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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

In A Wherry

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How unlike are those weird and gloomy nights to this sunny noon, when I rest my oars in this sheltered bay, where a small lagoon makes in behind Coaster's Harbor Island, and the very last breath and murmur of the ocean are left outside! The coming tide steals to the shore in waves so light they are a mere shade upon the surface till they break, and then die speechless for one that has a voice. And even those rare voices are the very most confidential and silvery whispers in which Nature ever spoke to man; the faintest summer insect seems resolute and assured beside them; and yet it needs but an indefinite multiplication of these sounds to make up the thunder of the surf. It is so still that I can let the wherry drift idly along the shore, and can watch the life beneath the water. The small fry cluster and evade between me and the brink; the half-translucent shrimp glides gracefully undisturbed, or glances away like a flash if you but touch the surface; the crabs waddle or burrow, the smaller species mimicking unconsciously the hue of the soft green sea-weed, and the larger looking like motionless stones, covered with barnacles and decked with fringing weeds. I am acquainted with no better Darwinian than the crab; and however clumsy he may be when taken from his own element, he has a free and floating motion which is almost graceful in his own yielding and buoyant home. It is so with all wild creatures, but especially with those of water and air. A gull is not reckoned an especially graceful bird, but yonder I see one, snowy white, that has come to fish in this safe lagoon, and it dips and rises on its errands as lightly as a butterfly or a swallow. Beneath that neighboring causeway the water-rats run over the stones, lithe and eager and alert, the body carried low, the head raised now and then like a hound's, the tail curving gracefully and aiding the poise; now they are running to the water as if to drink, now racing for dear life along the edge, now fairly swimming, then devoting an interval to reflection, like squirrels, then again searching over a pile of sea-weed and selecting some especial tuft, which is carried, with long, sinuous leaps, to the unseen nest. Indeed, man himself is graceful in his unconscious and direct employments: the poise of a fisherman, for instance, the play of his arm, the cast of his line or net,--these take the eye as do the stealthy movements of the hunter, the fine attitudes of the wood-chopper, the grasp of the sailor on the helm. A haystack and a boat are always picturesque objects, and so are the men who are at work to build or use them. So is yonder stake-net, glistening in the noonday light,--the innumerable meshes drooping in soft arches from the high stakes, and the line of floats stretching shoreward, like tiny stepping-stones; two or three row-boats are gathered round it, with fishermen in red or blue shirts, while one white sail-boat hovers near. And I have looked down on our beach in spring, at sunset, and watched them drawing nets for the young herring, when the rough men looked as graceful as the nets they drew, and the horseman who directed might have been Redgauntlet on the Solway Sands.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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