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LIX. A return to the hills.

Thoreau always maintained that summer passed into autumn at a certain definite and appreciable instant, as by the turning of a leaf. In like manner those who direct their course in early summer towards the hilly regions of New England are commonly made aware at some precise and definite moment that they have come within the atmosphere of the hills. It is usually after they have left the main railway track, and are switched off upon some little branch road, with stops so frequent that if, at any moment during a pause, you were to see conductor and brakemen in full chase after a woodchuck in a cow pasture, nobody would be astonished. But presently, as you glide slowly along, rejoicing in the more rural look of things, after the heat and hurry of the larger railway-stations, there comes one whiff of fresher air through the open window, and the change is made. You have returned to the hills. Or rather the hills have met you half-way; their great benignant breath has reached you, and already something of the dust of travel is shaken off. Over [302] miles of bare, pure mountain-top, of pastures scented with sweet-fern, of lanes hedged with raspberry bushes and arched with wild grape, of moist sphagnum meadows where the shy arethusa rears itself, that breath has come. Before, all was city and suburb; it is country now. The next turn in the road shows you Wachusett, or Monadnock, or Ascutney, and you are among the hills.

The reprobate French poet Baudelaire, in one of his best poems, sighs to have been the lover of some youthful giantess; and describes her superb proportions as cast carelessly along the horizon and protecting her lover by their vast shade. Browning, more powerfully, describes the hills as gathering round his Childe Roland to watch the hour of danger beneath the Dark Tower:

The dying sunset kindled through a cleft;
The hills, like giants at a hunting, lay,
Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay-
“Now stab and end the creature — to the heft!”

And even the gentle Charles Lamb, reluctantly torn from London streets to visit Wordsworth and Coleridge at the English Lakes, could not escape this same circle of gigantic figures, and found them protecting and kindly as he looked from his window at night: “Glorious creatures, fine old fellows, Skiddaw, etc.” There is so much that is personal in the [303] presence of even the smallest isolated mountain that it is impossible not to endow it with almost human attributes. The Indians carried this so far as to imagine a deity as presiding over each mysterious peak, and punishing those rash mortals who climbed too far. The Hebrews, with grander feeling, found the source of aid and strength in these solemn heights. “I will look to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Remembering this, old Ethan Allen, the fearless, when summoned to surrender his Green Mountain settlements to the aggressions of the New York authorities, sent back to them the haughty message, “Our Gods are gods of the hills; therefore.we are stronger than you.” It was a natural feeling.

We are stronger, at any rate, for seeking hill gods in the early summer-time. Many old friends are there before us, constant to the season. The woods are still thronged with mountain-laurel, but it is really past and faded and dropping from the stem, except one vast bush that stands amid the darkness of a pine grove, and is still blooming and luxuriant as if it were some semitropical magnolia or rhododendron. The bright red lily is brilliant in the woods, and it loves to grow on the very tops of low mountains like Wachusett, concentrating its cups of crimson as earth's last defiance to the blue sky above. The yellow flowers are just beginning — in the first weeks of [304] July the St. John's-wort takes possession-and by the middle of that month the first feathery golden-rod opens, preparing for its long reign over the pastures. Soon will follow the asters, the gorgeous cardinal-flower, the lovely fringed gentian; the season will run its course before we know it, and then the autumn leaves and the weird witch-hazel will be here.

As to more vocal companions, it is the misfortune of summer visitors to the hills that they rarely arrive until the first burst of bird-song is gone by, so that the woods are growing silent until the loquacious summer insects shall replace the early birds. The ever-domestic song-sparrow is actively tending her second or third set of eggs in her nest upon the ground; but she sings little, and seems overburdened with responsibilities, while the robin is jubilant as ever, from dawn till eve, as he feeds his young in the cherry-trees. The brown thrush and the bluebird are more visible than audible; so is the cat-bird, while the veery is not heard at all. The wood-thrush sings daily in the neighboring pine wood, and more sweetly as night draws on, and the little field-sparrow is voluble with his “sweet,.shy, accelerating lay.” Every night we find ourselves listening for the whippoorwill. Every night it begins at a distance, draws nearer with darkness, and seems — for it remains unseen — to alight among the garden bushes and almost [305] upon the house itself. An animated dream, it keeps on incessantly for a time; then stops at dead of night, when sleep becomes too deep for dreaming, and then recommences before dawn, when dreams are resumed, but go, as tradition says, by contraries. It represents the remote and mystic side of our nature, brought into unwonted development among the hills.

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