Adventures In Contentment
Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Sjaani and the Online Distributed
[*Note: Please Credit to Sjaani]
_ADVENTURES IN CONTENTMENT_
"THE BURDEN OF THE VALLEY OF VISION"
I came here eight years ago as the renter of this farm, of which soon
afterward I became the owner. The time before that I like to forget. The
chief impression it left, upon my memory, now happily growing
indistinct, is of being hurried faster than I could well travel. From
the moment, as a boy of seventeen, I first began to pay my own way, my
days were ordered by an inscrutable power which drove me hourly to my
task. I was rarely allowed to look up or down, but always forward,
toward that vague Success which we Americans love to glorify.
My senses, my nerves, even my muscles were continually strained to the
utmost of attainment. If I loitered or paused by the wayside, as it
seems natural for me to do, I soon heard the sharp crack of the lash.
For many years, and I can say it truthfully, I never rested. I neither
thought nor reflected. I had no pleasure, even though I pursued it
fiercely during the brief respite of vacations. Through many feverish
years I did not work: I merely produced.
The only real thing I did was to hurry as though every moment were my
last, as though the world, which now seems so rich in everything, held
only one prize which might be seized upon before I arrived. Since then I
have tried to recall, like one who struggles to restore the visions of a
fever, what it was that I ran to attain, or why I should have borne
without rebellion such indignities to soul and body. That life seems
now, of all illusions, the most distant and unreal. It is like the
unguessed eternity before we are born: not of concern compared with that
eternity upon which we are now embarked.
All these things happened in cities and among crowds. I like to forget
them. They smack of that slavery of the spirit which is so much worse
than any mere slavery of the body.
One day--it was in April, I remember, and the soft maples in the city
park were just beginning to blossom--I stopped suddenly. I did not
intend to stop. I confess in humiliation that it was no courage, no will
of my own. I intended to go on toward Success: but Fate stopped me. It
was as if I had been thrown violently from a moving planet: all the
universe streamed around me and past me. It seemed to me that of all
animate creation, I was the only thing that was still or silent. Until I
stopped I had not known the pace I ran; and I had a vague sympathy and
understanding, never felt before, for those who left the running. I lay
prostrate with fever and close to death for weeks and watched the world
go by: the dust, the noise, the very colour of haste. The only sharp
pang that I suffered was the feeling that I should be broken-hearted and
that I was not; that I should care and that I did not. It was as though
I had died and escaped all further responsibility. I even watched with
dim equanimity my friends racing past me, panting as they ran. Some of
them paused an instant to comfort me where I lay, but I could see that
their minds were still upon the running and I was glad when they went
away. I cannot tell with what weariness their haste oppressed me. As for
them, they somehow blamed me for dropping out. I knew. Until we
ourselves understand, we accept no excuse from the man who stops. While
I felt it all, I was not bitter. I did not seem to care. I said to
myself: "This is Unfitness. I survive no longer. So be it."
Thus I lay, and presently I began to hunger and thirst. Desire rose
within me: the indescribable longing of the convalescent for the food of
recovery. So I lay, questioning wearily what it was that I required. One
morning I wakened with a strange, new joy in my soul. It came to me at
that moment with indescribable poignancy, the thought of walking
barefoot in cool, fresh plow furrows as I had once done when a boy. So
vividly the memory came to me--the high airy world as it was at that
moment, and the boy I was walking free in the furrows--that the weak
tears filled my eyes, the first I had shed in many years. Then I thought
of sitting in quiet thickets in old fence corners, the wood behind me
rising still, cool, mysterious, and the fields in front stretching away
in illimitable pleasantness. I thought of the good smell of cows at
milking--you do not know, if you do not know!--I thought of the sights
and sounds, the heat and sweat of the hay fields. I thought of a certain
brook I knew when a boy that flowed among alders and wild parsnips,
where I waded with a three-foot rod for trout. I thought of all these
things as a man thinks of his first love. Oh, I craved the soil. I
hungered and thirsted for the earth. I was greedy for growing things.
And thus, eight years ago, I came here like one sore-wounded creeping
from the field of battle. I remember walking in the sunshine, weak yet,
but curiously satisfied. I that was dead lived again. It came to me then
with a curious certainty, not since so assuring, that I understood the
chief marvel of nature hidden within the Story of the Resurrection, the
marvel of plant and seed, father and son, the wonder of the seasons, the
miracle of life. I, too, had died: I had lain long in darkness, and now
I had risen again upon the sweet earth. And I possessed beyond others a
knowledge of a former existence, which I knew, even then, I could never
For a time, in the new life, I was happy to drunkenness--working,
eating, sleeping. I was an animal again, let out to run in green
pastures. I was glad of the sunrise and the sunset. I was glad at noon.
It delighted me when my muscles ached with work and when, after supper,
I could not keep my eyes open for sheer weariness. And sometimes I was
awakened in the night out of a sound sleep--seemingly by the very
silences--and lay in a sort of bodily comfort impossible to describe.
I did not want to feel or to think: I merely wanted to live. In the sun
or the rain I wanted to go out and come in, and never again know the
pain of the unquiet spirit. I looked forward to an awakening not without
dread for we are as helpless before birth as in the presence of death.
But like all birth, it came, at last, suddenly. All that summer I had
worked in a sort of animal content. Autumn had now come, late autumn,
with coolness in the evening air. I was plowing in my upper field--not
then mine in fact--and it was a soft afternoon with the earth turning up
moist and fragrant. I had been walking the furrows all day long. I had
taken note, as though my life depended upon it, of the occasional stones
or roots in my field, I made sure of the adjustment of the harness, I
drove with peculiar care to save the horses. With such simple details of
the work in hand I had found it my joy to occupy my mind. Up to that
moment the most important things in the world had seemed a straight
furrow and well-turned corners--to me, then, a profound accomplishment.
I cannot well describe it, save by the analogy of an opening door
somewhere within the house of my consciousness. I had been in the dark:
I seemed to emerge. I had been bound down: I seemed to leap up--and with
a marvellous sudden sense of freedom and joy.
I stopped there in my field and looked up. And it was as if I had never
looked up before. I discovered another world. It had been there before,
for long and long, but I had never seen nor felt it. All discoveries are
made in that way: a man finds the new thing, not in nature but in
It was as though, concerned with plow and harness and furrow, I had
never known that the world had height or colour or sweet sounds, or
that there was _feeling_ in a hillside. I forgot myself, or where I was.
I stood a long time motionless. My dominant feeling, if I can at all
express it, was of a strange new friendliness, a warmth, as though these
hills, this field about me, the woods, had suddenly spoken to me and
caressed me. It was as though I had been accepted in membership, as
though I was now recognised, after long trial, as belonging here.
Across the town road which separates my farm from my nearest
neighbour's, I saw a field, familiar, yet strangely new and unfamiliar,
lying up to the setting sun, all red with autumn, above it the
incalculable heights of the sky, blue, but not quite clear, owing to the
Indian summer haze. I cannot convey the sweetness and softness of that
landscape, the airiness of it, the mystery of it, as it came to me at
that moment. It was as though, looking at an acquaintance long known, I
should discover that I loved him. As I stood there I was conscious of
the cool tang of burning leaves and brush heaps, the lazy smoke of which
floated down the long valley and found me in my field, and finally I
heard, as though the sounds were then made for the first time, all the
vague murmurs of the country side--a cow-bell somewhere in the distance,
the creak of a wagon, the blurred evening hum of birds, insects, frogs.
So much it means for a man to stop and look up from his task. So I
stood, and I looked up and down with a glow and a thrill which I cannot
now look back upon without some envy and a little amusement at the very
grandness and seriousness of it all. And I said aloud to myself:
"I will be as broad as the earth. I will not be limited."
Thus I was born into the present world, and here I continue, not knowing
what other world I may yet achieve. I do not know, but I wait in
expectancy, keeping my furrows straight and my corners well turned.
Since that day in the field, though my fences include no more acres, and
I still plow my own fields, my real domain has expanded until I crop
wide fields and take the profit of many curious pastures. From my farm I
can see most of the world; and if I wait here long enough all people
pass this way.
And I look out upon them not in the surroundings which they have chosen
for themselves, but from the vantage ground of my familiar world. The
symbols which meant so much in cities mean little here. Sometimes it
seems to me as though I saw men naked. They come and stand beside my
oak, and the oak passes solemn judgment; they tread my furrows and the
clods give silent evidence; they touch the green blades of my corn, the
corn whispers its sure conclusions. Stern judgments that will be
deceived by no symbols!
Thus I have delighted, secretly, in calling myself an unlimited farmer,
and I make this confession in answer to the inner and truthful demand of
the soul that we are not, after all, the slaves of things, whether corn,
or banknotes, or spindles; that we are not the used, but the users; that
life is more than profit and loss. And so I shall expect that while I am
talking farm some of you may be thinking dry goods, banking, literature,
carpentry, or what-not. But if you can say: I am an unlimited dry goods
merchant, I am an unlimited carpenter, I will give you an old-fashioned
country hand-shake, strong and warm. We are friends; our orbits
I BUY A FARM
As I have said, when I came here I came as a renter, working all of the
first summer without that "open vision" of which the prophet Samuel
speaks. I had no memory of the past and no hope of the future. I fed
upon the moment. My sister Harriet kept the house and I looked after the
farm and the fields. In all those months I hardly knew that I had
neighbours, although Horace, from whom I rented my place, was not
infrequently a visitor. He has since said that I looked at him as though
he were a "statute." I was "citified," Horace said; and "citified" with
us here in the country is nearly the limit of invective, though not
violent enough to discourage such a gift of sociability as his. The
Scotch Preacher, the rarest, kindest man I know, called once or twice,
wearing the air of formality which so ill becomes him. I saw nothing in
him: it was my fault, not his, that I missed so many weeks of his
friendship. Once in that time the Professor crossed my fields with his
tin box slung from his shoulder; and the only feeling I had, born of
crowded cities, was that this was an intrusion upon my property.
Intrusion: and the Professor! It is now unthinkable. I often passed the
Carpentry Shop on my way to town. I saw Baxter many times at his bench.
Even then Baxter's eyes attracted me: he always glanced up at me as I
passed, and his look had in it something of a caress. So the home of
Starkweather, standing aloof among its broad lawns and tall trees,
carried no meaning for me.
Of all my neighbours, Horace is the nearest. From the back door of my
house, looking over the hill, I can see the two red chimneys of his
home, and the top of the windmill. Horace's barn and corn silo are more
pretentious by far than his house, but fortunately they stand on lower
ground, where they are not visible from my side of the hill. Five
minutes' walk in a straight line across the fields brings me to Horace's
door; by the road it takes at least ten minutes.
In the fall after my arrival I had come to love the farm and its
surroundings so much that I decided to have it for my own. I did not
look ahead to being a farmer. I did not ask Harriet's advice. I found
myself sitting one day in the justice's office. The justice was bald and
as dry as corn fodder in March. He sat with spectacled impressiveness
behind his ink-stained table. Horace hitched his heel on the round of
his chair and put his hat on his knee. He wore his best coat and his
hair was brushed in deference to the occasion. He looked uncomfortable,
but important. I sat opposite him, somewhat overwhelmed by the business
in hand. I felt like an inadequate boy measured against solemnities too
large for him. The processes seemed curiously unconvincing, like a game
in which the important part is to keep from laughing; and yet when I
thought of laughing I felt cold chills of horror. If I had laughed at
that moment I cannot think what that justice would have said! But it was
a pleasure to have the old man read the deed, looking at me over his
spectacles from time to time to make sure I was not playing truant.
There are good and great words in a deed. One of them I brought away
with me from the conference, a very fine, big one, which I love to have
out now and again to remind me of the really serious things of life. It
gives me a peculiar dry, legal feeling. If I am about to enter upon a
serious bargain, like the sale of a cow, I am more avaricious if I work
with it under my tongue.
Some words need to be fenced in, pig-tight, so that they cannot escape
us; others we prefer to have running at large, indefinite but inclusive.
I would not look up that word for anything: I might find it fenced in so
that it could not mean to me all that it does now.
Hereditaments! May there be many of them--or it!
Is it not a fine Providence that gives us different things to love? In
the purchase of my farm both Horace and I got the better of the
bargain--and yet neither was cheated. In reality a fairly strong lantern
light will shine through Horace, and I could see that he was hugging
himself with the joy of his bargain; but I was content. I had some money
left--what more does anyone want after a bargain?--and I had come into
possession of the thing I desired most of all. Looking at bargains from
a purely commercial point of view, someone is always cheated, but looked
at with the simple eye both seller and buyer always win.
We came away from the gravity of that bargaining in Horace's wagon. On
our way home Horace gave me fatherly advice about using my farm. He
spoke from the height of his knowledge to me, a humble beginner. The
conversation ran something like this:
HORACE: Thar's a clump of plum trees along the lower pasture fence.
Perhaps you saw 'm----
MYSELF: I saw them: that is one reason I bought the back pasture. In May
they will be full of blossoms.
HORACE: They're _wild_ plums: they ain't good for nothing.
MYSELF: But think how fine they will be all the year round.
HORACE: Fine! They take up a quarter-acre of good land. I've been going
to cut 'em myself this ten years.
MYSELF: I don't think I shall want them cut out.
After a pause:
HORACE: There's a lot of good body cord-wood in that oak on the knoll.
MYSELF: Cord-wood! Why, that oak is the treasure of the whole farm, I
have never seen a finer one. I could not think of cutting it.
HORACE: It will bring you fifteen or twenty dollars cash in hand.
MYSELF: But I rather have the oak.
So our conversation continued for some time. I let Horace know that I
preferred rail fences, even old ones, to a wire fence, and that I
thought a farm should not be too large, else it might keep one away from
his friends. And what, I asked, is corn compared with a friend? Oh, I
grew really oratorical! I gave it as my opinion that there should be
vines around the house (Waste of time, said Horace), and that no farmer
should permit anyone to paint medicine advertisements on his barn
(Brings you ten dollars a year, said Horace), and that I proposed to fix
the bridge on the lower road (What's a path-master for? asked Horace). I
said that a town was a useful adjunct for a farm; but I laid it down as
a principle that no town should be too near a farm. I finally became so
enthusiastic in setting forth my conceptions of a true farm that I
reduced Horace to a series of humphs. The early humphs were incredulous,
but as I proceeded, with some joy, they became humorously contemptuous,
and finally began to voice a large, comfortable, condescending
tolerance. I could fairly feel Horace growing superior as he sat there
beside me. Oh, he had everything in his favour. He could prove what he
said: One tree + one thicket = twenty dollars. One landscape = ten cords
of wood = a quarter-acre of corn = twenty dollars. These equations prove
themselves. Moreover, was not Horace the "best off" of any farmer in the
country? Did he not have the largest barn and the best corn silo? And
are there better arguments?
Have you ever had anyone give you up as hopeless? And is it not a
pleasure? It is only after people resign you to your fate that you
really make friends of them. For how can you win the friendship of one
who is trying to convert you to his superior beliefs?
As we talked, then, Horace and I, I began to have hopes of him. There is
no joy comparable to the making of a friend, and the more resistant the
material the greater the triumph. Baxter, the carpenter, says that when
he works for enjoyment he chooses curly maple.
When Horace set me down at my gate that afternoon he gave me his hand
and told me that he would look in on me occasionally, and that if I had
any trouble to let him know.
A few days later I heard by the roundabout telegraph common in country
neighbourhoods that Horace had found a good deal of fun in reporting
what I said about farming and that he had called me by a highly humorous
but disparaging name. Horace has a vein of humour all his own. I have
caught him alone in his fields chuckling to himself, and even breaking
out in a loud laugh at the memory of some amusing incident that
happened ten years ago. One day, a month or more after our bargain,
Horace came down across his field and hitched his jean-clad leg over my
fence, with the intent, I am sure, of delving a little more in the same
rich mine of humour.
"Horace," I said, looking him straight in the eye, "did you call me
I have rarely seen a man so pitifully confused as Horace was at that
moment. He flushed, he stammered, he coughed, the perspiration broke out
on his forehead. He tried to speak and could not. I was sorry for him.
"Horace," I said, "you're a Farmer."
We looked at each other a moment with dreadful seriousness, and then
both of us laughed to the point of holding our sides. We slapped our
knees, we shouted, we wriggled, we almost rolled with merriment. Horace
put out his hand and we shook heartily. In five minutes I had the whole
story of his humorous reports out of him.
No real friendship is ever made without an initial clashing which
discloses the metal of each to each. Since that day Horace's jean-clad
leg has rested many a time on my fence and we have talked crops and
calves. We have been the best of friends in the way of whiffle-trees,
butter tubs and pig killings--but never once looked up together at the
The chief objection to a joke in the country is that it is so
imperishable. There is so much room for jokes and so few jokes to fill
it. When I see Horace approaching with a peculiar, friendly, reminiscent
smile on his face I hasten with all ardour to anticipate him:
"Horace," I exclaim, "you're a Farmer."
[Illustration: "The heat and sweat of the hay fields"]
THE JOY OF POSSESSION
"How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees:
How graceful climb these shadows on my hill."
Always as I travel, I think, "Here I am, let anything happen!"
I do not want to know the future; knowledge is too certain, too cold,
It is true that I have not always met the fine adventure nor won the
friend, but if I had, what should I have more to look for at other
turnings and other hilltops?
The afternoon of my purchase was one of the great afternoons of my life.
When Horace put me down at my gate, I did not go at once to the house;
I did not wish, then, to talk with Harriet. The things I had with myself
were too important. I skulked toward my barn, compelling myself to walk
slowly until I reached the corner, where I broke into an eager run as
though the old Nick himself were after me. Behind the barn I dropped
down on the grass, panting with laughter, and not without some of the
shame a man feels at being a boy. Close along the side of the barn, as I
sat there in the cool of the shade, I could see a tangled mat of
smartweed and catnip, and the boards of the barn, brown and
weather-beaten, and the gables above with mud swallows' nests, now
deserted; and it struck me suddenly, as I observed these homely pleasant
"All this is mine."
I sprang up and drew a long breath.
"Mine," I said.
It came to me then like an inspiration that I might now go out and take
formal possession of my farm. I might experience the emotion of a
landowner. I might swell with dignity and importance--for once, at
So I started at the fence corner back of the barn and walked straight
up through the pasture, keeping close to my boundaries, that I might not
miss a single rod of my acres. And oh, it was a prime afternoon! The
Lord made it! Sunshine--and autumn haze--and red trees--and yellow
fields--and blue distances above the far-away town. And the air had a
tang which got into a man's blood and set him chanting all the poetry he
"I climb that was a clod,
I run whose steps were slow,
I reap the very wheat of God
That once had none to sow!"
So I walked up the margin of my field looking broadly about me: and
presently, I began to examine my fences--_my_ fences--with a critical
eye. I considered the quality of the soil, though in truth I was not
much of a judge of such matters. I gloated over my plowed land, lying
there open and passive in the sunshine. I said of this tree: "It is
mine," and of its companion beyond the fence: "It is my neighbour's."
Deeply and sharply within myself I drew the line between _meum_ and
_tuum_: for only thus, by comparing ourselves with our neighbours, can
we come to the true realisation of property. Occasionally I stopped to
pick up a stone and cast it over the fence, thinking with some
truculence that my neighbour would probably throw it back again. Never
mind, I had it out of _my_ field. Once, with eager surplusage of energy,
I pulled down a dead and partly rotten oak stub, long an eye-sore, with
an important feeling of proprietorship. I could do anything I liked. The
farm was _mine_.
How sweet an emotion is possession! What charm is inherent in ownership!
What a foundation for vanity, even for the greater quality of
self-respect, lies in a little property! I fell to thinking of the
excellent wording of the old books in which land is called "real
property," or "real estate." Money we may possess, or goods or chattels,
but they give no such impression of mineness as the feeling that one's
feet rest upon soil that is his: that part of the deep earth is his with
all the water upon it, all small animals that creep or crawl in the
holes of it, all birds or insects that fly in the air above it, all
trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass that grow upon it, all houses, barns
and fences--all, his. As I strode along that afternoon I fed upon
possession. I rolled the sweet morsel of ownership under my tongue. I
seemed to set my feet down more firmly on the good earth. I straightened
my shoulders: _this land was mine_. I picked up a clod of earth and let
it crumble and drop through my fingers: it gave me a peculiar and
poignant feeling of possession. I can understand why the miser enjoys
the very physical contact of his gold. Every sense I possessed, sight,
hearing, smell, touch, led upon the new joy.
At one corner of my upper field the fence crosses an abrupt ravine upon
leggy stilts. My line skirts the slope halfway up. My neighbour owns the
crown of the hill which he has shorn until it resembles the tonsured
pate of a monk. Every rain brings the light soil down the ravine and
lays it like a hand of infertility upon my farm. It had always bothered
me, this wastage; and as I looked across my fence I thought to myself:
"I must have that hill. I will buy it. I will set the fence farther up.
I will plant the slope. It is no age of tonsures either in religion or
The very vision of widened acres set my thoughts on fire. In
imagination I extended my farm upon all sides, thinking how much better
I could handle my land than my neighbours. I dwelt avariciously upon
more possessions: I thought with discontent of my poverty. More land I
wanted. I was enveloped in clouds of envy. I coveted my neighbour's
land: I felt myself superior and Horace inferior: I was consumed with
So I dealt hotly with these thoughts until I reached the top of the
ridge at the farther corner of my land. It is the highest point on the
For a moment I stood looking about me on a wonderful prospect of serene
beauty. As it came to me--hills, fields, woods--the fever which had been
consuming me died down. I thought how the world stretched away from my
fences--just such fields--for a thousand miles, and in each small
enclosure a man as hot as I with the passion of possession. How they all
envied, and hated, in their longing for more land! How property kept
them apart, prevented the close, confident touch of friendship, how it
separated lovers and ruined families! Of all obstacles to that complete
democracy of which we dream, is there a greater than property?
I was ashamed. Deep shame covered me. How little of the earth, after
all, I said, lies within the limits of my fences. And I looked out upon
the perfect beauty of the world around me, and I saw how little excited
it was, how placid, how undemanding.
I had come here to be free and already this farm, which I thought of so
fondly as my possession, was coming to possess me. Ownership is an
appetite like hunger or thirst, and as we may eat to gluttony and drink
to drunkenness so we may possess to avarice. How many men have I seen
who, though they regard themselves as models of temperance, wear the
marks of unbridled indulgence of the passion of possession, and how like
gluttony or licentiousness it sets its sure sign upon their faces.
I said to myself, Why should any man fence himself in? And why hope to
enlarge one's world by the creeping acquisition of a few acres to his
farm? I thought of the old scientist, who, laying his hand upon the
grass, remarked: "Everything under my hand is a miracle"--forgetting
that everything outside was also a miracle.
[Illustration: "HOW GRACEFUL CLIMB THESE SHADOWS ON MY HILL"]
As I stood there I glanced across the broad valley wherein lies the most
of my farm, to a field of buckwheat which belongs to Horace. For an
instant it gave me the illusion of a hill on fire: for the late sun
shone full on the thick ripe stalks of the buckwheat, giving forth an
abundant red glory that blessed the eye. Horace had been proud of his
crop, smacking his lips at the prospect of winter pancakes, and here I
was entering his field and taking without hindrance another crop, a crop
gathered not with hands nor stored in granaries: a wonderful crop,
which, once gathered, may long be fed upon and yet remain unconsumed.
So I looked across the countryside; a group of elms here, a tufted
hilltop there, the smooth verdure of pastures, the rich brown of
new-plowed fields--and the odours, and the sounds of the country--all
cropped by me. How little the fences keep me out: I do not regard
titles, nor consider boundaries. I enter either by day or by night, but
not secretly. Taking my fill, I leave as much as I find.
And thus standing upon the highest hill in my upper pasture, I thought
of the quoted saying of a certain old abbot of the middle ages--"He
that is a true monk considers nothing as belonging to him except a
What finer spirit? Who shall step forth freer than he who goes with
nothing save his lyre? He shall sing as he goes: he shall not be held
down nor fenced in.
With a lifting of the soul I thought of that old abbot, how smooth his
brow, how catholic his interest, how serene his outlook, how free his
friendships, how unlimited his whole life. Nothing but a lyre!
So I made a covenant there with myself. I said: "I shall use, not be
used. I do not limit myself here. I shall not allow possessions to come
between me and my life or my friends."
For a time--how long I do not know--I stood thinking. Presently I
discovered, moving slowly along the margin of the field below me, the
old professor with his tin botany box. And somehow I had no feeling that
he was intruding upon my new land. His walk was slow and methodical, his
head and even his shoulders were bent--almost habitually--from looking
close upon the earth, and from time to time he stooped, and once he
knelt to examine some object that attracted his eye. It seemed
appropriate that he should thus kneel to the earth. So he gathered _his_
crop and fences did not keep him out nor titles disturb him. He also was
free! It gave me at that moment a peculiar pleasure to have him on my
land, to know that I was, if unconsciously, raising other crops than I
knew. I felt friendship for this old professor: I could understand him,
I thought. And I said aloud but in a low tone, as though I were
--Do not apologise, friend, when you come into my field. You do not
interrupt me. What you have come for is of more importance at this
moment than corn. Who is it that says I must plow so many furrows this
day? Come in, friend, and sit here on these clods: we will sweeten the
evening with fine words. We will invest our time not in corn, or in
cash, but in life.--
I walked with confidence down the hill toward the professor. So
engrossed was he with his employment that he did not see me until I was
within a few paces of him. When he looked up at me it was as though his
eyes returned from some far journey. I felt at first out of focus,
unplaced, and only gradually coming into view. In his hand he held a
lump of earth containing a thrifty young plant of the purple
cone-flower, having several blossoms. He worked at the lump deftly,
delicately, so that the earth, pinched, powdered and shaken out, fell
between his fingers, leaving the knotty yellow roots in his hand. I
marked how firm, slow, brown, the old man was, how little obtrusive in
my field. One foot rested in a furrow, the other was set among the grass
of the margin, near the fence--his place, I thought.
His first words, though of little moment in themselves, gave me a
curious satisfaction, as when a coin, tested, rings true gold, or a
hero, tried, is heroic.
"I have rarely," he said, "seen a finer display of rudbeckia than this,
along these old fences."
If he had referred to me, or questioned, or apologised, I should have
been disappointed. He did not say, "your fences," he said "these
fences," as though they were as much his as mine. And he spoke in his
own world, knowing that if I could enter I would, but that if I could
not, no stooping to me would avail either of us.
"It has been a good autumn for flowers," I said inanely, for so many
things were flying through my mind that I could not at once think of the
great particular words which should bring us together. At first I
thought my chance had passed, but he seemed to see something in me after
all, for he said:
"Here is a peculiarly large specimen of the rudbeckia. Observe the deep
purple of the cone, and the bright yellow of the petals. Here is another
that grew hardly two feet away, in the grass near the fence where the
rails and the blackberry bushes have shaded it. How small and
undeveloped it is."
"They crowd up to the plowed land," I observed.
"Yes, they reach out for a better chance in life--like men. With more
room, better food, freer air, you see how much finer they grow."
It was curious to me, having hitherto barely observed the cone-flowers
along my fences, save as a colour of beauty, how simply we fell to
talking of them as though in truth they were people like ourselves,
having our desires and possessed of our capabilities. It gave me then,
for the first time, the feeling which has since meant such varied
enjoyment, of the peopling of the woods.
"See here," he said, "how different the character of these individuals.
They are all of the same species. They all grow along this fence within
two or three rods; but observe the difference not only in size but in
colouring, in the shape of the petals, in the proportions of the cone.
What does it all mean? Why, nature trying one of her endless
experiments. She sows here broadly, trying to produce better
cone-flowers. A few she plants on the edge of the field in the hope that
they may escape the plow. If they grow, better food and more sunshine
produce more and larger flowers."
So we talked, or rather he talked, finding in me an eager listener. And
what he called botany seemed to me to be life. Of birth, of growth, of
reproduction, of death, he spoke, and his flowers became sentient
creatures under my eyes.
And thus the sun went down and the purple mists crept silently along the
distant low spots, and all the great, great mysteries came and stood
before me beckoning and questioning. They came and they stood, and out
of the cone-flower, as the old professor spoke, I seemed to catch a
glimmer of the true light. I reflected how truly everything is in
anything. If one could really understand a cone-flower he could
understand this Earth. Botany was only one road toward the Explanation.
Always I hope that some traveller may have more news of the way than I,
and sooner or later, I find I must make inquiry of the direction of
every thoughtful man I meet. And I have always had especial hope of
those who study the sciences: they ask such intimate questions of
nature. Theology possesses a vain-gloriousness which places its faith in
human theories; but science, at its best, is humble before nature
herself. It has no thesis to defend: it is content to kneel upon the
earth, in the way of my friend, the old professor, and ask the simplest
questions, hoping for some true reply.
I wondered, then, what the professor thought, after his years of work,
of the Mystery; and finally, not without confusion, I asked him. He
listened, for the first time ceasing to dig, shake out and arrange his
specimens. When I had stopped speaking he remained for a moment silent,
then he looked at me with a new regard. Finally he quoted quietly, but
with a deep note in his voice:
"Canst thou by searching find God? Canst thou
find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high
as heaven: what canst thou do? deeper than hell,
what canst thou know?"
When the professor had spoken we stood for a moment silent, then he
smiled and said briskly:
"I have been a botanist for fifty-four years. When I was a boy I
believed implicitly in God. I prayed to him, having a vision of him--a
person--before my eyes. As I grew older I concluded that there was no
God. I dismissed him from the universe. I believed only in what I could
see, or hear, or feel. I talked about Nature and Reality."
He paused, the smile still lighting his face, evidently recalling to
himself the old days. I did not interrupt him. Finally he turned to me
and said abruptly.
"And now--it seems to me--there is nothing but God."
As he said this he lifted his arm with a peculiar gesture that seemed
to take in the whole world.
For a time we were both silent. When I left him I offered my hand and
told him I hoped I might become his friend. So I turned my face toward
home. Evening was falling, and as I walked I heard the crows calling,
and the air was keen and cool, and I thought deep thoughts.
And so I stepped into the darkened stable. I could not see the outlines
of the horse or the cow, but knowing the place so well I could easily
get about. I heard the horse step aside with a soft expectant whinny. I
smelled the smell of milk, the musty, sharp odour of dry hay, the
pungent smell of manure, not unpleasant. And the stable was warm after
the cool of the fields with a sort of animal warmth that struck into me
soothingly. I spoke in a low voice and laid my hand on the horse's
flank. The flesh quivered and shrunk away from my touch--coming back
confidently, warmly. I ran my hand along his back and up his hairy neck.
I felt his sensitive nose in my hand. "You shall have your oats," I
said, and I gave him to eat. Then I spoke as gently to the cow, and she
stood aside to be milked.
And afterward I came out into the clear bright night, and the air was
sweet and cool, and my dog came bounding to meet me.--So I carried the
milk into the house, and Harriet said in her heartiest tone:
"You are late, David. But sit up, I have kept the biscuits warm."
And that night my sleep was sound.
ENTERTAIN AN AGENT UNAWARES
With the coming of winter I thought the life of a farmer might lose
something of its charm. So much interest lies in the growth not only of
crops but of trees, vines, flowers, sentiments and emotions. In the
summer the world is busy, concerned with many things and full of gossip:
in the winter I anticipated a cessation of many active interests and
enthusiasms. I looked forward to having time for my books and for the
quiet contemplation of the life around me. Summer indeed is for
activity, winter for reflection. But when winter really came every day
discovered some new work to do or some new adventure to enjoy. It is
surprising how many things happen on a small farm. Examining the book
which accounts for that winter, I find the history of part of a
forenoon, which will illustrate one of the curious adventures of a
farmer's life. It is dated January 5.
* * * * *
I went out this morning with my axe and hammer to mend the fence along
the public road. A heavy frost fell last night and the brown grass and
the dry ruts of the roads were powdered white. Even the air, which was
perfectly still, seemed full of frost crystals, so that when the sun
came up one seemed to walk in a magic world. I drew in a long breath and
looked out across the wonderful shining country and I said to myself:
"Surely, there is nowhere I would rather be than here." For I could have
travelled nowhere to find greater beauty or a better enjoyment of it
than I had here at home.
As I worked with my axe and hammer, I heard a light wagon come rattling
up the road. Across the valley a man had begun to chop a tree. I could
see the axe steel flash brilliantly in the sunshine before I heard the
sound of the blow.
The man in the wagon had a round face and a sharp blue eye. I thought he
seemed a businesslike young man.
"Say, there," he shouted, drawing up at my gate, "would you mind holding
my horse a minute? It's a cold morning and he's restless."
"Certainly not," I said, and I put down my tools and held his horse.
He walked up to my door with a brisk step and a certain jaunty poise of
"He is well contented with himself," I said. "It is a great blessing for
any man to be satisfied with what he has got."
I heard Harriet open the door--how every sound rang through the still
The young man asked some question and I distinctly heard Harriet's
"He's down there."
The young man came back: his hat was tipped up, his quick eye darted
over my grounds as though in a single instant he had appraised
everything and passed judgment upon the cash value of the inhabitants.
He whistled a lively little tune.
"Say," he said, when he reached the gate, not at all disconcerted, "I
thought you was the hired man. Your name's Grayson, ain't it? Well, I
want to talk with you."
After tying and blanketing his horse and taking a black satchel from his
buggy he led me up to my house. I had a pleasurable sense of excitement
and adventure. Here was a new character come to my farm. Who knows, I
thought, what he may bring with him: who knows what I may send away by
him? Here in the country we must set our little ships afloat on small
streams, hoping that somehow, some day, they will reach the sea.
It was interesting to see the busy young man sit down so confidently in
our best chair. He said his name was Dixon, and he took out from his
satchel a book with a fine showy cover. He said it was called "Living
Selections from Poet, Sage and Humourist."
"This," he told me, "is only the first of the series. We publish six
volumes full of literchoor. You see what a heavy book this is?"
I tested it in my hand: it was a heavy book.
"The entire set," he said, "weighs over ten pounds. There are 1,162
pages, enough paper if laid down flat, end to end, to reach half a
I cannot quote his exact language: there was too much of it, but he made
an impressive showing of the amount of literature that could be had at a
very low price per pound. Mr. Dixon was a hypnotist. He fixed me with
his glittering eye, and he talked so fast, and his ideas upon the
subject were so original that he held me spellbound. At first I was
inclined to be provoked: one does not like to be forcibly hypnotised,
but gradually the situation began to amuse me, the more so when Harriet
"Did you ever see a more beautiful binding?" asked the agent, holding
his book admiringly at arm's length. "This up here," he said, pointing
to the illuminated cover, "is the Muse of Poetry She is scattering
flowers--poems, you know. Fine idea, ain't it? Colouring fine, too."
He jumped up quickly and laid the book on my table, to the evident
distress of Harriet.
"Trims up the room, don't it?" he exclaimed, turning his head a little
to one side and observing the effect with an expression of affectionate
"How much," I asked, "will you sell the covers for without the
"Without the insides?"
"Yes," I said, "the binding will trim up my table just as well without
I thought he looked at me a little suspiciously, but he was evidently
satisfied by my expression of countenance, for he answered promptly:
"Oh, but you want the insides. That's what the books are for. The
bindings are never sold alone."
He then went on to tell me the prices and terms of payment, until it
really seemed that it would be cheaper to buy the books than to let him
carry them away again. Harriet stood in the doorway behind him frowning
and evidently trying to catch my eye. But I kept my face turned aside so
that I could not see her signal of distress and my eyes fixed on the
young man Dixon. It was as good as a play. Harriet there,
serious-minded, thinking I was being befooled, and the agent thinking he
was befooling me, and I, thinking I was befooling both of them--and all
of us wrong. It was very like life wherever you find it.
Finally, I took the book which he had been urging upon me, at which
Harriet coughed meaningly to attract my attention. She knew the danger
when I really got my hands on a book. But I made up as innocent as a
child. I opened the book almost at random--and it was as though, walking
down a strange road, I had come upon an old tried friend not seen before
in years. For there on the page before me I read:
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
But are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not."
And as I read it came back to me--a scene like a picture--the place, the
time, the very feel of the hour when I first saw those lines. Who shall
say that the past does not live! An odour will sometimes set the blood
coursing in an old emotion, and a line of poetry is the resurrection and
the life. For a moment I forgot Harriet and the agent, I forgot myself,
I even forgot the book on my knee--everything but that hour in the
past--a view of shimmering hot housetops, the heat and dust and noise of
an August evening in the city, the dumb weariness of it all, the
loneliness, the longing for green fields; and then these great lines of
Wordsworth, read for the first time, flooding in upon me:
"Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn:
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
And hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn."
When I had finished I found myself standing in my own room with one arm
raised, and, I suspect, a trace of tears in my eyes--there before the
agent and Harriet. I saw Harriet lift one hand and drop it hopelessly.
She thought I was captured at last. I was past saving. And as I looked
at the agent I saw "grim conquest glowing in his eye!" So I sat down not
a little embarrassed by my exhibition--when I had intended to be
"You like it, don't you?" said Mr. Dixon unctuously.
"I don't see," I said earnestly, "how you can afford to sell such
things as this so cheap."
"They _are_ cheap," he admitted regretfully. I suppose he wished he had
tried me with the half-morocco.
"They are priceless," I said, "absolutely priceless. If you were the
only man in the world who had that poem, I think I would deed you my
farm for it."
Mr. Dixon proceeded, as though it were all settled, to get out his black
order book and open it briskly for business. He drew his fountain pen,
capped it, and looked up at me expectantly. My feet actually seemed
slipping into some irresistible whirlpool. How well he understood
practical psychology! I struggled within myself, fearing engulfment: I
was all but lost.
"Shall I deliver the set at once," he said, "or can you wait until the
first of February?"
At that critical moment a floating spar of an idea swept my way and I
seized upon it as the last hope of the lost.
[Illustration: 'Did you ever see a more beautiful binding?']
"I don't understand," I said, as though I had not heard his last
question, "how you dare go about with all this treasure upon you. Are
you not afraid of being stopped in the road and robbed? Why, I've seen
the time when, if I had known you carried such things as these, such
cures for sick hearts, I think I should have stopped you myself!"
"Say, you _are_ an odd one," said Mr. Dixon.
"Why do you sell such priceless things as these?" I asked, looking at
"Why do I sell them?" and he looked still more perplexed. "To make
money, of course; same reason you raise corn."
"But here is wealth," I said, pursuing my advantage. "If you have these
you have something more valuable than money."
Mr. Dixon politely said nothing. Like a wise angler, having failed to
land me at the first rush, he let me have line. Then I thought of
Ruskin's words, "Nor can any noble thing be wealth except to a noble
person." And that prompted me to say to Mr. Dixon:
"These things are not yours; they are mine. You never owned them; but I
will sell them to you."
He looked at me in amazement, and then glanced around--evidently to
discover if there were a convenient way of escape.
"You're all straight, are you?" he asked tapping his forehead; "didn't
anybody ever try to take you up?"
"The covers are yours," I continued as though I had not heard him, "the
insides are mine and have been for a long time: that is why I proposed
buying the covers separately."
I opened his book again. I thought I would see what had been chosen for
its pages. And I found there many fine and great things.
"Let me read you this," I said to Mr. Dixon; "it has been mine for a
long time. I will not sell it to you. I will give it to you outright.
The best things are always given."
Having some gift in imitating the Scotch dialect, I read:
"November chill blaws loud wi' angry sugh;
The shortening winter day is near a close;
The miry beasts retreating frae the pleugh;
The black'ning trains o' craws to their repose:
The toil-worn Cotter frae his labour goes,
This night his weekly moil is at an end,
Collects his spades, his mattocks and his hoes,
Hoping the morn in ease and rest to spend,
And weary, o'er the moor, his course does hameward bend."
So I read "The Cotter's Saturday Night." I love the poem very much
myself, sometimes reading it aloud, not so much for the tenderness of
its message, though I prize that, too, as for the wonder of its music:
"Compared with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickl'd ear no heart-felt raptures raise."
I suppose I showed my feeling in my voice. As I glanced up from time to
time I saw the agent's face change, and his look deepen and the lips,
usually so energetically tense, loosen with emotion. Surely no poem in
all the language conveys so perfectly the simple love of the home, the
quiet joys, hopes, pathos of those who live close to the soil.
When I had finished--I stopped with the stanza beginning:
"Then homeward all take off their sev'ral way";
the agent turned away his head trying to brave out his emotion. Most of
us, Anglo-Saxons, tremble before a tear when we might fearlessly beard a
I moved up nearer to the agent and put my hand on his knee; then I read
two or three of the other things I found in his wonderful book. And once
I had him laughing and once again I had the tears in his eyes. Oh, a
simple young man, a little crusty without, but soft inside--like the
rest of us.
Well, it was amazing once we began talking not of books but of life, how
really eloquent and human he became. From being a distant and
uncomfortable person, he became at once like a near neighbour and
friend. It was strange to me--as I have thought since--how he conveyed
to us in few words the essential emotional note of his life. It was no
violin tone, beautifully complex with harmonics, but the clear simple
voice of the flute. It spoke of his wife and his baby girl and his home.
The very incongruity of detail--he told us how he grew onions in his
back yard--added somehow to the homely glamour of the vision which he
gave us. The number of his house, the fact that he had a new cottage
organ, and that the baby ran away and lost herself in Seventeenth
Street--were all, curiously, fabrics of his emotion.
It was beautiful to see commonplace facts grow phosphorescent in the
heat of true feeling. How little we may come to know Romance by the
cloak she wears and how humble must be he who would surprise the heart
It was, indeed, with an indescribable thrill that I heard him add the
details, one by one--the mortgage on his place, now rapidly being paid
off, the brother who was a plumber, the mother-in-law who was not a
mother-in-law of the comic papers. And finally he showed us the picture
of the wife and baby that he had in the cover of his watch; a fat baby
with its head resting on its mother's shoulder.
"Mister," he said, "p'raps you think it's fun to ride around the country
like I do, and be away from home most of the time. But it ain't. When I
think of Minnie and the kid--"
He broke off sharply, as if he had suddenly remembered the shame of such
"Say," he asked, "what page is that poem on?"
I told him.
"One forty-six," he said. "When I get home I'm going to read that to
Minnie. She likes poetry and all such things. And where's that other
piece that tells how a man feels when he's lonesome? Say, that fellow
We had a genuinely good time, the agent and I, and when he finally rose
to go, I said:
"Well, I've sold you a new book."
"I see now, mister, what you mean."
I went down the path with him and began to unhitch his horse.
"Let me, let me," he said eagerly.
Then he shook hands, paused a moment awkwardly as if about to say
something, then sprang into his buggy without saying it.
When he had taken up his reins he remarked:
"Say! but you'd make an agent! You'd hypnotise 'em."
I recognised it as the greatest compliment he could pay me: the craft
Then he drove off, but pulled up before he had gone five yards. He
turned in his seat, one hand on the back of it, his whip raised.
"Say!" he shouted, and when I walked up he looked at me with fine
"Mister, perhaps you'd accept one of these sets from Dixon free gratis,
"I understand," I said, "but you know I'm giving the books to you--and I
couldn't take them back again."
"Well," he said, "you're a good one, anyhow. Good-bye again," and then,
suddenly, business naturally coming uppermost, he remarked with great
"You've given me a new idea. _Say_, I'll sell 'em."
"Carry them carefully, man," I called after him; "they are precious."
So I went back to my work, thinking how many fine people there are in
this world--if you scratch 'em deep enough.
[Illustration: "Horace 'hefted' it"]
_April the 15th._
This morning I broke my old axe handle. I went out early while the fog
still filled the valley and the air was cool and moist as it had come
fresh from the filter of the night. I drew a long breath and let my axe
fall with all the force I could give it upon a new oak log. I swung it
unnecessarily high for the joy of doing it and when it struck it
communicated a sharp yet not unpleasant sting to the palms of my hands.
The handle broke short off at the point where the helve meets the steel.
The blade was driven deep in the oak wood. I suppose I should have
regretted my foolishness, but I did not. The handle was old and somewhat
worn, and the accident gave me an indefinable satisfaction: the
culmination of use, that final destruction which is the complement of
This feeling was also partly prompted by the thought of the new helve I
already had in store, awaiting just such a catastrophe. Having come
somewhat painfully by that helve, I really wanted to see it in use.
Last spring, walking in my fields, I looked out along the fences for a
well-fitted young hickory tree of thrifty second growth, bare of knots
at least head high, without the cracks or fissures of too rapid growth
or the doziness of early transgression. What I desired was a fine,
healthy tree fitted for a great purpose and I looked for it as I would
look for a perfect man to save a failing cause. At last I found a
sapling growing in one of the sheltered angles of my rail fence. It was
set about by dry grass, overhung by a much larger cherry tree, and
bearing still its withered last year's leaves, worn diaphanous but
curled delicately, and of a most beautiful ash gray colour, something
like the fabric of a wasp's nest, only yellower. I gave it a shake and
it sprung quickly under my hand like the muscle of a good horse. Its
bark was smooth and trim, its bole well set and solid.
A perfect tree! So I came up again with my short axe and after clearing
away the grass and leaves with which the wind had mulched it, I cut into
the clean white roots. I had no twinge of compunction, for was this not
fulfillment? Nothing comes of sorrow for worthy sacrifice. When I had
laid the tree low, I clipped off the lower branches, snapped off the top
with a single clean stroke of the axe, and shouldered as pretty a
second-growth sapling stick as anyone ever laid his eyes upon.
I carried it down to my barn and put it on the open rafters over the cow
stalls. A cow stable is warm and not too dry, so that a hickory log
cures slowly without cracking or checking. There it lay for many weeks.
Often I cast my eyes up at it with satisfaction, watching the bark
shrink and slightly deepen in colour, and once I climbed up where I
could see the minute seams making way in the end of the stick.
In the summer I brought the stick into the house, and put it in the dry,
warm storeroom over the kitchen where I keep my seed corn. I do not
suppose it really needed further attention, but sometimes when I chanced
to go into the storeroom, I turned it over with my foot. I felt a sort
of satisfaction in knowing that it was in preparation for service: good
material for useful work. So it lay during the autumn and far into the
One cold night when I sat comfortably at my fireplace, listening to the
wind outside, and feeling all the ease of a man at peace with himself,
my mind took flight to my snowy field sides and I thought of the trees
there waiting and resting through the winter. So I came in imagination
to the particular corner in the fence where I had cut my hickory
sapling. Instantly I started up, much to Harriet's astonishment, and
made my way mysteriously up the kitchen stairs. I would not tell what I
was after: I felt it a sort of adventure, almost like the joy of seeing
a friend long forgotten. It was as if my hickory stick had cried out at
last, after long chrysalishood:
"I am ready."
I stood it on end and struck it sharply with my knuckles: it rang out
with a certain clear resonance.
"I am ready."
I sniffed at the end of it. It exhaled a peculiar good smell, as of old
fields in the autumn.
"I am ready."
So I took it under my arm and carried it down.
"Mercy, what are you going to do?" exclaimed Harriet.
"Deliberately, and with malice aforethought," I responded, "I am going
to litter up your floor. I have decided to be reckless. I don't care
Having made this declaration, which Harriet received with becoming
disdain, I laid the log by the fireplace--not too near--and went to
fetch a saw, a hammer, a small wedge, and a draw-shave.
I split my log into as fine white sections as a man ever saw--every
piece as straight as morality, and without so much as a sliver to mar
it. Nothing is so satisfactory as to have a task come out in perfect
time and in good order. The little pieces of bark and sawdust I swept
scrupulously into the fireplace, looking up from time to time to see how
Harriet was taking it. Harriet was still disdainful.
Making an axe-helve is like writing a poem (though I never wrote one).
The material is free enough, but it takes a poet to use it. Some people
imagine that any fine thought is poetry, but there was never a greater
mistake. A fine thought, to become poetry, must be seasoned in the upper
warm garrets of the mind for long and long, then it must be brought down
and slowly carved into words, shaped with emotion, polished with love.
Else it is no true poem. Some people imagine that any hickory stick will
make an axe-helve. But this is far from the truth. When I had whittled
away for several evenings with my draw-shave and jack-knife, both of
which I keep sharpened to the keenest edge, I found that my work was not
progressing as well as I had hoped.
"This is more of a task," I remarked one evening, "than I had imagined."
Harriet, rocking placidly in her arm-chair, was mending a number of
pairs of new socks, Poor Harriet! Lacking enough old holes to occupy her
energies, she mends holes that may possibly appear. A frugal person!
"Well, David," she said, "I warned you that you could buy a helve
cheaper than you could make it."
"So I can buy a book cheaper than I can write it," I responded.
I felt somewhat pleased with my return shot, though I took pains not to
show it. I squinted along my hickory stick which was even then beginning
to assume, rudely, the outlines of an axe-handle. I had made a
prodigious pile of fine white shavings and I was tired, but quite
suddenly there came over me a sort of love for that length of wood. I
sprung it affectionately over my knee, I rubbed it up and down with my
hand, and then I set it in the corner behind the fireplace.
"After all," I said, for I had really been disturbed by Harriet's
remark--"after all, power over one thing gives us power over everything.
When you mend socks prospectively--into futurity--Harriet, that is an
evidence of true greatness."
"Sometimes I think it doesn't pay," remarked Harriet, though she was
"Pretty good socks," I said, "can be bought for fifteen cents a pair."
Harriet looked at me suspiciously, but I was as sober as the face of
For the next two or three evenings I let the axe-helve stand alone in
the corner. I hardly looked at it, though once in a while, when occupied
with some other work, I would remember, or rather half remember, that I
had a pleasure in store for the evening. The very thought of sharp tools
and something, to make with them acts upon the imagination with peculiar
zest. So we love to employ the keen edge of the mind upon a knotty and
One evening the Scotch preacher came in. We love him very much, though
he sometimes makes us laugh--perhaps, in part, because he makes us
laugh. Externally he is a sort of human cocoanut, rough, brown, shaggy,
but within he has the true milk of human kindness. Some of his qualities
touch greatness. His youth was spent in stony places where strong winds
blew; the trees where he grew bore thorns; the soil where he dug was
full of roots. But the crop was human love. He possesses that quality,
unusual in one bred exclusively in the country, of magnanimity toward
the unlike. In the country we are tempted to throw stones at strange
hats! But to the Scotch preacher every man in one way seems transparent
to the soul. He sees the man himself, not his professions any more than
his clothes. And I never knew anyone who had such an abiding disbelief
in the wickedness of the human soul. Weakness he sees and comforts;
wickedness he cannot see.
When he came in I was busy whittling my axe-helve, it being my pleasure
at that moment to make long, thin, curly shavings so light that many of
them were caught on the hearth and bowled by the draught straight to
There is a noisy zest about the Scotch preacher: he comes in "stomping"
as we say, he must clear his throat, he must strike his hands together;
he even seems noisy when he unwinds the thick red tippet which he wears
wound many times around his neck. It takes him a long time to unwind it,
and he accomplishes the task with many slow gyrations of his enormous
rough head. When he sits down he takes merely the edge of the chair,
spreads his stout legs apart, sits as straight as a post, and blows his
nose with a noise like the falling of a tree.
His interest in everything is prodigious. When he saw what I was doing
he launched at once upon an account of the methods of axe-helving,
ancient and modern, with true incidents of his childhood.
"Man," he exclaimed, "you've clean forgotten one of the preenciple
refinements of the art. When you chop, which hand do you hold down?"
At the moment, I couldn't have told "to save my life, so we both got up
on our feet and tried.
"It's the right hand down," I decided; "that's natural to me."
"You're a normal right-handed chopper, then," said the Scotch preacher,
"as I was thinking. Now let me instruct you in the art. Being
right-handed, your helve must bow out--so. No first-class chopper uses a
He fell to explaining, with gusto, the mysteries of the bowed handle,
and as I listened I felt a new and peculiar interest in my task This
was a final perfection to be accomplished, the finality of technique!
So we sat with our heads together talking helves and axes, axes with
single blades and axes with double blades, and hand axes and great
choppers' axes, and the science of felling trees, with the true
philosophy of the last chip, and arguments as to the best procedure when
a log begins to "pinch"--until a listener would have thought that the
art of the chopper included the whole philosophy of existence--as indeed
it does, if you look at it in that way. Finally I rushed out and brought
in my old axe-handle, and we set upon it like true artists, with
critical proscription for being a trivial product of machinery.
"Man," exclaimed the preacher, "it has no character. Now your helve
here, being the vision of your brain and work of your hands, will
interpret the thought of your heart."
Before the Scotch preacher had finished his disquisition upon the art of
helve-making and its relations with all other arts, I felt like Peary
discovering the Pole.
In the midst of the discourse, while I was soaring high, the Scotch
preacher suddenly stopped, sat up, and struck his knee with a tremendous
"Spoons!" he exclaimed.
Harriet and I stopped and looked at him in astonishment.
"Spoons," repeated Harriet.
"Spoons," said the Scotch preacher. "I've not once thought of my errand;
and my wife told me to come straight home. I'm more thoughtless every
Then he turned to Harriet:
"I've been sent to borrow some spoons," he said.
"Spoons!" exclaimed Harriet.
"Spoons," answered the Scotch preacher. "We've invited friends for
dinner to-morrow, and we must have spoons."
"But why--how--I thought--" began Harriet, still in astonishment.
The Scotch preacher squared around toward her and cleared his throat.
"It's the baptisms," he said: "when a baby is brought for baptism, of
course it must have a baptismal gift. What is the best gift for a baby?
A spoon. So we present it with a spoon. To-day we discovered we had only
three spoons left, and company coming. Man, 'tis a proleefic
[Illustration: "LET MY AXE FALL"]
He heaved a great sigh.
Harriet rushed out and made up a package. When she came in I thought it
seemed suspiciously large for spoons, but the Scotch preacher having
again launched into the lore of the chopper, took it without at first
perceiving anything strange. Five minutes after we had closed the door
upon him he suddenly returned holding up the package.
"This is an uncommonly heavy package," he remarked; "did I say
"Go on!" commanded Harriet; "your wife will understand."
"All right--good-bye again," and his sturdy figure soon disappeared in
"The impractical man!" exclaimed Harriet. "People impose on him."
"What was in that package, Harriet?"
"Oh, I put in a few jars of jelly and a cake of honey."
After a moment Harriet looked up from her work.
"Do you know the greatest sorrow of the Scotch preacher and his wife?"
"What is it?" I asked.
"They have no chick nor child of their own," said Harriet.
It is prodigious, the amount of work required to make a good
axe-helve--I mean to make it according to one's standard. I had times of
humorous discouragement and times of high elation when it seemed to me I
could not work fast enough. Weeks passed when I did not touch the helve
but left it standing quietly in the corner. Once or twice I took it out
and walked about with it as a sort of cane, much to the secret
amusement, I think, of Harriet. At times Harriet takes a really wicked
delight in her superiority.
Early one morning in March the dawn came with a roaring wind, sleety
snow drove down over the hill, the house creaked and complained in every
clapboard. A blind of one of the upper windows, wrenched loose from its
fastenings, was driven shut with such force that it broke a window pane.
When I rushed up to discover the meaning of the clatter and to repair
the damage, I found the floor covered with peculiar long fragments of
glass--the pane having been broken inward from the centre.
"Just what I have wanted," I said to myself.
I selected a few of the best pieces and so eager was I to try them that
I got out my axe-helve before breakfast and sat scratching away when
Harriet came down.
Nothing equals a bit of broken glass for putting on the final perfect
touch to a work of art like an axe-helve. Nothing will so beautifully
and delicately trim out the curves of the throat or give a smoother turn
to the waist. So with care and an indescribable affection, I added the
final touches, trimming the helve until it exactly fitted my hand. Often
and often I tried it in pantomime, swinging nobly in the centre of the
sitting-room (avoiding the lamp), attentive to the feel of my hand as it
ran along the helve. I rubbed it down with fine sandpaper until it
fairly shone with whiteness. Then I borrowed a red flannel cloth of
Harriet and having added a few drops--not too much--of boiled oil, I
rubbed the helve for all I was worth. This I continued for upward of an
hour. At that time the axe-helve had taken on a yellowish shade, very
clear and beautiful.
I do not think I could have been prouder if I had carved a statue or
built a parthenon. I was consumed with vanity; but I set the new helve
in the corner with the appearance of utter unconcern.
"There," I remarked, "it's finished."
I watched Harriet out of the corner of my eye: she made as if to speak
and then held silent.
That evening friend Horace came in. I was glad to see him. Horace is or
was a famous chopper. I placed him at the fireplace where his eye,
sooner or later, must fall upon my axe-helve. Oh, I worked out my
designs! Presently he saw the helve, picked it up at once and turned it
over in his hands. I had a suffocating, not unhumorous, sense of
self-consciousness. I know how a poet must feel at hearing his first
poem read aloud by some other person who does not know its authorship. I
suffer and thrill with the novelist who sees a stranger purchase his
book in a book-shop. I felt as though I stood that moment before the
Horace "hefted" it and balanced it, and squinted along it; he rubbed it
with his thumb, he rested one end of it on the floor and sprung it
"David," he said severely, "where did you git this?"
Once when I was a boy I came home with my hair wet. My father asked:
"David, have you been swimming?"
I had exactly the same feeling when Horace asked his question. Now I am,
generally speaking, a truthful man. I have written a good deal about the
immorality, the unwisdom, the short-sightedness, the sinful wastefulness
of a lie. But at that moment, if Harriet had not been present--and that
illustrates one of the purposes of society, to bolster up a man's
morals--I should have evolved as large and perfect a prevarication as it
lay within me to do--cheerfully. But I felt Harriet's moral eye upon me:
I was a coward as well as a sinner. I faltered so long that Horace
finally looked around at me.
Horace has no poetry in his soul, neither does he understand the
philosophy of imperfection nor the art of irregularity.
It is a tender shoot, easily blasted by cold winds, the creative
instinct: but persistent. It has many adventitious buds. A late frost
destroying the freshness of its early verdure, may be the means of a
richer growth in later and more favourable days.
* * * * *
For a week I left my helve standing there in the corner. I did not even
look at it. I was slain. I even thought of getting up in the night and
putting the helve on the coals--secretly. Then, suddenly, one morning, I
took it up not at all tenderly, indeed with a humorous appreciation of
my own absurdities, and carried it out into the yard. An axe-helve is
not a mere ornament but a thing of sober purpose. The test, after all,
of axe-helves is not sublime perfection, but service. We may easily find
flaws in the verse of the master--how far the rhythm fails of the final
perfect music, how often uncertain the rhyme--but it bears within it,
hidden yet evident, that certain incalculable fire which kindles and
will continue to kindle the souls of men. The final test is not the
perfection of precedent, not regularity, but life, spirit.
It was one of those perfect, sunny, calm mornings that sometimes come in
early April: the zest of winter yet in the air, but a promise of summer.
I built a fire of oak chips in the middle of the yard, between two flat
stones. I brought out my old axe, and when the fire had burned down
somewhat, leaving a foundation of hot coals, I thrust the eye of the axe
into the fire. The blade rested on one of the flat stones, and I kept it
covered with wet rags in order that it might not heat sufficiently to
destroy the temper of the steel. Harriet's old gray hen, a garrulous
fowl, came and stood on one leg and looked at me first with one eye and
then with the other. She asked innumerable impertinent questions and was
"I am sorry, madam," I said finally, "but I have grown adamant to
criticism. I have done my work as well as it lies in me to do it. It is
the part of sanity to throw it aside without compunction. A work must
prove itself. Shoo!"
I said this with such conclusiveness and vigour that the critical old
hen departed hastily with ruffled feathers.
So I sat there in the glorious perfection of the forenoon, the great day
open around me, a few small clouds abroad in the highest sky, and all
the earth radiant with sunshine. The last snow of winter was gone, the
sap ran in the trees, the cows fed further afield.
When the eye of the axe was sufficiently expanded by the heat I drew it
quickly from the fire and drove home the helve which I had already
whittled down to the exact size. I had a hickory wedge prepared, and it
was the work of ten seconds to drive it into the cleft at the lower end
of the helve until the eye of the axe was completely and perfectly
filled. Upon cooling the steel shrunk upon the wood, clasping it with
such firmness that nothing short of fire could ever dislodge it. Then,
carefully, with knife and sandpaper I polished off the wood around the
steel of the axe until I had made as good a job of it as lay within my
So I carried the axe to my log-pile. I swung it above my head and the
feel of it was good in my hands. The blade struck deep into the oak
wood. And I said to myself with satisfaction:
"It serves the purpose."
THE MARSH DITCH
"If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy and life
emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-smelling herbs--is more
elastic, more starry, more immortal--that is your Success."
In all the days of my life I have never been so well content as I am
this spring. Last summer I thought I was happy, the fall gave me a
finality of satisfaction, the winter imparted perspective, but spring
conveys a wholly new sense of life, a quickening the like of which I
never before experienced. It seems to me that everything in the world is
more interesting, more vital, more significant. I feel like "waving
aside all roofs," in the way of Le Sage's Asmodeus.
I even cease to fear Mrs. Horace, who is quite the most formidable
person in this neighbourhood. She is so avaricious in the saving of
souls--and so covetous of mine, which I wish especially to retain. When
I see her coming across the hill I feel like running and hiding, and if
I were as bold as a boy, I should do it, but being a grown-up coward I
remain and dissemble.
She came over this morning. When I beheld her afar off, I drew a long
breath: "One thousand," I quoted to myself, "shall flee at the rebuke of
In calmness I waited. She came with colours flying and hurled her
biblical lance. When I withstood the shock with unexpected jauntiness,
for I usually fall dead at once, she looked at me with severity and
"Mr. Grayson, you are a materialist."
"You have shot me with a name," I replied. "I am unhurt."
It would be impossible to slay me on a day like this. On a day like
this I am immortal.
It comes to me as the wonder of wonders, these spring days, how surely
everything, spiritual as well as material, proceeds out of the earth. I
have times of sheer Paganism when I could bow and touch my face to the
warm bare soil. We are so often ashamed of the Earth--the soil of it,
the sweat of it, the good common coarseness of it. To us in our fine
raiment and soft manners, it seems indelicate. Instead of seeking that
association with the earth which is the renewal of life, we devise
ourselves distant palaces and seek strange pleasures. How often and
sadly we repeat the life story of the yellow dodder of the moist lanes
of my lower farm. It springs up fresh and clean from the earth itself,
and spreads its clinging viny stems over the hospitable wild balsam and
golden rod. In a week's time, having reached the warm sunshine of the
upper air, it forgets its humble beginnings. Its roots wither swiftly
and die out, but the sickly yellow stems continue to flourish and
spread, drawing their nourishment not from the soil itself, but by
strangling and sucking the life juices of the hosts on which it feeds.
I have seen whole byways covered thus with yellow dodder--rootless,
leafless, parasitic--reaching up to the sunlight, quite cutting off and
smothering the plants which gave it life. A week or two it flourishes
and then most of it perishes miserably. So many of us come to be like
that: so much of our civilization is like that. Men and women there
are--the pity of it--who, eating plentifully, have never themselves
taken a mouthful from the earth. They have never known a moment's real
life of their own. Lying up to the sun in warmth and comfort--but
leafless--they do not think of the hosts under them, smothered,
strangled, starved. They take _nothing_ at first hand. They experience
described emotion, and think prepared thoughts. They live not in life,
but in printed reports of life. They gather the odour of odours, not the
odour itself: they do not hear, they overhear. A poor, sad, second-rate
Bring out your social remedies! They will fail, they will fail, every
one, until each man has his feet somewhere upon the soil!
My wild plum trees grow in the coarse earth, among excrementitious
mould, a physical life which finally blossoms and exhales its perfect
odour: which ultimately bears the seed of its immortality.
Human happiness is the true odour of growth, the sweet exhalation of
work: and the seed of human immortality is borne secretly within the
coarse and mortal husk. So many of us crave the odour without
cultivating the earthly growth from which it proceeds: so many, wasting
mortality, expect immortality!
----"Why," asks Charles Baxter, "do you always put the end of your
"You may be thankful," I replied, "that I do not make my remarks all
endings. Endings are so much more interesting than beginnings."
Without looking up from the buggy he was mending, Charles Baxter
intimated that my way had at least one advantage: one always knew, he
said, that I really had an end in view--and hope deferred, he said----
----How surely, soundly, deeply, the physical underlies the spiritual.
This morning I was up and out at half-past four, as perfect a morning as
I ever saw: mists yet huddled in the low spots, the sun coming up over
the hill, and all the earth fresh with moisture, sweet with good
odours, and musical with early bird-notes.
It is the time of the spring just after the last seeding and before the
early haying: a catch-breath in the farmer's year. I have been utilising
it in digging a drainage ditch at the lower end of my farm. A spot of
marsh grass and blue flags occupies nearly half an acre of good land and
I have been planning ever since I bought the place to open a drain from
its lower edge to the creek, supplementing it in the field above, if
necessary, with submerged tiling. I surveyed it carefully several weeks
ago and drew plans and contours of the work as though it were an
inter-oceanic canal. I find it a real delight to work out in the earth
itself the details of the drawing.
This morning, after hastening with the chores, I took my bag and my
spade on my shoulder and set off (in rubber boots) for the ditch. My way
lay along the margin of my cornfield in the deep grass. On my right as I
walked was the old rail fence full of thrifty young hickory and cherry
trees with here and there a clump of blackberry bushes. The trees
beyond the fence cut off the sunrise so that I walked in the cool broad
shadows. On my left stretched the cornfield of my planting, the young
corn well up, very attractive and hopeful, my really frightful scarecrow
standing guard on the knoll, a wisp of straw sticking up through a hole
in his hat and his crooked thumbs turned down--"No mercy."
"Surely no corn ever before grew like this," I said to myself.
"To-morrow I must begin cultivating again."
So I looked up and about me--not to miss anything of the morning--and I
drew in a good big breath and I thought the world had never been so open
to my senses.
I wonder why it is that the sense of smell is so commonly
under-regarded. To me it is the source of some of my greatest pleasures.
No one of the senses is more often allied with robustity of physical
health. A man who smells acutely may be set down as enjoying that which
is normal, plain, wholesome. He does not require seasoning: the ordinary
earth is good enough for him. He is likely to be sane--which means
sound, healthy--in his outlook upon life.
Of all hours of the day there is none like the early morning for
downright good odours--the morning before eating. Fresh from sleep and
unclogged with food a man's senses cut like knives. The whole world
comes in upon him. A still morning is best, for the mists and the
moisture seem to retain the odours which they have distilled through the
night. Upon a breezy morning one is likely to get a single predominant
odour as of clover when the wind blows across a hay field or of apple
blossoms when the wind comes through the orchard, but upon a perfectly
still morning, it is wonderful how the odours arrange themselves in
upright strata, so that one walking passes through them as from room to
room in a marvellous temple of fragrance, (I should have said, I think,
if I had not been on my way to dig a ditch, that it was like turning the
leaves of some delicate volume of lyrics!)
So it was this morning. As I walked along the margin of my field I was
conscious, at first, coming within the shadows of the wood, of the cool,
heavy aroma which one associates with the night: as of moist woods and
earth mould. The penetrating scent of the night remains long after the
sights and sounds of it have disappeared. In sunny spots I had the
fragrance of the open cornfield, the aromatic breath of the brown earth,
giving curiously the sense of fecundity--a warm, generous odour of
daylight and sunshine. Down the field, toward the corner, cutting in
sharply, as though a door opened (or a page turned to another lyric),
came the cloying, sweet fragrance of wild crab-apple blossoms, almost
tropical in their richness, and below that, as I came to my work, the
thin acrid smell of the marsh, the place of the rushes and the flags and
How few of us really use our senses! I mean give ourselves fully at any
time to the occupation of the senses. We do not expect to understand a
treatise on Economics without applying our minds to it, nor can we
really smell or hear or see or feel without every faculty alert. Through
sheer indolence we miss half the joy of the world!
Often as I work I stop to see: really see: see everything, or to listen,
and it is the wonder of wonders, how much there is in this old world
which we never dreamed of, how many beautiful, curious, interesting
sights and sounds there are which ordinarily make no impression upon our
clogged, overfed and preoccupied minds. I have also had the feeling--it
may be unscientific but it is comforting--that any man might see like an
Indian or smell like a hound if he gave to the senses the brains which
the Indian and the hound apply to them. And I'm pretty sure about the
Indian! It is marvellous what a man can do when he puts his entire mind
upon one faculty and bears down hard.
So I walked this morning, not hearing nor seeing, but smelling. Without
desiring to stir up strife among the peaceful senses, there is this
further marvel of the sense of smell. No other possesses such an
after-call. Sight preserves pictures: the complete view of the aspect of
objects, but it is photographic and external. Hearing deals in echoes,
but the sense of smell, while saving no vision of a place or a person,
will re-create in a way almost miraculous the inner _emotion_ of a
particular time or place. I know of nothing that will so "create an
appetite under the ribs of death."
Only a short time ago I passed an open doorway in the town. I was busy
with errands, my mind fully engaged, but suddenly I caught an odour from
somewhere within the building I was passing. I stopped! It was as if in
that moment I lost twenty years of my life: I was a boy again, living
and feeling a particular instant at the time of my father's death. Every
emotion of that occasion, not recalled in years, returned to me sharply
and clearly as though I experienced it for the first time. It was a
peculiar emotion: the first time I had ever felt the oppression of
space--can I describe it?--the utter bigness of the world and the
aloofness of myself, a little boy, within it--now that my father was
gone. It was not at that moment sorrow, nor remorse, nor love: it was an
inexpressible cold terror--that anywhere I might go in the world, I
should still be alone!
And there I stood, a man grown, shaking in the sunshine with that old
boyish emotion brought back to me by an odour! Often and often have I
known this strange rekindling of dead fires. And I have thought how, if
our senses were really perfect, we might lose nothing, out of our lives:
neither sights, nor sounds, nor emotions: a sort of mortal immortality.
Was not Shakespeare great because he lost less of the savings of his
senses than other men? What a wonderful seer, hearer, smeller, taster,
feeler, he must have been--and how, all the time, his mind must have
played upon the gatherings of his senses! All scenes, all men, the very
turn of a head, the exact sound of a voice, the taste of food, the feel
of the world--all the emotions of his life must he have had there before
him as he wrote, his great mind playing upon them, reconstructing,
re-creating and putting them down hot upon his pages. There is nothing
strange about great men; they are like us, only deeper, higher, broader:
they think as we do, but with more intensity: they suffer as we do, more
keenly: they love as we do, more tenderly.
I may be over-glorifying the sense of smell, but it is only because I
walked this morning in a world of odours. The greatest of the senses, of
course, is not smell or hearing, but sight. What would not any man
exchange for that: for the faces one loves, for the scenes one holds
most dear, for all that is beautiful and changeable and beyond
description? The Scotch Preacher says that the saddest lines in all
literature are those of Milton, writing of his blindness.
"Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom or Summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine."
--I have wandered a long way from ditch-digging, but not wholly without
intention. Sooner or later I try to get back into the main road. I throw
down my spade in the wet trampled grass at the edge of the ditch. I take
off my coat and hang it over a limb of the little hawthorn tree. I put
my bag near it. I roll up the sleeves of my flannel shirt: I give my hat
a twirl; I'm ready for work.
--The senses are the tools by which we lay hold upon the world: they are
the implements of consciousness and growth. So long as they are used
upon the good earth--used to wholesome weariness--they remain healthy,
they yield enjoyment, they nourish growth; but let them once be removed
from their natural employment and they turn and feed upon themselves,
they seek the stimulation of luxury, they wallow in their own
corruption, and finally, worn out, perish from off the earth which they
have not appreciated. Vice is ever the senses gone astray.
--So I dug. There is something fine in hard physical labour, straight
ahead: no brain used, just muscles. I stood ankle-deep in the cool
water: every spadeful came out with a smack, and as I turned it over at
the edge of the ditch small turgid rivulets coursed back again. I did
not think of anything in particular. I dug. A peculiar joy attends the
very pull of the muscles. I drove the spade home with one foot, then I
bent and lifted and turned with a sort of physical satisfaction
difficult to describe. At first I had the cool of the morning, but by
seven o'clock the day was hot enough! I opened the breast of my shirt,
gave my sleeves another roll, and went at it again for half an hour,
until I dripped with perspiration.
"I will knock off," I said, so I used my spade as a ladder and climbed
out of the ditch. Being very thirsty, I walked down through the marshy
valley to the clump of alders which grows along the creek. I followed a
cow-path through the thicket and came to the creek side, where I knelt
on a log and took a good long drink. Then I soused my head in the cool
stream, dashed the water upon my arms and came up dripping and gasping!
Oh, but it was fine!
So I came back to the hawthorn tree, where I sat down comfortably and
stretched my legs. There is a poem in stretched legs--after hard
digging--but I can't write it, though I can feel it! I got my bag and
took out a half loaf of Harriet's bread. Breaking off big crude pieces,
I ate it there in the shade. How rarely we taste the real taste of
bread! We disguise it with butter, we toast it, we eat it with milk or
fruit. We even soak it with gravy (here in the country where we aren't
at all polite--but very comfortable), so that we never get the downright
delicious taste of the bread itself. I was hungry this morning and I ate
my half loaf to the last crumb--and wanted more. Then I lay down for a
moment in the shade and looked up into the sky through the thin outer
branches of the hawthorn. A turkey buzzard was lazily circling
cloud-high above me: a frog boomed intermittently from the little marsh,
and there were bees at work in the blossoms.
--I had another drink at the creek and went back somewhat reluctantly,
I confess, to the work. It was hot, and the first joy of effort had worn
off. But the ditch was to be dug and I went at it again. One becomes a
sort of machine--unthinking, mechanical: and yet intense physical work,
though making no immediate impression on the mind, often lingers in the
consciousness. I find that sometimes I can remember and enjoy for long
afterward every separate step in a task.
It is curious, hard physical labour! One actually stops thinking. I
often work long without any thought whatever, so far as I know, save
that connected with the monotonous repetition of the labour itself--down
with the spade, out with it, up with it, over with it--and repeat. And
yet sometimes--mostly in the forenoon when I am not at all tired--I will
suddenly have a sense as of the world opening around me--a sense of its
beauty and its meanings--giving me a peculiar deep happiness, that is
near complete content--
Happiness, I have discovered, is nearly always a rebound from hard work.
It is one of the follies of men to imagine that they can enjoy mere
thought, or emotion, or sentiment! As well try to eat beauty! For
happiness must be tricked! She loves to see men at work. She loves
sweat, weariness, self-sacrifice. She will be found not in palaces but
lurking in cornfields and factories and hovering over littered desks:
she crowns the unconscious head of the busy child. If you look up
suddenly from hard work you will see her, but if you look too long she
fades sorrowfully away.
--Down toward the town there is a little factory for barrel hoops and
staves. It has one of the most musical whistles I ever heard in my life.
It toots at exactly twelve o'clock: blessed sound! The last half-hour at
ditch-digging is a hard, slow pull. I'm warm and tired, but I stick down
to it and wait with straining ear for the music. At the very first note,
of that whistle I drop my spade. I will even empty out a load of dirt
half way up rather than expend another ounce of energy; and I spring out
of the ditch and start for home with a single desire in my heart--or
possibly lower down. And Harriet, standing in the doorway, seems to me
a sort of angel--a culinary angel!
Talk of joy: there may be things better than beef stew and baked
potatoes and home-made bread--there may be--
AN ARGUMENT WITH A MILLIONNAIRE
"Let the mighty and great
Roll in splendour and state,
I envy them not, I declare it.
I eat my own lamb,
My own chicken and ham,
I shear my own sheep and wear it.
I have lawns, I have bowers,
I have fruits, I have flowers.
The lark is my morning charmer;
So you jolly dogs now,
Here's God bless the plow--
Long life and content to the farmer."
----_Rhyme on an old pitcher of English pottery_.
I have been hearing of John Starkweather ever since I came here. He is a
most important personage in this community. He is rich. Horace
especially loved to talk about him. Give Horace half a chance, whether
the subject be pigs or churches, and he will break in somewhere with the
remark: "As I was saying to Mr. Starkweather--" or, "Mr. Starkweather
says to me--" How we love to shine by reflected glory! Even Harriet has
not gone unscathed; she, too, has been affected by the bacillus of
admiration. She has wanted to know several times if I saw John
Starkweather drive by: "the finest span of horses in this country," she
says, and "_did_ you see his daughter?" Much other information
concerning the Starkweather household, culinary and otherwise, is
current among our hills. We know accurately the number of Mr.
Starkweather's bedrooms, we can tell how much coal he uses in winter and
how many tons of ice in summer, and upon such important premises we
argue his riches.
Several times I have passed John Starkweather's home. It lies between my
farm and the town, though not on the direct road, and it is really
beautiful with the groomed and guided beauty possible to wealth. A
stately old house with a huge end chimney of red brick stands with
dignity well back from the road; round about lie pleasant lawns that
once were cornfields: and there are drives and walks and exotic shrubs.
At first, loving my own hills so well, I was puzzled to understand why I
should also enjoy Starkweather's groomed surroundings. But it came to me
that after all, much as we may love wildness, we are not wild, nor our
works. What more artificial than a house, or a barn, or a fence? And the
greater and more formal the house, the more formal indeed must be the
nearer natural environments. Perhaps the hand of man might well have
been less evident in developing the surroundings of the Starkweather
home--for art, dealing with nature, is so often too accomplished!
But I enjoy the Starkweather place and as I look in from the road, I
sometimes think to myself with satisfaction: "Here is this rich man who
has paid his thousands to make the beauty which I pass and take for
nothing--and having taken, leave as much behind." And I wonder sometimes
whether he, inside his fences, gets more joy of it than I, who walk the
roads outside. Anyway, I am grateful to him for using his riches so much
to my advantage.
On fine mornings John Starkweather sometimes comes out in his slippers,
bare-headed, his white vest gleaming in the sunshine, and walks slowly
around his garden. Charles Baxter says that on these occasions he is
asking his gardener the names of the vegetables. However that may be, he
has seemed to our community the very incarnation of contentment and
prosperity--his position the acme of desirability.
What was my astonishment, then, the other morning to see John
Starkweather coming down the pasture lane through my farm. I knew him
afar off, though I had never met him. May I express the inexpressible
when I say he had a rich look; he walked rich, there was richness in the
confident crook of his elbow, and in the positive twitch of the stick he
carried: a man accustomed to having doors opened before he knocked. I
stood there a moment and looked up the hill at him, and I felt that
profound curiosity which every one of us feels every day of his life to
know something of the inner impulses which stir his nearest neighbour. I
should have liked to know John Starkweather; but I thought to myself as
I have thought so many times how surely one comes finally to imitate his
surroundings. A farmer grows to be a part of his farm; the sawdust on
his coat is not the most distinctive insignia of the carpenter; the poet
writes his truest lines upon his own countenance. People passing in my
road take me to be a part of this natural scene. I suppose I seem to
them as a partridge squatting among dry grass and leaves, so like the
grass and leaves as to be invisible. We all come to be marked upon by
nature and dismissed--how carelessly!--as genera or species. And is it
not the primal struggle of man to escape classification, to form new
Sometimes--I confess it--when I see one passing in my road, I feel like
hailing him and saying:
"Friend, I am not all farmer. I, too, am a person; I am different and
curious. I am full of red blood, I like people, all sorts of people; if
you are not interested in me, at least I am intensely interested in you.
Come over now and let's talk!"
So we are all of us calling and calling across the incalculable gulfs
which separate us even from our nearest friends!
Once or twice this feeling has been so real to me that I've been near
to the point of hailing utter strangers--only to be instantly overcome
with a sense of the humorous absurdity of such an enterprise. So I laugh
it off and I say to myself:
"Steady now: the man is going to town to sell a pig; he is coming back
with ten pounds of sugar, five of salt pork, a can of coffee and some
new blades for his mowing machine. He hasn't time for talk"--and so I
come down with a bump to my digging, or hoeing, or chopping, or whatever
----Here I've left John Starkweather in my pasture while I remark to
the extent of a page or two that I didn't expect him to see me when he
I assumed that he was out for a walk, perhaps to enliven a worn appetite
(do you know, confidentially, I've had some pleasure in times past in
reflecting upon the jaded appetites of millionnaires!), and that he
would pass out by my lane to the country road; but instead of that, what
should he do but climb the yard fence and walk over toward the barn
where I was at work.
Perhaps I was not consumed with excitement: here was fresh adventure!
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