Read IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS of Birds in the Bush , free online book, by Bradford Torrey, on

Our music’s in the hills.



It was early in June when I set out for my third visit to the White Mountains, and the ticket-seller and the baggage-master in turn assured me that the Crawford House, which I named as my destination, was not yet open. They spoke, too, in the tone which men use when they mention something which, but for uncommon stupidity, you would have known beforehand. The kindly sarcasm missed its mark, however. I was aware that the hotel was not yet ready for the “general public.” But I said to myself that, for once at least, I was not to be included in that unfashionably promiscuous company. The vulgar crowd must wait, of course. For the present the mountains, in reporters’ language, were “on private view;” and despite the ignorance of railway officials, I was one of the elect. In plainer phrase, I had in my pocket a letter from the manager of the famous inn before mentioned, in which he promised to do what he could for my entertainment, even though he was not yet, as he said, keeping a hotel.

Possibly I made too much of a small matter; but it pleased me to feel that this visit of mine was to be of a peculiarly intimate character,-almost, indeed, as if Mount Washington himself had bidden me to private audience.

Compelled to wait three or four hours in North Conway, I improved the opportunity to stroll once more down into the lovely Saco meadows, whose “green felicity” was just now at its height. Here, perched upon a fence-rail, in the shadow of an elm, I gazed at the snow-crowned Mount Washington range, while the bobolinks and savanna sparrows made music on every side. The song of the bobolinks dropped from above, and the microphonic tune of the sparrows came up from the grass,-sky and earth keeping holiday together. Almost I could have believed myself in Eden. But, alas, even the birds themselves were long since shut out of that garden of innocence, and as I started back toward the village a crow went hurrying past me, with a kingbird in hot pursuit. The latter was more fortunate than usual, or more plucky; actually alighting on the crow’s back and riding for some distance. I could not distinguish his motions,-he was too far away for that,-but I wished him joy of his victory, and grace to improve it to the full. For it is scandalous that a bird of the crow’s cloth should be a thief; and so, although I reckon him among my friends,-in truth, because I do so,-I am always able to take it patiently when I see him chastised for his fault. Imperfect as we all know each other to be, it is a comfort to feel that few of us are so altogether bad as not to take more or less pleasure in seeing a neighbor’s character improved under a course of moderately painful discipline.

At Bartlett word came that the passenger car would go no further, but that a freight train would soon start, on which, if I chose, I could continue my journey. Accordingly, I rode up through the Notch on a platform car,-a mode of conveyance which I can heartily and in all good conscience recommend. There is no crowd of exclaiming tourists, the train of necessity moves slowly, and the open platform offers no obstruction to the view. For a time I had a seat, which after a little two strangers ventured to occupy with me; for “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” and there happened to be on the car one piece of baggage,-a coffin, inclosed in a pine box. Our sitting upon it could not harm either it or us; nor did we wean any disrespect to the man, whoever he might be, whose body was to be buried in it. Judging the dead charitably, as in duty bound, I had no doubt he would have been glad if he could have seen his “narrow house” put to such a use. So we made ourselves comfortable with it, until, at an invisible station, it was taken off. Then we were obliged to stand, or to retreat into a miserable small box-car behind us. The platform would lurch a little now and then, and I, for one, was not experienced as a “train hand;” but we all kept our places till the Frankenstein trestle was reached. Here, where for five hundred feet we could look down upon the jagged rocks eighty feet below us, one of the trio suddenly had an errand into the box-car aforesaid, leaving the platform to the other stranger and me. All in all, the ride through the Notch had never before been so enjoyable, I thought; and late in the evening I found myself once again at the Crawford House, and in one of the best rooms,-as well enough I might be, being the only guest in the house.

The next morning, before it was really light, I was lying awake looking at Mount Webster, while through the open window came the loud, cheery song of the white-throated sparrows. The hospitable creatures seemed to be inviting me to come at once into their woods; but I knew only too well that, if the invitation were accepted, they would every one of them take to hiding like bashful children.

The white-throat is one of the birds for whom I cherish a special liking. On my first trip to the mountains I jumped off the train for a moment at Bartlett, and had hardly touched the ground before I heard his familiar call. Here, then, was Mr. Peabody at home. Season after season he had camped near me in Massachusetts, and many a time I had been gladdened by his lively serenade; now he greeted me from his own native woods. So far as my observations have gone, he is common throughout the mountain region; and that in spite of the standard guide-book, which puts him down as patronizing the Glen House almost exclusively. He knows the routes too well to need any guide, however, and may be excused for his ignorance of the official programme. It is wonderful how shy he is,-the more wonderful, because, during his migrations, his manner is so very different. Then, even in a city park you may watch him at your leisure, while his loud, clear whistle is often to be heard rising above a din of horse-cars and heavy wagons. But here, in his summer quarters, you will listen to his song a hundred times before you once catch a glimpse of the singer. At first thought it seems strange that a bird should be most at home when he is away from home; but in the one case he has nothing but his own safety to consult, while in the other he is thinking of those whose lives are more to him than his own, and whose hiding-place he is every moment on the alert to conceal.

In Massachusetts we do not expect to find sparrows in deep woods. They belong in fields and pastures, in roadside thickets, or by fence-rows and old stone-walls bordered with barberry bushes and alders. But these white-throats are children of the wilderness. It is one charm of their music that it always comes, or seems to come, from such a distance,-from far up the mountain-side, or from the inaccessible depths of some ravine. I shall not soon forget its wild beauty as it rose out of the spruce forests below me, while I was enjoying an evening promenade, all by myself, over the long, flat summit of Moosilauke. From his habit of singing late at night this sparrow is in some places known as the nightingale. His more common name is the Peabody bird; while a Jefferson man, who was driving me over the Cherry Mountain road, called him the Peverly bird, and told me the following story:-

A farmer named Peverly was walking about his fields one spring morning, trying to make up his mind whether the time had come to put in his wheat. The question was important, and he was still in a deep quandary, when a bird spoke up out of the wood and said, “Sow wheat, Peverly, Peverly, Peverly!-Sow wheat, Peverly, Peverly, Peverly!” That settled the matter. The wheat was sown, and in the fall a most abundant harvest was gathered; and ever since then this little feathered oracle has been known as the Peverly bird.

We have improved on the custom of the ancients: they examined a bird’s entrails; we listen to his song. Who says the Yankee is not wiser than the Greek?

But I was lying abed in the Crawford House when the voice of Zonotrichia albicollis sent my thoughts thus astray, from Moosilauke to Delphi. That day and the two following were passed in roaming about the woods near the hotel. The pretty painted trillium was in blossom, as was also the dark purple species, and the hobble-bush showed its broad white cymes in all directions. Here and there was the modest little spring beauty (Claytonia Caroliniana), and not far from the Elephant’s Head I discovered my first and only patch of dicentra, with its delicate dissected leaves and its oddly shaped petals of white and pale yellow. The false mitrewort (Tiarella cordifolia) was in flower likewise, and the spur which is cut off Mount Willard by the railroad was all aglow with rhodora,-a perfect flower-garden, on the monochromatic plan now so much in vogue. Along the edge of the rocks on the summit of Mount Willard a great profusion of the common saxifrage was waving in the fresh breeze:

“Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

On the lower parts of the mountains, the foliage was already well out, while the upper parts were of a fine purplish tint, which at first I was unable to account for, but which I soon discovered to be due to the fact that the trees at that height were still only in bud.

A notable feature of the White Mountain forests is the absence of oaks and hickories. These tough, hard woods would seem to have been created on purpose to stand against wind and cold. But no; the hills are covered with the fragile poplars and birches and spruces, with never an oak or hickory among them. I suspect, indeed, that it is the very softness of the former which gives them their advantage. For this, as I suppose, is correlated with rapid growth; and where the summer is very short, speed may count for more than firmness of texture, especially during the first one or two years of the plant’s life. Trees, like men, lose in one way what they gain in another; or, in other words, they “have the defects of their qualities.” Probably Paul’s confession, “When I am weak, then am I strong,” is after all only the personal statement of a general law, as true of a poplar as of a Christian. For we all believe (do we not?) that the world is a universe, governed throughout by one Mind, so that whatever holds in one part is good everywhere.

But it was June, and the birds, who were singing from daylight till dark, would have the most of my attention. It was pleasant to find here two comparatively rare warblers, of whom I had before had only casual glimpses,-the mourning warbler and the bay-breasted. The former was singing his loud but commonplace ditty within a few rods of the piazza on one side of the house, while his congener, the Maryland yellow-throat, was to be heard on the other side, along with the black-cap (Dendroeca striata), the black-and-yellow, and the Canadian flycatcher. The mourning warbler’s song, as I heard it, was like this: Whit whit whit, wit wit. The first three notes were deliberate and loud, on one key, and without accent. The last two were pitched a little lower, and were shorter, with the accent on the first of the pair; they were thinner in tone than the opening triplet, as is meant to be indicated by the difference of spelling. Others of the family were the golden-crowned thrush, the small-billed water-thrush, the yellow-rumped, the Blackburnian (with his characteristic zillup, zillup, zillup), the black-throated green, the black-throated blue (the last with his loud, coarse kree, kree, kree), the redstart, and the elegant blue yellow-back. Altogether, they were a gorgeous company.

But the chief singers were the olive-backed thrushes and the winter wrens. I should be glad to know on just what principle the olive-backs and their near relatives, the hermits, distribute themselves throughout the mountain region. Each species seems to have its own sections, to which it returns year after year, and the olive-backed, being, as is well known, the more northern species of the two, naturally prefers the more elevated situations. I have found the latter abundant near the Profile House, and for three seasons it has had exclusive possession of the White Mountain Notch,-so far, at least, as I have been able to discover. The hermits, on the other hand, frequent such places as North Conway, Gorham, Jefferson, Bethlehem, and the vicinity of the Flume. Only once have I found the two species in the same neighborhood. That was near the Breezy Point House, on the side of Mount Moosilauke; but this place is so peculiarly romantic, with its noble amphitheatre of hills, that I could not wonder neither species was willing to yield the ground entirely to the other; and even here it was to be noticed that the hermits were in or near the sugar-grove, while the Swainsons were in the forest, far off in an opposite direction.

It is these birds, if any, whose music reaches the ears of the ordinary mountain tourist. Every man who is known among his acquaintances to have a little knowledge of such things is approached now and then with the question, “What bird was it, Mr. So-and-So, that I heard singing up in the mountains? I didn’t see him; he was always ever so far off; but his voice was wonderful, so sweet and clear and loud!” As a rule it may safely be taken for granted that such interrogatories refer either to the Swainson thrush or to the hermit. The inquirer is very likely disposed to be incredulous when he is told that there are birds in his own woods whose voice is so like that of his admired New Hampshire songster that, if he were to hear the two together, he would not at first be able to tell the one from the other. He has never heard them, he protests; which is true enough, for he never goes into the woods of his own town, or, if by chance he does, he leaves his ears behind him in the shop. His case is not peculiar. Men and women gaze enraptured at New Hampshire sunsets. How glorious they are, to be sure! What a pity the sun does not sometimes set in Massachusetts!

As a musician the olive-back is certainly inferior to the hermit, and, according to my taste, he is surpassed also by the wood thrush and the Wilson; but he is a magnificent singer, for all that, and when he is heard in the absence of the others it is often hard to believe that any one of them could do better. A good idea of the rhythm and length of his song may be gained by pronouncing somewhat rapidly the words, “I love, I love, I love you,” or, as it sometimes runs, “I love, I love, I love you truly.” How literal this translation is I am not scholar enough to determine, but without question it gives the sense substantially.

The winter wrens were less numerous than the thrushes, I think, but, like them, they sang at all hours of the day, and seemed to be well distributed throughout the woods. We can hardly help asking how it is that two birds so very closely related as the house wren and the winter wren should have been chosen haunts so extremely diverse,-the one preferring door-yards in thickly settled villages, the other keeping strictly to the wildest of all wild places. But whatever the explanation, we need not wish the fact itself different. Comparatively few ever hear the winter wren’s song, to be sure (for you will hardly get it from a hotel piazza), but it is not the less enjoyed on that account. There is such a thing as a bird’s making himself too common; and probably it is true even of the great prima donna that it is not those who live in the house with her who find most pleasure in her music. Moreover, there is much in time and circumstance. You hear a song in the village street, and pass along unmoved; but stand in the silence of the forest, with your feet in a bed of creeping snowberry and oxalis, and the same song goes to your very soul.

The great distinction of the winter wren’s melody is its marked rhythm and accent, which give it a martial, fife-like character. Note tumbles over note in the true wren manner, and the strain comes to an end so suddenly that for the first few times you are likely to think that the bird has been interrupted. In the middle is a long in-drawn note, much like one of the canary’s. The odd little creature does not get far away from the ground. I have never seen him sing from a living tree or bush, but always from a stump or a log, or from the root or branch of an overturned tree,-from something, at least, of nearly his own color. The song is intrinsically one of the most beautiful, and in my ears it has the further merit of being forever associated with reminiscences of ramblings among the White Hills. How well I remember an early morning hour at Profile Lake, when it came again and again across the water from the woods on Mount Cannon, under the Great Stone Face!

Whichever way I walked, I was sure of the society of the snow-birds. They hopped familiarly across the railroad track in front of the Crawford House, and on the summit of Mount Washington were scurrying about among the rocks, opening and shutting their pretty white-bordered fans. Half-way up Mount Willard I sat down to rest on a stone, and after a minute or two out dropped a snow-bird at my feet, and ran across the road, trailing her wings. I looked under the bank for her nest, but, to my surprise, could find nothing of it. So I made sure of knowing the place again, and continued my tramp. Returning two hours later, I sat down upon the same bowlder, and watched for the bird to appear as before; but she had gathered courage from my former failure,-or so it seemed,-and I waited in vain till I rapped upon the ground over her head. Then she scrambled out and limped away, repeating her innocent but hackneyed ruse. This time I was resolved not to be baffled. The nest was there, and I would find it. So down on my knees I got, and scrutinized the whole place most carefully. But though I had marked the precise spot, there was no sign of a nest. I was about giving over the search ignominiously, when I descried a slight opening between the overhanging roof of the bank and a layer of earth which some roots held in place close under it. Into this slit I inserted my fingers, and there, entirely out of sight, was the nest full of eggs. No man could ever have found it, had the bird been brave and wise enough to keep her seat. However, I had before this noticed that the snow-bird, while often extremely clever in choosing a building site, is seldom very skillful in keeping a secret. I saw him one day standing on the side of the same Mount Willard road, gesticulating and scolding with all his might, as much, as to say, “Please don’t stop here! Go straight along, I beg of you! Our nest is right under this bank!” And one glance under the bank showed that I had not misinterpreted his demonstrations. For all that, I do not feel like taking a lofty tone in passing judgment upon Junco. He is not the only one whose wisdom is mixed with foolishness. There is at least one other person of whom the same is true,-a person of whom I have nevertheless a very good opinion, and with whom I am, or ought to be, better acquainted than I am with any animal that wears feathers.

The prettiest snow-bird’s nest I ever saw was built beside the Crawford bridle path, on Mount Clinton, just before the path comes out of the woods at the top. It was lined with hair-moss (a species of Polytrichum) of a bright orange color, and with its four or five white, lilac-spotted eggs made so attractive a picture that I was constrained to pause a moment to look at it, even though I had three miles of a steep, rough footpath to descend, with a shower threatening to overtake me before I could reach the bottom. I wondered whether the architects really possessed an eye for color, or had only stumbled upon this elegant bit of decoration. On the whole, it seemed more charitable to conclude the former; and not only more charitable, but more scientific as well. For, if I understand the matter aright, Mr. Darwin and his followers have settled upon the opinion that birds do display an unmistakable fondness for bright tints; that, indeed, the males of many species wear brilliant plumage for no other reason than that their mates prefer them in that dress. Moreover, if a bird in New South Wales adorns her bower with shells and other ornaments, why may not our little Northern darling beautify her nest with such humbler materials as her surroundings offer? On reflection, I am more and more convinced that the birds knew what they were doing; probably the female the moment she discovered the moss, called to her mate, “Oh, look, how lovely! Do, my dear, let’s line our nest with it!”

This artistic structure was found on the anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill, a day which I had been celebrating, as best I could, by climbing the highest hill in New England. Plunging into the woods within fifty yards of the Crawford House, I had gone up and up, and on and on, through a magnificent forest, and then over more magnificent rocky heights, until I stood at last on the platform of the hotel at the summit. True, the path, which I had never traveled before, was wet and slippery, with stretches of ice and snow here and there; but the shifting view was so grand, the atmosphere so bracing, and the solitude so impressive that I enjoyed every step, till it came to clambering up the Mount Washington cone over the bowlders. At this point, to speak frankly, I began to hope that the ninth mile would prove to be a short one. The guide-books are agreed in warning the visitor against making this ascent without a companion, and no doubt they are right in so doing. A crippling accident would almost inevitably be fatal, while for several miles the trail is so indistinct that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to follow it in a fog. And yet, if one is willing to take the risk (and is not so unfortunate as never to have learned how to keep himself company), he will find a very considerable compensation in the peculiar pleasure to be experienced in being absolutely alone above the world. For myself, I was shut up to going in this way or not going at all; and a Bostonian must do something patriotic on the Seventeenth of June. But for all that, if the storm which chased me down the mountains in the afternoon, clouding first Mount Washington and then Mount Pleasant behind me, and shutting me in-doors all the next day, had started an hour sooner, or if I had been detained an hour later, it is not impossible that I might now be writing in a different strain.

My reception at the top was none of the heartiest. The hotel was tightly closed, while a large snow-bank stood guard before the door. However, I invited myself into the Signal Service Station, and made my wants known to one of the officers, who very kindly spread a table with such things as he and his companions had just been eating. It would be out of place to say much about the luncheon: the bread and butter were good, and the pudding was interesting. I had the cook’s word for it that the latter was made of corn-starch, but he volunteered no explanation of its color, which was nearly that of chocolate. As a working hypothesis I adopted the molasses or brown-sugar theory, but a brief experiment (as brief as politeness permitted) indicated a total absence of any saccharine principle. But then, what do we climb mountains for, if not to see something out of the common course? On the whole, if this department of our national government is ever on trial for extravagance in the matter of high living, I shall be moved to offer myself as a competent witness for the defense.

A company of chimney-swifts were flying criss-cross over the summit, and one of the men said that he presumed they lived there. I took the liberty to doubt his opinion, however. To me it seemed nothing but a blunder that they should be there even for an hour. There could hardly be many insects at that height, I thought, and I had abundant cause to know that the woods below were full of them. I knew, also, that the swifts knew it; for while I had been prowling about between Crawford’s and Fabyan’s, they had several times shot by my head so closely that I had instinctively fallen to calculating the probable consequences of a collision. But, after all, the swift is no doubt a far better entomologist than I am, though he has never heard of Packard’s Guide. Possibly there are certain species of insects, and those of a peculiarly delicate savor, which are to be obtained only at about this altitude.

The most enjoyable part of the Crawford path is the five miles from the top of Mount Clinton to the foot of the Mount Washington cone. Along this ridge I was delighted to find in blossom two beautiful Alpine plants, which I had missed in previous (July) visits,-the diapensia (Diapensia Lapponica) and the Lapland rose-bay (Rhododendron Lapponicum),-and to get also a single forward specimen of Potentilla frigida. Here and there was a humblebee, gathering honey from the small purple catkins of the prostrate willows, now in full bloom. (Rather high-minded humblebees, they seemed, more than five thousand feet above the sea!) Professional entomologists (the chimney-swift, perhaps, included) may smile at my simplicity, but I was surprised to find this animated torrid zone, this insect lover of the sun, in such a Greenland climate. Did he not know that his own poet had, described him as hot midsummers petted crone? But possibly he was equally surprised at my appearance. He might even have taken his turn at quoting Emerson:-

“Pants up hither the spruce clerk
From South Cove and City Wharf"?

Of the two, he was unquestionably the more at home, for he was living where in forty-eight hours I should have found my death. So much is Bombus better than a man.

In a little pool of water, which seemed to be nothing but a transient puddle caused by the melting snow, was a tiny fish. I asked him by what miracle he got there, but he could give no explanation. He, too, might well enough have joined the noble company of Emersonians:-

“I never thought to ask, I never knew;
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me here brought you.”

Almost at the very top of Mount Clinton I was saluted by the familiar ditty of the Nashville warbler. I could hardly believe my ears; but there was no mistake, for the bird soon appeared in plain sight. Had it been one of the hardier-seeming species, the yellow-rumped for example, I should not have thought it very strange; but this dainty Helminthophaga, so common in the vicinity of Boston, did appear to be out of his latitude, summering here on Alpine heights. With a good pair of wings, and the whole continent to choose from, he surely might have found some more congenial spot than this in which to bring up his little family. I took his presence to be only an individual freak, but a subsequent visitor, who made the ascent from the Glen, reported the same species on that side also, and at about the same height.

These signs of life on bleak mountain ridges are highly interesting and suggestive. The fish, the humblebees, the birds, and a mouse which scampered away to its hole amid the rocks,-all these might have found better living elsewhere. But Nature will have her world full. Stunted life is better than none, she thinks. So she plants her forests of spruces, and keeps them growing, where, with all their efforts, they cannot get above the height of a man’s knee. There is no beauty about them, no grace. They sacrifice symmetry and everything else for the sake of bare existence, reminding one of Satan’s remark, “All that a man hath will he give for his life.”

Very admirable are the devices by which vegetation maintains itself against odds. Everybody notices that many of the mountain species, like the diapensia, the rose-bay, the Greenland sandwort (called the mountain daisy by the Summit House people, for some inscrutable reason), and the phyllodoce, have blossoms disproportionately large and handsome; as if they realized that, in order to attract their indispensable allies, the insects, to these inhospitable regions, they must offer them some special inducements. Their case is not unlike that of a certain mountain hotel which might be named, which happens to be poorly situated, but which keeps itself full, nevertheless, by the peculiar excellence of its cuisine.

It does not require much imagination to believe that these hardy vegetable mountaineers love their wild, desolate dwelling-places as truly as do the human residents of the region. An old man in Bethlehem told me that sometimes, during the long, cold winter, he felt that perhaps it would be well for him, now his work was done, to sell his “place” and go down to Boston to live, near his brother. “But then,” he added, “you know it’s dangerous transplanting an old tree; you’re likely as not to kill it.” Whatever we have, in this world, we must pay for with the loss of something else. The bitter must be taken with the sweet, be we plants, animals, or men. These thoughts recurred to me a day or two later, as I lay on the summit of Mount Agassiz, in the sun and out of the wind, gazing down into the Franconia Valley, then in all its June beauty. Nestled under the lee of the mountain, but farther from the base, doubtless, than it seemed from my point of view, was a small dwelling, scarcely better than a shanty. Two or three young children were playing about the door, and near them was the man of the house splitting wood. The air was still enough for me to hear every blow, although it reached me only as the axe was again over the man’s head, ready for the next descent. It was a charming picture,-the broad, green valley full of sunshine and peace, and the solitary cottage, from whose doorstep might be seen in one direction the noble Mount Washington range, and in another the hardly less noble Franconias. How easy to live simply and well in such a grand seclusion! But soon there came a thought of Wordsworth’s sonnet, addressed to just such a mood, “Yes, there is holy pleasure in thine eye,” and I felt at once the truth of his admonition. What if the cottage really were mine,-mine to spend a lifetime in? How quickly the poetry would turn to prose!

An hour afterwards, on my way back to the Sinclair House, I passed a group of men at work on the highway. One of them was a little apart from the rest, and out of a social impulse I accosted him with the remark, “I suppose, in heaven, the streets never will need mending.” Quick as thought came the reply: “Well, I hope not. If I ever get there, I don’t want to work on the road.” Here spoke universal human nature, which finds its strong argument for immortality in its discontent with matters as they now are. The one thing we are all sure of is that we were born for something better than our present employment; and even those who school themselves most religiously in the virtue of contentment know very well how to define that grace so as not to exclude from it a comfortable mixture of “divine dissatisfaction.” Well for us if we are still able to stand in our place and do faithfully our allotted task, like the mountain spruces and the Bethlehemite road-mender.