T HE fullness, the flood, of life has come, and, contrary to one's expectations, a marked silence has settled down over the waving fields and the cool deep woods. I am writing these lines in the lamplight, with all the windows and doors open to the dark July night. The summer winds are moving in the trees. A cricket and a few small green grasshoppers are chirping in the grass; but nothing louder is near at hand. And nothing louder is far off, except the cry of the whip-poor-will in the wood road. But him you hear in the spring and autumn as well as in the summer. Ah, listen! My tree-toad in the grapevine over the bulkhead door!
This is a voice you must hear—on cloudy summer days, toward twilight, and well into the evening. Do you know what it is to feel lonely? If you do, I think, then, that you know how the soft, far-off, eerie cry of the tree-toad sounds. He is prophesying rain, the almanac people think, but I think it is only the sound of rain in his voice, summer rain after a long drouth, cooling, reviving, soothing rain, with just a patter of something in it that I cannot describe, something that I used to hear on the shingles of the garret over the rafters where the bunches of horehound and catnip and pennyroyal hung.
You ought to hear the lively clatter of a mowing-machine. It is hot out of doors; the roads are beginning to look dusty; the insects are tuning up in the grass, and, like their chorus all together, and marching round and round the meadow, moves the mower's whirring blade. I love the sound. Haying is hard, sweet work. The farmer who does not love his haying ought to be made to keep a country store and sell kerosene oil and lumps of dead salt pork out of a barrel. He could not appreciate a live, friendly pig.
Down the long swath sing the knives, the cogs click above the square corners, and the big, loud thing sings on again,—the song of "first-fruits," the first great ingathering of the season,—a song to touch the heart with joy and sweet solemnity.
You ought to hear the Katydids—two of them on the trees outside your window. They are not saying "Katy did," nor singing "Katy did"; they are fiddling "Katy did," "Katy didn't"—by rasping the fore wings.
Is the sound "Katy" or "Katy did"? or what is said? Count the notes. Are they at the rate of two hundred per minute? Watch the instrumentalist—till you make sure it is the male who is wooing Katy with his persistent guitar. The male has no long ovipositors.
Another instrumentalist to hear is the big cicada or "harvest-fly."
There is no more characteristic sound of
all the summer than his big, quick, startling whirr—a
minute mowing-machine up on the limb overhead! Not so
minute either, for the creature is fully two
inches long, with
bulging eyes and a
click to his wings
when he flies that can be heard a hundred feet
This is the season of small sounds. As a test of the keenness of your ears go out at night into some open glade in the woods or by the side of some pond and listen for the squeaking of the bats flitting and wavering above in the uncertain light over your head. You will need a stirless midsummer dusk; and if you can hear the thin, fine squeak as the creature dives near your head, you may be sure your ears are almost as keen as those of the fox. The sound is not audible to most human ears.
Flitting and wavering about.
Another set of small sounds characteristic of midsummer is the twittering of the flocking swallows in the cornfields and upon the telegraph-wires. This summer I have had long lines of the young birds and their parents from the old barn below the hill strung on the wires from the house across the lawn. Here they preen while some of the old birds hawk for flies, the whole line of them breaking into a soft little twitter each time a newcomer alights among them. One swallow does not make a summer, but your electric light wires sagging with them is the very soul of the summer.
In the deep, still woods you will hear the soft call of the robin—a low, pensive, plaintive note unlike its spring cry or the after-shower song. It is as if the voice of the slumberous woods were speaking,—without alarm, reproach, or welcome either. It is an invitation to stretch yourself on the deep moss and let the warm shadows of the summer woods steal over you with sleep.
And this, too, is a thing to learn. Doing something, hearing something, seeing something by no means exhausts our whole business with the out-of-doors. To lie down and do nothing, to be able to keep silence and to rest on the great whirling globe is as needful as to know everything going on about us.
There is one bird-song so characteristic of midsummer that I think every lover of the woods must know it: the oft-repeated, the constant notes of the red-eyed vireo or "preacher." Wilson Flagg says of him: "He takes the part of a deliberative orator who explains his subject in a few words and then makes a pause for his hearers to reflect upon it. We might suppose him to be repeating moderately with a pause between each sentence, 'You see it—you know it—do you hear me?—do you believe it?' All these strains are delivered with a rising inflection at the close, and with a pause, as if waiting for an answer."
The Red-Eyed Vireo
A few other bird-notes that are associated with hot days and stirless woods, and that will be worth your hearing are the tree-top song of the scarlet tanager. He is one of the summer sights, a dash of the burning tropics is his brilliant scarlet and jet black, and his song is a loud, hoarse, rhythmical carol that has the flame of his feathers in it and the blaze of the sun. You will know it from the cool, liquid song of the robin both by its peculiar quality and because it is a short song, and soon ended, not of indefinite length like the robin's.
Then the peculiar, coppery, reverberating, or confined song of the indigo bunting—as if the bird were singing inside some great kettle.
One more—among a few others—the softly falling, round, small, upward-swinging call of the wood pewee. Is it sad? Yes, sad. But sweeter than sad,—restful, cooling, and inexpressibly gentle. All day long from high above your head and usually quite out of view, the voice—it seems hardly a voice—breaks the long silence of the summer woods.
When night comes down with the long twilight there sounds a strange, almost awesome quawk in the dusk over the fields. It sends a thrill through me, notwithstanding its nightly occurrence all through July and August. It is the passing of a pair of night herons—the black-crowned, I am sure, although this single pair only fly over. Where the birds are numerous they nest in great colonies.
A Summer Evening—Black-crowned Night Herons
It is the wild, eerie quawk that you should hear, a far-off, mysterious, almost uncanny sound that fills the twilight with a vague, untamed something, no matter how bright and civilized the day may have been.
From the harvest fields comes the sweet whistle of Bob White, the clear, round notes rolling far through the hushed summer noon; in the wood-lot the crows and jays have already begun their cawings and screamings that later on become the dominant notes of the golden autumn. They are not so loud and characteristic now because of the insect orchestra throbbing with a rhythmic beat through the air. So wide, constant, and long-continued is this throbbing note of the insects that by midsummer you almost cease to notice it. But stop and listen—field crickets, katydids, long-horned grasshoppers, snowy tree-crickets: chwĭ-chwĭ-chwĭ-chwĭ—thrr-r-r-r-r-r-r—crrri-crrri-crrri-crrri—gru-gru-gru-gru—retreat-retreat-retreat-treat-treat— like the throbbing of the pulse.
One can do no more than suggest in a short chapter like this; and all that I am doing here is catching for you some of the still, small voices of my summer. How unlike those of your summer they may be I can easily imagine, for you are in the Pacific Coast, or off on the vast prairies of Canada, or down in the sunny fields and hill-country of the South.
I have done enough if I have suggested that you stop and listen; for after all it is having ears which hear not that causes the trouble. Hear the voices that make your summer vocal—the loud and still voices which alike pass unheeded unless we pause to hear.
As a lesson in listening, go out some quiet evening, and as the shadows slip softly over the surface of the wood-walled pond, listen to the breathing of the fish as they come to the top, and the splash of the muskrats, or the swirl of the pickerel as he ploughs a furrow through the silence.