| 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.