We shall talk about an ancient people here, as ancient as the eternal forest. It has ancestors of all ages and all nations, for it is not a tribe of the body but of the soul, not of the inhabitants of a forest but of its lovers; of the true worshippers of the wood.
Of this family came the poet of Hellas, who sang the myths of Pan and his satyrs. And Baldur in Scandinavia. And that spiritual relative of theirs, who gave the Kupala Night to the Slavs. Later, this family found a patron among the followers of the new religion – because he had their soul and their lineage; that lover and singer of the sun, preacher to birds and fish, friend of all God’s little creatures, the seraphic Saint Francis. Thus, these folk can be seen to have sages and scholars and saints among their ancestors. And although they may at times seem to have been swallowed up by the general mass of humanity without a trace, they have retained a certain distinctive quality of their forest soul.
Yes, they have been snowed under by earthly upheavals, by the feverish pursuits of ordinary life, by complications and conditions, and by the very struggle for material existence. All of these removed them from nature: 1) civilization, 2) the so-called progress, 3) the destruction of nature through the expansion of industry, 4) the terrible burden of modern existence, 5) modern rights and obligations.
Seemingly, then, there is no place and no life for these forest folk.
But it’s only because they have adapted the best they could to their conditions and now appear no different from others. They fulfill their daily duties. They work hard among and with others. They participate in civilization. They take part in progress. They use its inventions: how to handle money, live in cities, dress like others, go to the theater.
Has the lineage and tradition of the forest people perished, then? Not in the world! Immortal is the spirit, and the lineage of the spirit is immortal; it’s just that he who would know this tribe must stem from it, and then he will find his kind.
One need not look for this tribe in quiet villages or deep forests, among the people engaged in the business of nature (a.k.a. forestry or agriculture), which would be to say “in their proper sphere.” One can often search there long and in vain but find it instead in a great factory town. One can find its members in a student's garret, where a boy, after finishing with his algebra, instead of going out to look for company in a stuffy bar, plays with and looks after his pet bullfinch; or in the basement shop of a shoemaker, who hardly knows the name of the bird that chirps for him while he’s busy nailing leather. One can recognize its members in a crowd by their peculiar behavior in certain unusual circumstances of city life.
And thus, when the papers come out in the evening with the latest dispatches of a war, a scandalous trial, a sensational murder; a person does not pick up the newspaper but instead studies with a smile how the sparrows settle for the night: she is of the forest people.
And from this family comes she who, amid a solemn street procession, when everyone else is absorbed in music, uniforms, caparisons, the parade ranks of soldiers, and civic societies, notices a chilled pooch in front of a closed shop door and opens it for him with a gentle word of kindness.
Among the classified advertisements, a member of this family will sight the address of a caged nightingale seller, ransom the prisoner, and release him from captivity with the arrival of spring, partaking in his joy of liberation.
The forest folk usually keep shy from others, hide their souls, and do not talk about their inner life, aware that no one cares about it.
In the monstrous mill of worldly life, where financial self-interest and the ruthless struggle for the luxuries of civilization reign; as they deal with others, with horror or utter astonishment in their eyes; they remain silent. They fulfill their social obligations and look out only not to allow themselves to be crushed and pulverized. They do not fear for their souls: those are safe from the world's pollution.
And so they vegetate, rare in the world and strangers to it. Occasionally, they find a friend. Then the doors of the soul fling open, and the newfound friends find solace in each other: dreams, needs, longings find their expression in words. As never before now, they suddenly give voice to their lust for freedom, for quiet, for communion with nature. They express their souls and strive to turn those longings into action: for life after their own hearts.
And just that kind of life, a whole summer of it, will be our topic here. For those who had lived it, it will be a chronicle of happiness; for those who, in their worldly exile, only dream of it, a brotherly postcard and, perhaps, a call to action.
There were three of them.
The oldest, their chief and commander, was cunning, stubborn in his resolve, quick to decide, knowledgeable about nature's science, and experienced in living with it. He owned a vast stretch of land, some 3000 acres, and on it, agricultural land with a manor house – the nerve center of the agricultural enterprise. All around it lay various marshes and forests, cut by a network of slow-meandering streams and rivulets, set well off from public roads and wholly unappetizing to human greed.
There, in the depths of those unproductive marshlands, hidden like a secret lair, a forester’s cabin came into existence one spring. For some time afterward, the shingle roof and sideboards shone white in the sun, and the deep ruts in the ground shone black, where the carts had brought the building materials. But within a year, all that newness was buried in the greenery of grass and moss. Wild rose and heather covered the walls, and the cabin melted into the surrounding landscape.
The forest folk called it their Refuge.
Life had robbed the chief of relatives; he had no family. But his house was full of God’s creatures, who remained in the manor house under the care and protection of his companion – a friend whom he had trained and shaped after his own image. In their joking jargon, they called the chief ‘Wolverine’ and his friend ‘Panther.’
Panther was the youngest, all made of steely muscle, swift, agile, and with his namesake’s wildness and rapacity. He knew nature from living with it; he understood mountains, waters, meadows. He had a forest soul, through and through.
Later, a third one joined them, whom they called Crane. He had the purest soul of them all, the embodiment of kindness, gentleness, and inward sunny happiness. He rejoiced in the life of the forest as only youth can rejoice. He was a dreamer, a little absent-minded, quick to laugh, industrious, and of both iron health and constitution.
The three complemented each other and became regular summertime residents of that Refuge of theirs, the founders and builders of that life. There, they lived at one with the wilderness, like every other creature that arrived there in spring and flew away in autumn.
Their refuge, locked up for the winter, fell asleep at the end of summer. First, the roof was buried under golden leaves, then under snow, and then only animals drew their tracks about it. Tits and squirrels wintered under its eaves. Hares came to feed in the feeders, and snakes buried themselves to hibernate under the foundations. Finches came to feed on the frozen berries. And, from time to time, deer approached to nibble on the dried-up flowers planted there by Crane.
Meanwhile, far away, among the maddening crowd, the forest folk remembered their cabin and dreamed of tits and finches and the rest of their summer friends.
And awaited springtime.
Wolverine and Crane wintered in the city; Panther remained near the forest, looking after Wolverine’s manor house, some 15 miles away from their refuge.
The three rarely exchanged news – like birds that do not sing in winter but only greet each other from time to time with the expressive “pain, pain, pain.” Therefore, when, near the end of February, Wolverine saw an envelope addressed to him in a spindly scrawl, he said only:
“Spring must be early this year. Larks are surely singing if Panther writes.”
They opened the letter and read it eagerly, looking over each other’s shoulders, their eyes shining with joy:
Forest greetings to Chief and Friend!
I report that yesterday, our friend Stomper woke up. He had gone to sleep so fat that he barely fit in your boot, but yesterday, he emerged so thin that the boot shank fanned about him like a broad foyer. He promptly clambered into my lap, pricked me, and snorted: ‘Food!’ He then swallowed a mountain of cheese and a river of milk, swelled up hugely, and is now running about the house, terrorizing the mice. Thus, spring must be near.
But Jake does not agree.
Last October, on top of the ceramic stove, Jake made himself a nest out of several rags, my winter gloves, your cook’s bonnet, and several branches of oleander. When the whole thing reached up to the ceiling, he crawled in it, closed it behind him, and went to sleep. He, too, woke up yesterday. The sleep had served him well. His fur is silver, shiny, his tail bushy like an ostrich feather, and his ear tufts are very rakish. He crawled out, stretched, drank some water, ate a few nuts, and went out to investigate. He did not investigate long: he returned angry, his tail wet, his paws dirty, and he spat out the buds he had picked, making it clear that they were bitter bitter bitter and that it was way too early and time to sleep some more. And that better times were surely still a long way away. He announced as much from the top of the stove and crawled into his house; and that’s all we have seen of him.
Bluetit, who had also wintered indoors (hunting moths and moth eggs), also insisted on being let out. Well and good: I opened the window, and out she went, like to a wedding, with a swing. She now peels worms off the maple tree by the window and chirps at me: ‘It's time! It's time!’
And whom is one to believe?
Because the larks, you know, are back, too – and how! I went to say hello to them, far out into the field. In depressions, snow lies and ice holds, but the glades are bare and blackened by molehills. The wind is like mint: it seems cold, yet it burns. And lark song is in full possession of our fields and will stay so till winter.
And now for the news about the travelers.
The first graylags came to rest overnight last Friday and raised a great hubbub. I went to hear what news they had brought from overseas. The night was clear and echoing with silence, still frosty. The edges of the ponds covered themselves with ice and stayed that way till noon.
Every night, crowds of traveling birds fall onto our black orchard. They fall, say hardly a word, and are off again at dawn. These will not spend the summer with us. These regiments have a destination farther north.
I have three pairs of partridges in the attic; I found them in traps set up by boys in the winter, and they ask me every morning how many more days of imprisonment are left of their sentence.
Sparrows are about it, too. Betrothals in full swing, like at a church fair. They all swear that spring is just around the corner.
But bees… are like Jake! I knocked on some of the hives and asked: ‘Queen-mother, is it spring?’ But they grunted sleepily: ‘Pst, pst! Mother is asleep!’
Whom to believe, then? And how to remain patient?
It's not spring, yet, and yet, it’s no more the Witch-Winter. It’s not the summer’s army but its vanguard, announcing: “Time to get ready!”
So, the more impatient are doing just that. The flowers of the carmine hazel are still covered by husks against the cold, but she has already let out her catkins to the wind. Kingcups have been seen swelling at the bottom of icy waters, and anemones are slinking about under the leaves on the ground.
Everything is ready, and when you put your ear to the ground, you can hear that something is afoot, something a person cannot understand: is it the earth and its music? Or is it one’s own heart? Ah, it’s all one thing! They all cry: ‘Life, life, life!’
I’ll wait a tad longer, and when everything cries out like this, I will call you, saying: ‘It is time!’ Meanwhile, I make clogs, fiddle with the canoe, and fix all pots and baskets, and I wait, trembling with excitement.
Such was the letter. Wolverine looked it over once more.
“The earthworms haven't stirred,” he said. “The witch will be back.”
They both sighed. A longing twisted a knife in their hearts. Crane said:
“I felt the color, the smell, the taste, the music… How it hurts to wait! Let's sneak out beyond the city limits, listen and see. Let's drink the wind!”
“Let’s!” rejoiced Wolverine. “For we have yet long to wait. Until the solstice is another seven weeks!”
In March, Witch-Winter returned once more. She sent her troops, gray regiments of clouds, packs of northern winds, and hurled this army on the swollen trees, the creeping leaves, the multitudes of birds, all these creatures that had dared her with their wedding song.
On all this starting life, there now fell, from these evil clouds, with the howling of the wind, deadly droves of snow. The sun, pale like a ghost, remained behind this cluster of clouds, patient and confident in its rising strength and certain of its eventual triumph. Like a powerful, confident man, the sun allowed the enemy a few moments to vent, spend all her strength, and exhaust herself so that he might then shine his light and triumph.
“Poor Bluetit!” said Crane, looking at the clouds of snow.
‘Ha! Bluetit probably knocked on the window during the first snowstorm and asked to be let back in,” replied Wolverine. “It’s worse for the critters in the forest: if the waters are up, Panther cannot take food to them. And if to add to the misfortune, the Witch calls in frost support…
“Trees are full of sap, and their branches are swollen, they ache when touched. We have to come to their aid!”
The two rushed beyond city limits, found a wood weighted with heavy snow, and began to shake off the white shrouds.
They recognized the trees and spoke to them as if to closest friends.
“Grow your beautiful corals, you mountain ash! Blow in the wind, you silver birch! Go soft, soft, you fragile maple. This snow is too heavy even for you, spruce, you winter hero.”
Tree branches flexed with relief, liberated. They laughed, warmed up, overjoyed, and intoxicated by the March air.
Only twilight put an end to their work. And at night, it happened, as Wolverine had feared. Frost-Killer squeezed his claws into murderous fists.
Woods groaned with the pain of burst tissue; broken limbs fell on the snow; the witch was delighted by the loss of young life.
“Why is all this?” Crane whispered.
“Why! It’s the law!” Wolverine replied. “A law beyond our understanding. The law! But this is not death. Not real death. It is… a small death, a tiny and weak death; without wind and thunder, she is like without fangs, naked as an earthworm. When a true catastrophe comes, no forest survives in her wake, no powerful animal survives, no speedy bird. All that’s left is death.”
For three days, the evil frost tormented the earth; three nights the winds blew, wrestling and struggling with each other in clouds of snow dust and howling, hissing, growling, groaning, until one morning, on the new moon of the new month, a wave of air came suddenly from the south: the main army of spring.
The snow clouds fled before her like a wicked lot, and the victorious sun rose in the radiant blue. The air brought his strong, living power, the power of health, and it swarmed the earth, swirled, drowned, and played the hymn of rebirth.
Now, to the forest folk, a different message came from Panther, a short shout of a panting runner: “The forest is alive. He sings! He calls! Come!" They jumped up and began to pack feverishly, overwhelmed with panic, need, drive, lust in their souls like migratory birds.
Something in them called out, deafening all else:
“To life! To life! To Refuge! To Refuge! To Refuge!”
There was hustle and bustle in front of Wolverine’s manor house at daybreak. The morning was April all over: clear, sunny, damp with the rain that had passed through the previous evening; passed, causing miracles. It peeled the sticky shells off leaves, washed away the rest of the autumn mold from grasses, opened the eyes of white anemones and violets, lured the gold of marigolds out of waters, washed willows and sallows, and covered them with suddenly summoned catkins.
In the silence of the night, the rain had woken them with its murmur, inviting them to a wedding; and when the sun rose, the earth turned toward him, fragrant, colorful, and seemingly singing with joy.
A long wagon now stood in front of the porch; it was being loaded with everything that was or could be needed during the summer. Crane packed food, spices, medicines, a handy first aid kit; Panther, provisions for companion animals, nets, pots, baskets, clogs, craft tools; and Wolverine his boxes, manuals, and measuring rods, the bulk of natural research. All were so absorbed in their work that they drifted from home to the cart, like bees, loading, and loading. The cart was piling up.
“And now only room enough for men!” said Wolverine, examining the cart. “If you have forgotten anything, you shall have to do without.”
“Oh, yes, I am sure I forgot something!” Crane worried and groaned.
And now, the feeder of the forest folk entered through the gate: the bay-piebald Hathor, who had summered with them in the wood for years. She was skin and bones after the hard winter, her hair spiky and dull.
The animal knew what all this loading meant.
She went to Panther, sniffed his hands, got bread and salt, looked at the cart, nibbled on hay, checked to see for the smell of potatoes and chaff, rubbed her neck on the wheel guard, and stood, looking at them with her gentle eyes, chewing slowly.
“Hathor! You want your Bambam?” asked Panther, bringing out of the house a tin cow rattle on a thong.
Hathor moved her ears negatively and reluctantly turned her horned head. No! Hathor didn't want her Bambam.
A few years ago, when she had first been hung with this constantly rattling horror, she became mad with fear and disgust and exhausted herself trying to get rid of the thing, plowing through thickets, hoping to pull it off.
In this irritation, she had committed a criminal act: she had swung her horns at Panther, roaring grimly: “Murder, murder!” But that was a long time ago, at the very beginning of her forest service. Since then, Hathor came to understand that putting on Bambam meant the coming of the blissful life in the wilderness, in the abundance of pasture and water, and of unlimited freedom.
There would be no cowherd and no stick, no dogs, no chain in the stuffy barn, no treacherous horns of envious companions. Hathor had lost her herd instinct over the years and, led out of the barn, she did not as much as grunt a single word of goodbye to her winter company. Without enthusiasm, but also without protest, she allowed herself to be fitted with Bambam.