NATURE: The Longest Day by Edwin Way Teale

The Longest Day by Edwin Way Teale

From North With the Spring

During all the days of our travels – in the Everglades, along the delta marshes, on a barrier island, in the Great Smokies, among the pine barrens and the Lilliput forests of Cape Cod and the green hills of the border – we had wondered vaguely about this final twenty-four hours of spring.  What would the day be like?  Where would we be?  What would we be doing?  In what surroundings, bright or gloomy, would we come to the end of our travels with a season?

Now we knew the answers.  This was the final day, the summit of the spring.

We awoke before four o’clock.  Already a clear sky was brightening above the birchtops outside our cabin window in Crawford Notch.  By four, robins were singing and the wooded steeps above us echoed with the calling of an ovenbird.  Then came the purse, sweet strain of the whitethroat, most moving of all the voices of this north-country choir.  Long before five even the bottom of the deep ravine, where dusk, comes swiftly and dawn is retarded, was filled with daylight.  With this sunrise the tide of light reached its annual flood to begin the long slow rollback to the low ebb of December.

During that day – between the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset of the spring – we roamed amid the beauty and grandeur of the mountains.  They formed a fitting climax for our travels with the spring.  Where else except in America would that journey have carried us through such variedly impressive scenery, such altering forms of plant and animal life, such diverse events of natural history interest?

I remember we stopped for a long time that afternoon to watch the dance of the Mayflies above Echo Lake and Profile Lake below the Great Stone Face.  All through Franconia Notch, over the two lakes and the Pemigewasset River, these pale-yellow ephemera drifted through the air, luminous in every open space lighted by the lengthening rays of late afternoon.  Half a hundred hung in a small cloud above one spot on the shore of Echo Lake.  Spotlighted by long fingers of sunshine coming through the treetops, they bobbed and turned and fluttered in a shining throng that extended from about two to six feet above the ground.  Here hour after hour they engaged in a curious mating performance such as we had never witnessed before.

Every few minutes one of the dancers would leave the throng and climb steeply into the air.  At a height of eight or ten feet it would turn downward and plunge in an almost vertical descent through the May fly cloud.  A foot or so from the ground it would level off and curve upward again.  During each swift descent, as the diving insect passed through the bobbing dancers, three or four would dart in pursuit.  Apparently the plunging Mayfly was the female, those that joined in the pursuit the males.  All through the sunset and on into the twilight this love dance of the ephemera continued.

A mile to the north, where Lafayette Brook tumbles down a rocky ravine on a plunging descent toward Gale River, we heard the last bird chorus of the spring.  All up the mountain steeps hermit thrushes and whitethroats and wood thrushes and veeries and olive-backed thrushes sang in the sunset.  From time-to-time a small dark form fluttered into the air above the trees of the ravine.  Clear and sweet, a warbling, twittering jumble of notes came down to us.  We were hearing the flight song of the ovenbird – the mysterious, never-identified “night warbler” of Thoreau’s Journal.

In this choir whitethroats predominated.  We grew to recognize different singers by variations in pitch and quality.  One would begin with a long, exquisite violin note and others up the ravine, some higher pitched, others lower pitched, would repeat the sad, sweet overtones of their melody.  It is a song of the New World, a song of hope and confidence; it is a song of the Old World, a song of wisdom and sadness.  It seems to put to music the bravery of the spirit, the courage of the frail.

In an often-quoted admonition, Mark Twain advised famous men to think up their last words beforehand rather than to depend on the inspiration of the moment.  If we had planned beforehand the ending of spring’s longest day, nothing we could have imagined would have excelled the glory of that final sunset.  From the high aerie of the bridge spanning Lafayette Brook we watched it spread across the sky over the darkening mountains that, range on range, rolled away into the west.  As the warmth of the sunlight ebbed and the air grew chill in the valleys below us, rivers of mist rose above rivers of water.  The winding course of every stream was marked by vapor in the air above it.  Gazing down, we could trace the progress of invisible watercourses meandering through the forest below.  Contour lines had been traced on the air by mist.

During one time of strange and eerie beauty, all the curls and billows of the mist glowed red, rising like slow tongues and sheets of fire above the treetops tinged by the flames of the western sky.  Nowhere else on our trip except over the lonely barrier beach at Bull’s Island had we encountered so memorable a sunset at this final fading of the daylight in these final hours of spring.  It was the sunset of the day, the sunset of the season, the sunset of our trip with the spring.

Unseen in the brilliance of midday, a new moon – a faint greenish-silver parenthesis mark in the sky – had moved across the zenith.  Now, as the colors faded in the west and the long slow twilight of the summer solstice began, it increased in brightness.  Below it in the deep dusk of the valley toward Franconia, pinpoints of electric lights at farms and villages glittered in the gathering night.  Here in this wild and beautiful spot amid the mountains, the dark woods, the rising mist, the new moon hanging above the silhouettes of the peaks, we waited, in spite of the night chill, until the last sunlight of the spring had ebbed from the sky.

Miles to the south, in a cabin by the Pemigewasset, later that night we built a blazing fire of birch logs in the fireplace.  We sat for a long time in the hearth of this flickering hearth-fire talking of our journey with a season, of our incomparable good fortune, of the adventures we had shared together.  Never in our lives would there be another spring like this.  It was late when we stepped out to look at the sky.  From horizon to horizon the heavens were clear, filled with the glinting of the stars.  And almost as we looked, in the night, under the stars, spring was gone.  It was summer when we awoke.

Everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere spring had come and gone.  The season had swept far to the north; it had climbed mountains; it had passed into the sky.  Like a sound, spring spreads and spreads until it is swallowed up in space.  Like the wind, it moves across the map invisible; we see it only in its effects.  It appears like the tracks of the breeze on a field of wheat, like shadows of wind-blown clouds, like tossing branches that reveal the presence of the invisible, the passing of the unseen.  So spring had spread from Georgia to North Carolina, from Virginia to Canada, leaving consequences beyond number in its wake.  We longed for a thousand springs on the road instead of this one.  For spring is like life.  You never grasp it entire; you touch it here, there; you know it only in parts and fragments.  Reflecting thus as we started south on that first morning of summer – on the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year – we were well aware that it is only on the calendar that spring comes to so sudden a termination.  In reality its end is a gradual change.  Season merges with season in a slow transition into another life.

Driving home to a house where all the calendars marked February and where piles of mail recorded four months on their postmarks, we crossed the Whitestone Bridge onto Long Island.  And then – so near the irrevocable end of our journey – we turned aside, we wandered about, we made delays.  We followed the Jones Beach parkway to its end, we visited the Massapequa cedars, we stopped at a pond where wild ducks sunned themselves on a grassy bank, we drove nearly a hundred miles before we swung into our driveway.  Even then I let the engine idle, loath to cut the switch.  Reluctantly I turned the key.  The sudden stopping of the motor put a period to our long adventure with the spring.

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