Summer Among the Varmints

I

I WAS desperately tired of people — even the benevolent and harmless people with whom I usually associate. It was n’t that they had n’t been nice to me. Old ladies had lured me to church socials with tales of cake icing an inch thick. Members of the Kiwanis Club heard that I had inherited a splinter of walnut wood from the house in which Stonewall Jackson was born — and they begged me to give them a lecture on the great general’s mother. Pretty freshman girls had drawn confidentially near at conference hour and had coaxed: ‘Now, Professor, please tell me all about Anatole France. Just why did he write The Red Lily? ’ But in spite of these kindnesses I was tired of human society. It was ungrateful of me, it was unnatural, — possibly a bit depraved, — but there it was.

In this mood I came to my irretrievable decision. I would spend a summer among the varmints. Not as a skilled naturalist — because I am not one. Nor as an amateur naturalist — they rush around so. Nor as a poet — poets are so apt to sentimentalize. Not even as a humanitarian — having lived forty years, I find it impossible to be humane. No — as long as I was to live among the varmints, it should be as varmint to varmint, tooth to tooth and claw to claw. If I managed to get them first, I would plant my foot on their chests and give a Tarzan-like roar of triumph; if they got me — well, it would be just too bad. Since I have never allowed myself to be encumbered by property, I should n’t even have to make a will.

But suddenly I am appalled. Somewhere in the far corners there may be a reader who does not know what a varmint is. Here in Georgia, everybody knows. Tales of varmints are whispered to babes in a thousand chimney corners. They are a part of the common heritage. But what of those readers who dwell in the hinterlands, in Minneapolis or San Francisco, — unquestionably worthy people, many of them, — what shall be done for them? I must do something.

I pull down the V-Z volume of the New English Dictionary. Nobody shall say that my work is n’t based on a foundation of the most solid scholarship. Messrs. Murray and Bradley, Craigie and Onions, they will know. Here it is: varlet . . . varmint — dialectal variant of vermin — ‘an animal of a noxious or objectionable kind.’

I sigh deeply. All the facts, the earliest sources. But it is immediately clear that these learned editors, from the seclusion of their Oxford cloisters, have never grasped the soul of varmintry. (Oh, joy! I’ve put one over on them! Until this moment there was no such word as ‘varmintry,’ and now that there is, they’ll have to put it in the next edition. I simply dare them not to — and of course they ’ll have to quote me as its only source. I never dreamed I was so clever!)

But I fear I digress. ‘Never grasped the soul of varmintry,’I was saying. How could they? The word is strong, racy, full of flavor. Not the same as the New England ‘critter.’ Even a cow is a critter, but not by the remotest possibility could a cow be a varmint. A varmint is cunning, wild, and vicious, and his habitat is confined to the Southern Appalachians. Imagine calling a lion a varmint! A possum or a rattlesnake is a varmint; but a hartebeest, an emu, or an okapi — never!

II

Strengthened by my resolution, I bade an affectionate farewell to the freshmen — who, for all they knew, might never see me again — and took to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. Just at the foot of the mountains the river bottom broadens into a beautiful little valley called Nacooehee — the ‘vale of the evening star,’ according to the Cherokees. The river casts up bits of Indian pottery, and the whole place simply reeks with legends of Indian princesses. But I determined not to pay the slightest attention to them; I could n’t let my summer be spoiled.

Overlooking the river, with its rich vegetation, is a little knoll on which stood a rough-built shack, with wooden shutters for windows. A bit of screen wire, a dash of soap and water, a dish, a table and a bed — and I was equipped. The knoll had once been cleared and then abandoned. In place of the forest had grown up bewildering thickets of dogwood, service berry, tulip, black locust — a varmint paradise if ever there was one.

Did I immediately proceed to hunt varmints? I did not. Those people who go out with a butterfly net, a pair of tweezers, a bottle of poison, and a magnifying glass hardly ever have any luck. By hunting for something definite, they simply court disappointment. A butterfly net or a shotgun is palpable warning to any intelligent varmint that the game is on, and you offer him every opportunity to escape and then gloat — or even bite you while you are untangling your paraphernalia. The method is crude, and I had no sooner thought of it than I discarded it. I use the indirect system, or, to speak accurately, the modifiedindirect.

My plan was to pretend — even to assume — that I had no interest in varmints. I would set about making the knoll a beautiful and habitable place. It already had the river, the mountain view, and the woods at its back. All it needed was a thinning and cherishing of the wild and tangled thicket. I would cut down the briers and weeds. Where six tulip sprouts sprang from an old stump I would trim out five and leave the finest. Where a dogwood and a black locust struggled for room, I would exercise a discerning eye, a finely discriminating taste, as to which should live and which should perish. The job would take all summer, it would harden my muscles, and it would afford the utmost leisure for sweet and gentle meditation. If varmints came, it would be by the grace of God. No matter what happened, I could n’t lose.

III

As I began work, on a blazing hot day in June, I chuckled to remember that I was practically immune to the smallest but most viciously ubiquitous of all Georgia varmints — the chigger. And here I must again digress. In doing so, I would beg my reader’s forbearance — his sympathy. De Quincey, you will remember, had the same difficulty, but it did n’t bother him. He was built that way and did n’t seem to mind it. But my nature is simple and straightforward, and these digressions pain me. I fall into them only through the utmost necessity. So many readers are unacquainted with chiggers. There is a great blank in their lives, and if I pause not to fill it, probably nobody ever will.

‘Chigger,’ I learn, is a corruption of the West Indian ‘chigoe’ (so many of our best words seem to be corruptions), a creature which burrows in the feet of sugar planters and causes them to lose toenails which otherwise might have lasted for years. Well, this West Indian monstrosity is not the chigger I am talking about. The Georgia chigger is a minute red mite, so small that only the keenest eye can see him, who lies in wait on every blackberry bush and rotten log, who bites with the utmost tenacity, and is considered a major pest by those who have not made their bargain with him. The bite is less immediately annoying than that of a mosquito, but more lasting.

The upper classes try to mitigate his evil by euphemistically referring to him as a ‘ redbug.’ One’s social standing in Georgia is often determined by whether he says ‘redbug’ in a languishing tone, or ‘chigger’ with a sharp, bold accent. But, being a semi-Yankee, I defy such classification, and choose ‘chigger’ because it sounds so much more ‘varminty.’ (The Oxford Dictionary already has that one. See Supplement.)

Now, to get back to the main path. As I was saying, chiggers never bother me. They don’t like my flavor. It came about in the following manner. When my parents came from the North, I was a tender babe of less than a year. One day a sudden impulse struck the entire family to go into the hills after huckleberries, the only trouble being that I could neither be left at home nor be utilized as a picker. My older brothers solved the difficulty by tying my foot to a bush so I could n’t roll down the mountain, and leaving me until their pails were filled. All was well until the next day, when everybody was grievously tormented with little red bumps and an intolerable itching.

‘Some sinister tropical disease,’ surmised my father, and sent for Old Jim Roberts, who lived in a tenant house on the edge of the place. Old Jim shuffled into the yard, followed by his two boys, Good Truck and Sonny Darlin’, and his little girl, Pet Bird. As soon as our symptoms were displayed, Pet Bird and Sonny Darlin’ began to grin, and the glow of amusement slowly spread to Good Truck and Old Jim himself.

The old man accurately centred a morning-glory blossom with a jet of tobacco juice. ‘Them’s chiggers,’ he murmured. ‘I love to keep a few of ’em about me — hit feels so good to scratch. But that-thar baby shore has got a dose of ’em. Could n’t hardly put one chigger betwixt another. Rub hits little hide all over with a salty bacon rind. That ’ll kill ’em.’ And Old Jim ambled away, promising to send up a bacon rind if we did n’t have one.

Of course I hardly remember this incident, but I have it, word for word, on authority which I cannot doubt. And from that day to this I have been taboo to chiggers. At the first nibble they turn away baffled. An acquired immunity — toxin antitoxin — pseudoanaphylaxis — the doctors could explain it.

IV

Thus it was with a serene spirit that I began work on the knoll. Free from chiggers, I could centre my faculties on varmints of a higher kind. A mere glance at the pages of Mr. Ditmars (that genial naturalist who first made me varmint-conscious) convinced me that I was completely surrounded by almost innumerable creatures for whose bite there was no adequate remedy. Amid this chaos, there was one solid thought: I could eliminate the lizards. ‘The Eastern United States has no poisonous lizard,’ says Mr. Ditmars soothingly. So I ignored them all, including the big ones with red heads and blue tails, which the inhabitants of the valley had assured me were as ‘pizen as a rattlesnake.’

But could I so ignore that small but sinister spider, Latrodectus mactans? The genus Latrodectus, declares one authority, is feared all over the world, being far more deadly than the big tarantulas. And our American variety, found all over the South, is the only really dangerous spider in the United States. Known to the common herd as the ‘ black widow,’ she varies the glossy jet of her body and legs only by one brilliant spot on her under-abdomen — a spot of orange-red, shaped like an hourglass. This signifies that the hour of whatever person she bites has come. (Not quite that, the local doctor assures me. He has treated three cases, and none of them died. There was merely a week or two of high fever, delirium, acute pain, and partial paralysis.)

The worst of this spider is — she lurks! She never comes out to greet the morning sunshine. Under damp mosses, under old, crumbling stones she sits, surrounded by drops of midnight dew. Certainly I should do wisely to keep her in mind.

And I kept her in mind almost too well. It was a characteristic failing — to be thinking so intently of imaginary varmints that I should forget the real ones. As I worked my way into the tangled growth of the knoll, I caught sight of an object which delighted me — a lovely little holly bush. But it was terribly choked with weeds and briers. With my heavy bush hook I cleaned out the largest ones, and then stooped with my pruning shears to do the more delicate trimming. As I was cutting the last weed I sprang back with an involuntary gasp. Beautiful, sinuous creature! Coiled at the foot of the holly bush, his head within six inches of where my hands had been working, was an immense copperhead. Why he had not struck was a mystery, for these snakes are notoriously treacherous and ill-natured, quite unlike their gentlemanly cousins the rattlesnakes, who are reluctant to bite, and give loud warning. I stood and admired his bronze and ivory pattern — for richness and good taste, undoubtedly the handsomest snake in America.

But he had other plans than merely being admired. Imperceptibly, and with his eye steadily fixed on me, he started to glide toward the root of a hollow stump. I blocked the hole with my hoe, and called for the boys to come and see. They came with a rush — Bobby and Wendell and Richard. The boys had discarded shirts and hats for the summer, and the bronze of their backs was like the bronze of the copperhead. There was a quick discussion of plans. Richard wanted to smash the snake with a rock. Bobby favored catching him alive. But Wendell howled them both down. For his fifteenth birthday he had just received a .22 rifle, and had n’t yet managed to shoot anything or anybody. The prospect of fleshing his maiden gun on a live copperhead was simply too ravishing. Besides, he wanted to test the assertion of the old inhabitants that it was impossible to shoot a snake anywhere but in the head — the alert reptile would strike at the bullet and catch it in his mouth. But the presence of so many people must have got our poor copperhead rattled; he missed the bullet entirely. In fact he missed half a dozen more; and it was not until the boys had exhausted several rounds of ammunition that he breathed his last. So far as I could tell, his head was still intact.

Wendell put on that patronizing and protective look which only a boy in his teens can assume: ‘Dad, he might have got you. Really, you have n’t much sense, you know. In the future you want to look out.’

V

That evening at twilight the knoll was peculiarly peaceful. We had all had a swim and had eaten our supper. I was attracted to the hollow which dipped down to the river — an almost jungle-like growth of vines and creepers which festooned the pine trees. I would lie down on this rich mould, inhale its fragrance, wait for the darkness with its screech owls and whippoorwills. In my dreamy mood I could neither hate nor fear the varmints. I would put down my safeguards, I would surrender and be one of them. I rather owed it to them — we had taken advantage of the copperhead. So I drew the deep earth to me, as a blanket. Pine needles dropped on my face, wings fluttered past.

Should I also find a rattlesnake on the knoll, I wondered? The mountaineers told such piquant tales about them! Hardly a family but had a great-aunt who as a child had been ‘charmed ’ and led away into the forest. Then there were all those babies who were mottled ‘ jist exactly like a rattlesnake’ because their mothers had been snake-frightened as they hoed in the cornfield the day before the babies were born. I determined at all costs to find one of these spotted babies — only to discover later that they had all moved into the next county, or across the mountains.

From thoughts of rattlesnakes I slipped into wonder at the smells which darkness drew from the earth. The pine trees could breathe now, the ferns lift up their heads. I had never known such luxurious peace.

By chance I remembered Thoreau, and Stevenson’s pigeonholing him as an ascetic. Thoreau, said the author of Familiar Studies, drank no wine, smoked no tobacco, loved no women. What nonsense! The canny Yank would chuckle if he could know how he had eluded the canny Scot. Thoreau and all his disciples are really finely tuned epicures. We make no other claim — we do those things which to us bring delight. There is as discriminating a connoisseurship with regard to the delicate exhalations of a summer night as there is in the varying fragrance of French wines. . . . Pleased with my thoughts, I sank into a deeper fold of the darkness and went to sleep.

I was aroused by Wendell with his flashlight . Having found I was n’t in bed at midnight, he had come to hunt me up.

‘Dad, you’re crazy! I’m moderately brave myself, but I would n’t want to sleep alone in a place like this.’

I stumbled drowsily against a stone. ‘Bring that rock,’I said, a bit irritably, ‘and put it on the wall I’m making. It never pays to waste a trip.’

Wendell turned the rock over reluctantly, and then yelled with surprise. ‘Just look at this Latrodectus mactans — with a whole sackful of little mactanses!’

Sure enough, there in the glare of the flashlight was the black widow with her ill-gotten brood around her — vermilion spot, midnight dew, and all. At the entrance to her den was many a carcass of bumblebee and hornet, each larger than herself. Obviously she was a lady of prowess.

‘Pity we have n’t got some alcohol,’ said Wendell. ‘I’d like to keep them.’

‘We have. Go into the house and bring a pickle bottle half full of “white lightning.” That’ll do the trick.‘

And so the Latrodectus family went to their fate in that peculiarly potent corn whiskey of the mountaineer, a quart of which I had been saving in case I should be taken with rheumatism on some rainy day.

VI

During the long month of July, nothing happened. There was a portentous calm, as if the summer gathered its forces together before plunging into dog days. In Georgia, dog days are a wholly unpredictable season. Anything is apt to happen. The hot fields reek, corn stalks whisper as they race upward to their final height, watermelons burst open on the vines. Ragweeds outdo themselves, hay-fever victims rush around in circles and go mad. Children break out with sores and old folk mutter into their beards. The Dog Star glowers balefully in the morning sky, the signs of the zodiac chafe in their orbits, or snap at each other in the almanac. If one can live through dog days he is apt to survive for the rest of the year.

But perhaps the varmints were immune to dog-day madness. Perhaps they were not. At any rate, I was taking no chances. As I went to work on the last shoulder of the knoll I anxiously peered into each clump of bushes before attacking it. To tell the truth, the copperhead incident had made me less confident of my own astuteness. I had always scorned people who let themselves get snakebitten as unobservant fools. But the protective coloring of both copperheads and rattlesnakes is so perfect that ordinary watching is of little use. I would put on the super-keen eye of the Indian or the pioneer.

Again, however, the varmints made a fool of me. As I thrust my pitchfork into a clump of weeds, from my very feet came that dry, singing rattle — so like the song of the cicada, so entirely different from it. It is a sound which penetrates beneath all civilized emotions and all conscious thought to those reflexes which kept us alive during the ages when we had no thoughts. Without knowing it, I had taken a long spring backward, chagrined to realize that the snake could easily have sprung first. He was dextrously coiled, his head swaying gently, his tail in the centre vibrating so incessantly that it made a blur to the eye. And as with the copperhead, the predominant impression was one of beauty. Irregular, transverse bands of yellow and black — lustrous and soft, like rare old leather. Both color and form seemed to ripple, scale on scale, at the creature’s slightest movement.

At the cry, ‘Rattlesnake!’ the boys went mad. It had already been determined that we should take him alive. A stout wooden box and a long pole with a noosed string at the end were quickly assembled. Each of the boys had a try at slipping the noose over the snake’s head, but he evaded them with almost contemptuous ease. Finally we resorted to a trick. I enlarged the noose, and left the lower portion motionless on the ground. The boys got behind the snake and shooed him along with a stick until he began to crawl through my noose. When he was a third of the way through, I jerked my string tight, raised the pole, and we had our rattlesnake, intensely angry and startled, writhing and thrashing in mid-air. Within ten minutes he was safely stowed in his cage with its wire-mesh front, and we proudly placed him on the porch of the shack.

‘Oh, boy, but this is luck!’ gloated Wendell.

‘One of the pit vipers,’ observed Bobby learnedly. ‘I can see the pit now — halfway between the nostril and the eye. Is this Crotalus horridus or Crotalus adamanteus?’

‘Horridus,’ replied Wendell. ‘Ditmars says that adamanteus is confined to the gloomy and awful swamps of the lowlands. But horridus is really the kind I like. Five feet if he’s an inch.’

‘There are two things he’s got to have,’ declared Bobby meditatively. ‘Something to eat, and a name.’

‘He takes only warm-blooded, living prey,’ quoted Wendell. ‘Dad, if you’ll name him, we’ll get him some prey. Come on!’

‘His name,’ I retorted, ‘is Lucifer. Observe his sulphurous, deadly splendor —‘

‘Lucy!’ they shouted, all at once. ‘A magnificent name!’

‘Not Lucy,’ I replied in horror, ‘Lucif —!’

‘ Lucy! Lucy! His name’s Lucy! ’

And Lucy it remained — with, however, neither Wordsworth’s permission nor mine.

VII

The responsibility of feeding Lucy was heavier than we had supposed. The boys brought him a mess of delicious, pink, newborn mice, fresh from the corncrib. But Lucy disdained them, and allowed the ants to carry them off, bit by bit, from under his very nose. His temper was daily getting worse. When anybody passed his cage, especially our dog Mack, against whom he had formed a prejudice from the very beginning, he would set his rattle going and launch himself against the screen with incredible speed. On several occasions, drops of amber-colored venom were ejected on to the floor. If Lucy were not fed soon, we feared for his sanity.

And intermingled with this worry was the problem of Lucy’s ultimate disposal. We received a visit from my two young and innocent nieces (I still think of them as innocent, though they have been married for three years, and have each acquired two university degrees) — a visit from my two nieces, who make some pretensions as rattlesnake experts. They hooted at the notion of providing food for Lucy. Why not eat him? And then they told a brazen tale of how they had slipped up on a rattlesnake in the mountains, rolled him in flour, tossed him into a frying pan, and served him to their husbands — who, being hardened young candidates for the Doctorate in Philosophy, suffered no ill effects. I began to see merit in their immodest proposal, reflecting that if Eve had brought her serpent to Adam in a frying pan, instead of accepting his advice about the apple . . .

But the boys declared that Lucifer should have one square meal if they had to devote their lives to it, little knowing that he was shortly to be fed as the ravens fed Elijah. As it turned out, the food was sent.

We were sitting in the shade of the house, peeling peaches to be canned. First Bobby, then the rest of us, saw a half-grown wood rat, brown and glossy, emerge from the thicket. He sat up on his haunches, panting as if out of breath, staring as if oblivious of the world. I half wondered if Lucy was ‘charming’ him — though naturalists assure us that snakes do not hypnotize their prey. But Lucy’s cage, while comfortably near, was not facing the rat. The two creatures could not see each other.

Bobby rose silently, deftly threw his handkerchief over the indifferent rat, and popped him through the door of Lucy’s cage. We expected to see an instant execution, but Lucy sullenly turned his back, and the rat settled down with no particular alarm in the opposite corner. After three days of this I was reduced to providing bread and cheese for the rat — who partook of them heartily. Both snake and rat evidently drank from the same water dish, though not at the same time.

The boys hardly knew whether to be peeved or delighted. At the end of a week they were preparing a signboard — ‘The Unnatural Enemies’ — and planning an exhibition. But the next morning the rat had disappeared. Lucy was satisfied and sluggish, with a huge bulge in his middle. The temperamental varmint had decided on a midnight lunch.

VIII

Alas, the summer is over! To-morrow we leave the shack and the knoll and go back to town. And we still have Lucifer. The critical consideration is, what shall we do with him? Of course the boys want to keep him. There is no question that Lucifer would add to their prestige — his cheerful rattle, like an alarum bell, would call the whole village to parley. But it is not to be thought of. I positively cannot spend my winter catching live rats for Lucifer. The freshmen would n’t like it. I doubt if the trustees would. Besides, the town air . . . it might not agree with him.

Or shall we drown him, so as not to mar his perfect surface, and mount his skin in a lifelike pose? A stuffed Lucifer has its appeal, but artistically it leaves me cold. Where the sparkling eye, the flickering tongue, the deadly energy of that swaying head? No. Rather than that, a farewell banquet, in which Lucifer, fried a golden brown and garnished with crispy slices of fried okra, shall be great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Or — and I put forward the suggestion with becoming modesty — shall we turn him loose again on his own beautiful knoll? I leave it to my readers. Votes from Milwaukee and Hollywood will be given their due consideration.