O VER and over I read the list of saints and martyrs on the wall across the street, thinking dully how men used to suffer for their religion, and how, nowadays, they suffer for their teeth. For I was reclining in a dentist's chair, blinking through the window at the Boston Public Library, seeing nothing, however, nothing but the tiles on the roof, and the names of Luther, Wesley, Wycliffe, graven on the granite wall, while the dentist burred inside of my cranium and bored down to my toes for nerves. So, at least, it seemed.
By and by my gaze wandered blankly off to the square patch of sky in sight above the roof. A black cloud was driving past in the wind away up there. Suddenly a white fleck swept into the cloud, careened, spread two wide wings against it, and rounded a circle. Then another and another, until eight herring gulls were soaring white against the sullen cloud in that little square of sky high over the roofs of Boston.
Was this the heart of a vast city? Could I be in a dentist's chair? There was no doubt about the chair; but how quickly the red-green roof of the Library became the top of some great cliff; the droning noise of traffic in the streets, the wash of waves against the rocks; and yonder on the storm-stained sky those wheeling wings, how like the winds of the ocean, and the raucous voices, how they seemed to fill all the city with the sweep and the sound of the sea!
Boston, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco—do you live in any one of them or in any other city? If you do, then you have a surprisingly good chance to watch the ways of wild things and even to come near to the heart of Nature. Not so good a chance, to be sure, as in the country; but the city is by no means so lacking in wild life or so shunned by the face of Nature as we commonly believe.
All great cities are alike, all of them very different, too, in details; Boston's streets, for instance, being crookeder than most, but like them all, reaching out for many a mile before they turn into country roads and lanes with borders of quiet and wide green fields.
But Boston has the wide waters of the Harbor and the Charles River Basin. And it also has T Wharf! They did not throw the tea overboard there, back in Revolutionary days, as you may be told, but T Wharf is famous, nevertheless, famous for fish!
Fish? Swordfish and red snappers, scup, shad, squid, squeteague, sharks, skates, smelts, sculpins, sturgeon, scallops; halibut, haddock, hake—to say nothing of mackerel, cod, and countless freak things caught by trawl and seine all the way from Boston Harbor to the Grand Banks! I have many a time sat on T Wharf and caught short, flat flounders with my line. It is almost as good as a trip to the Georges in the "We're Here" to visit T Wharf; and then to walk slowly up through Quincy Market. Surely no single walk in the woods will yield a tithe of the life to be found here, and found only here for us, brought as the fish and game and fruits have been from the ends of the earth and the depths of the sea.
There is no reason why city children should not know a great deal about animal life, nor why the teachers in city schools should feel that nature study is impossible for them. For, leaving the wharf with its fish and gulls and fleet of schooners, you come up four or five blocks to old King's Chapel Burying-Ground where the Boston sparrows roost. Boston is full of interesting sights, but none more interesting to the bird-lover than this sparrow-roost. The great bird rocks in the Pacific, described in another chapter of this book, are larger, to be sure, yet hardly more clamorous when, in the dusk, the sparrow clans begin to gather; nor hardly wilder than this city roost when the night lengthens, and the quiet creeps down the alleys and along the empty streets, and the sea winds stop on the corners, and the lamps, like low-hung stars, light up the sleeping birds till their shadows waver large upon the stark walls about the old graveyard that break far overhead as rim rock breaks on the desert sky.
Now shift the scene to an early summer morning on Boston Common, two blocks farther up, and on to the Public Garden across Charles Street. There are more wild birds to be seen in the Garden on a May morning than there are here in the woods of Hingham, and the summer still finds some of them about the shrubs and pond. And it is an easy place in which to watch them. One of our bird-students has found over a hundred species in the Garden. Can any one say that the city offers a poor chance for nature-study?
This is the story of every great city park. My friend Professor Herbert E. Walter found nearly one hundred and fifty species of birds in Lincoln Park, Chicago. And have you ever read Mr. Bradford Torrey's delightful essay called "Birds on Boston Common"?
Then there are the squirrels and the trees on the Common; the flowers, bees, butterflies, and even the schools of goldfish, in the pond of the Garden—enough of life, insect-life, plant-life, bird-life, fish-life, for more than a summer of lessons.
Nor is this all. One block beyond the Garden stands the Natural History Museum, crowded with mounted specimens of birds and beasts, reptiles, fishes, and shells beyond number,—more than you can study, perhaps. You city folk, instead of having too little, have altogether too much of too many things. But such a museum is always a suggestive place for one who loves the out-of-doors. And the more one knows of nature, the more one gets out of the museum. You can carry there, and often answer, the questions that come to you in your tramps afield, in your visits to the Garden, and in your reading of books. Then add to this the great Agassiz Museum at Harvard University, and the Aquarium at South Boston, and the Zoölogical Gardens at Franklin Park, and the Arnold Arboretum—all of these with their multitude of mounted specimens and their living forms for you! For me also; and in from the country I come, very often, to study natural history in the city.
What is true of Boston is true of every city in some
degree. The sun and the moon and stars shine upon the
city as upon the country, and during my years of city
life (I lived in the very heart of Boston) it was my
habit to climb to my roof, above the din and glare of
the crowded street, and here among the chimney-pots to
lie down upon my back, the city far below me, and
overhead the blue sky, the Milky Way, the
constellations, or the moon,
"Through the heaven's wide pathless way,
And oft, as if her head she bowed
Stooping through a fleecy cloud."
Here, too, I have watched the gulls that sail over the Harbor, especially in the winter. From this outlook I have seen the winging geese pass over, and heard the faint calls of other migrating flocks, voices that were all the more mysterious for their falling through the muffling hum that rises from the streets and spreads over the wide roof of the city as a soft night wind over the peaked roofs of a forest of firs.
Strangely enough here on the roof I have watched the only nighthawks that I have ever found in Massachusetts. This is surely the last place you would expect to find such wild, spooky, dusk-loving creatures as nighthawks. Yet here, on the tarred and pebbled roofs, here among the whirling, squeaking, smoking chimney-pots, here above the crowded, noisy streets, these birds built their nests,—laid their eggs, rather, for they build no nests,—reared their young, and in the long summer twilight rose and fell through the smoky air, uttering their peevish cries and making their ghostly booming sounds with their high-diving, just as if they were out over the darkening swales along some gloomy swamp-edge.
For many weeks I had a big tame spider in the corner of my study there in that city flat, and I have yet to read an account of all the species of spiders to be found dwelling within the walls of any great city. Even Argiope of the meadows is doubtless found in the Fens.
Argiope, the Meadow Spider
Not far away from my flat, down near the North Station, one of my friends on the roof of his flat kept several hives of bees. They fed on the flowers of the Garden, on those in dooryards, and on the honey-yielding lindens which stand here and there throughout the city. Pigeons and sparrows built their nests within sight of my windows; and by going early to the roof I could see the sun rise, and in the evening I could watch it go down behind the hills of Belmont as now I watch it from my lookout here on Mullein Hill.
One is never far from the sky, nor from the earth, nor from the free, wild winds, nor from the wilder night that covers city and sea and forest with its quiet, and fills them all with lurking shadows that never shall be tamed.