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Dallas Lore Sharp

Woods Medicine

T HE real watcher in the woods usually goes off by himself. He hates to have anybody along; for Anybody wants to be moving all the time, and Anybody wants to be talking all the time, and Anybody wants to be finding a circus, or a zoo, or a natural history museum in the middle of the woods, else Anybody wishes he had stayed at home or gone to the ball-game.

Now I always say to Mr. Anybody when he asks me to take him into the woods, "Yes, come along, if you can stand stock-still for an hour, without budging; if you can keep stock-still for an hour, without talking; if you can get as excited watching two tumble-bugs trying to roll their ball up hill, as you do watching nine baseball men trying to bat their ball about a field."

The doctor pulled a small blank book out of his vest pocket, scribbled something in Latin and Chinese (at least it looked like Chinese), and then at the bottom wrote in English, "Take one teaspoonful every hour"; and, tearing off the leaf, handed it to the patient. It was a prescription for some sort of medicine.

Now I am going to give you a prescription,—for some woods medicine,—a magic dose that will cure you of blindness and deafness and clumsy-footedness, that will cause you to see things and hear things and think things in the woods that you have never thought or heard or seen in the woods before. Here is the prescription:—

Wood Chuck, M. D.,

Mullein Hill.

Office Hours:   5.30 a.m. until Breakfast.

       No moving for one hour . . .

       No talking for one hour . . .

       No dreaming or thumb-twiddling the while . . .

Sig:  The dose to be taken from the top of a stump with a bit of sassafras bark or a nip of Indian turnip every time you go into the woods.

Wood Chuck.

I know that this compound will cure if you begin taking it early enough—along, I should say, from the Fifth to the Eighth Grades. It is a very difficult dose to take at any age, but it is almost impossible for grown-ups to swallow it; for they have so many things to do, or think they have, that they can't sit still a whole hour anywhere—a terrible waste of time! And then they have been talking for so many years that to stop for a whole hour might—kill them, who knows! And they have been working nervously with their hands so long that their thumbs will twiddle, and to sleep they will go the minute they sit down, in spite of themselves. It is no use to give this medicine to grown-ups. They are what Dr. Wood Chuck calls "chronics"—hopeless hurriers who will never sit down upon a stump, who, when the Golden Chariot comes for them, will stand up and drive all the way to heaven.

However, I am not giving this medicine to grownups, but to you. Of course you will make a bad face over it, too; for, young or old, it is hard to sit still and even harder to keep still—I mean not to talk. I have closely watched four small boys these several years now, and I never knew one of them to sit still for a whole hour at home —not once in his whole life! And as for his tongue! he might tuck that into his cheek, hold it down between his teeth, crowd it back behind his fist—no matter. The tongue is an unruly member. But let these four boys get into the woods, and every small pale-face of them turns Indian instinctively, tip-toeing up and down the ridges with lips as close-sealed as if some finger of the forest were laid upon them. So it must be with you when you enter the fields and woods.

The wood-born people are all light-footed and cautious in their stirring. Only the box turtles scuff carelessly along; and that is because they can shut themselves up—head, paws, tail—inside their lidded shells, and defy their enemies.

The skunk, however, is sometimes careless in his going; for he knows that he will neither be crowded nor jostled along the street, so he naturally behaves as if all the woods were his. Yet, how often do you come upon a skunk? Seldom—because, he is quite as unwilling to meet you as you are to meet him; but as one of your little feet makes as much noise in the leaves as all four of his, he hears you coming and turns quietly down some alley or in at some burrow and allows you to pass on.

Louder than your step in the woods is the sound of your voice. Perhaps there is no other noise so far-reaching, so alarming, so silencing in the woods as the human voice. When your tongue begins, all the other tongues cease. Songs stop as by the snap of a violin string; chatterings cease; whisperings end—mute are the woods and empty as a tomb, except the wind be moving aloft in the trees.

Three things all the animals can do supremely well: they can hear well; they can see motion well; they can wait well.

If you would know how well an animal can wait, scare Dr. Wood Chuck into his office, then sit down outside and wait for him to come out. It would be a rare and interesting thing for you to do. No one has ever done it yet, I believe! Establish a world's record for keeping still! But you should scare him in at the beginning of your summer vacation so as to be sure you have all the waiting-time the state allows: for you may have to leave the hole in September and go back to school.

When the doctor wrote the prescription for this medicine, "No moving for an hour," he was giving you a very small, a homeopathic dose of patience, as you can see; for an hour  at a time, every wood-watcher knows, will often be only a waste of time, unless followed immediately by another hour of the same.

On the road to the village one day, I passed a fox-hunter sitting atop an old stump. It was about seven o'clock in the morning.

"Hello, Will!" I called, "been out all night?"

"No, got here 'bout an hour ago," he replied.

I drove on and, returning near noon, found Will still atop the stump.

"Had a shot yet?" I called.

"No, the dogs brought him down 'tother side the brook, and carried him over to the Shanty field."

About four o'clock that afternoon I was hurrying down to the station, and there was Will atop that same stump.

"Got him yet?" I called.

"No, dogs are fetching him over the Quarries now"—and I was out of hearing.

It was growing dark when I returned; but there was Will Hall atop the stump. I drew up in the road.

"Grown fast to that stump, Will?" I called. "Want me to try to pull you off?"

"No, not yet," he replied, jacking himself painfully to his feet. "Chillin' up some, ain't it?" he added shaking himself. "Might's well go home, I guess"—when from the direction of Young's Meadows came the eager voice of his dogs; and, waving me on, he got quickly back atop the stump, his gun ready across his knees.

I was nearly home when, through the muffle of the darkening woods, I heard the quick bang! bang!  of Will's gun.

Yes, he got him, a fine red fox. And speaking to me about it one day, he said,—

"There's a lot more to sittin' still than most folks thinks. The trouble is, most folks in the woods can't stand the monopoly of it."

Will's English needs touching up in spots; but he can show the professors a great many things about the ways of the woods.

And now what does the doctor mean by "No dreaming or thumb-twiddling" in the woods? Just this: that not only must you be silent and motionless for hours at a time, but you must also be alert—watchful, keen, ready to take a hint, to question, guess, and interpret. The fields and woods are not full of life, but full only of the sounds, shadows, and signs of life.

You are atop of your stump, when over the ridge you hear a slow, quiet rustle in the dead leaves—a skunk; then a slow, loud  rustle—a turtle; then a quick,  loud—one-two-three —rustle—a chewink; then a tiny, rapid rustle—a mouse; then a long, rasping rustle—a snake; then a measured, galloping rustle—a squirrel; then a light-heavy, hop-thump rustle—a rabbit; then—and not once have you seen the rustlers in the leaves beyond the ridge; and not once have you stirred from your stump.

Perhaps this understanding of the leaf-sounds might be called "interpretation"; but before you can interpret them, you must hear them; and no dozing, dreaming, fuddling sitter upon a stump has ears to hear.

As you sit there, you notice a blue jay perched silent and unafraid directly over you—not an ordinary, common way for a blue jay to act. "Why?" you ask. Why, a nest, of course, somewhere near! Or, suddenly round and round the trunk of a large oak tree whirls a hummingbird. "Queer," you say. Then up she goes—and throwing your eye ahead of her through the tree-tops you chance to intercept her bee-line flight—a hint! She is probably gathering lichens for a nest which she is building somewhere near, in the direction of her flight. A whirl! a flash!—as quick as light! You have a wonderful story!

Now do not get the impression that all one needs to do in order to become acquainted with the life of the woods is to sit on a stump a long time, say nothing, and listen hard. All that is necessary—rather, the ability to do it is necessary; but in the woods or out it is also necessary to exercise common sense. Guess, for instance, when guessing is all that you can do. You will learn more, however, and learn it faster, generally, by following it up, than by sitting on a stump and guessing about it.

At twilight, in the late spring and early summer, we frequently hear a gentle, tremulous call from the woods or from below in the orchard. "What is it?" I had been asked a hundred times, and as many times had guessed that it might be the hen partridge clucking to her brood; or else I had replied that it made me think of the mate-call of a coon, or that I half inclined to believe it the cry of the woodchucks, or that possibly it might be made by the owls. In fact, I didn't know the peculiar call, and year after year I kept guessing at it.

We were seated one evening on the porch listening to the whip-poor-wills, when some one said, "There's your woodchuck singing again." Sure enough, there sounded the tremulous woodchuck-partridge-owl-coon cry. I slipped down through the birches determined at last to know that cry and stop guessing about it, if I had to follow it all night.

The moon was high and full, the footing almost noiseless, and everything so quiet that I quickly located the clucking sounds as coming from the orchard. I came out of the birches into the wood-road, and was crossing the open field to the orchard, when something dropped with a swish and a vicious clacking close upon my head. I jumped from under my hat, almost,—and saw the screech owl swoop softly up into the nearest apple tree. Instantly she turned toward me and uttered the gentle purring cluck that I had been guessing at so hard for at least three years. And even while I looked at her, I saw in the tree beyond, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, two round bunches,—young owls evidently,—which were the explanation of the calls. These two, and another young one, were found in the orchard the following day.

I rejoined the guessers on the porch and gave them the satisfying fact, but only after two or three years of guessing about it. I had laughed once at some of my friends over on the other road who had bolted their front door and had gone out of the door at the side of the house for precisely twenty-one years because the key in the front-door lock wouldn't work. They were intending to have it fixed, but the children being little kept them busy; then the children grew up, and of course kept them busier; got married at last and left home—all but one daughter. Still the locksmith was not called to fix that front door. One day this unmarried daughter, in a fit of impatience, got at that door herself, and found that the key had been inserted just twenty-one years before—upside down!

There I had sat on the porch—on a stump, let us say, and guessed about it. Truly, my key to this mystery had been left long in the lock, upside down, while I had been going in and out by the side door.

No, you must go  into the fields and woods, go deep and far and frequently, with eyes and ears and all your souls alert!