Part 1 out of 3
[Note: The printing of this book separated contractions such as
"wouldn't" into two parts, "would" and "n't", in dialogue and
quotations. This convention has been preserved. Accent marks in
French and other foreign words have been dropped.]
FISHERMAN'S LUCK AND SOME OTHER UNCERTAIN THINGS
by Henry van Dyke
"Now I conclude that not only in Physicke, but likewise in sundry
more certaine arts, fortune hath great share in them."
M. DE MONTAIGNE: Divers Events.
DEDICATION TO MY LADY GRAYGOWN
Here is the basket; I bring it home to you. There are no great fish
in it. But perhaps there may be one or two little ones which will
be to your taste. And there are a few shining pebbles from the bed
of the brook, and ferns from the cool, green woods, and wild flowers
from the places that you remember. I would fain console you, if I
could, for the hardship of having married an angler: a man who
relapses into his mania with the return of every spring, and never
sees a little river without wishing to fish in it. But after all,
we have had good times together as we have followed the stream of
life towards the sea. And we have passed through the dark days
without losing heart, because we were comrades. So let this book
tell you one thing that is certain. In all the life of your
fisherman the best piece of luck is just YOU.
I. Fisherman's Luck
II. The Thrilling Moment
IV. A Wild Strawberry
V. Lovers and Landscape
VI. A Fatal Success
VII. Fishing in Books
VIII. A Norwegian Honeymoon
IX. Who Owns the Mountains?
X. A Lazy, Idle Brook
XI. The Open Fire
XII. A Slumber Song
Has it ever fallen in your way to notice the quality of the
greetings that belong to certain occupations?
There is something about these salutations in kind which is
singularly taking and grateful to the ear. They are as much better
than an ordinary "good day" or a flat "how are you?" as a folk-song
of Scotland or the Tyrol is better than the futile love-ditty of the
drawing-room. They have a spicy and rememberable flavour. They
speak to the imagination and point the way to treasure-trove.
There is a touch of dignity in them, too, for all they are so free
and easy--the dignity of independence, the native spirit of one who
takes for granted that his mode of living has a right to make its
own forms of speech. I admire a man who does not hesitate to salute
the world in the dialect of his calling.
How salty and stimulating, for example, is the sailorman's hail of
"Ship ahoy!" It is like a breeze laden with briny odours and a
pleasant dash of spray. The miners in some parts of Germany have a
good greeting for their dusky trade. They cry to one who is going
down the shaft, "Gluck auf!" All the perils of an underground
adventure and all the joys of seeing the sun again are compressed
into a word. Even the trivial salutation which the telephone has
lately created and claimed for its peculiar use--"Hello, hello"--
seems to me to have a kind of fitness and fascination. It is like a
thoroughbred bulldog, ugly enough to be attractive. There is a
lively, concentrated, electric air about it. It makes courtesy wait
upon dispatch, and reminds us that we live in an age when it is
necessary to be wide awake.
I have often wished that every human employment might evolve its own
appropriate greeting. Some of them would be queer, no doubt; but at
least they would be an improvement on the wearisome iteration of
"Good-evening" and "Good-morning," and the monotonous inquiry, "How
do you do?"--a question so meaningless that it seldom tarries for an
answer. Under the new and more natural system of etiquette, when
you passed the time of day with a man you would know his business,
and the salutations of the market-place would be full of interest.
As for my chosen pursuit of angling (which I follow with diligence
when not interrupted by less important concerns), I rejoice with
every true fisherman that it has a greeting all its own and of a
most honourable antiquity. There is no written record of its
origin. But it is quite certain that since the days after the
Flood, when Deucalion
"Did first this art invent
Of angling, and his people taught the same,"
two honest and good-natured anglers have never met each other by the
way without crying out, "What luck?"
Here, indeed, is an epitome of the gentle art. Here is the spirit
of it embodied in a word and paying its respects to you with its
native accent. Here you see its secret charms unconsciously
disclosed. The attraction of angling for all the ages of man, from
the cradle to the grave, lies in its uncertainty. 'Tis an affair of
No amount of preparation in the matter of rods and lines and hooks
and lures and nets and creels can change its essential character.
No excellence of skill in casting the delusive fly or adjusting the
tempting bait upon the hook can make the result secure. You may
reduce the chances, but you cannot eliminate them. There are a
thousand points at which fortune may intervene. The state of the
weather, the height of the water, the appetite of the fish, the
presence or absence of other anglers--all these indeterminable
elements enter into the reckoning of your success. There is no
combination of stars in the firmament by which you can forecast the
piscatorial future. When you go a-fishing, you just take your
chances; you offer yourself as a candidate for anything that may be
going; you try your luck.
There are certain days that are favourites among anglers, who regard
them as propitious for the sport. I know a man who believes that
the fish always rise better on Sunday than on any other day in the
week. He complains bitterly of this supposed fact, because his
religious scruples will not allow him to take advantage of it. He
confesses that he has sometimes thought seriously of joining the
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, in the Alleghany Mountains, I have
found a curious tradition that Ascension Day is the luckiest in the
year for fishing. On that morning the district school is apt to be
thinly attended, and you must be on the stream very early if you do
not wish to find wet footprints on the stones ahead of you.
But in fact, all these superstitions about fortunate days are idle
and presumptuous. If there were such days in the calendar, a kind
and firm Providence would never permit the race of man to discover
them. It would rob life of one of its principal attractions, and
make fishing altogether too easy to be interesting.
Fisherman's luck is so notorious that it has passed into a proverb.
But the fault with that familiar saying is that it is too short and
too narrow to cover half the variations of the angler's possible
experience. For if his luck should be bad, there is no portion of
his anatomy, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet,
that may not be thoroughly wet. But if it should be good, he may
receive an unearned blessing of abundance not only in his basket,
but also in his head and his heart, his memory and his fancy. He
may come home from some obscure, ill-named, lovely stream--some Dry
Brook, or Southwest Branch of Smith's Run--with a creel full of
trout, and a mind full of grateful recollections of flowers that
seemed to bloom for his sake, and birds that sang a new, sweet,
friendly message to his tired soul. He may climb down to "Tommy's
Rock" below the cliffs at Newport (as I have done many a day with my
lady Greygown), and, all unnoticed by the idle, weary promenaders in
the path of fashion, haul in a basketful of blackfish, and at the
same time look out across the shining sapphire waters and inherit a
wondrous good fortune of dreams--
"Have glimpses that will make him less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn."
But all this, you must remember, depends upon something secret and
incalculable, something that we can neither command nor predict. It
is an affair of gift, not of wages. Fish (and the other good things
which are like sauce to the catching of them) cast no shadow before.
Water is the emblem of instability. No one can tell what he shall
draw out of it until he has taken in his line. Herein are found the
true charm and profit of angling for all persons of a pure and
Look at those two venerable gentlemen floating in a skiff upon the
clear waters of Lake George. One of them is a successful statesman,
an ex-President of the United States, a lawyer versed in all the
curious eccentricities of the "lawless science of the law." The
other is a learned doctor of medicine, able to give a name to all
diseases from which men have imagined that they suffered, and to
invent new ones for those who are tired of vulgar maladies. But all
their learning is forgotten, their cares and controversies are laid
aside, in "innocuous desuetude." The Summer School of Sociology is
assembled. The Medical Congress is in session.
But they care not--no, not so much as the value of a single live
bait. The sun shines upon them with a fervent heat, but it irks
them not. The rain descends, and the winds blow and beat upon them,
but they are unmoved. They are securely anchored here in the lee of
What enchantment binds them to that inconsiderable spot? What magic
fixes their eyes upon the point of a fishing-rod, as if it were the
finger of destiny? It is the enchantment of uncertainty: the same
natural magic that draws the little suburban boys in the spring of
the year, with their strings and pin-hooks, around the shallow ponds
where dace and redfins hide; the same irresistible charm that fixes
a row of city gamins, like ragged and disreputable fish-crows, on
the end of a pier where blear-eyed flounders sometimes lurk in the
muddy water. Let the philosopher explain it as he will. Let the
moralist reprehend it as he chooses. There is nothing that attracts
human nature more powerfully than the sport of tempting the unknown
with a fishing-line.
Those ancient anglers have set out upon an exodus from the tedious
realm of the definite, the fixed, the must-certainly-come-to-pass.
They are on a holiday in the free country of peradventure. They do
not know at this moment whether the next turn of Fortune's reel will
bring up a perch or a pickerel, a sunfish or a black bass. It may
be a hideous catfish or a squirming eel, or it may be a lake-trout,
the grand prize in the Lake George lottery. There they sit, those
gray-haired lads, full of hope, yet equally prepared for
resignation; taking no thought for the morrow, and ready to make the
best of to-day; harmless and happy players at the best of all games
"In other words," I hear some severe and sour-complexioned reader
say, "in plain language, they are a pair of old gamblers."
Yes, if it pleases you to call honest men by a bad name. But they
risk nothing that is not their own; and if they lose, they are not
impoverished. They desire nothing that belongs to other men; and if
they win, no one is robbed. If all gambling were like that, it
would be difficult to see the harm in it. Indeed, a daring moralist
might even assert, and prove by argument, that so innocent a delight
in the taking of chances is an aid to virtue.
Do you remember Martin Luther's reasoning on the subject of
"excellent large pike"? He maintains that God would never have
created them so good to the taste, if He had not meant them to be
eaten. And for the same reason I conclude that this world would
never have been left so full of uncertainties, nor human nature
framed so as to find a peculiar joy and exhilaration in meeting them
bravely and cheerfully, if it had not been divinely intended that
most of our amusement and much of our education should come from
"Chance" is a disreputable word, I know. It is supposed by many
pious persons to be improper and almost blasphemous to use it. But
I am not one of those who share this verbal prejudice. I am
inclined rather to believe that it is a good word to which a bad
reputation has been given. I feel grateful to that admirable
"psychologist who writes like a novelist," Mr. William James, for
his brilliant defence of it. For what does it mean, after all, but
that some things happen in a certain way which might have happened
in another way? Where is the immorality, the irreverence, the
atheism in such a supposition? Certainly God must be competent to
govern a world in which there are possibilities of various kinds,
just as well as one in which every event is inevitably determined
beforehand. St. Peter and the other fishermen-disciples on the Lake
of Galilee were perfectly free to cast their net on either side of
the ship. So far as they could see, so far as any one could see, it
was a matter of chance where they chose to cast it. But it was not
until they let it down, at the Master's word, on the right side that
they had good luck. And not the least element of their joy in the
draft of fishes was that it brought a change of fortune.
Leave the metaphysics of the question on the table for the present.
As a matter of fact, it is plain that our human nature is adapted to
conditions variable, undetermined, and hidden from our view. We are
not fitted to live in a world where a + b always equals c, and there
is nothing more to follow. The interest of life's equation arrives
with the appearance of x, the unknown quantity. A settled,
unchangeable, clearly foreseeable order of things does not suit our
constitution. It tends to melancholy and a fatty heart. Creatures
of habit we are undoubtedly; but it is one of our most fixed habits
to be fond of variety. The man who is never surprised does not know
the taste of happiness, and unless the unexpected sometimes happens
to us, we are most grievously disappointed.
Much of the tediousness of highly civilized life comes from its
smoothness and regularity. To-day is like yesterday, and we think
that we can predict to-morrow. Of course we cannot really do so.
The chances are still there. But we have covered them up so deeply
with the artificialities of life that we lose sight of them. It
seems as if everything in our neat little world were arranged, and
provided for, and reasonably sure to come to pass. The best way of
escape from this TAEDIUM VITAE is through a recreation like angling,
not only because it is so evidently a matter of luck, but also
because it tempts us into a wilder, freer life. It leads almost
inevitably to camping out, which is a wholesome and sanitary
It is curious and pleasant, to my apprehension, to observe how many
people in New England, one of whose States is called "the land of
Steady Habits," are sensible of the joy of changing them,--out of
doors. These good folk turn out from their comfortable farm-houses
and their snug suburban cottages to go a-gypsying for a fortnight
among the mountains or beside the sea. You see their white tents
gleaming from the pine-groves around the little lakes, and catch
glimpses of their bathing-clothes drying in the sun on the wiry
grass that fringes the sand-dunes. Happy fugitives from the bondage
of routine! They have found out that a long journey is not
necessary to a good vacation. You may reach the Forest of Arden in
a buckboard. The Fortunate Isles are within sailing distance in a
dory. And a voyage on the river Pactolus is open to any one who can
paddle a canoe.
I was talking--or rather listening--with a barber, the other day, in
the sleepy old town of Rivermouth. He told me, in one of those easy
confidences which seem to make the razor run more smoothly, that it
had been the custom of his family, for some twenty years past, to
forsake their commodious dwelling on Anchor Street every summer, and
emigrate six miles, in a wagon to Wallis Sands, where they spent the
month of August very merrily under canvas. Here was a sensible
household for you! They did not feel bound to waste a year's income
on a four weeks' holiday. They were not of those foolish folk who
run across the sea, carefully carrying with them the same tiresome
mind that worried them at home. They got a change of air by making
an alteration of life. They escaped from the land of Egypt by
stepping out into the wilderness and going a-fishing.
The people who always live in houses, and sleep on beds, and walk on
pavements, and buy their food from butchers and bakers and grocers,
are not the most blessed inhabitants of this wide and various earth.
The circumstances of their existence are too mathematical and secure
for perfect contentment. They live at second or third hand. They
are boarders in the world. Everything is done for them by somebody
It is almost impossible for anything very interesting to happen to
them. They must get their excitement out of the newspapers, reading
of the hairbreadth escapes and moving accidents that befall people
in real life. What do these tame ducks really know of the adventure
of living? If the weather is bad, they are snugly housed. If it is
cold, there is a furnace in the cellar. If they are hungry, the
shops are near at hand. It is all as dull, flat, stale, and
unprofitable as adding up a column of figures. They might as well
be brought up in an incubator.
But when man abides in tents, after the manner of the early
patriarchs, the face of the world is renewed. The vagaries of the
clouds become significant. You watch the sky with a lover's look,
eager to know whether it will smile or frown. When you lie at night
upon your bed of boughs and hear the rain pattering on the canvas
close above your head, you wonder whether it is a long storm or only
The rising wind shakes the tent-flaps. Are the pegs well driven
down and the cords firmly fastened? You fall asleep again and wake
later, to hear the rain drumming still more loudly on the tight
cloth, and the big breeze snoring through the forest, and the waves
plunging along the beach. A stormy day? Well, you must cut plenty
of wood and keep the camp-fire glowing, for it will be hard to start
it up again, if you let it get too low. There is little use in
fishing or hunting in such a storm. But there is plenty to do in
the camp: guns to be cleaned, tackle to be put in order, clothes to
be mended, a good story of adventure to be read, a belated letter to
be written to some poor wretch in a summer hotel, a game of hearts
or cribbage to be played, or a hunting-trip to be planned for the
return of fair weather. The tent is perfectly dry. A little trench
dug around it carries off the surplus water, and luckily it is
pitched with the side to the lake, so that you get the pleasant heat
of the fire without the unendurable smoke. Cooking in the rain has
its disadvantages. But how good the supper tastes when it is served
up on a tin plate, with an empty box for a table and a roll of
blankets at the foot of the bed for a seat!
A day, two days, three days, the storm may continue, according to
your luck. I have been out in the woods for a fortnight without a
drop of rain or a sign of dust. Again, I have tented on the shore
of a big lake for a week, waiting for an obstinate tempest to pass
Look now, just at nightfall: is there not a little lifting and
breaking of the clouds in the west, a little shifting of the wind
toward a better quarter? You go to bed with cheerful hopes. A
dozen times in the darkness you are half awake, and listening
drowsily to the sounds of the storm. Are they waxing or waning? Is
that louder pattering a new burst of rain, or is it only the
plumping of the big drops as they are shaken from the trees? See,
the dawn has come, and the gray light glimmers through the canvas.
In a little while you will know your fate.
Look! There is a patch of bright yellow radiance on the peak of the
tent. The shadow of a leaf dances over it. The sun must be
shining. Good luck! and up with you, for it is a glorious morning.
The woods are glistening as fresh and fair as if they had been new-
created overnight. The water sparkles, and tiny waves are dancing
and splashing all along the shore. Scarlet berries of the mountain-
ash hang around the lake. A pair of kingfishers dart back and forth
across the bay, in flashes of living blue. A black eagle swings
silently around his circle, far up in the cloudless sky. The air is
full of pleasant sounds, but there is no noise. The world is full
of joyful life, but there is no crowd and no confusion. There is no
factory chimney to darken the day with its smoke, no trolley-car to
split the silence with its shriek and smite the indignant ear with
the clanging of its impudent bell. No lumberman's axe has robbed
the encircling forests of their glory of great trees. No fires have
swept over the hills and left behind them the desolation of a
bristly landscape. All is fresh and sweet, calm and clear and
'Twas rather a rude jest of Nature, that tempest of yesterday. But
if you have taken it in good part, you are all the more ready for
her caressing mood to-day. And now you must be off to get your
dinner--not to order it at a shop, but to look for it in the woods
and waters. You are ready to do your best with rod or gun. You
will use all the skill you have as hunter or fisherman. But what
you shall find, and whether you shall subsist on bacon and biscuit,
or feast on trout and partridges, is, after all, a matter of luck.
I profess that it appears to me not only pleasant, but also
salutary, to be in this condition. It brings us home to the plain
realities of life; it teaches us that a man ought to work before he
eats; it reminds us that, after he has done all he can, he must
still rely upon a mysterious bounty for his daily bread. It says to
us, in homely and familiar words, that life was meant to be
uncertain, that no man can tell what a day will bring forth, and
that it is the part of wisdom to be prepared for disappointments and
grateful for all kinds of small mercies.
There is a story in that fragrant book, THE LITTLE FLOWERS OF ST.
FRANCIS, which I wish to transcribe here, without tying a moral to
it, lest any one should accuse me of preaching.
"Hence [says the quaint old chronicler], having assigned to his
companions the other parts of the world, St. Francis, taking Brother
Maximus as his comrade, set forth toward the province of France.
And coming one day to a certain town, and being very hungry, they
begged their bread as they went, according to the rule of their
order, for the love of God. And St. Francis went through one
quarter of the town, and Brother Maximus through another. But
forasmuch as St. Francis was a man mean and low of stature, and
hence was reputed a vile beggar by such as knew him not, he only
received a few scanty crusts and mouthfuls of dry bread. But to
Brother Maximus, who was large and well favoured, were given good
pieces and big, and an abundance of bread, yea, whole loaves.
Having thus begged, they met together without the town to eat, at a
place where there was a clear spring and a fair large stone, upon
which each spread forth the gifts that he had received. And St.
Francis, seeing that the pieces of bread begged by Brother Maximus
were bigger and better than his own, rejoiced greatly, saying, 'Oh,
Brother Maximus, we are not worthy of so great a treasure.' As he
repeated these words many times, Brother Maximus made answer:
'Father, how can you talk of treasures when there is such great
poverty and such lack of all things needful? Here is neither napkin
nor knife, neither board nor trencher, neither house nor table,
neither man-servant nor maid-servant.' St. Francis replied: 'And
this is what I reckon a great treasure, where naught is made ready
by human industry, but all that is here is prepared by Divine
Providence, as is plainly set forth in the bread which we have
begged, in the table of fair stone, and in the spring of clear
water. And therefore I would that we should pray to God that He
teach us with all our hearts to love the treasure of holy poverty,
which is so noble a thing, and whose servant is God the Lord.'"
I know of but one fairer description of a repast in the open air;
and that is where we are told how certain poor fishermen, coming in
very weary after a night of toil (and one of them very wet after
swimming ashore), found their Master standing on the bank of the
lake waiting for them. But it seems that he must have been busy in
their behalf while he was waiting; for there was a bright fire of
coals burning on the shore, and a goodly fish broiling thereon, and
bread to eat with it. And when the Master had asked them about
their fishing, he said, "Come, now, and get your breakfast." So
they sat down around the fire, and with his own hands he served them
with the bread and the fish.
Of all the banquets that have ever been given upon earth, that is
the one in which I would rather have had a share.
But it is now time that we should return to our fishing. And let us
observe with gratitude that almost all of the pleasures that are
connected with this pursuit--its accompaniments and variations,
which run along with the tune and weave an embroidery of delight
around it--have an accidental and gratuitous quality about them.
They are not to be counted upon beforehand. They are like something
that is thrown into a purchase by a generous and open-handed dealer,
to make us pleased with our bargain and inclined to come back to the
If I knew, for example, before setting out for a day on the brook,
precisely what birds I should see, and what pretty little scenes in
the drama of woodland life were to be enacted before my eyes, the
expedition would lose more than half its charm. But, in fact, it is
almost entirely a matter of luck, and that is why it never grows
The ornithologist knows pretty well where to look for the birds, and
he goes directly to the places where he can find them, and proceeds
to study them intelligently and systematically. But the angler who
idles down the stream takes them as they come, and all his
observations have a flavour of surprise in them.
He hears a familiar song,--one that he has often heard at a
distance, but never identified,--a loud, cheery, rustic cadence
sounding from a low pine-tree close beside him. He looks up
carefully through the needles and discovers a hooded warbler, a
tiny, restless creature, dressed in green and yellow, with two white
feathers in its tail, like the ends of a sash, and a glossy little
black bonnet drawn closely about its golden head. He will never
forget that song again. It will make the woods seem homelike to
him, many a time, as he hears it ringing through the afternoon, like
the call of a small country girl playing at hide-and-seek: "See ME;
here I BE."
Another day he sits down on a mossy log beside a cold, trickling
spring to eat his lunch. It has been a barren day for birds.
Perhaps he has fallen into the fault of pursuing his sport too
intensely, and tramped along the stream looking for nothing but
fish. Perhaps this part of the grove has really been deserted by
its feathered inhabitants, scared away by a prowling hawk or driven
out by nest-hunters. But now, without notice, the luck changes. A
surprise-party of redstarts breaks into full play around him. All
through the dark-green shadow of the hemlocks they flash like little
candles--CANDELITAS, the Cubans call them. Their brilliant markings
of orange and black, and their fluttering, airy, graceful movements,
make them most welcome visitors. There is no bird in the bush
easier to recognize or pleasanter to watch. They run along the
branches and dart and tumble through the air in fearless chase of
invisible flies and moths. All the time they keep unfolding and
furling their rounded tails, spreading them out and waving them and
closing them suddenly, just as the Cuban girls manage their fans.
In fact, the redstarts are the tiny fantail pigeons of the forest.
There are other things about the birds, besides their musical
talents and their good looks, that the fisherman has a chance to
observe on his lucky days. He may sea something of their courage
and their devotion to their young.
I suppose a bird is the bravest creature that lives, in spite of its
natural timidity. From which we may learn that true courage is not
incompatible with nervousness, and that heroism does not mean the
absence of fear, but the conquest of it. Who does not remember the
first time that he ever came upon a hen-partridge with her brood, as
he was strolling through the woods in June? How splendidly the old
bird forgets herself in her efforts to defend and hide her young!
Smaller birds are no less daring. One evening last summer I was
walking up the Ristigouche from Camp Harmony to fish for salmon at
Mowett's Rock, where my canoe was waiting for me. As I stepped out
from a thicket on to the shingly bank of the river, a spotted
sandpiper teetered along before me, followed by three young ones.
Frightened at first, the mother flew out a few feet over the water.
But the piperlings could not fly, having no feathers; and they crept
under a crooked log. I rolled the log over very gently and took one
of the cowering creatures into my hand--a tiny, palpitating scrap of
life, covered with soft gray down, and peeping shrilly, like a
Liliputian chicken. And now the mother was transformed. Her fear
was changed into fury. She was a bully, a fighter, an Amazon in
feathers. She flew at me with loud cries, dashing herself almost
into my face. I was a tyrant, a robber, a kidnapper, and she called
heaven to witness that she would never give up her offspring without
a struggle. Then she changed her tactics and appealed to my baser
passions. She fell to the ground and fluttered around me as if her
wing were broken. "Look!" she seemed to say, "I am bigger than that
poor little baby. If you must eat something, eat me! My wing is
lame. I can't fly. You can easily catch me. Let that little bird
go!" And so I did; and the whole family disappeared in the bushes
as if by magic. I wondered whether the mother was saying to
herself, after the manner of her sex, that men are stupid things,
after all, and no match for the cleverness of a female who stoops to
deception in a righteous cause.
Now, that trivial experience was what I call a piece of good luck--
for me, and, in the event, for the sandpiper. But it is doubtful
whether it would be quite so fresh and pleasant in the remembrance,
if it had not also fallen to my lot to take two uncommonly good
salmon on that same evening, in a dry season.
Never believe a fisherman when he tells you that he does not care
about the fish he catches. He may say that he angles only for the
pleasure of being out-of-doors, and that he is just as well
contented when he takes nothing as when he makes a good catch. He
may think so, but it is not true. He is not telling a deliberate
falsehood. He is only assuming an unconscious pose, and indulging
in a delicate bit of self-flattery. Even if it were true, it would
not be at all to his credit.
Watch him on that lucky day when he comes home with a full basket of
trout on his shoulder, or a quartette of silver salmon covered with
green branches in the bottom of the canoe. His face is broader than
it was when he went out, and there is a sparkle of triumph in his
eye. "It is naught, it is naught," he says, in modest depreciation
of his triumph. But you shall see that he lingers fondly about the
place where the fish are displayed upon the grass, and does not fail
to look carefully at the scales when they are weighed, and has an
attentive ear for the comments of admiring spectators. You shall
find, moreover, that he is not unwilling to narrate the story of the
capture--how the big fish rose short, four times, to four different
flies, and finally took a small Black Dose, and played all over the
pool, and ran down a terribly stiff rapid to the next pool below,
and sulked for twenty minutes, and had to be stirred up with stones,
and made such a long fight that, when he came in at last, the hold
of the hook was almost worn through, and it fell out of his mouth as
he touched the shore. Listen to this tale as it is told, with
endless variations, by every man who has brought home a fine fish,
and you will perceive that the fisherman does care for his luck,
And why not? I am no friend to the people who receive the bounties
of Providence without visible gratitude. When the sixpence falls
into your hat, you may laugh. When the messenger of an unexpected
blessing takes you by the hand and lifts you up and bids you walk,
you may leap and run and sing for joy, even as the lame man, whom
St. Peter healed, skipped piously and rejoiced aloud as he passed
through the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. There is no virtue in
solemn indifference. Joy is just as much a duty as beneficence is.
Thankfulness is the other side of mercy.
When you have good luck in anything, you ought to be glad. Indeed,
if you are not glad, you are not really lucky.
But boasting and self-glorification I would have excluded, and most
of all from the behaviour of the angler. He, more than other men,
is dependent for his success upon the favour of an unseen
benefactor. Let his skill and industry be never so great, he can do
nothing unless LA BONNE CHANCE comes to him.
I was once fishing on a fair little river, the P'tit Saguenay, with
two excellent anglers and pleasant companions, H. E. G---- and C. S.
D----. They had done all that was humanly possible to secure good
sport. The stream had been well preserved. They had boxes full of
beautiful flies, and casting-lines imported from England, and a rod
for every fish in the river. But the weather was "dour," and the
water "drumly," and every day the lumbermen sent a "drive" of ten
thousand spruce logs rushing down the flooded stream. For three
days we had not seen a salmon, and on the fourth, despairing, we
went down to angle for sea-trout in the tide of the greater
Saguenay. There, in the salt water, where men say the salmon never
take the fly, H. E. G----, fishing with a small trout-rod, a poor,
short line, and an ancient red ibis of the common kind, rose and
hooked a lordly salmon of at least five-and-thirty pounds. Was not
this pure luck?
Pride is surely the most unbecoming of all vices in a fisherman.
For though intelligence and practice and patience and genius, and
many other noble things which modesty forbids him to mention, enter
into his pastime, so that it is, as Izaak Walton has firmly
maintained, an art; yet, because fortune still plays a controlling
hand in the game, its net results should never be spoken of with a
haughty and vain spirit. Let not the angler imitate Timoleon, who
boasted of his luck and lost it. It is tempting Providence to print
the record of your wonderful catches in the sporting newspapers; or
at least, if it must be done, there should stand at the head of the
column some humble, thankful motto, like "NON NOBIS, DOMINE." Even
Father Izaak, when he has a fish on his line, says, with a due sense
of human limitations, "There is a trout now, and a good one too, IF
I CAN BUT HOLD HIM!"
This reminds me that we left H. E. G----, a few sentences back,
playing his unexpected salmon, on a trout-rod, in the Saguenay.
Four times that great fish leaped into the air; twice he suffered
the pliant reed to guide him toward the shore, and twice ran out
again to deeper water. Then his spirit awoke within him: he bent
the rod like a willow wand, dashed toward the middle of the river,
broke the line as if it had been pack-thread, and sailed
triumphantly away to join the white porpoises that were tumbling in
the tide. "WHE-E-EW," they said, "WHE-E-EW! PSHA-A-AW!" blowing out
their breath in long, soft sighs as they rolled about like huge
snowballs in the black water. But what did H. E. G---- say? He sat
him quietly down upon a rock and reeled in the remnant of his line,
uttering these remarkable and Christian words: "Those porpoises,"
said he, "describe the situation rather mildly. But it was good fun
while it lasted."
Again I remembered a saying of Walton: "Well, Scholar, you must
endure worse luck sometimes, or you will never make a good angler."
Or a good man, either, I am sure. For he who knows only how to
enjoy, and not to endure, is ill-fitted to go down the stream of
life through such a world as this.
I would not have you to suppose, gentle reader, that in discoursing
of fisherman's luck I have in mind only those things which may be
taken with a hook. It is a parable of human experience. I have
been thinking, for instance, of Walton's life as well as of his
angling: of the losses and sufferings that he, the firm Royalist,
endured when the Commonwealth men came marching into London town; of
the consoling days that were granted to him, in troublous times, on
the banks of the Lea and the Dove and the New River, and the good
friends that he made there, with whom he took sweet counsel in
adversity; of the little children who played in his house for a few
years, and then were called away into the silent land where he could
hear their voices no longer. I was thinking how quietly and
peaceably he lived through it all, not complaining nor desponding,
but trying to do his work well, whether he was keeping a shop or
writing hooks, and seeking to prove himself an honest man and a
cheerful companion, and never scorning to take with a thankful heart
such small comforts and recreations as came to him.
It is a plain, homely, old-fashioned meditation, reader, but not
unprofitable. When I talk to you of fisherman's luck, I do not
forget that there are deeper things behind it. I remember that what
we call our fortunes, good or ill, are but the wise dealings and
distributions of a Wisdom higher, and a Kindness greater, than our
own. And I suppose that their meaning is that we should learn, by
all the uncertainties of our life, even the smallest, how to be
brave and steady and temperate and hopeful, whatever comes, because
we believe that behind it all there lies a purpose of good, and over
it all there watches a providence of blessing.
In the school of life many branches of knowledge are taught. But
the only philosophy that amounts to anything, after all, is just the
secret of making friends with our luck.
THE THRILLING MOMENT
"In angling, as in all other recreations into which excitement
enters, we have to be on our guard, so that we can at any moment
throw a weight of self-control into the scale against misfortune;
and happily we can study to some purpose, both to increase our
pleasure in success and to lessen our distress caused by what goes
ill. It is not only in cases of great disasters, however, that the
angler needs self-control. He is perpetually called upon to use it
to withstand small exasperations."--SIR EDWARD GREY: Fly-Fishing.
Every moment of life, I suppose, is more or less of a turning-point.
Opportunities are swarming around us all the time, thicker than
gnats at sundown. We walk through a cloud of chances, and if we
were always conscious of them they would worry us almost to death.
But happily our sense of uncertainty is soothed and cushioned by
habit, so that we can live comfortably with it. Only now and then,
by way of special excitement, it starts up wide awake. We perceive
how delicately our fortune is poised and balanced on the pivot of a
single incident. We get a peep at the oscillating needle, and,
because we have happened to see it tremble, we call our experience a
The meditative angler is not exempt from these sensational periods.
There are times when all the uncertainty of his chosen pursuit seems
to condense itself into one big chance, and stand out before him
like a salmon on the top wave of a rapid. He sees that his luck
hangs by a single strand, and he cannot tell whether it will hold or
break. This is his thrilling moment, and he never forgets it.
Mine came to me in the autumn of 1894, on the banks of the
Unpronounceable River, in the Province of Quebec. It was the last
day, of the open season for ouananiche, and we had set our hearts on
catching some good fish to take home with us. We walked up from the
mouth of the river, four preposterously long and rough miles, to the
famous fishing-pool, "LA PLACE DE PECHE A BOIVIN." It was a noble
day for walking; the air was clear and crisp, and all the hills
around us were glowing with the crimson foliage of those little
bushes which God created to make burned lands look beautiful. The
trail ended in a precipitous gully, down which we scrambled with
high hopes, and fishing-rods unbroken, only to find that the river
was in a condition which made angling absurd if not impossible.
There must have been a cloud-burst among the mountains, for the
water was coming down in flood. The stream was bank-full, gurgling
and eddying out among the bushes, and rushing over the shoal where
the fish used to lie, in a brown torrent ten feet deep. Our last
day with the land-locked salmon seemed destined to be a failure, and
we must wait eight months before we could have another. There were
three of us in the disappointment, and we shared it according to our
Paul virtuously resolved not to give up while there was a chance
left, and wandered down-stream to look for an eddy where he might
pick up a small fish. Ferdinand, our guide, resigned himself
without a sigh to the consolation of eating blueberries, which he
always did with great cheerfulness. But I, being more cast down
than either of my comrades, sought out a convenient seat among the
rocks, and, adapting my anatomy as well as possible to the
irregularities of nature's upholstery, pulled from my pocket AN
AMATEUR ANGLER'S DAYS IN DOVE DALE, and settled down to read myself
into a Christian frame of mind.
Before beginning, my eyes roved sadly over the pool once more. It
was but a casual glance. It lasted only for an instant. But in
that fortunate fragment of time I distinctly saw the broad tail of a
big ouananiche rise and disappear in the swift water at the very
head of the pool.
Immediately the whole aspect of affairs was changed. Despondency
vanished, and the river glittered with the beams of rising hope.
Such is the absurd disposition of some anglers. They never see a
fish without believing that they can catch him; but if they see no
fish, they are inclined to think that the river is empty and the
I said nothing to my companions. It would have been unkind to
disturb them with expectations which might never be realized. My
immediate duty was to get within casting distance of that salmon as
soon as possible.
The way along the shore of the pool was difficult. The bank was
very steep, and the rocks by the river's edge were broken and
glibbery. Presently I came to a sheer wall of stone, perhaps thirty
feet high, rising directly from the deep water.
There was a tiny ledge or crevice running part of the way across the
face of this wall, and by this four-inch path I edged along, holding
my rod in one hand, and clinging affectionately with the other to
such clumps of grass and little bushes as I could find. There was
one small huckleberry plant to which I had a particular attachment.
It was fortunately a firm little bush, and as I held fast to it I
remembered Tennyson's poem which begins
"Flower in the crannied wall,"
and reflected that if I should succeed in plucking out this flower,
"root and all," it would probably result in an even greater increase
of knowledge than the poet contemplated.
The ledge in the rock now came to an end. But below me in the pool
there was a sunken reef; and on this reef a long log had caught,
with one end sticking out of the water, within jumping distance. It
was the only chance. To go back would have been dangerous. An
angler with a large family dependent upon him for support has no
right to incur unnecessary perils.
Besides, the fish was waiting for me at the upper end of the pool!
So I jumped; landed on the end of the log; felt it settle slowly
down; ran along it like a small boy on a seesaw, and leaped off into
shallow water just as the log rolled from the ledge and lunged out
into the stream.
It went wallowing through the pool and down the rapid like a playful
hippopotamus. I watched it with interest and congratulated myself
that I was no longer embarked upon it. On that craft a voyage down
the Unpronounceable River would have been short but far from merry.
The "all ashore" bell was not rung early enough. I just got off,
with not half a second to spare.
But now all was well, for I was within reach of the fish. A little
scrambling over the rocks brought me to a point where I could easily
cast over him. He was lying in a swift, smooth, narrow channel
between two large stones. It was a snug resting-place, and no doubt
he would remain there for some time. So I took out my fly-book and
prepared to angle for him according to the approved rules of the
Nothing is more foolish in sport than the habit of precipitation.
And yet it is a fault to which I am singularly subject. As a boy,
in Brooklyn, I never came in sight of the Capitoline Skating Pond,
after a long ride in the horse-cars, without breaking into a run
along the board walk, buckling on my skates in a furious hurry, and
flinging myself impetuously upon the ice, as if I feared that it
would melt away before I could reach it. Now this, I confess, is a
grievous defect, which advancing years have not entirely cured; and
I found it necessary to take myself firmly, as it were, by the
mental coat-collar, and resolve not to spoil the chance of catching
the only ouananiche in the Unpronounceable River by undue haste in
fishing for him.
I carefully tested a brand-new leader, and attached it to the line
with great deliberation and the proper knot. Then I gave my whole
mind to the important question of a wise selection of flies.
It is astonishing how much time and mental anxiety a man can spend
on an apparently simple question like this. When you are buying
flies in a shop it seems as if you never had half enough. You keep
on picking out a half-dozen of each new variety as fast as the
enticing salesman shows them to you. You stroll through the streets
of Montreal or Quebec and drop in at every fishing-tackle dealer's
to see whether you can find a few more good flies. Then, when you
come to look over your collection at the critical moment on the bank
of a stream, it seems as if you had ten times too many. And, spite
of all, the precise fly that you need is not there.
You select a couple that you think fairly good, lay them down beside
you in the grass, and go on looking through the book for something
better. Failing to satisfy yourself, you turn to pick up those that
you have laid out, and find that they have mysteriously vanished
from the face of the earth.
Then you struggle with naughty words and relapse into a condition of
Precipitation is a fault. But deliberation, for a person of
precipitate disposition, is a vice.
The best thing to do in such a case is to adopt some abstract theory
of action without delay, and put it into practice without
hesitation. Then if you fail, you can throw the responsibility on
Now, in regard to flies there are two theories. The old,
conservative theory is, that on a bright day you should use a dark,
dull fly, because it is less conspicuous. So I followed that theory
first and put on a Great Dun and a Dark Montreal. I cast them
delicately over the fish, but he would not look at them.
Then I perverted myself to the new, radical theory which says that
on a bright day you must use a light, gay fly, because it is more in
harmony with the sky, and therefore less noticeable. Accordingly I
put on a Professor and a Parmacheene Belle; but this combination of
learning and beauty had no attraction for the ouananiche.
Then I fell back on a theory of my own, to the effect that the
ouananiche have an aversion to red, and prefer yellow and brown. So
I tried various combinations of flies in which these colours
Then I abandoned all theories and went straight through my book,
trying something from every page, and winding up with that lure
which the guides consider infallible,--"a Jock o' Scott that cost
fifty cents at Quebec." But it was all in vain. I was ready to
At this psychological moment I heard behind me a voice of hope,--the
song of a grasshopper: not one of those fat-legged, green-winged
imbeciles that feebly tumble in the summer fields, but a game
grasshopper,--one of those thin-shanked, brown-winged fellows that
leap like kangaroos, and fly like birds, and sing KRI-KAREE-KAREE-
KRI in their flight.
It is not really a song, I know, but it sounds like one; and, if you
had heard that Kri-karee carolling as I chased him over the rocks,
you would have been sure that he was mocking me.
I believed that he was the predestined lure for that ouananiche; but
it was hard to persuade him to fulfill his destiny. I slapped at
him with my hat, but he was not there. I grasped at him on the
bushes, and brought away "nothing but leaves." At last he made his
way to the very edge of the water and poised himself on a stone,
with his legs well tucked in for a long leap and a bold flight to
the other side of the river. It was my final opportunity. I made a
desperate grab at it and caught the grasshopper.
My premonition proved to be correct. When that Kri-karee, invisibly
attached to my line, went floating down the stream, the ouananiche
was surprised. It was the fourteenth of September, and he had
supposed the grasshopper season was over. The unexpected temptation
was too strong for him. He rose with a rush, and in an instant I
was fast to the best land-locked salmon of the year.
But the situation was not without its embarrassments. My rod
weighed only four and a quarter ounces; the fish weighed between six
and seven pounds. The water was furious and headstrong. I had only
thirty yards of line and no landing-net.
"HOLA! FERDINAND!" I cried. "APPORTE LA NETTE, VITE! A BEAUTY!
I thought it must be an hour while he was making his way over the
hill, through the underbrush, around the cliff. Again and again the
fish ran out my line almost to the last turn. A dozen times he
leaped from the water, shaking his silvery sides. Twice he tried to
cut the leader across a sunken ledge. But at last he was played
out, and came in quietly towards the point of the rock. At the same
moment Ferdinand appeared with the net.
Now, the use of the net is really the most difficult part of
angling. And Ferdinand is the best netsman in the Lake St. John
country. He never makes the mistake of trying to scoop a fish in
motion. He does not grope around with aimless, futile strokes as if
he were feeling for something in the dark. He does not entangle the
dropper-fly in the net and tear the tail-fly out of the fish's
mouth. He does not get excited.
He quietly sinks the net in the water, and waits until he can see
the fish distinctly, lying perfectly still and within reach. Then
he makes a swift movement, like that of a mower swinging the scythe,
takes the fish into the net head-first, and lands him without a
I felt sure that Ferdinand was going to do the trick in precisely
this way with my ouananiche. Just at the right instant he made one
quick, steady swing of the arms, and--the head of the net broke
clean off the handle and went floating away with the fish in it!
All seemed to be lost. But Ferdinand was equal to the occasion. He
seized a long, crooked stick that lay in a pile of driftwood on the
shore, sprang into the water up to his waist, caught the net as it
drifted past, and dragged it to land, with the ultimate ouananiche,
the prize of the season, still glittering through its meshes.
This is the story of my most thrilling moment as an angler.
But which was the moment of the deepest thrill?
Was it when the huckleberry bush saved me from a watery grave, or
when the log rolled under my feet and started down the river? Was
it when the fish rose, or when the net broke, or when the long stick
No, it was none of these. It was when the Kri-karee sat with his
legs tucked under him on the brink of the stream. That was the
turning-point. The fortunes of the day depended on the comparative
quickness of the reflex action of his neural ganglia and mine. That
was the thrilling moment.
I see it now. A crisis is really the commonest thing in the world.
The reason why life sometimes seems dull to us is because we do not
perceive the importance and the excitement of getting bait.
A PRELUDE AND THEME WITH VARIATIONS
"He praises a meditative life, and with evident sincerity: but we
feel that he liked nothing so well as good talk."--JAMES RUSSELL
PRELUDE--ON AN OLD, FOOLISH MAXIM
The inventor of the familiar maxim that "fishermen must not talk" is
lost in the mists of antiquity, and well deserves his fate. For a
more foolish rule, a conventionality more obscure and aimless in its
tyranny, was never imposed upon an innocent and honourable
occupation, to diminish its pleasure and discount its profits. Why,
in the name of all that is genial, should anglers go about their
harmless sport in stealthy silence like conspirators, or sit
together in a boat, dumb, glum, and penitential, like naughty
schoolboys on the bench of disgrace? 'Tis an Omorcan superstition;
a rule without a reason; a venerable, idiotic fashion invented to
repress lively spirits and put a premium on stupidity.
For my part, I incline rather to the opinion of the Neapolitan
fishermen who maintain that a certain amount of noise, of certain
kinds, is likely to improve the fishing, and who have a particular
song, very sweet and charming, which they sing to draw the fishes
around them. It is narrated, likewise, of the good St. Brandan,
that on his notable voyage from Ireland in search of Paradise, he
chanted the service for St. Peter's day so pleasantly that a
subaqueous audience of all sorts and sizes was attracted, insomuch
that the other monks began to be afraid, and begged the abbot that
he would sing a little lower, for they were not quite sure of the
intention of the congregation. Of St. Anthony of Padua it is said
that he even succeeded in persuading the fishes, in great
multitudes, to listen to a sermon; and that when it was ended (it
must be noted that it was both short and cheerful) they bowed their
heads and moved their bodies up and down with every mark of fondness
and approval of what the holy father had spoken.
If we can believe this, surely we need not be incredulous of things
which seem to be no less, but rather more, in harmony with the
course of nature. Creatures who are sensible to the attractions of
a sermon can hardly be indifferent to the charm of other kinds of
discourse. I can easily imagine a company of grayling wishing to
overhear a conversation between I. W. and his affectionate (but
somewhat prodigal) son and servant, Charles Cotton; and surely every
intelligent salmon in Scotland might have been glad to hear
Christopher North and the Ettrick Shepherd bandy jests and swap
stories. As for trout,--was there one in Massachusetts that would
not have been curious to listen to the intimate opinions of Daniel
Webster as he loafed along the banks of the Marshpee,--or is there
one in Pennsylvania to-day that might not be drawn with interest and
delight to the feet of Joseph Jefferson, telling how he conceived
and wrote RIP VAN WINKLE on the banks of a trout-stream?
Fishermen must be silent? On the contrary, it is far more likely
that good talk may promote good fishing.
All this, however, goes upon the assumption that fish can hear, in
the proper sense of the word. And this, it must be confessed, is an
assumption not yet fully verified. Experienced anglers and students
of fishy ways are divided upon the question. It is beyond a doubt
that all fishes, except the very lowest forms, have ears. But then
so have all men; and yet we have the best authority for believing
that there are many who "having ears, hear not."
The ears of fishes, for the most part, are inclosed in their skull,
and have no outward opening. Water conveys sound, as every country
boy knows who has tried the experiment of diving to the bottom of
the swimming-hole and knocking two big stones together. But I doubt
whether any country boy, engaged in this interesting scientific
experiment, has heard the conversation of his friends on the bank
who were engaged in hiding his clothes.
There are many curious and more or less venerable stories to the
effect that fishes may be trained to assemble at the ringing of a
bell or the beating of a drum. Lucian, a writer of the second
century, tells of a certain lake wherein many sacred fishes were
kept, of which the largest had names given to them, and came when
they were called. But Lucian was not a man of especially good
reputation, and there is an air of improbability about his statement
that the LARGEST fishes came. This is not the custom of the largest
In the present century there was a tale of an eel in a garden-well,
in Scotland, which would come to be fed out of a spoon when the
children called him by his singularly inappropriate name of Rob Roy.
This seems a more likely story than Lucian's; at all events it comes
from a more orthodox atmosphere. But before giving it full
credence, I should like to know whether the children, when they
called "Rob Roy!" stood where the eel could see the spoon.
On the other side of the question, we may quote Mr. Ronalds, also a
Scotchman, and the learned author of THE FLY-FISHER'S ENTOMOLOGY,
who conducted a series of experiments which proved that even trout,
the most fugacious of fish, are not in the least disturbed by the
discharge of a gun, provided the flash is concealed. Mr. Henry P.
Wells, the author of THE AMERICAN SALMON ANGLER, says that he has
"never been able to make a sound in the air which seemed to produce
the slightest effect upon trout in the water."
So the controversy on the hearing of fishes continues, and the
conclusion remains open. Every man is at liberty to embrace that
side which pleases him best. You may think that the finny tribes
are as sensitive to sound as Fine Ear, in the German fairy-tale, who
could hear the grass grow. Or you may hold the opposite opinion,
that they are
"Deafer than the blue-eyed cat."
But whichever theory you adopt, in practice, if you are a wise
fisherman, you will steer a middle course, between one thing which
must be left undone and another thing which should be done. You
will refrain from stamping on the bank, or knocking on the side of
the boat, or dragging the anchor among the stones on the bottom; for
when the water vibrates the fish are likely to vanish. But you will
indulge as freely as you please in pleasant discourse with your
comrade; for it is certain that fishing is never hindered, and may
even be helped, in one way or another, by good talk.
I should therefore have no hesitation in advising any one to choose,
for companionship on an angling expedition, long or short, a person
who has the rare merit of being TALKABLE.
THEME--ON A SMALL, USEFUL VIRTUE
"Talkable" is not a new adjective. But it needs a new definition,
and the complement of a corresponding noun. I would fain set down
on paper some observations and reflections which may serve to make
its meaning clear, and render due praise to that most excellent
quality in man or woman,--especially in anglers,--the small but
useful virtue of TALKABILITY.
Robert Louis Stevenson uses the word "talkable" in one of his essays
to denote a certain distinction among the possible subjects of human
speech. There are some things, he says in effect, about which you
can really talk; and there are other things about which you cannot
properly talk at all, but only dispute, or harangue, or prose, or
moralize, or chatter.
After mature consideration I have arrived at the opinion that this
distinction among the themes of speech is an illusion. It does not
exist. All subjects, "the foolish things of the world, and the weak
things of the world, and base things of the world, yea, and things
that are not," may provide matter for good talk, if only the right
people are engaged in the enterprise. I know a man who can make a
description of the weather as entertaining as a tune on the violin;
and even on the threadbare theme of the waywardness of domestic
servants, I have heard a discreet woman play the most diverting and
No, the quality of talkability does not mark a distinction among
things; it denotes a difference among people. It is not an
attribute unequally distributed among material objects and abstract
ideas. It is a virtue which belongs to the mind and moral character
of certain persons. It is a reciprocal human quality; active as
well as passive; a power of bestowing and receiving.
An amiable person is one who has a capacity for loving and being
loved. An affable person is one who is ready to speak and to be
spoken to,--as, for example, Milton's "affable archangel" Raphael;
though it must be confessed that he laid the chief emphasis on the
active side of his affability. A "clubable" person (to use a word
which Dr. Samuel Johnson invented but did not put into his
dictionary) is one who is fit for the familiar give and take of
club-life. A talkable person, therefore, is one whose nature and
disposition invite the easy interchange of thoughts and feelings,
one in whose company it is a pleasure to talk or to be talked to.
Now this good quality of talkability is to be distinguished, very
strictly and inflexibly, from the bad quality which imitates it and
often brings it into discredit. I mean the vice of talkativeness.
That is a selfish, one-sided, inharmonious affair, full of
discomfort, and productive of most unchristian feelings.
You may observe the operations of this vice not only in human
beings, but also in birds. All the birds in the bush can make some
kind of a noise; and most of them like to do it; and some of them
like it a great deal and do it very much. But it is not always for
edification, nor are the most vociferous and garrulous birds
commonly the most pleasing. A parrot, for instance, in your
neighbour's back yard, in the summer time, when the windows are
open, is not an aid to the development of Christian character. I
knew a man who had to stay in the city all summer, and in the autumn
was asked to describe the character and social standing of a new
family that had moved into his neighbourhood. Were they "nice
people," well-bred, intelligent, respectable? "Well," said he, "I
don't know what your standards are, and would prefer not to say
anything libellous; but I'll tell you in a word,--they are the kind
of people that keep a parrot."
Then there is the English Sparrow! What an insufferable chatterbox,
what an incurable scold, what a voluble and tiresome blackguard is
this little feathered cockney. There is not a sweet or pleasant
word in all his vocabulary.
I am convinced that he talks altogether of scandals and fights and
The kingdom of ornithology is divided into two departments,--real
birds and English sparrows. English sparrows are not real birds;
they are little beasts.
There was a church in Brooklyn which was once covered with a great
and spreading vine, in which the sparrows built innumerable nests.
These ungodly little birds kept up such a din that it was impossible
to hear the service of the sanctuary. The faithful clergy strained
their voices to the verge of ministerial sore throat, but the people
had no peace in their devotions until the vine was cut down, and the
Anglican intruders were evicted.
A talkative person is like an English sparrow,--a bird that cannot
sing, and will sing, and ought to be persuaded not to try to sing.
But a talkable person has the gift that belongs to the wood thrush
and the veery and the wren, the oriole and the white-throat and the
rose-breasted grosbeak, the mockingbird and the robin (sometimes);
and the brown thrush; yes, the brown thrush has it to perfection, if
you can catch him alone,--the gift of being interesting, charming,
delightful, in the most off-hand and various modes of utterance.
Talkability is not at all the same thing as eloquence. The eloquent
man surprises, overwhelms, and sometimes paralyzes us by the display
of his power. Great orators are seldom good talkers. Oratory in
exercise is masterful and jealous, and intolerant of all
interruptions. Oratory in preparation is silent, self-centred,
uncommunicative. The painful truth of this remark may he seen in
the row of countenances along the president's table at a public
banquet about nine o'clock in the evening. The bicycle-face seems
unconstrained and merry by comparison with the after-dinner-speech-
face. The flow of table-talk is corked by the anxious conception of
Thackeray, in one of his ROUNDABOUT PAPERS, speaks of "the sin of
tall-talking," which, he says, "is the sin of schoolmasters,
governesses, critics, sermoners, and instructors of young or old
people." But this is not in accord with my observation. I should
say it was rather the sin of dilettanti who are ambitious of that
high-stepping accomplishment which is called "conversational
This has usually, to my mind, something set and artificial about it,
although in its most perfect form the art almost succeeds in
concealing itself. But, at all events, ''conversation'' is talk in
evening dress, with perhaps a little powder and a touch of rouge.
'T is like one of those wise virgins who are said to look their best
by lamplight. And doubtless this is an excellent thing, and not
without its advantages. But for my part, commend me to one who
loses nothing by the early morning illumination,--one who brings all
her attractions with her when she comes down to breakfast,--she is a
very pleasant maid.
Talk is that form of human speech which is exempt from all duties,
foreign and domestic. It is the nearest thing in the world to
thinking and feeling aloud. It is necessarily not for publication,--
solely an evidence of good faith and mutual kindness. You tell me
what you have seen and what you are thinking about, because you take
it for granted that it will interest and entertain me; and you
listen to my replies and the recital of my adventures and opinions,
because you know I like to tell them, and because you find something
in them, of one kind or another, that you care to hear. It is a
nice game, with easy, simple rules, and endless possibilities of
variation. And if we go into it with the right spirit, and play it
for love, without heavy stakes, the chances are that if we happen to
be fairly talkable people we shall have one of the best things in
the world,--a mighty good talk.
What is there in this anxious, hide-bound, tiresome existence of
ours, more restful and remunerative? Montaigne says, "The use of it
is more sweet than of any other action of life; and for that reason
it is that, if I were compelled to choose, I should sooner, I think,
consent to lose my sight than my hearing and speech." The very
aimlessness with which it proceeds, the serene disregard of all
considerations of profit and propriety with which it follows its
wandering course, and brings up anywhere or nowhere, to camp for the
night, is one of its attractions. It is like a day's fishing, not
valuable chiefly for the fish you bring home, but for the pleasant
country through which it leads you, and the state of personal well-
being and health in which it leaves you, warmed, and cheered, and
content with life and friendship.
The order in which you set out upon a talk, the path which you
pursue, the rules which you observe or disregard, make but little
difference in the end. You may follow the advice of Immanuel Kant
if you like, and begin with the weather and the roads, and go on to
current events, and wind up with history, art, and philosophy. Or
you may reverse the order if you prefer, like that admirable talker
Clarence King, who usually set sail on some highly abstract paradox,
such as "Civilization is a nervous disease," and landed in a tale of
adventure in Mexico or the Rocky Mountains. Or you may follow the
example of Edward Eggleston, who started in at the middle and worked
out at either end, and sometimes at both. It makes no difference.
If the thing is in you at all, you will find good matter for talk
anywhere along the route. Hear what Montaigne says again: "In our
discourse all subjects are alike to me; let there be neither weight
nor depth, 't is all one; there is yet grace and pertinence; all
there is tented with a mature and constant judgment, and mixed with
goodness, freedom, gayety, and friendship."
How close to the mark the old essayist sends his arrow! He is right
about the essential qualities of good talk. They are not merely
intellectual. They are moral. Goodness of heart, freedom of
spirit, gayety of temper, and friendliness of disposition,--these
are four fine things, and doubtless as acceptable to God as they are
agreeable to men. The talkability which springs out of these
qualities has its roots in a good soil. On such a plant one need
not look for the poison berries of malign discourse, nor for the
Dead Sea apples of frivolous mockery. But fair fruit will be there,
pleasant to the sight and good for food, brought forth abundantly
according to the season.
VARIATIONS--ON A PLEASANT PHRASE FROM MONTAIGNE
Montaigne has given as our text, "Goodness, freedom, gayety, and
friendship,"--these are the conditions which produce talkability.
And on this fourfold theme we may embroider a few variations, by way
of exposition and enlargement.
GOODNESS is the first thing and the most needful. An ugly, envious,
irritable disposition is not fitted for talk. The occasions for
offence are too numerous, and the way into strife is too short and
easy. A touch of good-natured combativeness, a fondness for brisk
argument, a readiness to try a friendly bout with any comer, on any
ground, is a decided advantage in a talker. It breaks up the
offensive monotony of polite concurrence, and makes things lively.
But quarrelsomeness is quite another affair, and very fatal.
I am always a little uneasy in a discourse with the Reverend
Bellicosus Macduff. It is like playing golf on links liable to
earthquakes. One never knows when the landscape will be thrown into
convulsions. Macduff has a tendency to regard a difference of
opinion as a personal insult. If he makes a bad stroke he seems to
think that the way to retrieve it is to deliver the next one on the
head of the other player. He does not tarry for the invitation to
lay on; and before you know what has happened you find yourself in a
position where you are obliged to cry, "Hold, enough!" and to be
liberally damned without any bargain to that effect. This is
discouraging, and calculated to make one wish that human intercourse
might be put, as far as Macduff is concerned, upon the gold basis of
On the other hand, what a delight it was to talk with that old
worthy, Chancellor Howard Crosby. He was a fighting man for four or
five generations hack, Dutch on one side, English on the other. But
there was not one little drop of gall in his blood. His opinions
were fixed to a degree; he loved to do battle for them; he never
changed them--at least never in the course of the same discussion.
He admired and respected a gallant adversary, and urged him on, with
quips and puns and daring assaults and unqualified statements, to do
his best. Easy victories were not to his taste. Even if he joined
with you in laying out some common falsehood for burial, you might
be sure that before the affair was concluded there would be every
prospect of what an Irishman would call "an elegant wake." If you
stood up against him on one of his favorite subjects of discussion
you must be prepared for hot work. You would have to take off your
coat. But when the combat was over he would be the man to help you
on with it again; and you would walk home together arm in arm,
through the twilight, smoking the pipe of peace. Talk like that
does good. It quickens the beating of the heart, and leaves no
scars upon it.
But this manly spirit, which loves
"To drink delight of battle with its peers,"
is a very different thing from that mean, bad, hostile temper which
loves to inflict wounds and injuries just for the sake of showing
power, and which is never so happy as when it is making some one
wince. There are such people in the world, and sometimes their
brilliancy tempts us to forget their malignancy. But to have much
converse with them is as if we should make playmates of rattlesnakes
for their grace of movement and swiftness of stroke.
I knew a man once (I will not name him even with an initial) who was
malignant to the core. Learned, industrious, accomplished, he kept
all his talents at the service of a perfect genius for hatred. If
you crossed his path but once, he would never cease to curse you.
The grave might close over you, but he would revile your epitaph and
mock at your memory. It was not even necessary that you should do
anything to incur his enmity. It was enough to be upright and
sincere and successful, to waken the wrath of this Shimei.
Integrity was an offence to him, and excellence of any kind filled
him with spleen. There was no good cause within his horizon that he
did not give a bad word to, and no decent man in the community whom
he did not try either to use or to abuse. To listen to him or to
read what he had written was to learn to think a little worse of
every one that he mentioned, and worst of all of him. He had the
air of a gentleman, the vocabulary of a scholar, the style of a
Junius, and the heart of a Thersites.
Talk, in such company, is impossible. The sense of something evil,
lurking beneath the play of wit, is like the knowledge that there
are snakes in the grass. Every step must be taken with fear. But
the real pleasure of a walk through the meadow comes from the
feeling of security, of ease, of safe and happy abandon to the mood
of the moment. This ungirdled and unguarded felicity in mutual
discourse depends, after all, upon the assurance of real goodness in
your companion. I do not mean a stiff impeccability of conduct.
Prudes and Pharisees are poor comrades. I mean simply goodness of
heart, the wholesome, generous, kindly quality which thinketh no
evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, hopeth all things, endureth all
things, and wisheth well to all men. Where you feel this quality
you can let yourself go, in the ease of hearty talk.
FREEDOM is the second note that Montaigne strikes, and it is
essential to the harmony of talking. Very careful, prudent, precise
persons are seldom entertaining in familiar speech. They are like
tennis players in too fine clothes. They think more of their
costume than of the game.
A mania for absolutely correct pronunciation is fatal. The people
who are afflicted with this painful ailment are as anxious about
their utterance as dyspeptics about their diet. They move through
their sentences as delicately as Agag walked. Their little airs of
nicety, their starched cadences and frilled phrases seem as if they
had just been taken out of a literary bandbox. If perchance you
happen to misplace an accent, you shall see their eyebrows curl up
like an interrogation mark, and they will ask you what authority you
have for that pronunciation. As if, forsooth, a man could not talk
without book-license! As if he must have a permit from some dusty
lexicon before he can take a good word into his mouth and speak it
out like the people with whom he has lived!
The truth is that the man who is very particular not to commit
himself, in pronunciation or otherwise, and talks as if his remarks
were being taken down in shorthand, and shudders at the thought of
making a mistake, will hardly be able to open your heart or let out
the best that is in his own.
Reserve and precision are a great protection to overrated
reputations; but they are death to talk.
In talk it is not correctness of grammar nor elegance of enunciation
that charms us; it is spirit, VERVE, the sudden turn of humour, the
keen, pungent taste of life. For this reason a touch of dialect, a
flavour of brogue, is delightful. Any dialect is classic that has
conveyed beautiful thoughts. Who that ever talked with the poet
Tennyson, when he let himself go, over the pipes, would miss the
savour of his broad-rolling Lincolnshire vowels, now heightening the
humour, now deepening the pathos, of his genuine manly speech?
There are many good stories lingering in the memories of those who
knew Dr. James McCosh, the late president of Princeton University,--
stories too good, I fear, to get into a biography; but the best of
them, in print, would not have the snap and vigour of the poorest of
them, in talk, with his own inimitable Scotch-Irish brogue to set it
A brogue is not a fault. It is a beauty, an heirloom, a
distinction. A local accent is like a landed inheritance; it marks
a man's place in the world, tells where he comes from. Of course it
is possible to have too much of it. A man does not need to carry
the soil of his whole farm around with him on his boots. But,
within limits, the accent of a native region is delightful. 'T is
the flavour of heather in the grouse, the taste of wild herbs and
evergreen-buds in the venison. I like the maple-sugar tang of the
Vermonter's sharp-edged speech; the round, full-waisted r's of
Pennsylvania and Ohio; the soft, indolent vowels of the South. One
of the best talkers now living is a schoolmaster from Virginia,
Colonel Gordon McCabe. I once crossed the ocean with him on a
stream of stories that reached from Liverpool to New York. He did
not talk in the least like a book. He talked like a Virginian.
When Montaigne mentions GAYETY as the third clement of satisfying
discourse, I fancy he does not mean mere fun, though that has its
value at the right time and place. But there is another quality
which is far more valuable and always fit. Indeed it underlies the
best fun and makes it wholesome. It is cheerfulness, the temper
which makes the best of things and squeezes the little drops of
honey even out of thistle-blossoms. I think this is what Montaigne
meant. Certainly it is what he had.
Cheerfulness is the background of all good talk. A sense of humour
is a means of grace. With it I have heard a pleasant soul make even
that most perilous of all subjects, the description of a long
illness, entertaining. The various physicians moved through the
recital as excellent comedians, and the medicines appeared like a
succession of timely jests.
There is no occasion upon which this precious element of talkability
comes out stronger than when we are on a journey. Travel with a
cheerless and easily discouraged companion is an unadulterated
misery. But a cheerful comrade is better than a waterproof coat and
I remember riding once with my lady Graygown fifteen miles through a
cold rainstorm, in an open buckboard, over the worst road in the
world, from LAC A LA BELLE RIVIERE to the Metabetchouan River. Such
was the cheerfulness of her ejaculations (the only possible form of
talk) that we arrived at our destination as warm and merry as if we
had been sitting beside a roaring camp-fire.
But after all, the very best thing in good talk, and the thing that
helps it most, is FRIENDSHIP. How it dissolves the barriers that
divide us, and loosens all constraint, and diffuses itself like some
fine old cordial through all the veins of life--this feeling that we
understand and trust each other, and wish each other heartily well!
Everything into which it really comes is good. It transforms
letter-writing from a task into a pleasure. It makes music a
thousand times more sweet. The people who play and sing not at us,
but TO us,--how delightful it is to listen to them! Yes, there is a
talkability that can express itself even without words. There is an
exchange of thought and feeling which is happy alike in speech and
in silence. It is quietness pervaded with friendship.
Having come thus far in the exposition of Montaigne, I shall
conclude with an opinion of my own, even though I cannot quote a
sentence of his to back it.
The one person of all the world in whom talkability is most
desirable, and talkativeness least endurable, is a wife.
A WILD STRAWBERRY
"Such is the story of the Boblink; once spiritual, musical, admired,
the joy of the meadows, and the favourite bird of spring; finally a
gross little sensualist who expiates his sensuality in the larder.
His story contains a moral, worthy the attention of all little birds
and little boys; warning them to keep to those refined and
intellectual pursuits which raised him to so high a pitch of
popularity during the early part of his career; but to eschew all
tendency to that gross and dissipated indulgence, which brought this
mistaken little bird to an untimely end."--WASHINGTON IRVING:
The Swiftwater brook was laughing softly to itself as it ran through
a strip of hemlock forest on the edge of the Woodlings' farm. Among
the evergreen branches overhead the gayly-dressed warblers,--little
friends of the forest,--were flitting to and fro, lisping their June
songs of contented love: milder, slower, lazier notes than those in
which they voiced the amourous raptures of May. Prince's Pine and
golden loose-strife and pink laurel and blue hare-bells and purple-
fringed orchids, and a score of lovely flowers were all abloom. The
late spring had hindered some; the sudden heats of early summer had
hastened others; and now they seemed to come out all together, as if
Nature had suddenly tilted up her cornucopia and poured forth her
treasures in spendthrift joy.
I lay on a mossy bank at the foot of a tree, filling my pipe after a
frugal lunch, and thinking how hard it would be to find in any
quarter of the globe a place more fair and fragrant than this hidden
vale among the Alleghany Mountains. The perfume of the flowers of
the forest is more sweet and subtle than the heavy scent of tropical
blossoms. No lily-field in Bermuda could give a fragrance half so
magical as the fairy-like odour of these woodland slopes, soft
carpeted with the green of glossy vines above whose tiny leaves, in
"The slight Linnaea hangs its twin-born heads."
Nor are there any birds in Africa, or among the Indian Isles, more
exquisite in colour than these miniature warblers, showing their
gold and green, their orange and black, their blue and white,
against the dark background of the rhododendron thicket.
But how seldom we put a cup of pleasure to our lips without a dash
of bitters, a touch of faultfinding. My drop of discontent, that
day, was the thought that the northern woodland, at least in June,
yielded no fruit to match its beauty and its fragrance.
There is good browsing among the leaves of the wood and the grasses
of the meadow, as every well-instructed angler knows. The bright
emerald tips that break from the hemlock and the balsam like verdant
flames have a pleasant savour to the tongue. The leaves of the
sassafras are full of spice, and the bark of the black-birch twigs
holds a fine cordial. Crinkle-root is spicy, but you must partake
of it delicately, or it will bite your tongue. Spearmint and
peppermint never lose their charm for the palate that still
remembers the delights of youth. Wild sorrel has an agreeable,
sour, shivery flavour. Even the tender stalk of a young blade of
grass is a thing that can be chewed by a person of childlike mind
with much contentment.
But, after all, these are only relishes. They whet the appetite
more than they appease it. There should be something to eat, in the
June woods, as perfect in its kind, as satisfying to the sense of
taste, as the birds and the flowers are to the senses of sight and
hearing and smell. Blueberries are good, but they are far away in
July. Blackberries are luscious when they are fully ripe, but that
will not be until August. Then the fishing will be over, and the
angler's hour of need will be past. The one thing that is lacking
now beside this mountain stream is some fruit more luscious and
dainty than grows in the tropics, to melt upon the lips and fill the
mouth with pleasure.
But that is what these cold northern woods will not offer. They are
too reserved, too lofty, too puritanical to make provision for the
grosser wants of humanity. They are not friendly to luxury.
Just then, as I shifted my head to find a softer pillow of moss
after this philosophic and immoral reflection, Nature gave me her
silent answer. Three wild strawberries, nodding on their long
stems, hung over my face. It was an invitation to taste and see
that they were good.
The berries were not the round and rosy ones of the meadow, but the
long, slender, dark crimson ones of the forest. One, two, three; no
more on that vine; but each one as it touched my lips was a drop of
nectar and a crumb of ambrosia, a concentrated essence of all the
pungent sweetness of the wildwood, sapid, penetrating, and
delicious. I tasted the odour of a hundred blossoms and the green
shimmering of innumerable leaves and the sparkle of sifted sunbeams
and the breath of highland breezes and the song of many birds and
the murmur of flowing streams,--all in a wild strawberry.
Do you remember, in THE COMPLEAT ANGLER, a remark which Isaak Walton
quotes from a certain "Doctor Boteler" about strawberries?
"Doubtless," said that wise old man, "God could have made a better
berry, but doubtless God never did."
Well, the wild strawberry is the one that God made.
I think it would have been pleasant to know a man who could sum up
his reflections upon the important question of berries in such a
pithy saying as that which Walton repeats. His tongue must have
been in close communication with his heart. He must have had a fair
sense of that sprightly humour without which piety itself is often
I have often tried to find out more about him, and some day I hope I
shall. But up to the present, all that the books have told me of
this obscure sage is that his name was William Butler, and that he
was an eminent physician, sometimes called "the Aesculapius of his
age." He was born at Ipswich, in 1535, and educated at Clare Hall,
Cambridge; in the neighbourhood of which town he appears to have
spent the most of his life, in high repute as a practitioner of
physic. He had the honour of doctoring King James the First after
an accident on the hunting field, and must have proved himself a
pleasant old fellow, for the king looked him up at Cambridge the
next year, and spent an hour in his lodgings. This wise physician
also invented a medicinal beverage called "Doctor Butler's Ale." I
do not quite like the sound of it, but perhaps it was better than
its name. This much is sure, at all events: either it was really a
harmless drink, or else the doctor must have confined its use
entirely to his patients; for he lived to the ripe age of eighty-
Between the time when William Butler first needed the services of a
physician, in 1535, and the time when he last prescribed for a
patient, in 1618, there was plenty of trouble in England. Bloody
Queen Mary sat on the throne; and there were all kinds of quarrels
about religion and politics; and Catholics and Protestants were
killing one another in the name of God. After that the red-haired
Elizabeth, called the Virgin Queen, wore the crown, and waged
triumphant war and tempestuous love. Then fat James of Scotland was
made king of Great Britain; and Guy Fawkes tried to blow him up with
gunpowder, and failed; and the king tried to blow out all the pipes
in England with his COUNTERBLAST AGAINST TOBACCO; but he failed too.
Somewhere about that time, early in the seventeenth century, a very
small event happened. A new berry was brought over from Virginia,--
FRAGRARIA VIRGINIANA,--and then, amid wars and rumours of wars,
Doctor Butler's happiness was secure. That new berry was so much
richer and sweeter and more generous than the familiar FRAGRARIA
VESCA of Europe, that it attracted the sincere interest of all
persons of good taste. It inaugurated a new era in the history of
the strawberry. The long lost masterpiece of Paradise was restored
to its true place in the affections of man.
Is there not a touch of merry contempt for all the vain
controversies and conflicts of humanity in the grateful ejaculation
with which the old doctor greeted that peaceful, comforting gift of
"From this time forward," he seems to say, "the fates cannot beggar
me, for I have eaten strawberries. With every Maytime that visits
this distracted island, the white blossoms with hearts of gold will
arrive. In every June the red drops of pleasant savour will hang
among the scalloped leaves. The children of this world may wrangle
and give one another wounds that even my good ale cannot cure.
Nevertheless, the earth as God created it is a fair dwelling and
full of comfort for all who have a quiet mind and a thankful heart.
Doubtless God might have made a better world, but doubtless this is
the world He made for us; and in it He planted the strawberry."
Fine old doctor! Brave philosopher of cheerfulness! The Virginian
berry should have been brought to England sooner, or you should have
lived longer, at least to a hundred years, so that you might have
welcomed a score of strawberry-seasons with gratitude and an
Since that time a great change has passed over the fruit which
Doctor Butler praised so well. That product of creative art which
Divine wisdom did not choose to surpass, human industry has laboured
to improve. It has grown immensely in size and substance. The
traveller from America who steams into Queenstown harbour in early
summer is presented (for a consideration) with a cabbage-leaf full
of pale-hued berries, sweet and juicy, any one of which would
outbulk a dozen of those that used to grow in Virginia when
Pocahontas was smitten with the charms of Captain John Smith. They
are superb, those light-tinted Irish strawberries. And there are
wonderful new varieties developed in the gardens of New Jersey and
Rhode Island, which compare with the ancient berries of the woods
and meadows as Leviathan with a minnow. The huge crimson cushions
hang among the plants so thick that they seem like bunches of fruit
with a few leaves attached for ornament. You can satisfy your
hunger in such a berry-patch in ten minutes, while out in the field
you must pick for half an hour, and in the forest thrice as long,
before you can fill a small tin cup.
Yet, after all, it is questionable whether men have really bettered
God's CHEF D'OEUVRE in the berry line. They have enlarged it and
made it more plentiful and more certain in its harvest. But
sweeter, more fragrant, more poignant in its flavour? No. The wild
berry still stands first in its subtle gusto.
Size is not the measure of excellence. Perfection lies in quality,
not in quantity. Concentration enhances pleasure, gives it a point
so that it goes deeper.
Is not a ten-inch trout better than a ten-foot sturgeon? I would
rather read a tiny essay by Charles Lamb than a five-hundred page
libel on life by a modern British novelist who shall be nameless.
Flavour is the priceless quality. Style is the thing that counts
and is remembered, in literature, in art, and in berries.
No JOCUNDA, nor TRIUMPH, nor VICTORIA, nor any other high-titled
fruit that ever took the first prize at an agricultural fair, is
half so delicate and satisfying as the wild strawberry that dropped
into my mouth, under the hemlock tree, beside the Swiftwater.
A touch of surprise is essential to perfect sweetness.
To get what you have been wishing for is pleasant; but to get what
you have not been sure of, makes the pleasure tingle. A new door of
happiness is opened when you go out to hunt for something and
discover it with your own eyes. But there is an experience even
better than that. When you have stupidly forgotten (or despondently
forgone) to look about you for the unclaimed treasures and unearned
blessings which are scattered along the by-ways of life, then,
sometimes by a special mercy, a small sample of them is quietly laid
before you so that you cannot help seeing it, and it brings you back
to a sense of the joyful possibilities of living.
How full of enjoyment is the search after wild things,--wild birds,
wild flowers, wild honey, wild berries! There was a country club on
Storm King Mountain, above the Hudson River, where they used to
celebrate a festival of flowers every spring. Men and women who had
conservatories of their own, full of rare plants and costly orchids,
came together to admire the gathered blossoms of the woodlands and
meadows. But the people who had the best of the entertainment were
the boys and girls who wandered through the thickets and down the
brooks, pushed their way into the tangled copses and crept
venturesomely across the swamps, to look for the flowers. Some of
the seekers may have had a few gray hairs; but for that day at least
they were all boys and girls. Nature was as young as ever, and they
were all her children. Hand touched hand without a glove. The
hidden blossoms of friendship unfolded. Laughter and merry shouts
and snatches of half-forgotten song rose to the lips. Gay adventure
sparkled in the air. School was out and nobody listened for the
bell. It was just a day to live, and be natural, and take no
thought for the morrow.
There is great luck in this affair of looking for flowers. I do not
see how any one who is prejudiced against games of chance can
consistently undertake it.
For my own part, I approve of garden flowers because they are so
orderly and so certain; but wild flowers I love, just because there
is so much chance about them. Nature is all in favour of certainty
in great laws and of uncertainty in small events. You cannot
appoint the day and the place for her flower-shows. If you happen
to drop in at the right moment she will give you a free admission.
But even then it seems as if the table of beauty had been spread for
the joy of a higher visitor, and in obedience to secret orders which
you have not heard.
Have you ever found the fringed gentian?
"Just before the snows,
There came a purple creature
That lavished all the hill:
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition:
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked her,--
'Creator, shall I bloom?'"
There are strange freaks of fortune in the finding of wild flowers,
and curious coincidences which make us feel as if some one were
playing friendly tricks on us. I remember reading, one evening in
May, a passage in a good book called THE PROCESSION OF THE FLOWERS,
in which Colonel Higginson describes the singular luck that a friend
of his enjoyed, year after year, in finding the rare blossoms of the
double rueanemone. It seems that this man needed only to take a
walk in the suburbs of any town, and he would come upon a bed of
these flowers, without effort or design. I envied him his good
fortune, for I had never discovered even one of them. But the next
morning, as I strolled out to fish the Swiftwater, down below Billy
Lerns's spring-house I found a green bank in the shadow of the wood
all bespangled with tiny, trembling, twofold stars,--double
rueanemones, for luck! It was a favourable omen, and that day I
came home with a creel full of trout.
The theory that Adam lived out in the woods for some time before he
was put into the garden of Eden "to dress it and to keep it" has an
air of probability. How else shall we account for the arboreal
instincts that cling to his posterity?
There is a wilding strain in our blood that all the civilization in
the world will not eradicate. I never knew a real boy--or, for that
matter, a girl worth knowing--who would not rather climb a tree, any
day, than walk up a golden stairway.
It is a touch of this instinct, I suppose, that makes it more
delightful to fish in the most insignificant of free streams than in
a carefully stocked and preserved pond, where the fish are brought
up by hand and fed on minced liver. Such elaborate precautions to
ensure good luck extract all the spice from the sport of angling.
Casting the fly in such a pond, if you hooked a fish, you might
expect to hear the keeper say, "Ah, that is Charles, we will play
him and put him back, if you please, sir; for the master is very
fond of him,"--or, "Now you have got hold of Edward; let us land him
and keep him; he is three years old this month, and just ready to be
eaten." It would seem like taking trout out of cold storage.
Who could find any pleasure in angling for the tame carp in the
fish-pool of Fontainebleau? They gather at the marble steps, those
venerable, courtly fish, to receive their rations; and there are
veterans among them, in ancient livery, with fringes of green moss
on their shoulders, who could tell you pretty tales of being fed by
the white hands of maids of honour, or even of nibbling their crumbs
of bread from the jewelled fingers of a princess.
There is no sport in bringing pets to the table. It may be
necessary sometimes; but the true sportsman would always prefer to
leave the unpleasant task of execution to menial hands, while he
goes out into the wild country to capture his game by his own
skill,--if he has good luck. I would rather run some risk in this
enterprise (even as the young Tobias did, when the voracious pike
sprang at him from the waters of the Tigris, and would have devoured
him but for the friendly instruction of the piscatory Angel, who
taught Tobias how to land the monster),--I would far rather take any
number of chances in my sport than have it domesticated to the point
The trim plantations of trees which are called "forests" in certain
parts of Europe--scientifically pruned and tended, counted every
year by uniformed foresters, and defended against all possible
depredations--are admirable and useful in their way; but they lack
the mystic enchantment of the fragments of native woodland which
linger among the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, or the vast,
shaggy, sylvan wildernesses which hide the lakes and rivers of
Canada. These Laurentian Hills lie in No Man's Land. Here you do
not need to keep to the path, for there is none. You may make your
own trail, whithersoever fancy leads you; and at night you may pitch
your tent under any tree that looks friendly and firm.
Here, if anywhere, you shall find Dryads, and Naiads, and Oreads.
And if you chance to see one, by moonlight, combing her long hair
beside the glimmering waterfall, or slipping silently, with gleaming
shoulders, through the grove of silver birches, you may call her by
the name that pleases you best. She is all your own discovery.
There is no social directory in the wilderness.
One side of our nature, no doubt, finds its satisfaction in the
regular, the proper, the conventional. But there is another side of
our nature, underneath, that takes delight in the strange, the free,
the spontaneous. We like to discover what we call a law of Nature,
and make our calculations about it, and harness the force which lies
behind it for our own purposes. But we taste a different kind of
joy when an event occurs which nobody has foreseen or counted upon.
It seems like an evidence that there is something in the world which
is alive and mysterious and untrammelled.
The weather-prophet tells us of an approaching storm. It comes
according to the programme. We admire the accuracy of the
prediction, and congratulate ourselves that we have such a good
meteorological service. But when, perchance, a bright, crystalline
piece of weather arrives instead of the foretold tempest, do we not
feel a secret sense of pleasure which goes beyond our mere comfort
in the sunshine? The whole affair is not as easy as a sum in simple
addition, after all,--at least not with our present knowledge. It
is a good joke on the Weather Bureau. "Aha, Old Probabilities!" we
say, "you don't know it all yet; there are still some chances to be
Some day, I suppose, all things in the heavens above, and in the
earth beneath, and in the hearts of the men and women who dwell
between, will be investigated and explained. We shall live a
perfectly ordered life, with no accidents, happy or unhappy.
Everybody will act according to rule, and there will be no dotted
lines on the map of human existence, no regions marked "unexplored."
Perhaps that golden age of the machine will come, but you and I will
hardly live to see it. And if that seems to you a matter for tears,
you must do your own weeping, for I cannot find it in my heart to
add a single drop of regret.
The results of education and social discipline in humanity are fine.
It is a good thing that we can count upon them. But at the same
time let us rejoice in the play of native traits and individual
vagaries. Cultivated manners are admirable, yet there is a sudden
touch of inborn grace and courtesy that goes beyond them all. No
array of accomplishments can rival the charm of an unsuspected gift
of nature, brought suddenly to light. I once heard a peasant girl
singing down the Traunthal, and the echo of her song outlives, in
the hearing of my heart, all memories of the grand opera.
The harvest of the gardens and the orchards, the result of prudent
planting and patient cultivation, is full of satisfaction. We
anticipate it in due season, and when it comes we fill our mouths
and are grateful. But pray, kind Providence, let me slip over the
fence out of the garden now and then, to shake a nut-tree that grows
untended in the wood. Give me liberty to put off my black coat for
a day, and go a-fishing on a free stream, and find by chance a wild
LOVERS AND LANDSCAPE
"He insisted that the love that was of real value in the world was
n't interesting, and that the love that was interesting was n't
always admirable. Love that happened to a person like the measles
or fits, and was really of no particular credit to itself or its
victims, was the sort that got into the books and was made much of;
whereas the kind that was attained by the endeavour of true souls,
and that had wear in it, and that made things go right instead of
tangling them up, was too much like duty to make satisfactory
reading for people of sentiment."--E. S. MARTIN: My Cousin Anthony.
The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is
another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a
The first day of spring is due to arrive, if the calendar does not
break down, about the twenty-first of March, when the earth turns
the corner of Sun Alley and starts for Summer Street. But the first
spring day is not on the time-table at all. It comes when it is
ready, and in the latitude of New York this is usually not till
after All Fools' Day.
About this time,--
"When chinks in April's windy dome
Let through a day of June,
And foot and thought incline to roam,
And every sound's a tune,"--
it is the habit of the angler who lives in town to prepare for the
labours of the approaching season by longer walks or bicycle-rides
in the parks, or along the riverside, or in the somewhat demoralized
Edens of the suburbs. In the course of these vernal peregrinations
and circumrotations, I observe that lovers of various kinds begin to
occupy a notable place in the landscape.