Here to return to
WAYS OF NATURE
I WAS much amused lately by a half-dozen or more letters that came to me from some Californian schoolchildren, who wrote to ask if I would please tell them whether or not birds have sense. One little girl said: “I would be pleased if you would write and tell me if birds have sense. I wanted to see if I could n’t be the first one to know.” I felt obliged to reply to the children that we ourselves do not have sense enough to know just how much sense the birds and other wild creatures do have, and that they do appear to have some, though their actions are probably the result of what we call instinct, or natural prompting, like that of the beanstalk when it climbs the pole. Yet a bean-stalk will sometimes show a kind of perversity or depravity that looks like the result of deliberate choice. Each season, among my dozen or more hills of pole-beans, there are usually two or three low-minded plants that will not climb the poles, but go groveling upon the ground, wandering off among the potato-vines or cucumbers, departing utterly from the traditions of their race, becoming shiftless and vagrant. When I lift them up and wind them around the poles and tie them with a wisp of grass, they rarely stay. In some way they seem to get a wrong start in life, or else are degenerates from the first. I have never known anything like this among the wild creatures, though it happens often enough among our own kind. The trouble with the bean is doubtless this: the Lima bean is of South American origin, and in the Southern Hemisphere, beans, it seems, go the other way around the pole; that is, from right to left. When transferred north of the equator, it takes them some time to learn the new way, or from left to right, and a few of them are always backsliding, or departing from the new way and vaguely seeking the old; and not finding this, they become vagabonds.
How much or how little sense or judgment our wild neighbors have is hard to determine. The crows and other birds that carry shell-fish high in the air and then let them drop upon the rocks to break the shell show something very much like reason, or a knowledge of the relation of cause and effect, though it is probably an unthinking habit formed in their ancestors under the pressure of hunger. Froude tells of some species of bird that he saw in South Africa flying amid the swarm of migrating locusts and clipping off the wings of the insects so that they would drop to the earth, where the birds could devour them at their leisure. Our squirrels will cut off the chestnut burs before they have opened, allowing them to fall to the ground, where, as they seem to know, the burs soon dry open. Feed a caged coon soiled food, — a piece of bread or meat rolled on the ground, — and before he eats it he will put it in his dish of water and wash it off. The author of “Wild Life Near Home” says that muskrats “will wash what they eat, whether washing is needed or not.” If the coon washes his food only when it needs washing, and not in every individual instance, then the proceeding looks like an act of judgment; the same with the muskrat. But if they always wash their food, whether soiled or not, the act looks more like instinct or an inherited habit, the origin of which is obscure.
Birds and animals probably think without knowing that they think; that is, they have not self-consciousness. Only man seems to be endowed with this faculty; he alone develops disinterested intelligence, — intelligence that is not primarily concerned with his own safety and well-being, but that looks abroad upon things. The wit of the lower animals seems all to have been developed by the struggle for existence, and it rarely gets beyond the prudential stage. The sharper the struggle, the sharper the wit. Our porcupine, for instance, is probably the most stupid of animals and has the least speed; it has little use for either wit or celerity of movement. It carries a death-dealing armor to protect it from its enemies, and it can climb the nearest hemlock tree and live on the bark all winter. The skunk, too, pays for its terrible weapon by dull wits. But think of the wit of the much-hunted fox, the much-hunted otter, the much-sought beaver! Even the grouse, when often fired at, learns, when it is started in the open, to fly with a corkscrew motion to avoid the shot.
Fear, love, and hunger were the agents that developed the wits of the lower animals, as they were, of course, the prime factors in developing the intelligence of man. But man has gone on, while the animals have stopped at these fundamental wants, — the need of safety, of offspring, of food.
Probably in a state of wild nature birds never make mistakes, but where they come in contact with our civilization and are confronted by new conditions, they very naturally make mistakes. For instance, their cunning in nest-building sometimes deserts them. The art of the bird is to conceal its nest both as to position and as to material, but now and then it is betrayed into weaving into its structure showy and bizarre bits of this or that, which give its secret away, and which seem to violate all the traditions of its kind. I have the picture of a robin’s nest before me, upon the outside of which are stuck a muslin flower, a leaf from a small calendar, and a photograph of a local celebrity. A more incongruous use of material in bird architecture it would be hard to find. I have been told of another robin’s nest upon the outside of which the bird had fastened a wooden label from a near-by flower-bed, marked “Wake Robin.” Still another nest I have seen built upon a large, showy foundation of the paper-like flowers of antennaria, or everlasting. The wood thrush frequently weaves a fragment of newspaper or a white rag into the foundation of its nest. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” The newspaper and the rag-bag unsettle the wits of the birds. The phoebe-bird is capable of this kind of mistake or indiscretion. All the past generations of her tribe have built upon natural and, therefore, neutral sites, usually under shelving and overhanging rocks, and the art of adapting the nest to its surroundings, blending it with them, has been highly developed. But phoebe now frequently builds under our sheds and porches, where, so far as concealment is concerned, a change of material, say from moss to dry grass or shreds of bark, would be an advantage to her; but she departs not a bit from the family traditions; she uses the same woodsy mosses, which in some cases, especially when the nest is placed upon newly sawed timber, make her secret an open one to all eyes.
It does indeed often look as if the birds had very little sense. Think of a bluebird, or an oriole, or a robin, or a jay, fighting for hours at a time its own image as reflected in a pane of glass; quite exhausting itself in its fury to demolish its supposed rival! Yet I have often witnessed this little comedy. It is another instance of how the arts of our civilization corrupt and confuse the birds. It may be that in the course of many generations the knowledge of glass will get into their blood, and they will cease to be fooled by it, as they may also in time learn what a poor foundation the newspaper is to build upon. The ant or the bee could not be fooled by the glass in that way for a moment.
Have the birds and our other wild neighbors sense, as distinguished from instinct? Is a change of habits to meet new conditions, or the taking advantage of accidental circumstances, an evidence of sense? How many birds appear to have taken advantage of the protection afforded by man in building their nests! How many of them build near paths and along roadsides, to say nothing of those that come close to our dwellings! Even the quail seems to prefer the borders of the highway to the open fields. I have chanced upon only three quails’ nests, and these were all by the roadside. One season a scarlet tanager that had failed with her first nest in the woods came to try again in a little cherry tree that stood in the open, a few feet from my cabin, where I could almost touch the nest with my hand as I passed. But in my absence she again came to grief, some marauder, probably a red squirrel, taking her eggs. Will her failure in this case cause her to lose faith in the protective influence of the shadow of a human dwelling? I hope not. I have known the turtle dove to make a similar move, occupying an old robin’s nest near my neighbor’s cottage. The timid rabbit will sometimes come up from the bushy fields and excavate a place for her nest in the lawn a few feet from the house. All such things look like acts of judgment, though they may be only the result of a greater fear overcoming a lesser fear.
It is in the preservation of their lives and of their young that the wild creatures come the nearest to showing what we call sense or reason. The boys tell me that a rabbit that has been driven from her hole a couple of times by a ferret will not again run into it when pursued. The tragedy of a rabbit pursued by a mink or a weasel may often be read upon our winter snows. The rabbit does not take to her hole; it would be fatal. And yet, though capable of far greater speed, so far as I have observed, she does not escape the mink; he very soon pulls her down. It would look as though a fatal paralysis, the paralysis of utter fear, fell upon the poor creature as soon as she found herself hunted by this subtle, bloodthirsty enemy. I have seen upon the snow where her jumps had become shorter and shorter, with tufts of fur marking each stride, till the bloodstains, and then her half-devoured body, told the whole tragic story.
There is probably nothing in human experience, at this age of the world, that is like the helpless terror that seizes the rabbits as it does other of our lesser wild creatures, when pursued by any of the weasel tribe. They seem instantly to be under some fatal spell which binds their feet and destroys their will power. It would seem as if a certain phase of nature from which we get our notions of fate and cruelty had taken form in the weasel.
The rabbit, when pursued by the fox or by the dog, quickly takes to hole. Hence, perhaps, the wit of the fox that a hunter told me about. The story was all written upon the snow. A mink was hunting a rabbit, and the fox, happening along, evidently took in the situation at a glance. He secreted himself behind a tree or a rock, and, as the rabbit came along, swept her from her course like a charge of shot fired at close range, hurling her several feet over the snow, and then seizing her and carrying her to his den up the mountain-side.
It would be interesting to know how long our chimney swifts saw the open chimney-stacks of the early settlers beneath them before they abandoned the hollow trees in the woods and entered the chimneys for nesting and roosting purposes. Was the act an act of judgment, or simply an unreasoning impulse, like so much else in the lives of the wild creatures?
In the choice of nesting-material the swift shows no change of habit. She still snips off the small dry twigs from the tree-tops and glues them together, and to the side of the chimney, with her own glue. The soot is a new obstacle in her way, that she does not yet seem to have learned to overcome, as the rains often loosen it and cause her nest to fall to the bottom. She has a pretty way of trying to frighten you off when your head suddenly darkens the opening above her. At such times she leaves the nest and clings to the side of the chimney near it. Then, slowly raising her wings, she suddenly springs out from the wall and back again, making as loud a drumming with them in the passage as she is capable of. If this does not frighten you away, she repeats it three or four times. If your face still hovers above her, she remains quiet and watches you.
What a creature of the air this bird is, never touching the ground, so far as I know, and never tasting earthly food! The swallow does perch now and then and descend to the ground for nesting-material; but the swift, I have reason to believe, even outrides the summer storms, facing them on steady wing, high in air. The twigs for her nest she gathers on the wing, sweeping along like children on a “merry-go-round” who try to seize a ring, or to do some other feat, as they pass a given point. If the swift misses the twig, or it fails to yield to her the first time, she tries again and again, each time making a wider circuit, as if to tame and train her steed a little and bring him up more squarely to the mark next time.
The swift is a stiff flyer: there appear to be no joints in her wings; she suggests something made of wires or of steel. Yet the air of frolic and of superabundance of wing-power is more marked with her than with any other of our birds. Her feeding and twig-gathering seem like asides in a life of endless play. Several times both in spring and fall I have seen swifts gather in immense numbers toward nightfall, to take refuge in large unused chimney-stacks. On such occasions they seem to be coming together for some aerial festival or grand celebration; and, as if bent upon a final effort to work off a part of their superabundant wing-power before settling down for the night, they circle and circle high above the chimney-top, a great cloud of them, drifting this way and that, all in high spirits and chippering as they fly. Their numbers constantly increase as other members of the clan come dashing in from all points of the compass. Swifts seem to materialize out of empty air on all sides of the chippering, whirling ring, as an hour or more this assembling of the clan and this flight festival go on. The birds must gather in from whole counties, or from half a State. They have been on the wing all day, and yet now they seem as tireless as the wind, and as if unable to curb their powers.
One fall they gathered in this way and took refuge for the night in a large chimney-stack in a city near me, for more than a month and a half. Several times I went to town to witness the spectacle, and a spectacle it was: ten thousand of them, I should think, filling the air above a whole square like a whirling swarm of huge black bees, but saluting the ear with a multitudinous chippering, instead of a humming. People gathered upon the sidewalks to see them. It was a rare circus performance, free to all. After a great many feints and playful approaches, the whirling ring of birds would suddenly grow denser above the chimney; then a stream of them, as if drawn down by some power of suction, would pour into the opening. For only a few seconds would this downward rush continue; then, as if the spirit of frolic had again got the upper hand of them, the ring would rise, and the chippering and circling go on. In a minute or two the same manoeuvre would be repeated, the chimney, as it were, taking its swallows at intervals to prevent choking. It usually took a half-hour or more for the birds all to disappear down its capacious throat. There was always an air of timidity and irresolution about their approach to the chimney, just as there always is about their approach to the dead tree-top from which they procure their twigs for nest-building. Often did I see birds hesitate above the opening and then pass on, apparently as though they had not struck it at just the right angle. On one occasion a solitary bird was left flying, and it took three or four trials either to make up its mind or to catch the trick of the descent. On dark or threatening or stormy days the birds would begin to assemble by mid-afternoon, and by four or five o’clock were all in their lodgings.
The chimney is a capacious one, forty or fifty feet high and nearly three feet square, yet it did not seem adequate to afford breathing-space for so many birds. I was curious to know how they disposed themselves inside. At the bottom was a small opening. Holding my ear to it, I could hear a continuous chippering and humming, as if the birds were still all in motion, like an agitated beehive. At nine o’clock this multitudinous sound of wings and voices was still going on, and doubtless it was kept up all night. What was the meaning of it? Was the press of birds so great that they needed to keep their wings moving to ventilate the shaft, as do certain of the bees in a crowded hive? Or were these restless spirits unable to fold their wings even in sleep? I was very curious to get a peep inside that chimney when the swifts were in it. So one afternoon this opportunity was afforded me by the removal of the large smoke-pipe of the old steam-boiler. This left an opening into which I could thrust my head and shoulders. The sound of wings and voices filled the hollow shaft. On looking up, I saw the sides of the chimney for about half its length paved with the restless birds; they sat so close together that their bodies touched. Moreover, a large number of them were constantly on the wing, showing against the sky light as if they were leaving the chimney. But they did not leave it. They rose up a few feet and then resumed their positions upon the sides, and it was this movement that caused the humming sound. All the while the droppings of the birds came down like a summer shower. At the bottom of the shaft was a mine of guano three or four feet deep, with a dead swift here and there upon it. Probably one or more birds out of such a multitude died every night. I had fancied there would be many more. It was a long time before it dawned upon me what this uninterrupted flight within the chimney meant. Finally I saw that it was a sanitary measure: only thus could the birds keep from soiling each other with their droppings. Birds digest very rapidly, and had they all continued to cling to the sides of the wall, they would have been in a sad predicament before morning. Like other acts of cleanliness on the part of birds, this was doubtless the prompting of instinct and not of judgment. It was Nature looking out for her own.
In view, then, of the doubtful sense or intelligence of the wild creatures, what shall we say of the new school of nature writers or natural history romancers that has lately arisen, and that reads into the birds and animals almost the entire human psychology? This, surely: so far as these writers awaken an interest in the wild denizens of the field and wood, and foster a genuine love of them in the hearts of the young people, so far is their influence good; but so far as they pervert natural history and give false impressions of the intelligence of our animals, catering to a taste that prefers the fanciful to the true and the real, is their influence bad. Of course the great army of readers prefer this sugar-coated natural history to the real thing, but the danger always is that an indulgence of this taste will take away a liking for the real thing, or prevent its development. The knowing ones, those who can take these pretty tales with the pinch of salt of real knowledge, are not many; the great majority are simply entertained while they are being humbugged. There may be no very serious objection to the popular love of sweets being catered to in this field by serving up the life-history of our animals in a story, all the missing links supplied, and all their motives and acts humanized, provided it is not done covertly and under the guise of a real history. We are never at a loss how to take Kipling in his “Jungle Book;” we are pretty sure that this is fact dressed up as fiction, and that much of the real life of the jungle is in these stories. I remember reading his story of “The White Seal” shortly after I had visited the Seal Islands in Bering Sea, and I could not detect in the story one departure from the facts of the life-history of the seal, so far as it is known. Kipling takes no covert liberties with natural history, any more than he does with the facts of human history in his novels.
Unadulterated, unsweetened observations are what the real nature-lover craves. No man can invent incidents and traits as interesting as the reality. Then, to know that a thing is true gives it such a savor! The truth — how we do crave the truth! We cannot feed our minds on simulacra any more than we can our bodies. Do assure us that the thing you tell is true. If you must counterfeit the truth, do it so deftly that we shall never detect you. But in natural history there is no need to counterfeit the truth; the reality always suffices, if you have eyes to see it and ears to hear it. Behold what Maeterlinck makes out of the life of the bee, simply by getting at and portraying the facts — a true wonder-book, the enchantment of poetry wedded to the authority of science.
Works on animal intelligence, such as Romanes’s, abound in incidents that show in the animals reason and forethought in their simpler forms; but in many cases the incidents related in these works are not well authenticated, nor told by trained observers. The observations of the great majority of people have no scientific value whatever. Romanes quotes from some person who alleges that he saw a pair of nightingales, during a flood in the river near which their nest was placed, pick up the nest bodily and carry it to a place of safety. This is incredible. If Romanes himself or Darwin himself said he saw this, one would have to believe it. Birds whose nests have been plundered sometimes pull the old nest to pieces and use the material, or parts of it, in building a new nest; but I cannot believe that any pair of birds ever picked up a nest containing eggs and carried it off to a new place. How could they do it? With one on each side, how could they fly with the nest between them? They could not carry it with their feet, and how could they manage it with their beaks?
My neighbor met in the woods a black snake that had just swallowed a red squirrel. Now your romance-naturalist may take such a fact as this and make as pretty a story of it as he can. He may ascribe to the snake and his victim all the human emotions he pleases. He may make the snake glide through the tree-tops from limb to limb, and from tree to tree, in pursuit of its prey: the main thing is, the snake got the squirrel. If our romancer makes the snake fascinate the squirrel, I shall object, because I don’t believe that snakes have this power. People like to believe that they have. It would seem as if this subtle, gliding, hateful creature ought to have some such mysterious gift, but I have no proof that it has. Every year I see the black snake robbing birds’-nests, or pursued by birds whose nests it has just plundered, but I have yet to see it cast its fatal spell upon a grown bird. Or, if our romancer says that the black snake was drilled in the art of squirrel-catching by its mother, I shall know he is a pretender.
Speaking of snakes reminds me of an incident I have several times witnessed in our woods in connection with a snake commonly called the sissing or blowing adder. When I have teased this snake a few moments with my cane, it seems to be seized with an epileptic or cataleptic fit. It throws itself upon its back, coiled nearly in the form of a figure eight, and begins a series of writhings and twistings and convulsive movements astonishing to behold. Its mouth is open and presently full of leaf-mould, its eyes are covered with the same, its head is thrown back, its white belly up; now it is under the leaves, now out, the body all the while being rapidly drawn through this figure eight, so that the head and tail are constantly changing place. What does it mean? Is it fear? Is it a real fit? I do not know, but any one of our romance-naturalists could tell you at once. I can only suggest that it may be a ruse to baffle its enemy, the black snake, when he would attempt to crush it in his folds, or to seize its head when he would swallow it.
I am reminded of another mystery connected with a snake, or a snake-skin, and a bird. Why does our great crested flycatcher weave a snake-skin into its nest, or, in lieu of that, something that suggests a snake-skin, such as an onion-skin, or fish-scales, or a bit of oiled paper? It is thought by some persons that it uses the snake-skin as a kind of scarecrow, to frighten away its natural enemies. But think what this purpose in the use of it would imply. It would imply that the bird knew that there were among its enemies creatures that were afraid of snakes — so afraid of them that one of their faded and cast-off skins would keep these enemies away. How could the bird obtain this knowledge? It is not afraid of the skin itself; why should it infer that squirrels, for instance, are? I am convinced there is nothing in this notion. In all the nests that have come under my observation, the snake-skin was in faded fragments woven into the texture of the nest, and one would not be aware of its presence unless he pulled the nest to pieces. True, Mr. Frank Bolles reports finding a nest of this bird with a whole snake-skin coiled around a single egg; but it was the skin of a small garter-snake, six or seven inches long, and could not therefore have inspired much terror in the heart of the bird’s natural enemies. Dallas Lore Sharp, author of that delightful book, “Wild Life Near Home,” tells me he has seen a whole skin dangling nearly its entire length from the hole that contained the nest, just as he has seen strings hanging from the nest of the kingbird. The bird was too hurried or too careless to pull in the skin. Mr. Sharp adds that he cannot “give the bird credit for appreciating the attitude of the rest of the world toward snakes, and making use of the fear.” Moreover, a cast-off snake-skin looks very little like a snake. It is thin, shrunken, faded, papery, and there is no terror in it. Then, too, it is dark in the cavity of the nest, consequently the skin could not serve as a scarecrow in any case. Hence, whatever its purpose may be, it surely is not that. It looks like a mere fancy or whim of the bird. There is that in its voice and ways that suggests something a little uncanny. Its call is more like the call of the toad than that of a bird. If the toad did not always swallow its own cast-off skin, the bird would probably use that too.
At the best we can only guess at the motives of the birds and beasts. As I have elsewhere said, they nearly all have reference in some way to the self-preservation of these creatures. But how the bits of an old snake-skin in a bird’s nest can contribute specially to this end, I cannot see.
Nature is not always consistent; she does not always choose the best means to a given end. For instance, all the wrens except our house wren seem to use about the best material at hand for their nests. What can be more unsuitable, untractable, for a nest in a hole or cavity than the twigs the house wren uses? Dry grasses or bits of soft bark would bend and adapt themselves easily to the exigencies of the case; but stiff, unyielding twigs! What a contrast to the suitableness of the material the hummingbird uses — the down of some plant, which seems to have a poetic fitness!
Yesterday in my walk I saw where a red squirrel had stripped the soft outer bark off a group of red cedars to build its winter’s nest with. This also seemed fit, — fit that such a creature of the trees should not go to the ground for its nest-material, and should choose something soft and pliable. Among the birches, it probably gathers the fine curling shreds of the birch bark.
Beside my path in the woods a downy woodpecker, late one fall, drilled a hole in the top of a small dead black birch for his winter quarters. My attention was first called to his doings by the white chips upon the ground. Every day as I passed I would rap upon his tree, and if he was in he would appear at his door and ask plainly enough what I wanted now. One day when I rapped, something else appeared at the door — I could not make out what. I continued my rapping, when out came two flying-squirrels. On the tree being given a vigorous shake, it broke off at the hole, and the squirrels went sliding down the air to the foot of a hemlock, up which they disappeared. They had dispossessed Downy of his house, had carried in some grass and leaves for a nest, and were as snug as a bug in a rug. Downy drilled another cell in a dead oak farther up the hill, and, I hope, passed the winter there unmolested. Such incidents, comic or tragic, as they chance to strike us, are happening all about us, if we have eyes to see them.
The next season, near sundown of a late November day, I saw Downy trying to get possession of a hole not his own. I chanced to be passing under a maple, when white chips upon the ground again caused me to scrutinize the branches overhead. Just then I saw Downy come to the tree, and, hopping around on the under side of a large dry limb, begin to make passes at something with his beak. Presently I made out a round hole there, with something in it returning Downy’s thrusts. The sparring continued some moments. Downy would hop away a few feet, then return to the attack, each time to be met by the occupant of the hole. I suspected an English sparrow had taken possession of Downy’s cell in his absence during the day, but I was wrong. Downy flew to another branch, and I tossed up a stone against the one that contained the hole, when, with a sharp, steely note, out came a hairy woodpecker and alighted on a near-by branch. Downy, then, had the “cheek” to try to turn his large rival out of doors — and it was Hairy’s cell, too; one could see that by the size of the entrance. Thus loosely does the rule of meum and tuum obtain in the woods. There is no moral code in nature. Might reads right. Man in communities has evolved ethical standards of conduct, but nations, in their dealings with one another, are still largely in a state of savage nature, and seek to establish the right, as dogs do, by the appeal to battle.
One season a wood duck laid her eggs in a cavity in the top of a tall yellow birch near the spring that supplies my cabin with water. A bold climber “shinned” up the fifty or sixty feet of rough tree-trunk and looked in upon the eleven eggs. They were beyond the reach of his arm, in a well-like cavity over three feet deep. How would the mother duck get her young up out of that well and down to the ground? We watched, hoping to see her in the act. But we did not. She may have done it at night or very early in the morning. All we know is that when Amasa one morning passed that way, there sat eleven little tufts of black and yellow down in the spring, with the mother duck near by. It was a pretty sight. The feat of getting down from the tree-top cradle had been safely effected, probably by the young clambering up on the inside walls of the cavity and then tumbling out into the air and coming down gently like huge snowflakes. They are mostly down, and why should they not fall without any danger to life or limb? The notion that the mother duck takes the young one by one in her beak and carries them to the creek is doubtless erroneous. Mr. William Brewster once saw the golden-eye, whose habits of nesting are like those of the wood duck, get its young from the nest to the water in this manner: The mother bird alighted in the water under the nest, looked all around to see that the coast was clear, and then gave a peculiar call. Instantly the young shot out of the cavity that held them, as if the tree had taken an emetic, and came softly down to the water beside their mother. Another observer assures me that he once found a newly hatched duckling hung by the neck in the fork of a bush under a tree in which a brood of wood ducks had been hatched.
The ways of nature, — who can map them, or fathom them, or interpret them, or do much more than read a hint correctly here and there? Of one thing we may be pretty certain, namely, that the ways of wild nature may be studied in our human ways, inasmuch as the latter are an evolution from the former, till we come to the ethical code, to altruism and self-sacrifice. Here we seem to breathe another air, though probably this code differs no more from the animal standards of conduct than our physical atmosphere differs from that of early geologic time.
Our moral code must in some way have been evolved from our rude animal instincts. It came from within; its possibilities were all in nature. If not, where were they?
I have seen disinterested acts among the birds, or what looked like such, as when one bird feeds the young of another species when it hears them crying for food. But that a bird would feed a grown bird of another species, or even of its own, to keep it from starving, I have my doubts. I am quite positive that mice will try to pull one of their fellows out of a trap, but what the motive is, who shall say? Would the same mice share their last crumb with their fellow if he were starving? That, of course, would be a much nearer approach to the human code, and is too much to expect. Bees will clear their fellows of honey, but whether it be to help them, or to save the honey, is a question.
In my youth I saw a parent weasel seize one of its nearly grown young which I had wounded and carry it across an open barway, in spite of my efforts to hinder it. A friend of mine, who is a careful observer, says he once wounded a shrike so that it fell to the ground, but before he got to it, it recovered itself and flew with difficulty toward some near trees, calling to its mate the while; the mate came and seemed to get beneath the wounded bird and buoy it up, so aiding it that it gained the top of a tall tree, where my friend left it. But in neither instance can we call this helpfulness entirely disinterested, or pure altruism.
Emerson said that he was an endless experimenter with no past at his back. This is just what Nature is. She experiments endlessly, seeking new ways, new modes, new forms, and is ever intent upon breaking away from the past. In this way, as Darwin showed, she attains to new species. She is blind, she gropes her way, she trusts to luck; all her successes are chance hits. Whenever I look over my right shoulder, as I sit at my desk writing these sentences, I see a long shoot of a honeysuckle that came in through a crack of my imperfectly closed window last summer. It came in looking, or rather feeling, for something to cling to. It first dropped down upon a pile of books, then reached off till it struck the windowsill of another large window; along this it crept, its regular leaves standing up like so many pairs of green ears, looking very pretty. Coming to the end of the open way there, it turned to the left and reached out into vacancy, till it struck another window-sill running at right angles to the former; along this it traveled nearly half an inch a day, till it came to the end of that road. Then it ventured out into vacant space again, and pointed straight toward me at my desk, ten feet distant. Day by day it kept its seat upon the window-sill, and stretched out farther and farther, almost beckoning me to give it a lift or to bring it support. I could hardly resist its patient daily appeal. Late in October it had bridged about three feet of the distance that separated us, when, one day, the moment came when it could maintain itself outright in the air no longer, and it fell to the floor. “Poor thing,” I said, “your faith was blind, but it was real. You knew there was a support somewhere, and you tried all ways to find it.” This is Nature. She goes around the circle, she tries every direction, sure that she will find a way at some point. Animals in cages behave in a similar way, looking for a means of escape. In the vineyard I see the grape-vines reaching out blindly in all directions for some hold for their tendrils. The young arms seize upon one another and tighten their hold as if they had at last found what they were in search of. Stop long enough beside one of the vines, and it will cling to you and run all over you.
Behold the tumble-bug with her ball of dung by the roadside; where is she going with it? She is going anywhere and everywhere; she changes her direction, like the vine, whenever she encounters an obstacle. She only knows that somewhere there is a depression or a hole in which her ball with its egg can rest secure, and she keeps on tumbling about till she finds it, or maybe digs one, or comes to grief by the foot of some careless passer-by. This, again, is Nature’s way, randomly and tirelessly seeking her ends. When we look over a large section of history, we see that it is man’s way, too, or Nature’s way in man. His progress has been a blind groping, the result of endless experimentation, and all his failures and mistakes could not be written in a book. How he has tumbled about with his ball, seeking the right place for it, and how many times has he come to grief! All his successes have been lucky hits: steam, electricity, representative government, printing — how long he groped for them before he found them! There is always and everywhere the Darwinian tendency to variation, to seek new forms, to improve upon the past; and man is under this law, the same as is the rest of nature. One generation of men, like one generation of leaves, becomes the fertilizer of the next; failures only enrich the soil or make smoother the way.
There are so many conflicting forces and interests, and the conditions of success are so complex! If the seed fall here, it will not germinate; if there, it will be drowned or washed away; if yonder, it will find too sharp competition. There are only a few places where it will find all the conditions favorable. Hence the prodigality of Nature in seeds, scattering a thousand for one plant or tree. She is like a hunter shooting at random into every tree or bush, hoping to bring down his game, which he does if his ammunition holds out long enough; or like the British soldier in the Boer War, firing vaguely at an enemy that he does not see. But Nature’s ammunition always holds out, and she hits her mark in the end. Her ammunition on our planet is the heat of the sun. When this fails, she will no longer hit the mark or try to hit it.
Let there be a plum tree anywhere with the disease called the “black-knot” upon it, and presently every plum tree in its neighborhood will have black knots. Do you think the germs from the first knot knew where to find the other plum trees? No; the wind carried them in every direction, where the plum trees were not as well as where they were. It was a blind search and a chance hit. So with all seeds and germs. Nature covers all the space, and is bound to hit the mark sooner or later. The sun spills his light indiscriminately into space; a small fraction of his rays hit the earth, and we are warmed. Yet to all intents and purposes it is as if he shone for us alone.