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  Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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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.

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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. Mitchell, 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.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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