Volume V 

Through the Cabin Window

Volume V: January—December, 1938

Bluebirds in December! I have often seen bluebirds in central Illinois as late as Thanksgiving, but never before have I heard so many in this vicinity in December, as were reported in the last month of 1937.

The first half of the month was cold and wintry. A series of storms covered the trees and ground with a thick crust of ice, which remained unmelted for an unusually long time.

Then, as though relenting, the month became warmer and temperatures averaged above normal. A flicker and a robin were seen at my feeding stations throughout the month.

Shortly before Christmas a friend notified me that there was a flock of robins. On December 26th, a mild sunny day, I observed eight bluebirds feeding near a clump of red cedars not far from the Illinois River, The following day, Dec. 27th, at least sixteen bluebirds were seen near the Cabin by a neighbor who hastily notified me, but by the time I arrived at the spot they had gone, and a search failed to reveal them.

Two days later, however, Dec. 29th, a dark and foggy morning, I saw one bluebird close to the Cabin and on Dec. 31st four were plainly observed by me as they flew from trees to ground and back again in search of food, their blue wings shining in the sun.

Four bluebirds on the last day of the year! What does it mean? Were they delayed in their southward migration to the early winter? Or are they extending their winter range northward? Perhaps my friend T.E. Musselman, who maintains 500 nesting boxes for bluebirds near Quincy, Illinois, has flooded the regions with bluebirds.

These questions will have to await further observations and study before they can be answered. Will readers of NATURE NOTES please report any unusual occurrences this winter?

* * * * *

Science has developed the automobile to its present day efficiency. But the human race has not yet developed to the point where its members are safe drivers. Science has developed the “Tommy gun,” but some humans put it to bad use. Science has developed innumerable gadgets to make life easier in the home, in the office, in the factory. But life is by no means made happier thereby.

Now the American Association for the Advancement of Science proposes “an examination of the profound effects of science on society.” It is high time! Let science lay off gadgets for a spell, and find out what it has done to humanity.

A nature fan in Wisconsin writes: “I’d like so much to know more about the Cabin. Is it a log cabin with a fireplace?”

This reminds me of many other inquiries I have received about the edge-of-the-woods office of NATURE NOTES. Many of you have already seen it. But for the benefit of those who haven’t, I’ll write a few words.

It is covered with shingles—white shingles—and has a fireplace made of brick. Incidentally, there is plenty of wood nearby for the fireplace. The only difficulty is in getting it cut to the right length. Just the other day a limb from a great oak came crashing down with a frightful noise. It missed the Cabin by a comfortable margin and—there was wood ready for the editorial axe!

I have a private axe which I try to keep keen and bright. Probably the next best thing to hiking, if one wishes the cobwebs swept away from the brain, is chopping. Just before reading a batch of dreary manuscripts, or writing this page, or correcting a galley proof, I go out and make a few chips fly. Presto, an extra supply of oxygen is sucked into the lungs, the blood races through the brain, the wood pile is replenished, and good-bye cobwebs. What dullness is then left in the “thinker” is indigenous and can’t be helped.

The great limb that came crashing to earth in the second paragraph preceding afforded an interesting study in equilibrium. Being dead, it had been in the process of decaying for several seasons. Nature tried to prune it off by blowing up a gale now and then. The parent tree swayed and creaked, but the limb was tenacious. Finally, we had a cold rain that froze as it landed and coated everything heavily with ice. Even the added weight of the ice, which must have been considerable, couldn’t break off our hero, the limb.

That day, a fox squirrel, fat from eating my hickory nuts, went out on the limb, which was familiar territory to him, though at the time it was slippery and called for careful going. Just as he reached a point about three quarters of the way out, nature’s equilibrium suddenly was upset. The limb gave way: Its crash echoed and re-echoed through the empty woodlands.

It was some seconds before the fox squirrel could get himself stopped from sliding down the icy hillside. Then he tore for his nest, astonished at the thought of his favorite oak tree letting him down like that!

* * * * *

The other day came two very helpful letters, curiously enough in the same mail. One from California, referring to the porcupine article in out January issue, suggested that there are at least one hundred persons who have a most satisfying thrill at the sight of a wild porcupine to one who wishes to destroy it by the poisoned cup method. Therefore, “Why not let NATURE NOTES be confined to the enjoyment of Nature and leave to other agencies a description of how to destroy wildlife?”

The other letter, from Virginia, states that there is no insect now known that eats such huge quantities of Japanese beetles and harmful caterpillars as the praying mantis. Mantis eggs should not therefore be used for fish food.

Why not put up dozens of bluebird houses this year and help add to the world’s supply of beauty? This would be a fine project for scout troops, 4-H club members, and other groups. But disappointment will result if the boxes are not properly made and placed.

Dr. T.E. Musselman of Quincy, Illinois, has made a study of the domestic requirements of Madame Bluebird. He has evolved a simple box that may be made on a mass production basis, with very little trouble or expense. He has kindly offered to send, without charge, a copy of his mimeographed plans and instructions to any of our readers who will write him and enclose a three-cent stamp.

Dr. Musselman has placed hundreds of these boxes along roadsides and near his home. Last year about 92 percent of his little houses were used by bluebirds! Thus, if you follow directions carefully, the odds are in favor of your boxes being inhabited.

* * * * *

Half way down the hillside and plainly visible through the Cabin Window is an army in green, white and gold. The bloodroots are on the march! Straight they stand, like soldiers at attention. They cover the slopes; there are thousands of them! Today each flower is wide open to the sun; there is not a petal fallen. Tonight it will rain and on the morrow those whitest of petals, which are the glory of the bloodroots, will be gone. After that the plants will be at work, maturing seed, and storing food, so that they may give the world a few golden hours of beauty in 1939.

Beauty is transient. If it were not transient it would not be beauty. The opportunity to enjoy it must be seized today. Tomorrow may be too late. Let me urge you to forget the cares of the work-a-day world for a few hours, at least. Sit on a hillside where wild flowers are blooming. Let your thoughts drift as they will.

Then you will understand why I urge you to do this.

Beauty is transient, but the ability to enjoy it is not. Go out now and find it. Spring is here!

We are indebted to Amy L. Look, a registered nurse, for the remarkable photograph of “chain lightning” which we present on the cover of this issue of NATURE NOTES.

Noting that a violent thundershower was approaching, about 10 o’clock one night in September, 1936, Miss Look set up her camera on a high porch of a hospital which overlooks the valley of the Illinois River. She opened the shutter, waited until the flash had occurred, then immediately closed it.

One can see that the bolt originates in a distant cloud. It then festoons itself and rises to another point in the heavens, possibly another cloud. Thence it travels earthward and is lost to view as it strikes far below the observer. At several points it spirals toward the observer, thus recording on the film a number of distinct loops.

Now that the season of storms is here, why not try this interesting form of photography? Like Miss Look, you may be fortunate in recording some unusual flashes.

As this issue of NATURE NOTES was being put into type a vicious tornado came roaring across the  prairielands within twenty miles of the Cabin. It laid waste to many fine farms and wiped the town of South Pekin, Illinois, off the map. I mean just that! The whole community was literally wiped away.

Never have I seen such widespread destruction since I viewed the city of Rhiems in France in '18. I have gathered material on this terrible phenomenon of Nature and may have more to say about it in a future issue.

* * * * *

Those of use who have the opportunity of enjoying the woods and fields during this exquisite month of May should give some thought to the less fortunate who are hemmed in by the city streets and have no way of escape.

Some time ago a letter was received at the office of NATURE NOTES. It has no signature, no return address. It was postmarked Chicago, Illinois. We have decided to reproduce this letter in its entirety:

Mr. Editor,

I have seen your Nature Notes and can you tell me how I can teach my children to love nature. We live in a flat—4 stories up and can’t see anything but a dirty court and have no money for car rides. I was a country girl and don’t want my children to play in the street.

                               Thank you sir.

There is no doubt that in the large and busy metropolis of Chicago, and in other big cities from one end of the land to the other, there are many distressed mothers, each of whom is asking the selfsame question, “How can I teach my children to love nature?”

This mother’s simple and direct question goes like an arrow to the heart of the matter. The answer calls for careful deliberation. Possibly you know the answer. Perhaps you have had the same problem to meet and have solved it. Perhaps you know of some agency or organization that is really doing good in the world and can be of great help in getting young city children started on the road to an appreciation of the wonder and beauties of nature.

If you have a suggestion that you believe would be helpful, please write it down and send it in to us. We believe that the answer to this question will be the answer to the problem of juvenile delinquency, to the problem of crime prevention, to other vexing social and sociological problems of the day. “How can I teach my children to love nature?”

* * * * *

From all indications this has been a highly successful season for the robins, brown thrashers, bluebirds, starlings, wrens, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks of this locality. Around our office which is located, as many of you know, on the edge of the woods, swarm both old and young of these birds and mammals. The indigo buntings and wood thrushes, too, have youngsters about, but they keep themselves better hidden than the rest. I think there is a family of woodchucks somewhere about, for I see that a planting of beans has been nibbled almost to the ground.

Frequent rains, though they have spoiled many a picnic, have kept the ground well supplied with moisture. So vegetation is lush, flowers are plentiful and the harvests bid fair to be heavy.

Nature, it seems, knows not that men are in the throes of what’s called a depression. Nor does she care.

* * * * *

I have just been looking over my nature diary again, Here is one of my most valued possessions. If I should awaken to find the house ablaze tonight, after its human occupants were out, the first thing I’d rescue would by my shabby old notebooks! For in them I have kept records of all my field trips since the year 1907, when I wrote in a battered, copy-book hand. In them are dates of interesting things I’ve seen outdoors, the names of new plants and animals I’ve learned, bird list after bird list, and photograph after photograph.

My photographs, alas for those who are interested in human nature, are not of people standing in rows and trying not to look too foolish; but all manner of natural objects from diatoms to stuffed buffalo.

With the old dry plates of my early photographs, one had to remove a cap from the lens, and say “one. . two. . three . . four” very slowly, then wait a while for good measure and replace the cap. Today with super-sensitive films we click our views with efficient, high speed shutters.

The point is—are you keeping a nature diary? Will you some day have worn out old notebooks to help you relive your hikes, to keep you from forgetting how marvelous nature is?

If not, then the quicker you begin the better! Go out now, make some little observation and jot it down. Look through your snapshots and pick out some views of the mountains or of the sea, or just of the lilacs in your yard. Label them with date and locality, and write a sentence or two about each one. You’ll have a good start. It’s marvelous what a hobby this can become.

* * * * *

Bird observations, in fact any kind of outdoor operations, have been made difficult this fall by the great cloud of mosquitos which has overspread this section of the country. Not only in swampy places is one attacked by the blood hungry insects, but on dry uplands, and in the centers of cities.

As I was engrossed, the other afternoon, in holding my binoculars on a warbler, in just a few minutes there were swarms of mosquitos all about me, and I received dozens of bites. Finally, I was forced to give up my efforts to identify the bird and had to beat a hasty retreat.

I’m afraid that field records from the Middle West will be scarce this fall. Of course, if the observer can have two assistants, one on each side, to shoo away the insects, he may be fortunate enough to make a few notes.

The duck shooting season opened October 15th, fifteen days earlier than last year, and my heart goes out to the hunters, lying in wait the marshes. For it’s in the marshes that our mosquitos grow to sizes 14 and 16. Those that conquered me were only about size 10.

Another unusual feature of this autumn is the summer temperature. Though the nights are cool, each day reminds one of July, with the mercury rising to points between eighty and ninety. No frost has, thus far, come to remind us that winter is on the way. Many trees, tired of waiting, are simply drying up their leaves and dropping them to the ground. Some of the maples however, and all of the sumacs have turned gorgeous, frost or no frost. And so is knocked into a cocked hat the popular theory that Jack Frost has something to do with painting the leaves in autumn.

* * * * *

Just because winter is almost here is no reason to shut yourself indoors and sit by the fire. It’s true that woodchucks and bears and certain other animals hibernate during the colder months of the year, but is that any reason why human beings should do the same?

I know a man, past eighty, who refuses to allow himself to become “house bound” at any season of the year. A cold winter’s day is likely to see him out hiking along the road, or through the woods, looking at every bird he meets, examining the trees, looking for cocoons. The things he finds and brings home are marvelous to behold. The enthusiasm with which he recounts his daily experiences is inspiring, to say the least. And this man is, in spirit, younger than many people who are barely half his age. He has a hobby—the outdoors. He fairly bubbles over with enthusiasm about it. And he won’t be downed, even by cold weather.

Life’s crowning glory is to grow old gracefully. It is my octogenarian friend’s theory that those who sit by the fire have nothing to do but pity themselves. He says he can understand how little ailments become magnified in the mind until they are big in reality. He doesn’t want to die a victim of his own thoughts. He wants to die with his boots on—his hiking boots.

There, my friends, is a lesson for middle age—middle age which considers itself beyond the lesson stage and yet often needs to learn things more than does youth .

All about me I see men of the middle years who are gradually giving up any outdoors activities they may have had, who are settling down in desk chairs and becoming soft and flabby. This is the easiest course to follow, no doubt, under our present system of living.

But anyone can see that it is not the safest way. Before it’s too late get a hobby, beat old age! Go out and hike this winter, even if it takes an effort at first. Look for interesting things; photograph them; read about them; write them up for NATURE NOTES, and before you realize it, you’ll be growing younger day by day.

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On to Volume VI
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