Our Nearest, and Our Farthest, Neighbors

I

OUR nearest neighbors stand a bit aloof, and do not visit us except for the briefest stay. Newcomers, we are somewhat hurt; peering out of the corners of our windows we watch and wait, as silent, as motionless as they when they watch us, and still they pass us by. It is true that we have forced our way into an old community, and have broken soil among the undisturbed trees on a green hillside still clothed in the primeval grass of the wilderness. Those earlier settlers, the meadowlarks, have perhaps a right to complain of our intrusion. Complain they do, their notes of gentle protest coming early in the spring, and sounding on through warm summer days to late autumn. What has gone wrong with their housekeeping, I wonder, that they so persistently lament? Certainly we have not disturbed the homes of their building, and are ready to go more than half way in making friends.

As I see, though pretending not to look, the bright, untrusting eyes that watch us from adjacent trees, as I hear swift wings beating retreat, I marvel that they do such scanty justice to our good intent. Is it because of our coming that the mourning dove so mourns? Do they not like our way of housekeeping? It is as careful, as methodical, as industrious as their own. It is, moreover, as old-fashioned, for we like ancestral ways, and are averse to the new-fangled devices of the ladies’ journals, — oh, horror of pink teas and lavender luncheons! And we share their woodland tastes: one doorway opens on a hill-side with a wood beyond, the other upon what the English would call a copse.

It cannot be our clothes that they object to, for our modest greens and browns are as unobtrusive as the wear of any bird or squirrel of them all. Indeed, I should not think of going abroad in the colors that certain of them wear,— scarlet, or vivid blue, or brilliant orange, — for even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like some of these. Perhaps they do not like the company we keep, yet our one meek gray cat who strolls with us in the evening coolness on hillside or by garden path would not hurt them; only, at sight of them, an impotent lashing of the tail and a faint, queer snarl recall his far-off savage ancestry. It seems perfectly automatic and unconscious, and is certainly incongruous in the presence of the Christian virtues which that cat has acquired from us. He is not proud and unfriendly, but is willing to go as far as his four paws can carry him across that space which separates even the friendliest beasts from their distant human kin.

We have courted our new neighbors with crumbs in winter-time; we have courted them in April with string laid out enticingly on the grass, as the starting-point of home; we have tied suet to the trees in snowy weather, and have maintained luncheon counters of nuts and of wheat; we have, quite in the prevailing fashion in social service, established a public bath. All these favors they have accepted, with mental reservations, on tip-toe for flight., a-wing at first sight of us. We have even established model tenements; well-lighted, well-ventilated residences are offered rent free. Some of them were fashioned of cigar-boxes, some of grape-baskets; all were covered with birch-bark to match the trees on which they hang. Yet the blue-birds pass by the homes intended especially for them, and the wren-house, made with the exact size of doorway that the bird book prescribed for the least of the sweet-singing Christendom, has never lured the longed-for tenant to our eaves.

To that cold table, winter-set, come jays and juncos and chickadees. I find on the porch-roof in the new-fallen snow innumerable little footprints of the latter, or see in the morning sunshine a whole white and gray flock feeding like one, flying away like one, if I go too near. I am always expecting the nuthatch, who feasts royally for one of his size, with a kind of Christmas gusto; but he has never accepted his invitation. When the sky is heavy with snow about to fall, I think often that perhaps he will come to-morrow, for, with the inhabitants of air as with the inhabitants of earth, necessity increases friendliness.

Regarding these, and our few other winter birds, meadow-larks, kinglets, brown creepers, I often wonder in what corners they cuddle, and whether snow, rightly used, makes a warm blanket. A yearning sense of hospitality in the stinging cold weather, a desire to share the warmth of the hearth with wee things shut outside, human or other, pauses here at the bounds that nature has set. That which one has to offer is not that which is needed; this puzzled wash to help is touched by the chill of philanthropy, and baffled by the lack of understanding that must exist between those who share no common threshold.

As for our most constant winter guest, the jay, I cannot accept the common scorn of him, often shown by critics in reality no more generous than he. Wherein eating other birds’ eggs differs from the methods commonly employed by the fittest in surviving, I have yet to see, and I watch him with the remote wonder wherewith, at a distance, I watch our predatory merchant-princes masquerading in the brilliant plumage of philanthropists. The jays have dash, presence; they lack scruple, and, with their loud platform manners, — for they seem always, through their shrill cries, to be addressing an audience, — they are curiously akin to others successful in business and in public life. I am told that the jay behaves better at home than when he is away, and I respect him for that he reverses the practice of many, and forgive him for his noise in my yard, knowing that he is silent in his own doorway. I could forgive him much, too, for the beauty of his outstretched wings against the world of winter white and the white birch trunks. Often, on the coldest days, his tap-tapping at the hard suet weakens me; from porch railing or branch of tree he watches me, his head cocked on one side, with a judicious and critical expression, and I feel, as I watch him in return, that no creature more mentally alert crosses our domain on feathers or on feet. Yet he lacks something — shall I call it imaginative vision? — that impels other birds to seek far shores and new horizons, in unceasing quest.

Most neighborly, of course, are the robins; and on July mornings troops of spotted-breasted birdlings cross our lawn, each headed by that model father red-breast, who, as I am told, takes charge of the early brood while the mother-bird is hatching out the second, roosts with them by night among the trees, and by day teaches them the lore of robin life. The small, low branches of the birch trees are evidently excellent for the robin kindergarten held here, and I can bear witness to the thoroughness of the pedagogical methods, if any aerial agency requires testimonials. Flying lessons, swimming lessons, foraging lessons go on incessantly, and all day long they search for worms. Once, when I thought of adopting a young robin that had fallen out of the nest, a scientist told me that, it would require twelve feet of worms in twelve hours, and I desisted. It is fortunate that my own students have no such appetites! The young things trail solemnly around after their parent, two or three at a time, like chickens; if his head turns but for an instant, beaks fly wide open, as if moved by springs. It is a pretty sight to see the deftness wherewith he drops in a worm, the young one squatting on the grass, or waiting on a twig, and swallowing the booty before the old bird has even ceased flying. The kindergarten has always seemed to me questionable in rendering the child too passive, and I have my doubts about this. Surely these fat babies could bestir themselves a little sooner! Though a ‘mere picker up of learning’s crumbs,’ with only intellectual relations with the young, I cannot help being absurdly pleased when I see these birdlings begin to find bits for themselves.

In the flying lessons more independence is insisted upon from the first, and the notes wherewith the nestlings are urged from branch to empty air are sharp, incisive, and full of anxiety. More coaxing tones lure them to the bird bath in the shallow Italian basin on the lawn, and here they are shown how to dip and spatter the water with fluttering wings, and how to dry their feathers afterward. I saw an old bird teaching three at a time one day, and then shooing them out one by one when the bath was over. Later, one of the young ones went back, once, twice, three times, and stood shivering on the brink, afraid to plunge, for all the world like a ridiculous baby.

These marvelously competent creatures converse with their young with a wide range of notes, and ward off from them the very appearance of danger, valiantly fighting away the jays, and ordering me to take in the cat if he put but the tip of his gray nose outside the door. Expert parents, entirely taken up with the diet and the physical education of their progeny, they seem, more than most birds, to belong to our era, and I think of them as better able to cope with the ideals of our present civilization than are many of our songsters. Their cheerful, bustling materialism, their content in unflagging search for the necessary worm, strike one as distinctly contemporary. Yet like the jays in their alert practicality, they fail in that charm of elusiveness and mystery that we associate with winged things.

II

Watching and waiting, we get glimpses of the many-sided neighborhood life about us, even of creatures more exclusive than robins. The oldest inhabitants, the crows, are always with us, slowly moving on black wings against gray clouds of winter, or congregating among sunlit pine branches in July. At the first touch of warmer sun, the first deeper blue in the February sky, they are astir; what significance has this busy and systematic flying, with loud caws, back and forth along the line of trees that border the stream? What do they discuss, what plans do they make, when they gather in vast numbers in the tree-tops? Although distant, I half overhear debates that sound far more interesting and important than those which it is my duty to attend; opinions are uttered with more conviction, an energy of rough speech that will not be denied. The assembly would seem to be appointing committees to act with power, then suddenly to resolve itself, with outstretched wings, into a committee of the whole.

I have always had a special admiration for these neighbors who watch, with apparent disdain, generations of mere human life, and a special curiosity in regard to what they know. Harsh oracles of primeval speech issue from their throats as we draw near, but they will not admit us to their councils; and the way in which they watch our approach, slowly make up their minds in our disfavor, and fly deliberately away, is more insulting than sudden terror. I am told that their success in life is largely due to coöperative, highly organized thieving, as yet undisturbed by any anti-trust law, and that the social instinct is in them very fully developed. What care I how social they be, if they are so unsociable with me? Some of the subtleties of their deep knowledge have been made known, but more are as yet unfathomed. Timeless, they dwell in immemorial mystery, and have solemn associations with long-forgotten sunrises and sunsets. A sombre significance clings to them, different from that attaching to any other feathered things, sombre but not malign. Yet when, a day or two ago, a huge crow flew so close to the window where I was watching that I could have touched him, for a pagan moment I shrank, for he was as a mythological creature out of an elder world, and I seemed to see my doom descending on black, slow-beating wings. For the most part, however, though these neighbors stand aloof and hold me in deserved contempt , I count them friends, and find little in the world more expressive than they, flapping their way over distant fields and cawing I know not what ancient wisdom. A single crow in the gathering twilight, flying toward the darkening wood, has a look of going straight to the central mystery of things, and in him I seem to see

The last bird fly into the last light.

Nearer our human comprehension are the red-winged blackbirds, in whom we take great delight, with their fascinating housekeeping among the long swamp-grasses and reeds, through which a many-branched stream threads its wet way. Blue flag flowers grow here, tall cat-tails and rushes; something—perhaps the way of the stream with the grasses, the moist fragrance of it all, the gurgle of the water among the lily-pads, or the meeting of the sloping meadow beyond with the wood — brings an encompassing sense of shelter, of comfort, and of home. The blackbirds come early, with the first faint green in the hidden hollows of the surrounding hills; they call over bare, brown meadows where only close-watching eyes could see spring. As the marsh begins to turn green, and roots quicken, they build and sing, making their nests by the water-side, many near together in pleasant comradeship; more and more protected as the grasses grow tall and create, with their feathery green heads and deeper green of the blades, an exquisite shelter of delicate shades and gradations.

These builders in the shadow and the sun have a poetry of note and of motion that the robins lack; whistling, chuckling softly, they sink, with what loveliness of flight! low, low to their nests in the reeds. The protectiveness of the parent wings, the little answering peep from the nest, are as something remembered from lullaby times of long ago. Not because of any overtures from them, for they fly swiftly, with menacing wings, toward us if we venture too near, writing ‘thus far and no farther’ upon the twilight air, we count them among our most prized companions, and again and again go reluctantly from these red-and-blackclad neighbors who do not call, to put on polite attire and walk sedately down the village street, making belated visits to those justly irate human neighbors, who called so long, so long ago! Near of kin these winged things seem, though separated far in the world of physical being, in their jealous guarding of the threshold, their deep sense of the inviolability of home. Through the last days of wind and snow we watch and wait for them, and each succeeding summer the greater is our loneliness when they are gone and there are no more brave wings with touches of red against the sky above the sunken meadow. Something of the sense of loss of vanished human companionship attends our autumn walks near these ‘fledged birds’ nests’ whence the birds have flown; alas for these old friends, and the white stretches of winter silence that they leave behind them!

It is with me in regard to birds as in regard to people: I have no desire to know all, nor do I wish to catalogue the entire species, but. I sorely covet friendly intimacy with a few. In both cases I have a pleasant acquaintance with some whose names I do not know. With the flicker that I find clinging to my screen in the morning, — having heard his knocking at my window, dimly, through waking and dreams, — in all the brave beauty of his brownspotted, creamy breast and his red crown, I would fain have further intercourse, but his quick wings will not so. I could ‘desire of more acquaintance,’ too, with the evening grosbeak, who, despite his name, called at nine o’clock one stormy March morning, then flew away forever.

I want to know, but never shall, the little screech owl, whose cry, most significant and characteristic, shrill, sweet, and weird, sounds out from the nearby wood and now and then from our own trees. I hold my breath when, lying in bed, I hear him, and, even in the dark, I see him clearly, yet not him. Long, long ago a kind friend caught one and gave him to me; tame him I could not; he only stared at me with big, unseeing eyes, and refused to swallow the food placed in his beak. At last I let him go, perhaps untactfully, in the daytime,

Blind, and in all the loneliness of wings.

Gossip has fold me about his housekeeping: how he is thrifty, forages in winter and stores up in a hollow tree mice and other prey enough for a week’s housekeeping. When my own goes wrong I sometimes wish that I could go and board with the little owl.

I should like to be admitted to further intimacy with these feathered folk, but perhaps they are right in holding me, if not at arms’ length, at wings’ length, and the wings’ length of a suddenly startled bird is something to marvel at. Their wisdom I envy, their sky wisdom and earth wisdom, their exquisite skill in building, their canny household ways. Even through the slight intercourse which they permit us, marvelously they enrich our lives, as contact, with other life inevitably must, not only through this sense of fellowship in home-building and home-keeping, but through the endless charm of music, and motion, and color.

In spring the song of the oriole, unbelievably beautiful, comes from trees near by, but he never builds close enough. Venturing near human habitations, he still jealously guards his seclusion. Though he refuses our proffered string, he sings to us, often pouring out his heart among our trees; then, a swift, red-golden flash, so swift that the swaying birch-leaves seem to go too, and he is away toward home. He lives in the huge, stately elm at the corner, disdaining lesser residences, and I can hear his song, fainter but not less appealing, from his own doorway. His brother builds in another elm, farther along the busy highway, singing high and unafraid above the puffing automobiles and the creaking carts; and surely it is a near relative who has his home in a clump of tall green trees on the greener hillside. There he sings, high and sweet, the morning long. Toiling over books and papers, I can hear him, and the ‘ Godintoxicated’ bobolink who lives in the meadow below the hill. Together they bring back always the story of the two nightingales, those symbolic nightingales who sang from the laburnum to the young Robert Browning after that day of days when he had first opened his Shelley and his Keats, — too great an intellectual and spiritual experience for a single day of boyhood, one would think, even for that robust poetic vitality.

The long elm-branches toss in the wind, yet the swaying nest is always safe. On sunshiny days there are such trills of pure and varied melody, that I cannot work, — for oh, how he sings one’s childhood back! The music flows across the silences as through the discords of the days; surely the oriole has found some inner soul of melody in all things!

The bobolink keeps house in the meadow-grass by the stream just over the fence from the highway. I know where it is, though he does not think I know, having taken pains to alight, singing his maddest, on reeds and grasses far away, and distinctly on my path toward home. I have not called on him, and shall not, for I too have my reserves. His choice of a home shows that he has learned something of the hard wisdom of the world. Last year he had a devastated threshold, for the mowing machine went ruthlessly over that loveliest spot of waving meadowgrass where he had built. This year he has chosen a place where the swampgrasses are never touched by the mower’s knives; surely I am right in thinking he is the same, our neighbor of last year, though I cannot be sure, for there is always a certain family likeness in the voice.

Some relatives of his, who live a mile or two farther, came before he did, on a green May day. I go often to hear them, for, as they sing, one and then another, in that little colony of songsters, they bring back all the vanished Junes, with their wild strawberries and their fragrant hay. Yet, as I stroll along the highway toward home, in the perfectness of this special June, I am glad to hear my own near neighbor again, and to watch his rapturous flight upward, with lyric trills of song, and his dropping low to grass or reed, where he sways back and forth in the breeze. It seems to me that there is an added madness of assurance in his melodies this summer as he sings on, unafraid, that all’s right with the world; and I hold my breath, with a touch of the old Greek apprehension of swift turn of fate over too perfect moments. Are he and Robert Browning a trifle oversure?

III

Many are the birds that charm us by beauty of color and of song; there are others that compel our eyes primarily through sheer beauty of motion. Such are the wide-winged gulls at the notdistant New England shore, with the slow and stately rhythm of their white wings; such are the eagles that I remember from long ago circling majestically against a clear blue sky about the high gray cliffs of Mount Parnassus; such are swallows of every kind. Bank swallows live near us, the top of certain high sand-cliffs being pierced all along its edge by their mysterious, enticing thresholds that one may not cross. Great delicacy and reserve of demeanor is necessary in approaching them, for they are careful of the company they keep. This year they made no holes in one sand-cliff where, last year, many of them dwelt, — a mystery of choice to us until we saw the kingfisher’s nest hollowed out there, and remembered the grim look of the kingfisher with his fierce crest, on a limb by the water, watching for his prey. About our roof these swallows circle in the open sky at eventide against the sunset clouds; they fly low before the coming rain, low and higher, swaying, swinging, dipping in joyousness of motion and grace of untrammeled flight. The little call of the swallow, what is it, — thanks for the insect just caught, or greeting to neighbor swallow, as they pass and repass in the oncoming twilight, like ‘ships that pass in the night’?

Color and grace of motion together make up the loveliness of the bluebird’s flight. These gentle creatures light on branch and twig about us in earliest spring, pair by pair, in radiance of blue raiment against a paler sky, but they never linger. As they sit with their wise little heads on one side, considering, do they find us unworthy of the close companionship of adjacent homes? Once, long ago, a pair of them built in a hollow tree near our doorway, and I should rather have the grace of another stay like this than any other household boon, but I ask it in vain. They call, too, in early autumn, to say good-bye, punctilious, and yet distant. A few days ago, in late summer, the yard was full of them, parents and children; some, full blue with soft, bright breasts, others, evidently fuzzy youngsters, with wings just growing blue. Their little chirp, the gentlest and sweetest of all sounds in nature, sounded from among the birches and the wild-cherry tree in most companionable fashion, and yet they fled, parent and children, across the browning grass, leaving us to the yellowing leaf and the cricket’s chirp, and the mellow loneliness of autumn.

Other bird-friends we have, and many. The little song sparrow makes music for us in all seasons, in all weathers, even sometimes through a sleepy snatch of song at night. The vesper sparrow greets us on the close-shorn hills to westward when we walk there at sunset; and on summer afternoons, from the shady coverts of the adjacent wood, comes the full golden melody of the wood thrush, with that liquid tone which only thrushes give. I have listened, but listened in vain hereabout, for the high, celestial note of the hermit, but he does not venture so near, inhabiting some far region between us and the heavenly hills.

Greatest of all privileges is the charm of the minor snatches of song, the momentary glimpses of wings, often of visitors we do not know, and yet half understand; — we are wayfarers all! A red-breasted grosbeak comes to chat in friendly fashion among the twigs, then flits away to his undiscovered threshold. A humming-bird calls now and then for a minute at the threshold of larkspur or columbine; his lichencovered home I can imagine, though I have no skill to follow his swift flight. The goldfinch means a gleam of celestial beauty, as does the yellow warbler; and there was one wonderful minute when a scarlet tanager paused in a birch, the sunshine falling on his bright body through the translucent leaves.

These and other winged visitants we have, in wavering flight or sure, now high, now low, drifting past birch leaf and hollyhock, shining visitants, with the swift splendor of sunlight on wings of blue or red or gold, making us wonder why a pallid modern imagination clothes angels all in white. The old painters knew better, and on Italian canvases and walls, one may see wings of green and azure, splendid pinions of celestial creatures wearing gorgeous markings of moth and of butterfly. Oftentimes quick wings pass, of we know not what, above pergola or sky-light; swift, nameless shadows float over yonder waving green meadow; a sound of wings reaches our ears though we do not lift our eyes. In their very elusiveness lies the deepest, appeal of this people of the air; the sordid philosopher who said that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush was as grossly mistaken as his kind are wont to be, for a bird in the bush is worth twenty times twenty in the hand. When was anything worth having ever capable of being held in the hand?

The nearest, yet the farthest, of our neighbors, one feels a wistful sense of kinship with them, and yet, the distances, the distances! Wordsworth’s

Stay near me — do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!

in his poem to a butterfly suggests something of the baffled longing for companionship that marks our intercourse with winged creatures. They only, of all living things, know to the full this migratory instinct that lies deep in human nature, the need of new horizons, the deep recurrent stirring at the heart in spring. They flit on the edges of our humaneness, akin, yet not near of kin, piquing our desire, quickening our sense of wonder. One watches them with dim understanding, and with unconfessed or unrealized envy.

Of all creatures they are the least bound in the chain of things, with their brief term of earthly ownership, watching their nests for a single season and then away, not clogged and hampered by property rights, whether of real estate, or of heavy flesh and bone. Are not their bones filled with air? Free of the universe are they, unencumbered for the long trail, just this side of being pure spirit. Theirs is the charm of that which comes but in moments, and which you may not keep; about a home, which stands for the settled and permanent, lies this haunting mystery of wings that come and go between us and the sky. They touch the soul within us, quicken the sense of quest, for each beat of these encompassing wings stirs something deep within. They make us aware of far spaces, of distance, freedom, mystery, infinity, — of a sky for the human spirit to circle in, even now, even now!