This North River is only partially open. I see where a bright gleam from a cake of ice on the shore is reflected in the stream with remarkable brightness, in a pointed, flame-like manner. Look either side you see it. Standing here, still above the Elfin Burial-Ground, the outlines of Heywood the miller’s house in the distance against the pine and oak woods come dimly out, and by their color are in very pleasing harmony with this wood. I think it is a dull-red house against the usual mixture of red oak leaves and dark pines. There is such a harmony as between the gray limbs of an overshadowing elm and the lichen-clad roof.
All the criticism which I got on my lecture on Autumnal Tints at Worcester on the 22d was that I assumed that my audience had not seen so much of them as they had. But after reading it I am more than ever convinced that they have not seen much of them, - that there are very few persons who do see much of nature.
Minott says that Messer tells him he saw a striped squirrel(!) yesterday. His cat caught a mole lately, not a star-nosed one, but one of those that heave up the meadow. She sometimes catches a little dark-colored mouse with a sharp nose. Tells of a Fisk of Waltham who, some thirty years ago, could go out with a club only and kill as many partridges as he could conveniently bring home. I suppose he knew where to find them buried in the snow. Both Minott and Farmer think they sometimes remain several days in the snow, if the weather is bad for them. Minott has seen twigs, he says, of apple, in their crops, three quarter of an inch long. Says he has seen them drum many times, standing on a log or a wall; that they strike the log or stone with their wings. He has frequently caught them in a steel trap without bait, covered with leaves and set in such places. Says that quails also eat apple buds.
We are as often injured as benefited by our systems, for, to speak the truth, no human system is a true one, and a name is at most a mere convenience and carries no information with it. As soon as I begin to be aware of the life of any creature, I at once forget its name. To know the names of creatures is only a convenience to us at first, but so soon as we have learned to distinguish them, the sooner we forget their names the better, so far as any true appreciation of them is concerned. I think, therefore, that the best and most harmless names are those which are an imitation of the voice or note of an animal, or the most poetic ones. But the name adheres only to the accepted and conventional bird or quadruped, never an instant to the real one. There is always something ridiculous in the name of a great man, - as if he were named John Smith. The name is convenient in communicating with others, but it is not to be remembered when I communicate with myself.
We cannot spare the very lively and lifelike descriptions of some of the old naturalists. They sympathize with the creatures which they describe. Edward Topsell in his translation of Conrad Gesner, in 1607, called “The History of Four-footed Beasts,” says of the antelopes that “they are bred in India and Syria, near the river Euphrates,” and then - which enables you to realize the living creature and its habitat - he adds, “and delight much to drink of the cold water therof.” The beasts which most modern naturalists describe do not delight in anything, and their water is neither hot nor cold. Reading the above makes you want to go and drink of the Euphrates yourself, if it is warm weather. I do not know how much of his spirit he owes to Gesner, but he proceeds in his translation to say that “they have horns growing forth of the crown of their head, which are very long and sharp; so that Alexander affirmed they pierced through the shields of his soldiers, and fought with them very irefully; at which time his company slew as he travelled to India, eight thousand five hundred and fifty, which great slaughter may be the occasion why they are so rare and seldom seen to this day.”
These men had an adequate idea of a beast, or what a beast should be, a very bellua (the translator makes the word bestia to be “a vastando”); and they will describe and will draw you a cat with four strokes, more beastly or beast-like to look at than Mr. Ruskin’s favorite artist draws a tiger. They had an adequate idea of the wildness of beasts and of men, and in their descriptions and drawings they did not always fail when they surpassed nature.
A transient acquaintance with any phenomenon is not sufficient to make it completely the subject of your muse. You must be so conversant with it as to remember it and be reminded of it long afterward, while it lies remotely fair and elysian in the horizon, approachable only by the imagination.
The water lately went down, and the ice settled on the meadows, and now rain has come, and cold again, and this surface is alternate ice and snow. Looking from this hill toward the sun, they are seen to be handsomely watered all over with alternate waves of shining ice and white snow-crust, literally “watered” on the grandest scale, - this palace floor.