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Essays of E. B. White, Page 2

E. B. White

  My call was answered promptly, but I had no sooner hung up than I observed that the fire appeared to be out, having exhausted itself, so I called back to cancel the run, and was told that the department would like to come anyway. In the country, one excuse is as good as another for a bit of fun, and just because a fire has grown cold is no reason for a fireman’s spirits to sag. In a very short time, the loud, cheerful apparatus, its red signal light blinking rapturously, careened into the driveway, and the living room filled rapidly with my fire-fighting friends. My fire chief is also my barber, so I was naturally glad to see him. And he had with him a robust accomplice who had recently been up on my roof installing a new wooden gutter, dry and ready to receive the first sparks from a chimney fire, so I was glad to see him. And there was still a third fire-eater, and everyone was glad to see everyone else, as near as I could make out, and we all poked about learnedly in the chimney for a while, and then the department left. I have had dozens and dozens of home-comings at the end of an all-day ride on U.S. 1, but strangely enough this was one of the pleasantest.

  Shortly before he died, Bernard DeVoto gave the Maine coast a brisk going over in his Harper’s column, using some four-letter words that raised the hackles of the inhabitants. Mr. DeVoto used the word “slum” and the word “neon.” He said that the highway into Maine was a sorry mess all the way to Bucksport, and that the whole strip was overpopulated and full of drive-ins, diners, souvenir stands, purulent amusement parks, and cheap-Jack restaurants. I was thinking about this indictment at lunch the other day, trying to reconstruct my own cheap-Jack impressions of the familiar route after my recent trip over it. As I sat at table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving in from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, dust the spruce cover on the flower borders, coat the plowed land, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory that DeVoto unhappily did not live to see.

  Even without the kindly erasures of the snow, the road into Maine does not seem a slum to me. Like highways everywhere, it is a mixed dish: Gulf and Shell, bay and gull, neon and sunset, cold comfort and warm, the fussy façade of a motor court right next door to the pure geometry of an early-nineteenth-century clapboard house with barn attached. You can certainly learn to spell “moccasin” while driving into Maine, and there is often little else to do, except steer and avoid death. Woods and fields encroach everywhere, creeping to within a few feet of the neon and the court, and the experienced traveler into this land is always conscious that just behind the garish roadside stand, in its thicket of birch and spruce, stands the delicate and well-proportioned deer; just beyond the overnight cabin, in the pasture of granite and juniper, trots the perfectly designed fox. This is still our triumphant architecture, and the Maine man does not have to penetrate in depth to be excited by his coastal run; its flavor steals into his consciousness with the first ragged glimpse of properly textured woodland, the first whiff of punctually drained cove.

  Probably a man’s destination (which is ever in the motorist’s thoughts) colors the highway, enlarges or diminishes its defects. Gliding over the tar, I was on my way home. DeVoto, traveling the same route, was on his way to what he described rather warily as “professional commitments,” by which he probably meant that he was on his way somewhere to make a speech or get a degree. Steering a car toward home is a very different experience from steering a car toward a rostrum, and if our findings differ, it is not that we differed greatly in powers of observation but that we were headed in different emotional directions. I sometimes suspect that when I am headed east, my critical faculties are retarded almost to the vanishing point, like a frog’s heartbeat in winter.

  What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at a cost of seventy-five cents in tolls? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three French hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spire of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do. It was the Narramissic that once received as fine a lyrical tribute as was ever paid to a river—a line in a poem by a schoolboy, who wrote of it, “It flows through Orland every day.” I never cross that mild stream without thinking of his testimonial to the constancy, the dependability of small, familiar rivers.

  Familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the tree is hung with puckered frozen fruit of the right color. The spruce boughs that bank the foundations of the homes keep out the only true winter wind, and the light that leaves the sky at four o’clock automatically turns on the yellow lamps within, revealing to the soft-minded motorist interiors of perfect security, kitchens full of a just and lasting peace. (Or so it seems to the homing traveler.)

  Even journalism in Maine has an antic quality that gives me the feeling of being home. The editorial in our weekly paper, after taking DeVoto to task for his disparaging remarks, ended on a note of delirious maladroitness. The editorialist strongly urged DeVoto to return—come back and take a second look, see the real Maine. Then he added, “Note: DeVoto has died since this article was written.”

  Benny DeVoto, a good fighter in all good causes, would enjoy that one thoroughly if he could indeed return for one more look around.

  The deer season is all over for 1955. One day last week, half the hunters in town converged on the swamp south of here, between the road and the shore, for a final drive. As I rode into the village that afternoon, there was a rifleman at every crossing, and the cries of the beaters could be heard from the woods, the voice of one of them much louder and clearer than the others—a buglelike sound that suggested the eagerness of a hound. During November, a deer can’t move anywhere in this community without having its whereabouts flashed via the grapevine. As the season draws to a close, a sort of desperateness infects the male population. That afternoon it was almost as though the swamp contained an escaped convict. I heard two shots just before dark, but I learned later that neither of them took effect, and was secretly glad. Still, this business of favoring the deer over the hunter is a perplexing one; some of my best friends are deerslayers, and I never wish a man bad luck. As a spectator at the annual contest between deer and man, I am in the same fix as at the Harvard-Yale game—I’m not quite sure which club I’m rooting for.

  In the village, I found three big trucks loading fir-balsam wreaths for Boston. They were lined up in formation, headed out, ready for the starter’s gun. The loads were already built high in the air. Fir balsam is like no other cargo; even a workaday truck is exalted and wears a consecrated look when carrying these aromatic dumplings to the hungry dwellers in cities. This is the link that must not be broken. The head man in charge of wreaths was standing in front of his platoon, directing operations. He was one of those who had officiated at my chimney fire. His cheeks were red with cold. I asked him if he would be going to Boston himself with one of the trucks, and he said no, he couldn’t go, because he had pneumonia.

  “You really got pneumonia?” I asked as the wicked wind tugged at our shirts.

  “Yes, indeed,” he replied cheerfully. “Can’t seem to shake it.”

  I report this conversation so the people of Boston will not take their Christmas greens for granted. Wreaths do not come out of our wood lots and roll up to Boston under their own steam; they must be pried out and boosted on their way by a man with pneumonia. I noted that several of the crew were fellows whom I had
last seen a few weeks ago shingling the roof of my ell in Indian summer. Hereabouts a man must know every trade. First he tacks cedar shingles to a neighbor’s roof, then he’s off to Boston to shingle the front doors of Beacon Hill with the living green.

  Maine sends about a million Christmas trees out of the state every year, according to my latest advices. It is an easy figure to remember, and an easy one to believe as you drive about the county and see the neatly tied bundles along the road, waiting to be picked up, their little yellow butts so bright and round against the darkling green. The young fir balsam is a standard cash crop, just like the middle-aged clam. The price paid for trees “at the side of the road” ranges from a dollar a bundle (four or five trees) to $3.75. A man can be launched, or catapulted, into the Christmas-tree business quite by surprise. I wandered across the road the other day and up into the maple woods beyond my hayfield, and discovered that a miracle had taken place while my back was turned: the grove was alive with young firs, standing as close together as theatergoers between the acts.

  The Christmas-tree harvest is hard on the woods, though. People tend to cut wastefully, hacking away wherever the going is good. And the enemy is always at our gates in the form of bugs and blights. I have just read a report on the forest-insect situation, sent me by the county agent. We have all sorts of picturesque plagues. The balsam woolly aphid. Birch dieback. Dutch elm disease. Spruce budworm. (A spruce “bud” in Maine parlance is a spruce cone—the thing a red squirrel eats the seeds of, sitting on a rock, and the thing Boston and New York celebrants like to put on their mantelpieces. The budworm comes into the state in the form of a moth, on the northeast wind, in summertime. I don’t know whether a squirrel or a wood-lot owner has more at stake in this particular crisis.)

  There are only a few small items of news to report at this season. Canada jays have been observed in the vicinity, and they managed to get into the paper, under the headline “UNUSUAL BIRD SEEN.” I felt pretty good about this, because I had spotted two of these whiskey-jacks (not to be confused with cheap-Jacks) way back in October. The liquor store in the county seat was held up by a masked gunman recently and robbed of $2,672.45, which turned to be the day’s receipts and, of course, gave a much clearer picture of the amount of drinking done around here than any previous event. It would appear that the whiskey-jacks are here advisedly; they just like the sound of the place. Under the big shade trees in front of the house, the lawn is littered with dozens of half-eaten apples. I studied these, wondering what had been going on. Then I discovered that it was the work of crows. The crows pick little yellow apples from the old tree by the shed and carry them to some high perch before rifling them for seeds. In this respect they are no different from the people of San Francisco, who like to drink at the Top of the Mark, where they can really see what they are doing.

  Here in New England, each season carries a hundred foreshadowings of the season that is to follow—which is one of the things I love about it. Winter is rough and long, but spring lies all round about. Yesterday, a small white keel feather escaped from my goose and lodged in the bank boughs near the kitchen porch, where I spied it as I came home in the cold twilight. The minute I saw the feather, I was projected into May, knowing that a barn swallow would be along to claim the prize and use it to decorate the front edge of its nest. Immediately, the December air seemed full of wings of swallows and the warmth of barns. Swallows, I have noticed, never use any feather but a white one in their nest-building, and they always leave a lot of it showing, which makes me believe that they are interested not in the feather’s insulating power but in its reflecting power, so that when they skim into the dark barn from the bright outdoors they will have a beacon to steer by.

  P.S. (April 1962). A trip home over the highway still warms me in the same indescribable way, but the highway itself changes from year to year. The seductive turnpike, which used to peter out conveniently at Portland, introducing the traveler to the pleasures of Route 1, now catapults him clear through to Augusta and will soon shoot him to Bangor if he isn’t careful. The Narramissic still flows through Orland every day, but the last time I drove home I did not “dip down across” the river; instead I found myself hustling along on a new stretch of improved highway that cut out around Orland to the north and rushed me across the stream on a new bridge. The steep hill and sharp turns had been ironed out by the ironers, effecting a saving of probably three minutes in running time. So I was home three minutes earlier but have no idea how I spent those three extra minutes or whether they profited me as much as the old backward glance at Orland—its church spire, its reliable river, its nestling houses, its general store, and its bouquet of the flowering of New England.

  The whiskey-jack showed up again around here a couple of years ago. I encountered one down in the cedar swamp in the pasture, where I had gone to look for a fox’s den. The bird, instead of showing alarm at my intrusion, followed me about, jumping silently from branch to branch in the thick woods, seemingly eager to learn what I was up to. I found it spooky yet agreeable to be tailed by a bird, and a disreputable one at that. The Canada jay looks as though he had slept in his clothes.

  A Report in Spring

  NEW YORK, MAY 10, 1957

  I bought a puppy last week in the outskirts of Boston and drove him to Maine in a rented Ford that looked like a sculpin. There had been talk in our family of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and my wife and I had gone over the list of sensible dogs, and had even ventured once or twice into the company of sensible dogs. A friend had a litter of Labradors, and there were other opportunities. But after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!” She had had a glass of wine, and I could see that the truth was coming out. Her tone was one of exasperation laced with affection. So I engaged a black male without further ado.

  For the long ordeal of owning another dachshund we prepared ourselves by putting up for a night at the Boston Ritz in a room overlooking the Public Garden, where from our window we could gaze, perhaps for the last time, on a world of order and peace. I say “for the last time” because it occurred to me early in the proceedings that this was our first adoption case in which there was a strong likelihood that the dog would survive the man. It had always been the other way round. The garden had never seemed so beautiful. We were both up early the next morning for a final look at the fresh, untroubled scene; then we checked out hastily, sped to the kennel, and claimed our prize, who is the grandson of an animal named Direct Stretch of the Walls. He turned out to be a good traveler, and except for an interruption caused by my wife’s falling out of the car in Gardiner, the journey went very well. At present, I am a sojourner in the city again, but here in the green warmth of a city backyard I see only the countenance of spring in the country. No matter what changes take place in the world, or in me, nothing ever seems to disturb the face of spring.

  The smelts are running in the brooks. We had a mess for Monday lunch, brought to us by our son, who was fishing at two in the morning. At this season, a smelt brook is the nightclub of the town, and when the tide is a late one, smelting is for the young, who like small hours and late society.

  No rain has fallen in several weeks. The gardens are dry, the road to the shore is dusty. The ditches, which in May are usually swollen to bursting, are no more than a summer trickle. Trout fishermen are not allowed on the streams; pond fishing from a boat is still permissible. The landscape is lovely to behold, but the hot, dry wind carries the smell of trouble. The other day we saw the smoke of a fire over in the direction of the mountain.

  Mice have eaten the crowns of the Canterbury bells, my white-faced steer has warts on his neck (I’m told it’s a virus, like everything else these days), and the dwarf pear has bark trouble. My puppy has no bark trouble. He arises at three, for tennis. The puppy’s health, in fact, is exceptionally good. When my wife and I took him from the kennel, a week ago today, his mother kissed all three of us good
-bye, and the lady who ran the establishment presented me with complete feeding instructions, which included a mineral supplement called Pervinal and some vitamin drops called Vi-syneral. But I knew that as soon as the puppy reached home and got his sea legs he would switch to the supplement du jour—a flake of well-rotted cow manure from my boot, a dead crocus bulb from the lawn, a shingle from the kindling box, a bloody feather from the execution block behind the barn. Time has borne me out; the puppy was not long in discovering the delicious supplements of the farm, and he now knows where every vitamin hides, under its stone, under its loose board. I even introduced him to the tonic smell of coon.

  On Tuesday, in broad daylight, the coon arrived, heavy with young, to take possession of the hole in the tree, but she found another coon in possession, and there was a grim fight high in the branches. The new tenant won, or so it appeared to me, and our old coon came down the tree in defeat and hustled off into the woods to examine her wounds and make other plans for her confinement. I was sorry for her, as I am for any who are evicted from their haunts by the younger and stronger—always a sad occasion for man or beast.