The Face of the Fields
THERE was a flash of gray, a swish of wings, a cry of pain, a squawking, cowering, scattering flock of hens, a weakly fluttering pullet, and yonder, swinging upward into the October sky, a marsh hawk, buoyant and gleaming silvery in the sun. Over the trees he beat, circled once, and disappeared.
The hens were still flapping for safety in a dozen directions, but the gray harrier had gone. A bolt of lightning could not have dropped so unannounced, could not have vanished so completely, could scarcely have killed so quickly. I ran to the pullet, but found her dead. The harrier’s stroke, delivered with fearful velocity, had laid head and neck open as with a keen knife. Yet a fraction slower and he would have missed, for the pullet caught the other claw on her wing. The gripping talons slipped off the long quills, and the hawk swept on without his quarry. He dared not come back for it at my feet ; and so with a single turn above the woods he was gone.
The scurrying hens stopped to look about them. There was nothing in the sky to see. They stood still and silent a moment, the rooster chucked, then one by one they turned back into the open pasture. A huddled group under the henyard fence broke up and came out with the others. Death had flashed among them, but had missed them. Fear had come, but had gone. Within two minutes — in less time — from the fall of the stroke, every hen in the flock was intent at her scratching, or as intently chasing the gray grasshoppers over the pasture.
Yet, as they scratched, the high-stepping cock would frequently cast up his eye toward the treetops; would sound his alarum at the flight of a robin; and if a crow came over, he would shout and dodge and start to run. But instantly the shadow would pass, and instantly chanticleer —
And on his toos he rometh up and doun ;
He was n’t afraid. Cautious, alert, watchful he was, but not fearful. No shadow of dread hangs dark and ominous across the sunshine of his pasture. Shadows come — like a flash ; and like a flash they vanish away.
We cannot go far into the fields without sighting the hawk and the snake, the very shapes of Death. In one form or another the dread Thing moves everywhere, down every wood-path and pasture-lane, through the black close waters of the mill-pond, out under the open of the winter sky, night and day, and every day, the four seasons through. I have seen the still surface of a pond break suddenly with a swirl, and flash a hundred flecks of silver into the light, as the minnows leap from the jaws of the pike. Then a loud rattle, a streak of blue, a splash at the centre of the swirl, and I see the pike, twisting and bending in the beak of the kingfisher. The killer is killed ; but at the mouth of the nest-hole in the steep sandbank, swaying from a root in the edge of the turf above, hangs the black snake, the third killer, and the bolted kingfisher, dropping the pike, darts off with a cry. I have been afield at times when one tragedy has followed another in such rapid and continuous succession as to put a whole shining, singing, blossoming world under a pall. Everything has seemed to cower, skulk, and hide, to run as if pursued. There was no peace, no stirring of small life, not even in the quiet of the deep pines, for here a hawk would be nesting, or a snake would be sleeping, or I would hear the passing of a fox, see perhaps his keen hungry face an instant as he halted, winding me.
Fox and snake and hawk are real, but not the absence of peace and joy — except within my own breast. There is struggle and pain and death in the woods, and there is fear also, but the fear does not last long; it dews not haunt and follow and terrify; it has no being, no substance, no continuance. The shadow of the swiftest scudding cloud is not so fleeting as this shadow in the woods, this Fear. The lowest of the animals seem capable of feeling it ; yet the very highest of them seem incapable of dreading it ; for them Fear is not of the imagination, but of the sight, and of the passing moment.
It does more, it throngs him — our fellow mortal of the stubble field, the cliff, and the green sea. Into the present is lived the whole of his life — none of it is left to a storied past, none sold to a mortgaged future. And the whole of this life is action; and the whole of this action is joy. The moments of fear in an animal’s life are moments of reaction, negative, vanishing. Action and joy are constant, the joint laws of all animal life, of all nature, from the shining stars that sing together, to the roar of a bitter northeast storm across these wintry fields.
We shall get little rest and healing out of nature until we have chased this phantom Fear into the dark of the moon. It is a most difficult drive. The pursued too often turns pursuer, and chases us back into our burrows where there is nothing to make us afraid. If every time a bird cries in alarm, a mouse squeaks with pain, or a rabbit leaps in fear from beneath our feet, we, too, leap and run, dodging the shadow as if it were at our own heels, then we shall never get farther toward the open fields than Chuchundra, the muskrat, gets toward the middle of the bungalow floor. We shall always creep around by the wall, whimpering.
But there is no such thing as fear outof-doors. There was, there will be; you may see it for an instant on your walk to-day, or think you see it ; but there are the birds singing as before, and as before the red squirrel, under cover of large words, is prying into your purposes. The universal chorus of nature is never stilled. This part, or that, may cease for a moment, for a season it may be, only to let some other part take up the strain ; as the winter’s deep bass voices take it from the soft lips of the summer, and roll it into thunder, until the naked hills seem to rock to the measures of the song.
So must we listen to the winter winds, to the whistle of the soaring hawk, to the cry of the trailing hounds.
I have had more than one hunter grip me excitedly, and with almost a command bid me hear the music of the baying pack There are hollow halls in the swamps that lie to the east and north and west of me, that catch up the cry of the fox hounds, that blend it, mellow it, round it, and roll it, rising and falling over the meadows these autumn nights in great globes of sound, as pure and sweet as the pearly notes of the wood thrush rolling around their silver basin in the summer dusk.
It is a different kind of music when the pack breaks into the open on the warm trail : a chorus then of individual tongues singing the ecstasy of pursuit. My blood leaps; the natural primitive wild thing of muscle and nerve and instinct within me slips its leash, and on past with the pack it drives, the scent of the trail single and sweet in its nostrils, a very fire in its blood, motion, motion, motion in its bounding muscles, and in its being a mighty music, spheric and immortal, a carol, chant and pæan, nature’s “ unjarred chime,” —
To their great Lord, whose love their motions swayed
In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.
But what about the fox and his share in this gloria ? It is a solemn music to him, certainly, loping wearily on ahead ; but what part has he in the chorus ? No part, perhaps, unless we grimly call him its conductor. But the point is the chorus, that it never ceases, the hounds at this moment, not the fox, in the leading rôle.
“ But the chorus ceases for me,” you say; “ my heart is with the poor fox.” So is mine, and mine is with the dogs too. Many a night I have bayed with the pack, and as often, oftener, I think, I have loped and dodged and doubled with the fox, pitting limb against limb, lung against lung, wit against wit, and always escaping. More than once, in the warm moonlight of the early fall, I have led them on and on, spurring their lagging muscles with a sight of my brush, on and on, through the moonlit night, through the day, on into the moon again, and on — until only the stir of my own footsteps has followed me. Then doubling once more, creeping back a little upon my track, I have looked at my pursuers, silent and stiff upon the trail, and ere the echo of their cry has died away, I have caught up the chorus and carried it single-throated through the wheeling singing spheres.
There is more of fact than of fancy to this. That a fox ever purposely ran a dog to death, would be hard to prove; but that the dogs run themselves to death in a single extended chase after a single fox is a common occurrence here in the woods about the farm. Occasionally the fox may be overtaken by the hounds; seldom, however, except in the case of a very young one or of a stranger, unacquainted with the lay of the land, driven into the rough country here by an unusual combination of circumstances.
I have been both fox and hound; I have run the race too often not to know that both enjoy it at times, fox as much as hound. Some weeks ago the dogs carried a young fox around and around the farm, hunting him here, there, everywhere, as if in a game of hide-and-seek. An old fox would have led them on a long coursing run across the range. It was early fall, and warm, so that at dusk the dogs were caught and taken off the trail. The fox soon sauntered up through the mowing-field behind the barn, came out upon the bare knoll near the house, and sat there in the moonlight yapping down at Rex and Dewy, the house dogs in the two farms below. Rex is a Scotch collie, Dewy a dreadful mix of dog-dregs. He had been tail-ender in the pack for a while during the afternoon. Both dogs answered back at the young fox. But he could not egg them on. Rex was too fat, Dewy had had enough; not so the young fox. It had been fun. He wanted more. “ Come on, Dewy ! ” he cried. “ Come on, play tag again. You ’re still ‘ it.’ ”
I was at work with my chickens one day when the fox broke from cover in the tall woods, struck the old wagon road along the ridge, and came at a gallop down behind the hencoops, with five hounds not a minute behind. They passed with a crash and were gone — up over the ridge and down into the east swamp. Soon I noticed that the pack had broken, deploying in every direction, beating the ground over and over. Reynard had given them the slip, on the ridge-side, evidently, for there were no cries from below in the swamp.
The noon whistles blew, and leaving my work I went down to re-stake my cow in the meadow. I had just drawn her chain-pin when down the road through the orchard behind me came the fox, hopping high up and down, his neck stretched, his eye peeled for poultry. Spying a white hen of my neighbor’s, he made for her, clear to the barnyard wall. Then, hopping higher for a better view, he sighted another hen in the front yard, skipped in gayly through the fence, seized her, loped across the road, and away up the birch-grown hills beyond.
The dogs had been at his very heels ten minutes before. He had fooled them. He had done it again and again. They were even now yelping at the end of the baffling trail behind the ridge. Let them yelp. It is a kind and convenient habit of dogs, this yelping, one can tell so exactly where they are. Meantime one can take a turn for one’s self at the chase, get a bite of chicken, a drink of water, a wink or two of rest ; and when the yelping gets warm again, one is quite ready to pick up one’s heels and lead the pack another merry dance. The fox is almost a humorist.
This is the way the races are all run off. Now and then they may end tragically. A fox cannot reckon on the hunter with a gun. Only dogs entered into the account when the balance in the scheme of things was struck for the fox. But, mortal finish or no, the spirit of the chase is neither rage nor terror, but the excitement of a matched game, the ecstasy of pursuit for the hound, the passion of escape for the fox, without fury or fear — except for the instant at the start and at the finish — when it is a finish.
This is the spirit of the chase — of the race, more truly, for it is always a race, where the stake is not life and death, as we conceive of life and death, but rather the joy of being. The hound cares as little for his own life as for the life he is hunting. It is the race, instead ; it is the moments of crowded, complete, supreme existence for him — " glory ” we call it when men run it off together. Death, and the fear of death, are inconceivable to the animal mind. Only enemies exist in the world out of-doors, only hounds, foxes, hawks — they, and their scents, their sounds and shadows; and not fear, but readiness only. The level of wild life, of the soul of all nature, is a great serenity. It is seldom lowered, but often raised to a higher level, intenser, faster, more exultant.
The serrate pines on my horizon are not the pickets of a great pen. My fields and swamps and ponds are not one wide battlefield, as if the only work of my wild neighbors were bloody war, and the whole of their existence a reign of terror. This is a universe of law and order and marvelous balance; conditions these of life, of normal, peaceful, joyous life. Life and not death is the law, joy and not fear is the spirit, is the frame of all that breathes, of very matter itself.
The Mighty Mother weaves and sings ;
She weaves — fresh robes for mangled earth ;
She sings — fresh hopes for desperate things.
“ For the rest,” says Hathi, most unscientific of elephants, in the most impossible of Jungle Stories, “ for the rest, Fear walks up and down the Jungle by day and by night. . . . And only when there is one great Fear over all, as there is now, can we of the Jungle lay aside our little fears and meet together in one place as we do now.”
Now, the law of the Indian Jungle is as old and as true as the sky, and just as widespread and as all-encompassing. It is the identical law of mv New England pastures. It obtains here as it holds far away yonder. The trouble is all with Hathi. Hathi has lived so long in a British camp, has seen so few men but British soldiers, and has felt so little law but British military law in India, that very naturally Hathi gets the military law and the Jungle law mixed up.
But the head and the hoof of the Law, and the haunch and the hump is — Obey !
else one of the little fears, or the Big Fear, will get you !
But this is the Law of the Camp, and as beautifully untrue of the Jungle, and of my woods and pastures, as Hathi’s account of how, before Fear came, the First of the Tigers ate grass. Still Nebuchadnezzar ate grass, and he also grew eagles’ feathers upon his body. Perhaps the First of the Tigers had feathers instead of fur, though Hathi is silent as to that, saying only that the First of the Tigers had no stripes. It might not harm us to remember, however, that nowadays — as was true in the days of the Sabertooth tiger (he is a fossil) — tigers eat grass only when they feel very bad or when they find a bunch of catnip. The wild animals that Hathi knew are more marvelous than the Wild Animals I Have Known, but Hathi’s knowledge of Jungle law is all stuff and nonsense.
There is no ogre, Fear, no command, Obey, but the widest kind of a personal permit to live — joyously, abundantly, intensely, frugally at times, painfully at times, and always with large liberty; until, suddenly, the time comes to Let Live, when death is almost sure to be instant, with little pain, and less fear.
But am I not generalizing from the single case of the fox and hounds ? or at most from two cases — the hen and the hawk ? And are not the cases far from typical ? Fox and hound are unusually matched, both of them are canines, and so closely related that the dog has been known to let a she-fox go unharmed at the end of an exciting hunt. Suppose the fox were a defenseless rabbit, what of fear and terror then ?
Ask any one who has shot in the rabbity fields of southern New Jersey. The rabbit seldom runs in blind terror. He is soft-eyed, and timid, and as gentle as a pigeon, but he is not defenseless. A nobler set of legs was never bestowed by nature than the little cotton-tail’s. They are as wings compared with the deformities that bear up the ordinary rabbit hound. With winged legs, protecting color, a clear map of the country in his head, — its stumps, rail-piles, cat-brier tangles, and narrow rabbit-roads, — with all this as a handicap, Bunny may well run his usual cool and winning race. The balance is just as even, the chances quite as good, and the contest as interesting, to him as to Reynard.
I have seen a rabbit squat close in his form and let a hound pass yelping within a few feet of him, but as ready as a hairtrigger should he be discovered. I have seen him leap for his life as the dog sighted him, and bounding like a ball across the stubble, disappear in the woods, the hound within two jumps of his flashing tail. I have waited at the end of the wood-road for the runners to come back, down the home stretch, for the finish. On they go for a quarter, or perhaps a half a mile, through the woods, the baying of the hound faint and intermittent in the distance, then quite lost. No, there it is again, louder now. They have turned the course. I wait. The quiet life of the woods is undisturbed, for the voice of the hound is only an echo, not unlike the far-off tolling of a slow-swinging bell. The leaves stir as a wood-mouse scurries from his stump; an acorn rattles down; then in the winding wood-road I hear the pit-pat, pit-pat of soft furry feet, and there at the bend is the rabbit. He stops, rises high up on his haunches, and listens. He drops again upon all fours, scratches himself behind the ear, reaches over the cart-rut for a nip of sassafras, hops a little nearer, and throws his big ears forward in quick alarm, for he sees me, and, as if something had exploded under him, he kicks into the air and is off — leaving a pretty tangle for the dog to unravel, later on, by this mighty jump to the side.
My children and the man were witnesses recently of an exciting, and, for this section of Massachusetts, a novel race, which, but for them, must certainly have ended fatally. The boys had picked up the morning fall of chestnuts, and were coming through the wood-lot where the man was chopping, when down the hillside toward them rushed a little chipmunk, his teeth a-chatter with terror, for close behind him, with the easy wavy motion of a shadow, glided a dark brown animal, which the man took on the instant for a mink, but which afterward proved to be a pine marten. When almost at the feet of the boys, and about to be seized by the marten, the squeaking chipmunk ran up a tree. Up glided the marten, up for twenty feet, when the chipmunk jumped. It was a fearfully close call. The marten did not dare to jump, but turned and started down, when the man intercepted him with a stick. Around and around the tree he dodged, growling and snarling and avoiding the stick, not a bit abashed, stubbornly holding his own, until forced to seek refuge among the branches. Meanwhile the terrified chipmunk had recovered his nerve and sat quietly watching the sudden turn of affairs from a near-by stump.
I climbed into the cupola of the barn this morning, as I frequently do throughout the winter, and brought down a dazed junco that was beating his life out up there against the window-panes. He lay on his back in my open hand, either feigning death or really powerless with fear. His eyes were closed, his whole tiny body throbbing convulsively with his throbbing heart. Taking him to the door, I turned him over and gave him a gentle toss. Instantly his wings flashed, they zigzagged him for a yard or two, then bore him swiftly around the corner of the house and dropped him in the midst of his fellows, where they were feeding upon the lawn. He shaped himself up a little and fell to picking with the others.
From a state of collapse the laws of his being had brought the bird into normal behavior as quickly and completely as the collapsed rubber ball is rounded by the laws of its being. The memory of the fright seems to have been an impression exactly like the dent in the rubber ball — as if it had never been.
Yet the analogy only half holds. Memories of the most tenacious kind the animals surely have; but little or no voluntary, unaided power to use them. Memory is largely a mechanical, a crank, process with the animals, a kind of magiclantern show, where the concrete slide is necessary for the picture on the screen ; else the past as the future, hangs a blank. The dog will sometimes seem to cherish a grudge; so will the elephant. Some one injures or wrongs him, and the huge beast harbors the memory, broods it, and waits his opportunity for revenge. Yet the records of these cases usually show the creature to be living with the object of his hatred — keeper or animal — and that his memory goes no further back than the present moment, than the sight of the enemy; memory always taking an immediate, concrete shape.
At my railroad station I frequently see a yoke of great sleepy, bald-faced oxen, that look as much alike as two blackbirds. Their driver knows them apart ; but as they stand there bound to one another by the heavy bar across their foreheads, it would puzzle anybody else to tell Buck from Berry. But not if he approach them wearing an overcoat. At sight of me in an overcoat the off ox will snort and back and thresh about in terror, twisting the head of his yoke-fellow, nearly breaking his neck, and trampling him miserably. But the nigh ox is used to it. He chews and blinks away placidly, keeps his feet the best he can, and does n’t try to understand at all why great-coats should so frighten his cud-chewing brother. I will drop off my coat and go up immediately to smooth the muzzles of both oxen, blinking sleepily while the lumber is being loaded on. Years ago, the driver told me, the off ox was badly frightened by a big woolly coat, the sight or smell of which suggested to the creature some natural enemy, perhaps a panther or a bear. The memory remained, but beyond recall except in the presence of its first cause, the great-coat.
To us, and momentarily to the lower animals, no doubt, there is a monstrous, a desperate aspect to nature — night and drouth and cold, the lightning, the hurricane, the earthquake : phases of nature that to the scientific mind are often appalling, and to the unthinking and superstitious are usually sinister, cruel, personal, leading to much dark talk of the mysteries of Providence; as if there were still necessity to justify the ways of God to man. We are clutched by these terrors even as the junco was clutched in my goblin hand. When the mighty fingers open, we zigzag, dazed from the danger ; but fall to planning, before the tremors of the earth have ceased, how we can build a greater and finer city on the ruins of the old. Upon the crumbled heap of the second Messina the third will rise, and upon that the fourth, unless the quaking site is forever swallowed by the sea. Terror can kill the living, but it cannot hinder them from forgetting, or prevent them from hoping, or, for more than an instant, stop them from doing. Such is the law of being — the law of the Jungle, of Heaven, of my pastures, of myself, and of the little junco. The light of the sun may burn out, motion may cease, matter vanish away, and life come to an end ; but so long as life continues it must continue to assert itself, to obey the law of being — to multiply and replenish the earth, and rejoice.
Life, like Law and Matter, is all of one piece. The horse in my stable, the robin, the toad, the beetle, the vine in my garden, the garden itself, and I together with them all, come out of the same divine dust ; we all breathe the same divine breath ; we have our beings under the same divine law; only they do not know that the law, the breath, and the dust, are divine. If I do know, and yet can so readily forget such knowledge, can so hardly cease from being, can so eternally find the purpose, the hope, the joy of life within me, how soon for them, my lowly fellow mortals, must vanish all sight of fear, all memory of pain! And how abiding with them, how compelling, the necessity to live! And in their unquestioning obedience what joy!
The face of the fields is as changeful as the face of a child. Every passing wind, every shifting cloud, every calling bird, every baying hound, every shape, shadow, fragrance, sound, and tremor, are so many emotions reflected there. But if time and experience and pain come, they pass utterly away; for the face of the fields does not grow old or wise or seamed with pain. It is always the face of a child, — asleep in winter, awake in summer, — a face of life and health always, if we will but see what pushes the falling leaves off, what lies in slumber under the covers of the snow; if we will but feel the strength of the north wind, and the wild fierce joy of the fox and hound as they course the turning, tangling paths of the woodlands in their race with one another against the record set by Life.