Christmas in the Woods
On the night before this particular Christmas every creature of the woods that could stir was up and stirring, for over the old snow was falling swiftly, silently, a soft, fresh covering that might mean a hungry Christmas unless the dinner were had before morning.
But when the morning dawned, a cheery Christmas sun broke across the great gum swamp, lighting the snowy boles and soft-piled limbs of the giant trees with indescribable glory, and pouring a golden flood into the deep spongy bottoms below. It would be a perfect Christmas in the woods, clear, mild, stirless, with silent footing for me, and everywhere the telltale snow.
And everywhere the Christmas spirit, too. As I paused among the pointed cedars of the pasture, looking down into the cripple at the head of the swamp, a clear wild whistle rang in the thicket, followed by a flash through the alders like a tongue of fire, as a cardinal grosbeak shot down to the tangle of greenbrier and magnolia under the slope. It was a fleck of flaming summer. As warm as summer, too, the stag-horn sumac burned on the crest of the ridge against the group of holly trees,—trees as fresh as April, and all aglow with berries. The woods were decorated for the holy day. The gentleness of the soft new snow touched everything; cheer and goodwill lighted the unclouded sky and warmed the thick depths of the evergreens, and blazed in the crimson-berried bushes of the ilex and alder. The Christmas woods were glad.
Nor was the gladness all show, mere decoration. There was real cheer in abundance, for I was back in the old home woods, back along the Cohansey, back where you can pick persimmons off the trees at Christmas. There are persons who say the Lord might have made a better berry than the strawberry, but He didn't. Perhaps He didn't make the strawberry at all. But He did make the Cohansey Creek persimmon, and He made it as good as He could. Nowhere else under the sun can you find such persimmons as these along the creek, such richness of flavor, such gummy, candied quality, woodsy, wild, crude,—especially the fruit of two particular trees on the west bank, near Lupton's Pond. But they never come to this perfection, never quite lose their pucker, until midwinter,—as if they had been intended for the Christmas table of the woods.
It had been nearly twenty years since I crossed this pasture of the cedars on my way to the persimmon trees. The cows had been crossing every year, yet not a single new crook had they worn in the old paths. But I was half afraid as I came to the fence where I could look down upon the pond and over to the persimmon trees. Not one of the Luptons, who owned pasture and pond and trees, had ever been a boy, so far as I could remember, or had ever eaten of those persimmons. Would they have left the trees through all these years?
I pushed through the hedge of cedars and stopped for an instant, confused. The very pond was gone! and the trees! No, there was the pond,—but how small the patch of water! and the two persimmon trees? The bush and undergrowth had grown these twenty years. Which way—Ah, there they stand, only their leafless tops showing; but see the hard angular limbs, how closely globed with fruit! how softly etched upon the sky!
I hurried around to the trees and climbed the one with the two broken branches, up, clear up to the top, into the thick of the persimmons.
Did I say it had been twenty years? That could not be. Twenty years would have made me a man, and this sweet, real taste in my mouth only a boy could know. But there was college, and marriage, a Massachusetts farm, four boys of my own, and—no matter! it could not have been years —twenty years—since. It was only yesterday that I last climbed this tree and ate the rich rimy fruit frosted with a Christmas snow.
And yet, could it have been yesterday? It was storming, and I clung here in the swirling snow and heard the wild ducks go over in their hurry toward the bay. Yesterday, and all this change in the vast treetop world, this huddled pond, those narrowed meadows, that shrunken creek! I should have eaten the persimmons and climbed straight down, not stopped to gaze out upon the pond, and away over the dark ditches to the creek. But reaching out quickly I gathered another handful,—and all was yesterday again.
I filled both pockets of my coat and climbed down. I kept those persimmons and am tasting them tonight. Lupton's Pond may fill to a puddle, the meadows may shrivel, the creek dry up and disappear, and old Time may even try his wiles on me. But I shall foil him to the end; for I am carrying still in my pocket some of yesterday's persimmons,—persimmons that ripened in the rime of a winter when I was a boy.
High and alone in a bare persimmon tree for one's dinner hardly sounds like a merry Christmas. But I was not alone. I had noted the fresh tracks beneath the tree before I climbed up, and now I saw that the snow had been partly brushed from several of the large limbs as the 'possum had moved about in the tree for his Christmas dinner. We were guests at the same festive board, and both of us at Nature's invitation. It mattered not that the 'possum had eaten and gone this hour or more. Such is good form in the woods. He was expecting me, so he came early, out of modesty, and, that I too might be entirely at my ease, he departed early, leaving his greetings for me in the snow.
Thus I was not alone; here was good company and plenty of it. I never lack a companion in the woods when I can pick up a trail. The 'possum and I ate together. And this was just the fellowship I needed, this sharing the persimmons with the 'possum. I had broken bread, not with the 'possum only, but with all the out-of-doors. I was now fit to enter the woods, for I was filled with good-will and persimmons, as full as the 'possum; and putting myself under his gentle guidance, I got down upon the ground, took up his clumsy trail, and descended toward the swamp. Such an entry is one of the particular joys of the winter. To go in with a fox, a mink, or a 'possum through the door of the woods is to find yourself at home. Any one can get inside the out-of-doors, as the grocery boy or the census man gets inside our houses. You can bolt in at any time on business. A trail, however, is Nature's invitation. There may be other, better beaten paths for mere feet. But go softly with the 'possum, and at the threshold you are met by the spirit of the wood, you are made the guest of the open, silent, secret out-of-doors.
I went down with the 'possum. He had traveled home leisurely and without fear, as his tracks plainly showed. He was full of persimmons. A good happy world this, where such fare could be had for the picking! What need to hurry home, except one were in danger of falling asleep by the way? So I thought, too, as I followed his winding path; and if I was tracking him to his den, it was only to wake him for a moment with the compliments of the season. But it was not even a momentary disturbance; for when I finally found him in his hollow gum, he was sound asleep, and only half realized that some one was poking him gently in the ribs and wishing him a merry Christmas.
The 'possum had led me to the centre of the empty, hollow swamp, where the great-boled gums lifted their branches like a timbered, unshingled roof between me and the wide sky. Far away through the spaces of the rafters I saw a pair of wheeling buzzards, and under them, in lesser circles, a broad-winged hawk. Here, at the feet of the tall, clean trees, looking up through the leafless limbs, I had something of a measure for the flight of the birds. The majesty and the mystery of the distant buoyant wings were singularly impressive.
I have seen the turkey-buzzard sailing the skies on the bitterest winter days. To-day, however, could hardly be called winter. Indeed, nothing yet had felt the pinch of the cold. There was no hunger yet in the swamp, though this new snow had scared the raccoons out, and their half-human tracks along the margin of the swamp stream showed that, if not hungry, they at least feared that they might be.
For a coon hates snow. He will invariably sleep off the first light snowfalls, and even in the late winter he will not venture forth in fresh snow unless driven by hunger or some other dire need. Perhaps, like a cat or a hen, he dislikes the wetting of his feet. Or it may be that the soft snow makes bad hunting—for him. The truth is, I believe, that such a snow makes too good hunting for the dogs and the gunner. The new snow tells too clear a story. His home is no inaccessible den among the ledges; only a hollow in some ancient oak or tupelo. Once within, he is safe from the dogs, but the long fierce fight for life taught him generations ago that the nest-tree is a fatal trap when behind the dogs come the axe and the gun. So he has grown wary and enduring. He waits until the snow grows crusty, when without sign, and almost without scent, he can slip forth among the long shadows and prowl to the edge of dawn.
Skirting the stream out toward the higher back woods, I chanced to spy a bunch of snow in one of the great sour gums that I thought was an old nest. A second look showed me tiny green leaves, then white berries, then mistletoe.
It was not a surprise, for I had found it here before,—a long, long time before. It was back in my schoolboy days, back beyond those twenty years, that I first stood here under the mistletoe and had my first romance. There was no chandelier, no pretty girl, in that romance,—only a boy, the mistletoe, the giant trees, and the sombre silent swamp. Then there was his discovery, the thrill of deep delight, and the wonder of his knowledge of the strange unnatural plant! All plants had been plants to him until, one day, he read the life of the mistletoe. But that was English mistletoe; so the boy's wonder world of plant life was still as far away as Mars, when, rambling alone through the swamp along the creek, he stopped under a big curious bunch of green, high up in one of the gums, and—made his first discovery.
So the boy climbed up again this Christmas Day at the peril of his precious neck, and brought down a bit of that old romance.
I followed the stream along through the swamp to the open meadows, and then on under the steep wooded hillside that ran up to the higher land of corn and melon fields. Here at the foot of the slope the winter sun lay warm, and here in the sheltered briery border I came upon the Christmas birds.
There was a great variety of them, feeding and preening and chirping in the vines. The tangle was a-twitter with their quiet, cheery talk. Such a medley of notes you could not hear at any other season outside a city bird store. How far the different species understood one another I should like to know, and whether the hum of voices meant sociability to them, as it certainly meant to me. Doubtless the first cause of their flocking here was the sheltered warmth and the great numbers of berry-laden bushes, for there was no lack either of abundance or variety on the Christmas table.
In sight from where I stood hung bunches of withering chicken or frost grapes, plump clusters of blue-black berries of the greenbrier, and limbs of the smooth winterberry bending with their flaming fruit. There were bushes of crimson ilex, too, trees of fruiting dogwood and holly, cedars in berry, dwarf sumac and seedy sedges, while patches on the wood slopes uncovered by the sun were spread with trailing partridge berry and the coral-fruited wintergreen. I had eaten part of my dinner with the 'possum; I picked a quantity of these wintergreen berries, and continued my meal with the birds. And they also had enough and to spare.
Among the birds in the tangle was a large flock of northern fox sparrows, whose vigorous and continuous scratching in the bared spots made a most lively and cheery commotion. Many of them were splashing about in tiny pools of snow-water, melted partly by the sun and partly by the warmth of their bodies as they bathed. One would hop to a softening bit of snow at the base of a tussock, keel over and begin to flop, soon sending up a shower of sparkling drops from his rather chilly tub. A winter snow-water bath seemed a necessity, a luxury indeed, for they all indulged, splashing with the same purpose and zest that they put into their scratching among the leaves.
A much bigger splashing drew me quietly through the bushes to find a marsh hawk giving himself a Christmas souse. The scratching, washing, and talking of the birds; the masses of green in the cedars, holly, and laurels; the glowing colors of the berries against the snow; the blue of the sky, and the golden warmth of the light made Christmas in the heart of the noon that the very swamp seemed to feel.
Three months later there was to be scant picking here, for this was the beginning of the severest winter I ever knew. From this very ridge, in February, I had reports of berries gone, of birds starving, of whole coveys of quail frozen dead in the snow; but neither the birds nor I dreamed to-day of any such hunger and death. A flock of robins whirled into the cedars above me; a pair of cardinals whistled back and forth; tree sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, chickadees, and cedar-birds cheeped among the trees and bushes; and from the farm lands at the top of the slope rang the calls of meadowlarks.
Halfway up the hill I stopped under a blackjack oak, where, in the thin snow, there were signs of something like a Christmas revel. The ground was sprinkled with acorn shells and trampled over with feet of several kinds and sizes,—quail, jay, and partridge feet; rabbit, squirrel, and mice feet, all over the snow as the feast of acorns had gone on. Hundreds of the acorns were lying about, gnawed away at the cup end, where the shell was thinnest, many of them further broken and cleaned out by the birds.
As I sat studying the signs in the snow, my eye caught a tiny trail leading out from the others straight away toward a broken pile of cord-wood. The tracks were planted one after the other, so directly in line as to seem like the prints of a single foot. "That's a weasel's trail," I said, "the death's-head at this feast," and followed it slowly to the wood. A shiver crept over me as I felt, even sooner than I saw, a pair of small sinister eyes fixed upon mine. The evil pointed head, heavy but alert, and with a suggestion of fierce strength out of all relation to the slender body, was watching me from between the sticks of cord-wood. And so he had been watching the mice and birds and rabbits feasting under the tree!
I packed a ball of snow round and hard, slipped forward upon my knees, and hurled it. "Spat!" it struck the end of a stick within an inch of the ugly head, filling the crevice with snow. Instantly the head appeared at another crack, and another ball struck viciously beside it. Now it was back where it first appeared, and did not flinch for the next, nor the next ball. The third went true, striking with a "chug" and packing the crack. But the black, hating eyes were still watching me a foot lower down.
It is not all peace and good-will in the Christmas woods. But there is more of peace and good-will than of any other spirit. The weasels are few. More friendly and timid eyes were watching me than bold and murderous. It was foolish to want to kill—even the weasel. For one's woods are what one makes them, and so I let the man with the gun, who chanced along, think that I had turned boy again, and was snowballing the woodpile, just for the fun of trying to hit the end of the biggest stick.
I was glad he had come. As he strode off with his stained bag I felt kindlier toward the weasel. There were worse in the woods than he,—worse, because all of their killing was pastime. The weasel must kill to live, and if he gloated over the kill, why, what fault of his? But the other weasel, the one with the blood-stained bag, he killed for the love of killing. I was glad he was gone.
The crows were winging over toward their great roost in the pines when I turned toward the town. They, too, had had good picking along the creek flats and ditches of the meadows. Their powerful wing-beats and constant play told of full crops and no fear for the night, already softly gray across the white silent fields. The air was crisper; the snow began to crackle under foot; the twigs creaked and rattled as I brushed along; a brown beech leaf wavered down and skated with a thin scratch over the crust; and pure as the snow-wrapped crystal world, and sweet as the soft gray twilight, came the call of a quail.
The voices, colors, odors, and forms of summer were gone. The very face of things had changed; all had been reduced, made plain, simple, single, pure! There was less for the senses, but how much keener now their joy! The wide landscape, the frosty air, the tinkle of tiny icicles, and, out of the quiet of the falling twilight, the voice of the quail!
There is no day but is beautiful in the woods; and none more beautiful than one like this Christmas Day,—warm and still and wrapped, to the round red berries of the holly, in the magic of the snow.