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  Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

In A Wherry

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We have a phrase in Oldport, "What New-Yorkers call poverty: to be reduced to a pony phaeton." In consequence of a November gale, I am reduced To a similar state of destitution, from a sail-boat to a wherry; and, like others of the deserving poor, I have found many compensations in my humbler condition. Which is the more enjoyable, rowing or sailing? If you sail before the wind, there is the glorious vigor of the breeze that fills your sails; you get all of it you have room for, and a ship of the line could do no more; indeed, your very nearness to the water increases the excitement, since the water swirls and boils up, as it unites in your wake, and seems to clutch at the low stern of your sail-boat, and to menace the hand that guides the helm. Or if you beat to windward, it is as if your boat climbed a liquid hill, but did it with bounding and dancing, like a child; there is the plash of the lighter ripples against the bow, and the thud of the heavier waves, while the same blue water is now transformed to a cool jet of white foam over your face, and now to a dark whirlpool in your lee. Sailing gives a sense of prompt command, since by a single movement of the tiller you effect so great a change of direction or transform motion into rest; there is, therefore, a certain magic in it: but, on the other hand, there is in rowing a more direct appeal to your physical powers; you do not evade or cajole the elements by a cunning device of keel and canvas, you meet them man-fashion and subdue them. The motion of the oars is like the strong motion of a bird's wings; to sail a boat is to ride upon an eagle, but to row is to be an eagle. I prefer rowing,--at least till I can afford another sail-boat.

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What is a good day for rowing? Almost any day that is good for living. Living is not quite agreeable in the midst of a tornado or an equinoctial storm, neither is rowing. There are days when rowing is as toilsome and exhausting a process as is Bunyan's idea of virtue; while there are other days, like the present, when it seems a mere Oriental passiveness and the forsaking of works,--just an excuse to Nature for being out among her busy things. For even at this stillest of hours there is far less repose in Nature than we imagine. What created thing can seem more patient than yonder kingfisher on the sea-wall? Yet, as we glide near him, we shall see that no creature can be more full of concentrated life; all his nervous system seems on edge, every instant he is rising or lowering on his feet, the tail vibrates, the neck protrudes or shrinks again, the feathers ruffle, the crest dilates; he talks to himself with an impatient chirr, then presently hovers and dives for a fish, then flies back disappointed. We say "free as birds," but their lives are given over to arduous labors. And so, when our condition seems most dreamy, our observing faculties are sometimes desperately on the alert, and we find afterwards, to our surprise, that we have missed nothing. The best observer in the end is not he who works at the microscope or telescope most unceasingly, but he whose whole nature becomes sensitive and receptive, drinking in everything, like a sponge that saturates itself with all floating vapors and odors, though it seems inert and unsuspicious until you press it and it tells the tale.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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