All round the shores of the island where I dwell there runs a winding path.
It is probably as old as the settlement of the country, and has been kept open with pertinacious fidelity by the fishermen whose right of way it represents.
In some places, as between Fort Adams
and Castle Hill
, it exists in its primitive form, an irregular track above rough cliffs, whence you look down upon the entrance to the harbor and watch the white-sailed schooners that glide beneath.
Elsewhere the high-road has usurped its place, and you have the privilege of the path without its charm.
Along our eastern cliffs it runs for some miles in the rear of beautiful estates, whose owners have seized on it, and graded it, and gravelled it, and made stiles for it, and done for it everything that landscape-gardening could do, while leaving it a footpath still.
You walk there with croquet
and roses on the one side, and with floating loons and wild ducks on the other.
In remoter places the path grows wilder, and has ramifications striking boldly across the peninsula through rough moorland and among great ledges of rock, where you may ramble for hours, out of sight of all but some sportsman with his gun, or some truant-boy with dripping water-lilies.
There is always a charm to me in the inexplicable windings of these wayward tracks; yet I like the path best where it is nearest the ocean.
There, while looking upon blue sea and snowy sails and floating gulls, you may yet hear on the landward side the melodious and plaintive drawl of the meadow-lark, most patient of summer visitors, and, indeed, lingering on this island almost the whole year round.
But who cares whither a footpath leads?
The charm is in the path itself, its promise of something that the high-road cannot yield.
Away from habitations, you know that the fisherman, the geologist, the botanist may have been there, or that the cows have been driven home and that somewhere there are bars and a milk-pail.
Even in the midst of houses, the path suggests school-children with
their luncheon-baskets, or workmen seeking eagerly the noonday interval or the twilight rest.
A footpath cannot be quite spoiled, so long as it remains such; you can make a road a mere avenue for fast horses or showy women, but this humbler track keeps its simplicity, and if a queen comes walking through it, she comes but as a village maid.
On Sunday, when it is not etiquette for our fashionables to drive, but only to walk along the cliffs, they seem to wear a more innocent and wholesome aspect in that novel position; I have seen a fine lady pause under such circumstances and pick a wild-flower; she knew how to do it. A footpath has its own character, while that of the high-road is imposed upon it by those who dwell beside it or pass over it; indeed, roads become picturesque only when they are called lanes and make believe that they are but paths.
The very irregularity of a footpath makes half its charm.
So much of loitering and indolence and impulse have gone to its formation, that all which is stiff and military has been left out. I observed that the very dikes of the Southern
rice plantations did not succeed in being rectilinear,
though the general effect was that of Tennyson
's “flowery squares.”
Even the country road, which is but an enlarged footpath, is never quite straight, as Thoreau
long since observed, noting it with his surveyor's eye. I read in his unpublished diary: “The law that plants the rushes in waving lines along the edge of a pond, and that curves the pond shore itself, incessantly beats against the straight fences and highways of men, and makes them conform to the line of beauty at last.”
It is this unintentional adaptation that makes a footpath so indestructible.
Instead of striking across the natural lines, it conforms to them, nestles into the hollow, skirts the precipice, avoids the morass.
An unconscious landscape-gardener, it seeks the most convenient course, never doubting that grace will follow.
, at his “Edgewood” farm, wishing to decide on the most picturesque avenue to his front door, ordered a heavy load of stone to be hauled across the field, and bade the driver seek the easiest grades, at whatever cost of curvature.
The avenue followed the path so made.
When a footpath falls thus unobtrusively into its place, all natural forces seem to sympathize
with it, and help it to fulfil its destiny.
Once make a well-defined track through a wood, and presently the overflowing brooks seek it for a channel, the obstructed winds draw through it, the fox and woodchuck travel by it, the catbird and robin build near it, the bee and swallow make a highroad of its convenient thoroughfare.
In winter the first snows mark it with a white line; as you wander through you hear the blue-jay's cry, and see the hurrying flight of the sparrow; the graceful outlines of the leafless bushes are revealed, and the clinging bird's-nests, “leaves that do not fall,” give happy memories of summer homes.
Thus Nature meets man half-way.
The paths of the wild forest and of the rural neighborhood are not at all the same thing; indeed, a “spotted trail,” marked only by the woodman's axe-marks on the trees, is not a footpath.
, who is sometimes foolishly accused of having sought to be a mere savage, understood this distinction well.
“A man changes by his presence,” he says in his unpublished diary, “the very nature of the trees.
The poet's is not a logger's path, but a woodman's,--the logger and pioneer have preceded him, and banished decaying
wood and the spongy mosses which feed on it, and built hearths and humanized nature for him. For a permanent residence, there can be no comparison between this and the wilderness.
Our woods are sylvan, and their inhabitants woodsmen and rustics; that is, a selvaggia
and its inhabitants salvages
loved, like all men of healthy minds, was the occasional experience of untamed wildness.
“I love to see occasionally,” he adds, “a man from whom the usnea
(lichen) hangs as gracefully as from a spruce.”
Footpaths bring us nearer both to nature and to man. No high-road, not even a lane, conducts to the deeper recesses of the wood, where you hear the wood-thrush.
There are a thousand concealed fitnesses in nature, rhymed correspondences of bird and blossom, for which you must seek through hidden paths; as when you come upon some black brook so palisaded with cardinal-flowers as to seem “a stream of sunsets” ; or trace its shadowy course till it spreads into some forest-pool, above which that rare and patrician insect, the Agrion
dragon-fly, flits and hovers perpetually, as if the darkness and the cool had
The dark brown pellucid water sleeps between banks of softest moss; white stars of twin-flowers creep close to the brink, delicate sprays of dewberry trail over it, and the emerald tips of drooping leaves forever tantalize the still surface.
Above these the slender, dark-blue insect waves his dusky wings, like a liberated ripple of the brook, and takes the few stray sunbeams on his lustrous form.
Whence came the correspondence between this beautiful shy creature and the moist, dark nooks, shot through with stray and transitory sunlight, where it dwells?
The analogy is as unmistakable as that between the scorching heats of summer and the shrill cry of the cicada.
They suggest questions that no savant
can answer, mysteries that wait, like Goethe
's secret of morphology, till a sufficient poet can be born.
And we, meanwhile, stand helpless in their presence, as one waits beside the telegraphic wire, while it hums and vibrates, charged with all fascinating secrets, above the heads of a wondering world.
It is by the presence of pathways on the earth that we know it to be the habitation of man; in
the barest desert, they open to us a common humanity.
It is the absence of these that renders us so lonely on the ocean, and makes us glad to watch even the track of our own vessel.
But on the mountain-top, how eagerly we trace out the “road that brings places together,” as Schiller
It is the first thing we look for; till we have found it, each scattered village has an isolated and churlish look, but the glimpse of a furlong of road puts them all in friendly relations.
The narrower the path, the more domestic and familiar it seems.
The railroad may represent the capitalist or the government; the high-road indicates what the surveyor or the county commissioners thought best; but the footpath shows what the people needed.
Its associations are with beauty and humble life,--the boy with his dog, the little girl with her fagots, the pedler with his pack; cheery companions they are or ought to be.
Jog on, jog on the footpath way,
And merrily hent the stile-a:
A merry heart goes all the day,
Your sad one tires in a mile-a.
The footpath takes you across the farms and
behind the houses; you are admitted to the family secrets and form a personal acquaintance.
Even if you take the wrong path, it only leads you “across-lots” to some man ploughing, or some old woman picking berries,--perhaps a very spicy acquaintance, whom the road would never have brought to light.
If you are led astray in the woods, that only teaches you to observe landmarks more closely, or to leave straws and stakes for tokens, like a gypsy's patteran
, to show the ways already traversed.
There is a healthy vigor in the mind of the boy who would like of all things to be lost in the woods, to build a fire out of doors, and sleep under a tree or in a haystack.
Civilization is tiresome and enfeebling, unless we occasionally give it the relish of a little outlawry, and approach, in imagination at least, the zest of a gypsy life.
The records of pedestrian journeys, the Wanderjahre
and memoirs of good-for-nothings, and all the delightful German forest literature,--these belong to the footpath side of our nature.
The passage I best remember in all Bayard Taylor
's travels is the ecstasy of his Thiringian forester, who said: “I recall the time
when just a sunny morning made me so happy that I did not know what to do with myself.
One day in spring, as I went through the woods and saw the shadows of the young leaves upon the moss, and smelt the buds of the firs and larches, and thought to myself, ‘All thy life is to be spent in the splendid forest,’ I actually threw myself down and rolled in the grass like a dog, over and over, crazy with joy.”
It is the charm of pedestrian journeys that they convert the grandest avenues to footpaths.
Through them alone we gain intimate knowledge of the people, and of nature, and indeed of ourselves.
It is easy to hurry too fast for our best reflections, which, as the old monk said of perfection, must be sought not by flying, but by walking, “Perfectionis via non pervolanda sed perambulanda.
The thoughts that the railway affords us are dusty thoughts; we ask the news, read the journals, question our neighbor, and wish to know what is going on because we are a part of it. It is only in the footpath that our minds, like our bodies, move slowly, and we traverse thought, like space, with a patient thoroughness.
he had never experienced so much, lived so truly, and been so wholly himself, as during his travels on foot.
What can Hawthorne
mean by saying in his English diary that “an American would never understand the passage in Bunyan
about Christian and Hopeful going astray along a by-path into the grounds of Giant Despair, from there being no stiles and by-paths in our country” ? So much of the charm of American pedestrianism lies in the by-paths!
For instance, the whole interior of Cape Ann
, beyond Gloucester
, is a continuous woodland, with granite ledges everywhere cropping out, around which the high-road winds, following the curving and indented line of the sea, and dotted here and there with fishing hamlets.
This whole interior is traversed by a network of footpaths, rarely passable for a wagon, and not always for a horse, but enabling the pedestrian to go from any one of these villages to any other, in a line almost direct, and always under an agreeable shade.
By the longest of these hidden ways, one may go from Pigeon Cove
, ten miles, without seeing a public road.
In the little
inn at the former village there used to hang an old map of this whole forest region, giving a chart of some of these paths, which were said to date back to the first settlement of the country.
One of them, for instance, was called on the map “Old Road from Sandy Bay
to Squam Meeting-house through the Woods” ; but the road is now scarcely even a bridle-path, and the most faithful worshipper could not seek Squam Meeting-house in the family chaise.
Those woods have been lately devastated; but when I first knew that region, it was as good as any German forest.
Often we stepped almost from the edge of the sea into some gap in the woods; there seemed hardly more than a rabbit-track, yet presently we met some wayfarer who had crossed the Cape by it. A piny dell gave some vista of the broad sea we were leaving, and an opening in the woods displayed another blue sea-line before; the encountering breezes interchanged odor of berrybush and scent of brine; penetrating farther among oaks and chestnuts, we come upon some little cottage, quaint and sheltered as any Spenser
drew; it was built on no high-road, and turned
its vine-clad gable away from even the footpath.
Then the ground rose and we were surprised by a breeze from a new quarter; perhaps we climbed trees to look for landmarks, and saw only, still farther in the woods, some great cliff of granite or the derrick of an unseen quarry.
Three miles inland, as I remember, we found the hearthstones of a vanished settlement; then we passed a swamp with cardinal-flowers; then a cathedral of noble pines, topped with crow's-nests.
If we had not gone astray by this time, we presently emerged on Dogtown Common, an elevated table-land, overspread with great boulders as with houses, and encircled with a girdle of green woods and an outer girdle of blue sea. I know of nothing more wild than that gray waste of boulders; it is a natural Salisbury Plain, of which icebergs and ocean-currents were the Druidic builders; in that multitude of couchant monsters there seems a sense of suspended life; you feel as if they must speak and answer to each other in the silent nights, but by day only the wandering sea-birds seek them, on their way across the Cape, and the sweet-bay and green fern imbed them in a softer
and deeper setting as the years go by. This is the “height of ground” of that wild footpath; but as you recede farther from the outer ocean and approach Gloucester
, you come among still wilder ledges, unsafe without a guide, and you find in one place a cluster of deserted houses, too difficult of access to remove even their materials, so that they are left to moulder alone.
I used to wander in those woods, summer after summer, till I had made my own chart of their devious tracks, and now when I close my eyes in this Oldport midsummer, the soft Italian
air takes on something of a Scandinavian vigor; for the incessant roll of carriages I hear the tinkle of the quarryman's hammer and the veery's song; and I long for those perfumed and breezy pastures, and for those promontories of granite where the fresh water is nectar and the salt sea has a regal blue.
I recall another footpath near Worcester, Massachusetts
; it leads up from the low meadows into the wildest region of all that vicinity, Tatesset Hill.
Leaving behind you the open pastures where the cattle lie beneath the chestnut-trees or drink
from the shallow brook, you pass among the birches and maples, where the woodsman's shanty stands in the clearing, and the raspberry-fields are merry with children's voices.
The familiar birds and butterflies linger below with them, and in the upper and more sacred depths the wood-thrush chants his litany and the brown mountain butterflies hover among the scented vines.
Higher yet rises the “Rattlesnake ledge,” spreading over one side of the summit a black avalanche of broken rock, now overgrown with reindeer-moss and filled with tufts of the smaller wild geranium.
Just below this ledge,--amid a dark, dense track of second-growth forest, masked here and there with grape-vines, studded with rare orchises, and pierced by a brook that vanishes suddenly where the ground sinks away and lets the blue distance in,--there is a little monument to which the footpath leads, and which always seemed to me as wild a memorial of forgotten superstition as the traveller can find amid the forests of Japan
It was erected by a man called Solomon Pearson
(not to give his name too closely), a quiet, thoughtful
farmer, long-bearded, low-voiced, and with that aspect of refinement which an ideal life brings forth even in quite uninstructed men. At the height of the “Second Advent” excitement this man resolved to build for himself upon these remote rocks a house which should escape the wrath to come, and should endure even amid a burning and transformed earth.
Thinking, as he had once said to me, that, “if the First Dispensation had been strong enough to endure, there would have been no need of a Second,” he resolved to build for his part something which should possess permanence at least.
And there still remains on that high hillside the small beginning that he made.
There are four low stone walls, three feet thick, built solidly together without cement, and without the trace of tools.
The end-walls are nine feet high (the sides being lower) and are firmly united by a strong iron ridge-pole, perhaps fifteen feet long, which is imbedded at each end in the stone.
Other masses of iron lie around unused, in sheets, bars, and coils, brought with slow labor by the builder from far below.
The whole building was
designed to be made of stone and iron.
It is now covered with creeping vines and the debris
of the hillside; but though its construction had been long discontinued when I saw it, the interior was still kept scrupulously clean through the care of this modern Solomon, who often visited his shrine.
An arch in the terminal wall admits the visitor to the small roofless temple, and he sees before him, imbedded in the centre of the floor, a large smooth block of white marble, where the deed of this spot of land was to be recorded, in the hope to preserve it even after the globe should have been burned and renewed.
But not a stroke of this inscription was ever cut, and now the young chestnut boughs droop into the uncovered interior, and shy forest-birds sing fearlessly among them, having learned that this house belongs to God, not man. As if to reassure them, and perhaps in allusion to his own vegetarian habits, the architect has spread some rough plaster at the head of the apartment and marked on it in bold characters, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Two slabs outside, a little way from the walls, bear these inscriptions, “Peace on
earth,” “Good-will to men.”
When I visited it, the path was rough and so obstructed with bushes that it was hard to comprehend how it had afforded passage for these various materials; it seemed more as if some strange architectural boulder had drifted from some Runic period and been stranded there.
It was as apt a confessional as any of Wordsworth
's nooks among the Trossachs; and when one thinks how many men are wearing out their souls in trying to conform to the traditional mythologies of others, it seems nobler in this man to have reared upon that lonely hill the unfinished memorial of his own.
I recall another path which leads from the Lower Saranac Lake
, near “Martin
's,” to what the guides call, or used to call, “The philosopher's camp” at Amperzand.
On this oddly named lake, in the Adirondack
region, a tract of land was bought by Professor Agassiz
and his friends, who made there a summer camping-ground, and with one comrade I once sought the spot.
I remember with what joy we left the boat,--so delightful at first, so fatiguing at last; for I cannot, with Mr. Murray
, call it a merit in the Adirondacks that you never
have to walk,--and stepped away into the free forest.
We passed tangled swamps, so dense with upturned trees and trailing mosses that they seemed to give no opening for any living thing to pass, unless it might be the soft and silent owl that turned its head almost to dislocation in watching us, ere it flitted vaguely away.
Farther on, the deep, cool forest was luxurious with plumy ferns; we trod on moss-covered roots, finding the emerald steps so soft we scarcely knew that we were ascending; every breath was aromatic; there seemed infinite healing in every fragrant drop that fell upon our necks from the cedar boughs.
We had what I think the pleasantest guide for a daylight tramp,--one who has never before passed over that particular route, and can only pilot you on general principles till he gladly, at last, allows you to pilot him. When we once got the lead we took him jubilantly on, and beginning to look for “The philosopher's camp,” found ourselves confronted by a large cedar-tree on the margin of a wooded lake.
This was plainly the end of the path.
Was the camp then afloat?
Our escort was in that state of hopeless ignorance of
which only lost guides are capable.
We scanned the green horizon and the level water, without glimpse of human abode.
It seemed an enchanted lake, and we looked about the tree-trunk for some fairy horn, that we might blow it. That failing, we tried three rifle-shots, and out from the shadow of an island, on the instant, there glided a boat, which bore no lady of the lake
, but a red-shirted woodsman.
The artist whom we sought was on that very island, it seemed, sketching patiently while his guides were driving the deer.
This artist was he whose “Procession of the pines” had identified his fame with that delightful forest region.
He it was who had laid out with artistic taste “The philosopher's camp,” and who was that season still awaiting philosophers as well as deer.
He had been there for a month, alone with the guides, and declared that Nature was pressing upon him to an extent that almost drove him wild.
His eyes had a certain remote and questioning look that belongs to imaginative men who dwell alone.
It seemed an impertinence to ask him to come out of his
dream and offer us dinner; but his instincts of hospitality failed not, and the red-shirted guide was sent to the camp, which was, it seemed, on the other side of the lake, to prepare our meal, while we bathed.
I am thus particular in speaking of the dinner, not only because such is the custom of travellers, but also because it was the occasion of an interlude which I shall never forget.
As we were undressing for our bath upon the lonely island, where the soft, pale water almost lapped our feet, and the deep, wooded hills made a great amphitheatre for the lake, our host bethought himself of something neglected in his instructions.
vociferated he to the guide, now rapidly receding.
Ben paused on his oars.
“Remember to bo-o-oil the venison, Ben!”
shouted the pensive artist, while all the slumbering echoes arose to applaud this culinary confidence.
he added, imploringly, “don't forget the dumplings!”
Upon this, the loons, all down the lake, who had hitherto been silent, took up the strain with vehemence, hurling their wild
laughter at the presumptuous mortal who thus dared to invade their solitudes with details as trivial as Mr. Pickwick
They repeated it over and over to each other, till ten square miles of loons must have heard the news, and all laughed together; never was there such an audience; they could not get over it, and two hours after, when we had rowed over to the camp and dinner had been served, this irreverent and invisible chorus kept bursting out, at all points of the compass, with scattered chuckles of delight over this extraordinary bill of fare.
Justice compels me to add that the dumplings were made of Indian-meal, upon a recipe devised by our artist; the guests preferred the venison, but the host showed a fidelity to his invention that proved him to be indeed a dweller in an ideal world.
Another path that comes back to memory is the bare trail that we followed over the prairies of Nebraska
, in 1856, when the Missouri River
was held by roving bands from the Slave States
, and Freedom had to seek an overland route into Kansas
All day and all night we rode between
distant prairie-fires, pillars of evening light and of morning cloud, while sometimes the low grass would burn to the very edge of the trail, so that we had to hold our breath as we galloped through.
Parties of armed Missourians were sometimes seen over the prairie swells, so that we had to mount guard at nightfall; Free-State emigrants, fleeing from persecution, continually met us; and we sometimes saw parties of wandering Sioux
, or passed their great irregular huts and houses of worship.
I remember one desolate prairie summit on which an Indian boy sat motionless on horseback; his bare red legs clung closely to the white sides of his horse; a gorgeous sunset was unrolled behind him, and he might have seemed the last of his race, just departing for the hunting-grounds of the blest.
More often the horizon showed no human outline, and the sun set cloudless, and elongated into pear-shaped outlines, as behind ocean-waves.
But I remember best the excitement that filled our breasts when we approached spots where the contest for a free soil had already been sealed with blood.
In those days, as one went to Pennsylvania
to study coal formations,
or to Lake Superior
for copper, so one went to Kansas
for men. “Every footpath on this planet,” said a rare thinker, “may lead to the door of a hero,” and that trail into Kansas
ended rightly at the tent-door of John Brown
And later, who that knew them can forget the picket-paths that were worn throughout the Sea
Islands of South Carolina
,--paths that wound along the shores of creeks or through the depths of woods, where the great wild roses tossed their airy festoons above your head, and the brilliant lizards glanced across your track, and your horse's ears suddenly pointed forward and his pace grew uneasy as he snuffed the presence of something you could not see. At night you had often to ride from picket to picket in dense darkness, trusting to the horse to find his way, or sometimes dismounting to feel with your hands for the track, while the great Southern fire-flies offered their floating lanterns for guidance, and the hoarse “Chuck-will's-widow” croaked ominously from the trees, and the great guns of the siege of Charleston
throbbed more faintly than the drumming of a partridge, far away.
are everywhere so intersected by dikes and ledges and winding creeks as to form a natural military region, like La Vendee; and yet two plantations that are twenty miles asunder by the road will sometimes be united by a footpath which a negro can traverse in two hours. These tracks are limited in distance by the island formation, but they assume a greater importance as you penetrate the mainland; they then join great States instead of mere plantations, and if you ask whither one of them leads, you are told “To Alabama
,” or “To Tennessee
Time would fail to tell of that wandering path which leads to the Mine Mountain
near Brattleborough, where you climb the high peak at last, and perhaps see the showers come up the Connecticut
till they patter on the leaves beneath you, and then, swerving, pass up the black ravine and leave you unwet.
Or of those among the White Mountains
, gorgeous with great red lilies which presently seem to take flight in a cloud of butterflies that match their tints,--paths where the balsamic air caresses you in light breezes, and masses of alder-berries rise above the waving
Or of the paths that lead beside many a little New England
stream, whose bank is lost to sight in a smooth green slope of grape-vine: the lower shoots rest upon the quiet water, but the upper masses are crowned by a white wreath of alder-blooms; beside them grow great masses of wild-roses, and the simultaneous blossoms and berries of the gaudy nightshade.
Or of those winding tracks that lead here and there among the flat stones of peaceful old graveyards, so entwined with grass and flowers that every spray of sweetbrier seems to tell more of life than all the accumulated epitaphs can tell of death.
And when the paths that one has personally traversed are exhausted, memory holds almost as clearly those which the poets have trodden for us, --those innumerable by-ways of Shakespeare
, each more real than any high-road in England
; or Chaucer
Little path I found
Of mintes full and fennell greene;
Pathes and alleies wide
With footing worne;
or the path of Browning
Down the hillside, up the glen,
Love me as I love!
or the weary tracks by which “Little Nell” wandered; or the haunted way in Sydney Dobell
The merry path that leads
Down the golden morning hills,
And through the silver meads;
or the few American paths that genius has yet idealized; that where Hawthorne
's “David Swan
” slept, or that which Thoreau
found upon the banks of Walden Pond
, or where Whittier
parted with his childhood's playmate on Ramoth Hill.
It is not heights, or depths, or spaces that make the world worth living in; for the fairest landscape needs still to be garlanded by the imagination, to become classic with noble deeds and romantic with dreams.
Go where we please in nature, we receive in proportion as we give.
Ivo, the old Bishop
, wrote, that “neither the secret depth of woods nor the tops of mountains make man
blessed, if he has not with him solitude of mind, the sabbath of the heart, and tranquillity of conscience.”
There are many roads, but one termination; and Plato
says, in his “Republic,” that the point where all paths meet is the soul's true resting-place and the journey's end.
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