the very faces of three young gossips in a maple-path; they did not see it. I once saw a scholar trample calmly through a heavenly acre of bluebells. “Look at the posies! ” he said: he did not see them. Even with the elect the incidents are frequent. One had a long list of spring arrivals, among which was the Louisiana water-thrush. “Was he singing ? ” I asked, and he answered with a naïve surprise, “Why, yes,he was doing some twittering.” It is of course the very whimper of sentiment to object to the collector’s gun : I have seen without remorse the ruby-crowned kinglet fall from his fairy madrigal, crimson not only at the brow; but once I was near homicide over a similar incident. The bird was a Wilson’s snipe, and we approached him incredibly near, where he probed with his long bill in the autumnal marsh-edges, so near that we could see every embroidery of his rich fabrics. “Ah, I understand! ” said my comrade, and then he shot him ; the bird was blind of one eye. And let me tell another story of a tanager, that upon the full pomp of May-day returned, not in his wonted manner. Fire of the treetops, I all but touched him, finding him in the last least thicket of the budding copses, a foot from earth, in exile, silent, motionless, hardly avoiding my hand. In the afternoon he was found dead on the slope; there was no mark upon him ; a perfect specimen, said the ornithologist who gathered him in. Well, I heightened nature; I committed Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy; I made him to myself more beautiful than he appeared to the other man. He has homed here to die, I thought, a broken heart.

Harken one pronouncing, therefore! Literature is reducible to this, a projection of inner upon external life, for the purpose of expression. What science makes an end, art uses as a means: vocabulary, imagery, by which a human mood may be spoken. The real thing for literature, the wearer of the costume, is this latter, the human emotion. If I see in the closed gentian a bud that will not blossom, a maid that will not marry, my fancy, not the flower, is the motive of art. If I see the resurrection in the first mourning-cloak of March, the butterfly that breaks from a derided winter after the long months of sleep in his folded purple wings, my fancy, not Vanessa antiopa, is the stuff of which literature is made. When the violet blooms in October, ’t is memory; when the witch-hazel hangs its light of stars in the fall of leaves, like the evening star outlasting the afterglow, ’t is hope; when the trilliums from their maiden white begin to burn and blush, till they are like red tulips through the wood, ’t is love, and fatal. When you find in the vireo’s nest three white eggs and a different fourth, freckled with brown, you name the cowbird prostitute, a word true also in science. In the eye of the brooding dove, upon you with what a still wildness, you have seen the Madonna : and of the waxwings, the wanderers who have no song, feeding one another in the scarlet-budded japonica, I make a valentine, calling them lovers kissing. Well! madonnas and lovers, not doves and waxwings, are the materials of literature. Of course I am repeating truisms, old as the story of Narcissus ; but the trite things are after all the things that must be said most often, the things we forget too constantly.

It must be said here again that science is the servant of art. Proofs are as numerous as out-of-door books. The argument is sound that we never know or possess a thing until we name it. These many winters I have been trying to find among the flocks of shore-larks the snowflake, rare in my country, the white snowbird of the North. In looking recently over some old notes, I found record of a walk on the snow-ribbed russet uplands, one forgotten March, when I was circled again and again by a flock of birds that took birth from the empty sod, and with a faint twitter of harpstrings danced about the blue to return and drop again into the meadow. These I now named gladly, our brothers of the skylark, the Northern horned larks. There was a last sentence, that one bird, following with the others, was white. The white bird! I read as Richard Feverel read the journal of Clare. I had been blind and deaf without the name; my pleasure was airy nothing; now, with the helplessness of memory, I can give it a local habitation only in a grave. The essence of human enjoyment, to share by expressing and by sympathy, is in the naming. Science names, art echoes with a change as musical as resides in moonlit hills. Only, ’t is hard for the airier voice to make melody of some of the names ; that little bird, colored not unlike the violet, for instance, the blue-gray gnatcatcher ; or those golden faces in back-blown golden hair, sneezeweed! And in proportion as birds become rarer, less in the eyes and on the lips of men, their use becomes difficult; the warblers, for illustration: the prothonotary warbler, and the hooded, the cerulean and the baybreast, each of his kind inimitable sparkling loveliness, and a joy to the finder, but with even the redstart added not likely to be more than strange names to most people. For he who hears the story must also know, or be able to knowr, the name. Consider what a mere fairy tale would be Shelley’s skylark, if no one else could name or know the bird. Science gives us this common knowledge: which is often finer than fancy, as the agaric that leaves the fairy ring in the grass, itself pretty as a poised dancer, and the dance silent and slow of generation after generation, is finer elf-lore than could be conjured out of books : and as tradition is better than invention, such knowledge is always better than irresponsible dreaming, because it is common. Herein, too, is the poet’s verification. It is strange to think that the hermit thrush got his beautiful name because he was believed to be songless; strange to remember that those living within constant hearing of him, whose heartstrings are a lute, did not know him. If a moment’s testimony is required to show how little native after all, what a borrower of Old-World fire, our best literary production has been, no better illustration could be cited. In the production of art we must have imagery to support thought: this should be native, taken ever anew from our life, or it becomes indeed stale and unprofitable: and it should be the best possible. One might meet, for example, with Mr. Thompson Seton’s story of the wild swans migrating, sound of bugles in the moon over Manitoba. Why should not one be able to write of this, surely suggestive of so much human dream and desire, and symbolize a story, under his own lamplight ? Because the emotion is second-hand; faint as the second rainbow; insubstantial as Plato’s shadows in the cave. One must live it, one must die into and be that wild, wild beauty.

For beauty, the immediate and immortal beauty rather than the infinite change of the living truth, is the end of this quest. By beauty we identify art with life: this is indeed the touch of Nature, and this the use of delight. I may speak a little proudly: I have had the gray squirrel on my knee, have held the child of the grouse in my hand, have been of the company when the young foxes -were at play; what impressed me chiefly was the beauty of that kindred life; what I desire most is to make mine and to share with others the joy that like a witch hung tiptoeing every quiet hill of midsummer. And if in the course of this random new defense of poetry I have overstepped the modesty of prose, and danced to my own piping, the fault is not in the argument, O scientists! but in me. It is her friends that keep beauty blushing. Yet I have one more story to tell. The day, I remember, was a holiday; for the heart-stricken week was done, and the kindly President lay dead: children were out nutting, and I, too, was out of school. Nor did I think I wronged the nation’s grief, I who with those shrillers after walnuts was thus proving that we are a nation indeed. Midway the green autumn of the ravine I stopped in sudden anger to see a bird hanging, wings out and head down, crucified in the bushes: a boy’s snare, was my first thought: and dropping my armful of asters, I came into an adventure. There were two birds, and the snare’ was a wild one. Beggar’s lice — but who names burs ? — grew there in a great cloud, and the birds, a brown thrush and a female cardinal, limed themselves deeper with every struggle. Dull and malignant, the green vermin swarmed and enmeshed me as I cut my way in upon that incessant strange crying: and I brought them out, the cardinal first. In the tangle of green-burred stems she was sadly ruffled; wine-colored feathers were torn out, and a drop of blood was on my hand; and I have still an unfading sense of her red beak open and crying, her eye wild and plaintive on me, her turning her crested head to pinch feebly at my fingers as I held her. Then 1 opened my hands. Calling quick to an instant agitation, all about me in the thickets, of the quick kissing calls of the cardinals, she slipped away through the yellowing sensitive fern. I went back for the agonized thrasher: untrammeled the long, elegant figure from its horror, and freed the fettered bright wings, and plucked green leeches from the dappled breast: sweet and pitiful was the silken bird in my hand, his yellow eye wild upon me, wild on the path, the sky, as I turned him. I slipped a finger through the tight slender clutch of his feet, and he sat free and rumpled on my hand a moment; then, with a sharp “chuck! ” flashed vividly to the path, and ran like a fox into the copses, calling to the many sudden answers that sprang to meet him. And I stood covered with burs, — who was to free me ? — smiling and wistful, and striving to fashion into utterance the emotion in me. Sing sweetly for me, I sighed, birds of my hand! Heart of April if her throat no longer, my brown thrush! your autumnal echoes should break and beat about me elect, in the far-flushed morning away or under the golden berries of the bittersweet! And your blithe bravery of winter song, my cardinals! let me not lack that fine fantasy when the sun is silver afar on the snow! Then came into my thought the smiler with the knife. He had an impersonal face and a ruminant foot. “They think it is you they have escaped,” he said.

Joseph Russell Taylor.