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School of the Woods by  William J. Long
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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
364 pages $13.95   





VER my head soared an eagle one day, his broad vans set firm to the breeze that was doing his pleasure splendidly, keeping him afloat in the blue, just where he wanted to be. At my feet sprawled a turtle, enjoying himself in his own way. The two together taught me a lesson, which I am glad now to remember.

The morning fishing was over. A couple of grilse, beautiful four-pound fish, fresh from the sea, lay snug together in my fish basket—enough for the day and to spare. [310] So I gave up—with an effort, I must confess—the big salmon that had plunged twice at my Jock Scott, and sat down on a stranded log to enjoy myself, as the wood folk were doing all about me.

The river rippled past with strong, even sweep. Below was the deep pool, with smiles and glintings of light on its dark face, where the salmon, after their long run from the sea, rested awhile before taking up their positions in the swift water, in which they love to lie, balancing themselves against the rush and tremor of the current. Above were the riffles, making white foam patches of the water, as if they were having a soap-bubble party all to themselves. The big white bubbles would come dancing, swinging down to the eddies behind the rocks, where a playful young grilse would shoot up through them, scattering them merrily, and adding a dozen more bubbles and wimples to the running troop as he fell back into his eddy with a musical splash that [311] set all the warblers on the bank to whistling. Now and then a big white patch would escape all this and enter sedately the swift run of water along the great ledge on the farther shore. My big salmon lived there; and just as the foam patch dipped sharply into the quiet water below, he would swirl under it and knock it into smithereens with a blow of his tail.

So the play went on, while I sat watching it—watching the shadows, watching the dabs and pencilings of light and the changing reflections, watching the foam bubbles with special delight and anticipation, betting with myself how far they would run, whether to the second eddy or to the rim of the pool, before the salmon would smash them in their play. Then a shadow fell on the water, and I looked up to watch the great eagle breasting, balancing, playing with the mighty air currents above, as the fishes played in the swift rush of water below.

He set his wings square to the wind at first and slanted swiftly up, like a well hung [312] kite. But that was too fast for leisure hours. He had only dropped down to the pool in idle curiosity to see what was doing. Then, watching his wing tips keenly through my glass, I saw the quills turn ever so slightly, so as to spill the wind from their underside, as a skipper slacks sheets to deaden his boat's headway, and the wonderful upward spiral flight began.

Just how he does it only the eagle himself knows; and with him it is largely a matter of slow learning. The young birds make a sad bungle of it when they try it for the first time, following the mother eagle, who swings just above and in front of them to show them how it is done.

Over me sweeps my eagle in slow, majestic circles; ever returning upon his course, yet ever higher than his last wheel, like a life with a great purpose in it; sliding evenly upward on the wind's endless stairway as it slips from under him. Without hurry, without exertion—just a twist of his wide-set wing quills, so slight that my eye can no [313] longer notice it—he swings upward; while the earth spreads wider and wider below him, and rivers flash in the sun, like silver ribbons, across the green forest carpet that spreads away over mountain and valley to the farthest horizon.

Smaller and smaller grow the circles now, till the vast spiral reaches its apex, and he hangs there in the air, looking with quiet, kindling eyes over Isaiah's royal land of "farnesses," like a tiny humming bird poised over the earth's great flower cup. So high is he that one must think he glances over the brim of things, and sees our earth as a great bubble floating in the blue ether, with nothing whatever below it and only himself above. And there he stays, floating, balancing, swaying in the purring currents of air that hold him fast in their soft arms and brush his great wings tenderly with a caress that never grows weary, like a great, strong mother holding her little child.

He had fed; he had drunk to the full from a mountain spring. Now he rested over the [314] world that nourished him and his little ones, with his keen eyes growing sleepy, and never a thought of harm to himself or any creature within his breast. For that is a splendid thing about all great creatures, even the fiercest of them: they are never cruel. They take only what they must to supply their necessities. When their wants are satisfied there is truce which they never break. They live at peace with all things, small and great, and, in their dumb unconscious way, answer to the deep harmony of the world which underlies all its superficial discords, as the music of the sea is never heard till one moves far away from the uproar along the shore.

The little wild things all know this perfectly. When an eagle, or any other bird or beast of prey, is not hunting—which is nine tenths of the time—the timidest and most defenseless creature has no fear of him whatever.

My eyes grow weary, at last, watching the noble bird, so small a speck on the infinite [315] blue background; and they blur suddenly, thinking of the joy of his great free life, and the sadness of our unnatural humanity.

As I seek the pool again, and rest my eyes on the soft, glimmering, color-washed surface, there is a stir in the still water at my feet. Life is here too; and joy belongs, not only to the heavens, but to the earth as well. A long twig from a fallen tree had thrust itself deep into the stream, its outer end swayed, and rose and fell rhythmically in the current. While I was watching the eagle a little turtle found the twig and laid himself across it, one flipper clinched into a knot to hold him steady, the others hanging listlessly and swinging to keep the balance perfect as he teetered up and down, up and down, with the great, purring river to do his work for him and join his silent play. And there he lay for half the morning—as long as I stayed to watch him—swinging, swaying, rising, falling, glad of his little life, which was yet big enough to know pleasure, glad of light and motion, and, [316] for aught I know, glad of a music in the stream below, the faint echo of the rustling, rippling, fluting music that filled the air and the woods all around me.

Life is a glad thing for the wood folk; that is what the great eagle was saying, far overhead; that is what the little turtle said, swaying up and down on his twig at my feet; that is what every singing bird and leaping salmon said, and every piping frog along the shore, and every insect buzzing about my ears in the warm sunshine. I remembered suddenly a curious fact, which till then had never come home to me with its true significance: in all my years of watching the wild things—watching, not to record, or to make a story, but only to see and understand for myself just what they were doing, and what they thought and felt—I had never yet met an unhappy bird or animal. Nor have I ever met one, before or since, in whom the dominant note was not gladness of living. I have met all sorts and conditions of beasts and birds at close [317] quarters; some whose whole nature seemed bent into a question mark, like certain jays and turkeys and deer, and one moose that I could not keep away from my camp for any length of time; some fond, like a certain big green frog that attached himself to me with an affection that denied his cold blood; some foolish, like the fawn that would never follow his leader; some morose and ugly, like the big bull moose that first watched and then tried twice to kill me; but never a one, great or small, among them all, to whom life did not seem to offer a brimming cup, and who did not, even in times of danger and want, rejoice in his powers and live gladly, with an utter absence of that worry and anxiety which make wreck of our human life.

I stood by a runway in the big woods one morning, watching for a deer that dogs were driving. From the lake I had listened to the whole story,—the first eager, sniffing yelps, the sharp, clear note that meant a fresh track, and then the deep-lunged, savage [318] chorus sweeping up the ridge, which told of a deer afoot and running for his life. I knew something of the deer's habits in that region; knew also that the hunters were over the ridge, watching by a lake that the deer had deserted weeks ago; and so I headed for a favorite runway, to let the deer slip by me and to club the dogs away as they came on. For deer hounding and deer coursing are detestable sports, whether the law allow them or not, and whether the dogs be mongrel curs that follow their noses or imported greyhounds with a pedigree that run by sight, followed by a field of thoroughbreds.

On the way to the runway a curious thing happened. A big hawk swooped into some berry bushes ahead of me with strong, even slant, and rose in a moment with the unmistakable air of disappointment showing all over him, from beak to tail tip. I stole up to the bushes cautiously to find out what he was after, and to match my eyes with his. There I saw, first one, then five or six [319] well-grown young partridges crouched in their hiding places among the brown leaves, rejoicing apparently in the wonderful coloring which Nature gave them, and in their own power, learned from their mother, to lie still and so be safe till danger passed. There was no fear manifest whatever; no shadow of anxiety for any foolish youngster who might turn his head and so let the hawk see him. In a moment they were all gliding away with soft, inquisitive kwit-kwits, turning their heads to eye me curiously, and anon picking up the dried berries that lay about plentifully. Among them all there was no trace of a thought for the hawk that had just swooped. And why should there be? Had they not just fooled him perfectly, and were not their eyes as keen to do it again when the need should come?

I was thinking about it, wondering at this strange kind of fear that is merely watchful, with no trace of our terror or anxiety for the future in it, when twigs began to crackle and a big buck came bounding down the runway.

[320] Near me he stopped and turned to listen, shaking his antlers indignantly, and stamping his fore foot hard at such an uproar in his quiet woods. He trotted past me, his great muscles working like well oiled machinery under his velvet coat; then, instead of keeping on to water, he leaped over a windfall—a magnificent exhibition of power, taken as gracefully as if he were but playing—and dashed away through the swamp, to kill the scent of his flying feet.

An hour or two later I saw him enter the lake quietly from another runway and swim across with deep, powerful strokes. On the farther shore he stopped a moment to shake himself and to listen to the far-away cry of the hounds. He had run as much as he wished, to stretch his big muscles, and was indisposed now to run farther and tire himself, when he could so easily get rid of the noisy pack. But there was no terror in the shake of his antlers, nor in the angry [321] stamp of his fore foot, and no sense save that of conscious power and ability to take care of himself in the mighty bounds that lifted him like a bird over the windfalls into the shelter and silence of the big woods.

At times, I know, it happens differently, when a deer is fairly run down and killed by dogs or wolves; but though I have seen them dog-driven many times, and once when the great gray timber wolves were running their trail, I have never yet seen a deer lose his perfect confidence in himself, and his splendid sense of superiority over those that follow him. Once, in deep snow, I saved a deer's life just as the dogs were closing in on him; but up to the moment when he gave his last bound and laid his head down quietly on the crust to rest, I saw no evidence whatever of the wild terrors and frightful excitement that we have attributed to driven creatures.

The same is true of foxes, and even of rabbits. The weak and foolish die young, under the talon or paw of stronger creatures. [322] The rest have escaped so often, played and run so systematically till every nerve and muscle is trained to its perfect work, that they seem to have no thought whatever that the last danger may have its triumph.

Watch the dogs yonder, driving a fox through the winter woods. Their feet, cut by briers and crust, leave red trails over the snow; their tails have all bloody stumps, where the ends have been whipped off in frantic wagging. You cannot call, you can scarcely club them from the trail. They seem half crazy, half hypnotized by the scent in their noses. Their wild cry, especially if you be near them, is almost painful in its intensity as they run blindly through the woods. And it makes no difference to them, apparently, whether they get their fox or not. If he is shot before them, they sniff the body, wondering for a moment; then they roll in the snow and go off to find another trail. If the fox runs all day, as usual, they follow till footsore and weary; then sleep awhile, and come limping home in the morning.

[325] Now cut ahead of the dogs to the runway and watch for the fox. Here is the hunted creature. He comes loping along, light as a wind-blown feather, his brush floating out like a great plume behind him. He stops to listen to his heavy-footed pursuers, capers a bit in self-satisfaction, chases his tail if he is a young fox, makes a crisscross of tracks, trots to the brook and jumps from stone to stone; then he makes his way thoughtfully over dry places, which hold no scent, to the top of the ridge, where he can locate the danger perfectly, and curls himself up on a warm rock and takes a nap. When the cry comes too near he slips down on the other side of the ridge, where the breeze seems to blow him away to the next hill.

There are exceptions here too; exceptions that only prove the great rule of gladness in animal life, even when we would expect wild terrors. Of scores of foxes that have passed under my eyes, with a savage hunting cry behind them, I have never seen but one that did not give the impression of getting far [326] more fun out of it than the dogs that were driving him. And that is why he so rarely takes to earth, where he could so easily and simply escape it all, if he chose. When the weather is fine he keeps to his legs all day; but when the going is heavy, or his tail gets wet in mushy snow, he runs awhile to stretch his muscles, then slips into a den and lies down in peace. Let dogs bark; the ground is frozen, and they cannot scratch him out.

I have written these three things, of partridge and deer and fox—while twenty others come bubbling up to remembrance that one need not write—simply to suggest the great fact, so evident among all wild creatures,—from the tiniest warbler, lifting his sweet song to the sunrise amid a hundred enemies, to the great eagle, resting safe in air a thousand feet above the highest mountain peak; and from the little wood mouse, pushing his snow tunnels bravely under the very feet of hungry fox and wild-cat, to the great moose, breasting down a birch tree to feed on its top when maple and wicopy twigs are buried deep [327] under the northern snows,—that life is a glad thing to Nature's children, so glad that cold cannot chill, nor danger overwhelm, not even hunger deaden its gladness. I have seen deer, gaunt as pictures from an Indian famine district, so poor that all their ribs showed like barrel hoops across their collapsed sides; yet the yearlings played together as they wandered in their search for food through the bare, hungry woods. And I have stood on the edge of the desolate northern barrens when the icy blasts roared over them and all comfort seemed buried so deep that only the advice of Job's wife seemed pertinent: to "curse God and die." And lo! in the midst of blasphemy, the flutter of tiny wings, light and laughter of little bright eyes, chatter of chickadees calling each other cheerily as they hunted the ice-bound twigs over and over for the morsel that Nature had hidden there, somewhere, in the far autumn days; and then one clear, sweet love note, as if an angel had blown a little flute, tinkling over the bleak desolation [328] to tell me that spring was coming, and that even here, meanwhile, life was well worth the living.

The fact is, Nature takes care of her creatures so well—gives them food without care, soft colors to hide, and nimble legs to run away with—that, so far as I have ever observed, they seldom have a thought in their heads for anything but the plain comfort and gladness of living.

It is only when one looks at the animal from above, studies him psychologically for a moment, and remembers what wonderful provision Nature has made to keep him from all the evils of anxious forethought, that one can understand this gladness.

In the first place, he has no such pains as we are accustomed to find in ourselves and sympathize with in our neighbors. Three fourths, at least, of all our pain is mental; is born of an overwrought nervous organization, or imagination. If our pains were only those that actually exist in our legs or backs, we [329] could worry along very well to a good old age, as the bears and squirrels do. For the animal has no great mentality, certainly not enough to triple his pains thereby, and no imagination whatever to bother him. Your Christian-Science friend would find him a slippery subject, smooth and difficult as the dome of the Statehouse to get a grip upon. When he is sick he knows it, and goes to sleep sensibly; when he is well he needs no faith to assure him of the fact. He has his pains, to be sure, but they are only those in his legs and back; and even here the nervous organization is much coarser than ours, and the pain less severe. He has also a most excellent and wholesome disposition to make as little, not as much, of his pains as possible.

I have noticed a score of times in handling wounded animals that, when once I have won their confidence so that they have no fear of my hurting them willfully, they let me bind up their wounds and twist the broken bones into place, and even cut [330] away the flesh; and they show almost no evidence of suffering. That their pain is very slight compared with ours is absolutely certain.

I have sometimes found animals in the woods, bruised, wounded, bleeding, from some of the savage battles that they wage among themselves in the mating season. The first thought, naturally, is how keenly they must suffer as the ugly wounds grow cold. Now comes Nature, the wise physician. In ten minutes she has them well in hand. They sink into a dozy, dreamy slumber, as free from pain or care as an opium smoker. And there they stay, for hours or days, under the soft anæsthetic until ready to range the woods for food again, or till death comes gently and puts them to sleep.

I have watched animals stricken sore by a bullet, feeding or resting quietly; have noted little trout with half their jaws torn away rising freely to the same fly that injured them; have watched a muskrat cutting his own leg off with his teeth to free [331] himself from the trap that held him (all unwillingly, Gentle Reader; for I hate such things, as you do), but I have never yet seen an animal that seemed to suffer a hundredth part of the pain that an ordinary man would suffer under the same circumstances.

Children suffer far less than their elders with the same disease, and savage races less than civilized ones; all of which points far down to the animal that, with none of our mentality or imagination or tense-strung nervous organization, escapes largely our aches and pains. This is only one more of Nature's wise ways, in withholding pain mostly from those least able to endure it.

Of purely mental sufferings the animal has but one, the grief which comes from loss of the young or the mate. In this we have read only of the exceptional cases,—the rarely exceptional,—tinctured also with the inevitable human imagination, and so have come to accept grossly exaggerated conceptions of animal grief.

[332] A mother bird's nest is destroyed. The storm beats it down; or the black snake lays his coils around it; or the small boy robs it thoughtlessly; or the professional egg-collector, whose name and whose business be anathema, puts it into his box of abominations. The mother bird haunts the spot a few hours,—rarely longer than that,—then glides away into deeper solitudes. In a few days she has another nest, and is brooding eggs more wisely hidden. This is the great rule, not the exception, of the gladsome bird life. Happy for them and for us that it is so; else, instead of the glorious morning chorus, the woods would be filled always with lamentations.

When the young birds or animals are taken away, or killed by hungry prowlers, the mother's grief endures a little longer. But even here Nature is kind. The mother love for helpless little ones, which makes the summer wilderness such a wonderful place to open one's eyes in, is but a temporary instinct. At best it endures but a few weeks, [333] after which the little ones go away to take care of themselves, and the mother lets them go gladly, thinking that now she can lay on fat for herself against the cold winter.

If the time be yet seasonable when accident befalls, the mother wastes but few hours in useless mourning. She makes a new nest, or hollows out a better den, or drops her young in deeper seclusion, and forgets the loss, speedily and absolutely, in rearing and teaching the new brood,—hurrying the process and taking less care, because the time is short. It is a noteworthy fact—you can see it for yourself any late summer in the woods—that these late-coming offspring are less cared for than the earlier. The mother must have a certain period of leisure for herself to get ready for winter, and she takes it, usually, whether the young are fully prepared for life or not. It is from these second broods largely that birds and beasts of prey keep themselves alive during times of hunger and scarcity. [334] They are less carefully taught, and so are caught more easily. This again is not the exception, but the great rule of animal life.

And this is another of Mother Nature's wise ways. She must care for the deer and partridge; but she must also remember the owl and the panther that cry out to her in their hunger. And how could she accomplish that miracle of contradiction without exciting our hate and utter abhorrence, if she gave to her wild creatures the human griefs and pains with which they are so often endowed by our sensitive imagination?

Of these small griefs and pains, such as they are, the mothers alone are the inheritors. The male birds and animals, almost without exception so far as I have observed, have no griefs, but rather welcome the loss of the young. This is partly because it leaves them free to shift and feed for themselves—your male animal is essentially a selfish and happy creature—and partly because it opens to them anew the joys of winning their mates over again.

[335] The second great reason for the gladness of animal life is that the animal has no fears. The widespread animal fear, which is indeed the salvation of all the little wild things, is so utterly different from our "faithless fears and worldly anxieties" that another name—watchfulness, perhaps, or timidity, or distrust—should be given to it in strict truth.

This animal fear, be it remembered, is not so much an instinctive thing as a plain matter of teaching. Indeed, inquisitiveness is a much stronger trait of all animals than fear. The world is so full of things the animal does not understand that he is always agog to find out a little more.

I was sitting on a stump one day in the woods, plucking some partridges for my dinner. A slight motion in the underbrush roused me from my absorption; and there was a big bull moose, half hid in the dwarf spruces, watching me and the fluttering feathers, with wonder and intense curiosity written all over his ugly black face. And I have caught bear and deer and crows and [336] squirrels and little wood warblers at the same inquisitive game, again and again. If you sit down in the woods anywhere, and do any queer or simple thing you will, the time will not be long before you find shy bright eyes, all round with wonder, watching you with delicious little waverings between the timidity which urges them away and the curiosity which always brings them back again, if you but know how to keep still and disguise your interest.

If you find a young bird or animal, in nest or den, young enough so that the mother's example has not yet produced its effect, you will probably note only two instincts. The first and greatest instinct, that of obedience, is not for you to command; though you may get some strong hints of it, if you approach silently and utter some low, cautious sound in imitation of the mother creature. The two which you may surely find are: the instinct to eat, and the instinct to lie still and let nature's coloring do its good work of hiding. (There is another reason for [337] quietness: a bird—and, to a less extent, an animal—gives forth no scent when he is still and his pores are closed. He lies quiet to escape the nose as well as the eyes of his enemy. That, however, is another matter.) But you will find no fear there. The little thing will feed from your hand as readily as from its mother, if you catch him soon enough.

Afterwards come the lessons of watchfulness and timidity, which we have called fear,—to sort the sounds and sights and smells of the woods, and to act accordingly; now to lie still, and now to bristle your pinfeathers, so as to look big and scare an intruder; now to hiss, or growl, or scratch, or cry out for your mother; and now, at last, to dive for cover or take to your legs in a straightaway run,—all of which are learned, not by instinct, but by teaching and example.

And these are not fears at all, in our sense of the word, but rules of conduct; as a car horse stops when the bell jingles; as a man [338] turns to the right, because he has learned to do so, or bends forward in running, or jumps forward when he hears an unknown noise close behind him.

To make a rough and of course inadequate generalization, all our human fears arise from three great sources: the thought of pain or bodily harm, the thought of future calamity, and the thought of death. Now Nature in mercy had kept all these things from the wild creatures, who have no way of making provision against them, nor any capacity for faith, by which alone such fears are overcome.

First, in the matter of bodily harm or pain: The animal has lived a natural life and, as a rule, knows no pain whatever. He likewise has never been harmed by any creature—except perhaps an occasional nip by his mother, to teach him obedience. So he runs or flies through the big woods without any thought of the pains that he has never felt and does not know.

Neither does any thought of future calamity bother his little head, for he knows [339] no calamity and no future. I am not speaking now of what we know, or think we know, concerning the animal's future; but only of what he knows, and what he knows he knows. With the exception of the few wild creatures that lay up stores for winter—and they are the happiest—he lives wholly in the present. He feels well; his eyes are keen and his muscles ready; he has enough, or expects enough at the next turn of the trail. And that is his wisdom of experience.

As for death, that is forever out of the animal's thinking. Not one in a thousand creatures ever sees death—except, of course, the insects or other wild things that they eat, and these are not death but good food, as we regard a beefsteak. If they do see it, they pass it by suspiciously, like a tent, or a canoe, or any other thing which they do not understand, and which they have not been taught by their mothers how to meet. Scores of times I have watched birds and animals by their own dead mates or little ones. Until the thing grows cold they treat [340] it as if it were sleeping. Then they grow suspicious, look at the body strangely, sniff it at a distance, never touching it with their noses. They glide away at last, wondering why it is so cold, why it does not move or come when it is called. Then, circling through the underbrush, you will hear them calling and searching elsewhere for the little one that they have just left.

So far as I know, the ants, some tribes of which bury their dead, and the bees, which kill their drones at the proper season, are the only possible exception to this general rule of animal life. And these little creatures are too unknown, too mysterious, too contradictory a mixture of dense stupidity and profound wisdom to allow a positive theory as to how clearly they think, how blindly they are instinctive, or how far they are conscious of the meaning of what they do daily all their lives.

Bodily harm, future calamity, death,—these three things can never enter consciously into the animal's head; and there is [341] nothing in his experience to clothe the last great enemy, or friend, with any meaning. Therefore are they glad, being mercifully delivered from the bondage of our fears.

I am still sitting on the old log by the salmon pool, with the great river purring by and the white foam patches floating down from the riffles. A second little turtle has joined the first on his teeter board; they are swinging up and down, up and down, in the kindly current together. The river is full of insect life below them; they will eat when they get ready. Meanwhile they swing and enjoy their little life. Far over the mountain soars the great eagle, resting on the winds. The earth has food and drink below; he will come down when he is hungry. Meanwhile he looks down over the brim of things and is satisfied. The birds have not yet hushed their morning song in the woods behind me; too happy to eat, they must sing a little longer. Where the pool dimples and rolls lazily the salmon are leaping in [342] their strength; frogs pipe and blink on the lily pads riding at anchor; and over their heads in the flood of sunshine buzz the myriads of little things that cannot be still for gladness. Nature above and below tingles with the joy of mere living—a joy that bubbles over, like a spring, so that all who will, even of the race of men who have lost or forgotten their birthright, may come back and drink of its abundance and be satisfied.

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