My Secret Sin

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

IF I were to venture to say, in casual conversation with my colleagues in business, what I here state in cold print, it might endanger such reputation as I may have gained in my particular commercial field. I may speak in print, however, because the business man accepts with flaccid acquiescence anything in type which does not conflict with his chronic hero-worship of the business man. I write what I dare not say.

And so I state defiantly, — for I have bottled it up too long, — so I proclaim that I love trees and flowers and growing grass; that there is a beauty in the November frost, hung upon the tracery of the fading goldenrod; that wild columbine, to me, has a distinctly feminine flavor, as of a rarely tinted virgin too fragile even for romance; that even a bourgeois sunflower on a city dump is worthy of a glance.

There — I have confessed! I have uttered ‘Beauty ‘ — that word forbidden to Business.

There is much more. It has piled up with the years, clamoring for an audience. Bear with me. I need a safety valve for the steam which has long been gaining head behind the boiler plate of Business, where men sweat, tonguetied, lest they be suspected of a tender susceptibility.

Once my mother took me into the yard and showed me blue starry flowers upon spikes of grass. I pick them still. From them I sometimes catch, even to-day, a reflection of the radiance and simplicity of childhood.

In June the tips of the whitewood trees are fringed with tulips — orange, green, and white, painted in a pattern apparently artificial, like that of an Oriental rug or a bit of bizarre upholstery. Whitewood trees are hard to climb. I climb them still, when no one is looking. I value my liberty, and the judge would not understand.

And what, indeed, would a judge, or my neighbor the coal man, or the steelfile man in the next office, say if he knew that there is such a thing as climbing a tree for the sheer joy of it? I state authoritatively, from twentyfive years’ practice, that poplar boughs snap easily, that hickory crotches catch the ankles, that wild-apple branches tear the very clothes from one’s back, and that birches will bend to the ground without breaking. There is an odd sense of power and of freedom which comes with the attainment of a tree top. I know of no surer way of cleansing one’s mind, for the moment, from the irksomeness of earning a living.

Possibly five botany authorities, three fellow eccentrics, and myself know where arbutus may be found in our neighborhood. I once brought some to my office. I shall not do so again. I bring arbutus into our household discreetly concealed in newspapers, so that the neighbors will think it is spinach or something.

Now that the lid is off, may I confess that it has even been a diversion of mine to accord to each kind of tree its own personality. Poplars are so greedy — oaks so conservative. The pepperidge, old maid of the forest, turns scarlet a week before the first frost — a chronic croaker, gnarled, tough-grained, just waiting for a hard freeze so she can say, ‘I told you so. Walnuts and butternuts are cowards, dropping their leaves at the first cold wind and leaving their seeds exposed to the first man with a club. (I am generally that man.) The soft maples cannot, stand prosperity, for they grow so lush that they break of their own weight. Conifers have a passion for symmetry, and elms for phrasing of design; whereas willows bulge shamelessly along the river banks, like overfed women in a warm climate. The witch-hazel, impractical optimist, blossoms in November, leader of the extreme Left of the floral parliament — while the poison elder blooms almost before the snow is gone, bears fruit in June, and, like most precocious children, is eclipsed and forgotten with the maturity of summer.

Some trees are so human in their inanities. The sycamore does not know spring has come until the very advent of summer. At last, reluctantly, it leaves. The season passes. Frosts arrive. Sensible trees have shed their foliage weeks before, but the sycamore, ignorant as ever, goes blundering on, putting out new leaves in the very teeth of the early snows, until a hard frost crisps and withers its later efforts. It actually seems as if this tree forgets from year to year, and has to learn all over again, by experience. I like the sycamore for that.

There is a tree called the Hercules Club which goes through the summer like a man at a banquet, in a full dress suit. Quite pretentious is this fellow in July, with great triply-compound leaves three feet long, drooping in calculated elegance. But Jack Frost strikes the hour, the party is over, and our fancy friend is left stark naked, a thick ugly stick with nothing on but a score of knobs and a few thorns.

There are patterns which recurrent seasons have so impressed upon the fabric of my mind that they may be visualized at will — patterns which sometimes I call upon to save a wavering sense of proportion, a sense which Business has painfully contorted. Yellow violets and wild phlox weave a carpet for Titania. Russet beech and scarlet maple leaves, floating on a clear October brook, spread a page for the ‘Ode to the West Wind.’

I grow bold with the years. I have planted ironweed and goldenrod in my front yard. I do not raise geraniums, salvias, or cannas. The goldenrod and ironweed, with a few raspberries, asters, and a bit of boneset which were native there, in fall growth protect hepaticas, spring beauties, white violets, adder’stongues, mandrakes, pepper-and-salt, lily-leaved liparis, wild geraniums, trilliums, bluebells — my neighbors ask me why I do not clean up my weed bed.

Yearly, during the last week in May, I make a pilgrimage to a certain clay hillside where five or six yellow ladyslippers grow. Native orchids, as you know. (Or did n’t you?) It would be sacrilege to pick them.

Suppose One in Business were to accost me on the following morning: —

‘Where’d ja go yesterday?’

‘Oh — out in the country.’

‘Golf?’

‘No —just looking up some flowers.’

' Flowers! ‘

‘Yes — I didn’t pick any. Too precious. Just looked them over and went away again. Drove seventeen miles, walked three, and climbed a hundred-foot shale bank for a single glance.’

Don’t worry. I never speak the truth. One must live. But — why this self-conscious, shamefaced embarrassment at a word suggestive of beauty? To do business respectably must a man display the æsthetic qualities of a hog and the conversational frankness of Rodin’s Thinker?