List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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his scornful, defiant whir-r-r-r-r. Hardy, happy outlaws, the crows,
how I love them! Alert, social, republican, always able to look out for
himself, not afraid of the cold and the snow, fishing when flesh is
scarce, and stealing when other resources fail, the crow is a character
I would not willingly miss from the landscape. I love to see his track
in the snow or the mud, and his graceful pedestrianism about the brown

He is no interloper, but has the air and manner of being thoroughly at
home, and in rightful possession of the land. He is no sentimentalist
like some of the plaining, disconsolate song-birds, but apparently is
always in good health and good spirits. No matter who is sick, or
dejected, or unsatisfied, or what the weather is, or what the price of
corn, the crow is well and finds life sweet. He is the dusky embodiment
of worldly wisdom and prudence. Then he is one of Nature's
self-appointed constables and greatly magnifies his office. He would
fain arrest every hawk or owl or grimalkin that ventures abroad. I have
known a posse of them to beset the fox and cry "Thief!" till Reynard
hid himself for shame. Do I say the fox flattered the crow when he told
him he had a sweet voice? Yet one of the most musical sounds in nature
proceeds from the crow. All the crow tribe, from the blue jay up, are
capable of certain low ventriloquial notes that have peculiar cadence
and charm. I often hear the crow indulging in his in winter, and am
reminded of the sound of the dulcimer. The bird stretches up and exerts
himself like a cock in the act of crowing, and gives forth a peculiarly
clear, vitreous sound that is sure to arrest and reward your attention.
This is no doubt the song the fox begged to be favored with, as in
delivering it the crow must inevitably let drop the piece of meat.

The crow in his purity, I believe, is seen and heard only in the North.
Before you reach the Potomac there is an infusion of a weaker element,
the fish crow, whose helpless feminine call contrasts strongly with the
hearty masculine caw of the original Simon.

In passing from crows to colored men, I hope I am not guilty of any
disrespect toward the latter. In my walks about Washington, both winter
and summer, colored men are about the only pedestrians I meet; and I
meet them everywhere, in the fields and in the woods and in the public
road, swinging along with that peculiar, rambling, elastic gait, taking
advantage of the short cuts and threading the country with paths and
byways. I doubt if the colored man can compete with his white brother
as a walker; his foot is too flat and the calves of his legs too small,
but he is certainly the most picturesque traveler to be seen on the
road. He bends his knees more than the white man, and oscillates more
to and fro, or from side to side. The imaginary line which his head
describes is full of deep and long undulations. Even the boys and young
men sway as if bearing a burden.

Along the fences and by the woods I come upon their snares, dead-falls,
and rud box-traps. The freedman is a successful trapper and hunter, and
has by nature an insight into these things. I frequently see him in
market or on his way thither with a tame 'possum clinging timidly to
his shoulders, or a young coon or fox led by a chain. Indeed, the
colored man behaves precisely like the rude unsophisticated peasant
that he is, and there is fully as much virtue in him, using the word in
its true sense, as in the white peasant; indeed, much more than in the
poor whites who grew up by his side; while there is often a benignity
and a depth of human experience and sympathy about some of these dark
faces that comes home to one like the best one sees in art or reads in

One touch of nature makes all the world akin, and there is certainly a
touch of nature about the colored man; indeed, I had almost said, of
Anglo-Saxon nature. They have the quaintness and homeliness of the
simple English stock. I seem to see my grandfather and grandmother in
the ways and doings of these old "uncles" and "aunties;" indeed, the
lesson comes nearer home than even that, for I seem to see myself in
them, and, what is more, I see that they see themselves in me, and that
neither party has much to boast of.

The negro is a plastic human creature, and is thoroughly domesticated
and thoroughly anglicized. The same cannot be said of the Indian, for
instance, between whom and us there can never exist any fellowship, any
community of feeling or interest; or is there any doubt but the
Chinaman will always remain to us the same impenetrable mystery he has
been from the first?

But there is no mystery about the negro, and he touches the Anglo-Saxon
at more points than the latter is always willing to own, taking as
kindly and naturally to all his customs and usages, yea, to all his
prejudices and superstitions, as if to the manner born. The colored
population in very many respects occupies the same position as that
occupied by our rural populations a generation or two ago, seeing signs
and wonders, haunted by the fear of ghosts and hobgoblins, believing in
witchcraft, charms, the evil eye, etc. In religious matters, also, they
are on the same level, and about the only genuine shouting Methodists
that remain are to be found in the colored churches. Indeed, I fear the
negro tries to ignore or forget himself as far as possible, and that he
would deem it felicity enough to play second fiddle to the white man
all his days. He liked his master, but he likes the Yankee better, not
because he regards him as his deliverer, but mainly because the
two-handed thrift of the Northerner, his varied and wonderful ability,
completely captivates the imagination of the black man, just learning
to shift for himself.

How far he has caught or is capable of being imbued with the Yankee
spirit of enterprise and industry, remains to be seen. In some things
he has already shown himself an apt scholar. I notice, for instance,
that he is about as industrious an office-seeker as the most patriotic
among us, and that he learns with amazing ease and rapidity all the
arts and wiles of the politicians. He is versed in parades, mass
meetings, caucuses, and will soon shine on the stump. I observe, also,
that he is not far behind us in the observance of the fashions, and
that he is as good a church-goer, theatre-goer, and pleasure-seeker
generally, as his means will allow.

As a bootblack or newsboy, he is an adept in all the tricks of the
trade; and as a fast young man about town among his kind, he is worthy
his white prototype: the swagger, the impertinent look, the coarse
remark, the loud laugh, are all in the best style. As a lounger and
starer also, on the street corners of a Sunday afternoon, he has taken
his degree.

On the other hand, I know cases among our colored brethren, plenty of
them, of conscientious and well-directed effort and industry in the
worthiest fields, in agriculture, in trade, in the mechanic arts, that
show the colored man has in him all the best rudiments of a citizen of
the States.

Lest my winter sunshine appear to have too many dark rays in
it,--buzzards, crows, and colored men,--I hasten to add the brown and
neutral tints; and maybe a red ray can be extracted from some of these
hard, smooth, sharp-gritted roads that radiate from the National
Capital. Leading out of Washington there are several good roads that
invite the pedestrian. There is the road that leads west or northwest
from Georgetown, the Tenallytown road, the very sight of which, on a
sharp, lustrous winter Sunday, makes the feet tingle. Where it cuts
through a hill or high knoll, it is so red it fairly glows in the
sunlight. I'll warrant you will kindle, and your own color will mount,
if you resign yourself to it. It will conduct you to the wild and rocky
scenery of the upper Potomac, to Great Falls, and on to Harper's Ferry,
if your courage holds out. Then there is the road that leads north over
Meridian Hill, across Piny Branch, and on through the wood of Crystal
Springs to Fort Stevens, and so into Maryland. This is the proper route
for an excursion in the spring to gather wild flowers, or in the fall
for a nutting expedition, as it lays open some noble woods and a great
variety of charming scenery; or for a musing moonlight saunter, say in
December, when the Enchantress has folded and folded the world in her
web, it is by all means the course to take. Your staff rings on the
hard ground; the road, a misty white belt, gleams and vanishes before
you; the woods are cavernous and still; the fields lie in a lunar
trance, and you will yourself return fairly mesmerized by the beauty of
the scene.

Or you can bend your steps eastward over the Eastern Branch, up Good
Hope Hill, and on till you strike the Marlborough pike, as a trio of us
did that cold February Sunday we walked from Washington to Pumpkintown
and back.

A short sketch of this pilgrimage is a fair sample of these winter

The delight I experienced in making this new acquisition to my
geography was of itself sufficient to atone for any aches or weariness
I may have felt. The mere fact that one may walk from Washington to
Pumpkintown was a discovery I had been all these years in making. I had
walked to Sligo, and to the Northwest Branch, and had made the Falls of
the Potomac in a circuitous route of ten miles, coming suddenly upon
the river in one of its wildest passes; but I little dreamed all the
while that there, in a wrinkle (or shall I say furrow?) of the Maryland
hills, almost visible from the outlook of the bronze squaw on the dome
of the Capitol, and just around the head of Oxen Run, lay Pumpkintown.

The day was cold but the sun was bright, and the foot took hold of
those hard, dry, gritty Maryland roads with the keenest relish. How the
leaves of the laurel glistened! The distant oak woods suggested
gray-blue smoke, while the recesses of the pines looked like the lair
of Night. Beyond the District limits we struck the Marlborough pike,
which, round and hard and white, held squarely to the east and was
visible a mile ahead. Its friction brought up the temperature amazingly
and spurred the pedestrians into their best time. As I trudged along,
Thoreau's lines came naturally to mind:--

       "When the spring stirs my blood
         With the instinct of travel,

       I can get enough gravel
         On the old Marlborough road."

Cold as the day was (many degrees below freezing), I heard and saw
bluebirds, and as we passed along, every sheltered tangle and overgrown
field or lane swarmed with snowbirds and sparrows,--the latter mainly
Canada or tree sparrows, with a sprinkling of the song, and, maybe, one
or two other varieties. The birds are all social and gregarious in
winter, and seem drawn together by common instinct. Where you find one,
you will not only find others of the same kind, but also several
different kinds. The regular winter residents go in little bands, like
a well-organized pioneer corps,--the jays and woodpeckers in advance,
doing the heavier work; the nuthatches next, more lightly armed; and
the creepers and kinglets, with their slender beaks and microscopic
eyes, last of all. [Footnote: It seems to me this is a borrowed
observation, but I do not know to whom to credit it.]

Now and then, among the gray and brown tints, there was a dash of
scarlet,--the cardinal grosbeak, whose presence was sufficient to
enliven any scene. In the leafless trees, as a ray of sunshine fell
upon him, he was visible a long way off, glowing like a crimson
spar,--the only bit of color in the whole landscape.

Maryland is here rather a level, unpicturesque country,--the gaze of
the traveler bounded, at no great distance, by oak woods, with here and
there a dark line of pine. We saw few travelers, passed a ragged squad
or two of colored boys and girls, and met some colored women on their
way to or from church, perhaps. Never ask a colored person--at least
the crude, rustic specimens--any question that involves a memory of
names, or any arbitrary signs; you will rarely get a satisfactory
answer. If you could speak to them in their own dialect, or touch the
right spring in their minds, you would, no doubt, get the desired
information. They are as local in their notions and habits as the
animals, and go on much the same principles, as no doubt we all do,
more or less. I saw a colored boy come into a public office one day,
and ask to see a man with red hair; the name was utterly gone from him.
The man had red whiskers, which was as near as he had come to the mark.
Ask your washerwoman what street she lives on, or where such a one has
moved to, and the chances are that she cannot tell you, except that it
is a "right smart distance" this way or that, or near Mr. So-and-so, or
by such and such a place, describing some local feature. I love to
amuse myself, when walking through the market, by asking the old
aunties, and the young aunties, too, the names of their various
"yarbs." It seems as if they must trip on the simplest names. Bloodroot
they generally call "grubroot;" trailing arbutus goes by the names of
"troling" arbutus, "training arbuty-flower," and ground "ivory;" in
Virginia they call woodchucks "moonacks."

On entering Pumpkintown--a cluster of five or six small, whitewashed
blockhouses, toeing squarely on the highway--the only inhabitant we saw
was a small boy, who was as frank and simple as if he had lived on
pumpkins and marrow squashes all his days.

Half a mile farther on, we turned to the right into a characteristic
Southern road,--a way entirely unkempt, and wandering free as the wind;
now fading out into a broad field; now contracting into a narrow track
between hedges; anon roaming with delightful abandon through swamps and
woods, asking no leave and keeping no bounds. About two o'clock we
stopped in an opening in a pine wood and ate our lunch. We had the good
fortune to hit upon a charming place. A wood-chopper had been there,
and let in the sunlight full and strong; and the white chips, the
newly-piled wood, and the mounds of green boughs, were welcome
features, and helped also to keep off the wind that would creep through
under the pines. The ground was soft and dry, with a carpet an inch
thick of pine-needles; and with a fire, less for warmth than to make
the picture complete, we ate our bread and beans with the keenest
satisfaction, and with a relish that only the open air can give.

A fire, of course,--an encampment in the woods at this season without a
fire would be like leaving Hamlet out of the play. A smoke is your
standard, your flag; it defines and locates your camp at once; you are
an interloper until you have made a fire; then you take possession;
then the trees and rocks seem to look upon you more kindly, and you
look more kindly upon them. As one opens his budget, so he opens his
heart by a fire. Already something has gone out from you, and comes
back as a faint reminiscence and home feeling in the air and place. One
looks out upon the crow or the buzzard that sails by as from his own
fireside. It is not I that am a wanderer and a stranger now; it is the

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