Here to return to
NATURE WITH CLOSED DOORS
DECEMBER in our climate is the month when Nature finally shuts up house and turns the key. She has been slowly packing up and putting away her things and closing a door and a window here and there all the fall. Now she completes the work and puts up the last bar. She is ready for winter. The leaves are all off the trees, except that here and there a beech or an oak or a hickory still clings to a remnant of its withered foliage. Her streams are full, her new growths of wood are ripened, her saps and juices are quiescent. The muskrat has completed his house in the shallow pond or stream, the beaver in the northern woods has completed his. The wild mice and the chipmunk have laid up their winter stores of nuts and grains in their dens in the ground and in the cavities of trees. The woodchuck is rolled up in his burrow in the hillside, sleeping his long winter sleep. The coon has deserted his chamber in the old tree and gone into winter quarters in his den in the rocks. The winter birds have taken on a good coat of fat against the coming cold and a possible scarcity of food. The frogs and toads are all in their hibernaculums in the ground.
I saw it stated the other day, in a paper read before some scientific body, that the wood frogs retreat two feet into the ground beyond the reach of frost. In two instances I have found the wood frog in December with a covering of less than two inches of leaves and moss. It had buried itself in the soil and leaf mould only to the depth of the thickness of its own body, and for covering had only the ordinary coat of dry leaves and pine needles to be found in the wood. It was evidently counting upon the snow for its main protection. In one case I marked the spot, and returned there in early spring to see how the frog had wintered. I found it all right. Evidently it had some charm against the cold, for while the earth around and beneath it was yet frozen solid, there was no frost in the frog. It was not a brisk frog, but it was well, and when I came again on a warm day a week later, it had come forth from its retreat and was headed for the near-by marsh, where in April, with its kith and kin, it helped make the air vocal with its love-calls. A friend of mine, one mild day late in December, found a wood frog sitting upon the snow in the woods. She took it home and put it to bed in the soil of one of her flower-pots in the cellar. In the spring she found it in good condition, and in April carried it back to the woods. The hyla, or little piping frog, passes the winter in the ground like the wood frog. I have seen the toad go into the ground in the late fall. It is an interesting proceeding. It literally elbows its way into the soil. It sits on end, and works and presses with the sharp joints of its folded legs until it has sunk itself at a sufficient depth, which is only a few inches beneath the surface. The water frogs appear to pass the winter in the mud at the bottom of ponds and marshes. The queen bumblebee and the queen hornet, I think, seek out their winter quarters in holes in the ground in September, while the drones and the workers perish. The honey-bees do not hibernate: they must have food all winter; but our native wild bees are dormant during the cold months, and survive the winter only in the person of the queen mother. In the spring these queens set up housekeeping alone, and found new families.
Insects in all stages of their growth are creatures of the warmth; the heat is the motive power that makes them go; when this fails, they are still. The katydids rasp away in the fall as long as there is warmth enough to keep them going; as the heat fails, they fail, till from the emphatic “Katy did it” of August they dwindle to a hoarse, dying, “Kate, Kate,” in October. Think of the stillness that falls upon the myriad wood-borers in the dry trees and stumps in the forest as the chill of autumn comes on. All summer have they worked incessantly in oak and hickory and birch and chestnut and spruce, some of them making a sound exactly like that of the old-fashioned hand augur, others a fine, snapping, and splintering sound; but as the cold comes on, they go slower and slower, till they finally cease to move. A warm day starts them again, slowly or briskly according to the degree of heat, but in December they are finally stilled for the season. These creatures, like the big fat grubs of the June beetles which one sometimes finds in the ground or in decayed wood, are full of frost in winter; cut one of the big grubs in two, and it looks like a lump of ice cream.
Some time in October the crows begin to collect together in large flocks and establish their winter quarters. They choose some secluded wood for a roosting-place, and thither all the crows for many square miles of country betake themselves at night, and thence they disperse in all directions again in the early morning. The crow is a social bird, a true American; no hermit or recluse is he. The winter probably brings them together in these large colonies for purposes of sociability and for greater warmth. By roosting close together and quite filling a treetop, there must result some economy of heat.
I have seen it stated in a rhetorical flight of some writer that the new buds crowd the old leaves off. But this is not true as a rule. The new bud is formed in the axil of the old leaf long before the leaves are ready to fall. With only two species of our trees known to me might the swelling bud push off the old leaf. In the sumach and button-ball or plane-tree the new bud is formed immediately under the base of the old leaf-stalk, by which it is covered like a cap. Examine the fallen leaves of these trees, and you will see the cavity in the base of each where the new bud was cradled. Why the beech, the oak, and the hickory cling to their old leaves is not clear. It may be simply a slovenly trait — inability to finish and have done with a thing — a fault of so many people. Some oaks and beeches appear to lack decision of character. It requires strength and vitality, it seems, simply to let go. Kill a tree suddenly, and the leaves wither upon the branches. How neatly and thoroughly the maples, the ashes, the birches, the elm clean up. They are tidy, energetic trees, and can turn over a new leaf without hesitation.
A correspondent, writing to me from one of the colleges, suggests that our spring really begins in December, because the “annual cycle of vegetable life” seems to start then. At this time he finds that many of our wild flowers — the bloodroot, hepatica, columbine, shinleaf, maidenhair fern, etc. -- have all made quite a start toward the next season’s growth, in some cases the new shoot being an inch high. But the real start of the next season’s vegetable life in this sense is long before December. It is in late summer, when the new buds are formed on the trees. Nature looks ahead, and makes ready for the new season in the midst of the old. Cut open the terminal hickory buds in the late fall and you will find the new growth of the coming season all snugly packed away there, many times folded up and wrapped about by protecting scales. The catkins of the birches, alders, and hazel are fully formed, and as in the case of the buds, are like eggs to be hatched by the warmth of spring. The present season is always the mother of the next, and the inception takes place long before the sun loses his power. The eggs that hold the coming crop of insect life are mostly laid in the late summer or early fall, and an analogous start is made in the vegetable world. The egg, the seed, the bud, are all alike in many ways, and look to the future. Our earliest spring flower, the skunk-cabbage, may be found with its round green spear-point an inch or two above the mould in December. It is ready to welcome and make the most of the first fitful March warmth. Look at the elms, too, and see how they swarm with buds. In early April they suggest a swarm of bees.
In all cases, before Nature closes her house in the fall, she makes ready for its spring opening.