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CHAPTER SEVENTEENTH

DEAD LEAVES

I HAVE often wondered why the Indians did not call November the month of dead leaves. The out-of-town world is full of them now. They replace the daisies and dandelions in the open fields, the violets and azaleas in the shady woods. They are a prominent feature of the village street. Many will cling to the trees the winter long, but millions are scattered over the ground. Even on the river I find them floating, borne slowly by the tide or hurrying across the rippled surface, chased by the passing breeze.

The pleasure common to us all we take in crushing them beneath our feet savors of heartlessness. Why should we not recall their kindness when, as bright-green leaves, each cast its mite of grateful shade, so dear to the rambler, and now, when they have fallen, let them rest in peace? We should not be ugly and revengeful merely because it is winter. There is nothing to fret us in this change from shade to sunshine, from green leaves to brown. The world is not dead because of it. While the sun looks down upon the woods to-day there arises a sweet odor, pleasant as the breath of roses. The world dead, indeed! What more vigorous and full of life than the mosses covering the rich wood-mould? Before me, too, lies a long-fallen tree cloaked in moss greener than the summer pastures. Not the sea alone possesses transforming magic; there is also "a wood-change into something rich and strange." Never does the thought of death and decay centre about such a sight. The chickadee drops from the bushes above, looks the moss-clad log over carefully, and, when again poised on an overhanging branch, loudly lisps its praises. What if it is winter when you witness such things? One swallow may not make a summer, but a single chickadee will draw the sting from any winter morning.

I never sit by the clustered dead leaves and listen to their faint rustling as the wind moves among them but I fancy they are whispering of the days gone by. What of the vanished springtide, when they first timidly looked forth? They greeted the returning birds, the whole merry host of north-bound warblers, and what startling facts of the bird-world they might reveal! There is no eye-witness equal to the leaf, and with them lives and dies many a secret that even the most patient ornithologist can never gain. How much they overhear of what the birds are saying! to how much entrancing music they listen that falls not upon men's ears! What a view of the busy world above us has the fluttering leaf that crowns the tall tree's topmost twig! Whether in storm or sunshine, veiled in clouds or beneath a starlit sky, whatsoever happens, there is the on-looking leaf, a naturalist worth knowing could we but learn its language.

A word here as to the individuality of living leaves. Few persons are so blind as to have never noticed how leaves differ. Of every size and shape and density, they have varied experiences, if not different functions, and their effect upon the rambler in his wanderings is by no means always the same. At high noon, when the midsummer sun strives to parch the world, let the rambler stand first beneath an old oak and then pass to the quivering aspen, or pause in the shade of a way-side locust and then tarry beneath the cedar, at whose roots the sunshine never comes. It needs but to do this to realize that there are leaves and leaves: those that truly shelter and those that tease you by their fitfulness.

It is winter now and the leaves are dead; but, although blighted, they have not lost their beauty. Heaped in the by-paths of this ancient wood, they are closely associated with the pranks of many birds, and for this alone should be lovingly regarded. Even now I hear an overstaying chewink for this is a warm wood the winter long tossing them in little clouds about him as he searches for the abundant insects that vainly seek shelter where they have fallen. The birds seem to seek fun as well as food among the leaves. I have often watched them literally dive from the overhanging bushes into a heap of leaves, and then with a flirt of the wings send dozens flying into the air. It is hard to imagine any other purpose than pure sport. When, as often happens, two or three follow their leader, I always think of a string of boys diving or playing leap-frog. "Coincidence," cries old Prosy, with a wise shake of his head. Perhaps; but I think old Prosy is a fool.

The strange, retiring winter wren is equally a lover of dead leaves. He plays with them in a less boisterous manner, but none the less delights in tossing them to and fro. It is at such a time that a few notes of his marvellous summer song occasionally escape him. The white-throated sparrows fairly dance among or upon the heaped-up leaves, and play bo-peep with the clouds of them they send aloft; and in February the foxie sparrows play the same pranks. Squirrels and mice are equally at home, and abandon all prudence when they frolic among the windrows. The more clatter and cackle, the better they are pleased. When freed from the restraint of fear, wild life is fun-loving to the very brim.

Dead leaves are never deserted unless the weather is extremely cold or a storm has prevailed until they are a sodden mat. Even from such a wetting they soon recover and respond to the passing breeze's gentlest touch. Dead leaves are the matured fruit of summer, and what an important part they really play as the year closes! They are not now of the air, airy, but of the earth, earthy. Dead, it is true, yet living. Passive, yet how active! They are whispering good cheer now to the sleeping buds that await the coming of a new year, and faithfully guard them when the storm rages. For such deeds we owe them our kindliest thoughts.

In the golden sunshine of this dreamy day the leaves have yet another visitor that makes merry with them. The little whirlwind, without a herald, springs laughingly upon them, even when the profoundest quiet reigns throughout the wood. Touched by this fairy's wand, the leaves rise in a whirling pillar and dance down the narrow path into some even more secluded nook. Dead leaves, indeed! Never did the wildest madcap of a courting bird play livelier pranks.

Time was when I would have searched the woods for winter-green and worn it gayly. I am content to-day to carry a withered leaf.


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