Christmas in the Woods
B UT 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.
Yet, 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 bottom of the swamp 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 in the woods would be the Christmas spirit, too. As I paused among the pointed cedars of the pasture, looking down into the tangle 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 of the hill. The bird was a fleck of flaming summer. As warm as summer, too, were the pointed cones of stag-horn sumac burning on the crest of the ridge against the group of holly trees—trees as fresh as April, and all aglow with red berries.
The woods were decorated for the Holy Day. The gentleness of the soft, new snow touched everything; cheer and good-will lighted the unclouded sky and warmed the thick depths of the evergreens, and blazed in the crimson-berried bushes of the ilex and the alder. The Christmas woods were glad. The heart of the woods was full of Christmas peace.
Now I did not imagine all of this as I went along. Perhaps there was the spirit of Christmas in my heart, and so I found the spirit of Christmas in the woods; but so it must have been with the household I had just left, back on the city street. Every one had Christmas in his heart, and so every one found Christmas in the Christmas-tree blazing and glittering in its candle-flame blossoms and jeweled fruit.
So there was real Christmas joy and peace—a real Christmas spirit—abroad in the woods this snowy Christmas morning. The sky had it, the trees had it, the soft white slopes had it, the softly flowing creek had it, flowing softly toward the bay.
But doubtless my own feelings had something to do with it all. This was Christmas Day, and these were my home woods, the woods where I tramped and trapped and "grew up" when a boy; and this was I, after twenty years of absence, I, the boy again, back in the old familiar pasture on my way to Lupton's Pond!
Yes, I must say that I was almost afraid as I followed the old cow-path across the pasture, now only a slightly sunken line in the snow; I was afraid that the path might be gone. Twenty years are a good many years for a cow-path to last. But evidently the cows had been crossing every year since I had been away; and not a single new crook had they worn in the old winding trail. Then I was afraid, as I came to the fence where I could look down upon the pond, lest the pond might have disappeared. But no, there it lay, sealed over, as if kept for me by the snow! Then I looked fearfully over the pond, over the steep ridge on the opposite shore to where there used to stand two particular persimmon trees.
My heart beat wildly for a moment. The woods up the ridge had been cut off! Things had changed! I was confused and looked this way and that, when, so near to me that I could scarcely believe my eyes, I saw the twin trees, their hard, angular limbs closely globed with fruit, and standing softly out against the sky!
It was enough. Forgetting the twenty years, I hurried down across the pond and up to the persimmon trees on the other side—up into the trees indeed, for I never stopped until I had climbed clear up into the top among the ripe persimmons!
Do you know what a persimmon, picked from a particular tree along Cohansey Creek on Christmas Day, tastes like? especially when you have not had a taste of persimmon for twenty years? No, you do not—because you are not twenty years old, perhaps, and because you were not a boy along Cohansey Creek, perhaps, and because, if you were, you did not know those two particular persimmon trees, maybe.
Nobody ever seemed to know the perfection of those persimmons, except myself and the 'possums. Not one of the Luptons, who owned the pasture, the pond, and the trees, had ever been a boy, so far as I could remember, and certainly not one of them had ever tasted the fruit of those two trees. There were other persimmon trees up and down the township, others here along the pond; but these two were the only trees to hold their fruit until Christmas, preserved with such richness of flavor, such a gummy, candied, wild, woodsy quality, that it could not decay. Those persimmons never decayed. They candied, evaporated, wrinkled, fell, and vanished away.
Or else the 'possums ate them—those that I did not eat. A 'possum had already been here this Christmas morning before me. I had noted his fresh tracks beneath the tree when I came up; and now, in the tree, I saw where the snow had been brushed from several of the large limbs as the 'possum had moved about in the top, eating his Christmas dinner.
You never ate a Christmas dinner high up in the top of a persimmon tree? But you will, perhaps, some day, as good a Christmas dinner, I hope, as ours was. For such persimmons! Bob Cratchit's goose ("There never was such a goose!") could not have been any better flavored. Nor could the little Cratchits have been any hungrier for goose than I was for persimmons.
Now the 'possum had been having persimmons every night since the frosts of October; so of course he felt no such hunger for persimmons as I felt. But ripe persimmons would be a Christmas dinner for a 'possum every day in the year. There is nothing so unspeakably good as persimmons if you happen to be a 'possum, or if you happen to be a boy—even after twenty years!
So the 'possum and I had our Christmas dinner together at Nature's invitation, in the top of the persimmon tree. The 'possum, to be sure, had eaten and gone before I came. But that is good form in the woods. He was expecting me, so he came early, just before dawn, that neither of us might be embarrassed, leaving his greetings for me in sign-language in the snow.
A Christmas dinner all alone would be cold cheer indeed. But I was not alone. Here was good company and plenty of it. Did not the tracks talk to me? With abundance of fruit still left in the tree, did I need to see that 'possum fold up his napkin, pull down his vest, spread his hands over his expansive person and groan in the fullness of his feast? No; all of that was printed plainly in the snow. Why, I could even hear his groans in his tumbled tracks at the foot of the tree, where the fat old fellow had literally fallen over himself! What an appetite! What a pudding of persimmons he must be! He can hardly walk for fat! Look at his trail in the snow leading down toward the pond—a big wide wallow where he has bounced along!
So I slide down the tree and take up the 'possum's trail. We have broken bread together, this 'possum and I, and now we will enter the woods together in the same good-fellowship for the rest of the day. Persimmons and good-will are very proper things to be filled with when you go into the Christmas woods.
And there is no better fellowship for such a tramp than the trail of some animal like the 'possum or the mink or the fox. To go in with one of these through the woods-door is to find yourself at home. Any one can manage to get inside the woods, as the grocery boy or the census man manages to get inside our houses. You can bolt in at any time on business. But a trail, remember, is Nature's invitation. Go softly in with 'possum, or rabbit, or coon, and at the threshold of the trees you will be met by the Spirit of the Woods—you will be made a guest in this secret, shadowy house of the out-of-doors.
But do not fail first to break bread with the 'possum. A persimmon, or a handful of wintergreen berries, or a nip of sassafras root, or a piece of spruce gum, or a lump of liquid amber — share anything, take any small part in the life of these who live wild in the woods, and they will meet you at the threshold and make you more than welcome.
I went in 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? Unless, indeed, 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 when I finally found him in his hollow gum, he was so sound asleep he barely knew that some one was poking him gently in the ribs and wishing him a merry Christmas.
The 'possum had led me far along the creek 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 great birds. And what power, what majesty and mystery in those distant buoyant wings!
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 invariably stays in during 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. For the coon's home is no dark den among the ledges; only a hollow in some ancient oak or tupelo. Once within, he is safe from the dogs, but his 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, however, for I had found it here before—a long, long time before. It was back in my schoolboy days 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. But there was more than that, there was the thrill of discovery, for until that day the boy did not know that mistletoe grew outside of England, did not know that it grew in his own native swamps! Rambling alone through the swamps along the creek that day, he stopped under a big curious bunch of green, high up in one of the gums, and—made his first discovery!
So this Christmas Day the boy climbed up again 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 did 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 of abundance or of variety on this 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 beaded 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; now I picked a quantity of these wintergreen berries, and continued my meal with the birds. And they too, like the 'possum, 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.
Two 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 mouse 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 pile of 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 proportion to the slender body, was watching me from between the sticks of cord-wood. And just so had it been watching the mice and the rabbits and the birds 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, nearly 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, nor did it flinch for the next ball, or the next. 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 happily 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 just then 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. The sight of him took all hatred out of me. As he strode off with his stained bag I felt kindlier toward the weasel—there were worse in the woods than he. He must kill to live, and if he gloated over the kill, why, what fault of his? But the other, the one with the blood-stained game-bag, he killed for the love of killing. I was glad he had 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 the ditches of the meadows. Their powerful wing-beats and constant play up in the air told of full crops and no fear for the night, already softly gray across the silent fields.
The air was crisper; the snow began to crackle underfoot; 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.
These were not the voices, colors, odors, and forms of summer. 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.