Down Nature's Paths


The Mail Path

IT WAS about a half mile from the old house in Crumbie's Holler in the Ozark Mountains to the mailbox out on the country road where the rural carrier passed. Mail could be delivered there, or we could walk three miles each way into town for it—or drive, which was something of an experience over Arkansas roads nearly a half century ago.

So the old mail path began at our back porch and ended at the box beside the road, half a mile away. That was the mail path in short. In long, the mail path was almost a lifetime. It ran a few steps from the back porch across the short grass of the yard, then across a rod of plowed land along the edge of the orchard.

That plowed land stood for victory. My mother had had my brother plow it up as an annex to the regular vegetable garden farther away. At considerable expense, for pennies then were like dollars now, she had sent away for some very fine tomato seeds and had carefully tended the tiny plants till they were big enough to set out. The plants were very promising, and she was anticipating eagerly the unusual kinds she would have.

As it happened a man who desired a country home for his family had rented a tenant house on our farm. He was home on a vacation from his work in St. Louis, when he heard some remark my mother made about being behind in her weeding of the tomatoes. He urged her to let him cultivate them with the single-horse plow. With some misgivings she yielded, and he went to work on the strip of plowed ground beside the orchard.

No one will ever know why he did what he did next; the rows of tomato plants were plainly visible, and there were too few weeds to hide them. But when my mother went out a little later to see his work, there was a deep furrow right down every tomato row, no others anywhere else, and every last one of her precious plants was thoroughly destroyed. To this day I vividly remember my mother's face as she turned back to the house. But a few minutes later she came out of her room to answer his knock and thank him heartily for his helpfulness, when he came to report that he had finished his work. He was obviously so thrilled to have done his day's good deed, that nobody told him he had committed murder. My mother's self-control kept alive a plant of friendship that lasts to this day. And those dead tomato plants have strengthened me many a time since when some friend has forced good on me according to her own idea instead of mine.

The mail path went on between the last row of apple trees and the high north bluff wall of Crumbie's Holler. The bluff was desolate looking, covered thickly with rough "blackjack" oaks, and the ground was hidden beneath the layer of rough, gray, flint stones that proclaimed the Ozarks. At one place a side path turned off among some bushes. I never walked on that path; in fact, I always stepped over the place where it diverged. That was my mother's prayer path, and it seemed too holy for my feet. A wave of awe used to come over me when I would see her go out along the mail path and turn off into the side path. I have tried to walk the prayer path many a time since then, however, remembering the light on her face when she came back.

Along the other side of the orchard were cultivated rows of peanut plants, each plant looking like a clump of sweet clover. The path left the orchard by a gap in the old rail fence and tumbled down a few steps into the bed of a dry creek that cut through the main bluff of the valley. Here in coolness and damp, rich soil grew many a semi-rare wild flower. The old ravine was so full of plants and long grass and so overshadowed with trees tied with grapevines that the path was in danger of being lost. I've come to that part of life since then, too.

But the mail path hurried out of the undergrowth and turned sharply up the corner of the bluff. To the climber it felt like going up the corner of a house roof; and like Bunyan's Pilgrim one fell from running to going, and from going to creeping; for the path was going up out of the valley along the line of juncture of the valley bluff and the side of the tributary creek valley. A step either way from the path would bring one downhill toward the valley or the creek bed. And the path itself was treacherous, for it was across the rolling stones of the hillside. But there were convenient handles of blueberry bushes to catch. Life walks such paths as that too.

At the top of this hill the path ignominiously scrambled over a rail fence and under a strand of barbed wire which ran from angle to angle of the zigzag fence to ward off marauding cattle and, incidentally, scratch travelers. Beyond that the path seemed lost, indeed; for there were thick woods to pass through, and the ground was covered with infinite numbers of small gray stones, each nearly like every other one. I've thought of that part of the path through many a monotonous year. But an instinctive drawing toward the mailbox led me safely through the woods where, if it was toward evening, the chuck-will's-widow snapped its harsh exclamations overhead. So the most monotonous day has always had some unexpected event to snap one alert.

Then the path wound around the old burned snag with the bird's nest in it, into an abandoned pasture where the sedge grass grew higher than my head and rustled like dead leaves. The path was so narrow there that when the copperhead met me head on and hissed his demand for right of way, I immediately retreated to the woods, where the path was wide enough for two. There have not been too many copperheads in life, and there has always been a "way of escape" provided.

Then over the last rail fence, and there on the grassy roadside was the mailbox, with letters from the far-away world of cities and multitudes of poor people who did not have a mail path to loiter a lifetime of thought along.