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THE MINK'S HUNTING
I WISH I could have seen the country about the great spring which goes by the name, locally, of "Fountain Head" the year that the clock stopped for the glaciers hereabout. That year when the last bit of the ice cap, that for ages had slid down across southeastern Massachusetts and built up its inextricable confusion of sand and gravel moraines, melted away, would have shown a thousand great springs like it, bubbling up all through the region, almost invariably from the northerly base of gravelly cliffs over which the sun can hardly peep at noonday, so steep they are. Here they flow to-day in the same mystery. Why should these unfailing springs rush forth so steadily, be the weather hot or cold, or the drought never so long or so severe? Why should their temperature like their flow be changeless, summer or winter?
I sometimes believe that their waters filter through deep caverns from far Arctic glaciers continually renewed. Perhaps to have looked at them before the changing seasons of more thousands of years had clothed the gravel and sand with humus, grown the forests all about and choked the fountains themselves with acres of the muck of decayed vegetation no one knows how deep, would have been to see them with clearer eyes and have been led to an answer to the questions. Now I know them only as bits of the land where time seems to have stood still, fastnesses where dwell the lotus eaters of our New England woods, where winter's cold howls over their heads, but does not descend, and where summer's heat rims them round, but hardly dares dabble its toes in their cool retreat.
Progress has built its houses on the hills about them, freight trains two miles away roar so mightily that the quaggy depths tremble with the vibrations, and you may sit with the arethusas in mossy muck and hear the honk of the automobile mingling with that of the wild geese as they both go by in spring. Yet the one makes as much impression on the land and its inhabitants as the other. The lotus eaters know not Ulysses; if he wants them for his ships of progress he must capture them by force and tie them beneath the rowers' benches, else they return. Even the temperature of those last days of the ice cap seems to have got tangled in the spell and to dwell with the mild-eyed melancholy of the place the year round. In midsummer the thermometer may stand at 120 in the quivering nooks where the sun heats down upon the sandy plains above; the waters of the fountain head are ice cold still, and give their temperature to the brook and its borders. In midwinter the mercury may register twenty below, and the gales from the very boreal pole freeze the pines on those same sandy plains till their deep hearts burst; the waters that flow from those mysterious fountains will have no skim of ice on their surface.
From what unfathomed depths the waters draw their constancy we may never know, nor on what day may well forth with them some new form of life bred on the potency of their elixir. Today is freezing cold and now and then snow-squalls whirl in among the swamp maples, eddying in flocks as the goldfinches do, yet the surface of the biggest pool where the waters well up is covered with the vivid green of new plant life. Millions of tiny boreal creatures swim free on the cool surface, plants reduced to their simplest terms, born for aught I know in depths below like those
whence they ooze in the seeping of the upward current to our shores. No one has here found the seeds of these stemless pinheads of green that lie flat on the surface and send down for a wee fraction of an inch their two or three tiny root hairs into the water.
No one can say they are apetalous or monosepalous or sporangiferous or call them other hard names in Latin having reference to their flowering or fruiting for we may not say that they flower or fruit at all. These minutest Lemnas give us no sign of stamin or spore, of carpel or indusium, yet they multiply by millions and cover the surface of the spring pools whence they depart constantly with the outflowing current, voyaging gayly down Brobdingnagian rapids to the sea. The time of year when it is winter in the sky above and on the bank a few feet up the hillside, when all green life except that which grows with its roots in this magic water from the deep caves of earth is either killed or suspended, seems to be their time for growth.
They grow a little, to a certain stage when perhaps a plant covers surface to the size of a pinhead and a half, then split and become independent plants with a tiny root hair apiece. Brave equipment this for facing the January gales and frost of a northern winter. Yet they sail forth from the home pool as confidently as liners from the home port and rollick all along down the stream, making harbor in every tiny bay and collecting a fleet in each eddy. What potency of perpetual spring they sow as they traverse all the ways that wind in and about the levels below the fountain head we do not know, any more than we know what elixir vitŠ dwells in the waters on which they are borne, yet something makes the region the lotus land of creatures of the wild where they linger on unmindful of their vanished kindred.
Out of the rich vegetable mould of ages, in the cool, moist shadows grow the rarer New England orchids in the summer, and the rarer migrant birds of our summer woods find asylum here for their nests and young. In the winter the ruffed grouse comes here to drink, finds gravel for his crop always bare and unfrozen on the hillside where the first seepings of water come forth, and no doubt gets an agreeable change of food in the succulent green things of the shallows. Several of these birds cling to the place, nor can I drive them away by simply flushing them. They circle and come back to the brook margin or its immediate neighborhood every time.
You may get a glimpse of the weasel-like head of one lifted above the bank as he sniffs the breeze for game and enemies
Where the swamp maples have grown large on the bank and lifted the soil with their roots high enough to form miniature dry islands the mink have built their burrows and thence they go forth to hunt the region all about, but especially the brook and its tributaries, most ravenously. If you are patient, fortunate, and the wind is right you may at dusk get a glimpse of the weasel-like head of one lifted above the bank as he sniffs the breeze for game and enemies. In that light his fur will look black though it is really a pretty shade of brown, but you will not fail to see the white streak which runs from his chin downward. But, though you may not see the animal himself you cannot, if there is snow on the ground, fail to see his slender, aristocratic track with its clutching claws, for the mink is a desperate hunter and always hungry. All is fish that comes to his net, trout, turtles, toads, snails, bugs, or anything he can find in the brook that seems in the least edible.
The semi-aquatic life of the enchanted region is sadly destructive of other life, and I feel little pity for the mink or the weasel, sleek and beautiful wild creatures though they are, if they in turn fall into the steel jaws which the trapper sets for them in the narrow passes all up and down the stream. It is the common lot of the woods and only the swiftest and most crafty can hope to escape it. The mink devour the trout, and they, seemingly innocent and beautiful enough to have come up, water sprites, from that unknown underground world whence well the crystal waters in which they live, are as greedy and irresponsible in their diet as the mink themselves. Like them, when hungry they will devour the young of their own species and smack their lips over the feast.
The trout will eat anything that looks to be alive either in the water or on the surface. I often amuse myself in summer by biting small chunks out of an apple and dropping them in, to see the trout swallow them as ravenously as if they had suddenly become vegetarians and had all the zeal of new converts. What the Jamaica ginger preparation of the brook world is I don't know, unless it is watercress. That grows, green and peppery, all up and down the brook the year through. Perhaps the trout go from my green apple luncheon over to that and thus join the remedy to the disease.
One of the trout titbits is the gentle little caddice worm, grub of the little miller-like caddice fly that flits in at the open window of a May night and lights on the table under the glare of your lamp. He dwells on the bottom in these same pure waters and he has much to do to defend himself against the jaws of his nimble hunter. He is but a worm that crawls, so speed may not save him. His skin is tender and he has no weapon of defense save his brain which one would hardly think adequate in so humble a creature. Yet if you will sit on the brink and watch what goes on in the cool depths you will see how cleverly and in what a variety of ways he and his kindred, for there are several varieties, have become skilled in self-defense. The little fellow has, like most grubs, the power to spin fine silk. This would count for little though he spun a whole cocoon, for the trout would swallow him, silken overcoat and all. But he does better than that. He collects bits of log from the bottom and winds these in his silken warp till he has knotted himself firmly within a log house. There is no incentive to a trout to eat twigs from the bottom, so the defenseless caddice worm is passed unnoticed. He is snugly rolled in silk within his rough house and moves about by cautiously putting out a leg or two and crawling with the logs on his back. Another variety uses small pebbles instead of logs. Taking a stone from bottom in the swift running water of a tiny rapid to-day I found it covered with little gravel barnacles that clung like limpets to the proverbial rock.
I could pry them off only by the use of considerable force and even when I did this the wee bits of gravel, carefully fitted together in a hemisphere, still remained, bound in strong bands. Within the hollow was the little creature that had built the structure, his silken netting still holding him snug within his rock castle, so much brain has this seemingly blind and helpless worm for the preservation of himself. But more than this, the builder and riveter of this adamantine castle has other use for his silken bands than to bind stone or to weave himself a silken garment against the damp weather at the brook bottom. He is a fisherman as well, and stretched between two stones near by or perhaps hanging over the edge of the larger stone on which he dwells is his net, built funnel-form with the larger end toward the oncoming current, the smaller closed with silken netting, all carefully spread to catch tiny creatures slipping down stream with the current, on which the net-builder, castle-dweller, may feed. These homely, home-building, home-keeping fishermen lead an humble and pious life compared with that of the rakish, cannibalistic trout, and they have their reward. Some day, before the spring is very old, they will give up casting their nets, build their house firmer, though still leaving a chance for a circulation of water, and fall asleep. They will awaken to glide heavenward out of the swirl of the current, veritable white angels with downy wings which they will spread and on which they will soar away to a new world which is as different from that in which they bound themselves in logs or granite to escape their enemies as is the old-time orthodox heaven from the world in which the preachers of it lived.