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   Chapter 8 FLOWERS AND BIRDS OF THE NORTHLAND

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 8918

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


WHENEVER I look back over the pleasurable experiences which belong to the years I have spent in the Northland I find my thoughts dwelling upon my first summer in St. Michael. Here the summer comes almost in a day, and following upon the heels of a rigorous winter so closely, the contrast is little short of startling. Knowing naught of this sudden transformation, I was not prepared for it. But I well recall a day in June when I looked out from my door-way and wondered whether there could be another spot on earth so beautiful. Gone instantly was every memory of the dark, bleak months that had just passed. The snow still lingered on the distant mountain tops, it is true. Great masses of pure white clouds rolled upon the intensely blue sky. The vegetation was in all its vivid freshness, the tundra carpeted with flowers. Even the reeking Arctic moss itself had burst into myriad brilliant flowers. It was the season of perpetual day,-twenty-four long hours of continuous sunshine. Nature seemed to be rejoicing in her own beauty and all the green things of the earth praised God!

I can not resist the temptation to devote a small space to the flowers and birds of Alaska. Even I who lived a good many years in our own golden west, where flowers are by no means a scarcity, or a rarity, always feel a tendency to enthuse and become expansive when I think of the beauteous wild flowers of the Northland. They lift their dainty heads out of the tundra and seem to smile radiantly at you as you pass.

I confess that when I saw the tundra first it did not make any particular hit with me! And this feeling is shared by many when first they come. I recall one of our Alaskan poets who must have shared it, for I find among his effusions a couplet to this effect:

"Sometimes it's as soggy as sawdust!

Sometimes it's as soft as a sponge!"

Like many others I had gone to Alaska with a mental picture of a great, snow-covered expanse which stretched away for illimitable miles in loneliness and silence. But one day as I walked along I suddenly saw-a little yellow flower. I began to wonder whether wild flowers grew here. A little investigation brought astonishing results.

I found yellow poppies as much at home as in my own California! Daisies, both white and yellow! There is a little blossom resembling in form and grace the sweet pea, but it is a rich, deep indigo blue. I do not know its name, or whether it has a name. The tiny blue forget-me-nots, the beautiful gold-and-purple iris, dainty anemones, and many others which I know not how to name. There is a starry white flower like a cherry blossom, a yellow bloom resembling a cowslip. There is the blue corn-flower, the wild heliotrope, immortelles, purple asters, violets and, most interesting of all, a purple bleeding-heart! Why purple, I wonder? In addition to these there are beautiful wild grasses, exquisite mosses with wondrous weeping tendrils and star-like blossoms. And there is a little crimson vine which grows like patches of red velvet and clings very close to the green moss.

I grew to love the tundra, whatever the time or the season. From the first warm days of the spring until the snow came swishing down and wrapped it in its soft white blanket, I enjoyed its every mood. In summer it is as beautiful as the seemingly more favored spots of the earth. In winter--. There is always the great, white, silent expanse which one grows to love also. For I find the feeling to be general among those who live in the Northland that it is not in her milder moods that Alaska calls to us loudest. One is most deeply conscious of hidden and gigantic forces,-untrodden heights, to which one can never attain, even in spirit! There may be those who hold that the tundra is desolate, dreary. Not I!

The most striking of all the wild flowers that I have ever seen in Alaska is a species of white claytonia. It grows in rings as large as a dinner plate. These floral rings are dropped here and there upon the green moss and in the center of the ring is a rosette of pointed green leaves pressed close to the ground. Around this rosette grows the ring of flowers made up of forty or fifty individual blossoms, all springing from the same root, their faces turned outward from the green rosette. In certain places these circles grow so close together that one can scarcely walk without stepping upon them.

In addition to the wild flowers there are many cultivated ones. I

n Skagway, Fairbanks, and the other large towns, the garden flowers grow profusely. Their only enemy is the southerly trade winds which, on summer afternoons, frequently rise suddenly and keep everybody busy devising some means of protection for the tall growing plants. For the plants grow very tall. Think of sweet peas nine feet high which have had no special cultivation! Pansies three inches across! Asters seven and dahlias ten inches in diameter! I have in mind one garden I saw which contained nineteen different kinds of flowers blooming at once, among them some gorgeous roses, and they were in bloom from June first to October first. No. We are not shut away from the beautiful because we live within sight of the Arctic Circle! Garden parties here rival those I have attended in the States, and I find that human nature is the same the world over! There is no nook or corner of God's earth where one, if he seeks, will not find exquisite beauty lavished impartially and unstintedly by Mother Nature, and warm and kindly hearts as well!

The birds of Alaska are many and beautiful. In fact, in one section or another of the country most of the birds common to the north temperate zone are to be found. Of the larger ones the ptarmigan, grouse, gulls and carrier pigeons are most common. A few years ago the owners of carriers discovered to their astonishment and dismay that the latter were mating with the gulls to the ruination of both birds and it became necessary to separate them. Alaska is also the home of the raven and the crow. And the former is quite the most talkative creature in the country! When he has no other birds to chatter with he talks to himself, and like the buzzard of the southern countries, he acts as scavenger. The ravens are much more numerous than the crows.

There is a long, low, wooded stretch of land twenty miles below Muir Glacier in which ornithologists have observed and collected specimens of more than forty species of birds. Of song birds, we have the golden-crowned sparrow, the Alaska hermit and russet-back thrush. The plaintive song of the hermit thrush is so appealing. It consists of but three notes. But its song is full of beauty, of mystery, of pathos. There are also the grossbeak, the gray-cheeked thrush, the Oregon robin, the western robin, kinglet, warbler, redstart, Oregon junco, and a species of sparrow not to be found elsewhere.

A TYPICAL TANNANA VALLEY GARDEN

THE TRAIL NEAR WRANGELL IN SUMMER. NOTE THE BEAUTY OF THE WOODS

LOVER'S LANE, NEAR SITKA, GUARDED BY TOTEM POLES

In speaking of the birds of the Northland one must not omit to mention the albatross. I shall always remember one that I observed following the boat on which I was crossing Prince William Sound. I could well imagine the feelings of the Ancient Mariner as I watched it,-first on one side of the boat and then on the other, dipping, curving, slanting, but always on straight, unbending wing! Like an experienced swimmer its motion was in long, graceful strokes. It flew apparently without effort, as though it gave no thought to where its next flight would take it. I could quite understand how the superstitious might look upon it as some spirit from the deep which sought to cast a spell over him and lure him on to shipwreck and to death. The gulls fly gracefully, as do also the Arctic terns. But the flight of the albatross is unlike that of any other bird I have ever seen.

Of water fowl there are also the pomarine and the long-tailed jaeger and the king eider duck. The pomarine jaeger is most peculiar of shape, especially while flying, and has a cruel-looking beak. The plumage of the male king eider is very brilliant and beautiful during the breeding season.

The finest singing bird in the country is the Lapland longspur. In color, flight, and its bubbling, liquid music, it suggests the bobolink. In fact, it is often referred to as "the bobolink of the North," and what bird lover does not know the lines of our beloved John Burroughs who after lying on his back under a tree for two hours patiently waiting until it should please his majesty, the northern bobolink, to sing for him, wrote:

"On Unalaska's emerald lea,

On lonely isles in Bering Sea,

On far Siberia's barren shore,

On north Alaska's tundra floor,

At morn, at noon, in pallid night,

We heard thy song and saw thy flight,

While I, sighing, could but think

Of my boyhood's bobolink!"

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