By Archibald Rutledge This article was originally published in the January 1935 issue of American Magazine.
Going up the old mountain trail that day in June, just as I came to the fragrant airiness of a retired mountain pasture, I heard a mother quail, from the grass beside my pathway, give a sudden chittering call of alarm. Then I saw twelve little downy babies, so young that, on the backs of several, fragments of eggshell were still clinging.
At the cry of the mother, every little chick froze where he was, trying to squeeze himself against the leaves and grasses, trying his best to look as if he were not. What postures! Some were sitting on their pert little tails; some were almost standing on their heads; others were on their sides. But all were alike in being motionless.
Sitting down beside them, I picked up one of the little brown cherubs and put it in the open palm of my hand. During the transfer it never stirred. In my hand it snuggled tightly, thrusting its tiny bill between my fingers.
I took out my watch. For twenty minutes the mother kept up her querulous warning; and during this long period her wise, obedient babies never moved a feather. They did not even blink their eyes. Finally I set my captive down with his ambushed sisters and brothers and went my way, marveling at the manner in which they had stopped, looked, listened.
Wild things go through life at a reconnoitering pace, the great object being safety rather than speed. Their senses are keen, and they are used as God intended them to be used—for the preservation of the individual, and hence the race.
Is there a lesson in this which applies to our lives and problems?
On a deer hunt one day we came to the fresh track of a stag. It led into a marshy thicket where growths of smilax and jasmine rioted over bay bushes and little pines, and we felt sure the old veteran must be at home. Twelve good men and true surrounded the thicket; also a Vassar girl who carried, instead of a gun, a moving-picture camera.
Cautious, deliberate, the old monarch of the wilds stood looking, winding the damp, foe-scented air, estimating his chances for life.
When the hunters were ready, a pack of seven fast hounds was loosed on the hot trail of the buck. Within three minutes I saw him come from beneath a canopy of smilax, vines streaming from his craggy antlers. Here was a defenseless wild thing roused from sleep to face what would have been for most living things instant death. The dogs were close on him. About him was a perfect ring of hunters, each one of whom coveted his noble crown.
Cautious, deliberate, the old monarch of the wilds stood looking, winding the damp, foe-scented air, estimating his chances for life. It happened that I was standing on a bank, so that I could see what happened next.
Twelve times the buck made a start out of that beleaguered place, at the same time dodging and maneuvering to delay the dogs. But each time he headed for a gun he swerved away and sought another door of escape, only to find it closed.
At last, crashing through the brush and bracken like a locomotive gone wild, he made straight for the girl with the camera!
Of course, he was not charging her. He was merely escaping. With quick presence of mind she avoided his onrush. Then the master strategist, flashing over the old road on which she was standing, vanished into his homeland wilds, leaving twelve standers looking blankly after him and a fine pack of hounds clamoring futilely on his trail.
Most of us, I suppose, are conscious of having blundered at times into a difficult situation, and then of having muddled through as best we could. Birds and animals rarely blunder or muddle. Their advances are cautious, premeditated, timed. Even of reptiles this is true.
As I sat one day on some old slabs of pine near the site of an abandoned sawmill, my attention was attracted to a curious whispering sound in a bushy watercourse close by. The woods were still; the world seemed taking a siesta. The insistent sound continued. It had something rasping and scaly about it. Of course, it was a snake.
The rattler—for such it was—was just emerging from the thicket to the little slope where I sat. I saw him before he left the copse; he was in the rather gaudy yellow phase, having just shed his old skin. For slowness of progress this rattler would make a turtle look cheap, and about his approach was something infinitely crafty.
This regal serpent’s course, as accurate observers know, is straight; he can be identified by the track he leaves. The ribs under his heavy hide are movable and prehensile, and afford sufficient purchase for propulsion. Because of this peculiar way of locomotion, the rattler simply cannot flash away in a wild wriggle, as can the black snake. Hence he has to watch the road with care.
After many hesitations, this particular snake advanced toward a sodden pine log that barred his pathway. Reaching this, he stopped. He lay so very still that I had begun to think he was drowsing or that something had alarmed him; but then, a fraction of an inch at a time, his broad, malignant head sidled over the log. Then he lay still again, eyes glittering. Rossetti described that kind of look when he wrote, “Sleepless, with cold, commemorative eyes.” After a minute or two of reconnoitering, he proceeded slowly, his huge bulk rasping over the fallen tree.
They know that to be quiet is to be concealed. But while they stop, look, and listen they are cannily deciding on the next move, which they seldom fail to execute with thrilling precision.
From the copse to the log was perhaps ten feet. To gain my side of the log took that rattler not less than fifteen minutes. At such a rate, a rattler would spend five and a half days in going a mile.
That snake had paused when he came to a log. Children of the wild, I have noticed, are wary of such obstacles—of roads, fences, bends in streams, thickets over which they cannot see. All nature’s creatures have four-wheel brakes, and they are constantly in use. They know that to be quiet is to be concealed. But while they stop, look, and listen they are cannily deciding on the next move, which they seldom fail to execute with thrilling precision.
While in the woods alone one day, I heard a hound running toward me. I waited quietly, hoping to see what was ahead of him. Soon a gray fox came in sight, running easily, pausing to look and to listen, careful lest, in escaping the enemy behind, he run into worse peril before.
Near me a small stream ran down a deep gully. Across this an old fallen tree had made a natural bridge. I was not surprised to see the fox start across the log; what he did next was as sagacious as any feat in wildlife I have ever observed.
When halfway across the log he paused, turned sideways and peered downstream. Fully ten feet away was a little green island, only a few feet in area, where lush grasses and a few flag flowers grew. For three or four minutes, Reynard sized things up. Then down to this island he gracefully leaped. I supposed he would now jump to the farther bank. Instead, he jumped to the bank he had just left. Then he ran down the edge of the stream, a wily light of satisfaction gleaming in his intelligent eyes.
When the hound came up, he followed the trail to the middle of the log, then crossed to the farther side. But no scent there awaited him. After a few minutes he gave up the chase and trotted off disconsolately through the woods. His air showed disgust at having been outwitted, yet a certain relief that his owner had not been there to witness his humiliation.
Wild creatures have to be alert, not only against their natural enemies, but sometimes against Nature herself, just as is the case with us. Wild brother is a good barometer, for he can foretell violent changes in the weather, and lays his plans accordingly. As witness:
It was mid-September, and the weather was treacherously hot. I expected a storm that day, and in the southwest it appeared, an ominous thunder rack with long, lurid streamers. I was driving a herd of cattle; but I soon saw I could not get them under shelter in time. Wild brother had gauged more accurately. As I rode the swamp edge after my cattle, many deer came stealing out of the shadowy thickets. They were quitting the swamp because of the dangerous big timber there and were coming into the open pinelands where there were long stretches of broom-sedge field. Menaced by falling trees, they were seeking open country. In an ordinary rain, a deer will not budge from his bed.
Often the children of Nature stop, look, and listen, not to avoid danger, but to increase their enjoyment of life. For a full half-hour I have seen a stag standing on a lonely beach gazing out over the maned sea-breakers at the setting sun; I have seen wild turkeys go to roost more than an hour before dark, and from their high perches survey the beauteous woodlands, slowly suffused with hyacinthine lights; I have seen otter basking in the luxurious sunshine, interrupting their siesta only to play. Such creatures manifest their wisdom, not alone by the sagacity with which they guard the gift of life, but also by enjoying it. One of the poets says that we have time “only to look about us ere we die.” Most of us do not take time even for that.