All through the springtime the frozen earth was thawing; the living sap climbing in trees and plants; young birds growing in the eggs, and young animals being born into life with the new, sweet warmth and light. And all through the summer young birds were learning to fly; flowers blooming and ripening their seed; the Indian corn was swelling, and the wheat ears were growing fuller every day, till the whole wheat field bent heavily in waves like the sea. Tadpoles grew into young frogs and toads; insects found their wings, lilies their white blossoms; everything was awake and full of life.
But when autumn came, after the harvesting was over, everything became quieter. Summer birds flew away, taking their spring-born babies with them; flowers withered and died; trees scattered their leaves on the ground, and there was a hush over all. This was because the time had come for the earth lullaby to be sung; and all this quiet was to prepare for the winter's sleep.
In northern countries, where eider ducks build nests among the rocks, the Norwegians and Ice landers may sleep under quilts of eiderdown; but a kindly mother now spreads a quilt, even softer and whiter, over the bed where her children sleep.
The trees stand as nobly and gracefully against the sky as ever, but they are asleep, down to the very roots; the fine grasping roots that, in the spring, reached after food like open mouths, and sent up sap, streaming and coursing through all the trees. They are as quiet in their dark bed as if there was no further work to do in the world. The brown earth wraps them about; but they might, for all that, freeze were it not for the down quilt of the snow laid above them.
Now come with me and I will show you some of the bedrooms where little animals are taking their winter naps.
If we know where to dig, we may push away the snow from many a little hole, which you will hardly suspect is the doorway to an earthy house called a burrow. Long front entries, or halls, the burrows have; some of them winding, and so artfully made that we should scarcely find our way through them to the room beyond. And in such earthy houses the newts and tritons lie, twisted and twined together by head and tail, nestling closely for warmth; for they are lizard-like little creatures, loving the sunshine, and must consequently sleep warmly through the winter, which is their night.
The black-eyed dormouse, too, is curled up to sleep in his burrow, with a little store of food by his side, that he may wake and nibble when he chooses—though he does n't often choose.
And not far away the frogs, cousins to the newts, have gone to bed in the same manner; only they have chosen the mud at the bottom of a marsh or pond, instead of a dry earthy chamber.
And now if you will come with me to explore the rocky cave with a hundred dark holes and crevices that furnish winter lodgings to an odd family of lodgers, we can inspect them all at our leisure, for they will not be wakened by our visit. Far in the remotest and warmest apartments hang the bats, head downward, so dead with sleep that they appear to be hung up by their clothes to dry, and we wonder if they will ever wake again. They are cuddled close together for warmth, and for months they neither stir nor eat. No wonder that they are awake and active when the summer nights return.
But now come up from below, and if we could creep among the crevices that you see in piles of rocks and stones, here and there all over the hill, we should find the coiled snakes also asleep in little corners and nooks where the snow can never penetrate; though it will cover over the door of entrance and keep out the piercing wind. Here they sleep, the little green grass snake, the striped adder, and the great black snake, through a long night, without a morsel of food; and when they wake in the spring their first work will be to throw off their skins, like so many nightgowns, and adorn themselves in bright new day dresses. You may find the old skins left lying among the rocks, if you look when you go out for hepaticas and houstonias.
Nor must we forget the crabs, who once a year get a new dress and go into the deepest retirement while making it. At Christmas time perhaps the festive season suggests to them the propriety of new apparel, for then it is that their old shells are cast off and they creep away among the rocks and hide themselves for a month or two and let their new garments grow. These are finished at Easter, and the crab is in the height of fashion.
In the thick woods the bear has dug a sort of nest in the shelter of a fallen tree and, creeping in at the beginning of some great snowstorm, has been covered deep and warm for the winter. Poor fellow! he went to sleep as round and fat as he could wish to be, but a three months' nap, with nothing to eat, brings him out in the spring so lean and hungry that you would hardly know him for the same bear. Under the logs and the snow he lay dreaming of the hum of wild bees and the hives of honey in hollow trees; for bears are good climbers, and, where honey may be had, are willing to climb high for it. The mother bear, however, dreams, I guess, of something besides honey; for it is during this sleepy nighttime that her cubs are born, and she has to wake by and by to get food for them.
Then we must not forget her cousin, the white bear, who made his winter bed of ice and snow and may wake to find himself drifting away on an iceberg from Labrador to Iceland.
In the hollow trees that grow round the borders of swamps we may find, if we look, an old raccoon, rolled up with his head between his legs, fast asleep. Only once in a great while he rouses himself to creep sleepily out for a meal of what food he can find; but food is scarce, for the oysters are under the ice, corn is in the granaries, and summer birds have flown.
And where are the flies, the grasshoppers, and the butterflies and all the gay creatures that made summer bright and noisy? Many of them were made only to live a summer life, and died when the autumn days came. But they left behind them in some safe little nest the eggs that should hatch in the coming spring and people the world with their race. Those who live through the winter, as some of the burrowing beetles do, have halls and palaces underground, or snug, sheltered holes and corners, where they await the return of summer in a drowsy kind of sleep.
These are some of the winter sleepers. But I have wondered to find how, in all this stillness that rests upon the earth, there are also many wakers as well: field mice and moles; muskrats down by the brooks; cedar birds and robins even, who dared to stay when their brothers went, driven before the cold winds; flocks of snowbirds; plenty of crows and quails, safe among thickets where the snow cannot bury them.
Yet, after all, winter is the time for the earth's sleep. We could not expect her to keep awake and at work always. Sleep brings strength. The trees must rest in order to grow; the little meadow plants and grasses must have a quiet time wherein to prepare for spring, and then, when March winds begin to wake them, all will be fresh and ready as a child awaking from its sleep.