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The Return of the Chiff-Chaff


On a warm, brilliant morning in late April I paid a visit to a shallow
lakelet or pond five or six acres in extent which I had discovered some
weeks before hidden in a depression in the land, among luxuriant furze,
bramble, and blackthorn bushes. Between the thickets the boggy ground
was everywhere covered with great tussocks of last year's dead and
faded marsh grass--a wet, rough, lonely place where a lover of solitude
need have no fear of being intruded on by a being of his own species,
or even a wandering moorland donkey. On arriving at the pond I was
surprised and delighted to find half the surface covered with a thick
growth of bog-bean just coming into flower. The quaint three-lobed
leaves, shaped like a grebe's foot, were still small, and the
flowerstocks, thick as corn in a field, were crowned with pyramids of
buds, cream and rosy-red like the opening dropwort clusters, and at the
lower end of the spikes were the full-blown singular, snow-white,
cottony flowers--our strange and beautiful water edelweiss.

A group of ancient, gnarled and twisted alder bushes, with trunks like
trees, grew just on the margin of the pond, and by-and-by I found a
comfortable arm-chair on the lower stout horizontal branches
overhanging the water, and on that seat I rested for a long time,
enjoying the sight of that rare unexpected loveliness.

The chiff-chaff, the common warbler of this moorland district, was now
abundant, more so than anywhere else in England; two or three were
flitting about among the alder leaves within a few feet of my head, and
a dozen at least were singing within hearing, chiff-chaffing near and
far, their notes sounding strangely loud at that still, sequestered
spot. Listening to that insistent sound I was reminded of Warde
Fowler's words about the sweet season which brings new life and hope to
men, and how a seal and sanction is put on it by that same small bird's
clear resonant voice. I endeavoured to recall the passage, saying to
myself that in order to enter fully into the feeling expressed it is
sometimes essential to know an author's exact words. Failing in this, I
listened again to the bird, then let my eyes rest on the expanse of red
and cream-coloured spikes before me, then on the masses of flame-yellow
furze beyond, then on something else. I was endeavouring to keep my
attention on these extraneous things, to shut my mind resolutely
against a thought, intolerably sad, which had surprised me in that
quiet solitary place. Surely, I said, this springtime verdure and
bloom, this fragrance of the furze, the infinite blue of heaven, the
bell-like double note of this my little feathered neighbour in the
alder tree, flitting hither and thither, light and airy himself as a
wind-fluttered alder leaf--surely this is enough to fill and to satisfy
any heart, leaving no room for a grief so vain and barren, which
nothing in nature suggested! That it should find me out here in this
wilderness of all places--the place to which a man might come to divest
himself of himself--that second self which he has unconsciously
acquired--to be like the trees and animals, outside of the sad
atmosphere of human life and its eternal tragedy! A vain effort and a
vain thought, since that from which I sought to escape came from nature
itself, from every visible thing; every leaf and flower and blade was
eloquent of it, and the very sunshine, that gave life and brilliance to
all things, was turned to darkness by it.

Overcome and powerless, I continued sitting there with half-closed eyes
until those sad images of lost friends, which had risen with so strange
a suddenness in my mind, appeared something more than mere memories and
mentally-seen faces and forms, seen for a moment, then vanishing. They
were with me, standing by me, almost as in life; and I looked from one
to another, looking longest at the one who was the last to go; who was
with me but yesterday, as it seemed, and stood still in our walk and
turned to bid me listen to that same double note, that little spring
melody which had returned to us; and who led me, waist-deep in the
flowering meadow grasses to look for this same beautiful white flower
which I had found here, and called it our "English edelweiss." How
beautiful it all was! We thought and felt as one. That bond uniting us,
unlike all other bonds, was unbreakable and everlasting. If one had
said that life was uncertain it would have seemed a meaningless phrase.
Spring's immortality was in us; ever-living earth was better than any
home in the stars which eye hath not seen nor heart conceived. Nature
was all in all; we worshipped her and her wordless messages in our
hearts were sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.

To me, alone on that April day, alone on the earth as it seemed for a
while, the sweet was indeed changed to bitter, and the loss of those
who were one with me in feeling, appeared to my mind as a monstrous
betrayal, a thing unnatural, almost incredible. Could I any longer love
and worship this dreadful power that made us and filled our hearts with
gladness--could I say of it, "Though it slay me yet will I trust it?"

By-and-by the tempest subsided, but the clouds returned after the rain,
and I sat on in a deep melancholy, my mind in a state of suspense. Then
little by little the old influence began to re-assert itself, and it
was as if one was standing there by me, one who was always calm, who
saw all things clearly, who regarded me with compassion and had come to
reason with me. "Come now," it appeared to say, "open your eyes once
more to the sunshine; let it enter freely and fill your heart, for
there is healing in it and in all nature. It is true the power you have
worshipped and trusted will destroy you, but you are living to-day and
the day of your end will be determined by chance only. Until you are
called to follow them into that 'world of light,' or it may be of
darkness and oblivion, you are immortal. Think then of to-day, humbly
putting away the rebellion and despondency corroding your life, and it
will be with you as it has been; you shall know again the peace which
passes understanding, the old ineffable happiness in the sights and
sounds of earth. Common things shall seem rare and beautiful to you.
Listen to the chiff-chaff ingeminating the familiar unchanging call and
message of spring. Do you know that this frail feathered mite with its
short, feeble wings has come back from an immense distance, crossing
two continents, crossing mountains, deserts illimitable, and, worst of
all, the salt, grey desert of the sea. North and north-east winds and
snow and sleet assailed it when, weary with its long journey, it drew
near to its bourne, and beat it back, weak and chilled to its little
anxious heart, so that it could hardly keep itself from falling into
the cold, salt waves. Yet no sooner is it here in the ancient home and
cradle of its race, than, all perils and pains forgot, it begins to
tell aloud the overflowing joy of the resurrection, calling earth to
put on her living garment, to rejoice once more in the old undying
gladness--that small trumpet will teach you something. Let your reason
serve you as well as its lower faculties have served this brave little
traveller from a distant land."

Is this then the best consolation my mysterious mentor can offer? How
vain, how false it is!--how little can reason help us! The small bird
exists only in the present; there is no past, nor future, nor knowledge
of death. Its every action is the result of a stimulus from outside;
its "bravery" is but that of a dead leaf or ball of thistle-down
carried away by the blast. Is there no escape, then, from this
intolerable sadness--from the thought of springs that have been, the
beautiful multitudinous life that has vanished? Our maker and mother
mocks at our efforts--at our philosophic refuges, and sweeps them away
with a wave of emotion. And yet there is deliverance, the old way of
escape which is ours, whether we want it or not. Nature herself in her
own good time heals the wound she inflicts--even this most grievous in
seeming when she takes away from us the faith and hope of reunion with
our lost. They may be in a world of light, waiting our coming--we do
not know; but in that place they are unimaginable, their state
inconceivable. They were like us, beings of flesh and blood, or we
should not have loved them. If we cannot grasp their hands their
continued existence is nothing to us. Grief at their loss is just as
great for those who have kept their faith as for those who have lost
it; and on account of its very poignancy it cannot endure in either
case. It fades, returning in its old intensity at ever longer intervals
until it ceases. The poet of nature was wrong when he said that without
his faith in the decay of his senses he would be worse than dead,
echoing the apostle who said that if we had hope in this world only we
should be of all men the most miserable. So, too, was the later poet
wrong when he listened to the waves on Dover beach bringing the eternal
notes of sadness in; when he saw in imagination the ebbing of the great
sea of faith which had made the world so beautiful, in its withdrawal
disclosing the deserts drear and naked shingles of the world. That
desolation, as he imagined it, which made him so unutterably sad, was
due to the erroneous idea that our earthly happiness comes to us from
otherwhere, some region outside our planet, just as one of our modern
philosophers has imagined that the principle of life on earth came
originally from the stars.

The "naked shingles of the world" is but a mood of our transitional
day; the world is just as beautiful as it ever was, and our dead as
much to us as they have ever been, even when faith was at its highest.
They are not wholly, irretrievably lost, even when we cease to remember
them, when their images come no longer unbidden to our minds. They are
present in nature: through ourselves, receiving but what we give, they
have become part and parcel of it and give it an expression. As when
the rain clouds disperse and the sun shines out once more, heaven and
earth are filled with a chastened light, sweet to behold and very
wonderful, so because of our lost ones, because of the old grief at
their loss, the visible world is touched with a new light, a tenderness
and grace and beauty not its own.

W. H. Hudson