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0100_005E Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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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 high-road 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. Thoreau, 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 "A man changes by his presence," he says in his unpublished diary, "the very nature of the trees.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." What Thoreau 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."

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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 taken wings. 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.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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