War Notes From the Big Draft

“I know that this is not a war merely of newspaper headlines and shouting cities: it is the war of the whole of America. The touchstone of home has told me so.”

I. The Touchstone of Home.

Every spring sees me come home to a little place among the mountains known as The Big Draft—a draft with us meaning a narrow valley or hollow. After a winter spent in various cities, the path of my existence gives over its wandering ways and paved streets, and turns unerringly back to the country and to home; to the intoxicating life and abundant peace of mountains, and to that little place out of all the world where I really belong. I return with my mind, like a distracted pedlar’s pack, stored with all sorts of new impressions, new sights, and new idea; and at the touchstone of home, of familiar surroundings, and of the large—and I sometimes suspect humorous—composure of mountains, the confusion of hastily gather impressions clears itself, like the tangled threads in the fairy tale; the ephemeral and extravagant ideas of the winter’s harvest vanish away, while the permanent things are transmuted into the foundations of life.

Different springs have seen me return possessed of different interests and enthusiasms, or in the grasp of some dominant event. Two years ago the rails beneath my train throbbed all the way home to the beat of a great catastrophe. Four horrified words met us just outside of Washington. The courteous old colored porter had established us comfortably, had taken off his cap and said, ‘Well I hopes you all has a pleasant trip,’ and we had started serenely enough; and then, at almost the first stop, those four words leaped from mouth to mouth through the train: ‘They’ve sunk the Lusitania!’ At station after station the horror grew. It seemed to brood over the whole country, over all the home-coming, over each well-known landmark. Every impulse of delight evoked by spring blossoms and smiling landscape was blighted by the stunned thought, But they’ve sunk the Lusitania! In the place of sunlit moutains, and the beneficent spring stretches of the Valley of Virginia, there swam instead before the eyes a cold gray ocean, with the bodies of drowned children tossed up and down, up and down, on its uncaring bosom. And more vivid than the cold gray ocean was the thought of the cold gray horror that had somehow broken into the world and found it possible to dress itself up in a nation.

This year I came home to war. I left Washington ablaze with flags. Every house flew its stars and stripes, and in anticipation of the coming of the French and English commissions, there was a frantic search for tricolors and Union Jacks. As my train pulled out of the city, the sharp war-finger of a searchlight pointed straight through the dark at it all across the Potomac Bridge. This was to be expected near Washington, but to wake the next morning to the April-gray of mountains with rifts of white shadbushes dotting them here and there, and to find soldiers guarding our own home tunnel, was a distinct surprise. Somehow I had visualized the situation only in the cities—in New York, Boston, or Washington. But our tunnel with a guard! Why, that was real war! It was a step into action, a long stride beyond waving flags and shouting crowds. Suddenly it seemed as though all the i's in ‘hostilities’ had been sharply dotted.

And afterwards, when I was settled at home in the Big Draft, war-talk met me at every turn. At the foot of what we call Dug Hill I met Old Reliable—an old man driving an old mule. He drew up, and we fell into talk—war-talk and food-talk.

‘They’re guarding the Big Spring up at ——,’ he told me. ‘They was afeared some one would pizen it.’

I was astounded. When I turned my back on the cities, I had certainly expected to turn it on spy stories and poisoned waters.

‘But why should any one want to poison that spring?’ I cried.

‘To deestroy the country,’ he told me. ‘That’s what they done in the last war. I hope things don’t git as bad as they was then. You wouldn’t remember, but I do. Only er peck er corn to er man and er beast. But I tell you,’ he added, suddenly confidential, ‘ef yer want to buy things cheap go to ——‘s store. He’s er new man—lives jest below, where they hed the fight [a battle-ground of the Civil War]. Oh, of course,’ he added, turning to expectorate deprecatingly on the off side of the wagon, ‘he ain’t nothing but a very common man, but he sells cheap.’

If this be so, then blessings on the common man, think I!

Then, the war momentarily forgotten, Old Reliable looks at me appraisingly, and I hastily gather all the spiritual forces I possess to fortify myself for what I guess to be coming.

‘You look well,’ he asserts. ‘I don’t know when I ever seen you so fleshy.’

‘But I don’t want to be fleshy,’ I protest feebly.

‘I know,’ he says regretfully, ‘but you air.’

A little farther on I encounter another neighbor. She is all indignation over old man Saunders in the other Draft, who is said to be hoarding his wheat.

‘Yes, sir! He’s got er thousand dollars’ worth er wheat held up—won’t sell to nobody.’

She is irate also over a shiftless family in our own Draft, who raise nothing on their own.

‘They ain’t got er thing,’ she affirms. ‘Not er bean, not er potato—not one thing! Why, the President ought ter git after sech folks!’

I am sure I hope he will! I have a warm comfortable feeling within over the fact that our crib is full of corn. Corn in the crib is better—more wholesome, more patriotic, more playing one’s part in the great game—than money in the bank these days.

‘Things have got so bad that poor people can’t hardly live any more,’ she adds; and there is a note of real terror in her voice.

Another thing is happening in the Draft: we lost three plump and woolly lambs last week, all killed by dogs in one night. Every one has lost sheep by dogs this spring. The reason for this, they say, is the high price of food. People can hardly feed themselves, and therefore, dogs—half-starved—have taken to sheep-killing, who never before were guilty of such an atrocity. One despairs of making the city dweller realize the wrath and horror that the countryman feels toward a sheep-killing dog. Man-eating tigers hardly fill us with the same loathing. Sheep-tending is the noblest calling open to a dog. A wise sheep dog is as much above the average canine as a poet is above the average man, and as such he is loved and respected. But let a dog forego this high possibility and take to destroying instead of preserving sheep, and he descends into the dark horror of a Jack the Ripper. We look to Mr. Hoover for many things—let us hope that the saving of the character of our dogs may be one of them.

Working among the lupins in my garden this afternoon, I was interrupted by the farmer who lives on the mountain just back of us. His eyes were snapping and dancing with excitement.

‘They’ve got the first submarine,’ he announced triumphantly. ‘One of our merchant vessels sunk her—they told me at the post-office.’

I have seen his eyes snap over the excitement of a good peach crop, or over chickens (he says when he worked in a lumber camp he used to dream about having a chicken farm), but who ever expected them to snap over such a piece of news? And three short years ago, did I ever dream that, standing her in my little inland garden, submarines, those monsters of the deep ‘half guessed, and gone again,’ would present themselves as a vivid reality?

This man’s brother—a young fellow of the fighting age—says, ‘Yes, we ought to help France. It’s a debt we owe. She helped us when we were up against it, and we ought to pay her back now.’

I am glad that out of all the various aspects of the situation this is the one that appeals to his sense of right and fires his imagination. Somehow I had thought that sentiment toward France belonged to our cities and to our more traveled folk. This young fellow ploughs and hauls and chops all day long; nevertheless, for the paying of this national debt of honor he is ready—cheerfully ready—to risk his life. And if you would know the value of that life, you should see him in the spring dusk going up and down the hills and over the green grass on his way to call on one of our beauties. I tell you he ‘goes the way a god might go,’ and the mere sight of his freedom and grace affords one a little inward leap of ecstasy over the joy of youth and love and life. What more may a man do than lay down his life for his friend, or for the friend of his country?

Everywhere one hears that America is not awake. The newspapers constantly affirm it; my city friends spoke of it gloomily, and to-day in the village shop the clerk behind the counter shook his head as he measured out yards of flowered cretonne.

‘The trouble is,’ he said, ‘the country isn’t awake yet—we don’t realize.’

Well, when every one is so awake to the fact that we are not awake, I wonder if we are not really much more aroused than either we ourselves, our friends, or our enemies realize? A distinguished foreign critic was lately quoted in the papers as saying that America was either extraordinarily indifferent to the situation, or else was rising to it with a calm strength astonishingly beyond the hopes of even her best friends. May not those of us who love her dare to hope that the latter is the true conjecture? I do not know how the mass of the people feel I wonder if any one really knows? What we know—reduced to its least common denominator—is the opinion of individuals, our own, for instance, or those of other individuals, either expressed by word of mouth, or habited in the solemn black and white of print; and from these, according to the slant of our own temperaments, we build up our conception of the opinions of the mass.

What is America as a whole thinking and feeling at this time? Again, I do not know. I know only that a few weeks ago, when I attempted in my Sunday-school class, made up of young girls and older women, to hitch a rather dull lesson in Old Testament history up to the present miraculous times, I was astonished by the vivid, intense interest that fell upon the whole class. It reminded me of the stillness of a surprised wild animal when, though the creature is absolutely motionless, nevertheless one is aware that its whole body is keyed to an almost agonized consciousness of one’s presence. The class made no comments (we are not as a rule very articulate in the Big Draft), but I knew I had gone down below the outward dead surface of things, and touched a spot that was quick with life; and they listened as they had never listened before to the return of Nehemiah, and the building of the walls of Jerusalem. Also I know—and I am proud, not ashamed to tell it—that when the Liberty Loan was offered, it was the cook in our household who first announced the intention of subscribing.

‘Yes,’ she said, sweeping very hard, and looking for some reason surprisingly happy, ‘yes, seems like I can do that much anyhow.’

Nor shall I soon forget the entirely unlooked-for happiness of the day when we all invested in our bonds. Again we said very little, but it was a day when individual reserves were broken down, when every one looked pleased and friendly, and when the commonplace things of life, such as, what we should have for dinner, and when the garden ought to be weeded, — things which depend so much for their accomplishment upon the cheerful working together of all the members of a household, — went off easily and pleasantly. The heaviest and stupidest chariot wheels of life drove smoothly that day, all because of the oil of gladness and good fellowship engendered by the Liberty Loan.

And again, another thing I know. A neighbor of mine in the Big Draft remarked to me the other day in quite a matter-of-course manner, ‘America is the most wasteful country in the world.’ Now, foreign critics have often told us this, and our own economists have tried to make us aware of it, but we in the Big Draft never knew it before. We never before lifted our eyes long enough from the home treadmill of things, or looked far enough beyond our mountains, to compare ourselves with other nations. It was not so many years ago, indeed, that a schoolteacher in the country next to ours wrote to an Englishman who had dropped down in our midst, for information in regard to his country.

‘Is England,’ she inquired, ‘a Christian and civilized country?’

She also wished to know if, when crossing the ocean, you had to take your own ‘vittles, or does the master of the ship furnish the eaten’s? And when in England, if you want to stay at the house of one of the Lords do you have to pay, or do they take up with strangers?’

Therefore I am almost inclined to let that astonishingly wise remark as to the wastefulness of America stand as the summing-up of all that the touchstone of home brought to me this spring. Shall I? Or shall it be instead the reply of our own cook, — she of the Liberty Loan, — who, when questioned as to why she had not made a certain cake for a party, replied that she was afraid Mr. Hoover would not like it if she made too many.

Either remark is surprising enough, and sufficient evidence to us who have known this little corner of the world for so many years, of the coming into our midst of something new. The Big Draft is beginning to look beyond its mountains, is stretching out its hands to the East and to the West, to the four corners of the country, and even indeed across the ocean. A man of the Draft remarked a little while ago that he wished to see a peace made by the Allies in Berlin. I am very sure that three years ago if you had asked this man where Berlin was, he would not have been able to tell you. It is true that the younger ones among us had begun before the war to awake a little to outside things, but the sudden overturning of the world in 1914, and the situation as it is further brought home to us in 1917, has violently speeded up the slow drift that was breaking down our isolation, and bearing us out upon the tide of a larger life. And now I know that this is not a war merely of newspaper headlines and shouting cities: it is the war of the whole of America. The touchstone of home has told me so. Uncle Sam, that great sleepy, sometimes grotesque, often inert, giant, is waking up at last, is yawning and stretching out his mighty arms—and at the end of those arms are clinched fists.

Yesterday’s papers were filled with accounts of the landing of our first regulars in France. Have the gentlemen in Potsdam miscalculated once more? As Kipling puts into the mouth of the American spirit—

They know not much what I am like,
Nor what he is, my Avatar!

And more—much more—than this is true. If we here in the Big Draft, who have always lived and died so quietly by ourselves, are stretching out now to this larger life of our country, and through our country to the life of humanity in general, then surely little isolated places in all the world are doing the same. We have come at last to know that throughout the length and breadth of the globe all the nations are fearfully and wonderfully linked together; there are no longer any hermit nations among us. This year 1917 is the great nuptial year of the world. Hereafter, for better or for worse, the nations go forth together—and what god has joined together no man, not even a Kaiser, can put asunder. And out of this union a child shall be born unto us. No one country shall bring it forth, but all the countries shall mother it—even such among us as are old and well stricken in years. For at last the times are ripe for the coming of the child, and his name shall be called the Brotherhood of Mankind.

II. The Kindly Fruits of the Earth.

Never was there such talk of food, of gardens, and of prices! To-day I found the cook glowering at a very small pile of beans.

‘Look at them beans,’ she exhorted me. ‘Just look at ‘em! That’s forty cents’ worth! Beans!

She added the last word with that astonished resentment that one applies to the sudden social rise of a family one has known always.

And, indeed, nowadays many of our humblest vegetables have leaped to an arrogant prominence, forcing us to make a study of their habits and customs, and humor them with a deep respect. Here in the Draft we exchange bits of information in regard to them. ‘Parsnips,’ I am told, ‘goes down before they comes up—leastways, that’s what the old folks always used to say.’ And the garden pests—how passionately we discuss the cutworm! One neighbor affirms that if you take a cutworm and throw it ‘behind-side foremost’ over the garden fence all the other cutworms will leave. In theory this sounds simple, but alas! in practice it is so difficult to determine which is the behind-side of a cutworm.

Another neighbor offers a still more complicated method. ‘Take nine cutworms,’ she says, ‘an’ tie ‘em together in er string, an’ hang ‘em over er forked stick so’s they’ll blow round and round in the wind, an’ then you kin jest see the path the others’ll make gittin’ out er the garden.’ (I am tempted here to wonder if you took nine Prussian generals and tied ‘em together in a string an’ hung ’em over over er forked stick so’s they’d blow round and round in the wind, if then you mightn’t be able to see the path the rest of the Germans would make getting out of Belgium.)

But to come home again—one can never be sure how the things are going to strike us here in the Big Draft. This same neighbor had never heard of Brussels sprouts. On its being explained to her that they grew little cabbages all up and down their stems, she exclaimed with wondering pity, ‘Why, the poor little things!’

To-day my cabbages are up! Ranks and ranks of them! Such a merry little green company, but terrible, I hope, as an army with banners. O proud Prussians! Are you to be beaten by cabbages? Hoist by your own sauer-kraut? And O prophetic Walrus! The time has indeed come when one talks of cabbages and kings in the same breath! And also, how vitally important have shoes and ships become, and why indeed is the sea so boiling hot? To call a person mon petit chou has heretofore always seemed to me a strange term of endearment, but now my friends are coming to regard it as my warmest expression of affection.

The churchyard around our little gray chapel has been put down to potatoes. This summer, when we pray that ‘the kindly fruits of the earth may be preserved to our use,’ I shall think of all the little green war-gardens over the whole country; and I do not doubt that out there in the democratic hilarity of out-of-doors, the potatoes down in the ground will wink their blind eyes at one another and whisper, ‘Hey! Listen to the human’s prayin’ for us!’ I am not sure that potatoes order themselves with sufficient lowliness and reverence toward all their betters to be admitted into churchyards.

The thought of the real famine abroad is hideous, monstrous, and unspeakable; but for most of us here at home, the food-situation so far is only such as to take on a strain of romance. Of late our tables have been spread all too easily, and we have known none of the quickening zest of providing or procuring our own food. But now any little unexpected windfalls form the woods and fields come with a delightful surprise. I always feel, too, as if Mother Nature bestowed them with a wink; as if she said, ‘Here, take this, but don’t let on to the Germans I gave it to you.’

Such, for instance, was the discovery of a swarm of wild bees in our own grove. With sugar soaring to such heights, and Mr. Hoover requesting economy in that direction, it seemed real treasure-trove to find the hollow arm of an old oak dripping with nature’s sweets. Most of the Draft turned out to witness the hiving of the swarm. A neighbor who heretofore had figured merely as a plumber revealed suddenly an ardor for bees. Water-pipes, it appeared, was his profession, but bees his passion. We on the ground, canopied by the lovely green of budding trees, watched him ascend to giddy heights, bearing a smouldering torch and an empty keg, his head bound about with white cheese-cloth, his trouser legs tied discreetly down with borrowed handkerchiefs, while lumps of swarming bees fell all about him. As we were watching thus, before our admiring eyes his everyday plumber-self slipped gloriously aside and the real man shone forth. And what if the swarm so scientifically hived did ‘take a notion’ and all fly gayly away into the green woods the next day? At least we had had a glimpse of the plumber’s real self, and were, moreover, several pounds of honey to the good.

And greens—I always think Mother Nature winks these days when the cook’s little grandson brings us a mess o’ greens. Such an oldfashioned, unpretentious little friends as poke, lamb’s quarter, shepherd sprouts, dandelions, and wild buckwheat, are coming to their own again—that is, if their own is to be ‘green herbs for the use of man.’ Even the Department of Agriculture is sending out solemn bulletins on the subject, though I would willingly wager that a year or so ago any old woman in the Draft could have given the most learned agriculturist of them all points on the matter of ‘po’k an’ greens.’

We discuss the ethics of scraps passionately. Some of our men-folk would have us believe that scraps which are transmuted into pigs or chickens are not wasted, but we women refuse to be led astray by such dangerous doctrines. If the last half-million bushels of wheat are to win the war, — as we are told, — shall we cast such pearls before swine?

There is something very wonderful about this concerted attack upon waste, about these little war-gardens. We may have first instituted them for our own salvation, faced by exorbitant food prices; but now they are running out beyond the borders of self and of home into the four corners of the world, and into the wide country of humanity. The homely old gingham apron, flag of the housekeeper, is beginning, one may well believe, to stand for something beautiful and new. There are some among us who are beginning to dream mad and glorious dreams of world-housekeeping, world-gardening—an international pooling of all the food-supplies, not only for the duration of the war, but for peace times as well. As our Stars and Stripes stand to us as the symbol of freedom, may not the bars and checks of our gingham aprons come to symbolize for us this international housekeeping, toward which the times seem to be urging us? If a League to Enforce Peace, why not one also to Provide Plenty? In so bountiful a world, whose kindly fruits are so cheerfully ready to serve mankind, why indeed should any little human being ever go hungry or naked?

About every experience, whether material or spiritual, there is always an other-whereness, the fact that none of the things stop short in themselves, that all are gateways into a Something Larger, an ever-unfolding More. Truly, when one passes now through the homely portals of the gingham apron, and the kindly fruits of the earth, one is dazzled by the astounding country into which they open. So moved, indeed, am I by the vision, that, as the sun dips behind the mountains, and the soft romance of dusk enfolds the Big Draft, I am fain to steal across the dew-wet grass to my little cabbages, and calling upon them for this great crusade, consecrate them with an evening grace, —

‘Bless, O Lord, this food to our use, and to the use of our Allies, and us to thy service in the great possibilities now unfolding before mankind!’