A February Freshet
O NE of the very interesting events in my out-of-door year is the February freshet. Perhaps you call it the February thaw. That is all it could be called this year; and, in fact, a thaw is all that it ever is for me, nowadays, living, as I do, high and dry here, on Mullein Hill, above a sputtering little trout brook that could not have a freshet if it tried.
But Maurice River could have a freshet without trying. Let the high south winds, the high tides, and the warm spring rains come on together, let them drive in hard for a day and a night, as I have known them to do, and the deep, dark river goes mad! The tossing tide sweeps over the wharves, swirls about the piles of the great bridge, leaps foaming into the air, and up and down its long high banks beats with all its wild might to break through into the fertile meadows below.
There are wider rivers, and other, more exciting things, than spring freshets; but there were not when I was a boy. Why, Maurice River was so wide that there was but a single boy in the town, as I remember, who could stand at one end of the drawbridge and skim an oyster-shell over to the opposite end! The best that I could do was to throw my voice across and hear it echo from the long, hollow barn on the other bank. It would seem to me to strike the barn in the middle, leap from end to end like a creature caged, and then bound back to me faint and frightened from across the dark tide.
I feared the river. Oh, but I loved it, too. Its tides were always rising or falling—going down to the Delaware Bay and on to the sea. And in from the bay, or out to the bay, with white sails set, the big boats were always moving. And when they had gone, out over the wide water the gulls or the fish hawks would sail, or a great blue heron, with wings like the fans of an old Dutch mill, would beat ponderously across.
I loved the river. I loved the sound of the calking-maul and the adze in the shipyard, and the smell of the chips and tarred oakum; the chatter of the wrens among the reeds and calamus; the pink of the mallow and wild roses along the high mud banks; the fishy ditches with their deep sluiceways through the bank into the river; and the vast, vast tide-marshes that, to this day, seem to me to stretch away to the very edge of the world.
What a world for a boy to drive cows into every morning, and drive them home from every night, as I used to help do! or to trap muskrats in during the winter; to go fishing in during the summer; to go splashing up and down in when the great February freshet came on!
For of all the events of the year, none had such fascination for me as the high winds and warm downpour that flooded the wharves, that drove the men of the village out to guard the river-banks, and that drowned out of their burrows and winter hiding-places all the wild things that lived within reach of the spreading tide.
The water would pour over the meadows and run far back into the swamps and farm lands, setting everything afloat that could float—rails, logs, branches; upon which, as chance offered, some struggling creature would crawl, and drift away to safety.
But not always to safety; for over the meadows the crows and fish hawks, gulls, herons, bitterns, and at night the owls, were constantly beating to pounce upon the helpless voyagers, even taking the muskrats, an easy prey, through their weakness from exposure and long swimming in the water.
There would be only two shores to this wild meadow-sea—the river-bank, a mere line of earth drawn through the water, and the distant shore of the upland. If the wind blew from the upland toward the bank, then the drift would all set that way, and before long a multitude of shipwrecked creatures would be tossed upon this narrow breakwater, that stood, a bare three feet of clay, against the wilder river-sea beyond.
To walk up and down the bank then was like entering a natural history museum where all the specimens were alive; or like going to a small menagerie. Sparrows, finches, robins, mice, moles, voles, shrews, snakes, turtles, squirrels, muskrats, with even a mink and an opossum now and then, would scurry from beneath your feet or dive back into the water as you passed along.
And by what strange craft they sometimes came! I once saw two muskrats and a gray squirrel floating along on the top of one of the muskrats' houses. And again a little bob-tailed meadow mouse came rocking along in a drifting catbird's nest which the waves had washed from its anchorage in the rose-bushes. And out on the top of some tall stake, or up among the limbs of a tree you would see little huddled bunches of fur, a muskrat perhaps that had never climbed before in his life, waiting, like a sailor lashed to the rigging, to be taken off.
But it was not the multitude of wild things—birds, beasts, insects—that fascinated me most, that led me out along the slippery, dangerous bank through the swirling storm; it was rather the fear and confusion of the animals, the wild giant-spirit raging over the face of the earth and sky, daunting and terrifying them, that drew me.
Many of the small creatures had been wakened by the flood out of their deep winter sleep, and, dazed and numbed and frightened, they seemed to know nothing, to care for nothing but the touch of the solid earth to their feet.
All of their natural desires and instincts, their hatreds, hungers, terrors, were sunk beneath the waters. They had lost their wits, like human creatures in a panic, and, struggling, fighting for a foothold, they did not notice me unless I made at them, and then only took to the water a moment to escape the instant peril.
The sight was strange, as if this were another planet and not our orderly, peaceful world at all. Nor, indeed, was it; for fear cowered everywhere, in all the things that were of the earth, as over the earth and everything upon it raged the fury of river and sky.
The frail mud bank trembled under the beating of the waves; the sunken sluices strangled and shook deep down through the whirlpools sucking at their mouths; the flocks of scattered sea-birds—ducks and brant—veered into sight, dashed down toward the white waters or drove over with mad speed, while the winds screamed and the sky hung black like a torn and flapping sail.
And I, too, would have to drop upon all fours, with the mice and muskrats, and cling to the bank for my life, as the snarling river, leaping at me, would plunge clear over into the meadow below.
A winter blizzard is more deadly, but not more fearful, nor so wild and tumultuous. For in such a storm as this the foundations of the deep seem to be broken up, the frame of the world shaken, and you, and the mice, and the muskrats, share alike the wild, fierce spirit and the fear.
To be out in such a storm, out where you can feel its full fury, as upon a strip of bank in the midst of the churning waters, is good for one. To experience a common peril with your fellow mortals, though they be only mice and muskrats, is good for one; for it is to share by so much in their humble lives, and by so much to live outside of one's own little self.
And then again, we are so accustomed to the order and fair weather of our part of the globe, that we get to feel as if the universe were being particularly managed for us; nay, that we, personally, are managing the universe. To flatten out on a quaking ridge of earth or be blown into the river; to hear no voice but the roar of the storm, and to have no part or power in the mighty tumult of such a storm, makes one feel about the size of a mouse, makes one feel how vast is the universe, and how fearful the vortex of its warring forces!
The shriek of those winds is still in my ears, the sting of the driving rains still on my face, the motion of that frail mud bank, swimming like a long sea-serpent in the swirling waters, I can still feel to my finger-tips. And the growl of the river, the streaming shreds of the sky, the confusion beneath and about me, the mice and muskrats clinging with me for a foothold—I live it all again at the first spatter of a February rain upon my face.
To be out in a February freshet, out in a big spring break-up, is to get a breaking up one's self, a preparation, like Nature's, for a new lease of life—for spring.