|Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, Fiona Macleod
Rising of The Moon
"The dew is heavy on the grass: the corncrake calls: on a
cloudy juniper the nightjar churrs: the fhionna or white moth wavers above the tall spires
of the foxglove. The midsummer eve is now a grey-violet dusk. At the rising of the moon a
sigh comes from the earth. Down the moist velvety ledges of the dark a few far-apart and
low-set stars pulsate as though about to fall, but continuously regather their tremulous
white rays. The night of summer is come."
With these words I ended my preceding essay, "The Coming of Dusk" There was not space there to speak of other, of so many of those nocturnal things which add so much to the mystery and spell of the short nights of summer: the arrowy throw of the bat, a shadowy javelin flung by a shadowy hand against a shadowy foe; the nightjar, the dusky clans of the owl, moonrise at sea or among pinewoods, the dance of the moths round certain trees, the faint woven cadence of the wheeling gnat.-columns, the sudden scream of the heron or the wailing of seafowl, or the mournful noise of the moon-restless lapwing, wind in the grass, wind in the hollows of woods, wind among the high corries of the hills. These and a hundred other sounds and sights fill the summer-darkness: the hill-fox barking at the moonshine, the heather-cock in defiance of alarm, deer panting among the bracken, the splash of herring or mackerel on the moonlit breast of the bay, dogs baying a long way off and from farmstead to farmstead. One could not speak of all these things, or of the hundred more. In the meadows, in woods, on upland pastures, from beech-thicket to pine-forest, on the moors, on the hills, in the long valleys and the narrow glens, among the dunes and seabanks and along wave-loud or wave-whispering shores, everywhere the midsummer-night is filled with sound, with fragrance, with a myriad motion. It is an exquisite unrest: a prolonged suspense, to the dayworn as silence is, yet is not silence, though the illusion is wrought out of the multitudinous silences which incalculably intersperse the continuous chant of death, the ceaseless hymn of life.
Everywhere, but far north in particular, the summer night has a loveliness to which the least sensitive must in some degree yield, creates a spell which must trouble even a dulled imagination, as moonlight and the faintest rippling breath will trouble unquickened pools into a sudden beauty. It is a matter of temperament, of mood and circumstance rather, where one would find oneself, at the rising of the moon, in the prolonged twilights of summer. To be in a pinewood shelving to a calm sea breaking in continuous foam: or among mountain solitudes, where all is a velvety twilight deepening to a green darkness, till the sudden moon rests athwart one hill-shoulder like a bronze shield, and then slowly is lifted and dissolves into an amber glow along all the heights: or on great moors, where one can see for leagues upon leagues, and hear nothing but the restless crying of the curlew, the screech of a heron, the abrupt unknown cries and fugitive sounds and momentary stealthy rustlings of nocturnal solitudes. Or, again, on a white roadway passing through beech-woods: or on a gorse-set common, with the churring of a nightjar filling the dusk with the unknown surge and beat in one's own heart: or on the skirts of thatched hamlets, where a few lights linger, with perhaps the loud breathing and trampling of cattle: or in a cottage-garden, with mignonette and cabbage-roses and ghostly phlox, or dew-fragrant with musk and southernwood: or in an old manor-garden, with white array of lilies that seem to have drunk moonlight, and damask and tea-rose in odorous profusion, with the honey-loving moths circling from moss-rose to moss-rose, and the night-air delaying among tall thickets of sweet-pea. Or, it may be, on quiet seawaters, along phantom-cliffs, or under mossed and brackened rocky wastes: or on a river, under sweeping boughs of alder and willow, the great ash, the shadowy beech. But each can dream for himself. Memory and the imagination will create dream-pictures without end.
Of all these midsummer-night creatures, alluded to here or in the preceding essay, there may be none more allied to poetic association than the nightjar, but surely there is none more interesting than the owl itself, that true bird of the darkness. That phantomflight, that silent passage as from the unseen to the unseen, that singular cry, whether a boding scream or a long melancholy hoot or a prolonged too-whoo, how blent they are with one's associations of the warm husht nights of summer. But is not the nightjar also of the same tribe? Fern-owl is a common name; also jar-owl, heather-owl. I have heard it called the heather-bleat, though probably that name commonly indicates the snipe. How well I remember from childhood that puzzling riddle
I was never "taken-in " by the first three, but as I had been
told, or had somehow discovered, that the cuckoo was often companioned by the meadow-pipit
I thought the latter must be the "gowk." So I guessed "four," taking
the beather-bleat to be the nightjar: and it was long before I discovered that the answer
was two, for only the cuckoo and the snipe were really named.
("I am old as the oak . . . lit. 'the ancientness upon me is that of the oak' . . . whose mossy roots spread wide: many a race have I seen come and go: and still I am the lonely owl of Srona.")
In every country the owl is a bird of mourning. It is also the bird of
night pre-eminently (what a pity the old-English owl-light as a variant for twilight has
become obsolete); the bird of moonlight or the Moon; the bird of Silence, of Ruin, of the
Grave, of Death. In some places a dead owl is still transfixed to the outside of a door,
to avert lightning. Perhaps it is for the same reason that a caged owl is held to be a
dangerous co-inmate of a house during a thunderstorm. A thousand legends have woven this
sombre raiment of associations, though the owl's only distinction from other birds of prey
is that it can see in the dark and is nocturnal in habit. It loves solitary places,
because there undisturbed, but is not all darkness solitary? In Syria the peasant calls
the owl "the mother of ruins " which is poetically apt, as is the German,
"the sorrowing mother," but our northern night-witch" and the grim
Breton "soul-harrier " (surely a survival of the Greek idea of the owl as a
soul-guide) are unjust to an inoffensive bird whose concern is not with souls and graves
and ruins but with rats and mice. A German naturalist has even, I remember, written to
prove that the owl is pre-eminently a bird of love, of singlehearted devotion, "the
dove of the night" and there is a Danish poem about "the SilverSpinner"
weaving a thin invisible web in the dusk wherein to entangle and bring close the hearts of
lovers. Old Donald Finlay of the Songs must have had some such idea in his mind when in
his Song of the Owl he makes the bird say in effect, ,I may be old and forlorn, but am not
to be blamed for that.neither of rapine nor of lies have I ever been guilty: is there a
grave anywhere that I have ever violated? and to the mate of my choice have I ever been