THE river trails I follow in northern New Brunswick for ten happy days each summer are a complex of granite, moss, and the interlacing roots of spruce and fir, the path seldom wider than eighteen inches, where anglers and guides have been measuring their tread for nearly seven decades. Walking here is no straightforward business; the Northwest Miramichi has carved its winding way through a rocky gorge, and to keep pace with it the trail is alternately climbing or leaping down. There are only a few level stretches on the lip of the stream, and these are usually half under water; then a series of toe holds, rock and root, present themselves, and the mounting path takes one into the shade of the forest. One steps intently, eyes down, hearing the wash of the river, the four clear, plaintive notes of the whitethroat — why has no composer ever used them as a theme? — or the distant hammering of a woodpecker, and listening with expectation for the turbulence of white water which signals our approach to the salmon pool ahead.
The trail is most readable the second morning after rain, when the pockets between the roots will have dried and the moist earth will tell who has passed this way since sunset. One expects the print of deer and is always surprised by the larger evidence of moose: “Looks like somebody spilled a bag of prunes,” remarks Henry, the more notional of our guides. A lacerated dead birch shows where the bear has been grubbing for ants, and once this summer I had the luck to intercept a doe between the path and the river’s edge. Up she came, in steeplechase jumps, her white tail flying, so beautifully unerring as she placed her springs between the boulders and the deadfall.
The mornings are the best, the trail then so fragrant and the green so moist. Head down, one takes in the little things. On either side of the path with its cover of spruce needles are masses of bunchberry, its square white blossom set off glossily by the six-pointed leaf. One looks for the while lady’s-slipper, the clusters of lavender catnip, or the tiny pink colonies of twinflower; shinleaf, the forest lily of the valley, and in rare openings, lady’s-tresses and the purple-fringed wild orchid. The trail to Stony Brook dips through some rich river soil where for twenty yards the growth is outlandish: masses of Queen Anne’s lace standing shoulder high (“stinkin’ elders,” Henry calls them), and topping them the fronds of the fiddlehead fern, from which we get a salad as delectable as cold asparagus. The logs which carry us across this mucky ground are guarded by a regiment of blue flags.
My feet are grateful for the moss which cushions the ledges. If it weren’t for the thought of fish, I should study the mosses more closely, the plushy emerald green, the darker blue on the fallen logs, the needle moss like some tiny conifer. This green inlay is most vividly to be seen on the clearstone, the glistening white granite; here is a footstool for an Indian prince — or a Boston editor, if I could find a way of keeping the moss on it alive and the stone forever moist in my library!
Howard, the camp philosopher, who has been working on the river for half a century, tells me that the forest floor is now much clearer than it used to be; the slash and dense underbrush are gone, and through the corridor of the trees one can sometimes see a spruce partridge. I try to tell him what the woods give me: the feeling of privacy which has become so rare in our urban life; the absence of litter — not an empty beer can along the entire way — and the reassurance I find in the unchanging beauty of the forest and the river.
It is two miles and a half from Camp Adams to Sam’s Pool, and four pools to fish on the way. Walking that trail in waders in the early day, one feels like Mercury; the ten-foot rod is simply a longer finger; the musette swung from the shoulder, with its fly boxes and rain jacket, is no heavier than the bug dope on one’s skin. Anticipation urges us, and if the heel skids on a slippery root it takes only an extra jump to restore one’s balance. But it’s a different story five hours later when with wet and heavy feet we turn back to camp. The arches have fallen, the toes cry out, the roots and the stubbing granite become personally belligerent; now a step wrenches the whole frame, and a mutter of protest (“Don’t do that, you ape. Watch where you are going. Damn it, not that way”) breaks out. At such times I remember an angler who was hit by polio in mid-life and crippled from the waist down. But with that strength of arm and spirit which comes as compensation to such sufferers, he would literally haul his way along the trail, toiling hall the morning for the joy of returning. I think how he must have studied every root, even the tiniest of the moss flowers; temper subsides and I go in humbleness.
READING IN CAMP
I took with me to camp three books which I looked forward to reading in the quiet of the afternoon. The first was a volume I had heard about in London, THE HUNT FOR KIMATHI (Doubleday, $4.00), a true story in the best of the Blackwood tradition, in which IAN HENDERSON, assisted by his friend, PHILIP GOODHART, accounts for the Man Mau uprising in Kenya and describes the tracking down of their leader, Dedan Kimathi, whose capture brought the revolution to an end. It was an intrepid undertaking, and for his leading part in it Jock Henderson was twice cited for the George Medal. At the height of the terror there were 60,000 Kikuyu tribesmen in detention camps, and the terrorists, led with the fanaticism of a Hitler, infested six thousand square miles of bamboo forests and uplands. It was at this point that Henderson, who speaks Kikuyu fluently and who can think like a native, made the first of his unarmed rendezvous with the terrorists. With letters hidden in bottles or cleft sticks, with sky shouts which he had taped for an airplane, with patient courage which disarmed fear, he converted the tribesmen who were wavering; he built up his hand-picked gangs of pseudo terrorists and finally led them to the ambush of their master.
The book which I read so slowly that I came to live with it was J.B., A PLAY IN VERSE, by ARCHIBALD MACLEISH (Houghton Mifflin, $3.50). It was an inspiration to select the Biblical figure of Job as a prism in which to reflect the suffering and the injustice of our time. This is the most ambitious work Mr. MacLeish has undertaken, and coming to it after ten years of public service in which his poetic fires had been banked and in which he had been tossed and scarred as most public servants are, he brought to the writing an experience, a sense of injustice, and a power of indignation which he could hardly have vented in a more tranquil era.
I did not try to project this as a play; I read it as literature for the beauty which is in the lines and the jolt which makes one exclaim, “How true!” In his blank verse the poet is in command of three wave lengths: the formal, the Biblical, and the idiomatic, and he shifts from one to another with strong and surprising effect. In lines like “Sun on the floor, airs in the curtain" or “Blow on the coal of the heart” or “Mayflies that leave their husks behind,” he sounds the pure lyric; in
Strangling, drowning, suffocating,
Diving for a sidewalk somewhere . . .
Strangling, drowning, suffocating,
Diving for a sidewalk somewhere . . .
he hits with the closed fist. Propped on one elbow. I copied out two and a half pages of lines I wanted to feel again.
This is a disturbing book in the questions which it asks and leaves the reader to answer. The satire in it is scathing, as in the image of the society girl, the close-up of the photographer, or the denunciation of the false comforters of our era. But there is pity here, as when the blundering veterans speak of David or the messenger tries to describe the accident in the underpass. Young J.B. has a little too much of a Mr. Pilgrim in him to enlist my sympathy; his fall from high estate is like the plop of a soft apple. Yet there are passages, as on pages 111 and 123, when his manliness speaks clear. I am moved by the scorn and the outrage, and when the play is produced by Elia Kazan in the autumn I am sure Mr. MacLeish’s character Nickles will bring the house down.
DEATH OF A NATION by CLIFFORD DOWDEY (Knopf, $5.00) is a book for night thoughts before drifting to sleep; here is the tide by tide recording of the three-day battle at Gettysburg which was the high-water mark and the inevitable doom of the Confederacy. The author gives us a clear understanding of the odds against Lee at the outset; the obstructions raised by President Davis, which included the withholding of two of Pickett’s best brigades; the loss of Stonewall Jackson; Lee’s failing physical powers, the result of hypertension. Then, as the two great armies near each other, the historian seeks to find an answer for those three defections, each so decisive: Why was Jeb Stuart lost in a maze of his own devising? Why on July 1 was General Ewell unwilling and unable to seize the unoccupied heights? And why did Longstreet hold back through the critical hours? Mr. Dowdey shows that Lee was in part responsible. His orders came in the form of suggestions, and in this army of individualists they were only half obeyed. This is a thoughtful and authoritative work.