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Travels In A Tree-top
| CHAPTER FIRST
TRAVELS IN A TREE-TOP
PEARLY mist shut out the river, the meadows, and every field for miles. I could not detect the ripple of the out going tide, and the heartiest songster sent no cheerful cry above the wide-spreading and low-lying cloud; but above all this silent, desolate, and seemingly deserted outlook there was a wealth of sunshine and a canopy of deep-blue sky. Here and there, as islands in a boundless sea, were the leafy tops of a few tall trees, and these, I fancied, were tempting regions to explore. Travels in a tree-top — surely, here we have a bit of novelty in this worn-out world.
Unless wholly wedded to the town, it is not cheering to think of the surrounding country as worn out. It is but little more than two centuries since the home-seeking folk of other lands came here to trick or trade with the Indians, wild as the untamed world wherein they dwelt; and now we look almost in vain for country as Nature fashioned it. Man may make of a desert a pleasant place, but he also unmakes the forest and bares the wooded hills until as naked and desolate as the fire-swept ruins of his own construction. It is but a matter of a few thousand cart-loads of the hill moved to one side, and the swamp that the farmer dreads because it yields no dollars is obliterated. He has never considered its wealth of suggestiveness. "A fig for the flowers and vermin. I must plant more corn."
But here and there the tall trees are still standing, and their tops are an untravelled country. I climbed an oak this cool midsummer morning; clambered beyond the mists, which were rolling away as I seated myself far above the ground, safe from intrusion, and resting trustfully on yielding branches that moved so gently in the passing breeze that I scarcely perceived their motion.
How much depends upon our point of view! The woodland path may not be charming if the undergrowth too closely shuts us in. In all we do, we seek a wider vision than our arm's length. There may be nothing better beyond than at our feet, but we never believe it. It is as natural to ask of the distant as of the future. They are closely akin. Here in the tree-top my wants were supplied. I was only in the least important sense cribbed, cabined, and confined.
Wild life, as we call it, is very discriminating, and that part of it which notices him at all looks upon man as a land animal; one that gropes about the ground, and awkwardly at that, often stumbling and ever making more noise than his progress calls for; but when perched in a tree, as an arboreal creature, he is to be studied anew. So, at least, thought the crows that very soon discovered my lofty quarters. How they chattered and scolded! They dashed near, as if with their ebon wings to cast a spell upon me, and, craning their glossy necks, spoke words of warning. My indifference was exasperating at first, and then, as I did not move, they concluded I was asleep, dead, or a dummy, like those in the cornfields. The loud expostulations gave place to subdued chatterings, and they were about to leave without further investigation, when, by the pressure of my foot, I snapped a dead twig. I will not attempt description. Perhaps to this day the circumstance is discussed in corvine circles.
It is difficult to realize the freedom of flight. Twisting and turning with perfect ease, adapting their bodies to every change of the fitful wind, these crows did not use their wings with that incessant motion that we need in using our limbs to walk, but floated, rose and fell, as if shadows rather than ponderable bodies. Until we can fly, or, rather, ride in flying-machines, we cannot hope to know much of this flight-life of birds, and it is the better part of their lives. But it was something to-day to be with even these crows in the air. Following their erratic flight from such a point of view, I seemed to be flying. We are given at times to wonder a great deal about birds, and they have equal reason to constantly consider us. Who can say what these crows thought of me? All I can offer to him who would solve the problem is that their curiosity was unbounded, and this is much if their curiosity and ours are akin. Of course they talked. Garner need not have gone to Africa to prove that monkeys talk, and no one can question that crows utter more than mere alarm-cries.
A word more concerning crows. What so absurd, apparently, as this?
"A single crow betokens sorrow,
Two betoken mirth,
Three predict a funeral,
And four a birth."
Yet it is a very common saying, being repeated whenever a few, or less than five, fly over. It is repeated mechanically, of course, and then forgotten, for no one seems to worry over one or three crows as they do when a looking-glass breaks or the dropped fork sticks up in the floor. Seems to worry, and yet I strongly suspect a trace of superstition lingers in the mind of many a woman. Those who will not sit as one of thirteen at a table are not dead yet. Can it be that all this weakness is only more concealed than formerly, but none the less existent?
I watched the departing crows until they were but mere specks in the sky, and heard, or fancied I heard, their cawing when half a mile away. It is ever a sweet sound to me. It means so much, recalls a long round of jolly years; and what matters the quality of a sound if a merry heart prompts its utterance?
I was not the only occupant of the tree; there were hundreds of other and more alive travellers, who often stopped to think or converse with their fellows and then hurried on. I refer to the great, shining, black ants that have such a variety of meaningless nicknames. Its English cousin is asserted to be ill-tempered, if not venomous, and both Chaucer and Shakespeare refer to them as often mad and always treacherous. I saw nothing of this to-day. They were ever on the go and always in a hurry. They seemed not to dissociate me from the tree; perhaps thought me an odd excrescence and of no importance. No one thinks of himself as such, and I forced myself upon the attention of some of the hurrying throng. It was easy to intercept them, and they grew quickly frantic; but their fellows paid no attention to such as I held captive for the moment. I had a small paper box with me, and this I stuck full of pin-holes on every side and then put half a dozen of the ants in it. Holding it in the line of the insects' march, it immediately became a source of wonderment, and every ant that came by stopped and parleyed with the prisoners. A few returned earthward, and then a number came together, but beyond this I could see nothing in the way of concerted action on the part of the ants at large looking towards succoring their captive fellows. Releasing them, these detained ants at once scattered in all directions, and the incident was quickly forgotten. Where were these ants going, and what was their purpose? I wondered. I was as near the tree's top as I dared to go, but the ants went on, apparently to the very tips of the tiniest twigs, and not one that I saw came down laden or passed up with any burden. It is not to be supposed they had no purpose in so doing, but what? There is scarcely an hour when we are not called upon to witness just such aimless activity, — that is, aimless so far as we can determine.
Nothing molested these huge black ants, although insect-eating birds came and went continually. One lordly, great-crested flycatcher eyed them meditatively for some seconds, and then my identity suddenly dawned upon him. His harsh voice, affected by fear, was more out of tune than ever, and, coupled with his precipitant flight, was very amusing. The bird fell off the tree, but quickly caught himself, and then, as usual, curiosity overcame fear. Students of bird-ways should never forget this. The fly-catcher soon took a stand wherefrom to observe me, and, if intently staring at me for thirty seconds was not curiosity, what shall we call it? Is it fair to explain away everything by calling it mere coincidence? It is a common practice, and about as logical as the old cry of "instinct" when I went to school. To have said, when I was a boy, that a bird could think and could communicate ideas to another of its kind, would have brought down ridicule upon my head out of school, and brought down something more weighty if the idea had been expressed in a "composition." I speak from experience.
To return to the cheerier subject of curiosity in birds: our large hawks have it to a marked degree, and advantage can be taken of this fact if you wish to trap them. I have found this particularly true in winter, when there is a general covering of the ground with snow. Food, of course, is not then quite so plenty, but this does not explain the matter. An empty steel trap on the top of a hay-stack is quite as likely to be tampered with as when baited with a mouse. The hawk will walk all around it, and then put out one foot and touch it here and there. If we can judge from the bird's actions, the question, What is it, anyway? is running through its mind. I once played a trick upon a splendid black hawk that had been mousing over the fields for half the winter. It often perched upon a stack of straw instead of the lone hickory near by. Early one morning I placed a plump meadow-mouse on the very top of the stack, to which I had attached a dozen long strands of bright-red woollen yarn and a bladder that I had inflated. This was secured to the mouse by a silk cord, and all were so concealed by the snow and straw that the hawk noticed the mouse only. The bird was suspicious at first: it was too unusual for a mouse not to move when a hawk hovered above it. Then the bird alighted on the stack and walked about the mouse, pecking at it once, but not touching it. Then putting out one foot, he seized it with a firm grip, the talons passing through the carcass, and at the same time spread his wings and moved slowly towards the lone hickory that towered near by. I was near enough to see every movement. It was evident that the hawk did not look down at first, and saw nothing of the streaming threads and bobbing bladder; but it did a moment later, and then what a quickening of wings and hasty mounting upward! The hawk was frightened, and gave a violent jerk with one foot, as if to disengage the mouse, but it was ineffectual. The sharp claws had too strong a hold, and the effect was only to more violently bob the bladder. Then the hawk screamed and dashed into the trees near by, and was out of sight.
A curious and disappointing occurrence, while sitting aloft, was the frequent discovery of my presence by birds and their sudden right-about movement and departure. Occasionally I could see them coming as if directly towards me, but their keen eyes noticed the unusual object, and they would dart off with a promptness that showed how completely at home they were while on the wing. Even the bluebirds, usually so tame, had their misgivings, and came to rest in other trees. But if the birds were not always about and above me, there were many below, and the sweet song of the wood-robin from the tangled underbrush seemed clearer and purer than when sifted through a wilderness of leaves.
It was not until noon that the wood and open fields became silent or nearly so, for the red-eye came continually, and, whether insect-hunting in the tree or on the wing, it seemed never to cease its singing, or querulous cry, which more aptly describes its utterance. To hear this sound throughout a long summer day is depressing, particularly if you hear nothing else, for the steady hum of insect-life hardly passes for sound. It was only when I listened for it that I was aware that millions of tiny creatures were filling the air with a humming that varied only as the light breeze carried it away or brought it nearer and clearer than before. There is a vast difference between absolute and comparative or apparent silence. The former is scarcely ever a condition of the open country unless during a still, cold winter night, and never of one of our ordinary woodland traits. We do find it, however, in the cedar swamps and pine-land, even during summer. I have often stood in the pines of Southern New Jersey and tried to detect some sound other than that of my own breathing, but in vain. Not a twig stirred. The dark waters of the pools were motionless; even the scattered clouds above were at rest. It was to be absolutely alone, as if the only living creature upon earth. But ere long a gentle breeze would spring up, there was a light and airy trembling of the pines, and the monotone of a whispered sigh filled the forest. Even this was a relief, and what a joy if some lonely bird passed by and even lisped of its presence! The dee-dee of a titmouse at such a time was sweeter music than the choral service that heralds the coming of a bright June morning.
At noon, the day being torrid, there was comparative silence, and yet as I looked about me I saw ceaseless activity in a small way. The ants were still journeying, and red admiral and yellow swallow-tailed butterflies came near, and the latter even passed high overhead and mingled with the chimney-swifts. Had I been on the ground, walking instead of waiting, I should have sought some sheltered spot and rested, taking a hint from much of the wild life I was watching.
Where cluster oaks and runs the rapid brook,
Repose the jutting rocks beneath the ferns;
Here seeks the thrush his hidden leafy nook,
And wandering squirrel to his hole returns.
Afar the steaming river slowly wends
Its tortuous way to mingle with the sea;
No cheerful voice its languid course attends;
The blight of silence rests upon the lea.
Where the wide meadow spreads its wealth of weeds,
Where the rank harvest waves above the field,
The testy hornet in his anger speeds,
And stolid beetle bears his brazen shield.
Give them the glowing, fiery world they love,
Give me the cool retreat beside the stream;
While sweeps the sun the noontide sky above,
Here would I linger with the birds and dream.
And now what of the tree itself? Here I have been the better part of a long forenoon, and scarcely given this fine young oak a thought. A young oak, yet a good deal older than its burden; an oak that was an acorn when the century was new, and now a sturdy growth full sixty feet high, straight of stem to its undermost branches and shapely everywhere. Such trees are not remarkable of themselves, though things of beauty, but at times how suggestive! Think of pre-Columbian America; then there were oaks to make men marvel. "There were giants in those days." Occasionally we meet with them even now. A year ago I camped on the shore of Chesapeake Bay near an oak that measured eighteen feet six inches in circumference four feet from the ground, and in St. Paul's church-yard, not a great way off, are five big oaks, one of which is twenty feet around shoulder high from the roots. Such trees are very old. The church-yard was enclosed two centuries ago, and these were big trees then, and so older by far than any monument of white men on the continent, except possible traces of the Norsemen. If a tree such as this in which I have been sitting is full to overflowing with suggestiveness, how much more so a noble patriarch like that upon the bay shore! It is usually not easy to realize the dimensions of a huge tree by merely looking at it, but this mammoth impressed one at first sight. The branches were themselves great trees, and together cast a circular patch of shade, at noon, three paces more than one hundred feet across. As a tree in which to ramble none could have been better shaped. The lowest branches were less than twenty feet from the ground, and after reaching horizontally a long way, curved upward and again outward, dividing finally into the leaf-bearing twigs. Course after course continued in this way, the size decreasing gradually, and the whole forming, as seen from a distance, a magnificent dome-shaped mass. Comparisons with the tree's surroundings were full of suggestiveness. The ground immediately about was densely covered with rank ferns and the acorn sprouts of one or two years' growth. Yet, where they were, it seemed but a smoothly-shaven lawn, so insignificant were they when seen with the tree; and the sproutland beyond, which would otherwise have been a wood, was absolutely insignificant. Yet, in truth, everything here was on a grand scale. The ferns were tall, and to prove it I sat upon the ground among them and so shut out all view of the great tree and its surroundings. I spent many hours seated upon different branches of this oak, and every one had features all its own. From those nearest the ground I surveyed the bird-life in the thicket beneath, and was entertained by a pair of nesting cardinal red-birds that came and went as freely as if quite alone, and whistled cheerfully morning, noon, and night. I fancied I made friends with these birds, for early one morning the male bird came to camp, as if to inspect my nest, thinking I was not up, and he expressed his favorable opinion in most glowing terms. A pair of doves, too, had a nest in sight, and their melancholy cooing seemed out of tune here, where Nature had done her work so well. Once, at least, while I was there, the bald eagle came for a few moments, and, big bird as he is, was not conspicuous, and had not a flash of sunlight fallen upon his yellow beak and white head, I should not have been aware of his presence, as he certainly was not of mine. What I took to be a duck-hawk, a few days later, interested me much more. He was a splendid bird, and tarried but a short time. The leaves so concealed him that I was not sure, having no field-glass at the time, but do not think I was mistaken. The eagle did not appear to disturb the fish-hawk's temper in the least, but the great hawk did, and he was much excited until the bird disappeared in the steam and smoke that as a great cloud rested above Baltimore.
The birds of this retired spot may be divided into two classes, — those of the oak and of the sproutland growths about it, and the birds of the air, principally swallows, which hung over the tree as a trembling cloud. Never were swallows more numerous, except when flocked prior to migration. In the tree and bushes were always many birds, yet often they were far from each other. This gave me an excellent idea of what a great oak really is. Birds quite out of sight and hearing of each other were resting on branches from the same trunk. Although the middle of July, there was no lack of song, and second nesting of many familiar birds is, I judge, more common in Maryland than in New Jersey. Of all the birds that came, the little green herons were the most amusing. A pair doubtless had a nest near by, or young that were not yet on the wing. They walked sedately along the level branches, as a man might pace up and down his study, buried in deep thought. I listened carefully for some expression of content, but they made no sound except when they were startled and flew off. I was much surprised to find the beach-birds occasionally darting among the branches, and once a spotted sandpiper rested a moment near me. These birds we associate with water and the open country, although this species is less aquatic than its fellows. They were always in sight from the door of my tent, and always an earlier bird than I. I recall now standing upon the beach long before sunrise, marking the promises of the coming day, as I interpreted them. The fish-hawks were ahead of me; so, too, the little sand-pipers. Their piping at this time was very clear and musical. It was a delightful accompaniment to the rippling water. The dear old song-sparrows were quiet, and I was very glad; but with the first flooding of the sea with sunlight they all sang out, and the Chesapeake was afar off and I in the home meadows on the Delaware. I prefer novelty when away. It is well to utterly forget, at times, that which we most prize. What boots it to stand on the hill-top, if your thoughts are forever in the lowlands? Twice, from the branches of the old oak, I saw a splendid sunset, but nothing equal to the sunrise of to-day. With many a matter of this life the beginning is better than the end. We had a superb sunset last night. The color was gorgeous, but it was plain and commonplace compared to the sunrise of to-day. Perhaps no tint was really brighter in one case than in the other, but my mind was. The sunset was too closely linked with the death of the day; there was the idea of a grand finale before the curtain drops, and this tends to dull enthusiasm. It is not so with sunrise. It is all freshness, — a matter of birth, of beginning, of a new trial of life, — and with so happy an entrance, the exit should be one of gladness only; but there is no trace of pity in Nature. In awful certainty the night cometh.
I was not surprised at every visit to this tree to find some new form of life resting on its branches. A beautiful garter-snake had reached a low branch by climbing to it from a sapling that reached a little above it. There was no break in the highway that led to its very summit. The grass leaned upon ferns, these upon shrubs, these again upon saplings, and so the tree was reached. Any creeping thing could have climbed just eighty feet above the earth with far less danger than men encounter clambering over hills.
And not only a zoological garden was this and is every other old tree, but the oak had its botanic garden as well. When we consider that many of the branches were so wide and level that one could walk upon them, it is not strange that earth, dead leaves, and water should lodge in many places. Indeed, besides the two gardens I have mentioned, the oak had also an aquarium. But I cannot go into particulars. The parasitic plant-life — not truly such, like the mistletoe — was a striking feature. Maple seeds had lodged and sprouted, and in a saucer-shaped depression where dust and water had lodged a starved hawkweed had got so far towards maturity as to be in bud.
It may appear as utter foolishness to others, but I believe that trees might in time become tiresome. Whether in leaf or bare of foliage, there is a fixedness that palls at last. We are given to looking from the tree to the world beyond; to hurrying from beneath their branches to the open country. To live in a dense forest is akin to living in a great city. There is a sense of confinement against which, sooner or later, we are sure to rebel. We long for change. The man who is perfectly satisfied has no knowledge of what satisfaction really is. Logical or not, I turned my attention from the tree at last, and thought, What of the outlook? Direly north, in the shallow basin, hemmed in by low hills, lies the town. A cloud of smoke and steam rests over it, and barely above it reach the church-spires and tall factory chimneys, as if the place was struggling to be free, but only had its finger-tips out of the mire of the town, of which I know but little. My wonder is that so many people stay there, and, stranger still, wild life not only crowds its outskirts, but ventures into its very midst. In one town, not far away, I found the nests of seventeen species of birds, but then there was a large old cemetery and a millpond within its boundaries. Time was when through the town before me there flowed a creek, and a pretty wood flourished along its south bank. The creek is now a sewer, and an open one at that, and yet the musk-rat cannot quite make up his mind to leave it. Stranger than this was seeing recently, in a small creek discolored by a dyeing establishment, a little brown diver. How it could bring itself to swim in such filth must remain a mystery. A queer old character that had lived all his life in the country once said of the nearest town, "It is a good place to dump what we don't want on the farm." This old fellow would always drive me out of his orchard when apples were ripe, but I liked him for the sentiment I have quoted.
I am out of town now, and what of the world in another direction? Turning to the east, I have farm after farm before me; all different, yet with a strong family likeness. This region was taken up by English Quakers about 1670 and a little later, and the houses they built were as much alike as are these people in their apparel. The second set of buildings were larger only and no less severely plain; but immediately preceding the Revolution there were some very substantial mansions erected. From my perch in the treetop I cannot see any of the houses distinctly, but locate them all by the group of Weymouth pines in front and sometimes both before and behind them. The old-time Lombardy poplar was the tree of the door-yards at first, but these, in this neighborhood, have well-nigh all died out, and the pines replace them. One farm-house is vividly pictured before me, although quite out of sight. The owner made it a home for such birds as might choose to come, as well as for himself, and what royal days have been spent there! There was no one feature to attract instant attention as you approached the house. The trees were thrifty, the shrubbery healthy, the roses vigorous, and the flowering plants judiciously selected; but what did strike the visitor was the wealth of bird-life. For once let me catalogue what I have seen in and about one door-yard and what should be about every one in the land. At the end of the house, and very near the corner of the long portico, stood a martin-box, occupied by the birds for which it was intended. In the porch, so that you could reach it with your hand, was a wren's nest, and what a strange house it had! It was a huge plaster cast of a lion's head, and between the grim teeth the bird passed and repassed continually. It promenaded at times on the lion's tongue, and sang triumphantly while perched upon an eyebrow. That wren certainly saw nothing animal-like in the plaster cast as it was, and I have wondered if it would have been equally free with a stuffed head of the animal. My many experiments with animals, as to their recognition of animals as pictured, have demonstrated everything, and so, I am afraid I must admit, nothing. In the woodbine on the portico were two nests, — a robin's and a chipping-sparrow's. These were close to each other, and once, when sitting in a rocking-chair, I swayed the woodbine to and fro without disturbing either bird. In the garden were a mockingbird, cat-bird, thistle-finch, song-sparrow, brown thrush, yellow-breasted chat, and red-eyed vireo. In the trees I saw a great-crested fly-catcher, purple grakle, a redstart, spotted warbler, and another I failed to identify. In the field beyond the garden were red-winged blackbirds and quail, and beyond, crows, fish-hawks, and turkey-buzzards were in the air; and, as the day closed and the pleasant sights were shut out, I heard the clear call of the kill-deer plover as they passed overhead, heard it until it mingled with my dreams. "Providence Farm" is indeed well named, for the birdy blessing of Providence rests upon it; but were men more given to considering the ways and wants of wild life, we might find such pleasant places on every hand. Farms appear to be growing less farm-like. The sweet simplicity of colonial days has been well-nigh obliterated, and nothing really better has replaced it. On the other hand, a modern "country place," where Nature is pared down until nothing but the foundation-rocks remain, is, to say the least, an eyesore. There is more pleasure and profit in an Indian trail than in an asphaltum driveway.
Westward lie the meadows, and beyond them the river. Seen as a whole, they are beautiful and, like all of Nature's work, will bear close inspectlion. The bird's-eye view to-day was too comprehensive to be altogether enjoyable; it was bewildering. How completely such a tray epitomizes a continent! The little creek is a river; the hillock, a mountain; the brushland, a forest; the plowed tract, a desert. If this fait were not so generally forgotten we would be better content with what is immediately about us. Mere bigness is not everything. So, too, with animal life. We spend time and money to see the creatures caged in a menagerie, and never see the uncaged ones in the thicket behind the house. Every lion must roar, or we have not seen the show; a lion rampant is everything, a lion couchant, nothing. There was no visible violence in the meadows today; Nature was couchant, and I was thankful. When the tempest drives over the land I want my snug harbor by the chimney-throat. The sparks can fly upward to join the storm if they will. The storms I enjoy are matters of hearsay.
Take up a ponderous government quarto of the geological survey and glance over the splendid plates of remarkable rocks, canons, and high hills, and then look out of your window at the fields and meadow. What a contrast! Yes, a decided one, and yet if you take an open-eyed walk you will find a good deal of the same thing, but on a smaller scale. You have not thought of it before; that is all. I put this matter to a practical test not long ago, and was satisfied with the result. The last plate had been looked at and the book was closed with a sigh, and a restless youth, looking over the wide range of fields before him, was thinking of the grand mountains, strange deserts, and deep canons pictured in the volume on his lap, and comparing such a country with the monotonous surroundings of his home.
"What a stupid place this part of the world is!" he said at last. "I wish I could go out West."
"Perhaps it is not so stupid as it looks," I replied. "Let's take a walk."
I knew what the book described at which the lad had been looking, and had guessed his thoughts. We started for a ramble.
"Let us follow this little brook as far as we can," I suggested, "and see what a stupid country can teach us," purposely quoting my companion's words, with a little emphasis.
Not fifty rods from beautiful old trees the collected waters, as a little brook, flowed over an outcropping of stiff clay, and here we voluntarily paused, for what one of us had seen a hundred times before was now invested with new interest. There was here not merely a smooth scooping out of a mass of the clay, to allow the waters to pass swiftly by; the least resisting veins or strata, those containing the largest percentage of sand, had yielded quickly and been deeply gullied, while elsewhere the stiff, black ridges, often almost perpendicular, still withstood the current, and, confining the waters to narrow limits, produced a series of miniature rapids and one whirlpool that recalled the headwaters of many a river.
Near by, where, when swollen by heavy rains, the brook had filled the little valley, temporary rivulets had rushed with fury over the clay, and cut in many places deep and narrow transverse channels. From their steep sides projected many a pebble that gave us "overhanging rocks," and one small bowlder bridged a crevice in the clay, and was in use at the time as a highway for a colony of ants. Near it stood slender, conical pillars of slightly cemented sand, some six inches in height, and every one capped with a pebble of greater diameter than the apex of the supporting sand. These were indeed beautiful.
"I have never seen them before," remarked the boy.
"Very likely," I replied, "but you have crushed them under foot by the dozens." They were not to be overlooked now, though, and in them he saw perfect reproductions of wonderful "monument rocks" which he had so lately seen pictured in the ponderous government geological report.
Withdrawing to the field beyond, where a bird's-eye view of the brook's course could be obtained, we had spread out before us a miniature, in most of its essentials, of a canon country. The various tints of the clay gave the many-colored rocks; the different densities of the several strata resulted in deep or shallow ravines, fantastic arches, caverns, and beetling precipices. On a ridiculously small scale, you may say. True, but not too small for the eyes of him who is anxious to learn.
A few rods farther down the stream we came to a small sandy island which divided the brook and made a pleasant variety after a monotonous course through nearly level fields. A handful of the sand told the story. Here, meeting with so slight an obstruction as a projecting root, the sandy clays from above had been deposited in part, and year after year, as the island grew, the crowded waters had encroached upon the yielding banks on either side, and made here quite a wide and shallow stream. Small as it was, this little sand-bar had the characteristic features of all islands. The water rippled along its sides and gave it a pretty beach of sloping, snow-white sand, while scarcely more than half a foot inland the seeds of many plants had sprouted, and along the central ridge or backbone the sod was thick set, and several acorns, a year before, had sprouted through it. We found snails, spiders, and insects abundant, and faint footprints showed that it was not overlooked by the pretty teetering sand-piper.
Now came a total change. Abruptly turning from its former straightforward course, the brook entered a low-lying swamp, crowded to the utmost with dense growths of tangled vines and stunted trees. The water was no longer sparkling and colorless, but amber-tinted, and in many a shallow pool looked more like ink. Life here appeared in many forms. Small mud-minnows, turtles, and snakes were found in the gloomy, weed-hidden pools, and numberless inserts crowded the rank growths above as well as the waters beneath. The mutual dependence of vegetation and animal life was here very striking. Previously we had found comparatively little either in the brook or about it, but now our eyes were gladdened not only with what I have mentioned, but birds, too, were in abundance.
Bent upon freeing my native county from the charge of stupidity, I led the way through this "dismal swamp." It was no easy task. Nowhere were we sure of our footing, and it required constant leaping from root to root of the larger trees. There was at times no well-defined channel, and often we could hear the gurgling waters hurrying beneath our feet, yet catch no glimpse of them.
Here, too, other springs welled to the surface, and the augmented volume of waters finally left the swamp a stream of considerable size, which, after a tortuous course through many fields, entered a deep and narrow ravine. After untold centuries the brook has worn away the surface soil over which it originally flowed, then the gravel beneath, and so down to the clay, thirty feet below. Upon this now rest the bowlders and such coarser material as the waters could not transport.
Clinging to the trees growing upon the sides of the ravine, we closely followed the course of the troubled, bubbling, foamy waters, stopping ever and anon to look at the exposed sections of sand and gravel here shown in curious alternate layers. The meaning of the word "deposits," so frequently met with in descriptive geology, was made plain, and when we noticed of how mixed a character was the coarse gravel, it was easy to comprehend what had been read of that most interesting phase of the world's past history, the glacial epoch, or great ice age. The gravel was no longer an unsuggestive accumulation of pebbles, but associated rolled and water-worn fragments of a hundred different rocks that by the mighty forces of ice and water had been brought to their present position from regions far away.
The ravine ended at the meadows, through which the waters passed with unobstructed flow "to join the brimming river." As we stood upon the bank of the mighty stream I remarked, "This is a stupid country, perhaps, but it has some merits." I think the boy thought so, too.
The meadows are such a comprehensive place that no one knows where to begin, if the attempt is made to enumerate their features. There is such a blending of dry land and wet, open and thicket-grown, hedge and brook and scattered trees, that it is bewildering if you do not choose some one point for close inspection. From the tree-top I overlook it all, and try in vain to determine whether the azure strip of flowering iris or the flaunting crimson of the Turk's cap lilies is the prettier. Beyond, in damper soil, the glistening yellow of the sunflowers is really too bright to be beautiful; but not so where the water is hidden by the huge circular leaves of the lotus. They are majestic as well as pretty, and the sparse bloom, yellow and rosy pink, is even the more conspicuous by reason of its background. How well the birds know the wild meadow tracts! They have not forsaken my tree and its surroundings, but for one here I see a dozen there. Mere inky specks, as seen from my point of view, but I know them as marsh-wrens and swamp-sparrows, kingbirds and red-wings, that will soon form those enormous flocks that add so marked a feature to the autumn landscape. It needs no field-glass to mark down the passing herons that, coming from the river-shore, take a noontide rest in the overgrown marsh.
I had once, on the very spot at which I was now looking, an unlooked-for adventure. For want of something better to do, I pushed my way into the weedy marsh until I reached a prostrate tree-trunk that during the last freshet had stranded there. It was a wild place. The tall rose-mallow and wavy cat-tail were far above my head, and every trace of civilization was effectually shut out. It was as much a wilderness as any jungle in the tropics. Nor was I alone. Not a minute elapsed before a faint squeak told me that there were meadow-mice in the hollow log on which I sat, Then the rank grass moved and a least bittern came into view and as quickly disappeared. I heard continually the cackle of the king-rail, and the liquid twittering of the marsh-wrens was a delight. The huge globular nests of these birds were everywhere about me; but the birds did not think of me as having any evil designs upon them, so they came and went as freely as if alone. This is bird-viewing that one too seldom enjoys nowadays. Often, and very suddenly, all sound ceased and every bird disappeared. I did not recognize the cause at first, but was enlightened a moment later. A large bird passed over, and its very shadow frightened the little marsh-dwellers. If not, the shadow and fright were a coincidence several times that morning. The day, for me, ended with the unusual chance of a close encounter with a great blue heron. I saw the bird hover for a moment directly overhead, and then, letting its legs drop, it descended with lead-like rapidity. I leaned backward to avoid it, and could have touched the bird when it reached the ground, it was so near. I shall never know which was the more astonished. Certainly, had it chosen, it could have stabbed me through and through.
I was glad to be again on drier land and in open country. There had been adventure enough; and yet, as seen from a distance, this bit of marsh was but weeds and water.
Southward there stands the remnant of a forest: second- and third-growth woodland usually; for trees of really great age are now generally alone. I can see from where I sit three primeval beeches that are known to be over two centuries old, and not far away towered one giant tulip-tree that since the country's earliest settlement had stood like a faithful sentinel, guarding the south hank of a nameless spring brook. Ever a thing of beauty, it shone with added splendor at night, when the rising full moon rested in its arms, as if weary at the very outset of her journey. My grandfather told me that in his boyhood it was known as the "Indian tree," because a basket-maker and his squaw had a wigwam there. That was a century ago, and often, of late years, I have hunted on the spot for sonic trace of these redskins, but found nothing, although all about, in every field, were old Indian relics, even their cherished tobacco-pipes. Small, recent growths of timber, even where they have succeeded an ancient forest, are not, as a rule, attractive. Their newness is too evident, and, except for a few passing birds, they are not apt to harbor much wild life. As I look at the mingled foliage of oaks and elms, beeches, hickories, and wild cherry, I give little heed to that before me and recall forests worthy of the name, doing precisely what I have declared unwise. A naturalist could find more material in these few acres of woodland than he could "work up" in a lifetime. I have underrated them. From the little thicket of blackberry vines I see a rabbit slowly loping, as if in search of food. It is a full-grown fellow, and suggests the round of the traps in late autumn and the woods in winter.
I never knew a boy brought up in the country who was not at one time an enthusiastic trapper. Just as mankind in the infancy of the world were forced to pit their energy and skill against the cunning of the animals needed for food or of such that by reason of their fierceness endangered human life, so the country boy of to-day puts his intelligence to work to circumvent the superiority of such animal life as by fleetness of foot or stroke of wing can avoid the pursuer. It is a question largely of brain against anatomical structure. No Indian, even, ever outran a deer, nor savage anywhere by mere bodily exertion stopped the flight of a bird. Men were all sportsmen, in a sense, when sport, as we call it, was necessary to human existence. As centuries rolled by, such animals and birds as came in daily contact with man necessarily had their sleepy wits aroused, and now it is a case of cunning against cunning. We are all familiar with such phrases as "wild as a hawk" and "shy as a deer." In the morning of man's career on earth there were no such words as "shy" and "wild." They came into use, as words are constantly coming into our language, because circumstances make them a necessity; and as men were trappers before they were traders or tillers of the field, so the words are old, and while animal life lasts they will be retained.
Nowadays we generally outgrow this love of trapping, or it remains in the love of sport with gun or rod. But, old Izaak Walton and Frank Forrester to the contrary notwithstanding, I hold that nothing in fishing or shooting has that freshness, that thrilling excitement, that close touch with nature, that clings to our early days, when, in autumn and winter, we went the round of the traps. How through the long night we had visions of the rabbit cautiously approaching the box-trap on the edge of the swamp! How clearly we saw in the corner of the weedy old worm-fence the stupid opossum bungling along, and awoke with a start as the clumsy creature sprang the trap from the outside! I pity the boy who has not had such a distressing dream.
No boy ever turned out before sunrise with a smiling countenance to milk or help in any way with farm work; but how different when it was a matter of the traps he had set the night before! The anticipation of success is an all-sufficient incentive, and neither bitter cold nor driving storm deters him. Of a winter dawn much might be said. No boy ever was abroad so early that the squirrels were not before him, and in the fading light of the stars he will hear the crows cawing and the blue-jays chattering in the woods. To the naturalist, of course, such time of day is full of suggestiveness; but the general belief that it is a proper time to sleep will never be given up. Indeed, judging others by myself, as the boy gets well on in his teens there is a growing disposition to let the traps go until broad daylight and even until after breakfast. This is unfortunate in two ways: there is a likelihood of seeing animal life in the full flush of activity in the pre-sunlit hours that is unknown as the day advances; the night-prowlers are all gone to their dens, and the birds that roost in colonies have dispersed for the day. One seldom overtakes a raccoon or a weasel at or near noontide, and in the woods where a thousand robins have roosted there may now not be one. Then, again, your visit to the traps may be anticipated if you are too deliberate in starting on your rounds. This is an experience that no boy of spirit can calmly undergo, and no wonder. The rude box-trap was not easy to make, considering the usual condition of tools upon a farm. The hunt for likely places whereat to set it had been real labor. The long tramp in the gloaming when tired out from a day at school; the early tramp, before sunrise perhaps, for he must be on time at school that morning, — all this is to be considered; but if success crowns the effort, all is well. On the other hand, to find that some rascal has been ahead of you and your labor has gone for nothing — I never knew a boy to be a saint at such a time.
I can recall a well-marked rabbit-path I once found, half a mile from home, and with great secrecy carried one of my traps to the place. It was on the next farm, and so I had to be more than usually careful. Nothing could be done in daylight for fear the boys living on that farm would find me out, and this sort of poaching was not tolerated. At first I was successful, catching two fine rabbits, and then, alas! was so elated that, boy-like, I said too much. Some one must have tracked me, for I caught no more, although it was evident that the trap had been disturbed. Straightway I suspected treachery, and prepared for revenge.
Now, auntie had a fur tippet, or "boa," as she called it, which was just six feet long. The moths one summer had ruined it, and for some time it had been lying around uncared for and a plaything for the younger children. This I appropriated, and fastened to one end of it a rabbit's head, with the ears wired up and with huge painted marbles bulging from the sockets for eyes. It was a startling if not life-like creature.
Armed with this, I started after dark to the trap, and soon had all in readiness for my victim. I coiled the "boa" into the rear of the box and placed the head near the opening of the trap. The "figure-of-four" triggers were laid outside in such a way as to suggest that the trap had been sprung by an animal. Then I went home.
The next morning I went to school without visiting the spot, fearing I might meet with the supposed offender. All day long I wondered. No boy had any marvellous tale to tell and no one looked at all guilty. There soon came over me a feeling that perhaps I had played a trick upon myself, and by sundown I was rather reluctant to determine if anything had happened; but go I did. The trap had evidently been disturbed. The "boa" with the rabbit's head was lying at full length outside and the bushes were broken as if a bull had rushed through them. But who or what had been there?
Two days of most distressing doubt passed, and then came Saturday. I was ill at ease and took no pleasure in my holiday; but about noon our neighbor came over, and I heard him tell grandfather how, on Fifth-day, while the family were at breakfast, Bill, the bound boy, came rushing into the room and exclaimed, excitedly, "Something from the menagerie's broke loose and got in the rabbit-trap!"
I had had my revenge.
A wood, to be at its best, should be located on the shore of a lake or river, or, perhaps better still, a river should run through it. Here are my impressions of such a wood, from my note-book of 1892, under date of May 1:
Nothing could have been more fitting than to take a May-day outing at such a place. The swift current of the Great Egg Harbor River rolled resistlessly along, its waters black as night, save where, over the pebbly shallows, it gleamed like polished amber. The wind that swayed the tall crowns of the towering pines made fitting music, according well with the rippling laugh of the fretted river, while heard above all were the joyous songs of innumerable warblers.
We had placed our boat upon a wagon six miles below our point of departure, and partly realized on our way what this pine region really was. The cedar swamp, the oak openings, the arbutus that gave color to the narrow wagon-track, the absence of man's interference, — all tended to give us the full significance of that most suggestive word, wilderness. We needed but to catch a glimpse of an Indian to see this part of creation precisely as it was in pre-Columbian days. I sat for some time in the boat before taking up the anchor. This was but the entrance, I was told, to spots more beautiful, but it was hard to believe. Here was a river hidden in a forest, and what more could one wish? The warblers well knew that May-day had come again, and every one of the mighty host greeted the brilliant sunshine. There seemed literally to be hundreds of them. Flashing like gems were redstarts, light as swallows upon the wing. Bright-spotted warblers, and others sombre gray, laughed as they tarried on the trembling twigs; then, mounting into the sunlight, sang loudly as they flew, or darted into gloomy nooks so hidden that not even a sunbeam could follow them.
The river with its attendant birds could not claim all the merit; the land was no less beautiful. The oaks were not yet in leaf, but there was no lack of green. The holly's foliage was bright as May, the polished leaves of the tea-berry shone as a midsummer growth, the ink-berry had defied the winter's storms, and the maples glowed as a great ruddy flame. Really distinct as was every object, yet, as a whole, the outlook was dreary, hazy, half obscure, as we looked directly into the wood, where the drooping moss festooned the branches of the smaller oaks.
No voyager ever set forth from so fair a port.
My companion knew the route, and with an oar he took his place astern to guide the boat safely down the swift stream. It was all right as it proved, but at times I forgot that I had come to see the forest. Instead, an element of doubt as to the guide's ability came painfully to the front. With devilish malignancy, as I thought, trees had prostrated themselves and rested just beneath the water's surface, or stood up, with outreached arms, as if defying us. How we passed many a crook and turn I cannot now remember. I was too much occupied with desperately clutching at anything within reach to notice the "when" or "how," but there still remains the delicious sensation of suddenly shooting into smooth water and feeling — brave as a lion.
For several miles on either side of the stream we had a typical mixed forest. The willow-oak predominated at times, and the delicate foliage, so unlike other oaks, was very beautiful. The leaves appeared translucent in the bright sunlight, fairly sparkled, and once made a splendid background to scarlet tanagers that flashed through them. In this long reach of dense woods there were fewer birds than at our starting-point, or perhaps they held back as we passed. But other life was not wanting. From many a projecting stump there slid many a turtle into the dark waters, and a mink or musk-rat crossed our bow. Careful search would no doubt have revealed numerous creatures, for here was a safe retreat for all the fauna of the State. The deer are not yet quite gone, possibly a few bears remain. Certainly the raccoon and otter must be abundant. I was constantly on the lookout for minks, for the river abounds in fish. This animal is sometimes mistaken for a huge snake, as it rises several inches above the water at times, and has then a rather startling appearance. An old fisherman on Chesapeake Bay told me that he had seen a mink with a huge eel in its mouth come to the surface, and then the wriggling fish and long, lithe body of the mink together looked like two serpents fighting. I can readily imagine it. Birches, liquidambars, and pines in clusters would next command attention, and usually there was a dense undergrowth. Holding the boat, at times, we could hear the water rushing through the roots of this tangled mass, and found that what we had supposed was firm land afforded no certain footing, and a bluff of firm earth was very welcome when we thought of landing for a hasty lunch. This firm earth did indeed support us, but in reality it was the most unstable of shifting sands, being held in place by reindeer-moss, partridge-berry, and other pine-barren growths.
Nothing was in sight but the scrubby pines, and we had to be very careful that our fire did not get among the "needles" and dash through the woods. I found here absolutely no birds. They seem all to prefer the trans covered by deciduous trees; but inset-feeders could have flourished here. The steam of our dinner-pot brought more substantial forms than mosquitoes, one house-fly being determined to share my Frankfurter and successfully defying all attempts at capture.
Again afloat, we soon came to the mouth of an inflowing stream called Dead River, said to be very deep. This point was perhaps the wildest of all. The open water here was very wide, and a forest of projecting stumps of various heights showed plainly that we were on the edge of an area of drowned land. In the distance was an unbroken background of pines, which now looked black. At wide intervals could be seen huge pines that had escaped the charcoal-burner or lumberman. The sterns and lower branches were, of course, concealed, but in the hazy atmosphere the tops were as floating islands of darkest green, standing boldly out against the pearly sky behind them.
Here, at the mouth of Dead River, we beheld a pretty sight. A wood-duck with her brood rushed over the water in a most lively manner, flecking the black expanse with patches of white foam. Such incidents add much to such a journey. An empty forest is as forbidding as an empty house.
In the coves there were changes from the surrounding scenery that were not to be overlooked. A rank growth of golden-club resting on the dark waters was very striking. The picture was such as we see on a Claude Lorrain glass. Near by fresh sphagnum in a shallow pool was bronze and green: a place for frogs to squat unseen, but I could find none. How often this happens! At the very places where we think animal life will be in abundance we can find no trace of it. Then, looking up, we see but trees. No break in the line that hems us in. Trees old and young, trees living and dead, great and small; nothing but trees.
The wind freshened as the day grew old, and doubly troubled were the waters. There was no rest for them now, even in sheltered nooks, and it was only by sturdy strokes of the oars that we made headway at all. There was no perceptible current to bear us along as before. The waves dashing against the bare trunks of trees long dead and now bent by the wind added much to the wild scene. Novel as it all was, I could not quite enjoy it. It was something to be contemplated from the shore, I thought. I know I was laughed at, but the many "blind" stumps, or those just beneath the surface, of which my companion spoke so unconcernedly came too prominently to mind when I least expected them, and added much significance to the fact that I cannot swim.
As we neared home the scene abruptly changed, and the river was lost in a wide expanse that might be called a lake if the fact was not so evident that it is a mill-pond. This, however, did not detract from the beauty of the surroundings, and before our final landing we drew up to a bold bit of shore and searched, while it was yet day, for pyxie. There was an abundance of blooming andromeda, too, and arbutus, with club-moss of richest green. I almost placed my hand on a centipede that glowed like an emerald. It was resting on ruddy sphagnum, and made a splendid picture. I could not capture the creature. An attempt to do so on my part was followed by its disappearance with a suddenness that could be likened only to the flashes of light that played upon its back. Here I heard many frogs, but could find none. The rattle and peep were not like the voices of those in the meadows at home, and I wondered about Cope's new tiger-frog and the little green hyla that is so rare here in Jersey. Possibly I heard them both; probably not.
We returned to prosy life when the boat was lifted over the dam, and the incidents were few and commonplace in the short drift that carried us to an old wharf, a relic of the last century.
What a difference between such a forest and a few hundred oaks and ashes at home! and yet these are far better than treeless fields. It is these few trees that hold many of our migratory birds, and through them, in spring, troop the north-bound warblers. In the gloaming a small tray of woodland widens out, and, seeing no open country beyond, what does it matter, if we walk in a circle, whether it be one acre or one thousand?
There is good philosophy in "Small favors thankfully received." Here in this little wood are beautiful white-footed mice, a shy, nocturnal jerboa, flying-squirrels, and, if I mistake not, a whole family of opossums. Here, until autumn, are wood-robins that never weary us by overmuch singing, and cat-birds, chewinks, and the rose-breasted grosbeak. I do not complain, but as the summer passes I regret that these birds have their appointed time and will soon be gone. Why so soon? I often wonder, for their haunts do not lose their loveliness for weeks after they have disappeared.
No wall of green above, about,
They silently steal away;
With but a carpet of withered leaves,
The minstrel will not stay.
But the spot is no "banquet-hall deserted," for all that; the departure of the summer birds is but to make way for those who have gladdened Canadian woods for many weeks. The purple finch will soon be here, and tree-sparrows in great companies, and the gentle white-throat; and these, with our stately cardinal for a leader, will hold forth melodiously, though the north winds blow and the angry east wind brings the snow upon its wings.
In the smile of winter sunshine there will be enacted another drama, but now it is comedy rather than tragedy. There are no conflicting interests now, no serious quarrels, no carking cares — the world is really in good humor and our days of early darkness are misunderstood.
Let him who doubts — and there are but few who do not — turn from the worn lines of travel, go well out of the beaten path, and find, in the way-side nooks his neighbors have neglected, most excellent company: birds of brave heart that can sing in the teeth of a storm; and many a creature, wrapped in his furry coat, laughs at the earnest efforts of winter to keep him from his outings.
Did I dare sit in this same oak when the leaves have fallen, I should have strange tales to tell, — tales so strange that the summertide would be commonplace in comparison.