T HE snow had melted from the river meadows, leaving them flattened, faded, and stained with mud—a dull, dreary waste in the gray February. I had stopped beside a tiny bundle of bones that lay in the matted grass a dozen feet from a ditch. Here, still showing, was the narrow path along which the bones had dragged themselves; there the hole by which they had left the burrow in the bank of the ditch. They had crawled out in this old runway, then turned off a little into the heavy autumn grass and laid them down. The rains had come and the winter snows. The spring was breaking now and the small bundle, gently loosened and uncovered, was whitening on the wide, bare meadow.
Shall I stop beside this small bundle of whitening bones or shall I turn my head away and pass on? Shall I allow you to stop with me in our winter ramble and let you see the tragedy here in the flattened meadow grass, or shall I hide from your eyes the dark, the bitter, the tragic in the lives of the wild things out of doors?
I think it is best to hide nothing from you. Real love for nature is largely sympathy with nature; and there can be no sympathy without intimate and full understanding of the struggle and suffering in the lives out of doors. There is a dark story in this little bundle of bones. Do you wish to hear it? There is a fierce, cruel threat in the growl of the winter wind. Do you wish to hear that? There is menace and death in the shrill scream of the hawk. Do you wish to hear that? Or do you wish to hear only the song of the robin? only the whisper of the summer breeze? only the story of the life and love and joy of things?
No, there are two sides to life—two sides to your life, the bright and dark sides; two sides to the lives of all men, and to the lives of all things. Summer is the bright side of Nature's life; winter is the dark side. Summer and winter are both needed to round out the life of the year; so tears and laughter seem to be needed in our lives; joy and sorrow, peace and suffering, rest and hardship—these, or something like them, seem to be needed in the lesser lives of birds and beasts to round out their experience and make them keen and strong.
Happily, the pain and suffering in nature are largely hidden from us. Wild things when stricken "turn their faces to the wall," retreat, slink silently away out of sight to be alone. They do not wish us to know. But we do know, and we need to know, if we would enter into their lives as a sharer in them; and if we would enter into and understand the larger, wider, deeper life of which they, and we, and all things, are a part.
You must pause with me above this little bundle of bones until I tell you their story.
I had recognized the bones at once as the skeleton of a muskrat. But it was something peculiar in the way they lay that had caused me to pause. They seemed outstretched, as if composed by gentle hands, the hands of sleep. They had not been flung down. The delicate ribs had fallen in, but not a bone was broken nor displaced, not one showed the splinter of shot, or the crack that might have been made by a steel trap. No violence had been done them. They had been touched by nothing rougher than the snow. Out into the hidden runway they had crept. Death had passed by them here; but no one else in all the winter months.
The creature had died—a "natural" death. It had starved, while a hundred acres of plenty lay round about. Picking up the skull, I found the jaws locked together as if they were a single solid bone. One of the two incisor teeth of the upper jaw was missing, and apparently had never developed. The opposite tooth on the lower jaw, thus unopposed and so unworn, had grown beyond its normal height up into the empty socket above, then on, turning outward and piercing the cheek-bone in front of the eye, whence, curving like a boar's tusk, it had slowly closed the jaws and locked them, rigid, set, as fixed as jaws of stone.
At first the animal had been able to gnaw; but as the tooth curved through the bones of the face and gradually tightened the jaws, the creature got less and less to eat, until, one day, creeping out of the burrow for food, the poor thing was unable to get back.
We seldom come upon the like of this. It is commoner than we think; but, as I have said, it is usually hidden away and quickly over. How often do we see a wild thing sick—a bird or animal suffering from an accident, or dying, like this muskrat, because of some physical defect? The struggle between animals—the falling of the weak as prey to the strong—is ever before us; but this single-handed fight between the creature and Nature is a far rarer, silenter tragedy. Nature is too swift to allow us time for sympathy.
At best there is only a fighting chance in the meadow. Only strength and craft may win; only those who have all of their teeth. The muskrat with a single missing tooth never enters the real race of life at all. He slinks from some abandoned burrow, and, if the owl and mink are not watching, he dies alone in the grass, and we rarely know.
I shall never forget the impression made upon me by those quiet bones. It was like that made by my first visit to a great city hospital—out of the busy, cheerful street into a surgical ward, where the sick and injured lay in long white lines. We tramp the woods and meadows and never step from the sweet air and the pure sunlight of health into a hospital. But that is not because no sick, ill-formed, or injured are there. The proportion is smaller than among us humans, and for very good reasons, yet there is much real suffering, and to come upon it, as we will, now and then, must certainly quicken our understanding and deepen our sympathy with the life out of doors.
No sensible person could for a moment believe the animals capable of suffering as a human being can suffer; nor that there is any such call for our sympathy from them as from our human neighbors. But an unselfish sharing of the life of the fields demands that we take part in all of it.
Nature wears a brave face. Her smile is ever in the open, her laughter quick and contagious. This brave front is no mask. It is real. Sunlight, song, color, form, and fragrance are real. And so is our love and joy in Nature real. Real, also, should be our sympathy and sorrow with Nature.
Here, for instance, are my crows: do I share fully in the life of Nature so long as I think of the crow only with admiration for his cunning or with wrath at his destruction of my melons and corn?
A crow has his solemn moments. He knows fear, pain, hunger, accident, and disease; he knows something very like affection and love. For all that, he is a mere crow. But a mere crow is no mean thing. He is my brother, and a real love will give me part in all his existence. I will forage and fight with him; I will parley and play; and when the keen north winds find him in the frozen pines, I will suffer with him, too.
Here again are my meadow voles. I know that my hay crop is shorter every year for them,—a very little shorter. And I can look with satisfaction at a cat carrying a big bob-tailed vole out of my "mowing," for the voles, along with other mice, are injurious to man.
But one day I came upon two of my voles struggling for life in the water, exhausted and well-nigh dead. I helped them out, as I should have helped out any other creature, and having saved them, why, what could I do but let them go—even into my own meadow? This has happened several times.
When the drought dries the meadow, the voles come to the deep, plank-walled spring at the upper end, to drink. The water usually trickles over the curb, but in a long dry spell it shrinks to a foot or more below the edge, and the voles, once within for their drink, cannot get out. Time and again I had fished them up, until I thought to leave a board slanting down to the water, so that they could climb back to the top.
It is wholesome to be the good Samaritan to a meadow mouse, to pour out, even waste, a little of the oil and wine of sympathy on the humblest of our needy neighbors.
Here are the chimney swallows, too. One can look with complacency, with gratitude, indeed, upon the swallows of other chimneys, as they hawk in the sky; yet, when the little creatures, so useful, but so uncombed and unfumigated, set up their establishments in your chimney, to the jeopardy of the whole house, then you need an experience like mine.
I had had a like experience years before, when the house did not belong to me. This time, however, the house was mine, and if it became infested with vermin because of the swallows, I could not move away; so I felt like burning them in the chimney, bag and baggage. There were four nests, as nearly as I could make out, and, from the frequent squeakings, I knew they were all filled with young. Then one day, when the young were nearly ready to fly, there came a rain that ran wet far down the sooty chimney, loosened the mortar of the nests, and sent them crashing into the fireplace.
Some of the young birds were killed outright; the others were at my mercy, flung upon me,—helpless, wailing infants! Of course I made it comfortable for them on the back-log, and let their mothers flutter down unhindered to feed them. Had I understood the trick, I would have hawked for them and helped feed them myself!
They made a great thunder in the chimney; they rattled down into the living-room a little soot; but nothing further came of it. We were not quarantined. On the contrary, we had our reward, according to promise; for it was an extremely interesting event to us all. It dispelled some silly qualms, it gave us intimate part in a strange small life, so foreign, yet so closely linked to our own; and it made us pause with wonder that even our empty, sooty chimney could be made use of by Nature to our great benefit.
I wonder if the nests of the chimney swallows came tumbling down when the birds used to build in caves and hollow trees? It is a most extraordinary change, this change from the trees to the chimneys, and it does not seem to have been accompanied by an increase of architectural wisdom necessary to meet all the conditions of the new hollow. The mortar or glue, which, I imagine, held firmly in the empty trees, will not mix with the chimney soot, so that the nest, especially when crowded with young, is easily loosened by the rain, and sometimes even broken away by the slight wing stroke of a descending swallow, or by the added weight of a parent bird as it settles with food.
We little realize how frequent fear is among the birds and animals, and how often it proves fatal. A situation that would have caused no trouble ordinarily, becomes through sudden fright a tangle or a trap. I have known many a quail to bolt into a fast express train and fall dead. Last winter I left the large door of the barn open, so that my flock of juncos could feed inside upon the floor. They found their way into the hayloft and went up and down freely. On two or three occasions I happened in so suddenly that they were thoroughly frightened and flew madly into the cupola to escape through the windows. They beat against the glass until utterly dazed, and would have perished there, had I not climbed up later and brought them down. So thousands of the migrating birds perish yearly by flying wildly against the dazzling lanterns of the lighthouses, and thousands more either lose their course in the thick darkness of the stormy nights, or else are blown out of it, and drift far away to sea.
Hasty, careless, miscalculated movements are not as frequent among the careful wild folk as among us, perhaps; but there is abundant evidence of their occasional occurrence and of their sometimes fatal results.
Several instances are recorded of birds that have been tangled in the threads of their nests; and one instance of a bluebird that was caught in the flying meshes of an oriole's nest into which it had been spying.
I once found the mummied body of a chippy twisting and swinging in the leafless branches of a peach tree. The little creature was suspended in a web of horsehair about two inches below a nest. It looked as if she had brought a snarled bunch of the hair and left it loose in the twigs. Later on, a careless step and her foot was fast, when every frantic effort for freedom only tangled her the worse. In the nest above were four other tiny mummies—a double tragedy that might with care have been averted.
A similar fate befell a song sparrow that I discovered hanging dead upon a barbed-wire fence. By some chance it had slipped a foot through an open place between the two twisted strands, and then, fluttering along, had wedged the leg and broken it in the struggle to escape.
We have all held our breath at the hazardous traveling of the squirrels in the treetops. What other animals take such risks?—leaping at dizzy heights from bending limbs to catch the tips of limbs still smaller, saving themselves again and again by the merest chance.
But luck sometimes fails. My brother, a careful watcher in the woods, on one occasion when he was hunting, saw a gray squirrel miss its footing in a tree and fall, breaking its neck upon a log beneath.
I have frequently known squirrels to fall short distances, and once I saw a red squirrel come to grief like this gray squirrel. He was scurrying through the tops of some lofty pitch pines, a little hurried and flustered at sight of me, and, nearing the end of a high branch, was in the act of springing, when the dead tip cracked under him and he came tumbling headlong.
The height must have been forty feet, so that before he reached the ground he had righted himself,—his tail out and legs spread,—but the fall was too great. He hit the earth heavily, and before I could reach him he lay dead upon the needles, with blood oozing from his eyes and nostrils.
Unhoused and often unsheltered, the wild things suffer as we hardly yet understand. No one can estimate how many of our wild creatures die in a year from severe cold, heavy storms, high winds and tides. I have known the nests of a whole colony of gulls and terns to be swept away in a great storm; while the tides, over and over, have flooded the inlet marshes and drowned out the nests in the grass—those of the clapper rails by thousands.
I remember a late spring storm that came with the returning redstarts and, in my neighborhood, killed many of them. Toward evening of that day one of the little black-and-orange voyageurs fluttered against the window and we let him in, wet, chilled, and so exhausted that for a moment he lay on his back in my open palm. Soon after there was another soft tapping at the window,—and two little redstarts were sharing our cheer and drying their butterfly wings in our warmth. Both of these birds would have perished had we not harbored them for the night.
The birds and animals are not as weather-wise as we; they cannot foretell as far ahead nor provide as certainly against need, despite the popular notion to the contrary.
We point to the migrating birds, to the muskrat houses, to the hoards of the squirrels, and say, "How wise and far-sighted these Nature-taught children are!" True, they are, but only for conditions that are normal. Their wisdom does not cover the unusual. The gray squirrels did not provide for the unusually hard weather of last winter. Three of them from the woodlot came begging of me, and lived on my wisdom, not their own.
Consider the ravens, that neither sow nor reap, that have neither storehouse nor barn, yet they are fed—but not always. Indeed, there are few of our winter birds that go hungry so often as do the cousins of the ravens, the crows, and that die in so great numbers for lack of food and shelter.
After severe and protracted cold, with a snow-covered ground, a crow-roost looks like a battlefield, so thick lie the dead and wounded. Morning after morning the flock goes over to forage in the frozen fields, and night after night returns hungrier, weaker, and less able to resist the cold. Now, as the darkness falls, a bitter wind breaks loose and sweeps down upon the pines.
"List'ning the doors an' winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie
and how often I have thought me of the crows biding the night yonder in the moaning pines! So often, as a boy, and with so real an awe, have I watched them returning at night, that the crows will never cease flying through my wintry sky,—an endless line of wavering black figures, weary, retreating figures, beating over in the early dusk.
And to-night another wild storm sweeps across the winter fields. All the afternoon the crows have been going over, and are still passing as the darkness settles at five o'clock. Now it is nearly eight, and the long night is but just begun. The storm is increasing. The wind shrieks about the house, whirling the fine snow in hissing eddies past the corners and driving it on into long, curling crests across the fields. I can hear the roar as the wind strikes the shoal of pines where the fields roll into the woods—a vast surf sound, but softer and higher, with a wail like the wail of some vast heart in pain.
I can see the tall trees rock and sway with their burden of dark forms. As close together as they can crowd on the bending limbs cling the crows, their breasts turned all to the storm. With crops empty and bodies weak, they rise and fall in the cutting, ice-filled wind for thirteen hours of night.
Is it a wonder that the life fires burn low? that sometimes the small flames flicker and go out?