Web Text-ures LogoWeb and Book design image,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
The Log of the Sun
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter



OUR sense of smell is not so keen as that of a dog, who can detect the tiny quail while they are still invisible; nor have we the piercing sight of the eagle who spies the grouse crouching hundreds of feet beneath his circling flight; but when we walk through the bare December woods there is unfolded at last to our eyes evidence of the late presence of our summer's feathered friends — air castles and tree castles of varied patterns and delicate workmanship.

Did it ever occur to you to think what the first nest was like — what home the first reptile-like scale flutterers chose? Far back before Jurassic times, millions of years ago, before the coming of bony fishes, when the only mammals were tiny nameless creatures, hardly larger than mice; when the great Altantosaurus dinosaurs browsed on the quaint herbage, and Pterodactyls — those ravenous bat-winged dragons of the air hovered above the surface of the earth, in this epoch we can imagine a pair of long-tailed, half-winged creatures which skimmed from tree to tree, perhaps giving an occasional flop — the beginning of the marvellous flight motions. Is it not likely that the Teleosaurs who watched hungrily from the swamps saw them disappear at last in a hollowed cavity beneath a rotten knothole? Here, perhaps, the soft-shelled, lizard-like eggs were laid, and when they gave forth the ugly creaturelings did not Father Creature flop to the topmost branch and utter a gurgling cough, a most unpleasant grating sound, but grand in its significance, as the opening chord in the symphony of the ages to follow? — until now the mockingbird and the nightingale hold us spellbound by the wonder of their minstrelsy.

Turning from our imaginary picture of the ancient days, we find that some of the birds of the present time have found a primitive way of nesting still the best. If we push over this rotten stump we shall find that the cavity near the top, where the wood is still sound, has been used the past summer by the downy woodpecker — a front door like an auger hole, ceiling of rough-hewn wood, a bed of chips!

The chickadee goes a step further, and shows his cleverness in sometimes choosing a cavity already made, and instead of rough, bare chips, the six or eight chickadee youngsters are. happy on a hair mattress of a closely woven felt-like substance.

Perhaps we should consider the kingfisher the most barbarous of all the birds which form a shelter for their home. With bill for pick and shovel, she Bores straight into a sheer clay bank, and at the end of a six-foot tunnel her young are reared, their nest a mass of fish bones — the residue of their dinners. Then there are the aerial masons and brickmakers — the eave swallows, who carry earth up into the air, bit by bit, and attach it to the eaves, forming it into a globular, long-necked flask. The barn swallows mix the clay with straw and feathers and so form very firm structures on the rafters above the haymows.

But what of the many nests of grasses and twigs which we find in the woods? How closely they were concealed while the leaves were on. the trees, and how firm and strong they were while in use, the strongest wind and rain of summer only rocking them to and fro! But now we must waste no time or they will disappear. In a month or more almost all will have dissolved into fragments and fallen to earth their mission accomplished.

Some look as if disintegration had already begun, but if we had discovered them earlier in the year, we should have seen that they were never less fragile or loosely constructed than we find them now. Such is a cuckoo's nest, such a mourning dove's or a heron's; merely a flat platform of a few interlaced twigs, through which the eggs are visible from below. Why, we ask, are some birds so careless or so unskilful? The European cuckoo, like our cowbird, is a parasite, laying her eggs in the nests of other birds; so, perhaps, neglect of household duties is in the blood. But this style of architecture seems to answer all the requirements of doves and herons, and, although with one sweep of the hand we can demolish one of these flimsy platforms, yet such a nest seems somehow to resist wind and rain just as long as the bird needs it.

Did you ever try to make a nest yourself? If not, sometime take apart a discarded nest — even the simplest in structure — and try to put it together again. Use no string or cord, but fasten it to a crotch, put some marbles in it and visit it after the first storm. After you have picked up all the marbles from the ground you will appreciate more highly the skill which a bird shows in the construction of its home. Whether a bird excavates its nest in earth or wood, or weaves or plasters it, the work is all done by means of two straight pieces of horn — the bill.

There is, however, one useful substance which aids the bird the saliva which is formed in the mucous glands of the mouth. Of course the first and natural function of this fluid is to soften the food before it passes into the crop; but in those birds which make their nests by weaving together pieces of twig, it must be of great assistance in softening the wood and thus enabling the bird readily to bend the twigs into any required position. Thus the catbird and rose-breasted grosbeak weave.

Given a hundred or more pieces of twigs, each an inch in length,, even a bird would make but little progress in forming a cup-shaped nest, were it not that the sticky saliva provided cement strong and ready at hand. So the chimney swift finds no difficulty in forming and attaching her mosaic of twigs to a chimney, using only very short twigs which she breaks off with her feet while she is on the wing.

How wonderfully varied are the ways which birds adopt to conceal their nests. Some avoid suspicion by their audacity, building near a frequented path, in a spot which they would never be suspected of choosing. The hummingbird studs the outside of its nest with lichens, and the vireo drapes a cobweb curtain around her fairy cup. Few nests are more beautiful and at the same time more durable than a vireo's. I have seen the nests of three successive years in the same tree, all built, no doubt, by the same pair of birds, the nest of the past summer perfect in shape and quality, that of the preceding year threadbare, while the home which sheltered the brood of three summers ago is a mere flattened skeleton, reminding one of the ribs and stern post of a wrecked boat long pounded by the waves.

The subject of nests has been sadly neglected by naturalists, most of whom have been chiefly interested in the owners or the contents; but when the whys and wherefores of the homes of birds are made plain we shall know far more concerning the little carpenters, weavers, masons, and basket-makers who hang our groves and decorate our shrubbery with their skill. When on our winter's walk we see a distorted, wind torn, grass cup, think of the quartet of beautiful little creatures, now flying beneath some tropical sun, which owe their lives to the nest, and which, if they are spared, will surely return to the vicinity next summer.

That time of year thon may'st in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, —
Bare, ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.


MANY people say they love Nature, but as they have little time to go into the country they have to depend on books for most of their information concerning birds, flowers, and other forms of life. There is, however, no reason why one should not, even in the heart of a great city, begin to cultivate his powers of observation. Let us take, for example, the omnipresent English sparrow. Most of us probably know the difference between the male and female English sparrows, but I venture to say that not one in ten persons could give a satisfactory description of the colours of either. How much we look and how little we really see!

Little can be said in favour of the English sparrows' disposition, but let us not blame them for their unfortunate increase in numbers. Man brought them from England, where they are kept in check by Nature's wise laws. These birds were deliberately introduced where Nature was not prepared for them.

When we put aside prejudice we can see that the male bird, especially when in his bright spring colours, is really very attractive, with his ashy, gray head, his back streaked with black and bay, the white bar on his wings and the jet black chin and throat contrasting strongly with the uniformly light-coloured under parts. If this were a rare bird the "black-throated sparrow" would enjoy his share of admiration.

It is wonderful how he can adapt himself to new conditions, nesting anywhere and everywhere, and this very adaptation is a sign of a very high order of intelligence. He has, however, many characteristics which tell us of his former life. A few of the habits of this bird may be misleading. His thick, conical bill is made for crushing seeds, but he now feeds on so many different substances that its original use, as shown by its shape, is obscured. If there were such a thing as vaudeville among birds, the common sparrow would be a star imitator. He clings to the bark of trees and picks out grubs, supporting himself with his tail like a woodpecker; he launches out into the air, taking insects on the wing like a flycatcher; he clings like a chickadee to the under side of twigs, or hovers in front of a heap of insect eggs, presenting a feeble imitation of a hummingbird These modes of feeding represent many different families of birds.

Although his straw and feather nests are shapeless affairs, and he often feeds on garbage, all esthetic feeling is not lost, as we see when he swells out his black throat and white cravat, spreads tail and wing and beseeches his lady-love to admire him. Thus he woos her as long as he is alone, but when several other eager suitors arrive, his patience gives out, and the courting turns into a football game. Rough and tumble is the word, but somehow in the midst of it all, her highness manages to make her mind known and off she flies with the lucky one. Thus we have represented, in the English sparrows, the two extremes of courtship among birds.

It is worth noting that the male alone is ornamented, the colours of the female being much plainer. This dates from a time when it was necessary for the female to be concealed while sitting on the eggs. The young of both sexes are coloured like their mother, the young males not acquiring the black gorget until perfectly able to take care of themselves. About the plumage there are some interesting facts. The young bird moults twice before the first winter. The second moult brings out the mark on the throat, but it is rusty now, not black in colour; his cravat is grayish and the wing bar ashy. In the spring, however, a noticeable change takes place, but neither by the moulting nor the coming in of plumage. The shaded edges of the feathers become brittle and break off, bringing out the true colours and making them clear and brilliant. The waistcoat is brushed until it is black and glossy, the cravat becomes immaculate, and the wristband or wing bar clears up until it is pure white.

The homes of these sparrows are generally composed of a great mass of straw and feathers, with the nest in the centre; but the spotted eggs, perhaps, show that these birds once built open nests, the dots and marks on the eggs being of use in concealing their conspicuous white ground. Something seems already to have hinted to Nature that this protection is no longer necessary, and we often find eggs almost white, like those of woodpeckers and owls, which nest in dark places.

We have all heard of birds flocking together for some mutual benefit — the crows, for instance, which travel every winter day across country to favourite "roosts." In the heart of a city we can often study this same phenomenon of birds gathering together in great flocks. In New York City, on One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, there stands a tree — a solitary reminder of the forest which once covered all this paved land. To this, all winter long, the sparrows begin to flock about four or five o'clock in the afternoon. They come singly and in twos and threes until the bare limbs are black with them and there seems not room for another bird; but still they come, each new arrival diving into the mass of birds and causing a local commotion. By seven o'clock there are hundreds of English sparrows perching in this one tree. At daylight they are off again, whirring away by scores, and in a few minutes the tree is silent and empty. The same habit is to be seen in many other cities and towns, for thus the birds gain mutual warmth.

Nature will do her best to diminish the number of sparrows and to regain the balance, but to do this the sparrow must be brought face to face with as many dangers as our wild birds, and although, owing to the sparrows' fearlessness of man, this may never happen, yet at least the colour protections and other former safeguards are slowly being eliminated. On almost every street we may see albino or partly albino birds, such as those with white tails or wings. White birds exist in a wild state only from some adaptation to their surroundings. A bird which is white simply because its need of protection has temporarily ceased, would become the prey of the first stray hawk which crossed its path. We cannot hope to exterminate the English sparrow even by the most wholesale slaughter, but if some species of small hawk or butcher bird could ever become as fearless an inhabitant of our cities as these birds, their reduction to reasonable numbers would be a matter of only a few months.

So dainty in plumage and hue,
A study in gray and brown,
How little, how little we knew
The pest he would prove to the town!
From dawn until daylight grows dim,
Perpetual chatter and scold.
No winter migration for him,
Not even afraid of the cold!
Seams a song-bird he fails to molest,
Belligerent, meddlesome thing!
Wherever he goes as a guest
He is sure to remain as a King.
                       MARY ISABELLA FORSYTHE.


HOW many of us think of trees almost as we do of the rocks and stones about us, — as all but inanimate objects, standing in the same relation to our earth as does the furry covering of an animal to its owner. The simile might be carried out more in detail, the forests protecting the continents from drought and flood, even as the coat of fur protects its owner from extremes of heat and cold.

When we come to consider the tree as a living individual, a form of life contemporaneous with our own, and to realise that it has its birth and death, its struggles for life and its periods of peace and abundance, we will soon feel for it a keener sympathy and interest and withal a veneration greater than it has ever aroused in us before.

Of all living things on earth, a tree binds us most closely to the past. Some of the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands are thought to be four hundred years old and are probably the oldest animals on the earth. There is, however, nothing to compare with the majesty and grandeur of the Sequoias — the giant redwoods of California — the largest of which, still living, reach upward more than one hundred yards above the ground, and show, by the number of their rings, that their life began from three to five thousand years ago. Our deepest feelings of reverence are aroused when we look at a tree which was "one thousand years old when Homer wrote the Iliad; fifteen hundred years of age when Aristotle was foreshadowing his evolution theory and writing his history of animals; two thousand years of age when Christ walked upon earth; nearly four thousand years of age when the 'Origin of Species' was written. Thus the life of one of these trees spanned the whole period before the birth of Aristotle (384 B.C.) and after the death of Darwin (A.D. 1882), the two greatest natural philosophers who have lived."

Considered not only individually, but taken as a group, the Sequoias are among the oldest of the old. Geologically speaking, most of the forms of life now in existence are of recent origin, but a full ten million of years ago these giant trees were developed almost as highly as they are to-day. At the end of the coal period, when the birds and mammals of to-day were as yet unevolved, existing only potentially in the scaly, reptile-like creatures of those days, the Sequoias waved their needles high in air.

In those days these great trees were found over the whole of Canada, Greenland, and Siberia, but the relentless onslaught of the Ice Age wrought terrible destruction and, like the giant tortoises among reptiles, the apteryx among birds, and the bison among mammals, the forlorn hope of the great redwoods, making a last stand in a few small groves of California, awaits total extinction at the hands of the most terrible of Nature's enemies — man. When the last venerable giant trunk has fallen, the last axe-stroke which severs the circle of vital sap will cut the only thread of individual life which joins in time the beating of our pulses to-day with the beginning of human history and philosophy, — thousands of years in the past.

Through all the millions of years during which the evolution of modern forms of life has been going on, then as now, trees must have entered prominently into the environment and lives of the terrestrial animals. Ages ago, long before snakes and four-toed horses were even foreshadowed, and before the first bird-like creatures had appeared, winged reptile-dragons flew about, doubtless roosting or perching on the Triassic and Jurassic trees. Perhaps the very pieces of coal which are burned in our furnaces once bent and swayed wider the weight of these bulky animals. Something like six millions of years ago, long-tailed, fluttering birds appeared, with lizard-like claws at the bend of their wings and with jaws filled with teeth. These creatures were certainly arboreal, spending most of their time among the branches of trees. So large were certain great sloth-like creatures that they uprooted the trees bodily, in order to feed on their succulent leaves, sometimes bending their trunks down until their branches were within reach.

On a walk through the woods and fields to-day, how seldom do we find a dead insect! When sick and dying, nine out of ten are snapped up by frog, lizard, or bird; the few which die a natural death seeming to disintegrate into mould within a very short space of time. There is, however, one way in which, through the long, long thousands of centuries insects have been preserved. The spicy resin which flowed from the ancient pines attracted hosts of insects, which, tempted by their hope of food, met their death — caught and slowly but surely enclosed by the viscid sap, each antenna and hair as perfect as when the insect was alive. Thus, in this strangely fortunate way, we may know and study the insects which, millions of years ago, fed on the flowers or bored into the bark of trees. We have found no way to improve on Nature in this respect, for to-day when we desire to mount a specimen permanently for microscopical work, we imbed it in Canada balsam.

If suddenly the earth should be bereft of all trees, there would indeed be consternation and despair among many classes of animals. Although in the sea there are thousands of creatures, which, by their manner of life, are prohibited from ever passing the boundary line between land and water, yet many sea-worms, as for example the teredo, or ship-worm, are especially fashioned for living in and perhaps feeding on wood, in the shape of stray floating trees and branches, the bottoms of ships, and piles of wharves. Of course the two latter are supplied by man, but even before his time, floating trees at sea must have been plentiful enough to supply homes for the whole tribe of these creatures, unless they made their burrows in coral or shells.

The insects whose very existence, in some cases, depends upon trees, are innumerable. What, for example, would become of the larvae of the cicada, or locust, which, in the cold and darkness of their subterranean life, for seventeen years suck the juicy roots of trees; or the caterpillars of the moths, spinning high their webs among the leaves; or the countless beetles whose grubs bore through and through the trunk their sinuous, sawdusty tunnels; or the ichneumon fly, which with an instrument — surgical needle, file, augur, and scroll saw all in one — deposits, deep below the bark, its eggs in safety/ If forced to compete with terrestrial species, the tree spiders and scorpions would quickly become exterminated; while especially adapted arboreal ants would instantly disappear.

We cannot entirely exclude even fishes from our list; as the absence of mangroves would incidentally affect the climbing perch and catfishes! The newts and common toads would be in no wise dismayed by the passing of the trees, but not so certain tadpoles. Those of our ditches, it is true, would live and flourish, but there are, in the world, many curious kinds which hatch and grow up into frogs in curled-up leaves or in damp places in the forks of branches, and which would find themselves homeless without trees. Think, too, of the poor green and brown tree frogs with their sucker feet, compelled always to hop along the ground!

Lizards, from tiny swifts to sixty-inch iguanas, would sorely miss the trees, while the lithe green tree snakes and the tree boas would have to change all their life habits in order. to be able to exist. But as for the cold, uncanny turtles and alligators, — what are trees to them!

In the evolution of the birds and other animals, the cry of "excelsior" has been followed literally as well as theoretically and, with a few exceptions, the highest in each class have not only risen above their fellows in intelligence and structure, but have left the earth and climbed or flown to the tree-tops, making these their chief place of abode.

Many of the birds which find their food at sea, or in the waters of stream and lake, repair to the trees for the purpose of building their nests among the branches. Such birds are the pelicans, herons, ibises, and ospreys; while the wood ducks lay their eggs high above the ground in the hollows of trees. Parrots, kingfishers, swifts, and hummingbirds are almost helpless on the ground, their feet being adapted for climbing about the branches, perching on twigs, or clinging to the hollows of trees. Taken as a whole, birds would suffer more than any other class of creatures in a deforested world. The woodpeckers would be without home, food, and resting-place; except, possibly, the flicker, or high-hole, who is either a retrograde or a genius, whichever we may choose to consider him, and could live well enough upon ground ants. But as to his nest — he would have to sharpen his wits still more to solve successfully the question of the woodpecker motto, "What is home without a hollow tree?"

Great gaps would be made in the ranks of the furry creatures — the mammals. Opossums and raccoons would find themselves in an embarrassing position, and as for the sloths, which never descend to earth, depending for protection on their resemblance to leaves and mossy bark, they would be wiped out with one fell swoop. The arboreal squirrels might learn to burrow, as so many of their near relations have done, but their muscles would become cramped from inactivity and their eyes would often strain upward for a glimpse of the beloved branches. The bats might take to caves and the vampires to outhouses and dark crevices in the rocks, but most of the monkeys and apes would soon become extinct, while a chimpanzee or orangutan would become a cripple, swinging ever painfully along between the knuckles of crutch-like forearms, searching, searching forever for the trees which gave him his form and structure, and without which his life and that of his race must abruptly end.

Leaving the relations which trees hold to the animals about them and the part which they have played in the evolution of life on the earth in past epochs, let us consider some of the more humble trees about us. Not, however, from the standpoint of the technical botanist or the scientific forester, but from the sympathetic point of view of a living fellow form, sharing the same planet, both owing their lives to the same great source of all light and heat, and subject to the same extremes of heat and cold, storm and drought. How wonderful, when we come to think of it, is a tree, to be able to withstand its enemies, elemental and. animate, year after year, decade after decade, although fast-rooted to one patch of earth. An animal flees to shelter at the approach of gale or cyclone, or travels far in search of abundant food. Like the giant algζ, ever waving upward from the bed of the sea, which depend ou the nourishment of the surrounding waters, so the tree blindly trusts to Nature to minister to its needs, filing its leaves with the light-given greenness, and feeling for nutritious salts with the sensitive tips of its innumerable rootlets.

Darwin has taught us, and truly, that a relentless struggle for existence is ever going on around us, and although this is most evident to our eyes in a terrible death battle between two great beasts of prey, yet it is no less real and intense in the case of the bird pouring forth a beautiful song, or the delicate violet shedding abroad its perfume. To realise the host of enemies ever shadowing the feathered songster and its kind, we have only to remember that though four young birds may be hatched in each of fifty nests, yet of the two hundred nestlings an average often of but one lives to grow to maturity, — to migrate and to return to the region of its birth.

And the violet, living, apparently, such a quiet life of humble sweetness? Fortunate indeed is it if its tiny treasure of seeds is fertilized, and then the chances are a thousand to one that they will grow and ripen only to fall by the wayside, or on barren ground, or among the tares.

At first thought, a tree seems far removed from all such struggles. How solemn and grand its trunk stands, column-like against the sky! How puny and weak we seem beside it! Its sturdy roots, sound wood, and pliant branches all spell power. Nevertheless, the old, old struggle is as fierce, as unending, here as everywhere. A monarch of the forest has gained its supremacy only by a lifelong battle with its own kind and with a horde of alien enemies.

From the heart of the tropics to the limit of tree-growth in the northland we find the battle of life waged fiercely, root contending with root for earth-food, branch with branch for the light which means life.

In a severe wrestling match, the moments of supremest strain are those when the opponents are fast-locked, motionless, when the advantage comes, not with quickness, but with staying power; and likewise in the struggle of tree with tree the fact that one or two years, or even whole decades, watch the efforts of the branches to lift their leaves one above the other, detracts nothing from the bitterness of the strife.

Far to the north we will sometimes find groves of young balsam firs or spruce, — hundreds of the same species of sapling growing so close together that a rabbit may not pass between. The slender trunks, almost touching each other, are bare of branches. Only at the top is there light and air, and the race is ever upward. One year some slight advantage may come to one young tree, — some delicate unbalancing of the scales of life, and that fortunate individual instantly responds, reaching several slender side branches over the heads of his brethren. They as quickly show the effects of the lessened light and forthwith the race is at an end. The victor shoots up tall and straight, stamping and choking out the lives at his side, as surely as if his weapons were teeth and claws instead of delicate root-fibres and soughing foliage.

The contest with its fellows is only the first of many. The same elements which help to give it being and life are ever ready to catch it unawares, to rend it limb from limb, or by patient, long-continued attack bring it crashing to the very dust from which sprang the seed.

We see a mighty spruce whose black leafage has waved above its fellows for a century or more, paying for its supremacy by the distortion of every branch. Such are to be seen clinging to the rocky shores of Fundy, every branch and twig curved toward the land; showing the years of battling with constant gales and blizzards. Like giant weather-vanes they stand, and, though there is no elasticity in their limbs and they are gnarled and scarred, yet our hearts warm in admiration of their decades of patient watching beside the troubled waters. For years to come they will defy every blast the storm god can send against them, until, one wild day, when the soil has grown scanty around the roots of one of the weakest, it will shiver and tremble at some terrific onslaught of wind and sleet; it will fold its branches closer about it and, like the Indian chieftains, who perhaps in years past occasionally watched the waters by the side of the young sapling, the conquered tree will bow its head for the last time to the storm.

Farther inland, sheltered in a narrow valley, stands a sister tree, seeded from the same cone as the storm-distorted spruce. The wind shrieks and howls above the little valley and cannot enter; but the law of compensation brings to bear another element, silent, gentle, but as deadly as the howling blast of the gale. All through the long winter the snow sifts softly down, finding easy lodgment on the dense-foliaged branches. From the surrounding heights the white crystals pour down until the tree groans with the massive weight. Her sister above is battling with the storm, but hardly a feather's weight of snow clings to her waving limbs.

The compressed, down-bent branches of the valley spruce soon become permanently bent and the strain on the trunk fibres is great. At last, with a despairing crash, one great limb gives way and is torn bodily from its place of growth. The very vitals of the tree are exposed and instantly every splintered cell is filled with the sifting snow. Helpless the tree stands, and early in the spring, at the first quickening of summer's growth, a salve of curative resin is poured upon the wound. But it is too late. The invading water has done its work and the elements have begun to rot the very heart of the tree. How much more to be desired is the manner of life and death of the first spruce, battling to the very last

A beech seedling which takes root close to the bank of a stream has a good chance of surviving, since there will be no competitors on the water side and moisture and air will never fail. But look at some ancient beech growing thus, whose smooth, whitened bole encloses a century of growth rings. Offsetting its advantages, the stream, little by little, has undermined the maze of roots and the force of annual freshets has trained them all in a down-stream direction. It is an inverted reminder of the wind-moulded spruce. Although the stout beech props itself by great roots thrown landward, yet, sooner or later, the ripples will filter in beyond the centre of gravity and the mighty tree will topple and mingle with its shadow-double which for so many years the stream has reflected.

Thus we find that while without moisture no tree could exist, yet the same element often brings death. The amphibious mangroves which fringe the coral islands of the southern seas hardly attain to the dignity of trees, but in the mysterious depths of our southern swamps we find the strangely picturesque cypresses, which defy the waters about them. One cannot say where trunk ends and root begins, but up from the stagnant slime rise great arched buttresses, so that the tree seems to be supported on giant six- or eight-Iegged stools, between the arches of which the water flows and finds no chance to use its power. Here, in these lonely solitudes, — heron-haunted, snake-infested, — the hanging moss and orchids search out every dead limb and cover it with an unnatural greenness. Here, great lichens grow and a myriad tropical insects bore and tunnel their way from bark to heart of tree and back again. Here, in the blackness of night, when the air is heavy with hot, swampy odours, and only the occasional squawk of a heron or cry of some animal is heard, a rending, grinding, crashing, breaks suddenly upon the stillness, a distant boom and splash, awakening every creature. Then the silence again closes down and we know that a cypress, perhaps linking a trio of centuries, has yielded up its life.

Leaving the hundred other mysteries which the trees of the tropics might unfold, let us consider for a moment the danger which the tall, successful tree invites, — the penalty which it pays for having surpassed all its other brethren. It preeminently attracts the bolts of Jove and the lesser trees see a blinding flash, hear a rending of heart wood, and when the storm has passed, the tree, before perfect in trunk, limbs, and foliage, is now but a heap of charred splinters.

Many a great willow overhanging the banks of a wide river could tell interesting tales of the scars on its trunk. That lower wound was a deep gash cut by some Indian, perhaps to direct a war-party making their way through the untrodden wilderness; this bare, unsightly patch was burnt out by the signal fire of one of our forefather pioneers. And so on and on the story would unfold, until the topmost, freshly sawed-off limb had for its purpose only the desire of the present owner for a clearer view of the water beyond.

Finally we come to the tree best beloved of us in the north, — the carefully grafted descendant of some sour little wild crab-apple. A faithful servant indeed has the monarch of the old orchard proved. It has fed us and our fathers before us, and its gnarled trunk and low-hanging branches tell the story of the rosy fruit which has weighed down its limbs year after year. Old age has laid a heavy hand upon it, but not until the outermost twig has ceased to blossom, and its death, unlike that of its wild kindred, has come silently and peacefully, do we give the order to have the tree felled. Even in its death it serves us, giving back from the open hearth the light and heat which it has stored up throughout the summers of many years.

Let us give more thought to the trees about us, and when possible succour them in distress, straighten the bent sapling, remove the parasitic lichen, and give them the best chance for a long, patient, strong life.

In the far North stands a Pine-tree, lone,
Upon a wintry height;
It sleeps; around it snows have thrown
A covering of white.
It dreams forever of a Palm
That, far i' the morning-land,
Stands silent in a most sad calm
Midst of the burning sand.
                        (From the German of Heine.) SIDNEY LANIER.


IT is midwinter, and from the northland a blizzard of icy winds and swirling snow crystals is sweeping with fury southward over woods and fields. We sit in our warm room before the crackling log fire and listen to the shriek of the gale and wonder how it fares with the little bundles of feathers huddled among the cedar branches.

We picture to ourselves all the wild kindred sheltered from the raging storm; the gray squirrels rocking in their lofty nests of leaves; the chipmunks snug underground; the screech owls deep in the hollow apple trees, all warm and dry.

But there are those for whom the blizzard has no terrors. Far to the north on the barren wastes of Labrador, where the gale first comes in from the sea and gathers strength as it comes, a great owl flaps upward and on broad pinions, white as the driving snowflakes, sweeps southward with the storm. Now over ice-bound river or lake, or rushing past a myriad dark spires of spruce, then hovering wonderingly over a multitude of lights from the streets of some town, the strong Arctic bird forges southward, until one night, if we only knew, we might open our window and, looking upward, see two great yellow eyes apparently hanging in space, the body and wings of the bird in snow-white plumage lost amidst the flakes. We thrill in admiration at the grand bird, so fearless of the raging elements.

Only the coldest and fiercest storms will tempt him from the north, and then not because he fears snow or cold, but in order to keep within reach of the snowbirds which form his food. He seeks for places where a less severe cold encourages small birds to be abroad, or where the snow's crust is less icy, through which the field mice may bore their tunnels, and run hither and thither in the moonlight, pulling down the weeds and cracking their frames of ice. Heedless of passing clouds, these little rodents scamper about, until a darker, swifter shadow passes, and the feathered talons of the snowy owl close over the tiny, shivering bundle of fur.

Occasionally after such a storm, one may come across this white owl in some snowy field, hunting in broad daylight; and that must go down as a red-letter day, to be remembered for years.

What would one not give to know of his adventures since he left the far north. What stories he could tell of hunts for the ptarmigan, — those Arctic fowl, clad in plumage as white as his own; or the little kit foxes, or the seals and polar bears playing the great game of life and death among the grinding icebergs!

His visit to us is a short one. Comes the first hint of a thaw and he has vanished like a melting snowflake, back to his home and his mate. There in a hollow in the half-frozen Iceland moss, in February, as many as ten fuzzy little snowy owlets may grow up in one nest, — all as hardy and beautiful and brave as their great fierce-eyed parents.


Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)