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SPORTS OF THE WINTER WOODS
The time to go into the winter woods for love of them is in the still chill of dawn when the blue-black of the west is hardly yet touched with the purple that heralds the day, when the high sky in the east begins to warm from gray to gold and below black twigs make lace against an amber glow that draws one as does the flame the moth. At such a time the cold of the night may lie bitter on the open fields and the snow crystals there whine beneath the tread, but in the deep heart of the woods the warmth of the day before is still held entangled, an afterglow of the sun that waits his golden coming once more. At that hour I like to set my course eastward. The wind, if there be one, will be at my back and half its keenness dulled thereby, and the ever visible, growing promise of the sun warms almost as much as his later presence.
Our coldest midwinter nights are still and the tangle of the trees enmeshes a protecting warmth that the outside cold cannot penetrate altogether. This is the outer winter overcoat of the woods. Even deciduous trees provide it and the level boughs of evergreens give layer after layer of air that fends from the cold. Even without the snow, the frost penetrates but a little way in the earth of the woods. No matter how low the temperature above the tree-tops and in the open spaces, the ground beneath the trees hardly freezes, and, if the snow comes, the moment its blanket is spread the temperature beneath it warms to above freezing and the frost comes out. Deep snows are hard on certain winter birds, but they are the salvation of many of the smaller winter animals and they provide man with one of the chief joys of the winter woods.
Going forth at dawn one has the full joy of the day before him and need leave no pleasure untasted. It is something worth while to meet the sun on such a morning. No wonder the ancient Persians worshipped him. Even his first rays enfold you with a warmth that the thermometer might not notice but which is none the less real for all that. They set the fires of the spirit burning more brightly, warming the cockles of the heart and raising the temperature of the man if not that of the air about him. The pleasure of the pathless woods which is to be yours for all day is sweetest in the first encounter. Toward the sun your goal glows with red fire and the woods seem in its burning to celebrate your advent. You move eastward the chief figure in the procession.
For it always seems to me as if at winter sunrise all things of the wood move forward in this matutinal procession of welcome to the coming warmth of the new day. As a matter of fact, of course, they do. The whole round earth is swinging toward the east at a wondrous pace. But it is more than that. The little winds of dawn are drawn toward the rising column of heated air beneath his glow. They come out of the nether cold of the night and it is the chill of their passing which often brings the temperature a little lower as the sun shows above the horizon, but they go to him to get warm just as the rest of us do. It may be fancy, but it always seems to me that the morning birds on their first hunt for breakfast work eastward. The first flight of the crows is apt to be in that direction and the chickadees hunt from the south side of one tree to that of the next, making the sunward side of the grove their rallying place. The trees in growth reach always toward the sun, stretching their limbs longest on the sunny side, and it always seems to me as if in winter they could be seen to yearn in the same direction with the fond fingers of bare twigs. I have an idea that measurements made at leaf-fall of one year and again at bud-time of the next would show this. But there is really no need. We have but to go forth in the woods of a clear, still winter morning to feel the impulse ourselves and to know that it is universal.
Out of this protecting snow at dawn come the small folk of the winter woods and to be with them there is to be at the meeting place of elves. He who is very wise as to their ways may see them, once in a while some one of them, or, if he be very fortunate, more than one. Without doubt to live in the woods always would be to see them all, to acquire to the full the elfin quality one's self and be one of the clan. But they become visible only rarely to the occasional visitor, these real elves and hobgoblins, and often at the best we must note their presence by the trail they have left behind. Here has passed the rabbit. Since earliest light he has been tracking up the woods in his hunt for breakfast, but who sees him do it? There the white-footed mouse has made a curious pattern of foot-dots from his home stump to some other entrance to a way beneath the snow, the straight trail of his tail showing between the tiny foot tracks. In another place the fox has left his curious one-two-three, one-two-three footsteps.
It is sufficient sport for the morning to take the early rabbit trails and see what has become of their maker. Some woodsman may have seen the rabbit making these tracks unconscious of supervision, but I will confess that I never have. Up North I have often watched the varying hare about his business when he had no idea that I was one of the party, but the sophisticated Massachusetts rabbit has always been too clever for me. But it is not so difficult to follow the tracks, confusing as they sometimes are in their labyrinthine route, to their end for the forenoon. This is usually a snuggery under some brush or in a tangle of dried grasses and ferns. Here I fancy the rabbit backing in and crowding out a sitting room and then sitting in it. He will stay in this "form" until you fairly kick him out, and when I have done this, as politely as possible under the circumstances, I for a moment see the rabbit making tracks. Ten to one he makes them down hill, for in that direction lies the cedar swamp in whose almost impassable tangle he finds safety. Great tracks these are, too, his short forelegs just serving to catch and balance his plunge for a second, then the long hind ones coming wide of these, outside, and landing far in advance. They really look as if the animal might have made them by turning handsprings as he went.
I never see a fox by trailing him. He goes much too rapidly and ranges too far. Yet the fox has an interesting habit of following, a more or less regular route. Even when the dogs are after him he often sticks to his known trail and the hunters take advantage of this, waiting along his known route and shooting him as he lopes by, easily outrunning the dogs and as likely as not grinning over his shoulder at their lumbering eagerness. It is all a game to him and if man would keep out of it the fox would always win. The way to see a fox in the woods is to figure out his accustomed route and sit cosily by it. He likes best to hunt in the dim beginnings of dawn and again at the evening twilight or by the light of the moon. But often a fox may be seen jogging along in the full daylight. The very keenness of the animal seems sometimes to work his undoing. He knows well that the dogs cannot catch him so he jollies along just in front of them over his accustomed route where he knows every possible pitfall of the way. And the hunter waiting to leeward shoots him. Had the fox had fewer brains and simply bolted in a panic as soon as the dogs got on his trail he might have lived to bolt again the next time. Once in a while you find a panicky fox that does this. When the dogs get after him he makes a straight streak for kingdom-come and the hunter with the gun waits in vain.
But on days when there is no gunning going on the fox will sometimes walk right onto a man. Recently my next-door neighbor, tramping his oak woods with no thought of stealth, rustling through fallen leaves and snapping twigs, walked round a corner of a woodpile and met a fox trotting along in the opposite direction. The animal gazed at him in astonishment for a second and then fled. My neighbor accounts for it in this way: The fox has brains. Consequently he gets into a brown study as a man will, planning affairs and studying out situations. Woodland creatures whose living is conducted largely automatically are automatically alert and do not walk straight up to danger which rustles and thuds warnings of its presence. It takes a thinker to get so immersed in his own affairs of the brain as to get caught that way.
The potency of the sun on clear mid-winter days in the woods is wonderful. His rays seem to put a reviving, warming quality into the air which has little relation to the actual temperature as recorded by the thermometer. The forest catches this unrecorded warmth and with it envelops all creatures. It holds back the wind which seeks to chill, and by the time the sun is high and one is weary of swinging along the levels on snowshoes he may rest in comfort in the radiance. The recorded temperature may be far below freezing. The actual feel of the air in a cozy, snow-mantled nook is so genial and comforting that one wonders that the buds do not start. To go to the southward of a clump of dense evergreens is as good as a trip to Bermuda. On such a day the noon fire is a pastime rather than a necessity, though the making of a luxurious lunch may require heat. To tramp a spot on the snow with the snowshoes and then start a fire on it is to demonstrate the non-conductivity of this ermine mantle of the woods. The fire will burn long before it melts a hole through to the ground beneath, and if the snow is fairly deep it will remain unmelted beneath a gray mantle of ashes after the fire is out. There is unquestionably a primal joy in a fire thus built in the snow of the deep woods. Wherever man sets up the hearth there is home, and the first flare, the first pungent whiff of wood smoke, touch a deep-sense of comfort and make the wayfarer at peace with all the world. To toast bread upon a pointed stick and to broil a bit of meat in the blaze is to add a zest to the appetite that the wholesome exercise in the keen air has stimulated. Except as a zest one's luncheon does not need the heat at such times. So potent is the oxygen of the keen air and so deeply does it reach to the springs of life that one may eat his food cold and raw as the crows do and be satisfied and nourished.
Sitting in the silence and the sun as the fire smoulders to gray ashes one may take stock of the birds of the woods by ear and eye. In the still air all sounds carry far. The cawing of the crows rings a mile across the tree tops, but these are the only winter birds one may hear far in the full sunshine. The bluejays, so noisy in the autumn, are silent in midwinter. Rarely, indeed, at the depth of winter do you hear one of them utter the clear, clanging call of his race. But the wood holds them still, and as the campfire burns low they are apt to come about it, knowing well that beside deserted campfires scraps of food may be found. On such expeditions they come on noiseless wing, whinnying one to another in voices inaudible a few rods away. If one sees you he may utter a single loud note of warning, but that will be all, and the flock will scuttle away on noiseless wings as they came.
A nuthatch may come to perch upside down on a tree nearby, blowing his elfin penny-trumpet note, a brown creeper may screep tinily or a downy woodpecker knock gently at the doors of insects shut within the rotten wood, but only the chickadees are noisy. Their volubility is proof against the hush laid upon the forest by the westering sun, and you can hear them sputtering their way through the underbrush from afar. Birds in the wood mostly leave a trail for the ear rather than the eye. On such a day, even in the cold of January, you may hear a ruffed grouse drum. The seeping sun warms the cockles of his heart and reminds him of the brown mates of last spring, and he needs must hop up on the old log and drum for them, though there is little chance that they will heed his amorous call. The ruffed grouse has much brain even for a bird, as his ability to live in our Massachusetts woods in spite of the omnipresent huntsmen shows, but like the fox, he, too, sometimes gets in a brown study and may allow you to meet him at a corner.
When this happens to me I am always surprised to see what a fine dignity the bird has in the woods, unconscious of observation. His carriage is that of a lord of the thicket, and he seems far larger and taller than his bulk and length when put to the yardstick would show. I always think his tracks in the snow show something of the same characteristics, as if he unwittingly wrote his character into his signature, as most of us do.
All in all it is a fine sport, this hunting of the wild creatures of the wood without harming them. To bag them in one's memory or one's notebook is to accomplish that feat long desired of mankind, to keep one's cake and eat it too, while he who shoots kills his joy in the acquiring of it.
At dusk of the still winter day the cold of interstellar space drops down among the treetops and seems to reflect back toward one's marrow from the snow beneath. Then I like to preface the homeward trip by one more campfire. A grove of young white pines provides the best material for a quick fire. The upper boughs of such trees so shade the lower ones that they die, but remain dry and brittle on the trees, full of pitch, making the finest kindling material in the woods. It takes but a strong pull to break such limbs off near the trunk and they may be broken into stove length over the knee or in the hands. Even in a rain the tiny twigs of these limbs will light at the touch of a match and no snow can be so deep in the winter woods but they are immediately available. They make a smokeless fire that gives off a fine aroma and much heat. In its ruddy glow is home, its flickering flames weaving an ever-changing tapestry on the gathering dusk, the black pines standing like beneficient genii watching over the altar flame in the snow.
Many a woodland thing will stand at gaze just beyond the circle of this campfire whose flare may shine back from the eyes of a wandering deer. More likely it will shine from the eyes of the only night bird of the winter woods, an owl. Perhaps the last greeting from the woods which the wayfarer will get as he leaves the diminishing red glow of the falling embers behind him and fares on under the keen, cold twinkle of the stars will be the questioning "who-who-whoo?" of the one of the big species of these birds, a barred owl or a great horned owl. More likely in our neighborhood it will be the gentle, quavering call of the little screech owl, a voice of friendliness out of the silence, dear to every true lover of the woods. With this voice and perhaps a gleam of the friendly eyes in the purple dusk the chronicle of the day's sport may well end.