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Chapter XIII

The Winter Woods

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

The Catskills are a happy meeting-ground of north and south. In spring they are not too far north to attract and harbor tropic birds, or to nourish flowers that must have warmth. In winter they are not too far south to know the arctic visitants and the dry cold of the perfect season. The Catskills give you the open hard-wood forest, and yet surprise you with an aromatic mountain-top of balsam or a ravine of aged hemlock. The Catskills protect animals that you might fancy a trip to Hudson's Bay would scarcely reveal. I have been told that even the pine marten is still caught there yearly. In fact, the Catskills, one hundred miles from New York City, can satisfy more outdoor aspirations than the ordinary aspirer can aspire to. It takes a very complete nature-lover to cover the Catskills and wish for more. Go to the Catskills and go crazy -- that is, if you are at all susceptible to the crowding interests of nature at her wealthiest. And if you have never gone in winter, go then.

Without winter our race would never have acquired thrift or the strong fiber of reliance which that season, throwing a man back upon his slender resources, gives. Winter in the northern woods inculcates thrift and stanchness of relation. There can be no hit-or-miss about life where the next day may snow you up for the winter. There can be no extravagances with one's store of resources, either material or spiritual, when one is at bay before abysmal cold and the outer darkness of long nights.

On the other hand, if the year is stripped for the great fight, and if the lighter friends have blown to sunnier lands, there is recompense awaiting you. The skies were never more beautiful, the few birds never cheerier, and the circle round the hearth has time now to know you and be known.

It is the winter birds that appreciate the slender store of life. There are three who will be good company for you on a snowshoe walk. The nuthatches are a busy crowd. Head down and sometimes clinging to the under side of limbs, they ransack poplars and spruces. They have a squeaky little cry, and are too much engaged to pay you attention, and so you can keep along with them. Have an eye out for the red-breasted nuthatch. He is rarer than the white-breasted. With them the little downy woodpecker will be seen, trying bard, poor chap, to keep the pace, and consequently losing in thoroughness. He can't do half a tree to the nuthatch's one, but he doesn't let it worry him. The spot of flame at the back of his head gives just the spark of fancy needed in the somber forest. Occasionally one may see the rarer hairy woodpecker, a bigger cousin and rather taciturn.

The chickadee completes the usual trio, and I like him best of all. He is known by his black cap. He is never well groomed, like the snowbird, and looks as if he bad just been roughing life in his back woods; but be has a warmer heart than the snow-bird, and is found in just the places where you need somebody like him for companionship. Go up Slide or Windham or Hunter on one of those brilliant winter days when there is nothing around but the universe, and you will be thankful for the honest little chickadee.

The crow will not be friends with me. Indeed, I cannot say that I know a single crow intimately. There are lots of other birds that one doesn't expect to be familiar with. A warbler is, at best, a foreigner with a letter of introduction. A buzzard is of a class that one does not receive. A hawk is a free-booter. An eagle is His Majesty, before whom you should not presume to more than bow. But the crow is my neighbor, and I rather resent his aloofness. I like his voice on October evenings, and I like the glitter of his wings in March. But his nonchalant way of flying slowly off when I come over the hill is the cut direct. He has a sense of humor, or is dumber than I thought. The other day I saw him chase his own shadow as a cat its tail. He was flying over a sloping meadow of bronzed grasses. Three times he swooped, and each time his shadow joined him as he struck the grass. Whether it was his shadow that he was after, or merely a mouse, I can't say. But why three times?

Then, there are two friends of winter that I call my wood-pile birds. The blue-jay always comes around to see what is doing when I get out the ax. He is very curious, but will never quite admit it. He skulks around, and works up considerable indignation if there is no notice taken. But, for all his apparent temper and harsh scolding, he is enjoying it. He likes to be about and to be admired, and, as he is a fine sight between logs, we are both suited. When the cardinal comes round, I am content. The cardinal is something to give thanks for. In spring, when his song attains a haunting richness of tone, he is as perf ect as a courtier can be. The song is but a sweet whistle, a prelude-to what? Ah! that is his secret -- and yours. He starts the melody. You are a poor lover if your heart cannot go on with it.

All bird songs are like that. They all start something that they will not finish. The purple finch, warbling so exquisitely from. the new-green poplars, even the hermit-thrush beginning his divine arpeggios in the shadowy valley, cannot satisfy the rapture they inspire. It takes all of spring to round out the orb of the meadow-lark's first song. So blame not the cardinal if he but set the key.

The junco, whose snow-white tail feathers cheer you like a chance "hello", is the chummiest of all the winter friends. But he doesn't tell you much. Just a chip, chip and a flirt of the tail. He is always trig, always trusting, and often the only scrap of life left in a snow-drowned world.

Sometimes a cedar-waxwing , the aristocrat beside whom the cardinal is a dowdy, sits on a bush and watches me work in my flannel shirt. I know that I am quite out of place in his society. He often whispers to his mate about me. But none of it ever reaches my ears. They are the quietest of birds. Exquisitely groomed and crested, the two will sit on a juniper bush and eat the berries, but genteelly and without haste, as though eating were beneath them. Never have I seen a waxwing disheveled, crowded, angry, or in danger. They are above enemies, one would infer from their manner. If they die at the hands of owls, I doubt not that they feel contempt to the end for their vulgar foe. They allow you to approach with ease near enough to see the yellow band across the tail and the wax tips of their wingquills.

There are a number of other winter birds in the Catskills-the tufted titmouse and the winter wren and the golden-crowned kinglet and the hawks and owls, shrikes, pine siskins, redpolls, crossbills, buntings, wandering sparrows, -- the eagle, who, soaring, seems to cover a county in each circle, -- there are lots of birds that these winter woods, which seem so barren of all life, disclose.

Also, there are a great many animals-how many nobody can ever guess with a very near approach to accuracy. Varying in numbers, changing their range, sometimes hibernating, sometimes hiding with their young, a walker cannot even presuppose what he is to see. That gives a spice to rambles, and strings unexpected pleasures upon a day's jaunt as close as swallows on a wire.

Winter is the time to find friends among the animals. In spring they are busy with their children, and in autumn with their mates. In summer food is plenty, and they lie snug. In winter they must be abroad, all except the seven sleepers and the few who can live on their stores; and to be abroad in winter means to leave one's tale behind one.

The Catskill forest is a capacious storehouse of beechnuts and forage, and the meadows are alive with mice. This combination enables a veritable menagerie to live easily and in unexpected numbers. Take your snowshoes and wander back into the Peekamose country, or tramp and camp in the wild tangles of the upper Bushkill, and you will hear and read in the snow more woodland gossip than you'd have dared suspect.

The impression one gets from the snow is that the forest is a parade-ground. Between storms the squirrels have time to visit every tree, the deer to do intricate patterns by the mile, the foxes to trot to all the interesting places, and the snowshoe rabbits to fill in the intervening spaces with hop, skip, and jump. Yet how many do you see in a day's walk? One squirrel, no deer, no fox, no rabbit. But take heart. That's the first day. On the second your eyes are wider open. In a week -- well, I shall not prophesy, for a good deal depends on whether you last out a week. But there are at least twenty animals that you may have seen.

In the Catskills the squirrel crowd is well represented, and, for a beginning, pays as well to follow up as any. In fact, to watch any animal is to become interested. The one watched becomes the most interesting in the world. A red squirrel at hand outweighs a rhinoceros somewhere else.

Along the road that I had to travel frequently there lived three red squirrel families in the space of a mile. It was a sort of squirrel parkway. Several times a day the little fellow who sits in the shadow of his tail would scamper by me, always using the same aerial route. It was a strange route, as jagged as the sky-line of the Rockies -- up a big locust, down, by a cedar, and jump. In some lights the sun shone warm on his back, which was the color of Barbarossa's beard. His home was in a woodpecker's hole-a lately ousted woodpecker, if the feathers meant anything. How the youngsters are trained to all the leaps and dashings that every young squirrel should know is a marvel I have not yet seen through. It is worth a summer to follow their fortunes from start to finish.

The finish comes not by broken leg so often as by weasel or by hawk. A red squirrel lives for five or six years, and there are only four reasons why he can escape without a fracture for every bone in his body: the length of his fur, his tail, his spread of limb, which makes for an almost spiritual lightness, and his agility, which is worthy of an Ariel.

There is some fun observing the red squirrel, because he never roams far, does not hibernate, is always into something, and will parley with you -- at least, while the food lasts. He is about a foot long, half of it tail., He stores his food. He does not migrate. The family comes in May. His food consists of seeds, nuts, berries, and birds I eggs. He lives in f ear of hawks and owls, but you'd never know it.

Many men in the Catskills told me that the gray squirrel was plentiful, but I saw very few. It is common knowledge that the red squirrel, who despises and bullies the gray, always wins in disputes for territory. I found the reds everywhere, and am quite ready to draw the private conclusion that the lumbering, improvident, and cowardly gray is already fairly scarce, and becoming scarcer.

The chipmunk flourishes, and for those of us who do not demand wolves and mountain lions to whet our appetites little Tam will furnish amusement. There is sure to be a stone-pile, a woody ledge, a labyrinth of brambles near your house, and almost as sure to be a chipmunk there. Every clear day I sat at work, backed up to a pine, with needles for cushions and chipmunks for company. The vestibule to the chipmunkery was under a fallen spruce, and a dozen times an hour the elder chip would come out of his hole, survey the scene, scamper along the logs or over my legs, and fall to storing tree-seeds in his cheek-pouches.

In the course of the entire summer never once did he neglect to look over the scene before leaving his hole, never once bounce right out and trust to luck that I wouldn't eat him. That particular family must have lived very well the next spring, when the hunger-hour struck. Among other things, they had stored about a pound of chocolate caramels, which I didn't intend them to have. I wonder if the youngsters were given one if they were good?

A chipmunk is about six inches long, with three more for tail, and is known by his stripes. He is not supposed to climb, but those caramels were on a six-foot shelf, reached via a higher roof, a ledge, and a window. Did the ground hackee smell them? Was he on a general exploring expedition? Does he usually explore so high? And how did lie make the shelf ? I would like to have stayed through the fall. When did Dad Hackee go to sleep? For how long? Did he help with the children's education?

Curiosity may kill the cat, but it creates the other beasts for us. Of course, ground hackees are small deer for ponderous intellects. Yet Burns was not above writing about a louse, and who will set himself above Burns? If you will lay aside your newspaper, sir, or your knitting, madam, and make the acquaintance of Tamias Striatus, if you will put some intimate questions to him, you will find that you know almost nothing about this animal within your gates. He will be as remunerative of interest as a fond gazelle. Keep a journal for Tammy, a camera set, some food at hand. It need not necessarily be chocolate caramels.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but some days it seemed to me that there must be a woodchuck for every native of the Catskills. They were not only bobbing in and out of their holes in the fields; they were also continually dodging back into roadside weeds, turning on wood trails and sneaking off, or coughing at me from behind rocks. The farmers, whose fields they are forever turning into animated subways, hate them. They are shot, trapped, poisoned, and probably ferreted. They flourish. Other animals, as Thompson Seton says, all die before their time. But the woodchuck sees his out, living in clover in the summer and in his own-steam-heated apartment in the winter, fat, idle, lazy, aldermanic, a fit survivor of Diedrich Knickerbocker's race.

There are some questions I would have you discover the answers to, since I can find no facts and cannot bring my wits to conjure fit reasons for. How does this beast, who never exercises, remain so surprisingly agile that he can turn his two feet of puddin'-bag flesh in his hole fifteen times a quarter of an hour? How does he survive the fox, who is as a town lawyer to this country priest? How does he maintain himself in the midst of a circumambient hate? How does he get enough liquid from the dew (for he does not drink water) to placate the demands of his physiology, particularly since his idea of a saturnalia is to lie out by the day in the torrid sun?

After watching a woodchuck through an operaglass for an hour or so, stowing clover, one gets new standards of gluttony. In the fall he eats by the day. Clearly the future of man is not along the alimentary canal. We have come that way. Everything that can be accomplished by eating has been tried by the ostrich, the bear, and the woodchuck. He is the vegetarian's best example. He is also the original sun-worshiper. The Old Man of the Pasture preaches to over-busy people in terms of success. He continues to inherit the earth. His mood is perpetual patience, his song a monody of ecstatic sloth. If you wish for perfect content, you must pray to be a woodchuck.

It was not quite characteristic that I should have come on my fox in the way in which I did -- rounding a corner of the wood path and finding him playing with a broken weed. He was a bit astonished, and yet disdained to appear excited, trotting down the trail several yards before jumping into the bushes. Yet I cannot believe that I surprised him. One does not surprise foxes.

Foxes must eat, in winter particularly, and, as they are not supernaturally borne over snow, they must leave a track, a single line of little pads. It is not only possible to read the continued story; it is quite possible to have a hand in it yourself. I know a family of five brothers, long-winded and long-legged, who, after familiarizing themselves with Reynard's usual run, set out to trail him down in relays. As twenty-five miles is a fair run for a fox, and as they are good for forty, they sometimes get the red ones. The gray take too soon to cover. For any set of athletes it is a magnificent game, in which every minute pays its share of the pleasure.

Both gray and red foxes are found in the Catskills. The grays seem to be driving out the reds, and are destroying the ruffled grouse. I have never seen the young of the gray, but the sight of the tawny cubs of the red playing together is a sight that a man will never forget. The spotted faun, surprised in the deep wood, and leaping away into almost instant invisibility, is possibly the supreme vision of the wild-wood. But baby foxes, with their soft fur running through every change of gold and yellow-brown, white-throated and big-headed, are more playful than Puck's children, and an entrancing sight.

The fox loves the border-lands best. He lives on meadow-mice and his neighbor's fowls, or rather on those of his neighbor but one. He is said to spare the nearest farm for strategy's sake. I don't know how true this is.

Also the cottontail is most content when near civilization. She sits in her own form by day, but in some one else's garden by night, and is ready to incur the ranging do- rather than have to travel too far for her cabbage.

On the contrary. her cousin, the varying hare,the white rabbit of the vernacular, but the snowshoe rabbit of the naturalist, -- prefers the willow swamp and the copsy highlands of serener woods. Certainly there is no more interesting place in which to have a Catskill cabin than up one of those valleys such as Big Injin or the Beaverkill, where, just within the fringe of hemlocks, one gets the best of both environments. At one's back door lies the shadowy hinterland of forest and invisible beasts; at one's front the open hill and dale, peopled with a more metropolitan menagerie. Either where live multitudes, unseen and unsuspected. But, if you choose well, you can share the fortunes of those who fancy darkness as well as of those who love the light.

The snowshoe rabbit is recognized by his very long ears, his hind legs that crook up in the back because they are so long, his rusty brown of summer and his pure white coat in winter, and -- most interesting of all -- his moult in the autumn and spring. In the autumn the change to white begins with his feet, the patches widening upward f rom the legs and back from the ears. In the spring the order is reversed.

Brute and I found evidences of these hares on every snowy summit that we mounted. They had scampered across wide open spaces, though loving the thickets most. Their broad pads lifted them fairly well in the light snow, and very well when it had hardened a little. The few we watched did not seem to be very hungry, although the vernal appetite is much the keenest. Six-foot leaps on the mountain-tops were not unusual, but the ones we seared did not seem in any hurry to leave. Whether they play in the moonlight, as some naturalists announce, we could not tell. Certainly none came to act before us that night on Huntersfield. But, from the maze of tracks on Slide, I should judge that they held regular nightly hops, moon or no moon.

A great deal could be done with a note-book on Slide. The largest leaps could be measured, the shrubs examined to discover their larders, the earliest appearance after the big snows determined, their places of concealment during snows found, the normal range estimated, and the years of frequency counted. When all this data had been collected, it could be compared with Ernest Thompson Seton's authoritative work in "Life Histories of Northern Mammals," the most fascinating narrative of animal existence that I have had the luck to fall upon. Mr. Seton is popularly supposed to fashion the straight line of veracity into an artistic halo for his animals; but in this thousand-page master-work every authority is cited, every rumor credited as such. To be sure, there is the glamour of personality throughout the two volumes, the adjective that brings a smile, the fancy that enhances the fact. The facts, however, are there, quite undiluted with fancy. The result is that people who would turn away from museum reports turn to these biographies, and when the book is closed return to the woods and fields with a tremendous appetite aroused.

There is sure to be a porcupine living within a mile of your Catskill cottage. Some night he will smell salt, a smell more alluring to him than blood to a hungry tiger. If you give him time, he will gnaw down the house about your cars for that grain of salt. He will not, however, shoot his quills at you. Nor can he escape you running: So chase him up a tree, tie a white towel about it, and let him wait till morning. If it be a hemlock, he will begin on his next meal right away. He is an irritable beast, and as unsociable as a woodchuck. Porcupines chatter in a shrill, teeth-gritting way when they are disturbed. Do not appeal to their reason. They have none. Yet do not trust their quiescence. That tail will slap like a camera-shutter, leaving you with the appearance and feeling of a pin-cushion. The quills have to be cut out, being barbed, and are the quintessence of schrecklichkeit in a brutish world. Whatever becomes of the porcupine in winter, he neither sleeps nor obtrudes his society. I do not know his trail. Occasionally a dog finds him, and sometimes a flesh-eater, crazed with hunger, tries the untriable and gets crazed with something else. Probably he stays up in his thick hemlock until it is stripped, only to make the short trip to another.

While I was in Roxbury they were having a crusade against skunks. Skunks are fond of chicken in any form, and these, recently emerged from their long denning up, were bent on having some eggs at any price. It was an unfortunate bargain for them.

A skunk is guessed by his stripe and taken for granted by his tail. The sensible man trusts to his senses. Yet, according to all authorities, the skunk is not easily irritated to action, and even when he feels his temper rising he gives ample warning to the neighbors by delicately turning his back and raising his tail. If the tail should spread and the tip rise, then let the beholder exert himself and flee. Ten feet is scarcely a safe distance, and the smell is strong for miles.

Skunks seem to know that security is their due. They are as likely to nest beneath a back porch as to seek seclusion in the edge of wood or swamp. Study of the skunk vouchsafes all the excitement of a lion hunt. Yet the results are not so permanent. Just bury the clothes in the wood.

In hollow Catskill beeches breeds the coon. You can't mistake the little bear with his big ringed tail and black cheek patches. There is enough fish and enough green corn in the Catskill country to make his summers bright, and he sleeps through the worst of winter, so his five-toed track is not the one you're thinking of.

Neither is it in the pine marten's, who lives in the trees, who prefers the heaviest of fir forests to the open woods, and who will have nothing of the border-lands. He is a big weasel with a big spot of yellow on his brown throat.

Neither is it the otter's, for all unite in saying that the otter is no longer found in the Catskills.

Neither is it the fisher's who never lived there in any number, at least.

Nor the wolverine's, who plagues Canadian but not Catskill trappers.

Nor the beaver's, who has been liberated on some of the western Catskill streams, but is not yet thoroughly established.

But it is the mink's, who wanders by the ponds here and there in the western Catskills and along some of the wilder streams. He can be seen gliding or sometimes swimming, but never still. He is a black beauty, more graceful than the grayish 'chuck, and less ratty than the muskrat, without the stripe and flaring tail of the skunk, and easily distinguishable from the opossum with his rat tail, or the coon with its prisoner pattern.

There are fairies, too, as reward for the diligent searcher. Tucked away in the recesses of the Catskill glens live the flying squirrels, and the weasel who turns white in winter, the big hoary bat, and a host of shrews. The little brown bat comes down to the villages; and where you pitch your tent you will entertain the most beautiful animal in the world, the jumping mouse, with his exquisite white feet and plumy tail. There are other mice, and a mole or two, and along the snow the muskrat drags his tail behind him, as meek as Mary's lamb -- unless disturbed.

There used to be forty-five kinds of mammals in the Catskills. Gone forever are the gray wolf, the elk, the panther, the Canada lynx, and the otter. The forty others are still there. Deer are plentiful, bear common, and wild-cats are killed each winter, sometimes a dozen, sometimes but half a dozen in the three counties, if one may estimate from hearsay.

The wild-cat is undoubtedly the most interesting animal left. In early summer, if you listen, you will hear the shivery bark of the barred owl, which is sufficiently awing; but far away (yet not too far for creepiness) you may hear the rasping caterwauling of two cats. The Canada lynx in seats upon deep woods, but the wild-cat -- which is the bay lynx and differs only from the Canadian in size and ability -- will range close to farms, hide in wood-lots, and supplement his dietary of chipmunks, rabbits, and grouse, with poultry.

It is a perfectly safe winter sport to trail the wild-cat, if you can. There is no record yet of any Catskill denizen having attacked a man, or a woman either, for that matter. The bear sees you first and takes to the next county. The deer, which is the most treacherous of all animals in captivity, will spare no pains to eliminate herself from your presence. The wild-cat is so beautifully agile in matted branches and along fallen trees that he invisibly escapes the silence-smashing man who is crashing toward him on two awkward legs. Indeed, the only animal to be feared in the woods is the porcupine, who, by chance, may come up and lick your hand in the dark. The muskrat has been known to attack in numbers, and in the dim of dusk mosquitos have been heard; but the wide-wood, for all of them, is freer of danger than one city street.

It is easy to take the little animals for granted. The difficulty is in believing in bears. When we came upon 'Gene Kerr working in his garden, his rifle leaning against the house and a row of bear skulls grinning along the side of the barn, we had to believe. Later, when we had shredded our clothes in brier patches, roamed over thousands of square miles of blueberry desert (or so it seemed in the sun), and spent the night in the deep darkness of the Catskill forest, we began to doubt. And after we had poked in perfect dens and descended into marvelous bear havens, we began to resent the stupidity of bears in not making use of the facilities offered.

A bear is difficult to see. Since he doesn't hee-haw, or bark, or sing in one's ear, he has no way of drawing your attention. Also, being very shy, he will not stay in a place until you run into him. His notion of life in the spring is to beget and then get. In the fall his daily round is designed to make him daily rounder. And in the winter he sleeps it off. In January, in order to give birth to her young, the mother has to wake. This makes her crosser than a bear naturally is. It does seem unjust. She maintains her ill humor by not eating or drinking for several months, being still damned up. All this time her two cubs are developing from squirrel-size infants into creatures dog-like, then boy-like, then bear-like, until they are able to wander around the woods and begin to feed on adult provender, which is nearly everything swallowable from bugs and berries up to beetles and small deer.

Owing to the excessive timidity of bears, Brute and I have had to take all the above information from trappers and talkers of their ilk. I have seen their hides, their skulls, their slayers, and their photographs; and, putting two and two together, I am prepared to assert that there are a good many yet in the Catskill country. That they have no inhumane intention toward human beings I can even more confidently assert. I have given them every chance.

The deer, in comparison with the bears, behave in a way that is positively forward. Instead of running deftly away like a three-hundred-pound bear, they will break twigs, stamp, turn, and snort from behind bushes. It isn't sensible, but it gives one beautiful glimpses of tawny grace, of matchless poise, which are fixed in the imagination forever. It is far harder to get a good view of a deer in the Catskills than in the Adirondacks. They are relatively fewer, shyer, and less accessible. In the Catskills there are so few open ponds and so few marshy meadows that one must wait long, walk far, or be in the uplands much to get one's fill of their white-tailed vanishings. Patience will be rewarded, however, as always, and in the snow can be read the long story of their existence.

I have spoken of the winter woods as if their branches were thick with birds and their shrubbery trodden down by a crowding mass of animals. That comes from letting the results of many wanderings jostle each other in the corral of the printed page. To the hurried visitor the Catskills will seem birdless and creatureless. It is for him who roams the woods alone and without regard to time-pieces -- this revelation of almost spirit-like life that lives in the shadows.

The woods, however, are there. They cannot slink back into hidden dens. They are the lifeground of innumerable activities, the great theater of all outdoors, and the most beautiful theater imaginable. Even if you care nothing for the fascinating skunk and have never heard of the relentless ermine, you cannot remain obdurate to the charm of the stage on which they live out their little roles as comedian and villain. If you once wander back into the winding aisles where the hemlock droops with snow and the brook has built itself music-rooms of marble, you will never shake yourself quite free of the spell. You will always see something more than dark trunks and the vistas of white. You will feel the imminence of something wonderful to happen. Somehow, a new blessing falls upon you. Life falls into proportion. The delight of going on no longer intrudes upon the pleasure of staying still. And so, in the winter woods, you find a novel peace.

 

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