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I live in a country of beautiful hills, and in the last few years, since I have been here with Harriet, I have made familiar and pleasant acquaintance with several of them....

One hill I know is precious to me for a peculiar reason. Upon the side of it, along the town road, are two or three old farms with lilacs like trees about their doorways, and ancient apple orchards with great gnarly branches, and one has an old garden of hollyhocks, larkspurs, zinnias, mignonette, and I know not how many other old-fashioned flowers. Wild grapes there are along the neglected walls, and in a corner of one of them, by a brook, a mass of sweet currant which in blossom time makes all that bit of valley a bower of fragrance, I have gone that way often in spring for the sheer joy of the friendly odours I had across the ancient stone fences.

The largest and stoniest of the farms is owned by an old man named Howieson. A strange, brown-clad, crooked, crabbed old man, I have seen him often creeping across his fields with his horses. An ineffective worker all his life long, he has scarcely made a living from his stony acres. His farm is tipped up behind upon the hill and runs below to the brook, and the buildings are old and worn, and a rocky road goes by to the town. Once, in more prosperous days, before the factories took over the winter work of these hill farms, the busy families finished shoes, and wove cloth, and plaited straw hats—and one I know was famous for wooden bowls craftily hollowed out of maple knots—and the hill people relied upon their stony fields for little more than their food. But in these later days, the farm industries are gone, the houses are no longer overflowing with children, for there is nothing for children to do, and those who remain are old or discouraged. Some homes have entirely disappeared, so that all that remains is a clump of lilacs or a wild tangle of rose bushes about a grass-covered or bush-grown cellar wall. The last thing to disappear is not that which the old farmers most set their hearts upon, their fine houses and barns or their cultivated fields, but the one touch of beauty they left—lilac clump or rose-tangle.

Old Howieson, with that passion for the sense of possession which thrives best when the realities of possession are slipping away, has posted all his fields with warnings against intrusion. You may not enter this old field, nor walk by this brook, nor climb this hill, for all this belongs, in fee simple, to James Howieson!

For a long time I did not meet James Howieson face to face, though I had often seen his signs, and always with a curious sense of the futility of them. I did not need to enter his fields, nor climb his hill, nor walk by his brook, but as the springs passed and the autumns whitened into winter, I came into more and more complete possession of all those fields that he so jealously posted. I looked with strange joy upon his hill, saw April blossom in his orchard, and May colour the wild grape leaves along his walls. June I smelled in the sweet vernal of his hay fields, and from the October of his maples and beeches I gathered rich crops and put up no hostile signs of ownership, paid no taxes, worried over no mortgage, and often marvelled that he should be so poor within his posted domain and I so rich without.

One who loves a hill, or a bit of valley, will experiment long until he finds the best spot to take his joy of it; and this is no more than the farmer himself does when he experiments year after year to find the best acres for his potatoes, his corn, his oats, his hay. Intensive cultivation is as important in these wider fields of the spirit as in any other. If I consider the things that I hear and see and smell, and the thoughts that go with them or grow out of them, as really valuable possessions, contributing to the wealth of life, I cannot see why I should not willingly give to them a tenth or a hundredth part of the energy and thought I give to my potatoes or my blackberries or to the writing I do.

I chose a place in a field just below Old Howieson’s farm, where there is a thorn-apple tree to sit or lie under. From the thorn-apple tree, by turning my head in one direction, I can look up at the crown of the hill with its green hood of oaks and maples and chestnuts, and high above it I can see the clouds floating in the deep sky, or, if I turn my head the other way, for I am a kind of monarch there on the hill and command the world to delight me, I can look off across the pleasant valley with its spreading fields and farmsteads set about with trees, and the town slumbering by the riverside. I come often with a little book in one pocket to read from, and a little book in the other to write in, but I rarely use either the one or the other, for there is far too much to see and think about.

From this spot I make excursions round about, and have had many strange and interesting adventures: and now find thoughts of mine, like lichens, upon all the boulders and old walls and oak trees of that hillside. Sometimes I climb to the top of the hill. If I am in a leisurely mood I walk lawfully around Old Howieson’s farm by a kind of wood lane that leads to the summit, but often I cross his walls, all regardless of his trespass signs, and go that way to the top.

It was on one of these lawless excursions in Old Howieson’s field that I first saw that strange old fellow who is known hereabout as the Herbman. I came upon him so suddenly that I stopped short, curiously startled, as one is startled at finding anything human that seems less than human. He was kneeling there among the low verdure of a shallow valley, and looked like an old gray rock or some prehistoric animal. I stopped to look at him, but he paid no heed, and seemed only to shrink into himself as though, if he kept silent, he might be taken for stock or stone. I addressed him but he made no answer. I went nearer, with a sensation of uncanny wonder; but he did not so much as glance up at me, though he knew I was there. His old brown basket was near him and the cane beside it. He was gathering pennyroyal.

“Another man who is taking an unexpected crop from Old Howieson’s acres,” I thought to myself.

I watched him for some moments, quite still, as one might watch a turtle or a woodchuck— and left him there.

Since then I have heard something about him, and seen him once or twice. A strange old man, a wanderer upon the face of the fragrant earth. Spring and summer he wears always an old overcoat, and carries a basket with double covers, very much worn and brown with usage. His cane is of hickory with a crooked root for a handle, this also shiny with age. He gathers bitter-bark, tansy; ginseng, calamus, smartweed, and slippery elm, and from along old fences and barnyards, catnip and boneset, I suppose he lives somewhere, a hole in a log, or the limb of a tree, but no one knows where it is, or how he dries or cures his findings. No one knows his name: perhaps he has forgotten it himself. A name is no great matter anyway. He is called simply the Herbman. He drifts into our valley in the spring, is seen here and there on the hills or in the fields, like the crows or the blackbirds, and disappears in the fall with the robins and the maple leaves. Perhaps he is one of those favoured souls to whom life is all spring and summer.

The age has passed him by, and except for certain furtive old women, few care now for his sovereign remedies.

I met him once in the town road, and he stopped humbly without lifting his eyes, and opening his basket let out into the air such a fragrance of ancient simples as I never smelled before. He said nothing at all; but took out dry bundles of catnip, sassafras, slippery elm, to show me. He had also pennyroyal for healing teas, and calamus and bitter-bark for miseries. I selected a choice assortment of his wares to take home to Harriet, but could get him to name no price. He took what I gave without objection and without thanks, and went his way. A true man of the hills.

As I said, I came often to the field below Old Howieson’s farm. I think the old man saw me coming and going, for the road winds along the side of the hill within sight of his house, skirts a bit of wood, and with an unexpected turn comes out triumphantly to the top of the ridge beyond.

At the turn of the road I always disappeared, for I crossed the wall into the field below Old Howieson’s farm, and mysteriously failed to appear to the watchful eye upon the ridge beyond. What could be more provoking or suspicious! To go in at one end of a well-travelled road and not to come out in the regular and expected way at the other! Or to be suspected of not being deferential toward trespass signs, or observant of closed ways! How disturbing to all those who dwell tremulously within posted enclosures of whatever sort, or those who base their sense of possession upon stumped paper, or take their God from a book. Men have been crucified for less.

Sooner or later those who cross boundaries clash with those who defend boundaries: and those who adventure offend those who seek security; but it was a long time before I came face to face with Old Man Howieson.

This was the way of it: Well back of Howieson’s buildings and reaching upward upon the face of the hill stretches a long and narrow field, a kind of barren back pasture with boulders in it, and gnarly hawthorn trees, and a stunted wild apple or so. A stone fence runs down one side of the cleared land and above it rises the hill. It is like a great trough or ravine which upon still spring evenings gathers in all the varied odours of Old Howieson’s farm and orchard and brings them down to me as I sit in the field below. I need no book then, nor sight of the distant town, nor song of birds, for I have a singular and incomparable album of the good odours of the hill. This is one reason why I chose this particular spot in the fields for my own, and it has given me a secret name for the place which I will not here disclose. If ever you should come this way in May, my friend, I might take you there of an evening, but could warrant you no joy of it that you yourself could not take. But you need not come here, or go there, but stop where you are at this moment, and I here assure you that if you look up, and look in, you, also, will see something of the glory of the world.

One evening I had been upon the hill to seek again the pattern and dimensions of my tabernacle, and to receive anew the tables of the Jaw. I had crossed Old Howieson’s field so often that I had almost forgotten it was not my own. It was indeed mine by the same inalienable right that it belonged to the crows that flew across it, or to the partridges that nested in its coverts, or the woodchucks that lived in its walls, or the squirrels in its chestnut trees. It was mine by the final test of all possession—that I could use it.

He came out of a thicket of hemlocks like a wraith of the past, a gray and crabbed figure, and confronted me there in the wide field. I suppose he thought he had caught me at last. I was not at all startled or even surprised, for as I look back upon it now I know that I had always been expecting him. Indeed, I felt a lift of the spirit, the kind of jauntiness with which one meets a crucial adventure.

He stood there for a moment quite silent, a grim figure of denial, and I facing him.

“You are on my land, sir,” he said.

I answered him instantly and in a way wholly unexpected to myself:

“You are breathing my air, sir.”

He looked at me dully, but with a curious glint of fear in his eye, fear and anger, too.

“Did you see the sign down there? This land is posted.”

“Yes,” I said, “I have seen your signs. But let me ask you: If I were not here would you own this land any more than you do now? Would it yield you any better crops?”

It is never the way of those who live in posted enclosures, of whatever sort, to reason. They assert.

“This land is posted,” said the old man doggedly.

“Are you sure you own it?” I asked. “Is it really yours?”

“My father owned this farm before me,” he said, “and my grandfather cleared this field and built these walls. I was born in that house and have lived there all my life.”

“Well, then, I must be going—and I will not come here again,” I said. “I am sorry I walked on your land—”

I started to go down the hill, but stopped, and said, as though it were an afterthought:

“I have made some wonderful discoveries upon your land, and that hill there. You don’t seem to know how valuable this field is.... Good-bye.”

With that I took two or three steps down the hill—but felt the old man’s hand on my arm.

“Say, mister,” he asked, “are you one of the electric company men? Is that high-tension line comin’ across here?”

“No,” I said, “it is something more valuable than that!”

I walked onward a few steps, as though I was quite determined to get out of his field, but he followed close behind me.

“It ain’t the new trolley line, is it?”

“No,” I said, “it isn’t the trolley line.”

“What is it, then?”

In that question, eager and shrill, spoke the dry soul of the old man, the lifelong hope that his clinging ownership of those barren acres would bring him from the outside some miraculous profit.

His whole bearing had changed. He had ceased to be truculent or even fearful, but was now shrilly beseeching, A great wave of compassion came over me, I was sorry for him, imprisoned there within the walls of his own making, and expecting wealth from the outside when there was wealth in plenty within and everywhere about him.

But how could I help him? You can give no valuable thing to any man who has not the vision to take it. If I had told him what I found upon his hill or in his fields he would have thought me—well, crazy; or he would have suspected that under cover of such a quest I hid some evil design. As well talk adventure to an old party man, or growth to a set churchman.

So I left him there within his walls. So often when we think we are barring other people out, we are only barring ourselves in. The last I saw of him as I turned into the road was a gray and crabbed figure standing alone, looking after me, and not far off his own sign:

Sometime, I thought, this old farm will be owned by a man who is also capable of possessing it. More than one such place I know already has been taken by those who value the beauty of the hills and the old walls, and the boulder-strewn fields. One I know is really possessed by a man who long ago had a vision of sheep feeding on fields too infertile to produce profitable crops, and many others have been taken by men who saw forests growing where forests ought to grow. For real possession is not a thing of inheritance or of documents, but of the spirit; and passes by vision and imagination. Sometimes, indeed, the trespass signs stand long—so long that we grow impatient—but nature is in no hurry. Nature waits, and presently the trespass signs rot away, one arm falls off, and lo! where the adventurer found only denial before he is now invited to—”pass.” The old walls are conquered by the wild cherries and purple ivy and blackberry bushes, and the old Howiesons sleep in calm forgetfulness of their rights upon the hills they thought they possessed, and all that is left is a touch of beauty—lilac clump and wild-rose tangle.


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