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An essay by John Burroughs


Title:     Springs
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

"I'll show thee the best springs."

A MAN who came back to the place of his birth in the East, after an absence of a quarter of a century in the West, said the one thing he most desired to see about the old homestead was the spring. This, at least, he would find unchanged. Here his lost youth would come back to him. The faces of his father and mother he might not look upon; but the face of the spring, that had mirrored theirs and his own so oft, he fondly imagined would beam on him as of old. I can well believe that, in that all but springless country in which he had cast his lot, the vision, the remembrance, of the fountain that flowed by his father's doorway, so prodigal of its precious gifts, had awakened in him the keenest longings and regrets.

Did he not remember the path, also? for next to the spring itself is the path that leads to it. Indeed, of all foot-paths, the spring-path is the most suggestive.

This is a path with something at the end of it, and the best of good fortune awaits him who walks therein. It is a well-worn path, and, though generally up or down a hill, it is the easiest of all paths to travel: we forget our fatigue when going to the spring, and we have lost it when we turn to come away. See with what alacrity the laborer hastens along it, all sweaty from the fields; see the boy or girl running with pitcher or pail; see the welcome shade of the spreading tree that presides over its marvelous birth!

In the woods or on the mountain-side, follow the path and you are pretty sure to find a spring; all creatures are going that way night and day, and they make a path.

A spring is always a vital point in the landscape; it is indeed the eye of the fields, and how often, too, it has a noble eyebrow in the shape of an overhanging bank or ledge! Or else its site is marked by some tree which the pioneer has wisely left standing, and which sheds a coolness and freshness that make the water more sweet. In the shade of this tree the harvesters sit and eat their lunch, and look out upon the quivering air of the fields. Here the Sunday saunterer stops and lounges with his book, and bathes his hands and face in the cool fountain. Hither the strawberry-girl comes with her basket and pauses a moment in the green shade. The plowman leaves his plow, and in long strides approaches the life- renewing spot, while his team, that cannot follow, look wistfully after him. Here the cattle love to pass the heat of the day, and hither come the birds to wash themselves and make their toilets.

Indeed, a spring is always an oasis in the desert of the fields. It is a creative and generative centre. It attracts all things to itself,--the grasses, the mosses, the flowers, the wild plants, the great trees. The walker finds it out, the camping party seek it, the pioneer builds his hut or his house near it. When the settler or squatter has found a good spring, he has found a good place to begin life; he has found the fountain-head of much that he is seeking in this world. The chances are that he has found a southern and eastern exposure, for it is a fact that water does not readily flow north; the valleys mostly open the other way; and it is quite certain he has found a measure of salubrity, for where water flows fever abideth not. The spring, too, keeps him to the right belt, out of the low valley, and off the top of the hill.

When John Winthrop decided upon the site where now stands the city of Boston, as a proper place for a settlement, he was chiefly attracted by a large and excellent spring of water that flowed there. The infant city was born of this fountain.

There seems a kind of perpetual springtime about the place where water issues from the ground,--a freshness and a greenness that are ever renewed. The grass never fades, the ground is never parched or frozen. There is warmth there in winter and coolness in summer. The temperature is equalized. In March or April the spring runs are a bright emerald while the surrounding fields are yet brown and sere, and in fall they are yet green when the first snow covers them. Thus every fountain by the roadside is a fountain of youth and of life. This is what the old fables finally mean.

An intermittent spring is shallow; it has no deep root, and is like an inconstant friend. But a perennial spring, one whose ways are appointed, whose foundation is established, what a profound and beautiful symbol! In fact, there is no more large and universal symbol in nature than the spring, if there is any other capable of such wide and various applications.

What preparation seems to have been made for it in the conformation of the ground, even in the deep underlying geological strata! Vast rocks and ledges are piled for it, or cleft asunder that it may find a way. Sometimes it is a trickling thread of silver down the sides of a seamed and scarred precipice. Then again the stratified rock is like a just-lifted lid, from beneath which the water issues. Or it slips noiselessly out of a deep dimple in the fields. Occasionally it bubbles up in the valley, as if forced up by the surrounding hills. Many springs, no doubt, find an outlet in the beds of the large rivers and lakes, and are unknown to all but the fishes. They probably find them out and make much of them. The trout certainly do. Find a place in the creek where a spring issues, or where it flows into it from a near bank, and you have found a most likely place for trout. They deposit their spawn there in the fall, warm their noses there in winter, and cool themselves there in summer. I have seen the patriarchs of the tribe of an old and much-fished stream, seven or eight enormous fellows, congregated in such a place. The boys found it out, and went with a bag and bagged them all. In another place a trio of large trout, that knew and despised all the arts of the fishermen, took up their abode in a deep, dark hole in the edge of the wood, that had a spring flowing into a shallow part of it. In midsummer they were wont to come out from their safe retreat and bask in the spring, their immense bodies but a few inches under water. A youth, who had many times vainly sounded their dark hiding-place with his hook, happening to come along with his rifle one day, shot the three, one after another, killing them by the concussion of the bullet on the water immediately over them.

The ocean itself is known to possess springs, copious ones, in many places the fresh water rising up through the heavier salt as through a rock, and affording supplies to vessels at the surface. Off the coast of Florida many of these submarine springs have been discovered, the outlet, probably, of the streams and rivers that disappear in the "sinks" of that State.

It is a pleasant conception, that of the unscientific folk, that the springs are fed directly by the sea, or that the earth is full of veins or arteries that connect with the great reservoir of waters. But when science turns the conception over and makes the connection in the air,--disclosing the great water-main in the clouds, and that the mighty engine of the hydraulic system of nature is the sun,--the fact becomes even more poetical, does it not? This is one of the many cases where science, instead of curtailing the imagination, makes new and large demands upon it.

The hills are great sponges that do not and cannot hold the water that is precipitated upon them, but let it filter through at the bottom. This is the way the sea has robbed the earth of its various salts, its potash, its lime, its magnesia, and many other mineral elements. It is found that the oldest upheavals, those sections of the country that have been longest exposed to the leeching and washing of the rains, are poorest in those substances that go to the making of the osseous framework of man and of the animals. Wheat does not grow well there, and the men born and reared there are apt to have brittle bones. An important part of those men went downstream ages before they were born. The water of such sections is now soft and free from mineral substances, but not more wholesome on that account.

The gigantic springs of the country that have not been caught in any of the great natural basins are mostly confined to the limestone region of the Middle and Southern States,--the valley of Virginia and its continuation and deflections into Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Through this belt are found the great caves and the subterranean rivers. The waters have here worked like enormous moles, and have honeycombed the foundations of the earth. They have great highways beneath the hills. Water charged with carbonic acid gas has a very sharp tooth and a powerful digestion, and no limestone rock can long resist it. Sherman's soldiers tell of a monster spring in northern Alabama,--a river leaping full-grown from the bosom of the earth; and of another at the bottom of a large, deep pit in the rocks, that continues its way under ground.

There are many springs in Florida of this character, large underground streams that have breathing-holes, as it were, here and there. In some places the water rises and fills the bottoms of deep bowl-shaped depressions; in other localities it is reached through round natural well-holes; a bucket is let down by a rope, and if it becomes detached is quickly swept away by the current. Some of the Florida springs are perhaps the largest in the world, affording room and depth enough for steamboats to move and turn in them. Green Cove Spring is said to be like a waterfall reversed; a cataract rushing upward through a transparent liquid instead of leaping downward through the air. There are one or two of these enormous springs also in northern Mississippi,--springs so large that it seems as if the whole continent must nurse them.

The Valley of the Shenandoah is remarkable for its large springs. The town of Winchester, a town of several thousand inhabitants, is abundantly supplied with water from a single spring that issues on higher ground near by. Several other springs in the vicinity afford rare mill-power. At Harrisonburg, a county town farther up the valley, I was attracted by a low ornamental dome resting upon a circle of columns, on the edge of the square that contained the court-house, and was surprised to find that it gave shelter to an immense spring. This spring was also capable of watering the town or several towns; stone steps led down to it at the bottom of a large stone basin. There was a pretty constant string of pails to and from it. Aristotle called certain springs of his country "cements of society," because the young people so frequently met there and sang and conversed; and I have little doubt this spring is of like social importance. There is a famous spring at San Antonio, Texas, which is described by that excellent traveler, Frederick Law Olmsted. "The whole river," he says, "gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth, with all the accessories of smaller springs,--moss, pebbles, foliage, seclusion, etc. Its effect is overpowering. It is beyond your possible conception of a spring."

Of like copiousness and splendor is the Caledonia spring, or springs, in western New York. They give birth to a white-pebbled, transparent stream, several rods wide and two or three feet deep, that flows eighty barrels of water per second, and is alive with trout. The trout are fat and gamy even in winter.

The largest spring in England, called the Well of St. Winifred, at Holywell, flows less than three barrels per second. I recently went many miles out of my way to see the famous trout spring in Warren County, New Jersey. This spring flows about one thousand gallons of water per minute, which has a uniform temperature of fifty degrees winter and summer. It is near the Musconetcong Creek, which looks as if it were made up of similar springs. On the parched and sultry summer day upon which my visit fell, it was well worth walking many miles just to see such a volume of water issue from the ground. I felt with the boy Petrarch, when he first beheld a famous spring, that "were I master of such a fountain I would prefer it to the finest of cities." A large oak leans down over the spring and affords an abundance of shade. The water does not bubble up, but comes straight out with great speed, like a courier with important news, and as if its course underground had been a direct and an easy one for a long distance. Springs that issue in this way have a sort of vertebra, a ridgy and spine-like centre that suggests the gripe and push there is in this element.

What would one not give for such a spring in his back yard, or front yard, or anywhere near his house, or in any of his fields? One would be tempted to move his house to it, if the spring could not be brought to the house. Its mere poetic value and suggestion would be worth all the art and ornament to be had. It would irrigate one's heart and character as well as his acres. Then one might have a Naiad Queen to do his churning and to saw his wood; then one might "see his chore done by the gods themselves," as Emerson says, or by the nymphs, which is just as well.

I know a homestead, situated on one of the picturesque branch valleys of the Housatonic, that has such a spring flowing by the foundation walls of the house, and not a little of the strong overmastering local attachment that holds the owner there is born of that, his native spring. He could not, if he would, break from it. He says that when he looks down into it he has a feeling that he is an amphibious animal that has somehow got stranded. A long, gentle flight of stone steps leads from the back porch down to it under the branches of a lofty elm. It wells up through the white sand and gravel as through a sieve, and fills the broad space that has been arranged for it so gently and imperceptibly that one does not suspect its copiousness until he has seen the overflow. It turns no wheel, yet it lends a pliant hand to many of the affairs of that household. It is a refrigerator in summer and a frost-proof envelope in winter, and a fountain of delights the year round. Trout come up from the Weebutook River and dwell there and become domesticated, and take lumps of butter from your hand, or rake the ends of your fingers if you tempt them. It is a kind of sparkling and ever-washed larder. Where are the berries? where is the butter, the milk, the steak, the melon? In the spring. It preserves, it ventilates, it cleanses. It is a board of health and a general purveyor. It is equally for use and for pleasure. Nothing degrades it, and nothing can enhance its beauty. It is picture and parable, and an instrument of music. It is servant and divinity in one. The milk of forty cows is cooled in it, and never a drop gets into the cans, though they are plunged to the brim. It is as insensible to drought and rain as to heat and cold. It is planted upon the sand, and yet it abideth like a house upon a rock. It evidently has some relation to a little brook that flows down through a deep notch in the hills half a mile distant, because on one occasion, when the brook was being ditched or dammed, the spring showed great perturbation. Every nymph in it was filled with sudden alarm and kicked up a commotion.

In some sections of the country, when there is no spring near the house, the farmer, with much labor and pains, brings one from some uplying field or wood. Pine and poplar logs are bored and laid in a trench, and the spring practically moved to the desired spot. The ancient Persians had a law that whoever thus conveyed the water of a spring to a spot not watered before should enjoy many immunities under the state, not granted to others.

Hilly and mountainous countries do not always abound in good springs. When the stratum is vertical, or has too great a dip, the water is not collected in large veins, but is rather held as it falls, and oozes out slowly at the surface over the top of the rock. On this account one of the most famous grass and dairy sections of New York is poorly supplied with springs. Every creek starts in a bog or marsh, and good water can be had only by excavating.

What a charm lurks about those springs that are found near the tops of mountains, so small that they get lost amid the rocks and debris and never reach the valley, and so cold that they make the throat ache! Every hunter and mountain-climber can tell you of such, usually on the last rise before the summit is cleared. It is eminently the hunter's spring. I do not know whether or not the foxes and other wild creatures lap at it, but their pursuers are quite apt to pause there to take breath or to eat their lunch. The mountain-climbers in summer hail it with a shout. It is always a surprise, and raises the spirits of the dullest. Then it seems to be born of wildness and remoteness, and to savor of some special benefit or good fortune. A spring in the valley is an idyl, but a spring on the mountain is a genuine lyrical touch. It imparts a mild thrill; and if one were to call any springs "miracles," as the natives of Cashmere are said to regard their fountains, it would be such as these.

What secret attraction draws one in his summer walk to touch at all the springs on his route, and to pause a moment at each, as if what he was in quest of would be likely to turn up there? I can seldom pass a spring without doing homage to it. It is the shrine at which I oftenest worship. If I find one fouled with leaves or trodden full by cattle, I take as much pleasure in cleaning it out as a devotee in setting up the broken image of his saint. Though I chance not to want to drink there, I like to behold a clear fountain, and I may want to drink next time I pass, or some traveler, or heifer, or milch cow may. Leaves have a strange fatality for the spring. They come from afar to get into it. In a grove or in the woods they drift into it and cover it up like snow. Late in November, in clearing one out, I brought forth a frog from his hibernacle in the leaves at the bottom. He was very black, and he rushed about in a bewildered manner like one suddenly aroused from his sleep.

There is no place more suitable for statuary than about a spring or fountain, especially in parks or improved fields. Here one seems to expect to see figures and bending forms. "Where a spring rises or a river flows," says Seneca, "there should we build altars and offer sacrifices."

I have spoken of the hunter's spring. The traveler's spring is a little cup or saucer shaped fountain set in the bank by the roadside. The harvester's spring is beneath a widespreading tree in the fields. The lover's spring is down a lane under a hill. There is a good screen of rocks and bushes. The hermit's spring is on the margin of a lake in the woods. The fisherman's spring is by the river. The miner finds his spring in the bowels of the mountain. The soldier's spring is wherever he can fill his canteen. The spring where schoolboys go to fill the pail is a long way up or down a hill, and has just been roiled by a frog or muskrat, and the boys have to wait till it settles. There is yet the milkman's spring that never dries, the water of which is milky and opaque. Sometimes it flows out of a chalk cliff. This last is a hard spring: all the others are soft.

There is another side to this subject,-- the marvelous, not to say the miraculous; and if I were to advert to all the curious or infernal springs that are described by travelers or others,--the sulphur springs, the mud springs, the sour springs, the soap springs, the soda springs, the blowing springs, the spouting springs, the boiling springs not one mile from Tophet, the springs that rise and fall with the tide; the spring spoken of by Vitruvius, that gave unwonted loudness to the voice; the spring that Plutarch tells about, that had something of the flavor of wine, because it was supposed that Bacchus had been washed in it immediately after his birth; the spring that Herodotus describes,-- wise man and credulous boy that he was,--called the "Fountain of the Sun," which was warm at dawn, cold at noon, and hot at midnight; the springs at San Filippo, Italy, that have built up a calcareous wall over a mile long and several hundred feet thick; the renowned springs of Cashmere, that are believed by the people to be the source of the comeliness of their women,--if I were to follow up my subject in this direction, I say, it would lead me into deeper and more troubled waters than I am in quest of at present.

Pliny, in a letter to one of his friends, gives the following account of a spring that flowed near his Laurentine villa:--

"There is a spring which rises in a neighboring mountain, and running among the rocks is received into a little banqueting-room, artificially formed for that purpose, from whence, after being detained a short time, it falls into the Larian Lake. The nature of this spring is extremely curious: it ebbs and flows regularly three times a day. The increase and decrease are plainly visible, and exceedingly interesting to observe. You sit down by the side of the fountain, and while you are taking a repast and drinking its water, which is exceedingly cool, you see it gradually rise and fall. If you place a ring or anything else at the bottom when it is dry, the water creeps gradually up, first gently washing, finally covering it entirely, and then, little by little, subsides again. If you wait long enough, you may see it thus alternately advance and recede three successive times."

Pliny suggests four or five explanations of this phenomenon, but is probably wide of the mark in all but the fourth one:--

"Or is there rather a certain reservoir that contains these waters in the bowels of the earth, and, while it is recruiting its discharges, the stream in consequence flows more slowly and in less quantity, but, when it has collected its due measure, runs on again in its usual strength and fullness."

There are several of these intermitting springs in different parts of the world, and they are perhaps all to be explained on the principle of the siphon.

In the Idyls of Theocritus there are frequent allusions to springs. It was at a spring--and a mountain spring at that--that Castor and Pollux encountered the plug-ugly Amycus:--

"And spying on a mountain a wild wood of vast size, they found under a smooth cliff an ever-flowing spring, filled with pure water, and the pebbles beneath seemed like crystal or silver from the depths; and near there had grown tall pines, and poplars, and plane-trees, and cypresses with leafy tops, and fragrant flowers, pleasant work for hairy bees," etc.

Or the story of Hylas, the auburn-haired boy, who went to the spring to fetch water for supper for Hercules and stanch Telamon, and was seized by the enamored nymphs and drawn in. The spring was evidently a marsh or meadow spring: it was in a "low-lying spot, and around it grew many rushes, and the pale blue swallow-wort, and green maidenhair, and blooming parsley, and couch grass stretching through the marshes." As Hercules was tramping through the bog, club in hand, and shouting "Hylas!" to the full depth of his throat, he heard a thin voice come from the water,--it was Hylas responding, and Hylas, in the shape of the little frog, has been calling from our marsh springs ever since.

The characteristic flavor and suggestion of these Idyls is like pure spring-water. This is, perhaps, why the modern reader is apt to be disappointed in them when he takes them up for the first time. They appear minor and literal and tasteless, as does most ancient poetry; but it is mainly because we have got to the fountain-head; and have come in contact with a mind that has been but little shaped by artificial indoor influences. The stream of literature is now much fuller and broader than it was in ancient times, with currents and counter-currents, and diverse and curious phases; but the primitive sources seem far behind us, and for the refreshment of simple spring-water in art we must still go back to Greek poetry.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Springs