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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Fields Of Fodder

Title:     The Fields Of Fodder
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

It is doubtless due to early associations, to the large part played by cornfields in my boyhood, that I cannot come upon one now in these New England farms without a touch of homesickness. It was always the autumn more than the spring that appealed to me as a child; and there was something connected with the husking and the shocking of the corn that took deeper hold upon my imagination than any other single event of the farm year, a kind of festive joy, something solemnly beautiful and significant, that to this day makes a field of corn in the shock not so much the substance of earth's bounty as the symbol of earth's life, or rather of life--here on the earth as one could wish it to be--lived to the end, and rich in corn, with its fodder garnered and set in order over a broad field.

Perhaps I have added touches to this picture since the days when I was a boy, but so far back as when I used to hunt out the deeply fluted cornstalks to turn into fiddles, it was minor notes I played--the notes of the wind coming over the field of corn-butts and stirring the loose blades as it moved among the silent shocks. I have more than a memory of mere corn, of heavy-eared stalks cut and shocked to shed the winter rain: that, and more, as of the sober end of something, the fulfillment of some solemn compact between us--between me and the fields and skies.

Is this too much for a boy to feel? Not if he is father to the man! I have heard my own small boys, with grave faces, announce that this is the 21st of June, the longest day of the year--as if the shadows were already lengthening, even across their morning way.

If my spirit should return to earth as a flower, it would come a four-o'clock, or a yellow evening primrose, for only the long afternoon shadows or falling twilight would waken and spread my petals. No, I would return an aster or a witch-hazel bush, opening after the corn is cut, the crops gathered, and the yellow leaves begin to come sighing to the ground.

At that word "sighing" many trusting readers will lay this essay down. They have had more than enough of this brand of pathos from their youth up.

"The 'sobbing wind,' the 'weeping rain,'--
'Tis time to give the lie
To these old superstitious twain--
That poets sing and sigh.

"Taste the sweet drops,--no tang of brine,
Feel them--they do not burn;
The daisy-buds, whereon they shine,
Laugh, and to blossoms turn"--

that is, in June they do; but do they in October? There are no daisies to laugh in October. A few late asters fringe the roadsides; an occasional bee hums loudly in among them; but there is no sound of laughter, and no shine of raindrops in the broken hoary seed-stalks that strew the way. If the daisy-buds _laugh_,--as surely they do in June,--why should not the wind sob and the rain weep--as surely they do--in October? There are days of shadow with the days of sunshine; the seasons have their moods, as we have ours, and why should one be accused of more sentiment than sense, and of bad rhetoric, too, in yielding to the spirit of the empty woods till the slow, slanting rain of October weeps, and the soughing wind comes sobbing through the trees?

Fall rain, fall steadily, heavily, drearily. Beat off the fading leaves and flatten them into shapeless patterns on the soaking floor. Fall and slant and flatten, and, if you will, weep. Blow wind, through the creaking branches, blow about the whispering corners; parley there outside my window; whirl and drive the brown leaves into hiding, and if I am sad, sigh with me and sob.

May one not indulge in gentle melancholy these closing days of autumn, and invite the weather in, without being taken to task for it? One should no more wish to escape from the sobering influence of the October days than from the joy of the June days, or the thrill in the wide wonder of the stars.

"If winds have wailed and skies wept tears,
To poet's vision dim,
'T was that his own sobs filled his ears,
His weeping blinded him"--

of course! And blessed is the man who finds winds that will wail with him, and skies that love him enough to weep in sympathy. It saves his friends and next of kin a great deal of perfunctory weeping.

There is no month in all the twelve as lovely and loved as October. A single, glorious June day is close to the full measure of our capacity for joy; but the heart can hold a month of melancholy and still ache for more. So it happens that June is only a memory of individual days, while October is nothing less than a season, a mood, a spirit, a soul, beautiful, pensive, fugitive. So much is already gone, so many things seem past, that all the gold of gathered crops and glory on the wooded hillsides only gild and paint the shadow that sleeps within the very sunshine of October.

In June the day itself was the great event. It is not so in October. Then its coming and going were attended with ceremony and splendor, the dawn with invisible choirs, the sunset with all the pageantry and pomp of a regal fete. Now the day has lessened, and breaks tardily and without a dawn, and with a blend of shadow quickly fades into the night. The warp of dusk runs through even its sunlit fabric from daybreak to dark.

It is this shadow, this wash of haze upon the flaming landscape, this screen of mist through which the sunlight sifts, that veils the face of the fields and softens, almost to sadness, the October mood of things.

For it is the inner mood of things that has changed as well as the outward face of things. The very heart of the hills feels it. The hush that fell with the first frost has hardly been broken. The blackened grass, the blasted vine, have not grown green again. No new buds are swelling, as after a late frost in spring. Instead, the old leaves on the limbs rattle and waver down; the cornfield is only an area of stubs and long lines of yellow shocks; and in the corners of the meadow fence stand clumps of flower-stalks,--joe-pye-weed, boneset, goldenrod,--bare and already bleaching; and deep within their matted shade, where the brook bends about an elder bush, a single amber pendant of the jewel-weed, to which a bumble-bee comes droning on wings so loud that a little hyla near us stops his pipe to listen!

There are other sounds, now that the shrill cry of the hyla is stilled--the cawing of crows beyond the wood, the scratching of a beetle in the crisp leaves, the cheep of a prying chickadee, the tiny chirrup of a cricket in the grass--remnants of sounds from the summer, and echoes as of single strings left vibrating after the concert is over and the empty hall is closed.

But how sweet is the silence! To be so far removed from sounds that one can hear a single cricket and the creeping of a beetle in the leaves! Life allows so little margin of silence nowadays. One cannot sit down in quiet and listen to the small voices; one is obliged to stand up--in a telephone booth, a pitiful, two-by-two oasis of silence in life's desert of confusion and din. If October brought one nothing else but this sweet refuge from noises it would be enough. For the silence of October, with its peculiar qualities, is pure balm. There is none of the oppressive stillness that precedes a severe storm, none of the ominous hush that falls before the first frost, none of the death-like lack of sound in a bleak snow-buried swamp or pasture, none of the awesome majesty of quiet in the movement of the midnight stars, none of the fearful dumbness of the desert, that muteness without bound or break, eternal--none of these qualities in the sweet silence of October. I have listened to all of these, and found them answering to mute tongues within my own soul, deep unto deep; but such moods are rare--moods that can meet death, that can sweep through the heavens with the constellations, and that can hold converse with the dumb, stirless desert; whereas the need for the healing and restoration found in the serene silence of October is frequent.

There are voices here, however, many of them; but all subdued, single, pure, as when the chorus stops, and some rare singer carries the air on, and up, and far away till it is only soul.

The joyous confusion and happy tumult of summer are gone; the mating and singing and fighting are over; the growing and working and watch-care done; the running even of the sap has ceased; the grip of the little twigs has relaxed, and the leaves, for very weight of peace, float off into the air, and all the wood, with empty hands, lies in the after-summer sun, and dreams.

With empty hands in the same warm sun I lie and dream. The sounds of summer have died away; but the roar of coming winter has not yet broken over the barriers of the north. Above my head stretches a fanlike branch of witch-hazel, its yellow leaves falling, its tiny, twisted flowers just curling into bloom. The snow will fall before its yellow straps have burned crisp and brown. But let it fall. It must melt again; for as long as these pale embers glow the icy hands of winter shall slip and lose their hold on the outdoor world.

And so I dream. The woods are at my back, the level meadow and wide fields of corn-fodder stretch away in front of me to a flaming ridge of oak and hickory. The sun is behind me over the woods, and the lazy air glances with every gauzy wing and flashing insect form that skims the sleepy meadow. But there is an unusual play of light over the grass, a glinting of threads that enmesh the air as if the slow-swinging wind were weaving gossamer of blown silk from the steeple-bush spindles through the slanting reeds of the sun.

It is not the wind that weaves; it is a multitude of small spiders. Here is one close to my face, out at the tip of a slender grass-stem, holding on with its fore legs and kicking out backward with its hind legs a tiny skein of web off into the air. The threads stream and sway and lengthen, gather and fill and billow, and tug at their anchorage till, caught in the dip of some wayward current, they lift the little aeronaut from his hangar and bear him away through the sky.

Long before we dreamed of flight, this little voyager was coasting the clouds. I can follow him far across the meadow in the cobweb basket as his filmy balloon floats shimmering over the meadow sea.

Who taught him navigation? By what compass is he steering? And where will he come to port? Perhaps his anchor will catch in a hard-hack on the other side of the pasture; or perhaps some wild air-current will sweep him over the woodtops, over the Blue Hills, and bear him a hundred miles away. No matter. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and there is no port where the wind never blows.

Yet no such ship would dare put to sea except in this soft and sunny weather. The autumn seeds are sailing too--the pitching parachutes of thistle and fall dandelion and wild lettuce, like fleets of tiny yachts under sail--a breeze from a cut-over ridge in the woods blowing almost cottony with the soft down of the tall lettuce that has come up thick in the clearing.

As I watch the strowing of the winds, my melancholy slips away. One cannot lie here in the warm but unquickening sun, and see this sower crossing meadow and cornfield without a vision of waking life, of fields again all green where now stands the fodder, of woods all full of song as soon as this sowing and the sleeping of the seeds are done. The autumn wind goeth forth to sow, and with the most lavish of hands. He wings his seeds, and weights his seeds, he burrs them, rounds them, and angles them; they fly and fall, they sink and swim, they stick and shoot, they pass the millstones of the robins' gizzards for the sake of a chance to grow. They even lie in wait for me, plucking me by the coat-sleeve, fastening upon my trousers' leg and holding on until I have walked with them into my very garden. The cows are forced to carry them, the squirrel to hide them, the streams to whirl them on their foaming drift into places where no bird or squirrel or wayward breeze would go. Not a corner within the horizon but will get its needed seed, not a nook anywhere, from the wind-swept fodder-field to the deepest, darkest swamp, but will come to life and flower again with the coming spring.

The leaves are falling, the birds are leaving, most of them having already gone. Soon I shall hear the bugle notes of the last guard as the Canada geese go over, headed swift and straight for the South. And yonder stands the fodder, brown and dry, the slanting shocks securely tied against the beating rains. How can one be melancholy when one knows the meaning of the fodder, when one is able to find in it his faith in the seasons, and see in it the beauty and the wisdom which has been built into the round of the year?

To him who lacks this faith and understanding let me give a serene October day in the woods. Go alone, lie down upon a bank where you can get a large view of earth and sky. "One seems to get nearer to nature in the early spring days," says Mr. Burroughs. I think not, not if by nearer you mean closer to the heart and meaning of things. "All screens are removed, the earth everywhere speaks directly to you; she is not hidden by verdure and foliage." That is true; yet for most of us her lips are still dumb with the silence of winter. One cannot come close to bare, cold earth. There is only one flat, faded expression on the face of the fields in March; whereas in October there is a settled peace and sweetness over all the face of Nature, a fullness and a non-withholding in her heart that makes communication natural and understanding easy.

The sap is sinking in the trees, the great tides of life have turned, but so slowly do they run these soft and fragrant days that they seem almost still, as at flood. A blue jay is gathering acorns overhead, letting one drop now and then to roll out of sight and be planted under the mat of leaves. Troops of migrating warblers flit into and through the trees, talking quietly among themselves as they search for food, moving all the while--and to a fixed goal, the far-off South. Bob-white whistles from the fodder-field; the odor of ripened fox grapes is brought with a puff of wind from across the pasture; the smell of mint, of pennyroyal, and of sweet fern crisping in the sun. These are not the odors of death; but the fragrance of life's very essence, of life ripened and perfected and fit for storing till another harvest comes. And these flitting warblers, what are they but another sign of promise, another proof of the wisdom which is at the heart of things? And all this glory of hickory and oak, of sumac and creeper, of burning berries on dogwood and ilex and elder--this sunset of the seasons--but the preparation for another dawn?

If one would be folded to the breast of Nature, if one would be pressed to her beating heart, if one would feel the mother in the soul of things, let these October days find him in the hills, or where the river makes into some vast salt marsh, or underneath some ancient tree with fields of corn in shock and browning pasture slopes that reach and round themselves along the rim of the sky.

The sun circles warm above me; and up against the snowy piles of cloud a broad-winged hawk in lesser circles wheels and flings its piercing cry far down to me; a fat, dozy woodchuck sticks his head out and eyes me kindly from his burrow; and close over me, as if I too had grown and blossomed there, bends a rank, purple-flowered ironweed. We understand each other; we are children of the same mother, nourished at the same abundant breast, the weed and I, and the woodchuck, and the wheeling hawk, and the piled-up clouds, and the shouldering slopes against the sky--I am brother to them all. And this is home, this earth and sky--these fruitful fields, and wooded hills, and marshes of reed and river flowing out to meet the sea. I can ask for no fairer home, none larger, none of more abundant or more golden corn. If aught is wanting, if just a tinge of shadow mingles with the rowan-scented haze, it is the early-falling twilight, the thought of my days, how short they are, how few of them find me with the freedom of these October fields, and how soon they must fade into November.

No, the thought of November does not disturb me. There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also are the months and seasons. And if I watch closely I shall see that not only are the birds leaving, but the muskrats are building their winter lodges, the frogs are bedding, the buds putting on their thick, furry coats--life everywhere preparing for the cold. I need to take the same precaution,--even in my heart. I will take a day out of October, a day when the woods are aflame with color, when the winds are so slow that the spiders are ballooning, and lying where I can see them ascending and the parachute seeds go drifting by, I will watch until my eyes are opened to see larger and plainer things go by--the days with the round of labor until the evening; the seasons with their joyous waking, their eager living; their abundant fruiting, and then their sleeping--for they must needs sleep. First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear, and after that the field of fodder. If so with the corn and the seasons, why not so with life? And what of it all could be fairer or more desirable than its October?--to lie and look out over a sunlit meadow to a field of fodder cut and shocked against the winter with my own hands!

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Fields Of Fodder