My Garden Acquaintance

Prepared by:
Anthony J. Adam

My Garden Acquaintance
James Russell Lowell

ONE of the most delightful books in my father's library was
White's "Natural History of Selborne." For me it has rather gained
in charm with years. I used to read it without knowing the secret of
the pleasure I found in it, but as I grow older I begin to detect some
of the simple expedients of this natural magic. Open the book
where you will, it takes you out of doors. In our broiling July
weather one can walk out with this genially garrulous Fellow of
Oriel and find refreshment instead of fatigue. You have no trouble
in keeping abreast of him as he ambles along on his hobby-horse,
now pointing to a pretty view, now stopping to watch the motions
of a bird or an insect, or to bag a specimen for the Honorable
Daines Barrington or Mr. Pennant. In simplicity of taste and
natural refinement he reminds one of Walton; in tenderness toward
what he would have called the brute creation, of Cowper. I do not
know whether his descriptions of scenery are good or not, but they
have made me familiar with his neighborhood. Since I first read
him, I have walked over some of his favorite haunts, but I still see
them through his eyes rather than by any recollection of actual and
personal vision. The book has also the delightfulness of absolute
leisure. Mr. White seems never to have had any harder work to do
than to study the habits of his feathered fellow-townsfolk, or to
watch the ripening of his peaches on the wall. His volumes are the
journal of Adam in Paradise,

"Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade."

It is positive rest only to look into that garden of his. It is vastly
better than to

"See great Diocletian walk
In the Salonian garden's noble shade,"

for thither ambassadors intrude to bring with them the noises of
Rome, while here the world has no entrance. No rumor of the
revolt of the American Colonies seems to have reached him. "The
natural term of an hog's life" has more interest for him than that of
an empire. Burgoyne may surrender and welcome; of what
consequence is *that* compared with the fact that we can explain
the odd tumbling of rooks in the air by their turning over "to
scratch themselves with one claw"? All the couriers in Europe
spurring rowel-deep make no stir in Mr. White's little
Chartreuse;(1) but the arrival of the house-martin a day earlier or
later than last year is a piece of news worth sending express to all
his correspondents.

(1) *La Grande Chartreuse* was the original Carthusian monastery
in France, where the most austere privacy was maintained.

Another secret charm of this book is its inadvertent humor, so
much the more delicious because unsuspected by the author. How
pleasant is his innocent vanity in adding to the list of the British,
and still more of the Selbornian, *fauna!* I believe he would gladly
have consented to be eaten by a tiger or a crocodile, if by that
means the occasional presence within the parish limits of either of
these anthropophagous brutes could have been established. He
brags of no fine society, but is plainly a little elated by "having
considerable acquaintance with a tame brown owl." Most of us
have known our share of owls, but few can boast of intimacy with a
feathered one. The great events of Mr. White's life, too, have that
disproportionate importance which is always humorous. To think
of his hands having actually been though worthy (as neither
Willoughby's nor Ray's were) to hold a stilted plover, the
*Charadrius himaniopus,* with no back toe, and therefore "liable,
in speculation, to perpetual vacillations"! I wonder, by the way, if
metaphysicians have no hind toes. In 1770 he makes the
acquaintance in Sussex of "an old family tortoise," which had then
been domesticated for thirty years. It is clear that he fell in love
with it at first sight. We have no means of tracing the growth of his
passion; but in 1780 we find him eloping with its object in a post-
chaise. "The rattle and hurry of the journey so perfectly roused it
that, when I turned it out in a border, it walked twice down to the
bottom of my garden." It reads like a Court Journal: "Yesterday
morning H.R.H. the Princess Alice took an airing of half an hour on
the terrace of Windsor Castle." This tortoise might have been a
member of the Royal Society, if he could have condescended to so
ignoble an ambition. It had but just been discovered that a surface
inclined at a certain angle with the plane of the horizon took more
of the sun's rays. The tortoise had always known this (though he
unostentatiously made no parade of it), and used accordingly to tilt
himself up against the garden-wall in the autumn. He seems to have
been more of a philosopher than even Mr. White himself, caring for
nothing but to get under a cabbage-leaf when it rained, or the sun
was too hot, and to bury himself alive before frost,--a four-footed
Diogenes, who carried his tub on his back.

There are moods in which this kind of history is infinitely
refreshing. These creatures whom we affect to look down upon as
the drudges of instinct are members of a commonwealth whose
constitution rests on immovable bases. never any need of
reconstruction there! *They* never dream of settling it by vote that
eight hours are equal to ten, or that one creature is as clever as
another and no more. *They* do not use their poor wits in
regulating God's clocks, nor think they cannot go astray so long as
they carry their guide-board about with them,--a delusion we often
practise upon ourselves with our high and mighty reason, that
admirable finger-post which points every way and always right. It
is good for us now and then to converse with a world like Mr.
White's, where Man is the least important of animals. But one who,
like me, has always lived in the country and always on the same
spot, is drawn to his book by other occult sympathies. Do we not
share his indignation at that stupid Martin who had graduated his
thermometer no lower than 4o above zero of Fahrenheit, so that in
the coldest weather ever known the mercury basely absconded into
the bulb, and left us to see the victory slip through our fingers, just
as they were closing upon it? No man, I suspect, ever lived long in
the country without being bitten by these meteorological ambitions.
He likes to be hotter and colder, to have been more deeply snowed
up, to have more trees and larger blow down than his neighbors.
With us descendants of the Puritans especially, these weather-
competitions supply the abnegated excitement of the race-course.
Men learn to value thermometers of the true imaginative
termperament, capable of prodigious elations and corresponding
dejections. The other day (5th July) I marked 98o in the shade, my
high water mark, higher by one degree than I had ever seen it
before. I happened to meet a neighbor; as we mopped our brows at
each other, he told me that he had just cleared 100o, and I went
home a beaten man. I had not felt the heat before, save as a
beautiful exaggeration of sunshine; but now it oppressed me with
the prosaic vulgarity of an oven. What had been poetic intensity
became all at once rhetorical hyperbole. I might suspect his
thermometer (as indeed I did, for we Harvard men are apt to think
ill of any graduation but our own); but it was a poor consolation.
The fact remained that his herald Mercury, standing a tiptoe, could
look down on mine. I seem to glimpse something of this familiar
weakness in Mr. White. He, too, has shared in these mercurial
triumphs and defeats. Nor do I doubt that he had a true country-
gentleman's interest in the weather-cock; that his first question on
coming down of a morning was, like Barabas's,

"Into what quarter peers my halcyon's bill?"

It is an innocent and healthful employment of the mind,
distracting one from too continual study of himself, and leading him
to dwell rather upon the indigestions of the elements than his own.
"Did the wind back round, or go about with the sun?" is a rational
question that bears not remotely on the making of hay and the
prosperity of crops. I have little doubt that the regulated
observation of the vane in many different places, and the
interchange of results by telegraph, would put the weather, as it
were, in our power, by betraying its ambushes before it is ready to
give the assault. At first sight, nothing seems more drolly trivial
than the lives of those whose single achievement is to record the
wind and the temperature three times a day. Yet such men are
doubtless sent into the world for this special end, and perhaps there
is no kind of accurate observation, whatever its object, that has not
its final use and value for some one or other. It is even to be hoped
that the speculations of our newspaper editors and their myriad
correspondence upon the signs of the political atmosphere may also
fill their appointed place in a well-regulated universe, if it be only
that of supplying so many more jack-o'-lanterns to the future
historian. Nay, the observations on finance of an M.C. whose sole
knowledge of the subject has been derived from a life-long success
in getting a living out of the public without paying any equivalent
therefor, will perhaps be of interest hereafter to some explorer of
our *cloaca maxima,* whenever it is cleansed.

For many years I have been in the habit of noting down some of
the leading events of my embowered solitude, such as the coming
of certain birds and the like,--a kind of *memoires pour servir,*
after the fashion of White, rather than properly digested natural
history. I thought it not impossible that a few simple stories of my
winged acquaintances might be found entertaining by persons of
kindred taste.

There is a common notion that animals are better meteorologists
than men, and I have little doubt that in immediate weather-wisdom
they have the advantage of our sophisticated senses (though I
suspect a sailor or shepherd would be their match), but I have seen
nothing that leads me to believe their minds capable of erecting the
horoscope of a whole season, and letting us know beforehand
whether the winter will be severe or the summer rainless. I more
than suspect that the clerk of the weather himself does not always
know very long in advance whether he is to draw an order for hot
or cold, dry or moist, and the musquash is scarce likely to be wiser.
I have noted but two days' difference in the coming of the song-
sparrow between a very early and a very backward spring. This
very year I saw the linnets at work thatching, just before a snow-
storm which covered the ground several inches deep for a number
of days. They struck work and left us for a while, no doubt in
search of food. Birds frequently perish from sudden changes in our
whimsical spring weather of which they had no foreboding. More
than thirty years ago, a cherry-tree, then in full bloom, near my
window, was covered with humming-birds benumbed by a fall of
mingled rain and snow, which probably killed many of them. It
should seem that their coming was dated by the height of the sun,
which betrays them into unthrifty matrimony;

"So priketh hem Nature in hir corages;"(1)

but their going is another matter. The chimney swallows leave us
early, for example, apparently so soon as their latest fledglings are
firm enough of wing to attempt the long rowing-match that is
before them. On the other hand the wild-geese probably do not
leave the North till they are frozen out, for I have heard their bugles
sounding southward so late as the middle of December. What may
be called local migrations are doubtless dictated by the chances of
food. I have once been visited by large flights of cross-bills; and
whenever the snow lies long and deep on the ground, a flock of
cedar-birds comes in mid-winter to eat the berries on my
hawthorns. I have never been quite able to fathom the local, or
rather geographical partialities of birds. never before this summer
(1870) have the king-birds, handsomest of flycatchers, built in my
orchard; though I always know where to find them within half a
mile. The rose-breasted grosbeak has been a familiar bird in
Brookline (three miles away), yet I never saw one here till last July,
when I found a female busy among my raspberries and surprisingly
bold. I hope she was *prospecting* with a view to settlement in
our garden. She seemed, on the whole, to think well of my fruit,
and I would gladly plant another bed if it would help to win over so
delightful a neighbor.

(1) Chaucer's *Canterbury Tales, Prologue,* line 11.

The return of the robin is commonly announced by the
newspapers, like that of eminent or notorious people to a watering-
place, as the first authentic notification of spring. And such his
appearance in the orchard and garden undoubtedly is. But, in spite
of his name of migratory thrush, he stays with us all winter, and I
have seen him when the thermometer marked 15 degrees below
zero of Fahrenheit, armed impregnably within,(1) like Emerson's
Titmouse, and as cheerful as he. The robin has a bad reputation
among people who do not value themselves less for being fond of
cherries. There is, I admit, a spice of vulgarity in him, and his song
is rather of the Bloomfield sort, too largely ballasted with prose.
His ethics are of the Poor Richard school, and the main chance
which calls forth all his energy is altogether of the belly. He never
has these fine intervals of lunacy into which his cousins, the catbird
and the mavis, are apt to fall. But for a' that and twice as muckle 's
a' that, I would not exchange him for all the cherries that ever came
out of Asia Minor. With whatever faults, he has not wholly
forfeited that superiority which belongs to the children of nature.
He has a finer taste in fruit than could be distilled from many
successive committees of the Horticultural Society, and he eats
with a relishing gulp not inferior to Dr. Johnson's. He feels and
freely exercises his right of eminent domain. His is the earliest mess
of green peas; his all the mulberries I had fancied mine. But if he
get also the lion's share of the raspberries, he is a great planter, and
sows those wild ones in the woods that solace the pedestrian, and
give a momentary calm even to the jaded victims of the White Hills.
he keeps a strict eye over one's fruit, and knows to a shade of
purple when your grapes have cooked long enough in the sun.
During the severe drought a few years ago the robins wholly
vanished from my garden. I neither saw nor heard one for three
weeks. meanwhile a small foreign grape-vine, rather shy of bearing,
seemed to find the dusty air congenial, and, dreaming, perhaps of its
sweet Argos across the sea, decked itself with a score or so of fair
bunches. I watched them from day to day till they should have
secreted sugar enough from the sunbeams, and at last made up my
mind that I would celebrate my vintage the next morning. But the
robins, too, had somehow kept note of them. They must have sent
out spies, as did the Jews into the promised land, before I was
stirring. When I went with my basket at least a dozen of these
winged vintagers bustled out from among the leaves, and alighting
on the nearest trees interchanged some shrill remarks about me of a
derogatory nature. They had fairly sacked the vine. Not
Wellington's veterans made cleaner work of a Spanish town; not
Federals or Confederates were ever more impartial in the
confiscation of neutral chickens. I was keeping my grapes a secret
to surprise the fair Fidele with, but the robins made them a
profounder secret to her than I had meant. The tattered remnant of
a single bunch was all my harvest-home. How paltry it looked at
the bottom of my basket,--as if a humming-bird had laid her egg in
an eagle's nest! I could not help laughing; and the robins seemed to
join heartily in the merriment. There was a native grape-vine close
by, blue with its less refined abundance, but my cunning thieves
preferred the foreign flavor. Could I tax them with want of taste?

(1) "For well the soul, if stout within,
Can arm impregnably the skin."
*The Titmouse,* lines 75, 76.

The robins are not good solo singers, but their chorus, as, like
primitive fire-worshippers, they hail the return of light and warmth
to the world, is unrivalled. There are a hundred singing like one.
They are noisy enough then, and sing, as poets should, with no
afterthought. But when they come after cherries to the tree near
my window, they muffle their voices, and their faint *pip pip pop!*
sounds far away at the bottom of the garden, where they know I
shall not suspect them of robbing the great black-walnut of its
bitter-rinded store.(1) They are feathered Pecksniffs, to be sure,
but then how brightly their breasts, that look rather shabby in the
sunlight, shine in a rainy day against the dark green of the fringe-
tree! After they have pinched and shaken all the life of an
earthworm, as Italian cooks pound all the spirit out of a steak, and
then gulped him, they stand up in honest self-confidence, expand
their red waistcoats with the virtuous air of a lobby member, and
outface you with an eye that calmly challenges inquiry. "Do *I*
look like a bird that knows the flavor of raw vermin? I throw
myself upon a jury of my peers. Ask any robin if he ever ate
anything less ascetic than the frugal berry of the juniper, and he will
answer that his vow forbids him." Can such an open bosom cover
such depravity? Alas, yes! I have no doubt his breast was redder at
that very moment with the blood of my raspberries. On the whole,
he is a doubtful friend in the garden. He makes his dessert of all
kinds of berries, and is not averse from early pears. But when we
remember how omnivorous he is, eating his own weight in an
incredibly short time, and that Nature seems exhaustless in her
invention of new insects hostile to vegetation, perhaps we may
reckon that he does more good than harm. For my own part, I
would rather have his cheerfulness and kind neighborhood than
many berries.

(1) The screech-owl, whose cry, despite his ill name, is one o the
sweetest sounds in nature, softens his voice in the same way with
the most beguiling mockery of distance. J.R.L.

For his cousin, the catbird, I have a still warmer regard. Always a
good singer, he sometimes nearly equals the brown thrush, and has
the merit of keeping up his music later in the evening than any bird
of my familiar acquaintance. Ever since I can remember, a pair of
them have built in a gigantic syringa near our front door, and I have
known the male to sing almost uninterruptedly during the evenings
of early summer till twilight duskened into dark. They differ greatly
in vocal talent, but all have a delightful way of crooning over, and,
as it were, rehearsing their song in an undertone, which makes their
nearness always unobtrusive. Though there is the most trustworthy
witness to the imitative propensity of this bird, I have only once,
during an intimacy of more than forty years, heard him indulge it.
In that case, the imitation was by no means so close as to deceive,
but a free reproduction of the notes of some other birds, especially
of the oriole, as a kind of variation in his own song. The catbird is
as shy as the robin is vulgarly familiar. Only when his nest or his
fledglings are approached does he become noisy and almost
aggressive. I have known him to station his young in a thick
cornel-bush on the edge of the raspberry-bed, after the fruit began
to ripen, and feed them there for a week or more. In such cases he
shows none of that conscious guilt which makes the robin
contemptible. On the contrary, he will maintain his post in the
thicket, and sharply scold the intruder who ventures to steal *his*
berries. After all, his claim is only for tithes, while the robin will
bag your entire crop if he get a chance.

Dr. Watts's statement that "birds in their little nests agree," like
too many others intended to form the infant mind, is very far from
being true. On the contrary, the most peaceful relation of the
different species to each other is that of armed neutrality. they are
very jealous of neighbors. A few years ago I was much interested
in the housebuilding of a pair of summer yellow-birds. They had
chosen a very pretty site near the top of a tall white lilac, within
easy eye-shot of a chamber window. A very pleasant thing it was
to see their little home growing with mutual help, to watch their
industrious skill interrupted only by little flirts and snatches of
endearment, frugally cut short by the common-sense of the tiny
house-wife. They had brought their work nearly to an end, and had
already begun to line it with fern-down, the gathering of which
demanded more distant journeys and longer absences. But, alas!
the syringa, immemorial manor of the catbirds, was not more than
twenty feet away, and these "giddy neighbors" had, as it appeared,
been all along jealously watchful, though silent, witnesses of what
they deemed an intrusion of squatters. No sooner were the pretty
mates fairly gone for a new load of lining, than

"To their unguarded nest these weasel Scots
Came stealing."(1)

Silently they flew back and forth, each giving a vengeful dab at the
nest in passing. They did not fall-to and deliberately destroy it, for
they might have been caught at their mischief. As it was, whenever
the yellow-birds came back, their enemies were hidden in their own
sight-proof bush. Several times their unconscious victims repaired
damages, but at length, after counsel taken together, they gave it
up. Perhaps, like other unlettered folk, they came to the conclusion
that the Devil was in it, and yielded to the invisible persecution of

(1) Shakespeare: *King Henry V.,* act i, scene 2.

The robins, by constant attacks and annoyances, have succeeded
in driving off the blue-jays who used to build in our pines, their gay
colors and quaint, noisy ways making them welcome and amusing
neighbors. I once had the chance of doing a kindness to a
household of them, which they received with very friendly
condescension. I had had my eye for some time upon a nest, and
was puzzled by a constant fluttering of what seemed full-grown
wings in it whenever I drew nigh. At last I climbed the tree, in spite
of angry protests from the old birds against my intrusion. The
mystery had a very simple solution. In building the nest, a long
piece of packthread had been somewhat loosely woven in. Three of
the young had contrived to entangle themselves in it, and had
become full-grown without being able to launch themselves upon
the air. One was unharmed; another had so tightly twisted the cord
about its shank that one foot was curled up and seemed paralyzed;
the third, in its struggles to escape, had sawn through the flesh of
the thigh and so much harmed itself that I thought it humane to put
an end to its misery. When I took out my knife to cut their hempen
bonds, the heads of the family seemed to divine my friendly intent.
Suddenly ceasing their cries and threats. they perched quietly within
reach of my hand, and watched me in my work of manumission.
This, owing to the fluttering terror of the prisoners, was an affair of
some delicacy; but ere long I was rewarded by seeing one of them
fly away to a neighboring tree, while the cripple, making a
parachute of his wings, came lightly to the ground, and hopped off
as well as he could with one leg, obsequiously waited on by his
elders. A week later I had the satisfaction of meeting him in the
pine-walk, in good spirits, and already so far recovered as to be
able to balance himself with the lame foot. I have no doubt that in
his old age he accounted for his lameness by some handsome story
of a wound received at the famous Battle of the Pines, when our
tribe, overcome by numbers, was driven from its ancient camping-
ground. Of late years the jays have visited us only at intervals; and
in winter their bright plumage, set off by the snow, and their
cheerful cry, are especially welcome. They would have furnished
Aesop with a fable, for the feathered crest in which they seem to
take so much satisfaction is often their fatal snare. Country boys
make a hole with their finger in the snow-crust just large enough to
admit the jay's head, and, hollowing it out somewhat beneath, bait it
with a few kernels of corn. The crest slips easily into the trap, but
refuses to be pulled out again, and he who came to feast remains a

Twice have the crow-blackbirds attempted a settlement in my
pines, and twice have the robins, who claim a right of preemption,
so successfully played the part of border-ruffians as to drive them
away,--to my great regret, for they are the best substitute we have
for rooks. At Shady Hill(1) (now, alas! empty of its so long-loved
household) they build by hundreds, and nothing can be more cheery
than their creaking clatter (like a convention of old-fashioned
tavern-signs) as they gather at evening to debate in mass meeting
their windy politics, or to gossip at their tent-doors over the events
of the day. Their port is grave, and their stalk across the turf as
martial as that of a second-rate ghost in Hamlet. They never
meddled with my corn, so far as I could discover.

(1) The home of the Nortons, in Cambridge, who were at the time
of this paper in Europe.

For a few years I had crows, but their nests are an irresistible bait
for boys, and their settlement was broken up. They grew so
wonted as to throw off a great part of their shyness, and to tolerate
my near approach. One very hot day I stood for some time within
twenty feet of a mother and three children, who sat on an elm
bough over my head gasping in the sultry air, and holding their
wings half-spread for coolness. All birds during the pairing season
become more or less sentimental, and murmur soft nothings in a
tone very unlike the grinding-organ repetition and loudness of their
habitual song. The crow is very comical as a lover, and to hear him
trying to soften his croak to the proper Saint Preux(1) standard has
something the effect of a Mississippi boatman quoting Tennyson.
Yet there are few things to my ear more melodious than his caw of
a clear winter morning as it drops to you filtered through five
hundred fathoms of crisp blue air. The hostility of all smaller birds
makes the moral character of the row, for all his deaconlike
demeanor and garb, somewhat questionable. He could never sally
forth without insult. The golden robins, especially, would chase
him as far as I could follow with my eye, making him duck clumsily
to avoid their importunate bills. I do not believe, however, that he
robbed any nests hereabouts, for the refuse of the gas-works,
which, in our free-and-easy community, is allowed to poison the
river, supplied him with dead alewives in abundance. I used to
watch him making his periodical visits to the salt-marshes and
coming back with a fish in his beak to his young savages, who, no
doubt, like it in that condition which makes it savory to the
Kanakas and other corvine races of men.

(1) See Rousseau's *La Nouvelle Heloise.*

Orioles are in great plenty with me. I have seen seven males
flashing about the garden at once. A merry crew of them swing
their hammocks from the pendulous boughs. During one of these
later years, when the canker-worms stripped our elms as bare as
winter, these birds went to the trouble of rebuilding their unroofed
nests, and chose for the purpose trees which are safe from those
swarming vandals, such as the ash and the button-wood. One year
a pair (disturbed, I suppose, elsewhere) built a second next in an
elm within a few yards of the house. My friend, Edward E. Hale,
told me once that the oriole rejected from his web all strands of
brilliant color, and I thought it a striking example of that instinct of
concealment noticeable in many birds, though it should seem in this
instance that the nest was amply protected by its position from all
marauders but owls and squirrels. Last year, however, I had the
fullest proof that Mr. Hale was mistaken. A pair of orioles built on
the lowest trailer of a weeping elm, which hung within ten feet of
our drawing-room window, and so low that I could reach it from
the ground. The nest was wholly woven and felted with ravellings
of woollen carpet in which scarlet predominated. Would the same
thing have happened in the woods? Or did the nearness of a human
dwelling perhaps give the birds a greater feeling of security? They
are very bold, by the way, in quest of cordage, and I have often
watched them stripping the fibrous bark from a honeysuckle
growing over the very door. But, indeed, all my birds look upon
me as if I were a mere tenant at will, and they were landlords. With
shame I confess it, I have been bullied even by a hummingbird.
This spring, as I was cleansing a pear-tree of its lichens, one of
these little zigzagging blurs came purring toward me, couching his
long bill like a lance, his throat sparkling with angry fire, to warn
me off from a Missouri-currant whose honey he was sipping. And
many a time he has driven me out of a flower-bed. This summer,
by the way, a pair of these winged emeralds fastened their mossy
acorn-cup upon a bough of the same elm which the orioles had
enlivened the year before. We watched all their proceedings from
the window through an opera-glass, and saw their two nestlings
grow from black needles with a tuft of down at the lower end, till
they whirled away on their first short experimental flights. They
became strong of wing in a surprisingly short time, and I never saw
them or the male bird after, though the female was regular as usual
in her visits to our petunias and verbenas. I do not think it ground
enough for a generalization, but in the many times when I watched
the old birds feeding their young, the mother always alighted, while
the father as uniformly remained upon the wing.

The bobolinks are generally chance visitors, tinkling through the
garden in blossoming-time, but this year, owing to the long rains
early in the season, their favorite meadows were flooded, and they
were driven to the upland. So I had a pair of them domiciled in my
grass field. The male used to perch in an apple-tree, then in full
bloom, and, while I stood perfectly still close by, he would circle
away, quivering round the entire field of five acres, with no break in
his song, and settle down again among the blooms, to be hurried
away almost immediately by a new rapture of music. He had the
volubility of an Italian charlatan at a fair, and, like him, appeared to
be proclaiming the merits of some quack remedy. *Opodeldoc-
opodeldoc-try-Doctor-Lincoln's-opodeldoc!* he seemed to repeat
over and over again, with a rapidity that would have distanced the
deftest-tongued Figaro that ever rattled. I remember Count
Gurowski saying once, with that easy superiority of knowledge
about this country which is the monopoly of foreigners, that we had
no singing-birds! Well, well, Mr. Hepworth Dixon(1) has found the
typical America in Oneida and Salt Lake City. Of course, an
intelligent European is the best judge of these matters. The truth is
there are more singing-birds in Europe because there are fewer
forests. These songsters love the neighborhood of man because
hawks and owls are rarer, while their own food is more abundant.
Most people seem to think, the more trees, the more birds. Even
Chateaubriand, who first tried the primitive-forest-cure, and whose
description of the wilderness in its imaginative effects is unmatched,
fancies the "people of the air singing their hymns to him." So far as
my own observation goes, the farther one penetrates the sombre
solitudes of the woods, the more seldom does he hear the voice of
any singing-bird. In spite of Chateaubriand's minuteness of detail,
in spite of that marvellous reverberation of the decrepit tree falling
of its own weight, which he was the first to notice, I cannot help
doubting whether he made his way very deep into the wilderness.
At any rate, in a letter to Fontanes, written in 1804, he speaks of
*mes chevaux paissant a quelque distance.* To be sure
Chateaubriand was at to mount the high horse, and this may have
been but an afterthought of the *grand seigneur,* but certainly one
would not make much headway on horseback toward the druid
fastnesses of the primaeval pine.

(1) In his book of travels, *New America.*

The bobolinks build in considerable numbers in a meadow within
a quarter of a mile of us. A houseless land passes through the midst
of their camp, and in clear westerly weather, at the right season,
one may hear a score of them singing at once. When they are
breeding, if I chance to pass, one of the male birds always
accompanies me like a constable, flitting from post to post of the
rail-fence, with a short note of reproof continually repeated, till I
am fairly out of the neighborhood. Then he will swing away into
the air and run down the wind, gurgling music without stint over
the unheeding tussocks of meadow-grass and dark clumps of
bulrushes that mark his domain.

We have no bird whose song will match the nightingale's in
compass, none whose note is so rich as that of the European
blackbird; but for mere rapture I have never heard the bobolink's
rival. But his opera-season is a short one. The ground and tree
sparrows are our most constant performers. It is now late in
August, and one of the latter sings every day and all day long in the
garden. Till within a fortnight, a pair of indigo-birds would keep up
their lively *duo* for an hour together. While I write, I hear an
oriole gay as in June, and the plaintive *may-be* of the goldfinch
tells me he is stealing my lettuce-seeds. I know not what the
experience of others may have been, but the only bird I have ever
hard sing in the night has been the chip-bird. I should say he sang
about as often during the darkness as cocks crow. One can hardly
help fancying that he sings in his dreams.

"Father of light, what sunnie seed,
What glance of day hast thou confined
Into this bird? To all the breed
This busie ray thou hast assigned;
Their magnetism works all night,
And dreams of Paradise and light."

On second thought, I remember to have heard the cuckoo strike the
hours nearly all night with the regularity of a Swiss clock.

The dead limbs of our elms, which I spare to that end, bring us
the flicker every summer, and almost daily I hear his wild scream
and laugh close at hand, himself invisible. He is a shy bird, but a
few days ago I had the satisfaction of studying him through the
blinds as he sat on a tree within a few feet of me. Seen so near and
at rest, he makes good his claim to the title of pigeon-woodpecker.
Lumberers have a notion that he is harmful to timber, digging little
holes through the bark to encourage the settlement of insects. The
regular rings of such perforations which one may see in almost any
apple-orchard seem to give some probability to this theory. Almost
every season a solitary quail visits us, and, unseen among the
currant bushes, alls *Bob White, Bob White,* as if he were playing
at hide-and-seek with that imaginary being. A rarer visitant is the
turtle-dove, whose pleasant coo (something like the muffled crow
of a cock from a coop covered with snow) I have sometimes heard,
and whom I once had the good luck to see close by me in the
mulberry-tree. The wild-pigeon, once numerous, I have not seen
for many years.(1) Of savage birds, a hen-hawk now and then
quarters himself upon us for a few days, sitting sluggish in a tree
after a surfeit of poultry. One of them once offered me a near shot
from my study-window one drizzly day for several hours. But it
was Sunday, and I gave him the benefit of its gracious truce of

(1) They made their appearance again this summer (1870).--J.R.L.

Certain birds have disappeared from our neighborhood within my
memory. I remember when the whippoorwill could be heard in
Sweet Auburn. The night-hawk, once common, is now rare. The
brown thrush has moved farther up country. For years I have not
seen or heard any of the larger owls, whose hooting was once of
my boyish terrors. The cliff-swallow, strange emigrant, that
eastward takes his way, has come and gone again in my time. The
bank-swallows, wellnigh innumerable during my boyhood, no
longer frequent the crumbly cliff of the gravel-pit by the river. The
barn-swallows, which once swarmed in our barn, flashing through
the dusty sun-streak of the mow, have been gone these many years.
My father would lead me out to see them gather on the roof, and
take counsel before their yearly migration, as Mr. White used to see
them at Selborne. *Eheu fugaces!* Thank fortune, the swift still
glues his nest, and rolls his distant thunders night and day in the
wide-throated chimneys, still sprinkles the evening air with his
merry twittering. The populous heronry in Fresh Pond meadows
has wellnigh broken up, but still a pair or two haunt the old home,
as the gypsies of Ellangowan their ruined huts, and every evening
fly over us riverwards, clearing their throats with a hoarse hawk as
they go, and, in cloudy weather. scarce higher than the tops of the
chimneys. Sometimes I have known one to alight in one of our
trees, though for what purpose I never could divine. Kingfishers
have sometimes puzzled me in the same way, perched at high noon
in a pine, springing their watchman's rattle when they flitted away
from my curiosity, and seeming to shove their top-heavy heads
along as a man does a wheelbarrow.

Some birds have left us, I suppose, because the country is
growing less wild. I once found a summer duck's nest within a
quarter of a mile of our house, but such a *trouvaille* would be
impossible now as Kidd's treasure. And yet the mere taming of the
neighborhood does not quite satisfy me as an explanation. Twenty
years ago, on my way to bathe in the river, I saw every day a brace
of woodcock, on the miry edge of a spring within a few rods of a
house, and constantly visited by thirsty cows. There was no growth
of any kind to conceal them, and yet these ordinarily shy birds were
almost as indifferent to my passing as common poultry would have
been. Since bird-nesting has become scientific, and dignified itself
as oology, that, no doubt, is partly to blame for some of our losses.
But some old friends are constant. Wilson's thrush comes every
year to remind me of that most poetic or ornithologists. He flits
before me through the pine-walk like the very genius of solitude. A
pair of pewees have built immemorially on a jutting brick in the
arched entrance to the ice-house; always on the same brick, and
never more than a single pair, though two broods of five each are
raised there every summer. How do they settle their claim to the
homestead? By what right of primogeniture? Once the children of
a man employed about the place *oologized* the nest, and the
pewees left us for a year or two. I felt towards those boys as the
messmates of the Ancient Mariner(1) did towards him after he had
shot the albatross. But the pewees came back at last, and one of
them is now on his wonted perch, so near my window that I can
hear the click of his bill as he snaps a fly on the wing with the
unerring precision a stately Trasteverina shows in the capture of her
smaller deer. The pewee is the first bird to pipe up in the morning;
and during the early summer he preludes his matutinal ejaculation of
*pewee* with a slender whistle, unheard at any other time. He
saddens with the season, and, as summer declines, he changes his
note to *cheu, pewee!* as if in lamentation. Had he been an Italian
bird, Ovid would have had a plaintive tale to tell about him. He is
so familiar as often to pursue a fly through the open window into
my library.

(1) In Coleridge's poem of that name.

There is something inexpressibly dear to me in these old
friendships of a lifetime. There is scarce a tree of mine but has had,
at some time or other, a happy homestead among its boughs, and to
which I cannot say,

"Many light hearts and wings,
Which now be head, lodged in thy living bowers."

My walk under the pines would lose half its summer charm were I
to miss that shy anchorite, the Wilson's thrush, nor hear in haying-
time the metallic ring of his song, that justifies his rustic name of
*scythe-whet.* I protect my game as jealously as an English
squire. If anybody had oologized a certain cuckoo's nest I know of
(I have a pair in my garden every year), it would have left me a sore
place in my mind for weeks. I love to bring these aborigines back
to the mansuetude they showed to the early voyagers, and before
(forgive the involuntary pun) they had grown accustomed to man
and knew his savage ways. And they repay your kindness with a
sweet familiarity too delicate ever to breed contempt. I have made
a Penn-treaty with them, preferring that to the Puritan way with the
natives, which converted them to a little Hebraism and a great deal
of Medford rum. If they will not come near enough to me (as most
of them will), I bring them close with an opera-glass,--a much
better weapon than a gun. I would not, if i could, convert them
from their pretty pagan ways. The only one I sometimes have
savage doubts about is the red squirrel. I *think* he oologizes. I
*know* he eats cherries (we counted five of them at one time in a
single tree, the stones pattering down like the sparse hail that
preludes a storm), and that he gnaws off the small end of pears to
get at the seeds. He steals the corn from under the noses of my
poultry. But what would you have? He will come down upon the
limb of the tree I am lying under till he is within a yard of me. He
and his mate will scurry up and down the great black-walnut for my
diversion, chattering like monkeys. Can I sign his death-warrant
who has tolerated me about his grounds so long? Not I. Let them
steal, and welcome. I am sure I should, had I had the same bringing
up and the same temptation. As for the birds, I do not believe there
is one of them but does more good than harm; and of how many
featherless bipeds can this be said?


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