Liberty Hyde Bailey: The background spaces.—The open fields

[Another chapter from The Holy Earth, by L. H. Bailey.]

Here not long ago was the forest primeval.  Here the trees sprouted, and grew their centuries, and returned to the earth.  Here the midsummer brook ran all day long from the far-away places.  Here the night-winds slept.  Here havened the beasts and fowls when storms pursued them.  Here the leaves fell in the glory of the autumn, here other leaves burst forth in the miracle of spring, and here the pewee called in the summer.  Here the Indian tracked his game.

It was not so very long ago.  That old man’s father remembers it.  Then it was a new and holy land, seemingly fresh from the hand of the creator.  The old man speaks of it as of a golden time, now far away and hallowed; he speaks of it with an attitude of reverence.  “Ah yes,” my father told me; and calmly with bared head he relates it, every incident so sacred that not one hairbreadth must he deviate.  The church and the master’s school and the forest,—these three are strong in his memory.

Yet these are not all.  He remembers the homes cut in the dim wall of the forest.  He recalls the farms full of stumps and heaps of logs and the ox-teams on them, for these were in his boyhood.  The ox-team was a natural part of the slow-moving conquest in those rugged days.  Roads betook themselves into the forest, like great serpents devouring as they went.  And one day, behold! the forest was gone.  Farm joined farm, the village grew, the old folk fell away, new people came whose names had to be asked.

And I thought me why these fields are not as hallowed as were the old forests.  Here are the same knolls and hills.  In this turf there may be still the fibres of ancient trees.  Here are the paths of the midsummer brooks, but vocal now only in the freshets.  Here are the winds.  The autumn goes and the spring comes.  The pewee calls in the groves.  The farmer and not the Indian tracks the plow.

Here I look down on a little city.  There is a great school in it.  There are spires piercing the trees.  In the distance are mills, and I see the smoke of good accomplishment roll out over the hillside.  It is a self-centred city, full of pride.  Every mile-post praises it.  Toward it all the roads lead.  It tells itself to all the surrounding country.  And yet I cannot but feel that these quiet fields and others like them have made this city; but I am glad that the fields are not proud.

One day a boy and one day a girl will go down from these fields, and out into the thoroughways of life.  They will go far, but these hills they will still call home.

From these uplands the waters flow down into the streams that move the mills and that float the ships.  Loads of timber still go hence for the construction down below.  Here go building-stones and sand and gravel,—gravel from the glaciers.  Here goes the hay for ten thousand horses.  Here go the wheat, and here the apples, and the animals.  Here are the votes that hold the people steady.

Somewhere there is the background.  Here is the background.  Here things move slowly.  Trees grow slowly.  The streams change little from year to year, and yet they shape the surface of the earth in this hill country.  In yonder fence-row the catbird has built since I was a boy, and yet I have wandered far and I have seen great changes in yonder city.  The well-sweep has gone but the well is still there: the wells are gone from the city.  The cows have changed in color, but still they are cows and yield their milk in season.  The fields do not perish, but time eats away the city.  I think all these things must be good and very good or they could not have persisted in all this change.

In the beginning!  Yes, I know, it was holy then.  The forces of eons shaped it: still was it holy.  The forest came: still holy.  Then came the open fields.

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