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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

An Old American Tow-Path

Title:     An Old American Tow-Path
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

The charm of an old canal is one which every one seems to feel. Men who care nothing about ruined castles or Gothic cathedrals light up with romantic enthusiasm if you tell them of some old disused or seldom-used canal, grass-grown and tree-shaded, along which, hardly oftener than once a week, a leisurely barge--towed by an equally leisurely mule, with its fellow there on deck taking his rest, preparatory to his next eight-mile "shift"--sleepily dreams its way, presumably on some errand and to some destination, yet indeed hinting of no purpose or object other than its loitering passage through a summer afternoon. I have even heard millionaires express envy of the life lived by the little family hanging out its washing and smoking its pipe and cultivating its floating garden of nasturtiums and geraniums, with children playing and a house-dog to keep guard, all in that toy house of a dozen or so feet, whose foundations are played about by fishes, and whose sides are brushed by whispering reeds. But the charm of an old canal is perhaps yet more its own when even so tranquil a happening as the passage of a barge is no longer looked for, and the quiet water is called upon for no more arduous usefulness than the reflection of the willows or the ferrying across of summer clouds. Nature herself seems to wield a new peculiar spell in such association--old quarries, the rusting tramways choked with fern; forgotten mines with the wild vine twining tenderly about the old iron of dismantled pit-tackle, grown as green as itself with the summer rains; roads once dusty with haste over which only the moss and the trailing arbutus now leisurely travel. Wherever Nature is thus seen to be taking to herself, making her own, what man has first made and grown tired of, she is twice an enchantress, strangely combining in one charm the magic of a wistful, all but forgotten, past with her own sibyl-line mystery.

The symbol of that combined charm is that poppy of oblivion of which Sir Thomas Browne so movingly wrote: but, though along that old canal of which I am thinking and by which I walked a summer day, no poppies were growing, the freshest grass, the bluest flowers, the new-born rustling leafage of the innumerable trees, all alike seemed to whisper of forgetfulness, to be brooding, even thus in the very heyday of the mad young year, over time past. And this eloquently retrospective air of Nature made me realize, with something of the sense of discovery, how much of what we call antiquity is really a trick of Nature. She is as clever at the manufacture of antiques as some expert of "old masters." A little moss here and there, a network of ivy, a judicious use of ferns and grass, a careless display of weeds and wild flowers, and in twenty years Nature can make a modern building look as if it dated from the Norman Conquest. I came upon this reflection because, actually, my canal is not very old, though from the way it impressed me, and from the manner in which I have introduced it, the reader might well imagine it as old as Venice and no younger than Holland, and may find it as hard to believe as I did that its age is but some eighty years, and that it has its romantic being between Newark Bay and Phillipsburg, on the Delaware River.

One has always to be careful not to give too much importance to one's own associative fancies in regard to the names of places. To me, for instance, "Perth Amboy" has always had a romantic sound, and I believe that a certain majesty in the collocation of the two noble words would survive that visit to the place itself which I have been told is all that is necessary for disillusionment. On the other hand, for reasons less explainable, Hackensack, Paterson, Newark, and even Passaic are names that had touched me with no such romantic thrill. Wrongfully, no doubt, I had associated them with absurdity, anarchy, and railroads. Never having visited them, it was perhaps not surprising that I should not have associated them with such loveliness and luxury of Nature as I now unforgettably recall; and I cannot help feeling that in the case of places thus unfortunately named, Nature might well bring an action for damages, robbed as she thus undoubtedly is of a flock of worshippers.

At all events, I believe that my surprise and even incredulity will be understood when an artist friend of mine told me that by taking the Fort Lee ferry, and trolleying from the Palisades through Hackensack to Paterson, I might find--a dream canal. It was as though he had said that I had but to cross over to Hoboken to find the Well at the World's End. But it was true, for all that--quite fairy-tale true. It was one of those surprises of peace, deep, ancient peace, in America, of which there are many, and of which more needs to be told. I can conceive of no more suggestive and piquant contrast than that of the old canal gliding through water-lilies and spreading pastures, in the bosom of hills clothed with trees that scatter the sunshine or gather the darkness, the haunt of every bird that sings or flashes strange plumage and is gone, gliding past flowering rushes and blue dragon-flies, not

Flowing down to Camelot,

as one might well believe, but between Newark and Phillipsburg, touching Paterson midway with its dreaming hand.

Following my friend's directions, we had met at Paterson, and, desirous of finding our green pasture and still waters with the least possible delay, we took a trolley running in the Newark direction, and were presently dropped at a quaint, quiet little village called Little Falls, the last we were to see of the modern work-a-day world for several miles. A hundred yards or so beyond, and it is as though you had entered some secret green door into a pastoral dream-land. Great trees, like rustling walls of verdure, enclose an apparently endless roadway of gleaming water, a narrow strip of tow-path keeping it company, buttressed in from the surrounding fields with thickets of every species of bush and luxurious undergrowth, and starred with every summer flower.

Presently, by the side of the path, one comes to an object which seems romantically in keeping with the general character of the scene--a long block of stone, lying among the grasses and the wild geraniums, on which, as one nears it, one descries carved scroll-work and quaint, deep-cut lettering. Is it the tomb of dead lovers, the memorial of some great deed, or an altar to the _genius loci_? The willows whisper about it, and the great elms and maples sway and murmur no less impressively than if the inscription were in Latin of two thousand years ago. Nor is it in me to regret that the stone and its inscription, instead of celebrating the rural Pan, commemorate the men to whom I owe this lane of dreaming water and all its marginal green solitude: to wit--the "MORRIS CANAL AND BANKING CO., A.D. 1829," represented by its president, its cashier, its canal commissioner, and a score of other names of directors, engineers, and builders. Peace, therefore, to the souls of those dead directors, who, having only in mind their banking and engineering project, yet unconsciously wrought, nearly a century ago, so poetic a thing, and may their rest be lulled by such leafy murmurs and swaying of tendrilled shadows as all the day through stir and sway along the old canal!

A few yards beyond this monumental stone, there comes a great opening in the sky, a sense of depth and height and spacious freshness in the air, such as we feel on approaching the gorge of a great river; and in fact the canal has arrived at the Passaic and is about to be carried across it in a sort of long, wooden trough, supported by a noble bridge that might well pass for a genuine antique, owing to that collaborating hand of Nature which has filled the interstices of its massive masonry with fern, and so loosened it here and there that some of the canal escapes in long, ribbon-like cascades into the rocky bed of the river below. An aqueduct has always seemed to me, though it would be hard to say why, a most romantic thing. The idea of carrying running water across a bridge in this way--water which it is so hard to think of as imprisoned or controlled, and which, too, however shallow, one always associates with mysterious depth--the idea of thus carrying it across a valley high up in the air, so that one may look underneath it, underneath the bed in which it runs, and think of the fishes and the water-weeds and the waterbugs all being carried across with it, too--this, I confess, has always seemed to me engagingly marvellous. And I like, too, to think that the canal, whose daily business is to be a "common carrier" of others, thus occasionally tastes the luxury of being carried itself; as sometimes one sees on a freight car a new buggy, or automobile, or sometimes a locomotive, being luxuriously ridden along--as though out for a holiday--instead of riding others.

And talking of freight-cars, it came to me with a sense of illumination how different the word "Passaic" looks printed in white letters on the grey sides of grim produce-vans in begrimed procession, from the way it looks as it writes its name in wonderful white waterfalls, or murmurs it through corridors of that strange pillared and cake-shaped rock, amid the golden pomp of a perfect summer day. For a short distance the Passaic and the canal run side by side, but presently they part company, and mile after mile the canal seems to have the world to itself, once in a great while finding human companionship in a shingled cottage half hidden among willows, a sleepy brick-field run on principles as ancient as itself, shy little girls picking flowers on its banks, or saucy boys disporting themselves in the old swimming-hole; and

Sometimes an angler comes and drops his hook
Within its hidden depths, and 'gainst a tree
Leaning his rod, reads in some pleasant book,
Forgetting soon his pride of fishery;
And dreams or falls asleep,
While curious fishes peep
About his nibbled bait or scornfully
Dart off and rise and leap.

Once a year, indeed, every one goes a-fishing along the old canal--men, women, boys, and girls. That is in spring, when the canal is emptied for repairs, the patching up of leaks, and so forth. Then the fish lie glittering in the shallow pools, as good as caught, and happy children go home with strings of sunfish,--"pumpkin-seeds" they call them,--cat-fish, and the like picturesque unprofitable spoils, while graver fisher-folk take count of pickerel and bream. This merry festival was over and gone, and the canal was all brimming with the lustral renewal of its waters, its depths flashing now and again with the passage of wary survivors of that spring _battue_.

It is essential to the appreciation of an old canal that one should not expect it to provide excitement, that it be understood between it and its fellow-pilgrim that there is very little to say and nothing to record. Along the old tow-path you must be content with a few simple, elemental, mysterious things. To enter into its spirit you must be somewhat of a monastic turn of mind, and have spiritual affiliations, above all, with La Trappe. For the presiding muse of an old canal is Silence; yet, as at La Trappe, a silence far indeed from being a dumb silence, but a silence that contains all speech. My friend and I spoke hardly at all as we walked along, easily obedient to the spirit of the hour and the place. For there were so few of those little gossipy accidents and occurrences by the way that make those interruptions we call conversation, and such overwhelming golden-handed presences of sunlit woodlands, flashing water-meadows, shining, singing air, and distant purple hills--all the blowing, rippling, leafy glory and mighty laughter of a summer day--that we were glad enough to let the birds do such talking as Nature deemed necessary; and I seem never to have heard or seen so many birds, of so many varieties, as haunt that old canal.

As we chose our momentary camping-place under a buttonwood-tree, from out an exuberant swamp of yellow water-lilies and the rearing sword-blades of the coming cat-tail, a swamp blackbird, on his glossy black orange-tipped wings, flung us defiance with his long, keen, full, saucy note; and as we sat down under our buttonwood and spread upon the sward our pastoral meal, the veery-thrush--sadder and stranger than any nightingale--played for us, unseen, on an instrument like those old water-organs played on by the flow and ebb of the tide, a flute of silver in which some strange magician has somewhere hidden tears. I wondered, as he sang, if the veery was the thrush that, to Walt Whitman's fancy, "in the swamp in secluded recesses" mourned the death of Lincoln:

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings to himself a song.

But when the veery had flown with his heart-break to some distant copse, two song-sparrows came to persuade us with their blithe melody that life was worth living, after all; and cheerful little domestic birds, like the jenny-wren and the chipping-sparrow, pecked about and put in between whiles their little chit-chat across the boughs, while the bobolink called to us like a comrade, and the phoebe-bird gave us a series of imitations, and the scarlet tanager and the wild canary put in a vivid appearance, to show what can be done with colour, though they have no song.

Yet, while one was grateful for such long, green silence as we found along that old canal, one could not help feeling how hard it would be to put into words an experience so infinite and yet so undramatic. Birds and birds, and trees and trees, and the long, silent water! Prose has seldom been adequate for such moments. So, as my friend and I took up our walk again, I sang him this little song of the Silence of the Way:

Silence, whose drowsy eyelids are soft leaves,
And whose half-sleeping eyes are the blue flowers,
On whose still breast the water-lily heaves,
And all her speech the whisper of the showers.

Made of all things that in the water sway,
The quiet reed kissing the arrowhead,
The willows murmuring, all a summer day,
"Silence"--sweet word, and ne'er so softly said

As here along this path of brooding peace,
Where all things dream, and nothing else is done
But all such gentle businesses as these
Of leaves and rippling wind, and setting sun

Turning the stream to a long lane of gold,
Where the young moon shall walk with feet of pearl,
And, framed in sleeping lilies, fold on fold.
Gaze at herself like any mortal girl.

But, after all, trees are perhaps the best expression of silence, massed as they are with the merest hint of movement, and breathing the merest suggestion of a sigh; and seldom have I seen such abundance and variety of trees as along our old canal--cedars and hemlocks and hickory dominating green slopes of rocky pasture, with here and there a clump of silver birches bent over with the strain of last year's snow; and all along, near by the water, beech and basswood, blue-gum and pin-oak, ash, and even chestnut flourishing still, in defiance of blight. Nor have I ever seen such sheets of water-lilies as starred the swampy thickets, in which elder and hazels and every conceivable bush and shrub and giant grass and cane make wildernesses pathless indeed save to the mink and the water-snake, and the imagination that would fain explore their glimmering recesses.

No, nothing except birds and trees, water-lilies and such like happenings, ever happens along the old canal; and our nearest to a human event was our meeting with a lonely, melancholy man, sitting near a moss-grown water-wheel, smoking a corn-cob pipe, and gazing wistfully across at the Ramapo Hills, over which great sunlit clouds were billowing and casting slow-moving shadows. Stopping, we passed him the time of day and inquired when the next barge was due. For answer he took a long draw at his corn-cob, and, taking his eyes for a moment from the landscape, said in a far-away manner that it might be due any time now, as the spring had come and gone, and implying, with a sort of sad humour in his eyes, that spring makes all things possible, brings all things back, even an old slow-moving barge along the old canal.

"What do they carry on the canal?" I asked the melancholy man, the romantic green hush and the gleaming water not irrelevantly flashing on my fancy that far-away immortal picture of the lily-maid of Astolat on her strange journey, with a letter in her hand for Lancelot.

"Coal," was his answer; and, again drawing at his corn-cob, he added, with a sad and understanding smile, "once in a great while." Like most melancholy men, he seemed to have brains, in his way, and to have no particular work on hand, except, like ourselves, to dream.

"Suppose," said I, "that a barge should come along, and need to be drawn up this 'plane'--would the old machinery work?" and I pointed to six hundred feet of sloping grass, down which a tramway stretches and a cable runs on little wheels--technically known, it appeared, as a "plane."

Then the honour of the ancient company for which he had once worked seemed to stir his blood, and he awakened to something like enthusiasm as he explained the antique, picturesque device by which it is still really possible for a barge to climb six hundred feet of grass and fern--drawn up in a long "cradle," instead of being raised by locks in the customary way.

Then he took us into the old building where, in the mossed and dripping darkness, we could discern the great water-wheels that work this fascinating piece of ancient engineering; and added that there would probably be a barge coming along in three or four days, if we should happen to be in the neighbourhood. He might have added that the old canal is one of the few places where "time and tide" wait for any one and everybody--but alas! on this occasion we could not wait for them.

Our walk was nearing its end when we came upon a pathetic reminder that, though the old canal is so far from being a stormy sea, there have been wrecks even in those quiet waters. In a backwater whispered over by willows and sung over by birds, a sort of water-side graveyard, eleven old barges were ingloriously rotting, unwept and unhonoured. The hulks of old men-of-war, forgotten as they may seem, have still their annual days of bunting and the salutes of cannon; but to these old servitors of peace come no such memorial recognitions.

"Unwept and unhonoured, may be," said I to my friend, "but they shall not go all unsung, though humble be the rhyme"; so here is the rhyme I affixed to an old nail on the mouldering side of the _Janita C. Williams_:

You who have done your work and asked no praise,
Mouldering in these unhonoured waterways,
Carrying but simple peace and quiet fire,
Doing a small day's work for a small hire--
You need not praise, nor guns, nor flags unfurled,
Nor all such cloudy glories of the world;
The laurel of a simple duty done
Is the best laurel underneath the sun,
Yet would two strangers passing by this spot
Whisper, "Old boat--you are not all forgot!"

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Old American Tow-Path