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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


It is worth staying or coming to see. There is nothing like it in cities; it should not have name in common with that black, blustering, dripping-from-eaves, knee-deep-in-slosh misery, which is all that New York or Boston associates with the word “winter.”

It began a month ago, as gently and cautiously as if Nature were trying experiment, and did not know how the earth could bear it: first, snow on the distant mountains, to show us of what color it would be; glistening white like crystal, at noon; solid white like white rock, if the day grew cloudy; and deep pink at sunset, like pink topaz, or conch-shell pearls, or cinnamon roses; our eyes could not grow wonted to the splendor. Then came fine soft showers, a few moments long, sifting lustreless silver on every grass-blade and tree-twig; in an hour or two no trace was left, on the fields or by the roadside; but going into the woods, one found fringes and patches of it on fallen logs, in hollows, and laps of mosses. It is sad to think how few people have heart (or chance) to go into the woods after early snows begin. The hush of them is sweeter than their sound in summer; there are just as many colors, and all new; and as for shape, the first light outlining of snow is an almost miraculous revelation of infinitesimal points, curves, peaks, jags, wreathings, and intertwinings of all things that grow. There is not a dark corner from beginning to end of the wood; there is not a single unillumined moss stem; no, not one, in great spaces where moss and Linnaea, and partridge-berry vines are so inextricably tangled, that lifting up any all the rest come with it, in mats two feet wide; no man could count the fallen beech and maple leaves in even so little room of ground as he might in five minutes tread full of steps; but every one of the leaves holds its own diamond drop of water, or carven crystal of snow: they are curled into millions of shapes; an artist might come and draw from them alone, until next year interrupted him. “O, what is that?” said my friend yesterday, as I held up to her a scrolled cornucopia of amber brown, with a twisted stem two inches long. It looked like a fantastic goblet, cut out of something finer than wood, more shining than glass, and dyed as silk can be dyed. Over and round the rim, there stayed, solid and still, what might have been frozen foam of the last toast drank. It was only a huge beech leaf; it had rolled itself up as it fell, and poised in a cleft of its own tree’s root, so as to catch in open mouth all the snow it could hold.

The hardier ferns are as green as in summer; all the mosses are greener; and the lichens are but just beginning to show what scarlets and yellows they mix; and low-lying leaves, cornels, tiarellas, and a myriad more, are tinted wondrously with claret and purple and pink; gay, almost, as were the maple and ash leaves which made the upper air so brilliant a month ago. Only the firs and spruces seem unchanged; perhaps their dark glossiness is a little deepened; but they do not take much note of these sprinkling snows; they bide their time of beauty, which will be the first hour of storm; then, moment by moment, they will be transformed into a dazzling Gothic architecture, the like of which is not to be found on the earth, unless perchance there may be arctic cathedrals built of ice in open polar fields, where no men go to worship.

The light snows gently went and came, until we grew aware of their promise and impatient of their delay. Had it been her first snowing, Nature could not better have won us to be ready for her spectacle. She was honest too; for there were days of sleet; the windows froze down, and the roads were icy and horrible.

In these days a bustle of preparation was to be heard and seen in the village. Men who had for weeks spent most of their time in a miserable sort of waking trance, on tilted chairs around the stove of the village “store,” were to be seen hard at work “banking up” their houses. The heaping and boarding of these flowerless flower-beds of earth around the lower stories of country houses is sensible, perhaps, but not artistic. The German peasantry keep out cold by a more picturesque method, piling their fire-wood compactly round and round their houses, leaving small loopholes at windows, till, finally, the whole structure is a combination of castle and log-cabin, by no means ugly to see.

In the days too, potatoes, if accurately quoted, in market phrase, might have been said to be “lively;” for they were being shovelled and tumbled by bushels into cellar windows all along the street. The blacksmith’s anvil had no rest from morning till late at night. His great red fire glared out like an angry watchful eye long after dark; much I fear the poor country horses fared ill in his numb and weary hands.

Builders’ hammers, too, rang out more vigorously than ever. There are eleven new houses going up in this little town. Next summer’s hospitality will have open doors enough, and nobody will turn away, as scores have done this year, for want of room.

In these days also came Elder MacNaughton the Baptist, crying “Prepare ye the way of the Lord;” and the Baptists prepared it after a bitter fashion; laying violent hands on a little meadow brook, and damming it up, till it made of itself a muddy pool, some six feet square. Down to this pool, on a Sunday noon, came six young women, one with her lover, to be baptized in the icy water; also there was that sacred being,” as good George MacDonald says, “a maid-child.” The village people came in silent, solemn groups to look on; some standing closely in rows along the edge of the stream, others sitting and standing a few rods off on top of the high sloping bank. We felt almost as if we had come upon some gathering of old Covenanters, under the gray sky of a Scottish winter; the bare frozen fields, the black fir woods, the circling mountains, the rough rocks, the uncovered heads and awed faces, the low minor cadences of the psalm, and more than all the unutterable silences in intervals of the service,—all made up a scene which we shall not forget, and which will make that little meadow brook sing less merrily in our ears for many a summer to come.

But the days went on; and we being strangers in the land, having neither houses to build or bank, nor horses to be rough-shod, nor faith in Elder MacNaughton’s preaching, grew almost weary of waiting for sight of grand, full winter.

Already the far-away Green Mountains were white, and their distant slopes seemed to lift and lie level along the horizon, as one could fancy icefields lying white and high among blue icebergs. Mounts Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were a snowy wall to the east; and glistening in the sun to the south lay the Franconias, gentle and gracious still under all their snows, as in summer’s green; every thing far and near, great and small, was silvered, or tufted, or mounded with snow. But not one smallest outline was lost or altered; we could still see on Strawberry Hill the maple branch on which the yellow-hammers had their nest; each seed-plume of golden-rods which we had spared in the lanes stood upright, and only more beautiful for being frosted over; stone walls and fences stretched out plainer than ever, being braided of black and white; and wheels still rattled in frozen ruts half filled and barely hid by snow. This was not winter. We waited for more.

At last it came, as I almost think it loves best to come, in the night; soft, complete, shining; small trace now of any man’s landmark, by wall or fence; no color but white and no shape but snow, to any shrub or tree or wood; looking out, we perceived that no man could any more tell us of Labrador, or Greenland: they cannot be more than the whole of winter; the whole of winter lay between the horizon and our doorstep. For a little there was not even road; if we had had our way, no human being should have taken step to make footprint between that sunrise and sunset; nor should there have been sound, save the slide of drifts from pine boughs in the forest, and the whir of little snow-birds’ wings. But we discovered that it is not possible to look out on such a night’s snow so early that it shall not be found printed here and there with the tiny star-shaped impress of feet so light that they barely jarred the crystals; also that the loud shouts of merry boys are no more discordant in such morning’s air than the gentle noises snow-birds make when they fly.

In a few hours the village surveying and road-making were over, and work began and went on. Since then there has been no surprise, no change; except that every day the mountains have some tint of purple, or blue, or gray, or red, which they have not had before, and the great dome of sky looks higher and higher. After living for months on such a plateau as this, from which half the sky there is can be seen at once, it will seem like groping blindfolded to walk about city streets and see sky only by strips, through chinks; or more, perhaps, as if the great celestial umbrella had been suddenly shut down on our heads, and we were darkly fumbling among the wires and bones.

Each day as we walk up and down the soft roads, scattering the feathery flakes with our feet, craunching a few now and then, or rolling them up into balls and tossing them aimlessly, the good people of the village stare at us with mingled amazement and pity. We know they look upon us compassionately, thinking in their secret hearts that we must be banished by some sin or misfortune into this wintry exile. But we smile as we pass them, and say under our breath, “Yes, pity us; we are glad of your pity; we need it; for we must go away next week!”

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