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Title: Some Winter Days in Iowa
Author: Lazell, Frederick John, 1870-1940
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  Some Winter Days in Iowa


  Frederick John Lazell





I am glad to have the privilege, thus in advance, of looking over Mr.
Lazell's delightful essays. He has surely a gift in this sort of
thing. We are grateful to the man who shows us what he sees in Nature,
but more to the man who like our present author shows us how easy and
blessed it is to see for ourselves.

Mr. Lazell reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson, and I can suggest no
better foreword than the passage from the last named author, from the
_Method of Nature_, as follows:

"Every earnest glance we give to the realities around us with intent
to learn, proceeds from a holy impulse and is really songs of praise.
What difference can it make whether it take the shape of exhortation,
or of passionate exclamation, or of scientific statement? These are
forms merely. Through them we express, at last, the fact that God has
done thus or thus."

                                        THOMAS H. MACBRIDE

     OCTOBER 17, 1907


Humanity has always turned to nature for relief from toil and strife.
This was true of the old world; it is much more true of the new,
especially in recent years. There is a growing interest in wild things
and wild places. The benedicite of the Druid woods, always appreciated
by the few, like Lowell, is coming to be understood by the many. There
is an increasing desire to get away from the roar and rattle of the
streets, away from even the prim formality of suburban avenues and
artificial bits of landscape gardening into the panorama of woodland,
field, and stream. Men with means are disposing of their palatial
residences in the cities and moving to real homes in the country,
where they can see the sunrise and the death of day, hear the rhythm
of the rain and the murmur of the wind, and watch the unfolding of the
first flowers of spring. Cities are purchasing large parks where the
beauties of nature are merely accentuated, not marred. States and the
nation are setting aside big tracts of wilderness where rock and rill,
waterfall and cañon, mountain and marsh, shell-strewn beach and
starry-blossomed brae, flowerful islets and wondrous wooded hills
welcome the populace, soothe tired nerves and mend the mind and the
morals. These are encouraging signs of the times. At last we are
beginning to understand, with Emerson, that he who knows what sweets
and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens,
and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man. It
is as if some new prophet had arisen in the land, crying, "Ho, every
one that is worn and weary, come ye to the woodlands; and he that hath
no money let him feast upon those things which are really rich and
abiding." While we are making New Year resolves let us resolve to
spend less time with shams, more with realities; less with dogma, more
with sermons in stones; less with erotic novels and baneful journals,
more with the books in the running brooks; listening less readily to
gossip and malice, more willingly to the tongues in trees; spending
more pleasureful hours with the music of bird and breeze, rippling
rivers, and laughing leaves; less time with cues and cards and colored
comics, more with cloud and star, fish and field, and forest. "The
cares that infest the day" shall fall like the burden from Christian's
back as we watch the fleecy clouds or the silver stars mirrored in the
waveless waters. We shall call the constellations by their names and
become on speaking terms with the luring voices of the forest
fairyland. We shall "thrill with the resurrection called spring," and
steep our senses in the fragrance of its flowers; glory in the gushing
life of summer, sigh at the sweet sorrows of autumn, and wax virile in
winter's strength of storm and snow.

       *       *       *       *       *

We shall begin our pilgrimages lacking in Nature's lore, many of us,
as were four men who recently walked down a city street and looked at
the trees which lined the way. One confessed ignorance as to their
identity; another thought he knew but couldn't remember; a third said
they looked like maples; and a fourth thought that silence, like
honesty, as the copybooks used to tell us, was the best policy. And
yet the name linden was writ large on those trees,--on the beautiful
gray bark, the alternate method of twig arrangement, the fat red
winter buds, which shone in the sunshine like rubies, and especially
on the little cymes of pendulous, pea-like fruit, each cyme attached
to its membranaceous bract or wing. Of course, if the pedestrians had
been in the midst of rich woods and there found a trunk of great girth
and rough bark, surrounded by several handsome young stems with
close-fitting coats, the group looking for all the world like a
comfortable old mother with a family of fresh-faced, willowy,
marriageable daughters, every member of the quartet would have
chorused, bass-wood.

But no one need be ashamed to confess an ignorance of botany.
Botanical ignorance is more common than poverty. It has always been
prevalent. And the cause of it may be traced back to the author of all
our short-comings, old Adam. We read that every beast of the field and
every fowl of the air were brought to Adam to see what he would call
them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the
name thereof. But why, oh why, didn't he name the trees? If he had
known enough of the science to partake of the fruit of the tree of
life he might have lived long enough to write a systematic botany,
satisfactory alike to the Harvard school of standpat systematists and
their manual-ripping rivals in nomenclature. But he didn't; and no one
else may ever hope to do it.

Eve had never read a book on how to know the wild fruits, and her
first field work in botany had a disastrous termination; it
complicated the subject by the punishment of thorns and thistles.
Cain's conduct brought both botany and agriculture into disrepute.
Little more is heard until Pharaoh's daughter went botanizing and
found Moses in the bulrushes. Oshea and Jehoshua showed some
advancement by bringing back grapes and figs and pomegranates from the
brook Eschol as the proudest products of the promised land. But
Solomon was the only man in the olden times who ever knew botany
thoroughly. We are told that he was wiser than all men. "Prove it,"
says some doubting reader, moving for a more specific statement. So
the biographer adds: "He spake of trees, from the cedar that is in
Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall."

Four centuries later, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
anticipated Emerson's advice about eating bread and pulse at rich
men's tables. The historian tells us that they were men skilful in all
wisdom, cunning in knowledge, and understanding science. Possessing
such wisdom, Daniel knew it would be easy to mix up the wicked elders
who plotted against the virtue of the fair Susanna by asking them a
question of botany. One said he saw her under a mastick tree and the
other under a holm tree. This gave Shakespeare that fine line in _The
Merchant of Venice_, "A Daniel come to judgment; yea, a Daniel." But
in these latter days we rarely read the story of Susanna, and
Shakespeare's line is not understood by one play-goer in fifty.

When the diminutive Zaccheus climbed into a shade tree which graced a
town lot in Jericho he gave the translators for "the Most High and
Mighty Prince James" another puzzle, for they put him on record as
going up into a sycamore tree. We had always supposed that this was
because the sycamore's habit of shedding its bark made smooth climbing
for Zaccheus. But scientific commentators tell us now that it was not
a sycamore tree, but a hybridized fig-mulberry!

       *       *       *       *       *

But all this is digression. The best time to begin keeping that New
Year's nature resolution is now, when the oaks are seen in all their
rugged majesty, when the elms display their lofty, graceful, vase-like
forms, and when every other tree of the forest exhibits its peculiar
beauty of trunk, and branch, and twig. Often January is a most
propitious month for the tenderfoot nature-lover. Such was the year
which has just passed. During the first part of the month the weather
was almost springlike; so bright and balmy that a robin was seen in an
apple-tree, and the brilliant plumage of the cardinal was observed in
this latitude. Green leaves, such as wild geranium, strawberry and
speedwell, were to be found in abundance beneath their covering of
fallen forest leaves. Scouring rushes vied with evergreen ferns in
arresting the attention of the rambler. In one sheltered spot a clump
of catnip was found, fresh, green, and aromatic, as if it were July
instead of January.

Sunday, the sixth, was a day of rare beauty and enticement. Well might
the recording angel forgive the nature lover who forgot the promises
made for him by his sponsors that he should "hear sermons," and who
fared forth into the woods instead, first reciting "The groves were
God's first temples," and then softly singing, "When God invites, how
blest the day!"

       *       *       *       *       *

They err who think the winter woods void of life and color. Pause for
a moment on the broad open flood-plain of the river, the winter fields
and meadows stretching away in gentle slopes on either side. There are
but few trees, but they have had room for full development and are
noble specimens. All is gaiety. A blue-jay screams from a broad-topped
white ash which is so full of winged seeds that it looks like a mass
of foliage. The sable-robed king of the winter woods, the American
crow, in the full vigor of his three-score years, maybe, (he lives to
be a hundred) caws lustily from the bare white branches of a big
sycamore, that queer anomaly of the forest which disrobes itself for
the winter. The merry chickadees divide their time between the
rustling, ragged bark of the red birches and the withered heads of
heath-aster and blue vervain below. In the one they get the meat
portion of their midday meal, and in the other the cereal foods. No
wonder they are sleek and joyous.

A few steps farther and we leave this broad alluvial bottom to enter
the cañon through which the river, ages ago, began to cut its course.
These ridges of limestone, loess and drift rise a hundred feet or more
above the level of the plain from which the river suddenly turns
aside. They are thickly covered with timber. There is no angel with a
flaming sword to keep you from passing into this winter paradise! The
river bank is lined with pussy willows; they gleam in the sunshine
like copper. Farther back there are different varieties of dogwood,
some with delicate green twigs and some a cherry red. The wild rose
and the raspberry vines add their glossy purplish and cherry red stems
to the color combination, and a contrast is afforded by the silvery
gray bark of stray aspens. A still softer and more beautiful shade of
silver gray is seen in the big hornet's nest of last year which still
hangs suspended from a low sugar maple. On all of these the sunlight
plays and makes a wondrous color symphony. "Truly the light is sweet
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun." To be
sure, this colorful arrangement of the stems and twigs is not
brilliant, like the flaming vermilion blossoms of the _Lobelia
cardinalis_ in August, the orange yellow of the rudbeckias in
September, or the wondrous blue of the fringed gentian in early
October. It is more like the delicate tints and shadings of an arts
and crafts exhibition, stained leather, hammered copper and brass, art
canvas, and ancient illuminated initials in monks' missals. The
tempered winter sunlight is further softened by the trees; as it
illuminates the soft red rags of the happy old birch it seems
sublimated, almost sanctified and spiritual, like that which filters
through rich windows in cathedrals, and makes a real halo around the
heads of sweet-faced saints.

       *       *       *       *       *

There are strange sounds for January. All the winter birds are doing
their share in the chorus and orchestra; crows, jays, woodpeckers,
nut-hatches, juncos, tree-sparrows. But suddenly a woodpecker begins a
new sound,--his vernal drumming! Not the mere tap, tap, tap, in quest
of insects, but the love-call drumming of the nidification season,
nearly three months ahead of time.

Swollen by recent rains, the river is two feet higher than usual.
There is a sheet of ice on either shore, but the water swiftly flows
down the narrow channel in the middle with a sound halfway between a
gurgle and a roar, mingled anon with the sound of grinding cakes of
ice. Suddenly away up at the bend of the river there is a sharp crack,
like the discharge of a volley of musketry. Swiftly it comes down the
ice, passes your feet with a distinct tremor, and your eyes follow the
sound down the river until the two walls of the cañon meet in the
perspective. In a small way you know how it would feel to hear the
rumble of an approaching seismic shock. Only there was no terror in
this. It was the laughter of the sunbeam fairies as they loosened the
architecture of "the elfin builders of the frost."

The recent rains have vivified the mosses clinging to the gray rocks
which jut out, halfway up the slope. Very tender and beautiful is
their vivid shade of green. Winter and summer, the mosses are always
with us. When the last late aster has faded, the last blue blossom of
the gentian changed to brown, the green mosses still remain. And the
more they are studied, the more fascinating they become. Take some
home and examine them with a hand lens, then with a microscope. You
will be charmed with the exquisite finish of their most minute parts.
Nature glories in the artistic excellence of infinitesimal
workmanship. The most beautiful part of her handiwork is that which is
seen through a microscope. There is beauty, beauty everywhere; the
crystals of the snow, the cell structure of the leaf, the scales of
the butterfly's wing, the pedicels, capsules and cilia of these
mosses. No wonder that many distinguished men have been led to give
their whole lives to the study of mosses and have felt well repaid.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here are Nature's only two elementary forms of growth, the cell and
the crystal, wrestling for the mastery over each other in a life and
death struggle. The moss is built up of cell, the rock of crystal
forms. Below this Devonian limestone, its crystals sparkling in the
sunshine, with its coral fossils, its fragments of crinoids, and its
broken shells of brachiopods, down through the Devonian, the Silurian,
the Ordovician, and the Cambrian rocks, down to the original crust
formed when first the earth began to cool, if any there be remaining;
all these miles of rocks are inorganic, built up of crystals. But here
on the surface, the tender green mosses and the bright lichens have
begun the struggle of the cellular system for supremacy. These humble
little rock-breakers will not rest until they have pulverized the
rocks into soil sufficient to sustain higher forms of vegetable life.

Once before, many millions of years ago, the cell life had won a
partial victory over the crystal. In the great sub-tropical sea which
once covered this spot, corals lived and flourished as they do now in
similar seas. Myriads of brachiopods lived, moved, and had their
being. Gigantic fish sported in the waters. Meanwhile older rocks were
being denuded and disintegrated. Millions of tons of sediment were
brought by the rivers and streams to the shores of the Devonian sea.
Upheaval, change, transformation followed, and the tide of battle
turned. Cell life was powerless before the vanquishing crystals of the
infiltrating calcite. Only the inorganic part of that vast world of
organic life here remains in these fossils to tell the story--the
walls of the corals, the shells of the brachiopods, the teeth of the
monster fishes. Then came succeeding ages, and finally the great
glaciers which brought down the drift, rounded the sharp ridges,
filled up the deep valleys and gorges, and gave to Iowa her fertile
and inexhaustible soil. The earth was prepared to receive her king.
The glaciers receded. Man came.

Now here, on this bit of limestone rock, the struggle is on again. The
mosses and the lichens have proceeded far enough in their work of
disintegration to provide substance for the slender red stem of
dogwood, which is growing out of the soil they have made. The fallen
leaves of the surrounding trees follow the pioneer work of the mosses.
The rain and the cracking frosts are other agencies. By and by the
organic will triumph over the inorganic, the cell over the crystal,
the plant over the rock, and where now the fossils lie beautiful
flowers will bloom.

The short winter day draws rapidly to a close and there is time for
only a brief survey of the beauty of the upland trees. The fairy-like
delicacy of the hop hornbeam, with its hop clusters and pointing
catkins; the slender gracefulness of the chestnut oak; the Etruscan
vase-like form of the white elm; the flaky bark and pungent, aromatic
twigs of the black cherry; the massive, noble, silver-gray trunk of
the white-oak; the lofty stateliness, filagree bark, and berry-like
fruit of the hackberry; the black twigs of the black oaks, ashes,
hickories and walnuts etched against the sky,--all these arrest your
attention and retard your steps until the sun is near the horizon and
you look over the tangled undergrowth of hazel, sumac, and briers, far
through the trunks of the trees to the western sky which is bathed in
flame color, as if from a forest fire.

You are alone and yet not alone. A rabbit scurries across your
pathway. A faint little squeak voices the fright of a mouse. There is
a swoop of wings which you neither distinctly hear nor clearly see,
yet you are aware, in a less marked degree than was the mouse, that an
owl was near. You feel certain that the downy woodpecker is asleep in
that neat little round hole on the southwest side of a tree trunk,
just a little higher than you can reach. In the early afternoon you
saw a red squirrel go gaily up a tall red oak and climb into his nest
of leaves. You fancy he is snugly coiled there now. This recent hill
of fresh dirt--strange sight in January--was surely made by a mole,
and you know that they are all somewhere beneath your feet: moles,
pocket gophers, and the pretty striped gopher which used to sit up on
his hind legs, fold his front paws, and look at you in the summer
time, then give a low whistle and duck; meadow mice in their cozy
tunnels through which the water will be pouring when the spring
freshets come; the woodchuck in his long, long sleep, and the chipmunk
with his winter store of food. And so watching, listening, and musing
you come at length to the western edge of the woodland and look across
the prairie, far as the eye can reach, to where the red ball of the
sun hangs scarce a yard above the horizon. You look upon a scene which
is peculiar to this part of Iowa alone. It is not found in any other
state or nation on earth. "These are the gardens of the desert, for
which the speech of England has no name--the Prairies."

       _"Lo they stretch
    In airy undulations, far away,
    As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell
    Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed,
    And motionless, forever."_

The "rounded billows fixed" are the paha ridges which the glaciers
made. They are not high enough to obstruct the view, nor to mar its
ocean-like effect. In the middle distance you may see a farm windmill
from sail to platform, but away across the snow-plain sea you catch
only the uppermost part of the white sails. The rest is concealed from
view by the illusory rise of the foreground toward the horizon--for
this twenty-mile stretch of prairie has an illusory curve similar to
that seen from all ocean shores. But now the sun has disappeared and
the windmills, houses, groves, and fences which looked like black
etchings against the flame-colored sky slowly vanish, first far away
toward the bluffs on the yon shore of the prairie sea, then nearer,
nearer, comes the gloom until the fence across the first field is
scarcely discernible. The bright vermilion fades at length to misty
gray and lights appear in the windows of the farm homes.

       *       *       *       *       *

This sunset and twilight scene, peculiar to Iowa, is succeeded by the
pageant of the stars. These are not peculiar, in neighboring
latitudes, to any clime or time. They are the same stars which sang
together when the foundations of the earth were fastened; the same
calm stars upon which Adam gazed in remorse, the night he was driven
from the garden of Eden. The Chinese, the Chaldeans, the Egyptians,
the Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans counted the hours of the night by
the revolutions of the Greater and the Lesser Bear around Polaris, and
guided their crafts and caravans by that sure star's light:

      _"And therefore bards of old,
    Sages and hermits of the solemn wood,
      Did in thy beams behold
    That bright eternal beacon, by whose ray
    The voyager of time should shape his needful way."_


    _"Constellations of the early night
    That sparkled brighter as the twilight died
      And made the darkness glorious"_

were mysteries to Ptolemy and to Plato, as well as to Job. All ages of
mankind must have watched and wondered, pondering over the unsolved
problems. When the First Great Cause projected all these whirling
fire-mists into illimitable space with all the laws of physics,
chemistry, evolution in perfect working order, did he choose this
earth as humanity's only home? Is this the only planet with a plan of
salvation? Is this mere speck among all the myriads of worlds in the
solar system, and the other systems, the only creation of His hand
which has known a Garden of Eden, a Bethlehem, and a Calvary? When the
sun has lost his heat and the cold crystals of the earth have fought
their last fight with cellular structures, and won; when all the fairy
forms of field and forest are only fossils in the grim, gray rocks;
when the music of bee and bird and breeze shall have waned into
everlasting silence; when "all the pomp of yesterday is one with
Nineveh and Tyre;" when man with all his achievements and triumphs,
his love and laughter, his songs and sighs, is forgotten even more
completely than his Paleolithic ancestors; then, shall some portion of
the nebula which now bejewels Andromeda's girdle become evolutionized
into a flora and a fauna, a civilization and a spirituality unto which
the visions of the wisest seers have never attained? Shall this
subtle, evanescent mystery which we call life, which glorifies so many
varied forms, be wholly lost, or shall it pass joyfully through the
ether to some brighter and better world? Is it true

    _"That nothing walks with aimless feet;
      That no one life shall be destroyed,
      Or cast as rubbish to the void,
    When God hath made the pile complete?"_

We are scarce a step ahead of our forefathers. We do not know.

    _"Behold, we know not anything;
      I can but trust that good shall fall
      At last--far off--at last to all,
    And every winter change to spring."_


February often opens with a season of cold gray days when stratus
clouds, dark and unrelenting as iron, hang across the sky and bitter
winds from the northwest blow down the Iowa valleys and over the
frost-cracked ridges. In the city the wheels crunch on the scanty
snow, and every window is made opaque by the frost. Trains are many
hours late, and dense clouds of steam from locomotive funnels condense
into vivid whiteness in the wintry air. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, and
chickadees join the English sparrows in begging crumbs and scraps
around the kitchen door. In the timber the wind rustles shiveringly
through the leaves which still cling to some of the oaks. The music of
the woods is reduced to a minimum. Life is a serious business for
everyone who has to work in order that he may eat; there is little
time or spirit for song. In the late forenoon and again in the middle
of the afternoon the rattle of bills may be heard on the branches; at
other times the woods are almost silent, save for the cracking of the
earth as it heaves under the frost, and the boom of the ever
thickening ice on the river.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then the south wind steals across King Winter's borderland, and the
iron clouds begin to relax. But at first there seems little
improvement. "The south end of a north wind," say the experienced, and
shiver. But wait. Every hour the wind grows warmer and the clouds
softer. They come closer to the earth, hanging like a thick curtain
across the sky. On the prairie the diameter of the circling horizon
seems scarcely three miles long. The clouds hug the far sides of the
nearest ridges and shut you in, above and around. It must have been
such a day as this when Fitzgerald made that line of the Rubaiyat
read: "And this inverted bowl they call the sky." Today the bowl seems
very small and dreary.

       *       *       *       *       *

By and by a snowflake falls, then a few others, soft as the spray of
the thistle in the early days of October. Gently as the fairy balloons
of the dandelion they float through the air and rest upon the withered
leaves of the white oaks. Soon they come faster, and now the
forest-crowned ridge half a mile away which was in plain sight a
minute ago is screened from view by the fast falling white curtain.

"He giveth snow like wool." Very beautiful is this snow as it softens
the rugged, corky limbs of the mossy cup oaks. It is not like the
hard, granular snow which stung your face like sand when you were out
in the storm a month ago, when the trumpets of the sky were doing a
fanfare, the wind raged from the northwest, the top of a tall black
cherry snapped like a shipmast and crashed through the forest rigging
to the white deck below, while the gnarled limbs of the big elms
looked like the muscles of giants wrestling with the storm king. This
storm to-day is not "announced by all the trumpets of the sky." It
comes softly as the breath of morning on a May meadow. It silences
every sound and curtains you into a rare studio where you may admire
its own exceeding beauty. There have not been so many beautiful snow
crystals in any storm of the winter. You may see half a dozen
different varieties on your coat sleeve with the naked eye, and you
pull out a strong lens the better to observe the exceeding beauty of
these six pointed stars. They are among Nature's most exquisite
forms, and they are shown in bewildering variety. The molecules of
snow arrange themselves in crystals of the hexagonal system, every
angle exactly sixty degrees. The white color of the snow is caused by
a combination of the prismatic colors of these snow crystals. Some of
them are regular hexagons, with six straight sides; others are like a
wheel with six spokes, with jewels clinging to each spoke. Many men
have spent a lifetime in the study of these fairy forms. W. A.
Bentley, of the United States weather bureau, after twenty years of
faithful work, has more than a thousand photographs of these crystals,
no two alike. Every storm yields him a new set of pictures.

       *       *       *       *       *

For a little while the snow grows damp and the flakes grow larger,
making downy blankets for the babes in the woods--the hepaticas, the
mosses, the ferns. The catkins of the hazelbrush are edged with white.
The slender stems of the meadow-sweet begin to droop beneath the
weight of the snow. The delicate yellow pointed buds of the wild
gooseberry look like topaz gems in a setting of white pearl. The snow
falls faster and the wood becomes a ghost world. The dull red torches
of the smooth sumac are extinguished. The fine, delicate spray of the
hop hornbeam is a fairy net whose every mesh is fringed with
immaculate beauty. The little clusters of fine twigs here and there in
the hackberry grow into spheres of fleecy fruit. The snow sticks to
the tree trunks and makes a compass out of every one, a more accurate
compass than the big radical leaves of the rosin weed in the early

As the day darkens the ghost-like effect of the storm in the woods is
all the more marked. The trees stand like silent specters, and at
every turn in the path you come upon strange shadow shapes of shrub
and bush. The snow is piling high under the hazelbrush and the sumac,
stumps of trees become soft white mounds, and the little brook has
curving banks of beauty.

There is a thrill and an exaltation in such a storm. The depressing
influences of the earlier day are no more. As you resolutely walk
homeward through the storm and the deep snow, you feel the heart grow
strong as it pumps the blood to every fiber of your being. You know
why the men of the north, Iowa men, have virile brain and sovereign
will. The snow is deep and the way is long, but yet you smile--a
reverent smile--as you think of Hawthorne writing of a snow storm by
taking occasional peeps from the study windows of his old manse.

       *       *       *       *       *

Next morning the world seems to have been re-created. It is as fresh
and pure and full of light and beauty as if it had just come from the
Creator's hand with not one single stain or shame or pain. It is one
of the few rare mornings that come in all seasons of the year when
Nature's every aspect is so beautiful that even the most
unappreciative are charmed into admiration; a great white sparkling
world below, and a limitless azure world above. The clouds have all
been blown away and you rejoice in the loftiness of the big blue dome.
It is so very high that there seems to be no dome. You are looking
straight through into the boundless blue of interstellar space, the
best object lesson of infinity which earth has to offer. The ocean
that washes the shores of continents has its bounds which it may not
pass, and mariners have well-known ways across it. The ocean of human
thought is vaster, but it, also, has finite bounds and man shall
hardly make great voyages upon it without crossing, perhaps following,
the track of some earlier Columbus. But this limitless ocean which we
call the sky has no finite bounds, no tracks, no charts, no Cabots. It
is measureless and all-embracing as Divine love. You and Polaris are
enwrapped by both. The farthest star is but a beacon light on some
shore island of this sublime sea of space; and it beckons upward and
outward to the unknown beyond.

       *       *       *       *       *

Yesterday's three-mile diameter of the horizon has been multiplied by
ten. There is a far sweep of the landscape which makes the soul
thrill. This is the supreme pleasure of the prairies. The Iowa man who
goes to the Rockies is at first awed and charmed by the mountain
grandeur, but soon he pines like a caged bird. The high peaks shut him
in as a prison. He sighs for a sight of the plains, for the feeling of
room and liberty that belongs to the wider sky-reach. On the prairies
the love of truth and liberty grows as easily as the morning light.

The sun rose clear and golden and now is almost white, so clear is the
atmosphere. The snow crystals break the white light into all the
prismatic colors,--rubies and garnets, emeralds and sapphires, topaz
and amethyst, all sparkle in the brilliant light. The shadow of the
solitary elm's trunk, here on the prairie, has very clear cut edges
and is tinted with blue. The finely reticulated shadows of the
graceful twigs are sharply shadowed on the snow beneath,--a winter
picture worthy of a master hand.

In the enjoyment of such beauty as this is the only real wealth. Money
cannot buy it. Hirelings cannot take it from the lowly and give it to
the proud. No trust can corner it. No canvas can screen it from the
eye of him who has not silver to give the cathedral care-taker.
February, like June, may be had by the poorest comer. But it is like
Ruskin's Faubourg St. Germain. Before you may enjoy it you shall be
worthy of it.

      _"Such beauty, varying in the light,
    Of living nature, cannot be portrayed
    By words, nor by the pencil's silent skill;
    But is the property of him alone
    Who hath beheld it, noted it with care,
    And in his mind recorded it with love."_

Leave the prairie and enter the forest which crowns the neighboring
ridge. Here are more of those blue shadows on the snow. The delicate
blue sky is faintly reflected on the snow in the full sunlight, but it
is more obvious in the shadow; in some places its hue is almost
indigo. This sky reflection is one of the most beautiful of Nature's
winter exhibitions. Towards sundown the snow-capped ridges will
sometimes be tinged with pink. And in a red sunset the winter trees
will sometimes throw shadows of green, the complementary color, on the

       *       *       *       *       *

You are early in the woods. Nature's children are not yet astir. The
silence is profound; but it is a fruitful, uplifting silence. There
are no sounds to strike the most delicate strings in that wondrous
harp of your inner ear. But if your spiritual ear is attentive you
should catch those forest voices that fall softer than silence and
speak of peace and purity, truth and beauty.

Soon the silence is broken. Curiously, the first sound you hear comes
from advanced civilization, the rumble of a train fifteen miles away.
On a still morning like this one can hardly stand five full minutes on
any spot in the whole state of Iowa without hearing the sound of a
train. There are no more trackless prairies, no more terrors of
blizzards. Pioneer days have passed away. The railroads have brought
security, comfort, prosperity, intelligence, and the best of the
world's work, physical and mental, fresh at the door every morning.

Whirr! There goes a ruffed grouse from the snow, scarce a rod ahead.
In a moment, up goes another. Too bad to rout them from their bed
under the roots of a fallen tree. Farther on a rabbit scurries from
another log. There is his "form" fresh in the snow.

The river, away down below, begins to boom and crack. The ice is like
the tight head of a big bass drum, but the drummer is inside and the
sound comes muffled. The frost is the peg which tightens all the
strings of earth and makes them vibrant. The tinkle of sleigh bells on
the wagon road fully a mile away comes with peculiar clearness.

When the sun is more than half way from the horizon to the meridian,
Nature begins to wake up. A chickadee emerges from his hole in the
decaying trunk of a red oak and cheeps softly as he flies to the
branch of a slippery elm. His merry "chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee" brings
others of his race, and away they all go down to the red birches on
the river bottom. The metallic quanks of a pair of nuthatches call
attention to the upper branches of a big white oak. A chickadee and
one of the nuthatches see a tempting morsel at the same time. A
spiteful peck from nuthatch leaves him master of the morsel and the
field. But the chickadee does not care. He flies down and spies a
stalk of golden-rod above the snow on which there is a round object
looking like a small onion. Chickadee doesn't know that this is the
spherical gall of the _trypeta solidaginis_, but he does know that it
contains a fat white grub. He knows, too, that there is a beveled
passage leading to a cell in the center and that the outer end of this
passage is protected by a membrane window. After some balancing and
pirouetting he smashes the window with his bill, runs his long tongue
down the passageway, gulps the grub and away he flies to join his
comrades down in the birches, chirping gaily as he goes.

Downy woodpecker "pleeks" his happiness as he excavates the twig of a
silver maple. Probably he has found the larvæ which the wood wasp left
there in the fall. The big hairy woodpecker flies across the clearing
with a strident scream. Next to the crow and the jay he is the
noisiest fellow in the winter woods. He hammers away at a decaying
basswood and the chips which fall are an inch and a half long. His
hammering is almost as loud as the bark of a squirrel in the trees
across the river. The blood-red spot on the back of his head has an
exquisite glow in the sunshine, and you get a fine look at it, for he
is busily working little more than a rod from where you stand. He does
wonderful work with that strong bill. One decaying basswood found
recently was eighteen inches in diameter and the woodpeckers had
drilled big holes clear through it. The pile of their chips at the
base would have filled a bushel basket.

By the time you have reached the spring the woods are full of life and
sound, and the spring itself adds to the winter music. The rocks where
it bubbles out are thickly covered with hoar frost. One of the big
blocks of limestone in its causeway is covered with ice, clear and
viscid as molten glass. The river is bridged over with ice twenty
inches thick, save only the little gulf stream into which the spring
pours its waters. From the surface of this stream thin smoky wreaths
of vapor rise and are changed into crystals by the frosty air. But the
waters of the spring gush forth as abundantly and musically now as
they did in the hot days of last July, and the clam-shell with which
you then drank is still in its place by the rock. The pure, melodious,
beautiful spring makes its own environment, regardless of
surroundings. Its sources are in the unfailing hills. It suggests the
lives of some men and women whose friendship you enjoy, and who are
ever ready to refresh you on life's way.

       *       *       *       *       *

The wind of last night has carried much of the snow over the top of
the ridge and deposited it in this sheltered slope of the river cañon.
Here are wind-formed caves of sculptured snow, vaulted with a tender
blue. Turrets and towers sparkle in the splendid light. All angles are
softened, and everywhere the lines of the snow curves are smooth and
flowing. The drift sweeps down from the footpath way on the river bank
to the ice-bound bed of the river in graceful lines. Where the side of
the cañon is more precipitous there is equal beauty. Each shrub has
its own peculiar type amidst the broken drift. The red cedar, which is
Iowa's nearest approach to a pine, except in a few favored counties,
hangs from the top of the crag heavily festooned with feathery snow.
Those long creeping lines on which the crystals sparkle are only
brambles, and that big rosette of rusty red and fluffy white is the
New Jersey tea. Those spreading, pointed fingers of coral with a
background of dazzling white are the topmost twigs of the red osier
dogwood. The strip of shrubs with graceful spray, now bowed in beauty
by the river's brink, is a group of young red birches, and this bunch
of downy brown twigs, two feet above the snow, sparkling with frost
particles, is the downy viburnum. The great tangle of vine and lace
work mixed with snow is young hop hornbeam, supporting honeysuckle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Viewed from the window of a railway train, the February fields and
woods seem dead and dreary. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Every twig is lined with living buds, carefully covered with scales.
Inside those scales are leaves and blossoms deftly packed, as only
Mother Nature could pack them. Split one down the middle and examine
it with your lens. You will see the little tender leaves, and often
the blossoms, ready to break out in beauty when the warm days come
and flood the world with color. Men try to photograph nature, but no
photograph could do justice to the clustered buds of the red maple or
the downy buds of the slippery elm. The long green gray buds of the
butternut, pistillate flowers in some, staminate flowers in others;
the saffron buds of the butternut hickory; the ruby buds of the bass
wood; the varnished bud scales of the sycamore and the poplar; the big
gummy scales which protect the pussy catkins of the aspen; the queer
little buds of the sumac and the rusty buds of the ash; every one of
these refutes the aspersions cast upon the winter woods by those who
never go out to see. In their noble beauty of massive and graceful
form, with their exquisite symmetry of outline, their varied
arrangement of branches and twigs, giving to every species an
individual expression, every twig studded with these gem-like buds,
how very beautiful are the winter trees! One might almost find it in
his heart to feel sorry that this rare mingling of sculpture and
fretwork and lace is soon to be draped with a mantle of green.

       *       *       *       *       *

Why did Bryant dwell so often on the theme of death in Nature? The
reminders of death are very few compared with the signs of life.
Break off a twig from the aspen and taste the bark. The strong quinine
flavor is like a spring tonic. Cut a branch of the black cherry, peel
back the bark, and smell the pungent, bitter almond aroma, which of
itself is enough to identify this tree. Every sense tells of life; the
smell of the cherry, the taste of the aspen, the touch of the velvety
mosses and the gummy buds on the poplars, the color of the twigs and
buds, the music of the birds, all these say, "There is no death."

Every time you plant your feet upon the snow you press down thousands
of seeds, minute forms of life, each with its little store of starch
or albumen, carefully compounded in Nature's laboratory, sufficient to
sustain the embryonic life until the tiny plantlet learns to draw
nourishment from the breast of Mother Earth and to breathe health and
vigor from the sunshine and the air. By the wayside, in stony places,
among thorns and on good ground, Nature sows her seeds with lavish
hand. Every tree and shrub and herb, itself held fast to one place,
tries to give its offspring as great a start in the world as possible.
Even in late February one may see some of Nature's airships, designed
to carry seeds. They are all built on the same principle, not to rise
in the air, but to fly as far away from the tree as possible when
falling from the branch. The basswood puts its seeds into little
hollow wooden balls, then makes a sail out of a leaf and sets it at
just the right angle to balance the seeds and catch the breeze. The
winged samaras of the ash and the box elder are other modifications of
the same principle. The round balls of the sycamore hang till the high
winds of March loosen their strong stalks and then they break open and
the club-shaped nutlets inside spread their bristly hairs to the
breeze. The hop-like strobiles of the hop hornbeam seem especially
made to blow over the surface of the frozen snow; they drop off the
queer little oblong bags as they go and thus the smooth small nuts
inside are planted. The oaks, hickories, walnuts, butternuts,
hazelnuts, trust their fruits to the feet of passersby and to the
squirrels and blue jays which fail to find many of their buried acorns
and nuts. The big three-valved balloons of the bladdernut can sail
either in the air, on the water, or over the frozen snow. The pretty
clusters of the wild yam, seen climbing over the hazelbrush in the
rich winter woods, have two ways of navigating in the wind; either
the three-sided, papery capsule floats as a whole, or it splits
through the winged angles and then the flat seeds with their
membranaceous wings have a chance to flutter a foot or two away where
haply they may find a square inch of unoccupied soil. The desmodium,
the bidens, the agrimony and the cocklebur, which stick to your
clothes even as late as February, are only using you as a Moses to
lead their children to their promised land. These herb stalks above
the snow, the corymbose heads of the yarrow, the spikes of the
self-heal, the crosiers of the golden-rod, the panicles of the asters,
the racemes of the Indian tobacco, the knotted threads of the blue
vervain and the plantain, the miniature mandarin temples of the
peppergrass--all these have shed, or are shedding, myriads of seeds to
be silently sepulchred under the snow until earth's easter April
mornings. The withered berries of the bittersweet, the cat-brier, and
the sumac, like the drupes of the early fall, are scattered far and
wide by the birds. All these speak not of death, but of an eager,
expectant life.

       *       *       *       *       *

The snow is winter's great gift to states like Iowa. He is unwise who
complains of the tender, protecting, nourishing, fructifying mantle
of immaculate white. Where the snow lies deepest in winter, there
shall you find the greatest flush of new life in the spring. Down
under the snow Nature's chemical laboratory is at work. Take a stick
and dig under the thick white blanket into the black soil. Here are
bulbs and buds, corms and tubers, rootstalks and rhizomes, which were
pumped full of starch and albumen in the hot days of last August. So
far as modern science is able to tell, chemical changes are in
constant progress in all these forms of underground life, preparing
for the coming glory of the living green. Nature never dies. She
scarcely sleeps.

Tracks on the all-revealing snow tell of an equal abundance of animal
life. These rabbit tracks, scarcely two feet apart, tell how happily
bunny was going. But farther on a dog came across at an angle and gave
chase. The tracks are now farther apart, three feet, four feet, as up
bunny goes to his burrow under the shelving rock. One last bound,
nearly five feet, and he was safe. That was once when "heaven was
gained at a single bound."

Bunny was too far away from home that time. Here is his usual runway
from the burrow to the brook, and the nibbled barks of the saplings
tell of a tender breakfast before he went prospecting. Rabbits usually
run in beaten paths.

These narrow tracks where dainty feet printed a double line of
opposite dots across the snow were made by the whitefooted mouse, and
the little continuous line between them was made by his dragging tail.
The legend is like this, :-:-:-:-:-. Farther on are similar tracks,
but alternate instead of opposite, like this,',',','. They were made
by the short-tailed shrew. Still farther along a queer little ridge is
seen in the snow across the wood road. It is the tunnel of the meadow
mouse. Part of its fragile roof has fallen in and you may stoop and
look into the little round tunnel which ran from the burrow to some
granary under a log.

There goes a squirrel, angling away from you, his red bushy tail high
in the air as he runs through the deep snow down the side of the ridge
to a big, corky-barked oak, up which he goes to wait in his hollow up
there until you have passed by. He did not seem to be going very fast
but when you walk over to his tracks you find they are farther apart
than you can step. The groups of four are about as broad as your
hand, and they are deep where the snow lies thick. But on the firmer
snow at the crest of the ridge, before the squirrel became alarmed,
they did not break through the crust, and the marks of the dainty toes
are plainly seen. There are also the remains of a sweet acorn which
the squirrel dug out of the deep snow under a white oak. Back to the
river where the stream from the spring makes open water you find some
queer tracks on the fresh snow; there is a round spot as big as a
quarter in each one, faint radiating lines in front ending with the
marks of sharp toes; these were made by the soft-padded foot and
webbed toes of the mink.

       *       *       *       *       *

Most of the insect life is snugly hidden, but much is in plain sight.
A clump of pussy willows bears many queer-shaped clusters which the
entomologist calls pine cone galls; in the center of each one a larva
dwells in his silken case. On the red oaks over head are other
galls,--the oak apples. The buttonbush has the ash-colored cocoon of
the giant silkworm, made out of a rolled leaf, the petiole of which is
fastened to the branch with silk. Many others are to be found for the
looking. All tell the story of Nature's abundant life,--even the
morning after a February snow storm. All speak

    _"Of one maternal spirit bringing forth
    And cherishing with ever constant love,
    That tires not, nor betrays."_

But snowstorms will soon be over. The nature-lover's spring begins
near the end of the month, sometimes just before, sometimes just
after. The snow and the ice will be honeycombed by the sun and we
shall begin to look for the sap trickling from the maple, and to
strain our ears for the first note of the wild goose and the

    _"While winter, slumbering in the open air
    Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring."_

The frequent rambler through the winter woods can scarcely fail to
become acquainted with all the winter birds. The different species are
not numerous, few of them are very shy, they are easily seen because
of the bare trees, and their habits tend to call attention to them;
especially is this true of the woodpeckers. It is true, of course,
that one may sometimes walk in the woods for hours, scarcely seeing a
single bird. But it is also true that if he starts out some sunny
morning, and seeks a tract of heavy timber near a river, he will be
very likely to see and hear nearly all of them.

Such a ramble was enjoyed during the halcyon days we had this year
(1907) in February. By 10 o'clock the woods were fairly ringing with
bird-calls. Over a meadow, near the entrance to the woods, a
red-tailed hawk was circling about twenty-five feet from the ground,
as if in search of meadow mice. The field glass showed the black band
on his breast and tail, which, with his bright red tail, sufficiently
established his identity.

The first bird seen in the woods was a white-breasted nuthatch,
working on the trunk of a red birch on the river bottom. Next to the
chickadee, he is the tamest bird of the woodlands. One may easily get
within six feet of him, as was done on this occasion, and admire his
beautiful ashy-blue coat, his white vest and white cheeks, with his
black cap and nape. He pulled a fat white grub from the birch with his
long, slender bill and ate it with evident relish. Then he uttered
his soft "quank, quank" and gently flew to another tree.

Sometimes these "quank, quanks" come in a loud and rapid series and
may easily be heard a quarter of a mile on a still day.

A flock of juncos were busy among the dead leaves and the snow. They
are sparrow-size, like the nuthatch, and their faint chirpings are
much like those of the chickadee. The slate gray of their head,
throat, back and breast is an interesting color, and is relieved from
somberness by the white under parts and the yellow bills. The white
outer tailfeathers show plainly as they fly. They frequent the road
through the timber and have some of the habits of the English sparrow.
The winter woods would miss them.

Chickadees were busy in the birches. Surely the chickadee is one of
the dearest little fellows that fly. He has four modes of expression:

1. The well-known "Chick-a-dee-dee-dee."

2. The "pe-ho," which ought to be written "la sol," pitched at about
upper D and C, above the soprano staff, and timed like two quarter

3. The faint chirpings as he works.

4. A happy little gurgling song, which can hardly be translated into

The chickadee wears a black cap with a white vest and a blue-gray
coat, completing his costume with a black necktie, and he is perfectly
willing to sit for you and have his picture taken.

Mr. Blue Jay sat in a clump of dogwood, doing nothing. He was not so
tame as the others and yet he permitted a twenty-foot view of his
blue-gray coat, his aristocratic crest, his dusky white vest, his
white-tipped tail and the black band across the back of his head, down
the neck and across the breast--like a black collar worn very low
down. It was a spring-like morning, the thermometer rapidly rising
toward forty-five, and Mr. Blue Jay was in one of his imitative moods.
There is hardly a limit to his vocabulary, and it would not be
surprising if some of his imitative stunts should be mistaken for the
call of an early robin. Among these calls is a liquid gurgle, like
hard cider coming out of the neck of a big brown jug. Another, and a
common one, is two slurred eighth notes, repeated, "sol te, sol
te"--upper G and B in the key of C.

Meanwhile the woods had been resounding with the lively tattoo of the
woodpecker, and finally Downy was found at the top of a dead dry elm,
busily doing this reveille, fast and loud as the roll of a snare drum.
His head was going so fast that it looked like a quick series of heads
and the tree rattled so it could be heard afar. Most writers regard
this as the woodpecker's love call, a sign of spring, as it were--but
Downy is usually heard and seen doing it on warm days every month in
the winter. The females are seen at it almost as often as the males;
the latter are known by the scarlet band at the back of the head.
Perhaps it is not a love call after all; it may be only the exuberance
of spirits caused by a fine breakfast and a warm morning.

Downy kept it up, heedless of the human observer. But when a red
squirrel ran up the tree to within four feet of the spot chosen for a
sounding board, Downy suddenly left. The squirrel sat in the sunshine
and smoothed his fur with his nose and his paws, like a cat.

Two big hairy woodpeckers were on a neighboring tree, but they were
not so fearless. One can hardly get nearer than thirty feet. The field
glass is a great help in such cases, and no one should go to the woods
without one, or at least a good opera glass. These two were both
males. That could be easily told by the bright scarlet band on the
back of their heads. The rest of the plumage is much like the downy
woodpecker. Both have beautiful black wings, spotted and striped with
white and a broad white stripe down the back. Downy's white outer
tail-feathers are barred with black; the Hairy's are all white. Downy
is sparrow-size; Hairy is robin-size. Downy is usually a gentle
creature; Hairy is aggressive and militant. Downy is a little Lord
Fauntleroy; Hairy is a Robin Hood.

One other woodpecker was seen on this lucky bird-day. It was the
red-bellied woodpecker, more rare and more shy than either of the
others. His breast is a grayish white tinged with red, and his back is
barred white and black like a ladder; but the black is not so deep and
vivid as that of the other woodpeckers. He has no white stripe down
the middle of his back. His nape and crest are both scarlet and he
utters a hoarser squeak than either the downy or the hairy.

One of the events of the day was the sight of the winter wren, the
first time he had been seen this winter. He was working among the
stumps of trees at the brink of the river, under the ice which had
been left clinging to the trees when the high water receded. There was
no mistaking his beautiful coat of cinnamon brown, his pert manner,
his tail which was a little more than straight up, pointing towards
his head; a little mite of a bird, how does he keep his little body
from freezing in the furious winter storms? He seemed perfectly happy,
with his two sharp, shrill, impatient "quip quaps," much shriller than
the "pleeks" of downy woodpecker.

A flock of tree sparrows were busy in and around a big thicket of wild
gooseberry bushes on the upland. You may easily get within a rod of
them, but hardly closer, and a field glass is almost a necessity to
careful study. He is a grayish, graceful sparrow, with streaks of
reddish brown, chestnut caps, and a small black spot in the middle of
the brownish breast. One white wing bar is a distinguishing
characteristic, and a better one is the difference in color of the two
mandibles; the upper one is black and the lower one yellow. The
tinkling notes of the tree sparrows sound like the music a pipe
organist makes when he uses the sweet organ and the flute stop.

A sharp watch was kept for goldfinches and the evening grosbeak
during the day, but neither was seen. This was something of a
disappointment. But it was forgotten in the thrill of joy that came
late in the afternoon. There was a wide stretch of river bottom,
walled in on the west by a high and forest-crowned ridge; on the east
was the river, with a hundred foot fringe of noble trees, not yet
sacrificed to the axe of the woodsman. The sun was just above the tops
of the trees on the western ridge and long rays of slanting light came
pink across the river flood-plain, investing the tree-tops by the
shore with a soft and radiant light. Suddenly there came a plaintive
little note from the bottom of a near-by tree, instantly recognized as
a new note in the winter woods. Then another, and another, leading the
eyes to the foot of a big bass-wood, where a graceful bird, with a
beautiful blue back and a reddish brown breast, as if his coat had
been made of the bright blue sky and his vest of the shining red sand,
was hopping. The field glass brought him within ten feet. A bluebird,
sure enough! The first real, tangible sign of the spring that is to
be, the first voice from the southland telling us that spring is
coming up the valleys. There is no mistaking the brilliant blue, the
most beautiful blue in the Iowa year, unless it be the blue of the
fringed gentian in the fall; and the soft reddish, earthy breast
enhances the beauty of the brilliant back.

Another hopped into view; the female, doubtless, for both the blue and
the reddish brown were less brilliant. Every well-regulated bluebird
ought to be seen in the top of a tall elm or maple; but these seemed
to have no high-flying inclinations. Maybe they could read in the
clouds beneath the setting sun a prediction of the snow which came
that night. They stayed a few moments and then slowly hopped away and
were lost among the tree trunks. A further search only frightened a
prairie chicken from beneath a hawthorne bush, where he had meant to
pass the night; and the bluebirds were not seen again. But the sight
of bluebirds in Iowa on the nineteenth day of February is glory enough
for one day.


Every pilgrim to the mystic land of spring knows hallowed places in
sunny valleys where the tender goddess first reveals herself at
Nature's living altars. Yet he can scarcely tell at which shrine she
will first appear. She delights in surprising her votaries. Thoreau
was right in saying that no man was ever alert enough to behold the
first manifestation of spring. Sometimes as we walk toward the mossy
bank in the glen where the fresh green leaves of the haircap mosses
were last year's first signs of vernal verdure, the bluebird calls to
us from the torch-like top of the smooth sumac and shyly tells us
that, if we please, spring is here. Sometimes we thrill with the
"honk, honk" of the Canada goose and think the A-shaped band of
migrants is surely this year's messenger, crying in the wilderness to
prepare the way of the goddess and make her paths straight; but a
little later we pass through a shadowy ravine where the white oaks
have held their leaves all winter, and find that the great horned owl
has already appropriated a last year's hawk's nest and deposited
therein her two white eggs. At the foot of the sunny hill where the
spring has freely flowed all winter long, we tramp around the swamp in
the vain hope of finding the purplish monk's-hood of the skunk's
cabbage; but look up to see, instead, the many "mouse ears," shining
like bits of silvery fur, along the slender stems of the pussy willow.
Or we tramp through a hazel thicket, where the squirrels have been
festive among the nuts all winter, in the hope of finding, among the
myriads of short, stiff catkins, one which has lengthened and softened
until it is ready to pour its golden pollen into our palms. We find
neither this nor the crimson stars of the fertile flowers, but the
chirp of a white-throated sparrow directs our eyes to a young aspen
tree from whose every flower-bud spring is peeping.

Nature's first flowers are those of the amentaceous trees, and the
earliest of these are the pussy willow, the quaking asp, and the
hazel. All of them are quick to respond to the kindly influences of a
vase of water and a sunny window and we may have all three of these
first blossoms in a spring bouquet at home by the first of March.
Towards the last of February the catkins of the pussy willows and the
aspens are creeping from beneath their budscales to meet the goddess
of spring half way, and every warm day in March coaxes them a little
farther. Meanwhile the staminate catkins of the hazel are lengthening
and the pistillate buds are swelling, as the sun presses farther
northward at the dawn and the dusk of each day, pushing back the gray
walls of the cañon of night, that the river of day may flow full and

       *       *       *       *       *

This year some of the aspens heralded the spring. They grew at the
head of a little creek which traversed a long, sunny, sheltered swamp.
Their gray green trunks were in the foreground of the Master Planter's
color design, the darker and taller background being a mixture of wild
cherry, red oak, linden, and white ash. The high notes were given by
the rose purple of the raspberry, the dark maroon of the blackberry,
and the orange varnished budscales of the aspens themselves,--Nature
never forgets her color accents. In the earliest warm days of February
the catkins of the aspens were peeping from their imprisoning scales,
and by the first of March they were half out, their white silken
fringes and tiny clusters of rose-pink stamens glistening in the
sunlight as if spring's pink cheeks were sheltered by soft, gray fur.
We look up at these fleecy clusters, freed from the brownish
budscales, with a far background of bluest sky, and think that it must
have been such a grove as this to which the Princess Nausicca sent
Ulysses to wait for her, described by Homer as "a beautiful grove of
aspen poplars, a fountain and a meadow."

Only an aspen tree in an Iowa slough! Yes, but more than that. This is
the first sign of the resurrection which we call spring. When the
pilgrims to the Eleusinian mysteries were ridiculed because of the
commonplace nature of their symbols, they rightly replied that more
than that which met the eye existed in the sacred things; that
whosoever entered the temple of Lindus, to do honor to Demeter, the
productive and nourishing power of the earth, must be pure in heart if
he would gain reward. The square, the flag, the cross, the swelling
bud of spring, what are they all but symbols of the realities?

We shall forget these first humble flowers of spring by-and-by when
we find a brilliant cardinal flower, or a showy lady's slipper, just
as we forget the timid, tender tones of the bluebird when the grand
song of the grosbeak floods the evening air, or the exquisite melody
of the hermit thrush spiritualizes the leafy woods; just as many a man
forgets the ministrations of his humbler friends in early life when he
has climbed into the society of those whom earth calls great. But the
aspens will neither grieve nor murmur. They will continue to make
delightful color contrasts with their smooth white trunks at the
gateways of the dark woods in winter and whisper to every lightest
breeze with their delicate leaves in summer. The aspen, like the
grass, hastens to cover every wound and burn on the face of nature. It
follows the willow in reclaiming the sandy river bottoms and replaces
the pines which fire has swept from the Rocky Mountain slopes. It has
a record in the rocks and a richer story in literature. Its trembling
leaves have caught the attention of all the poets from Homer until
now. The Scottish legend says they tremble because the cross of
Calvary was made from an aspen tree. The German legend says the
trembling is a punishment because the aspen refused to bow when the
Lord of Life walked in the forest. But the Hebrew chronicler says that
the Lord once made his presence upon the earth heard in the movement
of the aspen leaves. "And it shall be, when thou shalt hear a sound of
going in the tops of the aspen [wrongly translated mulberry] trees,
that then thou shalt go forth to battle; for God is gone before thee
to smite the host of the Philistines." What a fine conception of the
nearness of the Omnipresent and the gentleness of the Almighty! No
sound or sign from the larger trees! Only the whisper of the lightest
leaves in the aspen tops when the Maker of the world went by!

The aspen was made the chief tree in the groves of Proserpine. And
Homer, in describing the Cyclops' country, speaks of it as a land of
soft marshy meadows, good rich crumbling plow land, and beautiful
clear springs, with aspens all around them. How much that sounds like
a description of Iowa!

       *       *       *       *       *

The willow is equally distinguished. The roots of its "family tree"
are in the cretaceous rocks and its branches spread through the waters
of Babylon, the Latin eclogues, the wondrous fire in the Knightes'
Tale, Shakespeare's plays, the love songs of Herrick and Moore, and
across the ocean to the New World, adorning the sermons of Cotton
Mather, the humor of Hosea Bigelow, and the nature poems of Whittier.

    _"For ages, on our river borders,
      These tassels in their tawny bloom
    And willowy studs of downy silver
      Have prophesied of spring to come.

    "Thanks, Mary, for this wildwood token
      Of Freya's footsteps drawing near;
    Almost, as in the rune of Asgard,
      The growing of the grass I hear."_

Nor must the hazel in this earliest spring bouquet be forgotten. The
crimson stars of its fertile flowers, ten or a dozen little rays at
the ends of the scaly buds on the bare stems, are the most richly
colored flowers of the earliest spring. Some years they are formed as
early as the twentieth of March. When you find them then look for the
re-appearance of the mud-turtles down in the valleys and listen for
the first feeble croaks of the frogs. The old Greeks watched the tiny
inner scales of these fertile flowers grow into the husk of the nut,
fancied its resemblance to a helmet, and called the bush _corys_;
whence its botanic name _corylus_. Its English name comes from the
Saxon _haesle_, a cap. The growing hazel nuts gladdened the children
of most of the early civilized world. One of the shepherds in Vergil's
fifth eclogue invites the other to "sit beneath the grateful shade,
which hazels interlaced with elms have made;" but this hazel of which
Menelaus spoke was a tree. The Romans regarded the hazel as an emblem
of peace and a means of reconciling those who had been estranged. When
the gods made Mercury their messenger they gave him a hazel rod to be
used in restoring harmony among the human race. Later he added the
twisted serpents at the top of this caduceus. The caduceus also had
the power of producing sleep, hence Milton calls it "the opiate rod."

When the crimson threads appear in the scaly buds the staminate
catkins are lengthening, and soon the high wind shakes the golden
pollen over all the copse. These flowers which appear before the
leaves all depend upon the wind for their fertilization. That is why
they come before the leaves. And there is always wind enough to meet
all their needs.

March is a masculine month. It was named after the war god and it
always lives up to its traditions. It has had scant courtesy from the
literary men.

    _"Ah, passing few are they who speak,
    Wild, stormy month, in praise of thee."_

'Twas a night in March when little Gavroche took his infant protegés
into the old elephant which stood in the Place de la Bastile to
shelter them from the cruel wind. It was in the twilight of a day in
March, when the wind howled dismally, that Boniface Willet, in
_Barnaby Rudge_, flattened his fat nose against the window pane and
made one of his famous predictions. It must have been a March freshet
when the Knight Huldebrand put Bertalda into Kuhleborn's wagon and the
gentle Undine saved them both. And we fancy that it was a cold night
in March when Peter stood by the fire and warmed himself.

But the winds of March deserve a word of praise, as everyone knows who
has filled his lungs with their vitalizing freshness and felt the
earth respond to their purifying influence. They are only boisterous,
not cruel. The specters of miasma and contagion flee before them like
the last leaves. Many of the oaks have held a wealth of withered
foliage all the winter but now the leaves fly almost as fast as they
did in late October, and make a dry, rustling carpet up to your shoe
tops. Now and again the wind gets down into this leaf-carpet and makes
merry sport.

Listen to the majestic roar of the winds in a grove of rugged oaks,
and then again, for contrast, where the timber on the river bottom is
all-yielding birch. It is like changing from the great _diapason_ to
the _dulciana_ stop. In the mixed woodlands, so common in Iowa, the
effect is even more delightful. The coarse, angular, unyielding twigs
of the oaks give deep tones like the vibrations of the thick strings
on the big double bass. The opposite, widespreading twigs of the ash
sing like the cello, and the tones of the alternate spray of the
lindens are finer, like the viola. The still smaller, opposite twigs
of the maples murmur like the tender tones of the altos and the fine,
yielding spray of the birches, the feathery elm and the hackberry make
music pure and sweet as the wailing of the first violins. When the
director of this _maestoso_ March movement signals _fortissimo_ the
effect is sublime and the fine ear shall not fail to detect the
overtones which come from the hop hornbeams and the hazel in the
undergrowth below.

In keeping with the majestic orchestra is the continuous noise of
grinding ice from the river. There is a sign at the edge of the birch
swamp which says: "Positively no trespassing allowed here"--but it is
not necessary now, for the river has overflowed the swamp and big
masses of ice lean up against the trunks of the birches. Out in the
main channel the river is swiftly flowing, packed with ice floes, from
the little clear fragments which shine like crystals, to the great
masses as big as the side of a house, bearing upon them the
accumulated dust and dirt and uncleanness of the winter. Pieces of
trees, trunks and roots, cornstalks from fields along the shore, all
are being carried seaward. In the middle of the river the prow of a
flat boat projects upward from between two huge ice floes which have
mashed it, like a miniature wreck in arctic seas. The best view of
this annual ice spectacle is to look up the river and see the big
field of broken, tumbling, crashing, grinding ice coming down.

Farther down, at the narrows of the river, where the heavy timber
shuts out the sunlight, the ice has not given way and here a gorge is
formed. Hundreds of tons of ice are washed swiftly up to it and stop
with a crash. The water backs up, flows over the banks and fills up
all the summer fish ponds along the shore. Some of it forces its way
through, foaming into a white spray. By-and-bye, under the combined
influence of the rushing water and the ever increasing weight of the
ice, the gorge gives way and the irresistible floes pass on with a
mighty crash to their dissolution in the summery waters away down the
Mississippi. After many months of shrouded death this new life of the
river is also a symbol of the resurrection.

       *       *       *       *       *

There are other days in March so soft and beautiful that they might
well have a place in May.

    _"And in thy reign of blast and storm,
      Smiles many a long, bright, sunny day
    When the changed winds are soft and warm,
      And heaven puts on the blue of May."_

From the summit of a thinly-treed hill we look across a wide valley on
the right which gradually slopes up to a high ridge three miles away.
On the left there is a clear view for fully twenty miles, out to where
the lavender haze hangs softly on the forest-fringed horizon. The
plowed fields lie mellow and chocolate-hued in the sunlight and the
russet meadows are beginning to show a faint undertone of green. The
golden green of the willow fences which separate some of the fields
shines from afar in the abundant light and there is a quickening
crimson in the tops of the red maple groves around the homesteads. The
deep blue of the high-domed sky gives a glory to the landscape. The
few, far clouds, soft and white, float slowly in the azure sea and now
and then approach the throne of the king of day, sending dark shadows
chasing the sunlight over the smiling fields. When these shadows reach
the nearer woodlands across the valley on the right it is as if a
moving belt of dark pines was swiftly passing through the deciduous
forest. We think of Birnam wood removing to Dunsinane, but that was
trivial compared with this. The dark belt of shadow makes a strong and
beautiful contrast to the reddish brown and gray of the winter woods.

The river is more than bank full. Shut in on one side by the high
ridge upon which we are standing it has spread over half a mile of
bottom on the other side. Once more, after many months of waiting we
rejoice in the gleam of its waters. The broad valley, which has so
long been paved with white, is bottomed with amethyst now, the fainter
reflection of the azure sky above. The trees which have so long stood
comfortless again see their doubles in the waters below. The huge gray
trunks of the water elms and the silver maples, the red rags of the
birches and the delicate tracery of their spray, the ruby gold of the
willows, the shining white of the sycamores, the ashen green of the
poplars and the dark crimson of the wild rose and the red osier
dogwood,--all these are reflected as from a vast mirror.

There is not a ripple on the surface. But anon a belated ice floe
comes down the main channel and shows how swiftly the waters are
flowing now that they once more move "unvexed to the sea." There are
still some masses hugging the shore. One by one they slip into the
waters and float away,--just as a man's prejudices and delusions are
the last to leave him after the light of truth and the warmth of love
have set his soul free from the bondage of error and wrong.

The stillness is a marked contrast to the recent roar of the winds.
You may hear your watch ticking in your pocket. The leisurely tapping
of a downy woodpecker sounds like the ticking of a clock in a vast
ancestral hall. You may actually hear a squirrel running down a tree,
twenty rods away. He paws out an acorn and begins to eat. The noise of
your footstep seems like a profanation of holy ground. Also it
disturbs the squirrel who scurries up to the topmost twigs of an elm
nearly a hundred feet high. With a glass you may see his eyes shine as
he watches you. His long red tail hangs down still and straight and
there is not breeze enough, even up there, to stir it.

Gnats and moths flit in the soft sunlight and spiders run over tree
trunks while their single shining lines of silk are stretched among
the hazel.

Anon the bird chorus breaks out, full and strong. The winter birds
report all present but there are a number of new voices, especially
the warble of the robin, the tremulous, confiding "sol-si, sol-si" of
the bluebird and the clear call of the phoebe. The robins are thick
down in the birch swamps, on the islands among the last year's
knot-weed. You may tell them at a distance by their trim, military
manner of walking, and if you wish you may get close enough to them to
take their complete description. And, by the way, how many can
describe this common bird, the color of his head and bill, his back
and tail, and the exact shade of his breast. Is there any white on
him, and if so, where?

After the ice is out of the rivers the bird-lover is kept busy. In the
early sunny morning the duet of the robins and the meadow larks is
better than breakfast. March usually gives us the hermit thrush and
the ruby-and golden-crowned kinglets; the song, field, fox, white
throated, Savannah and Lincoln sparrows; the meadow lark, the bronzed
grackle and the cowbird; the red-winged, the yellow-head and the rusty
blackbirds; the wood pewee and the olive-sided flycatcher; the flicker
and the sap-sucker, the mourning dove and several of the water fowl.
Last week--the first week in March--a golden eagle paused in his
migration to sit awhile on a fence post at the side of a timber road.
Two men got near enough to see the color of his feathers and then one
of them, with a John Burroughs instinct, took a shot at him. He
missed; there was a spread of the great wings and the big bird
resumed his journey northward.

       *       *       *       *       *

By the shallow creek which ripples over the many-hued gravel there is
much of interest. The frog sits on the bank as we approach and goes
into the water with a splash. In the quiet little bayous the minnows
are lively, and tracks upon the soft mud show that the mink has been
watching them. A pile of neatly cleaned clam shells is evidence that
the muskrat has had a feast. There is a huge clam, partly opened, at
arm's length from the shore. We fish it out and pry it open farther;
out comes the remains of the esculent clam, and we almost jump when it
is followed by a live and healthy crawfish.

It never pays to be a clam. It is very meet, right, and the bounden
duty of every quadruped, biped and decapod to prey upon the clam.

Farther down is a sandy hollow which was deep under water in the great
January freshet. That freshet deposited a new layer of sand and also
bushels of clam and snail shells of all sizes and species. They lie so
thick they may be taken up by the shovelful. Two or three dead fish
are also found. What a fine fossiliferous stratum will be found here
about a hundred million years from now!

In March the rains and the melting of the "robin snows" soften the
leathery lichens and their painted circles on the trees and rocks vary
from olive gray and green to bright red and yellow. They revel in the
moist gray days. And the mosses which draw a tapestry of tender velvet
around the splintered rocks in the timber quarries and strangely veil
the ruin of the fallen forest kings,--how much they add to the beauty
of the landscape in the interval between the going of the snow and the
coming of the grass! The rich dark green of the common hair-cap
clothes many a bank with beauty, the dense tufts of the broom moss
hide the ruin and assuage the grief where an exalted forest monarch
has been cast down by the storm. The silvery Bryum shows abundantly on
the sandy fields and the thick green velvet mats of the Anomodon creep
up the bases of the big water elms in the swamps. The delicate
branchlets of the beautiful fern moss are recompense for a day's
search, and the bright yellow-green Schreber's Hypnum, with its red
stems, is a rich rug for reluctant feet. The moist rocks down which
the water trickles into the ravine below are stained green and orange
by the glossy Entodon. These patient mosses cover wounds in the
landscape gently as tender thoughts soothe aching voids left by the
loss of those we love. They lead us into the most entrancing bits of
the woodland scenery--shaded rills, flowing springs, dashing cascades,
fairy glens, and among the castellated rocks of the dark ravines.
Their parts are so exquisitely perfect, almost they persuade the
nature-lover to degenerate into a mere naturalist, walking through the
woods seeing nothing but sporophytes through his lens, just as a rare
book sometimes causes the bibliophile to become a bibliomaniac,
reading nothing but catalogues. It is a credit to be a bibliomaniac
provided one is a bibliophile as well. And the best moss naturalists
are they whose hearts respond to the enthusiasm in Ruskin's closing
paragraphs of _Leaves Motionless_.

       *       *       *       *       *

The yielding odorous soil is promiseful after its stubborn hardness of
winter months and we watch it eagerly for the first herbaceous growth.
Often this is one of the fern allies, the field horsetail. The
appearance of its warm, mushroom-colored, fertile stems is one of the
first signs of returning spring, and its earliest stems are found in
dry sandy places. The buds containing its fruiting cones have long
been all complete, waiting for the first warm day, and when the start
is finally made the tubered rootstocks, full of nutriment, send up the
slender stem at the rate of two inches a day.

During the last week in the month, when the dark maroon flowers of the
elm and the crimson blossom of the red maples are giving a ruddy glow
to the woods with the catkins of the cotton-woods, the aspens and the
red birches adding to the color harmony, we shall look for the fuzzy
scape of the hepatica, bringing up through the leaf carpet of the
woods its single blue, white or pinkish flower, closely wrapped in
warm gray furs. At the same time, perhaps a day or two earlier, the
white oblong petals of the dwarf trillium, or wake-robin, will gleam
in the rich woods. And some sunny day in the same period we shall see
a gleam of gold in a sheltered nook, the first flower of the
dandelion. A few days later and the light purple pasque-flower will
unfold and gem the flush of new life on the northern prairies. Even
should the last week of the month be unseasonably cold we shall not
have long to wait. Yet

         _"----a little while
    And air, soil, wave, suffused shall be in softness, bloom and
            growth; a thousand forms shall rise
    From these dead clods and chills, as from low burial graves,
    Thine eyes, ears,--all thy best attributes,--all that takes
            cognizance of natural beauty,
    Shall wake and fill. Thou shalt perceive the simple shows,
            the delicate miracles of earth
    Dandelions, clover, the emerald grass, the early scents and flowers;
    With these the robin, lark and thrush, singing their songs--the
            flitting bluebird;
    For such scenes the annual play brings on."_

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