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In the Catskills Selections from the Writings of John Burroughs online

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dawn I had heard the new thrush in the scattered trees near the
hut, - a strain as fine as if blown upon a fairy flute, a suppressed
musical whisper from out the tops of the dark spruces. Probably
never did there go up from the top of a great mountain a smaller
song to greet the day, albeit it was of the purest harmony. It
seemed to have in a more marked degree the quality of interior
reverberation than any other thrush song I had ever heard. Would the
altitude or the situation account for its minor key? Loudness would
avail little in such a place. Sounds are not far heard on a
mountain-top; they are lost in the abyss of vacant air. But amid
these low, dense, dark spruces, which make a sort of canopied
privacy of every square rod of ground, what could be more in keeping
than this delicate musical whisper? It was but the soft hum of the
balsams, interpreted and embodied in a bird's voice.

It was the plan of two of our companions to go from Slide over into
the head of the Rondout, and thence out to the railroad at the
little village of Shokan, an unknown way to them, involving nearly
an all-day pull the first day through a pathless wilderness. We
ascended to the topmost floor of the tower, and from my knowledge of
the topography of the country I pointed out to them their course,
and where the valley of the Rondout must lie. The vast stretch of
woods, when it came into view from under the foot of Slide, seemed
from our point of view very uniform. It swept away to the southeast,
rising gently toward the ridge that separates Lone Mountain from
Peak-o'-Moose, and presented a comparatively easy problem. As a clew
to the course, the line where the dark belt or saddle-cloth of
spruce, which covered the top of the ridge they were to skirt,
ended, and the deciduous woods began, a sharp, well-defined line was
pointed out as the course to be followed. It led straight to the top
of the broad level-backed ridge which connected two higher peaks,
and immediately behind which lay the headwaters of the Rondout.
Having studied the map thoroughly, and possessed themselves of the
points, they rolled up their blankets about nine o'clock, and were
off, my friend and I purposing to spend yet another day and night on
Slide. As our friends plunged down into that fearful abyss, we
shouted to them the old classic caution, "Be bold, be bold, _be not
too_ bold." It required courage to make such a leap into the
unknown, as I knew those young men were making, and it required
prudence. A faint heart or a bewildered head, and serious
consequences might have resulted. The theory of a thing is so much
easier than the practice! The theory is in the air, the practice is
in the woods; the eye, the thought, travel easily where the foot
halts and stumbles. However, our friends made the theory and the
fact coincide; they kept the dividing line between the spruce and
the birches, and passed over the ridge into the valley safely; but
they were torn and bruised and wet by the showers, and made the last
few miles of their journey on will and pluck alone, their last pound
of positive strength having been exhausted in making the descent
through the chaos of rocks and logs into the head of the valley. In
such emergencies one overdraws his account; he travels on the credit
of the strength he expects to gain when he gets his dinner and some
sleep. Unless one has made such a trip himself (and I have several
times in my life), he can form but a faint idea what it is
like, - what a trial it is to the body, and what a trial it is to the
mind. You are fighting a battle with an enemy in ambush. How those
miles and leagues which your feet must compass lie hidden there in
that wilderness; how they seem to multiply themselves; how they are
fortified with logs, and rocks, and fallen trees; how they take
refuge in deep gullies, and skulk behind unexpected eminences! Your
body not only feels the fatigue of the battle, your mind feels the
strain of the undertaking; you may miss your mark; the mountains may
outmanoeuvre you. All that day, whenever I looked upon that
treacherous wilderness, I thought with misgivings of those two
friends groping their way there, and would have given much to know
how it fared with them. Their concern was probably less than my own,
because they were more ignorant of what was before them. Then there
was just a slight shadow of a fear in my mind that I might have been
in error about some points of the geography I had pointed out to
them. But all was well, and the victory was won according to the
campaign which I had planned. When we saluted our friends upon their
own doorstep a week afterward, the wounds were nearly healed and
the rents all mended.

When one is on a mountain-top, he spends most of the time in looking
at the show he has been at such pains to see. About every hour we
would ascend the rude lookout to take a fresh observation. With a
glass I could see my native hills forty miles away to the northwest.
I was now upon the back of the horse, yea, upon the highest point of
his shoulders, which had so many times attracted my attention as a
boy. We could look along his balsam-covered back to his rump, from
which the eye glanced away down into the forests of the Neversink,
and on the other hand plump down into the gulf where his head was
grazing or drinking. During the day there was a grand procession of
thunderclouds filing along over the northern Catskills, and letting
down veils of rain and enveloping them. From such an elevation one
has the same view of the clouds that he does from the prairie or the
ocean. They do not seem to rest across and to be upborne by the
hills, but they emerge out of the dim west, thin and vague, and grow
and stand up as they get nearer and roll by him, on a level but
invisible highway, huge chariots of wind and storm.

In the afternoon a thick cloud threatened us, but it proved to be
the condensation of vapor that announces a cold wave. There was soon
a marked fall in the temperature, and as night drew near it became
pretty certain that we were going to have a cold time of it. The
wind rose, the vapor above us thickened and came nearer, until it
began to drive across the summit in slender wraiths, which curled
over the brink and shut out the view. We became very diligent in
getting in our night wood, and in gathering more boughs to calk up
the openings in the hut. The wood we scraped together was a sorry
lot, roots and stumps and branches of decayed spruce, such as we
could collect without an axe, and some rags and tags of birch bark.
The fire was built in one corner of the shanty, the smoke finding
easy egress through large openings on the east side and in the roof
over it. We doubled up the bed, making it thicker and more
nest-like, and as darkness set in, stowed ourselves into it beneath
our blankets. The searching wind found out every crevice about our
heads and shoulders, and it was icy cold. Yet we fell asleep, and
had slept about an hour when my companion sprang up in an unwonted
state of excitement for so placid a man. His excitement was
occasioned by the sudden discovery that what appeared to be a bar of
ice was fast taking the place of his backbone. His teeth chattered,
and he was convulsed with ague. I advised him to replenish the fire,
and to wrap himself in his blanket and cut the liveliest capers he
was capable of in so circumscribed a place. This he promptly did,
and the thought of his wild and desperate dance there in the dim
light, his tall form, his blanket flapping, his teeth chattering,
the porcupines outside marking time with their squeals and grunts,
still provokes a smile, though it was a serious enough matter at the
time. After a while, the warmth came back to him, but he dared not
trust himself again to the boughs; he fought the cold all night as
one might fight a besieging foe. By carefully husbanding the fuel,
the beleaguering enemy was kept at bay till morning came; but when
morning did come, even the huge root he had used as a chair was
consumed. Rolled in my blanket beneath a foot or more of balsam
boughs, I had got some fairly good sleep, and was most of the time
oblivious of the melancholy vigil of my friend. As we had but a few
morsels of food left, and had been on rather short rations the day
before, hunger was added to his other discomforts. At that time a
letter was on the way to him from his wife, which contained this
prophetic sentence: "I hope thee is not suffering with cold and
hunger on some lone mountain-top."

Mr. Bicknell's thrush struck up again at the first signs of dawn,
notwithstanding the cold. I could hear his penetrating and melodious
whisper as I lay buried beneath the boughs. Presently I arose and
invited my friend to turn in for a brief nap, while I gathered some
wood and set the coffee brewing. With a brisk, roaring fire on, I
left for the spring to fetch some water, and to make my toilet. The
leaves of the mountain goldenrod, which everywhere covered the
ground in the opening, were covered with frozen particles of vapor,
and the scene, shut in by fog, was chill and dreary enough.

We were now not long in squaring an account with Slide, and making
ready to leave. Round pellets of snow began to fall, and we came off
the mountain on the 10th of June in a November storm and
temperature. Our purpose was to return by the same valley we had
come. A well-defined trail led off the summit to the north; to this
we committed ourselves. In a few minutes we emerged at the head of
the slide that had given the mountain its name. This was the path
made by visitors to the scene; when it ended, the track of the
avalanche began; no bigger than your hand, apparently, had it been
at first, but it rapidly grew, until it became several rods in
width. It dropped down from our feet straight as an arrow until it
was lost in the fog, and looked perilously steep. The dark forms of
the spruce were clinging to the edge of it, as if reaching out to
their fellows to save them. We hesitated on the brink, but finally
cautiously began the descent. The rock was quite naked and slippery,
and only on the margin of the slide were there any boulders to stay
the foot, or bushy growths to aid the hand. As we paused, after some
minutes, to select our course, one of the finest surprises of the
trip awaited us: the fog in our front was swiftly whirled up by the
breeze, like the drop-curtain at the theatre, only much more
rapidly, and in a twinkling the vast gulf opened before us. It was
so sudden as to be almost bewildering. The world opened like a book,
and there were the pictures; the spaces were without a film, the
forests and mountains looked surprisingly near; in the heart of the
northern Catskills a wild valley was seen flooded with sunlight.
Then the curtain ran down again, and nothing was left but the gray
strip of rock to which we clung, plunging down into the obscurity.
Down and down we made our way. Then the fog lifted again. It was
Jack and his beanstalk renewed; new wonders, new views, awaited us
every few moments, till at last the whole valley below us stood in
the clear sunshine. We passed down a precipice, and there was a rill
of water, the beginning of the creek that wound through the valley
below; farther on, in a deep depression, lay the remains of an old
snow-bank; Winter had made his last stand here, and April flowers
were springing up almost amid his very bones. We did not find a
palace, and a hungry giant, and a princess, at the end of our
beanstalk, but we found a humble roof and the hospitable heart of
Mrs. Larkins, which answered our purpose better. And we were in the
mood, too, to have undertaken an eating-bout with any giant Jack
ever discovered.

Of all the retreats I have found amid the Catskills, there is no
other that possesses quite so many charms for me as this valley,
wherein stands Larkins's humble dwelling; it is so wild, so quiet,
and has such superb mountain views. In coming up the valley, you
have apparently reached the head of civilization a mile or more
lower down; here the rude little houses end, and you turn to the
left into the woods. Presently you emerge into a clearing again, and
before you rises the rugged and indented crest of Panther Mountain,
and near at hand, on a low plateau, rises the humble roof of
Larkins, - you get a picture of the Panther and of the homestead at
one glance. Above the house hangs a high, bold cliff covered with
forest, with a broad fringe of blackened and blasted tree-trunks,
where the cackling of the great pileated woodpecker may be heard; on
the left a dense forest sweeps up to the sharp spruce-covered cone
of the Wittenberg, nearly four thousand feet high, while at the head
of the valley rises Slide over all. From a meadow just back of
Larkins's barn, a view may be had of all these mountains, while the
terraced side of Cross Mountain bounds the view immediately to the
east. Running from the top of Panther toward Slide one sees a
gigantic wall of rock, crowned with a dark line of fir. The forest
abruptly ends, and in its stead rises the face of this colossal
rocky escarpment, like some barrier built by the mountain gods.
Eagles might nest here. It breaks the monotony of the world of
woods very impressively.

I delight in sitting on a rock in one of these upper fields, and
seeing the sun go down behind Panther. The rapid-flowing brook below
me fills all the valley with a soft murmur. There is no breeze, but
the great atmospheric tide flows slowly in toward the cooling
forest; one can see it by the motes in the air illuminated by the
setting sun: presently, as the air cools a little, the tide turns
and flows slowly out. The long, winding valley up to the foot of
Slide, five miles of primitive woods, how wild and cool it looks,
its one voice the murmur of the creek! On the Wittenberg the
sunshine lingers long; now it stands up like an island in a sea of
shadows, then slowly sinks beneath the wave. The evening call of a
robin or a veery at his vespers makes a marked impression on the
silence and the solitude.

The following day my friend and I pitched our tent in the woods
beside the stream where I had pitched it twice before, and passed
several delightful days, with trout in abundance and wild
strawberries at intervals. Mrs. Larkins's cream-pot, butter-jar, and
bread-box were within easy reach. Near the camp was an unusually
large spring, of icy coldness, which served as our refrigerator.
Trout or milk immersed in this spring in a tin pail would keep sweet
four or five days. One night some creature, probably a lynx or a
raccoon, came and lifted the stone from the pail that held the
trout and took out a fine string of them, and ate them up on the
spot, leaving only the string and one head. In August bears come
down to an ancient and now brushy bark-peeling near by for
blackberries. But the creature that most infests these backwoods is
the porcupine. He is as stupid and indifferent as the skunk; his
broad, blunt nose points a witless head. They are great gnawers, and
will gnaw your house down if you do not look out. Of a summer
evening they will walk coolly into your open door if not prevented.
The most annoying animal to the camper-out in this region, and the
one he needs to be most on the lookout for, is the cow. Backwoods
cows and young cattle seem always to be famished for salt, and they
will fairly lick the fisherman's clothes off his back, and his tent
and equipage out of existence, if you give them a chance. On one
occasion some wood-ranging heifers and steers that had been hovering
around our camp for some days made a raid upon it when we were
absent. The tent was shut and everything snugged up, but they ran
their long tongues under the tent, and, tasting something savory,
hooked out John Stuart Mill's "Essays on Religion," which one of us
had brought along, thinking to read in the woods. They mouthed the
volume around a good deal, but its logic was too tough for them, and
they contented themselves with devouring the paper in which it was
wrapped. If the cattle had not been surprised at just that point,
it is probable the tent would have gone down before their eager
curiosity and thirst for salt.

The raid which Larkins's dog made upon our camp was amusing rather
than annoying. He was a very friendly and intelligent shepherd dog,
probably a collie. Hardly had we sat down to our first lunch in camp
before he called on us. But as he was disposed to be too friendly,
and to claim too large a share of the lunch, we rather gave him the
cold shoulder. He did not come again; but a few evenings afterward,
as we sauntered over to the house on some trifling errand, the dog
suddenly conceived a bright little project. He seemed to say to
himself, on seeing us, "There come both of them now, just as I have
been hoping they would; now, while they are away, I will run quickly
over and know what they have got that a dog can eat." My companion
saw the dog get up on our arrival, and go quickly in the direction
of our camp, and he said something in the cur's manner suggested to
him the object of his hurried departure. He called my attention to
the fact, and we hastened back. On cautiously nearing camp, the dog
was seen amid the pails in the shallow water of the creek
investigating them. He had uncovered the butter, and was about to
taste it, when we shouted, and he made quick steps for home, with a
very "kill-sheep" look. When we again met him at the house next day,
he could not look us in the face, but sneaked off, utterly
crest-fallen. This was a clear case of reasoning on the part of
the dog, and afterward a clear case of a sense of guilt from
wrong-doing. The dog will probably be a man before any other animal.




The legend of the wary trout, hinted at in the last sketch, is to be
further illustrated in this and some following chapters. We shall
get at more of the meaning of those dark water-lines, and I hope,
also, not entirely miss the significance of the gold and silver
spots and the glancing iridescent hues. The trout is dark and
obscure above, but behind this foil there are wondrous tints that
reward the believing eye. Those who seek him in his wild remote
haunts are quite sure to get the full force of the sombre and
uninviting aspects, - the wet, the cold, the toil, the broken rest,
and the huge, savage, uncompromising nature, - but the true angler
sees farther than these, and is never thwarted of his legitimate
reward by them.

I have been a seeker of trout from my boyhood, and on all the
expeditions in which this fish has been the ostensible purpose I
have brought home more game than my creel showed. In fact, in my
mature years I find I got more of nature into me, more of the woods,
the wild, nearer to bird and beast, while threading my native
streams for trout, than in almost any other way. It furnished a good
excuse to go forth; it pitched one in the right key; it sent one
through the fat and marrowy places of field and wood. Then the
fisherman has a harmless, preoccupied look; he is a kind of vagrant
that nothing fears. He blends himself with the trees and the
shadows. All his approaches are gentle and indirect. He times
himself to the meandering, soliloquizing stream; its impulse bears
him along. At the foot of the waterfall he sits sequestered and
hidden in its volume of sound. The birds know he has no designs upon
them, and the animals see that his mind is in the creek. His
enthusiasm anneals him, and makes him pliable to the scenes and
influences he moves among.

Then what acquaintance he makes with the stream! He addresses
himself to it as a lover to his mistress; he wooes it and stays with
it till he knows its most hidden secrets. It runs through his
thoughts not less than through its banks there; he feels the fret
and thrust of every bar and boulder. Where it deepens, his purpose
deepens; where it is shallow, he is indifferent. He knows how to
interpret its every glance and dimple; its beauty haunts him for

[Illustration: A TROUT STREAM]

I am sure I run no risk of overpraising the charm and attractiveness
of a well-fed trout stream, every drop of water in it as bright and
pure as if the nymphs had brought it all the way from its source
in crystal goblets, and as cool as if it had been hatched beneath a
glacier. When the heated and soiled and jaded refugee from the city
first sees one, he feels as if he would like to turn it into his
bosom and let it flow through him a few hours, it suggests such
healing freshness and newness. How his roily thoughts would run
clear; how the sediment would go downstream! Could he ever have an
impure or an unwholesome wish afterward? The next best thing he can
do is to tramp along its banks and surrender himself to its
influence. If he reads it intently enough, he will, in a measure, be
taking it into his mind and heart, and experiencing its salutary

Trout streams coursed through every valley my boyhood knew. I
crossed them, and was often lured and detained by them, on my way to
and from school. We bathed in them during the long summer noons, and
felt for the trout under their banks. A holiday was a holiday indeed
that brought permission to go fishing over on Rose's Brook, or up
Hardscrabble, or in Meeker's Hollow; all-day trips, from morning
till night, through meadows and pastures and beechen woods, wherever
the shy, limpid stream led. What an appetite it developed! a hunger
that was fierce and aboriginal, and that the wild strawberries we
plucked as we crossed the hill teased rather than allayed. When but
a few hours could be had, gained perhaps by doing some piece of
work about the farm or garden in half the allotted time, the little
creek that headed in the paternal domain was handy; when half a day
was at one's disposal, there were the hemlocks, less than a mile
distant, with their loitering, meditative, log-impeded stream and
their dusky, fragrant depths. Alert and wide-eyed, one picked his
way along, startled now and then by the sudden bursting-up of the
partridge, or by the whistling wings of the "dropping snipe,"
pressing through the brush and the briers, or finding an easy
passage over the trunk of a prostrate tree, carefully letting his
hook down through some tangle into a still pool, or standing in some
high, sombre avenue and watching his line float in and out amid the
moss-covered boulders. In my first essayings I used to go to the
edge of these hemlocks, seldom dipping into them beyond the first
pool where the stream swept under the roots of two large trees. From
this point I could look back into the sunlit fields where the cattle
were grazing; beyond, all was gloom and mystery; the trout were
black, and to my young imagination the silence and the shadows were
blacker. But gradually I yielded to the fascination and penetrated
the woods farther and farther on each expedition, till the heart of
the mystery was fairly plucked out. During the second or third year
of my piscatorial experience I went through them, and through the
pasture and meadow beyond, and through another strip of hemlocks,
to where the little stream joined the main creek of the valley.

In June, when my trout fever ran pretty high, and an auspicious day
arrived, I would make a trip to a stream a couple of miles distant,
that came down out of a comparatively new settlement. It was a rapid
mountain brook presenting many difficult problems to the young
angler, but a very enticing stream for all that, with its two
saw-mill dams, its pretty cascades, its high, shelving rocks
sheltering the mossy nests of the phoebe-bird, and its general
wild and forbidding aspects.

But a meadow brook was always a favorite. The trout like meadows;
doubtless their food is more abundant there, and, usually, the good
hiding-places are more numerous. As soon as you strike a meadow the
character of the creek changes: it goes slower and lies deeper; it
tarries to enjoy the high, cool banks and to half hide beneath them;
it loves the willows, or rather the willows love it and shelter it
from the sun; its spring runs are kept cool by the overhanging
grass, and the heavy turf that faces its open banks is not cut away
by the sharp hoofs of the grazing cattle. Then there are the
bobolinks and the starlings and the meadowlarks, always interested
spectators of the angler; there are also the marsh marigolds, the
buttercups, or the spotted lilies, and the good angler is always an
interested spectator of them. In fact, the patches of meadow land
that lie in the angler's course are like the happy experiences in

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Online LibraryJohn BurroughsIn the Catskills Selections from the Writings of John Burroughs → online text (page 10 of 14)