A SUNNY morning in June--a golden day among days that have mostly a neutral tint; a large garden, with no visible houses beyond, but green fields and unkept hedges and great silent trees, oak and ash and elm--could I wish, just now, for a more congenial resting-place, or even imagine one that comes nearer to my conception of an earthly paradise? It is true that once I could not drink deeply enough from the sweet and bitter cup of wild nature, and loved nature best, and sought it gladly where it was most savage and solitary. But that was long ago. Now, after years of London life, during which I have laboured like many another "to get a wan pale face," with perhaps a wan pale mind to match, that past wildness would prove too potent and sharp a tonic; unadulterated nature would startle and oppress me with its rude desolate aspect, no longer familiar. This softness of a well-cultivated earth, and unbroken verdure of foliage in many shades, and harmonious grouping and blending of floral hues, best suit my present enervated condition. I had, I imagine, a swarter skin and firmer flesh when I could ride all day over great summer-parched plains, where there was not a bush that would have afforded shelter to a mannikin, and think that I was having a pleasant journey. The cloudless sky and vertical sun--how intolerable they would now seem, and scorch my brain and fill my shut eyes with dancing flames! At present even this mild June sun is strong enough to make the old mulberry tree on the lawn appear grateful. It is an ancient, rough-barked tree, with wide branches, that droop downwards all round, and rest their terminal leaves on the sward; underneath it is a natural tent, or pavilion, with plenty of space to move about and sling a hammock in. Here, then, I have elected to spend the hottest hours of my one golden day, reading, dreaming, listening at intervals to the fine bird-sounds that have a medicinal and restorative effect on the jarred and wounded sense.
From the elms hard by comes a subdued, airy prattle of a few sparrows. It is rather pleasant, something like a low accompaniment to the notes of the more tuneful birds; the murmurous music of a many-stringed instrument, forming the indistinct ground over which runs the bright embroidery of clear melodious singing.
This morning, while lying awake from four to five o'clock, I almost hated the sparrows, they were there in such multitudes, and so loud and persistent sounded their jangling through the open window. It set me thinking of the England of the future--of a time a hundred years hence, let us say--when there will remain with us only two representatives of feral life--the sparrow and the house-fly. Doubtless it will come, unless something happens; but, doubtless, it will not continue. It will still be necessary for a man to kill something in order to be happy; and the sportsmen of that time, like great Gambetta, in the past, will sit in the balconies, popping with pea-rifles at the sparrows until not one is left to twitter. Then will come the turn of the untamed and untamable fly; and he will afford good sport if hunted a la Domitain, with fine, needle-tipped paper javelins, thrown to impale him on the wall.
One of our savants has lately prophesied that the time will come when only the microscopic organisms will exist to satisfy the hunting instinct in man. How these small creatures will be taken he does not tell us. Perhaps the hunters will station themselves round a table with a drop of preserved water on its centre, made large and luminous by means of a ray of magnifying light. When that time comes the amoeba--that "wandering Jew," as an irreverent Quarterly Reviewer has called it--will lose its immortality, and the spry rotifer will fall a victim to the infinitesimal fine bright arrows of the chase. A strange quarry for men whose paeliolithic progenitors hunted the woolly mastodon and many-horned rhinoceros and sabre-toothed tiger!
That sad day of very small things for the sportsman is, however, not near, nor within measurable distance; or, so it seemed to me when, an hour ago, I strolled round the garden, curiously peering into every shrub, to find the visible and comparatively noble insect-life in great abundance. Beetles were there--hard, round, polished, and of various colours, like sea-worn pebbles on the beach; and some, called lady-birds in the vernacular, were bound like the books that Chaucer loved in black and red. And the small gilded fly, not less an insect light-headed, a votary of vain delights, than in the prehistoric days when a white-headed old king, discrowned and crazed, railed against sweet Nature's liberty. And ever waiting to welcome this inconstant lover (with falces) there sits the solitary geometric spider, an image and embodiment of patience, not on a monument, but a suspended wheel of which he is himself the hub; and so delicately fashioned are the silver spokes thereof, radiating from his round and gem-like body, and the rings, concentric tire within tire, that its exceeding fineness, like swift revolving motion, renders it almost invisible. Caterpillars, too, in great plenty--miniature porcupines with fretful quills on end, and some naked even as they came into the world. This one, called the earth-measurer, has drunk himself green with chlorophyll so as to escape detection. Vain precaution! since eccentric motion betrays him to keen avian eyes, when, like the traveller's snake, he erects himself on the tip of his tail and sways about in empty space, vaguely feeling for something, he knows not what. And the mechanical tortrix that rolls up a leaf for garment and food, and preys on his own case and shelter until he has literally eaten himself stark naked; after which he rolls up a second leaf, and so on progressively. Thus in his larval life does he symbolize some restless nation that makes itself many successive constitutions and forms of government, in none of which it abides long; but afterwards some higher thing, when he rests motionless, in form like a sarcophagus, whence the infolded life emerges to haunt the twilight--a grey ghost moth. There is no end to rolled-up leaves, and to the variety of creatures that are housed in them; for, just as the "insect tribes of human kind" in all places and in all ages, while seeking to improve their condition, independently hit on the same means and inventions, so it is with these small six-legged people; and many species in many places have found out the comfort and security of the green cylinder.
So many did I open that I at last grew tired of the process, like a man to whom the post has brought too many letters; but there was one--the last I opened--the living active contents of which served to remind me that some insects are unable to make a cylinder for themselves, having neither gum nor web to fasten it with, and yet they will always find one made by others to shelter themselves in. Here were no fewer than six unbeautiful creatures, brothers and sisters, hatched from eggs on which their parent earwig sat incubating just like an eagle or dove or swallow, or, better still, like a pelican; for in the end did she not give of her own life-fluid to nourish her children? Unbeautiful, yet not without a glory superior to that of the Purple Emperor, and the angelic blue Morpho, and the broad-winged Ornithoptera, that caused an illustrious traveller to swoon with joy at the sight of its supreme loveliness. Du Maurier has a drawing of a little girl in a garden gazing at two earwigs racing along a stem. "I suppose," she remarks interrogatively to her mamma, "that these are Mr. and Mrs. Earwig?" and on being answered affirmatively, exclaims, "What could they have seen in each other?" What they saw was blue blood, or something in insectology corresponding to it. The earwig's lustre is that of antiquity. He existed on earth before colour came in; and colour is old, although not so old as Nature's unconscious aestheticism which, in the organic world, is first expressed in beauty of form. It is long since the great May flies, large as swifts, had their aerial cloudy dances over the vast everglades and ancient forests of ferns; and when, on some dark night, a brilliant Will-o'-the-wisp rose and floated above the feathery foliage, drawn in myriads to its light, they revolved about it in an immense mystical wheel, misty-white, glistening, and touched with prismatic colour. Floating fire and wheel were visible only to the stars, and the wakeful eyes of giant scaly monsters lying quiescent in the black waters below; but they were very beautiful nevertheless. The modest earwig was old on the earth even then; he dates back to the time, immeasurably remote, when scorpions possessed the earth, and taught him to frighten his enemies with a stingless tail--that curious antique little tail which has not yet forgot its cunning.
Greater than all these inhabitants of the garden, ancient or modern by reason of their numbers, which is the sign of predominance, are the small wingless people that have colonies on every green stem and under every green leaf.
These are the true generators of that heavenly sweat, or saliva of the stars, concerning which Pliny the Younger wrote so learnedly. And they are many tribes--green, purple, brown, isabel-line; but all are one nation, and sacred to that fair god whom the Carian water-nymph loved not wisely but too well. For, albeit the children of an ancient union, they marry not, nor are given in marriage, yet withal multiply exceedingly, so that one (not two) may in a single season produce a billion. And at last when autumn comes, won back from the cold god to his hot mother, they know love and wedlock, and die like all married things. These are the Aphides--sometimes unprettily called plant-lice, and vaguely spoken of by the uninformed as "blight"--and they nourish themselves on vegetable juices, that thin green blood which is the plant's life.
This, then, is the fruit which the birds have, come to gather. In June is their richest harvest; it is more bountiful than September, when apples redden, and grapes in distant southern lands are gathered for the wine-press. In yon grey wall at the end of the lawn, just above the climbing rose-bush, there are now seven hungry infants in one small cradle, each one, some one says, able to consume its own weight of insect food every day. I am inclined to believe that it must be so, while trying to count the visits paid to the nest in one hour by the parent tits--those small tits that do the gardener so much harm! We know, on good authority, that the spider has a "nutty flavour"; and most insects in the larval stage afford succulent and toothsome, or at all events beaksome, morsels. These are, just now, the crimson cherries, purple and yellow plums, currants, red, white, and black--and sun-painted peaches, asking in their luscious ripeness for a mouth to melt in, that fascinate finch and flycatcher alike, and make the starlings smack their horny lips with a sound like a loving kiss.
Not that I care, or esteem birds for what they eat or do not eat. With all these creatures that are at strife among themselves, and that birds prey upon, I am at peace, even to the smallest that are visible--the red spider which is no spider; and the minute gossamer spider clinging to the fine silvery hairs of the flying summer; and the coccus that fall from the fruit trees to float on their buoyant cottony down--a summer snow. Fils de la Vierge are these, and sacred. The man who can needlessly set his foot on a worm is as strange to my soul as De Quincey's imaginary Malay, or even his "damned crocodile." The worm that one sees lying bruised and incapable on the gravel walk has fallen among thieves. These little lives do me good and not harm. I smell the acid ants to strengthen my memory. I know that if I set an overturned cockchafer on his legs three sins shall be forgiven me; that if I am kindly tolerant of the spider that drops accidentally on my hand or face, my purse shall be mysteriously replenished. At the same time, one has to remember that such sentiments, as a rule, are not understood by those who have charge over groves and gardens, whose minds are ignorant and earthy, or, as they would say, practical. Of the balance of nature they know and care naught, nor can they regard life as sacred; it is enough to know that it is or may be injurious to their interests for them to sweep it away. The small thing that has been flying about and uttering musical sounds since April may, when July comes, devour a certain number of cherries. Nor is even this plea needed. If it is innocent for the lower creatures to prey upon one another, it cannot be less innocent for man to destroy them indiscriminately, if it gives him any pleasure to do so. It is idle to go into such subtle questions with those who have the power to destroy; if their hands are to be restrained it is not by appealing to feelings which they do not possess, but to their lower natures--to their greed and their cunning. For the rest of us, for all who have conquered or outgrown the killing instinct, the impartiality that pets nothing and persecutes nothing is doubtless man's proper attitude towards the inferior animals; a godlike benevolent neutrality; a keen and kindly interest in every form of life, with indifference as to its ultimate destiny; the softness which does no wrong with the hardness that sees no wrong done.
To return to the birds. The starlings have kissed like lovers, and fluttered up vertically on their short wings, trying to stream like eagles, only to return to the trees once more and sit there chattering pleasant nothings; at intervals throwing out those soft, round, modulated whistled notes, just as an idle cigarette-smoker blows rings of blue smoke from his lips; and now they have flown away to the fields so that I can listen to the others.
A thrush is making music on a tall tree beyond the garden hedge, and I am more grateful for the distance that divides us than for the song; for, just now, he does not sing so well as sometimes of an evening, when he is most fluent, and a listener, deceived by his sweetness and melody, writes to the papers to say that he has heard the nightingale. Just now his song is scrappy, composed of phrases that follow no order and do not fit or harmonize, and is like a poor imitation of an inferior mocking-bird's song.
Between the scraps of loud thrush-music I listen to catch the thin, somewhat reedy sound of a yellow-hammer singing in the middle of the adjoining grassy field. It comes well from the open expanse of purpling grass, and reminds me of a favourite grasshopper in a distant sunny land. O happy grasshopper! singing all day in the trees and tall herbage, in a country where every village urchin is not sent afield to "study natural history" with green net and a good store of pins, shall I ever again hear thy breezy music, and see thee among the green leaves, beautiful with steel-blue and creamy-white body, and dim purple over and vivid red underwings?
The bird of the pasture-land is singing still, perhaps, but all at once I have ceased to hear him, for something has come to lift me above his low grassy level, something faint and at first only the suspicion of a sound; then a silvery lisping, far off and aerial, touching the sense as lightly as the wind-borne down of dandelion.
If any place for any soul there be Disrobed and disentrammelled, doubtless it is from such a place and such a soul that this sublimated music falls. The singer, one can imagine, has never known or has forgotten earth; and if it is visible to him, how small it must seem from that altitude, "spinning like a fretful midge" beneath him in the vast void I
It is the lark singing in the blue infinite heaven, at this distance with something ethereal and heavenly in his voice; but now the wide circling wings that brought him for a few moments within hearing, have borne him beyond it again; and missing it, the sunshine looks less brilliant than before, and all other bird-voices seem by comparison dull and of the earth.
Certainly there is nothing spiritual in the song of the chaffinch. There he sits within sight, motionless, a little bird-shaped automaton, made to go off at intervals of twelve or thirteen seconds; but unfortunately one hears with the song the whirr and buzz of the internal machinery. It is not now as in April, when it is sufficient in a song that it shall be joyous; in the leafy month, when roses are in bloom, one grows critical, and asks for sweetness and expression, and a better art than this vigorous garden singer displays in that little double flourish with which he concludes his little hurry-scurry lyric. He has practised that same flourish for five thousand years--to be quite within the mark--and it is still far from perfect, still little better than a kind of musical sneeze. So long is art!
Perhaps in some subtle way, beyond the psychologist's power to trace, he has become aware of my opinion of his performance--the unspoken detraction which yet affects its object; and, feeling hurt in his fringilline amour propre, he has all at once taken himself off. Never mind; a better singer has succeeded him. I have heard and seen the little wren a dozen times to-day; now he has come to the upper part of the tree I am lying under, and although so near his voice sounds scarcely louder than before. This is also a lyric, but of another kind. It is not plaintive, nor passionate; nor is it so spontaneous as the warbling of the robin--that most perfect feathered impressionist; nor is it endeared to me by early associations since I listened in boyhood to the songs of other wrens. In what, then, does its charm consist? I do not know. Certainly it is delicate, and may even be described as brilliant, in its limited way perfect, and to other greater songs like the small pimpernel to a poppy or a hollyhock. Unambitious, yet finished, it has the charm of distinction. The wren is the least self-conscious of our singers. Somewhere among the higher green translucent leaves the little brown barred thing is quietly sitting, busy for the nonce about nothing, dreaming his summer dream, and unknowingly telling it aloud. When shall we have symbols to express as perfectly our summer-feeling--our dream ?
That small song has served to remind me of two small books I brought into the garden to read--the works of two modern minor poets whose "wren-like warblings," I imagined, would suit my mood and the genial morning better than the stirring or subtle thoughts of greater singers. Possibly in that I was mistaken; for there until now lie the books neglected on a lawn chair within reach of my hand. The chair was dragged hither half-an-hour ago by a maiden all in white, who appeared half inclined to share the mulberry shade with me. She did not continue long in that mind. In a lively manner, she began speaking of some trivial thing; but after a very few moments all interest in the subject evaporated, and she sat humming some idle air, tapping the turf with her fantastic shoe. Presently she picked up one of my books, opened it at random and read a line or two, her vermilion under-lip curling slightly; then threw it down again, and glanced at me out of the corners of her eyes; then hummed again, and finally became silent, and sat bending forward a little, her dark lustrous eyes gazing with strange intentness through the slight screen of foliage into the vacant space beyond. What to see? The poet has omitted to tell us to what the maiden's fancy lightly turns in spring. Doubtless it turns to thoughts of something real. Life is real; so is passion--the quickening of the blood, the wild pulsation. But the pleasures and pains of the printed book are not real, and are to reality like Japanese flowers made of coloured bits of tissue paper to the living fragrant flowers that bloom to-day and perish to-morrow; they are a simulacrum, a mockery, and present to us a pale phantasmagoric world, peopled with bloodless men and women that chatter meaningless things and laugh without joy. The feeling of unreality affects us all at times, but in very different degrees. And perhaps I was too long a doer, herding too much with narrow foreheads, drinking too deeply of the sweet and bitter cup, to experience that pure unfailing delight in literature which some have. Its charm, I fancy, is greatest to those in whom the natural man, deprived in early life of his proper aliment, grows sickly and pale, and perishes at last of inanition. There is ample room then for the latter higher growth--the unnatural cultivated man. Lovers of literature are accustomed to say that they find certain works "helpful" to them; and doubtless, being all intellect, they are right. But we, the less highly developed, are compounded of two natures, and while this spiritual pabulum sustains one, the other and larger nature is starved; for the larger nature is earthly, and draws its sustenance from the earth. I must look at a leaf, or smell the sod, or touch a rough pebble, or hear some natural sound, if only the chirp of a cricket, or feel the sun or wind or rain on my face. The book itself may spoil the pleasure it was designed to give me, and instead of satisfying my hunger, increase it until the craving and sensation of emptiness becomes intolerable. Not any day spent in a library would I live again, but rather some lurid day of labour and anxiety, of strife, or peril, or passion.
Occupied with this profound question, I scarcely noticed when my shade-sharer, with whom I sympathised only too keenly in her restless mood, rose and, lifting the light green curtain, passed out into the sunshine and was gone. Nor did I notice when the little wren ceased singing overhead. At length recalled to myself I began to wonder at the unusual silence in the garden, until, casting my eyes on the lawn, I discovered the reason; for there, moving about in their various ways, most of the birds were collected in a loose miscellaneous flock, a kind of happy family. There were the starlings, returned from the fields, and looking like little speckled rooks; some sparrows, and a couple of robins hopping about in their wild startled manner; in strange contrast to these last appeared that little feathered clodhopper, the chaffinch, plodding over the turf as if he had hobnailed boots on his feet; last, but not least, came statuesque blackbirds and thrushes, moving, when they moved, like automata. They all appear to be finding something to eat; but I Watch the thrushes principally, for these are more at home on the moist earth than the others, and have keener senses, and seek for nobler game. I see one suddenly thrust his beak into the turf and draw from it a huge earthworm, a wriggling serpent, so long that although he holds his head high, a third of the pink cylindrical body still rests in its run. What will he do with it? We know how wandering Waterton treated the boa which he courageously grasped by the tail as it retreated into the bushes. Naturally, it turned on him, and, lifting high its head, came swiftly towards his face with wide-open jaws; and at this supreme moment, without releasing his hold on its tail, with his free hand he snatched off his large felt hat and thrust it down the monster's throat, and so saved himself.
Just as I am intently watching to see how my hatless little Waterton will deal with his serpent, a startling bark, following by a canine shriek, then a yell, resound through the silent garden; and over the lawn rush those three demoniacal fox-terriers, Snap, Puzzy, and Babs, all determined to catch something. Away fly the birds, and though now high overhead, the baffled brutes continue wildly careering about the grounds, vexing the air with their frantic barkings. No more birds to-day! But now the peace-breakers have discovered me, and come tearing across the lawn, and on to the half-way chair, then to the hammock, scrambling over each other to inflict their unwelcome caresses on my hands and face.
Ah well, let them have their way and do their worst, since the birds are gone, and I shall go soon. It is a consolation to think that they are not my pets; that I shall not grieve, like their mistress, when their brief barking period is over; that I care just so much and no more for them than for any other living creature, not excepting the fer-de-lance, "quoiled in the path like rope in a ship," or the broad-winged vulture "scaling the heavens by invisible stairs." None are out of place where Nature placed them, nor unbeautiful; none are unlovable, since their various qualities--the rage of the one and the gentleness of the other--are but harmonious lights and shades in the ever-changing living picture that is so perfect.