Story type: Essay
AN intelligent English woman, spending a few years in this country with her family, says that one of her serious disappointments is that she finds it utterly impossible to enjoy nature here as she can at home–so much nature as we have and yet no way of getting at it; no paths, or byways, or stiles, or foot-bridges, no provision for the pedestrian outside of the public road. One would think the people had no feet and legs in this country, or else did not know how to use them. Last summer she spent the season near a small rural village in the valley of the Connecticut, but it seemed as if she had not been in the country: she could not come at the landscape; she could not reach a wood or a hill or a pretty nook anywhere without being a trespasser, or getting entangled in swamps or in fields of grass and grain, or having her course blocked by a high and difficult fence; no private ways, no grassy lanes; nobody walking in the fields or woods, nobody walking anywhere for pleasure, but everybody in carriages or wagons.
She was staying a mile from the village, and every day used to walk down to the post-office for her mail; but instead of a short and pleasant cut across the fields, as there would have been in England, she was obliged to take the highway and face the dust and the mud and the staring people in their carriages.
She complained, also, of the absence of bird voices,–so silent the fields and groves and orchards were, compared with what she had been used to at home. The most noticeable midsummer sound everywhere was the shrill, brassy crescendo of the locust.
All this is unquestionably true. There is far less bird music here than in England, except possibly in May and June, though, if the first impressions of the Duke of Argyle are to be trusted, there is much less even then. The duke says: “Although I was in the woods and fields of Canada and of the States in the richest moments of the spring, I heard little of that burst of song which in England comes from the blackcap, and the garden warbler, and the whitethroat, and the reed warbler, and the common wren, and (locally) from the nightingale.” Our birds are more withdrawn than the English, and their notes more plaintive and intermittent. Yet there are a few days here early in May, when the house wren, the oriole, the orchard starling, the kingbird, the bobolink, and the wood thrush first arrive, that are so full of music, especially in the morning, that one is loath to believe there is anything fuller or finer even in England. As walkers, and lovers of rural scenes and pastimes, we do not approach our British cousins. It is a seven days’ wonder to see anybody walking in this country except on a wager or in a public hall or skating-rink, as an exhibition and trial of endurance.
Countrymen do not walk except from necessity, and country women walk far less than their city sisters. When city people come to the country they do not walk, because that would be conceding too much to the country; beside, they would soil their shoes, and would lose the awe and respect which their imposing turn-outs inspire. Then they find the country dull; it is like water or milk after champagne; they miss the accustomed stimulus, both mind and body relax, and walking is too great an effort.
There are several obvious reasons why the English should be better or more habitual walkers than we are. Taken the year round, their climate is much more favorable to exercise in the open air. Their roads are better, harder, and smoother, and there is a place for the man and a place for the horse. Their country houses and churches and villages are not strung upon the highway as ours are, but are nestled here and there with reference to other things than convenience in “getting out.” Hence the grassy lanes and paths through the fields.
Distances are not so great in that country; the population occupies less space. Again, the land has been, longer occupied and is more thoroughly subdued; it is easier to get about the fields; life has flowed in the same channels for centuries. The English landscape is like a park, and is so thoroughly rural and mellow and bosky that the temptation to walk amid its scenes is ever present to one. In comparison, nature here is rude, raw, and forbidding; has not that maternal and beneficent look, is less mindful of man, runs to briers and weeds or to naked sterility.
Then as a people the English are a private, domestic, homely folk: they dislike publicity, dislike the highway, dislike noise, and love to feel the grass under their feet. They have a genius for lanes and footpaths; one might almost say they invented them. The charm of them is in their books; their rural poetry is modeled upon them. How much of Wordsworth’s poetry is the poetry of pedestrianism! A footpath is sacred in England; the king himself cannot close one; the courts recognize them as something quite as important and inviolable as the highway.
A footpath is of slow growth, and it is a wild, shy thing that is easily scared away. The plow must respect it, and the fence or hedge make way for it. It requires a settled state of things, unchanging habits among the people, and long tenure of the land; the rill of life that finds its way there must have a perennial source, and flow there tomorrow and the next day and the next century.
When I was a youth and went to school with my brothers, we had a footpath a mile long. On going from home after leaving the highway there was a descent through a meadow, then through a large maple and beech wood, then through a long stretch of rather barren pasture land which brought us to the creek in the valley, which we crossed on a slab or a couple of rails from the near fence; then more meadow land with a neglected orchard, and then the little gray schoolhouse itself toeing the highway. In winter our course was a hard, beaten path in the snow visible from afar, and in summer a well-defined trail. In the woods it wore the roots of the trees. It steered for the gaps or low places in the fences, and avoided the bogs and swamps in the meadow. I can recall yet the very look, the very physiognomy of a large birch-tree that stood beside it in the midst of the woods; it sometimes tripped me up with a large root it sent out like a foot. Neither do I forget the little spring run near by, where we frequently paused to drink, and to gather “crinkle-root” (DENTARIA) in the early summer; nor the dilapidated log fence that was the highway of the squirrels; nor the ledges to one side, whence in early spring the skunk and coon sallied forth and crossed our path; nor the gray, scabby rocks in the pasture; nor the solitary tree, nor the old weather-worn stump; no, nor the creek in which I plunged one winter morning in attempting to leap its swollen current. But the path served only one generation of school-children; it faded out more than thirty years ago, and the feet that made it are widely scattered, while some of them have found the path that leads through the Valley of the Shadow. Almost the last words of one of these schoolboys, then a man grown, seemed as if he might have had this very path in mind, and thought himself again returning to his father’s house: “I must hurry,” he said; “I have a long way to go up a hill and through a dark wood, and it will soon be night.”
We are a famous people to go ” ‘cross lots,” but we do not make a path, or, if we do, it does not last; the scene changes, the currents set in other directions, or cease entirely, and the path vanishes. In the South one would find plenty of bridle-paths, for there everybody goes horseback, and there are few passable roads; and the hunters and lumbermen of the North have their trails through the forest following a line of blazed trees; but in all my acquaintance with the country,– the rural and agricultural sections,–I do not know a pleasant, inviting path leading from house to house, or from settlement to settlement, by which the pedestrian could shorten or enliven a journey, or add the charm of the seclusion of the fields to his walk.
What a contrast England presents in this respect, according to Mr. Jennings’s pleasant book, “Field Paths and Green Lanes”! The pedestrian may go about quite independent of the highway. Here is a glimpse from his pages: “A path across the field, seen from the station, leads into a road close by the lodge gate of Mr. Cubett’s house. A little beyond this gate is another and smaller one, from which a narrow path ascends straight to the top of the hill and comes out just opposite the post-office on Ranmore Common. The Common at another point may be reached by a shorter cut. After entering a path close by the lodge, open the first gate you come to on the right hand. Cross the road, go through the gate opposite, and either follow the road right out upon Ranmore Common, past the beautiful deep dell or ravine, or take a path which you will see on your left, a few yards from the gate. This winds through a very pretty wood, with glimpses of the valley here and there on the way, and eventually brings you out upon the carriage-drive to the house. Turn to the right and you will soon find yourself upon the Common. A road or path opens out in front of the upper lodge gate. Follow that and it will take you to a small piece of water from whence a green path strikes off to the right, and this will lead you all across the Common in a northerly direction.” Thus we may see how the country is threaded with paths. A later writer, the author of “The Gamekeeper at Home” and other books, says: “Those only know a country who are acquainted with its footpaths. By the roads, indeed, the outside may be seen; but the footpaths go through the heart of the land. There are routes by which mile after mile may be traveled without leaving the sward. So you may pass from village to village; now crossing green meadows, now cornfields, over brooks, past woods, through farmyard and rick ‘barken.’ “
The conditions of life in this country have not.been favorable to the development of byways. We do not take to lanes and to the seclusion of the fields. We love to be upon the road, and to plant our houses there, and to appear there mounted upon a horse or seated in a wagon. It is to be distinctly stated, however, that our public highways, with their breadth and amplitude, their wide grassy margins, their picturesque stone or rail fences, their outlooks, and their general free and easy character, are far more inviting to the pedestrian than the narrow lanes and trenches that English highways for the most part are. The road in England is always well kept, the roadbed is often like a rock, but the traveler’s view is shut in by high hedges, and very frequently he seems to be passing along a deep, nicely graded ditch. The open, broad landscape character of our highways is quite unknown in that country.
The absence of the paths and lanes is not so great a matter, but the decay of the simplicity of manners, and of the habits of pedestrianism which this absence implies, is what I lament. The devil is in the horse to make men proud and fast and ill-mannered; only when you go afoot do you grow in the grace of gentleness and humility. But no good can come out of this walking mania that is now sweeping over the country, simply because it is a mania and not a natural and wholesome impulse. It is a prostitution of the noble pastime.
It is not the walking merely, it is keeping yourself in tune for a walk, in the spiritual and bodily condition in which you can find entertainment and exhilaration in so simple and natural a pastime. You are eligible to any good fortune when you are in the condition to enjoy a walk. When the air and the water taste sweet to you, how much else will taste sweet! When the exercise of your limbs affords you pleasure, and the play of your senses upon the various objects and shows of nature quickens and stimulates your spirit, your relation to the world and to yourself is what it should be,– simple and direct and wholesome. The mood in which you set out on a spring or autumn ramble or a sturdy winter walk, and your greedy feet have to be restrained from devouring the distances too fast, is the mood in which your best thoughts and impulses come to you, or in which you might embark upon any noble and heroic enterprise. Life is sweet in such moods, the universe is complete, and there is no failure or imperfection anywhere.