In September my route to school was devious, and until snow flew, every step was a wonderland of surprises. Knowing what I know now, so long afterward, I'm sure I would lament the intrusion of school-bus philosophies and insist I be allowed to go my old route. I had almost a mile to walk if I went by the road and a little sidewalk, but my secret path through Luce's pine stand, down through the hardwoods to the Pownal Road and across the swamp, easily came to a good mile; and then I had to skirt the village the rest of the way. The fringed gentians bloom in October.
We had a lady artist in our town whose talent waited long years for approval. One morning in a bright fall sun, when our horizons were golden rich in the enthusiasms of seasonal foliage, I came out of the Luce pines to find this gifted lady sitting on a stool, applying her gift to a canvas, and I was stopped short by the surprise of finding I was not alone in this great world and wide. She had not seen me (I trod Indian fashion, of course), and I sidestepped and came around the other way. I was not about to disturb her. Years later, I saw the oil painting she had made that beautiful morning. Only I, I surmise, have any authority to offer a critique of her ability.
The entire canvas was given to a birch tree that stood by my path to school; I had seen it every morning as I passed. It was our common birch tree, the white or paper birch, known commercially as spool-wood, since folks wound their thread on birchwood spools. It made firewood, but maple and beech made better.
This particular tree, probably because it grew in a pasture instead of a woodland stand, had a shape very like an inverted heart on a playing card, whereas a birch with half a chance will shoot tall, like a Lombardy poplar. This birch stood by itself, so its shape attracted the eye and it was different. Besides, a birch tree does not take on the autumn colors of the maples, and as this lady was painting it, it stood full yellow. And not far away, in all directions, stood the deep bronze of oaks, the golden beauty of the beeches, and the riotous magnificence of the sugar maples. The lady was intent on the only tree in sight that was not the color of an October morning on a Maine hillside.
I wasn't to see the finished painting for a long time.
Some years, during the migrations, my path to school would reveal woodchucks galore, odd little birds with long bills on swivels, and ruffled grouse, which do not leave us for the winter. There was a hooty owl in a certain oak tree that turned his head to follow me past, and I always said good morning. He never answered, but sometimes after I was out of sight, I would hear him talk to himself. Mushrooms I saw by tons, and always wondered which were "pizen." Bunny rabbits, our variable hare, greeted me in the swamp by thumping their great hind feet on the ground and jumping 50 feet on their way. Late in the fall, as it came to snow time, they would be patchy brown and patchy white. Once it snowed, I'd go another route and wouldn't bother them.
Best of all was to come upon some fringed gentians. They wouldn't appear another year in the same place, but were always nearby. All our other wild flowers came in the spring and the summer, until asters and goldenrod in the fall, but the bright blue of the fringed (and bottle) gentian called for biding until the last gasp of the season. I think I never "found" a gentian by looking for it. My mind elsewhere, I'd suddenly see a gentian as a glad surprise. The only comparable blue elsewhere in nature is the open blue of the sky on a gentian day. Look up and look down, and you won't see that blue any place else.
Somebody must have told me, for I never picked the gentians but once. Mayflowers and, later, lady-slippers we never picked. Pluck a slipper, no matter how gently, and it disturbs the intricate roots forever. Violets and daisies and such would come again. "Hark to me, now, all you sannups! Don't never fetch none home! Hear me!" It was a rule that I broke for only the first fringed gentian, which I took the first year to teacher. She was suitably touched and exclaimed correctly, but added, "You shouldn't pick them!"
MY usual route to school took me through a heavy stretch of ground junipers to the left-field corner of the baseball diamond, and I'd step out into a game of "scrub" as the other boys filled in until the bell rang. One morning I chanced to appear just as a fly ball came my way. In scrub, whoever catches a fly ball is the next man up! And wouldn't you know! The bell rang.
The painting that gifted lady was working on that morning now enjoys museum display. Only I and the departed artist know the truth. It was indeed a birch tree. A sort-of stunted or misformed birch tree on my way to school. It was, that morning, sere and yellow. Around about, for many a gorgeous mile, the forest was afire with the brilliant maples. So why would this lady be painting a birch tree?
She wasn't, really. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and an artist sees what needs to be painted. Beholding this odd birch tree, milady said, "'Tis not colorful, but its symmetry suggests form. Let me fetch a stool, and I can color it to look like a maple!" There is a profound and important message to this. Always look for the things that aren't there. They are often prettier. The artist knew that the real tree, that morning, was very nigh the paint-box color of a school bus.