Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  11 (1885–86), 68–80.

A Winter Walk

William Hamilton Gibson



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [10]


Natural History, Botany, Wonder, Ancient Authorities, Human Species, Prehistory, Reading, Periodicals, Analogy, Taxonomy, Ornithology, Animal Behaviour, Anthropomorphism

People mentioned:

John Burroughs

    Sugests that with the 'mercury at zero, and Boreas in hearty sympathy', the time is right for 'worshipper[s] at the shrine of Nature' to venture from their 'congenial fires' and 'look out upon the wondrous miracle of a white morning' (68–69). Discusses how several trees 'bear their fruits far into the winter', many of which are 'evidently baited for the birds, and thus are naturally disseminated during the winter season'. Notes that 'our beautiful drooping hemlock' is 'peerless in grace among the evergreens of the world' and for 'true beauty' cannot be bettered by the 'boasted Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodar), Chinese cypress, nor the several examples of retinispora, so prized by connoisseurs'. (73) Asserts that the question of the 'scantiness of vegetation beneath the pines and amongst dense evergreens [...] was set at rest long ago by the discovery of Pliny' that the 'shade of pine-trees [...] kills whatsoever it toucheth'. The 'antique philosopher['s] [...] interesting theory [...] shows at least that conifer woods have remained the same through the ages'. While walking along a 'corn field's edge, where the zigzag fence is besieged with fantastic peaked drifts', advises the reader to 'Lie down upon the snow and shut out the distant trees, divest yourself of your physical identity, and look up at this beetling range as an ant might do. What need of Switzerland, of Jungfrau or Matterhorn! At this focal range the mastodon is but a midge, and man learns his true status as a constituent of the universe'.(74) While the 'snow covers and buries a multitude', it is at the same time a 'great revealer [...] of secrets'. Indeed, the 'white page is of great interest if one cares to read', and is 'alive with furry news not to be gathered at any other season'. Mice, those 'hardy little Arabs of the snow', have a 'nervous, eccentric, racy vernacular' in which they trace their movements in the snow, and although it is a 'nocturnal chronicle' which 'publishes a fresh postscript by sunrise every morning', the snow is a very 'wide-awake night editor'. (76) Noting that a 'weed has been described [by Ralph W Emerson] as "a plant whose virtues have not been discovered"', reflects that in the winter months many of 'our commonest pests in the way of weeds now redeem themselves, and seem to show an adequate reason for their being', primarily by providing food for hungry birds (78). Comments that 'I sometimes wonder who shall be the first true interpreter of the hieroglyphic of the woodpecker on the apple-tree', proposing that although 'much has been written concerning' these 'punctured rings circling the orchard trees' the 'pleasant counsel of [the] inward eye' might lead one to 'fancy that this carefully punctuated inscription had a deeper significance—that this sculptured apple tree was the bulletin of the birds, and that the downy woodpecker was their appointed scribe' (80–81).

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