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“How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees: How graceful climb these shadows on my hill.”

Always as I travel, I think, “Here I am, let anything happen!”

I do not want to know the future; knowledge is too certain, too cold, too real.

It is true that I have not always met the fine adventure nor won the friend, but if I had, what should I have more to look for at other turnings and other hilltops?

The afternoon of my purchase was one of the great afternoons of my life. When Horace put me down at my gate, I did not go at once to the house; I did not wish, then, to talk with Harriet. The things I had with myself were too important. I skulked toward my barn, compelling myself to walk slowly until I reached the corner, where I broke into an eager run as though the old Nick himself were after me. Behind the barn I dropped down on the grass, panting with laughter, and not without some of the shame a man feels at being a boy. Close along the side of the barn, as I sat there in the cool of the shade, I could see a tangled mat of smartweed and catnip, and the boards of the barn, brown and weather-beaten, and the gables above with mud swallows’ nests, now deserted; and it struck me suddenly, as I observed these homely pleasant things:

“All this is mine.”

I sprang up and drew a long breath.

“Mine,” I said.

It came to me then like an inspiration that I might now go out and take formal possession of my farm. I might experience the emotion of a landowner. I might swell with dignity and importance—for once, at least.




So I started at the fence corner back of the barn and walked straight up through the pasture, keeping close to my boundaries, that I might not miss a single rod of my acres. And oh, it was a prime afternoon! The Lord made it! Sunshine—and autumn haze—and red trees— and yellow fields—and blue distances above the far-away town. And the air had a tang which got into a man’s blood and set him chanting all the poetry he ever knew.

“I climb that was a clod,

I run whose steps were slow,

I reap the very wheat of God

That once had none to sow!”

So I walked up the margin of my field looking broadly about me: and presently, I began to examine my fences—my fences—with a critical eye. I considered the quality of the soil, though in truth I was not much of a judge of such matters. I gloated over my plowed land, lying there open and passive in the sunshine. I said of this tree: “It is mine,” and of its companion beyond the fence: “It is my neighbour’s.” Deeply and sharply within myself I drew the line between meum and tuum: for only thus, by comparing ourselves with our neighbours, can we come to the true realisation of property. Occasionally I stopped to pick up a stone and cast it over the fence, thinking with some truculence that my neighbour would probably throw it back again. Never mind, I had it out of my field. Once, with eager surplusage of energy, I pulled down a dead and partly rotten oak stub, long an eye-sore, with an important feeling of proprietorship. I could do anything I liked. The farm was mine.

How sweet an emotion is possession! What charm is inherent in ownership! What a foundation for vanity, even for the greater quality of self-respect, lies in a little property! I fell to thinking of the excellent wording of the old books in which land is called “real property,” or “real estate.” Money we may possess, or goods or chattels, but they give no such impression of mineness as the feeling that one’s feet rest upon soil that is his: that part of the deep earth is his with all the water upon it, all small animals that creep or crawl in the holes of it, all birds or insects that fly in the air above it, all trees, shrubs, flowers, and grass that grow upon it, all houses, barns and fences—all, his. As I strode along that afternoon I fed upon possession. I rolled the sweet morsel of ownership under my tongue. I seemed to set my feet down more firmly on the good earth. I straightened my shoulders: this land was mine. I picked up a clod of earth and let it crumble and drop through my fingers: it gave me a peculiar and poignant feeling of possession. I can understand why the miser enjoys the very physical contact of his gold. Every sense I possessed, sight, hearing, smell, touch, led upon the new joy.

At one corner of my upper field the fence crosses an abrupt ravine upon leggy stilts. My line skirts the slope halfway up. My neighbour owns the crown of the hill which he has shorn until it resembles the tonsured pate of a monk. Every rain brings the light soil down the ravine and lays it like a hand of infertility upon my farm. It had always bothered me, this wastage; and as I looked across my fence I thought to myself:

“I must have that hill. I will buy it. I will set the fence farther up. I will plant the slope. It is no age of tonsures either in religion or agriculture.”

The very vision of widened acres set my thoughts on fire. In imagination I extended my farm upon all sides, thinking how much better I could handle my land than my neighbours. I dwelt avariciously upon more possessions: I thought with discontent of my poverty. More land I wanted. I was enveloped in clouds of envy. I coveted my neighbour’s land: I felt myself superior and Horace inferior: I was consumed with black vanity.

So I dealt hotly with these thoughts until I reached the top of the ridge at the farther corner of my land. It is the highest point on the farm.

For a moment I stood looking about me on a wonderful prospect of serene beauty. As it came to me—hills, fields, woods—the fever which had been consuming me died down. I thought how the world stretched away from my fences—just such fields—for a thousand miles, and in each small enclosure a man as hot as I with the passion of possession. How they all envied, and hated, in their longing for more land! How property kept them apart, prevented the close, confident touch of friendship, how it separated lovers and ruined families! Of all obstacles to that complete democracy of which we dream, is there a greater than property?

I was ashamed. Deep shame covered me. How little of the earth, after all, I said, lies within the limits of my fences. And I looked out upon the perfect beauty of the world around me, and I saw how little excited it was, how placid, how undemanding.

I had come here to be free and already this farm, which I thought of so fondly as my possession, was coming to possess me. Ownership is an appetite like hunger or thirst, and as we may eat to gluttony and drink to drunkenness so we may possess to avarice. How many men have I seen who, though they regard themselves as models of temperance, wear the marks of unbridled indulgence of the passion of possession, and how like gluttony or licentiousness it sets its sure sign upon their faces.

I said to myself, Why should any man fence himself in? And why hope to enlarge one’s world by the creeping acquisition of a few acres to his farm? I thought of the old scientist, who, laying his hand upon the grass, remarked: “Everything under my hand is a miracle”—forget-ting that everything outside was also a miracle.

As I stood there I glanced across the broad valley wherein lies the most of my farm, to a field of buckwheat which belongs to Horace. For an instant it gave me the illusion of a hill on fire: for the late sun shone full on the thick ripe stalks of the buckwheat, giving forth an abundant red glory that blessed the eye. Horace had been proud of his crop, smacking his lips at the prospect of winter pancakes, and here I was entering his field and taking without hindrance another crop, a crop gathered not with hands nor stored in granaries: a wonderful crop, which, once gathered, may long be fed upon and yet remain unconsumed.

So I looked across the countryside; a group of elms here, a tufted hilltop there, the smooth verdure of pastures, the rich brown of new-plowed fields—and the odours, and the sounds of the country—all cropped by me. How little the fences keep me out: I do not regard titles, nor consider boundaries. I enter either by day or by night, but not secretly. Taking my fill, I leave as much as I find.

And thus standing upon the highest hill in my upper pasture, I thought of the quoted saying of a certain old abbot of the middle ages—”He that is a true monk considers nothing as belonging to him except a lyre.”

What finer spirit? Who shall step forth freer than he who goes with nothing save his lyre? He shall sing as he goes: he shall not be held down nor fenced in.

With a lifting of the soul I thought of that old abbot, how smooth his brow, how catholic his interest, how serene his outlook, how free his friendships, how unlimited his whole life.

Nothing but a lyre!

So I made a covenant there with myself. I said: “I shall use, not be used. I do not limit myself here. I shall not allow possessions to come between me and my life or my friends.”

For a time—how long I do not know—I stood thinking. Presently I discovered, moving slowly along the margin of the field below me, the old professor with his tin botany box. And somehow I had no feeling that he was intruding upon my new land. His walk was slow and methodical, his head and even his shoulders were bent—almost habitually—from looking close upon the earth, and from time to time he stooped, and once he knelt to examine some object that attracted his eye. It seemed appropriate that he should thus kneel to the earth. So he gathered his crop and fences did not keep him out nor titles disturb him. He also was free! It gave me at that moment a peculiar pleasure to have him on my land, to know that I was, if unconsciously, raising other crops than I knew. I felt friendship for this old professor: I could understand him, I thought. And I said aloud but in a low tone, as though I were addressing him:

—Do not apologise, friend, when you come into my field. You do not interrupt me. What you have come for is of more importance at this moment than corn. Who is it that says I must plow so many furrows this day? Come in, friend, and sit here on these clods: we will sweeten the evening with fine words. We will invest our time not in corn, or in cash, but in life.—

I walked with confidence down the hill toward the professor. So engrossed was he with his employment that he did not see me until I was within a few paces of him. When he looked up at me it was as though his eyes returned from some far journey. I felt at first out of focus, unplaced, and only gradually coming into view. In his hand he held a lump of earth containing a thrifty young plant of the purple cone-flower, having several blossoms. He worked at the lump deftly, delicately, so that the earth, pinched, powdered and shaken out, fell between his fingers, leaving the knotty yellow roots in his hand. I marked how firm, slow, brown, the old man was, how little obtrusive in my field. One foot rested in a furrow, the other was set among the grass of the margin, near the fence—his place, I thought.

His first words, though of little moment in themselves, gave me a curious satisfaction, as when a coin, tested, rings true gold, or a hero, tried, is heroic.

“I have rarely,” he said, “seen a finer display of rudbeckia than this, along these old fences.”

If he had referred to me, or questioned, or apologised, I should have been disappointed. He did not say, “your fences,” he said “these fences,” as though they were as much his as mine. And he spoke in his own world, knowing that if I could enter I would, but that if I could not, no stooping to me would avail either of us.

“It has been a good autumn for flowers,” I said inanely, for so many things were flying through my mind that I could not at once think of the great particular words which should bring us together. At first I thought my chance had passed, but he seemed to see something in me after all, for he said:

“Here is a peculiarly large specimen of the rudbeckia. Observe the deep purple of the cone, and the bright yellow of the petals. Here is another that grew hardly two feet away, in the grass near the fence where the rails and the blackberry bushes have shaded it. How small and undeveloped it is.”

“They crowd up to the plowed land,” I observed.

“Yes, they reach out for a better chance in life—like men. With more room, better food, freer air, you see how much finer they grow.”

It was curious to me, having hitherto barely observed the cone-flowers along my fences, save as a colour of beauty, how simply we fell to talking of them as though in truth they were people like ourselves, having our desires and possessed of our capabilities. It gave me then, for the first time, the feeling which has since meant such varied enjoyment, of the peopling of the woods.

“See here,” he said, “how different the character of these individuals. They are all of the same species. They all grow along this fence within two or three rods; but observe the difference not only in size but in colouring, in the shape of the petals, in the proportions of the cone. What does it all mean? Why, nature trying one of her endless experiments. She sows here broadly, trying to produce better cone-flowers. A few she plants on the edge of the field in the hope that they may escape the plow. If they grow, better food and more sunshine produce more and larger flowers.”

So we talked, or rather he talked, finding in me an eager listener. And what he called botany seemed to me to be life. Of birth, of growth, of reproduction, of death, he spoke, and his flowers became sentient creatures under my eyes.

And thus the sun went down and the purple mists crept silently along the distant low spots, and all the great, great mysteries came and stood before me beckoning and questioning. They came and they stood, and out of the cone-flower, as the old professor spoke, I seemed to catch a glimmer of the true light. I reflected how truly everything is in anything. If one could really understand a cone-flower he could understand this Earth. Botany was only one road toward the Explanation.

Always I hope that some traveller may have more news of the way than I, and sooner or later, I find I must make inquiry of the direction of every thoughtful man I meet. And I have always had especial hope of those who study the sciences: they ask such intimate questions of nature. Theology possesses a vain-gloriousness which places its faith in human theories; but science, at its best, is humble before nature herself. It has no thesis to defend: it is content to kneel upon the earth, in the way of my friend, the old professor, and ask the simplest questions, hoping for some true reply.

I wondered, then, what the professor thought, after his years of work, of the Mystery; and finally, not without confusion, I asked him. He listened, for the first time ceasing to dig, shake out and arrange his specimens. When I had stopped speaking he remained for a moment silent, then he looked at me with a new regard. Finally he quoted quietly, but with a deep note in his voice:

“Canst thou by searching find God? Canst thou

find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high

as heaven: what canst thou do? deeper than hell,

what canst thou know?”

When the professor had spoken we stood for a moment silent, then he smiled and said briskly:

“I have been a botanist for fifty-four years. When I was a boy I believed implicitly in God. I prayed to him, having a vision of him—a person—before my eyes. As I grew older I concluded that there was no God. I dismissed him from the universe. I believed only in what I could see, or hear, or feel. I talked about Nature and Reality.”

He paused, the smile still lighting his face, evidently recalling to himself the old days. I did not interrupt him. Finally he turned to me and said abruptly.

“And now—it seems to me—there is nothing but God.”

As he said this he lifted his arm with a peculiar gesture that seemed to take in the whole world.

For a time we were both silent. When I left him I offered my hand and told him I hoped I might become his friend. So I turned my face toward home. Evening was falling, and as I walked I heard the crows calling, and the air was keen and cool, and I thought deep thoughts.

And so I stepped into the darkened stable. I could not see the outlines of the horse or the cow, but knowing the place so well I could easily get about. I heard the horse step aside with a soft expectant whinny. I smelled the smell of milk, the musty, sharp odour of dry hay, the pungent smell of manure, not unpleasant. And the stable was warm after the cool of the fields with a sort of animal warmth that struck into me soothingly. I spoke in a low voice and laid my hand on the horse’s flank. The flesh quivered and shrunk away from my touch—coming back confidently, warmly. I ran my hand along his back and up his hairy neck. I felt his sensitive nose in my hand. “You shall have your oats,” I said, and I gave him to eat. Then I spoke as gently to the cow, and she stood aside to be milked.

And afterward I came out into the clear bright night, and the air was sweet and cool, and my dog came bounding to meet me.—So I carried the milk into the house, and Harriet said in her heartiest tone:

“You are late, David. But sit up, I have kept the biscuits warm.”

And that night my sleep was sound.


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