Thunder Snow (In the Shadow of the Cedar Book 1)
They gazed at me unblinkingly in the dignity of their long tails, with unruffled equanimity. Suddenly it seemed to me that those minute balls of fluff were my self-constituted judges. I was constrained to whisper — very softly for fear of frightening them — "Not guilty, my lords! In some miraculous manner they had been spirited away by their parents, and I could never find them again; so the verdict remains unknown to me. Later in the year I went farther down the path to a place where a crowd of young bulfinches were eating dandelion seeds.
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They hung on to the flower-heads in an incompetent way, like inexperienced and rather stout trapeze performers, and the elastic stalks bent with them so that they bobbed up and down continually with their energy. Beside a gate from which a lamb with a musical forehead and a stentorian voice observed them, some young chaffinches and greenfinches were playing in a minute pool of rainwater left from a thunderstorm.
The idea had just come to them that they must wash; so in they fluttered, and flicked a few drops over their chests. They were so like children paddling, that I said, "Children, children, wet your foreheads! Looking back, I saw them sitting gravely along a low larch bough, cogitating. They were wondering about the new sound in their quiet world, and as they are rather slow-witted little birds, very likely they are wondering still.
Are these things childish? Then it is good to be childish: there is something in the atmosphere of the fennel-path that purifies the heart. On a certain day in autumn, when the herbs on either side were more pungently sweet because a frost had touched them, when the first winter violet appeared among its fresh leaves, a young thrush, stirred by some fragrance as of spring in the warm day, instinctively began to sing. But he did not know a song! He reasoned with himself doubtfully, tentatively, among the golden columns of the trees that upheld the low, grey sky; but no inspiration came to him; he was unready, as yet, for his true song — sure, unwavering, recklessly glad.
There was sadness in the mellow morning, pathos in the low notes, because the trees must feel weights of snow and the thrush taste the bitterness of winter before the young leaves and the ecstatic song could spring up together into the light. On a chestnut bough, already bare, a young blackbird was shouting a stave. He had probably remembered quite suddenly the golden roundelay his father sang when he was only a quick-breathing bundle in the nest. With the touching hopefulness and arrogance of youth he thought he could sing it then and there.
So he rushed into self-expression, and produced something faintly resembling the full, round call, but with a very humiliating rasp at the end. Misgiving crept into his soul, but he was determined, he went on; and his sisters, humbly perched upon a lower bough, listened with rapt admiration — for they, poor things, could not sing a note. The same quaint mixture of a laugh and a sigh comes when you hear a starling at his orisons. It is such a funny little hymn, and it trails off so queerly into a kind of — "I wonder whatever I can say next!
His song is not much, but it is his best. One winter day the path led me to a hall of pine-trunks, where I watched a nuthatch go up an aspen tree. He was a solemn bird; he had a look of concealed scorn when his eye rested on anything that was not a nuthatch. I sat down to see which of us would be obliged to give way to merriment first, and the nuthatch won. He went on, laboriously creeping round and round, tapping absorbedly, looking down occasionally, as if to see whether I had been dazzled by his shining example and was also beginning to creep and tap.
He did not care whether I laughed or not; he simply hammered. I longed to ask him whether he agreed with the maxim that genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains; but of course he does. Equally persevering is the dipper, with his knee-strengthening exercises; were we dippers, we think, having the freedom of those translucent green waterways, we would not stand on a hot stone, exercising for half the day. Yet the dipper is very like some of us. So is the bumble bee, paying a house-to-house visitation among the nasturtiums, saying in her thick voice, "Most important — help urgently needed!
Hunger in the nest — great mortality among the young bees! The robin, revelling in detail, chirping platitudinously, is Polonius to the life. As he surveys you, head awry, you hear — "That he is mad, 'tis true; 'tis true, 'tis pity: and pity 'tis, 'tis true. This is only in the summer: later, he gets him a soul and a song. The sparrow, like all street singers, sounds his scrannel note with raucous complacency; but it does not matter here, for no one is critical or talks of Art.
Once, on a July morning, I ran through the cornflower-blue shadows of the path to a grove of young fir-trees, and was present at a breakfast party given by the willow warblers.
A good many chiff-chaffs and wood wrens were there; they seemed to be vivaciously discussing last winter's African adventures. They had invited the tomtits. After about an hour the warblers began to sing, the tomtits helping, making up for the fewness of their notes by shouting at the tops of their voices.
It must have been a kind of grace, for afterwards they all flew away. Some ducks in a pond close by were cackling with laughter; down went their heads among the water-lilies, and every time they righted themselves they shrieked again. In the centre sat one duck who neither dived nor shouted, but quacked monotonously, as if she were saying — "O my sisters, life is very solemn.
Farther on, in a still, hot place, a company of Red Admiral butterflies drank sap on a big tree trunk, and a peacock butterfly was resting, fanning her wings.
Often I have walked in the fennel path all day, watching the gay life there, where the birds sit each in a mist of song and the squirrel indulges in graceful buffoonery. In the ploughlands on either side the plovers gravely go through their one trick every year, tempting the pursuer from their nest with mock fear and inward satisfaction. There the inconsequent stream that runs beside the path, bearing its millions of white lights like silver leaves, always passing, never gone, says such inimitably witty things that even the thin, old-maidish reeds are bent double with laughter, though they whisper, "Hush, hush, hush!
There the termagant wind comes hurtling, roaring with rough, good-humoured merriment, when the long-tailed tits, with all their dignity gone and their tails blown over their heads, look like balls of wool with a knitting-needle stuck in at an acute angle. There in June the cuckoo-pint plays a game of her own invention with the inquiring, greedy little flies who come to see her because she keeps a good table.
She lets them all in, opening the door and disclosing a dainty repast. When they are inside, clap goes the door, a shower of pollen falls over back and wings, and there they have to stay at her pleasure; but she lets them go in an hour or two. In spring, if you brush a branch aside, you find it weighted with a burden of life. At some junction of the branches nestles the round home, full to overflowing, of panting, vociferous, helpless youth. The warm little bodies, the eager beaks, opening with one impulse in the enthusiastic hope that food is coming, the crude, yet sweet young voices — the delicious surprise of these never grows dull.
The path is full of white butterflies, that have risen from flowery fields beyond the sea, lighting with a flicker of wings on the rigging of some yacht, and so coming across at their ease. There the queen bee with her strange, low piping — a mere breath of sound, but stirring the same frenzy as bagpipes played softly before a battle — wakens madness in her followers, and lures them through the gates of adventure as Ned Puw's fiddle inveigled folk through the gates of Faery.
There, in winter, you can find little caterpillars huddled together in a silk marquee, at which they have all toiled like good communists. In summer, the Pedlar's-basket — a saxifrage — shows her gay wares and ribands of red stalk; the mulleins — the hig-tapers of the Saxons — burn, pale yellow, on each side of the path, but when the moon goes behind a cloud, they suddenly extinguish their torches, leaving us to play catch-as-catch-can with the teazels in the dark.
When the enchanter's nightshade shone palely along the way, and the moonlight barred it with black and silver, I went tiptoe upon the seeding moss to look for little owls. Over the path stretched a polished beech bough; behind it, like an enormous lemon, hung the moon; upon it, still and silent and inimitably grave, were two baby owls taking an airing. They stared at me, not because I was interesting — they made me feel that — but because I was there. The four eyes were focussed like cameras in a certain direction, and anything that came within the line of vision was necessarily taken in by them.
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It never came, and I realised that this was to be an endless exposure. Their double stare awed me like the gaze of a thought-reader. It was perfectly useless to stare back, because it was obvious that they could go on like that interminably. I walked round the tree; but as I went, the two heads came round also with one effortless movement, and without the visible ruffling of a single fluffy feather. Over their backs the four eyes continued to gaze at me uncannily.
They were even more impressive now, because they were facing the moon. So philosophical and so old they seemed, that one could not imagine them in the undignified confinement of mere eggs; yet in that ridiculous position they had been only a short time ago. Simon Stylites could not have ignored earth and gazed into space with more abstraction than they. A long, weird cry came creeping through the wood. Soon the soft, swooping wings of the mother owl would bring her down the moonlight. At the cry I was sure that a slightly interested look dawned in the four eyes; it passed instantaneously, and the stare was cold on me again.
Then they began to snore. This was too much. Knowing their pertinacity, I was sure that they would not stop until they were fed. Ever since, the remembrance of those aloof babies has been a wizard's wand to conjure laughter. In just the same solemn way young swallows stare at you over the side of their nest, when they have reached the boiling-over stage and can see the world. Perhaps the solemnity is a disguise. Wagtails are easier to understand, their comedy being cruder. They rush furiously over soft mud; apparently no one wins the race, but all return with the air of victors, jerking their tails.
Swifts are not subtle either; they wheel and scream until they become hysterical and forget all decorum in their mad games — Olympia caricatured in the stadium of the air. If we love the creatures of earth, who are so gaily irresponsible, so full of zest, we shall share with them the large-hearted merriment of comradeship, and find that the blessing of the helpless is the key to unlock the world.
In laughing wholeheartedly a man must attain a certain freedom from selfishness, a certain purity; and the greatest saints are the merriest-hearted people.
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Down that path of rosy mint and astringent fennel the laughter is like Gerard's sanicle — "a thing to make whole and sound all inward hurts and outward wounds. Lately I went where the track leads across stepping-stones to the gleaming water meadows. Lady's-smocks were nodding down the way, shining faintly, spiritlike and gay in their lingering euthanasia.
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Great moths flapped up in the silver dew, streaked and dappled with ash-grey and cadmium, and small ones came by continually, palpitating down the dusk: but by an alder was one that neither flapped nor flew. He simply held his wings straight out and rotated on his own axis, as a Dervish dances. As he ascended mysteriously in the dark, he seemed to be whimsically pointing out to the others, who flew so madly from field to copse and back again, that for all the good they did, they might just as well spin in one place.
He was the ghost-swift, and he turned stilly, with ethereal grace, above one spot because, somewhere in the dark grass, on a wet blade, hung his mate, unseen except by him. To her, warm-golden in the chilly evening, he would speed like a falling star, when he had won her by his grace and his glimmering armour.
After a while I came to a great gnarled hawthorn hedge, cloudy with blossom and tinged with pink — for flowering time was nearly over.