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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By John Burroughs (1837–1921)

[Pepacton. 1881.—Seventh Edition. 1887.]

A MAN who came back to the place of his birth in the East, after an absence of a quarter of a century in the West, said the one thing he most desired to see about the old homestead was the spring. This, at least, he would find unchanged. Here his lost youth would come back to him. The faces of his father and mother he might not look upon; but the face of the spring that had mirrored theirs and his own so oft, he fondly imagined would beam on him as of old. I can well believe that in that all but springless country in which he had cast his lot, the vision, the remembrance of the fountain that flowed by his father’s doorway, so prodigal of its precious gifts, has awakened in him the keenest longings and regrets.

Did he not remember the path, also? for next to the spring itself is the path that leads to it. Indeed, of all foot-paths, the spring-path is the most suggestive.

This is a path with something at the end of it, and the best of good fortune awaits him who walks therein. It is a well-worn path, and, though generally up or down a hill, it is the easiest of all paths to travel: we forget our fatigue when going to the spring, and we have lost it when we turn to come away. See with what alacrity the laborer hastens along it, all sweaty from the fields; see the boy or girl running with pitcher or pail; see the welcome shade of the spreading tree that presides over its marvellous birth!

In the woods or on the mountain-side follow the path, and you are pretty sure to find a spring; all creatures are going that way night and day, and they make a path.

A spring is always a vital point in the landscape; it is indeed the eye of the fields, and how often, too, it has a noble eyebrow in the shape of an overhanging bank or ledge. Or else its site is marked by some tree which the pioneer has wisely left standing, and which sheds a coolness and freshness that make the water more sweet. In the shade of this tree the harvesters sit and eat their lunch and look out upon the quivering air of the fields. Here the Sunday saunterer stops and lounges with his book, and bathes his hands and face in the cool fountain. Hither the strawberry-girl comes with her basket and pauses a moment in the green shade. The ploughman leaves his plough and in long strides approaches the life-renewing spot, while his team, that cannot follow, look wistfully after him. Here the cattle love to pass the heat of the day, and hither come the birds to wash themselves and make their toilets.

Indeed, a spring is always an oasis in the desert of the fields. It is a creative and generative centre. It attracts all things to itself—the grasses, the mosses, the flowers, the wild plants, the great trees. The walker finds it out, the camping party seek it, the pioneer builds his hut or his house near it. When the settler or squatter has found a good spring, he has found a good place to begin life; he has found the fountain-head of much that he is seeking in this world. The chances are that he has found a southern and eastern exposure; for it is a fact that water does not readily flow north; the valleys mostly open the other way; and it is quite certain he has found a measure of salubrity: for where water flows fever abideth not. The spring, too, keeps him to the right belt, out of the low valley, and off the top of the hill.

When John Winthrop decided upon the site where now stands the city of Boston, as a proper place for a settlement, he was chiefly attracted by a large and excellent spring of water that flowed there. The infant city was born of this fountain.

There seems a kind of perpetual spring-time about the place where water issues from the ground—a freshness and a greenness that are ever renewed. The grass never fades, the ground is never parched or frozen. There is warmth there in winter and coolness in summer. The temperature is equalized. In March or April the spring runs are a bright emerald while the surrounding fields are yet brown and sere, and in fall they are yet green when the first snow covers them. Thus every fountain by the road-side is a fountain of youth and of life. This is what the old fables finally mean.

An intermittent spring is shallow; it has no deep root and is like an inconstant friend. But a perennial spring, one whose ways are appointed, whose foundation is established, what a profound and beautiful symbol! In fact, there is no more large and universal symbol in nature than the spring, if there is any other capable of such wide and various applications….

I recently went many miles out of my way to see the famous trout-spring in Warren County, New Jersey. This spring flows about one thousand gallons of water per minute, which has a uniform temperature of fifty degrees winter and summer. It is near the Musconetcong Creek, which looks as if it were made up of similar springs. On the parched and sultry summer day upon which my visit fell, it was well worth walking many miles just to see such a volume of water issue from the ground. I felt with the boy Petrarch, when he first beheld a famous spring, that “Were I master of such a fountain I would prefer it to the finest of cities.” A large oak leans down over the spring and affords an abundance of shade. The water does not bubble up, but comes straight out with great speed like a courier with important news, and as if its course underground had been a direct and an easy one for a long distance. Springs that issue in this way have a sort of vertebra, a ridgy and spine-like centre that suggests the gripe and push there is in this element.

What would one not give for such a spring in his back-yard or front-yard, or anywhere near his house, or in any of his fields? One would be tempted to move his house to it, if the spring could not be brought to the house. Its mere poetic value and suggestion would be worth all the art and ornament to be had. It would irrigate one’s heart and character as well as his acres. Then one might have a Naiad Queen to do his churning and to saw his wood; then one might “see his chore done by the gods themselves,” as Emerson says, or by the nymphs, which is just as well.

I know a homestead situated on one of the picturesque branch valleys of the Housatonic, that has such a spring flowing by the foundation walls of the house, and not a little of the strong overmastering local attachment that holds the owner there is born of that—his native spring. He could not, if he would, break from it. He says that when he looks down into it he has a feeling that he is an amphibious animal that has somehow got stranded. A long, gentle flight of stone steps leads from the back porch down to it under the branches of a lofty elm. It wells up through the white sand and gravel as through a sieve, and fills the broad space that has been arranged for it so gently and imperceptibly that one does not suspect its copiousness until he has seen the overflow. It turns no wheel, yet it lends a pliant hand to many of the affairs of that household. It is a refrigerator in summer and a frost-proof envelope in winter, and a fountain of delights the year round. Trout come up from the Weebutook River and dwell there and become domesticated, and take lumps of butter from your hand, or rake the ends of your fingers if you tempt them. It is a kind of sparkling and ever-washed larder. Where are the berries? where is the butter, the milk, the steak, the melon? In the spring. It preserves, it ventilates, it cleanses. It is a board of health and general purveyor. It is equally for use and for pleasure. Nothing degrades it, and nothing can enhance its beauty. It is picture and parable, and an instrument of music. It is servant and divinity in one. The milk of forty cows is cooled in it, and never a drop gets into the cans, though they are plunged to the brim. It is as insensible to drought and rain as to heat and cold. It is planted upon the sand and yet it abideth like a house upon a rock. It evidently has some relation to a little brook that flows down through a deep notch in the hills half a mile distant, because on one occasion, when the brook was being ditched or dammed, the spring showed great perturbation. Every nymph in it was filled with sudden alarm and kicked up a commotion.

In some sections of the country, when there is no spring near the house, the farmer, with much labor and pains, brings one from some uplying field or wood. Pine and poplar logs are bored and laid in a trench, and the spring practically moved to the desired spot. The ancient Persians had a law, that whoever thus conveyed the water of a spring to a spot not watered before should enjoy many immunities under the state not granted to others.

Hilly and mountainous countries do not always abound in good springs. When the stratum is vertical or has too great a dip, the water is not collected in large veins, but is rather held as it falls and oozes out slowly at the surface over the top of the rock. On this account one of the most famous grass and dairy sections of New York is poorly supplied with springs. Every creek starts in a bog or marsh, and good water can be had only by excavating.

What a charm lurks about those springs that are found near the tops of mountains, so small that they get lost amid the rocks and débris and never reach the valley, and so cold that they make the throat ache! Every hunter and mountain-climber can tell you of such—usually on the last rise before the summit is cleared. It is eminently the hunter’s spring. I do not know whether or not the foxes and other wild creatures lap at it, but their pursuers are quite apt to pause there and take breath or eat their lunch. The mountain-climbers in summer hail it with a shout. It is always a surprise, and raises the spirits of the dullest. Then it seems to be born of wildness and remoteness, and to savor of some special benefit or good fortune. A spring in the valley is an idyl, but a spring on the mountain is a genuine lyrical touch. It imparts a mild thrill; and if one were to call any springs “miracles,” as the natives of Cashmere are said to regard their fountains, it would be such as these.

What secret attraction draws one in his summer walk to touch at all the springs on his route, and to pause a moment at each, as if what he was in quest of would be likely to turn up there? I can seldom pass a spring without doing homage to it. It is the shrine at which I oftenest worship. If I find one fouled with leaves or trodden full by cattle, I take as much pleasure in cleaning it out as a devotee in setting up the broken image of his Saint. Though I chance not to want to drink there, I like to behold a clear fountain, and I may want to drink next time I pass, or some traveller, or heifer, or milch-cow may. Leaves have a strange fatality for the spring. They come from afar to get into it. In a grove or in the woods they drift into it and cover it up like snow. Late in November, in clearing one out, I brought forth a frog from his hibernacle in the leaves at the bottom. He was very black and he rushed about in a bewildered manner like one suddenly aroused from his sleep.

There is no place more suitable for statuary than about a spring or fountain, especially in parks or improved fields. Here one seems to expect to see figures and bending forms. “Where a spring rises or a river flows,” says Seneca, “there should we build altars and offer sacrifices.”