List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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meditation walked. As fall approaches, the currents mount to the head
again. But my thoughts do not ripen well till after there has been a
frost. The burrs will not open much before that. A man's thinking, I
take it, is a kind of combustion, as is the ripening of fruits and
leaves, and he wants plenty of oxygen in the air.

Then the earth seems to have become a positive magnet in the fall; the
forge and anvil of the sun have had their effect. In the spring it is
negative to all intellectual conditions, and drains one of his

To-day, October 21, I found the air in the bushy fields and lanes under
the woods loaded with the perfume of the witch-hazel,--a sweetish,
sickening odor. With the blooming of this bush, Nature says,
"Positively the last." It is a kind of birth in death, of spring in
fall, that impresses one as a little uncanny. All trees and shrubs form
their flower-buds in the fall, and keep the secret till spring. How
comes the witch-hazel to be the one exception, and to celebrate its
floral nuptials on the funeral day of its foliage? No doubt it will be
found that the spirit of some lovelorn squaw has passed into this bush,
and that this is why it blooms in the Indian summer rather than in the
white man's spring.

But it makes the floral series of the woods complete.  Between it and
the shad-blow of earliest spring lies the mountain of bloom; the latter
at the base on one side, this at the base on the other, with the
chestnut blossoms at the top in midsummer.

A peculiar feature of our fall may sometimes be seen of a clear
afternoon late in the season. Looking athwart the fields under the
sinking sun, the ground appears covered with a shining veil of
gossamer. A fairy net, invisible at midday and which the position of
the sun now reveals, rests upon the stubble and upon the spears of
grass, covering acres in extent,--the work of innumerable little
spiders. The cattle walk through it, but do not seem to break it.
Perhaps a fly would make his mark upon it. At the same time, stretching
from the tops of the trees, or from the top of a stake in the fence,
and leading off toward the sky, may be seen the cables of the flying
spider,--a fairy bridge from the visible to the invisible. Occasionally
seen against a deep mass of shadow, and perhaps enlarged by clinging
particles of dust, they show quite plainly and sag down like a
stretched rope, or sway and undulate like a hawser in the tide.

They recall a verse of our rugged poet, Walt Whitman:--

         "A noiseless patient spider,
   I mark'd where, in a little promontory, it stood isolated:
   Mark'd how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
   It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament out of itself;
   Ever unreeling them--ever tireless spreading them.

   "And you, O my soul, where you stand,
   Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
   Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,--
   Seeking the spheres to connect them;
   Till the bridge you will need be formed--till the ductile
         anchor hold;
   Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my

To return a little, September may be described as the month of tall
weeds. Where they have been suffered to stand, along fences, by
roadsides, and in forgotten corners,--redroot, pigweed, ragweed,
vervain, goldenrod, burdock, elecampane, thistles, teasels, nettles,
asters, etc.,--how they lift themselves up as if not afraid to be seen
now! They are all outlaws; every man's hand is against them; yet how
surely they hold their own! They love the roadside, because here they
are comparatively safe; and ragged and dusty, like the common tramps
that they are, they form one of the characteristic features of early

I have often noticed in what haste certain weeds are at times to
produce their seeds. Redroot will grow three or four feet high when it
has the whole season before it; but let it get a late start, let it
come up in August, and it scarcely gets above the ground before it
heads out, and apparently goes to work with all its might and main to
mature its seed. In the growth of most plants or weeds, April and May
represent their root, June and July their stalk, and August and
September their flower and seed. Hence, when the stalk months are
stricken out, as in the present case, there is only time for a shallow
root and a foreshortened head. I think most weeds that get a late start
show this curtailment of stalk, and this solicitude to reproduce
themselves. But I have not observed that any of the cereals are so
worldly wise. They have not had to think and to shift for themselves as
the weeds have. It does indeed look like a kind of forethought in the
redroot. It is killed by the first frost, and hence knows the danger of

How rich in color, before the big show of the tree foliage has
commenced, our roadsides are in places in early autumn,--rich to the
eye that goes hurriedly by and does not look too closely,--with the
profusion of goldenrod and blue and purple asters dashed in upon here
and there with the crimson leaves of the dwarf sumac; and at intervals,
rising out of the fence corner or crowning a ledge of rocks, the dark
green of the cedar with the still fire of the woodbine at its heart. I
wonder if the waysides of other lands present any analogous spectacles
at this season.

Then, when the maples have burst out into color, showing like great
bonfires along the hills, there is indeed a feast for the eye. A maple
before your windows in October, when the sun shines upon it, will make
up for a good deal of the light it has excluded; it fills the room with
a soft goldenglow.

Thoreau, I believe, was the first to remark upon the individuality of
trees of the same species with respect to their foliage,--some maples
ripening their leaves early and some late, and some being of one tint
and some of another; and, moreover, that each tree held to the same
characteristics, year after year. There is, indeed, as great a variety
among the maples as among the trees of an apple orchard; some are
harvest apples, some are fall apples, and some are winter apples, each
with a tint of its own. Those late ripeners are the winter
varieties,--the Rhode Island greenings or swaars of their kind. The red
maple is the early astrachan. Then come the red-streak, the
yellow-sweet, and others. There are windfalls among them, too, as among
the apples, and one side or hemisphere of the leaf is usually brighter
than the other.

The ash has been less noticed for its autumnal foliage than it
deserves. The richest shades of plum-color to be seen--becoming by and
by, or in certain lights, a deep maroon--are afforded by this tree.
Then at a distance there seems to be a sort of bloom on it, as upon the
grape or plum. Amid a grove of yellow maple, it makes a most pleasing

By mid-October, most of the Rip Van Winkles among our brute creatures
have lain down for their winter nap. The toads and turtles have buried
themselves in the earth. The woodchuck is in his hibernaculum, the
skunk in his, the mole in his; and the black bear has his selected, and
will go in when the snow comes. He does not like the looks of his big
tracks in the snow. They publish his goings and comings too plainly.
The coon retires about the same time. The provident wood-mice and the
chipmunk are laying by a winter supply of nuts or grain, the former
usually in decayed trees, the latter in the ground. I have observed
that any unusual disturbance in the woods, near where the chipmunk has
his den, will cause him to shift his quarters. One October, for many
successive days, I saw one carrying into his hole buckwheat which he
had stolen from a near field. The hole was only a few rods from where
we were getting out stone, and as our work progressed, and the racket
and uproar increased, the chipmunk became alarmed. He ceased carrying
in, and after much hesitating and darting about, and some prolonged
absences, he began to carry out; he had determined to move; if the
mountain fell, he, at least, would be away in time. So, by mouthfuls or
cheekfuls, the grain was transferred to a new place. He did not make a
"bee" to get it done, but carried it all himself, occupying several
days, and making a trip about every ten minutes.

The red and gray squirrels do not lay by winter stores; their cheeks
are made without pockets, and whatever they transport is carried in the
teeth. They are more or less active all winter, but October and
November are their festal months. Invade some butternut or hickory-nut
grove on a frosty October morning and hear the red squirrel beat the
"juba" on a horizontal branch. It is a most lively jig, what the boys
call a "regular break-down," interspersed with squeals and snickers and
derisive laughter. The most noticeable peculiarity about the vocal part
of it is the fact that it is a kind of duet. In other words, by some
ventriloquial tricks, he appears to accompany himself, as if his voice
split up, a part forming a low guttural sound, and a part a shrill
nasal sound.

The distant bark of the more wary gray squirrel may be heard about the
same time. There is a teasing and ironical tone in it also, but the
gray squirrel is not the Puck the red is

Insects also go into winter-quarters by or before this time; the
bumble-bee, hornet, and wasp. But here only royalty escapes; the
queen-mother alone foresees the night of winter coming and the morning
of spring beyond. The rest of the tribe try gypsying for a while, but
perish in the first frosts. The present October I surprised the queen
of the yellow-jackets in the woods looking out a suitable retreat. The
royal dame was house-hunting, and, on being disturbed by my inquisitive
poking among the leaves, she got up and flew away with a slow, deep
hum. Her body was unusually distended, whether with fat or eggs I am
unable to say. In September I took down the nest of the black hornet
and found several large queens in it, but the workers had all gone. The
queens were evidently weathering the first frosts and storms here, and
waiting for the Indian summer to go forth and seek a permanent winter
abode. If the covers could be taken off the fields and woods at this
season, how many interesting facts of natural history would be
revealed!--the crickets, ants, bees, reptiles, animals, and, for aught
I know, the spiders and flies asleep or getting ready to sleep in their
winter dormitories; the fires of life banked up, and burning just
enough to keep the spark over till spring.

The fish all run down the stream in the fall except the trout; it runs
up or stays up and spawns in November, the male becoming as brilliantly
tinted as the deepest-dyed maple leaf. I have often wondered why the
trout spawns in the fall, instead of in the spring like other fish. Is
it not because a full supply of clear spring water can be counted on at
that season more than at any other? The brooks are not so liable to be
suddenly muddied by heavy showers, and defiled with the whashings of
the roads and fields, as they are in spring and summer. The artificial
breeder finds that absolute purity of water is necessary to hatch the
spawn; also that shade and a low temperature are indispensable.

Our northern November day itself is like spring water.  It is melted
frost, dissolved snow. There is a chill in it and an exhilaration also.
The forenoon is all morning and the afternoon all evening. The shadows
seem to come forth and to revenge themselves upon the day. The sunlight
is diluted with darkness. The colors fade from the landscape, and only
the sheen of the river lights up the gray and brown distance.


      Lo! sweetened with the summer light,
      The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
      Drops in silent autumn night.

Not a little of the sunshine of our northern winters is surely wrapped
up in the apple. How could we winter over without it! How is life
sweetened by its mild acids! A cellar well filled with apples is more
valuable than a chamber filled with flax and wool. So much sound, ruddy
life to draw upon, to strike one's roots down into, as it were.

Especially to those whose soil of life is inclined to be a little
clayey and heavy, is the apple a winter necessity. It is the natural
antidote of most of the ills the flesh is heir to. Full of vegetable
acids and aromatics, qualities which act as refrigerants and
antiseptics, what an enemy it is to jaundice, indigestion, torpidity of
liver, etc.! It is a gentle spur and tonic to the whole biliary system.
Then I have read that it has been found by analysis to contain more
phosphorus than any other vegetable. This makes it the proper food of
the scholar and the sedentary man; it feeds his brain and it stimulates
his liver. Nor is this all. Besides its hygienic properties, the apple
is full of sugar and mucilage, which make it highly nutritious. It is
said "the operators of Cornwall, England, consider ripe apples nearly
as nourishing as bread, and far more so than potatoes. In the year
1801--which was a year of much scarcity--apples, instead of being
converted into cider, were sold to the poor, and the laborers asserted
that they could 'stand their work' on baked apples without meat;
whereas a potato diet required either meat or some other substantial
nutriment. The French and Germans use apples extensively; so do the
inhabitants of all European nations. The laborers depend upon them as
an article of food, and frequently make a dinner of sliced apples and

Yet the English apple is a tame and insipid affair, compared with the
intense, sun-colored, and sunsteeped fruit our orchards yield. The
English have no sweet apple, I am told, the saccharine element
apparently being less abundant in vegetable nature in that sour and
chilly climate than in our own.

It is well known that the European maple yields no sugar, while both
our birch and hickory have sweet in their veins. Perhaps this fact
accounts for our excessive love of sweets, which may be said to be a
national trait.

The Russian apple has a lovely complexion, smooth and transparent, but
the Cossack is not yet all eliminated from it. The only one I have
seen--the Duchess of Oldenburg--is as beautiful as a Tartar princess,
with a distracting odor, but it is the least bit puckery to the taste.

The best thing I know about Chili is, not its guano beds, but this fact
which I learn from Darwin's "Voyage," namely, that the apple thrives
well there. Darwin saw a town there so completely buried in a wood of
apple-trees, that its streets were merely paths in an orchard. The
tree, indeed, thrives so well, that large branches cut off in the
spring and planted two or three feet deep in the ground send out roots
and develop into fine, fullbearing trees by the third year. The people
know the value of the apple, too. They make cider and wine of it, and
then from the refuse a white and finely flavored spirit; then, by
another process, a sweet treacle is obtained, called honey. The
children and the pigs eat little or no other food. He does not add that

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