The Edge of Night

BEYOND the meadow, nearly half a mile away, yet in sight from my window, stands an apple tree, the last of an ancient line that once marked the boundary between the upper and lower pastures. For an apple tree it is unspeakably woeful, bent, and hoary, and grizzled with suckers from feet to crown. Unkempt and unesteemed, it attracts only the cattle for its shade, and gives to them alone its gnarly, bitter fruit.

But that old tree is hollow, trunk and limb; and if its apples are of Sodom, there is still no tree in the Garden of the Hesperides, none even in my own private Eden, carefully kept as they are, that is half as interesting — I had almost said, as useful. Among the trees of the Lord, an apple tree that bears good Baldwins or greenings or rambos comes first for usefulness; but when one has thirty-five of such trees, which the town has compelled him to trim and scrape and plaster-up and petticoat against the grewsome gypsy moth, then those thirty-five are dull indeed, compared to the untrimmed, unscraped, unplastered, undressed old tramp yonder on the knoll whose heart is still wide open to birds and beasts and to every small traveler passing by who needs, perforce, abiding or a harbor.

When I was a small boy everybody used to put up overnight at grandfather’s — for grandmother’s wit and buckwheat cakes, I think, which were known away down into Cape May County. It was so, too, with grandfather’s wisdom and brooms. The old house sat in behind a grove of pin-oak and pine, a sheltered, sheltering spot, with a peddler’s stall in the barn, a peddler’s place at the table, a peddler’s bed in the herby garret, a boundless, fathomless feather-bed, of a piece with the house and the hospitality. There were larger houses and newer, in the neighborhood; but no other house in all the region, not even the tavern, two miles farther down the Pike, was half as central, or as homelike, or as full of good sweet gossip.

The old apple tree yonder between the woods and the meadow is as central, as hospitable, and, if animals communicate with one another, just as full of neighborhood news as was grandfather’s rooftree. Did I say none but the cattle seek its shade? Go over and watch. That old tree is no decrepit, deserted shack of a house. There is no door-plate, there is no christened letter-box outside the front gate, because the birds and beasts do not advertise their houses that way. But go over, say, toward the evening, and sit quietly down outside. You will not wait long, for the doors will open that you may enter — enter a home of the fields, and, a little way at least, into a life of the fields, for this old tree has a small dweller of some sort the year round.

If it is February or March you will be admitted by my owls. They take possession late in winter and occupy the tree, with some curious fellow tenants, until early summer. I can count upon these small screech-owls by February, — the forlorn month, the seasonless, hopeless, lifeless stretch of the year, but for its owls, its thaws, its lengthening days, its cackling pullets, its possibility of swallows, and its being the year’s end. At least the ancients called February the year’s end, maintaining, with fine poetic sense, that the world was begun in March; and they were nearer the beginnings of things than we are. But the owls come in February, and if they are not swallows with the spring, they, nevertheless, help winter with most seemly haste into an early grave. Yet across the faded February meadow the old apple tree stands empty and drear enough — until the shadows of the night begin to fall.

As the dusk comes down, I go to my window and watch. I cannot see him, the grim-beaked baron with his hooked talons, his ghostly wings, his staring eyes; but I know that he has come to his window in the turret yonder on the darkening sky, and that he watches with me. I cannot see him swoop downward over the ditches, nor see him quarter the meadow, beating, dangling, dropping between the flattened tussocks; nor hear him, back on the silent shadows, slant upward again to his turret. Mine are human eyes, human ears. Even the quickeared meadow-mouse did not hear.

But I have been belated and forced to cross this wild night-land of his; and I have felt him pass — so near at times that he has stirred my hair, by the wind, dare I say, of his mysterious wings ? At other times I have heard him. Often on the edge of night I have listened to his quavering, querulous cry from the elmtops below me by the meadow. But of tener I have watched at the casement here in my castle wall: away yonder on the borders of night, dim and gloomy, looms his ancient keep. I wait. Soon on the deepened dusk spread his soft wings, out over the meadow he sails, up over my wooded height, over my moat, to my turret tall, as silent and unseen as the soul of a shadow, except he drift across the face of the full round moon, or with his weird cry cause the dreaming quiet to stir in its sleep and moan.

Yes, yes, but one must be pretty much of a child, with most of his childish things not yet put away, to get any such romance out of a rotten apple tree, plus a bunch of feathers no bigger than one’s two fists. One must be pretty far removed from the real world, the live world that swings, no longer through the heavens, but at the distributing end of a news wire. And so one is, indeed, — sixteen miles removed by space, one whole day by post, one whole hour by engine and horse, one whole half-minute by the telephone in the back hall. Lost! cut off completely! hopelessly marooned!

I fear so. Perhaps I must admit that watching owls is for babes and sucklings, not for men with great work to do, that is, with money to make, news to get, office to hold, and clubs to address. It may be for those with a soul to save, yet I hasten to avow that watching owls is not religion; for I entirely agree with our Shelburne essayist that, “ in all this worship of nature,” — by Traherne, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Thoreau, and those who seek the transfigured world of the woods, — “ there is a strain of illusion which melts away at the touch of the greater realities . . . and there are evils against which its seduction is of no avail.”

Let the illusion melt. Other worships have shown a strain of illusion at times, and against certain evils been of small avail. And let it be admitted that calling regularly at an old apple tree is far short of a full man’s work in the world, even when such calling falls outside of his shop or office-hours. For there are no such hours. The business of life allows no spare time any more. One cannot get rich nowadays in office-hours, nor become great, nor keep telegraphically informed, nor do his share of talking and listening. Everybody but the plumber and paper-hanger works overtime. How the earth keeps up a necessary amount of whirling in the old twenty-four-hour limit is more than we can understand. But she can’t keep up the pace much longer. She must have an extra hour. And how to snatch it from the tail-end of eternity is the burning cosmological question.

And this is the burning question with regard to our individual whirling — How to add time, or, what amounts to exactly the same, How to increase the whirling.

There have been many hopeful answers; the whirl has been vastly accelerated ; the fly-wheel of the old horse treadmill is now geared to an electric dynamo. But it is not enough; it is not the answer. And I despair of the answer — of the perfect whirl, the perpetual, invisible, untimable.

Hence the apple tree, the owls, the illusions, the lost hours — the neglect of fortune and of soul! But then you may worship nature and still find your way to church; you may be intensely interested in the life of an old apple tree and still cultivate your next-door neighbor, still earn all the fresh air and bread and books that your children need. The knoll yonder may be a kind of High Place, and its old apple tree a kind of altar, for you when you had better not go to church, when your neighbor needs to be let alone, when your children are in danger of too much bread and too many books — for the time when you are in need of that something which comes only out of the quiet of the fields at the close of day. “ But what is it? ” you ask. “ Give me its formula.” I cannot. Yet you need it and will get it — something that cannot be had of the day, something that Matthew Arnold comes very near suggesting in his lines: —

The evening comes, the fields are still.
The tinkle of the thirsty rill,
Unheard all day, ascends again;
Deserted is the half-mown plain,
Silent the swaths! the ringing wain,
The mower’s cry, the dog’s alarms
All housed within the sleeping farms !
The business of the day is done,
The last-left haymaker is gone.
And from the thyme upon the height
And from the elder-blossom white
And pale dog-roses in the hedge,
And from the mint-plant in the sedge,
In puffs of balm the night-air blows
The perfume which the day forgoes.

I would call it poetry, if it were poetry. And it is poetry, yet it is a great deal more. Poetry and owls and sour apples are not all that is to be had from this old tree; for in this particular tree dwells also a toad.

It is curious enough, as the summer dusk comes on, to see the round face of the owl in one hole, and out of another in the broken limb above, the flat weazened face of the tree-toad. Philosophic countenances they are, masked with wisdom, both of them; shrewd and penetrating in the slit-eyed owl, contemplative and soaring in the serene composure of the transcendental toad. Both creatures love the dusk; both have come forth to their open doors in order to watch the darkening ; both will make off under the cover — one for mice and frogs over the meadow, the other for slugs and insects over the crooked, tangled limbs of the tree.

It is strange enough to see them together, but it is stranger still to think of them together, for it is just such prey as this little toad that the owl has gone over the meadow to catch.

Why does he not take the supper ready here on the shelf ? There may be reasons that we, who do not eat tree-toad, know nothing of; but I am inclined to believe that the owl has never seen his fellow lodger in the doorway above, though he must often have heard him piping his gentle melancholy in the gloaming, when his skin cries for rain!

Small wonder if they have never met! for this gray, squat, disc-toad little monster in the hole, or flattened on the bark of the tree like a patch of lichen, may well be one of those things which are hidden from the sharp-eyed owl. Whatever purpose you attribute to his peculiar shape and color, — protective, obliterative, mimicking, — it is always a source of fresh amazement, the way this largest of our hylas, on the moss-marked rind of an old tree, can utterly blot himself out before your staring eyes.

The common toads and all the frogs have enemies enough, and it would seem from the comparative scarcity of the treetoads that they must have enemies, too, but I do not know who they are. This scarcity of the tree-toads is something of a puzzle, and all the more to me, that, to my certain knowledge, this toad has lived in the old Baldwin tree, now, for five years. Perhaps he has been several, and not one; for who can tell one tree-toad from another ? Nobody; and for that reason we made, some time ago, a simple experiment, in order to see how long a tree-toad might live, unprotected, in his own natural environment. Upon moving into this house, about seven years ago, we found a tree-toad living in the big hickory by the porch. For the next three springs he reappeared, and all summer long we would find him, now on the tree, now on the porch, often on the railing and backed tight up against a post. Was he one or many ? we asked. Then we marked him; and for the next four years we knew that he was himself alone. How many more years he might have lived in the hickory for us all to pet, I should like to know; but last summer, to our great sorrow, the gypsy-moth killers, poking in the hole, did our little friend to death.

He was worth many worms.

It is interesting, it is very wonderful to me, the instinct for home — the love for home I should like to call it— that this humble little creature shows. A toad is an amphibian to the zoölogist, an ugly gnome with a jeweled eye to the poet; but to the naturalist, the lover of life for its own sake, who lives next door to his toad, who feeds him a fly or a fat grub now and then, who tickles him to sleep with a rose leaf, who waits as thirstily as the hilltop for him to call the summer rain, who knows his going to sleep for the winter, his waking up for the spring — to such an one the jeweled eye and the amphibious habits are but the forewords of a long, marvelous life-history. This small tree-toad has a home, has it in his soul, precisely where John Howard Payne had it, and where many another of us has it. He has it in a tree, too, — in a hickory tree, this one that dwelt by my house; in an apple tree, that one yonder across the meadow.

“East, west,
Hame’s best,”

croaks the tree-toad in a tremulous, plaintive minor that wakens memories in the vague twilight of more old, forgotten, far-off things than any other voice I know.

These tree-toads could not be induced to trade houses, the hickory for the apple, because a house to a toad means home, and a home is never in the market. There are many more houses in the land than homes. Most of us are only real-estate dealers. Many of us have never had a home; and none of us has ever had more than one. There can be but one — mine — and that has always been, must always be, as imperishable as memory, and as far beyond all barter as the gates of the sunset are beyond my horizon’s picket fence of pines.

The toad seems to feel it all, but feels it whole, not analyzed and itemized as a memory. Here in the hickory for four years (for seven,I am quite sure) he lived, single and alone. He would go down to the meadow when the females gathered there to lay their eggs, but back he would come, without wife or companion, to his tree. Stronger than love of kind, than love of mate, constant and dominant in his slow cold heart is his instinct for home.

If I go down to the orchard and bring up from his apple tree another toad to dwell in the hole of the hickory, I shall fail. He might remain for the day, but not throughout the night, for with the gathering twilight there steals upon him an irresistible longing, the Heimweh that he shares with me; and guided by it, as the bee and the pigeon and the dog are guided, he makes his sure way back to the orchard home.

Would he go back beyond the orchard, over the road, over the wide meadow, over to the Baldwin tree, half a mile away, if I brought him from there? We shall see. During the coming summer I shall mark him in some manner, and bringing him here to the hickory, I shall then watch the old apple tree yonder. It will be a hard perilous journey. But his longing will not let him rest; and guided by his mysterious sense of direction — for this one place — he will arrive, I am sure, or he will die on the way.

Yet I could wish there were another tree here, besides the apple, and another toad. Suppose he never gets back ? Only one toad less ? A great deal more than that. Here in the old Baldwin he has made his home for I don’t know how long, hunting over its world of branches in the summer, sleeping down in its deep holes during the winter — down under the chips and punk and castings, beneath the nest of the owls, it may be; for my toad in the hickory always buried himself so, down in the débris at the bottom of the hole, where, in a kind of cold storage, he preserved himself until thawed out by the spring. I never pass the old apple in the summer but that I stop to pay my respects to the toad; nor in the winter that I do not pause and think of him asleep in there. He is no mere toad any more. He has passed into a genius loci, the Guardian Spirit of the tree, warring in the green leaf against worm and grub and slug, and in the dry leaf hiding himself, a heart of life, within the thin ribs, as if to save the old shell to another summer.

A toad is a toad, and if he never got back to the tree there would be one toad less, nothing more. If anything more, then it is on paper, and it is cant, not toad at all. And so, I suppose, stones are stones, trees trees, brooks brooks — not books and tongues and sermons at all — except on paper and as cant. Surely there are many things in writing that never had any other, any real existence; especially in writing that deals with the out-of-doors. One should write carefully about one’s toad; fearfully, indeed, when that toad becomes one’s teacher; for teacher my toad in the old Baldwin has many a time been.

Often in the summer dusk I have gone over to sit at his feet and learn some of the things my college professors could not teach me. I have not yet taken my higher degrees. I was graduated A. B. from college. It is A. B. C. that I am working toward here at the old apple tree with the toad.

Seating myself comfortably at the foot of the tree, I wait; the toad comes forth to the edge of his hole above me, settles himself comfortably, and waits. And the lesson begins. The quiet of the summer evening steals out with the woodshadows and softly covers the fields. We do not stir. An hour passes. We do not stir. Not to stir is the lesson — one of the majors in this graduate course with the toad.

The dusk thickens. The grasshoppers begin to strum; the owl slips out and drifts away; a whippoorwill drops on the bare knoll near me, clucks and shouts and shouts again, his rapid repetition a thousand times repeated by the voices that call to one another down the long empty aisles of the swamp; a big moth whirs about my head and is gone; a bat flits squeaking past; a fire-fly blazes, but is blotted out by the darkness, only to blaze again, and again be blotted, and so passes, his tiny lantern flashing into a night that seems the darker for the quick, unsteady glow.

We do not stir. It is a hard lesson. By all my other teachers I had been taught every manner of stirring, and this unwonted exercise of being still takes me where my body is weakest, and it puts me painfully out of breath in ray soul. “Wisdom is the principal thing,” my other teachers would repeat, “ therefore get wisdom, but keep exceedingly busy all the time. Step lively. Life is short. There are only twenty-four hours to the day. The Devil finds mischief for idle hands to do. Let us then be up and doing ” — all of this at random from one of their lectures on “ The Simple Life, or the Pace that Kills.”

Of course there is more or less of truth in this teaching of theirs. A little leisure has no doubt become a dangerous thing — unless one spend it talking or golfing or automobiling, or aëroplaning or elephant-killing, or in some other diverting manner; otherwise one’s nerves, like pulled candy, might set and cease to quiver; or one might even have time to think.

“ Keep going,” — I quote from another of their lectures, — “ keep going; it is the only certainty you have against knowing whither you are going.” I learned that lesson well. See me go — with half a breakfast and the whole morning paper; with less of lunch and the 4.30 edition. But I balance my books, snatch the evening edition, catch my car, get into my clothes, rush out to dinner, and spend the evening lecturing or being lectured to. I do everything but think.

But suppose I did think? It could only disturb me — my politics, or ethics, or religion. I had better let the editors and professors and preachers think for me. The editorial office is such a quiet thought-inducing place; as quiet as a boiler factory; and the thinkers there, from editor-in-chief to the printer’s devil, are so thoughtful for the size of the circulation! And the college professors, they have the time and the cloistered quiet needed. But they have pitiful salaries, and enormous needs, and their social status to worry over, and themes to correct, and a fragmentary year to contend with, and Europe to see every summer, and — Is it right to ask them, with all this, to think ? We will ask the preachers instead. They are set apart among the divine and eternal things; they are dedicated to thought; they have covenanted with their creeds to think; it is their busness to study, but, “ to study to be careful and harmless.”

It may be, after all, that my politics and ethics and religion need disturbing, as the soil about my fruit trees needs it. Is it the tree ? or is it the soil that I am trying to grow ? Is it I, or my politics, my ethics, my religion? I will go over to the toad, no matter the cost. I will sit at his feet, where time is nothing, and the worry of work even less. He has all time and no task; he is not obliged to labor for a living, much less to think. My other teachers all are; they are all professional thinkers; their living thoughts are words : editorials, lectures, sermons, — livings. I read them or listen to them. The toad sits out the hour silent, thinking, but I know not what, nor need to know. To think God’s thoughts after Him is not so high as to think my own after myself. Why then ask his of the toad, and so interrupt these of mine ? Instead we will sit in silence and watch Altair burn along the shore of the sky, and overhead Arcturus, and the rival fire-flies flickering through the leaves of the apple tree.

The darkness has come. The toad is scarcely a blur between me and the stars. It is a long look from him, ten feet above me, on past the fire-flies to Arcturus and the regal splendors of the Northern Crown — as deep and as far a look as the night can give, and as only the night can give. Against the distant stars, these ten feet between me and the toad shrink quite away; and against the light far off yonder near the pole, the fire-fly’s little lamp becomes a brave but a very lesser beacon.

There are only twenty-four hours to the day — to the day and the night! And how few are left to that quiet time between the light and the dark! Ours is a hurried twilight. We quit work to sleep; we wake up to work again. We measure the day by a clock; we measure the night by an alarm clock. Life is all ticked off. We are murdered by the second. What we need is a day and a night with wider margins — a dawn that comes more slowly, and a longer lingering twilight. Life has too little selvage; it is too often raw and raveled. Room and quiet and verge are what we want, not more dials for time, nor more figures for the dials. We have things enough, too, more than enough; it is space for the things, perspective, and the right measure for the things that we lack — a measure not one foot short of the distance between us and the stars.

If we get anything out of the fields worth while, it will be this measure, this largeness, and quiet. It may be only an owl or a tree-toad that we go forth to see, but how much more we find in things we cannot hear by day, things long, long forgotten, things we never thought or dreamed before.

The day is none too short, the night none too long; but all too narrow is the edge between.