Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"In New England Fields and Woods"

"The starry bloom of the asters."

Frank and Jennie Phelps

Our "neighbors to the east."

Anna Stevens Robinson reading to her husband, Rowland Evans Robinson

From the Centennial Edition of "In New England Fields and Woods"

I was blessed in my childhood to have as near neighbors Frank and Jennie Phelps of Valley Ridge Farm, our "neighbors to the east" as Mrs. Phelps would have said. The Phelps' home was a gracious one with a welcoming side porch, a vast comfortable kitchen, a dining room with bay windows which looked out onto a clump of yellow roses, a parlor with an upright piano which I was invited to play, even when my skills left something to be desired.

The "Phelps Folks" read widely and they read aloud with enjoyment and clarity. They held membership in the Rowland E. Robinson Memorial Association and attended the yearly "Rokeby Meet" at the North Ferrisburgh, Vermont home of the late Robinson family. Frank Phelps [we children called him formally by both names] was often asked to select and read a Robinson sketch or chapter as part of the afternoon's program. Many of the "stories" were written in dialect. One of the characters was "Antoine" who "spoke" in the heavy French-Canadian accented English familiar to any of us in the Champlain Valley. Others used the form of speech which was colloqial in the 1800's in Vermont and New Hampshire.

I found reading these stories heavy going at the time. I have owned a copy of the Centennial Edition of "In New England Fields and Woods" for many years and have opened it with a new appreciation of Robinson's nature writing. I hope you will enjoy "October Days" from this collection.

October Days

R. E. Robinson

"Fields as green as when the summer birds caroled above them, woods more gorgeous with innumerable hues and tints of ripening leaves than a blooming parterre, are spread beneath the azure sky, whose deepest color is reflected with intenser blue in lake and stream. In them against this color are set the scarlet and gold of every tree upon their brinks, the painted hills, the clear-cut mountain peaks, all downward pointing to the depths of this nether sky.

Overhead, thistledown and the silken balloon of the milkweed float on their zephyr-wafted course, silver motes against the blue; and above them are the black cohorts of crows in their straggling retreat to softer climes. Now the dark column moves steadily onward, now veers in confusion from some suspected or discovered danger, or pauses to assail with a harsh clangor some sworn enemy of the sable brotherhood. Their gay-clad smaller cousins, the jays, are for the most part silently industrious among the gold and bronze of the beeches, flitting to and fro with flashes of blue as they gather mast, but now and then finding time to scold an intruder with an endless variety of discordant outcry.

How sharp the dark shadows are cut against the sunlit fields, and in their gloom how brightly shine the first fallen leaves and the starry bloom of the asters. In cloudy days and even when rain is falling the depths of the woods are not dark, for the bright foliage seems to give forth light and casts no shadows beneath the lowering sky.

The scarlet maples burn, the golden leaves of poplar and birch shine through the misty veil, and the deep purple of the ash glows as if it held a smouldering fire that the first breeze might fan into a flame, and through all this luminous leafage one may trace branch and twig as a wick in a candle flame. Only the evergreens are dark as when they bear their steadfast green in the desolation of winter, and only they brood shadows.

In such weather the woodland air is laden with the light burden of odor, the faintly pungent aroma of the ripened leaves, more subtle than the scent of pine or fir, yet as apparent to the nostrils, as delightful and more rare, for in the round of the year its days are few, while in summer sunshine and winter wind, in springtime shower and autumnal frost, pine, spruce, balsam and hemlock, and cedar distill their perfume and lavish it on the breeze or gale of every season.

Out of the marshes, now changing their universal green to brown and bronze and gold, floats a finer odor than their common reek of ooze and sodden weeds---a spicy tang of frost-ripened flags and the fainter breath of the landward border of ferns; and with these also is mingled the subtle pungency of the woodlands, where the pepperidge is burning out in a blaze of scarlet, and the yellow flame of the poplars flickers in the lightest breeze.

The air is of a temper neither too hot nor too cold, and in what is now rather the good gay wood than green wood, there are no longer pestering insects to worry the flesh and trouble the spirit. The flies bask in half torpid indolence, the tormenting whine of the mosquito is heard no more. Of insect life one hears little but the mellow drone of the bumblebee, the noon-tide chirp of the cricket, and the husky rustle of the dragonfly's gauzy wing.

Unwise are the tent-dwellers who have folded their canvas and departed to the shelter of more stable roof-trees, for these are days that should be made the most of, days that have brought the perfected ripeness of the year and display it in the fullness of its glory."

Reading Robinson's descriptive prose, nostalgia takes over. I see each color, inhale the scents of a ripe October day in Vermont. In particular I think of walking through the woods of maple and beech on an overcast day when all the color is concentrated in the gold and scarlet canopy overhead and a small wind soughs through the tree-tops, while all on the forest floor is still.

Rowland E. Robinson's books are available again, at least in the US. If you would like to learn more about him, follow the link below.


  1. You do find some beautifully descriptive writing for your blog. You asked if I used acrylics or water colors for my paintings. I use water colors but I don't do the water color style. I find it too difficult visually to determine where the white spaces are going to be.

  2. Hullo MM
    The excerpt has a lovely pace and a very clear feel of the language being used with a respectful reverence. The author is very careful to build layers of image. Like you he seems to have loved the area very much.

  3. That is quite some powerfully descriptive prose ..meaning even more to a person who knows the area and the sights he sees.

    Eyes shutting ...head nodding ...bed calling xx