June by Robert Lynd
Story type: Essay
There is always a cuckoo that stays out later than the other cuckoos….
Two goldfinches came and sang in the catalpa-tree in the garden….
It is difficult to decide with which sentence to begin. There are so many pleasures. The goldfinches have not come back again, however. They and the faint blue flowers of the catalpa turned a sinister growth for an interval into a small Paradise of colour and song. Then the flowers fell. They had no more life than snow in May. Coming as they did at the end of years of barrenness, they astonished one like the blossoming of the Rose of Sharon. But now the bough is dark and sinister and melancholy again. Sparrows squabble over their love affairs in it. The, cuckoo that stays out later than the other cuckoos is the triumphant survivor.
Not that there is much to be said even for him as a model of continuance. His note will soon change. He will become hoarse and only half-articulate. He will cease to be the flying echo of the mystery of skies and wood at dawn and in the still evening. The disreputable bat, whose little wings flutter half visibly like waves of heat rising above a stove, will outlast him.
There is no getting beyond the old image of things in general as a stream that disappears. The flowers and the birds come in tides that sweep over the world and in a moment are lost like a broken wave. The lilacs filled with purple; laburnum followed, and in a few days all the gold ebbed, and nothing was left but a drift of withered blossoms on the ground; then came the acacia-flowers, white as the morning among the cool green plumage of the tree, and now they, too, have been turned into dirtiness and deserted foam. And in the hedges change has been as swift, as merciless–change so imperceptible in what it is doing, so manifest in what it has done. The white blossoms of the sloe gave place to the foam of the hawthorn and the flat clusters of the wayfaring-tree; now in its turn has come the flood of the elder-flowers, a flood of commonness, and June on the roads would hardly be beautiful were it not for the roses that settle, delicate and fleeting as butterflies, on the long and crooked briers. Perhaps one has not the right to say of any flower or any bird that it is not beautiful Even elder-flowers, seen at a distance, can give cheerfulness to a roadside. But, if we have to pick and choose among flowers, there are many who will give the lowest prize to the flowers that have been compared to umbrellas–elder-flowers, cow’s parsley, hemlock, and the rest. These are the plebeians of the hedges and ditches. They have the air of something useful. One would imagine they were intended to be cooked and eaten in cheap restaurants. We experience no lifting of the heart at sight of them. We should be surprised to hear the abrupt ecstasy of a wren issuing from among their leaves. And yet it is hardly a week since, walking in a Sussex lane, I saw a long procession of cow’s parsley on the top of a high bank silhouetted against the twilight sky. There seemed never to have been more exquisite flowers. They had captured the silver of evening as in a net.
There are many flowers that seem ugly to an indifferent eye. Even the red valerian, that sprouts so boldly in bushes of coral from the top of the wall, is regarded by some people as a weed and an impudent intruder. For myself, I love the spectacle of stone walls breaking out into flower with red valerian and ivy-leaved toad-flax. The country people have greeted these flowers with comic and friendly names. Valerian they call “drunken sailor,” and the ivy-leaved toad-flax that blossoms in a thousand tiny blue butterflies from the stones has (so prolific it is) been given the nickname of “mother of thousands.” I doubt, however, whether the country people have as many fanciful names for the flowers as they are represented as having in the books. When Mr W.H. Hudson first came on winter heliotrope in Cornwall, and was attracted by its meadow-sweet smell at a season when there were few other flowers, he was told by a countryman that it was called simply “weed.” Countrymen, if they are asked the name of a flower, will often say that they do not know, but that they call it so-and-so. A small boy who was gathering green-stuffs for his rabbits came up and walked beside me the other day, and, on being shown some goose-grass, and asked what name he knew it by, said: “I don’t know its name; we calls it ‘cleavers.’” In my childhood, I never heard it called by any other name than “robin-run-the-hedge,” and under that name alone am I attracted by it. “Cleavers” is too reminiscent of a butcher’s yard or of some dull tool. “Goose-grass” at least fills the imagination with the picture of a bird. But “robin-run-the-hedge” is better, for it is an image of wild adventure. It will be a pity if the tradition of picturesque names for flowers is allowed to die. The kidney-vetch, a long yellow claw of a flower that looks withered even at birth, may not deserve a prettier name, but at least it is possible to give it an ugly name with more interesting associations. “Staunch” is an older name that reminds us that the flower was, a few generations ago, used to staunch wounds. The other name, it is suggested, had its origin in the supposed excellence of the plant in curing diseases of the kidney.
But there seem to be no grounds for believing this. There are, unfortunately, some beautiful flowers for which no beautiful or even expressive name has ever been invented. Who is there who, coming on the blue scabious on a hill near the sea, is not conscious of the gross failure of the human race in never having found anything but this name out of a dustbin for one of the most charming of flowers? Matthew Arnold, appalled by some of the names of human beings that still flourished in the days of Victoria, and may for all I know be flourishing to-day, once hoped to turn us into Hellenists by declaring that there was “no Wragg on the Ilissus.” Was there no “scabious” on the Ilissus either, I wonder? Were I a flower of the field, I should prefer to be called “nose-bleed” or “sow-thistle.” On the whole, however, the plants have little to complain of in the matter of names. The milkwort that has been scattering its fine, delicate colours among the short grasses of the bare hills deserves its beautiful name, “grace of God.” We think of it as the sprigging of a divine mantle cast over the June world. The greater plantain, that after the recent rain has come out on the hills, with a ruff of purple feathers round its brown cone, neither deserves nor possesses a name connoting sacredness. It is interesting mainly as a plant that somehow became associated with the voyages and travels of Englishmen, and is known in America as “Englishman’s foot,” because, wherever the Englishman goes, the plant follows him.
The riot of the spring flowers is already passing, however. As we walk along the path through the corn, we find the wild mustard, that a few weeks ago made a steep field blaze like a precinct of the sun, already withering into a mass of green pods; and the hay in the valley has been cut down with all its crimson clover. The smell of the tossed hay, as we pass, sends back the memory into an older world. How is it that sweet smells do not please us so much for what they are as for the things of which they remind us? At the smell of hay newly stacked we cease to be our present age; we are in a world as distant as that of Theocritus. There is no ambition in it, no tears or taxes, no men and women pretending, nothing that is not happy. Every scent is sweet, every sound is a laugh or a bird’s song. Every man and woman and animal we behold is more interesting than if they had come out of a Noah’s Ark. Smell has been described as the most sensual of the senses. It may be so, but it is surely also the sense that is most closely related to the memory. Old landscapes, old happinesses old gardens, old people, come to life again–at times, almost unbearably so–with the smell of wallflower or hay or the sea. It may be, however, that this is not a universal experience. Some of us, no doubt, live more in our memories than others: it is our doom.
Even we, however, are sensualists of the open air, and the spectacle of the wind foaming among the leaves of the oak and elm can easily make us forget all but the present. The blue hills in the distance when rain is about, the grey arras of wet that advances over the plain, the whitethroat that sings or rather scolds above the hedge as he dances on the wing, the tree-pipit–or is it another bird?–that sinks down to the juniper-tip through a honey of music, a rough sea seen in the distance, half shine, half scowl–any of these things may easily cut us off from history and from hope and immure us in the present hour. Or may they? Or do these things too not leave us home-sick, discontented, gloomy–gloomy if it is only because we are not nearly so gloomy as we ought to be?