Huddersfield Chronicle (11/May/1895) - The Frost, the Snow, and the Wintry Woods
THE FROST, THE SNOW, AND THE WINTRY WOODS.
(From Our Correspondent "Cid.")
Or what is there in any language, or thought, or in imagination that will compare with these delightfully delicate and charmingly sweet lines? Surely there is nothing finer in any tongue, and they will bear quoting and re-quoting for ever:—
- A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
- It’s loveliness increases; it will never
- Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
- A bower quiet over us, and a sleep
- Full of sweet dreams and health, and quiet breathing.
Yes, such is the story that this scene tells. Its loveliness increases, and in its solitude there is, indeed, “quiet breathing” beneath its bowers, as well as sweet health and day-dream reveries. There is eloquence of the great past in the perpetuation of the living present, in the active or sleeping life of this woodland. Here the present is linked with the past by dead autumn’s decay, in winter’s sleep, in the world of living things which hybernate or brave the rigor of the season, while all manifest themselves as belonging to one vast universal system of design and progression. As I pass through and among the trees I notice here and there fresh patches of russet peeping above the snow, while the naked branches of the beech, the oak, and the silvery birch trim the sky with a marvellous tracery of wondrous outline. There is no sound of running water, as there will be when the thaw comes. The fine sweet greenery of spring is absent, the music of the wood is taking its winter’s interval of rest, but both the greenery and the birds are waiting, ready to revive their far from dead minstrelsy and let flow their latent harmony. Here, where the blast of the keen frost has full force, it has knit some of the snow to ice, so much so that in some places it refuses to be impressed by my foot, while in others it crunches beneath my tread, falling from my boots like quicksilvered gems, or globules of water from the backs of water fowls. My heart is pained as I pick up a dead robin, which on closer examination I find had been shot but not killed outright, and my heart bleeds to think of the pangs it underwent before it succumbed to hunger and cold. Its form is wasted to a skeleton, its withered and ragged feathers are painfully disarranged, while its red breast glows on the cold snow, and seems to rise and fall as if its little heart were still beating or appealing to heaven for vengeance to be meted to its cruel and heartless slaughterer. Those who indiscriminately kill our winter song-birds, and greedily murder the rare members of the feathered tribes, deserve the strongest reprobation that the adjectives of our Anglo-Saxon tongue are capable of. I hate all such with an unforgiving and undying loathing. A few yards farther and I pick up another dead beauty, a poor little tit. It still retains in placid smoothness its charming pink and green. Like the robin, it is on its back, stiff, stark, and wan. It had also been shot, but judging from its torn feathers and gaping wound it could not have lived long after it fell. It, too, seemed to have appealed for help before it breathed its last, but it looks too innocent and forgiving to ask for aught else. The sturdy sparrows are here in force, and though they must have been pinched with hunger they still are fearlessly pugnacious, and if food is to be got they will have it. Others cling closely to the thick bushes and shield themselves in the clefts of branch and trunk, while some seem to be rolled op like inanimate balls. Near the house on the skirts of the wood, where fowls are kept, there is a motley collection of starving blackbirds, starlings, thrashes, tits, chaffinches, fieldfares, bullfinches, robins, sparrows, wrens, and several others, joining the poultry in their evening’s meal, and there is a sharp and severe example seen of the survival of the fittest. Rooks caw on the high trees near, and though they are careful not to venture too near man or his dwelling-place, should any of the smaller birds fly off with a large piece of food down they swoop upon them and steal the morsel. Unless the farmer or his wife stand by, the poultry’s food is seized by all who can and kept by all who have the power. Of coarse the boldest and nimblest get the most. The house cat has, however, to be reckoned with, for in a temporarily undisturbed surfeit one sparrow tarries too long, and pussy secures it, and the most cunning as well as the fittest survive again. Strength and agility, speed and cunning are seldom possessed by one organism, therefore, in the grandly mysterious economy of nature, all living creatures seem to have the power to elude or overcome one another, the strong often succumbing to the subtlety of the weak, and the weak by their dangerous helplessness being made more wary of their natural foes. Thus once more is the mystery of life and death presented to me in all its strange reality and undeviating connection. Just when about to leave this wood I hear the report of a gun, and of course think of the murderer of the robin and the tit. As I so much detest a two-legged creature that will, to gratify a morbid whim, kill the birds that are faithful to us the winter through, I will not trust myself to describe him, so I turn from him with disgust and do not wish him well. The wild life of field and garden soon attract my attention, and I am as soon deeply interested in another mixed assembly like the one just described. From their coigns of vantage they are patiently waiting for the feeding of the fowls, and of coarse consider that they have a right to be fed at the same time, nor does the kindly farmer begrudge them their share. He has a clear eye and open countenance, and as there is music in his voice I conclude there is love of song in his heart, and who could love song without loving the birds that make the spring glad with their harmony? I pass on with the best wishes, and my heart goes out to him and to his wife, who has lived so long with him that she is his picture in petticoats. I am soon in the hollow leading towards Mirfield and trespassing again. This is another wintry scene worth coming out of the town to see. Overlooking the valley through which the dark Calder winds and seems all the blacker because its banks and almost everything else are covered with the white glistening wonderment of winter, as my eyes climb the blue walls of the firmament I think little of the mundane but much of the celestial. Though the white-robed earth is very fair and beautiful, its beauty only charms the natural eye, but the blue of heaven seems but a transparent veil through which the eye of the spirit can peer into the translucent light and bliss of eternity. All is so very bright and radiant, and looked at with my back to the sun it is very restful to the sight, and were it not for the dark fences and trees and the buildings far and near, there would indeed seem to be nothing visible but the expansive sky and unending snow. As I pass on the river’s bank the trees’ gaunt arms seem to reach the sky, and all the homesteads are roofed with the white wool of winter, while myriads of snow crystals glint both in the light and shade. A dead cat is frozen in a pond, the sides of the black river are arched with masses of glittering ice, for the frost seems to have the power of clarifying even the inky waters into glistening agglomerations that assume the virtue of purity though they have it not, as they present dark caves and irregular archways which vainly strive to bridge the strong current they.look to me like the petrefactions and solidifying stalactites to be seen in dimly lighted caverns. I disturb a decimated covey of partridges which flutter to the shelter neath the trees. A vole then leaves the opposite bank, reaches mid-stream, evidently not aware of my presence, for no sooner do I move than it hesitates, dives, and when it reappears it quickly disappears into its hole of safety whence it came. In the hedge bottom a shrew or field mouse has left its stitchy footprints, its marvellous little footprints on the snow. As it has moved hither and thither, backward and forward, and crossed and recrossed its path in its little patterings, it seems to have been in fun, or fancy, or of necessity machining the white coverlet of winter which has been spread over its little bed. I am completely shielded from the wind again and from the cloudless west comes the sunshine which comforts the air to summer’s glow, while the spire of Bradley Church bisects the sun, and though the dazzling orb seems to melt it to a streak of perpendicular shade it persists in dividing it into equi-semicircles for several minutes. It is by such a phenomenon as this that I am reminded that the vast universe moves, moves, yes moves, and that transitory time but fringes incomprehensible eternity. On the rising ground from this valley, many years ago, I have seen the weasel, the stoat, and the ermine fulfil their natural instincts, and raced after the wriggling snakes along the hedgerows, but, alas! murderous man, who shows his appreciation of life by taking it, by killing wild creatures from the fairest insect or creeping thing to the eagle or the elephant on every opportunity, has all but slaughtered and exterminated them. Yet as I stand to receive the full warmth of the sinking sun a robin mounts a tree close by and breaks forth in glad evensong, and I resistlessly join its thankful vespers. Birds sing at the dawn, fill the air with their music at noon, and harmoniously pipe their ecstasy at eve, and if man would do the same he would banish half his misery and forget the other half. A bullfinch soon joins us, and I am reminded by its plaintive notes that this most sorrowful of birds has not forgot its melancholy. Strange that so beautiful a bird should always sound so sad. May be it does the mourning for the rest of the feathered songsters. Yet if its voice sounds melancholy, its bright and varied plumage and its richly tinted colourings compensate for all its sadness. I think of the time when in this locality the squirrel ran along the walls and jumped from bough to bough and from tree to tree beside this then fish-teeming river, and wish that time was back again. I should then enjoy in the most severe winters the sight of now rare birds and animals, and see them skim or swim the river, flit along the then crystal Calder, see them hide among the nodding thistles, watch them take shelter in the brushwood and burrow in the woods, while their tell-tale footprints on the snow would tell me what they were, whence they came, and whither they went. Though linnets and goldfinches are not now visible, I have seen them in this valley in winter, but the finches are as loyal as the robin and sparrow, and seem to enjoy the keen frost and the glittering snow, and ever cast in their lot with the farmyard fowls. Even now a number of hungry rooks are putting on a spurt, as they flap anxiously in search of food, a magpie chatters and then vanishes southward, and even a tiny wren pops and bobs about almost too quickly for the eye to catch its sprightly movements as it searches and finds the cocoons of spiders and insect embryos. Leading to the cosy corner of a field that is shielded by the trees the snow is dotted and trampled by innumerable indentations made by rabbits and hares and the keen-scented and perhaps the pursuing dog. Through a hole in the wall they have gone to a warren of shelter and a cover of brushwood where there is plenty of winter fodder. In a storm of such severity as thus, wild animals and birds become very tame, for hunger and cold, like common danger, are great levellers and make a commonwealth of all life. Yes, when the soft snow falls and the frost wings the vapours of the air with feathery whiteness as they drop to the earth in gentle gracefulness, it affects all life, and by its surpassing beauty obliterates all ugliness and makes the whole world fair. Yes, indeed, the snow is very beautiful, and so is this wintry scene. If my readers tire of it I do not tire in describing it. If they enjoy it as I do their request would be “Give us more,” and my reply would be “The half has not been told you.” I still move westward. Colne Bridge is now in sight and Bradley stands beyond in the sunlight. I am, however, in no hurry to leave this place, but now that the day is dying and the wind bites remorselessly I step out to get the steam up and warm my blood by deep inspirations of the sweet pure air. When last I was here it was spring, and the contrast is marvellously complete. The transformation which nature’s winter artist has wrought holds me spell bound. Then there was nothing hut new green, now there is nothing but new white, up and down the picturesque valley, and on the hills where the sky and the earth meet, while the grandeur of the blue and white heavens emphasise the black and white earth. The canal is iced over as with solid glass, and as the sun’s orange rays fall upon its long stretch, it is turned into a street of gold, and I think of all the marvels of the last two chapters of Revelation, and particularly of the fifth verse of the latter:— “There shall be no night there.” As the black clouds begin to gather round the sun, and black, heavy banks shut off and lessen the light, the significance of this quotation is forcibly presented to me, but as the wind rends them and the sun melts them, and the west is once more a grand ocean of throbbing, molten, liquid, and peaceful light, I again think of the city that has “no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”