I HAVE stood with a deck under my feet and looked at many shores of many oceans. There was England, under a setting sun that threw low yellow beams over the green, close-cropped land’s end; there was Boulogne, a blot of black in the night, sprinkled with silver points of light. There were the hundred isles of the Inland Sea, and the coast of China, with its beach on beach running in a chain down to the last high-tipped walled town.
When I set my face toward all that panorama, I turned my back on the one I loved most. It was inland, and a not particularly beautiful inland. Summer swept that Western state in a scorching way, and left its low foothills gasping for rain. And yet, up and down the soft, brown hills my memories walk, chasing the elusive beauty of earth, and of that particular soil.
So it is that the least becomes greatest in a disconcerting manner. I am convinced that Boswell’s Life of Johnson is the most entertaining book ever written, and yet, when there is room in my pack for but one companion, I have slipped in Lavengro when Boswell was not looking. And as for home and favorite spot on earth: I stand on a peak of the Alps and think yearningly of ’Miller’s Holler.’
This ache for a certain soil seems a thing grown more poignant with the new centuries. Perhaps it is that, as we lose the earth, —as things of utility and invention encroach on the soft wildness of country land, — we find it more precious.
All cities cling to their parks, round which crouches the line of shops, with yellow gleaming electric eyes, trying to press in over the wide, cool province. On clear days, there little children totter along, turning their heads with wide following eyes, watching a leaf blow, — it seems half a mile, — to light in a bit of glassy pool. And people with things to say to each other go there to be near the trees, and to mount a little hill in the centre, to be a twentieth of a mile nearer the moon, it may be. And even when winter comes, drawing its skin of ice over the water and the hard earth, we dip in at the openings in the encircling fence, to walk a way on a halfthawed path and throw peanuts to a desolate squirrel.
There should surely be a philosophy dealing with this single department of human whimsy. It would discover to us what is t he particular revelation of the ‘little, familiar, remembered spot’; in what consists its attractiveness and elusiveness.
Our minds and books are continually beating against the mystery, in language that can never give it adequate expression: —
The fair, round Moon, uprisen late,
Made the long shadow on the grass
A ghostly bridge ’twixt heaven and me.
But May, with slumbrous nights, must pass;
And blustering winds will strip the tree.
And I’ve no magic to express
The moment of that loveliness. . . .
One would suppose that, with Life as
a common denominator to us both, we would have some more intimate ’feel’ for our background. Surely, with this kinship in our veins, it lies in us to understand the urge in the sap and the seeming futility of the recurring seasons. ‘Come into the garden, Maud,’is the password for all of us to content; and yet we and the garden remain singularly alien. It is as if our created culture and dignity had robbed us of some perceptive finer sense. So that what is left is this tumultuous recognition of something beautiful; something wanting to tell us things, if we could hear the voice.
We come nearer to this intuitive recognition, I think, with the ‘little, familiar, remembered spot,’and that is why it winds itself into our affections so delicately and permanently. Wide landscapes set us adrift in cold distance, somehow. We are nearer — in one flash of experience — when we put our noses almost through to the roots of wild flowers on a summer hill, or watch, in a still gray morning, mother Marmot and her seven stepping out of their hollow stump, passing in a fluffy file down to the river to bathe, coming back in a sleek file, ready for breakfast.
But even then, the intimacy passes in a moment. We intrude ourselves as Man, and they have disappeared; on our hill we thump the soil in chagrin: like the dead and God, it does not answer us.
Tiie least bee, as it goes humming after honey, is comprehended in the ample lap of nature — it, at all events, moves in its own background, unquestioningly. No one, in all the jungles and deserts, sea and wilderness, however cruel or uncomprehending the fight, is alone, with his back to the distances of ether, but Man. He wanders through the forest ‘sets’ — an actor who does not know his cue.
He is an actor, not only ill at ease but tormented. To right and left, luring him from before and mocking him from behind, are voices and laughter from ghostly, enclosed little gardens, where he played yesterday and the day before. At the cost of losing them, he has gained an understanding of them through Memory. For Memory, the ingredient, takes the scene and the actor, the bafflement, the intellectual interest, the imaginative passion, and fuses them to a complete and satisfying thing. The picture composes. But just as we realize it to be infinitely dear, we discover it irreparably lost.
This is the peculiar tragedy of the wanderer, and all are wanderers who cannot return on a moment of time. In each new garden we remember the last. From China we write: ‘Would that I could be with you to share the weather round our valley.’ In France we say: ‘Do you remember the enticing flavor of those Oriental meadow lands?' In England: ‘Why could n’t we have stayed in that Fontainebleau village at the white crossroads?’ In America: ‘Oh, to be in England!’
And even though we may not travel at all, night and day flow by us, depositing on the earth the sediment of change, and on us the grains of time and age. England and New England, China and France slip past our touch. ‘Miller’s Holler’ — brown and seamed with cattle-trails, with a brook that sang all night in my ear — grows more imperishable and unattainable as it recedes.
We wanderers grow to fear and love, in each new flowing moment, memories of the old. If we would greet these multiple gardens, we must make at once our bow and our parting salute:
‘Hail — lovely spot. Shadow of the one I have just left; foreshadow of the one I am soon to meet. Individual and enchanting bit of earth — Farewell.’