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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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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 says. 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."

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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-noth-ings, 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 Thuringian 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. Rousseau said that he had never experienced so much, lived so truly, and been so wholly himself, as during his travels on foot.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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