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Winter Woods

( Originally Published 1908 )

The first snow-storm of the season never becomes an old story. It retains its charm indefinitely, to all original minds at least, and to such as have cherished any degree of simplicity. Here is a mimic invasion of an elemental beauty which conquers us by reason of its very gentleness. We are soothed and beguiled into submission. Tempestuous winds call forth our resistance; we front them with set teeth. But who can resist the silent snow descending as if to lay the world under a soft enchantment? The woods are renewed and reclothed in virgin purity. It is as if old scores were wiped out and the world were again a spotless thing.

What can be more companionable than the falling snow ? Its touch is so caressing, its advent so silent in the open, its voice so pleasing as it sifts through the pine-needles. The first solitary flakes approach with the gentle effet of preparing one for the miracle to ensue. A calm settles over all, as though these were indeed the messengers of peace.

Recently there fell such a clinging and abundant snow as comes perhaps only once in a season, and some years not at all. The woods were literally buried and saplings everywhere bent to the ground beneath its weight. It enveloped the pines until they became miniature Alps in the landscape, while among the oaks were gleaming corridors and marble halls. The open, barren aspect common to winter was gone, and the dense walls had shut in again as in summer, but now crystalline and dazzling.

This is perhaps Nature's greatest transformation. In a single night have been erected such palaces as were never seen in Persia. What a bold, free hand wrought here ! In the thousand domes and arches is a massive architecture, relieved by the utmost delicacy, as though Nature said, " Behold, I show you a miracle." A miracle indeed ! Here have wrought the genii of the air while mortals slept, and all that was to be heard was the rustling of their wings. At such times the woods grow suddenly strange and unfamiliar. They so lend themselves to the enchantment we are lost in our own wood-lot. Familiar paths are obliterated by pendulous boughs drooping to the earth, while in the pasture tree-sparrows hop upon the snow among the protruding tops of the tallest ragweeds.

Realize if you can in your walk, over how many sleepers you step all unknown ; how many wood-chucks in their burrows, and frogs in the mud under the ice ; how many torpid snakes and dozing chipmunks. Here is an enchanted household underground. They are at peace and their timid hearts know no fear. The dreaming toad has no terror of writhing blacksnakes, and the snoozing woodchuck has forgotten the dog. Presently they will awake to hunger and fear again. Woodchucks will be up long before breakfast, to go shivering in the cold dawn of the year waiting for the table to be spread. Snakes do not come out till the sun is well up, to lie basking in the noonday heat, catching the first unwary grasshoppers.

Every fresh snowfall makes some revelation of its own, recording crepuscular journeys and prowlings in the night. The broad track of the skunk meanders in and out among the bushes. That he had no definite direction, took never a straight course, nor apparently did he hurry, is in itself evidence of his phlegmatic temperament and lei-surely habit of mind. Footprints of the ruffed grouse show that he has on his snow-shoes, inasmuch as they are feathered, broad and lobed rather than angular. The squirrel leaves evidence of his impetuous ways, moving always impulsively, and the snow makes plain record of the fact. Tracks of deer seem to bespeak their innocence, as that of the fox might be said to have a sinister purport, doubtless because the hoof prints have a gentle suggestion and imply the herbivorous diet.

In the winter walk the eye finds relatively so little to hold it, that it rivets itself upon minute details, dissecting that which might pass unnoticed at other seasons. Form and outline come into prominence while color is in abeyance. We must now perforce judge the trees by this standard. Who shall describe the winter beauty of the beech as it stands stripped and naked to the winds like an athlete, every muscle and sinew in evidence, every outline expressive of reserve power and self assurance a clean-limbed, stout-hearted tree, dauntless before all gales? Its trunk is a superb torso, and with its roots it reaches down to the heart of the earth, draws sustenance therefrom and derives heat from that deep-lying warmth below all frost lines. No parasite this, no surface weed, but the sturdy child of Earth herself, suckled by a Spartan mother. Look upon an ancient beech, bared thus to the storm, and the chest involuntarily expands, as though we too should take firmer hold somewhere and stand more erect. The shellbark is as shaggy, raw-boned and loose-jointed as the beech is trim and closely knit. Its bare branches are not clean-cut against the sky but swollen and distorted like knotted hands of toil horny, crooked fingers up-raised to the heavens. What rude strength is their portion who stand thus alone and derive from the earth as befits the stalwart buffeting, solitary and unyielding, the winter gales.

As the trees are leafless, the bark is now more in evidence. Moosewood looks slender and striped as a ribbon-snake, and limbs of the hop-hornbeam have the appearance of sinews. Where a black and a white oak stand near together, the difference in color is as evident as between a negro and a white man. The white birch is to the winter woods what the dogwood is in spring, the maple in autumn. How is it the ancients did not metamorphose the fairest of all nymphs into this tree, so distinctly feminine is its beauty ? Portions of bark outlast the wood, and are to be found standing erect and empty. The tree has departed, bequeathing its fair skin in token of a vanished loveliness. Now and then the yellow birch is seen in all its beauty, the golden inner bark shining through a silver filigree. To look at this tree is like looking at a picture or reading a poem: one feels somehow refreshed. Nor is the black birch without charm; its bark has a dusky beauty, and again shows fine wood colors and metallic tints similar to the black cherry. This fine luster the birch has in an eminent degree while most trees show it only on their small branches, if at all.

Club-mosses appear to be a lesser growth of pines, a pygmy folk dwelling at the feet of the elder race. Here are miniature trunks and branches bearing miniature cones, perfect little conifers no higher than a chickadee. Ground-pine and trailing Christmas green thrive together on the bank, the latter with stems a yard long, which, while they grow at one end, die at the other. These little plants are crisp and green and refresh the eye on winter days, as does the Christmas fern, which affords a pleasant encounter at a time when one meets few acquaintances. It has, moreover, a certain charm of its own which doubtless lies in the crispness of the fronds and clear-cut outlines of the pinna. The marginal shield-fern is another acquaintance to be looked for on the winter walk, and everywhere the hardy polypody, which is as much a child of winter as the little spiny cladonia that clusters about its roots and clings to the same granite ledge.

Let there come a warm rain, the high blue-berries redden their twigs and the lichens renew their tints quite as though Nature had softened her heart. These lichens suddenly become conspicuous with a sort of gentle prominence, and mildly compel attention; on the oaks the yellow cetraria, on the white pines, olive, slate-colored and blue-green parmelias. Had faun and satyr thus carved upon the forest trees the name of some fair Rosalind among the nymphs, they could not have wrought in more fitting and altogether sylvan characters.

A common necessity and hardship hold the birds together in closer bonds so that they are impelled to consort in little roving bands chickadees, creepers, kingletstiand nuthatches, with often a single downy woodpecker accompanying them. If one chance to drop a morsel he will descend to the ground in search of it. He will not waste a spider's egg, so severe has been the lesson in economy. In zero weather the jay forgets to be saucy, and if there is a glaze on the snow, his native impertinence seems to ooze from him, and he becomes meek enough. Taking a weazened acorn from the tree, he holds the nut with one claw, and with vigorous taps of his bill tears it open.. After extracting the frozen kernel, he drops the shell with a trace of his customary impertinence, as though feeling in somewhat better spirits for even this poor repast. A bone nailed to a tree is inducement for him to stay near the house, but not when he can get acorns readily.

The board may fairly creak with its weight of partridgeberries, beechnuts and acorns, many of the latter crushed and available, and then in a night this plentiful feast is put out of sight under a six-inch layer of snow, to which the next day adds a glaze as if to seal irrevocably the doom of all bob-whites. A fast has been declared in effect, as peremptorily as by any medieval pope, to be broken only with an occasional leaf bud or the poor seeds of the ragweed. But the good sun is a trusty friend, and snow is only so much water. Presently berries and acorns again come into view.

There is no more touching note in nature than the bob-white's at this season, as wandering together in the snow in search of their scanty fare they utter from time to time those low but distinct calls in which they seemingly express their solicitude. June itself has no sweeter song than this note of the winter woods, albeit it is such a plaintive one: mother-notes these, and child-voices of the hunted, full of a wild pathos, tender voices which to us have been but the inarticulate cries of the dumb. The birds feed frequently on the crushed acorns lying in the path, and the jay at times participates to the extent of taking an acorn from the feast and eating it in the branches above, where he is a good sentinel, though prone to imitate the quailing of the red-shouldered hawk when the feast is at its height, to the general discomfiture and alarm of the diners below.

Birds become less suspicious as the mercury falls, and they are hard pressed for food. The snow around the ragweeds is thickly covered with the tracks of bob-whites, like those of chickens, broad and firm, but with hardly any hind toe mark at all, as though they walked about on tip-toe. Very different from these are the long, triangular tracks of the jays, showing where they have hopped upon the snow. It is thus fairly tramped down and strewn with leaves and chaff where the bob-whites have fed, leaving these husks in token of their frugal meal. Such seed must be very small provender for these birds much like a diet of crumbs for a hungry man. Goldfinches, juncos and tree-sparrows seek the same meager repast. The musical flocks of redpolls fare better in the alders around the pond. These are not to be seen every day, any more than the pine-siskins perhaps not at all during several years. But occasionally an enormous flock will arrive and settle in the alders with all the chattering and commotion of a social and hungry company As the seeds are shaken down upon the ice, the birds soon leave the bushes, and are under the table, so to speak.

Crossbills have the easier time, feeding as they do on the seeds of the pine, for these are always available. No sound seems better to accord with the spirit of a still cold winter day than this faint crackling of opening cones, forced. asunder by the shearing motion of the peculiar bills of these birds. Surely here is an adaptation to definite ends. Nature produces a cone that cannot readily be opened, and, as if relenting, produces a bird to open it. The wings of the seeds come zigzagging to the ground as the feast continues overhead all that is destined to be planted.

The lumbermen come into the woods with the crossbills, and everywhere is heard the winter music of the ax. It is good music enough, but it has a sinister purport, and the swish and boom of falling trees is a sad refrain. Ancient pines are laid low, singing to the last their brave and beautiful song, which seems to come, not directly from overhead, but remotely from the empyrean, as though it issued from the distant Court of the Winds. Of the pantheon of trees the village elm is the last to hold our homage; we have dethroned our idols. As the sound of the ax breaks the stillness, I find myself instinctively turning in the opposite direction, to escape that which is soon to follow the swan-song of the forest primeval.

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