Fragrance in Nature Literature-Nature studies in Berkshire (1899)-John Coleman Adams

Nature studies in Berkshire (1899)-John Coleman Adams

But before one can enter the charming territory
he must pause at the moth-mullein whose silent
challenge to the eye halts one at the border of the
field. Just why this tall and soldierly weed has been
set to patrol this edge of the pasture, I am sure it
would be hard to tell. Only a small squad is on
duty, deployed along the depression near the fence.
But always I am arrested here as I was the first time
I ever crossed these boundaries. Moth-mullein is one
of nature's surprises. Like the harebell, balancing its
ethereal beauty on the edge of a bare cliff, or the
water-lily, extracting fragrance and purity from ooze
and slime, this dainty blossom wins its delicate colours
and exquisitely fragile texture from thin and unpromis-
ing soil, in this dry and exposed corner of the hillside.
Folded up in the bud it is always the same flat little
wad with hardly a suggestion of possibilities of grace
or delicate structure. And it is a witness to the
regularity and constancy of nature that in that folded
bud the outside fold turns down from the top, as
regularly as the gummed flap of an envelope. I can
never pass this group without plucking one for a
souvenir ; long before it is landed in the vase at home
its open petals have withered or fallen off. But once
in the nourishing water its buds unfold in slow daily
succession, and it holds its fairy-like beauty for a week.

For pathways through this open jungle of shrubby
cinquefoil one has choice unlimited. But chiefly the
feet are drawn in one of three directions. There is a
tempting prospect up the hill to the right, where a
lovely elm, with trunk all thick and green with foliage,
rises against a background of dense woods. In the
shady afternoon those thickets are so cool, so suggest-
ive of ferns and vines, creeping things and things
that are fragrant with woody odours, that one inclines
that way.

But the sun moves around and drives one from
the shady covert and puts an end to these dreams
by daylight. Yet others follow hard after. Even as
one lies here with cheek close to the earth, there
steals upon the sense a fragrance, pungent, aromatic,
subtle as some rare perfume, and elusive as the flight
of the firefly. It calls to memory the interior of some
country homestead, and conjures up the cupboard
where the "simples " are kept, and clean cool cham-
bers with beds whose linen gives out this same
sweet exhalation. One has not far to look for the
fragrant everlasting whose woolly blossoms yield this
pleasant breath, dear to every country boy and girl,
but dearer still to him who hides a bunch of it in the
desk drawer at the city office, a swift reminder in
the busy hours of the far-off hillside under the
summer sun. Gather a handful of this grateful yield
of the hill pasture, and stroll a few rods farther, for
in yonder copse is reserved a pleasant surprise.


Pass the chevaux-de-frise of the birches, and
work your way down the steep bank for a few rods,
and you shall find yourself in the midst of a growth
which florists would give much to discover, and
which no lover of the woods would ever disclose.
It is a splendid patch of maiden-hair ferns, covering
many a square rod of the thicket, multiplying and
luxuriating in the leaf-enriched soil. Hidden away
from the eyes of the careless and the vandal, growing
and fruiting and growing again for many a year, these
delicate and graceful fronds have possessed them-
selves of this spot. It is their homestead. Inherited
from generation to generation, the copse is the an-
cestral home of this delightful family, where they
still rear their bright stems and spread their dainty
pinnies unharmed of men. What keener pleasure
awaits the wood stroller than such a corner as this,
redolent of the life of the finest flower of the shadows,
fragrant with the gathered tradition of this family of
ferns, whose very presence here attests how rare
have been human visits, how largely this place is
secured to the dryads and their mysteries ? Is it not
worth a walk over the hill-pasture to stumble upon
such a woody corner as this ?


Now if I had the means and the time, I should
every year in this same fashion run ahead of the
vernal advance, the procession of leaves and blos-
soms and birds and butterflies, as it moves northward
from the Carolinas to the Canadas. There is such
an exquisite pleasure in watching the burst of life,
the outbreak of colour and fragrance, the clothing of
field and forest with verdure, that one would be glad
to prolong the sensation. In these days it would be
an easy matter to keep just ahead of summer for a
good two months. And then one might halt on the
banks of the St. Lawrence and let the pageant pass
by ; for when it has gone as far north as that, the line
of march is nearly done.

THE rotation of crops on the farm has this year
filled the field opposite my window with a
thriving growth of corn. Last year it grew
rye, and the year before it lay fallow. But never was
it so beautiful as these tall stalks have made it, their
pale green below crowned with golden tassels nod-
ding in the breezes like the plumes of a great army.
It is a large field for a New England farm, and its
eight or nine acres are filled to the very fences with
a crop which I have seen grow from one foot to nine
and ten in height. When I awake in the morning it
is the first sight that greets my eyes, its whole ex-
panse glittering in the sunlight like the waters of a
lake. At noon its soft whispers come across into my
chamber, voicing mysterious messages. In the even-
ing dampness sweet odours exhale from it and drift
into the open doors, the choicest fragrance of the
farm. And all night long, when the wind is up, I
hear the soft clash of stalks and blades which tells
of the steady struggle it keeps up against the gale.


Half-
way up the navigable portion of the stream there
was a break in the thicket, a pathway, and a landing-
place. Through this portal to the meadow, one
caught frequent glimpses of the haymakers, while
the fragrance of the new-mown grass enriched the
breezes ; and in the near foreground rose the green
urn of one of those noble elms, the glory of New
England's fields, peerless in any land for beauty and
for grace.

It is
less than a hundred yards, straight in from the road, to
the heart of the swamp which occupies most of these
woods. The thicket is filled with that many-named
frond which the latest books call the Christmas-fern,
alias sword-, shield-, black-, and rock-fern ; one may
take his choice of names, the fern remains the same
elegant, dark, glossy evergreen, which florists put in
all the church bouquets, and which holds its own
against all vicissitudes of weather and season. When
we reach the bog, we are in the midst of a profusion
of ferns that is almost tropical. Clayton's fern, the
cinnamon, the royal, grow rank and tall ; dicksonias
crowd thick and fragrant ; and the sensitive-fern
fairly carpets the ooze. The silvery spleenwort
makes its home here, and Boott's shield-fern, with
reddish-gold seed-spots decorating its maturing
fronds. But most beautiful of all, a picture of wav-
ing grace, grows the glorious ostrich-fern, a circle of
out-curving fronds, each one of them as perfect as an
ostrich-feather, and all together making a green vase
or urn, as beautiful among ferns as the elm among
the trees of the meadow. Had I the christening of
these varieties, I would crown this one with the
royal title, for its regal dignity and stateliness.


I have been making a little essay in this direction
myself. After seeing the buds unfold and the violets
bloom and the forsythia pour its golden rain in the
city's parks, I took a short-cut by rail to Berkshire,
and there intercepted the head of the procession, and
repeated the delights of seeing the column of spring's
splendours passing in review. And the ostensible
object of this frivolous excursion was a little breath-
ing-space after a breathless winter. Its only visible
fruit is a bunch of arbutus and trilliums. I cannot
expect any great sympathy when I say that to me
they are more to be desired than trout, yea, than
much heavy trout. But such is the fact. They are
blooming in the parlour now, and for a week perhaps
will give their silent reminder of the woods to every
incomer ; no fish could be exhibited as long as that
after he came out of the water ; he would not look
well, and he would not be in good odour. Nor do I
believe that any trout ever gave more pleasure to the
hunter. Did you ever hunt the trillium ? Did you
ever seek the arbutus in its forest haunts ?

The task of the imagination was not so hard, in
transferring us so far backward in time. No troglo-
dyte ever had a ruder couch. No shepherd on the
Asiatic plains ever slept more frankly under the skies.
The mountain herbage was not as soft as a spring
bed, and the log we used as a common bolster, even
when softened by the thin folds of a coverlid, was by
no means downy. We lay down in a row, each man
with his hat and overcoat on, and drew a thick quilt
over the entire squad. Packed thus in close order,
even when the fire burned low, and only one weary
eye of live coal glowed and glared at the watchers
for dawn, we were warm enough. The night air had
no frosty bite. It was as soft as it was clear. And
when the fresh gusts rustled the leaves and shook
the branches of our sylvan roof, the breath of the
wind was quick with the odours of the forest, and
electric with the ozone of high altitudes.


But the largest room in my fernery and the one
which furnishes the largest variety of specimens, is
the wood-lot yonder, within whose territory, half a
mile square, one may find nearly all the common
wood and swamp ferns of New England. At the
very entrance to the path the ground is grown thick
with the pale-green fronds of the New York fern,
whose grace and beauty are not one whit diminished
because it is so common ; and before many steps are
taken the rich hay-like odours of the dicksonia delight
the sense. Here the sensitive fern, the Onoclea sensi-
bilis, spreads its hands upward, though it clings
pretty closely to the earth, and the strong, masculine
Pteris aquilina, the common brake, rears itself in an
assertive sort of way above the rest of the ferns.
There is great abundance of Osmundce in this wood,
all three varieties being well represented in the collec-
tion. One soon learns to know the Osmunda clay-
toniana by its brown fertile leaves, interrupting the
pale green of its great fronds, and the Cinnamomea
by its seed-leaves growing within the centre of a
little circle of sterile fronds.

Just before the traveller is dead he reaches open
air and daylight in Harlem, and sniffs the salty breath
of the Sound and the sedges along the shore. Then
comes the northward turn at South Norwalk ; and
still the thick air is laden with vapours and the languid
lungs cannot get oxygen enough to feed the fires of
life. But now at least there is no more gas to drug
the ozone ; and by the time Bethel is passed the
odours of the field replace the clogging fumes of
brewery and mill ; and the other side of Danbury the
steam dies out and leaves an atmosphere which but
for the cindery breath of the engine would be ninety-
five per cent. pure. But the real change, the awaken-
ing to the consciousness of a new vitality in every
draught, the sense of the gentle tonic of the Berkshire
Hills, only begins when Brookfield Junction is passed,
and New Milford, and down from the slopes of the
Litchfield Hills, and out of the valleys of Cornwall
and Canaan, come the sweet and quickening airs
which put life where languor was, and stir a quicker
pulse in the weariest heart.

But now began the joyous hunt for the arbutus.
From my earliest days I have had an intense affection
for this flower. I have been passionately fond of its
delicate blossoms. I have craved its faint but satisfy-
ing perfume. I have revelled in its dainty colouring.
I have loved its modest, shrinking habit, its vain
attempts to nestle under the dead leaves, and hide
itself in the shelter of its own foliage.

How welcome, then, this fresh prowl among the
dead leaves, this search for the glistening green ovals
of the arbutus' leaves, the faint whiffs of perfume as
we unearthed the little blossoms. The date was a
trifle late to ensure our finding the flowers at their
best. We had reckoned a little too confidently on the
high ground and the woods as likely to retard their
blossoming. But there were enough of them, and
we worked our way up the slopes toward the south-
ern peak of Monument, culling delicate blossoms all
the way.


The first half-hour was spent in doubling back-
ward and forward, beating up-hill as it were, against
a fairly heavy grade. The way was lined with hard-
wood bushes, with ferns and mosses most cool and
refreshing to sight and to smell. Here and there a
group of wild sunflowers lent their bright yellow
hues to the scene, and once we stumbled upon some
foxglove. The mountain vegetation was showing
the effects of the drought which had been searing
the fields in the valleys, and had made great strides
toward autumnal hues in the three weeks since we
were over the path before. A little spring beside
which we had eaten our supper on that previous
ascent was now but the shadow of a refreshing
name, a mere dry and empty earthen bowl. We
were disappointed in our expectations of a cool
draught at this wayside fountain, but remembering
another, only a mile or so farther up, we pushed on
in hope.