A Breeze from the Woods Part 3

"Lost is that camp, but let its fragrant story Blend with the breath that thrills With hop-vines' incense all the pensive glory, That fills the Kentish hills.

"And on that grave where English oak, and holly, And laurel wreaths entwine, Deem it not all a too-presumptuous folly-- This spray of western pine?"

It was left to this shy man, who came forth from the very wastes of this far-off wilderness, to lay upon the bier of the dead humorist as fragrant an offering as any mortal fellowship could suggest. It was a song in a different key--as if one having entered into the very life of the great novelist, had also for a moment entered into his death.

The wit and the poetry which ripen here are under the same sun which ripens the pomegranate and the citron. The grain and texture have always been better than that suggested by the coa.r.s.er materialism without. It is little to him who is cutting his marble to the divinest form, that the whole city reeks with grime and smoke, and all its outlines are misshapen and ugly. It is little to poet or painter that sometimes the earth has only a single tint of gray, since he may also see in contrast, what a transfigured glory there may be on mountain and on sea.

There are not at any time in this dull world so many genuine humorists as one may count on his fingers. For lack of some healthy laughter the world is going to the bad. It welcomes the gentle missionary of humor, and for lack of him it often accepts those dreary counterfeits who commit a.s.sault and battery upon our mother-tongue. As in olden time the prophets were sometimes stoned in their own country, so in modern times one cannot tell whether the poet-prophet who comes up from the wilderness, will fare better or worse. Woe to him if the people cannot interpret him, or are piqued at his coming. It is a curious fact that when Harte had brought forth his first book with the modest t.i.tle of Outcroppings, it was pelted from one end of the State to the other. It did not contain a poem of his own. But it did contain samples of the best poetry, other than his own, which had been produced in California. His critics, catching the suggestion of the t.i.tle, flung at him porphyry, granite, and barren quartz, but never a rock containing a grain of gold. He might have put a torpedo into a couple of stanzas and extinguished them all. But he saw the humorous side of the a.s.sault, and enjoyed it with a keener zest than any of his a.s.sailants.

None of us would be comfortable with only some pungent sauce for dinner. But when a dreadful staleness overtakes the world, it is ready to cry out, "More sauce!" Whoever comes, therefore, bringing with him salt and seasoning, and whatever else gives a keener zest to life, never comes amiss. Sooner or later we shall know him. He will come very near to us in his books, and by that subtile law of communion which, through the brightest and n.o.blest utterances, makes all the better world akin.

After we have seen the trick of the magician, we do not care to know him any more. But the magician of wit works by an enchantment that we can never despise. His spell is wrought with such gifts as are only given from the very heavens to here and there one. It is not the mythical Puck who is to put a girdle round the world, but the man of genius, whose thought is luminous with the light of all ages. So Shakspeare clasps the world, and d.i.c.kens belts it, and the men of wit and genius furnish each a golden thread which girds it about. The book of humor is the heart's ease. In every library it is dog-eared, because it has in it some surcease for the secret ills of life. If a million souls have been made happier for an hour through the fictions of Sir Walter Scott, what is the sum of good thus wrought? What lesser good have they wrought who have come in later times to lighten the dead weight of our overweighted lives?

Do not despise the evangel of humor because he comes unlike one of old, wearing a girdle of camel's hair, and eating his locusts and wild honey. Bear with him if he comes in flaming neck-tie and flamingo vestments, hirsute and robust. You shall know by his wit that he is no charlatan; but you cannot tell it by his raiment, nor his bill of fare. It cannot be shown that the wit of Diogenes was any better for his living in a tub. It is not probable that a dish of water-cress would inspire a better humor than a flagon of wine and a saddle of venison. I would rather look for your modern humorist in the top story of the crowded and garish hostlery; because if he is after game, he will be sure to find it there.

The exacting conditions of pioneer life are not favorable to authorship. If during this quarter of a century not a book had been written in California, we might plead in mitigation the overshadowing materialism which, while coa.r.s.ely wrestling for the gains of a day, finds no place for that repose which favors culture and is fruitful of books. But over the arid plains, in the heat and dust of the long summer, one may trace the belt of green which the mountain stream carries sheer down to the sea. So there have been many thoughtful men and women who have freshened and somewhat redeemed these intellectual wastes. They have written more books in this quarter of a century than have been written in all the other States west of the Mississippi River. The publication of some of these books has cost nearly their weight in gold. During the period of twenty-five years, more than 90 volumes have been written by persons living at the time in this State.

Many of these books have had but a local circulation, and are now almost forgotten. Some have gained more than a national reputation. I enumerate among these Halleck's International Law; Mountaineering, by Clarence King; Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, by Captain Scammon; The Luck of Roaring Camp, by Bret Harte; and Native Races, by Hubert H. Bancroft. Another work just missed a more than national recognition. Grayson, the self-taught and heroic naturalist, traversed the forests and swamps of Mexico, stopping neither for mora.s.s nor jungle, until he had drawn and painted to life nearly two hundred of the rarest birds of that country. His work, which is still in sheets and ma.n.u.script, was probably at the cost of his life. But, besides the works of Audubon and Wilson, I know of nothing better in its way by any naturalist, living or dead.

No one has sought to live here exclusively by authorship. It has only been the incidental occupation of those persons who have written out of the fullness of their own lives. If they heard no mysterious voice saying unto them, "Write!"--the great mountains encamped about like sleeping dromedaries, the valleys filled with the aroma of a royal fruitage, the serene sky, and the rhythm of the great sea, all make audible signs to write. They have written out of a fresh new life.

In the streets of Herculaneum you may see the ruts made more than two thousand years ago. The grooves of society are often narrow and rigid with the fixedness of centuries. It may be better, by way of change, to propel a velocipede on a fresh track than to run four gilded wheels in the dead grooves which have been cut by the attrition of ages. After one has known the satiety which comes from the mild gabble of society, there is a wonderful freshness in a war-whoop uttered in the depths of the wilderness!

It is this large acquaintance with nature--this lying down with the mountains until one is taken into their confidence--a grim fellowship with untamed savageness--that may give a new vitality, and enlarge the horizon of intellectual life. Whence comes this man with his new poetry, which confounds the critics? and that man with his subtile wit borrowed from no school? I pray you note that for many a day his carpet hath been the spicula of pine, and his atmosphere hath been perfumed by the fir-tree. He has seen the mountains clad in beatific raiment of white, and their "sacristy set round with stars." He will never go so far that he will not come back to sing and talk of these, his earliest and divinest loves. So Miller sings of "The Sierra," of "Arizona," of "The Ship in the Desert." And Harte comes back again to his miner's camp, and to the larger liberty of the mountains. And there fell on Starr King a grander inspiration after he had seen the white banners of the snow-storm floating from the battlements of Yosemite.

We have brought forth nothing out of our poverty, but rather out of an affluence which could not be wholly restrained. As a gardener clips his choicest shrubs, casting the tangled riotousness of bud and blossom over the wall, so there are many here who have only trimmed a little what they have planted in their own gardens of poetry and fiction.

The little that has been done here in art is rather a sign of better things to come. Art must not only have inspiration, but it needs wealth and the society of a ripe community for its best estate. It is possible to paint for immortality in a garret. But a great deal of work done there has gone to the lumber-room. Not only must there be the fostering spirit of wealth and letters, but art also needs a picturesque world without--the grand estate of mountains and valleys, atmospheres, tones, lights, shadows--and if there be a picturesque people, we might look for a new school of art, and even famous painters. Where a poet can be inspired, there look also for the poetry which is put on canvas.

In one respect our modern civilization is nearly fatal to art. Philip Hamerton says that "a n.o.ble artist will gladly paint a peasant driving a yoke of oxen; but not a commercial traveler in his gig.... Men and women have a fatal liberty which mountains have not. They have the liberty of spoiling themselves, of making themselves ugly, and mean, and ridiculous. A mountain cannot dress in bad taste, neither is it capable of degrading itself by vice. n.o.ble human life in a great and earnest age is better artistic material than wild nature; but human life is an age like ours is not."

If a great artist were asked to paint a fashionable woman in the prevailing stringent costume, do not blame him if he faints away. There will never get into a really great painting any of the stiff and constrained costumes of our time. Observe that the sculptor rarely cuts the statute of a modern statesman without the accessories of some flowing and graceful attire. He cannot sculpture a modern dress-suit without feeling that he has offered an affront to art.

But in spite of our civilization there is a great deal that is picturesque among the people--the Pa.r.s.ee, Mohammedan, Malay, and Mongol, whom one may sometimes meet on the same street--the red shirt of the Italian fisherman, and the lateen sail which sends his boat flying over the water. The very distresses and distraits of men here have made them picturesque. I have seen a valedictorian of a leading college deep down in a gravel mine, directing his hydraulic pipe against the bank. Clad in a gray shirt and slouch-hat, he was a far better subject for a painter than on the day he took his degree. The native Californian on horseback, with poncho, sombrero, and leggings, is a good subject for the canvas, as well as the quaint old church where he worships, so rich in its very ruins. Moreover, the whole physical aspect of the country is wonderfully picturesque. The palm tree lifting up its fronded head in the desert, the great fir tree set against the ineffable azure of the heavens, the vine-clad hills, the serrated mountains which the frosts have canonized with their sealed and unsealed fountains, and all the gold and purple which touch the hills at even-tide--these are the rich ministries of nature. It may take art a thousand years to ripen even here. For how many years had the long procession of painters come and gone before Raphael and Michael Angelo appeared?

Our young art school will some day have its treasures; and there will be hung on these walls the portraits of other men whose culture and influence will be worth more than all the gold of the mountains. Let the artist set up his easel and write his silent poem upon the canvas. Welcome all influences which soften this hard and barren materialism. Before the mountains were unvexed by the miner's drill the land itself was a poem and a picture. One day the turbid streams will turn to crystal again, and the only miner will be the living glacier sitting on its white throne of judgment and grinding the very mountains to powder. Fortunate they who can catch this wealth of inspiration. These are the ministers and prophets whose larger and finer interpretation of nature are part of the treasures of the new commonwealth.

FOOTNOTES: [A] As the t.i.tle of this paper was adopted more than eleven years ago, it has not been deemed expedient to change it because Mr. John Burroughs has recently chosen it as the t.i.tle of his book.

[B] Delivered on "a.s.sembly Day," at the University of California.

Receive SMS and Send Text Online for free >>

« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»