As for the young leaves, so rash and so "forth-putting," Mother Nature recently tucked them up, all snug and safe, to sleep till spring.
As this summer's foliage falls we begin to see myriad buds studding the boughs, and every bud is a wind-rocked cradle for next year's baby-leaves or flowers.
The bare and silent woods are full of sweet mute promises of spring. Beneath the purple scales of the elder-buds we can find the blossom-cluster, already perfect though it is no larger than a pea. Next spring's "pussies" are formed and ready in the large golden-green buds which stud the twigs of the swamp-willows. And on the birch and alder branches, among the little cones which ripened last summer, are the staminate catkins which will shake out their gold to the April breezes. But all, if they be wise, will "lie low" till the sun returns from the South.
The tender spring-flowers which come in confiding innocence into an autumn world recall Hans Andersen's pathetic story of the "Sommer Gowk." It is the Danish popular name for the snowdrop - "the summer-fool" - cheated by false hopes of summer into the clutches of present winter. The "Sommer Gowk" is chilled and beaten down by a shower of sleet, and gets hardly a glimpse of sunshine, and no summer at all. And yet in the South, "over the hills and far away," summer is filling all the fields with sunshine - summer fair and real - and drawing nearer day by day. The "Sommer Gowk," says Andersen, is like the noble souls born into a world as yet unfit to receive them. The prophets who gave their high spiritual message to ears dulled by sensuality or sloth, the poets who had no recognition save from posterity, the reformers, persecuted or laughed at by their own age, but honored by a later one - were they not Sommer Gowks, one and all? And science, too, has had its Sommer Gowks, for all its great schemes, from the discovery of America to aerial navigation, have seemed dreams in their day.
But "the world's dreamers have been its benefactors." And so in the November violets we may see a reminder of those who, in dark days and in mental and spiritual loneliness, foresaw the coming of fuller life, light, and liberty.
How many there have been! From heavenly-minded Job, harshly criticised by his more material companions in the dawn of time, to Savonarola and Latimer, Columbus and Galileo, Andreas Hofer and John Brown, and thence on, through the years, to the"crank" or "dreamer" or "unpractical sentimentalist" who is the newspaper butt of our own day. But they have all been, like the Sommer Gowk, prophets of the spring.
The same Indian-summer weather which throws the violets out of their reckoning brings into bloom our very last wild flower, the witch- or wych-hazel.
Its popular name is due to a double mistake in nomenclature, which has mixed things up in confusion worse confounded. The early American settlers saw somthing in its foliage or habit of growth suggestive of the English witch-hazel, to which it is in nowise related. So they transferred the old English name to the newly-discovered American shrub, being influenced probably by the same love for the home-words which prompted them to call the red-breasted American thrush a robin and the marsh marigold a cowslip. But the English witch-hazel is not a hazel at all, but an elm (Ulmus montana), and it got its popular name because its foliage somewhat resembles that of the hazelnut-tree (Corylus Americana).
The English witch-hazel or wych-elm was supposed to possess magic powers. It indicated the presence of hidden springs and of ores. Even at the close of the last century Cornish miners were so confident of its efficacy that they scarcely ever sunk a shaft but by its direction, and those dexterous in the use of the divining-rod professed to be able to mark, on the surface of the soil, the direction and breadth of the ore-vein beneath. A forked twig of the Ulmus montana was also used for the detection of witches, and hence the tree's popular name.
When the first settlers transferred the old English name to the New England shrub they also transferred all the folk-lore and wonder-lore thereunto appertaining and belonging.
Whether the American wych-hazel has lived up to the reputation thus suddenly thrust upon it we do not know. Certainly it has a half-uncanny look when one chances upon it, all abloom, in woods where the last autumn gold is growing sere. For it wears the aspect of an April blossom, yet we find it in latter October or November, when all about it the leaves are falling, and when the brook by which it loves to grow runs turbidly, swollen by the heavy rains of the latter year.
The flowers provide a last feast for the flies and bees which are tempted abroad by the sunshine of Indian summer, and the pale gold of the strap-shaped petals is conspicuous in the general color-lessness of the thickets.
There are two sets of stamens, - longer ones which produce pollen, and shorter ones which do not and which have dwindled to mere reminiscent scales. . The fruit, like that of the orange-tree, takes nearly a year to ripen, and will not be fully matured till next September, so that last year's fruit and this year's blossoms may be seen on the branches together.
The flowers issue in trios from little downy buds and begin to open as the leaves fall. Spring and summer, which called forth all the other blossoms of field and woodland, failed to draw out the hidden beauties of the witch-hazel buds, but now at the threshold of winter they don their gold. And as we gather them for the last wild-flower bouquet of the season, we think of their analogies in human lives - the late-developed talent, the fulfilling of the long-deferred hope, the coming of the happiness, denied in youth, to one whose hair is gray.