An Eaves-Dropper of Nature
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An Eaves-Dropper of Nature.
By J. WILLIAM LLOYD.
Why do you not write sketches of nature, you who are so full of it?" inquires a friend.
Alas! that one may so easily be "full of it" and not yet overflow; like the lakes one sometimes sees, which are always full, and yet have no visible outlet. But it is so, I believe, with most. We go to nature and are filled, we know not through what pores. Some fine ether is in our veins and we have received content, but our lips are sealed and if we try to describe we talk wide foolishness and pause aghast at the echo of our own emptiness. Yet we know we are really not empty, but most full, only not of fit words.
So nature always seems to me. More and more thoroughly and consciously I love her, yet ever she appears more indescribable.
I think it is this way—whoso would be a nature writer must write nature and not of nature. He must not stand outside and try to peer and report, or she will make him a struck fool. He must become a part of her, and then all that he may do shall betray her flavor even if he pen of clothes and cities.
To be a man of nature is to belong to a difficult Free Masonry of few members.
I am amazed at the patronage of the man of cities who, with much bustle, comes at stated intervals "to see nature," walking with switching cane and mincing step through her courts, looking at but not into, shocked at her dew and pollen on his skirts. Yet even to him she is kind, embracing him in the large motherliness of her invisible tides until he is sobered and purified by he knows not what and goes away dimly conscious of a blessing.
It were well, I think, if when we went to nature we were like the typical little children, "seen but not heard." Not seen, either, some would say, but after all, it is pleasanter when the citizens of the wild see you and yet do not distrust. Saunter with a moccasined foot and sit and listen much. Nature is full of her own business; she is not talking to you, but she is not unwilling you should overhear, if you do not interrupt.
Be very sure and do not hurry here. It is very rude, and of all things most offensive; for in nature there is always time.
I would say do not look for great things. That is the mistake. Set your vision at short range and appreciate the matter in hand. There is nothing more wonderful in all the jungles of India than you shall discover in this square yard of moss at your feet. For to the study of nature deep inquiry into the forest seems not important. Any copse or thicket will do, or gravel-pit, or fence corner, if you furnish yourself with time and take heedful interest.
I like a cow-path. Cows have great discernment in these matters and lay out their streets with exceeding taste. I do not think the Appian Way would please me so well. If you take a cow trail you may not go astray. It will wind like a snake, this roadway of "the kine of trailing feet and shambling gait," under stony pasture hills where blackberries clump, and mushrooms are in their season, through damp woods musical of thrushes, and along mossy banks, by swamps and pools where skunk cabbage and adders-tongue are; always to the best nature accessible.
And there is always an ancient flavor about a cow-path. In seems as old as Homer and further back, to the Golden Age.
Here sit you down on the warm earth, or mossy stone, or fallen log, in any place that may please you, and endeavor to melt into the landscape and become a part of the scene.
Let yourself go. Cast off from the motives within and become a citizen of nature. For the time, be content to grow and flow and make no urge. Man has been so long in the habit of
interference with nature that he can hardly keep his hands off her. He must be always pulling or pushing at something. At-one-ness, to see, to hear, to drift is a lost art. Not but what many men are lazy and quiet when they sit down by the side of nature; but they are not with her, hardly for an instant ; at once human affairs or imaginations lead their thoughts aside. They look at the sky and see not the color of it, nor any cloud. After an hour's contemplation they carry away no memory nor picture. Often, actually and physically, they go asleep.
Show them an ant and they try to make him run faster, or the eyes of the toad under the stump and they heave a stone. Not from malice, this, but habit. They do not see a flower unless they would pick it. The only instinct that binds them to nature is that of the drover, the hunter. Not that the hunter, the flower gatherer, the berry picker, are to be condemned, but these work all on the surface. The true game is beyond a bullet and the best fruit could not enter a man's mouth.
Now I like when I sit down by my cow-track to have some little picture before me—formed, it may be, by a glimpse of water through trees, or mayhap a vista of the trail, stamped in the red earth, winding up the hillside, arched over with branches and fretted with sun rays. Or perhaps only an old stump, so gray, moss-grown and furrowed by time as to have all the majesty of the most ancient things. I like to look at this picture till it is my own, and I can refresh it to my memory years afterward. To do this one must look at the selected picture with peculiar intensity and consciousness, shutting out all else, either of sight or impression, and living for the time passing only in the delight and recognition of the eyes.
If you get the knack of it you will feel like Saul of Tarsus when scales fell from his eyes. The flash of color, the clearcut of form and sharpness of the whole impression will startle you. So children see, and that is why the pictures of childhood remain.
And to hear aright one must attune the ear to somewhat the same fixedness and intensity of attention. There are so many fine voices in nature which we shall miss altogether, like the ticking of the familiar clock, unless we pay them the compliment of concentrated listening.
I remember, when in Florida, becoming conscious of a fine, elusive music, dream-like and faint as memories almost forgotten, which I could not, for a long time, place. In the morning I heard it, when lying attentive at the first waking, and sometimes in the dazzle of afternoon. I could find no one who had ever heard of it, or who could hear it even when I fixed their attention. Some of my neighbors, Spiritualists, insisted that the departed were serenading me. But I discovered an explanation more mundane. It was the AEolian music of the light wind on the long needles of the pitch-pine. I was able to prove it by approaching to or receding from a certain alone tree in a clearing, whereat the music grew or lessened. But only in a mere breath of moving air. A little less and it was not born; a little more and it died. It was like listening to one's thought, so fine, impalpable was it. Yet if one listened too hard it seemed to disappear. It was very strange to feel alone in so delightful an experience, as if one might indeed have been favored by the immortals.
There is so much beauty, both of sight and sound that we do not appreciate. We do not focus properly. We see so much in one eye-sweep that we see nothing clear and single. It has seemed to me that if one were to sit under one tree, and the same tree, day after day for a season, looking ever upward through the leaves, he would find beauty enough for a whole summerful.
Better not take companions along. The thing that we are to outlearn for the time is the over-interest in the human. It is sweet, indeed, the face of one beloved in a nature setting. But it costs its price, and that price is the half forgetting of our errand. Our allegiance is divided, and it were likely that nature became only the accompaniment to the music of our joy. - A man cannot make love properly to one woman while another dear charmer is near.
Perhaps if one had a companion who was reconciled and had the citizenship of the woods—but that might hardly be expected!
It is not necessary to be a stock or a stone. At first, while you are a foreigner in the fields, you would better be silent, perhaps, but, after a while, motion and voice can even be made a passport. Motion gentle and easy like that of the harmless creatures, and voice pitched in the key of the sounds about you—gentle and murmurous in speaking or singing, and in whistling fine and low and birdlike. So much the citizens of the wild are apt to regard as an advance and graceful concession and to meet in the same spirit. A red squirrel used to habit the pignut by my door, and when I chirred and chirruped to him in a clumsy enough attempt at his fluent language he would seem pleased and interested; come down to the lowest limb and turn head on side to ponder and eye me; or make little sounds in reply. He did not mock at my blunders, but with French graciousness considered the intention. Imitate, even very poorly, the notes of whip-poor-will or Bob White and they will nearly always respond.
It is an old, and certainly a pleasant imagination, to fancy that the birds, in their songs, clothe human sentiments in human speech-forms. Thus, in the spring, in the dim mornings, I fancied of my neighbor the robin—
THE ROBIN'S LOVE SONG.
OVERHEARD IN THE ELM.
The robin pipes in the blithe springtime:
Chirp dear, hear me! hear it!
O sweet—hear it! hear it!
Flutes to his friend with a fondling rhyme,
Sings to his love of their building time,
And the wee ones, four, that shall fill their nest:
Chirp, dear, hear me! sweet,
O sweet!—we are near it! near it!
But a translation literal would be better, I confess.
I deem it no empty dream, but prophetic, this of the scientist, that we shall one day have more exact data of the meanings of animal speech. Yet I see that the chief telegraphy between animal minds is of the nature of mind-reading—clairvoyance. They see, they touch each other, they inhale atmospheres, and knowledge is passed over from nerve to nerve and brain to brain as in the electric sympathies of lovers.
Be honest with your beast or he will read the treachery of your intention written in the odor of your thoughts.
Speaking of lovers: Are they not in a more primitive state (for the heart is older than the brain) than in the usual intellectual conditions, more animal-like, therefore more intuitive and to each other as an open book ?
To the eavesdropper of nature many words in the dialects of the tribes of the air and the nations of the grass shall be revealed. The choristers of the summer mornings, singing behind vaporous curtains, and the crows trailing off to their roosts in autumn evenings, shall tell him secrets ineffable.
For behind this moving mask we call Nature lies the real Isis—the Secret—the Fact.
J. William Lloyd, “An Eaves-Dropper of Nature,” The Comrade 2, no. 2 (November 1902): 27-28.