To collect drift-wood is like botanizing, and one soon learns to recognize the prevailing species, and to look with pleased eagerness for new. It is a tragic botany indeed, where, as in enchanted gardens, every specimen has a voice, and, as you take each from the ground, you expect from it a cry like the mandrake's. And from what a garden it comes! As one walks round Brenton's Point after an autumnal storm, it seems as if the passionate heaving of the waves had brought wholly new tints to the surface, hues unseen even in dreams before, greens and purples impossible in serener days. These match the prevailing green and purple of the slate-cliffs; and Nature in truth carries such fine fitnesses yet further. For, as we tread the delicate seaside turf, which makes the farthest point seem merely the land's last bequest of emerald to the ocean, we suddenly come upon curved lines of lustrous purple amid the grass, rows on rows of bright muscle-shells, regularly traced as if a child had played there,--the graceful high-water-mark of the terrible storm.
It is the crowning fascination of the sea, the consummation of such might in such infantine delicacy. You may notice it again in the summer, when our bay is thronged for miles on miles with inch-long jelly-fishes,--lovely creatures, in shape like disembodied gooseberries, and shot through and through in the sunlight with all manner of blue and golden glistenings, and bearing tiny rows of fringing oars that tremble like a baby's eyelids. There is less of gross substance in them than in any other created thing,--mere water and outline, destined to perish at a touch, but seemingly never touching, for they float secure, finding no conceivable cradle so soft as this awful sea. They are like melodies amid Beethoven's Symphonies, or like the songs that wander through Shakespeare, and that seem things too fragile to risk near Cleopatra's passion and Hamlet's woe. Thus tender is the touch of ocean; and look, how around this piece of oaken timber, twisted and torn and furrowed,--its iron bolts snapped across as if bitten,--there is yet twined a gay garland of ribbon-weed, bearing on its trailing stem a cluster of bright shells, like a mermaid's chatelaine.
Thus adorned, we place it on the blaze. As night gathers without, the gale rises. It is a season of uneasy winds, and of strange, rainless storms, which perplex the fishermen, and indicate rough weather out at sea. As the house trembles and the windows rattle, we turn towards the fire with a feeling of safety. Representing the fiercest of all dangers, it yet expresses security and comfort.
Should a gale tear the roof from over our heads and show the black sky alone above us, we should not feel utterly homeless while this fire burned,--at least I can recall such a feeling of protection when once left suddenly roofless by night in one of the wild gorges of Mount Katahdin. There is a positive demonstrative force in an open fire, which makes it your fit ally in a storm. Settled and obdurate cold may well be encountered by the quiet heat of an invisible furnace. But this howling wind might depress one's spirits, were it not met by a force as palpable,--the warm blast within answering to the cold blast without. The wide chimney then becomes the scene of contest: wind meets wind, sparks encounter rain-drops, they fight in the air like the visioned soldiers of Attila; sometimes a daring drop penetrates, and dies, hissing, on the hearth; and sometimes a troop of sparks may make a sortie from the chimney-top. I know not how else we can meet the elements by a defiance so magnificent as that from this open hearth; and in burning drift-wood, especially, we turn against the enemy his own ammunition. For on these fragments three elements have already done their work. Water racked and strained the hapless ships, air hunted them, and they were thrown at last upon earth, the sternest of all. Now fire takes the shattered remnants, and makes them a means of comfort and defence.
It has been pointed out by botanists, as one of Nature's most graceful retributions, that, in the building of the ship, the apparent balance of vegetable forces is reversed, and the herb becomes master of the tree, when the delicate, blue-eyed flax, taking the stately pine under its protection, stretches over it in cordage, or spreads in sails. But more graceful still is this further contest between the great natural elements, when this most fantastic and vanishing thing, this delicate and dancing flame, subdues all these huge vassals to its will, and, after earth and air and water have done their utmost, comes in to complete the task, and to be crowned as monarch. "The sea drinks the air," said Anacreon, "and the sun the sea." My fire is the child of the sun.
I come back from every evening stroll to this gleaming blaze; it is a domestic lamp, and shines for me everywhere. To my imagination it burns as a central flame among these dark houses, and lights up the whole of this little fishing hamlet, humble suburb of the fashionable watering-place. I fancy that others too perceive the light, and that certain huge visitors are attracted, even when the storm keeps neighbors and friends at home. For the slightest presage of foul weather is sure to bring to yonder anchorage a dozen silent vessels, that glide up the harbor for refuge, and are heard but once, when the chain-cable rattles as it runs out, and the iron hand of the anchor grasps the rock. It always seems to me that these unwieldy creatures are gathered, not about the neighboring lighthouse only, but around our ingle-side. Welcome, ye great winged strangers, whose very names are unknown! This hearth is comprehensive in its hospitalities; it will accept from you either its fuel or its guests; your mariners may warm themselves beside it, or your scattered timbers may warm me. Strange instincts might be supposed to thrill and shudder in the ribs of ships that sail toward the beacon of a drift-wood fire. Morituri salutant. A single shock, and all that magnificent fabric may become mere fuel to prolong the flame.
Here, beside the roaring ocean, this blaze represents the only receptacle more vast than ocean. We say, "unstable as water." But there is nothing unstable about the flickering flame; it is persistent and desperate, relentless in following its ends. It is the most tremendous physical force that man can use. "If drugs fail," said Hippocrates, "use the knife; should the knife fail, use fire." Conquered countries were anciently given over to fire and sword: the latter could only kill, but the other could annihilate. See how thoroughly it does its work, even when domesticated: it takes up everything upon the hearth and leaves all clean. The Greek proverb says, that "the sea drinks up all the sins of the world." Save fire only, the sea is the most capacious of all things.
But its task is left incomplete: it only hides its records, while fire destroys them. In the Norse Edda, when the gods try their games, they find themselves able to out-drink the ocean, but not to eat like the flame. Logi, or fire, licks up food and trencher and all. This chimney is more voracious than the sea. Give time enough, and all which yonder depths contain might pass through this insatiable throat, leaving only a few ashes and the memory of a flickering shade,--pulvis et umbra. We recognize this when we have anything to conceal. Deep crimes are buried in earth, deeper are sunk In water, but the deepest of all are confided by trembling men to the profounder secrecy of flame. If every old chimney could narrate the fearful deeds whose last records it has cancelled, what sighs of undying passion would breathe from its dark summit,--what groans of guilt! Those lurid sparks that whirl over yonder house-top, tossed aloft as if fire itself could not contain them, may be the last embers of some written scroll, one rescued word of which might suffice for the ruin of a household, and the crushing of many hearts.
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