|Where the Forest Murmurs,
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
Awakener of the Woods
TheSpiritof SpriDgisabroad. Thereisno one of our island coasts so lone and forlorn that the cries of the winged newcomers have not lamented 'down the wind. There is not an inland valley where small brown birds from the South have not penetrated, some from Mediterranean sunlands, some from the Desert, some from the hidden homes on unknown isles, some from beyond the foam of unfamiliar shores. Not a backwater surely but has heard the flute of the ouzel, or the loud call of the mallard. The wren, that sweet forerunner of "the little clan of the bushes," as we say in Gaelic, clann bheag' nam preas, the robin, the mavis, the merle, have been heard in every coppice and wildgrowth from the red combes of the winding Dart to the granite-ledges by the rushing Spey. From the last Cornish upland to the last brown moor on the Ord of Sutherland the curlew and the lapwing have wheeled with wailing cry or long melancholy flutelike whistle. The gorse, whose golden fires have been lit, has everywhere heard the prolonged sweet plaintive note of the yellowhammer. From the greening boughs the woodpeckers call.
The tides of Blossom have begun to flow. The land soon will be inundated. Already a far and wide forethrow of foam is flung along the blackthorn hedges. Listen . . . that chaffinch's blithe song comes from the flowering almond! . . . that pipit's brief lay fell past yonder wild-pear! In the meadows the titlarks are running about looking in the faces of the daisies, as children love to be told. On the fenlands and mosses the windy whimper of the redshank is heard like the cry of a phantom: and like a "bogle," too, is the perturbing drumming of the snipe falling swiftly on sloping wings back to the marsh.
The shores, the meadows, the uplands, on each there is a continual rumour. It is the sound of Spring. Listen . . . put your ear to the throbbing earth that is so soon to become the green world: you will hear a voice like the voice which miraculously evades in the hollow curves of a shell. Faiiit, mysterious, yet ever present, a continual rhythm. Already that rhythm is become a cadence: the birds chant the strophes, flower and blossom and green leaf yield their subtler antiphones, the ancient yet ever young protagonist is the heart of man. Soon the cadence will be a song, a pæan. The hour of the rose and the honeysuckle will come, the hour of the swallow hawking the grey gnat above the lilied stream, the hour when the voice of the cuckoo floats through ancient woods rejoicing in their green youth, that voice which has in it the magic of all springs, the eternal cry of the renewal of delight.
True, one may as yet more universally see the feet of Spring, or the blossom-touch of her hands, in the meadows and by the shores, than in the woods. She passes by the hedgerows or along the pastures, and her trail has the sheen of gold. Do not the celandine and the flaming dandelion, the pale cowslip and delicate crowsfoot, the jonquil and daffodil, the yellow of the broom and the bee-loved gorse, everywhere show it? She goes by the upland meadows, and touches the boughs of the wild-apple or leaning pear, stoops by the quince or the wild-cherry, and the white foam of the miraculous wind that is in the hollow of her hand is left upon the branches. The slim gean at the edge of the woodland catches the spray, the twisted crak is an old woman suddenly become a lovely girl cream-white and rose-flusht. Or she goes down the island-shores, or by the brackened coasts of inland lochs, or along the overhanging brows of streams, or where brooks glide between grassy banks; or, facing northward, she wanders where the hill-burn falls from ledge to ledge, or leaps past the outswung roots of mountain-ash or birch, or steals between peaty grasses where the wren has her nest in the pendant bramble and the greenfinch calls across the fern. And wherever she goes the yellow iris is left by her feet, the yellow-white willow-catkins have become musical with a myriad bees, dust of gold has fallen into the milk-white snow of the countless clans of the daisy, tides of an invisible flood have foamed along the hawthorns, the wild crocus has shone like the spear of Pisarr, the buttercup is brimmed with golden wine, and even the kingcup-ingots are melted in the waters---for whence else can come that flowing gold which is blent with yonder moving emerald that is as the breath of the grass, yonder floating azure as of drowned speedwells, yonder wandering violet, child of shadow and the wind, yonder mysterious phantom of pale mauve which tells that a becalmed cloud-ship drifts on the deeps of heaven.
Nevertheless, it is in the woods that the miracle may be more intimately seen. The Presence perchance is not universally abroad so much as immediately evident. A hand touched that larch yonder : for why is it so suddenly green, with a greenness as of a seawave, or as the wet emerald crystal one finds on the sands of Iona, or, rather, with the softer, moister, the indescribable greenness of the rainbow's breast? A foot leaned upon the moss beneath that vast oak, on whose southern slopes the russet leaves still hang like a multitude of bats along dark ragged cliffs: for why has the cyclamen suddenly burned in a faint flame, there; why has the sky suddenly come up through the moss, in that maze of speedwells? Who rose, yonder, and passed like a phantom westward? Some one, surely, of the divine race, for the tips of the sycamore-boughs have suddenly burned with a bronze-hued fire. Who went suddenly down that mysterious alley of dim columnar pines, stirring the untrodden silent ways? For, look, the air is full of delicate golden dust. The wind-wober has whispered, and the pinetree has loved, and the seed of the forests to come floats like summer-dust along the aerial highways.
But what of the Forest-Awakener? Who is he? Her name, is it known of men? Who can it be but the Wind of the South, that first-born of the wooing Year and sweetheart Spring? But what if the name be only that of a bird? Then, surely, it must be the woodthrush, or perchance the cushat, or, no, that wandering Summer-herald, the Cuckoo! Not the skylark, for he is in the sunlight, lost above the pastures: not the merle, for he is flooding the wayside elms with ancient music of ever-young love: not the blithe clans of the Finch, for one and all are gypsies of the open. Perchance, then, the Nightingale? No, he is a moon-worshipper, a chorister of the stars, the incense-swinger before the altars of the dawn: and though he is a child of the woods he loves the thickets also. Besides, he will not come far north. Are there not deep woods of silence and dream beyond the banks of the Tyne? Are there no forest sanctuaries north of the green ramparts which divide Northumbria from the glen of Tweed and the Solitudes of the shadowy Urr? Are there no inland valleys buried in sea-sounding woods beyond the green vale of Quair? Alas, the sweet Songmaker from the South does not think so, does not so dream. In moon-reveries in the woods of Surrey, in starry serenades along the lanes of Devon, in lonely nocturnes in the shadowy groves of the New Forest, he has no thought of more vast, more secret and impenetrable woods through which move mountain-airs from Schiehallion, chanting winds from the brows of the Grampians: he has no ancestral memory of the countless battalions of the red pine which throng the wilds of Argyll or look on the grey shoreless seag of the west; these green pillars which once covered the barren braes of Balquhidder, the desolate hill-lands of the Gregara, and, when the world was young, were wet with the spray of the unquiet wastes wherein are set the treeless Hebrides.
No, in the north at least, we cannot call the nightingale the Forest-Awakener. In truth, nowhere in our land. For he comes late when he comes at all. The great awakening has already happened. Already in the south the song-thrush, the dandelion, the black thorn-show are old tales: far in Ultima Thule to the north-west the gillebride has whistled the tidings to Gaelic ears, far in Ultima Thule to the north-east the Shetlander has rejoiced tn that blithest thicket-signal of spring, the tossed lilt of the wren.
It is of the green woodpecker I speak. We do not know him well, most of us: but then most of us are alien to the woods. Town-dwellers and homestayers know little or nothing of the secret signals. It is only the obvious that they note, and seldom read in the great Script of Nature anything more than the conventional signature of certain loved and familiar names and tokens.
It was in the Forest of Fontainebleau I first heard the green woodpecker called by this delightful name, the Awakener of the Woods, le Réveilleur de la Forêt. My French friend told me it was not a literary name, as I fancied, but one given by the foresters. And how apt it is. In the first weeks of March---in the first week of April, it may be, as the scene moves northward---there is no more delightful, and certainly no more welcome, sound than the blithe bugle-call of the green woodpecker calling through the woods for love, and, after long expectant pauses, hearing love call back in thrilling response, now a fiute-note of gladness, now a challenging clarion-cry. True, whether in the vast forest of Fontainebleau or in our northern woods the woodpecker is not so readily to be heard in the inward solitudes. He loves the open glades, and commonly the timbered park-land is his favourite resort. Still, save in the deepest and darkest woods, that delightful rejoicing note is now everywhere to be heard fluting along the sunlit ways of the wind. It awakes the forest. When the voice of the wood-pecker is heard it is the hour for Nature to celebrate her own Ides of March. Elsewhere the song-thrush and the skylark have been the first heralds. Even in the woods the missel-thrush may have flung a sudden storm of song out on the cold tides of the wind swaying the elm-tops like dusky airweed of the upper ocean. But, in the glades themselves, in the listening coverts, it is the call of the green woodpecker that has awakened the dreaming forest.
And what an ancient old-world tale Picus could tell. For, in the long ago, was he not Picus the antique Italiot God ? A forest-god he was, son of ancient Saturn, and himself the father of that beautiful being of the woods, Faunus. And how far he wandered from Thracian valley and Sabine oak-grove-for in that far northern Finland, which to the Latins was but an unknown remote waste under the star Septentrion, he and his son reappear, though now his name is Tapio and Faunus is become Nyyrikki:
Still does Nyyrikki, or Pikker as he was called by the northmen long before the Kalevala was wrought into Finnish runes, make notches along the pathways of the woods, still the huntsman on the hillside sees his signals on the oak-boles. Perhaps to this day the Esthonian peasant offers in his heart a prayer to Pikker the woodpecker-god, god of thunder and storm, so god too of the glades and fields where these can devastates prayer such as that which Johann Gutsloff, a Finnish author of the seventeenth century, cites as the supplication of an old Esthonian farmer: ". . . Beloved Pikker, we will sacrifice to thee an ox with two horns and four hoofs, and want to beg you as to our ploughing and sowing that our straw shall be red as copper and our grain as yellow as gold. Send elsewhere all thick black clouds over great swamps, high woods, and wide wastes. But give to us ploughmen and sowers a fertile season and sweet rain."
In Gaelic lands many an old name has been dropped from common use, because thus associated with some shy and yet never-far divinity, and so too the Finn and the Esth ceased to call the woodpecker Pikker (a word so strangely like Picus) and thus it is that now the peasant knows him only as Tikka. With the Romans, Picus the god was figured with a woodpecker on his head, and all of us who have read Pliny will remember the great store laid by the auspices of Rome on the flight and direction and general procedure of this forest-traveller. Recently a sculptor, I know not of what nationality, exhibited in Paris a statue of the Unknown Pan, and on his shoulder perched a woodpecker. Was this a reminiscence, or ancestral memory, or the divining vision of the imagination? I have some fifty pages or more of MS. notes dealing with the folklore and legendary names and varying ways and habits of the fascinating woodlander, from his Greek appearance as Pelekas, the axe-hewer (Aristophanes calls him the oak-striker)---whence no doubt "Picus and "Pikker" and "Peek" and the rest---to Latin Tindareas, mortal father of Leda, to the White Woodpecker, the magic bird of medæval legend, to "der olle Picker," the horrible laughing god of human sacrifice in ancient Prussia, to Pak-a-Pak, "the lost lover of the woman in the oak," in a strange tale I heard once in the woods of Argyll. But of all this I would recall to-day only that tradition of the woodpecker which describes her (she is a wise-woman in the folk-tales) as knowing where the spring-wurzel grows, that mysterious plant of Pan and the sun with which one may open the faces of cliffs with a breath, as did the deer-mother of Oisin of the Songs, with which too one may find the secret ways of Venusberg and behold incalculable treasure.
For hark! . . . Pak-a-Pak, and the long cry of love! It is answered from the listening woods! Here must "the spring-wurzel" grow . . . here, for sure, are the green palaces of Venusberg, here, at very hand, are the incalculable treasures of the awakened Forest.