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THE SQUIRREL HARVEST
THE red squirrel is a good deal like me, he never can wait for the chestnuts to open. As long ago as early September I used to see him going up and down the trunks of trees neighboring the chestnuts, sputtering and exploding his way along in a jerky unrhythm. He would go up the trunk as a light-weight, motor-skipping runabout goes up a steep hill, trembling all over as he fizzed along with barking explosions.
He had his eye on the closed burs, densely set with green spines, and he was angry because he was liable to get his tongue pierced in getting them open. But it did not matter. The milk-white pulp in the brown shells was too tempting.
All this last month he has been going to the very tips of the limbs of the highest trees, clinging there as only a red squirrel can, and gnawing the burs loose. When a sufficient number of these were strewn on the ground beneath he would motor down there, and with the piston still chugging occasionally, just to prove to himself that he could start his car at a second's notice, cut expeditiously through the defiant prickles and smack his wounded lips over the kernels within.
Meanwhile, in common with most of the boys in town, I, too, have been having my troubles with the chestnut burs. A boy understands that the red squirrel gets the burs after the fashion of the real sport, and so far as he can he is willing to do the same. But the smaller limbs of the chestnut are brittle, and under the best of circumstances it is a dangerous thing to go far enough out on them to reach the tips. Light-weight, daring boys sometimes do this, and often fall in the attempt, as accident records show. Sometimes the squirrel falls too, though this is of comparatively rare occurrence.
The red squirrel gets the burs after the fashion of the real sport
The wild creatures of the wood are as liable to accident as you and I, but they are not so prone to it. That severe pruning which wild life gives all who are robust enough to live it lops off all the clumsy branches of the squirrel family tree. Few but the cool-headed and skillful live to reproduce many of their kind.
The boy who falls from the upper limbs of the chestnut may save his neck by catching a lower limb as he falls I have known boys to do it. Or he may even land with no serious injury if he is fortunate enough and the distance is not too great. The squirrel would be almost sure to land safely either in the lower limb or on the ground. This is more sure in the case of the red squirrel than in that of the gray, for the gray is two or three times the weight of the red. Yet I have seen a gray squirrel come down forty feet though the air and land uninjured.
My own method of loosing the unripe burs from their tenacious hold on the limb tips lacks the finesse of that of the squirrel. I do my work with a club. Nevertheless, it takes wisdom and precision. To stand twenty feet or so below a bunch of chestnut burs and hurl your club at them with such accuracy that it hits the limb just behind them at the right spot to snap them off their perch is an art that you must learn in boyhood or never.
You may hit the burs themselves or you may hit the limb farther back, and nothing happens. With the burs on the ground your task is to open them, which you must do by pounding with one stone upon another. Hit in the right place and with the right force, the green, prickly envelope yields and the soft, brown nuts roll out uncrushed. To me they are sweetest when this brown is just beginning to tinge them, before the shells are very hard and the kernel is too resilient and crunchy.
On these October mornings the chestnuts are ripe, a wonderful rich brown, still clinging in close companionship in the center of the burs, which have opened and revealed the precious kernels within. To harvest them now by the quart your task is more easy than it was to get a few when they were three weeks younger. The squirrels know this. There is no need to climb to the dangerous limb tips and cling there precariously while gnawing them through. The ground is strewn with bounty, and the reds and the grays both are busy among the rustling brown leaves garnering what the winds, the boys, and I have shaken from the open burs and failed to gather.
Now and then they eat one, but for the most part they are busy storing them up for future use, In hollow trees, under stumps, they pile them in little hoards. But beside that they dig little holes in the ground here and there and put a nut at the bottom of them and pat the brown leaves down on top. I have always inferred that these were for special luncheons, stored ready to hand when the owner did not care to go to the main larder, I know that they do go to these in the winter on occasions, for I have often seen the hole through the crusted snow where the squirrel resolutely dug his way in and left behind him the chipped shells of the nut which he found there. But I do not believe that one nut out of a hundred that is thus buried is ever resurrected by the squirrels; it is nature's method of getting her chestnut trees properly planted, and I half believe that the squirrels realize this; that they do not mean to dig these nuts up again, and only do so when hard pressed by hunger.
My path to the chestnut wood to-day lay through a shallow sea of purple wood-grass. It is a wild grass, scorned of the farmer and left ungarnered of his scythe, standing now in clumps in all waste places of the pasture, an amber wine of autumn tint that intoxicates you as you pass through. It is a stirrup cup for your expedition. Old as the hills, amber-purple and clear, yet with a fine bubbling of hoary leaf tips, it warms the heart as wine of the grape does, and already you begin to be drunk with the beauty of the day. Afterward you pass through aisles of birch wood, where the once green leaves are a translucent yellow, fining the gold of the sunlight down to a soft radiance, a richness of pale effulgence that I have seen matched only in one gem.
Some years ago there came from South African mines a wonderful lump of crystallized carbon, a great diamond that, cut and polished, yet weighed one hundred and twenty-five carats, the famous Tiffany yellow diamond, in whose heart glows the same yellow radiance which wells throughout the birch wood of a sunlit October day. The Tiffany gem is worth its hundreds of thousands, and you might lose it from a hole in your vest pocket. The birch wood is a half-mile wide, and once you have felt its soft radiance flood your soul it is yours forever. Neither deserts nor cities can take it from you.
Sitting secure in a crotch of the chestnut tree of my choice, beating the chestnuts from the half-open burs with a birch pole and listening to their patter on the dry leaves far beneath, I was conscious after a time of a little gritting squeak, a squeak that sounded much like a small, unoiled joint that was very mad about it. It might have been two tree limbs rubbing together, only that it was too personal. Creaking limbs are always mournful in .tone; this squeak was full of impotent, nervous rage.
It was difficult to locate exactly, and I had thinned out the chestnuts pretty well and was about to climb down before I discovered what it was that made it. Hanging head down from a twig that protruded from the under side of a large limb was a great bat, swinging from one hind toe. His furry, gray body was half loosely wrapped in his wings, that looked like wrinkled folds of dark sheet rubber. His ugly little face was all screwed up with rage and his sputtering squeaks were a ludicrous exposition of impotent fury.
Every blow of my pole on the tree had jarred him. In his darkness of our daytime he could not see what it was that troubled him, nor could he venture to fly away from it lest he rush into worse danger. So he simply hung on and protested in all the voice and vocabulary that he had, and when I plucked him carefully by that hind claw and wrapped him in a handkerchief and stowed him in the side pocket of my coat, he continued to mutter bat profanity.
You will find in the velvety heart of a chestnut bur usually three nuts, sometimes but one of these plump, and with a ripened kernel within the shell. The two others in this case will be but flat walls of shell with no kernel. Sometimes two of the three are meaty, and occasionally all three, only the fat ones being fertile seeds. Poking about among the brown leaves on the ground beneath the tree for these, now and then pricking my fingers in separating a particularly fat one from the bur, that had come down with it, I found another unfamiliar denizen of the chestnut tree that my clubbing had dislodged.
This was the larva of Telia polyphemus, the polyphemus moth. The moth himself is a beautiful creature with a six-inch spread of pinky-brown wings with a wonderful eye-spot of peacock-blue, dark-maroon, and yellow-white in the after wing. The form that I had picked up was a fat worm, nearly four inches long and fully an inch in diameter, of a clear, transparent, yellowish-green texture ornamented on the sides by raised lines of a silvery white, a strikingly beautiful object so far as coloring is concerned.
The larva of the Telia polyphemus is no uncommon creature among oak and chestnut trees, although, so near is he in coloring to the leaves on which he feeds and so high in air does he spend his life, you may live in the woods for years without seeing one. Him I carefully stowed in another handkerchief, tucked into another side pocket, and started for home with my chestnuts and my menagerie. One more adventure, however, was in store for me.
In the open pasture stands a tall hickory, clad in the golden tan of autumn foliage, dripping gray nuts and blackened husks upon the pasture grass beneath it. Taking his pick among these was a splendid great gray squirrel, and as I approached, instead of bounding across the open to the thick wood, where he would have been surely safe, he sprang to the trunk, and hiding behind it, eyed me over the lowest limb.
There was something of roguish defiance in his look and I accepted the challenge, I dropped my coat on the grass, that the bat and caterpillar might be uncrushed in the mêlée and swung into the tree toward the squirrel, who promptly scampered up the trunk fifteen feet or so, poked his head over another limb, and undeniably winked at me.
The gray squirrel is clever, but even on his own tree his reasoning did not go very far. I was steadily driving him to the top, where he would be cornered, but he did not run out on a limb and drop to a lower one and then scramble down the tree and away, as he so easily might. He went straight on toward the top, and I after him. Hickory is tough, and even its small limbs will hold much weight. I could go as high as the squirrel could.
On the topmost bough he poised, I was within arm's reach. A gray squirrel has long, keen teeth and knows well how to use them in self-defence, yet you may grasp one safely if you will do it right. Take him with the full hand from behind with the thumb and finger round his neck and meeting below his jaw. Thus you may hold him securely, uninjured, and be free from harm yourself. I have often pulled grown squirrels from the nest in this way.
But before my hand reached him the squirrel launched himself into the air with a bound that carried him in his flight clear of all limbs, It was forty feet to the drought-hardened pasture turf, and immediately I keenly regretted my frolic. A fall from that height, I thought, could but end in the death or injury of my friend. I looked to see him go to his finish, but he did nothing of the kind, Instead, he spread his legs wide, stiffened his tail, and fairly seemed to flatten himself as he went down, scaling to the ground instead of falling inertly, and though he struck with a considerable thud, he was up and scampering for the wood immediately.
The squirrel had won, though I can but think it was a foolhardy trick, and he would have done much better to slip down from tip to tip of the hickory limbs and circumvent me by circumnavigating me.
The crimson of the sunset lighted the path home with lambent radiance that made a twilight of the yellow glow beneath the birches and dulled the fire of the sumacs on the upland to a red as of dying embers. The purple wood-grass caught and held the complementaries of these fires reflected in its shadows till I seemed to stride through ashes of roses to the dun shadows of the lilacs in my own dooryard.
Here I bethought me of the bat, too long enshrouded in my pocket for his comfort, perhaps, and I unknotted the handkerchief, planning to slip him into an empty squirrel cage for a day's observation before I set him free. But I had forgotten that the sun was now below the horizon and that the bat could see as well as I could. Seemingly, he could see quicker, for before I could put fingers on him he slipped from the fold of the handkerchief, dove into the air, and with swift, sculling wings mounted over the tree tops and was away like the wind.
However, I had my chestnuts left, and my Telia polyphemus larva. Him I put in the butterfly cage without delay, along with some chestnut leaves, on which he might feed. He proceeded instead to spin himself a cocoon, rolling himself in one of the leaves in the corner of the box. There he will sleep lightly till spring, when I hope to see him come out a full-grown moth. I shall watch for him with much interest, for this species is very variable, and many aberrant forms and local races occur. There are even albinos, and melanic specimens also have been noted with the wings almost black.