|Where the Forest Murmers
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
Coming of Dusk
At all seasons the coming of dusk has its spell upon the
imagination. Even in cities it puts something of silence into the turmoil, something of
mystery into the commonplace aspect of the familiar and the day-worn. The shadow of the
great change that accompanies the passage of day is as furtive and mysterious, as swift
and inevitable, amid the traffic of streets as in aisles of the forest, or in glens and on
hills, on shores, or on the sea. It is everywhere the hour of suspense. Day has not receded
into the confused past, already a shadow in eternity, and night has not yet come out of
the unknown. Instinctively one feels as though crossing an invisible bridge over a gulf,
perchance with troubled glances at the already dimming shore behind, or with dreaming eyes
or watchful or expectant gaze on the veiled shore upon which we are almost come. In winter
one can see dusk advancing like a mountain-shadow. In lonely places there is
something ominous, menacing in the swift approach of the early winter dusk, further
groomed perhaps by the oncome of snow or rain or of a soughing wind moving out of low
congregated cloud. In thronged streets it is not less swift, not less sombre; but the
falling veils have hardly been secretly unloosened before they are punctuated by the white
or yellow flare of the street-lamps. Hardly is breathing-space, there, between the
stepping out of day and the stepping into night. The fear of darkness, which possesses
towns like a great dread, has broken the spell with ten thousand lights: as the mind of
man, which likewise dreads the naked darkness of thought and the white, remote,
passionless stars of the spirit, hastens to hide its shadowy dusks and brooding nights
with a myriad frail paper lanterns that a flying hand of rain will extinguish, or a breath
of wind carry in a moment to the outer darkness.
But whatever hold upon the imagination the winter-dusk may have, however subtle a spell there may be in the gloamings of autumn, surely the coming of dusk has at no other time the enchantment of the long midsummer eves. It is then that one feels. to the utmost the magic influences of the dimsea or dimsee, to use the beautiful old English westcountry word. The further north one is the longer the suspense, the more magical the slow gradual recession of the day-glow from vast luminous skies, the slow swij-nming into the earthward gleaming of incalculable shadow. What a difference between the lands of the south and the light-lingering countries of the north! The sudden night comes to the shores of Mediterranean while the rose of the west yet flames against the Cornish headlands; the Sicilian wave is dark while the long green billow, washing over, Lyonesse, is still a wandering fire under cloudy banks of amethyst. And, in turn, shadow has come out of the sea upon Wales and fallen upon the upland watercourses from the norland fells while, in the Gaelic isles, purple and gold cloths are still piled deep upon the fiery threshold of the sunset: and when the last isles themselves are like velvet-dark barques afloat in a universe of opal and pale yellow and faint crimson, a radiant sun still blooms like a flower of fire among the white pinnacles of wandering berg and the everlasting walls of ice.
In June the coming of dusk is the audible movement of summer. The day is so full of myriad beauty, so full of sound and fragrance, that it is not till the hour of the dew that one may hear the breathing of the miraculous presence. The birds, who still sing early in the month, and many even of those whose songs follow the feet of May, begin a new love-life at the coming of June, are silent; though sometimes, in the south, the nightingale will still suddenly put the pulse of song into the gloaming, though brieflier now; and elsewhere the night-loving thrush will awake, and call his long liquid notes above the wildgrowth of honeysuckle and brier. At the rising of the moon I have heard the cuckoos calling well after the date when they are supposed to be silent, and near midnight have known the blackcap fill a woodland hollow in Argyll with a music as solitary, as intoxicating, as that of a nightingale in a Surrey dell.
The thrush, the blackbird, the blackcap, the willow-warbler and other birds may often be heard singing in the dusk, or on moonlit nights, in a warm May: and doubtless it is for this reason that many people declare they have heard the nightingale even in regions where the bird never penetrates. Often, too, the nightingale's song is attributed to the blackcap, and even to the thrush or merle, simply because heard by day; for there seems to be a common idea that this bird will not sing save at dusk or in darkness or in the morning twilight. I doubt if the nightingale ever sings in actual darkness, and though the bird is most eager just before and at dawn, at moonlit or starlit dusk, or at full moon, it may be heard at any hour of the day. I have beard the song and watched the singer at full moon, and that not in deep woods but in a copse by the wayside. Strange that both name and legend survive in lands where the nightingale is now unseen. There is no question but that it was once plentiful, or at any rate often seen, in the Western Highlands; though now, it is said, not a bird of its tribe has crossed the Solway since the Union! It is still spoken of in Argyll and elsewhere, and not confusedly with any other woodlander. In no country has it a lovelier name than the Gaelic Ros-an-Ceol, the Rose of Music. I have heard it spoken of as the smiol or smiolack, the eosag, and the stideag, though this latter name, perhaps the commonest, is misleading, as it is applied to one or two other songsters.
In Iona, Colonsay, Tiree, and other isles, I have heard the robin alluded to as the spideag. I remember the drift, but cannot recall the text of a Gaelic poem where the nightingale (for neither in literary nor legendary language, is any other bird indicated by "Ros-an-Ceol") is called the Sister of Sorrow, with an allusion to a singular legend, which in some variant or another I believe is also found in the Austrian highlands, parts of Germany, and elsewhere, to the effect that if a nightingale come "with Song upon it" into the room of a sleeping person, that person will go mad, or that if the eyes of a nightingale found dead or slain be dissolved in any liquid, the drinker will become blind. I have heard, too, a tale (though the bird was there alluded to as the smeorachoidhche or "night-thrush") where the nightingale, the owl, and the bat are called moon-children, the Moon-Clan; three birds, it is said, with three animals of the land and three of the water, three fish, three insects, three trees, three plants, three flowers, and three stones were thrown to the earth as a farewell gift the day the Moon died. Among the three birds the teller included the bat, and I daresay there are many who still regard the bat as a bird. The three animals of land and water were the weasel, the badger, and the fox, the seal, the otter, and the kelpie (sic). The three fish were the fluke, the eel, and the moon-glistered herring. The three insects were the white moth, the grey gnat, and the cockchafer. The three trees were the ash, the thorn, and the elder. The three plants were the ivy, the moon-fern or bracken, and the mistletoe. The three flowers were the meadowsweet, the white water-lily and the "lusavone" (?Lus-Mhonaidh . . . ? Bog-cotton). The three stones were, I think, granite, basalt, and trap, though I am uncertain about the second and still more so about the third, which was called clach-liath, "the grey stone."
But though in the north the nightingale is no longer a haunter of the dusk, the other clans of the night are to be met with everywhere, "from the Rhinns of Islay to the Ord of Sutherland " as the Highland saying goes in place of the wider "from Land's End to John o' Groats." First and foremost is the owl. But of the owl and the nightjar and the midsummer night I wish to speak in a succeeding paper. The corncrake will next occur to mind.
The cry of the landrail is so like its popular name that one cannot mistake it. Some naturalists say the resemblance to the croaking ot the frog may mislead the unwary, but there is an altogether different musical beat or emphasis in the call of the rail, a different quality of sound, a different energy ; and it is difficult to understand how any ear familiar with nocturnal sounds could err in detecting the monotonously uniform krex-krex of the bullfrog from the large, air-swimming, harshly musical crek-crak, with the singular suspense so often to be noted after the first syllable. For all its harshness there are few sounds of the summer-dusk so welcome. It speaks of heat : of long shadow-weaving afternoons : of labour ceased, of love begun, of dreams within dreams. The very memory of it fills the mind as with silent garths of hay, with pastures ruddy with sorrel, lit by the last flusht glow or by the yellow gold of the moon, paling as it rises. The white moth is out ; the dew is on the grass, the orchis, the ghostly clover ; the flittermouse is here, is yonder, is here again ; a late mallard flies like a whirring bolt overhead, or a homing cushat cleaves the air-waves as with rapid oars. As a phantom, a white owl drifts past and greys into the dusk, like flying foam into gathering mist. In the dew-moist air an innumerable rumour becomes a monotone: the breath of life suppressed, husht, or palpitant. A wilderness of wild-roses has been crushed, and their fragrance diffused among the dove-grey and hare-bell blue and pansy-purple veils of twilight; or is it a wilderness of honeysuckle; or of meadowsweet; or of the dew-wet hay; or lime-blossom and brier, galingale and the tufted reed and the multitude of the fern? It is fragrance, ineffable, indescribable: odour born under the pale fire of the moon, under the lance-thrusting whiteness of the Evening Star.
But before rain the persistent cry of the corncrake becomes loud, raucous, with a rasping intensity. The bird is commonly said to be a ventriloquist, but this I greatly doubt. I have watched the rail in many places, often within a few yards, more than once from the flat summit of a huge boulder set in the heart of a hillmeadow of grass and sorrel. Not once only have I heard "the King of the quails" unmistakably throw his voice a few score of yards away. Often a crek-crake has resounded, and at some distance away, just as I have seen the stooping body of the dream (or traon or treun-ri-treun) slide through the grassy tangle almost at my feet: but the cry was not identical with that which a moment before I had heard, and surely it was not only distance but the difference of sex and the pulse of love which softened it to a musical call. Once, however, watching unseen from the boulder I have spoken of, I saw and heard a landrail utter its crake in three ways, first and for over a minute with its head to one side while it moved jerkingly this way and that, then for a few seconds (perhaps four or five times) with its head apparently thrown back, and then after a minute or two's silence and after a brief rapid run forward with outthrust neck and lowered head, as though calling along the ground. In no instance was the call thrown as though from a distance, but unmistakably from where the bird moved or crouched. There had been no response to the first, a single echo-like crek-crake followed the second, but to the third there came almost simultaneously calls from at least three separate regions.
Nor is the rail so invariably shy, so heedful of cover, as commonly averred. With silence and patience it may often be discerned before the seeding grass is too dense or the corn high. In a lonely place on the east shore of West Loch Tarbert in Cantire I have seen several corncrakes leave cover as fearlessly at those two other "sacred " or " blessed" birds, the lark and the red grouse, will leave the shelter of heather-clutch or grassy tussock: and one morning I was awaked at dawn by so near and insistent an iterance of the singular call that I rose and looked out, to discover three corncrakes awkwardly perched on a low rabbit-fence, while I counted four others running to and fro in the rough dew-glistered grass just beyond. There, by the way, a crofter spoke of the landrail as the cearrsach, a name I have not elsewhere heard and am not sure of the meaning, unless it is "the lumpy" or "awkward one"; while an English factor knew it as the grass-drake or meadow-drake, and again as the night-crow---the latter obviously a survival from the Anglo-Saxon "myghte-crake " or a name regiven from like association of ideas. The same shrewd farmer quite believed that a corncrake is governor and leader of each flock of quails, at any rate in the season of migration---an idea held by the Greeks of old and retained by the Greek and Sicilian quailshooters of to-day, and obviously widespread, as the Germans call the landrail the quail-king (Wachtelkönig), the French "le roi des cailles," the Italians " il re di quaglie," and the Spaniards "el rey de las cordinices." However, if he had been a Gael he could have spoken of the quail only by hearsay most likely, for it is very rare in the Highlands, and for myself I have never seen one there. Its name (garra-gart or gartan) is not unique; and the common term muir-eun is solely biblical, "'sea-bird" or "bird-from-oversea," because of the allusion in Numbers xii, 31.
But the dew is heavy on the grass: the corncrake calls: on a cloudy juniper the nightjar churrs: the fhionna or white moth wavers above the tall spires of the foxglove. The midsummer eve is now a grey-violet dusk. At the rising of the moon a sigh comes from the earth. Down the moist velvety ledges of the dark a few far-apart and low-set stars pulsate as though about to fall, but continuously regather their tremulous white rays. The night of summer is come.