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DAME NATURE AND HER CHILDREN
WHEN I saw a chipmunk going by my door, busily storing up his winter supplies in his den in the bank a few yards below, I thought how curious it is that these wild creatures, thrown entirely upon their own resources in the great merciless world of wild nature, with no one to care for them or advise them, should get on so well, and apparently have such a good time of it. I was, of course, looking at the subject from the human point of view; and I could not help thinking how many appliances, how much science, how much cooperation, and what laws and government, and the like we all require in order to live out our lives as successfully as the wild creatures do.
In summer and winter, in storm and cold, in all seasons and in all places, by night as by day, without organization, or power of reason, or supervision, or leaders, or defenders, or government, or schools, or churches, there they go, well and happy, equal to all, or nearly all, emergencies, and making fewer mistakes than we human beings do. Think of our elaborate helps and conveniences; of our machinery for taking us abroad, or for preserving us at home; of our laid-up stores; and then think how unequipped are the wild creatures in comparison.
Look at the snow buntings in winter, so triumphant over storm and cold, or the tiny chickadees in the frozen winter woods. They know where to look for their food, what to do by day, and where to go by night. They know their enemies; they know where and how to build their nests, and how to rear their young; they know all they have to know in order to live their lives.
When I see a chickadee or a kinglet come to the bit of suet that I put out on the trunk of the old maple in front of my window in December, I say, "See that infant! How can he face all alone the season of scarcity and cold? " But he does not need coaching from me; he avails himself of my suet, but he would get on without it. He is wise in his own economies. I doubt that our winter birds ever freeze or starve, unless in extraordinary circumstances.
When I see a band of robins in late October disporting in my vineyards, filled with holiday cheer and hilarity, calling, singing, squealing, pursuing one another like children in some sort of game, apparently not at all disturbed by the approach of the inclement season and the failure of their food-supplies, I almost envy them their felicity. They are wise without reason, happy without forethought, secure without rulers or safeguards of any sort.
When a Cooper's hawk makes a dash among them, their mirth turns to terror, but they are usually equal to the emergency, and by darting through the vines they manage to escape him.
It is said that when a flock of mallards, or of black ducks, while feeding upon the water, see an eagle, or a certain large hawk coming, they take to wing, knowing that they can outdistance their enemy, but that when they see a duck hawk coming, they hug the water the closer, knowing well that their safety is not in flight, but in diving beneath the surface.
What ages upon ages of schooling in the fierce struggle for existence it must have taken the wild creatures to get their wisdom into their very blood and bones! Yet we cannot think of them as existing without it; we cannot go back in thought to the time when they did not have it; to be without it would be to cease to exist. What, then, is its genesis? We cannot think of man as existing without his reason, his tools, his artificial aids of one kind and another; yet there was a time when he did exist without them, just as the monkeys and anthropoid apes exist without them. Sufficient for the day is the wisdom thereof. Every stage and phase of animal life is wise in those things necessary for its continuance, but whether that wisdom comes from experience or inheritance, or is one phase of the wisdom that pervades the whole economy of nature, – that makes the heart beat and the eye see, and that adapts every organism to its environment, – who can tell?
The plants are all wise in their own way; they have to be, or cease to exist. The cultivated ones cannot shift for themselves like the weeds and wild growths; they have been too long dependent upon the care and culture of man for that; thrown upon their own resources, they perish, or else revert to the habits of their wild ancestors, as the animals do.
I suppose it is impossible for us to conceive of the discipline, the struggle, the schooling, the selection, that all species of animals and plants have gone through in the course of biologic time, and that has given them the hardiness, the hold upon life, that they now possess. The strongest, the cleverest, the fittest have always had the best chance to survive. Natural competition has constantly weeded out the feeble, and still does so; but it does not do it so thoroughly among men as among mice, because mice have no medicine, no surgery, no hospitals, no altruism.
Different species of animals and plants differ greatly in their power to get on in the world. The ruffed grouse, for example, has a much deeper hold upon life than his cousin the quail, mainly because he is a more miscellaneous feeder. In deep snows the quail is in danger of perishing for want of food, but the grouse takes to the tree-tops and subsists upon the buds of the birch, the apple, and other trees.
The flicker will thrive where other woodpeckers would starve, because he is a ground-pecker as well, and lives upon ants and other ground insects.
In the struggle for existence the red squirrel is more than a match for his big brother, the gray, because he is more energetic, and has a wider range of diet. When hard put, he will come to your orchard and garden and chip up the unripe apples and pears for the immature seeds in them; he will cut out the germ from the green elm-flakes; he will rob birds' nests of eggs and of young; he will find or cut his way into your house and barn, and will take toll of your crops in a way that the gray squirrel will not do; on the other hand, his lesser brother the chipmunk will survive him, because he regularly lays up winter stores in his den in the ground, and is snug and warm with a full larder, while the red squirrel is picking up a precarious subsistence in the cold, snow-choked woods. The bear lasts after the wolf is gone, because he is a miscellaneous feeder, and is rarely reduced to extremities. For the same reason the hawk starves where the crow thrives. If the crow cannot get flesh, he will put up with fruit, and grain, and nuts.
The flycatchers among our birds are far less numerous than the fruit- and seed-eaters, and the herbivorous and graminivorous mammals greatly exceed in numbers the flesh-eaters; they can get their food more easily, for they do not have to use speed, wit, strength, or prowess in order to obtain it. How rare are the weasels, compared with their prey of rats and mice and birds and squirrels and rabbits! Yet the weasels have goodly families each season. If man had not been a miscellaneous feeder, could he have overspread the earth as he has done? If an animal can eat only fish, it must keep near the water; if it can eat only nuts, it must keep near the woods; if it subsists upon mosquitoes, it must live near the marshes; if grass is its only diet, its range is limited to certain zones and certain seasons.
The farmer finds it much more difficult to check or exterminate certain plants or weeds than others. The common milkweed and the Canada thistle defy his plough because the parent roots are beyond its reach; they creep horizontally through the soil, and send up their shoots at short intervals. To exterminate the plants, you must remove the parent roots. Looked at in the light of the doctrine of natural selection, it would seem as if these two plants had learned through experience to avoid the plough by diving deeper into the soil and establishing permanent parent roots there. This method or habit baffles the plough completely. What other enemy or circumstance could have so driven them into the ground? In a region unvisited by the plough, would they not succeed just as well nearer the surface, or with only a tap-root like most other plants? This habit is doubtless much older than the plough, and it is very doubtful if the explanation can be found in the theory of natural selection. Quack-grass is baffling for the same reason; there is a family root that travels horizontally under the soil and sends up shoots all along its course; dig out a yard of it, and yet if you have left an inch, the plant renews itself. The chickweed is a wonderfully enterprising plant. It is one of the very first to start in business in the spring; it begins to bloom in March or April; it matures its seeds rapidly, and keeps on blooming and seeding nearly all summer, so that it outwits the most industrious hoe or plough that I have yet seen. Unless you catch it in the first blooming, it gets ahead of you.
The field veronica is an innocent weed, but its ability to get on in life is remarkable. It stole into our vineyards like a thief in the night; where it came from I have no knowledge; for twenty years there was no vestige of it; then suddenly it appeared, and rapidly overspread the surface of the ground. It blooms in April, and by the time the plough starts, a sheet of delicate blue hovers over all the vineyard-slopes. It is a low plant, only an inch or two high, and the plough wipes it out completely; but the next spring there it is again, thicker than ever, painting the ground in the most delicate cerulean tints; it matures some of its seeds each spring before the plough starts, and so is secure.
Sooner or later animals and plants learn to play the game of life well; if they fail to do so, they ultimately become extinct.