“Such is the story of the Boblink; once spiritual, musical,
admired, the joy of the meadows, and the favourite bird of
spring; finally a gross little sensualist who expiates his
sensuality in the larder. His story contains a moral, worthy
the attention of all little birds and little boys; warning
them to keep to those refined and intellectual pursuits
which raised him to so high a pitch of popularity during the
early part of his career; but to eschew all tendency to that
gross and dissipated indulgence, which brought this mistaken
little bird to an untimely end.”
—WASHINGTON IRVING: Wolfert’s Roost.
The Swiftwater brook was laughing softly to itself as it ran through a strip of hemlock forest on the edge of the Woodlings’ farm. Among the evergreen branches overhead the gayly-dressed warblers,—little friends of the forest,—were flitting to and fro, lisping their June songs of contented love: milder, slower, lazier notes than those in which they voiced the amourous raptures of May. Prince’s Pine and golden loose-strife and pink laurel and blue hare-bells and purple-fringed orchids, and a score of lovely flowers were all abloom. The late spring had hindered some; the sudden heats of early summer had hastened others; and now they seemed to come out all together, as if Nature had suddenly tilted up her cornucopia and poured forth her treasures in spendthrift joy.
I lay on a mossy bank at the foot of a tree, filling my pipe after a frugal lunch, and thinking how hard it would be to find in any quarter of the globe a place more fair and fragrant than this hidden vale among the Alleghany Mountains. The perfume of the flowers of the forest is more sweet and subtle than the heavy scent of tropical blossoms. No lily-field in Bermuda could give a fragrance half so magical as the fairy-like odour of these woodland slopes, soft carpeted with the green of glossy vines above whose tiny leaves, in delicate profusion,
“The slight Linnaea hangs its twin-born heads.”
Nor are there any birds in Africa, or among the Indian Isles, more exquisite in colour than these miniature warblers, showing their gold and green, their orange and black, their blue and white, against the dark background of the rhododendron thicket.
But how seldom we put a cup of pleasure to our lips without a dash of bitters, a touch of faultfinding. My drop of discontent, that day, was the thought that the northern woodland, at least in June, yielded no fruit to match its beauty and its fragrance.
There is good browsing among the leaves of the wood and the grasses of the meadow, as every well-instructed angler knows. The bright emerald tips that break from the hemlock and the balsam like verdant flames have a pleasant savour to the tongue. The leaves of the sassafras are full of spice, and the bark of the black-birch twigs holds a fine cordial. Crinkle-root is spicy, but you must partake of it delicately, or it will bite your tongue. Spearmint and peppermint never lose their charm for the palate that still remembers the delights of youth. Wild sorrel has an agreeable, sour, shivery flavour. Even the tender stalk of a young blade of grass is a thing that can be chewed by a person of childlike mind with much contentment.
But, after all, these are only relishes. They whet the appetite more than they appease it. There should be something to eat, in the June woods, as perfect in its kind, as satisfying to the sense of taste, as the birds and the flowers are to the senses of sight and hearing and smell. Blueberries are good, but they are far away in July. Blackberries are luscious when they are fully ripe, but that will not be until August. Then the fishing will be over, and the angler’s hour of need will be past. The one thing that is lacking now beside this mountain stream is some fruit more luscious and dainty than grows in the tropics, to melt upon the lips and fill the mouth with pleasure.
But that is what these cold northern woods will not offer. They are too reserved, too lofty, too puritanical to make provision for the grosser wants of humanity. They are not friendly to luxury.
Just then, as I shifted my head to find a softer pillow of moss after this philosophic and immoral reflection, Nature gave me her silent answer. Three wild strawberries, nodding on their long stems, hung over my face. It was an invitation to taste and see that they were good.
The berries were not the round and rosy ones of the meadow, but the long, slender, dark crimson ones of the forest. One, two, three; no more on that vine; but each one as it touched my lips was a drop of nectar and a crumb of ambrosia, a concentrated essence of all the pungent sweetness of the wildwood, sapid, penetrating, and delicious. I tasted the odour of a hundred blossoms and the green shimmering of innumerable leaves and the sparkle of sifted sunbeams and the breath of highland breezes and the song of many birds and the murmur of flowing streams,—all in a wild strawberry.
Do you remember, in THE COMPLEAT ANGLER, a remark which Isaak Walton quotes from a certain “Doctor Boteler” about strawberries? “Doubtless,” said that wise old man, “God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”
Well, the wild strawberry is the one that God made.
I think it would have been pleasant to know a man who could sum up his reflections upon the important question of berries in such a pithy saying as that which Walton repeats. His tongue must have been in close communication with his heart. He must have had a fair sense of that sprightly humour without which piety itself is often insipid.
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I have often tried to find out more about him, and some day I hope I shall. But up to the present, all that the books have told me of this obscure sage is that his name was William Butler, and that he was an eminent physician, sometimes called “the Aesculapius of his age.” He was born at Ipswich, in 1535, and educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge; in the neighbourhood of which town he appears to have spent the most of his life, in high repute as a practitioner of physic. He had the honour of doctoring King James the First after an accident on the hunting field, and must have proved himself a pleasant old fellow, for the king looked him up at Cambridge the next year, and spent an hour in his lodgings. This wise physician also invented a medicinal beverage called “Doctor Butler’s Ale.” I do not quite like the sound of it, but perhaps it was better than its name. This much is sure, at all events: either it was really a harmless drink, or else the doctor must have confined its use entirely to his patients; for he lived to the ripe age of eighty-three years.
Between the time when William Butler first needed the services of a physician, in 1535, and the time when he last prescribed for a patient, in 1618, there was plenty of trouble in England. Bloody Queen Mary sat on the throne; and there were all kinds of quarrels about religion and politics; and Catholics and Protestants were killing one another in the name of God. After that the red-haired Elizabeth, called the Virgin Queen, wore the crown, and waged triumphant war and tempestuous love. Then fat James of Scotland was made king of Great Britain; and Guy Fawkes tried to blow him up with gunpowder, and failed; and the king tried to blow out all the pipes in England with his COUNTERBLAST AGAINST TOBACCO; but he failed too. Somewhere about that time, early in the seventeenth century, a very small event happened. A new berry was brought over from Virginia,—FRAGRARIA VIRGINIANA,—and then, amid wars and rumours of wars, Doctor Butler’s happiness was secure. That new berry was so much richer and sweeter and more generous than the familiar FRAGRARIA VESCA of Europe, that it attracted the sincere interest of all persons of good taste. It inaugurated a new era in the history of the strawberry. The long lost masterpiece of Paradise was restored to its true place in the affections of man.
Is there not a touch of merry contempt for all the vain controversies and conflicts of humanity in the grateful ejaculation with which the old doctor greeted that peaceful, comforting gift of Providence?
“From this time forward,” he seems to say, “the fates cannot beggar me, for I have eaten strawberries. With every Maytime that visits this distracted island, the white blossoms with hearts of gold will arrive. In every June the red drops of pleasant savour will hang among the scalloped leaves. The children of this world may wrangle and give one another wounds that even my good ale cannot cure. Nevertheless, the earth as God created it is a fair dwelling and full of comfort for all who have a quiet mind and a thankful heart. Doubtless God might have made a better world, but doubtless this is the world He made for us; and in it He planted the strawberry.”
Fine old doctor! Brave philosopher of cheerfulness! The Virginian berry should have been brought to England sooner, or you should have lived longer, at least to a hundred years, so that you might have welcomed a score of strawberry-seasons with gratitude and an epigram.
Since that time a great change has passed over the fruit which Doctor Butler praised so well. That product of creative art which Divine wisdom did not choose to surpass, human industry has laboured to improve. It has grown immensely in size and substance. The traveller from America who steams into Queenstown harbour in early summer is presented (for a consideration) with a cabbage-leaf full of pale-hued berries, sweet and juicy, any one of which would outbulk a dozen of those that used to grow in Virginia when Pocahontas was smitten with the charms of Captain John Smith. They are superb, those light-tinted Irish strawberries. And there are wonderful new varieties developed in the gardens of New Jersey and Rhode Island, which compare with the ancient berries of the woods and meadows as Leviathan with a minnow. The huge crimson cushions hang among the plants so thick that they seem like bunches of fruit with a few leaves attached for ornament. You can satisfy your hunger in such a berry-patch in ten minutes, while out in the field you must pick for half an hour, and in the forest thrice as long, before you can fill a small tin cup.
Yet, after all, it is questionable whether men have really bettered God’s CHEF D’OEUVRE in the berry line. They have enlarged it and made it more plentiful and more certain in its harvest. But sweeter, more fragrant, more poignant in its flavour? No. The wild berry still stands first in its subtle gusto.
Size is not the measure of excellence. Perfection lies in quality, not in quantity. Concentration enhances pleasure, gives it a point so that it goes deeper.
Is not a ten-inch trout better than a ten-foot sturgeon? I would rather read a tiny essay by Charles Lamb than a five-hundred page libel on life by a modern British novelist who shall be nameless. Flavour is the priceless quality. Style is the thing that counts and is remembered, in literature, in art, and in berries.
No JOCUNDA, nor TRIUMPH, nor VICTORIA, nor any other high-titled fruit that ever took the first prize at an agricultural fair, is half so delicate and satisfying as the wild strawberry that dropped into my mouth, under the hemlock tree, beside the Swiftwater.
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A touch of surprise is essential to perfect sweetness.
To get what you have been wishing for is pleasant; but to get what you have not been sure of, makes the pleasure tingle. A new door of happiness is opened when you go out to hunt for something and discover it with your own eyes. But there is an experience even better than that. When you have stupidly forgotten (or despondently forgone) to look about you for the unclaimed treasures and unearned blessings which are scattered along the by-ways of life, then, sometimes by a special mercy, a small sample of them is quietly laid before you so that you cannot help seeing it, and it brings you back to a sense of the joyful possibilities of living.
How full of enjoyment is the search after wild things,—wild birds, wild flowers, wild honey, wild berries! There was a country club on Storm King Mountain, above the Hudson River, where they used to celebrate a festival of flowers every spring. Men and women who had conservatories of their own, full of rare plants and costly orchids, came together to admire the gathered blossoms of the woodlands and meadows. But the people who had the best of the entertainment were the boys and girls who wandered through the thickets and down the brooks, pushed their way into the tangled copses and crept venturesomely across the swamps, to look for the flowers. Some of the seekers may have had a few gray hairs; but for that day at least they were all boys and girls. Nature was as young as ever, and they were all her children. Hand touched hand without a glove. The hidden blossoms of friendship unfolded. Laughter and merry shouts and snatches of half-forgotten song rose to the lips. Gay adventure sparkled in the air. School was out and nobody listened for the bell. It was just a day to live, and be natural, and take no thought for the morrow.
There is great luck in this affair of looking for flowers. I do not see how any one who is prejudiced against games of chance can consistently undertake it.
For my own part, I approve of garden flowers because they are so orderly and so certain; but wild flowers I love, just because there is so much chance about them. Nature is all in favour of certainty in great laws and of uncertainty in small events. You cannot appoint the day and the place for her flower-shows. If you happen to drop in at the right moment she will give you a free admission. But even then it seems as if the table of beauty had been spread for the joy of a higher visitor, and in obedience to secret orders which you have not heard.
Have you ever found the fringed gentian?
“Just before the snows,
There came a purple creature
That lavished all the hill:
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition:
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked her,—
‘Creator, shall I bloom?'”
There are strange freaks of fortune in the finding of wild flowers, and curious coincidences which make us feel as if some one were playing friendly tricks on us. I remember reading, one evening in May, a passage in a good book called THE PROCESSION OF THE FLOWERS, in which Colonel Higginson describes the singular luck that a friend of his enjoyed, year after year, in finding the rare blossoms of the double rueanemone. It seems that this man needed only to take a walk in the suburbs of any town, and he would come upon a bed of these flowers, without effort or design. I envied him his good fortune, for I had never discovered even one of them. But the next morning, as I strolled out to fish the Swiftwater, down below Billy Lerns’s spring-house I found a green bank in the shadow of the wood all bespangled with tiny, trembling, twofold stars,—double rueanemones, for luck! It was a favourable omen, and that day I came home with a creel full of trout.
The theory that Adam lived out in the woods for some time before he was put into the garden of Eden “to dress it and to keep it” has an air of probability. How else shall we account for the arboreal instincts that cling to his posterity?
There is a wilding strain in our blood that all the civilization in the world will not eradicate. I never knew a real boy—or, for that matter, a girl worth knowing—who would not rather climb a tree, any day, than walk up a golden stairway.
It is a touch of this instinct, I suppose, that makes it more delightful to fish in the most insignificant of free streams than in a carefully stocked and preserved pond, where the fish are brought up by hand and fed on minced liver. Such elaborate precautions to ensure good luck extract all the spice from the sport of angling. Casting the fly in such a pond, if you hooked a fish, you might expect to hear the keeper say, “Ah, that is Charles, we will play him and put him back, if you please, sir; for the master is very fond of him,”—or, “Now you have got hold of Edward; let us land him and keep him; he is three years old this month, and just ready to be eaten.” It would seem like taking trout out of cold storage.
Who could find any pleasure in angling for the tame carp in the fish-pool of Fontainebleau? They gather at the marble steps, those venerable, courtly fish, to receive their rations; and there are veterans among them, in ancient livery, with fringes of green moss on their shoulders, who could tell you pretty tales of being fed by the white hands of maids of honour, or even of nibbling their crumbs of bread from the jewelled fingers of a princess.
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There is no sport in bringing pets to the table. It may be necessary sometimes; but the true sportsman would always prefer to leave the unpleasant task of execution to menial hands, while he goes out into the wild country to capture his game by his own skill,—if he has good luck. I would rather run some risk in this enterprise (even as the young Tobias did, when the voracious pike sprang at him from the waters of the Tigris, and would have devoured him but for the friendly instruction of the piscatory Angel, who taught Tobias how to land the monster),—I would far rather take any number of chances in my sport than have it domesticated to the point of dulness.
The trim plantations of trees which are called “forests” in certain parts of Europe—scientifically pruned and tended, counted every year by uniformed foresters, and defended against all possible depredations—are admirable and useful in their way; but they lack the mystic enchantment of the fragments of native woodland which linger among the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, or the vast, shaggy, sylvan wildernesses which hide the lakes and rivers of Canada. These Laurentian Hills lie in No Man’s Land. Here you do not need to keep to the path, for there is none. You may make your own trail, whithersoever fancy leads you; and at night you may pitch your tent under any tree that looks friendly and firm.
Here, if anywhere, you shall find Dryads, and Naiads, and Oreads. And if you chance to see one, by moonlight, combing her long hair beside the glimmering waterfall, or slipping silently, with gleaming shoulders, through the grove of silver birches, you may call her by the name that pleases you best. She is all your own discovery. There is no social directory in the wilderness.
One side of our nature, no doubt, finds its satisfaction in the regular, the proper, the conventional. But there is another side of our nature, underneath, that takes delight in the strange, the free, the spontaneous. We like to discover what we call a law of Nature, and make our calculations about it, and harness the force which lies behind it for our own purposes. But we taste a different kind of joy when an event occurs which nobody has foreseen or counted upon. It seems like an evidence that there is something in the world which is alive and mysterious and untrammelled.
The weather-prophet tells us of an approaching storm. It comes according to the programme. We admire the accuracy of the prediction, and congratulate ourselves that we have such a good meteorological service. But when, perchance, a bright, crystalline piece of weather arrives instead of the foretold tempest, do we not feel a secret sense of pleasure which goes beyond our mere comfort in the sunshine? The whole affair is not as easy as a sum in simple addition, after all,—at least not with our present knowledge. It is a good joke on the Weather Bureau. “Aha, Old Probabilities!” we say, “you don’t know it all yet; there are still some chances to be taken!”
Some day, I suppose, all things in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, and in the hearts of the men and women who dwell between, will be investigated and explained. We shall live a perfectly ordered life, with no accidents, happy or unhappy. Everybody will act according to rule, and there will be no dotted lines on the map of human existence, no regions marked “unexplored.” Perhaps that golden age of the machine will come, but you and I will hardly live to see it. And if that seems to you a matter for tears, you must do your own weeping, for I cannot find it in my heart to add a single drop of regret.
The results of education and social discipline in humanity are fine. It is a good thing that we can count upon them. But at the same time let us rejoice in the play of native traits and individual vagaries. Cultivated manners are admirable, yet there is a sudden touch of inborn grace and courtesy that goes beyond them all. No array of accomplishments can rival the charm of an unsuspected gift of nature, brought suddenly to light. I once heard a peasant girl singing down the Traunthal, and the echo of her song outlives, in the hearing of my heart, all memories of the grand opera.
The harvest of the gardens and the orchards, the result of prudent planting and patient cultivation, is full of satisfaction. We anticipate it in due season, and when it comes we fill our mouths and are grateful. But pray, kind Providence, let me slip over the fence out of the garden now and then, to shake a nut-tree that grows untended in the wood. Give me liberty to put off my black coat for a day, and go a-fishing on a free stream, and find by chance a wild strawberry.
A Wild Strawberry – Henry van Dyke – Literature Short Stories
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