In Outer Darkness

MUSCLES triumphing over the conquered ascent; lungs exulting in the glorious air of the hill-top; meadow and mountain stretching dim and blue before your eyes; breezes of heaven lifting your hair, and a joy beyond understanding in your heart — and yet you are in outer darkness, for you have not picked one specimen to analyze, and you do not even remember whether it is cinquefoil or blueberry bushes through which you have been scrambling.

This is not a vindication that I am about to attempt, — for this reason if for no other, that I myself am in outer darkness, and can hardly expect much weight to attach to argument proceeding from that negligible region. Neither is my spirit the spirit of those strange persons who glory in their limitations, and proclaim with ill-masked complacency that they dislike poetry or do not care for classical music. With my last breath I stand ready to defend the poor sort of pleasure in nature that is mine own; but I recognize a great lack in myself, I confess a black ignorance, and from my soul I respect the naturalist.

Let me own the worst at once. I am one of those who know only the commonest birds, only the commonest flowers, and no stones at all. There is a confusion in our minds regarding stalactites, pyrites, and stylites. If confronted with it, we can recognize a field of daisies, and if it is sun-drenched and wind-swept wre are almost certain not to pass it by unnoticed; wre know a smoky spray of asters when we see it, and we like it; but for the most part the roadside tangle or the meadow carpet is a closed book to us, fair to look at, but mysterious to consider. As for birds, the return of robins in the spring excites us immensely; we are aware that the sight of a crow flying northward is encouraging; and we think bluebirds very pretty. Some little modest knowledge of bird-notes wTe may have. We identify immediately, at any distance, the cheerful responses of cocks; and when a partridge bounces up from under our feet we know perfectly well, after a moment, what it is that has deafened us; but we make no pretension to fine skill in discriminating. However, wre do not sit at the symphony with our ears stuffed with cotton. It is true that if a list of the performers’ names should be handed to us, we could not fit them to their owners, and that we are not always sure whether that fresh burst of music is a different piece or only another movement of the same one; but we listen with all our ears, and while we do not know much, we know enough not to applaud if we are hoping for an encore.

Perhaps you are of our inglorious company, and know all about it. You too have loved the wild rose and left it on its stalk; and left it with a suspicion that possibly it was not a wild rose at all, there are other blossoms so similar. You too, at the sudden rush, crackle, and crashing in the autumn woods, have known the fearful joy of feeling yourself within arm’s length of whatever wild wood-creature your fancy might select — a joy out of the reach of the more sophisticated, who know the volume of sound that should accompany the transit of rabbit, bear, or mouse, and cannot taste the delight of uncertainty. And you, too, alas! have suffered the contempt of the instructed — contempt sometimes impatient, sometimes tolerant, sometimes pitying, sometimes even sorrowful, always deep.

How blind they think you, and how dull, the other people at the inn! You come down some perfect morning, with the blood racing so fast in your veins that if the breakfast were less good you could not stop for it, in your desire to be out and away. You mention the goal that you have chosen. Some one asks if you can find walking fern on the way. \ou cannot tell. You only know that the woodroad you take dips down through Arden, Sherwood, Arcadia, all the enchanted places known to man in one; and this fact you suppress, as scientifically unsatisfying. Some one else asks if any glacial boulders can be seen from the hilltop for which you are bound. Again you cannot say. You know that the hilltop is the spot nearest heaven that you have yet discovered, but you are not so foolish as to offer this bit of information to an eager geologist. When you decline a proffered field-glass, a very fine one, they wash their hands of you. They have done their best to stimulate your apperceptive centres, but wanton obstinacy is best left to go its own way. So down the road you swing, the sun on your face and the wind in your eyes, blind and dull,— you freely admit it,—but, in your mulish way, so royally content!

You have a wonderful morning. Your mood is not intellectual, it is perhaps barely intelligent; but you never miss your brain in the exaltation of — of what? Is it after all only your glorified senses? It feels remarkably like soul. You are immoderately amused by the mannerisms of a preposterous brigade of ducks that troop across your path: could a bird-expert, stalking a hermit thrush, spare so much enthusiasm for a domestic duck? Was that odd, angular rock near the bridge deposited by a glacier or by a dump-cart? You are glad that you need not decide. If the beauty of the early morning was a thing to gasp at in the glitter of the dew, it mellows and deepens from hour to hour. If you started feeling half tipsy, you return feeling like an archangel.

At luncheon, the talk is all of polypody and fly amanita. Some one has found delightful specimens; some one else disputes their identity; discussion grows warm; and at last chairs are simultaneously pushed back, and there is a quick adjournment to the piazza, where the causes of war are lying neatly on newspapers. You are feeling pleasantly fatigued, well-fed, and companionable; and sitting down by the naturalists, on the edge of the piazza, you ask some light question. Then are you relegated to your proper place in outer darkness. Some one turns an absent stare upon you; the rest do not hear you; your careless inquiry receives not even a careless answer; cries of delight and cries of dissent are going up; and every head but yours is bent over specimens, microscope, and referencebook.

It is stupid, no doubt, it is obstinate, it is wrong-headed; but as the excited wrangling rises upon the air, it is pleasant to lean your averted head against a pillar, to stare with dreamy eyes at the blue hills against the far-away sky, to listen to some bird — Heaven knows what bird; a thrush, perhaps, a cuckoo, or a pelican, for all you care — piping divine melody in the wood below the hill, and to feel that it all is very good.