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Buds and Bird Voices


Balmy Spring--weeks later than we expected and months later than we
longed for her--comes at last to revive the moss on the roof and
walls of our old mansion. She peeps brightly into my study-window,
inviting me to throw it open and create a summer atmosphere by the
intermixture of her genial breath with the black and cheerless
comfort of the stove. As the casement ascends, forth into infinite
space fly the innumerable forms of thought or fancy that have kept me
company in the retirement of this little chamber during the sluggish
lapse of wintry weather; visions, gay, grotesque, and sad; pictures
of real life, tinted with nature's homely gray and russet; scenes in
dreamland, bedizened with rainbow hues which faded before they were
well laid on,--all these may vanish now, and leave me to mould a
fresh existence out of sunshine, Brooding Meditation may flap her
dusky wings and take her owl-like Right, blinking amid the
cheerfulness of noontide. Such companions befit the season of
frosted window-panes and crackling fires, when the blast howls
through the black-ash trees of our avenue and the drifting snow-
storm chokes up the wood-paths and fills the highway from stone wall
to stone wall. In the spring and summer time all sombre thoughts
should follow the winter northward with the sombre and thoughtful
crows. The old paradisiacal economy of life is again in force; we
live, not to think or to labor, but for the simple end of being
happy. Nothing for the present hour is worthy of man's infinite
capacity save to imbibe the warm smile of heaven and sympathize with
the reviving earth.

The present Spring comes onward with fleeter footsteps, because
Winter lingered so unconscionably long that with her best diligence
she can hardly retrieve half the allotted period of her reign. It
is but a fortnight since I stood on the brink of our swollen river
and beheld the accumulated ice of four frozen months go down the
stream. Except in streaks here and there upon the hillsides, the
whole visible universe was then covered with deep snow, the
nethermost layer of which had been deposited by an early December
storm. It was a sight to make the beholder torpid, in the
impossibility of imagining how this vast white napkin was to be
removed from the face of the corpse-like world in less time than had
been required to spread it there. But who can estimate the power of
gentle influences, whether amid material desolation or the moral
winter of man's heart? There have been no tempestuous rains, even
no sultry days, but a constant breath of southern winds, with now a
day of kindly sunshine, and now a no less kindly mist or a soft
descent of showers, in which a smile and a blessing seemed to have
been steeped. The snow has vanished as if by magic; whatever heaps
may be hidden in the woods and deep gorges of the hills, only two
solitary specks remain in the landscape; and those I shall almost
regret to miss when to-morrow I look for them in vain. Never
before, methinks, has spring pressed so closely on the footsteps of
retreating winter. Along the roadside the green blades of grass
have sprouted on the very edge of the snow-drifts. The pastures and
mowing-fields have not vet assumed a general aspect of verdure; but
neither have they the cheerless-brown tint which they wear in latter
autumn when vegetation has entirely ceased; there is now a faint
shadow of life, gradually brightening into the warm reality. Some
tracts in a happy exposure,--as, for instance, yonder southwestern
slope of an orchard, in front of that old red farm-house beyond the
river,--such patches of land already wear a beautiful and tender
green, to which no future luxuriance can add a charm. It looks
unreal; a prophecy, a hope, a transitory effect of sonic peculiar
light, which will vanish with the slightest motion of the eye. But
beauty is never a delusion; not these verdant tracts, but the dark
and barren landscape all around them, is a shadow and a dream. Each
moment wins seine portion of the earth from death to life; a sudden
gleam of verdure brightens along the sunny slope of a bank which an
instant ago was brown and bare. You look again, and behold an
apparition of green grass!

The trees in our orchard and elsewhere are as yet naked, but already
appear full of life and vegetable blood. It seems as if by one
magic touch they might instantaneously burst into full foliage, and
that the wind which now sighs through their naked branches might
make sudden music amid innumerable leaves. The mossgrown willow-
tree which for forty years past has overshadowed these western
windows will be among the first to put on its green attire. There
are some objections to the willow; it is not a dry and cleanly tree,
and impresses the beholder with an association of sliminess. No
trees, I think, are perfectly agreeable as companions unless they
have glossy leaves, dry bark, and a firm and hard texture of trunk
and branches. But the willow is almost the earliest to gladden us
with the promise and reality of beauty in its graceful and delicate
foliage, and the last to scatter its yellow yet scarcely withered
leaves upon the ground. All through the winter, too, its yellow
twigs give it a sunny aspect, which is not without a cheering
influence even in the grayest and gloomiest day. Beneath a clouded
sky it faithfully remembers the sunshine. Our old house would lose
a charm were the willow to be cut down, with its golden crown over
the snow-covered roof and its heap of summer verdure.

The lilac-shrubs under my study-windows are likewise almost in leaf:
in two or three days more I may put forth my hand and pluck the
topmost bough in its freshest green. These lilacs are very aged,
and have lost the luxuriant foliage of their prime. The heart, or
the judgment, or the moral sense, or the taste is dissatisfied with
their present aspect. Old age is not venerable when it embodies
itself in lilacs, rose-bushes, or any other ornamental shrub; it
seems as if such plants, as they grow only for beauty, ought to
flourish always in immortal youth, or, at least, to die before their
sad decrepitude. Trees of beauty are trees of paradise, and
therefore not subject to decay by their original nature, though they
have lost that precious birthright by being transplanted to an
earthly soil. There is a kind of ludicrous unfitness in the idea of
a time-stricken and grandfatherly lilac-bush. The analogy holds
good in human life. Persons who can only be graceful and ornamental
--who can give the world nothing but flowers--should die young, and
never be seen with gray hair and wrinkles, any more than the flower-
shrubs with mossy bark and blighted foliage, like the lilacs under
my window. Not that beauty is worthy of less than immortality; no,
the beautiful should live forever,--and thence, perhaps, the sense
of impropriety when we see it triumphed over by time. Apple-trees,
on the other hand, grow old without reproach. Let them live as long
as they may, and contort themselves into whatever perversity of
shape they please, and deck their withered limbs with a springtime
gaudiness of pink blossoms; still they are respectable, even if they
afford us only an apple or two in a season. Those few apples--or,
at all events, the remembrance of apples in bygone years--are the
atonement which utilitarianism inexorably demands for the privilege
of lengthened life. Human flower-shrubs, if they will grow old on
earth, should, besides their lovely blossoms, bear some kind of
fruit that will satisfy earthly appetites, else neither man nor the
decorum of nature will deem it fit that the moss should gather on
them.

One of the first things that strikes the attention when the white
sheet of winter is withdrawn is the neglect and disarray that lay
hidden beneath it. Nature is not cleanly according to our
prejudices. The beauty of preceding years, now transformed to brown
and blighted deformity, obstructs the brightening loveliness of the
present hour. Our avenue is strewn with the whole crop of autumn's
withered leaves. There are quantities of decayed branches which one
tempest after another has flung down, black and rotten, and one or
two with the ruin of a bird's-nest clinging to them. In the garden
are the dried bean-vines, the brown stalks of the asparagus-bed, and
melancholy old cabbages which were frozen into the soil before their
unthrifty cultivator could find time to gather them. How
invariably, throughout all the forms of life, do we find these
intermingled memorials of death! On the soil of thought and in the
garden of the heart, as well as in the sensual world, he withered
leaves,--the ideas and feelings that we have done with. There is no
wind strong enough to sweep them away; infinite space will not
garner then from our sight. What mean they? Why may we not be
permitted to live and enjoy, as if this were the first life and our
own the primal enjoyment, instead of treading always on these dry
hones and mouldering relics, from the aged accumulation of which
springs all that now appears so young and new? Sweet must have been
the springtime of Eden, when no earlier year had strewn its decay
upon the virgin turf and no former experience had ripened into
summer and faded into autumn in the hearts of its inhabitants! That
was a world worth living in. O then murmurer, it is out of the very
wantonness of such a life that then feignest these idle
lamentations. There is no decay. Each human soul is the first-
created inhabitant of its own Eden. We dwell in an old moss-covered
mansion, and tread in the worn footprints of the past, and have a
gray clergyman's ghost for our daily and nightly inmate; yet all
these outward circumstances are made less than visionary by the
renewing power of the spirit. Should the spirit ever lose this
power,--should the withered leaves, and the rotten branches, and the
moss-covered house, and the ghost of the gray past ever become its
realities, and the verdure and the freshness merely its faint
dream,--then let it pray to be released from earth. It will need
the air of heaven to revive its pristine energies.

What an unlooked-for flight was this from our shadowy avenue of
black-ash and balm of Gilead trees into the infinite! Now we have
our feet again upon the turf. Nowhere does the grass spring up so
industriously as in this homely yard, along the base of the stone
wall, and in the sheltered nooks of the buildings, and especially
around the southern doorstep,--a locality which seems particularly
favorable to its growth, for it is already tall enough to bend over
and wave in the wind. I observe that several weeds--and most
frequently a plant that stains the fingers with its yellow juice--
have survived and retained their freshness and sap throughout the
winter. One knows not how they have deserved such an exception from
the common lot of their race. They are now the patriarchs of the
departed year, and may preach mortality to the present generation of
flowers and weeds.

Among the delights of spring, how is it possible to forget the
birds? Even the crows were welcome as the sable harbingers of a
brighter and livelier race. They visited us before the snow was
off, but seem mostly to have betaken themselves to remote depths of
the woods, which they haunt all summer long. Many a time shall I
disturb them there, and feel as if I had intruded among a company of
silent worshippers, as they sit in Sabbath stillness among the tree-
tops. Their voices, when they speak, are in admirable accordance
with the tranquil solitude of a summer afternoon; and resounding so
far above the head, their loud clamor increases the religious quiet
of the scene instead of breaking it. A crow, however, has no real
pretensions to religion, in spite of his gravity of mien and black
attire; he is certainly a thief, and probably an infidel. The gulls
are far more respectable, in a moral point of view. These denizens
of seabeaten rocks and haunters of the lonely beach come up our
inland river at this season, and soar high overhead, flapping their
broad wings in the upper sunshine. They are among the most
picturesque of birds, because they so float and rest upon the air as
to become almost stationary parts of the landscape. The imagination
has time to grow acquainted with them; they have not flitted away in
a moment. You go up among the clouds and greet these lofty-flighted
gulls, and repose confidently with them upon the sustaining
atmosphere. Duck's have their haunts along the solitary places of
the river, and alight in flocks upon the broad bosom of the
overflowed meadows. Their flight is too rapid and determined for
the eye to catch enjoyment from it, although it never fails to stir
up the heart with the sportsman's ineradicable instinct. They have
now gone farther northward, but will visit us again in autumn.

The smaller birds,--the little songsters of the woods, and those
that haunt man's dwellings and claim human friendship by building
their nests under the sheltering eaves or among the orchard trees,--
these require a touch more delicate and a gentler heart than mine to
do them justice. Their outburst of melody is like a brook let loose
from wintry chains. We need not deem it a too high and solemn word
to call it a hymn of praise to the Creator; since Nature, who
pictures the reviving year in so many sights of beauty, has
expressed the sentiment of renewed life in no other sound save the
notes of these blessed birds. Their music, however, just now, seems
to be incidental, and not the result of a set purpose. They are
discussing the economy of life and love and the site and
architecture of their summer residences, and have no time to sit on
a twig and pour forth solemn hymns, or overtures, operas,
symphonies, and waltzes. Anxious questions are asked; grave
subjects are settled in quick and animated debate; and only by
occasional accident, as from pure ecstasy, does a rich warble roll
its tiny waves of golden sound through the atmosphere. Their little
bodies are as busy as their voices; they are all a constant flutter
and restlessness. Even when two or three retreat to a tree-top to
hold council, they wag their tails and heads all the time with the
irrepressible activity of their nature, which perhaps renders their
brief span of life in reality as long as the patriarchal age of
sluggish man. The blackbirds, three species of which consort
together, are the noisiest of all our feathered citizens. Great
companies of them--more than the famous "four-and-twenty" whom
Mother Goose has immortalized--congregate in contiguous treetops and
vociferate with all the clamor and confusion of a turbulent
political meeting. Politics, certainly, must be the occasion of
such tumultuous debates; but still, unlike all other politicians,
they instil melody into their individual utterances and produce
harmony as a general effect. Of all bird voices, none are more
sweet and cheerful to my ear than those of swallows, in the dim,
sunstreaked interior of a lofty barn; they address the heart with
even a closer sympathy than robin-redbreast. But, indeed, all these
winged people, that dwell in the vicinity of homesteads, seem to
partake of human nature, and possess the germ, if not the
development, of immortal souls. We hear them saying their melodious
prayers at morning's blush and eventide. A little while ago, in the
deep of night, there came the lively thrill of a bird's note from a
neighboring tree,--a real song, such as greets the purple dawn or
mingles with the yellow sunshine. What could the little bird mean
by pouring it forth at midnight? Probably the music gushed out of
the midst of a dream in which he fancied himself in paradise with
his mate, but suddenly awoke on a cold leafless bough, with a New
England mist penetrating through his feathers. That was a sad
exchange of imagination for reality.

Insects are among the earliest births of sprung. Multitudes of I
know not what species appeared long ago on the surface of the snow.
Clouds of them, almost too minute for sight, hover in a beam of
sunshine, and vanish, as if annihilated, when they pass into the
shade. A mosquito has already been heard to sound the small horror
of his bugle-horn. Wasps infest the sunny windows of the house. A
bee entered one of the chambers with a prophecy of flowers. Rare
butterflies came before the snow was off, flaunting in the chill
breeze, and looking forlorn and all astray, in spite of the
magnificence of their dark velvet cloaks, with golden borders.

The fields and wood-paths have as yet few charms to entice the
wanderer. In a walk, the other day, I found no violets, nor
anemones, nor anything in the likeness of a flower. It was worth
while, however, to ascend our opposite hill for the sake of gaining
a general idea of the advance of spring, which I had hitherto been
studying in its minute developments. The river lay around me in a
semicircle, overflowing all the meadows which give it its Indian
name, and offering a noble breadth to sparkle in the sunbeams.
Along the hither shore a row of trees stood up to their knees in
water; and afar off, on the surface of the stream, tufts of bushes
thrust up their heads, as it were, to breathe. The most striking
objects were great solitary trees here and there, with a mile-wide
waste of water all around them. The curtailment of the trunk, by
its immersion in the river, quite destroys the fair proportions of
the tree, and thus makes us sensible of a regularity and propriety
in the usual forms of nature. The flood of the present season--
though it never amounts to a freshet on our quiet stream--has
encroached farther upon the land than any previous one for at least
a score of years. It has overflowed stone fences, and even rendered
a portion of the highway navigable for boats.

The waters, however, are now gradually subsiding; islands become
annexed to the mainland; and other islands emerge, like new
creations, from the watery waste. The scene supplies an admirable
image of the receding of the Nile, except that there is no deposit
of black slime; or of Noah's flood, only that there is a freshness
and novelty in these recovered portions of the continent which give
the impression of a world just made rather than of one so polluted
that a deluge had been requisite to purify it. These upspringing
islands are the greenest spots in the landscape; the first gleam of
sunlight suffices to cover them with verdure.

Thank Providence for spring! The earth--and man himself, by
sympathy with his birthplace would be far other than we find them if
life toiled wearily onward without this periodical infusion of the
primal spirit. Will the world ever be so decayed that spring may
not renew its greenness? Can man be so dismally age stricken that
no faintest sunshine of his youth may revisit him once a year? It
is impossible. The moss on our time-worn mansion brightens into
beauty; the good old pastor who once dwelt here renewed his prime,
regained his boyhood, in the genial breezes of his ninetieth spring.
Alas for the worn and heavy soul if, whether in youth or age, it
have outlived its privilege of springtime sprightliness! From such
a soul the world must hope no reformation of its evil, no sympathy
with the lofty faith and gallant struggles of those who contend in
its behalf. Summer works in the present, and thinks not of the
future; autumn is a rich conservative; winter has utterly lost its
faith, and clings tremulously to the remembrance of what has been;
but spring, with its outgushing life, is the true type of the
movement.


Nathaniel Hawthorne


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