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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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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 to Gloucester, 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.

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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 berry-bush and scent of brine; penetrating farther among oaks and chestnuts, we came 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, over-spread 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 embed 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.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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