The Grapes of Wrath. Chapter 11. When prose is poetry.
A DAY OF PLEASANT BREAD by David Grayson from the book Adventures in Friendship
They have all gone now, and the house is very still. For the first time this evening I can hear the familiar sound of the December wind blustering about the house, complaining at closed doorways, asking questions at the shutters; but here in my room, under the green reading lamp, it is warm and still. Although Harriet has closed the doors, covered the coals in the fireplace, and said good-night, the atmosphere still seems to tingle with the electricity of genial humanity.
The parting voice of the Scotch Preacher still booms in my ears:
“This,” said he, as he was going out of our door, wrapped like an Arctic highlander in cloaks and tippets, “has been a day of pleasant bread.”
One of the very pleasantest I can remember!
I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays—let them overtake me unexpectedly—waking up some fine morning and suddenly saying to myself:
“Why, this is Christmas Day!”
How the discovery makes one bound out of his bed! What a new sense of life and adventure it imparts! Almost anything may happen on a day like this—one thinks. I may meet friends I have not seen before in years. Who knows? I may discover that this is a far better and kindlier world than I had ever dreamed it could be.
So I sing out to Harriet as I go down:
“Merry Christmas, Harriet”—and not waiting for her sleepy reply I go down and build the biggest, warmest, friendliest fire of the year. Then I get into my thick coat and mittens and open the back door. All around the sill, deep on the step, and all about the yard lies the drifted snow: it has transformed my wood pile into a grotesque Indian mound, and it frosts the roof of my barn like a wedding cake. I go at it lustily with my wooden shovel, clearing out a pathway to the gate.
Cold, too; one of the coldest mornings we’ve had—but clear and very still. The sun is just coming up over the hill near Horace’s farm. From Horace’s chimney the white wood-smoke of an early fire rises straight upward, all golden with sunshine, into the measureless blue of the sky—on its way to heaven, for aught I know. When I reach the gate my blood is racing warmly in my veins. I straighten my back, thrust my shovel into the snow pile, and shout at the top of my voice, for I can no longer contain myself:
“Merry Christmas, Harriet.”
Harriet opens the door—just a crack.
“Merry Christmas yourself, you Arctic explorer! Oo—but it’s cold!”
And she closes the door.
Upon hearing these riotous sounds the barnyard suddenly awakens. I hear my horse whinnying from the barn, the chickens begin to crow and cackle, and such a grunting and squealing as the pigs set up from behind the straw stack, it would do a man’s heart good to hear!
“It’s a friendly world,” I say to myself, “and full of business.”
I plow through the snow to the stable door. I scuff and stamp the snow away and pull it open with difficulty. A cloud of steam arises out of the warmth within. I step inside. My horse raises his head above the stanchion, looks around at me, and strikes his forefoot on the stable floor—the best greeting he has at his command for a fine Christmas morning. My cow, until now silent, begins to bawl.
I lay my hand on the horse’s flank and he steps over in his stall to let me go by. I slap his neck and he lays back his ears playfully. Thus I go out into the passageway and give my horse his oats, throw corn and stalks to the pigs and a handful of grain to Harriet’s chickens (it’s the only way to stop the cackling!). And thus presently the barnyard is quiet again except for the sound of contented feeding.
Take my word for it, this is one of the pleasant moments of life. I stand and look long at my barnyard family. I observe with satisfaction how plump they are and how well they are bearing the winter. Then I look up at my mountainous straw stack with its capping of snow, and my corn crib with the yellow ears visible through the slats, and my barn with its mow full of hay—all the gatherings of the year, now being expended in growth. I cannot at all explain it, but at such moments the circuit of that dim spiritual battery which each of us conceals within seems to close, and the full current of contentment flows through our lives.
All the morning as I went about my chores I had a peculiar sense of expected pleasure. It seemed certain to me that something unusual and adventurous was about to happen—and if it did not happen offhand, why I was there to make it happen! When I went in to breakfast (do you know the fragrance of broiling bacon when you have worked for an hour before breakfast on a morning of zero weather? If you do not, consider that heaven still has gifts in store for you!)—when I went in to breakfast, I fancied that Harriet looked preoccupied, but I was too busy just then (hot corn muffins) to make an inquiry, and I knew by experience that the best solvent of secrecy is patience.
“David,” said Harriet, presently, “the cousins can’t come!”
“Can’t come!” I exclaimed.
“Why, you act as if you were delighted.”
“No—well, yes,” I said, “I knew that some extraordinary adventure was about to happen!”
“Adventure! It’s a cruel disappointment—I was all ready for them.”
“Harriet,” I said, “adventure is just what we make it. And aren’t we to have the Scotch Preacher and his wife?”
“But I’ve got such a good dinner.”
“Well,” I said, “there are no two ways about it: it must be eaten! You may depend upon me to do my duty.”
“We’ll have to send out into the highways and compel them to come in,” said Harriet ruefully.
I had several choice observations I should have liked to make upon this problem, but Harriet was plainly not listening; she sat with her eyes fixed reflectively on the coffeepot. I watched her for a moment, then I remarked:
“There aren’t any.”
“David,” she exclaimed, “how did you know what I was thinking about?”
“I merely wanted to show you,” I said, “that my genius is not properly appreciated in my own household. You thought of highways, didn’t you? Then you thought of the poor; especially the poor on Christmas day; then of Mrs. Heney, who isn’t poor any more, having married John Daniels; and then I said, ‘There aren’t any.'”
“It has come to a pretty pass,” she said “when there are no poor people to invite to dinner on Christmas day.”
“It’s a tragedy, I’ll admit,” I said, “but let’s be logical about it.”
“I am willing,” said Harriet, “to be as logical as you like.”
“Then,” I said, “having no poor to invite to dinner we must necessarily try the rich. That’s logical, isn’t it?”
“Who?” asked Harriet, which is just like a woman. Whenever you get a good healthy argument started with her, she will suddenly short-circuit it, and want to know if you mean Mr. Smith, or Joe Perkins’s boys, which I maintain is not logical.
“Well, there are the Starkweathers,” I said.
“They’re rich, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but you know how they live—what dinners they have—and besides, they probably have a houseful of company.”
“Weren’t you telling me the other day how many people who were really suffering were too proud to let anyone know about it? Weren’t you advising the necessity of getting acquainted with people and finding out—tactfully, of course—you made a point of tact—what the trouble was?”
“But I was talking of poor people.”
“Why shouldn’t a rule that is good for poor people be equally as good for rich people? Aren’t they proud?”
“Oh, you can argue,” observed Harriet.
“And I can act, too,” I said. “I am now going over to invite the Starkweathers. I heard a rumor that their cook has left them and I expect to find them starving in their parlour. Of course they’ll be very haughty and proud, but I’ll be tactful, and when I go away I’ll casually leave a diamond tiara in the front hall.”
“What is the matter with you this morning?”
“Christmas,” I said.
I can’t tell how pleased I was with the enterprise I had in mind: it suggested all sorts of amusing and surprising developments. Moreover, I left Harriet, finally, in the breeziest of spirits, having quite forgotten her disappointment over the non-arrival of the cousins.
“If you should get the Starkweathers—-”
“‘In the bright lexicon of youth,'” I observed, “‘there is no such word as fail.'”
So I set off up the town road. A team or two had already been that way and had broken a track through the snow. The sun was now fully up, but the air still tingled with the electricity of zero weather. And the fields! I have seen the fields of June and the fields of October, but I think I never saw our countryside, hills and valleys, tree spaces and brook bottoms more enchantingly beautiful than it was this morning. Snow everywhere—the fences half hidden, the bridges clogged, the trees laden: where the road was hard it squeaked under my feet, and where it was soft I strode through the drifts. And the air went to one’s head like wine!
So I tramped past the Pattersons’. The old man, a grumpy old fellow, was going to the barn with a pail on his arm.
“Merry Christmas,” I shouted.
He looked around at me wonderingly and did not reply. At the corners I met the Newton boys so wrapped in tippets that I could see only their eyes and the red ends of their small noses. I passed the Williams’s house, where there was a cheerful smoke in the chimney and in the window a green wreath with a lively red bow. And I thought how happy everyone must be on a Christmas morning like this! At the hill bridge who should I meet but the Scotch Preacher himself, God bless him!
“Well, well, David,” he exclaimed heartily, “Merry Christmas.”
I drew my face down and said solemnly:
“Dr. McAlway, I am on a most serious errand.”
“Why, now, what’s the matter?” He was all sympathy at once.
“I am out in the highways trying to compel the poor of this neighbourhood to come to our feast.”
The Scotch Preacher observed me with a twinkle in his eye.
“David,” he said, putting his hand to his mouth as if to speak in my ear, “there is a poor man you will na’ have to compel.”
“Oh, you don’t count,” I said. “You’re coming anyhow.”
Then I told him of the errand with our millionaire friends, into the spirit of which he entered with the greatest zest. He was full of advice and much excited lest I fail to do a thoroughly competent job. For a moment I think he wanted to take the whole thing out of my hands.
“Man, man, it’s a lovely thing to do,” he exclaimed, “but I ha’ me doots—I ha’ me doots.”
At parting he hesitated a moment, and with a serious face inquired:
“Is it by any chance a goose?”
“It is,” I said, “a goose—a big one.”
He heaved a sigh of complete satisfaction. “You have comforted my mind,” he said, “with the joys of anticipation—a goose, a big goose.”
So I left him and went onward toward the Starkweathers’. Presently I saw the great house standing among its wintry trees. There was smoke in the chimney but no other evidence of life. At the gate my spirits, which had been of the best all the morning, began to fail me. Though Harriet and I were well enough acquainted with the Starkweathers, yet at this late moment on Christmas morning it did seem rather a hair-brained scheme to think of inviting them to dinner.
“Never mind,” I said, “they’ll not be displeased to see me anyway.”
I waited in the reception-room, which was cold and felt damp. In the parlour beyond I could see the innumerable things of beauty—furniture, pictures, books, so very, very much of everything—with which the room was filled. I saw it now, as I had often seen it before, with a peculiar sense of weariness. How all these things, though beautiful enough in themselves, must clutter up a man’s life!
Do you know, the more I look into life, the more things it seems to me I can successfully lack—and continue to grow happier. How many kinds of food I do not need, nor cooks to cook them, how much curious clothing nor tailors to make it, how many books that I never read, and pictures that are not worth while! The farther I run, the more I feel like casting aside all such impedimenta—lest I fail to arrive at the far goal of my endeavour.
I like to think of an old Japanese nobleman I once read about, who ornamented his house with a single vase at a time, living with it, absorbing its message of beauty, and when he tired of it, replacing it with another. I wonder if he had the right way, and we, with so many objects to hang on our walls, place on our shelves, drape on our chairs, and spread on our floors, have mistaken our course and placed our hearts upon the multiplicity rather than the quality of our possessions!
Presently Mr. Starkweather appeared in the doorway. He wore a velvet smoking-jacket and slippers; and somehow, for a bright morning like this, he seemed old, and worn, and cold.
“Well, well, friend,” he said, “I’m glad to see you.”
He said it as though he meant it.
“Come into the library; it’s the only room in the whole house that is comfortably warm. You’ve no idea what a task it is to heat a place like this in really cold weather. No sooner do I find a man who can run my furnace than he goes off and leaves me.”
“I can sympathize with you,” I said, “we often have trouble at our house with the man who builds the fires.”
He looked around at me quizzically.
“He lies too long in bed in the morning,” I said.
By this time we had arrived at the library, where a bright fire was burning in the grate. It was a fine big room, with dark oak furnishings and books in cases along one wall, but this morning it had a dishevelled and untidy look. On a little table at one side of the fireplace were the remains of a breakfast; at the other a number of wraps were thrown carelessly upon a chair. As I came in Mrs. Starkweather rose from her place, drawing a silk scarf around her shoulders. She is a robust, rather handsome woman, with many rings on her fingers, and a pair of glasses hanging to a little gold hook on her ample bosom; but this morning she, too, looked worried and old.
“Oh, yes,” she said with a rueful laugh, “we’re beginning a merry Christmas, as you see. Think of Christmas with no cook in the house!”
I felt as if I had discovered a gold mine. Poor starving millionaires!
But Mrs. Starkweather had not told the whole of her sorrowful story.
“We had a company of friends invited for dinner to-day,” she said, “and our cook was ill—or said she was—and had to go. One of the maids went with her. The man who looks after the furnace disappeared on Friday, and the stableman has been drinking. We can’t very well leave the place without some one who is responsible in charge of it—and so here we are. Merry Christmas!”
I couldn’t help laughing. Poor people!
“You might,” I said, “apply for Mrs. Heney’s place.”
“Who is Mrs. Heney?” asked Mrs. Starkweather.
“You don’t mean to say that you never heard of Mrs. Heney!” I exclaimed. “Mrs. Heney, who is now Mrs. ‘Penny’ Daniels? You’ve missed one of our greatest celebrities.”
With that, of course, I had to tell them about Mrs. Heney, who has for years performed a most important function in this community. Alone and unaided she has been the poor whom we are supposed to have always with us. If it had not been for the devoted faithfulness of Mrs. Heney at Thanksgiving, Christmas and other times of the year, I suppose our Woman’s Aid Society and the King’s Daughters would have perished miserably of undistributed turkeys and tufted comforters. For years Mrs. Heney filled the place most acceptably. Curbing the natural outpourings of a rather jovial soul she could upon occasion look as deserving of charity as any person that ever I met. But I pitied the little Heneys: it always comes hard on the children. For weeks after every Thanksgiving and Christmas they always wore a painfully stuffed and suffocated look. I only came to appreciate fully what a self-sacrificing public servant Mrs. Heney really was when I learned that she had taken the desperate alternative of marrying “Penny” Daniels.
“So you think we might possibly aspire to the position?” laughed Mrs. Starkweather.
Upon this I told them of the trouble in our household and asked them to come down and help us enjoy Dr. McAlway and the goose.
When I left, after much more pleasant talk, they both came with me to the door seeming greatly improved in spirits.
“You’ve given us something to live for, Mr. Grayson,” said Mrs. Starkweather.
So I walked homeward in the highest spirits, and an hour or more later who should we see in the top of our upper field but Mr. Starkweather and his wife floundering in the snow. They reached the lane literally covered from top to toe with snow and both of them ruddy with the cold.
“We walked over,” said Mrs. Starkweather breathlessly, “and I haven’t had so much fun in years.”
Mr. Starkweather helped her over the fence. The Scotch Preacher stood on the steps to receive them, and we all went in together.
I can’t pretend to describe Harriet’s dinner: the gorgeous brown goose, and the apple sauce, and all the other things that best go with it, and the pumpkin pie at the end—the finest, thickest, most delicious pumpkin pie I ever ate in all my life. It melted in one’s mouth and brought visions of celestial bliss. And I wish I could have a picture of Harriet presiding. I have never seen her happier, or more in her element. Every time she brought in a new dish or took off a cover it was a sort of miracle. And her coffee—but I must not and dare not elaborate.
And what great talk we had afterward!
I’ve known the Scotch Preacher for a long time, but I never saw him in quite such a mood of hilarity. He and Mr. Starkweather told stories of their boyhood—and we laughed, and laughed—Mrs. Starkweather the most of all. Seeing her so often in her carriage, or in the dignity of her home, I didn’t think she had so much jollity in her. Finally she discovered Harriet’s cabinet organ, and nothing would do but she must sing for us.
“None of the new-fangled ones, Clara,” cried her husband: “some of the old ones we used to know.”
So she sat herself down at the organ and threw her head back and began to sing:
“Believe me, if all those endearing young charms, Which I gaze on so fondly to-day—-,”
Mr. Starkweather jumped up and ran over to the organ and joined in with his deep voice. Harriet and I followed. The Scotch Preacher’s wife nodded in time with the music, and presently I saw the tears in her eyes. As for Dr. McAlway, he sat on the edge of his chair with his hands on his knees and wagged his shaggy head, and before we got through he, too, joined in with his big sonorous voice:
“Thou wouldst still be adored as this moment thou art—-,”
Oh, I can’t tell here—it grows late and there’s work to-morrow—all the things we did and said. They stayed until it was dark, and when Mrs. Starkweather was ready to go, she took both of Harriet’s hands in hers and said with great earnestness:
“I haven’t had such a good time at Christmas since I was a little girl. I shall never forget it.”
And the dear old Scotch Preacher, when Harriet and I had wrapped him up, went out, saying:
“This has been a day of pleasant bread.”
It has; it has. I shall not soon forget it. What a lot of kindness and common human nature—childlike simplicity, if you will—there is in people once you get them down together and persuade them that the things they think serious are not serious at all.
you should write letters to the newspaper.
lame letters that are forcefully witty yet lacking in
about things that don’t really matter.
get positively irate about something written
in the style section.
you should write letters to meredith baxter-birney so
you can be like me.
you should write letters to your unborn child telling
it how much unencumbered fun you are having because it
is, as yet, unborn.
you should write letters to the person who lives in
the apartment next to yours telling them how lonely
as you are,
by the steel and concrete and plaster.
how many nights you lie awake thinking
about clawing through the walls until your hands are
bloody and raw. just to remove the barrier. just to be
you should write letters to a friend’s dog. post them
to the dog’s name and tell the dog how much you have
been admiring it from afar.
how you catch glimpses of it on its morning walks and
how you love the way it turns around and playfully
bites on the leash sometimes.
how you think of that moment during your work day.
how it makes you smile.
you should write letters to me. tell me all of the
things you’ve never told anyone.
tell me the things you keep in the cracks, the things
that shame you
to the core.
i’ll read them wrapped in my fur blanket with candles
i’ll use the fire to burn them, slowly, ceremoniously,
when i’m done. after i’ve brushed them
across my mouth.
i’ll take them as my own, put them in the cracks with
the places that hold memories like
that time i ducked down to tie my shoe,
embarrassed to be in my grandpa’s car
as we idled at the red in front of my high school.
how i thought of that moment minutes after he died.
the places where so
many little emaciated faces still call to me.
brown faces who will grow up hungry and
tired if they grow up at all.
i will put the words of your letters there.
I can’t find much about Bethany Champagne on the internet.
Bethany, if you happen to do an internet search on your name, and find this posting of your piece on my blog, please comment and tell us where we can find and purchase your work.
Jason Needly found his father, old Ab, at work at the age of eighty in the topmost tier of the barn. "Come Down!" Jason called. "You got no business up there at your age." And his father descended, not by a ladder, there being none, but by inserting his fingers into the cracks between boards and climbing down the wall. And when he was young and some account and strong and knew nothing of weariness, old man Milt Wright, back in the days they called him "Steady," carried the rastus plow on his shoulder up the high hill to his tobacco patch, so when they got there his mule would be fresh, unsweated, and ready to go. Early Rowanberry, for another, bought a steel-beam breaking plow at the store in Port William and shouldered it before the hardly-believing watchers, and carried it the mile and a half home, down through the woods along Sand Ripple. But the tiredest my daddy ever got, "his son, Art, told me one day, "was when he carried fifty rabbits and a big possum in a sack on his back up onto the point yonder and out the ridge to town to sell them at the store." "But why," I asked, "didn't he hitch a team to the wagon and haul them up there by the road?" "Well, Art said, "we didn't have but two horses in them days, and we spared them every way we could. A many a time I've seen my daddy or grandpa jump off the wagon or sled and take the end of a singletree beside a horse."
Here is snippet from the writings of David Grayson:
Joy of life seems to me to arise from a sense of being where one belongs, as I feel right here; of being foursquare with the life we have chosen. All the discontented people I know are trying sedulously to be something they are not, to do something they cannot do. In the advertisements of the country paper I find men angling for money by promising to make women beautiful and men learned or rich—overnight—by inspiring good farmers and carpenters to be poor doctors and lawyers. It is curious, is it not, with what skill we will adapt our sandy land to potatoes and grow our beans in clay, and with how little wisdom we farm the soils of our own natures. We try to grow poetry where plumbing would thrive grandly!—not knowing that plumbing is as important and honourable and necessary to this earth as poetry.
And I thought as I stood there how many a man, deep down in his heart, knows to a certainty that he has escaped being an outcast, not because of any real moral strength or resolution of his own, but because Society has bolstered him up, hedged him about with customs and restrictions until he never has had a really good opportunity to transgress. And some do not sin for very lack of courage and originality: they are helplessly good. How many men in their vanity take to themselves credit for the built-up virtues of men who are dead! There is no cause for surprise when we hear of a “foremost citizen,” the “leader in all good works,” suddenly gone wrong; not the least cause for surprise. For it was not he that was moral, but Society. Individually he had never been tested, and when the test came he fell. It will give us a large measure of true wisdom if we stop sometimes when we have resisted a temptation and ask ourselves why, at that moment, we did right and not wrong. Was it the deep virtue, the high ideals in our souls, or was it the compulsion of the Society around us? And I think most of us will be astonished to discover what fragile persons we really are—in ourselves. (Grayson)
I love sometimes to have a day alone—a riotous day. Sometimes I do not care to see even my best friends: but I give myself up to the full enjoyment of the world around me. I go out of my door in the morning—preferably a sunny morning, though any morning will do well enough—and walk straight out into the world. I take with me the burden of no duty or responsibility. I draw in the fresh air, odour-laden from orchard and wood. I look about me as if everything were new—and behold everything is new. My barn, my oaks, my fences—I declare I never saw them before. I have no preconceived impressions, or beliefs, or opinions. My lane fence is the end of the known earth. I am a discoverer of new fields among old ones. I see, feel, hear, smell, taste all these wonderful things for the first time. I have no idea what discoveries I shall make!
So I go down the lane, looking up and about me. I cross the town road and climb the fence on the other side. I brush one shoulder among the bushes as I pass: I feel the solid yet easy pressure of the sod. The long blades of the timothy-grass clasp at my legs and let go with reluctance. I break off a twig here and there and taste the tart or bitter sap. I take off my hat and let the warm sun shine on my head. I am an adventurer upon a new earth.
Is it not marvellous how far afield some of us are willing to travel in pursuit of that beauty which we leave behind us at home? We mistake unfamiliarity for beauty; we darken our perceptions with idle foreignness. For want of that ardent inner curiosity which is the only true foundation for the appreciation of beauty—for beauty is inward, not outward—we find ourselves hastening from land to land, gathering mere curious resemblances which, like unassimilated property, possess no power of fecundation. With what pathetic diligence we collect peaks and passes in Switzerland; how we come laden from England with vain cathedrals!
Beauty? What is it but a new way of approach? For wilderness, for foreignness, I have no need to go a mile: I have only to come up through my thicket or cross my field from my own roadside—and behold, a new heaven and a new earth!
Things grow old and stale, not because they are old, but because we cease to see them. Whole vibrant significant worlds around us disappear within the sombre mists of familiarity. Whichever way we look the roads are dull and barren. There is a tree at our gate we have not seen in years: a flower blooms in our door-yard more wonderful than the shining heights of the Alps!
It has seemed to me sometimes as though I could see men hardening before my eyes, drawing in a feeler here, walling up an opening there. Naming things! Objects fall into categories for them and wear little sure channels in the brain. A mountain is a mountain, a tree a tree to them, a field forever a field. Life solidifies itself in words. And finally how everything wearies them and that is old age!
Is it not the prime struggle of life to keep the mind plastic? To see and feel and hear things newly? To accept nothing as settled; to defend the eternal right of the questioner? To reject every conclusion of yesterday before the surer observations of to-day?—is not that the best life we know?
And so to the Open Road! Not many miles from my farm there is a tamarack swamp. The soft dark green of it fills the round bowl of a valley. Around it spread rising forests and fields; fences divide it from the known land. Coming across my fields one day, I saw it there. I felt the habit of avoidance. It is a custom, well enough in a practical land, to shun such a spot of perplexity; but on that day I was following the Open Road, and it led me straight to the moist dark stillness of the tamaracks. I cannot here tell all the marvels I found in that place. I trod where human foot had never trod before. Cobwebs barred my passage (the bars to most passages when we came to them are only cobwebs), the earth was soft with the thick swamp mosses, and with many an autumn of fallen dead, brown leaves. I crossed the track of a muskrat, I saw the nest of a hawk—and how, how many other things of the wilderness I must not here relate. And I came out of it renewed and refreshed; I know now the feeling of the pioneer and the discoverer. Peary has no more than I; Stanley tells me nothing I have not experienced!
What more than that is the accomplishment of the great inventor, poet, painter? Such cannot abide habit-hedged wildernesses. They follow the Open Road, they see for themselves, and will not accept the paths or the names of the world. And Sight, kept clear, becomes, curiously, Insight. A thousand had seen apples fall before Newton. But Newton was dowered with the spirit of the Open Road!
Sometimes as I walk, seeking to see, hear, feel, everything newly, I devise secret words for the things I see: words that convey to me alone the thought, or impression, or emotion of a peculiar spot. All this, I know, to some will seem the acme of foolish illusion. Indeed, I am not telling of it because it is practical; there is no cash at the end of it. I am reporting it as an experience in life; those who understand will understand. And thus out of my journeys I have words which bring back to me with indescribable poignancy the particular impression of a time or a place. I prize them more highly than almost any other of my possessions, for they come to me seemingly out of the air, and the remembrance of them enables me to recall or live over a past experience with scarcely diminished emotion.
And one of these words—how it brings to me the very mood of a gray October day! A sleepy west wind blowing. The fields are bare, the corn shocks brown, and the long road looks flat and dull. Away in the marsh I hear a single melancholy crow. A heavy day, namelessly sad! Old sorrows flock to one’s memory and old regrets. The creeper is red in the swamp and the grass is brown on the hill. It comes to me that I was a boy once—-
So to the flat road and away! And turn at the turning and rise with the hill. Will the mood change: will the day? I see a lone man in the top of a pasture crying “Coo-ee, coo-ee.” I do not see at first why he cries and then over the hill come the ewes, a dense gray flock of them, huddling toward me. The yokel behind has a stick in each hand. “Coo-ee, coo-ee,” he also cries. And the two men, gathering in, threatening, sidling, advancing slowly, the sheep turning uncertainly this way and that, come at last to the boarded pen.
“That’s the idee,” says the helper.
“A poor lot,” remarks the leader: “such is the farmer’s life.”
From the roadway they back their frame-decked wagon to the fence and unhook their team. The leader throws off his coat and stands thick and muscular in his blue jeans—a roistering fellow with a red face, thick neck and chapped hands.
“I’ll pass ’em up,” he says; “that’s a man’s work. You stand in the wagon and put ’em in.”
So he springs into the yard and the sheep huddle close into the corner, here and there raising a timid head, here and there darting aside in a panic.
“Hi there, it’s for you,” shouts the leader, and thrusts his hands deep in the wool of one of the ewes.
“Come up here, you Southdown with the bare belly,” says the man in the wagon.
“That’s my old game—wrastling,” the leader remarks, struggling with the next ewe. “Stiddy, stiddy, now I got you, up with you dang you!”
“That’s the idee,” says the man in the wagon.
So I watch and they pass up the sheep one by one and as I go down the road I hear the leader’s thick voice, “Stiddy, stiddy,” and the response of the other, “That’s the idee.” And so on into the gray day!
My Open Road leads not only to beauty, not only to fresh adventures in outer observation. I believe in the Open Road in religion, in education, in politics: there is nothing really settled, fenced in, nor finally decided upon this earth, Nothing that is not questionable. I do not mean that I would immediately tear down well-built fences or do away with established and beaten roads. By no means. The wisdom of past ages is likely to be wiser than any hasty conclusions of mine. I would not invite any other person to follow my road until I had well proven it a better way toward truth than that which time had established. And yet I would have every man tread the Open Road; I would have him upon occasion question the smuggest institution and look askance upon the most ancient habit. I would have him throw a doubt upon Newton and defy Darwin! I would have him look straight at men and nature with his own eyes. He should acknowledge no common gods unless he proved them gods for himself. The “equality of men” which we worship: is there not a higher inequality? The material progress which we deify: is it real progress? Democracy—is it after all better than monarchy? I would have him question the canons of art, literature, music, morals: so will he continue young and useful!
And yet sometimes I ask myself. What do I travel for? Why all this excitement and eagerness of inquiry? What is it that I go forth to find? Am I better for keeping my roads open than my neighbour is who travels with contentment the paths of ancient habit? I am gnawed by the tooth of unrest—to what end? Often as I travel I ask myself that question and I have never had a convincing answer. I am looking for something I cannot find. My Open Road is open, too, at the end! What is it that drives a man onward, that scourges him with unanswered questions! We only know that we are driven; we do not know who drives. We travel, we inquire, we look, we work—only knowing that these activities satisfy a certain deep and secret demand within us. We have Faith that there is a Reason: and is there not a present Joy in following the Open Road?
“And O the joy that is never won, But follows and follows the journeying sun.”
And at the end of the day the Open Road, if we follow it with wisdom as well as fervour, will bring us safely home again. For after all the Open Road must return to the Beaten Path. The Open Road is for adventure; and adventure is not the food of life, but the spice.
Thus I came back this evening from rioting in my fields. As I walked down the lane I heard the soft tinkle of a cowbell, a certain earthy exhalation, as of work, came out of the bare fields, the duties of my daily life crowded upon me bringing a pleasant calmness of spirit, and I said to myself:
“Lord be praised for that which is common.”
And after I had done my chores I came in, hungry, to my supper.
My sister recently loaned me a 1917 copy of the book Great Possessions with me for which I am grateful. I quite enjoyed chapter 7 tonight so I thought I would just paste the whole short chapter here.
LOOK AT THE WORLD!
“Give me to struggle with weather and wind; Give me to stride through the snow;
Give me the feel of the chill on my cheeks, And the glow and the glory within!”
The joy of winter: the downright joy of winter! I tramped to-day through miles of open, snow-clad country. I slipped in the ruts of the roads or ploughed through the drifts in the fields with such a sense of adventure as I cannot describe.
Day before yesterday we had a heavy north wind with stinging gusts of snow. Yesterday fell bright and cold with snow lying fine and crumbly like sugar. To the east of the house where I shovelled a path the heaps are nearly as high as my shoulder….
This perfect morning a faint purplish haze is upon all the hills, with bright sunshine and still, cold air through which the chimney smoke rises straight upward. Hungry crows flap across the fields, or with unaccustomed daring settle close in upon the manure heaps around the barns. All the hillsides glisten and sparkle like cloth of gold, each glass knob on the telephone poles is like a resplendent jewel, and the long morning shadows of the trees lie blue upon the snow. Horses’ feet crunch upon the road as the early farmers go by with milk for the creamery—the frosty breath of each driver fluttering aside like a white scarf. Through the still air ordinary voices cut sharply and clearly, and a laugh bounds out across the open country with a kind of superabundance of joy. I see two men beating their arms as they follow their wood sled. They are bantering one another noisily. I see a man shovelling snow from his barn doors; as each shovelful rises and scatters, the sun catches it for an instant and it falls, a silvery shower. … I tramped to-day through miles of it: and whether in broken roads or spotless fields, had great joy of it. It was good to stride through opposing drifts and to catch the tingling air upon one’s face. The spring is beautiful indeed, and one is happy at autumn, but of all the year no other mornings set the blood to racing like these; none gives a greater sense of youth, strength, or of the general goodness of the earth.
Give me the winter: give me the winter! Not all winter, but just winter enough, just what nature sends.
…Dry air in the throat so cold at first as to make one cough; and dry, sharp, tingling air in the nostrils; frost on beard and eyebrows; cheeks red and crusty, so that to wrinkle them hurts: but all the body within aglow with warmth and health. Twice the ordinary ozone in the air, so that one wishes to whistle or sing, and if the fingers grow chill, what are shoulders for but to beat them around!
It is a strange and yet familiar experience how all things present their opposites. Do you enjoy the winter? Your neighbour loathes or fears it. Do you enjoy life? To your friend it is a sorrow and a heaviness. Even to you it is not always alike. Though the world itself is the same to-day as it was yesterday and will be to-morrow—the same snowy fields and polar hills, the same wintry stars, the same infinitely alluring variety of people—yet to-day you, that were a god, have become a grieving child.
Even at moments when we are well pleased with the earth we often have a wistful feeling that we should conceal it lest it hurt those borne down by circumstances too great or too sad for them. What is there to offer one who cannot respond gladly to the beauty of the fields, or opens his heart widely to the beckoning of friends? And we ask ourselves: Have I been tried as this man has? Would I be happy then? Have I been wrung with sorrow, worn down by ill-health, buffeted with injustice as this man has? Would I be happy then?
I saw on my walk to-day an old woman with a crossed shawl upon her breast creeping out painfully to feed her hens. She lives on a small, ill-kept farm I have known for years. She is old and poor and asthmatic, and the cold bites through her with the sharpness of knives. The path to the hen-house is a kind of via dolorosa, a terror of slipperiness and cold. She might avoid it: her son, worthless as he is, might do it for her, but she clings to it as she clings to her life. It is the last reason for staying here! But the white fields and drifted roads are never joyfully met, never desired. She spends half the summer dreading the return of winter from the severities of which she cannot escape.
Nor is it all mere poverty, though she is poor, for there are those who would help to send her away, but she will not go. She is wrapped about with Old Terrors, Ancient Tyrannies—that Terror of the Unknown which is more painful even than the Terror of the Known: those Tyrannies of Habit and of Place which so often and so ruthlessly rule the lives of the old. She clings desperately to the few people she knows (“’tis hard to die among strangers!”) and the customs she has followed all her life. Against the stark power of her tragic helplessness neither the good nor the great of the earth may prevail. This reality too….
I had a curious experience not long ago: One of those experiences which light up as in a flash some of the fundamental things of life. I met a man in the town road whom I have come to know rather more than slightly. He is a man of education and has been “well-off” in the country sense, is still, so far as I know, but he has a sardonic outlook upon life. He is discouraged about human nature. Thinks that politics are rotten, and that the prices of potatoes and bread are disgraceful. The state of the nation, and of the world, is quite beyond temperate expression. Few rays of joy seem to illuminate his pathway.
As we approached in the town road I called out to him:
He paused and, to my surprise, responded:
“Are you happy?”
It had not occurred to me for some time whether I was happy or not, so I replied:
“I don’t know; why do you ask?”
He looked at me in a questioning, and I thought rather indignant, way.
“Why shouldn’t a man be happy?” I pressed him.
“Why should he be? Answer me that!” he responded, “Why should he be? Look at the world!”
With that he passed onward with a kind of crushing dignity.
I have laughed since when I have recalled the tone of his voice as he said, “Look at the world!” Gloomy and black it was. It evidently made him indignant to be here.
But at the moment his bitter query, the essential attitude of spirit which lay behind it, struck into me with a poignancy that stopped me where I stood. Was I, then, all wrong about the world? I actually had a kind of fear lest when I should look up again I should find the earth grown wan and bleak and unfriendly, so that I should no longer desire it.
“Look at the world!” I said aloud.
And with that I suddenly looked all around me and it is a strange, deep thing, as I have thought of it since, how the world came back upon me with a kind of infinite, calm assurance, as beautiful as ever it was. There were the hills and the fields and the great still trees—and the open sky above. And even as I looked down the road and saw my sardonic old friend plodding through the snow—his very back frowning—I had a sense that he belonged in the picture, too—and couldn’t help himself. That he even had a kind of grace, and gave a human touch to that wintry scene! He had probably said a great deal more than he meant!
Look at the world!
Well, look at it.
(end of chapter)
The book I have looks like:
If you would like to read the book, you can do so ONLINE at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10593/10593-h/10593-h.htm