List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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lizard, just out of its winter quarters and in quest Of novelties,
creeps up into the pan or bucket. Soft maple makes a very fine white
sugar, superior in quality, but far less in quantity.

I think any person who has tried it will agree with me about the charm
of sugar-making, though he have no tooth for the sweet itself. It is
enough that it is the first spring work, and takes one to the woods.
The robins are just arriving, and their merry calls ring through the
glades. The squirrels are now venturing out, and the woodpeckers and
nuthatches run briskly up the trees. The crow begins to caw, with his
accustomed heartiness and assurance; and one sees the white rump and
golden shafts of the high-hole as he flits about the open woods. Next
week, or the week after, it may be time to begin plowing, and other
sober work about the farm; but this week we will picnic among the
maples, and our camp-fire shall be an incense to spring. Ah, I am there
now! I see the woods flooded with sunlight; I smell the dry leaves, and
the mould under them just quickened by the warmth; the long-trunked
maples in their gray, rough liveries stand thickly about; I see the
brimming pans and buckets, always on the sunny side of the trees, and
hear the musical dropping of the sap; the "boiling-place," with its
delightful camp features, is just beyond the first line, with its great
arch looking to the southwest. The sound of its axe rings through the
woods. Its huge kettles or broad pans boil and foam; and I ask no other
delight than to watch and tend them all day, to dip the sap from the
great casks into them, and to replenish the fire with the newly-cut
birch and beech wood. A slight breeze is blowing from the west; I catch
the glint here and there in the afternoon sun of the little rills and
creeks coursing down the sides of the hills; the awakening sounds about
the farm and the woods reach my ear; and every rustle or movement of
the air or on the earth seems like a pulse of returning life in nature.
I sympathize with that verdant Hibernian who liked sugar-making so well
that he thought he should follow it the whole year. I should at least
be tempted to follow the season up the mountains, camping this week on
one terrace, next week on one farther up, keeping just on the hem of
Winter's garment, and just in advance of the swelling buds, until my
smoke went up through the last growth of maple that surrounds the

Maple sugar is peculiarly an American product, the discovery of it
dating back into the early history of New England. The first settlers
usually caught the sap in rude troughs, and boiled it down in kettles
slung to a pole by a chain, the fire being built around them. The first
step in the way of improvement was to use tin pans instead of troughs,
and a large stone arch in which the kettles or caldrons were set with
the fire beneath them. But of late years, as the question of fuel has
become a more important one, greater improvements have been made. The
arch has given place to an immense stove designed for that special
purpose; and the kettles to broad, shallow, sheet-iron pans, the object
being to economize all the heat, and to obtain the greatest possible
extent of evaporating surface.

March 15.--From the first to the middle of March the season made steady
progress. There were no checks, no drawbacks. Warm, copious rains from
the south and southwest, followed by days of unbroken sunshine. In the
moist places--and what places are not moist at this season?--the sod
buzzed like a hive. The absorption and filtration among the network of
roots was an audible process.

The clod fairly sang.  How the trees responded also!  The silver
poplars were masses of soft gray bloom, and the willows down toward the
river seemed to have slipped off their old bark and on their new in a
single night. The soft maples, too, when massed in the distance, their
tops deeply dyed in a bright maroon color,--how fair they looked!

The 15th of the month was "one of those charmed days when the genius of
God doth flow." The wind died away by mid-forenoon, and the day settled
down so softly and lovingly upon the earth, touching everything,
filling everything. The sky visibly came down. You could see it among
the trees and between the hills. The sun poured himself into the earth
as into a cup, and the atmosphere fairly swam with warmth and light. In
the afternoon I walked out over the country roads north of the city.
Innumerable columns of smoke were going up all around the horizon from
burning brush and weeds, fields being purified by fire. The farmers
were hauling out manure; and I am free to confess, the odor of it, with
its associations of the farm and the stable, of cattle and horses, was
good in my nostrils. In the woods the liverleaf and arbutus had just
opened doubtingly; and in the little pools great masses of frogs'
spawn, with a milky tinge, were deposited. The youth who accompanied me
brought some of it home in his handkerchief, to see it hatch in a

The month came in like a lamb, and went out like a lamb, setting at
naught the old adage. The white fleecy clouds lay here and there, as if
at rest, on the blue sky. The fields were a perfect emerald; and the
lawns, with the new gold of the first dandelions sprinkled about, were
lush with grass. In the parks and groves there was a faint mist of
foliage, except among the willows, where there was not only a mist, but
a perfect fountain-fall of green. In the distance the river looked
blue; the spring freshets at last over, the ground settled, the jocund
season steps forth into April with a bright and confident look.


The season is always a little behind the sun in our climate, just as
the tide is always a little behind the moon. According to the calendar,
the summer ought to culminate about the 21st of June, but in reality it
is some weeks later; June is a maiden month all through. It is not high
noon in nature till about the first or second week in July. When the
chestnut-tree blooms, the meridian of the year is reached. By the first
of August it is fairly one o'clock. The lustre of the season begins to
dim, the foliage of the trees and woods to tarnish, the plumage of the
birds to fade, and their songs to cease. The hints of approaching fall
are on every hand. How suggestive this thistle-down, for instance,
which, as I sit by the open window, comes in and brushes softly across
my hand! The first snowflake tells of winter not more plainly than this
driving down heralds the approach of fall. Come here, my fairy, and
tell me whence you come and whither you go? What brings you to port
here, you gossamer ship sailing the great sea? How exquisitely frail
and delicate! One of the lightest things in nature; so light that in
the closed room here it will hardly rest in my open palm. A feather is
a clod beside it. Only a spider's web will hold it; coarser objects
have no power over it. Caught in the upper currents of the air and
rising above the clouds, it might sail perpetually. Indeed, one fancies
it might almost traverse the interstellar ether and drive against the
stars. And every thistle-head by the roadside holds hundreds of these
sky rovers,--imprisoned Ariels unable to set themselves free. Their
liberation may be by the shock of the wind, or the rude contact of
cattle, but it is oftener the work of the goldfinch with its
complaining brood. The seed of the thistle is the proper food of this
bird, and in obtaining it myriads of these winged creatures are
scattered to the breeze. Each one is fraught with a seed which it
exists to sow, but its wild careering and soaring does not fairly begin
till its burden is dropped, and its spheral form is complete. The seeds
of many plants and trees are disseminated through the agency of birds;
but the thistle furnishes its own birds,--flocks of them, with wings
more ethereal and tireless than were ever given to mortal creature.
From the pains Nature thus takes to sow the thistle broadcast over the
land, it might be expected to be one of the most troublesome and
abundant of weeds. But such is not the case; the more pernicious and
baffling weeds, like snapdragon or blind nettles, are more local and
restricted in their habits, and unable to fly at all.

In the fall, the battles of the spring are fought over again, beginning
at the other or little end of the series. There is the same advance and
retreat, with many feints and alarms, between the contending forces,
that was witnessed in April and May. The spring comes like a tide
running against a strong wind; it is ever beaten back, but ever gaining
ground, with now and then a mad "push upon the land" as if to overcome
its antagonist at one blow. The cold from the north encroaches upon us
in about the same fashion. In September or early in October it usually
makes a big stride forward and blackens all the more delicate plants,
and hastens the "mortal ripening" of the foliage of the trees, but it
is presently beaten back again, and the genial warmth repossesses the
land. Before long, however, the cold returns to the charge with
augmented forces and gains much ground.

The course of the seasons never does run smooth, owing to the unequal
distribution of land and water, mountain, wood, and plain.

An equilibrium, however, is usually reached in our climate in October,
sometimes the most marked in November, forming the delicious Indian
summer; a truce is declared, and both forces, heat and cold, meet and
mingle in friendly converse on the field. In the earlier season, this
poise of the temperature, this slack-water in nature, comes in May and
June; but the October calm is most marked. Day after day, and sometimes
week after week, you cannot tell which way the current is setting.
Indeed, there is no current, but the season seems to drift a little
this way or a little that, just as the breeze happens to freshen a
little in one quarter or the other. The fall of '74 was the most
remarkable in this respect I remember ever to have seen. The
equilibrium of the season lasted from the middle of October till near
December, with scarcely a break. There were six weeks of Indian summer,
all gold by day, and, when the moon came, all silver by night. The
river was so smooth at times as to be almost invisible, and in its
place was the indefinite continuation of the opposite shore down toward
the nether world. One seemed to be in an enchanted land, and to breathe
all day the atmosphere of fable and romance. Not a smoke, but a kind of
shining nimbus filled all the spaces. The vessels would drift by as if
in mid-air with all their sails set. The gypsy blood in one, as Lowell
calls it, could hardly stay between four walls and see such days go by.
Living in tents, in groves and on the hills, seemed the only natural

Late in December we had glimpses of the same weather,--the earth had
not yet passed all the golden isles. On the 27th of that month, I find
I made this entry in my note-book: "A soft, hazy day, the year asleep
and dreaming of the Indian summer again. Not a breath of air and not a
ripple on the river. The sunshine is hot as it falls across my table."

But what a terrible winter followed! what a savage chief the fair
Indian maiden gave birth to!

This halcyon period of our autumn will always in some way be associated
with the Indian. It is red and yellow and dusky like him. The smoke of
his camp-fire seems again in the air. The memory of him pervades the
woods. His plumes and moccasins and blanket of skins form just the
costume the season demands. It was doubtless his chosen period. The
gods smiled upon him then if ever. The time of the chase, the season of
the buck and the doe, and of the ripening of all forest fruits; the
time when all men are incipient hunters, when the first frosts have
given pungency to the air, when to be abroad on the hills or in the
woods is a delight that both old and young feel,--if the red aborigine
ever had his summer of fullness and contentment, it must have been at
this season, and it fitly bears his name.

In how many respects fall imitates or parodies the spring!  It is
indeed, in some of its features, a sort of second youth of the year.
Things emerge and become conspicuous again. The trees attract all eyes
as in May. The birds come forth from their summer privacy and parody
their spring reunions and rivalries; some of them sing a little after a
silence of months. The robins, bluebirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, crows,
all sport, and call, and behave in a manner suggestive of spring. The
cock grouse drums in the woods as he did in April and May. The pigeons
reappear, and the wild geese and ducks. The witch-hazel blooms. The
trout spawns. The streams are again full. The air is humid, and the
moisture rises in the ground. Nature is breaking camp, as in spring she
was going into camp. The spring yearning and restlessness is
represented in one by the increased desire to travel.

Spring is the inspiration, fall the expiration.  Both seasons have
their equinoxes, both their filmy, hazy air, their ruddy forest tints,
their cold rains, their drenching fogs, their mystic moons; both have
the same solar light and warmth, the same rays of the sun; yet, after
all, how different the feelings which they inspire! One is the morning,
the other the evening; one is youth, the other is age.

The difference is not merely in us; there is a subtle difference in the
air, and in the influences that emanate upon us from the dumb forms of
nature. All the senses report a difference. The sun seems to have
burned out. One recalls the notion of Herodotus that he is grown
feeble, and retreats to the south because he can no longer face the
cold and the storms from the north. There is a growing potency about
his beams in spring, a waning splendor about them in fall. One is the
kindling fire, the other the subsiding flame.

It is rarely that an artist succeeds in painting unmistakably the
difference between sunrise and sunset; and it is equally a trial of his
skill to put upon canvas the difference between early spring and late
fall, say between April and November. It was long ago observed that the
shadows are more opaque in the morning than in the evening; the
struggle between the light and the darkness more marked, the gloom more
solid, the contrasts more sharp. The rays of the morning sun chisel out
and cut down the shadows in a way those of the setting sun do not. Then
the sunlight is whiter and newer in the morning,--not so yellow and
diffused. A difference akin to this is true of the two seasons I am
speaking of. The spring is the morning sunlight, clear and determined;
the autumn, the afternoon rays, pensive, lessening, golden.

Does not the human frame yield to and sympathize with the seasons?  Are
there not more births in the spring and more deaths in the fall? In the
spring one vegetates; his thoughts turn to sap; another kind of
activity seizes him; he makes new wood which does not harden till past
midsummer. For my part, I find all literary work irksome from April to
August; my sympathies run in other channels; the grass grows where

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