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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsBeing A Boy - Chapter 15. The Heart Of New England
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Being A Boy - Chapter 15. The Heart Of New England Post by :jon_poland Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :3043

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Being A Boy - Chapter 15. The Heart Of New England


It is a wonder that every New England boy does not turn out a poet, or a missionary, or a peddler. Most of them used to. There is everything in the heart of the New England hills to feed the imagination of the boy, and excite his longing for strange countries. I scarcely know what the subtle influence is that forms him and attracts him in the most fascinating and aromatic of all lands, and yet urges him away from all the sweet delights of his home to become a roamer in literature and in the world, a poet and a wanderer. There is something in the soil and the pure air, I suspect, that promises more romance than is forthcoming, that excites the imagination without satisfying it, and begets the desire of adventure. And the prosaic life of the sweet home does not at all correspond to the boy's dreams of the world. In the good old days, I am told, the boys on the coast ran away and became sailors; the countryboys waited till they grew big enough to be missionaries, and then they sailed away, and met the coast boys in foreign ports. John used to spend hours in the top of a slender hickory-tree that a little detached itself from the forest which crowned the brow of the steep and lofty pasture behind his house. He was sent to make war on the bushes that constantly encroached upon the pastureland; but John had no hostility to any growing thing, and a very little bushwhacking satisfied him. When he had grubbed up a few laurels and young tree-sprouts, he was wont to retire into his favorite post of observation and meditation. Perhaps he fancied that the wide-swaying stem to which he clung was the mast of a ship; that the tossing forest behind him was the heaving waves of the sea; and that the wind which moaned over the woods and murmured in the leaves, and now and then sent him a wide circuit in the air, as if he had been a blackbird on the tip-top of a spruce, was an ocean gale. What life, and action, and heroism there was to him in the multitudinous roar of the forest, and what an eternity of existence in the monologue of the river, which brawled far, far below him over its wide stony bed! How the river sparkled and danced and went on, now in a smooth amber current, now fretted by the pebbles, but always with that continuous busy song! John never knew that noise to cease, and he doubted not, if he stayed here a thousand years, that same loud murmur would fill the air.

On it went, under the wide spans of the old wooden, covered bridge, swirling around the great rocks on which the piers stood, spreading away below in shallows, and taking the shadows of a row of maples that lined the green shore. Save this roar, no sound reached him, except now and then the rumble of a wagon on the bridge, or the muffled far-off voices of some chance passers on the road. Seen from this high perch, the familiar village, sending its brown roofs and white spires up through the green foliage, had a strange aspect, and was like some town in a book, say a village nestled in the Swiss mountains, or something in Bohemia. And there, beyond the purple hills of Bozrah, and not so far as the stony pastures of Zoah, whither John had helped drive the colts and young stock in the spring, might be, perhaps, Jerusalem itself. John had himself once been to the land of Canaan with his grandfather, when he was a very small boy; and he had once seen an actual, no-mistake Jew, a mysterious person, with uncut beard and long hair, who sold scythe-snaths in that region, and about whom there was a rumor that he was once caught and shaved by the indignant farmers, who apprehended in his long locks a contempt of the Christian religion. Oh, the world had vast possibilities for John. Away to the south, up a vast basin of forest, there was a notch in the horizon and an opening in the line of woods, where the road ran. Through this opening John imagined an army might appear, perhaps British, perhaps Turks, and banners of red and of yellow advance, and a cannon wheel about and point its long nose, and open on the valley. He fancied the army, after this salute, winding down the mountain road, deploying in the meadows, and giving the valley to pillage and to flame. In which event his position would be an excellent one for observation and for safety. While he was in the height of this engagement, perhaps the horn would be blown from the back porch, reminding him that it was time to quit cutting brush and go for the cows. As if there were no better use for a warrior and a poet in New England than to send him for the cows!

John knew a boy--a bad enough boy I daresay--who afterwards became a general in the war, and went to Congress, and got to be a real governor, who also used to be sent to cut brush in the back pastures, and hated it in his very soul; and by his wrong conduct forecast what kind of a man he would be. This boy, as soon as he had cut about one brush, would seek for one of several holes in the ground (and he was familiar with several), in which lived a white-and-black animal that must always be nameless in a book, but an animal quite capable of the most pungent defense of himself. This young aspirant to Congress would cut a long stick, with a little crotch in the end of it, and run it into the hole; and when the crotch was punched into the fur and skin of the animal, he would twist the stick round till it got a good grip on the skin, and then he would pull the beast out; and when he got the white-and-black just out of the hole so that his dog could seize him, the boy would take to his heels, and leave the two to fight it out, content to scent the battle afar off. And this boy, who was in training for public life, would do this sort of thing all the afternoon, and when the sun told him that he had spent long enough time cutting brush, he would industriously go home as innocent as anybody. There are few such boys as this nowadays; and that is the reason why the New England pastures are so much overgrown with brush.

John himself preferred to hunt the pugnacious woodchuck. He bore a special grudge against this clover-eater, beyond the usual hostility that boys feel for any wild animal. One day on his way to school a woodchuck crossed the road before him, and John gave chase. The woodchuck scrambled into an orchard and climbed a small apple-tree. John thought this a most cowardly and unfair retreat, and stood under the tree and taunted the animal and stoned it. Thereupon the woodchuck dropped down on John and seized him by the leg of his trousers. John was both enraged and scared by this dastardly attack; the teeth of the enemy went through the cloth and met; and there he hung. John then made a pivot of one leg and whirled himself around, swinging the woodchuck in the air, until he shook him off; but in his departure the woodchuck carried away a large piece of John's summer trousers-leg. The boy never forgot it. And whenever he had a holiday, he used to expend an amount of labor and ingenuity in the pursuit of woodchucks that would have made his for tune in any useful pursuit. There was a hill pasture, down on one side of which ran a small brook, and this pasture was full of woodchuck-holes. It required the assistance of several boys to capture a woodchuck. It was first necessary by patient watching to ascertain that the woodchuck was at home. When one was seen to enter his burrow, then all the entries to it except one--there are usually three--were plugged up with stones. A boy and a dog were then left to watch the open hole, while John and his comrades went to the brook and began to dig a canal, to turn the water into the residence of the woodchuck. This was often a difficult feat of engineering, and a long job. Often it took more than half a day of hard labor with shovel and hoe to dig the canal. But when the canal was finished and the water began to pour into the hole, the excitement began. How long would it take to fill the hole and drown out the woodchuck? Sometimes it seemed as if the hole was a bottomless pit. But sooner or later the water would rise in it, and then there was sure to be seen the nose of the woodchuck, keeping itself on a level with the rising flood. It was piteous to see the anxious look of the hunted, half-drowned creature as--it came to the surface and caught sight of the dog. There the dog stood, at the mouth of the hole, quivering with excitement from his nose to the tip of his tail, and behind him were the cruel boys dancing with joy and setting the dog on. The poor creature would disappear in the water in terror; but he must breathe, and out would come his nose again, nearer the dog each time. At last the water ran out of the hole as well as in, and the soaked beast came with it, and made a desperate rush. But in a trice the dog had him, and the boys stood off in a circle, with stones in their hands, to see what they called "fair play." They maintained perfect "neutrality" so long as the dog was getting the best of the woodchuck; but if the latter was likely to escape, they "interfered" in the interest of peace and the "balance of power," and killed the woodchuck. This is a boy's notion of justice; of course, he'd no business to be a woodchuck,--an--unspeakable woodchuck.

I used the word "aromatic" in relation to the New England soil. John knew very well all its sweet, aromatic, pungent, and medicinal products, and liked to search for the scented herbs and the wild fruits and exquisite flowers; but he did not then know, and few do know, that there is no part of the globe where the subtle chemistry of the earth produces more that is agreeable to the senses than a New England hill-pasture and the green meadow at its foot. The poets have succeeded in turning our attention from it to the comparatively barren Orient as the land of sweet-smelling spices and odorous gums. And it is indeed a constant surprise that this poor and stony soil elaborates and grows so many delicate and aromatic products.

John, it is true, did not care much for anything that did not appeal to his taste and smell and delight in brilliant color; and he trod down the exquisite ferns and the wonderful mosses--without compunction. But he gathered from the crevices of the rocks the columbine and the eglantine and the blue harebell; he picked the high-flavored alpine strawberry, the blueberry, the boxberry, wild currants and gooseberries, and fox-grapes; he brought home armfuls of the pink-and-white laurel and the wild honeysuckle; he dug the roots of the fragrant sassafras and of the sweet-flag; he ate the tender leaves of the wintergreen and its red berries; he gathered the peppermint and the spearmint; he gnawed the twigs of the black birch; there was a stout fern which he called "brake," which he pulled up, and found that the soft end "tasted good;" he dug the amber gum from the spruce-tree, and liked to smell, though he could not chew, the gum of the wild cherry; it was his melancholy duty to bring home such medicinal herbs for the garret as the gold-thread, the tansy, and the loathsome "boneset;" and he laid in for the winter, like a squirrel, stores of beechnuts, hazel-nuts, hickory-nuts, chestnuts, and butternuts. But that which lives most vividly in his memory and most strongly draws him back to the New England hills is the aromatic sweet-fern; he likes to eat its spicy seeds, and to crush in his hands its fragrant leaves; their odor is the unique essence of New England.

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