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Dallas Lore Sharp

An Account with Nature

T HERE were chipmunks everywhere. The stone walls squeaked with them. At every turn, from early spring to early autumn, a chipmunk was scurrying away from me. Chipmunks were common. They did no particular harm, no particular good; they did nothing in particular, being only chipmunks and common, or so I thought, until one morning (it was June-bug time) when I stopped and watched a chipmunk that sat atop the stone wall down in the orchard. He was eating, and the shells of his meal lay in a little pile upon the big flat stone which served as his table.

They were acorn-shells, I thought; yet June seemed rather late in the season for acorns, and, looking closer, I discovered that the pile was entirely composed of June-bug shells—wings and hollow bodies of the pestiferous beetles!


[Illustration]

Chipmunk Eating June-bugs

Well, well! I had never seen this before, never even heard of it. Chipmunk, a useful  member of society! actually eating bugs in this bug-ridden world of mine! This was interesting and important. Why, I had really never known Chipmunk, after all!

So I hadn't. He had always been too common. Flying squirrels were more worth while, because there were none on the farm. Now, however, I determined to cultivate the acquaintance of Chipmunk, for there might be other discoveries awaiting me. And there were.

A narrow strip of grass separated the orchard and my garden-patch. It was on my way to the garden that I most often stopped to watch this chipmunk, or rather the pair of them, in the orchard wall. June advanced, the beetles disappeared, and the two chipmunks in the wall were now seven, the young ones almost as large as their parents, and both young and old on the best of terms with me.

For the first time in four years there were prospects of good strawberries. Most of my small patch was given over to a new variety, one that I had originated; and I was waiting with an eagerness which was almost anxiety for the earliest berries.

I had put a little stick beside each of the three big berries that were reddening first (though I could have walked from the house blindfolded and picked them). I might have had the biggest of the three on June 7th, but for the sake of the flavor I thought it best to wait another day. On the 8th I went down to get it. The big berry was gone, and so was one of the others, while only half of the third was left on the vine!

Gardening has its disappointments, its seasons of despair—and wrath, too. Had a toad showed himself at that moment, he might have fared badly, for more than likely, I thought, it was he who had stolen my berries. On the garden wall sat a friendly chipmunk eying me sympathetically.

A few days later several fine berries were ripe, and I was again on my way to the garden when I passed the chipmunks in the orchard. A shining red spot among the vine-covered stones of their wall brought me to a stop. For an instant I thought that it was my rose-breasted grosbeak, and that I was about to get a clew to its nest. Then up to the slab where he ate the June-bugs scrambled the chipmunk, and the rose-red spot on the breast of the supposed grosbeak dissolved into a big scarlet-red strawberry. And by its long wedge shape I knew it was one of my new variety.

I hurried across to the patch and found every berry gone, while a line of bloody fragments led me back to the orchard wall, where a half-dozen fresh calyx crowns completed my second discovery.

No, it did not complete it. It took a little watching to find out that the whole family—all seven!—were after those berries. They were picking them half ripe, even, and actually storing them away, canning them, down in the cavernous depths of the stone-pile!

Alarmed? Yes, and I was wrathful, too. The taste for strawberries is innate, original; you can't be human without it. But joy in chipmunks is a cultivated liking. What chance in such a circumstance has the nature-lover with the human man? What shadow of doubt as to his choice between the chipmunks and the strawberries?

I had no gun and no time to go over to my neighbor's to borrow his. So I stationed myself near by with a fistful of stones, and waited for the thieves to show themselves. I came so near to hitting one of them with a stone that the sweat started all over me. After that there was no danger. I had lost my nerve. The little scamps knew that war had been declared, and they hid and dodged and sighted me so far off that even with a gun I should have been all summer killing the seven of them.

Meantime, a good rain and the warm June days were turning the berries red by the quart. They had more than caught up to the chipmunks. I dropped my stones and picked. The chipmunks picked, too; so did the toads and the robins. Everybody picked. It was free for all. We picked them and ate them, jammed them, and canned them. I almost carried some over to my neighbor, but took peas instead.

The strawberry season closed on the Fourth of July; and our taste was not dimmed, nor our natural love for strawberries abated; but all four of the small boys had hives from over-indulgence, so bountifully did Nature provide, so many did the seven chipmunks leave us!

Peace between me and the chipmunks had been signed before the strawberry season closed, and the pact still holds. Other things have occurred since to threaten it, however. Among them, an article in a recent number of an out-of-door magazine, of wide circulation. Herein the chipmunk family was most roundly rated, in fact condemned to annihilation because of its wicked taste for birds' eggs and for the young birds. Numerous photographs accompanied the article, showing the red squirrel with eggs in his mouth, but no such proof (even the red squirrel photographs, I strongly believe, were done from a stuffed  squirrel) of Chipmunk's guilt, though he was counted equally bad and, doubtless, will suffer with Chickaree at the hands of those who have taken the article seriously.

I believe that would be a great mistake. Indeed, I believe the article a deliberate falsehood, concocted in order to sell the made-up photographs. Chipmunk is not an egg-sucker, else I should have found it out. But of course that does not mean that no one else has found it out. It does mean, however, that if Chipmunk robs at all he does it so seldom as to call for no alarm or retribution.

There is scarcely a day in the nesting-season when I fail to see half a dozen chipmunks about the walls, yet I have never noticed one even suspiciously near a bird's nest. In an apple tree, scarcely six jumps from the home of the family in the orchard wall, a brood of tree swallows came to wing this spring; while robins, chippies, and red-eyed vireos — not to mention a cowbird, which I wish they had devoured—have also hatched and flown away from nests that these squirrels might easily have rifled.

It is not often that one comes upon even the red squirrel in the very act of robbing a nest. But the black snake, the glittering fiend! and the dear house cats! If I run across a dozen black snakes in the early summer, it is safe to say that six of them are discovered to me by the cries of the birds that they are robbing. So is it with the cats. No creature larger than a June-bug, however, is often distressed by a chipmunk. In a recent letter to me Mr. Burroughs says:—

"No, I never knew the chipmunk to suck or destroy eggs of any kind, and I have never heard of any well-authenticated instance of his doing so. The red squirrel is the sinner in this respect, and probably the gray squirrel also."

It will be difficult to find a true bill against him. Were the evidence all in, I believe that instead of a culprit we should find Chipmunk a useful citizen. Does not that pile of June-bug bodies on the flat stone leave me still in debt to him? He may err occasionally, and may, on occasion, make a nuisance of himself—but so do my four small boys, bless them! And, well,—who doesn't? When a family of chipmunks, which you have fed all summer on the veranda, take up their winter quarters inside the closed cabin, and chew up your quilts, hammocks, table-cloths, and whatever else there is of chewable properties, then they are anathema.

The havoc certain chipmunks in the mountains once made among our possessions was dreadful. But instead of exterminating them root and branch, a big box was prepared the next summer and lined with tin, in which the linen was successfully wintered.

But how real was the loss, after all? Here was a rough log cabin on the side of Thorn Mountain. What sort of table-cloth ought to be found in such a cabin, if not one that has been artistically chewed by chipmunks? Is it for fine linen that we take to the woods in summer? The chipmunks are well worth a table-cloth now and then—well worth, besides these, all the strawberries and all the oats they can steal from my small patch.

Only it isn't stealing. Since I ceased throwing stones and began to watch the chipmunks carefully, I do not find that their manner is in the least the manner of thieves. They do not act as if they were taking what they have no right to. For who has told Chipmunk to earn his oats in the sweat of his brow? No one. Instead, he seems to understand that he is one of the innumerable factors ordained to make me sweat—a good and wholesome experience for me so long as I get the necessary oats.

And I get them, in spite of the chipmunks, though I don't like to guess at the quantity of oats they have carried off—anywhere, I should say, from a peck to a bushel, which they have stored as they tried to store the berries, somewhere in the big recesses of the stone wall.

All this, however, is beside the point. It isn't a case of oats and berries against June-bugs. You don't haggle with Nature after that fashion. The farm is not a market-place where you get exactly what you pay for. You must spend on the farm all you have of time and strength and brains; but you must not expect in return merely your money's worth. Infinitely more than that, and oftentimes less. Farming is like virtue,—its own reward. It pays the man who loves it, no matter how short the crop of oats and corn.

So it is with Chipmunk. Perhaps his books don't balance—a few June-bugs short on the credit side. What then? It isn't mere bugs and berries, as I have just suggested, but stone-piles. What is the difference in value to me between a stone-pile with a chipmunk in it and one without. Just the difference, relatively speaking, between the house with my four boys in it, and the house without.

Chipmunk, with his sleek, round form, his rich color and his stripes, is the daintiest, most beautiful of all our squirrels. He is one of the friendliest of my tenants, too, friendlier even than the friendliest of my birds—Chickadee. The two are very much alike in spirit; but however tame and confiding Chickadee may become, he is still a bird and belongs to a different and, despite his wings, lower order of beings. Chickadee is often curious about me; he can be coaxed to eat from my hand. Chipmunk is more than curious; he is interested; and it is not crumbs that he wants, but friendship. He can be coaxed to eat from my lips, sleep in my pocket, and even come to be stroked.

I have sometimes seen Chickadee in winter when he seemed to come to me out of very need for living companionship. But in the flood-tide of summer life Chipmunk will watch me from his stone-pile and tag me along with every show of friendship.

The family in the orchard wall have grown very familiar. They flatter me. One or another of them, sitting upon the high flat slab, sees me coming. He sits on the very edge of the crack, to be truthful; and if I take a single step aside toward him, he flips, and all there is left of him is a little angry squeak from the depths of the stones. If, however, I pass properly along, do not stop or make any sudden motion, he sees me past, then usually follows me, especially if I get well off and pause.

During a shower one day I halted under a large hickory just beyond his den. He came running after me, so interested that he forgot to look to his footing, and just opposite me slipped and bumped his nose hard against a stone—so hard that he sat up immediately and vigorously rubbed it. Another time he followed me across to the garden and on until he came to the barbed-wire fence along the meadow. Here he climbed a post and continued after me by way of the middle strand of the wire, wriggling, twisting, even grabbing the barbs, in his efforts to maintain his balance. He got midway between the posts, when the sagging strand tripped him and he fell with a splash into a shallow pool below. No, he did not drown, but his curiosity did get a ducking.

Did the family in the orchard wall stay together as a family for the first summer? I should like to know. As late as August they all seemed to be in the wall; for in August I cut my oats, and during this harvest we all worked together.

I mowed the oats as soon as they began to yellow, cocking them to cure for hay. It was necessary to let them "make" for six or seven days, and all this time the chipmunks raced back and forth between the cocks and the stone wall. They might have hidden their gleanings in a dozen crannies nearer at hand; but evidently they had a particular storehouse, near the home nest, where the family could get at their provisions in bad weather without coming forth.

Had I removed the stones and dug out the nest, I should have found a tunnel leading into the ground for a few feet and opening into a chamber filled with a bulky grass nest—a bed capable of holding half a dozen chipmunks—and, adjoining this, by a short passageway, the storehouse of the oats.

How many trips they made between this crib and the oat-patch, how many kernels they carried in their pouches at a trip, and how big a pile they had when all the grains were in,—these are more of the things I should like to know.

When the first frosts come, the family—if they are still a family—seek the nest in the ground beneath the stone wall. But they do not go to sleep immediately. Their outer entrances have not yet been closed. There is still plenty of fresh air and, of course, plenty of food—acorns, chestnuts, hickory-nuts, and oats. They doze quietly for a time and then they eat, pushing the empty shells and hulls into some side passage prepared beforehand to receive the débris.

But soon the frost is creeping down through the stones and earth overhead, the rains are filling the outer doorways and shutting off the supply of fresh air; and one day, though not sound sleepers, the family cuddle down and forget to wake entirely until the frost has begun to creep back toward the surface, and in through the softened soil is felt the thrill of the waking spring.