Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XVIII. Planning and Opening the Campaign
The last day of February was clear, cloudless, and cold, the evening serene and still. Winter's tempestuous course was run, its icy breath apparently had ceased, and darkness closed on its quiet, pallid face. "March came in like a lamb"--an ominous circumstance for the future record of this month of most uncertain weather, according to the traditions of the old weather-prophets. The sun rose clear and warm, the snow sparkled and melted, the bluebirds rejoiced, and their soft notes of mutual congratulation found many echoes among their human neighbors. By noon the air was wonderfully soft and balmy, and Webb brought in a number of sprays from peach-trees cut in different parts of the place, and redeemed his promise to Amy, showing her the fruit germs, either green, or rather of a delicate gold-color, or else blackened by frost. She was astonished to find how perfect the embryo blossom appeared under the microscope. It needed no glass, however, to reveal the blackened heart of the bud, and Webb, having cut through a goodly number, remarked: "It would now appear as if nature had performed a very important labor for us, for I find about eight out of nine buds killed. It will save us thinning the fruit next summer, for if one-ninth of the buds mature into peaches they will not only bring more money, but will measure more by the bushel."
"How can one peach measure more than eight peaches?"
"By being larger than the eight. If all these buds grew into peaches, and were left on these slender boughs, the tree might be killed outright by overbearing, and would assuredly be much injured and disfigured by broken limbs and exhaustion, while the fruit itself would be so small and poor as to be unsalable. Thousands of trees annually perish from this cause, and millions of peaches are either not picked, or, if marketed, may bring the grower into debt for freight and other expenses. A profitable crop of peaches can only be grown by careful hand-thinning when they are as large as marbles, unless the frost does the work for us by killing the greater part of the buds. It is a dangerous ally, however, for our constant fear is that it will destroy all the buds. There are plenty left yet, and I find that cherry, apple, plum, and pear buds are still safe. Indeed, there is little fear for them as long as peach buds are not entirely destroyed, for they are much hardier."
In the afternoon Burt, who had become expert in the use of crutches, determined on an airing, and invited Amy to join him. "I now intend to begin giving you driving lessons," he said. "You will soon acquire entire confidence, for skill, far more than strength, is required. As long as one keeps cool and shows no fear there is rarely danger. Horses often catch their senseless panic from their drivers, and, even when frightened with good cause, can usually be reassured by a few quiet words and a firm rein."
Amy was delighted at the prospect of a lesson in driving, especially as Bart, because of his lameness, did not venture to take his over-spirited steed Thunder. She sincerely hoped, however, that he would confine his thoughts and attentions to the ostensible object of the drive, for his manner at times was embarrassingly ardent. Burt was sufficiently politic to fulfil her hope, for he had many other drives in view, and had discovered that attentions not fraternal were unwelcome to Amy. With a self-restraint and prudence which he thought most praiseworthy and sagacious, but which were ludicrous in their limitations, he resolved to take a few weeks to make the impression which he had often succeeded in producing in a few hours, judging from the relentings and favors received in a rather extended career of gallantry, although it puzzled the young fellow that he could have been so fascinated on former occasions. He merely proposed that now she should enjoy the drive so thoroughly that she would wish to go again, and his effort met with entire success.
During the first week of March there were many indications of the opening campaign on the Clifford farm. There was the overhauling and furbishing of weapons, otherwise tools, and the mending or strengthening of those in a decrepit state. A list of such additional ones as were wanted was made at this time, and an order sent for them at once. Amy also observed that practical Leonard was conning several catalogues of implements. "Len is always on the scent of some new patent hoe or cultivator," Burt remarked. "My game pays better than yours," was the reply, "for the right kind of tools about doubles the effectiveness of labor."
The chief topic of discussion and form of industry at this time were the pruning and cleansing of trees, and Amy often observed Webb from her windows in what seemed to her most perilous positions in the tops of apple and other trees, with saw and pruning shears or nippers--a light little instrument with such a powerful leverage that a good-sized bough could be lopped away by one slight pressure of the hand.
"It seems to me," remarked Leonard, one evening, "that there is much diversity of opinion in regard to the time and method of trimming trees. While the majority of our neighbors prune in March, some say fall or winter is the best time. Others are in favor of June, and in some paper I've read, 'Prune when your knife is sharp.' As for cleansing the bark of the trees, very few take the trouble."
"Well," replied his father, "I've always performed these labors in March with good results. I have often observed that taking off large limbs from old and feeble trees is apt to injure them. A decay begins at the point of amputation and extends down into the body of the tree. Sap-suckers and other wood peckers, in making their nests, soon excavate this rotten wood back into the trunk, to which the moisture of every storm is admitted, and the life of the tree is shortened."
At this point Webb went out, and soon returned with something like exultation blending with his usually grave expression.
"I think father's views are correct, and I have confirmation here in autograph letters from three of the most eminent horticulturists in the world--"
"Good gracious, Webb! don't take away our breath in that style," exclaimed Burt. "Have you autograph letters from several autocrats also?"
As usual Webb ignored his brother's nonsense, and resumed: "The first is from the Hon. Marshall P. Wilder, President of the American Pomological Society, and is as follows: 'I prune my trees early in March, as soon as the heavy frosts are over, when the sap is dormant. If the branch is large I do not cut quite close in, and recut close in June, when the wound heals more readily. I do not approve of rigorous pruning of old trees showing signs of feebleness. Such operations would increase decline--only the dead wood should be removed, the loss of live wood depriving old trees of the supply of sap which they need for support. Grafting-wax is good to cover the wounds of trees, or a thick paint of the color of the bark answers well. Trees also may be pruned in safety in June after the first growth is made--then the wounds heal quickly.'
"The next letter is from Mr. Charles Downing, editor of 'The Fruits and Fruit-Trees of America.' 'When the extreme cold weather is over,' he says, 'say the last of February or first of March, begin to trim trees, and finish as rapidly as convenient. Do not trim a tree too much at one time, and cut no large limbs if possible, but thin out the small branches. If the trees are old and bark-bound, scrape off the roughest bark and wash the bodies and large limbs with whale-oil soap, or soft-soap such as the farmers make, putting it on quite thick. Give the ground plenty of compost manure, bone-dust, ashes, and salt. The best and most convenient preparation for covering wounds is gum-shellac dissolved in alcohol to the thickness of paint, and put on with a brush.' The last is from Mr. Patrick Barry, of the eminent Rochester firm, and author of 'The Fruit Garden.' 'In our climate pruning may be done at convenience, from the fall of the leaf until the 1st of April. In resuscitating old neglected apple-trees, rigorous pruning may be combined with plowing and manuring of the ground. For covering wounds made in pruning, nothing is better than common grafting wax laid on warm with a brush.' Hon P. T. Quinn, in his work on 'Pear Culture,' writes: 'On our own place we begin to prune our pear-trees from the 1st to the 15th of March, and go on with the work through April. It is not best to do much cutting, except on very young trees, while the foliage is coming out.'"
"Well," remarked Leonard, "I can go to work to-morrow with entire content; and very pleasant work it is, too, especially on the young trees, where by a little forethought and a few cuts one can regulate the form and appearance of the future tree."
"How is that possible?" Amy asked.
"Well, you see there are plenty of buds on all the young branches, and we can cut a branch just above the bud we wish to grow which will continue to grow in the direction in which it points. Thus we can shape each summer's growth in any direction we choose."
"How can you be sure to find a bud just where you want it?"
"I know we always do."
"Of course we do," said Webb, "for buds are arranged spirally on trees in mathematical order. On most trees it is termed-the 'five-ranked arrangement,' and every bud is just two-fifths of the circumference of the stem from the next. This will bring every sixth bud or leaf over the first, or the one we start with. Thus in the length of stem occupied by five buds you have buds facing in five different directions--plenty of choice for all pruning purposes."
"Oh, nonsense, Webb; you are too everlastingly scientific. Buds and leaves are scattered at haphazard all over the branches."
"That shows you observe at haphazard. Wait, and I'll prove I'm right;" and he seized his hat and went out. Returning after a few minutes with long, slender shoots of peach, apple, and pear trees, he said: "Now put your finger on any bud, and count. See if the sixth bud does not stand invariably over the one you start from, and if the intervening buds do not wind spirally twice around the stem, each facing in a different direction."
The result proved Webb to be right. He laughed, and said: "There, Len, you've seen buds and branches for over forty years, and never noticed this. Here, Alf, you begin right, and learn to see things just as they are. There's no telling how often accurate knowledge may be useful."
"But, Webb, all plants have not the five-ranked arrangement, as you term it," his mother protested.
"Oh, no. There is the two-ranked, in which the third leaf stands over the first; the three-ranked, in which the fourth leaf stands over the first. Then we also find the eighth and thirteenth ranked arrangements, according to the construction of various species of plants or trees. But having once observed an arrangement of buds or leaves in a species, you will find it maintained with absolute symmetry and accuracy, although the spaces between the buds lengthwise upon the stem may vary very much. Nature, with all her seeming carelessness and abandon, works on strict mathematical principles."
"Well," said Alf, "I'm going to see if you are right tomorrow. I don't half believe you are." And on the following day he tried his best to prove Webb wrong, but failed.
Before the week was over there was a decided return of winter. The sky lost its spring-like blue. Cold, ragged clouds were driven wildly by a northeast gale, which, penetrating the heaviest wraps, caused a shivering sense of discomfort. Only by the most vigorous exercise could one cope with the raw, icy wind, and yet the effort to do so brought a rich return in warm, purified blood. All outdoor labor, except such as required strong, rapid action, came to an end, for it was the very season and opportunity for pneumonia to seize upon its chilled victim. To a family constituted like the Cliffords such weather brought no ennui. They had time for more music and reading aloud than usual. The pets in the flower-room needed extra care and watching, for the bitter wind searched out every crevice and cranny. Entering the dining-room on one occasion, Amy found the brothers poring over a map spread out on the table.
"What! studying geography?" she said. "It certainly is a severe stress of weather that has brought you all to that. What countries are you exploring?"
"These are our Western Territories," Burt promptly responded. "This prominent point here is Fort Totem, and these indications of adjacent buildings are for the storage of furs, bear-meat, and the accommodation of Indian hunters." Burt tried to look serious, but Webb's and Leonard's laughter betrayed him. Amy turned inquiringly to Webb, as she ever did when perplexed.
"Don't mind Burt's chaff," he said. "This is merely a map of the farm, and we are doing a little planning for our spring work--deciding what crop we shall put on that field and how treat this one, etc. You can see, Amy, that each field is numbered, and here in this book are corresponding numbers, with a record of the crops grown upon each field for a good many years back, to what extent and how often they have been enriched, and the kind of fertilizers used. Of course such a book of manuscript would be the dreariest prose in the world to you, but it is exceedingly interesting to us; and what's more, these past records are the best possible guides for future action."
"Oh, I know all about your book now," she said, with an air of entire confidence, "for I've heard papa say that land and crop records have been kept in England for generations. I don't think I will sit up nights to read your manuscript, however. If Burt's version had been true, it might have been quite exciting."
She did enjoy aiding Mr. and Mrs. Clifford in overhauling the seed-chest, however. This was a wooden box, all tinned over to keep out the mice, and was divided into many little compartments, in which were paper bags of seeds, with the date on which they were gathered or purchased. Some of the seeds were condemned because too old; others, like those of melons and cucumbers, improved with a moderate degree of age, she was told. Mrs. Clifford brought out from her part of the chest a rich store of flower seeds, and the young girl looked with much curiosity on the odd-appearing little grains and scale-like objects in which, in miniature, was wrapped some beautiful and fragrant plant. "Queer little promises, ain't they?" said the old lady; "for every seed is a promise to me."
"I tell you what it is, Amy," the old gentleman remarked, "this chest contains the assurance of many a good dinner and many a beautiful bouquet. Now, like a good girl, help us make an inventory. We will first have a list of what we may consider trustworthy seeds on hand, and then, with the aid of these catalogues, we can make out another list of what we shall buy. Seed catalogues, with their long list of novelties, never lose their fascination for me. I know that most of the new things are not half so good as the old tried sorts, but still I like to try some every year. It's a harmless sort of gambling, you see, and now and then I draw a genuine prize. Mother has the gambling mania far worse than I, as is evident from the way she goes into the flower novelties."
"I own up to it," said Mrs. Clifford, "and I do love to see the almost endless diversity in beauty which one species of plants will exhibit. Why, do you know, Amy, I grew from seeds one summer fifty distinct varieties of the dianthus. Suppose we take asters this year, and see how many distinct kinds we can grow. Here, in this catalogue, is a long list of named varieties, and, in addition, there are packages of mixed seeds from which we may get something distinct from all the others."
"How full of zest life becomes in the country," cried Amy, "if one only goes to work in the right way!" Life was growing fuller and richer to her every day in the varied and abounding interests of the family with which she was now entirely identified.
"Webb," his mother asked at dinner, "how do you explain the varying vitality of seeds? Some we can keep six or eight years, and others only two."
"That's a question I am unable to answer. It cannot be the amount of material stored up in the cotyledons, or embryo seed leaves, for small seeds like the beet and cucumber will retain their vitality ten years, and lettuce, turnip, and tomato seed five or more years, while I do not care to plant large, fleshy seeds like pease and beans that are over three years old, and much prefer those gathered the previous season. The whole question of the germinating of seeds is a curious one. Wheat taken from the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy has grown. Many seeds appear to have a certain instinct when to grow, and will lie dormant in the ground for indefinite periods waiting for favorable conditions. For instance, sow wood-ashes copiously and you speedily have a crop of white clover. Again, when one kind of timber is cut from land, another and diverse kind will spring up, as if the soil were full of seeds that had been biding their time. For all practical purposes the duration of vitality is known, and is usually given in seed catalogues, I think, or ought to be."
"Some say that certain fertilizers or conditions will produce certain kinds of vegetation without the aid of seeds--just develop them, you know," Leonard remarked.
"Develop them from what?"
"That's the question."
"Well, I think the sensible answer is that all vegetation is developed from seeds, spores, or whatever was designed to continue the chain of being from one plant to another. For the life of me I can't see how mere organic or inorganic matter can produce life. It can only sustain and nourish the life which exists in it or is placed in it, and which by a law of nature develops when the conditions are favorable. I am quite sure that there is not an instance on record of the spontaneous production of life, even down to the smallest animalcule in liquids, or the minutest plant life that is propagated by invisible spores. That the microscope does not reveal these spores or germs proves nothing, for the strongest microscope in the world has not begun to reach the final atom of which matter is composed. Indeed, it would seem to be as limited in its power to explore the infinitely little and near as the telescope to reveal the infinitely distant and great. Up to this time science has discovered nothing to contravene the assurance that God, or some one, 'created every living creature that moveth, and every herb yielding seed after his kind.' After a series of most careful and accurate experiments, Professor Tyndall could find no proof of the spontaneous production of even microscopic life, and found much proof to the contrary. How far original creations are changed or modified by evolution, natural selection, is a question that is to be settled neither by dogmatism on the one hand, nor by baseless theories on the other, but by facts, and plenty of them."
"Do you think there is anything atheistical in evolution?" his mother asked, and with some solicitude in her large eyes, for, like all trained in the old beliefs, she felt that the new philosophies led away into a realm of vague negations. Webb understood her anxiety lest the faith she had taught him should become unsettled, and he reassured her in a characteristic way.
"No, mother," he said. "If evolution is the true explanation of the world, as it now appears to us, it is no more atheistical than some theologies I have heard preached, which contained plenty of doctrines and attributes, but no God. If God with his infinite leisure chooses to evolve his universe, why shouldn't he? In any case a creative, intelligent power is equally essential. It would be just as easy for me to believe that all the watches and jewelry at Tiffany's were the result of fortuitous causes as to believe that the world as we find it has no mind back of it."
Mother smiled with satisfaction, for she saw that he still stood just where she did, only his horizon had widened.
"Well," said his father, contentedly, "I read much in the papers and magazines of theories and isms of which I never heard when I was young, but eighty years of experience have convinced me that the Lord reigns."
They all laughed at this customary settlement of knotty problems, on the part of the old gentleman, and Burt, rising from the table, looked out, with the remark that the prospects were that "the Lord would rain heavily that afternoon." The oldest and most infallible weather-prophet in the region--Storm King--was certainly giving portentous indications of a storm of no ordinary dimensions. The vapor was pouring over its summit in Niagara-like volume, and the wind, no longer rushing with its recent boisterous roar, was moaning and sighing as if nature was in pain and trouble. The barometer, which had been low for two days, sank lower; the temperature rose as the gale veered to the eastward. This fact, and the moisture laden atmosphere, indicated that it came from the Gulf Stream region of the Atlantic. The rain, which began with a fine drizzle, increased fast, and soon fell in blinding sheets. The day grew dusky early, and the twilight was brief and obscure; then followed a long night of Egyptian darkness, through which the storm rushed, warred, and splashed with increasing vehemence. Before the evening was over, the sound of tumultuously flowing water became an appreciable element in the uproar without, and Webb, opening a window on the sheltered side of the house, called Amy to hear the torrents pouring down the sides of Storm King.
"What tremendous alternations of mood Nature indulges in!" she said, as she came shivering back to the fire. "Contrast such a night with a sunny June day."
"It would seem as if 'mild, ethereal spring' had got her back up," Burt remarked, "and regarding the return of winter as a trespass, had taken him by the throat, determined to have it out once for all. Something will give way before morning, probably half our bridges."
"Well, that is a way of explaining the jar among the elements that I had not thought of," she said, laughing.
"You needn't think Webb can do all the explaining. I have my theories also--sounder than his, too, most of 'em."
"There is surely no lack of sound accompanying your theory to-night. Indeed, it is not all 'sound and fury!'"
"It's all the more impressive, then. What's the use of your delicate, weak-backed theories that require a score of centuries to substantiate them?"
"Your theory about the bridges will soon be settled," remarked Leonard, ominously, "and I fear it will prove correct. At this rate the town will have to pay for half a dozen new ones--bridges, I mean."
"Well amended," added Webb.
"Just hear the rain!" said Leonard, ruefully. There was a heavy body of snow still in the mountains and on northern slopes, and much ice on the streams and ponds. "There certainly will be no little trouble if this continues."
"Don't worry, children," said Mr. Clifford, quietly. "I have generally found everything standing after the storms were over."