Some Winter Days in Iowa
Some Winter Days in Iowa
Frederick John Lazell
CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA
THE TORCH PRESS
NINETEEN HUNDRED SEVEN
Fred J. Lazell.
I am glad to have the privilege, thus in advance, of looking over Mr.Lazell's delightful essays. He has surely a gift in this sort ofthing. We are grateful to the man who shows us what he sees in Nature,but more to the man who like our present author shows us how easy andblessed it is to see for ourselves.
Mr. Lazell reminds me of Thoreau and Emerson, and I can suggest nobetter foreword than the passage from the last named author, from theMethod of Nature, as follows:
"Every earnest glance we give to the realities around us with intentto learn, proceeds from a holy impulse and is really songs of praise.What difference can it make whether it take the shape of exhortation,or of passionate exclamation, or of scientific statement? These areforms merely. Through them we express, at last, the fact that God hasdone thus or thus."
Iowa City, Iowa
October 17, 1907
I. THE WOODLANDS IN JANUARY
Humanity has always turned to nature for relief from toil and strife.This was true of the old world; it is much more true of the new,especially in recent years. There is a growing interest in wild thingsand wild places. The benedicite of the Druid woods, always appreciatedby the few, like Lowell, is coming to be understood by the many. Thereis an increasing desire to get away from the roar and rattle of thestreets, away from even the prim formality of suburban avenues andartificial bits of landscape gardening into the panorama of woodland,field, and stream. Men with means are disposing of their palatialresidences in the cities and moving to real homes in the country,where they can see the sunrise and the death of day, hear the rhythmof the rain and the murmur of the wind, and watch the unfolding of thefirst flowers of spring. Cities are purchasing large parks where thebeauties of nature are merely accentuated, not[Pg 10] marred. States and thenation are setting aside big tracts of wilderness where rock and rill,waterfall and cañon, mountain and marsh, shell-strewn beach andstarry-blossomed brae, flowerful islets and wondrous wooded hillswelcome the populace, soothe tired nerves and mend the mind and themorals. These are encouraging signs of the times. At last we arebeginning to understand, with Emerson, that he who knows what sweetsand virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens,and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man. Itis as if some new prophet had arisen in the land, crying, "Ho, everyone that is worn and weary, come ye to the woodlands; and he that hathno money let him feast upon those things which are really rich andabiding." While we are making New Year resolves let us resolve tospend less time with shams, more with realities; less with dogma, morewith sermons in stones; less with erotic novels and baneful journals,more with the books in the running brooks; listening less readily togossip and malice, more willingly to the tongues in trees; spendingmore pleasureful[Pg 11] hours with the music of bird and breeze, ripplingrivers, and laughing leaves; less time with cues and cards and coloredcomics, more with cloud and star, fish and field, and forest. "Thecares that infest the day" shall fall like the burden from Christian'sback as we watch the fleecy clouds or the silver stars mirrored in thewaveless waters. We shall call the constellations by their names andbecome on speaking terms with the luring voices of the forestfairyland. We shall "thrill with the resurrection called spring," andsteep our senses in the fragrance of its flowers; glory in the gushinglife of summer, sigh at the sweet sorrows of autumn, and wax virile inwinter's strength of storm and snow.
We shall begin our pilgrimages lacking in Nature's lore, many of us,as were four men who recently walked down a city street and looked atthe trees which lined the way. One confessed ignorance as to theiridentity; another thought he knew but couldn't remember; a third saidthey looked like maples; and a fourth thought that silence, likehonesty, as the copybooks used to tell us, was the best policy. Andyet the name linden[Pg 12] was writ large on those trees,—on the beautifulgray bark, the alternate method of twig arrangement, the fat redwinter buds, which shone in the sunshine like rubies, and especiallyon the little cymes of pendulous, pea-like fruit, each cyme attachedto its membranaceous bract or wing. Of course, if the pedestrians hadbeen in the midst of rich woods and there found a trunk of great girthand rough bark, surrounded by several handsome young stems withclose-fitting coats, the group looking for all the world like acomfortable old mother with a family of fresh-faced, willowy,marriageable daughters, every member of the quartet would havechorused, bass-wood.
But no one need be ashamed to confess an ignorance of botany.Botanical ignorance is more common than poverty. It has always beenprevalent. And the cause of it may be traced back to the author of allour short-comings, old Adam. We read that every beast of the field andevery fowl of the air were brought to Adam to see what he would callthem; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was thename[Pg 13] thereof. But why, oh why, didn't he name the trees? If he hadknown enough of the science to partake of the fruit of the tree oflife he might have lived long enough to write a systematic botany,satisfactory alike to the Harvard school of standpat systematists andtheir manual-ripping rivals in nomenclature. But he didn't; and no oneelse may ever hope to do it.
Eve had never read a book on how to know the wild fruits, and herfirst field work in botany had a disastrous termination; itcomplicated the subject by the punishment of thorns and thistles.Cain's conduct brought both botany and agriculture into disrepute.Little more is heard until Pharaoh's daughter went botanizing andfound Moses in the bulrushes. Oshea and Jehoshua showed someadvancement by bringing back grapes and figs and pomegranates from thebrook Eschol as the proudest products of the promised land. ButSolomon was the only man in the olden times who ever knew botanythoroughly. We are told that he was wiser than all men. "Prove it,"says some doubting reader, moving for a more specific statement. Sothe biographer adds:[Pg 14] "He spake of trees, from the cedar that is inLebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall."
Four centuries later, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednegoanticipated Emerson's advice about eating bread and pulse at richmen's tables. The historian tells us that they were men skilful in allwisdom, cunning in knowledge, and understanding science. Possessingsuch wisdom, Daniel knew it would be easy to mix up the wicked elderswho plotted against the virtue of the fair Susanna by asking them aquestion of botany. One said he saw her under a mastick tree and theother under a holm tree. This gave Shakespeare that fine line in TheMerchant of Venice, "A Daniel come to judgment; yea, a Daniel." Butin these latter days we rarely read the story of Susanna, andShakespeare's line is not understood by one play-goer in fifty.
When the diminutive Zaccheus climbed into a shade tree which graced atown lot in Jericho he gave the translators for "the Most High andMighty Prince James" another puzzle, for they put him on record asgoing up into a sycamore[Pg 15] tree. We had always supposed that this wasbecause the sycamore's habit of shedding its bark made smooth climbingfor Zaccheus. But scientific commentators tell us now that it was nota sycamore tree, but a hybridized fig-mulberry!
But all this is digression. The best time to begin keeping that NewYear's nature resolution is now, when the oaks are seen in all theirrugged majesty, when the elms display their lofty, graceful, vase-likeforms, and when every other tree of the forest exhibits its peculiarbeauty of trunk, and branch, and twig. Often January is a mostpropitious month for the tenderfoot nature-lover. Such was the yearwhich has just passed. During the first part of the month the weatherwas almost springlike; so bright and balmy that a robin was seen in anapple-tree, and the brilliant plumage of the cardinal was observed inthis latitude. Green leaves, such as wild geranium, strawberry andspeedwell, were to be found in abundance beneath their covering offallen forest leaves. Scouring rushes vied with evergreen ferns inarresting the attention of the rambler. In one sheltered spot a clumpof catnip was[Pg 16] found, fresh, green, and aromatic, as if it were Julyinstead of January.
Sunday, the sixth, was a day of rare beauty and enticement. Well mightthe recording angel forgive the nature lover who forgot the promisesmade for him by his sponsors that he should "hear sermons," and whofared forth into the woods instead, first reciting "The groves wereGod's first temples," and then softly singing, "When God invites, howblest the day!"
They err who think the winter woods void of life and color. Pause fora moment on the broad open flood-plain of the river, the winter fieldsand meadows stretching away in gentle slopes on either side. There arebut few trees, but they have had room for full development and arenoble specimens. All is gaiety. A blue-jay screams from a broad-toppedwhite ash which is so full of winged seeds that it looks like a massof foliage. The sable-robed king of the winter woods, the Americancrow, in the full vigor of his three-score years, maybe, (he lives tobe a hundred) caws lustily from the bare white branches of a bigsycamore, that queer anomaly of the forest[Pg 17] which disrobes itself forthe winter. The merry chickadees divide their time between therustling, ragged bark of the red birches and the withered heads ofheath-aster and blue vervain below. In the one they get the meatportion of their midday meal, and in the other the cereal foods. Nowonder they are sleek and joyous.
A few steps farther and we leave this broad alluvial bottom to enterthe cañon through which the river, ages ago, began to cut its course.These ridges of limestone, loess and drift rise a hundred feet or moreabove the level of the plain from which the river suddenly turnsaside. They are thickly covered with timber. There is no angel with aflaming sword to keep you from passing into this winter paradise! Theriver bank is lined with pussy willows; they gleam in the sunshinelike copper. Farther back there are different varieties of dogwood,some with delicate green twigs and some a cherry red. The wild roseand the raspberry vines add their glossy purplish and cherry red stemsto the color combination, and a contrast is afforded by the silverygray bark of stray aspens. A still softer and[Pg 18] more beautiful shade ofsilver gray is seen in the big hornet's nest of last year which stillhangs suspended from a low sugar maple. On all of these the sunlightplays and makes a wondrous color symphony. "Truly the light is sweetand a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun." To besure, this colorful arrangement of the stems and twigs is notbrilliant, like the flaming vermilion blossoms of the Lobeliacardinalis in August, the orange yellow of the rudbeckias inSeptember, or the wondrous blue of the fringed gentian in earlyOctober. It is more like the delicate tints and shadings of an artsand crafts exhibition, stained leather, hammered copper and brass, artcanvas, and ancient illuminated initials in monks' missals. Thetempered winter sunlight is further softened by the trees; as itilluminates the soft red rags of the happy old birch it seemssublimated, almost sanctified and spiritual, like that which filtersthrough rich windows in cathedrals, and makes a real halo around theheads of sweet-faced saints.
There are strange sounds for January. All the winter birds are doingtheir share in the[Pg 19] chorus