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FOR two days the mad March winds have been blowing a fifty-mile gale, setting all the woodland crazy. No wonder the March hare is mad. He lives in Bedlam. No sooner does he squat comfortably in his form, his fair fat belly with round apple-tree bark lined, topped off with wee green sprigs of rash but succulent spring herbs from the brookside, ready to contemplate nature with all the philosophy which such a condition engenders, than the form rises in the air and its component leaves skitter through the wood and over the hill out of sight, leaving him denuded.
The usually dignified and gentle trees howl like beagles on his trail. The protecting scrub oaks, gone mad, too, dab and flip at him till he gets fidgety with thoughts of horned owls, and things rattle down out of the sky as if he were being pelted with buckshot. All these matters get on his nerves after a little, and if he sets his cotton-tail white flag at half mast from fear and goes whooping through the brush in a frenzy, there is small blame to him. Even man, whose mental girth and weight are supposed to be ballast sufficient against all buffetings, going forth on such a day needs the buttons of his composure well sewed on or he will find it ripped from him like the hare's form and sent skittering down the lea along with his hat, while he himself bolts here and there fighting phantoms and objurgating the unseen.
He sets his cotton-tail white flag at half mast from fear, and goes whooping through the brush in a frenzy
Mad March winds are a good test of stability of soul. He who can stand their weltings with serenity, can watch his unanchored personal belongings go mad with the March hare and still thrid the sombre boskage of the wood with sunny thought and no venom beneath his tongue, ought to be President. Even the New York papers could not make him bring suit.
And after the two days of gale how sweet the serenity that came to the thrashed and winnowed pastures and woodland. I fancy it all feeling like a boy at school who, after being soundly flogged, gets back to the soothing calm of his accustomed seat. There is a gentle joy about that feeling that, as many of us know, has neither alloy nor equal. The whole woodland, thus spanked and put away to cool, feels the winter of its discontent vanishing behind it and has no room in its heart for aught but the peace and joy of regeneration.
The gale began to fail during the second day and before midnight it was dead; thus short-lived is frenzy. I do not know now if those last gentle sighs were those of the wind in sorrow of its misdeeds, thus on its death-bed repentant, or those of the trees, themselves given a chance to sleep at last after a forty-hour fight for their lives. In the threshing and winnowing of the woodland none but the physically fit may survive. Oaks that have held their last year's leaves lovingly on the twig had to let them go like the veriest chaff, and all twigs and limbs that have been weakened.
And as chaff and debris is thus pruned from the forest, so those trees themselves that are not physically fit for the struggle for existence are weeded out. The eye may not be able to pick these, but the gale finds them. If the whelming pressure of its steady onrush is not sufficient to bring them down, the racking of varying force and the torsion of sudden changes in direction will snap the weakened trunk or tear out the loosened roots. Then there is a groan and a crash, and space for the younger growth to spread toward more light and air.
At no time of year is the weakness of roothold so liable to be fatal to a tree as now. During the winter a gale may snap a tree off at the trunk and smash it bodily to the ground. But if there is no weakness in the trunk there can be none in the roots, for the frost that is set about them holds even the shortest, as if embedded in stone. But now, when the solvent ice has loosened the whole surface for a depth of a foot or more, leaving it fluffy and disintegrated, those trees which have no tap-roots and hold only in this lightened surface are in the greatest danger of uprooting of the whole year. Farmers often clear a shrubby pasture it! late March or early April hereabout by taking advantage of this fact. They make a trace-chain fast about the base of a pasture cedar or a stout huckleberry bush, and with a word to the old horse the shrub is dragged from the softened earth, root and all. In mid-summer, after the ground has become compact, this is not to be done.
It is the spring house-cleaning time of the year, when nature is sweeping and picking up, preparatory to laying new carpets and getting new furnishings throughout, and if any of the old furniture of the woodland is not able to stand the strain it has to go to the woodpile. Without the mad March winds the forest would lose much of its fresh virility, the old deadwood would cumber the new growth, and the mild melancholy of decay would prevail as it does in some swamps where sheltering surrounding hills and close growth shunt the gales.
Yet, though house-cleanings are no doubt necessary and beneficient, few of us love them, and we hail with equal joy the resultant cleanliness and the cessation of the uproar. The two days' gale finally got all the winds of the world piled up somewhere to the southward and ceased, and the piled-up atmosphere drifted back over us, bringing mild blue haze that was like smoke from the fires of summer floating far. All things that had been taut and dense relaxed into dimples or softened into tears. The frost went out of the plowed fields that morning, though the sun was too blurred with the kindly blue mist to have any force. It was just the general relaxation which did it.
Then is apt to come a halcyon day, and though the kingfisher is not here to brood, nor will he be for a month, his fabled weather slips on in advance to cheer us. It may not last a day. March is as mad as April is fickle, and you will need to start early to be sure of it. Then, even if you come home in a snowstorm, you will at least have had a brief glimpse of that sunny softness which is dearer in March than in any other month.
This morning, in that calm which is most apt to settle on the land just before sunrise, the whole woodland seemed to breathe freely and beam in the soft air. The bluebirds caroled all about, and where a few days ago one song sparrow, surprised me with his song, a dozen jubilated in the pasture bushes. A half-dozen blackbirds flew over, and though I could not see a single red epaulet in the gray light, and listened in vain for that melodious "kong-quer-ree" which no other bird can sing, I knew them as well by their call of "chut-chuck," which is equally characteristic.
A flock of goldfinches lighted in the pines with much twittering and suggestions of the summer flight-note of "perchicoree." But that is no more than they have been doing all winter. In a moment,, though, the twittering changed. A melodious note began to come into it, and soon several in the flock were singing rival songs as sweet, though I do not think as loud, as those they will sing when June warmth sets the whole bird world a-choiring. It was a happy note in the cool spring air, for it was more than a spring song. The bluebirds and song sparrows voice that, but the song of the goldfinch is a song of summer, and irresistibly reminds one of fervid June heat and full-leaved trees. It was a warming, winning chorus, and it brought the sun up over the horizon, seemingly with a bound.
In all this joy of early matins I still miss one bird note that surely ought to be heard by now, and that is the robin's. Robins are here in considerable numbers, but not one of them have I heard sing. I'm afraid the robin is lazy, but, perhaps, it is just his honest, matter-of-fact nature which does not believe in forcing the season. He will sing loud and long enough by-and-by.
Such a spring morning is the best season of the year for moth hunting. The moths are all sound asleep still, tucked away in their cocoons, that are also tucked away in the woodland where it is not so easy to see them in winter. Now the mad March winds have swept the last brown leaves from the bushes, and such moths as hang up there for the winter sleep are easily seen. You may take them home and hang them up wherever you see fit, and you will then be on hand to greet the moth when at his leisure he feels prompted to come forth from his snug sleeping-bag.
I always find more of the spice-bush silk-moth than any others, -- perhaps because we both love the same woodland spots, borders of the ponds and streams where the benzoin and sassafras flourish, or upland pastures where the wild cherry hangs out its white racemes in May. They dangle freely in the wind, looking for all the world like a left-over leaf rolled by accident into a rude cylinder. Yet the moth is safe and warm within, rolled up in a silken coat that is firmly glued to the leaf; and not only that, but extends in silky fabric all up along the petiole, and firmly holds it to the twig itself. The mad winds which have scoured the bush clean of all leaves and debris have had no strength which can pluck this “last leaf upon the tree."
If left to itself it will still hang there a year or two, perhaps more, after the moth has emerged, gradually bleaching to a soft gray, but still clinging. It is a splendid quality of silk, but no one has yet succeeded in reeling or carding it. Callosamia promethia thus escapes becoming a product of the farm rather than the pasture. It is a fine species to have hanging in winter cradles above your mantel, for the imago is large and beautiful, with deep browns and tans softly shading into grays that are tinted with iris, the male being distinct with a body color of deep brown less diversified than the coloring of his mate.
The Samia cecropia is another of our silk-worm moths whose cocoon is not difficult to find. The cecropia, instead of rolling up in a pendant leaf, constructs his cocoon without protection, and glues it right side up beneath a stout twig or even a considerable limb. I have one now that I took from the under side of a big leaning alder bole, skiving it off with the bark, but most of those I have collected have been attached to slender twigs of low shrubs.
But, though the cecropia does not roll tip in a leaf, he is apt to place his winter home where dead leaves will persist about him. I have never found him so plentiful as the promethea, though he is commonly reported as numerous. Perhaps this habit of hiding among the dead leaves has to do with this. He is our largest moth, and in beauty of coloring is surpassed, to my mind, only by two others. One of these is Telia polyphemus, -- a wonderful creature, almost as large as the cecropia, all a soft, rosy tan with fleckings of gray and white and bands of soft violet-gray and pink, and great eye-spots of white margined with yellow, browed with peacock blue, and ringed with violet-black. The larva, which is bigger than a big man's thumb, is a beautiful shade of transparent green with side slashings of silvery white, and feeds on most of our deciduous forest trees. I have had most luck in finding them on chestnuts. Last fall, when beating a chestnut tree for the nuts, I dislodged several, one of which I brought home and put in a cage with some leaves. He refused to eat, but in a day or so spun a cocoon down in the corner of the box with a chestnut leaf glued over him. No wonder we rarely see either moth, caterpillar, or cocoon. The larva dwells in the higher trees, rolls himself in leaves in the autumn, and spends the winter on the ground, usually covered out of sight by the other leaves. Then the moth, wary and swift, flies only by night.
The Actias luna, the beautiful, long tailed, green luna moth, is, I think, better known, for it has a way of flitting about woodland glades in late June or July, before nightfall. But in the caterpillar or the cocoon it is as hard to find as the polyphemus, and for similar reasons. It, too, feeds upon walnut and hickory, and in the fall spins a papery cocoon among the dried leaves on the ground.
The luna moth is to me the highest type of moth beauty, and it is worth a long search among leaves to find a cocoon of either this or the polyphemus, and have the splendid privilege of seeing the lovely inmate later emerge, spread its fairy-like wings, and soar away into the soft spring twilight. It is as great a wonder as it would be to step some mid-summer midnight into a fairy ring and, after having speech with Mab and Titania and Puck and Ariel; see them flit daintily across the face of the rising moon and vanish in the purple dusk. The world of the polyphemus and the luna, the cecropia and the promethea, is as far removed from ours and as full of strange romance as that.
Along the pond shore these mad March days one gets glimpses of another world, too, that is, I dare say, as regardless of us as we are of that of the moths. This morning in the dusk of young dawn the pond was like a black mirror reflecting the shadows of the sky. But across it, near the middle, was drawn a silver streak, the path of ducks swimming. Presently I heard their voices, - the resonant quack of a black duck and the hoarse “pra-a-p pr-a-a-p " of the drake. As they called, into the pond with a splash came a small flock of divers, showing white as they whirled to settle. The two species swam together, seemed to 'look each other over, held who knows what conversations in their own way, then separated. It is not for black duck and buffleheads to congregate, especially in the spring; and while the black duck and drake swam sedately away, the buffleheads began to hunt the small white perch which swim in schools near the surface, making a splash as if a stone was thrown into the water at every lightning-like dive.
Just as many a man here in Massachusetts lives his life and dies without ever having seen or heard of a polyphemus moth or a bufflehead, though both may fly over his own head on many a dusky twilight, so the migrating thousands of ducks each year fly over our cities and know little of their uproar and bustle, nothing of their yearnings toward art or theology, or of the inspiration of poets or the agony of the down-trodden. Their world is all-important to them; ours is nothing, so they escape our guns, which they vaguely feel will harm them.
Even we with our books, our laboratories, and our concerted research into all things under heaven and in earth, do not get very far into the lives of other creatures. I have said all the moths are still in their cocoons. Perhaps they are, all but one, at least. That is a small brown fellow that came flying across the brook in the chill air of a sunset a night or two ago and now lies dead on my desk.
I caught him, for I wanted to know what moth dared come forth when the ground was still frozen and no bud had yet burst. But I would better have let him fly along to work out his own destiny, for in all the moth-book there is no mention of this wee brown creature that dared the frosty night with frail wings. I do not think he was an uncommon specimen. Moths are so numerous that only the most characteristic varieties of the more important species can be noticed in the text-books.
On my way home I crossed a sunny glade among the pines, and here I met an old friend, and had another example of the workings of other lives whose wisdom or ability is beyond our ken. On the dark trunk of a pine was sitting the spring's first specimen, so far as my observation goes, of butterfly life, an Antiopa vanessa, his mourning cloak so closely folded that it made him invisible against the pine-tree bark. As I drew near he flipped into the air and sailed by, beautiful in his tan-yellow border with its spots of soft blue.
I say he was on the pine bark, but I did not see him there. For aught I know, so well was he concealed, the tree opened and let him out, then closed, that his hiding place might not be revealed. I would almost as soon believe this as to believe, what lepidopterists assure me is true, that. this frail creature lives through the zero gales and deep snows of five months of winter to come out in the first bright days of early spring unharmed It is as likely that a pine trunk would voluntarily conceal him as that he could survive, frozen solid in some crevice in a stone wall or hollow stump. At any rate, he is out again, along with the hepaticas and song sparrows, and though the March winds and the March hare may both go mad again, we have had moments when the spring was very near.
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