Where the Tamarack Grows (Perils in Petrie Book 1)

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But I think nothing produced by the magic touch of winter can excel a phenomenon I have often seen in the woods of the transatlantic countries named above, where it is familiarly called silver-thaw. It is caused by rain descending when the stratum of air nearest the earth is below 32 deg. On the shrubs and trees, the effect is magical, and reminds one of fairy scenes described in oriental fables. Every little twig, every branch, every leaf, every blade of grass is enshrined in crystal; the whole forest is composed of sparkling, transparent glass, even to the minute leaves of the pines and firs.

The sun shines out. What a glitter of light! How the beams, broken, as it were, into ten thousand fragments, sparkle and dance, as they are reflected from the trees! Yet it is as fragile as beautiful.

A slight shock from a rude hand is sufficient to destroy it. The air is filled with a descending shower of the glittering fragments, and the spell is broken at once; the crystal pageant has vanished, and nothing remains but a brown, leafless tree.

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But all this is the beauty of death; and the naturalist, though he may, and does, admire its peculiar loveliness, yet longs for the opening of spring. Here, too, are the butterflies. The beetles are active, too, in their way. The tiger-beetle, with its sparkling green wing-cases, flies before our footsteps with watchful agility, and numerous atoms are circling round the blossoming elms, which, on catching one or two, we find to belong to the same class; the dark-blue Timarcha—the bloody-nose— is depositing its drop of clear red liquid on the blades of grass; and if we look into the ponds, we see multitudes of little black, brown, and yellow forms come up to the surface, hang there for a moment, and then hurry down again into the depths.

And then come up the newts from their castle in the mud, willing to see and to be seen; for they have donned their vernal attire, and appear veritable holiday beaux, arrayed in the pomp of ruffled shirt and scarlet waistcoat.

The frogs, moreover, are busy depositing their strings of beadlike spawn, and announcing the fact to the world in loud, if not cheerful strains. The willows on the river margin are gay with their pendant catkins, to whose attractions hundreds of humming bees resort, in preference to the lovely flowers which are already making the banks and slopes to smile.

The homeliest of these, even the dandelions and daisies, the buttercups and celandines, are most welcome after the dreariness and death of winter. Yet there are some which, from the peculiarities of their form, colour, or habits, charm us more than others. The germander speedwell, with its laughing blue eyes, spangling every hedge-bank—who can look upon it, and not love it? Who can mark the wild hyacinths, growing in battalions of pale stalks, each crowned with its clusters of drooping bells; and interspersed with the tall and luxuriant cowslips, so like and yet so different, filling the air with their golden beauty and sugary fragrance, without rapture?

Who can discover the perfumed violet amidst the rampant moss, or the lily of the valley beneath the rank herbage, without acknowledging how greatly both beauty and worth are enhanced by humility? If in this favoured land we are conscious of emotions of peculiar delight, when we see the face of nature renewing its loveliness after winter, where yet the influence of the dreary season is never so absolute as quite to quench the activities of either vegetable or animal life, and where that face may be said to put on a somewhat gradual smile ere it breaks out into full joyous laughter— much more impressive is the coming in of spring with all its charms in such a country as Canada, where the transition is abrupt, and a few days change the scene from a waste of snow to universal warmth, verdure, and beauty.

I have observed, with admiration, how suddenly the brown poplar woods put on a flush of tender yellow-green from the rapidly-opening leaves; how quickly the maple trees are covered with crimson blossoms; how brilliant flowers are fast springing up through the dead leaves in the forests; how gay butterflies and beetles are playing, on every bank where the snow lay a week before; and how the bushes are ringing with melody from hundreds of birds, which have been for months silent.

The first song of spring comes on the heart with peculiar power, after the mute desolation of winter, and more especially when, as in the country I speak of, it suddenly bursts forth in a whole orchestra at once. The song-sparrow is the chief performer in this early concert; a very melodious little creature, though of unpretending plumage. Much of all this charm lies in the circumstantials, the associations. It may be that there is something in the psychical, perhaps even in the physical condition of the observer, superinduced by the season itself, that makes him in spring more open to pleasurable emotions from the sights and sounds of nature.

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But much depends on association and contrast: novelty has much to do with it. Everything tells of happiness; and we cannot help sympathising with it. We contrast the zwh with the qanator, and our minds revert to aqanasia. Here is, where before there was not, at least for us; and this is novelty.

The hundreds of rich and fragrant violets that we find in April are not less rich in hue or less fragrant in odour than the first; yet the first violet of spring had a charm that all these combined possess not. We cannot, indeed, divest ourselves of a certain feeling of sadness, because we know that the season is in the decrepitude of age, and is verging towards death.

In spring, hope is prominent; in autumn, regret: in spring we are anticipating life; in autumn, death. Yet a forest country in autumn presents a glorious spectacle, and nowhere more magnificent than in North America, where the decaying foliage of the hardwood forests puts on in October the most splendid colours. Every part of the woods is then glowing in an endless variety of shapes; brilliant crimson, purple, scarlet, lake, orange, yellow, brown, and green: if we look from some cliff or mountain-top over a breadth of forest, the rich hues are seen to spread as far as the eye can reach; the shadows of the passing clouds, playing over the vast surface, now dimming the tints, now suffering them to flash out in the full light of the sun; here and there a large group of sombre evergreens,—hemlock or spruce,—giving the shadows of the picture, and acting as a foil to the brightness;—the whole forest seems to have become a gigantic parterre of the richest flowers.

It is observable that after all this short-lived splendour has passed away, and the trees have become leafless, in Canada and the Northern States, there always occur a few days of most lovely and balmy weather, which is called the Indian summer. It is characterised by a peculiar haziness in the atmosphere, like a light smoke, by a brilliant sun, only slightly dimmed by this haze, and by a general absence of wind.

It follows a short season of wintry weather, so as to be isolated in its character. One circumstance I have remarked with interest,— the resuscitation of insect life in abundance. Beautiful butterflies swarm around the leafless trees; and moths in multitudes flit among the woods and bushes, while minuter forms hop merrily about the heaps of decaying leaves at the edges of the woods. It is a charming relaxation of the icy chains of winter. The face of nature is still sunny, and bright and beautiful; the forest still yields its shade, and the sun glistens warm and clear upon the flower and stained leaf.

There is the rich tinge of the broad red sun stealing over and blending the thousand hues of the hill and forest, and the flood of glory upon the sky above and lake beneath, while the snows of the Alps are glowing like molten ore. An early riser, I have always been in the habit of enjoying, with keen relish, the opening of day and the awakening of life. In my young days of natural history, when pursuing with much ardour an acquaintance with the insects of Newfoundland, I used frequently, in June and July, to rise at daybreak, and seek a wild but lovely spot a mile or two from the town. It was a small tarn or lake among the hills, known as Little Beaver Pond.

Here I would arrive before the winds were up, for it is at that season generally calm till after sunrise.

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The scene, with all its quiet beauty, rises up to my memory now. There is the black, calm, glassy pond sleeping below me, reflecting from its unruffled surface every tree and bush of the dark towering hills above, as in a perfect mirror. Stretching away to the east are seen other ponds, embosomed in the frowning mountains, connected with this one and with each other in that chain-fashion which is so characteristic of Newfoundland; while, further on in the same direction, between two conical peaks, the ocean is perceived reposing under the mantle of the long dark clouds of morning.

There is little wood, except of the pine and fir tribe, sombre and still; a few birches grow on the hill-sides, and a wild cherry or two; but willows hang over the water; and many shrubs combine to constitute a tangled thicket redolent with perfume. Towards the margin of the lake, the ground is covered with spongy swamp-moss, and several species of ledum and kalmia, with the fragrant gale, give out aromatic odours. The low, unvarying, and somewhat mournful bleat of the snipes on the opposite hill, and the short, impatient flapping of wings as one occasionally flies across the water, seem rather to increase than to diminish the general tone of repose, which is aided, too, by yonder bittern that stands in the dark shadow of an overhanging bush as motionless as if he were carved in stone, reflected perfectly in the shallow water in which he is standing.

But presently the spell is broken; the almost oppressive silence and stillness are interrupted; the eastern clouds have been waxing more and more ruddy, and the sky has been bathed in golden light ever becoming more lustrous. Now the sea reflects in dazzling splendour the risen sun; nature awakes; lines of ruffling ripple run across the lake from the airs which are beginning to breathe down the glen; the solemn stillness which weighed upon the woods is dissipated; the lowing of cattle comes faintly from the distant settlements; crows fly cawing overhead; and scores of tiny throats combine, each in its measure, to make a sweet harmony, each warbling its song of unconscious praise to its beneficent Creator.

Then with what delight would I haste to the lake-side, where the margin was fringed with a broad belt of the yellow water-lily, whose oval leaves floating on the surface almost concealed the water, while here and there the golden globe itself protruded. Having pulled out my insect-net from a rocky crevice in which I was accustomed to hide it, I would then stretch myself on the mossy bank and peer in between the lily leaves, under whose shadow I could with ease discover the busy inhabitants of the pool, and watch their various movements in the crystalline water.

The merry little boatflies are frisking about, backs downwards, using their oar-like hind-feet as paddles; the triple-tailed larvae of dayflies creep in and out of holes in the bank, the finny appendages at their sides maintaining a constant waving motion; now and then a little waterbeetle peeps out cautiously from the cresses, and scuttles across to a neighbouring weed; the unwieldy caddisworms are lazily dragging about their curiously-built houses over the sogged leaves at the bottom, watching for some unlucky gnat-grub to swim within reach of their jaws; but, lo!

There, too, is the awkward sprawling spider-like grub of the dragonfly; he crawls to and fro on the mud, now and then shooting along by means of his curious valvular pump; he approaches an unsuspecting blood-worm, and,—oh! I remember to this day the enthusiasm with which I saw him suddenly throw out from his face that extraordinary mask that Kirby has so graphically described, and, seizing the worm with the serrated folding-doors, close the whole apparatus up again in a moment.

When dwelling in the gorgeous and sunny Jamaica, it was delightful to rise long before day and ride up to a lonely mountain gorge overhung by the solemn tropical forest, and there, amidst the dewy ferns arching their feathery fronds by thousands from every rock and fallen tree, and beneath the splendid wild-pines and orchids that droop from every fork, await the first activity of some crepuscular bird or insect. There was a particular species of butterfly, remarkable for the extraordinary gem-like splendour of its decoration, and peculiarly interesting to the philosophic naturalist as being a connecting link between the true butterflies and the moths.

This lovely creature, I discovered, was in the habit of appearing just as the sun broke from the sea, and congregating by scores around the summit of one tall forest-tree then in blossom, filling the air with their lustrous and sparkling beauty, at a height most tantalising for the collector, and after playing in giddy flight for about an hour, retiring as suddenly as they came. In these excursions I was interested in marking the successive awakening of the early birds. Presently the flat-bill uttered his plaintive wail, occasionally relieved by a note somewhat less mournful.

When the advancing light began to break over the black and frowning peaks, and Venus waned, the peadove from the neighbouring woods commenced her fivefold coo, hollow and moaning. Now the whole east was ruddy, and the rugged points and trees on the summit of the mountain-ridge, interrupting the flood of crimson light, produced the singularly beautiful phenomenon of a series of rose-coloured beams, diverging from the eastern quarter, and spreading, like an expanded fan, across the whole arch of heaven, each ray dilating as it advanced. The harsh screams of the clucking-hen came up from a gloomy gorge, and from the summit of the mountain were faintly heard the lengthened flute-like notes, in measured cadence, of the solitaire.

Then mocking-birds all around broke into song, pouring forth their rich gushes and powerful bursts of melody, with a profusion that filled the ear, and overpowered all the other varied voices, which were by this time too numerous to be separately distinguished, but which all helped to swell the morning concert of woodland music.

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It was almost like magic, when, as the sun began to approach the horizon, the perfect stillness of the forests beneath was gradually broken by the occasional note of some early riser of the winged tribe, till, at length, as the day it itself began to break, the whole forest seemed to be suddenly warmed into life, sending forth choir after choir of gorgeous-plumaged songsters, each after his own manner to swell the chorus of greeting a discordant one, I fear it must be owned to the glorious sun; and when, as the increasing light enabled you to see down into the misty valleys beneath, there were displayed to our enchanted gaze zones of fertility, embracing almost every species of tree and flower that flourishes between the Tierra Caliente and the regions of perpetual snow.

It certainly was a view of almost unequalled magnificence. Riding amongst apple and peach-trees that might have belonged to an English orchard, and on whose branches we almost expected to see the blackbird and the chaffinch; while a few hundred yards below, parrots and macaws, monkeys and mocking-birds, were sporting among the palms and tree-ferns, and, in flights of two or three hundred yards, chasing each other from the climate of the torrid to that of the temperate zone, was not the least striking part of the scene.

Long lines of pale yellow clouds extended over the horizon; these became more luminous every few minutes, until at length they were like waves of golden light rolling and breaking on some celestial shore.

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I roused up my fellow-traveller that he might partake with me in my admiration of the scene, and a most splendid one it was. The sun was rising behind some very distant hills, and tipping all the mountain-tops with his glorious rays even the dark pines assumed a golden hue. We sat silently watching the beautifully changing scene for an hour, until hill and valley were lighted up.