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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Hills Of Hingham

Title:     The Hills Of Hingham
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

"As Surrey hills to mountains grew
In White of Selborne's loving view"

Really there are no hills in Hingham, to speak of, except Bradley Hill and Peartree Hill and Turkey Hill, and Otis and Planter's and Prospect Hills, Hingham being more noted for its harbor and plains. Everybody has heard of Hingham smelts. Mullein Hill is in Hingham, too, but Mullein Hill is only a wrinkle on the face of Liberty Plain, which accounts partly for our having it. Almost anybody can have a hill in Hingham who is content without elevation, a surveyor's term as applied to hills, and a purely accidental property which is not at all essential to real hillness, or the sense of height. We have a stump on Mullein Hill for height. A hill in Hingham is not only possible, but even practical as compared with a Forest in Arden, Arden being altogether too far from town; besides

". . . there's no clock in the forest"

and we have the 8.35 train to catch of a winter morning!

"A sheep-cote fenced about with olive trees"

sounds more pastoral than apple trees around a house on a hill in Hingham, and it would be more ideal, too, if New England weather were not so much better adapted to apples, and if one did not prefer apples, and if one could raise a family in a sheep-cote.

We started in the sheep-cote, back yonder when all the world was twenty or thereabouts, and when every wild-cherry-bush was an olive tree. But one day the tent caterpillar like a wolf swept down on our fold of cherry-bushes and we fled Arden, never to get back. We lived for a time in town and bought olives in bottles, stuffed ones sometimes, then we got a hill in Hingham, just this side of Arden, still buying our olives, but not our apples now, nor our peaches, nor our musk melons, nor our wood for the open fire. We buy commutation tickets, and pay dearly for the trips back and forth. But we could n't make a living in Arden. Our hill in Hingham is a compromise.

Only folk of twenty and close to twenty live in Arden. We are forty now and no longer poets. When we are really old and our grasshoppers become a burden, we may go back to town where the insects are an entirely different species; but for this exceedingly busy present, between our fading dawn of visions and our coming dusk of dreams, a hill in Hingham, though a compromise, is an almost strategic position, Hingham being more or less of an escape from Boston, and the hill, though not in the Forest of Arden, something of an escape from Hingham, a quaint old village of elm-cooled streets and gentle neighbors. Not that we hate Boston, nor that we pass by on the other side in Hingham. We gladly pick our neighbors up and set them in our motor car and bring them to the foot of the hill. We people of the hills do not hate either crowds or neighbors. We are neighbors ourselves and parts of the city crowds too; and we love to bind up wounds and bring folk to their inns. But we cannot take them farther, for there are no inns out here. We leave them in Hingham and journey on alone into a region where neither thief nor anyone infests the roadsides; where there are no roads in fact, but only driftways and footpaths through the sparsely settled hills.

We leave the crowd on the streets, we leave the kind neighbor at his front gate, and travel on, not very far, but on alone into a wide quiet country where we shall have a chance, perhaps, of meeting with ourselves--the day's great adventure, and far to find; yet this is what we have come out to the hills for.

Not for apples nor wood fires have we a hill in Hingham; not for hens and a bigger house, and leisure, and conveniences, and excitements; not for ways to earn a living, nor for ways to spend it. Stay in town for that. There "you can even walk alone without being bored. No long, uneventful stretches of bleak, wintry landscape, where nothing moves, not even the train of thought. No benumbed and self-centered trees holding out pathetic frozen branches for sympathy. Impossible to be introspective here. Fall into a brown or blue study and you are likely to be run over. Thought is brought to the surface by mental massage. No time to dwell upon your beloved self. So many more interesting things to think about. And the changing scenes unfold more rapidly than a moving-picture reel."

This sounds much more interesting than the country. And it is more interesting, Broadway asking nothing of a country lane for excitement. And back they go who live on excitement; while some of us take this same excitement as the best of reasons for double windows and storm doors and country life the year through.

You can think in the city, but it is in spite of the city. Gregariousness and individuality do not abide together; nor is external excitement the cause or the concomitant of thought. In fact this "mental massage" of the city is to real thinking about what a mustard-plaster is to circulation--a counter-irritant. The thinker is one who finds himself (quite impossible on Broadway!); and then finds himself _interesting_--more interesting than Broadway--another impossibility within the city limits. Only in the country can he do that, in a wide and negative environment of quiet, room, and isolation--necessary conditions for the enjoyment of one's own mind. Thought is a country product and comes in to the city for distribution, as books are gathered and distributed by libraries, but not written in libraries. It is against the wide, drab background of the country that thought most naturally reacts, thinking being only the excitement of a man discovering himself, as he is compelled to do, where bending horizon and arching sky shift as he shifts in all creation's constant endeavor to swing around and center on him. Nothing centers on him in the city, where he thinks by "mental massage"--through the scalp with laying on of hands, as by benediction or shampoo.

But for the busy man, say of forty, are the hills of Hingham with their adventure possible? Why, there is nothing ailing the man of forty except that he now is neither young nor old, nor rich, the chances are; nor a dead failure either, but just an average man; yet he is one of God's people, if the Philistines were (He brought them from Caphtor) and the Syrians (those He brought from Kir). The man of forty has a right to so much of the Promised Land as a hill in Hingham. But he is afraid to possess it because it is so far from work and friends and lighted streets. He is afraid of the dark and of going off to sit down upon a stump for converse with himself. He is afraid he won't get his work done. If his work were planting beans, he would get none planted surely while on the stump; but so he might be saved the ungracious task of giving away his surplus beans to bean-ridden friends for the summer. A man, I believe, can plant too many beans. He might not finish the freshman themes either. But when was the last freshman theme ever done? Finish them if he can, he has only baked the freshmen into sophomores, and so emptied the ovens for another batch of dough. He shall never put a crust on the last freshman, and not much of a crust on the last sophomore either, the Almighty refusing to cooeperate with him in the baking. Let him do the best he can, not the most he can, and quit for Hingham and the hills where he can go out to a stump and sit down.

College students also are a part of that world which can be too much with us, cabbages, too, if we are growing cabbages. We don't do over-much, but we are over-busy. We want too much. Buy a little hill in Hingham, and even out here, unless you pray and go apart often to your stump, your desire will be toward every hill in sight and the valleys between.

According to the deed my hill comprises "fourteen acres more or less" of an ancient glacier, a fourteen-acre heap of unmitigated gravel, which now these almost fourteen years I have been trying to clear of stones, picking, picking for a whole Stone Age, and planning daily to buy the nine-acre ridge adjoining me which is gravelier than mine. By actual count we dumped five hundred cartloads of stones into the foundation of a porch when making over the house recently--and still I am out in the garden picking, picking, living in the Stone Age still, and planning to prolong the stay by nine acres more that are worse than these I now have, nine times worse for stones!

I shall never cease picking stones, I presume, but perhaps I can get out a permanent injunction against myself, to prevent my buying that neighboring gravel hill, and so find time to climb my own and sit down among the beautiful moth-infested oak trees.

I do sit down, and I thrust my idle hands hard into my pockets to keep them from the Devil who would have them out at the moths instantly--an evil job, killing moths, worse than picking stones!

Nothing is more difficult to find anywhere than time to sit down with yourself, except the ability to enjoy the time after finding it,--even here on a hill in Hingham, if the hill is in woods. There are foes to face in the city and floods to stem out here, but let no one try to fight several acres of caterpillars. When you see them coming, climb your stump and wait on the Lord. He is slow; and the caterpillars are horribly fast. True. Yet I say. To your stump and wait--and learn how restful a thing it is to sit down by faith. For the town sprayer is a vain thing. The roof of green is riddled. The rafters overhead reach out as naked as in December. Ruin looks through. On sweep the devouring hosts in spite of arsenate of lead and "wilt" disease and Calasoma beetles. Nothing will avail; nothing but a new woodlot planted with saplings that the caterpillars do not eat. Sit still my soul, and know that when these oak trees fall there will come up the fir tree and the pine tree and the shagbark, distasteful to the worms; and they shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

This is good forestry, and good philosophy--a sure handling of both worms and soul.

But how hard to follow! I would so like to help the Lord. Not to do my own share only; but to shoulder the Almighty's too, saying--

"If it were done when 't is done, then 't were well It were done quickly";

and I up and do it. But it does not stay done. I had sprayed, creosoted, cut, trimmed, cemented, only to see the trees die, until I was forced to rest upon the stump, when I saw what I had been blind to before: that the pine trees were tipped with cones, and that there in the tops were the red squirrels shucking and giving the winged seeds to the winds to sow; and that even now up the wooded slope below me, where the first of the old oaks had perished, was climbing a future grove of seedling pines.

The forests of Arden are not infested with gypsy moths, nor the woods of Heaven either, I suppose; but the trees in the hills of Hingham are. And yet they are the trees of the Lord; the moths are his also, and the caring for them. I am caring for a few college freshmen and my soul. I shall go forth to my work until the evening. The Lord can take the night-shift; for it was He who instituted the twilight, and it is He who must needs be responsible till the morning.

So here a-top my stump in the beleaguered woodlot I sit with idle hands, and no stars falling, and the universe turning all alone!

To wake up at forty a factory hand! a floor-walker! a banker! a college professor! a man about town or any other respectably successful, humdrum, square wooden peg-of-a-thing in a square tight hole! There is an evil, says the Preacher, which I have seen under the sun--the man of about forty who has become moderately successful and automatic, but who has not, and now knows he cannot, set the world on fire. This is a vanity and it is an evil disease.

From running the universe at thirty the man of forty finds himself running with it, paced before, behind, and beside, by other runners and by the very stars in their courses. He has struck the universal gait, a strong steady stride that will carry him to the finish, but not among the medals. This is an evil thing. Forty is a dangerous age. The wild race of twenty, the staggering step of eighty, are full of peril, but not so deadly as the even, mechanical going of forty; for youth has the dash in hand; old age has ceased to worry and is walking in; while the man of forty is right in the middle of the run, grinding along on his second wind with the cheering all ahead of him.

In fact, the man of forty finds himself half-way across the street with the baby carriage in his hands, and touring cars in front of him, and limousines behind him, and the hand-of-the-law staying and steadying him on his perilous course.

Life may be no busier at forty than at thirty, but it is certainly more expensive. Work may not be so hard, but the facts of life are a great deal harder, the hardest, barest of them being the here-and-now of all things, the dead levelness of forty--an irrigated plain that has no hill of vision, no valley of dream. But it may have its hill in Hingham with a bit of meadow down below.

Mullein Hill is the least of all hills, even with the added stump; but looking down through the trees I can see the gray road, and an occasional touring car, like a dream, go by; and off on the Blue Hills of Milton--higher hills than ours in Hingham--hangs a purple mist that from our ridge seems the very robe and veil of vision.

The realities are near enough to me here crawling everywhere, indeed; but close as I am to the flat earth I can yet look down at things--at the road and the passing cars; and off at things--the hills and the distant horizon; and so I can escape for a time that level stare into the face of things which sees them as _things_ close and real, but seldom as _life_, far off and whole.

Perhaps I have never seen life whole; I may need a throne and not a hill and a stump for that; but here in the wideness of the open skies, in the sweet quiet, in the hush that often fills these deep woods, I sometimes see life free, not free from men and things, but unencumbered, coming to meet me out of the morning and passing on with me toward the sunset until, at times, the stepping westward, the uneventful onwardness of life has

". . . seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny"

and, even the back-and-forth of it, a divine thing.

This knowledge is too wonderful for me; I cannot keep fast hold of it; yet to know occasionally that you are greater than your rhetoric, or your acres of stones, or your woods of worms, worms that may destroy your trees though you spray, is to steady and establish your soul, and vastly to comfort it!

To be greater than your possessions, than your accomplishments, than your desires--greater than you know, than anybody at home knows or will admit! So great that you can leave your plough in the turret that you can leave the committees to meet, and the trees to fall, and the sun to hurry on, while you take your seat upon a stump, assured from many a dismaying observation that the trees will fall anyhow, that the sun will hasten on its course, and that the committees, even the committees, will meet and do business whether you attend or not!

This is bed-rock fact, the broad and solid bottom for a cheerful philosophy. To know that they can get on without you (more knowledge than many ever attain!) is the beginning of wisdom; and to learn that you can get on without them--at the close of the day, and out here on your hill in Hingham--this is the end of understanding.

If I am no more than the shoes I stitch, or the lessons I peg, and the college can so calmly move on without me, how small I am! Let me hope that I am useful there, and useful as a citizen-at-large; but I know that I am chiefly and utterly dispensable at large, everywhere at large, even in Hingham. But not here on my hilltop. Here I am indispensable. In the short shift from my classroom, from chair to hill, from doing to being, I pass from a means into an end, from a part in the scheme of things to the scheme of things itself.

Here stands my hill on the highway from dawn to dusk, and just where the bending walls of the sky center and encircle it. This is not only a large place, with room and verge enough; it is also a chief place, where start the north and south and east and west, and the gray crooked road over which I travel daily.

I can trace the run of the road from my stump on the hill, off to where it bends on the edge of night for its returning and rest here.

"Let me live in a house by the aide of the road,"

sings the poet; but as for me, after traveling all day let me come back to a house at the end of the road--for in returning and rest shall a man be saved, in quietness and confidence shall he find strength. Nowhere shall he find that quietness and confidence in larger measure than here in the hills. And where shall he return to more rest?

There are men whose souls are like these hills, simple, strong, quiet men who can heal and restore; and there are books that help like the hills, simple elemental, large books; music, and sleep, and prayer, and play are healing too; but none of these cure and fill one with a quietness and confidence as deep as that from the hills, even from the little hills and the small fields and the vast skies of Hingham; a confidence and joy in the earth, perhaps, rather than in heaven, and yet in heaven too.

If it is not also a steadied thinking and a cleared seeing, it is at least a mental and moral convalescence that one gets--out of the landscape, out of its largeness, sweetness and reality. I am quickly conscious on the hills of space all about me--room for myself, room for the things that crowd and clutter me; and as these arrange and set themselves in order, I am aware of space within me, of freedom and wideness there, of things in order, of doors unlocked and windows opened, through which I look out upon a new young world, new like the morning, young like the seedling pines on the slope--young and new like my soul!

Now I can go back to my classroom. Now I can read themes once more. Now I can gaze into the round, moon-eyed face of youth and have faith--as if my chair were a stump, my classroom a wooded hillside covered with young pines, seedlings of the Lord, and full of sap, and proof against the worm.

Yet these are the same youth who yesterday wrote the "Autobiography of a Fountain Pen" and "The Exhilarations of the Straw-Ride" and the essays on "The Beauties of Nature." It is I who am not the same. I have been changed, renewed, having seen from my stump the face of eternal youth in the freshmen pines marching up the hillside, in the young brook playing and pursuing through the meadow, in the young winds over the trees, the young stars in the skies, the young moon riding along the horizon

"With the auld moon in her arm"--

youth immortal, and so, unburdened by its withered load of age.

I come down from the hill with a soul resurgent,--strong like the heave that overreaches the sag of the sea,--and bold in my faith--to a lot of college students as the hope of the world!

From the stump in the woodlot I see not only the face of things but the course of things, that they are moving past me, over me, and round and round me their fixed center--for the horizon to bend about, for the sky to arch over, for the highways to start from, for every influence and interest between Hingham and Heaven to focus on.

"All things journey sun and moon
Morning noon and afternoon,
Night and all her stars,"--

and they all journey about me on my stump in the hilltop.

We love human nature; we love to get back to it in New York and Boston,--for a day, for six months in the winter even,--but we need to get back to the hills at night. We are a conventional, gregarious, herding folk. Let an American get rich and he builds a grand house in the city. Let an Englishman get rich and he moves straight into the country--out to such a spot as Bradley Hill in Hingham.

There are many of the city's glories and conveniences lacking here on Mullein Hill, but Mullein Hill has some of the necessities that are lacking in the city--wide distances and silent places, and woods and stumps where you can sit down and feel that you are greater than anything in sight. In the city the buildings are too vast; the people are too many. You might feel greater than any two or three persons there, perhaps, but not greater than nearly a million.

No matter how centered and serene I start from Hingham, a little way into Boston and I am lost. First I begin to hurry (a thing unnecessary in Hingham) for everybody else is hurrying; then I must get somewhere; everybody else is getting somewhere, getting everywhere. For see them in front of me and behind me, getting there ahead of me and coming after me to leave no room for me when I shall arrive! But when shall I and where shall I arrive? And what shall I arrive for? And who am I that I would arrive? I look around for the encircling horizon, and up for the overarching sky, and in for the guiding purpose; but instead of a purpose I am hustled forward by a crowd, and at the bottom of a street far down beneath such overhanging walls as leave me but a slit of smoky sky. I am in the hands of a force mightier than I, in the hands of the police force at the street corners, and am carried across to the opposite curb through a breaker that rolls in front of me again at the next crossing. So I move on, by external compulsion, knowing, as I move, by a kind of mental contagion, feeling by a sort of proxy, and putting my trust everywhere in advertising and the police.

Thus I come, it may be, into the Public Library, "where is all the recorded wit of the world, but none of the recording,"--where Shakespeare and Old Sleuth and Pansy look all alike and as readable as the card catalogues, or the boy attendants, or the signs of the Zodiac in the vestibule floor.

Who can read all these books? Who wishes to read any of these books? They are too many--more books in here than men on the street outside! And how dead they are in here, wedged side by side in this vast sepulcher of human thought!

I move among them dully, the stir of the streets coming to me as the soughing of wind on the desert or the wash of waves on a distant shore. Here I find a book of my own among the dead. I read its inscription curiously. I must have written it--when I was alive aeons ago, and far from here. But why did I? For see the unread, the shelved, the numbered, the buried books!

Let me out to the street! Dust we are, not books, and unto dust, good fertile soil, not paper and ink, we shall return. No more writing for me--but breathing and eating and jostling with the good earthy people outside, laughing and loving and dying with them!

The sweet wind in Copley Square! The sweet smell of gasoline! The sweet scream of electric horns!

And how sweet--how fat and alive and friendly the old colored hack driver, standing there by the stone post! He has a number on his cap; he is catalogued somewhere, but not in the library. Thank heaven he is no book, but just a good black human being. I rush up and shake hands with him. He nearly falls into his cab with astonishment; but I must get hold of life again, and he looks so real and removed from letters!

"Uncle!" I whisper, close in his ear, "have ye got it? Quick--

"'Cross me twice wid de raabbit foot--
Dar's steppin' at de doo'!
Cross me twice wid de raabbit foot--
Dar's creakin' on de floo'!'"

He makes the passes, and I turn down Boylston Street, a living thing once more with face toward--the hills of Hingham.

It is five o'clock, and a winter evening, and all the street pours forth to meet me--some of them coming with me bound for Hingham, surely, as all of them are bound for a hill somewhere and a home.

I love the city at this winter hour. This home-hurrying crowd--its excitement of escape! its eagerness and expectancy! its camaraderie! The arc-lights overhead glow and splutter with the joy they see on the faces beneath them.

It is nearly half-past five as I turn into Winter Street. Now the very stores are closing. Work has ceased. Drays and automobiles are gone. The two-wheeled fruit man is going from his stand at the Subway entrance. The street is filled from wall to wall with men and women, young women and young men, fresher, more eager, more excited, more joyous even than the lesser crowd of shoppers down Boylston Street. They don't notice me particularly. No one notices any one particularly, for the lights overhead see us all, and we all understand as we cross and dodge and lockstep and bump and jostle through this deep narrow place of closing doors toward home. Then the last rush at the station, that nightly baptism into human brotherhood as we plunge into the crowd and are carried through the gates and into our train--which is speeding far out through the dark before I begin to come to myself--find myself leaving the others, separating, individualizing, taking on definite shape and my own being. The train is grinding in at my station, and I drop out along the track in the dark alone.

I gather my bundles and hug them to me, feeling not the bread and bananas, but only the sense of possession, as I step off down the track. Here is my automobile. Two miles of back-country road lie before me. I drive slowly, the stars overhead, but not far away, and very close about me the deep darkness of the woods--and silence and space and shapes invisible, and voices inaudible as yet to my city-dinned ears and staring eyes. But sight returns, and hearing, till soon my very fingers, feeling far into the dark, begin to see and hear.

And now I near the hill: these are my woods; this is my gravel bank; that my meadow, my wall, my postbox, and up yonder among the trees shines my light. They are expecting me, She, and the boys, and the dog, and the blazing fire, the very trees up there, and the watching stars.

How the car takes the hill--as if up were down, and wheels were wings, and just as if the boys and the dog and the dinner and the fire were all waiting for _it_! As they are, of course, it and me. I open up the throttle, I jam the shrieking whistle, and rip around the bend in the middle of the hill,--puppy yelping down to meet me. The noise we make as the lights flash on, as the big door rolls back, and we come to our nightly standstill inside the boy-filled barn! They drag me from the wheel--puppy yanking at my trouser leg; they pounce upon my bundles; they hustle me toward the house, where, in the lighted doorway more welcome waits me--and questions, batteries of them, even puppy joining the attack!

Who would have believed I had seen and done all this,--had any such adventurous trip,--lived any such significant day,--catching my regular 8.35 train as I did!

But we get through the dinner and some of the talk and then the out-loud reading before the fire; then while she is tucking the children in bed, I go out to see that all is well about the barn.

How the night has deepened since my return! No wind stirs. The hill-crest blazes with the light of the stars. Such an earth and sky! I lock the barn, and crossing the field, climb the ridge to the stump. The bare woods are dark with shadow and deep with the silence of the night. A train rumbles somewhere in the distance, then the silence and space reach off through the shadows, infinitely far off down the hillside; and the stars gather in the tops of the trees.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Hills Of Hingham