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Neighbors

( Originally Published 1908 )

All wild animals are wary and suspicious, even when they do not prey upon one another. What friend has the rabbit, the chipmunk or the weasel? They lead friendless lives and die tragic deaths. Why should not a rabbit gossip with a woodchuck, for instance? One would think their common danger might draw them together, and that they might perhaps learn a little woodcraft one of the other. But caste is nowhere stronger than in the woods. They do not sit at meat together unless, indeed, one is himself the repast.

Like a subtle atmosphere the spirit of the wild pervades the forest. Whoever enters comes under its spell. In the woods the dog tends to revert to the wolf, and savage instincts come to light. On the street he may pay no heed to people, will move in and out among them, himself a bit of civilization ; but let him leave the village and go into the woods, and he is suspicious and on his guard.

We have so fostered this attitude of fear and distrust that our wild neighbors are at best but casual acquaintances, if not complete strangers to us. We are like sharpshooters ambushed around the outposts of an encampment. A stray inmate pokes his head out of the trenches and essays to go to the spring for water. Perhaps we let him drink and make a note of that, then whiz! we let fly at him. We discover what he has had for dinner and a few other trifling matters and we get his skin. His ways remain strange to us and his language no more familiar than Choctaw. Sometimes we catch him and put him in a cage. But what can be learned of a poor, sullen prisoner fretting away his life with terrible thoughts of distant sunlight and running streams and friendly woods?

The acquaintance of a wild animal is not to be made with a gun. Practically nothing is learned in this way ; it is difficult enough to know them without this barrier. But never to have loved the wild things is to have lost much to have lived less. Any dolt can shoot an animal and have a bag of bones for his pains, but to win over such a creature in the smallest degree implies a victory, and is evidence of the redeeming power of the heart. There is a rare pleasure in encountering deer when you have no designs upon them. Such furtive meetings are in themselves adequate. They have the fascination of lovely faces seen for a fleeting moment in a crowd, instantly to be lost sight of. How little we really know about the lives of animals. We can surmise a few things and imagine a great many, but we know next to nothing. Perhaps there is not so very much to know. Their emotions are not complex but simple ; their lives run in narrow grooves. That they suffer, much as we suffer, is certain, and the main thing is to be kind. It is impossible to come upon a wild animal and watch it unobserved without deriving a subtle impression foreign to our usual life. There is something in the free, savage existence which is a shock to the thought-burdened, educated mind, and breaks for a moment its prison of glass.

A glen to which I often go is, like most others in the sequestered woods, really populous, while being to all appearances quite deserted. Its in-habitants are closely associated with the brook; they drink at it and all their lives hear its song.

This glen is their world, and yet they possess it and live in it in virtue of persistent self-effacement.

There are mice and shrews, chipmunks, red and gray squirrels, a woodchuck or two, a skunk, a little gray rabbit, a weasel and a mink. Far from being alone, you are watched by numerous unblinking eyes. From the grass, the rocks, the trees, motionless and in silence these creatures are observing you.

The squirrels have overcome somewhat their hereditary fear, doubtless because we are more kindly disposed to them. As I take my lunch from my pocket, thinking to eat it alone, a chipmunk approaches and sniffs at the package as I put it down. The aroma of bread and butter tickles his nostrils, suggesting some unaccustomed variety of fare, and presently he loses all fear and begins tearing the paper. After a little coaxing he takes a piece of bread from my hand, licking the butter off first with his small pink tongue. He has no sooner eaten it than another chipmunk appears and sniffs the whiskers of the first one. He, too, is overcome by the seductive aroma, and apparently receives some assurances, for he cautiously approaches and takes a morsel of bread.

The package is returned to my pocket, and both chipmunks climb in without hesitation, tear off the paper and help themselves. Meanwhile a third arrives, having somehow learned of the good cheer, and it is not long before all three are scrambling over me.

One cold February day, when no gray squirrels were to be seen, and the snow lay deep in the glen, a solitary red squirrel appeared and looked long in my direction. Then by as direct a course as the ground would permit, he came toward me, over the intervening boulders, until he reached the one on which I sat, whereupon he immediately ate the bits of apple I gave him. He had been with me some little time when I chanced to look over my shoulder, and there at my elbow was the mink. The squirrel saw him at once and made off toward the trees. The mink appeared to take no notice of him, but his presence had evidently disturbed the harmony of the occasion.

The red squirrel stands in no awe of man, but he is as untamable as anything in the woods, none the less. Sit quietly under the hemlocks and the chances are that before long he will be scolding at you from somewhere in the tree tops. Presently he will come down the trunk, head foremost, moving mechanically with little jerks, as though pulled by a string, his hind legs stretched straight out above him. Down almost to the ground he comes, holding himself well out from the tree and eyeing you inquisitively. Suddenly he turns and scurries up the tree, chippering volubly meanwhile, to rush out on a limb and continue the denunciation, adding emphasis with his tail with which he seems to gesticulate.

There is no merrier sight in the woods than a pair of gray squirrels in a frisky mood ; it is unmistakable fun. The gray is averse to the coniferous woods and the red prefers them; thus each has its territory. Apparently the red is more self-contained and readily amuses himself. He is of a more caustic mood; his fun is not so childlike and guileless. Nor is he himself, for there is a dark streak in his make-up, a certain taint in his disposition and always a satirical note in his laughter among the tree tops.

Eight inches or more of snow, and a hard crust, and it becomes poor pickings for the wild things. Here and there are holes where the gray squirrel has been prospecting. Near by, in most cases, lies the cup of an acorn and strips of shell, showing the squirrel went directly to the right place. It is to be observed how many of these excavations are under pines, sometimes several under a single tree. As late as the 1st of April I have noticed a gray squirrel busy under a pignut, burying the nuts which had lain on the ground through the winter. He would first rapidly shuck them, then dig a small hole, force them well into the earth with a vigorous push with his jaws, and as rapidly cover them again. In this way he would bury a dozen in as many minutes, and then make off through the woods.

Between the squirrels and the mink family the difference is as much a matter of disposition as of structure. The mink is the evil genius of the place. His character has written itself in his physiognomy, glitters in his eye and shows itself in the serpentine motion of his head. His silence speaks. But his presence is agreeable in a way, for it is a touch of that savage nature we do not otherwise get with-out going back into the wilderness. A squirrel reveals his candor in his inquisitiveness and in his noisy ways; curiosity gets the better of his fears. These psychologic differences are as marked with animals as with men.

I once surprised the weasel in this glen, with a young robin in her mouth which she had just taken from the nest and was carrying home for her family. She dropped the bird when I threw a stone, whereupon I stood by the dead robin and waited, anticipating her return, for I knew the weasel's boldness of old. Almost immediately the sinister-looking creature poked her head from the bushes and, without hesitation, approached and seized the bird where it lay between my feet. Another stone caused her to drop it again before she had gone far. This time I moved the robin some little distance away and stood beside it as before. Soon the weasel reappeared, and going to the spot where she had last dropped it, became visibly excited on finding it gone. She then began rapidly following the scent, like a hound, and at length by a circuitous course, approached, and again took the bird from under my feet.

Almost every fine day in autumn the wood-chuck is to be met. He. emerges from the bushes with deliberation and ambles out into the open where there is a little clover to tempt him, his tawny legs showing in strong contrast with his grayish back and scraggly black tail. His enjoyment is evident; the sun feels good to him. He is a chilly body, and, like the snakes, cannot get any too much warmth. Now he sits upon his haunches and takes a deliberate survey, then pokes some greens into his mouth with his forepaws. If his sharp ears bring him no suspicious sound, he drops upon all fours and goes to browsing again.

No one has explained why the woodchuck holes up so early in the autumn and comes out at such an unseasonable time in the spring. He goes in while there is still plenty to eat, and reappears when there is scarcely anything to be had. Possibly the habit was acquired in some remote past when the winter may have come earlier in the year, and the woodchucks, being a conservative race and loath to change their ways, have never adapted themselves, but go to bed now as it were in the middle of the afternoon and get up before daybreak, impelled to this early rising by hunger. Soon we shall be walking over his head, but it will not disturb his nap. He will have rolled himself up in a ball for a four or five months' snooze in company with all the little frogs and snakes a sleepy crowd. The chipmunk is likewise a chilly body, but he is not going to fastónot he so he lays in a good store of chestnuts and makes all snug for the cold weather.

While the moral of the ant and the grasshopper will doubtless always hold good, there is little incentive for the grasshopper to become thrifty as few would live to enjoy the results. But the woodchuck might well profit by the example of the chipmunk, who loves his comfort and a well-stocked larder in which to snooze away the winter months, a round of dinners and after-dinner naps. Besides his hordes of beech and chestnuts, he is credited with gathering the seeds of the buttercup as well as buckwheat and grass seed. I have seen him on the tips of witch-hazel twigs biting off the nutlets of the preceding year. He has some variety at his table then. The buttercups must be in the nature of a delicacy his sweetcakes perhaps.

As the weather grows colder the vegetation seems to droop hourly, the bare earth becoming visible, except where the dry leaves have roofed themselves over the huckleberry bushes or in the thick tangle of briers. The rabbit must feel himself rather too much in evidence as the ground is thus exposed, and perforce relies more on his protective coloration to escape notice. An adept at dissimulation, he turns into a stump and remains so indefinitely. Yet looking at him recently, as he sat motionless on some dry leaves among the bare stems of the blackcap raspberries, I was struck with how poor a refuge his colors really do afford when once your eye is upon him. At the first glance, and before he had come into the mental vision as a rabbit, he appeared as a small grayish stump covered with buff-tinted shelf fungi. But the moment I looked sharply at him, he was a rabbit in every detail. His colors did not greatly harmonize with the oak leaves on which he sat, yet he allowed me to approach and walk around him. It is all a matter of the attention ; by remaining quiet the animal does not arrest the eye readily, but once this is directed upon him the disguise is seen to be very thin.

Save for his nose, which wobbled slightly, he was motionless as a stone. After some time his ear moved gently, much as a leaf is turned over by the wind, but his eye never winked and its expression was one of extreme alertness. On too near an approach he made off in haste. Noting his direction, I followed to see if I could again locate him. For some time no rabbit was visible, when I chanced again upon a little gray stump covered with buff-tinted fungi, which appeared this time on the pine-needles and just within the charmed precincts of the briers.

I produced an apple as a peace offering and in token of my good-will and desire to be of service to the tribe of gray rabbits. He remained like a stone while the bits of apple descended about him and lay at a tempting distance. At last there was a more vigorous wobbling of the nose, the long ears moved as a leaf turns and with two little hops he approached and accepted the token, and we were brought together in amity in the silent woods. A humble offering, indeed, but it served for the moment to bring me in touch with the wild and to strike a common chord. The seemingly impassable barrier of caste, which lies between man and the wild things, was crossed, and we broke bread together.

After a light fall of snow it is instructive to read what the rabbit has written in his diary. Such scattered notes as he leaves are wholly personal and do not seem to imply interest in anything but himself. You may see where he has hopped through his runways and stopped now and then when the necessity appealed to him of removing certain briers to keep the passageway clear. Some-times it is a stem of the catbrier; again a rose or blackberry. In every case it is cut obliquely and as sharply and neatly as with a knife. Frequently stems are severed thickly set with thorns and prickers, and the wonder is how he closed his teeth upon them without getting an unpleasant mouthful. Hundreds of cuts reveal never a slip or break, but each is sharply defined as if done by one stroke of a razor. His track shows places where he sat upon his haunches, and where he stood up to reach the buds of a stunted wild apple; again he followed the shore of the pond and nibbled the small willows and clethra. Occasionally he appears to have cut a large brier merely for practice in using his teeth.

Rabbit and fox are outlaws and without rights. They are hunted to death ; hence they live by their wits if they live at all. It has become second nature to them to proceed indirectly, to break the scent and double on their tracks whenever occasion offers. The fox knows few foes besides men and dogs, but the rabbit must circumvent owls, weasels, minks and foxes as well. Hence I bow to the rabbit as to a superior intelligence : one deeply versed in the ancient lore of woodcraft and possessing knowledge as yet unrevealed to us. Does he carry some charm whereby the earth opens and receives him in need, some tarn hut in which he becomes invisible, or does the fabled St.-John'swort exercise for his race a special protection? What shall fill the place of the wild things when they are swept from the earth? Why not tolerate an occasional fox if only to hear him yap, and to have the assurance that there is still this much untamed?

In such a timid world, where fear of man is so large a factor, one is struck by the least evidence of self-assurance. In view of this I entertain a covert admiration for the skunk. Fear rests lightly on his shoulders. Meet him in the woods, teetering along, and he is the less concerned of the two. His imperturbability is his leading characteristic. In this he is the very opposite of the coon. But he knows how terrible is the weapon he carries, how vulnerable the nose of man. The nose is the point of attack; he would slay you through your olfactories. It is seldom any one says a good word for the skunk. He must needs be a villain and a chicken thief who smells thus to heaven. Yet in fact there are bolder thieves in town than he, with more sinister designs on the hen-roost. It is impolite to mention him, as though his name were as unsavory as his odor. Men deal more kindly with his memory, for he is permitted to undergo a commercial transfiguration, to rise triumphant from the vat, henceforth to be taken to our bosoms as Alaska sable.

The skunk receives no credit for the countless beetles he grubs from the earth. No more does the mole who suffers for the sins of the meadow-mouse. They are victims of prejudice. When I see a mole emerge from the earth, I feel I am looking upon an inhabitant of another sphere the underworld ; one as strange to me as I am to him. What use has he for the sun? He cares not for celestial light, but for subterranean fires only.

In the pond above the glen is a colony of muskrats. It antedates the memory of the oldest inhabitants, and the muskrats were in all probability the first settlers themselves. The huts, which lie scattered through the sedge and cattails, are some of them flat while others are high and dome-shaped. Their number does not seem to vary much from year to year, whereas muskrats are said to be very prolific. What, then, becomes of all the young? I have never known of any one trapping or killing them in this pond. It may be the old mink in the glen, and many another, make this their hunting-ground and thus keep down the number.

These queer neighbors pique our curiosity. What manner of life do they lead indoors ? They take some rude pleasure and have dull animal thoughts perhaps. As you stamp upon the ice and slap your hands to keep from freezing, the muskrat sits serenely below enjoying the comforts of the pond, and quite unaware the mercury has dropped to zero. He has built him a house and stocked his cellar, and what cares he. As snug as a mouse in a cheese, he has taken the precaution to make his home of his favorite dish. Let the world freeze, then, if it will, he nibbles the walls of his room till it thaws again. Consider the interior of that dwelling, what a murky house is there, its front door under water and never a window.

Muskrats repair and enlarge their huts in the fall, and perhaps subsequently gnaw out as much from the inside as they add to the exterior. The walls are made of grass and sedge roots together with spatter-docks and bur-reeds. During the summer you might not suspect the presence of one, hidden as they are in the cattails and rank growth of sedge. As the vegetation dies down in autumn, the huts loom proportionately, so that they come prominently into view by November; and then, on some fine cold morning, in place of the reedy pond, appears a sheet of ice with isolated domes rising here and there. From these, the muskrat and his family travel to their feeding-grounds. They have chosen their estate at the bottom of the pond rich lands for which none contend with them.

In fact our wild neighbors all live in a dim world of shadows, in which they lurk like phantoms. They have retreated into the night, and for days together you may not meet one. But the new fallen snow reveals their presence.

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