Adventures in Contentment/VI
"If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-smelling herbs—is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your Success."
In all the days of my life I have never been so well content as I am this spring. Last summer I thought I was happy, the fall gave me a finality of satisfaction, the winter imparted perspective, but spring conveys a wholly new sense of life, a quickening the like of which I never before experienced. It seems to me that everything in the world is more interesting, more vital, more significant. I feel like "waving aside all roofs," in the way of Le Sage's Asmodeus.
I even cease to fear Mrs. Horace, who is quite the most formidable person in this neighbourhood. She is so avaricious in the saving of souls—and so covetous of mine, which I wish especially to retain. When I see her coming across the hill I feel like running and hiding, and if I were as bold as a boy, I should do it, but being a grown-up coward I remain and dissemble.
She came over this morning. When I beheld her afar off, I drew a long breath: "One thousand," I quoted to myself, "shall flee at the rebuke of one."
In calmness I waited. She came with colours flying and hurled her biblical lance. When I withstood the shock with unexpected jauntiness, for I usually fall dead at once, she looked at me with severity and said:
"Mr. Grayson, you are a materialist."
"You have shot me with a name," I replied. "I am unhurt."
It would be impossible to slay me on a day like this. On a day like this I am immortal.
It comes to me as the wonder of wonders, these spring days, how surely everything, spiritual as well as material, proceeds out of the earth. I have times of sheer Paganism when I could bow and touch my face to the warm bare soil. We are so often ashamed of the Earth—the soil of it, the sweat of it, the good common coarseness of it. To us in our fine raiment and soft manners, it seems indelicate. Instead of seeking that association with the earth which is the renewal of life, we devise ourselves distant palaces and seek strange pleasures. How often and sadly we repeat the life story of the yellow dodder of the moist lanes of my lower farm. It springs up fresh and clean from the earth itself, and spreads its clinging viny stems over the hospitable wild balsam and golden rod. In a week's time, having reached the warm sunshine of the upper air, it forgets its humble beginnings. Its roots wither swiftly and die out, but the sickly yellow stems continue to flourish and spread, drawing their nourishment not from the soil itself, but by strangling and sucking the life juices of the hosts on which it feeds. I have seen whole byways covered thus with yellow dodder—rootless, leafless, parasitic—reaching up to the sunlight, quite cutting off and smothering the plants which gave it life. A week or two it flourishes and then most of it perishes miserably. So many of us come to be like that: so much of our civilization is like that. Men and women there are—the pity of it—who, eating plentifully, have never themselves taken a mouthful from the earth. They have never known a moment's real life of their own. Lying up to the sun in warmth and comfort—but leafless—they do not think of the hosts under them, smothered, strangled, starved. They take nothing at first hand. They experience described emotion, and think prepared thoughts. They live not in life, but in printed reports of life. They gather the odour of odours, not the odour itself: they do not hear, they overhear. A poor, sad, second-rate existence!
Bring out your social remedies! They will fail, they will fail, every one, until each man has his feet somewhere upon the soil!
My wild plum trees grow in the coarse earth, among excrementitious mould, a physical life which finally blossoms and exhales its perfect odour: which ultimately bears the seed of its immortality.
Human happiness is the true odour of growth, the sweet exhalation of work: and the seed of human immortality is borne secretly within the coarse and mortal husk. So many of us crave the odour without cultivating the earthly growth from which it proceeds: so many, wasting mortality, expect immortality!
--"Why," asks Charles Baxter, "do you always put the end of your stories first?"
"You may be thankful," I replied, "that I do not make my remarks all endings. Endings are so much more interesting than beginnings."
Without looking up from the buggy he was mending, Charles Baxter intimated that my way had at least one advantage: one always knew, he said, that I really had an end in view—and hope deferred, he said--
--How surely, soundly, deeply, the physical underlies the spiritual. This morning I was up and out at half-past four, as perfect a morning as I ever saw: mists yet huddled in the low spots, the sun coming up over the hill, and all the earth fresh with moisture, sweet with good odours, and musical with early bird-notes.
It is the time of the spring just after the last seeding and before the early haying: a catch-breath in the farmer's year. I have been utilising it in digging a drainage ditch at the lower end of my farm. A spot of marsh grass and blue flags occupies nearly half an acre of good land and I have been planning ever since I bought the place to open a drain from its lower edge to the creek, supplementing it in the field above, if necessary, with submerged tiling. I surveyed it carefully several weeks ago and drew plans and contours of the work as though it were an inter-oceanic canal. I find it a real delight to work out in the earth itself the details of the drawing.
This morning, after hastening with the chores, I took my bag and my spade on my shoulder and set off (in rubber boots) for the ditch. My way lay along the margin of my cornfield in the deep grass. On my right as I walked was the old rail fence full of thrifty young hickory and cherry trees with here and there a clump of blackberry bushes. The trees beyond the fence cut off the sunrise so that I walked in the cool broad shadows. On my left stretched the cornfield of my planting, the young corn well up, very attractive and hopeful, my really frightful scarecrow standing guard on the knoll, a wisp of straw sticking up through a hole in his hat and his crooked thumbs turned down—"No mercy."
"Surely no corn ever before grew like this," I said to myself. "To-morrow I must begin cultivating again."
So I looked up and about me—not to miss anything of the morning—and I drew in a good big breath and I thought the world had never been so open to my senses.
I wonder why it is that the sense of smell is so commonly under-regarded. To me it is the source of some of my greatest pleasures. No one of the senses is more often allied with robustity of physical health. A man who smells acutely may be set down as enjoying that which is normal, plain, wholesome. He does not require seasoning: the ordinary earth is good enough for him. He is likely to be sane—which means sound, healthy—in his outlook upon life.
Of all hours of the day there is none like the early morning for downright good odours—the morning before eating. Fresh from sleep and unclogged with food a man's senses cut like knives. The whole world comes in upon him. A still morning is best, for the mists and the moisture seem to retain the odours which they have distilled through the night. Upon a breezy morning one is likely to get a single predominant odour as of clover when the wind blows across a hay field or of apple blossoms when the wind comes through the orchard, but upon a perfectly still morning, it is wonderful how the odours arrange themselves in upright strata, so that one walking passes through them as from room to room in a marvellous temple of fragrance, (I should have said, I think, if I had not been on my way to dig a ditch, that it was like turning the leaves of some delicate volume of lyrics!)
So it was this morning. As I walked along the margin of my field I was conscious, at first, coming within the shadows of the wood, of the cool, heavy aroma which one associates with the night: as of moist woods and earth mould. The penetrating scent of the night remains long after the sights and sounds of it have disappeared. In sunny spots I had the fragrance of the open cornfield, the aromatic breath of the brown earth, giving curiously the sense of fecundity—a warm, generous odour of daylight and sunshine. Down the field, toward the corner, cutting in sharply, as though a door opened (or a page turned to another lyric), came the cloying, sweet fragrance of wild crab-apple blossoms, almost tropical in their richness, and below that, as I came to my work, the thin acrid smell of the marsh, the place of the rushes and the flags and the frogs.
How few of us really use our senses! I mean give ourselves fully at any time to the occupation of the senses. We do not expect to understand a treatise on Economics without applying our minds to it, nor can we really smell or hear or see or feel without every faculty alert. Through sheer indolence we miss half the joy of the world!
Often as I work I stop to see: really see: see everything, or to listen, and it is the wonder of wonders, how much there is in this old world which we never dreamed of, how many beautiful, curious, interesting sights and sounds there are which ordinarily make no impression upon our clogged, overfed and preoccupied minds. I have also had the feeling—it may be unscientific but it is comforting—that any man might see like an Indian or smell like a hound if he gave to the senses the brains which the Indian and the hound apply to them. And I'm pretty sure about the Indian! It is marvellous what a man can do when he puts his entire mind upon one faculty and bears down hard.
So I walked this morning, not hearing nor seeing, but smelling. Without desiring to stir up strife among the peaceful senses, there is this further marvel of the sense of smell. No other possesses such an after-call. Sight preserves pictures: the complete view of the aspect of objects, but it is photographic and external. Hearing deals in echoes, but the sense of smell, while saving no vision of a place or a person, will re-create in a way almost miraculous the inner emotion of a particular time or place. I know of nothing that will so "create an appetite under the ribs of death."
Only a short time ago I passed an open doorway in the town. I was busy with errands, my mind fully engaged, but suddenly I caught an odour from somewhere within the building I was passing. I stopped! It was as if in that moment I lost twenty years of my life: I was a boy again, living and feeling a particular instant at the time of my father's death. Every emotion of that occasion, not recalled in years, returned to me sharply and clearly as though I experienced it for the first time. It was a peculiar emotion: the first time I had ever felt the oppression of space—can I describe it?—the utter bigness of the world and the aloofness of myself, a little boy, within it—now that my father was gone. It was not at that moment sorrow, nor remorse, nor love: it was an inexpressible cold terror—that anywhere I might go in the world, I should still be alone!
And there I stood, a man grown, shaking in the sunshine with that old boyish emotion brought back to me by an odour! Often and often have I known this strange rekindling of dead fires. And I have thought how, if our senses were really perfect, we might lose nothing, out of our lives: neither sights, nor sounds, nor emotions: a sort of mortal immortality. Was not Shakespeare great because he lost less of the savings of his senses than other men? What a wonderful seer, hearer, smeller, taster, feeler, he must have been—and how, all the time, his mind must have played upon the gatherings of his senses! All scenes, all men, the very turn of a head, the exact sound of a voice, the taste of food, the feel of the world—all the emotions of his life must he have had there before him as he wrote, his great mind playing upon them, reconstructing, re-creating and putting them down hot upon his pages. There is nothing strange about great men; they are like us, only deeper, higher, broader: they think as we do, but with more intensity: they suffer as we do, more keenly: they love as we do, more tenderly.
I may be over-glorifying the sense of smell, but it is only because I walked this morning in a world of odours. The greatest of the senses, of course, is not smell or hearing, but sight. What would not any man exchange for that: for the faces one loves, for the scenes one holds most dear, for all that is beautiful and changeable and beyond description? The Scotch Preacher says that the saddest lines in all literature are those of Milton, writing of his blindness.
"Seasons return; but not to me returns Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn, Or sight of vernal bloom or Summer's rose, Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine."
—I have wandered a long way from ditch-digging, but not wholly without intention. Sooner or later I try to get back into the main road. I throw down my spade in the wet trampled grass at the edge of the ditch. I take off my coat and hang it over a limb of the little hawthorn tree. I put my bag near it. I roll up the sleeves of my flannel shirt: I give my hat a twirl; I'm ready for work.
—The senses are the tools by which we lay hold upon the world: they are the implements of consciousness and growth. So long as they are used upon the good earth—used to wholesome weariness—they remain healthy, they yield enjoyment, they nourish growth; but let them once be removed from their natural employment and they turn and feed upon themselves, they seek the stimulation of luxury, they wallow in their own corruption, and finally, worn out, perish from off the earth which they have not appreciated. Vice is ever the senses gone astray.
—So I dug. There is something fine in hard physical labour, straight ahead: no brain used, just muscles. I stood ankle-deep in the cool water: every spadeful came out with a smack, and as I turned it over at the edge of the ditch small turgid rivulets coursed back again. I did not think of anything in particular. I dug. A peculiar joy attends the very pull of the muscles. I drove the spade home with one foot, then I bent and lifted and turned with a sort of physical satisfaction difficult to describe. At first I had the cool of the morning, but by seven o'clock the day was hot enough! I opened the breast of my shirt, gave my sleeves another roll, and went at it again for half an hour, until I dripped with perspiration.
"I will knock off," I said, so I used my spade as a ladder and climbed out of the ditch. Being very thirsty, I walked down through the marshy valley to the clump of alders which grows along the creek. I followed a cow-path through the thicket and came to the creek side, where I knelt on a log and took a good long drink. Then I soused my head in the cool stream, dashed the water upon my arms and came up dripping and gasping! Oh, but it was fine!
So I came back to the hawthorn tree, where I sat down comfortably and stretched my legs. There is a poem in stretched legs—after hard digging—but I can't write it, though I can feel it! I got my bag and took out a half loaf of Harriet's bread. Breaking off big crude pieces, I ate it there in the shade. How rarely we taste the real taste of bread! We disguise it with butter, we toast it, we eat it with milk or fruit. We even soak it with gravy (here in the country where we aren't at all polite—but very comfortable), so that we never get the downright delicious taste of the bread itself. I was hungry this morning and I ate my half loaf to the last crumb—and wanted more. Then I lay down for a moment in the shade and looked up into the sky through the thin outer branches of the hawthorn. A turkey buzzard was lazily circling cloud-high above me: a frog boomed intermittently from the little marsh, and there were bees at work in the blossoms.
—I had another drink at the creek and went back somewhat reluctantly, I confess, to the work. It was hot, and the first joy of effort had worn off. But the ditch was to be dug and I went at it again. One becomes a sort of machine—unthinking, mechanical: and yet intense physical work, though making no immediate impression on the mind, often lingers in the consciousness. I find that sometimes I can remember and enjoy for long afterward every separate step in a task.
It is curious, hard physical labour! One actually stops thinking. I often work long without any thought whatever, so far as I know, save that connected with the monotonous repetition of the labour itself—down with the spade, out with it, up with it, over with it—and repeat. And yet sometimes—mostly in the forenoon when I am not at all tired—I will suddenly have a sense as of the world opening around me—a sense of its beauty and its meanings—giving me a peculiar deep happiness, that is near complete content—
Happiness, I have discovered, is nearly always a rebound from hard work. It is one of the follies of men to imagine that they can enjoy mere thought, or emotion, or sentiment! As well try to eat beauty! For happiness must be tricked! She loves to see men at work. She loves sweat, weariness, self-sacrifice. She will be found not in palaces but lurking in cornfields and factories and hovering over littered desks: she crowns the unconscious head of the busy child. If you look up suddenly from hard work you will see her, but if you look too long she fades sorrowfully away.
—Down toward the town there is a little factory for barrel hoops and staves. It has one of the most musical whistles I ever heard in my life. It toots at exactly twelve o'clock: blessed sound! The last half-hour at ditch-digging is a hard, slow pull. I'm warm and tired, but I stick down to it and wait with straining ear for the music. At the very first note, of that whistle I drop my spade. I will even empty out a load of dirt half way up rather than expend another ounce of energy; and I spring out of the ditch and start for home with a single desire in my heart—or possibly lower down. And Harriet, standing in the doorway, seems to me a sort of angel—a culinary angel!
Talk of joy: there may be things better than beef stew and baked potatoes and home-made bread—there may be—