He wrote, then, a discussion of novel-reading, and some botanical papers, which were published in a Boston journal. Whether he was discouraged by the ill success of these attempts, or perceived that he was not yet sufficient master of his resources to present them properly to the public, does not appear, but he published nothing more for several years. Perhaps he knew that upon the subjects to which his natural tastes directed his studies, nothing but experience spoke with authority. Whatever the reason of his silence, however,- he worked on unyieldingly, studying, proving, succeeding; finding time, also, to read the poets and the philosophers, and to gain that familiarity with elegant literature which always graced his own composition. Of this period of his life, little record, but great results, remain. With his pen, and books, and microscope, in the red house, and his pruning-knife and sharp eye in the nursery and garden, he was learning, adapting, and triumphing, — and also, doubtless, dreaming and resolving. If any stranger wishing to purchase trees at the nursery of the Messrs. Downing, in Newburgh, had visited that pleasant town, and transacted business with the younger partner, he would have been perplexed to understand why the younger partner with his large knowledge, his remarkable power of combination, his fine taste, his rich cultivation, his singular force and precision of expression, his evident mastery of his profession, was not a recognized authority in it, and why he had never been heard of. For it was remarkable in Downing, to the end, that he always attracted attention and excited speculation. The boy of the Montgomery Academy carried that slightly defiant head into the arena of life, and seemed always too much a critical observer not to challenge wonder, sometimes, even, to excite distrust. That was the eye which in the vegetable world had scanned the law through the appearance, and followed through the landscape the elusive line of beauty. It was a full, firm, serious eye. He did not smile with his eyes as many do, but they held you as in a grasp, looking from under their cover of dark brows.
The young man, now twenty years old or more, and hard at work, began to visit the noble estates upon the banks of the Hudson, to extend his experience, and confirm his nascent theories of art in landscape-gardening. Studying in the red cottage, and working in the nursery upon the Newburgh highlands, he had early seen that in a new, and unworked, and quite boundless country, with every variety of kindly climate and available soil, where fortunes arose in a night, an opportunity was offered to Art, of achieving a new and characteristic triumph. To touch the continent lying chaotic, in mountain, and lake, and forest, with a finger that should develop all its resources of beauty, for the admiration and benefit of its children, seemed to him a task worthy the highest genius. This was the dream that dazzled the silent years of his life in the garden, and inspired and strengthened him in every exertion. As he saw more and more of the results of this spirit in the beautiful Hudson country-seats, he was, naturally, only the more resolved. To lay out one garden well, in conformity with the character of the surrounding landscape, in obedience to the truest taste, and to make a man's home, and its grounds, and its accessories, as genuine works of art as any picture or statue that the owner had brought over the sea, was, in his mind, the first step toward the great result.
At the various places upon the river, as he visited them from time to time, he was received as a gentleman, a scholar, and the most practical man of the party, would necessarily be welcomed. He sketched, he measured; "in a walk he plucks from an overhanging bough a single leaf, examines its color, form and structure; inspects it with his microscope, and, having recorded his observations, presents it to his friend, and invites him to study it, as suggestive of some of the first principles of rural architecture and economy." No man enjoyed society more, and none ever lost less time. His pleasure trips from point to point upon the river were the excursions of the honey-bee into the flower. He returned richly laden; and the young partner, feeling from childhood the necessity of entire self-dependence, continued to live much alone, to be reserved, but always affable and gentle. These travels were usually brief, and strictly essential to his education. He was wisely getting ready; it would be so fatal to speak without authority, and authority came only with much observation and many years.
But, during these victorious incursions into the realms of experience, the younger partner had himself been conquered. Directly opposite the red cottage, upon the other side of the river, at Fishkill Landing, lay, under blossoming locust trees, the estate and old family mansion of John P. De Wint, Esq. The place had the charms of a "moated grange," and was quite the contrast of the elegant care and incessant cultivation that marked the grounds of the young man in Newburgh. But the fine old place, indolently lying in luxuriant decay, was the seat of boundless hospitality and social festivity. The spacious piazzas, and the gently sloping lawn, which made the foreground of one of the most exquisite glimpses of the Hudson, rang all summer long with happy laughter.
Under those blossoming locust trees were walks that led to the shore, and the moon hanging over Cro' Nest recalled to all loiterers along the bank the loveliest legends of the river. In winter the revel shifted from the lawn to the frozen river. One such gay household is sufficient nucleus for endless enjoyment. From the neighboring West Point, only ten miles distant, came gallant young officers, boating in summer, and skating in winter, to serenade under the locusts, or join the dance upon the lawn. Whatever was young and gay was drawn into the merry maelstrom, and the dark-haired boy from Newburgh, now grown, somehow, to be a gentleman of quiet and polished manner, found himself, even when in the grasp of the scientific coils of Parmentier, Repton, Price, Loudon, Lindley, and the rest, — or busy with knife, clay, and grafts, — dreaming of the grange beyond the river, and of the Marianna he had found there.