Where the Forest Murmers 
Vol VI,  by Fiona Macleod

Still Waters

Perhaps at no season of the year is the beauty of still waters at once so obvious and so ethereal as in Autumn. All the great painters of Nature have realised this crowning secret of their delicate loveliness. Corot exclaimed to a friend who was in raptures about one of his midsummer river scenes . . . "Yes, yes, but to paint the soul of October, voilà mon idéal!" Daubigny himself, that master of slow winding waters and still lagoons, declared that if he had to be only one month out of his studio it would have to be October, "for then you can surprise Nature when she is dreaming, then you may learn her most evanescent and most exquisite secrets." And our own Millais, when he was painting "Chill October" near Murthly, in Perthshire, wrote that nothing had ever caused him so much labour, if nothing had ever given him so much pleasure, in the painting, "for Nature now can be found in a trance, and you can see her as she is." A friend of the late Keeley Halswelle told me that this able artist (who was originally a "figure" and "subject" painter) remarked to him that he had never realised the supreme charm of autumnal Nature among stillwaters till be found himself one day trying to translate to his canvas the placid loveliness of the wide, shallow reaches of the Avon around Christchurch. Doubtless many other painters, French and Dutch and English, have felt thus, and been glad to give their best to the interpretation of the supreme charm of still waters in autumn. What would Venice be without them . . . Amsterdam . . . Holland . . .Finland . . .Sweden? Imagine Scotland without this water-beauty, from Loch Ken to Loch Maree, from the Loch of the Yowes to the "thousand-waters" of Benbecula; orIreland, where the white clouds climbing out of the south may mirror themselves in still waters all day till they sink beyond the Lough of Shadows in the Silent north.
The phrase is as liberal as "running water." That covers all inland waters in motion, from the greatest rivers to the brown burn of the hillside, from the melting of the snows in fierce spate to the swift invasion and troubled floods of the hurrying and confined tides. So "still waters" covers lakes and mountain-lochs, shallow meres, lagoons, the reaches of slow rivers, lochans, tarns, the dark, brown pools in peat-moors, or the green-blue pools in open woods and shadowy forests, the duckweed-margined ponds at the skirts of villages, the lilied ponds of old manor-garths and of quiet gardens, asleep beneath green canopies or given over to the golden carp and the dragon-fly beneath mossed fountains or beyond time-worn terraces. Often, too, and in February and October above all, the low-lying lands are flooded, and the bewildered little lives of the pastures crowd the hedgerows and copses. Sometimes for days, motionless, these mysterious lake-arrivals abide under the grey sky, sometimes a week or weeks pass before they recede. The crow flying home at dusk sees the pale cloud and the orange afterglow reflected in an inexplicable mirror where of late the grey-green grass and brown furrow stretched for leagues: the white owl, hawking the pastures after dusk, swoops so low on his silent wings that he veers upward from a ghostly flying image underneath, as a bat at sundown veers from the phantom of its purblind flight.
Delicate haze, cloud-dappled serenity, and moonlight are the three chief qualities of beauty in the charm of still waters. It is a matter of temperament, of the hour and occasion also no doubt, whether one prefer those where another dream-world, that of human life, companions them in the ineffable suspense of the ideal moment, the moment where the superfluous recedes, where silence and stillness consummate the miraculous vision. Those moonlit lagoons of Venice, which become scintillating floods of silver or lakes of delicate gold, where the pole-moored sandolò thrusts a black wedge of shadow into the motionless drift, while an obscure figure at the prow idly thrums a mandolin or hums drowsily a conzonnetto d'amore; those twilit canals where old palaces lean and look upon their ancient beauty stilled and perfected in sleep; how unforgettable they are, how they thrill even in remembrance. In the cities of Holland, how at one are the old houses with the mirroring canals, in still afternoons when quiet light warms the red wall, and dwells on the brown and scarlet clematis in the cool violet and amber hollows of the motionless water wherein the red wall soundlessly slips and indefinitely recedes, hiding an undiscovered house of shadow with silent unseen folk dreaming out across invisible gardens. There are ancient towns like this in England also, as between Upsala and Elsinore to where old chateaux in Picardy guard the pollarded marais, or deserted Breton manors stand ghostly at the forest-end of untraversed meres.
These have their charm. But have they for us the intimate and unchanging spell of the lakes and meres and other still waters of our own land? Nothing, one might think, could be more beautiful than to see in the Lake of Como the cypresses of Bellaggio and the sloping gardens of Cadenabbia meeting in a new underwater wonderland: or to see Mont Blanc, forty miles away, sleeping in snow-held silence in the blue depths of Lac Léman : or to see Pitatus and a new city of Lucerne mysteriously changed and yet familiarly upbuilded among the moving green lawns and azure avenues of the Lake of the Four Cantons. And yet leaning boulders of granite, yellow with lichen and grey with moss and deep-based among swards of heather and the green nomad bracken, will create a subtler magic in the brown depths of any Highland loch. There is a subtler spell in the solitary tarn, where the birch leans out of the fern and throws an intricate tracery of bough and branch into the unmoving wave, where the speckled trout and the speckled mavis meet as in the strange companionships of dreams. Enchantment lies amid the emerald glooms of pine and melancholy spruce, when a dream-world forest underneath mirrors the last sunset-gold on bronze cones, and enfolds the one white wandering cloud miraculously stayed at last between two columnar green spires, flawless as sculptured jade.
Is this because, in the wilderness, we recover something of what we have lost?    . . . because we newly find ourselves, as though surprised into an intimate relationship of which we have been unaware or have indifferently ignored? What a long way the ancestral memory has to go, seeking, like a pale sleuthhound among obscure dusks and forgotten nocturnal silences, for the lost trails of the soul. It is not we only, you and I, who look into the still waters of the wilderness and lonely places, and are often dimly perplext, are often troubled we know not how or why: some forgotten reminiscence in us is aroused, some memory not our own but yet our heritage is perturbed, footsteps that have immemorially sunk in ancient dust move furtively along obscure corridors in our brain, the ancestral hunter or fisher awakes, the primitive hillman or woodlander communicates again with old forgotten intimacies and the secret or oracular things of lost wisdoms. This is no fanciful challenge of speculation. In the order of psychology it is as logical as in the order of biology is the tracing of our upright posture or the deft and illimitable use of our hands, from unrealisably remote periods wherein the pioneers of man reached slowly forward to inconceivable arrivals.
But whatever primitive wildness, whatever ancestral nearness we recover in communion with remote Nature, there is no question as to the fascination of beauty exercised by the still waters of which we speak, of their enduring spell. What lovelier thing in Nature on a serene and cloudless October day, than to come upon a small lake surrounded by tall elms of amber and burnished bronze, by beech and maple and sycamore, cloudy with superb fusion of orange and scarlet and every shade of red and brown, by limes and aspens tremulous with shaken pale gold? Beautiful in itself, in rare and dreamlike beauty, the woods become more beautiful in this silent marriage with placid waters, take on a beauty more rare, a loveliness more dreamlike. There is a haze which holds the fluent gold of the air. Silence is no longer quietude as in June; or a hushed stillness, as in the thunder-laded noons of July or August; but a soundless suspense wherein the spirit of the world, suddenly at rest, sleeps and dreams. The same ineffable peace broods over all still waters: on the meres of Hereford, on the fens of East Anglia, on lochs heavy with mountain-shadow, on the long grey Hebridean sheets where the call of the sea-wind or the sea-wave is ever near.
Truly there must be a hidden magic in them, as old tales tell. I recall one wherein the poets and dreamers of the world are called "the children of pools." The poet and dreamer who so called them must have meant by his metaphor those who took into the hearts of men and into the dim eyes of Life, troubled by the beauty and mystery of the world, insatiable in longing for the ineffable and the unattainable. So, long ago, even "ornamental waters " may have been symbols of the soul's hunger and thirst, emblems of the perpetual silence and mystery of his fugitive destiny!
Somewhere, I think it is in the Kalevala, occurs the beautiful metaphor of still waters "the mirrors of the world." Whoever the ancient singer was who made the phrase, he had in his heart love for still waters as well as the poet's mind. The secret of their beauty is in that image. It may be a secret within a secret, for the mirror may disclose a world invisible to us, may reflect what our own or an ancestral memory dimly recalls, may reveal what the soul perceives and translates from its secret silences into symbol and the mysterious speech of the imagination.
Still Waters; it has the inward music that lies in certain words . . . amber, ivory, foam, silence, dreams: that lies often in some marriage of words . . . moonlight at sea, wind in dark woods, dewy pastures, old sorrowful things: that dwells in some names of things, as chrysoprase; or in some combination of natural terms and associations, as wind and wave; or in some names of women and dreams, Ruth, Alaciel, Imogen, Helen, Cleopatra; or in the words that serve in the courts of music . . . cadence, song, threnody, epithatamium, viol, flute, prelude, fugue. One can often evade the heavy airs of the hours of weariness by the spell of one of these wooers of dreams. Foam---and the hour is gathered up like mist, and we are amid "perilous seas in faEry lands forlorn" : Wind---and the noises of the town are like the humming of wild bees in old woods, and one is under ancient boughs listening, or standing solitary in the dusk by a forlorn shore with a tempestuous sea filling the darkness with whispers and confused rumours and incommunicable things: Ruth---and sorrow and exile are become loveliness: Helen---and that immemorial desire is become our desire, and that phantom beauty is become our dream and our passion. Still Waters---surely through that gate the mind may slip away from the tedious and unwelcome, and be alone among forests where the birch leans and dreams into an amber-brown pool, or by a mountain-lake where small white clouds lie like sleeping birds, or on moonlit lagoons where the reed and the reed's image areas one, and the long mirrors are unshaken by any wandering air, unvisited but by the passing soundless shadows of travelling winds.