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WHEN THE SNOW CAME
I HAVEN'T seen my friend the cotton-tailed rabbit for some days. All the winter, so far, he has frequented his little summer camp on the southern slope of the hill, well up toward the top, among the red oaks. Here in a little tangle of tiny undergrowth and brown leaves, with a fallen trunk for overhead shelter, you might find him any forenoon. He had backed into this place and trampled and snuggled till he had a round and cosy form just a bit bigger than himself, where the sun might warm him until he was drowsy and he could sit in a brown ball with his feet tucked beneath his fluffy fur, his ears laid along his back, and his eyes half closed in dreamy contentment.
I could step quietly up the path and see him sometimes a second before he saw me, but only for a second. Then his dream of succulent bark of wild apple trees and other delicacies of the winter woods would pass with a single thump of his sturdy hind feet as he struck the earth a half dozen feet away from his snug lodging, and more thumps and the bobbing of a white tail would carry him out of sight in a flash. He bobs and thumps just as a deer does when you surprise him in the forest, and flies a white flag in just the same way. Both go jerking away like sturdy but nervous sprites, and though a deer in the forest is supposed to be the epitome of grace, I can never see it. The startled fawn and the startled bunny are both too eager to get on to be graceful.
Here in a little tangle of tiny undergrowth and brown leaves, with a fallen trunk for overhead shelter, you might find him any forenoon
We have just had some touches of real winter and these have sent the cottontail to the seclusion of his burrow, where he lacks the health-giving warmth of the sun, it is true, but where he is snug and comfortable beneath the frost line. Like the rabbit most of the wild creatures of the wood seem to endure the snow with cheerful philosophy, but I am convinced that few of them like it. It hides their food from them, and if it is deep or a strong crust makes its surface difficult of penetration its long-continued presence mean short rations or even starvation and death. The squirrels have some stores within hollow trunks and these are available at any season, but much of their winter food is buried helter-skelter beneath brown leaves and too deep snow shuts them off from it. The fox must range farther and pounce more surely, for the field mice which are his bread and butter are squeaking about their usual business in pearly tunnels where he may not reach them. The woodchucks are tucked away for the winter, the skunks are dozing fitfully on short rations, hungry but inert, and even Brer Rabbit does not venture out of his hole for days at a time when his enemies, winter and rough weather, are upon him.
Yet if the furred and feathered people of pasture and woodland have no occasion to love the snow it is far different with the trees and shrubs and tender plants of the out-door world. These have yearned for it with love and a faith that has rarely lacked fulfilment. They talked about it incessantly, each in the voice of its kind, the big forest oaks with the cheery rustle of sturdy burghers, the little scrub oaks with the tittle-tattle of small-natured folk. Let the wind blow north or south or high or low the birches sang a little silky song of snow and the pines hummed or roared to the same refrain. Then it came, "announced by all the trumpets of the sky," as Emerson says, but muted trumpets that blared without sound. The eyes saw the flourish of them, the nose mayhap whiffed the rich odor of the storm. You could see it in the sky and feel the light touch of its unwonted air on your cheek, but you could not say that the wind blew north or blew south when the culmination of signs made you sure of it. The storm may bleat along the hillside like a lost lamb or roar high above in the clashings of the infinite skies after it is well under way, but always before it begins is this little breathless pause between the dying of one wind and the birth of another.
So it was that the first of this snow came to the woods. In the hush of expectation there was a certain feeling of awe. The trees felt it as much as I did and stood as breathless and expectant. Instead of clearly defined clouds, the whole air seemed to thrill with the dusky gray presence of a spirit out of unknown space, of whose beneficence we might hope, but of whom we were not without dread. And so the dusk of the storm we hoped for loomed down on us in the breathless stillness and tiny flakes slipped down so quietly that the touch of their ghost fingers on my cheek was the first that I knew of their actual coming. The pine boughs high over my head caught these first flakes and held them lovingly and let them slip through their fingers only after many caresses, and soon through all the pine wood you could hear a little sigh that was a purr of contentment in the first faint breathing of the north wind bearing many flakes.
Thus the snow comes to the woods. You can see its portent glooming in the sky for hours beforehand, smell it in the rich, still air and feel its touch on your cheek. When I stepped out from under the cathedral gloom of the space beneath the pines, I found the air full of flakes whirling down from the north and the field white with them.
Standing in the midst of the storm in the field, you have a chance to see something of its color, for after all falling snow is only relatively white. Looking toward the dense, dark foliage of the pine wood, you see it at its best, especially across the wind, for the contrast is most vivid and the color most distinct. Each individual flake is so distinct and so white, from those near you, which go scurrying earthward as if in a great hurry, to those of the distance, which float leisurely down. Look again up the wind toward the gray of the hard-wood forest and you shall find the falling hosts almost as gray as the wood which they half blot out. But if you would see black snow, you have but to lift your eyes to the leaden gray sky out of which, as you see them from below, flakes float in black blots that erase themselves only when they lie at your feet. In open wells in the deep wood you can see this still more definitely as you look up, a black snow falling all about you, to be changed to spotless white by some miracle of contact with the earth.
In the deep woods, too, you hear the cry of the snow, not the song of the trees the joy of its coming, but the voices the flakes themselves, their little shrill cries as they touch leaf or twig. To the pines that held up soft arms of welcome and clasp them close and will not let them go away though each bough is weighted clown, they whisper a soft little cooing word that is surely "love" in any language. No wonder it is warm under pine boughs in a snow-storm. The great trees glow with the happiness of it and the radiance of their delight filters down to you as you stand beneath. The flakes seem to love the bare, smooth twigs of the hard-wood maples less, they give them just a pat and a gentle word of greeting as they go by, and they touch the birches almost flippantly. Among the fine pointed tridents of the pasture cedars, however, they linger somewhat as they do among the pines, though their song here is of jovial friendship only, with even something waggish about it. They linger in groups among the cedar awhile, but often start up in gentle glee and shake themselves clear of the tree in a sort of blank dismay until more of their fellows come to take their places. There is a little swish of fairy laughter as they do this, as of the snickering of fat bogles as they play pranks in the white wilderness.
But it is over on the oak hillside where the red and black oaks still hold resolutely to their dried leaves that the cry of the snow will most astonish you. It is not at all the rustle of these oak leaves in a wind. It is an outcry, an uproar, that drowns any other sound that might be in the wood. It is impossible to distinguish voices or words. It is as if ten thousand of the little people of the wood and field and sky had suddenly come together in great excitement over something and were shouting all up and down the gamut of goblin emotion. After I have stood and listened to it for a minute or two I begin to look at one shoulder and then the other fully expecting to see gabbling goblins grouped there, yelling to one another in my very ears. Here with closed eyes you may easily tell the quality of the snow about you by the sound. Each sort of flake has its distinct tone which is easily recognized through all the uproar. At nightfall of this first snow of ours it happened that in the meeting of northerly and southerly currents which had brought the storm, the north wind lulled and the south began to have its way again. This gave us at first a great downfall of big flakes that seemed to blot out all the world in an atmosphere of fluff. Then, evidently, the warmth in the upper atmosphere increased for the big flakes gave way to a fine fall of rounded sleet. Then, indeed, we got outcry the most astonishing in the oak wool. The voices shrilled and fined and all crepitation was lost in a vast chorus of a million peeping frogs. Nothing else ever sounded like it. It was as if a goblin springtime had burst upon us in the white gloom of the oak wood and all the hylas in the world were piping their shrillest from the boughs.
I went home. I think it was time. People used to get among goblins at dusk in this way in the old country and when they got back from goblin land they found that they had been gone three years, and I didn't care to stay away so long.
During the night the sleet changed to rain which froze as it fell, and in the morning the snow everywhere was but an inch or two deep and covered with an icy crust that broke underfoot with a great noise and effectually scared away any woodland thing that you approached, provided it had powers of locomotion. Fox or crow, partridge or rabbit, must have thought that Gulliver was once more walking in among the Lilliputians with his very biggest boots on. Never were such thunderous footsteps heard in my wood, at least not since the last icy crust. Frozen in the icy surface were the trails that had been made when the snow was soft, the squirrel's long, plunging leaps with his hind feet dropping into the hole his front feet had made, giving something you might mistake for deer tracks, except that they went back up the tree. You saw where the crow had dropped to earth and trailed his aristocratically long hind toe, with its incurving claw. The crow's foot is fine for grasping a limb, but it does not fit the ground. On the other hand, the trail of the ruffled grouse which may lie beside it shows an ideal footprint for walking woodland paths, the hind toe stubby nailed, short but firm, and the whole print well planted and fitting the earth.
These and many more I found modeled in ice, but the trails that interested me most were those beneath the crust, the long tunnels that wound here and there, intersected and doubled and made portions of the fields and forests for all the world like the blue veining of a white skin. These were the trails of the shaggy-coated, crop-eared, short-legged, short-tailed meadow mouse. This firm crust had opened to him the opportunity of safety in paths that had been before dangerous in the extreme. He knew where chestnuts had lain open to the sky for months, but he dared not go into the open path to get them. Fox, cat, skunk, weasel, hawk, owl, crow, all watched the paths and the edges of the thick grass for him. He must burrow or die. So he does burrow all the year through, just beneath the surface, in dirt if he must, under light leaves and brush and matted grasses by preference, for there he may go the more easily and quickly to his food. His eyesight and hearing are good, and he moves like a little brown flash when he has to go into the open.
If I wish to see him I watch well-worn footpaths through matted grass and leaves. Here his tunnels end on one side of the path and begin on the other and he takes the chance of crossing this risky opening to sun and sky as often as he feels he must, but he wrecks the speed limit every time he does it. So quickly does he go that you cannot be sure what has happened; there was the stirring of a leaf on one side and a grass stem on the other and a sudden vanishing touch of brown between the two, but which way it went or whether it went at all is doubtful. So, too, his tunnels come down and open at the water's edge by the meadow brook and if you are patient and have rare luck you may see him swim across. Here trout and mink are on the watch for him. His numbers need to be great if, with all his caution and agility, he is going to survive all these huntsmen, and they are great. He may breed at two months of age and have many litters a season and his progeny, if unchecked, soon swarm. All the meadows are full of them this year, but it is only when such a snow as we now have comes that we have a chance to see what they may do.
In the summer-time they stick close to their meadows, living on succulent roots and stems. They are especially fond of tuberous roots of the wild morning-glory, which they store by the hound in their grass larders near their nests. Put under the welcome cover of the snow they push their excursions far afield and their netted-veined trails come even to your house itself, though they rarely dispute the wainscoting with the house mouse. Now and then they do, however, and I fancy they have no trouble in holding their own against their slighter and more aristocratic cousins. When they do come you will know their presence by the extraordinary noise of their gnawing. Once a stone crusher, no less by the sound, got into my garret, and after one sleepless night I set the biggest trap I had, expecting to get the most enormous brown rat that ever happened, if not some new and more elephantine rodent. What I caught was a well-grown field mouse, and the noise passed with him.
The rain which produced this thunderous and telltale snow crust, brought a new and gorgeous growth to the trees. From trunk to topmost twig, each was garmented in regal splendor of crystal ice. I had been in goblin land when I fled, at twilight, from the eerie shrilling of bogle hylas among the oak trees. I had come back into fairyland with the rising sun. The demure shrubs, gray Cinderellas of the ashes of the year, had been touched by the magic wand and were robed in more gems than might glow in the wildest dreams of the most fortunate princess of Arabian tale. Ropes of pearl and festoons of diamonds weighed the more slender almost to earth.
The soft white shoulders of the birches drooped low in bewildering curtsey, and to the fiddling of a little morning wind the ball began with a tinkling of gem on gem, a stabbing of scintillant azure, so that I was fain to shut my eyes with the splendor of it.
Then came the prince himself to dance with them, the morning sun, flashing his gold emblazonry through their gems till the corruscation drowned the sight in an outpouring of fire. The princesses all began to speak as he came among them, a speech wherein dropped from their lips all jewels and precious stones. Sunbursts of diamonds fell from dainty young pines and ropes of pearls slid from the coral lips of slender birches. The babble fell all about their feet in such ecstasies of brilliant speech, such tinkling of fairy laughter as the wood had never yet seen. Brave revels have the little people of the forest under the moon of midsummer night, no doubt, but never could they show such royal, dainty splendor as their own trees did this midwinter day when the sun shone in upon them after the ice storm.
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