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    Buds and Bird Voices

    by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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    Launch Reading Mode
    Balmy Spring--weeks later than we expected and months later than we
    longed for her--comes at last to revive the moss on the roof and
    walls of our old mansion. She peeps brightly into my study-window,
    inviting me to throw it open and create a summer atmosphere by the
    intermixture of her genial breath with the black and cheerless
    comfort of the stove. As the casement ascends, forth into infinite
    space fly the innumerable forms of thought or fancy that have kept me
    company in the retirement of this little chamber during the sluggish
    lapse of wintry weather; visions, gay, grotesque, and sad; pictures
    of real life, tinted with nature's homely gray and russet; scenes in
    dreamland, bedizened with rainbow hues which faded before they were
    well laid on,--all these may vanish now, and leave me to mould a
    fresh existence out of sunshine, Brooding Meditation may flap her
    dusky wings and take her owl-like Right, blinking amid the
    cheerfulness of noontide. Such companions befit the season of
    frosted window-panes and crackling fires, when the blast howls
    through the black-ash trees of our avenue and the drifting snow-
    storm chokes up the wood-paths and fills the highway from stone wall
    to stone wall. In the spring and summer time all sombre thoughts
    should follow the winter northward with the sombre and thoughtful
    crows. The old paradisiacal economy of life is again in force; we
    live, not to think or to labor, but for the simple end of being
    happy. Nothing for the present hour is worthy of man's infinite
    capacity save to imbibe the warm smile of heaven and sympathize with
    the reviving earth.

    The present Spring comes onward with fleeter footsteps, because
    Winter lingered so unconscionably long that with her best diligence
    she can hardly retrieve half the allotted period of her reign. It
    is but a fortnight since I stood on the brink of our swollen river
    and beheld the accumulated ice of four frozen months go down the
    stream. Except in streaks here and there upon the hillsides, the
    whole visible universe was then covered with deep snow, the
    nethermost layer of which had been deposited by an early December
    storm. It was a sight to make the beholder torpid, in the
    impossibility of imagining how this vast white napkin was to be
    removed from the face of the corpse-like world in less time than had
    been required to spread it there. But who can estimate the power of
    gentle influences, whether amid material desolation or the moral
    winter of man's heart? There have been no tempestuous rains, even
    no sultry days, but a constant breath of southern winds, with now a
    day of kindly sunshine, and now a no less kindly mist or a soft
    descent of showers, in which a smile and a blessing seemed to have
    been steeped. The snow has vanished as if by magic; whatever heaps
    may be hidden in the woods and deep gorges of the hills, only two
    solitary specks remain in the landscape; and those I shall almost
    regret to miss when to-morrow I look for them in vain. Never
    before, methinks, has spring pressed so closely on the footsteps of
    retreating winter. Along the roadside the green blades of grass
    have sprouted on the very edge of the snow-drifts. The pastures and
    mowing-fields have not vet assumed a general aspect of verdure; but
    neither have they the cheerless-brown tint which they wear in latter
    autumn when vegetation has entirely ceased; there is now a faint
    shadow of life, gradually brightening into the warm reality. Some
    tracts in a happy exposure,--as, for instance, yonder southwestern
    slope of an orchard, in front of that old red farm-house beyond the
    river,--such patches of land already wear a beautiful and tender
    green, to which no future luxuriance can add a charm. It looks
    unreal; a prophecy, a hope, a transitory effect of sonic peculiar
    light, which will vanish with the slightest motion of the eye. But
    beauty is never a delusion; not these verdant tracts, but the dark
    and barren landscape all around them, is a shadow and a dream. Each
    moment wins seine portion of the earth from death to life; a sudden
    gleam of verdure brightens along the sunny slope of a bank which an
    instant ago was brown and bare. You look again, and behold an
    apparition of green grass!

    The trees in our orchard and elsewhere are as yet naked, but already
    appear full of life and vegetable blood. It seems as if by one
    magic touch they might instantaneously burst into full foliage, and
    that the wind which now sighs through their naked branches might
    make sudden music amid innumerable leaves. The mossgrown willow-
    tree which for forty years past has overshadowed these western
    windows will be among the first to put on its green attire. There
    are some objections to the willow; it is not a dry and cleanly tree,
    and impresses the beholder with an association of sliminess. No
    trees, I think, are perfectly agreeable as companions unless they
    have glossy leaves, dry bark, and a firm and hard texture of trunk
    and branches. But the willow is almost the earliest to gladden us
    with the promise and reality of beauty in its graceful and delicate
    foliage, and the last to scatter its yellow yet scarcely withered
    leaves upon the ground. All through the winter, too, its yellow
    twigs give it a sunny aspect, which is not without a cheering
    influence even in the grayest and gloomiest day. Beneath a clouded
    sky it faithfully remembers the sunshine. Our old house would lose
    a charm were the willow to be cut down, with its golden crown over
    the snow-covered roof and its heap of summer verdure.

    The lilac-shrubs under my study-windows are likewise almost in leaf:
    in two or three days more I may put forth my hand and pluck the
    topmost bough in its freshest green. These lilacs are very aged,
    and have lost the luxuriant foliage of their prime. The heart, or
    the judgment, or the moral sense, or the taste is dissatisfied with
    their present aspect. Old age is not venerable when it embodies
    itself in lilacs, rose-bushes, or any other ornamental shrub; it
    seems as if such plants, as they grow only for beauty, ought to
    flourish always in immortal youth, or, at least, to die before their
    sad decrepitude. Trees of beauty are trees of paradise, and
    therefore not subject to decay by their original nature, though they
    have lost that precious birthright by being transplanted to an
    earthly soil. There is a kind of ludicrous unfitness in the idea of
    a time-stricken and grandfatherly lilac-bush. The analogy holds
    good in human life. Persons who can only be graceful and ornamental
    --who can give the world nothing but flowers--should die young, and
    never be seen with gray hair and wrinkles, any more than the flower-
    shrubs with mossy bark and blighted foliage, like the lilacs under
    my window. Not that beauty is worthy of less than immortality; no,
    the beautiful should live forever,--and thence, perhaps, the sense
    of impropriety when we see it triumphed over by time. Apple-trees,
    on the other hand, grow old without reproach. Let them live as long
    as they may, and contort themselves into whatever perversity of
    shape they please, and deck their withered limbs with a springtime
    gaudiness of pink blossoms; still they are respectable, even if they
    afford us only an apple or two in a season. Those few apples--or,
    at all events, the remembrance of apples in bygone years--are the
    atonement which utilitarianism inexorably demands for the privilege
    of lengthened life. Human flower-shrubs, if they will grow old on
    earth, should, besides their lovely blossoms, bear some kind of
    fruit that will satisfy earthly appetites, else neither man nor the
    decorum of nature will deem it fit that the moss should gather on
    them.

    One of the first things that strikes the attention when the white
    sheet of winter is withdrawn is the neglect and disarray that lay
    hidden beneath it. Nature is not cleanly according to our
    prejudices. The beauty of preceding years, now transformed to brown
    and blighted deformity, obstructs the brightening loveliness of the
    present hour. Our avenue is strewn with the whole crop of autumn's
    withered leaves. There are quantities of decayed branches which one
    tempest after another has flung down, black and rotten, and one or
    two with the ruin of a bird's-nest clinging to them. In the garden
    are the dried bean-vines, the brown stalks of the asparagus-bed, and
    melancholy old cabbages which were frozen into the soil before their
    unthrifty cultivator could find time to gather them. How
    invariably, throughout all the forms of life, do we find these
    intermingled memorials of death! On the soil of thought and in the
    garden of the heart, as well as in the sensual world, he withered
    leaves,--the ideas and feelings that we have done with. There is no
    wind strong enough to sweep them away; infinite space will not
    garner then from our sight. What mean they? Why may we not be
    permitted to live and enjoy, as if this were the first life and our
    own the primal enjoyment, instead of treading always on these dry
    hones and mouldering relics, from the aged accumulation of which
    springs all that now appears so young and new? Sweet must have been
    the springtime of Eden, when no earlier year had strewn its decay
    upon the virgin turf and no former experience had ripened into
    summer and faded into autumn in the hearts of its inhabitants! That
    was a world worth living in. O then murmurer, it is out of the very
    wantonness of such a life that then feignest these idle
    lamentations. There is no decay. Each human soul is the first-
    created inhabitant of its own Eden. We dwell in an old moss-covered
    mansion, and tread in the worn footprints of the past, and have a
    gray clergyman's ghost for our daily and nightly inmate; yet all
    these outward circumstances are made less than visionary by the
    renewing power of the spirit. Should the spirit ever lose this
    power,--should the withered leaves, and the rotten branches, and the
    moss-covered house, and the ghost of the gray past ever become its
    realities, and the verdure and the freshness merely its faint
    dream,--then let it pray to be released from earth. It will need
    the air of heaven to revive its pristine energies.

    What an unlooked-for flight was this from our shadowy avenue of
    black-ash and balm of Gilead trees into the infinite! Now we have
    our feet again upon the turf. Nowhere does the grass spring up so
    industriously as in this homely yard, along the base of the stone
    wall, and in the sheltered nooks of the buildings, and especially
    around the southern doorstep,--a locality which seems particularly
    favorable to its growth, for it is already tall enough to bend over
    and wave in the wind. I observe that several weeds--and most
    frequently a plant that stains the fingers with its yellow juice--
    have survived and retained their freshness and sap throughout the
    winter. One knows not how they have deserved such an exception from
    the common lot of their race. They are now the patriarchs of the
    departed year, and may preach mortality to the present generation of
    flowers and weeds.

    Among the delights of spring, how is it possible to forget the
    birds? Even the crows were welcome as the sable harbingers of a
    brighter and livelier race. They visited us before the snow was
    off, but seem mostly to have betaken themselves to remote depths of
    the woods, which they haunt all summer long. Many a time shall I
    disturb them there, and feel as if I had intruded among a company of
    silent worshippers, as they sit in Sabbath stillness among the tree-
    tops. Their voices, when they speak, are in admirable accordance
    with the tranquil solitude of a summer afternoon; and resounding so
    far above the head, their loud clamor increases the religious quiet
    of the scene instead of breaking it. A crow, however, has no real
    pretensions to religion, in spite of his gravity of mien and black
    attire; he is certainly a thief, and probably an infidel. The gulls
    are far more respectable, in a moral point of view. These denizens
    of seabeaten rocks and haunters of the lonely beach come up our
    inland river at this season, and soar high overhead, flapping their
    broad wings in the upper sunshine. They are among the most
    picturesque of birds, because they so float and rest upon the air as
    to become almost stationary parts of the landscape. The imagination
    has time to grow acquainted with them; they have not flitted away in
    a moment. You go up among the clouds and greet these lofty-flighted
    gulls, and repose confidently with them upon the sustaining
    atmosphere. Duck's have their haunts along the solitary places of
    the river, and alight in flocks upon the broad bosom of the
    overflowed meadows. Their flight is too rapid and determined for
    the eye to catch enjoyment from it, although it never fails to stir
    up the heart with the sportsman's ineradicable instinct. They have
    now gone farther northward, but will visit us again in autumn.

    The smaller birds,--the little songsters of the woods, and those
    that haunt man's dwellings and claim human friendship by building
    their nests under the sheltering eaves or among the orchard trees,--
    these require a touch more delicate and a gentler heart than mine to
    do them justice. Their outburst of melody is like a brook let loose
    from wintry chains. We need not deem it a too high and solemn word
    to call it a hymn of praise to the Creator; since Nature, who
    pictures the reviving year in so many sights of beauty, has
    expressed the sentiment of renewed life in no other sound save the
    notes of these blessed birds. Their music, however, just now, seems
    to be incidental, and not the result of a set purpose. They are
    discussing the economy of life and love and the site and
    architecture of their summer residences, and have no time to sit on
    a twig and pour forth solemn hymns, or overtures, operas,
    symphonies, and waltzes. Anxious questions are asked; grave
    subjects are settled in quick and animated debate; and only by
    occasional accident, as from pure ecstasy, does a rich warble roll
    its tiny waves of golden sound through the atmosphere. Their little
    bodies are as busy as their voices; they are all a constant flutter
    and restlessness. Even when two or three retreat to a tree-top to
    hold council, they wag their tails and heads all the time with the
    irrepressible activity of their nature, which perhaps renders their
    brief span of life in reality as long as the patriarchal age of
    sluggish man. The blackbirds, three species of which consort
    together, are the noisiest of all our feathered citizens. Great
    companies of them--more than the famous "four-and-twenty" whom
    Mother Goose has immortalized--congregate in contiguous treetops and
    vociferate with all the clamor and confusion of a turbulent
    political meeting. Politics, certainly, must be the occasion of
    such tumultuous debates; but still, unlike all other politicians,
    they instil melody into their individual utterances and produce
    harmony as a general effect. Of all bird voices, none are more
    sweet and cheerful to my ear than those of swallows, in the dim,
    sunstreaked interior of a lofty barn; they address the heart with
    even a closer sympathy than robin-redbreast. But, indeed, all these
    winged people, that dwell in the vicinity of homesteads, seem to
    partake of human nature, and possess the germ, if not the
    development, of immortal souls. We hear them saying their melodious
    prayers at morning's blush and eventide. A little while ago, in the
    deep of night, there came the lively thrill of a bird's note from a
    neighboring tree,--a real song, such as greets the purple dawn or
    mingles with the yellow sunshine. What could the little bird mean
    by pouring it forth at midnight? Probably the music gushed out of
    the midst of a dream in which he fancied himself in paradise with
    his mate, but suddenly awoke on a cold leafless bough, with a New
    England mist penetrating through his feathers. That was a sad
    exchange of imagination for reality.

    Insects are among the earliest births of sprung. Multitudes of I
    know not what species appeared long ago on the surface of the snow.
    Clouds of them, almost too minute for sight, hover in a beam of
    sunshine, and vanish, as if annihilated, when they pass into the
    shade. A mosquito has already been heard to sound the small horror
    of his bugle-horn. Wasps infest the sunny windows of the house. A
    bee entered one of the chambers with a prophecy of flowers. Rare
    butterflies came before the snow was off, flaunting in the chill
    breeze, and looking forlorn and all astray, in spite of the
    magnificence of their dark velvet cloaks, with golden borders.

    The fields and wood-paths have as yet few charms to entice the
    wanderer. In a walk, the other day, I found no violets, nor
    anemones, nor anything in the likeness of a flower. It was worth
    while, however, to ascend our opposite hill for the sake of gaining
    a general idea of the advance of spring, which I had hitherto been
    studying in its minute developments. The river lay around me in a
    semicircle, overflowing all the meadows which give it its Indian
    name, and offering a noble breadth to sparkle in the sunbeams.
    Along the hither shore a row of trees stood up to their knees in
    water; and afar off, on the surface of the stream, tufts of bushes
    thrust up their heads, as it were, to breathe. The most striking
    objects were great solitary trees here and there, with a mile-wide
    waste of water all around them. The curtailment of the trunk, by
    its immersion in the river, quite destroys the fair proportions of
    the tree, and thus makes us sensible of a regularity and propriety
    in the usual forms of nature. The flood of the present season--
    though it never amounts to a freshet on our quiet stream--has
    encroached farther upon the land than any previous one for at least
    a score of years. It has overflowed stone fences, and even rendered
    a portion of the highway navigable for boats.

    The waters, however, are now gradually subsiding; islands become
    annexed to the mainland; and other islands emerge, like new
    creations, from the watery waste. The scene supplies an admirable
    image of the receding of the Nile, except that there is no deposit
    of black slime; or of Noah's flood, only that there is a freshness
    and novelty in these recovered portions of the continent which give
    the impression of a world just made rather than of one so polluted
    that a deluge had been requisite to purify it. These upspringing
    islands are the greenest spots in the landscape; the first gleam of
    sunlight suffices to cover them with verdure.

    Thank Providence for spring! The earth--and man himself, by
    sympathy with his birthplace would be far other than we find them if
    life toiled wearily onward without this periodical infusion of the
    primal spirit. Will the world ever be so decayed that spring may
    not renew its greenness? Can man be so dismally age stricken that
    no faintest sunshine of his youth may revisit him once a year? It
    is impossible. The moss on our time-worn mansion brightens into
    beauty; the good old pastor who once dwelt here renewed his prime,
    regained his boyhood, in the genial breezes of his ninetieth spring.
    Alas for the worn and heavy soul if, whether in youth or age, it
    have outlived its privilege of springtime sprightliness! From such
    a soul the world must hope no reformation of its evil, no sympathy
    with the lofty faith and gallant struggles of those who contend in
    its behalf. Summer works in the present, and thinks not of the
    future; autumn is a rich conservative; winter has utterly lost its
    faith, and clings tremulously to the remembrance of what has been;
    but spring, with its outgushing life, is the true type of the
    movement.
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