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Chapter 9


LEAVES FROM A WINTER NOTE-BOOK

(1895)


We had walked abreast of the year from the very beginning, and that was
when the first blood-root came up between the patches of April snow,
while yet the big drift at the bottom of the meadow held fast. In the
shadow of the woods and under the blown pine-needles, clots of snow lay
till far into May, but neither the season nor the flowers took any note
of them, and, before we were well sure Winter had gone, the lackeys of
my Lord Baltimore in their new liveries came to tell us that Summer was
in the valley, and please might they nest at the bottom of the garden?

Followed, Summer, angry, fidgety, and nervous, with the corn and tobacco
to ripen in five short months, the pastures to reclothe, and the fallen
leaves to hide away under new carpets. Suddenly, in the middle of her
work, on a stuffy-still July day, she called a wind out of the
Northwest, a wind blown under an arch of steel-bellied clouds, a wicked
bitter wind with a lacing of hail to it, a wind that came and was gone
in less than ten minutes, but blocked the roads with fallen trees,
toppled over a barn, and--blew potatoes out of the ground! When that was
done, a white cloud shaped like a dumb-bell whirled down the valley
across the evening blue, roaring and twisting and twisting and roaring
all alone by itself. A West Indian hurricane could not have been quicker
on its feet than our little cyclone, and when the house rose a-tiptoe,
like a cockerel in act to crow, and a sixty-foot elm went by the board,
and that which had been a dusty road became a roaring torrent all in
three minutes, we felt that the New England summer had creole blood in
her veins. She went away, red-faced and angry to the last, slamming all
the doors of the hills behind her, and Autumn, who is a lady, took
charge.

No pen can describe the turning of the leaves--the insurrection of the
tree-people against the waning year. A little maple began it, flaming
blood-red of a sudden where he stood against the dark green of a
pine-belt. Next morning there was an answering signal from the swamp
where the sumacs grow. Three days later, the hill-sides as far as the
eye could range were afire, and the roads paved, with crimson and gold.
Then a wet wind blew, and ruined all the uniforms of that gorgeous army;
and the oaks, who had held themselves in reserve, buckled on their dull
and bronzed cuirasses and stood it out stiffly to the last blown leaf,
till nothing remained but pencil-shading of bare boughs, and one could
see into the most private heart of the woods.

Frost may be looked for till the middle of May and after the middle of
September, so Summer has little time for enamel-work or leaf-embroidery.
Her sisters bring the gifts--Spring, wind-flowers, Solomon's-Seal,
Dutchman's-breeches, Quaker-ladies, and trailing arbutus, that smells as
divinely as the true May. Autumn has golden-rod and all the tribe of
asters, pink, lilac, and creamy white, by the double armful. When these
go the curtain comes down, and whatever Powers shift the scenery behind,
work without noise. In tropic lands you can hear the play of growth and
decay at the back of the night-silences. Even in England the tides of
the winter air have a set and a purpose; but here they are dumb
altogether. The very last piece of bench-work this season was the
trailed end of a blackberry-vine, most daringly conventionalised in
hammered iron, flung down on the frosty grass an instant before people
came to look. The blue bloom of the furnace was still dying along the
central rib, and the side-sprays were cherry red, even as they had been
lifted from the charcoal. It was a detail, evidently, of some invisible
gate in the woods; but we never found that workman, though he had left
the mark of his cloven foot as plainly as any strayed deer. In a week
the heavy frosts with scythes and hammers had slashed and knocked down
all the road-side growth and the kindly bushes that veil the drop off
the unfenced track.

There the seasons stopped awhile. Autumn was gone, Winter was not. We
had Time dealt out to us--mere, clear, fresh Time--grace-days to enjoy.
The white wooden farm-houses were banked round two feet deep with dried
leaves or earth, and the choppers went out to get ready next year's
stores of wood. Now, chopping is an art, and the chopper in all respects
an artist. He makes his own axe-helve, and for each man there is but one
perfect piece of wood in all the world. This he never finds, but the
likest substitute is trimmed and balanced and poised to that ideal. One
man I know has evolved very nearly the weapon of Umslopogaas. It is
almost straight, lapped at the butt with leather, amazingly springy, and
carries a two-edged blade for splitting and chopping. If his Demon be
with him--and what artist can answer for all his moods?--he will cause a
tree to fall upon any stick or stone that you choose, uphill or down, to
the right or to the left. Artist-like, however, he explains that that is
nothing. Any fool can play with a tree in the open, but it needs the
craftsman to bring a tree down in thick timber and do no harm. To see an
eighty-foot maple, four feet in the butt, dropped, deftly as a fly is
cast, in the only place where it will not outrage the feelings and swipe
off the tops of fifty juniors, is a revelation. White pine, hemlock, and
spruce share this country with maples, black and white birches, and
beech. Maple seems to have few preferences, and the white birches
straggle and shiver on the outskirts of every camp; but the pines hold
together in solid regiments, sending out skirmishers to invade a
neglected pasture on the first opportunity. There is no overcoat warmer
than the pines in a gale when the woods for miles round are singing like
cathedral organs, and the first snow of the year powders the
rock-ledges.

The mosses and lichens, green, sulphur, and amber, stud the copper floor
of needles, where the feathery ground-pine runs aimlessly to and fro
along the ground, spelling out broken words of half-forgotten charms.
There are checker-berries on the outskirts of the wood, where the
partridge (he is a ruffed grouse really) dines, and by the deserted
logging-roads toadstools of all colours sprout on the decayed stumps.
Wherever a green or blue rock lifts from the hillside, the needles have
been packed and matted round its base, till, when the sunshine catches
them, stone and setting together look no meaner than turquoise in dead
gold. The woods are full of colour, belts and blotches of it, the
colours of the savage--red, yellow, and blue. Yet in their lodges there
is very little life, for the wood-people do not readily go into the
shadows. The squirrels have their business among the beeches and
hickories by the road-side, where they can watch the traffic and talk.
We have no gray ones hereabouts (they are good to eat and suffer for
it), but five reds live in a hickory hard by, and no weather puts them
to sleep. The wood-chuck, a marmot and a strategist, makes his burrow in
the middle of a field, where he must see you ere you see him. Now and
again a dog manages to cut him off his base, and the battle is worth
crossing fields to watch. But the woodchuck turned in long ago, and will
not be out till April. The coon lives--well, no one seems to know
particularly where Brer Coon lives, but when the Hunter's Moon is large
and full he descends into the corn-lands, and men chase him with dogs
for his fur, which makes the finest kind of overcoat, and his flesh,
which tastes like chicken. He cries at night sorrowfully as though a
child were lost.

They seem to kill, for one reason or other, everything that moves in
this land. Hawks, of course; eagles for their rarity; foxes for their
pelts; red-shouldered blackbirds and Baltimore orioles because they are
pretty, and the other small things for sport--French fashion. You can
get a rifle of a kind for twelve shillings, and if your neighbour be
fool enough to post notices forbidding 'hunting' and fishing, you
naturally seek his woods. So the country is very silent and unalive.

There are, however, bears within a few miles, as you will see from this
notice, picked up at the local tobacconist's:

JOHNNY GET YOUR GUN! BEAR HUNT!

As bears are too numerous in the town of Peltyville Corners, Vt., the
hunters of the surrounding towns are invited to participate in a grand
hunt to be held on Blue Mountains in the town of Peltyville Corners,
Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 8th, if pleasant. If not, first fine day. Come one,
come all!

They went, but it was the bear that would not participate. The notice
was printed at somebody's Electric Print Establishment. Queer mixture,
isn't it?

The bear does not run large as a rule, but he has a weakness for swine
and calves which brings punishment. Twelve hours' rail and a little
marching take you up to the moose-country; and twenty-odd miles from
here as the crow flies you come to virgin timber, where trappers live,
and where there is a Lost Pond that many have found once but can never
find again.

Men, who are of one blood with sheep, have followed their friends and
the railway along the river valleys where the towns are. Across the
hills the inhabitants are few, and, outside their State, little known.
They withdraw from society in November if they live on the uplands,
coming down in May as the snow gives leave. Not much more than a
generation ago these farms made their own clothes, soap, and candles,
and killed their own meat thrice a year, beef, veal, and pig, and sat
still between-times. Now they buy shop-made clothes, patent soaps, and
kerosene; and it is among their tents that the huge red and gilt
Biographies of Presidents, and the twenty-pound family Bibles, with
illuminated marriage-registers, mourning-cards, baptismal certificates,
and hundreds of genuine steel-engravings, sell best. Here, too, off the
main-travelled roads, the wandering quack--Patent Electric Pills, nerve
cures, etc.--divides the field with the seed and fruit man and the
seller of cattle-boluses. They dose themselves a good deal, I fancy,
for it is a poor family that does not know all about nervous
prostration. So the quack drives a pair of horses and a gaily-painted
waggon with a hood, and sometimes takes his wife with him. Once only
have I met a pedlar afoot. He was an old man, shaken with palsy, and he
pushed a thing exactly like a pauper's burial-cart, selling pins, tape,
scents, and flavourings. You helped yourself, for his hands had no
direction, and he told a long tale in which the deeding away of a farm
to one of his family was mixed up with pride at the distances he still
could cover daily. As much as six miles sometimes. He was no Lear, as
the gift of the farm might suggest, but sealed of the tribe of the
Wandering Jew--a tremulous old giddy-gaddy. There are many such rovers,
gelders of colts and the like, who work a long beat, south to Virginia
almost, and north to the frontier, paying with talk and gossip for their
entertainment.

Yet tramps are few, and that is well, for the American article answers
almost exactly to the vagrant and criminal tribes of India, being a
predatory ruffian who knows too much to work. 'Bad place to beg in after
dark--on a farm--very--is Vermont. Gypsies pitch their camp by the river
in the spring, and cooper horses in the manner of their tribe. They have
the gypsy look and some of the old gypsy names, but say that they are
largely mixed with Gentile blood.

Winter has chased all these really interesting people south, and in a
few weeks, if we have anything of a snow, the back farms will be
unvisited save by the doctor's hooded sleigh. It is no child's play to
hold a practice here through the winter months, when the drifts are
really formed, and a pair can drop in up to their saddle-pads. Four
horses a day some of them use, and use up--for they are good men.

Now in the big silence of the snow is born, perhaps, not a little of
that New England conscience which her children write about. There is
much time to think, and thinking is a highly dangerous business.
Conscience, fear, undigested reading, and, it may be, not too well
cooked food, have full swing. A man, and more particularly a woman, can
easily hear strange voices--the Word of the Lord rolling between the
dead hills; may see visions and dream dreams; get revelations and an
outpouring of the spirit, and end (such things have been) lamentably
enough in those big houses by the Connecticut River which have been
tenderly christened The Retreat. Hate breeds as well as religion--the
deep, instriking hate between neighbours, that is born of a hundred
little things added up, brooded over, and hatched by the stove when two
or three talk together in the long evenings. It would be very
interesting to get the statistics of revivals and murders, and find how
many of them have been committed in the spring. But for undistracted
people winter is one long delight of the eye. In other lands one knows
the snow as a nuisance that comes and goes, and is sorely man-handled
and messed at the last. Here it lies longer on the ground than any
crop--from November to April sometimes--and for three months life goes
to the tune of sleigh-bells, which are not, as a Southern visitor once
hinted, ostentation, but safeguards. The man who drives without them is
not loved. The snow is a faithful barometer, foretelling good sleighing
or stark confinement to barracks. It is all the manure the stony
pastures receive; it cloaks the ground and prevents the frost bursting
pipes; it is the best--I had almost written the only--road-maker in the
States. On the other side it can rise up in the night and bid the people
sit still as the Egyptians. It can stop mails; wipe out all time-tables;
extinguish the lamps of twenty towns, and kill man within sight of his
own door-step or hearing of his cattle unfed. No one who has been
through even so modified a blizzard as New England can produce talks
lightly of the snow. Imagine eight-and-forty hours of roaring wind, the
thermometer well down towards zero, scooping and gouging across a
hundred miles of newly fallen snow. The air is full of stinging shot,
and at ten yards the trees are invisible. The foot slides on a reef,
polished and black as obsidian, where the wind has skinned an exposed
corner of road down to the dirt ice of early winter. The next step ends
hip-deep and over, for here an unseen wall is banking back the rush of
the singing drifts. A scarped slope rises sheer across the road. The
wind shifts a point or two, and all sinks down, like sand in the
hour-glass, leaving a pot-hole of whirling whiteness. There is a lull,
and you can see the surface of the fields settling furiously in one
direction--a tide that spurts from between the tree-boles. The hollows
of the pasture fill while you watch; empty, fill, and discharge anew.
The rock-ledges show the bare flank of a storm-chased liner for a
moment, and whitening, duck under. Irresponsible snow-devils dance by
the lee of a barn where three gusts meet, or stagger out into the open
till they are cut down by the main wind. At the worst of the storm there
is neither Heaven nor Earth, but only a swizzle into which a man may be
brewed. Distances grow to nightmare scale, and that which in the summer
was no more than a minute's bare-headed run, is half an hour's gasping
struggle, each foot won between the lulls. Then do the heavy-timbered
barns talk like ships in a cross-sea, beam working against beam. The
winter's hay is ribbed over with long lines of snow dust blown between
the boards, and far below in the byre the oxen clash their horns and
moan uneasily.

The next day is blue, breathless, and most utterly still. The farmers
shovel a way to their beasts, bind with chains their large ploughshares
to their heaviest wood-sled and take of oxen as many as Allah has given
them. These they drive, and the dragging share makes a furrow in which a
horse can walk, and the oxen, by force of repeatedly going in up to
their bellies, presently find foothold. The finished road is a deep
double gutter between three-foot walls of snow, where, by custom, the
heavier vehicle has the right of way. The lighter man when he turns out
must drop waist-deep and haul his unwilling beast into the drift,
leaving Providence to steady the sleigh.

In the towns, where they choke and sputter and gasp, the big snow turns
to horsepondine. With us it stays still: but wind, sun, and rain get to
work upon it, lest the texture and colour should not change daily. Rain
makes a granulated crust over all, in which white shagreen the trees are
faintly reflected. Heavy mists go up and down, and create a sort of
mirage, till they settle and pack round the iron-tipped hills, and then
you know how the moon must look to an inhabitant of it. At twilight,
again, the beaten-down ridges and laps and folds of the uplands take on
the likeness of wet sand--some huge and melancholy beach at the world's
end--and when day meets night it is all goblin country. To westward; the
last of the spent day--rust-red and pearl, illimitable levels of shore
waiting for the tide to turn again. To eastward, black night among the
valleys, and on the rounded hill slopes a hard glaze that is not so much
light as snail-slime from the moon. Once or twice perhaps in the winter
the Northern Lights come out between the moon and the sun, so that to
the two unearthly lights is added the leap and flare of the Aurora
Borealis.

In January or February come the great ice-storms, when every branch,
blade, and trunk is coated with frozen rain, so that you can touch
nothing truly. The spikes of the pines are sunk into pear-shaped
crystals, and each fence-post is miraculously hilted with diamonds. If
you bend a twig, the icing cracks like varnish, and a half-inch branch
snaps off at the lightest tap. If wind and sun open the day together,
the eye cannot look steadily at the splendour of this jewelry. The woods
are full of the clatter of arms; the ringing of bucks' horns in flight;
the stampede of mailed feet up and down the glades; and a great dust of
battle is puffed out into the open, till the last of the ice is beaten
away and the cleared branches take up their regular chant.

Again the mercury drops twenty and more below zero, and the very trees
swoon. The snow turns to French chalk, squeaking under the heel, and
their breath cloaks the oxen in rime. At night a tree's heart will break
in him with a groan. According to the books, the frost has split
something, but it is a fearful sound, this grunt as of a man stunned.

Winter that is winter in earnest does not allow cattle and horses to
play about the fields, so everything comes home; and since no share can
break ground to any profit for some five months, there would seem to be
very little to do. As a matter of fact, country interests at all seasons
are extensive and peculiar, and the day is not long enough for them when
you take out that time which a self-respecting man needs to turn himself
round in. Consider! The solid undisturbed hours stand about one like
ramparts. At a certain time the sun will rise. At another hour, equally
certain, he will set. This much we know. Why, in the name of Reason,
therefore, should we vex ourselves with vain exertions? An occasional
visitor from the Cities of the Plains comes up panting to do things. He
is set down to listen to the normal beat of his own heart--a sound that
very few men have heard. In a few days, when the lather of impatience
has dried off, he ceases to talk of 'getting there' or 'being left.' He
does not desire to accomplish matters 'right away,' nor does he look at
his watch from force of habit, but keeps it where it should be--in his
stomach. At the last he goes back to his beleaguered city, unwillingly,
partially civilised, soon to be resavaged by the clash of a thousand
wars whose echo does not reach here.

The air which kills germs dries out the very newspapers. They might be
of to-morrow or a hundred years ago. They have nothing to do with
to-day--the long, full, sunlit to-day. Our interests are not on the same
scale as theirs, perhaps, but much more complex. The movement of a
foreign power--an alien sleigh on this Pontic shore--must be explained
and accounted for, or this public's heart will burst with unsatisfied
curiosity. If it be Buck Davis, with the white mare that he traded his
colt for, and the practically new sleigh-robe that he bought at the
Sewell auction, _why_ does Buck Davis, who lives on the river flats,
cross our hills, unless Murder Hollow be blockaded with snow, or unless
he has turkeys for sale? _But_ Buck Davis with turkeys would surely
have stopped here, unless he were selling a large stock in town. A wail
from the sacking at the back of the sleigh tells the tale. It is a
winter calf, and Buck Davis is going to sell it for one dollar to the
Boston Market where it will be turned into potted chicken. This leaves
the mystery of his change of route unexplained. After two days' sitting
on tenter-hooks it is discovered, obliquely, that Buck went to pay a
door-yard call on Orson Butler, who lives on the saeter where the wind
and the bald granite scaurs fight it out together. Kirk Demming had
brought Orson news of a fox at the back of Black Mountain, and Orson's
eldest son, going to Murder Hollow with wood for the new barn floor that
the widow Amidon is laying down, told Buck that he might as well come
round to talk to his father about the pig. _But_ old man Butler meant
fox-hunting from the first, and what he wanted to do was to borrow
Buck's dog, who had been duly brought over with the calf, and left on
the mountain. No old man Butler did _not_ go hunting alone, but waited
till Buck came back from town. Buck sold the calf for a dollar and a
quarter and not for seventy-five cents as was falsely asserted by
interested parties. _Then_ the two went after the fox together. This
much learned, everybody breathes freely, if life has not been
complicated in the meantime by more strange counter-marchings.

Five or six sleighs a day we can understand, if we know why they are
abroad; but any metropolitan rush of traffic disturbs and excites.

Rudyard Kipling

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