An Almanac for Moderns
One of Peattie's most profound works and perhaps the one that first gained him a reputation is An Almanac for Moderns (1935). This odd little book contains 352 page–length or less writings for each day of the year. Peattie takes us through an entire year, beginning on the vernal equinox—March 21st—and circling all the way around to that same date. Given his curious mind, this book does not simply record the yearly cycle of the natural world, although this he does with sketches of surprising detail and sensitivity. On the contrary: Peattie uses the Almanac to open the whole world to us.
On this chill uncertain spring day, toward twilight, I have heard the first frog quaver from the marsh. That is a sound that Pharaoh listened to as it rose from the Nile, and it blended, I suppose, with his discontents and longings, as it does with ours. There is something lonely in that first shaken and uplifted trilling croak. And more than lonely, for I hear a warning in it, as Pharaoh heard the sound of plague. It speaks of the return of life, animal life, to the earth. It tells of all that is most unutterable in evolution—the terrible continuity and fluidity of protoplasm, the irrepressible forces of reproduction—not mystical human love, but the cold batrachian jelly by which we vertebrates are linked to things that creep and writhe and are blind yet breathe and have being. More than half of it seems to threaten that when mankind has quite thoroughly shattered and eaten and debauched himself with his own follies, that voice may still be ringing out in the marshes of the Nile and the Thames and the Potomac, unconscious that Pharaoh wept for his son.
It always seems to me that no sooner do I hear the first frog trill than I find the first cloud of frog's eggs in a wayside pool, so swiftly does the emergent creature pour out the libation of cool fertility. There is life where before there was none. It is as repulsive as it is beautiful, as silvery–black as it is slimy. Life, in short, raw and exciting, life almost in primordial form, irreducible element.
Comforting, sustaining, like the teat to the nursling, is Aristotle's beautiful idea that everything serves a useful purpose and is part of the great design. Ask, for instance, of what use is grass. Grass, the pietist assures us, was made in order to nourish cows. Cows are here on earth to nourish men. So all flesh is grass, and grass was put here for man.
But of what use, pray, is man? Would anybody, besides his dog, miss him if he were gone? Would the sun cease to shed its light because there were no human beings here to sing the praises of sunlight? Would there be sorrow among the little hiding creatures of the underwood, or loneliness in the hearts of the proud and noble beasts? Would other simians feel that their king was gone? Would God, Jehovah, Zeus, Allah, miss the sound of hymns and psalms, the odor of frankincense and flattery?
There is no certainty vouchsafed for us in the vast testimony of Nature that the universe was designed for man, nor yet for any purpose, even the bleak purpose of symmetry. The courageous thinker must look the inimical aspects of his environment in the face, and accept the stern fact that the universe is hostile and deathly to him save for a very narrow zone where it permits him, for a few eons, to exist.
I say that it touches a man that his blood is sea water and his tears are salt, that the seed of his loins is scarcely different than the same cells in a seaweed, and that of stuff like his bones are coral made. I say that physical and biologic law lies down with him, and wakes when a child stirs in the womb, and that the sap in a tree, uprushing in the spring, and the smell of the loam, where the bacteria bestir themselves in darkness, and the path of the sun in the heaven, these are facts of first importance to his mental conclusions, and that a man who goes in no consciousness of them is a drifter and a dreamer, without a home or any contact with reality.
Each year, and above all, each spring, raises up for Nature a new generation of lovers—and this quite irrespective of the age of the new votary. As I write this a boy is going out to the marshes to watch with field glasses the mating of the red–winged blackbirds, rising up in airy swirls and clouds. Or perhaps he carries some manual to the field, and sits him down on an old log, to trace his way through Latin names, that seem at first so barbarous and stiff. There is no explaining why the boy has suddenly forsaken the ball and bat, or finds a kite less interesting in the spring skies than a bird. For a few weeks, or a few seasons, or perhaps for a lifetime, he will follow this bent with passion.
And at the same time there will be a man who all his life has put away this call, or never heard it before, who has come to the easier, latter end of life, when leisure is his own. And he goes out in the woods to collect his first botanical specimen and to learn that he has much to learn for all his years.
They are never to be forgotten—that first bird pursued through thicket and over field with serious intent, not to kill but to know it, or that first plant lifted reverently and excitedly from the earth. No spring returns but that I wish I might live again through the moment when I went out in the woods and sat down with a book in my hands, to learn not only the name, but the ways and the range and the charm of the windflower, Anemone quinquefo.
There is something classic about the study of the little world that is made up by our first spring flowers—all those which bloom not later than April. They are delightfully easy to learn, in case you do not already know them, for there are so few of them that any local manual of the spring flowers will swiftly make you friends for life with them. Happy are those who this year, for the first time, go wood wandering to find them, who first crack open the new manual, smelling of fresh ink, and rejoice in the little new pocket lens. And many, many are the feet that have trod that way before, the boy Linnaeus the young Asa Gray, the child prodigies like Rafinesque and Haller, the wearied great scholars seeking rest and distraction, like Jacob Grimm and John Stuart Mill.
So great names lend their luster to this innocent delight. But the classicism of the earliest wildflowers derives also from the fact that they fall into a few families, the lily, pink, buttercup, crucifer, rose, violet, umbellifer, heath and composite families, whose unmistakable ear–marks are as decisive as the national traits of Greeks, Persians, Hindu, Englishmen, and Norsemen. Characteristic of the northern hemisphere, these give us blossoms that turn up to us the dainty face upon the delicate stalk. They mean to us all that is brave and fresh and frail in the name of spring. Summer flowers distract us with well upon a hundred families, with a strong tropical element; autumnal flowers are confined almost wholly to the tall rank composites. But something in the spring flora, perfect in its simplicity and unity, carries us back to Arcady.
If progress is an increasing power to master and mold environment,then there is a strong current of progress in evolution. A one–celled flagellate certainly has but the dullest awareness of its environment as it bumps aimlessly about, but the redwinged black bird hanging its nest on the cattails and the muskrat digging crafty passages into and out of his home—these highly sentient, mobile, instinctive and often intelligent creatures are a world and many ages beyond the blind and stupid flagellate. And last, in his majesty comes man, who if he does not like the marsh, will dig ditches and drain it off. In a year he will be turning a furrow there, sowing his domesticated crop, the obedient grain; he will drive out every animal and plant that does not bow down to him.
Man—man has the world in the hollow of his hand. He is a standing refutation of an old superstition like predestination—or a new one like determinism. His chances seem all but boundless, and boundless might be his optimism if he had not already thrown away so many of his opportunities. That very marsh was the home of waterfowl as valuable as they were beautiful. Now they must die, because in this world all breeding grounds are already crammed full. When he slays the birds, he lets loose their prey, and his worst enemies, the insects. He wastes his forests faster than he replaces them, and slaughters the mink and the beaver and the seal. He devours his limited coal supply ever faster; he fouls the rivers, invents poison gasses and turns his destruction even on his own kind. And in the end he may present the spectacle of some Brobdingnagian spoiled baby, gulping down his cake and howling for it too.
[UNL Gardens note: Brobdingnag is a fictional land in Jonathan Swift's satirical novel Gulliver's Travels occupied by giants. Lemuel Gulliver visits the land after the ship on which he is travelling is blown off course and he is separated from a party exploring the unknown land. The adjective Brobdingnagian has come to describe anything of colossal size.]
Spring in any land has its special sweetness. Tulips and hyacinths, crocuses and narcissus that are wild flowers of the Mediterranean spring, are more familiar to the city dweller in the New World than the shy, frail spring flowers of his own country side. An English spring with the innocent faces of primroses looking up from their pale leaves, with celandine braving the winds of march, and bluebells in the woods when cuckoos call and nightingales return, is ours by right of poesy.
In this our western world, Thoreau made New England springs immortal, and a host of lesser writers have followed him; indeed, most of the popular wildflower books emanate from the northeastern states where a rather bleak flora has been better loved, sung, and made decipherable than than of the richer lands to the south.
South of the Potomac spring comes on with balm and sweetness, with a peculiarly Appalachian fragrance, commingled of forests and mountains. It comes without treachery, without taking one step back, like the Sabine women, for every two steps forward. It sweeps up from Florida, past the sea islands of Georgia, through Hall and Habersham, through Charleston where the tea olive sheds its intense sweetness on the air, over the Carolinas, wakening the wild jasmine in the woods, filling the Blue Ridge with azalea and many kinds of trillium and the strange, earth–loving wild ginger, till it opens the bird–foot violet, and the redbud and dogwood of the two Virginias.
Was it worth while for a mayfly to have been born, to have been for weeks and a bride or a bridegroom for one day, only to perish? Such is not a question to which Nature will give the human mind an answer. She thrusts us all into life, and with her hand propels us like children through the role she has allotted us. You may weep about it or you may smile; that matters only to yourself. The trees that live five hundred years, or five thousand, see us human mayflies grow and mate and die while they are adding a foot to their girth. Well might they ask themselves if it be not a slavish and ephemeral thing to be born a man.
On this day in 1707, in southern Sweden, was born the man we know as Linnaeusor Karl von Linnaeuss father had literally enjoyed no surname; he was Nils, the son of Bengt, for in old Sweden there were only patronymics. But he took a name unto himself from Lin, the Linden. For two hundred years, in a corner of Jonsboda Parish, there had stood a mighty linden, sacred in family tradition, and from this totem Nils made himself a learned–sounding Latin name.
At Upsala, Linnaeus passed the first year in dire want, putting paper in the soles of his worn shoes. The old botanical gardens, started by Rudbeck, had been allowed to fall into ruins, and the science of botany itself was then like a sleeping, dusty, dead–seeming garden in March, half full of lifeless brushwood—but for the rest secretly quick and budded and only awaiting a warming breath.
The only friend of Linnaeus at this time was Artedi, who would have become the Linnaeus of zoology but for falling into a canal and drowning. This lad was so poor that Linnaeus and he loaned each other money, as only the destitute could do. These boys exchanged the usual wild ideas of young students—in this case nothing less than the principals of classification that ultimately brought order into the hopelessly muddled work of the herbalists struggling to find the plants of northern Europe in their Pliny and Theophrastus.
So like two winter birds, living on weed seeds, and sleeping in the lee of a tree trunk, the ragged hungry lads lived on till spring, when Dean Celsius, himself a naturalist, came to their aid with money, food, shelter, appointments, and gave them grace to think, without danger of turning into fasting visionaries.
There is no breeze today except the wind of rumor that perpetually blows through the cottonwoods, and it would be a mystery where they find it in this heavy atmosphere unless one examined the leaf–stalks with an attentive eye. For these are flattened and where the heart–shaped blade joins to the petiole it is as free, almost, to swing as if suspended on a pivot. The merest whisper of a breeze suffices to set the leaves twirling, to rustling and talking.
The wise of the earth assure us that all poplars, like the willows, are trivial trees, short of life, weak of stem, prey to more ills than mortal man. These things are so, and we are bidden only to admire the oak and pine, that outlive the centuries, that grow in surety and have the sterner virtues. But is there no room in the forest for the poplar, with its restless, talkative foliage?...
As long as one knows little of Nature save that which impinges upon ones sensually, one is subject to the moods it throws, like a shadow, across the spirit. But as soon as one begins to search for knowledge in the thing that dims the light, the power of mood fades. A biologist confined to the prison isle of of Ste. Marguerite would soon set up some equipment or technique for studying the swallows—the pulsation of their crowding population, the control of their behavior, their effect upon the rest of the animal life of the island, or something else from which significant conclusions could be drawn.
I accept the challenge of the artists that cool investigation may often be the death of poetry. As knowledge lessens the terror of the plague, so it may take some of the soulfulness out of nature. There is a sort of Wordsworthian sermonizing that shrinks before the biological frame of mind, just as the childish abhorrence of insects vanishes with familiarity. But not all poetry is really good poetry (however good it may sound). Good poetry is swift–winged, essential and truthful in description—and so is good science.
Bee's droning; white clouds in full sail for an open sea of blue, and the odor of clover, honeyed and familiar and reminding one of all the summers gone by—that is July.
The clover plant is such a common thing that nobody praises it as it deserve to be praised, this fragrant hardy, ubiquitous plant that leaves the soil richer than it found it. I am not forgetting that Irishmen have taken the shamrock for their national symbol. But according to the dictionaries the Gael word seamar—or seamroge, which is the fine old Irish orthography for it—does not mean clover specifically, but any three–lobed leaf. Half the world will uphold the clover and the other half insists that the true shamrock is really the wood–sorel, oxalis. The three–leaved clover, used by St. Patrick to teach the Trinity to the wild tribes of Erin, seems to me an excellent symbol, for if Ireland were divided into north, south, east and west, then only three of the lobes would be Ireland. Orange Ulster will forever remain the missing fourth leaf in Ireland's luck.
The place to look for the astonishing in Nature is amongst common things. The clover with its dense head of two–lipped flowers exactly suited to the long tongues of butterflies and some bees, sustains a symbiotic relationship with insects quite as much as the orchid. The roots of the clover harbor colonies of nitrifying bacteria which improve the soil, as important or more so than the fungi in the roots of orchids. Where orchids are scare and useless, clover creeps over the surface of the world, invading our continent and the Antipodes, leaving the world better than it found it, nourishing cattle, alluring bees and butterflies, and trooping down the dusty roadsides where haughtier flowers will not consent to grow.
A man with a taste for being able to name what he sees will want not only to know the trees and the flowers; sooner or later he will take up the ferns, and I give him no assurance that he will ever get much beyond them. Not that they are so many. But the sirens were only three, amidst all those sailor's skulls.
There are only a little less than sixty ferns and fern allies in my region and it will not take a man a season to know them all, so few, so striking they are, so excellent the many handbooks of fern study in existence. But in the very circumscription of their bounds lies half the charm of the time you first take up a study of the ferns; like the pictures of Vermeer or the signatures of Button Gwinnet, there are just a few in the world, and all of them precious. Gone forever is the age of the ferns, when they ruled the earth. Now, as an experiment of evolution, they are finished; we see not their great subkingdom only fragments that time has speared. It is that which gives the study of them its classic, its complete and homogeneous character, like the study of a rigid, highly inflected, sonorous and dead language.
Now the autumn colors march upon their triumphs. So still the woods stand, against the faultless blue of the sky, they seems like windows dyed with pigments meant to represent all the riches and display of history—pointed windows blazing with trumpeting angels, blazons and heraldic glitter, intricate, leaf–twined illumination, depths of holy gold within temporal scarlet, soft gleaming chalices encrusted with ruby and topaz, cloths of bronze and ells of green, embroideries of crimson, twist from the vats of saffron and Tyrian and fustian.
The north woods have somehow stolen the fame of autumnal glory from other quarters of the land. But what have they—maples and beeches and aspens and rowanberry—that we have not? Or their fiery viburnums or huckleberries or brambles? We have all their colors and more, and indeed it is the tropical element in our flora that imparts the most dazzling brilliance. The tupelo tree before my door and the persimmons across the valley glow with a somber anger, like leaves that would be evergreen if they might and turn to the color of smoldering charcoal only under compulsion. The sassafras and the sour gum shout with orange and scarlet, and the curious sweet gum, with its star–shaped leaves, exults in crimson and vermilions. Like the gold tulip tree leaf it has a look about it as of some vegetation that does not really belong in the flora of the world today.
And in truth they both, like so many of our trees, are sole survivors of once great families of ages past. In what autumns the Tertiary have rejoiced, when leaves that are fossils now flamed with colors we can only imagine—flamed upon a world without men in it, to call it beautiful.
October 25 and 26
The keynote of spring is growth amongst the plants, reproduction amongst the animals. In summer it is the reverse; it is the plants that reproduce, the animals that grow. But autumn is the time of fattening. Now the beech nuts ripen their oily kernels; the walnut swells its rich meat through black wooden labyrinths, the wild rice stands high in the marshes, and the woods are filled with their jolly harvest of berries, blue buckthorn and scarlet bittersweet, black catbrier, holly and mistletoe and honeysuckle. The great green cannonballs of the osage orange drop from the prickly hedges with a thud; under the little hawthorns a perfect windfall of scarlet pomes lies drifted, and in the sun the bitter little wild crabs reach their one instant of winy, tangy, astringent perfection. . . .
It is nearly impossible to be sad, even listless, on a blue and gold October day, when the leaves rain down, not on a harsh wind, but quietly on the tingling air. They fall and fall, though not a breeze lifts the drooping battle flags of their foliage. You stand a moment before a late, last ash, watching. It seems as though the tree were actively engaged in shedding its attire, snipping it off, cutting it adrift. Pick up a fallen leaf at your feet, and examine the base of the leaf stalk. It feels hard to the touch; it is hollowed out. Had you a microscope, and a cut section of the leaf, you would see that indeed it had been cut off. The growth of a ring of callous cells, in a perfect ball and socket articulation, has predestined the fall. Wind need not tear the foliage down, nor decay set in. The tree itself passes invisible shears through its own auburn crown.
On a fine balmy day like this, just after rain, with a breeze blowing as steady as a Trade, silken argosies from aster and goldenrod, thistles and dandelions, drift past continuously. They seem to light, to have reached a destination, only to be borne on again by another wind.
It is worthy of note that the newest, the most highly developed and successful of all plant families, the thistle family, is especially given to plumose seeds. The goatsbeard has so much feathery stiff surface of down, proportioned to the weight of the seed, that should it start from a high mountain altitude on a continuous current it could, it has been estimated, travel sixty miles before once touching earth or water. In this fashion the composite family has made its way around the world, a conquerer particularly of the steppes and prairies, the veldt and the pampas. It has invaded Hawaii across thousands of sea miles, from North America, whilst all the rest of the island flora derives, with the prevailing ocean currents, from the southeast. It has reached the Azores from Europe, the Canaries from the peaks of Atlas.
And yet the idea is nothing new. Nature has tried the winged seed experiment a score of times in many families—dogbane, milkweed, clematis and some anemones, trees like willow, poplar, sycamore, maple, linden and ash, and some grasses and sedges. It is found in the cat–tail family, one of the most ancient and primitive flowering plants still alive, and wafted it successfully round all the marshes of the world. So in the end there seems to have been a return to the beginning, as if nothing more competent could be devised.
It was the habit of an old scientist of Göttingen to inaugurate the new year's work by sitting down ceremoniously at his desk upon the stroke of midnight. My own temperament is more indolent than that, but the first hour of the new year finds me still awake and, in spite of cheer, cold sober, in that frame of mind where the spirit stands alone in the night and asks, What now? Where now?
When I go to the window and look out, I see nothing of the new year save the wild flying of the snow as it swirls, whiteness born out of blackness, into the brief warm rhombus of light from the window, and then, brief as life, it vanishes into darkness once more. It flies upon a level wind; it is hurled as if a spirit were behind it, some dark force that has these arrows without limit in his quiver.
For those no longer very young the snow will always speak a little of death. For soon or late it comes to us all to bury some one in it—a friend, a father, a sister. And the heart does not forget these things. The soul, that looks out on a wrapt world of night and cold, demands its ultimate answers, or if it have them not, it will know at least, where lies the hope of man?
I say man's hope is in himself, and when I say it I do not deny that God may be the font of all resource man finds within himself. But any one who has read thus far will know how little I would lean upon that chill God in which the physicist finds it easy to believe—some Being that embodies the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Who cares for sheer bulk in a God, compared with accessibility? No, I say, man's hopes, like his faults, are not in his stars, but in himself, and not alone in our rare noblemen who live or die that others may better live, but in the whole blood brotherhood with all its scars and weals.
In the gray of the year, to our green–hungry eyes, the pines come into their greatness. The deciduous woods in winter have a steely and shelterless appearance, but even in a blinding snow storm pine woods have look of warmth about them. Alone among trees, evergreens keep up their sap in the winter; the fires of life still burn in them.
I like our loblolly pines for their glittering foliage, full of warmth and light at all seasons, bringing back to me the very smell of the South, the feeling of those grand sad lowlands of Georgia and the Carolinas. I like the yellow pine for its generous armored trunks built up of laminated plates like the leather shields of Homeric foot soldiers. But it is in the pitch pine that you have all that was ever embodied in the name of pine—the fondness for growing on craggy ledges, the wind–molded, storm–blasted shape, the dark and pungent foliage, the tears of silvery rosin bleeding from the rough male trunk, and the clusters of cones black against the sky. When it dies, it dies standing. And even as a skeleton, it has grandeur.
Its perfect compliment is the white pine, a feminine tree with silky, silvery and perpetually talkative needles. Adorned by long shapely cones with delicate flexible pink scales, clad in a smooth and lustrous bark, it rises in a delicate pagoda–like shape. Instead of the bold ledge, the white pine loves the glen, and there it consorts, in the damp, shadowed air and the earth mold of the color of tanbark, with hemlocks in groves where the pine siskins unite in little flocks, conferring together in voices fine as the whisper of a small watch.
Now is that strange hushed time of year when Nature seems to pause. The winds of winter are wearied. The weeds, once ranked high in the field, are low and subject. The weathered leaves begin to fall from the oaks that have clutched them fiercely, as the old clutch at little comforts.
The moment is like a pause in a symphony, when the great composer brings the fury of his music to a stop, a rest so fateful and significant that in the silence the listener counts his own loud heartbeats as though they were his last—hoping for and almost dreading the beginning of the new theme in the next measures.
And what will it be, that melody, but the beginning of spring? The talk of thaw in many runnels, the sounds of birds finding again their voices, of tree toads trilling in chill twilights, of a spade that strikes a stone.
There is visible now a fresh flush of color in the willow and osier twigs, reds and greens and yellows, depending on the species; the sassafras is limber again; the spice bush has a quick look cheering to see.
This work of the sap began long before this mild, pale day with the song–sparrows taking heart and the loam breathing sweetly. It began in the dead of winter, in the darkness of the roots far under ground. The sugar maples of Vermont are tapped in February, by men in furs, with frost–bitten hands, for it is then that the sap upsurges in a mighty rush. This is due to root pressure, and often in ice–bound weather I have seen where the gush of sap in a cherry was so sudden and fierce that it burst the tree's internal plumbing and poured out like golden blood from a wound, to freeze there, a sort of modern and momentary amber.
Sap may have to mount to the top of a tree fifty feet in height, every inch of the way dead against gravity. And here, no doubt, the great force of capillarity steps in, the upward seep, inch by inch, through the hair–fine tubes of the living wood. It must pass from one cell to another, through the double walls of thick cellulose,and how this may be is still half a mystery. Osmosis is at work here, a sort of suction across the cell membranes, each cell a little pumping house. And once the leaves are out upon the tree one may add to reasons for the sap's rising the siphoning effect of loss of water from the leaf surface, that provides a continual drag or traction on the great water reservoir of the roots.
But that is weeks away; as I look across the grim weeks for spring's beginning, I find nothing earlier that the great upsurging of the plants' life blood.
The waters still are all but lifeless, and as is the way in spring, colder than the air. The air is chill enough; my hands, I know, are grateful for the gloves they wear. It is the earth, so quick to turn a cold and deathly clod in autumn, that in the spring is swiftest to warm up. In my dark winter clothes, when I walk under the leafless boughs of the hardwood groves in the hills, my body feels the sunlight's warmth almost oppressively; it wants to lie down in a leaf–filled gully and vegetate a while. Like the dark cloth, the black wood loam is absorbing from the early sunlight every ray. It is quite naturally the habitat of all the first spring wildflowers, those little geophilous plants—earth–huggers, lovers, as I am, of the soil.
I strip the gloves off from my hands, and see them emerge blanched and smelling a little of soap. Quickly, I plunge them down into this mother–stuff called earth. I lift the loam in my palm to smell it, toss it happily in my hand, fritter it away in my fingers just to feel again that marvelous intimate mixture of soil particles with centuries of leaf and flower decay.
There is not a flower yet, to be sure; only small shoots and basal rosettes are pushing up—delicate fronds of Dutchman's breeches, curling fingers of cinquefoil runners and the pale mottled spears of adder's tongues. But when I dig deeper just to feel the cool watery fleshy–pink rootstocks and the wild ginger, I discover the buds below the grounds, swelling precociously and ready for the resurrection.
I have said that much of life and perhaps the best of it is not quite "nice." The business of early spring; it transpires in nakedness and candor, under high empty skies. Almost all the first buds to break their bonds send forth not leaves but frank catkins, or in the maple sheer pistil and stamen, devoid of the frilled trimmings of petals. The cedar sows the wind with its pollen now, because it is a relict of an age before bees, and it blooms in a month essentially barren of winged pollinators. The wood frogs, warmed like the spring flowers by the swift–heating earth, return to the primordial element of water for their spawning, and up from the oozy bottoms rise the pond frogs, to make of the half–world of the marges* one breeding ground.
It is a fact that the philosopher afoot must not forget, that the astonishing embrace of the frog–kind, all in the eery green chill of earliest March, may be the attitude into which the tender passion throws these batrachians, but it is a world away from warm–blooded mating. It is a phlegmatic and persisting clasping, nothing more. It appears to be merely a reminder to the female that death brings up the rear of life's procession. When after patient hours he quits her, the female goes to the water to pour out her still unfertilized eggs. Only then are they baptized with the fecundating complement of the mate.
It is a startling bit of intelligence for the moralists, but the fact seems to be that sex is a force not necessarily concerned with reproduction; back in the primitive one–celled animals there are individuals that fuse without reproducing in consequence; the reproduction in those lowly states is but a simple fission of the cell, a self–division. It seems then that reproduction has, as it were, fastened itself on quite another force in the world; it has stolen a ride upon sex, which is a principle in its own right.
I go to the cellar for the last logs in my woodpile, and disclose a family of mice who have trustingly taken up residence there. Their tiny young, all ears and belly, mere little sacks of milk in a furless skin, lie there blind and helpless, five little tangible, irrepressible evidences of some moment, not so many nights ago, when in between the walls of my house there took place an act to which I am not so egotistic as to deny the name of love.
But it is not this which moves me, but the look in the mother's eyes as she stares up at me, her tail to the wall, all power of decision fled from her. There i read, in her agonized glance, how precious is life even to her. She entreats me not to take it from her. She does not know of pity in the world, so has no hope of it. But life—no matter how one suffers in it, hungers, flees, and fights––life is her religion.
How can we ever hope, then, to commensurate this thing which we too share, when it is its own cause, its own reason for being, when, as soon as we are challenged to stand and deliver it, we tremble and beg, like the trapped mouse?
To the terror that faces mice and men, a man at least can find an answer. This will be his religion.
Now how may a man base all his faith on Nature when in Nature there is no certain end awaiting the ambition of his race? When all is flux and fleet, the great flood tides of spring that are like to drown him, and the final neap tide of decease? How take comfort from the brave new greening of the grass, when grass must wither, or in the first eery whistle of the meadow larks, saying that life is "sweet–to–you, so sweet to you"? For life is not sweet to all men. It brings some blind into this world and of others requires blood and tears. The sun toward which man turns his face is a brief candle in the universe. His woman and his children are mortal as the flowers.
But it is not life's generosity, so capricious, that makes one man happy. It is rather the extent of his gratitude to life.
I say that it touches a man that his tears are only salt, and that the tides of youth rise, and, having fallen, rise again. Now he has lived to see another spring and to walk again beneath the faintly greening trees. So, having an ear for the uprising of sap, for the running of blood, having an eye for all things done most hiddenly, and a hand in the making of those small dear lives that are not built with hands, he lives at peace with great events.
From the OED:
Pronunciation: Brit. /m??d?/ , U.S. /m?rd?/
Etymology: < Middle French, French marge edge, border, margin of a book, also in fig. use (c1225 in Old French) < classical Latin margin–, margomargin n.(Show Less)
Now chiefly poet.
a. An edge or border of something; esp. a river bank, shore; = margin n. 1a, 1b.
1551 R. Record Pathway to Knowl. ii. lxxvi, The marge or edge of the circumference of the circle.
1596 Spenser Second Pt. Faerie Queene iv. viii. 61 As by the flowrie marge On a fresh streame I with that Elfe did play.
1612 M. Drayton Poly–olbion i. ii. 25 So Pleasantlie in–Il'd on mightie Neptunes marge.
1753 T. Warton Ode Approach of Summer 92 Near the rush'd marge of Cherwell's flood.
1849 M. Arnold Strayed Reveller 16 The ivy–wreath'd marge Of thy cup.
1850 Wordsworth Prelude viii. 226 The western marge of Thurston–mere.
1898 W. K. Johnson Terra Tenebrarum 72 By the marble marge of unstirred wells.
1928 E. Blunden Undertones of War xv. 165 The late owner had constructed two or three ponds in the grounds with white airy bridges spanning them, weeping willows at their marges.
1955 Times 7 June 7/4 The cosy but poetical sobriquet of —marge'—was once freely used by writers to describe the bank or shore of a mere, tarn, or torrent in which some sensitive young person contemplated the act of suicide.
1995 S. Barry Steward of Christendom 76 The bullet touched the grassy marge.