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XXXIX. children on a farm.

No doubt the primary and essential use of barns is for children to play in; and we might go still farther and say that one chief use of farms is as out-door nurseries and school-rooms for the same little people. The farm in question must of course be one where the air is good, the drainage sufficient, and, above all, the farmer good-natured. He must be generous about his barn, not particular about his hay-loft, tolerant as to hen-roosts and raspberry-bushes, but secluded and reserved as to the disposal of pitchforks and hay-cutters. The farmer's wife also needs to be of a very magnanimous nature, not merely as to large appetites and soiled feet-for these, it is to be presumed, she has always with her --but as to the armfuls of fragrant rubbish that the children bring in with them from the fields and forget to clear away again, or the tree-frogs which are placed under tumblers for a time and then accidentally let loose in the parlor. If caterpillars' nests are unacceptable in the apple-trees, they are still less welcome in the sitting-room; and after the [198] farmer has laboriously mowed down a too exuberant crop of white-weed, it is asking a good deal of his wife when she is called upon to supply her best pitcher for a bouquet of it under the name of oxeye daisy. But with a farmer of untiring benignity, wedded to a spouse of inexhaustible patience, what place is so blissful or healthful to children as a farm?

It gives a sphere so unbounded for that delicious and laborious idleness which children call pleasure, there is so much to do and there are such long summer days to do it in, that one pities at this season even the most petted children who are anywhere else. Fancy them driving about, exquisitely dressed, with mamma in her basket-wagon at Newport, when they might be riding home on the loaded hay-cart, or assisting to harness old Dobbin for a drive into some secluded wood-road, scented with sweet-ferns and haunted by the wood-thrush! Or the children on the farm, grown bolder, stand by the farmer's side as he drives over the dry and slippery grass upon his stone-drag — a sort of summer toboggan, with nothing but a board between the rider and the uneven surface of Mother Earth. Arrived at the spring, perhaps, the child sees the farmer slowly fill the cask with water, and then drive the drag to the farther field, the child now walking by his side, expectant of the return trip. Then there are the eggs to be looked for; not, indeed, as formerly, in the [199] “stolen nests” of the great barn chamber, but at least in the various odd nooks and cubby-houses where the brooding hens are encouraged to establish their strongholds, in the more methodical organization of modern days.

Then there are the liens themselves to be fed-thirty or forty chickens clucking and clambering at once over the feet of the little people who sit beneath the shade of the raspberry-bushes and dole out the food as parsimoniously as possible, that it may last the longer. Such a peering of eager eyes and protruding of timid beaks, drawn back and thrust forward again a dozen times before actual contact with the children's fingers, while bolder hens meanwhile advance unseen and steal the whole bit of bread from the lap. Then all the chickens run away in a fluttering mob, pursuing the successful thief-feathered things of all sizes, all breeds, all gradations of awkwardness. Why is it that every growing animal, even the human, must pass through its awkward age? Nothing is prettier than a little downy chicken; nothing more gauche and gaunt than the same thing when a little older-a mere loose bundle of bones and beak and long legs and livid flesh, with one or two ludicrously large wing-feathers fastened uselessly on, as if with packthread. Yet each of these to the children is “sweet,” or “lovely,” or “cunning.” [200]

And to healthy-minded and observing children all flowers, like all chickens, are dear. Mere quantity is fascinating; the little harvesters are insatiable; to them “just a few” means every blossom accessible in the field. They are such keen observers too — sharper than a trained botanist to detect a difference of shade or a species hitherto unseen. It is astonishing how easily they learn the hard names, even; and the little boy at Plymouth, Massachusetts, who explained to his brother that an idiot was a man who did not know anything — did not even “know an arbor-v-ite from a pine” --seems a wholly reasonable and credible phenomenon. What schools Nature provides for children, if we only give her a chance-perpetual object — lessons on every side! She knows, moreover, better than we how to reach their hearts through their appetites. Consider how she trains them through the summer in the science of berries, with a sweet flavor at each step of the lesson. All the regular succession of the season--“low-bush blueberries and low-bush huckleberries, and high-bush blueberries and high-bush huckleberries, and low-bush blackberries and highbush blackberries and cranberries” --the children are only too happy to pick steadily through them all, to say nothing of the garden's yield of strawberries, with its cherries and currants. Time would fail to tell of the cows and the sheep and the pigs; [201] then there is a song-sparrow's nest in the potato hill which requires a great deal of watching, and there is a paradise of swings in the barn. Everything that children can do on a farm is wholesome and picturesque at the same time. I remember that amid all the beauty of rural Normandy-far more invariably and inevitably beautiful than rural England-nothing was quite so pretty as to see my fair hostess and her happy children going about in the gray twilight, as the final ceremony, to collect the young pet rabbits beneath the moss-grown walls, and put them away in their hutches, lest the owls should sweep down upon them after dark from the ivied church-tower above — a tower five centuries old. But the essential combination on the farm is of child life and animal life; and whether this takes place in old Normandy or young America, it is equally attractive.

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