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School of the Woods by  William J. Long
Table of Contents


 

 

HOW THE ANIMALS DIE

[345]

T
HE scream of an eagle—a rare sound in the summer wilderness—brought me hurrying out of my commoosie  to know what had caused Cheplahgan to break the silence. He was poised over his mountain top at an enormous altitude, wheeling in small erratic circles, like an eaglet learning to use the wind under his broad wings, and anon sending his wild cry out over the startled woods.

Clearly something was wrong with Cheplahgan. This was no eaglet calling aloud to his unknown mate, or trying for the first time the eagle's wonderful spiral flight; neither was it one of a pair of the royal birds that I had been watching and following for weeks, [346] whose nest and little ones I had found at last on a distant crag. Occasionally, as I followed them, I had glimpses of another eagle, a huge, solitary old fellow without a mate, whose life had been a puzzle and a mystery to me all summer. It was he who was now crying aloud over the high mountain, where I had often seen him looking out with quiet eyes over the wide splendid domain that he ruled no longer, but had given over to younger eagles—his nestlings, perhaps—only claiming for himself the right to stay and hunt where he and his vanished mate had so long held sway. For most birds and beasts of prey have their own hunting grounds; and, until they give them up, none other goes a-poaching there. It was this that had chiefly puzzled me all summer. Now I ran to a point and sat down quietly against a weatherworn root that blended with the gray of my jacket, and focused my glasses steadily on Cheplahgan to see what he would do.

Soon the erratic circles narrowed to a center, about which the great eagle turned as on [347] a pivot; the wild cry was hushed, and he spread his wings wide and stiff, as an eagle does when resting on the air. For several minutes I could see no motion; he seemed just a tiny dark line drawn across the infinite blue background. Then the line grew longer, heavier; and I knew that he was coming down straight towards me.

Lower and lower he came, slanting slowly down in a long incline by imperceptible degrees, without a quiver of his wide-set wings. Lower still and nearer, till I saw with wonder that his head, instead of being carried eagle fashion, in a perfect line with body and tail, drooped forward as if it were heavy. Straight over the point he sailed, so near that I heard the faint crackle of his pinions, like the rustle of heavy silk. The head drooped lower still; the fierce, wild eyes were half closed as he passed. Only once did he veer slightly, to escape a tall stub that thrust its naked bulk above the woods athwart his path. Then with rigid wings he crossed the bay below the point, still slanting [348] gently down to earth, and vanished silently into the drooping arms of the dark woods beyond.

Clearly something was wrong with Cheplahgan. Such an eagle's flight was never seen before. I marked the spot where he disappeared, between two giant trees, and followed swiftly in my canoe. Just within the fringe of forest I found him, resting peacefully for the first time on mother earth, his head lying across the moss-cushioned root of an old cedar, his wings outstretched among the cool green ferns—dead.


Behind my tent in the wilderness, last summer, was a little spring. I used to go there often, not to drink, but just to sit beside it awhile and grow quiet, watching its cool waters bubble up out of the dark earth amid dancing pebbles to steal away among the ferns and mosses on its errand of unchanging mercy. Now and then, as I watched, the little wild things would hear the low tinkle of invitation to all who were athirst, [351] and would come swiftly to drink. Seeing me they would draw back among the ferns to watch and listen; but the little rivulet tinkled away unchanged, and they always came back at last, taking me shyly for their friend because I sat beside their spring.

One day when I came a little wood warbler was sitting on a frond of evergreen that hung over the spring as if to protect it. For several days I had noticed him there, resting or flitting silently about the underbrush. He rarely drank, but seemed to be there, as I was, just because he loved the place. He was old and alone; the dark feathers of his head were streaked with gray, and his feet showed the wrinkled scales that age always brings to the birds. As if he had learned the gentleness of age, he seemed to have no fear, barely moving aside as I approached, and at times coming close beside me as I looked into his spring. To-day he was quieter than usual; when I stretched out my hand to take him he made no resistance, but settled down quietly on my finger and closed his eyes.

[352] For a half hour or more he sat there contentedly, blinking sleepily now and then, and opening his eyes wide when I brought him a drop of water on the tip of my finger. As twilight came on, and all the voices of the wood were hushed, I put him back on the evergreen frond, where he nodded off to sleep before I went away.

Next morning he was closer to the friendly spring, on a lower branch of the big evergreen. Again he nestled down in my hand and drank gratefully the drop from my finger tip. At twilight I found him hanging head down from a spruce root, his feet clinched in a hold that would never loosen, his bill just touching the life-giving water. He had fallen asleep there, in peace, by the spring that he had known and loved all his life, and whose waters welled up to his lips and held his image in their heart to the last moment.


How do the animals die?—quietly, peacefully, nine tenths of them, as the eagle died in his own free element, and the little wood [353] warbler by the spring he loved. For these two are but types of the death that goes on in the woods continually. The only exception is in this: that they were seen by too inquisitive eyes. The vast majority steal away into the solitudes they love and lay them down unseen, where the leaves shall presently cover them from the sight of friends and enemies alike.

We rarely discover them at such times, for the instinct of the animal is to go away as far as possible into the deepest coverts. We see only the exceptional cases, the quail in the hawk's grip, the squirrel limp and quiet under the paw of cat or weasel; but the unnumbered multitudes that choose their own place and close their eyes for the last time, as peacefully as ever they lay down to sleep, are hidden from our sight.

There is a curious animal trait which may account for this, and also explain why we have such curious, foolish conceptions of animal death as a tragic, violent thing. All animals and birds have a strong distrust and [354] antipathy for any queerness or irregularity among their own kind. Except in rare cases, no animals or birds will tolerate any cripple or deformed or sickly member among them. They set upon him fiercely and drive him away. So when an animal, grown old and feeble, feels the queerness of some new thing stealing upon him he slips away, in obedience to a law of protection that he has noted all his life, and, knowing no such thing as death, thinks he is but escaping discomfort when he lies down in hiding for the last time.

A score of times, with both wild and domestic animals, I have watched this and wondered. Sometimes it is entirely unconscious, as with an old bear that I found one summer, who had laid him down for his winter sleep under a root, as usual, but did not waken when the snows were gone and the spring sun called him cheerily. Sometimes it is a triumphant sense of cunning, as with certain ducks that, when wounded, dive and grasp a root under water, and die there, [355] thinking how perfectly they escape their enemies. Sometimes it is a faint, unknown instinct that calls them they know not whither, as with the caribou, many of whom go far away to a spot they have never seen, where generations of their ancestors have preceded them, and there lie down with the larches swaying above them gently, wondering why they are so sleepy, and why they care not for good moss and water. And sometimes it is but a blind impulse to get away, as many birds fly straight out to sea, till they can go no farther, and fold their tired wings and sleep ere the ocean touches them.

One day you may see your canary fluttering his unused wings ceaselessly against the bars of his cage, where he lived so long content. Were you wise, you would open the door; for a call, stronger far than your artificial relations, is bidding him come,—the call of his forgotten ancestors. Next day he lies dead on the floor of his cage, and there is left for him only a burial more artificial than his poor life.

[356] "But," some reader objects, "what about the catastrophes, the tragedies?" There may be a few, possibly, if you see with your imagination rather than with your eyes; but they are rarer far than human catastrophes. And as the vast majority of mankind die, not by earthquake or famine, but peacefully on their beds, so the vast majority of wild creatures die quietly in beds of their own choosing. Except where man steps in and interferes with the natural order of things, or brutally kills a brooding or nursing mother, Nature knows no tragedies. A partridge falls under the owl's swoop. That is bad for the partridge,—who is, however, almost invariably one of the weak or foolish ones who have not learned to be obedient with his brethren,—but there are two young owls up in the treetop yonder, who will rejoice and be glad at the good dinner brought home to them by a careful and loving mother.

As a rule Nature, as well as man, protects her brooding mothers, on whom helpless lives depend, with infinite care and cunning. Even [357] the fox cannot smell them at such times, though he pass close by. But should the mother fall—even here we have let our human imagination run away with us—the young do not starve to death, as we imagine pitifully. They cry out for their dinner; the mother is not near to hush them, to tell them that silence is the law of the woods for helpless things. They cry again; the crow or the weasel hears, and there is a speedy end to the family without delay or suffering. This is the way of the woods.

There are violent deaths, to be sure; but these are usually the most painless and merciful. A deer goes down under the spring of a panther watching above the runways. We imagine that to be a fearful death, and painters have depicted it in the colors of agony. As a matter of fact, there is probably no pain whatever. Livingstone, who lay under the paw of a lion with his shoulder crushed and his arm gashed with seams whose scars he carried to his grave, felt no pain and did not even know that he was [358] hurt. He was the first to call attention to the fact that the rush and spring of a savage animal brings a kind of merciful numbness that kills pain perfectly, and seems also to take away all feeling and volition; so that one is glad simply to lie still—his only hope, by the way, if he is to escape. If this is true of men, it is ten times more so of the animals, which have none of our nervousness or imagination.

There are many other things which point to the same comfortable conclusion. Soldiers in the rush of a charge or the run of a retreat are often mortally hurt without knowing it till they faint and fall an hour later. Every one has seen a mouse under the cat's paw, and a toad in the jaws of a snake, and knows that, so far as the stricken creatures are concerned, there is no suggestion there of death or suffering. And I have seen larger creatures—rabbits and grouse and deer—lying passive under the talon or claw that crushed them, and could only wonder at Nature's mercifulness. Death was not hard, but kind, [359] and covered over with a vague unreality that hid all meaning from the animals' eyes and made them wonder what was happening.

Sometimes the animals die of cold. I have occasionally found, on bitter mornings, owls and crows and little birds hanging each by one claw to a branch, dead and frozen. That is also a merciful and painless ending. I have been lost in the woods in winter. I have felt the delicious languor of the cold, the soft infolding arms of the snow that beckoned restfully as twilight fell, when the hush was on the woods and human muscles could act no longer. And that is a gentle way to die when the time comes.

Sometimes the animals die of hunger, when an ice storm covers all their feeding grounds. That also, as any one knows who has gone days without food, is far more merciful than any sickness. Long before pain comes, a dozy lassitude blunts the edge of all feeling. Sometimes it is fire or flood; but in that case the creature runs away, with the confidence that he always feels in his legs or wings, till [360] the end comes swift and sure. Those that escape huddle together in the safe spots, forgetting natural enmities and all things else save a great wonder at what has come to pass. In short, unless the animals are to live always and become a nuisance or a danger by their increase, Nature is kind, even in her sterner moods, in taking care that death comes to all her creatures without pain or terror. And what is true of the animals was true of man till he sought out many inventions to make sickness intolerable and death an enemy.

All these latter cases, it is well to remember, are the striking variations, not the rule of the woods. The vast majority of animals go away quietly when their time comes; and their death is not recorded because man has eyes only for exceptions. He desires a miracle, but overlooks the sunsets. Something calls the creature away from his daily round; age or natural disease touches him gently in a way that he has not felt before. He steals away, obeying the old warning instinct of his [361] kind, and picks out a spot where they shall not find him till he is well again. The brook sings on its way to the sea; the waters lap and tinkle on the pebbles as the breeze rocks them; the wind is crooning in the pines,—the old, sweet lullaby that he heard when his ears first opened to the harmony of the world. The shadows lengthen; the twilight deepens; his eyes grow drowsy; he falls asleep. And his last conscious thought, since he knows no death, is that he will waken in the morning when the light calls him.


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