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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Lanes and Woods


YESTER EVEN, about six o'clock, was a sharp downpour, sharply defined alike in its beginning and end. It came from a cloud that blotted out the sunshine, and left a tail of sunshine behind. The earlier drops made marks the size of a pennypiece. Thicker and faster they came, darkening the grey surface, and gathering into little runlets down the road; sweet and pure was the light after the cloud ; infinitely fresh the air.

The birds sang as birds only sing after such a rain. Like the green of the field and wood the sounds were washed purer. It is so with some birds more than others. It seems as though one heard the blackbird for the first time when the bush is dripping, and the chaffinch when the beech is glistening. The rain gave a fresh scene with other voices, new heavens and a new earth.

A few drops had fallen on the thrush's song: it was delightfully clear. In a short avenue, where the trees close over the road, quite a dozen were singing. Scarce had one song time to die into silence than another awoke.

Only to the shallow do all birds sing alike. So much came clearly out. There is character, accent, tone, and choice of notes, so that it were possible to know each thrush from all other thrushes of the wood. No one supposes that the sitter on the blue eggs with the black spots does not know the voice of her lord, and care for it more than for the rest. Ay, and she knows the song of the thrushes that came to court her, and, when she would have none of them, won other mates. The rivals, too, can tell each other's song, and each knows all the voices as though this corner of thrushland were some suburban society.

Nor does the same bird sing the one song. In the free wild play of sound which the thrush pours out on the air, this is more apparent than in the repeated lay of the chaffinch. There is imitation. A lazy blackbird note finds its way in. There is also rivalry. On such a night, when all are doing so well, it pitches higher or adds an octave to the scale.

If the birds of the same wood do not sing alike, still less do those of different woods. The birds of the south do not sing as the birds of the north, any more than the Somerset people talk as the Fife folk. The air, the scene, the voice of other birds all mould and weave at the song. There is local colouring, a hint at dialect.

Sounds may not be carried so far. The birds themselves must be made to sing in the same wood. Even then the sense must be trained to birds' song. The so-called musical ear is limited to sounds made by men and women. It knows nothing of the concert of the grove. Only birds are critics there. A parrot reared in Yorkshire came along with its owners to settle in Fife. When the daughter of the house entered the room it announced the fact by saying, "Mina's coomed!" If not so broad, thrush dialect is appreciable, at least, among themselves. Local names mean something. There is such a thing as a mavis.

So, too, and more so, with distance in time. The thrushes of Malcolm Canmore and his Saxon Margaret sang not as our thrushes. If we could hear the talk of olden men it would be hard to know the sound. So of olden songs. Were the thrushes to appear in the woods, dull as we are, we would know the difference, and the modern songsters would listen as to strange birds. And ere time has measured itself as far into the future, will have arisen a fresh song, like and yet unlike, with as marked a change as in the talk of men. Nothing is fixed; there is no single point of rest. The old order changeth, giving place to new. Song is unfolding.

Musing so far away from the thrushes of that particular evening, I reached the end of the avenue and emerged on the open. It was a Scots lane, ruder, more elemental than those of the south, and wrought out of rougher material. Perhaps the main difference is in the want of climbing plants, whose flowing lines, like graceful garments, hide so much away. Withal it had the charm of a lint-locked, bare-footed, country lass.

Deep-rutted by the passing wheels of the farmcart, broad-margined with grass; on one side a hedgerow, on the other a sunken fence. The rain had been freshening there also. The white blossoms were very pure; the yellow blossoms as pure. The scents, too, were washed purer-the may of the hedge; and that of many lowly plants, only scented after rain.

The songs were low and sweet, not the songs of the high woods. From the tinkling of linnets, and trilling of greenfinches with a woof of other songs, one might know that he was in Scotland, and might even gather that he was on the east coast, if not in Fife.

At the very entrance a little idyll was being enacted. It looked rather silly. Are not all idylls silly to the cold-blooded and unimaginative looker-on ? A hen chaffinch was sitting in the rut. The blue-capped, russet-breasted cock was making a complete fool of himself. At all times, a chaffinch on the ground has a short, mincing step, as though suffering from rheumatism. With his short step, he minced round the arc of a circle and back, over and over again, in front of the hen. It was a somewhat belated courtship on this early June day. Perhaps he had not found a mate, or she had lost one. Tell it not in Gath. For a second marriage takes the rose out of the romance.

Man alone, it is said, lifts the relation of the sexes into the region of the ideal, clothes it round with beauty and a ritual. Whereas, to the observant, man seems but a sorry imitator, and not always a sincere one. It is certainly not in human records, nor in man's progenitors, that we look for moods of romance or lessons of chivalry. Why, the birds sought favour by such gentle arts, and so gave a meaning to love, and beauty to mating ; wove the delicate texture of romance when men were savages. I f we add their loyalty to their early love, the lifelong fellowship till death do them part, never so much as once repented of nor broken, we know nothing in man loftier nor lovelier ; certainly nothing so old. Methinks, sometimes, that the song of birds, of many seasons' mating, shapes itself into the lay of "John Anderson my Jo."

In a crumbling part of the fence, where the stones did not quite meet, a blackbird had built. The hole was not deep; but it chanced that from the same gap a bush grew, whose exposed roots lent a sufficient amount of stability. It was mainly balance, and needed the eye of an engineer. At the sound of a footstep the sitter slipped out, and passed up the ditch like a shadow. Such care was there for the safety of the eggs; such prescience for the future of the species. The sentiment deepened, the idyll of the lane became graver.

Hard by in a whin bush, was the nest of a rose linnet. The rose is on the male's breast. More fitly is the hen known as the grey linnet. She sat so very, very quietly, that no passing country lad could have told she was there. In the grey of the bush she was hard, indeed, to make out, with her feathers puffed out to keep her charge warm, and her grey head turned a little to one side to command the intruder.

The sitting had lasted a fortnight. With the advent at hand, the care for self was at its minimum; that was why she remained with my hand holding aside the prickles within two inches of the nest. Only a vandal, with no regard for the sacred care and deep joy of motherhood, could have disturbed her. So the idyll-begun in semi-comedy with the mincing chaffinch, increasing in interest with the drifting shadow down the ditch-came toward its charming and somewhat pathetic close in the brooding linnet.

Not a detail, but has some suggestion. Nor one that is altogether new. The boy is father to the naturalist and the philosopher. So the olden shilfas acted on the Saturday afternoon, when, from a week's crawling like snail unwillingly to school, one was free to go at large. So the blackbird drifted down the shadowy ditch. The exile sees it in visions over half the globe, and sighs.

Migrants are in the lane. They are not altogether our own birds. They stay not with us through good and evil report. Through the blustering days, when the snell wind blows and the slant rain falls, when the linnet's flight note is over the adjoining field and the greenfinches gather to the stackyard, they are absent. They come in summer, and every summer. So that the summer would not be itself without them. Chief among them is the whitethroat. He is the migrant of the Scots lane. Seems as though the brambles had woven the elastic yet forbidding network across the ditch for a nesting area, that the grass grew long for shelter and the nettles for protection. By the time he comes, plant life is on the rush, the growth is bewildering, and the nester is at fault. The mate dances half mockingly. Half in spite the boy calls him a "bletherer." Several nests are in the lane; two deep in the bramble cushion behind a chevaux de frise of prickles; one in the long grass.

None of the characteristic birds of English lanes are there. One scarcely misses them. One wants everything to be itself. It is among those negative characters which make a Scots lane. If one were to come, it would be like having a singing bird in a house. Or as though one's mother were suddenly to talk English, when her homely doric was part of herself, and woven in with our earliest recollections. All the poetry would be gone.

The man who sought to introduce the nightingale to the north made an experiment doubtful in taste and futile in result. He put the eggs in the nest of a northern bird. He wished to enrich Scots lanes with the "joug joug," the glorious crescendo. Say he did it here; put them under a hedge-warbler. The young birds would imitate the hedge-warbler's lay and never sing the nightingale's song. As the foster-parents would not migrate, the brood would stay along with them and perish. Were the eggs put in the whitethroat's nest, the young would imitate the comic ditty, instead of singing its own tragic lay. It might migrate then, as a nightingale, with the song of a whitethroat. Enough that there are no nightingales nor other English warblers in the Scots lanes.

The remoteness of this no-man's-land, between highway and highway, is the atmosphere of nomad life. Tramps swarm-from the aristocracy with van and horse, through the philistines with cart and donkey, to the plebs with a low dark creepie. Yea, to the outcasts, who owe to nature their board, and by sheer weight of body make a depression in the elastic bush, and sleep on a scented pallet under the nodding broom flowers.

A lad was sitting on the grass; he lives much alone. The wont of the family is to scatter and know where to meet, and the children fall in with the arrangement. It is a pathetic life, with the breeze and the shower, the broom and the lane. But it is not all sadness nor loss. He was happy, if homeless. He mimicked the songs of the birds. It is the language he knows best, perhaps loves most. A Scots tramp talks the native doric, and whistles the local birds' songs.

It was a land of lanes; the fields were meshed in them. A mile on was another. It blazed. Nothing flowers so passionately as broom. The glow and the passion are on the spirit that looks. In the lane was a niche set in a bank and overshadowed by trees. They who chose it were masters of out-of-door life, an art by itself, like woodcraft. Known only to nomads by profession, through lifelong practice it becomes a second nature, and in the course of long transmission an instinct. In the niche were two long, low, dark, cylindrical creepies, an abode common to all the nomads, and doubtless moulded out of their experience as best suited to the conditions.

Beside each creepie sat two nomads, a man and a woman, grave, and concerned with their own life. There was none of the curiosity at the intrusion on a quiet scene which brings so many heads to suburban windows. Save that single touch of nature-the woman's hand raised to straighten her hair-was no sign of notice. A wild sense of good manners would have let us pass unobserved. I have ever found it so in the best class of nomads. A fire burned as though there might be something to cook.

On the far side of the lane a strange, roughly sugar-loaf-shaped knoll lifted its head above the glowing broom. One would have thought it a rock standing out from the soil, save for certain outward marks. Perforated, almost terraced with holes, it resembled nothing so much as a gigantic field-pigeon house. The rabbits were in possession, and made of it a teeming warren.

It might have been coincidence, but so it was that the niche in the lane - which the instinct of the nomads had sought out as the best shield from the weather - was just over against this picturesque haunt of rodents. As they lay by the creepies, while the shadows lengthened and the yellow broom grew golden in the evening light and grey twilight came, behold the dead knoll came to life. Later on the white scuts, like so many terrestrial glow-worms, lit up the dimming lane. I know not certainly the connexion between picturesque nomad and picturesque warren. Something may or may not have happened in the dark. Beyond grew a wood, through which, at first, was scant shoulder-rubbing passage. No sunlight penetrated the close thatch of fir needles. One felt as though he would pull a broom taper to help him through. The flash of a magpie's wing crossed the gloom. Others were there, lights of a purer spark.

Where the boles thinned out to give more space, oaks grew. The blaeberry crept out on the wood floor. Countless pale pink bells rung round the wiry stem, and under the oval leaves. There was abundant promise of a table spread in the wilderness. Such woods are common in the ruder lowland parts and along the lower slopes of hills. Under a rough bush a robin sat on her three russet-hued eggs. The pink bells rung around her. The wood softened into a great grove of birches, closely packed as the firs, not stiff nor dark, but infinitely light and graceful. In its firs and birches and blaeberry flooring was it a Scots wood. Among the birches sang many willow warblers. This is our woodland migrant.

Then the wood echoed with lively sounds. Not laughter, nor telling of lightness of heart, but such sounds as might be made by wild creatures at play. The voices were young, from the throats of boys, but not ordinary boys. The sounds broke out again and rung through the wood. Past the birches and against the light which told of the edge of the wood, figures were moving among the tree boles. Low down along the ground was a dark cylinder. The adults looked on while the children were at their evening play. I repeat it was not gaiety, except in so far as the play of young foxes may be said to be gay. It was boisterous enough, but it did not add to the joy of the wood.

Much of the land was of no other use save to look wild, and in the early summer to cast over itself a garment of dusky blossom, such as now glowed through the trees. Birds were there -finches and warblers, flitting from bush to bush and perching on the topmost twigs. The greenfinch trilled, the whitethroat rollicked, the stonechat clicked. This further end do the commons serve. Compared with the design of the nest, the creepie was an artless hovel. The dainty ways and relations of the birds made the nomads savages; the wild lore made them bunglers. After play the children would gather a few eggs for supper, ere they turned in for the night.

Nomadic life is abroad in these wild places. Creepies are dropped everywhere, always where the charm is wildest. I had seen the wandering unit singing back to the singing birds; the pair of grave adults in the lane hard by the sugarloafed rabbit warren; the family at play on the outskirts of the dimming wood and the margin of the glowing common.


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