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The Three-Ring Farm

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

The life I led when I was a boy was a three-ring circus. To begin with, geography was propitious. A farm to most people means a house and barn, a meadow or two, a brook and woods, if you are lucky, a garden, rides on a haycart, wood to saw and water to carry. But my lucky stars planted me on a farm that had, over and above these, the sea and its fish and fogs, its tendernesses and savageries, an island, untouched forests, cliffs to climb, ruined cellars to explore, boats and bridges, books, a peculiarly zestful set of brothers and sisters, and several philosophers. Maine, the state that offers everything but a desert, had done awfully well by me. She gave me her whole assortment of geography in one parcel.

I did myself awfully, well in a father, too. The stork laid me down on the hearth of a man who was an artist in several professions and an adventurer plenipotentiary. The farm of my boyhood was just one of many evergreened plots on the sea that he had opened up to civilization and sown the laughter of seeds and children upon. My father yearned to stock an island empery. He made a fair start; there was an even ten of us, boys nicely balancing girls. Next to children, he loved boats; he had almost as many of them as he had children; they ranged from a sloop down through skiffs and up to the scow in which his driving horses rode home from the mainland. Though he was an explorer and a pioneer, he was a distinctly, Elizabethan sort of one. He never travelled so far or dug himself so deeply into the woods as to get out of the reach of great books or great thoughts. He had his library and his gestures of gentility along with him. His pockets, turned out by his Maker when his day was done, were a boy’s pockets and full of all kinds of shining things: songs for the guitar by a winter hearth, stories like those of Chaucer, jovial words, keen appetites, kindliness, wonder, and a heart that never dropped its leaves. There may have been finer fathers; but I have yet to run across one in the several literatures I read.

I did well in my mother also. Here was gentleness that was a perfect supplement to my father’s vigor. Cross words were as rare as hens’ teeth in her vocabulary, and there were the ten bundles of variegated devilments of us I I can never think of her without seeing morning-glories and smelling sweetpeas. She was mistress of all the arts of living from love to good cooking and dressmaking. The stockings she must have darned! and the babies she must have covered up in the night and pulled through croup with no doctor within miles and only the owls for neighbors I She taught us all to read; and she taught us also that charity and mercy and friendliness are a little higher than the stars.

In brothers and sisters I was fortunate, too. One could draw pictures, one could shoot, one could make dolls come alive, one could build playhouses, one could deck a Christmas tree, one could fish, one could smile, one could creep, and one could be like a pair of wings the best of any. brothers or sisters in the world. They were peculiar in this, that each, from him with his first dawn of a moustache to her of the first bib, took life like a sunrise in the dew. The mischief we got intol Yet some of it verged on the sort tall Daniel Boone was master at or Sir Walter Raleigh; some of it rose almost to poetry; some of it was Leonardo da Vinci’s kind.

When it comes to pets, the cousins all children ought to grow up with, I swear I was born with a whole set of silver spoons in my mouth. There was General Joshua L. Chamberlain, a goose named after my father’s best friend, the hero of Little Round Top; he got the name through a subtle compromise on my mother’s part. My father, having a new son toward, vowed he would bestow on him the name of his friend; but mother shunted the name off on one that could better bear up under it. She had seen one son named for a President with a not too comely name, though Biblical. Joshua lived with us completely, even after his voice had changed. He was forever being driven out of the kitchen. I can see his surprise still that day he decided to bathe in the cat’s saucer of milk and the hurt look he wore after the dish was lost beneath him.

There were pigs and calves galore. My brother will carry the mark of one of the latter to the grave, for he tied its tether to his bare leg once when he was chaperoning it sup-perwards. One of the tragedies in my own life was the young crow I had gotten almost to talk. I foolishly went off to town and left his menu to another hand. The pint of corn the bird might have survived; but the pint of water he was given on top of it proved fatal. We even had a pet eagle with a broken wing that came to the name of Theodore Roosevelt and that sat behind us as we fished and waited with hopeful, amber eyes to tear the flounders from the hooks as they, came in. But the best pet of all was Snoozer, a dog one part hound, one part pug, one part terrier, but the best part yellow. He would bury himself and us when once he had a hole to dig out; he could pivot as he sank his shaft and so manage to pepper us all. He could bite off oak roots the size of your arm and never count the cost. No woodchuck hole was too deep for him, no ramble too long for his inquisitive snout. Twice a month he had to be interred to his nose; but he could never be taught to pass a skunk by on the other side. He submitted to any indignity to be one of us, even suffering a harness and bit to pull our boy-size haycart. His color was not skin deep; he was pure and yellow gold clean to his heart. Half the light went out of day when Snoozer passed on to hunt the starry, endless woodchucks on the Western Isles.

We had several philosophers-at-large to give us our wisdom. Ben Sudbury knew all the laws of the weather, saw the hands of God in the mackerel sky, and scaled a two-hundred-foot pine to set the gilded arrow there to be the thing to lift up the eyes to all through boyhood—and hearts, too, for I never could see the vane without feeling somehow that the world was a large and good place. Ben’s weather lore, though, did not keep him from melancholy; he passed out of our ken after insanity smote him as he was driving home our pigs, and he used the pitchfork on them. Then there was Cap’n Pye, who had his ships as his ancestors had had theirs before him. But his ships were the kind that sailed inside his head; they would not let him sleep of nights; they poked sly bowsprits through his room. He taught us the lore of pirates and of digging for treasure on the full of the moon.

There was an uncle, too, in the offing, and he knew a number of the seas and had handled big sailing boats and had a walrus’s moustache; but he was only in knee pants in his heart and could rig up ships in narrow-necked bottles and 1 carve surprising baskets out of peach stones. He schooled us in the catalogue of all the ships—brig, bark, and brigan-tine, of all the masts—jury, main, and mizzen, of all the sails—top-gallant, tops oil, mainsail. He drilled us in boxing the compass. He was a walking academy of navigation, and his pocket was Aladdin’s cave. For all his gray hairs, this uncle had no more grown up than Uncle Toby. He had the same blue-eyed innocence of a small boy where women were concerned. He had a wife; but she was a creature on another planet from his and harder to understand than a great ship with all her spars and tackle. He let women alone. Our vocabulary was the richer for this boy grown tall. Some of the similes we got from him took our parents by surprise. “Red as a spanked baby’s bottom,”— that is one of them that got my own skin a reddening. There was Hen Purinton, who let us into the best schoolroom for teaching one manhood the world has ever known, a boat-shop, where he built the skiffs for our small fishing and the sloops for the taller fishermen of Grand Manan. Nor were all our philosophers in trousers. We had an aunt who put a good deal of granite into our souls. She descended upon us periodically and put such table manners into us, and such of the twelve moral virtues that Puritan New England still cherishes, that it took us weeks after her going to get back to normal again. I read the Bible through, begat chapters and all, five times for her; and I have her to thank that an old book which has meant more to our civilization than any ten others is a part of my being.

This brings me to the books we had. My father had started his library with a Virgil interlinear he brought home from Fairfax College, Virginia, where he had lain on a hard army bed in the hurly-burly of the Civil War. I followed in his footsteps by picking up my first Latin from that. I read his “Arabian Nights,” too, the forbidden unexpurgated edition, having gotten the key to the restricted bookcase by stealth, all through the trance of a sun-drenched summer while I sat alone up in the pasture to keep a bull of ours from pushing over the garden fence and trampling the kidney beans. That bull never harmed children; he was a sucking dove to them; but he was the Old Boy himself in the smell of onions and brimstone at winning the adulation of his Holstein harem by walking off with all the farm’s barbed-wire fences on his neck, if there were no one to keep an eye on him. Before I was half through the thousand and one nights, I half expected that harmless bull to sprout brass wings and fly off with the cows turned into jinns, or the boulder stones at my feet to turn into blinding diamonds. The thunderclouds in the west built themselves up into domes of alabaster and lapis lazuli and chrysoprase, and I think I should not have blinked a lash if a prince in a turban had suddenly ridden out of them on a steed of jet. My mother put down my devotion to the kidney beans to the bound numbers of the Youth’s Companion I took up with me. But she little dreamed what sort of filler those innocent papers served to cover! I dug myself deeply into Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales” on another occasion until my eyes swam and the pines and spruces acquired human shapes and voices. Another time it was Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales” that led me at breathless speed through months endlessly and endlessly on. The print was terribly fine, and often at the most desperate crises pages on pages had been plucked out by somebody, whose excitement had gotten the best of him. But I could not be wrenched away from those tomes. I even tried to read them by the light of bottled lightning-bugs when the lamp had been taken from me. There was a life of Patrick Henry, whose speech I committed to memory and brought forth to the surprise of the family one morning at a haying time breakfast. Another life, this time of Napoleon, in twelve volumes, I also devoured. A volume of Dore’s engravings for the “Inferno” and “Don Quixote” was like ice on my spine even in midsummer. I even dipped into the “Family Doctor,” also on the index, and read it surreptitiously under the horsehair sofa in a parlor that was like a refrigerator even in June. Its charts that lifted up in layers to show the various organs of the body in dhhabilU fascinated me so much that, I am sorry to say, I tried to do as much for skates and other fish I caught. But the book of books was a complete Shakespeare, which I read through and loved entire for the sound and swing of the lines even before I could understand half of the words or make head or tail of what was going on in the plots.

But there. How can one hope to capture in a catalogue of books, of uncles, or of pets, the days that had gilt upon them? In the proper circus one needs three pairs of eyes, a set for each of the rings; and one can no more hope to reduce to a sequence, or order the things that glitter there, than one can expect to order the bright tops that spin off into the outer darkness along the Milky Way.


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