Henry D. Thoreau
Part 4 out of 4
Thus cut down annually, it does not despair; but, putting forth two short
twigs for every one cut off, it spreads out low along the ground in the
hollows or between the rocks, growing more stout and scrubby, until it
forms, not a tree as yet, but a little pyramidal, stiff, twiggy mass,
almost as solid and impenetrable as a rock. Some of the densest and most
impenetrable clumps of bushes that I have ever seen, as well on account of
the closeness and stubbornness of their branches as of their thorns, have
been these wild-apple scrubs. They are more like the scrubby fir and black
spruce on which you stand, and sometimes walk, on the tops of mountains,
where cold is the demon they contend with, than anything else. No wonder
they are prompted to grow thorns at last, to defend themselves against
such foes. In their thorniness, however, there is no malice, only some
The rocky pastures of the tract I have referred to,--for they maintain
their ground best in a rocky field,--are thickly sprinkled with these
little tufts, reminding you often of some rigid gray mosses or lichens,
and you see thousands of little trees just springing up between them, with
the seed still attached to them.
Being regularly clipped all around each year by the cows, as a hedge with
shears, they are often of a perfect conical or pyramidal form, from one to
four feet high, and more or less sharp, as if trimmed by the gardener's
art. In the pastures on Nobscot Hill and its spurs, they make fine dark
shadows when the sun is low. They are also an excellent covert from hawks
for many small birds that roost and build in them. Whole flocks perch in
them at night, and I have seen three robins' nests in one which was six
feet in diameter.
No doubt many of these are already old trees, if you reckon from the day
they were planted, but infants still when you consider their development
and the long life before them. I counted the annual rings of some which
were just one foot high, and as wide as high, and found that they were
about twelve years old, but quite sound and thrifty! They were so low that
they were unnoticed by the walker, while many of their contemporaries from
the nurseries were already bearing considerable crops. But what you gain
in time is perhaps in this case, too, lost in power,--that is, in the
vigor of the tree. This is their pyramidal state.
The cows continue to browse them thus for twenty years or more, keeping
them down and compelling them to spread, until at last they are so broad
that they become their own fence, when some interior shoot, which their
foes cannot reach, darts upward with joy: for it has not forgotten its
high calling, and bears its own peculiar fruit in triumph.
Such are the tactics by which it finally defeats its bovine foes. Now, if
you have watched the progress of a particular shrub, you will see that it
is no longer a simple pyramid or cone, but that out of its apex there
rises a sprig or two, growing more lustily perchance than an orchard-tree,
since the plant now devotes the whole of its repressed energy to these
upright parts. In a short time these become a small tree, an inverted
pyramid resting on the apex of the other, so that the whole has now the
form of a vast hour-glass. The spreading bottom, having served its
purpose, finally disappears, and the generous tree permits the now
harmless cows to come in and stand in its shade, and rub against and
redden its trunk, which has grown in spite of them, and even to taste a
part of its fruit, and so disperse the seed.
Thus the cows create their own shade and food; and the tree, its
hour-glass being inverted, lives a second life, as it were.
It is an important question with some nowadays, whether you should trim
young apple-trees as high as your nose or as high as your eyes. The ox
trims them up as high as he can reach, and that is about the right height,
In spite of wandering kine, and other adverse circumstances, that despised
shrub, valued only by small birds as a covert and shelter from hawks, has
its blossom-week at last, and in coarse of time its harvest, sincere,
By the end of some October, when its leaves have fallen, I frequently see
such a central sprig, whose progress I have watched, when I thought it had
forgotten its destiny, as I had, bearing its first crop of small green or
yellow or rosy fruit, which the cows cannot get at over the bushy and
thorny hedge which surrounds it, and I make haste to taste the new and
undescribed variety. We have all heard of the numerous varieties of fruit
invented by Van Mons and Knight. This is the system of Van Cow, and she
has invented far more and more memorable varieties than both of them.
Through what hardships it may attain to bear a sweet fruit! Though
somewhat small, it may prove equal, if not superior, in flavor to that
which has grown in a garden,--will perchance be all the sweeter and more
palatable for the very difficulties it has had to contend with. Who knows
but this chance wild fruit, planted by a cow or a bird on some remote and
rocky hillside, where it is as yet unobserved by man, may be the choicest
of all its kind, and foreign potentates shall hear of it, and royal
societies seek to propagate it, though the virtues of the perhaps truly
crabbed owner of the soil may never be heard of,--at least, beyond the
limits of his village? It was thus the Porter and the Baldwin grew.
Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every
wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What a lesson to man! So
are human beings, referred to the highest standard, the celestial fruit
which they suggest and aspire to bear, browsed on by fate; and only the
most persistent and strongest genius defends itself and prevails, sends a
tender scion upward at last, and drops its perfect fruit on the ungrateful
earth. Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in the country
pastures, and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.
Such is always the pursuit of knowledge. The celestial fruits, the golden
apples of the Hesperides, are ever guarded by a hundred-headed dragon
which never sleeps, so that it is an Herculean labor to pluck them.
This is one, and the most remarkable way, in which the wild apple is
propagated; but commonly it springs up at wide intervals in woods and
swamps, and by the sides of roads, as the soil may suit it, and grows with
comparative rapidity. Those which grow in dense woods are very tall and
slender. I frequently pluck from these trees a perfectly mild and tamed
fruit. As Palladius says, "_Et injussu consternitur ubere mali_": And the
ground is strewn with the fruit of an unbidden apple-tree.
It is an old notion, that, if these wild trees do not bear a valuable
fruit of their own, they are the best stocks by which to transmit to
posterity the most highly prized qualities of others. However, I am not in
search of stocks, but the wild fruit itself, whose fierce gust has
suffered no "inteneration." It is not my
To plant the Bergamot."
THE FRUIT, AND ITS FLAVOR.
The time for wild apples is the last of October and the first of November.
They then get to be palatable, for they ripen late, and they are still
perhaps as beautiful as ever. I make a great account of these fruits,
which the farmers do not think it worth the while to gather,--wild flavors
of the Muse, vivacious and inspiriting. The farmer thinks that he has
better in his barrels, but he is mistaken, unless he has a walker's
appetite and imagination, neither of which can he have.
Such as grow quite wild, and are left out till the first of November, I
presume that the owner does not mean to gather. They belong to children as
wild as themselves,--to certain active boys that I know,--to the wild-eyed
woman of the fields, to whom nothing comes amiss, who gleans after all the
world,--and, moreover, to us walkers. We have met with them, and they are
ours. These rights, long enough insisted upon, have come to be an
institution in some old countries, where they have learned how to live. I
hear that "the custom of grippling, which may be called apple-gleaning,
is, or was formerly, practised in Herefordshire. It consists in leaving a
few apples, which are called the gripples, on every tree, after the
general gathering, for the boys, who go with climbing-poles and bags to
As for those I speak of, I pluck them as a wild fruit, native to this
quarter of the earth,--fruit of old trees that have been dying ever since
I was a boy and are not yet dead, frequented only by the woodpecker and
the squirrel, deserted now by the owner, who has not faith enough to look
under their boughs. From the appearance of the tree-top, at a little
distance, you would expect nothing but lichens to drop from it, but your
faith is rewarded by finding the ground strewn with spirited fruit,--some
of it, perhaps, collected at squirrel-holes, with the marks of their teeth
by which they carried them,--some containing a cricket or two silently
feeding within, and some, especially in damp days, a shelless snail. The
very sticks and stones lodged in the tree-top might have convinced you of
the savoriness of the fruit which has been so eagerly sought after in past
I have seen no account of these among the "Fruits and Fruit-Trees of
America," though they are more memorable to my taste than the grafted
kinds; more racy and wild American flavors do they possess, when October
and November, when December and January, and perhaps February and March
even, have assuaged them somewhat. An old farmer in my neighborhood, who
always selects the right word, says that "they have a kind of bow-arrow
Apples for grafting appear to have been selected commonly, not so much for
their spirited flavor, as for their mildness, their size, and bearing
qualities,--not so much for their beauty, as for their fairness and
soundness. Indeed, I have no faith in the selected lists of pomological
gentlemen. Their "Favorites" and "None-suches" and "Seek-no-farthers,"
when I have fruited them, commonly turn out very tame and forgetable.
They are eaten with comparatively little zest, and have no real _tang_ nor
_smack_ to them.
What if some of these wildings are acrid and puckery, genuine _verjuice_,
do they not still belong to the _Pomaceae_, which are uniformly innocent
and kind to our race? I still begrudge them to the cider-mill. Perhaps
they are not fairly ripe yet.
No wonder that these small and high-colored apples are thought to make the
best cider. Loudon quotes from the "Herefordshire Report," that "apples of
a small size are always, if equal in quality, to be preferred to those of
a larger size, in order that the rind and kernel may bear the greatest
proportion to the pulp, which affords the weakest and most watery juice."
And he says, that, "to prove this, Dr. Symonds, of Hereford, about the
year 1800, made one hogshead of cider entirely from the rinds and cores of
apples, and another from the pulp only, when the first was found of
extraordinary strength and flavor, while the latter was sweet and
Evelyn says that the "Red-strake" was the favorite cider-apple in his day;
and he quotes one Dr. Newburg as saying, "In Jersey 't is a general
observation, as I hear, that the more of red any apple has in its rind,
the more proper it is for this use. Pale-faced apples they exclude as much
as may be from their cider-vat." This opinion still prevails.
All apples are good in November. Those which the farmer leaves out as
unsalable, and unpalatable to those who frequent the markets, are choicest
fruit to the walker. But it is remarkable that the wild apple, which I
praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being
brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste.
The Saunterer's Apple not even the saunterer can eat in the house.
The palate rejects it there, as it does haws and acorns, and demands a
tamed one; for there you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is
to be eaten with. Accordingly, when Tityrus, seeing the lengthening
shadows, invites Meliboeus to go home and pass the night with him, he
promises him _mild_ apples and soft chestnuts,--_mitia poma, castaneae
molles_. I frequently pluck wild apples of so rich and spicy a flavor that
I wonder all orchardists do not get a scion from that tree, and I fail not
to bring home my pockets full. But perchance, when I take one out of my
desk and taste it in my chamber, I find it unexpectedly crude,--sour
enough to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream.
These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have
absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly
_seasoned,_ and they _pierce_ and _sting_ and _permeate_ us with their
spirit. They must be eaten in _season_, accordingly,--that is,
To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is
necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The
out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to
his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and
crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow
with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles
the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay is heard
screaming around. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet.
Some of these apples might be labelled, "To be eaten in the wind."
Of course no flavors are thrown away; they are intended for the taste that
is up to them. Some apples have two distinct flavors, and perhaps one-half
of them must be eaten in the house, the other out-doors. One Peter Whitney
wrote from Northborough in 1782, for the Proceedings of the Boston
Academy, describing an apple-tree in that town "producing fruit of
opposite qualities, part of the same apple being frequently sour and the
other sweet;" also some all sour, and others all sweet, and this diversity
on all parts of the tree.
There is a wild apple on Nawshawtuck Hill in my town which has to me a
peculiarly pleasant bitter tang, not perceived till it is three-quarters
tasted. It remains on the tongue. As you eat it, it smells exactly like a
squash-bug. It is a sort of triumph to eat and relish it.
I hear that the fruit of a kind of plum-tree in Provence is "called
_Prunes sibarelles_, because it is impossible to whistle after having
eaten them, from their sourness." But perhaps they were only eaten in the
house and in summer, and if tried out-of-doors in a stinging atmosphere,
who knows but you could whistle an octave higher and clearer?
In the fields only are the sours and bitters of Nature appreciated; just
as the wood-chopper eats his meal in a sunny glade, in the middle of a
winter day, with content, basks in a sunny ray there and dreams of summer
in a degree of cold which, experienced in a chamber, would make a student
miserable. They who are at work abroad are not cold, but rather it is they
who sit shivering in houses. As with temperatures, so with flavors; as,
with cold and heat, so with sour and sweet. This natural raciness, the
sours and bitters which the diseased palate refuses, are the true
Let your condiments be in the condition of your senses. To appreciate the
flavor of these wild apples requires vigorous and healthy senses,
_papillae_ firm and erect on the tongue and palate, not easily flattened
From my experience with wild apples, I can understand that there may be
reason for a savage's preferring many kinds of food which the civilized
man rejects. The former has the palate of an out-door man. It takes a
savage or wild taste to appreciate a wild fruit.
What a healthy out-of-door appetite it takes to relish the apple of life,
the apple of the world, then!
"Nor is it every apple I desire,
Nor that which pleases every palate best;
'T is not the lasting Deuxan I require,
Nor yet the red-cheeked Greening I request,
Nor that which first beshrewed the name of wife,
Nor that whose beauty caused the golden strife:
No, no I bring me an apple from the tree of life."
So there is one _thought_ for the field, another for the house. I would
have my thoughts, like wild apples, to be food for walkers, and will not
warrant them to be palatable, if tasted in the house.
Almost all wild apples are handsome. They cannot be too gnarly and crabbed
and rusty to look at. The gnarliest will have some redeeming traits even
to the eye. You will discover some evening redness dashed or sprinkled on
some protuberance or in some cavity. It is rare that the summer lets an
apple go without streaking or spotting it on some part of its sphere. It
will have some red stains, commemorating the mornings and evenings it has
witnessed; some dark and rusty blotches, in memory of the clouds and
foggy, mildewy days that have passed over it; and a spacious field of
green reflecting the general face of Nature,--green even as the fields; or
a yellow ground, which implies a milder flavor,--yellow as the harvest, or
russet as the hills.
Apples, these I mean, unspeakably fair,--apples not of Discord, but of
Concord! Yet not so rare but that the homeliest may have a share. Painted
by the frosts, some a uniform clear bright yellow, or red, or crimson, as
if their spheres had regularly revolved, and enjoyed the influence of the
sun on all sides alike,--some with the faintest pink blush imaginable,--
some brindled with deep red streaks like a cow, or with hundreds of fine
blood-red rays running regularly from the stem-dimple to the blossom-end,
like meridional lines, on a straw-colored ground,--some touched with a
greenish rust, like a fine lichen, here and there, with crimson blotches
or eyes more or less confluent and fiery when wet,--and others gnarly, and
freckled or peppered all over on the stem side with fine crimson spots on
a white ground, as if accidentally sprinkled from the brush of Him who
paints the autumn leaves. Others, again, are sometimes red inside,
perfused with a beautiful blush, fairy food, too beautiful to eat,--apple
of the Hesperides, apple of the evening sky! But like shells and pebbles
on the sea-shore, they must be seen as they sparkle amid the withering
leaves in some dell in the woods, in the autumnal air, or as they lie in
the wet grass, and not when they have wilted and faded in the house.
THE NAMING OF THEM.
It would be a pleasant pastime to find suitable names for the hundred
varieties which go to a single heap at the cider-mill. Would it not tax a
man's invention,--no one to be named after a man, and all in the _lingua
vernacula_? Who shall stand godfather at the christening of the wild
apples? It would exhaust the Latin and Greek languages, if they were used,
and make the _lingua vernacula_ flag. We should have to call in the
sunrise and the sunset, the rainbow and the autumn woods and the wild
flowers, and the woodpecker and the purple finch and the squirrel and the
jay and the butterfly, the November traveller and the truant boy, to our
In 1836 there were in the garden of the London Horticultural Society more
than fourteen hundred distinct sorts. But here are species which they have
not in their catalogue, not to mention the varieties which our Crab might
yield to cultivation.
Let us enumerate a few of these. I find myself compelled, after all, to
give the Latin names of some for the benefit of those who live where
English is not spoken,--for they are likely to have a world-wide
There is, first of all, the Wood-Apple (_Malus sylvatica_); the Blue-Jay
Apple; the Apple which grows in Dells in the Woods, (_sylvestrivallis_,)
also in Hollows in Pastures (_campestrivallis_); the Apple that
grows in an old Cellar-Hole (_Malus cellaris_); the Meadow-Apple;
the Partridge-Apple; the Truant's Apple, (_Cessatoris_,) which no boy
will ever go by without knocking off some, however _late_ it may be;
the Saunterer's Apple,--you must lose yourself before you can find
the way to that; the Beauty of the Air (_Decus Aeris_); December-Eating;
the Frozen-Thawed _(gelato-soluta),_ good only in that state; the Concord
Apple, possibly the same with the _Musketaquidensis_; the Assabet Apple;
the Brindled Apple; Wine of New England; the Chickaree Apple; the Green
Apple _(Malus viridis);_--this has many synonymes; in an imperfect
state, it is the _Cholera morbifera aut dysenterifera, puerulis
dilectissima_;--the Apple which Atalanta stopped to pick up; the
Hedge-Apple _(Malus Sepium_); the Slug-Apple _(limacea)_; the
Railroad-Apple, which perhaps came from a core thrown out of the cars;
the Apple whose Fruit we tasted in our Youth; our Particular Apple,
not to be found in any catalogue,--_Pedestrium Solatium_; also the Apple
where hangs the Forgotten Scythe; Iduna's Apples, and the Apples which
Loki found in the Wood; and a great many more I have on my list, too
numerous to mention,--all of them good. As Bodaeus exclaims, referring to
the cultivated kinds, and adapting Virgil to his case, so I, adapting
"Not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
An iron voice, could I describe all the forms
And reckon up all the names of these _wild apples_."
THE LAST GLEANING.
By the middle of November the wild apples have lost some of their
brilliancy, and have chiefly fallen. A great part are decayed on the
ground, and the sound ones are more palatable than before. The note of
the chickadee sounds now more distinct, as you wander amid the old trees,
and the autumnal dandelion is half-closed and tearful. But still, if you
are a skilful gleaner, you may get many a pocket-full even of grafted
fruit, long after apples are supposed to be gone out-of-doors. I know
a Blue-Pearmain tree, growing within the edge of a swamp, almost as good
as wild. You would not suppose that there was any fruit left there,
on the first survey, but you must look according to system. Those which
lie exposed are quite brown and rotten now, or perchance a few still show
one blooming cheek here and there amid the wet leaves. Nevertheless,
with experienced eyes, I explore amid the bare alders and the
huckleberry-bushes and the withered sedge, and in the crevices of the
rocks, which are full of leaves, and pry under the fallen and decaying
ferns, which, with apple and alder leaves, thickly strew the ground. For I
know that they lie concealed, fallen into hollows long since and covered
up by the leaves of the tree itself,--a proper kind of packing. From these
lurking-places, anywhere within the circumference of the tree, I draw
forth the fruit, all wet and glossy, maybe nibbled by rabbits and hollowed
out by crickets and perhaps with a leaf or two cemented to it (as Curzon
an old manuscript from a monastery's mouldy cellar), but still with a rich
bloom on it, and at least as ripe and well kept, if not better than those
in barrels, more crisp and lively than they. If these resources fail to
yield anything, I have learned to look between the bases of the suckers
which spring thickly from some horizontal limb, for now and then one
lodges there, or in the very midst of an alder-clump, where they are
covered by leaves, safe from cows which may have smelled them out. If I am
sharp-set, for I do not refuse the Blue-Pearmain, I fill my pockets on
each side; and as I retrace my steps in the frosty eve, being perhaps four
or five miles from home, I eat one first from this side, and then from
that, to keep my balance.
I learn from Topsell's Gesner, whose authority appears to be Albertus,
that the following is the way in which the hedgehog collects and carries
home his apples. He says,--"His meat is apples, worms, or grapes: when he
findeth apples or grapes on the earth, he rolleth himself upon them, until
he have filled all his prickles, and then carrieth them home to his den,
never bearing above one in his mouth; and if it fortune that one of them
fall off by the way, he likewise shaketh off all the residue, and
walloweth upon them afresh, until they be all settled upon his back again.
So, forth he goeth, making a noise like a cart-wheel; and if he have any
young ones in his nest, they pull off his load wherewithal he is loaded,
eating thereof what they please, and laying up the residue for the time to
THE "FROZEN-THAWED" APPLE.
Toward the end of November, though some of the sound ones are yet more
mellow and perhaps more edible, they have generally, like the leaves, lost
their beauty, and are beginning to freeze. It is finger-cold, and prudent
farmers get in their barrelled apples, and bring you the apples and cider
which they have engaged; for it is time to put them into the cellar.
Perhaps a few on the ground show their red cheeks above the early snow,
and occasionally some even preserve their color and soundness under the
snow throughout the winter. But generally at the beginning of the winter
they freeze hard, and soon, though undecayed, acquire the color of a baked
Before the end of December, generally, they experience their first
thawing. Those which a month ago were sour, crabbed, and quite unpalatable
to the civilized taste, such at least as were frozen while sound, let a
warmer sun come to thaw them, for they are extremely sensitive to its
rays, are found to be filled with a rich, sweet cider, better than any
bottled cider that I know of, and with which I am better acquainted than
with wine. All apples are good in this state, and your jaws are the
cider-press. Others, which have more substance, are a sweet and luscious
food,--in my opinion of more worth than the pine-apples which are imported
from the West Indies. Those which lately even I tasted only to repent of
it,--for I am semi-civilized,--which the farmer willingly left on the
tree, I am now glad to find have the property of hanging on like the
leaves of the young oaks. It is a way to keep cider sweet without boiling.
Let the frost come to freeze them first, solid as stones, and then the
rain or a warm winter day to thaw them, and they will seem to have
borrowed a flavor from heaven through the medium of the air in which they
hang. Or perchance you find, when you get home, that those which rattled
in your pocket have thawed, and the ice is turned to cider. But after the
third or fourth freezing and thawing they will not be found so good.
What are the imported half-ripe fruits of the torrid South, to this
fruit matured by the cold of the frigid North? These are those crabbed
apples with which I cheated my companion, and kept a smooth face that
I might tempt him to eat. Now we both greedily fill our pockets with
them,--bending to drink the cup and save our lappets from the overflowing
juice,--and grow more social with their wine. Was there one that hung so
high and sheltered by the tangled branches that our sticks could not
It is a fruit never carried to market, that I am aware of,--quite distinct
from the apple of the markets, as from dried apple and cider,--and it is
not every winter that produces it in perfection.
* * * * *
The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It is a fruit which will
probably become extinct in New England. You may still wander through old
orchards of native fruit of great extent, which for the most part went to
the cider-mill, now all gone to decay. I have heard of an orchard in a
distant town, on the side of a hill, where the apples rolled down and lay
four feet deep against a wall on the lower side, and this the owner cut
down for fear they should be made into cider. Since the temperance reform
and the general introduction of grafted fruit, no native apple-trees, such
as I see everywhere in deserted pastures, and where the woods have grown
up around them, are set out. I fear that he who walks over these fields a
century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah,
poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know! Notwithstanding
the prevalence of the Baldwin and the Porter, I doubt if so extensive
orchards are set out to-day in my town as there were a century ago, when
those vast straggling cider-orchards were planted, when men both ate and
drank apples, when the pomace-heap was the only nursery, and trees cost
nothing but the trouble of setting them out. Men could afford then to
stick a tree by every wall-side and let it take its chance. I see nobody
planting trees to-day in such out-of-the-way places, along the lonely
roads and lanes, and at the bottom of dells in the wood. Now that they
have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a
plat by their houses, and fence them in,--and the end of it all will be
that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.
This is "The word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.
"Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land!
Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?...
"That which the palmer-worm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that
which the locust hath left hath the canker-worm eaten; and that which the
canker-worm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten.
"Awake, ye drunkards, and weep! and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because
of the new wine! for it is cut off from your mouth.
"For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose
teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek-teeth of a great
"He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig-tree; he hath made it clean
bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white....
"Be ye ashamed, O ye husbandmen! howl, O ye vine-dressers!...
"The vine is dried up, and the fig-tree languisheth; the pomegranate-tree,
the palm-tree also, and the apple-tree, even all the trees of the field,
are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men."
NIGHT AND MOONLIGHT.
Chancing to take a memorable walk by moonlight some years ago, I resolved
to take more such walks, and make acquaintance with another side of
nature: I have done so.
According to Pliny, there is a stone in Arabia called Selenites, "wherein
is a white, which increases and decreases with the moon." My journal for
the last year or two, has been _selenitic_ in this sense.
Is not the midnight like Central Africa to most of us? Are we not tempted
to explore it,--to penetrate to the shores of its lake Tchad, and discover
the source of its Nile, perchance the Mountains of the Moon? Who knows
what fertility and beauty, moral and natural, are there to be found? In
the Mountains of the Moon, in the Central Africa of the night, there is
where all Niles have their hidden heads. The expeditions up the Nile as
yet extend but to the Cataracts, or perchance to the mouth of the White
Nile; but it is the Black Nile that concerns us.
I shall be a benefactor if I conquer some realms from the night, if I
report to the gazettes anything transpiring about us at that season worthy
of their attention,--if I can show men that there is some beauty awake
while they are asleep,--if I add to the domains of poetry.
Night is certainly more novel and less profane than day. I soon discovered
that I was acquainted only with its complexion, and as for the moon, I had
seen her only as it were through a crevice in a shutter, occasionally. Why
not walk a little way in her light?
Suppose you attend to the suggestions which the moon makes for one month,
commonly in vain, will it not be very different from anything in
literature or religion? But why not study this Sanscrit? What if one moon
has come and gone with its world of poetry, its weird teachings, its
oracular suggestions,--so divine a creature freighted with hints for me,
and I have not used her? One moon gone by unnoticed?
I think it was Dr. Chalmers who said, criticising Coleridge, that for his
part he wanted ideas which he could see all round, and not such as he must
look at away up in the heavens. Such a man, one would say, would never
look at the moon, because she never turns her other side to us. The light
which comes from ideas which have their orbit as distant from the earth,
and which is no less cheering and enlightening to the benighted traveller
than that of the moon and stars, is naturally reproached or nicknamed as
moonshine by such. They are moonshine, are they? Well, then do your
night-travelling when there is no moon to light you; but I will be
thankful for the light that reaches me from the star of least magnitude.
Stars are lesser or greater only as they appear to us so. I will be
thankful that I see so much as one side of a celestial idea,--one side of
the rainbow,--and the sunset sky.
Men talk glibly enough about moonshine, as if they knew its qualities very
well, and despised them; as owls might talk of sunshine. None of your
sunshine,--but this word commonly means merely something which they do not
understand,--which they are abed and asleep to, however much it may be
worth their while to be up and awake to it.
It must be allowed that the light of the moon, sufficient though it is for
the pensive walker, and not disproportionate to the inner light we have,
is very inferior in quality and intensity to that of the sun. But the moon
is not to be judged alone by the quantity of light she sends to us, but
also by her influence on the earth and its inhabitants. "The moon
gravitates toward the earth, and the earth reciprocally toward the moon."
The poet who walks by moonlight is conscious of a tide in his thought
which is to be referred to lunar influence. I will endeavor to separate
the tide in my thoughts from the current distractions of the day. I would
warn my hearers that they must not try my thoughts by a daylight standard,
but endeavor to realize that I speak out of the night. All depends on your
point of view. In Drake's "Collection of Voyages," Wafer says of some
Albinoes among the Indians of Darien, "They are quite white, but their
whiteness is like that of a horse, quite different from the fair or pale
European, as they have not the least tincture of a blush or sanguine
complexion. * * * Their eyebrows are milk-white, as is likewise the hair
of their heads, which is very fine. * * * They seldom go abroad in the
daytime, the sun being disagreeable to them, and causing their eyes, which
are weak and poring, to water, especially if it shines towards them, yet
they see very well by moonlight, from which we call them moon-eyed."
Neither in our thoughts in these moonlight walks, methinks, is there "the
least tincture of a blush or sanguine complexion," but we are
intellectually and morally Albinoes,--children of Endymion,--such is the
effect of conversing much with the moon.
I complain of Arctic voyagers that, they do not enough remind us of the
constant peculiar dreariness of the scenery, and the perpetual twilight of
the Arctic night. So he whose theme is moonlight, though he may find it
difficult, must, as it were, illustrate it with the light of the moon
Many men walk by day; few walk by night. It is a very different season.
Take a July night, for instance. About ten o'clock,--when man is asleep,
and day fairly forgotten,--the beauty of moonlight is seen over lonely
pastures where cattle are silently feeding. On all sides novelties present
themselves. Instead of the sun there are the moon and stars, instead of
the wood-thrush there is the whip-poor-will,--instead of butterflies in
the meadows, fire-flies, winged sparks of fire! who would have believed
it? What kind of cool deliberate life dwells in those dewy abodes
associated with a spark of fire? So man has fire in his eyes, or blood, or
brain. Instead of singing birds, the half-throttled note of a cuckoo
flying over, the croaking of frogs, and the intenser dream of crickets.
But above all, the wonderful trump of the bull-frog, ringing from Maine to
Georgia. The potato-vines stand upright, the corn grows apace, the bushes
loom, the grain-fields are boundless. On our open river terraces once
cultivated by the Indian, they appear to occupy the ground like an army,--
their heads nodding in the breeze.
Small trees and shrubs are seen in the midst, overwhelmed as by an
inundation. The shadows of rocks and trees, and shrubs and hills, are more
conspicuous than the objects themselves. The slightest irregularities in
the ground are revealed by the shadows, and what the feet find
comparatively smooth, appears rough and diversified in consequence. For
the same reason the whole landscape is more variegated and picturesque
than by day. The smallest recesses in the rocks are dim and cavernous; the
ferns in the wood appear of tropical size. The sweet fern and indigo in
overgrown wood-paths wet you with dew up to your middle. The leaves of the
shrub-oak are shining as if a liquid were flowing over them. The pools
seen through the trees are as full of light as the sky. "The light of the
day takes refuge in their bosoms," as the Purana says of the ocean. All
white objects are more remarkable than by day. A distant cliff looks like
a phosphorescent space on a hillside. The woods are heavy and dark. Nature
slumbers. You see the moonlight reflected from particular stumps in the
recesses of the forest, as if she selected what to shine on. These small
fractions of her light remind one of the plant called moon-seed,--as if
the moon were sowing it in such places.
In the night the eyes are partly closed or retire into the head. Other
senses take the lead. The walker is guided as well by the sense of smell.
Every plant and field and forest emits its odor now, swamp-pink in the
meadow and tansy in the road; and there is the peculiar dry scent of corn
which has begun to show its tassels. The senses both of hearing and
smelling are more alert. We hear the tinkling of rills which we never
detected before. From time to time, high up on the sides of hills, you
pass through a stratum of warm air. A blast which has come up from the
sultry plains of noon. It tells of the day, of sunny noon-tide hours and
banks, of the laborer wiping his brow and the bee humming amid flowers. It
is an air in which work has been done,--which men have breathed. It
circulates about from wood-side to hill-side like a dog that has lost its
master, now that the sun is gone. The rocks retain all night the warmth of
the sun which they have absorbed. And so does the sand. If you dig a few
inches into it you find a warm bed. You lie on your back on a rock in a
pasture on the top of some bare hill at midnight, and speculate on the
height of the starry canopy. The stars are the jewels of the night, and
perchance surpass anything which day has to show. A companion with whom I
was sailing one very windy but bright moonlight night, when the stars were
few and faint, thought that a man could get along with _them_,--though he
was considerably reduced in his circumstances,--that they were a kind of
bread and cheese that never failed.
No wonder that there have been astrologers, that some have conceived that
they were personally related to particular stars. Dubartas, as translated
by Sylvester, says he'll
"not believe that the great architect
With all these fires the heavenly arches decked
Only for show, and with these glistering shields,
T' awake poor shepherds, watching in the fields."
He'll "not believe that the least flower which pranks
Our garden borders, or our common banks,
And the least stone, that in her warming lap
Our mother earth doth covetously wrap,
Hath some peculiar virtue of its own,
And that the glorious stars of heav'n have none."
And Sir Walter Raleigh well says, "the stars are instruments of far
greater use, than to give an obscure light, and for men to gaze on after
sunset;" and he quotes Plotinus as affirming that they "are significant,
but not efficient;" and also Augustine as saying, "_Deus regit inferiora
corpora per superiora_:" God rules the bodies below by those above. But
best of all is this which another writer has expressed: "_Sapiens
adjuvabit opus astrorum quemadmodum agricola terrae naturam_:" a wise man
assisteth the work of the stars as the husbandman helpeth the nature of
It does not concern men who are asleep in their beds, but it is very
important to the traveller, whether the moon shines brightly or is
obscured. It is not easy to realize the serene joy of all the earth, when
she commences to shine unobstructedly, unless you have often been abroad
alone in moonlight nights. She seems to be waging continual war with the
clouds in your behalf. Yet we fancy the clouds to be _her_ foes also. She
comes on magnifying her dangers by her light, revealing, displaying them
in all their hugeness and blackness, then suddenly casts them behind into
the light concealed, and goes her way triumphant through a small space of
In short, the moon traversing, or appearing to traverse, the small clouds
which lie in her way, now obscured by them, now easily dissipating and
shining through them, makes the drama of the moonlight night to all
watchers and night-travellers. Sailors speak of it as the moon eating up
the clouds. The traveller all alone, the moon all alone, except for his
sympathy, overcoming with incessant victory whole squadrons of clouds
above the forests and lakes and hills. When she is obscured he so
sympathizes with her that he could whip a dog for her relief, as Indians
do. When she enters on a clear field of great extent in the heavens, and
shines unobstructedly, he is glad. And when she has fought her way through
all the squadron of her foes, and rides majestic in a clear sky unscathed,
and there are no more any obstructions in her path, he cheerfully and
confidently pursues his way, and rejoices in his heart, and the cricket
also seems to express joy in its song.
How insupportable would be the days, if the night with its dews and
darkness did not come to restore the drooping world. As the shades begin
to gather around us, our primeval instincts are aroused, and we steal
forth from our lairs, like the inhabitants of the jungle, in search of
those silent and brooding thoughts which are the natural prey of the
Richter says that "The earth is every day overspread with the veil of
night for the same reason as the cages of birds are darkened, viz: that we
may the more readily apprehend the higher harmonies of thought in the hush
and quiet of darkness. Thoughts which day turns into smoke and mist, stand
about us in the night as light and flames; even as the column which
fluctuates above the crater of Vesuvius, in the daytime appears a pillar
of cloud, but by night a pillar of fire."
There are nights in this climate of such serene and majestic beauty, so
medicinal and fertilizing to the spirit, that methinks a sensitive nature
would not devote them to oblivion, and perhaps there is no man but would
be better and wiser for spending them out of doors, though he should sleep
all the next day to pay for it; should sleep an Endymion sleep, as the
ancients expressed it,--nights which warrant the Grecian epithet
ambrosial, when, as in the land of Beulah, the atmosphere is charged with
dewy fragrance, and with music, and we take our repose and have our dreams
awake,--when the moon, not secondary to the sun,
"gives us his blaze again,
Void of its flame, and sheds a softer day.
Now through the passing cloud she seems to stoop,
Now up the pure cerulean rides sublime."
Diana still hunts in the New England sky.
"In Heaven queen she is among the spheres.
She, mistress-like, makes all things to be pure.
Eternity in her oft change she bears;
She Beauty is; by her the fair endure.
Time wears her not; she doth his chariot guide;
Mortality below her orb is placed;
By her lie virtues of the stars down slide;
By her is Virtue's perfect image cast."
The Hindoos compare the moon to a saintly being who has reached the last
stage of bodily existence.
Great restorer of antiquity, great enchanter. In a mild night, when the
harvest or hunter's moon shines unobstructedly, the houses in our village,
whatever architect they may have had by day, acknowledge only a master.
The village street is then as wild as the forest. New and old things are
confounded. I know not whether I am sitting on the ruins of a wall, or on
the material which is to compose a new one. Nature is an instructed and
impartial teacher, spreading no crude opinions, and flattering none; she
will be neither radical nor conservative. Consider the moonlight, so
civil, yet so savage!
The light is more proportionate to our knowledge than that of day. It is
no more dusky in ordinary nights, than our mind's habitual atmosphere, and
the moonlight is as bright as our most illuminated moments are.
"In such a night let me abroad remain
Till morning breaks, and all's confused again."
Of what significance the light of day, if it is not the reflection of an
inward dawn?--to what purpose is the veil of night withdrawn, if the
morning reveals nothing to the soul? It is merely garish and glaring.
When Ossian in his address to the sun exclaims,
"Where has darkness its dwelling?
Where is the cavernous home of the stars,
When thou quickly followest their steps,
Pursuing them like a hunter in the sky,--
Thou climbing the lofty hills,
They descending on barren mountains?"
who does not in his thought accompany the stars to their "cavernous home,"
"descending" with them "on barren mountains?"
Nevertheless, even by night the sky is blue and not black, for we see
through the shadow of the earth into the distant atmosphere of day, where
the sunbeams are revelling.
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