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Arrival From the South

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

My encounter with the being I call Lucy occurred about the beginning of March. I offered her the name as a sort of makeshift to cover the nakedness of her anonymity; but without success, for she persists in my memory to this day as a mysterious and nameless daughter of the wild. My intention was chivalrous: to give her a new start in life, an identity of her own within the security of our human world, after her own world had rejected her as unfit for survival. But she refused the name and all it meant, preferring her proper doom to an improper dependence on strangers. Looking back on the brief and fruitless hours of our acquaintance, I feel like one of those peasant hosts of legend who unwittingly received into their poor abodes gods in disguise or saints in sackcloth. But her identity, though it was intimated to me, was never revealed. She came in humbleness and in humbleness she departed, against my wishes, after one short night.

That winter the weather, according to our local authorities, had been the coldest known in these parts in living memory. Every year the meteorologists of our village, which lies just beyond the grasp of New York City, assemble about the counter of Schelling’s general store to exchange their findings and come to the same conclusion. Every year the local thermometers explore new depths. The weekly newspaper, published a few miles away but with a department devoted exclusively to our doings, recorded seventeen degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) that year; but the enthusiastic local boys did better. Twenty degrees was first offered across the counter; someone else offered twenty-three; and before the meeting broke up it had been decided that this was the coldest winter on record, with an all-time low of twenty-eight degrees below zero. Everyone was exhilarated by the thought.

Another dictum of the local wise men was that it would be a phenomenally late spring. Witness the winter, which had not begun to make itself felt in any extraordinary degree till almost the middle of February. Already in the first week of March, we had just had the bitterest weather of all: the familiar landscape of fields and shrubs, and stone walls that run over the hilltops and down through the valleys, had disappeared under a prodigious visitation of snow that came down overnight and smothered every landmark of our usual world. The cold spell came right on top of the snow. For two days a heavy north wind blew and the sky was a brilliant sheet of frost matching the landscape below it. Not a cloud ventured over the horizon; the thermometer dropped steadily. The sun shone like a glittering star, cold and comfortless; and, what with the fresh snow, you could hardly open your eyes at all out of doors.

It was then that Lucy appeared, in the guise of a hooded merganser, a little brown duck, fan-crested and without a name. I found her one morning at the upper end of Trinity Lake, where it curves about like the bent-over top of a pear and comes to a point at the juncture of the stem that feeds it. A crippled wing had kept her behind when the freeze came and her mates escaped to open southern waters, and she had remained to starve with her wing quills frozen to the ice. Despite her terror, equaled only by her helplessness, I dug her out and brought her home, where she sailed around in the bathtub for the rest of the day. She carried herself jauntily, like a toy duck in a department store, her cinnamon crest raised in a fan, her head back on her shoulders, her narrow, toothed bill pointed straight before her—and occasionally she gave a short bewildered bark, like a sea-lion’s, which was totally unexpected in such a delicate creature. But she was in a nightmare world far away from home. She dived and raced about at the bottom of the bathtub like a terror-stricken fish every time I came into the room, and refused to take notice of the offerings I made her from a tin of sardines (the very best) bought at Schelling’s for the purpose. Her wild merganser spirit, accustomed to running brooks and swampy woodlands where man is at best a trespasser, could not fathom this neat tepid world of porcelain fixtures in which she suddenly found herself. Within its narrow confines food was unthinkable, a fish no longer a fish, to be gulped and eaten. For nothing in this new life had her previous experience or the inherited wisdom of merganser generations prepared her. No wildest dreams of merganser madness could have conceived such a thing.

I wish I could say that my patience as a host, my tireless efforts to make her feel at home, to obtain her acceptance of my hospitality as the lesser of alternative evils, eventually reconciled her to a tame life among human friends. Her only chance of survival, since she was already under sentence of death in her own world, was to forgo her past and take on a new identity under the shelter of this sanctuary that was offered to her in a new setting. But she was indissolubly wedded to the wild. The laws that governed her being were the stringent laws of nature, not the merciful laws of man, and if those laws decreed doom it was her humble destiny to submit. She could not accept the asylum I offered, She could not take a human name.

Having failed in my blandishments, I went down the next morning (while the thermometer stood at sixteen below), a pickax over my shoulder and a doomed duck under my arm, to cut a swimming-hole for her in the pond near the house. I knew then that my mission was funereal, that in reality I was preparing a watery grave. The naked duck did not feel the cold—it was her element—but it struck the man, bundled up as he was in layers of heavy clothing, with a muffler about his face, a cap over his ears, stout boots and woolen mittens to protect his extremities, like the breath of a hostile world, ready to punish his invasion with petrifaction. A grave silence, the silence of a world in which no living thing moves, pervaded the landscape, interrupted momentarily by the painful crackling of frozen trees and the soft whistle of the north wind through their branches.

I set the duck down on the ice and for an hour swung the pickax against the frozen surface, retreating occasionally to the house, my face hoary with icicles, to recover a little warmth. Soon the heavy slabs I had cut were floating about on the surface of a steaming gap in which the water showed like an expanse of polished obsidian. Little clouds of vapor rolled away over its surface. When I was done, I picked the merganser up and launched her from the edge of the icepack without ceremony. No sooner had she touched the water than she dived, dipping her head and disappearing as though a thread attached to her bill had jerked her down from below. I saw her swim away into the cavernous depths beneath the ice, to return a minute later, bob up to the surface like a celluloid duck in a goldfish bowl, catch a breath of the cold air, and vanish below again. But the gap would not stay open. The second time she returned the crystals that spread rapidly out from its border had left only a little opening in the center. She swam about under the transparent surface like a fish, wings close to her sides, neck extended, crest flattened against her head, before she finally found the hole and bounced out. In another few minutes she was sitting in a pool of water exactly the size and shape of her body. The wound in the ice had healed up hard against her.

I did my best for her, but it was hopeless. No one could cope with that malevolence. I piled the heavy chunks of ice up on the edge of the pool and cut more; I widened the hole as fast as I could, slashing at the film that formed as I worked. But time was on the other side. Winter undid my work after me, sealed up the hole behind my back, and in the afternoon the anonymous body to which I had vainly offered a name was stretched out flat on the unbroken surface of the frozen pond.

The glittering sun sank colorlessly against the snow-bound ridges to the west and winter prevailed, like an invisible phantom, allowing no life, no movement, and no hope to show itself out of doors. The few birds and beasts that had remained to suffer under it, owls and blue jays and squirrels, huddled in the dense evergreens and were silent. All night the north wind whistled around the corners of the house, besieging the land with a cold fury, and in the morning the stiff body of the merganser was lying frozen in a drift of snow.

That it would be a late spring there could be no doubt. Beneath that sky hope lay, like the little duck, frozen in the snow. In the whole cloudless expanse there was no grain of comfort, no token of a merciful dispensation for a benumbed world that awaited in silence the advent of a new season. Under its spell one relinquished belief in a fate that keeps the seasons moving in their appointed rounds and allows none to hold sway indefinitely.

But hope is immortal. Two mornings after the merganser was put to death I awoke late to hear a steady dripping from the eaves of the house. The north wind, as if the sacrifice of the duck had fulfilled its purpose, had given way to a soft breeze from the south. The landscape had darkened under the sky. A stream of warm air washed gently over the hilltops, brushed the stark limbs of the trees, and rustled the dried stalks of grass that the north wind had exposed. The stillness was emphasized by the monotonous dripping. Wherever you went you could hear the dull sound, as of fingers moving under the snow. The sun became warm and friendly, a beneficent power that sided with the coming dispensation. A new buoyancy was in the air, a feeling of impending cosmic changes, as though one heard the machinery of that great clock preparing to strike.

The new season gave warning of its imminence in the muffled claps of thunder that reverberated below the frozen surface of Trinity Lake. Judged by its appearance on this early March morning the lake might have been solid ice from its smooth surface to its rugged depths, like an inverted iceberg that fitted perfectly into every irregularity of the hollow between the wooded slopes. But there was something more, something articulate, down there. Momentarily a dull explosion would break from below, an abrupt release of sound that rocketed across the lake like billiard balls over the taut skin of an immense drum, ending against the muffled shores almost as soon as it had begun. Beneath the surface that was so utterly lifeless something new and portentous stirred. One of those periodic changes of nature was just commencing; life moved in the womb, and at intervals the lake shook with agony.

In the woods along shore the winter birds, more subtly attuned than man to the transformation of the seasons, had suddenly begun rehearsing their spring songs. The blue jays gave the riot-call, blew their shrill police-whistles urgently, warning all predatory hawks and owls that order would be maintained, if only by their own disorderly activity. They shrieked, Order, Order, Order, blew their whistles hysterically; the blue-coated riot-squads dashed back and forth through the trees, trying to locate some object for their activity, a sleeping owl or a peaceful hawk. The crows came out like the black-watch vigilantes at the call of the police, streaming over the treetops toward the scene of violence, cawing raucously. They massed on the tall evergreens with a hoarse clamor, as much as to say that the situation, however desperate, was not beyond their control. Let the red wing of anarchy but show itself in those ancestral woods and they would give it something to remember! But the cowardly disturber, whoever he was, refused to come into the open, the wing of anarchy was not to be seen. The blue jays, as if satisfied at the disturbance they had created, returned quietly to their ordinary daily pursuits, and after a few minutes the crows, tired of a sport that had no object, a pursuit without a quarry, left the scene to resume their interrupted feeding in the marshes.

Now that reasonable quiet had been restored I could hear the chickadees once more. They moved through the dripping woods in little bands, bouncing about among the twigs like so many jumping-beans, chattering incessantly as if to urge one another on to the unending search for particles of food hidden behind flakes of bark. Occasionally one would take a short respite, prompted by this new buoyancy in the air that seemed worthy of at least a moment’s introspection, mount to the top of a tree, and, with a sudden plaintiveness that voiced all the immense melancholy of noble spirits held in bondage to the stringent and unremitting requirements of nature, sing his two soft and piercing phoebe notes, uttering the descending scale of his sorrow with a depth of feeling whose existence could hardly have been suspected in a mere feathered automaton. He made you feel what a vale of sorrow this world is, after all, full of creatures designed, like Samson Agonistes, for greatness and nobility, and caught in the sordid treadmill of mortal existence. “O glorious strength put to the labour of a beast, debased lower than bond-slave!” Having uttered his mild plaint, the little chickadee would drop down again to renew his hurried inspection of bark and twig, the cultivation of his garden, chattering merrily once more as if he had entirely forgotten what a tragic figure he really was.

In the afternoon I went up over the hill where the skele-tonesque steel windmill stands, its fan, responsive to the changing winds of the four seasons, pointing south now and revolving gently; and from there I took the path through the woods to the Meadows. In these Meadows the mysteries of nature have their innermost sanctum. If any change is contemplated in the universe by the powers that hold sway over it, I feel sure it will first manifest itself in this long expanse of swamp that seems so placid and inviting, so quiet and pastoral, but defies you to penetrate its marshy reaches. In winter there is treachery beneath the snow. You put your foot down anywhere with unpredictable results. It may land on a hummock that will support it, or it may land on a stretch of ice that will give way under your weight and let you down into a bottomless bog. Long lines of brittle alders wind through the marsh, indicating the river beds (we call almost anything a river in this region), the areas of deep water, but enticing you like the will-o’-the-wisp to follow them into still denser jungle and deeper water. When you bog down through the ice suddenly, waist deep in the cold stream, you grasp at their branches in vain. They bend willingly to your weight or come away completely in your hand. At the lower end the alders become thick and impenetrable over a wide area. But I have never yet learned to defend myself against their seduction, the temptation to invade their fastness for the mystery within, though the reward is always the same: an icy bath, mud-filled boots, cuts and bruises. It is precisely because you cannot get at the heart of the Meadows that their profundities seem so portentous. No matter how deep you go, the mystery always scuttles away from the path ahead of you, and when you arrive there is only silence.

The Meadows were a scene of desolation when I came out from the edge of the woods. In the woods the snow was a heavy blanket that obliterated all the ground-marks. Its edges had already begun to recede from the tree trunks, and everywhere it was punctured by holes from the interminable dripping. It offered a sullen resistance to my passage, and the cavities left by my rubber boots quickly filled with water. But in the Meadows the thaw was further advanced. The long expanse of dead hummocks and broken cat-tails was still buried in an irregular carpet of snow through which the dry stalks showed, but everywhere water was flowing under the surface. You could hear the rustling murmur of its passage, and now and then a bridge of snow between hummocks would suddenly collapse. Out in the center, as I could see from the higher land on the other side (I had taken the muddy path across the upper end of the Meadows), there was already an extensive area of open water.

It was not a heartening sight. The sharpness of winter, the severity of its emptiness, the authority of its silence like an ultimatum written in the sky, may be cruel, but it is clean; it commands your respect. The thaw is welcome only for what it portends. Its task is negative and menial, undoing winter in anticipation of another season. There is nothing cheering in this sullied freshness, this dissolution of the landscape. Stripped of its glamour, the earth has the disquieting appearance of a house that is being cleaned out after one boarder in preparation for a new one, its rooms bare, its furniture in disarray, its floors damp and noisome.

My usual path runs through a grove of trees on the far side of the Meadows toward the lower end. That patch of woods looks particularly miserable in winter. The trees, growing in sandy soil, have a stunted and dead appearance; their limbs are rotten and break at a touch. They had nothing to offer today, no promise to make. They merely dripped, sullenly, as if that were part of their character, a lifelong habit. But from the lower end of the Meadows, where the cluster of dead trees stands in the center of the alder jungle, a hairy woodpecker was drumming furiously on a dry limb. Occasionally he would utter his loud bleat and dart away in a long undulation to the next tree, where he would resume his drumming, as though he were telegraphing some indecipherable but vital message to a dripping world that paid no attention. This was about as much as one could expect from nature after the ravages of winter: a few crows and blue jays, an occasional company of chickadees, a woodpecker. It would hardly have been worth walking out to see these, had it not been for the unreasonable stirring of hope.

At the lower end of the Meadows the path leads up a little hill from which you can look directly over the jungle of alder in the hollow below. The top of this hill is the best vantage point I know for attending the change of seasons. The alder bushes, the dead trees, the hemlock forest that occupies the tall knoll beyond, and the long sweep of open marsh, are all spread out before you. There are no houses and no men to disturb the ordinary course of nature. The birds that come through on their migrations find good refuge here, shelter to suit varying tastes in the dense swamp grass, the alders, or the hemlocks. The ducks find running water or stagnant, as they please. Food is abundant: bugs and berries for little birds, game for hawks. During the migrations there are few inland birds known to this part of the world that may not be found in this short segment of the landscape that you can take in at a glance. It is outfitted to receive and offer hospitality to all visitors.

I waited a long while in the cold on top of that snowy hill, and I scanned the southern horizon anxiously, filled with a strange and potent hope against which I armed myself vainly with the expectation of disappointment. To be kept waiting at a tryst to which you have long been looking forward is a peculiarly harrowing experience. Such occasions can be almost intolerable with suspense. The same suppressed and anxious expectation took hold of me that afternoon on the hilltop. I knew from our Gregorian calendar, an astronomical table worked out to a fine degree of accuracy by generations of scholars using the infallible rules of mathematics, that the sun was well on its way to the equinox, that the spheres had already given the cue to nature. I had heard the muffled whir of wheels in the great cosmic clock which rules the destiny of men and birds, and I waited tensely now for the first sound of its striking.

The migratory passage of birds, like the movements of the stars, can be a great consolation to men whose minds continually search for an established order and progression in the universe. The knowledge that, whatever we may make of ourselves in the moment of our existence, the stars will continue in their appointed courses, the seasons will move in their confirmed order, the birds will pursue their destined biannual migrations, carries with it a sense of ultimate security which the works of man alone fail to convey. It seems to give us the intimation of a will that directs us, it belies our orphaned estate in the universe, it secures us from the nightmare of anarchy.

We are not like the stars, however, dead clods in space with no will of our own. We cannot tolerate the degradation of tyranny. Within the limitations that give meaning to our existence we must have room for the exercise of our own volition, however pitiful it may appear before the universal will. For without that liberty living beings cease to live, men become cogs in a machine. The stars symbolize the tyranny of a brazen machine-universe; they are fixed in their courses by inflexible rules, their movements are minutely predictable. But the flight of birds is, within its limits, capricious. The migrations, though they take place year after year, are never predictable. They are never twice the same. In the endless and conflicting variety of living individuals whose wills are sovereign within the confines of nature, the birds confirm free men in the exercise of their freedom. The flight of birds epitomizes a dual world of tyranny and liberty within which everything is possible for mankind from the highest heroism to the most abject degradation. Who would cavil, then, at being kept waiting for the inevitable? If punctuality is the courtesy of kings, only death, the greatest sovereign of them all, is invariably punctual.

It was evident that this year spring was going to be late. Except for the drumming woodpecker and an occasional blue jay crying, the Meadows were utterly barren, silent and desolate. They waited beneath an empty sky that gave no sign of ever changing. When I had been standing attentive in the snow for a long hour, the empty boarding-house at last began to have its effect on my confidence. After all, I told myself, reasoning against a wholly unreasonable disappointment, little could be expected so soon after such a severe spell of winter. It was still too cold, and the prospect too dismal. Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day. . . . Having come to a decision, I swallowed the hope that had possessed me all day, and was about to turn away when my eye was arrested. . . .

To the south, where the horizon dips in a V between hills, in that little triangle of sky, my attention was caught by something so dim that it might have been merely an aberration of vision. But it was enough to halt me in my tracks and hold me there till it became distinct. Despite the firmness of my expectations, the urgency of my hopes, I stared now at the first faint token of their fulfillment with incredulity. In that gray gap, monotonously matching the snowbound hillsides that flanked it, I could make out a little company of black motes growing rapidly larger. The birds of the company formed a compact phalanx, all bobbing up and down in the mass like so many balls in the hands of an adroit juggler. As they drew closer I could distinguish the sable uniforms, the rounded wings, the strange softness of flight as though the air through which they flew were some denser substance. Along that channel that led up from the south, from the permanent home of the hot seasons, life was again moving forward before the annual impulse of spring. The sky might still have been loaded with unfallen snow, veiled and opaque, like a gray web stretched between the hills. But the new boarder had sent word of her approach. The flight of birds, established since earliest times as an omen of cosmic purpose, made manifest the inscrutable will, foretold the movement of the unknown, revealed the invisible.

There was something in the progress of this advance guard as it approached that told of countless legions to the rear. This was not a capricious maneuver of the cohorts, a detached visitation, but the spearhead of a universal advance on all fronts, sure of itself and as deliberate as fate. Over the far distances of two hemispheres, over the jungles and white-capped seas, over hills and valleys and plains, along the winding course of great rivers across bleak stretches of desert, between clouded mountains and through deep gorges, from one ocean to another and beyond, the hordes were already sweeping. They came from the frigid wastes of the Antarctic; they came from the jungle of the Amazon; they came from the islands of the sea. Some, such as the flocks of geese and ducks in flying-wedge formation, swept across the skies beyond my horizon with the breathless impetus of a cavalry charge. Some, like the swallows and the hawks, followed a more leisurely course, foraging the country as they went. Others moved up only by the nocturnal light of the stars. But all swept on without hesitation and without thought, sure of their strength and firm in their purpose, with the momentum of the inrushing tides of the sea. These dancing motes came like the spray of an advancing wave; they were the first cohorts of a mass movement unequaled in its grandeur by any other manifestation of life on this earth.

As they arrived overhead, all the birds whirled and dropped together, like leaves in a cat’s-paw of wind, landing in the topmost branches of one of the trees that rose above the alders and becoming instantly motionless. The tree at once appeared to be covered with knobs. I glanced at my watch and made a mental note of the time, then raised my glasses to study the new arrivals.

The birds were obviously exhausted from a long migration. They remained fixed to the branches, motionless and silent; like the inanimate birds of a colored engraving, their forms and markings could be studied at leisure. And all were the same bright black, even to the eyeball and legs and the sharp bill, with only that jaunty military slash across the wing, the insignia of the male red-winged blackbird, to relieve their sinister appearance. As I waited, another uniformed squadron moved up through the channel from the south and settled over the branches of another tree in the swamp; and then one squadron after another, coming at regular intervals in parade formation, till all the trees that rose up above the alders were knobbed with the silent forms of the companies at rest. The whole aspect of the Meadows had been changed: they reposed quietly, their silence continued undisturbed, but the waiting was over and the peace that rewards suspense seemed to lie upon their frigid surface, to become part of their silent and enduring passivity. . . .

Suddenly, as though all had been simultaneously touched by the same vagrant impulse, as by a gust of wind, the birds of the first squadron dropped from their perches, floated down into the alder bushes on set wings, and were immediately lost to sight. But now that they had rested and were intent on feeding they found their voices. A flurry of duckings broke out in the alders, like stones rolled together, occasionally interrupted by a shrill whistle—and then, momentarily, the long, triumphant conquering peal, the strident bugle-call of the male, the wire-drawn cry of his pride and lustiness that begins with an abrupt call to attention and hangs on in the air. The other companies followed as soon as they too had rested, and in a moment the Meadows were totally different. They were no longer desolate, as they had been all winter, for now the sound of the blackbirds filled them from end to end, evoking all the throbbing life, the passion, and the abundance of a spring that had been half forgotten.

Doubtless the wise men gathered about the counter in Schelling’s store, huddled in heavy overcoats and caps to protect them from the chill of winter, were still shaking their heads over the prospect of a late spring, and wondering whether it would ever come at all. The grayness of the sky and the bleak monotony of snow-covered hills betrayed no new presence to their vision. They heard no revealing voices. But I had witnessed the flight of birds, and had they asked me I could have told them, like one who cried in the wilderness, that a new and better day was at hand.


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