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NOVEMBER is Nature's stock-taking month, when she suspends her labors, stands aloof from her work, and counts up the dozens, noting them all on her list before she carefully puts them into the winter storehouse. To the very last of October her factory is still running, though on part time. By the first of December she has put things away.
November is the month in which she counts up the gain or loss and is happy or disconsolate, according to the tally. Why else these wonderful clear days on which you may see without a spyglass clear to the other end of your universe? On some of these days Nature smiles in delight over her success, and we say, this is the real Indian summer. She is pleased with the perfection and profuseness of the product. On others you will see her eyes cloud with tears, and sometimes a perfect passion of northeast tempest blots the landscape and drowns the world in a flood of rain, In this case she has discovered that the workers in some special department have been lazy or hampered by some unfortunate condition and their output is a failure.
There are years when the nuts do not mature and the squirrels must migrate or starve. On others the drought so dries the upland grasses that those of next year may not sprout as usual from the roots but must be propagated by seed, which of itself is scarce also because of the dryness. Or excessive rains so flood the lowlands that a thousand swamp and meadow products rot and write the word failure large over a whole department.
For Nature's successes are by no means easily won. She lays such plans for a hickory tree that if all the blossoms which open in May were to produce fruit the trees' tough limbs would be torn from their sockets with the weight of it long before maturity. Some years, because of storm or frost, the tree's crop is a total failure, but the resourceful mother, the moment she notes the death of the embryos, sets the wood to making a more vigorous growth than would have been possible in a fruiting season. Then, though she may weep in November over the loss of nuts, she will be able to smile through her tears at the thought that next year the tree will have far more ripe twigs for the bearing of nuts. Or the tree may produce a thousand nuts and the squirrels be too busy to plant more than a dozen of them. What is true of the hickory tree is true of all other creatures of the vegetable and animal world. Death stalks close upon the heels of birth, and a million fragile lives pass out unnoticed to one that greets our eyes in maturity. No wonder some years November is a month of wailing and Nature lets the storms of December blot the tally sheet with the white forgiveness of the snow before the almanac will agree that the month is half over.
The boundaries of the real month are thus not half so firmly set as that which the calendar proclaims. October may on the one end and December on the other so overlap it, some years, that Nature has hardly time for her bookkeeping. This year I think November came a day or two earlier than the calendar figures it, for the last days of the calendar month of October went out with a perfect paroxysm of weeping.
Nature, even before she fairly got her tablets out for the tally, had a terrible pet about something. I think her grief must be because of the carelessness of man during the summer's and autumn's unprecedented drought whereby he has killed with his fires so much of the woodland growth. For other than this it seems to me that the year's work has been very successful. Never were wild fruits more plentiful. Only on the driest of the upland pastures was there failure. There the fruit set in more than the usual quantity, but in some cases shrivelled before coming to maturity.
There was a tremendous crop of chestnuts this year, with enough hickory and hazel nuts to make the squirrels smile and work overtime in laying them up for the winter. From the June berries which purpled the shad bush to the wild apples that still hang on the woodland trees, gleaming pale-yellow among the rugged tracery of bare branches, production has been plentiful and picking peaceful. Hardly a rainy night, never a rough storm, did we have from the first of May until the end of September. All those trees whose fruiting depends upon wind-borne pollen which can only float in dry weather had perfect conditions for fertilization. So with those plants, whether shrub or tree or annual or perennial herbs, that depend on insects for the same service. There was no time lost on account of rain.
As it was in the vegetable world, so it has been with animal life, and particularly with those birds which nest on the ground. The mother bird may conceal her nest so carefully that neither skunk nor fox nor predatory boys can find it. She cannot conceal it from the rapidly-rising water of a June flood which will drown her nestlings or so chill her eggs that they will fail to hatch. A long heavy rain at just about hatching time may almost wipe out the young birds of a season among certain varieties, I read recently a report from Maine stating that the partridges are particularly plentiful in that State this year. This, the report went on to say, was because the hedgehog bounty of some years ago had made a scarcity of hedgehogs. Therefore, as the hedgehogs no longer ate the partridge eggs, partridges were increasing in number.
The State of Maine porcupine, commonly called hedgehog, though purists decry the custom, will eat the handle off your canoe paddle, the floor off your camp, or the boots off your feet. I dare say he eats partridge eggs when in his short-sighted, clumsy wanderings he happens to find them, but I doubt if he does enough of this to make him responsible for a shortage in the partridge crop. I believe the partridges are particularly plentiful Down East this year because there was never a cloud in the sky nor a drenching rain from the time the eggs were laid until the young birds were fully fledged. I know that is what happened here in Massachusetts and, as a consequence, the young of ground-nesting birds have had more than their usual opportunity to grow up.
This is true of partridges, and the application is apt, for the partridge is not a migrating bird, nor even a wanderer. He clings to the particular section of woodland where he was brought up with a faithfulness which is apt to prevent his reaching a green old age. You may drive him from his covert with all the racket you are able to make. He may leave with vigor and directness that would seem to prove that he has through tickets for Seattle. Yet, if you sit quietly by in a position which commands a good view of the approaches, you will before long see the flip of a brown wing that is bearing him back again. He has gone no farther than the dense shelter of a neighboring pine grove, whence he watches out until he thinks it safe to come home.
I take it that the same reason holds good for the plentifulness of woodcock this fall in certain swamps which I frequent. You may know that woodcock are plentiful in a place, even if you do not see them, by the numbers of little round holes in moist, soft ground, usually where the swamp begins to give way to sandy upland. Here the bird goes jabbing for angleworms, which are his chief diet. I have never been able to catch them at it, though I have often noticed the borings in the spot whence I have just flushed the bird, In fact, I have never seen a live woodcock on the ground anyway.
The bird is so built that I and other predatory creatures will not be able to do it. His coloring is well adapted to blend with the dusky-browns and black of the low ground which he frequents. He does not have to look for his food. He feels for it. Given the proper piece of ground to contain angleworms, he has but to probe with that long, sensitive bill and haul them out when the sense of touch tells him that one is there. For this purpose the end of the upper mandible is somewhat flexible and moves so as to nip the worm when he feels it.
He does not have to look for his food
If we could see him thus engaged I think we would understand clearly why a woodcock is so peculiarly built. His eyes are set so far back in his head that the bird has a grotesque appearance. But in this very fact lies a large factor of his safety. Wild animals that hunt woodcock may not slip up on them unseen while they are feeding. The woodcock's nose may be in the mud, but his eyes, set absurdly far back on his head, are then just right for seeing all that is going on. Let there be but the slightest hint of danger near by and the bird goes straight up in the air in a tremendous burst of speed.
Woodcock hunters claim that this speed is so great that the bird is invisible till he reaches a height of four or five feet. I am inclined to believe them for I have never yet seen a flushed bird till he got shoulder high, though he may have come up right in front of my nose. So vigorous are the strokes of his wings during this flight that the stiff wing feathers make a shrill whistling which is peculiar to the bird. Rapidity of flight seems to be in the main exhausted by this effort, however, for after they get fairly launched they seem to go rather slowly and clumsily. In the case of the woodcock, as in that of the partridge, the rainless spring and early summer seem to have given the birds a chance to bring their full complement of young through to maturity.
So, looking over the result of harvest and round-up in pasture and woodland, I can see no reason why Nature should shed many tears or go into any tantrums over the results of her busy season. These seem to me to be above the average, and I look forward to a bright and sunny November, during which she will count up the finished product with all good cheer.
The tally of young brought to successful maturity is all that the animal world has to show for the success of its department during the season of growth. But nuts and fruit and ripe seeds are only part of the work of the trees and shrubs. All the time that they are busy producing that two feet or less of woody growth, all the time the growing and ripening of seeds is going on, there is a further and very important labor to be attended to. That is the production of next year's buds. This is no haphazard matter, nor is it left until the other things are out of the way, but is carefully begun and patiently carried on through the summer, early autumn seeing everything complete.
The falling of leaves and ripe fruit shows these hopes for future foliage and flower revealed for the first time. Stand on a knoll in the pasture and look over the tops of shrubs and trees on these keen and clear November days and you will see that the most beautiful colors of the year are there waiting your eye after you thought that all color had flamed to its climax and died in the dead ashes of autumn memories. Grays that are incredibly soft and cool in the vigorous young limbs of the maples warm into tender reds on the twig tips where the next year's buds sit snug.
All this year's shoots of the swamp blueberry bushes are a restful green, but at the tips these, too, ripen into red, while on the higher ground the black huckleberries and the birches show the same color till the landscape rolls away from you in a warm and cuddley glow that takes the nip out of the wind. Looking on these you know that the pasture cannot be cold, however deep the snows to come or however low the mercury in the thermometer may fall. As the winter comes on this blanket of warm red, spread all over the bare trees and shrubs, will deepen in hue and with the first promise of spring flush into a lively pink that melts again into slender green with the passing of frost from the roots and the first soft rains of April. Herein is the better half of the harvest of the year, — a harvest not of fruition but of promise. The out-door world ripens hope in the same crop that has given us fulfilment.
How full of hope, of promises, of matured plans and energy these rosy buds are you may not know till you step down among them and test their virility and perfection. Here is the azalia, its pinky twigs tipped with swollen, soft green buds as big as your little finger tip. Till the leaves fell nobody thought the azalia had been doing anything since its rich-scented white flowers fell last July. Here is the proof of its labors and foresight, In the hearts of these buds are next July's blossoms, in miniature it is true, but perfect in every appointment.
About them are the green young leaves, vividly colored already, both only waiting for the mysterious thrill of spring sap to push forward to maturity, promising the leaves softly green, the blossoms vividly white, sticky with sweetness, and adorably fragrant. If you will pull one of the larger of the azalia buds apart you may easily see all this, and as you do it, he haunted by the ghost of a perfume, an infinitesimally faint promise of the rich odor yet to be.
So, in large or small, it is with all the shrubs and trees. Each is loaded and primed and waits but the touch of the match in the crescent warmth of the spring sun. Then will come the yearly explosion. It is hard to say which of these next-year promises shows most vigor, yet I think on the whole I would give the prize to the sapling pines. Each central shoot of these will go up in the season from fifteen to thirty inches, and send out four or five laterals. Yet each young tree has from eight to a dozen brown buds prepared for this, at least two centrals which you will recognize as being larger and standing more erect. One of these will get the start and continue the main trunk of the tree. The other will fall back and be a lateral branch. Yet if, as often happens, the central shoot is disabled the next strongest will take its place and so on, if need be, till the last of the dozen buds has stepped into the place of the lost leader.
Sometimes, though rarely with the white pine, more often with the fir and spruce, two will compete with equal success for this lost leadership and you have a tree with twin tops. Usually, however, one fails in the race and the stronger goes ahead alone.
So, going abroad these keen November days, looking upon the world stripped of the glamour of summer and the glory of autumn fruitage, we see it by no means a dead and pulseless thing to be wept over and buried, Instead, we wonder at and delight in the riot of life laid bare by the passing of leaf and fruit. The woodland is more beautiful, the pasture more enticing than ever. Beauty thus unadorned is adorned the most, and we forget to sorrow over the ceasing of this year's growth in our joy in the promise of that for the year to be.