Here to return to
SQUIRRELS, FOXES, AND OTHERS
“Do you know where there are any flying squirrels?” I asked a friend, two or three weeks ago. My friend, I should mention, is a farmer, living a mile or two away from the village, and, being much out of doors with his eyes open, has sometimes good things to show me. With all the rest, he has more than once taken me to a flying squirrel's tree and given me a chance to see the creature “fly.”
This peculiar member of the squirrel family, as all readers may be presumed to know, is nocturnal in its habits, and for that reason is seldom seen by ordinary strollers. Once my friend, who was just then at work in the woods, found a hollow tree in which one was living, and we visited the spot together. I posted myself conveniently, and he went up to the tree and hammered upon it with his axe. Out peeped the squirrel at a height of perhaps twenty feet, and as the blows continued it “took wing” and came to the ground safely, and more or less gracefully, alighting at the foot of another tree some distance away. At all other times I have seen the flight from outside nests, as they may be called — bulky aggregations of leaves and twigs placed in the bare tops of moderately tall, slender trees, preferably gray birches, and mostly in swampy woods.
On the present occasion my friend told me that he knew of no nests now in use, but that if I would come to his house the next morning he would go with me in search of some. I called for him at the hour appointed. Squirrels or no squirrels, it is always worth while to take a walk in good company.
He led me along the highway for a quarter of a mile, and then struck into a wood-road, which presently brought us into a swampy forest, with here and there a bit of pond, which we must go out of our way to cross on the ice (a light snow had covered it within twenty-four hours), on the lookout for fox tracks and what not. We were headed for the “city-house lot,” he told me.
“The city-house lot,” said I; “what is that?”
“Why, there used to be two or three houses over in this direction. The largest of them, the one that stood the longest, was known as the city house. More than fifty years ago, before my father came here to live, it was moved to a place on the main road. You must remember it. It was pulled down, or fell to pieces, within six or eight years.”
I did remember it, but had never known its name or its history. The surprising thing about the story was the fact that there was no indication of a road hereabout, nor any sign that there had ever been one; and all the while we were plunging deeper and deeper into the woods, now following a footpath, now leaving it for a short cut among the trees. By and by we came to a drier spot, and an old cellar-hole. This was not the city-house cellar, however, but that of some smaller house. About it were evidences of a former clearing, though a casual observer would scarcely have noticed them. Tufts of beard-grass stood above the snow, — “Indian grass,” my guide called it, — and the remains of an ancient stone wall still marked the line, if one might guess, where the grazing-land had been divided from the tillage. It was a farm in ruins.
Soon we came to a larger cellar-hole, of which, as of the smaller one, bushes and trees bad long ago taken possession. Here had stood the city house, a “frame” structure (whence its name, probably), a famous affair in its day, the pride of its owner's heart. It was one of five or six houses, if I understood my informant correctly, that had once been scattered over this part of the town of Weston (or what is at present the town of Weston) within a radius of a mile or so. Of them all not a trace remains now but so many half-filled cellars.
I thought of something I had been saying lately about the manner in which the forest reclaims Massachusetts land as soon as its human possessors let go their hold upon it. Now it was suggested to me that if a man is ambitious to do something that will last, he had better not set up a house or a monument, but dig a hole in the ground. Humility helps to permanence. The lower you get, the less danger of falling. Nature is slower to fill up than to pull down, though she will do either with all thoroughness, give her time enough. To her a man's life is but a clock's tick, and all his constructions are but child's play in the sand. A trite bit of moralizing? Well, perhaps it is; but it sounded anything but trite, as the old cellar-hole spoke it to me. A word is like a bullet: its force is in the power behind it.
Not far beyond this point we found ourselves in a gray-birch swamp. Here, if anywhere, should be the nests we were in search of. And soon we began to see them, one here, another there. We followed the same course with them all; my companion shook or jarred the tree, while I stood off and watched for the squirrels. And the result was alike in all cases. Every nest was empty. We tried at least a score, and had our labor for our pains. “There are no flying squirrels this year,” my companion kept saying. Perhaps they had migrated. With one or two exceptions, indeed, the nests could be set down in advance — from their color and evident dilapidation — as being at least a year old.
Once we started a rabbit, and here and there a few chickadees accosted us. Once, I think, we heard the voice of a golden-crowned kinglet. For the rest, the woods seemed to be deserted, and at the end of our long détour we came back to the road half a mile above the point at which we had left it.
And still the world is not depopulated, even in winter, nor are all the pretty wild animals asleep. The snakes are, to be sure, and the frogs (though hylas were peeping late in December), and the chipmunks and the woodchucks; but there is abundant life stirring, nevertheless.
Yesterday I called on my friend again, and together we walked up the road — a back-country thoroughfare. This time, also, a light snow had just fallen, and my companion, better informed than I in such matters, began to discuss footprints with me.
“You know this one?” he asked.
“Oh, yes; a rabbit.”
“And this one?”
“A fox,” said I, doubtfully.
“Yes, indeed. See the shape and size of the foot. Yes, that’s a fox.”
“And this one?”
“Oh, that’s a kitty.” (A cat, he meant to say.) “Strange how many cats are prowling about this country at night,” he continued. “I have caught two this season, and C— has caught two.”
“Do you skin them?”
“Yes,” with a laugh.
Here were red-squirrel tracks, and here a big dog's, and here again a fox's. At another point a bevy of quail had crossed the road. “One, two, three,” my farmer began to count. “Yes; there were twelve.” I had remarked, just before, that I hadn’t seen a quail for I didn’t know how long. “And look here,” he said, as we approached the farm on our return. He led the way to a diminutive chicken-coop sitting by itself in the orchard. A single hen, which had been ailing, was confined in it, he said. A fox had gone round and round it in the night, and once had stopped to scratch at the back side of it.
“He knew what was in there,” said I. The farmer laughed.
“Oh, he is an old fellow,” he answered. “I have a trap set for him just where he used to pass. Now he crosses the field, but he goes round that spot! I see his tracks. They say it is easy to trap foxes. Perhaps it is; but it isn’t for me.”
Yet he has shown me — not this year — more than one handsome skin.
Once, too, he showed me the fox himself. Hounds were baying in the distance as I came to the house on my Sunday morning walk, and we spoke of their probable course. He thought it likely that they would cross a certain field, and taking a by-road that would carry us within sight of it, we kept our eyes out till the dogs seemed to have diverged in the wrong direction. Then I was walking carelessly along, talking as usual (a bad habit of mine), when my companion seized me by both shoulders and swung me sharply about. “Look at that!” he said. And there stood the fox, five or ten rods away, facing us squarely. He had come up a little rise of ground, and had stopped as he saw us. But for my friend's muscular assistance, I should have missed him, near as he was, for in one second he was gone; and though we scaled the wall instantly and ran up the slope, we got no further sight of him.
Yes, if you are a discouraged, winter-killed nature lover, who has begun to think that Massachusetts woods — woods within sight of the State House dome — are pretty much devoid of wild life, go out after a light snowfall and read the natural history record of a single night. We shall not be without woods, nor will the woods be without inhabitants, for a good while yet.