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Hemlock Mountain by Dorothy Canfield

 

  By orange grove and palm-tree, we walked the southern shore,
  Each day more still and golden than was the day before.
  That calm and languid sunshine! How faint it made us grow
  To look on Hemlock Mountain when the storm hangs low!

      To see its rocky pastures, its sparse but hardy corn,
  The mist roll off its forehead before a harvest morn;
  To hear the pine-trees crashing across its gulfs of snow
  Upon a roaring midnight when the whirlwinds blow.

      Tell not of lost Atlantis, or fabled Avalon;
  The olive, or the vineyard, no winter breathes upon;
  Away from Hemlock Mountain we could not well forego,
  For all the summer islands where the gulf tides flow.

AT THE FOOT OF HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN

“In connection with this phase of the problem of transportation it must be remembered that the rush of population to the great cities was no temporary movement. It is caused by a final revolt against that malignant relic of the dark ages, the country village and by a healthy craving for the deep, full life of the metropolis, for contact with the vitalizing stream of humanity.”—Pritchell's “Handbook of Economics,” page 247.

Sometimes people from Hillsboro leave our forgotten valley, high among the Green Mountains, and “go down to the city,” as the phrase runs, They always come back exclaiming that they should think New Yorkers would just die of lonesomeness, and crying out in an ecstasy of relief that it does seem so good to get back where there are some folks. After the desolate isolation of city streets, empty of humanity, filled only with hurrying ghosts, the vestibule of our church after morning service fills one with an exalted realization of the great numbers of the human race. It is like coming into a warmed and lighted room, full of friendly faces, after wandering long by night in a forest peopled only with flitting shadows. In the phantasmagoric pantomime of the city, we forget that there are so many real people in all the world, so diverse, so unfathomably human as those who meet us in the little post-office on the night of our return to Hillsboro.

Like any other of those gifts of life which gratify insatiable cravings of humanity, living in a country village conveys a satisfaction which is incommunicable. A great many authors have written about it, just as a great many authors have written about the satisfaction of being in love, but in the one, as in the other case, the essence of the thing escapes. People rejoice in sweethearts because all humanity craves love, and they thrive in country villages because they crave human life. Now the living spirit of neither of these things can be caught in a net of words. All the foolish, fond doings of lovers may be set down on paper by whatever eavesdropper cares to take the trouble, but no one can realize from that record anything of the glory in the hearts of the unconscious two. All the queer grammar and insignificant surface eccentricities of village character may be ruthlessly reproduced in every variety of dialect, but no one can guess from that record the abounding flood of richly human life which pours along the village street.

This tormenting inequality between the thing felt and the impression conveyed had vexed us unceasingly until one day Simple Martin, the town fool, who always says our wise things, said one of his wisest. He was lounging by the watering-trough one sunny day in June, when a carriage-load of “summer folk” from Windfield over the mountain stopped to water their horses. They asked him, as they always, always ask all of us, “For mercy's sake, what do you people do all the time, away off here, so far from everything.”

Simple Martin was not irritated, or perplexed, or rendered helplessly inarticulate by this question, as the rest of us had always been. He looked around him at the lovely, sloping lines of Hemlock Mountain, at the Necronett River singing in the sunlight, at the familiar, friendly faces of the people in the street, and he answered in astonishment at the ignorance of his questioners, “Do? Why, we jes' live!”

We felt that he had explained us once and for all. We had known that, of course, but we hadn't before, in our own phrase, “sensed it.” We just live. And sometimes it seems to us that we are the only people in America engaged in that most wonderful occupation. We know, of course, that we must be wrong in thinking this, and that there must be countless other Hillsboros scattered everywhere, rejoicing as we do in an existence which does not necessarily make us care-free or happy, which does not in the least absolve us from the necessity of working hard (for Hillsboro is unbelievably poor in money), but which does keep us alive in every fiber of our sympathy and thrilling with the consciousness of the life of others.

A common and picturesque expression for a common experience runs, “It's so noisy I can't hear myself think.” After a visit to New York we feel that its inhabitants are so deafened by the constant blare of confusion that they can't feel themselves live. The steady sufferers from this complaint do not realize their condition. They find it on the whole less trouble not to feel themselves live, and they are most uneasy when chance forces them to spend a few days (on shipboard, for instance) where they are not protected by ceaseless and aimless activity from the consciousness that they are themselves. They cannot even conceive the bitter-sweet, vital taste of that consciousness as we villagers have it, and they cannot understand how arid their existence seems to us without this unhurried, penetrating realization of their own existence and of the meaning of their acts. We do not blame city dwellers for not having it; we ourselves lose it when we venture into their maelstrom. Like them, we become dwarfed by overwhelming numbers, and shriveled by the incapacity to “sense” the humanity of the countless human simulacra about us. But we do not stay where we cannot feel ourselves live. We hurry back to the shadow of Hemlock Mountain, feeling that to love life one does not need to be what Is usually called happy, one needs only to live.

It cannot be, of course, that we are the only community to discover this patent fact; but we know no more of the others than they of us. All that we hear from that part of America which is not Hillsboro is the wild yell of excitement going up from the great cities, where people seem to be doing everything that was ever done or thought of except just living. City dwellers make money, make reputations (good and bad), make museums and subways, make charitable institutions, make with a hysteric rapidity, like excited spiders, more and yet more complications in the mazy labyrinths of their lives, but they never make each others' acquaintances ... and that is all that is worth doing in the world.

We who live in Hillsboro know that they are to be pitied, not blamed, for this fatal omission. We realize that only in Hillsboro and places like it can one have “deep, full life and contact with the vitalizing stream of humanity.” We know that in the very nature of humanity the city is a small and narrow world, the village a great and wide one, and that the utmost efforts of city dwellers will not avail to break the bars of the prison where they are shut in, each with his own kind. They may look out from the windows upon a great and varied throng, as the beggar munching a crust may look in at a banqueting hall, but the people they are forced to live with are exactly like themselves; and that way lies not only monomania but an ennui that makes the blessing of life savorless.

If this does not seem the plainest possible statement of fact take a concrete instance. Can a banker in the city by any possibility come to know what kind of an individual is the remote impersonal creature who waits on him in a department store? Most bankers recognize with a misguided joy this natural wall between themselves and people who are not bankers, and add to it as many stones of their own quarrying as possible; but they are not shut off from all the quickening diversity of life any more effectually than the college-settlement, boys' Sunday-school, brand of banker. The latter may try as hard as he pleases, he simply cannot achieve real acquaintanceship with a “storekeeper,” as we call them, any more than the clerk can achieve real acquaintanceship with him.

Lack of any elements of common life form as impassable a barrier as lack of a common language, whereas with us in Hillsboro all the life we have is common. Everyone is needed to live it.

There can be no city dweller of experience who does not know the result of this herding together of the same kind of people, this intellectual and moral inbreeding. To the accountant who knows only accounts, the world comes to seem like one great ledger, and account-keeping the only vital pursuit in life. To the banker who knows only bankers, the world seems one great bank filled with money, accompanied by people. The prison doors of uniformity are closed inexorably upon them.

And then what happens? Why, when anything goes wrong with their trumpery account books, or their trashy money, these poor folk are like blind men who have lost their staves. With all the world before them they dare not continue to go forward. We in Hillsboro are sorry for the account-keepers who disappear forever, fleeing from all who know them because their accounts have come out crooked, we pity the banker who blows out his brains when something has upset his bank; but we can't help feeling with this compassion an admixture of the exasperated impatience we have for those Prussian school boys who jump out of third-story windows because they did not reach a certain grade in their Latin examinations. Life is not accounts, or banks, or even Latin examinations, and it is a sign of inexperience to think it so. The trouble with the despairing banker is that he has never had a chance to become aware of the comforting vastness of the force which animates him in common with all the rest of humanity, to which force a bank failure is no apocalyptic end of Creation, but a mere incident or trial of strength like a fall in a slippery road. Absorbed in his solitary progress, the banker has forgotten that his business in life is not so much to keep from falling as to get up again and go forward.

If the man to whom the world was a bank had not been so inexorably shut away from the bracing, tonic shock of knowing men utterly diverse, to whom the world was just as certainly only a grocery store, or a cobbler's bench, he might have come to believe in a world that is none of these things and is big enough to take them all in; and he might have been alive this minute, a credit to himself, useful to the world, and doubtless very much more agreeable to his family than in the days of his blind arrogance.

The pathetic feature of this universal inexperience among city dwellers of real life and real people is that it is really entirely enforced and involuntary. At heart they crave knowledge of real life and sympathy with their fellow-men as starving men do food. In Hillsboro we explain to ourselves the enormous amount of novel-reading and play-going in the great cities as due to a perverted form of this natural hunger for human life. If people are so situated they can't get it fresh, they will take it canned, which is undoubtedly good for those in the canning business; but we feel that we who have better food ought not to be expected to treat their boughten canned goods very seriously. We can't help smiling at the life-and-death discussions of literary people about their preferences in style and plot and treatment ... their favorite brand on the can, so to speak.

To tell the truth, all novels seem to us badly written, they are so faint and faded in comparison to the brilliant colors of the life which palpitates up and down our village street, called by strangers, “so quaint and sleepy-looking.” What does the author of a novel do for you, after all, even the best author? He presents to you people not nearly so interesting as your next-door neighbors, makes them do things not nearly so exciting as what happened to your grandfather, and doles out to you in meager paragraphs snatches of that comprehending and consolatory philosophy of life, which long ago you should have learned to manufacture for yourself out of every incident in your daily routine. Of course, if you don't know your next-door neighbors, and have never had time to listen to what happened to your grandfather and are too busy catching trains to philosophize on those subjects if you did know them, no more remains to be said. By all means patronize the next shop you see which displays in its show windows canned romances, adventures, tragedies, farces, and the like line of goods. Live vicariously, if you can't at first hand; but don't be annoyed at our pity for your method of passing blindfold through life.

And don't expect to find such a shop in our village. To open one there would be like trying to crowd out the great trees on Hemlock Mountain by planting a Noah's Ark garden among them. Romances, adventures, tragedies, and farces ... why, we are the characters of those plots. Every child who runs past the house starts a new story, every old man whom we leave sleeping in the burying-ground by the Necronsett River is the ending of another ... or perhaps the beginning of a sequel. Do you say that in the city a hundred more children run past the windows of your apartment than along our solitary street, and that funeral processions cross your every walk abroad? True, but they are stories written in a tongue incomprehensible to you. You look at the covers you may even flutter the leaves and look at the pictures but you cannot tell what they are all about. You are like people bored and yawning at a performance of a tragedy by Sophocles, because the actors speak in Greek. So dreadful and moving a thing as a man's sudden death may happen before your eyes, but you do not know enough of what it means to be moved by it. For you it is not really a man who dies. It is the abstract idea of a man, leaving behind him abstract possibilities of a wife and children. You knew nothing of him, you know nothing of them, you shudder, look the other way, and hurry along, your heart a little more blunted to the sorrows of others, a little more remote from your fellows even than before.

All Hillsboro is more stirred than that, both to sympathy and active help, by the news that Mrs. Brownell has broken her leg. It means something unescapably definite to us, about which we not only can, but must take action. It means that her sickly oldest daughter will not get the care she needs if somebody doesn't go to help out; it means that if we do not do something that bright boy of hers will have to leave school, just when he is in the way of winning a scholarship in college; it means, in short, a crisis in several human lives, which by the mere fact of being known calls forth sympathy as irresistibly as sunshine in May opens the leaf buds.

Just as it is only one lover in a million who can continue to love his mistress during a lifetime of absolute separation from her, so it is one man in a million who can continue his sympathy and interest in his fellow-men without continual close contact with them. The divine feeling of responsibility for the well-being of others is diluted and washed away in great cities by the overwhelming impersonal flood of vast numbers; in villages it is strengthened by the sight, apparent to the dullest eyes, of immediate personal and visible application. In other words, we are not only the characters of our unwritten stories, but also part authors. Something of the final outcome depends upon us, something of the creative instinct of the artist is stirred to life within every one of us ... however unconscious of it in our countrified simplicity we may be. The sympathy we feel for a distressed neighbor has none of the impotent sterility of a reader's sympathy for a distressed character in a book. There is always a chance to try to help, and if that fail, to try again and yet again. Death writes the only Finis to our stories, and since a chance to start over again has been so unfailingly granted us here, we cannot but feel that Death may mean only turning over another page.

I suppose we do not appreciate the seriousness of fiction-writing, nor its importance to those who cannot get any nearer to real life. And yet it is not that we are unprogressive. Our young people, returning from college, or from visits to the city, freshen and bring up to date our ideas on literature as rigorously as they do our sleeves and hats; but after a short stay in Hillsboro even these conscientious young missionaries of culture turn away from the feeble plots of Ibsen and the tame inventions of Bernard Shaw to the really exciting, perplexing, and stimulating events in the life of the village grocer.

In “Ghosts,” Ibsen preaches a terrible sermon on the responsibility of one generation for the next, but not all his relentless logic can move you to the sharp throb of horrified sympathy you feel as you see Nelse Pettingrew's poor mother run down the street, her shawl flung hastily over her head, framing a face of despairing resolve, such as can never look at you out of the pages of a book. Somebody has told her that Nelse has been drinking again and “is beginning to get ugly.” For Hillsboro is no model village, but the world entire, with hateful forces of evil lying in wait for weakness. Who will not lay down “Ghosts” to watch, with a painfully beating heart, the progress of this living “Mrs. Alving” past the house, pleading, persuading, coaxing the burly weakling, who will be saved from a week's debauch if she can only get him safely home now, and keep him quiet till “the fit goes by.”

At the sight everybody in Hillsboro realizes that Nelse “got it from his father,” with a penetrating sense of the tragedy of heredity, quite as stimulating to self-control in the future as Ibsen is able to make us feel in “Ghosts.” But we know something better than Ibsen, for Mrs. Pettingrew is no “Mrs. Alving.” She is a plain, hard-featured woman who takes in sewing for a living, and she is quite unlettered, but she is a general in the army of spiritual forces. She does not despair, she does not give up like the half-hearted mother in “Ghosts,” she does not waste her strength in concealments; she stands up to her enemy and fights. She fought the wild beast in Nelse's father, hand to hand, all his life, and he died a better man than when she married him. Undaunted, she fought it in Nelse as a boy, and now as a man; and in the flowering of his physical forces when the wind of his youth blows most wildly through the hateful thicket of inherited weaknesses she generally wins the battle.

And this she has done with none of the hard, consistent strength and intelligence of your make-believe heroine in a book, so disheartening an example to our faltering impulses for good. She has been infinitely human and pathetically fallible; she has cried out and hesitated and complained and done the wrong thing and wept and failed and still fought on, till to think of her is, for the weakest of us, like a bugle call to high endeavor. Nelse is now a better man than his father, and we shut up “Ghosts” with impatience that Ibsen should have selected that story to tell out of all the tales there must have been in the village where he lived.

Now imagine if you can ... for I cannot even faintly indicate to you ... our excitement when Nelse begins to look about him for a wife. In the first place, we are saved by our enforced closeness to real people from wasting our energies in the profitless outcry of economists that people like Nelse should be prohibited from having children. It occurs to us that perhaps the handsome fellow's immense good-humor and generosity are as good inheritance as the selfishness and cold avarice of priggish young Horace Gallatin, who never drinks a drop. Perhaps at some future date all people who are not perfectly worthy to have children will be kept from it by law. In Hillsboro, we think, that after such a decree the human race would last just one generation; but that is not the point now. The question is, will Nelse find a wife who will carry on his mother's work, or will he not?

If you think you are excited over a serial story because you can't guess if “Lady Eleanor” really stole the diamonds or not, it is only because you have no idea of what excitement is. You are in a condition of stagnant lethargy compared to that of Hillsboro over the question whether Nelse will marry Ellen Brownell, “our Ellen,” or Flossie Merton, the ex-factory girl, who came up from Albany to wait at the tavern, and who is said to have a taste for drink herself.

Old Mrs. Perkins, whom everybody had thought sunk in embittered discontent about the poverty and isolation of her last days, roused herself not long ago and gave Ellen her cherished tortoise-shell back-comb, and her pretty white silk shawl to wear to village parties; and racked with rheumatism, as the old woman is, she says she sits up at night to watch the young people go back from choir rehearsal so that she can see which girl Nelse is “beauing home.” Could the most artfully contrived piece of fiction more blessedly sweep the self-centered complainings of old age into generous and vitalizing interest in the lives of others?

As for the “pity and terror,” the purifying effects of which are so vaunted in Greek tragedies, could Aeschylus himself have plunged us into a more awful desolation of pity than the day we saw old Squire Marvin being taken along the street on his way to the insane asylum? All the self-made miseries of his long life were in our minds, the wife he had loved and killed with the harsh violence of a nature he had never learned to control, the children he had adored unreasonably and spoiled and turned against, and they on him with a violence like his own, the people he had tried to benefit with so much egotistic pride mixed in his kindness that his favors made him hated, his vanity, his generosity, his despairing outcries against the hostility he had so well earned ... at the sight of the end of all this there was no heart in Hillsboro that was not wrung with a pity and terror more penetrating and purifying even than Shakespeare has made the centuries feel for Lear.

Ah, at the foot of Hemlock Mountain we do not need books to help us feel the meaning of life!

Nor do we need them to help us feel the meaning of death. You, in the cities, living with a feverish haste in the present only, and clutching at it as a starving man does at his last crust, you cannot understand the comforting sense we have of belonging almost as much to the past and future as to the present. Our own youth is not dead to us as yours is, from the lack of anything to recall it to you, and people we love do not slip quickly into that bitter oblivion to which the dead are consigned by those too hurried to remember. They are not remembered perfunctorily for their “good qualities” which are carved on their tombstones, but all the quaint and dear absurdities which make up personality are embalmed in the leisurely, peaceable talk of the village, still enriched by all that they brought to it. We are not afraid of the event which men call death, because we know that, in so far as we have deserved it, the same homely immortality awaits us.

Every spring, at the sight of the first cowslip, our old people laugh and say to each other, “Will you ever forget how Aunt Dorcas used to take us children out cowslipping, and how she never thought it 'proper' to lift her skirt to cross the log by the mill, and always fell in the brook?” The log has moldered away a generation ago, the mill is only a heap of blackened timbers, but as they speak, they are not only children again, but Aunt Dorcas lives again for them and for us who never saw her ... dear, silly, kind old Aunt Dorcas, past-mistress in the lovely art of spoiling children. Just so the children we have spoiled, the people we have lived with, will continue to keep us living with them. We shall have time to grow quite used to whatever awaits us after the tangled rosebushes of Hillsboro burying-ground bloom over our heads, before we shall have gradually faded painlessly away from the life of men and women. We sometimes feel that, almost alone in the harassed and weary modern world, we love that life, and yet we are the least afraid to leave it.

It is usually dark when the shabby little narrow-gauge train brings us home to Hillsboro from wanderings in the great world, and the big pond by the station is full of stars. Up on the hill the lights of the village twinkle against the blurred mass of Hemlock Mountain, and above them the stars again. It is very quiet, the station is black and deserted, the road winding up to the village glimmers uncertainly in the starlight, and dark forms hover vaguely about. Strangers say that it is a very depressing station at which to arrive, but we know better. There is no feeling in the world like that with which one starts up the white road, stars below him in the quiet pool, stars above him in the quiet sky, friendly lights showing the end of his journey is at hand, and the soft twilight full of voices all familiar, all welcoming.

Poor old Uncle Abner Rhodes, returning from an attempt to do business in the city, where he had lost his money, his health, and his hopes, said he didn't see how going up to Heaven could be so very different from walking up the hill from the station with Hemlock Mountain in front of you. He said it didn't seem to him as though even in heaven you could feel more than then that you had got back where there are some folks, that you had got back home.

Sometimes when the stars hang very bright over Hemlock Mountain and the Necronsett River sings loud in the dusk, we remember the old man's speech, and, though we smile at his simplicity, we think, too, that the best which awaits us can only be very much better but not so very different from what we have known here.

 
 
 

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