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A SPIRIT of mystery always broods over the great bog of Ponkapog Pond. Only occasionally does man disturb its quaking, sinking surface with his foot. You may wade all about on it, even to the edge where the billowing moss yields to the scarcely less stable pond surface; but to do so in safety you must know it intimately, else you will go down below, suddenly, to become a nodule in the peat, and perhaps be dug up intact a thousand years from now and put in a museum.
Hence man rather shuns the bog, and it has become, or perhaps I might better say it has remained, the home of all sorts of shy creatures that shun man. It would not be surprising if the little people that the Ponkapog Indians knew so well, the pukwudgies which were their fairies, the little manitous which were guardian spirits, and the fearsome folk, the Indian bogies, still linger here, though the Indians are long gone.
This morning in the lonesomest spot I thought I heard speech of them all, and though various creatures appeared later and claimed the voices, it is to be believed that these merely came out of the tall grass to go straw bail for them. At this time of year you may reach this lonesomest spot by boat, if you will take a light one with smooth flat bottom and push valiantly through winding passages where you may not row and boldly ride over grassy surfaces that yield beneath you.
It is a different bog edge from that of which made wickets of bog-hopple all about, is hardly to be seen, and you will wonder at the absence of the millions of serried stems of pickerel weed that held the outer defences with halberds and made them blue with flaunting banners of the bog's advance guard.
If you will look over the boat's side as you glide through open water near the edge you will see these, lying in heaps, blades pointing bravely to seaward almost a half-fathom deep, slain by the winter's cold, indeed, but their bodies a bulwark on which younger warriors will stand firmly in the skirmish line this year. Already the slender spears of these prick upward out of the gray tangle at bottom, and it will not be long before they stab the surface, eager for the accolade of the field marshal sun.
In the little channels up which you glide tiny tides flow back and forth, driven, no doubt, by the undulations of the waves in the open pond, and here through the dark depths the brownish green clusters of pointed peat-moss roll along like Russian tumble-weeds driven across the Dakotas by prairie winds, to grow again in new soil. On either side are island clumps of meadow grass, and in the shallows you may see, as carefully planted as if by some landscape gardener of the pond bottom, most wonderfully beautiful fairy gardens of young water-lily leaves.
Out of the brown ooze at varied dignified distances apart spring the slender, erect stems, some only a few inches long, others longer, till a precocious few tickle the surface with the upper rim of the rounded leaf. These leaves are set at quaint angles that give the garden a perky, Alice-in-Wonderland effect. The Welsh rabbit and the mock turtle might well come down these garden paths hand in hand, or the walrus and the carpenter sit beneath the flat shade of these dado-decoration leaves and swap poems.
But, after all, the wonder of it is not the quaint beauty of the arrangement but the bewildering richness of the coloring of these leaves. Only the faintest suggestion of green is in them. Instead, they glow with a velvety crimson maroon in varying shades, a color inexpressibly soft and rich. The blood-red of last year's cranberries that form a floating bead edge to the bog in many places is more vivid, but not so rich. The lilies of next July will be lovely, indeed, but never so sumptuously beautiful or so full of quaint delight.
At the end of the waterway you come to a barrier of cassandra, which blocks your further passage and half surrounds you with a low, irregular hedge. I fear I have misnamed the cassandra. I thought it dour and morose; but that was in late April. Now it is early May, and by some trick of the bog pukwudgies the gloom of its still clinging last year's leaves is lightened into a soft sage green that is prim indeed, but lovely in its primness, while all underneath these leaves, in festoons along the arching stems, are tiny white blossoms that are like ropes of dripping pearls.
Grim and morose, indeed! The cassandra is like a gentle, pure-souled girl of the elder Puritans, arrayed for her coming-out party, her primness of garb only enhancing the beauty of soul that shines through it and finds visible expression in the pearls. And already lovers buzz about her. Their cheerful hum is like the sound of soft stringed instruments fanned by the warm breeze in this fairy-peopled land of loneliness. Here I see my first bumblebee of the season, seemingly less dunderheaded out here among the wild blooms than he will be later in the white clover of the lawn.
Perhaps the prim and definite arrangement of the cassandra blossoms, hung so close in long strings that he has a straight road to follow, helps keep his wits about him. Here are honeybees a-plenty, adding the clarinet to his bassoon, and many a wild bee, too, bringing the scintillation of iridescent thorax or wing, and his own peculiar pitch to the symphony. I dare say the hymenopterists know each bee by ear as well as by sight.
In this fairy land of bog tangle the hylas, that I had thought all through with their songs for the year, piped in chorus as each cloud slipped over the sun, and the leopard frogs yawned throatily, dreamily, all about in the full sunshine. The hotter it was the more they liked it, and in the brightest part of the day they cut up the yawns into brief words and phrases which made a most language-like gabble.
Of course I could not see this peace congress of leopard frogs and can prove only that it sounded like them. It may very well have been the pukwudgies talking over my presence and wondering if white men were now coming to oust them from their last stronghold in the bog, as they have driven them and the once more visible Indians from the rough hills and sandy plains about the pond. Indeed, as I sat quiet, hour after hour, in this miniature wilderness, I came to hear many a strange and unclassified sound that, for all I know, may have been fay or frog, banshee or bird.
I began to get glints of sunlight reflecting from grassy islands all about. It was as if some very human folk had held high carnival here the night before and sown the dry spots with empty black bottles. But a second look showed these to be spotted turtles, sitting up above the water level, each with his head held up as if he wished especially to get the warmth of the sun on his throat. On such a day one might well envy the turtle for having his bones all on the outside. It is easy for him to let the spring sunshine into his very marrow.
The turtle, in spite of the canticle which, bubbling over with the enthusiastic poetry of spring, declares that "the voice of the turtle is heard in our land," is usually reckoned dumb. The commentators have carefully announced that the turtle mentioned is the turtle-dove cooing in the joy of springtime. That may be, but I do not see how they know, for the turtle, denied a voice by naturalists and scriptural commentators alike, nevertheless has one, and a song of its own.
A turtle, suddenly jolted, will give a quaint little squeak as he yanks himself back into his shell. That is common enough, but this day there were two, sitting up on nearby tussocks, that piped a musical little song of spring, just a soft trill that was eminently frog-like but distinct. I heard it and tried at first to make it the trill of hylas, but it was more of a trill and different in quality. Try as I would I could but locate this quaint little song in the throats of the two turtles. I carefully scared one off his perch and one trill ceased. I scared the other, and both voices were silent, though here and there in the marsh I could hear others. It may have been the pukwudgies playing ventriloquial tricks on me from the shade of the swamp cedars just beyond, and laughing in their beaded sleeves at the joke; but if it was not they, I am convinced that my turtles sang, and that Solomon not only knew what he was talking about but meant exactly what he said.
While I was listening to the two turtles and wondering about them, I kept hearing over among the white cedars raucous profanity of the most outrageous sort. Bad words snarled in throaty squawks came oftener and oftener, till by the time the turtles had gone down into oblivion beneath the bog roots the most villainous language from at least two squawkers gave evidence that a low-bred row was going on. I could distinguish accusation and recrimination till it sounded like a family quarrel between drunken bog bogles.
Then there was the sound of blows, and with a wild shriek of a most reckless word a bittern flapped out, whirled round once or twice as if undecided where he would go, then dropped in the grass down the bog a way. Here he turned his black, stake-like head this way and that for a moment, then pulled it down out of sight. I had known the bittern was misanthropic, but I had never before realized that he was so ill-tempered and profane. I am positive he was beating his wife, and the whole affair sounded like a case of too much bog whiskey.
For an hour there was no sight or sound of this bittern, though uncouth conversation seemed to be going on still in the tangle whence he flew, but I heard no more profanity. Yet out of the heart of the bog curious sounds came floating at intervals, -- sounds which often I had difficulty in getting any known creature to go bail for. I do not mean the ordinary bird voices, though the air was full of these. It seems as if all the small migrants made this a port of call or a refuge, and paid for their safety with music. Warblers trilled their varied notes from the cedars or the thicket of cassandra shrubs, some coming boldly near, others giving sign of their presence only by the glint of a wing or the shaking of a twig, others still invisible but vocal.
Thrush and catbird, song sparrow and chipping sparrow, chickadee and creeper, all helped to fill the air with sound, but it was not to these I listened. It was rather to obscure whinings and grumblings out of the deep heart of the bog, goblin. talk very likely that seemed to grow louder and come nearer. Then after a little I heard splashing, and out into a clear space of grassy shallows came a splendid great muskrat followed by another just as large. In the middle of this tourney ground the two faced each other, and after a second of sparring closed.
It was hardly a scientific fight. They batted and clawed, butted and scratched and bit, whining like eager dogs, and now and then yelping with pain. But it was effective; in a very few minutes one had enough and turned and fled, ploughing a straight furrow through the shallows, to a plunge in a deep hole. The victor followed a few yards, then as if convinced that the retreat was a real one, turned and went proudly back, probably to the lady who was the cause of all this trouble. Muskrats are such gentle creatures that I was amazed to see this happen, but affairs of the heart are serious even in the depths of the bog. I lay a part of the bog bogle talk which still went on in the eerie depths behind the green of the cedars to the other muskrats. It does not seem as if they could have been to blame for it all. Then I remembered the vanished bittern and began to work my boat toward the part of the bog where he disappeared. Very likely he had committed suicide in repentance for his bad behavior and his profanity. He ought to have, but he was simply sulking, after all. I think he felt so bad about it that his usual wariness was at fault, for I was almost upon him before he saw me: It may have been drunken stupor, but I like to believe it was remorse.
When he did see me his dismay was ludicrous. He almost fell over himself in getting into the air, and he flapped back toward the spot where the quarrel had gone on with wild squawks that said "Help, help!" as plainly as any language could. Out from among the cedars, in answer to this frenzied appeal, came the other bittern, and then another. I watched the three flapping down the bog and saw them light together at a safe distance. Then I knew the cause of all the trouble in the bittern family. The bog world, like the pasture world and the deep wood, at this time of year is full of blissful love making, but it is also full of heartrending jealousies and fights to a finish. No wonder the pukwudgies and bog bogles are full of talk and excitement back there; there is enough food for gossip.
Sitting quietly in the boat in this new part of the bog I had a queer feeling of being grimly watched by, I could not tell what. I have read tales of travelers in African jungles who felt the eyes of a lurking boa constrictor resting balefully on them when the creature itself was concealed. It was something like that, and I looked about rather uneasily. Probably the bog voices were getting on my nerves and it was time to go home. Then I glanced over one side of the boat and very nearly jumped over the other, for there were the two grim eyes, in a great horny head as big as my two fists, looking up at me.
I had been amusing myself with imagining that I heard the little people of the bog, but here was the great dragon, the very devil himself, sunning his black hulk on a fairy acre of bog grass. At its further end I saw his tail, as large as my forearm at the base, tapering with alligator-like corrugations to its tip. I saw his great webbed feet as large as my hand and furnished with claws. I saw his thick neck, and that was all of him in sight. The rest was concealed within a huge mound of black, plated, horny shell that was fourteen inches from side to side and sixteen inches from front to back. These were measurements which I took after I had decided that he did not intend to eat me right away, perhaps not at all.
Chelydra serpentina, the snapping turtle, or the alligator snapper, as he is sometimes called, and with reason, for, except for his casing of shell, he is very like an alligator, is not uncommon in the bog; but I had never before seen so huge or so ancient appearing a specimen. His black shell was worn gray with age and bore two deep scars where some sharp instrument very like a spear had been jabbed into his back. I suspect this to have been an Indian spear, and I fully believe that my black dragon of the bog was a well-grown turtle before the white man ever saw Ponkapog Pond.
There were parallel ridges in the structure of his shell that seemed to show much wear as if this turtle had carried weight on his back. The Indians have a legend that the world itself is held up on the back of a great turtle. Very well; this is the one. I saw the marks of its friction on his great muddy black structure as I looked him over, there in the middle of the loneliest place in the bog.
I might have taken him by that alligator tail and swung his seventy or eighty pounds into the boat, I suppose. Terrapin is valuable, and the snapping turtle is own cousin to the terrapin. I have a fancy, though, that if he had got into the boat I should have got out. No ordinary Ponkapog boat was likely to hold us both, and I wisely refrained. Nor did he molest me, but stood his ground, still gazing at me with that cold, critical eye. After a time he moved on, pushing his great weight with ease over the crushed bog growth and sliding with dignity down into the muddy depths of an open channel.
For myself, I turned the boat's prow toward the distant landing and pushed, as he had, over the yielding shallows to the open pond. I had seen a hundred beauties in the lonely bog and been well initiated into its mysteries. For me the spotted turtles had sung, the muskrats had fought a tourney, the bitterns had voiced a family quarrel. And now it was nightfall, and the big old dragon of the bog had looked me over with measuring eye. It was high time that I headed for home if I expected to get there.
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