| School of the Woods|
|by William J. Long|
|Through vivid depictions of a dozen family groupings, the author demonstrates that mother animals and birds often train their young in order to supplement their natural instincts. The deer and her fawns, the black bear and her cubs, the fishhawk and her nestlings, the keen-eyed heron, the stupid porcupine, and the mighty moose are some of the animals whose teachings are described in this book. Ages 10-14 |
A LAZY FELLOW'S FUN
NEW sound, a purring rustle of leaves, stopped me
instantly as I climbed the beech ridge, one late afternoon,
to see what wood folk I might surprise feeding on the rich
mast. Pr-r-r-r-ush, pr-r-r-r-ush! a curious combination
of the rustling of squirrels' feet and the soft, crackling
purr of an eagle's wings, growing nearer, clearer every
instant. I slipped quietly behind the nearest tree to watch
Something was coming down the hill; but what? It was not an
animal running. No
 animal that I knew, unless he had gone
suddenly crazy, would ever make such a racket to tell
everybody where he was. It was not squirrels playing, nor
grouse scratching among the new-fallen leaves. Their
alternate rustlings and silences are unmistakable. It was
not a bear shaking down the ripe beechnuts—not heavy enough
for that, yet too heavy for the feet of any prowler of the
woods to make on his stealthy hunting. Pr-r-r-r-ush,
swish! thump! Something struck the stem of a bush heavily
and brought down a rustling shower of leaves; then out from
under the low branches rolled something that I had never
seen before,—a heavy grayish ball, as big as a half-bushel
basket, so covered over with leaves that one could not tell
what was inside. It was as if some one had covered a big
kettle with glue and sent it rolling down the hill, picking
up dead leaves as it went. So the queer thing tumbled past
my feet, purring, crackling, growing bigger and more ragged
every moment as it gathered up
 more leaves, till it reached
the bottom of a sharp pitch and lay still.
I stole after it cautiously. Suddenly it moved, unrolled
itself. Then out of the ragged mass came a big porcupine.
He shook himself, stretched, wobbled around a moment, as if
his long roll had made him dizzy; then he meandered
aimlessly along the foot of the ridge, his quills stuck full
of dead leaves, looking big and strange enough to frighten
anything that might meet him in the woods.
Here was a new trick, a new problem concerning one of the
stupidest of all the wood folk. When you meet a porcupine
and bother him, he usually rolls himself into a huge
pincushion with all its points outward, covers his face with
his thorny tail, and lies still, knowing well that you
cannot touch him anywhere without getting the worst of it.
Now had he been bothered by some animal and rolled himself
up where it was so steep that he lost his balance, and so
tumbled unwillingly down the long hill; or, with his
full of sweet beechnuts, had he rolled down lazily to avoid
the trouble of walking; or is Unk Wunk brighter than he
looks to discover the joy of roller coasting and the fun of
feeling dizzy afterwards?
There was nothing on the hill above, no rustle or suggestion
of any hunting animal to answer the question; so I followed
Unk Wunk on his aimless wanderings along the foot of the
A slight movement far ahead caught my eye, and I saw a hare
gliding and dodging among the brown ferns. He came slowly
in our direction, hopping and halting and wiggling his nose
at every bush, till he heard our approach and rose on his
hind legs to listen. He gave a great jump as Unk Wunk hove
into sight, covered all over with the dead leaves that his
barbed quills had picked up on his way downhill, and lay
quiet where he thought the ferns would hide him.
The procession drew nearer. Moktaques, full of curiosity,
lifted his head cautiously out of the ferns and sat up
straight on his
 haunches again, his paws crossed, his eyes
shining in fear and curiosity at the strange animal rustling
along and taking the leaves with him. For a moment wonder
held him as still as the stump beside him; then he bolted
into the bush in a series of high, scared jumps, and I heard
him scurrying crazily in a half circle around us.
Unk Wunk gave no heed to the interruption, but yew-yawed
hither and yon after his stupid nose. Like every other
porcupine that I have followed, he seemed to have nothing
whatever to do, and nowhere in the wide world to go. He
loafed along lazily, too full to eat any of the beechnuts
that he nosed daintily out of the leaves. He tried a bit of
bark here and there, only to spit it out again. Once he
started up the hill; but it was too steep for a lazy fellow
with a full stomach. Again he tried it; but it was not
steep enough to roll down afterwards. Suddenly he
and came back to see who it was that followed him about.
I kept very quiet, and he brushed two or three times past my
legs, eyeing me sleepily. Then he took to nosing a beechnut
from under my foot, as if I were no more interesting than
Alexander was to Diogenes.
I had never made friends with a porcupine,—he is too
briery a fellow for intimacies,—but now with a small stick
I began to search him gently, wondering if, under all that
armor of spears and brambles, I might not find a place where
it would please him to be scratched. At the first touch he
rolled himself together, all his spears sticking straight
out on every side, like a huge chestnut bur. One could not
touch him anywhere without being pierced by a dozen barbs.
Gradually, however, as the stick touched him gently and
searched out the itching spots under his armor, he unrolled
himself and put his nose under my foot again. He did not
want the beechnut; but he did want to nose it out. Unk Wunk
is like a pig.
 He has very few things to do besides eating;
but when he does start to go anywhere or do anything he
always does it. Then I bent down to touch him with my hand.
That was a mistake. He felt the difference in the touch
instantly. Also he smelled the salt in my hand, for a taste
of which Unk Wunk will put aside all his laziness and walk a
mile, if need be. He tried to grasp the hand, first with
his paws, then with his mouth; but I had too much fear of
his great cutting teeth to let him succeed. Instead I
touched him behind the ears, feeling my way gingerly through
the thick tangle of spines, testing them cautiously to see
how easily they would pull out.
The quills were very loosely set in, and every arrow-headed
barb was as sharp as a needle. Anything that pressed
against them roughly would surely be pierced; the spines
would pull out of the skin, and work their way rapidly into
the unfortunate hand or paw or nose that touched them. Each
spine was like a South Sea Islander's sword, set
 for half
its length with shark's teeth. Once in the flesh it would
work its own way, unless pulled out with a firm hand spite
of pain and terrible laceration. No wonder Unk Wunk has no
fear or anxiety when he rolls himself into a ball, protected
at every point by such terrible weapons.
The hand moved very cautiously as it went down his side,
within reach of Unk Wunk's one swift weapon. There were
thousands of the spines, rough as a saw's edge, crossing
each other in every direction, yet with every point outward.
Unk Wunk was irritated, probably, because he could not have
the salt he wanted. As the hand came within range, his tail
snapped back like lightning. I was watching for the blow,
but was not half quick enough. At the rustling snap, like
the voice of a steel trap, I jerked my hand away. Two of
his tail spines came with it; and a dozen more were in my
coat sleeve. I jumped away as he turned, and so escaped the
quick double swing of his tail
 at my legs. Then he rolled
into a chestnut bur again, and proclaimed mockingly at every
point: "Touch me if you dare!"
I pulled the two quills with sharp jerks out of my hand,
pushed all the others through my coat sleeve, and turned to
Unk Wunk again, sucking my wounded hand, which pained me
intensely. "All your own fault," I kept telling myself, to
keep from whacking him across the nose, his one vulnerable
point, with my stick.
Unk Wunk, on his part, seemed to have forgotten the
incident. He unrolled himself slowly, and loafed along the
foot of the ridge, his quills spreading and rustling as he
went, as if there were not such a thing as an enemy or an
inquisitive man in all the woods.
He had an idea in his head by this time, and was looking for
something. As I followed close behind him, he would raise
himself against a small tree, survey it solemnly for a
moment or two, and go on unsatisfied. A breeze had come
down from the mountain and was swaying all the tree-tops
 He would look up steadily at the tossing
branches, and then hurry on to survey the next little tree
he met, with paws raised against the trunk and dull eyes
following the motion overhead.
At last he found what he wanted, two tall saplings growing
close together and rubbing each other as the wind swayed
them. He climbed one of these clumsily, higher and higher,
till the slender top bent with his weight towards the other.
Then he reached out to grasp the second top with his fore
paws, hooked his hind claws firmly into the first, and lay
there binding the tree-tops together, while the wind rose
and began to rock him in his strange cradle.
Wider and wilder he swung, now stretched out thin, like a
rubber string, his quills lying hard and flat against his
sides as the tree-tops separated in the wind; now jammed up
against himself as they came together again, pressing him
into a flat ring with spines sticking straight out, like a
 chestnut bur that has been stepped upon. And there he
swayed for a full hour, till it grew too dark to see him,
stretching, contracting, stretching, contracting, as if he
were an accordion and the wind were playing him. His only
note, meanwhile, was an occasional squealing grunt of
satisfaction after some particularly good stretch, or when
the motion changed and both trees rocked together in a wide,
wild, exhilarating swing. Now and then the note was
answered, farther down the ridge, by another porcupine going
to sleep in his lofty cradle. A storm was coming; and Unk
Wunk, who is one of the wood's best barometers, was crying
it aloud where all might hear.
So my question was answered unexpectedly. Unk Wunk was out
for fun that afternoon, and had rolled down the hill for the
joy of the swift motion and the dizzy feeling afterwards, as
other wood folk do. I have watched young foxes, whose den
was on a steep hillside, rolling down one after the other,
and sometimes varying the programme
 by having one cub roll
as fast as he could, while another capered alongside,
snapping and worrying him in his brain-muddling tumble.
That is all very well for foxes. One expects to find such
an idea in wise little heads. But who taught Unk Wunk to
roll downhill and stick his spines full of dry leaves to
scare the wood folk? And when did he learn to use the
tree-tops for his swing and the wind for his motive power?
Perhaps—since most of what the wood folk know is a matter of
learning, not of instinct—his mother teaches him some things
that we have never yet seen. If so, Unk Wunk has more in
his sleepy, stupid head than we have given him credit for,
and there is a very interesting lesson awaiting him who
shall first find and enter the porcupine school.
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