T HIS title is Kipling's; the observations that follow are mine; but the real spring running is yours and mine and Kipling's and Mowgli the wolf-child's, whose running Kipling has told us about. Indeed, every child of the earth has felt it, has had the running—every living thing of the land and the sea.
Everything feels it; everything is restless, everything is moving. The renter changes houses; the city dweller goes "down to the shore" or up to the mountains to open his summer cottage; the farmer starts to break up the land for planting; the school-children begin to squirm in their seats and long to fly out of the windows; and "Where are you going this summer?" is on every one's lips.
They have all caught the spring running, the only
infection I know that you can catch from April skies.
The very sun has caught it, too, and is lengthening out
his course, as if he hated to stop and go to bed at
night. And the birds, that are supposed to go to bed
most promptly, they sleep, says the good
old poet Chaucer,
with open eye, these April nights,
so bad is their case of spring
"So priketh hem Nature in hir corages."
Their long journey northward over sea and land has not cured them yet of their unrest. Only one thing will do it (and I suppose we all should be glad), one sovereign remedy, and that is family cares. But they are yet a long way off.
Meantime watch your turkey-hen, how she saunters down the field alone, how pensive she looks, how lost for something to do and somewhere to go. She is sick with this disease of spring. Follow her, keeping out of sight yourself, and lo, a nest, hidden under a pile of brush in a corner of the pasture fence, half a mile from home!
The turkey-hen has wandered off half a mile to build her nest; but many wild birds have come on their small wings all the way from the forests of the Amazon and have gone on to Hudson Bay and the Fur Countries, just to build their nests and rear their young. A wonderful case of the spring running, you would say; and still more wonderful is the annual journey of the golden plover from Patagonia to Alaska and back, eight thousand miles each way. Yet there is another case that seems to me more mysterious, and quite as wonderful, as the sea seems more mysterious than the land.
It is the spring running of the fish. For when the great tidal waves of bird-life begin to roll northward with the sun, a corresponding movement begins among the denizens of the sea. The cold-blooded fish feel the stirring; the spring running seizes them, and in they come through the pathless wastes of the ocean, waves of them, shoals of them,—sturgeon, shad, herring,—like the waves and flocks of wild geese, warblers, and swallows overhead,—into the brackish water of the bays and rivers and on (the herring) into the fresh water of the ponds.
To watch the herring come up Weymouth Back River into Herring Run here near my home, as I do every April, is to watch one of the most interesting, most mysterious movements of all nature. It was about a century ago that men of Weymouth brought herring in barrels of water by ox-teams from Taunton River and liberated them in the pond at the head of Weymouth Back River. These fish laid their eggs in the grassy margins of the pond that spring and went out down the river to the sea. Later on, the young fry, when large enough to care for themselves, found their way down the river and out to sea.
And where did they go then? and what did they do? Who can tell? for who can read the dark book of the sea? Yet this one thing we know they did, for still they are doing it after all these hundred years,—they came back up the river, when they were full-grown,—up the river, up the run, up into the pond, to lay their eggs in the waters where they were hatched, in the waters that to them were home.
Something very much like this all the other fish are doing, as are the birds also. The spell of home is over land and sea, and has been laid upon them all. The bird companies of the fall went south at the inexorable command of Hunger; but a greater than Hunger is in command of the forces of spring. Now our vast bird army of North America, five billion strong, is moving northward at the call of Home. And the hosts of the sea, whose shining billions we cannot number,—they, too, are coming up, some of them far up through the shallow streams to the wood-walled ponds for a drink of the sweet waters of Home.
As a boy I used to go down to the meadows at night to hear the catfish coming, as now I go down to the village by day to see the herring coming. The catfish would swim in from the Cohansey, through the sluices in the bank, then up by way of the meadow ditches to the dam over which fall the waters of Lupton's Pond.
It was a seven- or eight-foot dam, and of course the fish could not climb it. Down under the splashing water they would crowd by hundreds, their moving bodies close-packed, pushing forward, all trying to break through the wooden wall that blocked their way. Slow, stupid things they looked; but was not each big cat head pointed forward? each slow, cold brain trying to follow and keep up with each swift, warm heart? For the homeward-bound heart knows no barrier; it never stops for a dam.
The herring, too, on their way up the run are stopped by a dam; but the town, in granting to certain men the sole rights to catch the fish, stipulated that a number of the live herring, as many as several barrels full, should be helped over the dam each spring that they might go on up to the pond to deposit their eggs. If this were not done annually, the fish would soon cease to come, and the Weymouth herring would be no more.
There was no such lift for the catfish under Lupton's dam. I often tossed them over into the pond, and so helped to continue the line; but perhaps there was no need, for spring after spring they returned. They were the young fish, I suppose, new each year, from parent fish that remain inside the pond the year round.
I cannot say now—I never asked myself before—whether it is Mother or Father Catfish who stays with the swarm (it is literally a swarm) of kitten catfish. It may be father, as in the case of Father Stickleback and Father Toadfish, who cares for the children. If it is—I take off my hat to him. I have four of my own; and I think if I had eighteen or twenty more I should have both hands full. But Father Catfish! Did you ever see his brood?
I should say that there might easily be five hundred young ones in the family, though I never have counted them. But you might. If you want to try it, take your small scoop-net of coarse cheesecloth, or mosquito-netting, and go down to the pond this spring. Close along the margin you will see holes in the shallow water running up under the overhanging grass and roots. The holes were made probably by the muskrats. It is in here that the old catfish is guarding the brood.
As soon as you learn to know the holes, you can cover the entrance with your net, and then by jumping or stamping hard on the ground above the hole, you will drive out the old fish with a flop, the family following in a fine, black cloud. The old fish will swim away, then come slowly back to the scattered swarm, to the little black things that look like small tadpoles, who soon cluster about the parent once more and wiggle away into the deep, dark water of the pond—the strangest family group that I know in all the spring world.