Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

The Home of a Naturalist*


 

So unpropitious a face did it turn to the average urban explorer for country homes, that a certain tract of rough woodland out in Connecticut, near the shore of the sound, went long unregarded. It had abrupt, rocky ridges, and knolls of white maple and chestnut, and an ancient hemlock grove, and a spacious swamp with a brown brook winding through it. It had little to tempt the commonplace purchaser; but when Mr. Ernest Thompson Seton came, its roughness and its diversity appealed to him with a suggestion of his own remote wilds. He took the harsh tract of woodland, with its one small clearing, and made of it a unique expression of his own personality. As such, Wyndygoul has a significance beyond that of most other homes of famous men; and any description of it that was not at the same time something of an interpretation of its maker’s genius, would be inadequate.

In a woodland of two hundred acres, the boundaries do not crowd or obtrude. There is room for the privacies and mysteries of the forest itself. The wild creatures who inhabit there, guarded but unspoiled by a protection which is not thrust upon their notice, find ample space to choose their own most fitting resorts, whether of deep swam-thicket, or high, rocky brush-tangle, or overhanging bank by the brown water, or grassy glade sun-steeped at noon. There are seclusions within seclusions, so that the shy and various inhabitants of Wyndygoul are not forced into associations of other than their own choosing. From the iron gates that front the Cos Cob highway, one sees nothing to reveal what lies behind. Between the square stone pillars, flanked by a homelike lodge, unpretentious outbuildings and a simple, attractive garden, a straight white road leads away till the woods gather over it. To close the vista of such an avenue, one might take for granted a palace,—but instead of that only the green quiet and beneficence of trees.

Once fairly among the trees, the road ascends the course of the rushing brook, turns at the foot of the lake, curves in leisurely fashion to signify that the need of haste is left behind, sends off alluring side roads that lead, one wonders where, and mounts to the low and wide-roofed house of Wyndygoul, standing on its high lawn backed by ancient hemlocks.

The house, a structure of rough stone and heavy timbers, is not only new, but incomplete. When the design is carried out, it will cover thrice the ground that it now occupies. Yet for all its newness and its incompleteness, it looks as if it had always been there; and, what is more noteworthy, it seems native to the picture, as if it had its roots established among those of the ancient hemlocks. A note of contradiction, adding piquancy to the scene, is supplied by a gorgeous peacock, who spends most of his time strutting up and down the low stone wall before the windows and spreading to the sun the splendors of his tail.

From the west end of the house the ground drops away, a rough steep of rock and hemlocks, down to the lake. This lake (for a pond of eleven acres has fair claim to the more dignified title if it possesses all the distinctions and advantages of a lake except size) is the very center and heart of Wyndygoul. Few lakes of full stature, indeed, can present such a diversity of landscape. It has both high shores and low, of rock and bush and tree-roots, or of smoothest lawn, or of sand. It has inlets, cliffs, islands and bridges; and in many parts the swimmer may dive safely from the shore into its deep, cool, tawny water.

This lake, which bears every mark of the authentic product of nature, has been made from an unsightly waste of swamp. Not nature, but an infinite deal of digging and damming by a host of indifferent Italian laborers, created it. But so rightly and with such knowledge of nature did Mr. Seton design it, setting his dam where once, in dim, forgotten days, the wise beavers had established a kindred structure, that nature has not hesitated to accept it and mark it all over with the seal of her full approval. The great dam, whence the brook rushes foaming and softly clamorous into a deep trout pool, does not proclaim itself a dam, but merges graciously into the broken, rocky shores on either side, making haste to clothe itself with the luxuriance of elder and pokeweed. The upper portion of the lake is split by a precipitous, wooded point of maple, ash, white oak, and chestnut. On one side of this point a shaded cove shelters the landing-place for the boats and canoes, at the head of a stretch of sward called the Peacock Lawn,—a beautiful spot which the peacocks, who were not consulted in the naming of it, have agreed to ignore. On the other side of the point a sheer cliff, called the Rimrock, gray and scarred, drops into deep water. Opposite Rimrock is a steep, wooded islet, called Bird Island, much affected by the wild ducks in the nesting season. A little further up the lake is all islands, with winding channels between them, where the glassy water doubles every leaf and branch and stem, and the shadows sleep undisturbed while the swooping gusts are darkening the outer reaches. At the beginning of the islands, where the shores draw close, a high rustic bridge, of three frail, spidery arches, fitly named the Monkey Bridge, affords a precarious crossing, some ten or twelve feet above the water. Perhaps two hundred yards above the bridge the lake ends, where the brook flows noisily in beneath another little bridge, behind the last of the islands.

The lake is the heart of Wyndygoul, because all eyes turn to it, all roads lead to it, and all the life of the place centers about it. On its waters float wild ducks of many species,—black-duck, mallard, wood-duck, teal, widgeon and red-head. The garrulous snow geese from Texas make spots of whiteness on the dark surface under the banks, or gather on the Peacock Lawn to confer in high, thin voices about the weather. The stately Canada geese, with their strong wings, fine arrogant heads and highbred garb of black, white and brown, sail slowly from point to point, or patrol the banks, pausing from time to time, to utter their sonorous bugle-calls. Among the little islands the muskrats make safe homes, and the trees near the shore are thronged with squirrels and song-birds. Only the hares and rabbits, of whom there are several species on the place, seem indifferent to the lake, making their resort in the remoter coverts. Doubtless even in this protected wilderness the blood law of the wild prevails at times in spite of all the efforts of the master of the domain to let none but the kindlier kindreds within the pale. The red squirrel will rob and kill when his wanton spirit so moves him; and the mink, no doubt, takes tribute now and then in more than fish; and the owl and the hawk will sometimes hunt where the hunting is so good. But where these are the sole marauders life may be accounted safe indeed, as the life of the wild kin goes; and neither hawk nor owl finds a gun awaiting him at Wyndygoul.

Across the lake from the Peacock Lawn is a little landing, with a path leading up the bank to a small cleared space among the trees, with a painted "medicine rock" in the center. Here are pitched four genuine "tepees," brilliant with aboriginal decorations; and here, at times, Mr. Seton "plays Injun" with boy friends who come from different parts of the country to camp with him. These tepees are the handiwork of Indians of the plains and the far West, of Black-foot and Sioux; and at these encampments the game is played as systematically and completely as possible, even to the lighting of the camp-and tepee-fires by means of the "fire-stick." On the lake are two birch-bark canoes, made by the Melicite Indians of the River St. John, in New Brunswick; so that here at Wyndygoul the East and West meet amicably. All Indians are interesting to those who play the game with proper enthusiasm, and love it as they play.

It is, above all, this love of "playing the game" that is so characteristic a note of life at Wyndygoul, as it is so marked a characteristic of the master of Wyndygoul himself. Alike into his science and his art he carries the enthusiasm of the boy. A careful and scientific naturalist, he has been gathering from boyhood a wealth of data with which to build the structures of his art, but alike, into the gathering and the building, has entered the element of personal love,—that ardor of sincerity which a healthy boy carries into construction of a hut in the woods. This quality makes it possible for his writings, whether dealing with animals or with Indians, to convey an immense amount of information, of exact and minute detail, without seeming overloaded or didactic. They entertain so perfectly that one forgets how accurately they instruct. It is much the same with Mr. Seton’s play at Wyndygoul. Whether the game be archery or fire-making, or the reading of forest signs, or trailing the "burlap deer," or canoeing, or imitating the calls of the wild creatures, all is done for its own sake, with a sincerity that makes it a replica of life, as well as with the accuracy of the mind trained to the gathering and presentation of exact knowledge. When boys come to "play Injun" with the master of Wyndygoul, neither they nor he is concerned about the fact that they are being consummately educated in woodcraft and trained to that outdoor life which means health for body and soul. What concerns them is the fact that they are doing what they want to be doing, and doing it with all their might, and believing in it all the time.

It is such blending of the naturalist and artist with the elemental and primitive,—in other words, with the boy,— which has found substantial expression in Wyndygoul. It is the same blending, with the addition of an admirable literary form, which has differentiated Mr. Seton’s books from all their predecessors, and made him the founder of the new school of nature-study,—a school which, while yielding nothing to the old-school naturalists in the matter of exact observation, goes much beyond them, in that it seeks for the motives underlying the conscious acts of sentient beings. With the realization that animals are neither mere automata nor the helpless prisoners of instinct, but creatures governed by an intelligence which differs more in degree than in kind from that of a man, has arisen an interest in the mental processes of our lower kindreds. These processes Mr. Seton seeks to infer as one would infer those of human agents, from such actions of theirs as he has been enabled to observe. And it is all this, I think, which justifies the critic in applying the word epochal to the work of the master of Wyndygoul.

 


"The Home of a Naturalist," Country Life in America 5 (December 1903, 152-56 [back]