Project Canterbury

Impressions and Opinions: An Autobiography
By J.G.H. Barry, D.D.
Rector Emeritus, Church of S. Mary the Virgin, New York.

New York: E.S. Gorham, 1931.

Chapter II. The Woods and the Hills

Although the river played so great a part in my life as a boy, my chief delight was not there but in the woods and hills that surrounded my birthplace. Even as a very small boy I had a vivid sense of the beauty of the natural world. My life was an out-of-door life; as a young child I had few play-fellows and had to invent my own amusements. I was never lonely or at a loss what to do or how to enjoy the day if only the weather permitted me to be in the open. The flowers in the garden, the constant murmur of the waterfall at the edge of the orchard, the sight of the river dotted with white sails, the slope of the hills where a house here and there set me dreaming stories of their inhabitants--all these were raw material out of which I wove a life rich in sensation and crowded with interest. As I grew older there was no joy to me like the joy of wandering over the hills and through the woods, saturating myself with the beauty and mystery of the world.

The lawn and garden and orchard in which our house was set comprised about five acres. The greater part was the orchard which on the west side ran into a shallow ravine, its bank a tangle of trees and underbrush, where a great variety of wild flowers gave a constant succession of blooms through the warm months. Through the ravine ran a brook. Just where our land began there was a small pond held in by a dam over which the water fell furnishing our house with music day and night. Across the ravine was an old mill, little used in my time, which was the occasion of the dam. This deserted mill was a wonderful place to play. Below the dam the water flowed rapidly for a few hundred feet and then widened out into another pond held in by a high stone dam and which served an old saw-mill below. Below this dam the brook flowed on and out through our land and so after a little more wandering at last reached the river.

It was the orchard and the banks of the ravine which were the scene of my sport and the scene of much of the drama of my early life. Here in the spring as soon as the snow was gone and the frost out of the ground I sought the first flowers the sun called out and carried them in triumph to my grandmother, sure of a sympathetic sharer in my gladness: liverwort and saxifrage, Solomon's seal and all the varieties of violets, blue and white and yellow. All through the warm months and until the frost killed the last golden rod and daisies there was a continual procession of beauty to fascinate me and stimulate me to unending search. Later when one could go farther afield there were richer rewards. There was arbutus that came so early in the spring, the scent of which filled the woods; there were the hedges of laurel by the lonely wood-paths; there were whip-poorwilPs shoes to be found far from the frequented paths in the hidden depths of the thickets; and as the season went on, one might, if one knew where to search, find the splendid crimson of the Cardinal flower flaming by the brookside and the exquisite blue of the gentian gleaming in the sun. One came to know every flower and just where it bloomed and when it was to be found, and one's day's programme of wandering was shaped in accord with that knowledge. Woods and swamps and hill-slopes and meadows were all about; it was a question of what treasure was awaiting the wanderer, as, breakfast over and hours of freedom before him, he stood on the veranda and shaped his day's programme.

I was an imaginative and rather timid child and was not sent to school till late, and, with no companions of my own age to play with, was thrown on my own resources for amusement; and I always found my own resources quite sufficient. I fancy present-day standardized and superintended play is fatal to the imagination; at any rate I am glad that I escaped it. Left to myself in the solitude of my orchard where the companions were birds and flowers and brooks, I was free, not to imitate, but to create. I created my own world. The orchard was a battlefield, the brookside a hunting ground, where with wooden sword and gun I lived a life of heroic and enchanting adventure. We are told that the great value of games is that they teach the child to cooperate, to think of others and to suppress egotism and self-choice. Perhaps so. One has to learn these valuable qualities somewhere, and a ball game or a football match is a good place to learn them. But I am convinced that there is danger of certain possible and useful attributes of character being suppressed by crowd action. If one is never alone, if one is always a unit in a group, one has small chance of the development of the creative imagination which to me is one of the most valuable of character assets--at least if one is to lead a life of the intellect.

As I try to recall these early days in which I lived in a world so largely of my own creation, I am struck with a fact which, I suppose, was the outcome of an inherent tendency, of my natural timidity: it was the emergence of a quality which was to be very influential in later life, which, in fact, very largely determined my future career. I recall that as a small boy playing soldier or Indian, or organizing hunting expeditions into the unexplored wilderness, I always shrank from responsibility. I very rarely imagined myself as the commander of the army or the head of the expedition. I deliberately chose a subordinate place for myself. I created all the details of the military campaign, I organized the hunting or exploring expedition, I was the brains of the undertaking, whatever it was; but I put the responsibility for the conduct of it on someone else. I was a brave soldier and did my part gallantly, but it was the part of a colonel or lieutenant, not of a general.

That has been my attitude all my life. I have disliked prominence and responsibility. That I have kept out of situations where I have been told that I ought to take the lead, that I have declined leadership that I might have had, has not been (as some of my friends have kindly thought) from humility or self-distrust, but to a constitutional dislike of prominence and publicity. If it had been a quality developed late in life I should think it a form of sloth, but a child is not slothful. If I had grasped at leadership my life might have been very different, but would it have been more useful? I am inclined to doubt it. I do not in the least regret my constitutional limitation--if it be one.

This is rather a long digression, but one is privileged to tell one's story in one's own way. Let us go back to the soldier boy--the hero of the open country.

As I emerged from my solitary world into the world of school and companionship, I still did not altogether abandon my world of the imagination, but of necessity it was transformed. I still loved the solitude of the woods and hills and my greatest joy was to go off for the day by myself. School, home work, companions, made such times more rare, but they still survived. When I was twelve years old I was given a gun--that was joy unspeakable! It was a single barrel, muzzle-loading shot gun, very light, and therefore could be carried all day without tiring me. A game bag and powder flask and a shot pouch completed the equipment. No: I had already (don't be shocked) learned to smoke, so a clay pipe and some Bull Durham must be added. That boy who went off for the first time with his own gun for a day's hunting by himself in the woods, with his lunch and his pipe stowed away in his hunting bag, is so remote from the present writer that I can view him quite objectively. I can imagine no more perfect embodiment of happiness. Nothing that that boy has since accomplished has given him the thrill that he experienced as he went out of the gate with his gun on his shoulder, a real hunter now! He was no longer the imaginative creation that he had so often been before.

These days of free wandering for the next few years were glorious days: and there is this which, I think, is peculiar about them--I was never in the least anxious to kill anything. Whether I brought home game or not--usually I did not--was a matter of indifference. What mattered was the sense of freedom in union with the beauty of the woods and hills. One went out in the spring when there was nothing to shoot and lay for long on the soft moss under the trees or sat on a stone amid the new-sprung ferns by the brookside and watched the water flow by, making as it went over the stones delicious music. A lazy idle boy--no doubt: but one saturated with the beauty of the world. I can still after more than fifty years recall individual days of deep emotional experience. They were the days of a hunter, but the best and deepest experience did not come when the partridge or the pigeon fell in response to the shot--though at first that was a thrill not to be scorned. I remember an August afternoon spent in lying on top of a huge boulder on the slope of an open pasture watching the cloud-shadows drift across the hillside in ever-changing fantastic shapes. I recall an early morning in October. I had risen very early and got my own breakfast and started out with my gun to hunt pigeons--there were still wild pigeons in those days. The sun was just rising, but the whole of the river valley was filled with dense fog. As I stood on the veranda I could not see the gate not more than fifty feet away. I made my way through the fog and up the hillside till I suddenly emerged from the fog, and looking back saw a vision of wonder. The whole valley below me was a vast tossing white cloud on which the rising sun was playing and creating patterns of fantastic shapes in all the colors of the rainbow. That was a vision of pure beauty worth the early rising and the whole day's hunting. I fancy that it was on that day that I had an experience of another kind which has been with me all the days that have come since. I can close my eyes now and see an opening in the woods where stood a solitary oak tree loaded with acorns. There are a few wild pigeons in the branches getting their morning meal. Everything is stillness and peace. A boy steals slowly to the edge of the clearing, raises his gun and fires. A pigeon falls and the boy rushes forward to pick it up. I can feel him now as he stands with the dying pigeon in his hand and feels the pigeon's eyes looking into his soul. No doubt that boy killed other birds and animals after that, but I do not think that he ever took any pleasure in their killing. He knew in that moment the meaning of the word cruelty, and he has come more and more to loathe the thing itself.

An interest that took me constantly afield in the late spring and early summer was bird-nesting. I read--I fancy that I was about eleven years old at the time--a boy's book in which the hero was described as a collector of bird's eggs. The description fascinated me and I at once set about making a collection of eggs. I have deeply ingrained the collecting instinct, and--haye, in the course of my life, collected many things. The collection of eggs was the beginning, to be followed by collections of stamps, butterflies, woods, coins, ending (at least I trust so) with books. The moral objection that the family raised against robbing birds' nests was met in the light of the book I had read and by the example of its hero, by my promise to take only one egg from a nest and to collect but two or three of a variety.

I do not know of any more healthful or instructive amusement for a country youngster than this. It took one completely afield and one came to know all about the local birds--the times of their appearance and disappearance, the notes of their song, the places of their nesting--in fact, their whole history. In the course of the three or four years in which I was collecting, my collection came to contain the eggs of almost all the local birds. It also contained some quite unusual specimens. An uncle who was a sea captain, and who was also a collector (I shall have occasion to speak of him elsewhere) presented me with a number of eggs gathered on an island in the South Pacific. They were the eggs of various gulls and terns whose names I do not remember. I nearly became possessed of other like treasures. My brother was bringing me some eggs, albatross, if I remember, among them, from one of his voyages. They were hanging in his room when he went in hurriedly in the dark and struck them with his head--and I was a disappointed boy!

Hunting through the fields and the meadows for the nests of the meadow lark and the bobolink and in the hedges for sparrows and various sorts was interesting but simple. Cutting out a woodpecker's nest in an old tree was harder work. It was a much more difficult joy to discover the nest of the woodcock (they were not plentiful where I lived) or the stone where without a nest the night hawk laid her eggs. Real adventure came m climbing for the nest of the crow or the hawk; the small boy was never quite sure of what the hawk might do to him.

One learned the ways of all the birds. I have since often been struck with the utter ignorance of boys, even of boys with ready access to the country, in all matters of wild life. They have not known the names of the commonest birds and trees and flowers--cannot tell a maple from an oak, to say nothing of distinguishing the various varieties of oak. Playing ball is no doubt a good sport and healthy, but it is not an education as the study of nature under the impulse to collect is. The boys I have dealt with in later life have been living a happy life but, to me, a very narrow life, a life with unnecessary limits. A life such as I lived in a Connecticut village was infinitely more educative than the life of the public school boy in the city today. It had broader and more wholesome interests.

Birds were interesting, but there were also beasts of various kinds that had to be understood. Curiously, perhaps from the accident of my home life, I have always disliked dogs. We had a dog when I was a baby; I can just remember him: a rat-and-tan I called him. But there was none later and I never wanted one. There was no special influence to awaken such a desire; those who owned dogs did not make pets of them, and the period had not dawned when every lady must have a little beast about to pet and fondle. But cats--yes, cats: they are wonderful. I love them for their independence among other qualities. I delig'ht in a large cat that sits and looks with unspeakable contempt on some stupid human being who is trying to induce it to play. "Play!" he seems to say, "Do you take me for a wretched little pup?" I love to see him turn and walk slowly away, obviously thinking: "What a silly ass you are." I have only contempt for the fawning slave temperament of "man's best friend." Man loves a dog, I fancy, because he can endlessly tyrannize over him. A boy develops the qualities of selfishness and arbitrary power in playing with a dog: a cat will not stoop to lend himself to such degradation. But this is a digression. I am really concerned with wild creatures.

There were not many wild creatures about Middle Haddam. The country had been too long settled. The fox was a rare creature; I do not remember seeing one in all my wanderings in woods and fields. Occasionally one came across a fox's hole--or what one decided was one. Squirrels were fairly abundant and the hunting of the grey squirrel was a fall sport. In the matter of animals I was more interested in trapping than in shooting. The muskrat was abundant. The steel-trap yielded the woodchuck and the skunk. Over the latter one sometimes got into trouble with an unsympathetic family. I fancy that a boy's sense of smell is well-disciplined and that he does not mind things that older people make a fuss about. In any case I have been on occasion turned out of the house when I came home after a bout with a skunk. But what was one to do? I remember going out to visit a trap that I had quite innocently set for a woodchuck and was surprised to find caught by the foot a black and white beastie. One could not just leave a valuable trap with a skunk in it and go one's way. That would be neither economic nor numane. I was armed only with a small hatchet and had to come to close quarters with the enemy. The skunk was killed after a struggle in which I was--perfumed. But one could not leave it at that even. There was the skin that would bear witness to one's prowess when nailed on the barn door to dry. It was a good morning's t work from my point of view; but my mother proved altogether unsympathetic with my achievements and drove me out of the house with orders to bury my boots in the ground and in some way to get rid of the rest of i my clothes. My only consolation was the possession of the skin.

One great value of trapping is that it gives a boy out-of-door interest in the season when such interests are reduced to a minimum. When winter comes what is one f to do? There is, of course, skating when the ice is clear anywhere. Skating is a wonderful sport from every point of view. While the ice was clear I gave day and r night to it, stopping briefly for meals. What is more exhilarating than a night on a pond; with the fires burning on the bank where one can stop and warm one's hands or gather with the other boys and girls for talk; the shouting crowd of youngsters; the great variety of games. There was excitement, too, the excitement of vivid j» achievement. Did you ever play "dukey"? I fancy not. You do not know how it is played? Well, it is this way. You select a part of the pond and cut out cakes of ice, say, four feet square. You may have any number, but four will do very well. Now run across these loose floating cakes! That is excitement! Perhaps a cake will break and let you in. Perhaps you will fall down and get soaked. In any case the crowd stands about, daring one another to action, jeering after the manner of boys at misfortune. If the ice is newly formed and doubtfully strong enough to bear one's weight, there is no need to cut cakes; one can rapidly run or skate over it and feel it wave under one--and perhaps one drops through. What matter if one does? One pulls off one's boots and empties the water out, and goes into school when the bell rings. The teacher will let one sit up by the stove and dry oneself: and no one thinks of "catching cold." One did not catch cold in those days--or it did not matter!

I remember one afternoon going out to skate on one of the ponds, which for our enjoyment were numerous, and starting a race with another boy. The pond was not very long and we were going to go the whole length. We started at the upper end and were getting near the lower and my opponent was drawing ahead of me. In our path was a space covered with a coating of snow. The other boy went around this on the smooth ice; I thought I saw a chance of beating him by cutting straight through. I seized the opportunity, but unfortunately for me under the snow there was but a thin sheet of ice and I dropped into the water up to my armpits--and lost the race. Also I was very wet indeed and was some distance from home. However, there was nothing to do but to take off my skates and make the best time I could for home and warm dry clothes. I arrived with as little loss of time as possible at the kitchen door to be confronted by my mother, who took in the situation at a glance. Maternal sympathy failed me. "Don't come on to the floor, it has just been scrubbed," she said. But where was one to go? It was a deeply aggrieved boy who finally got warm and comfortable.

One thing Middle Haddam does not lack is hills. The compensation is the possibility of getting on a sled at one's door and sliding to one's heart's content. It took a good deal of sliding to content my heart. After the winter snows came, one slid down a hill and walked up again all day and part of the night. It sounds rather stupid to slide down a hill for a quarter of a mile and then drag a sled up again to the place one started from, and to do this over and over again for hours. But a boy never minds hard work if it presents itself to him as play. There are even times in life when a boy will not only pull up a sled, but a sled with a girl comfortably seated thereon. I had retired from sliding before that time of life.

Sliding down hill is not without its physical risks as well as its emotional thrills. Just plain sliding on an open road is safe enough; all we had to contend with was the advent of an occasional horse and sleigh or oxcart. These we regarded with hostility for cutting the surface of the snow that we had so laboriously got delightfully smooth. No: the danger was mostly of our own creating. We lay on our stomachs on our sleds, each boy catching the sled behind him with his feet, thus forming a long line of sleds loosely and uncertainly held together: and when the leader swerved from side to side, as he always did, the whole line speedily became a twisting, writhing serpent, with the possibility, almost certainty, that the last sled and boy would be dashed out of the road into ditch or bank--that was the danger, and there were always volunteers for this position of risk. Another form of risk was incurred when we got a sleigh and the place of the horse was ken by a boy on a sled, the rest of us piling into the sleigh and the whole load starting down the hill. There was no stopping the course once in motion, and the boy in the shafts stood to get a bad smashing if the whole load came to disaster. Still, boy-life is a constant taking qf risks, and we took all there were.

But all this has nothing to do with trapping? No: it was suggested by the thought of winter sports. Let us go back to our traps then and see the boy making his way into the woods. There is not much variety of game possible in the winter, it is a matter of rabbits and box-traps. A box-trap set in the edge of the woods where the snow is covered with rabbit tracks will probably bring results. In any case there is the joy of tramping over the snow-covered fields in the well-realised character of hunter--eager expectation is worth having, even if there is disappointment at the end: and always there will be a few rabbit skins to show at the end of the season.

The rabbits, minus their skins, will be eaten, probably quite badly cooked, in a hut in the woods. The hut is a great institution and deserving a few words because of the large place it occupied in my life. I cannot recall how many huts I helped to build, but a goodly number. They were our winter resorts, the head-quarters of sport out of school and on Saturdays. What was the school of architecture, depended on the materials we could command at the time. I remember one, the last one I was concerned with, made of frame covered with boards and shingled! But this was due to quite unusual circumstances. We must have commanded a considerable amount of money on that occasion. I remember for one thing a long hard row up the river against a freshet tide to the nearest place where we could buy shingles. Another hut I remember perched on the face of a cliff so that it hung over a rock-bedded brook forty feet below. But usually the hut was a much simpler affair: an excavation in a bank with some uprights in front to support a roof covered with leaves and dirt gave a cosy interior. A fireplace was easily built, or perhaps an old stove could be obtained. The hut was warm, if somewhat smoky, and a dinner could be cooked--here we get back to the rabbit. If there was no rabbit there could be eggs, and a hen might be contributed by some member of the party, the provenance of which we did not enquire into. After dinner we could enjoy our pipes without the disturbance of family criticism. At the age of twelve most of us were confirmed smokers.

One did not dwell much in those years from twelve to fifteen on so abstract a notion as that of beauty, one was satisfied with the thing itself. One lived in an atmosphere of beauty. Hills were all about us, varying continually from the wonderful browns of the early spring through the infinite variety of greens of the later seasons on to the splendor of autumn and the glitter of the winter snow. Brooks bordered with ferns ran under beech and elm and sycamore trees out into meadows filled with flowers, and so on to the river. One's life was framed in beauty whether one lay naked on the sand watching the boats go by on the river or stood on the top of Great Hill and looked out over miles upon miles of forest and field and stream. I look back and thank God that my life began there in the country of the Connecticut valley and was shaped by the silent influences of the natural world and was so little influenced by the tyranny of the school.

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