Fragrance in Nature Literature-Where the forest murmurs by William Sharp

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Where the forest murmurs. Nature essays - Sharp, William,

But for those who love the hills as
comrades, what a spell, what enchantment !
To wander by old grassy ways, old 'pack-
road ' or timeless mountain path ; to go
through the bracken, by grey boulders tufted
with green moss and yellow lichen, and see
nothing but great rounded shoulders or sudden
peaks overhead or beyond, nothing near but
the yellow-hammer or wandering hawk or
raven : to feel the pliant heather underfoot,
and smell the wild thyme, and watch a cloud
trail a purple shadow across the grey-blue
Mountain of moors, rising and falling against the azure
walls, but miraculously suspended there, a
changeless vision, an eternal phantom : to go
up into solitary passes, where even the June
sunshine is hardly come ere it is gone, where
the corbie screams, and the stag tramples the
cranberry scrub and sniffs the wind blowing
from beyond the scarlet-fruited rowan leaning
from an ancient fallen crag : to see slope
sinking into enveloping slope, and height up-
lifted to uplifting heights, and crags gathered
confusedly to serene and immutable summits :
to come at last upon these vast foreheads, and
look down upon the lost world of green glens
and dusky forests and many waters, to look
down, as it were, from eternity into time . . .
this indeed is to know the mountain charm,
this is enchantment.

The Lark, then, so often apostrophised as the
first voice of Spring, is by no means specifically
the Herald of March. When we see his brown
body breasting the air - waves of the March
wind, it may not be the welcome migrant
from the South we see, with greenness in his
high aerial note and the smell of hay and wild
roses in the o'ercome of his song, but a winter-
exile from a far mountain -vale in Scandinavia
or from the snowbound wastes of Courland or
Westphalia.

Something of that emotion as of ancestral
memories, as of an awakened past, of an un-e,
loosening of the imagination, may well come
to any imaginative nature encountering sud-
denly a wild-apple in blossom in some solitary
place. To people of a Celtic race or having a
dominant Celtic strain, in particular, perhaps ;
for to the Gael, the Cymru and the Breton
the Apple-tree is associated with his most
sacred traditional beliefs. Of old it was sacro-
sanct. It was the Celtic Tree of Life, what
Yggdrasil was to the ancient dreamers of
Scandinavia. He cannot think of it, but of
the kingdom of eternal youth : of Emhain
Abhlach, of Y Breasil, of Avalon, of drowned
Avillion. It waves over the lost Edens. In
Tir-na-n'Og its boughs, heavy with blossom,
hang above the foam of the last pale waters
of doom. The tired islander, who has put
away hunger and weariness and dreams and
the old secret desire of the sword, lays himself
down below its branches in Flatheanas, and
hears the wild harpers of Rinn in a drowsy
hum like the hum of wild bees. Grey -haired
men and women on the shores of Connemara
look out across the dim wave and see the
waving of its boughs. The Breton peasant,
standing at twilight on the rock-strewn beaches
of Tregastel, will cross himself as he smells the
fragrance of apple-blossom coming from sunken
Apple. i s ] es across the long rolling billows, and re-
member, perhaps, how of old in moonlit nights
he has seen his keel drive through the yielding
topmost branches of the woods of Avalon.
Many poets have wandered in the secret
valleys of Avalon, and have passed under
boughs heavy with foam of dreams, and have
forgotten all things and been uplifted in joy.
In the glens of the Land of Heart's Desire
the tired singers of the world have become
silent under the windless branches, snow-white
in the moonshine, having found the Heart of
Song.

What a long preamble to the story of how
the Seaweeds were once sweet-smelling blooms
of the shores and valleys ! Of how the flowers
of meadow and woodland, of the sun-swept
plain and the shadowy hill, had once song as
well as sweet odours : how, of these, many lost
not only fragrance but innocent beauty : and
how out of a rose and a blade of grass and a
breath of the wind the first birds were made,
the souls of the green earth, winged, and
voiced.


Then, too, it is rare that the snowy
wilderness is without voice of mountain
torrent, for even when frost holds the hill-
world in a grip so terrible that the smaller
birds cannot fly in the freezing air, there are
rushing burns of so fierce a spate that the
hands-of-ice are whirled aside like foam, and
the brown wave leaps and dashes from rock to
rock, from granite ledge to peaty hollow,
White from brief turbulent channels to chasms and
Weather, crevasses whence ceaselessly ascends the damp
smell of churned surge, above which as cease-
lessly rises a phantom spray. Again, there
is that strange, continual earth -movement,
the alarm of all unfamiliar wayfarers. Who
suddenly unloosened that rush of rock and
earth yonder? What enemy moved that
boulder that leapt and hurtled and crashed
downward and beyond, but a score yards
away ? Of what elfin - artillery are those
rattling stones the witness ? What hand, in
the silence, thrust itself through the snow and
crumbled that old serrated ledge, where, a
week ago, the red deer stood sniffing the
wind, where, yesterday perhaps, the white
ptarmigan searched the heather ?

But what of the Forest- Awakener ? Who The
is he ? Her name, is it known of men ? Who
can it be but the Wind of the South, that Woods
first-born of the wooing Year and sweetheart
Spring ? But what if the name be only that
of a bird ? Then, surely, it must be the wood-
thrush, or perchance the cushat, or, no, that
wandering Summer-herald, the Cuckoo ! Not
the skylark, for he is in the sunlight, lost above
the pastures : not the merle, for he is flooding
the wayside elms with ancient music of ever-
young love : not the blithe clans of the Finch,
for one and all are gypsies of the open. Per-
chance, then, the Nightingale ? No, he is a
moon- worshipper, the chorister of the stars, the
incense-swinger before the altars of the dawn :
and though he is a child of the woods, he loves
the thickets also. Besides, he will not come
far north. Are there not deep woods of
silence and dream beyond the banks of the
Tyne ? Are there no forest sanctuaries north
of the green ramparts which divide North um-
bria from the glens of Tweed and the solitudes
of the shadowy Urr ? Are there no inland
valleys buried in sea-sounding woods beyond
the green vale of Quair ? Alas, the sweet
Songmaker from the South does not think so,
does not so dream. In moon-reveries in the
woods of Surrey, in starry serenades along
the the lanes of Devon, in lonely nocturnes in the
shadowy groves of the New Forest, he has
no thought of more vast, more secret and
impenetrable woods through which move
mountain -airs from Schiehallion, chanting
winds from the brows of the Grampians : he
has no ancestral memory of the countless
battalions of the red pine which throng the
wilds of Argyll or look on the grey shoreless
seas of the west, these green pillars which
once covered the barren braes of Balquhidder,
the desolate hill-lands of the Gregara, and,
when the world was young, were wet with the
spray of the unquiet wastes wherein are set
the treeless Hebrides.

It has been said, less wisely than disdainfully,
that the chief element of beauty is destroyed
when one knows the secret of semblance.
Clouds, then, are forfeit in loveliness when
one knows the causes of their transformation,
their superb illusion ? Not so. Has the rose
lost in beauty, has she relinquished fragrance,
for all that we have learned of her blind roots,
the red ichor in her petals, the green pigment
in her stem, her hunger that must be fed in
coarse earth, her thirst that must be quenched
in rain and dew, her desire that must mate
with light ? Is the rainbow the less a lovely
mystery because we know that it is compact
of the round, colourless raindrops such as fall
upon us in any shower? Is the blue of an
unclouded sky the less poignant for us if we
know that the sunlight which inhabits it is
there, not the yellow or red or suffused white
which we discern, but itself an ineffable azure ;
that, there, the sun itself is not golden or Summer
amber or bronze, but violet-blue ? Clouds.

In June the coming of dusk is the audible
movement of summer. The day is so full of
myriad beauty, so full of sound and fragrance,
that it is not till the hour of the dew that one
may hear the breathing of the miraculous The
presence. The birds, who still sing early in Coming
the month, and many even of those whose ° us '
songs follow the feet of May begin a new love-
life at the coming of June, are silent : though
sometimes, in the south, the nightingale will
still suddenly put the pulse of song into the
gloaming, though brieflier now ; and elsewhere
the night-loving thrush will awake, and call
his long liquid notes above the wild-growth of
honeysuckle and brier. At the rising of the
moon I have heard the cuckoos calling well
after the date when they are supposed to be
silent, and near midnight have known the
blackcap fill a woodland hollow in Argyll with
a music as solitary, as intoxicating, as that of
a nightingale in a Surrey dell. The thrush,
the blackbird, the blackcap, the willow-warbler
and other birds may often be heard singing in
the dusk, or on moonlit nights, in a warm
May : and doubtless it is for this reason
that many people declare they have heard the
nightingale even in regions where that bird
never penetrates. Often, too, the nightingale's
song is attributed to the blackcap, and even
to the thrush or merle, simply because heard
by day, for there seems to be a common idea
that this bird will not sing save at dusk or in
darkness or in the morning twilight.

In the dew-moist air an innumerable
rumour becomes a monotone : the breath of
life, suppressed, husht, or palpitant. A wilder-
ness of wild-roses has been crushed, and their
fragrance diffused among the dove-grey and
harebell-blue and pansy-purple veils of twi-
light : or is it a wilderness of honeysuckle ; or
of meadowsweet ; or of the dew-wet hay ; or
lime-blossom and brier, galingale and the tufted
reed and the multitude of the fern ? It is
fragrance, ineffable, indescribable : odour born
under the pale fire of the moon, under the


In the meadows, in woods,
on upland pastures, from beech-thicket to pine-
forest, on the moors, on the hills, in the long
valleys and the narrow glens, among the dunes
and sea-banks and along wave-loud or wave-
whispering shores, everywhere the midsummer-
night is filled with sound, with fragrance, with
a myriad motion. It is an exquisite unrest : a
prolonged suspense, to the day worn as silence
is, yet is not silence, though the illusion is
wrought out of the multitudinous silences
which incalculably intersperse the continuous
chant of death, the ceaseless hymn of life.
Everywhere, but far north in particular, the
the summer night has a loveliness to which the
least sensitive must in some degree yield,
creates a spell which must trouble even a
dulled imagination, as moonlight and the
faintest rippling breath will trouble un-
quickened pools into a sudden beauty. It
is a matter of temperament, of mood and
circumstance rather, where one would find
oneself, at the rising of the moon, in the
prolonged twilights of summer. To be in a
pinewood shelving to a calm sea breaking in
continuous foam : or among mountain soli-
tudes, where all is a velvety twilight deepening
to a green darkness, till the sudden moon rests
athwart one hill-shoulder like a bronze shield,
and then slowly is lifted and dissolves into an
amber glow along all the heights : or on great
moors, where one can see for leagues upon
leagues, and hear nothing but the restless
crying of the curlew, the screech of a heron,
the abrupt unknown cries and fugitive sounds
and momentary stealthy rustlings of nocturnal
solitudes. Or, again, on a white roadway
passing through beech-woods : or on a gorse-
set common, with the churring of a nightjar
filling the dusk with the unknown surge and
beat in one's own heart : or on the skirts of
thatched hamlets, where a few lights linger,
with perhaps the loud breathing and trampling
of cattle : or in a cottage-garden, with mignon- At the
ette and cabbage-roses and ghostly phlox, or Rising of
dew -fragrant with musk and southernwood : e oon '
or in an old manor-garden, with white array of
lilies that seem to have drunk moonlight, and
damask and tea-rose in odorous profusion, with
the honey-loving moths circling from moss-rose
to moss-rose, and the night-air delaying among
tall thickets of sweet-pea. Or, it may be, on
quiet sea-waters, along phantom cliffs, or under
mossed and brackened rocky wastes : or on
a river, under sweeping boughs of alder and
willow, the great ash, the shadowy beech.
But each can dream for himself. Memory and
the imagination will create dream -pictures
without end.

To go through those winter -aisles of the
forest is to know an elation foreign to the
melancholy of November or to the first fall of
the leaf. It is not the elation of certain days
in February, when the storm- cock tosses his
song among the wild reefs of naked bough
and branch. It is not the elation of March,
when a blueness haunts the myriad unburst
buds, and the throstle builds her nest and calls
to the South. It is not the elation of April,
when the virginal green is like exquisite music Where
of life in miraculous suspense, nor the elation the Forest
of May, when the wild rose moves in soft Murmurs -
flame upon the thickets and the returned
magic of the cuckoo is an intoxication, nor
the elation of June, when the merle above the
honeysuckle and the cushat in the green-
glooms fill the hot noons with joy, and when
the long fragrant twilights are thrilled with
the passion of the nightjar. It has not this
rapture nor that delight ; but its elation is an
ecstasy that is its own. It is then that one
understands as one has never understood. It
is then that one loves the mystery one has but
fugitively divined. Where the forest murmurs
there is music : ancient, everlasting. Go to
the winter woods : listen there, look, watch,
and ' the dead months ' will give you a subtler
secret than any you have yet found in the
forest.

More obvious, of course, is the
difference between, say, April -grass and the
same grass when May or June suffuses it with
the red glow of the seeding sorrel, or between
the sea-grass that has had the salt wind upon
it since its birth, the bent as it is commonly
called, and its brother among the scarps and
cliff-edges of the hills, so marvellously soft and
hairlike for all that it is not long since the
snows have lifted or since sleet and hail have
harried the worn faces of boulder and crag.
Or, again, between even the most delicate
wantonness of the seeding hay, fragrant with
white clover and purple vetch, and the light
aerial breathfulness, frail as thistledown, of
the quaking-grass. How it loves the wood's-
edge, this last, or sheltered places by the
hedgerows, the dream - hollows of sloping
pastures, meadow -edges where the cow-
parsley whitens like foam and the meadow-
sweet floats cream white and the white
campions hang in clotted froth over the long-
surge of daisies : or, where, like sloops of
the nautilus on tropic seas, curved blossoms
of the white wild -rose motionlessly suspend
or idly drift, hardly less frail less wantonly
errant than the white bloomy dust of the
dandelion.


What though the song-thrush and the skylark
have long sung, though the wheatear and
chiff-chaff have been late in coming, though
the first swallows have not had the word
passed on by the woodpecker, and somewhere
in the glens of Greece and Sicily the cuckoo
lingers ? How often the first have called
Spring to us, and, while we have listened, the
wind has passed from the south to the north
and the rains have become sleet or snow : how
often the missel-thrush has rung-in the tides
of blossom, and the woods have but grown
darker with gloom of the east while the first
yellow clans along the hedgerows have been over
swept by hail. How often, again, the wind of the
west has been fragrant with cowslip and ox-eye,
with daffodil and wallflower, with the pungent
growing -odours of barberry and butcher's-
broom and the unloosening larch, when,
indeed, the sallow-blooms have put on their
gold, and the green woodpecker is calling his
love-notes in the copses, and yet the delaying
swallow has not been seen north of the Loire
or where the Loiny winds between Moret and
the woods of Fontainebleau ? How often the
wild-rose has moved in first-flame along the
skirts of hornbeam-hedge or beech-thicket, or
the honeysuckle begun to unwind her pale
horns of ivory and moongold, and yet across
the furthest elm-tops to the south the magic
summons of the cuckoo has been still unheard
in the windless amber dawn, or when, as in the
poet's tale, the myriad little hands of Twilight
pull the shadows out of the leaves and weave
the evening dark.