Volume VI 

Through the Cabin Window

Volume VI: January—December, 1939

Are you sticking pretty close to a super-heated house or office these wintry days? Many of us are, you know. When you come to think of it, isn’t it surprising how many people’s “fresh air” in the wintertime is limited to a hop to the garage, a few steps from the curb to a friend’s front door, or possibly a brief shopping tour down town? No wonder there is so much sickness abroad in the land. Are the so-called comforts and conveniences of modem life making us weaklings? Is science, having simplified the physical struggles of life, breeding a race of sub-men and sub-women?

There is small doubt in my mind that this is so. Science itself gradually is waking up to the fact. One year ago I said on this page:

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 prop oses “an examination of the profound effects of science upon society.” It is high time! Let science lay off gadgets for a spell, and find out what it has done to humanity.

Again, at its annual convention last month the A.A,A.S. discussed the matter, but little of a concrete nature was accomplished. It would seem that men of science realize that something must be done to prepare humanity for what science has to offer, but no one knows exactly how to go about it.

The problem can be divided into two parts. (1) What is the modern mode of life doing to our bodies? (2) What is it doing to our minds? The second is perhaps the most difficult to solve, since it includes our morals, our behavior, our religion, our general outlook on life.

In the meantime we can do much to prepare both our bodies and our minds for the softening ordeal to which the human organism is being subjected: First, cultivate a love for nature; second, get out regularly and observe nature. Those who have tried this simple and pleasant remedy say it’s good medicine for what ails you.

A half dozen cardinals have elected to spend this winter close to the Cabin. I know a little bushy glen, less than a mile away, where I can count on finding at least a dozen cardinals, to say nothing of various sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, and others. A few miles in another direction, there is another place that cardinals adore  and I have seen a flock of around two dozen of them there. Every spot where there is a little stream, a few shrubs and protection from the winds has its quota. These birds are becoming more abundant year by year. If all were brought together in one flock, what a sight it would be! Especially if the sun were bright and snow covered everything.

Even as I write, a gorgeous male scolds and hops down to the snow where I have scattered some cracked corn. Now there comes a blue jay. Red, white and blue! I rise to watch them through the Cabin Window. They show no signs of fear. They, too, have their freedom in the United States. “O, say can you see. . . .?”

* * * * *

The other evening your Editor, having gone to bed to nurse a bad cold, found himself with nothing better to do than to listen to the radio. God’s ether was being cluttered with the usual rackets. A woman was sobbing pitifully in a gripping “drammer” of love. A machinegun-voiced man was delivering himself of a commercial announcement on how to get rid of pimples and skin rash. Another was telling an expectant world what kind of lipstick 98% of Hollywood uses. Thus around the dial. And all the cracks in between were filled with cheap music. We who live near the U.S. center of population get this stuff from all thirty-two points of the compass the minute we put up an aerial.

At last, after much exploring of the wave bands, I found something real good. It was one of those “true or false?” programs, advertising a shaving cream. I would be glad to pass on to you men the name of the cream, but I have completely forgotten it. You will recognize it when I say it melts that film of oil that surrounds each whisker so the water can enter. In a flash your beard becomes soft and limp and all you do is brush your razor across your face. Utopia, brothers, Utopia!

This program, which originated in the East, was designed to test the intellectual powers of several men and women contestants. And a very good test it was. One woman was asked, “Is it true or false that the cow catcher of a locomotive is for the purpose of supplying the dining car with fresh meat?” It was several seconds before she could think of the correct answer.

If only radio programs and magazine articles would go in for reasonable accuracy when they touch upon natural history, they would disturb the nature lover slightly less. In the radio program referred to above, a contestant was asked, “true or false: the mouse and the squirrel belong to the same family?” This contestant, who seemed to have the best fund of knowledge, answered correctly, “False,” A bell was rung, and the contestant was very quickly put Out of the running for the twenty-five dollar prize. Thus is accurate knowledge penalized in this commercial day and age. The mouse and the squirrel both belong to the order of rodents, yes. But not to the same family. Look it up and see.

I clicked off the radio and sought solace in the Reader’s Digest. There I found pleasure in an article on Mephitis, the Skunk, condensed from The American Mercury until I came to this:

It is usually in late April or in May, when the veined green spathes of skunk cabbage are thrusting up in marshy places, that the baby skunk is ushered into life. He is one of a litter that may contain almost a dozen, and the place of his birth is most often a vault-chambered burrow in the frozen earth...

Then I flipped the pages to find a quiz on weather lore, written by a newspaper man. How many interesting things a trained meteorologist might learn from this quiz.

Altogether I had a miserable evening, but managed to pull through by reading a hymn of hate about a dictatorship. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wondering how much of that was inaccurate.

* * * * *

Recently I had occasion to help in the clearing up of some level land near the edge of the woods. This piece had not been mown, grazed or burned over for about four years. In fact, it had been allowed to run wild. Nature had been given time to do with it as she wished. And she had practically had a riot.

As I raked, burned, and hacked at the brambles that had sprung up everywhere, I couldn’t help thinking just a bit about this reforestation business. There on that piece of ground were wild shrubs in great numbers. There were sumacs and rough leaved dogwoods—in this region the advance agents of the forest. Then there were hop-trees, wahoos, beautiful hawthorns of various species, and those shrubs which bear the most fragrant of all the wild blossoms found in these parts—the wild crab.

Here and there among this natural growth of shrubbery one came to a husky young elm tree just getting a good start, a tiny white oak, or a hickory that the squirrels had planted. In all there were more than enough young trees to reforest this property. Soon they would have been standing above the shrubs that nursed them, and in not so many more years there would have been a forest where for a hundred years there had been none.

As I hacked I wondered. Why all the hullabaloo about reforestation? Why the millions being spent to bring back the woods, when all man has to do is sit down and wait?

Our home is at the edge of woodland. For most of my life I have been fighting to keep the woods at bay. Nature is bound and determined to have again what once was hers.

I am speaking, of course, of regions where there were forests in times past. In such regions soil and climate favor the re-establishment of trees. No doubt there are places where trees never grew and never will. Why, then, waste millions to forest these plains?

Restlessness, impatience, ceaseless activity—that is man. The ring of the axe; the fall of the forest monarch; prodigious effort spent to remove the stumps; failure to make the land pay; reluctance for a while to admit defeat; then millions for reforestation.

Meanwhile, where man stands aside the forest marches on!

* * * * *

Anyone who has ever tried getting near enough to a fox to see it, let alone photograph it, will appreciate the flash light records from the home life of the desert kit fox by Russell Grater in this issue of NATURE NOTES.

Today there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of photographers in the United States. Camera manufacturing concerns are doing a rushing business. The common stock of the Eastman Kodak Co., for example, sells at a good price, even in times of depression. It is safe to say that if all the camera shutters that are snapped each day were brought together and released at the same instant, there would be a deafening and window-shattering detonation, And yet, with all this lens work, good photographs of wild animals going about the every-day activities of their lives are not as common as one would suppose.

There are still tremendous opportunities for fame, if not fortune, in the field of nature photography. Though many thousands of nature photographs have been published, the surface has merely been nicked. There are so many forms of living organisms and each one does so many different things that, to make adequate pictorial records of their lives, will require a deal of shutter snapping yet.

I must not, of course, call it “shutter snapping.” That’s not all there is to it by any manner of means. Behind every successful nature photograph lies planning, judgment, technical skill, patient waiting, physical inconvenience and perhaps danger. Climbing to a nest sixty or seventy feet from the ground when there is snow on the limbs and branches in order to photograph young great horned owls (see the article by Byrdena Woodley in this issue) is not the safest thing in the world. But the true nature lover does it gladly. Why? Because it’s sport of the keenest kind.

The trophy you bring home is but the ephemeral etching of light upon a silver salt; yet it represents much more than does the limp and bleeding body brought back by the powder-and-shot hunter. And it’s a plain case of eating your cake and having it. For all we know Grater’s foxes and Woodley’s owls, and all the other wild things that have been portrayed in NATURE NOTES are alive today, working out their destinies in nature’s great plan.

Now let me ask you: Why not become a skillful photographic hunter? It requires more preparation than does mere gun barrel pointing, and so are the satisfactions vastly more.

* * * * *

There are birds of many kinds about the Cabin as I write. Almost perfect weather conditions have sent songsters surging northward in a last minute rush to gain their summer houses. Warblers, many of which will not be with us long, are finding good picking among the oak blossoms. Baltimore orioles are gathering material for nests. Today I saw one pull strands from the twine with which the grapes are tied up. Crested flycatchers are hunting for snake skins to adorn their homes. I should imagine that snake skins are hard to find, now that snakes of all kinds are being killed off so rapidly.

Wood thrushes are no doubt building in secret glens and perhaps laying eggs by this time, but they take time morning and evening to serenade us with ringing music.

A Carolina wren sits on her eggs by our back porch. Meadowlarks don’t whistle so much now, having treasure to guard somewhere in the grasses. The early builders are busy feeding nestlings. I know where there are baby bluebirds just hatched. I can show you hairy woodpeckers about half grown and young robins ready to spring out of the natal soup bowl and scold and furiously fan their wings.

So we have all stages of home development, from the late migrants, who are just thinking about nesting in the backs of their heads, to those accomplished facts, the fledgling robins with spotted breasts.

For the nature lover who likes to watch the birds’ homemaking operations, and perhaps photograph them, it is a blessing that all birds don’t go to homemaking at one and the same time.

It is a blessing, too, for the birds themselves. Suppose all parent birds were simultaneously abroad,  scurrying for supplies to feed themselves and their hungry children. I doubt if the insect supply would hold out. Entomologists would be complaining that measuring worms had become extinct.

All this is one more example of the great “dovetailing” of nature. Throughout the long ages all trees and shrubs and herbs and lower plants as well as all mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and lower animals have found niches for themselves in the world. Among the plants: some like sunshine, some shade; some prefer one kind of soil, some another; some grow at one season, some at another; some rear themselves aloft, some remain near the ground; and so on.

Every species has found a place where, and a time when it can grow with the minimum of competition from others. Likewise all the members of the animal kingdom have distributed their activities through space and time. Those that could not dovetail themselves in with the others have become extinct. It is a tremendously complicated relationship, one which man is only beginning to perceive. Probably never will he be able to reach a full understanding of it all.

Man himself is part of the environment to which other living things must adjust themselves. By his activities he is sometimes able to swing the balance for or against a species. This in turn affects other species, until the reverberations may reach to the lowest of living things and even past them into the inanimate world.

Meanwhile a robin faithfully sits on her nest and gazes at me through the Cabin Window. She is merely doing her tiny bit as a part of a great plan which One has made and which we grope to understand.

* * * * *

The August sun is notoriously hot in this part of the world. Here we keep out of its sight as much as possible, unless we want to get burned to a crisp; or unless, as I did the other day, we want to take a look at it and study its freckles.

Nineteen thirty-nine is a sunspot year. Astronomers have discovered that about every eleven years there occurs a maximum of terrific eruptions and violent “storms” on the surface of old Sol. These are visible to us as “spots.” They are really light spots, but they appear much darker that the rest of the sun. Sometimes a large one can be seen with the naked eye, if the sun is viewed through a dark  enough glass. I was privileged to view it through a fairly large telescope.

Sure enough, there were numerous spots—more in fact, that I had ever before observed. There were large, single spots and groups of smaller ones. They were all arranged in a band parallel to the sun’s equator. Like every other celestial sight, this is a sight worth seeing.

I discovered also that these spots can be very easily photographed. A new occupation for you camera fans—snapping sun spots! If anyone would like to know how it’s done, perhaps I’ll write an article about it some day.

If you get hold of even a small telescope, provide a very dark filter over the lens, and turn it toward the August sun. The only difficulty, you will find, is that this kind of business can’t be carried on in the shade.

* * * * *

The “Office Force,” which consists of Mrs. Editor and a number of little editors, insists that it’s time to come in and write an editorial for this issue.

I have just been scouring one of our state parks for ferns. Making a collection of the ferns of your state is a fascinating occupation. I can heartily recommend it to all nature lovers. Believe me, your observations will not be limited to ferns, but will also include a wide range of subjects, such as trees, wildflowers, reptiles, insects (especially gnats and mosquitos), birds, rocks, thunderstorms and, in fact, the whole of the vast outdoors.

If, perchance, your fern herbarium should contain a plant never before reported from a certain county or region, you will be helping to bring fern lists up to date. In doing this you will be helping the fern-lovers who come after.

Let me recommend fern collecting to ornithologists, especially. By now your bird lists for the year have been written up. Many young birds are out of the nest and you find yourself somewhat lacking in enthusiasm when it comes to learning the immature plumages of sparrows, warblers, wrens and vireos.

Why not switch to ferns? They are at the height of their season. Get a plant press and go after them. What makes a more beautiful specimen than a nicely mounted fern? A whole collection of them is a joy to behold.

But take only a frond or two unless the fern is an abundant one. Too many lovely kinds have already disappeared from these parts due to thoughtless fern diggers. And when you discover an enchanted spot where grows a rarity, speak not of it to friend unless—“Time tried and true, they bear your secret to the grave.”

* * * * *

How many dramatic events the nature lover can see!

My friends the chipmunks are becoming numerous ‘round the Cabin. They sit on top of a retaining wall and eye me without fear as I move about inside. They come close to the doorway and fill their cheek pouches with cracked corn I scatter on the ground. They even venture inside the Cabin, now and then, progressing with little jerky motions, as if curious to see what manner of being stays there.

One morning, last month, I was wading through one of the wilder parts of the reservation, when a chipmunk—one of my friends, I’m sure—appeared almost at my feet and ran for cover toward a brush pile. Immediately there was a terrible commotion under the pile of brush. I could see a great thrashing about, but the movement was so rapid that my vision was blurred.

When things came to rest I saw the chipmunk, with legs outspread, lying limply in the coils of a thick-bodied black snake. I saw at once that it would be only a matter of a few minutes before the chipmunk was dead. Already it was gasping for breath and its eyes were becoming glazed.

My reaction to this sight consisted of a series of impulses. First, my journalistic instinct came to the fore. Should I make haste to the Cabin, secure my camera, and get an unusual photograph for the readers of NATURE NOTES? No doubt that would have entailed the death of the chipmunk. Next the scientific impulse appeared on top. How could a snake whose head appeared to be less than a quarter the diameter of the chipmunk’s body swallow this catch? The scientist in me said, “Watch closely and see how this is done.”

These thoughts went through my head in perhaps less than fifteen seconds. The final impulse was the one which made me act. I suppose it may be called humanitarian. Taking hold of the snake’s tail, I pulled it out in the open. Even then it failed to uncoil itself from around the chipmunk. A vigorous jerk was required to make the predator release its prey.

After a few gasps the chipmunk was able to pick itself up and scamper to safety. The black snake slithered out of sight among the bushes.

Perhaps all drama is inside the beholder. At any rate, the above was an intensely dramatic moment!

* * * * *

What of interest does November hold for the nature lover? Many, many things. Witch hazel is in bloom. Birds’ nests which you never would have found last June, now stand revealed. The little fur bearing animals are scurrying about the woods preparing for winter. Those shrubs which attracted you last spring by their blossoms—can you identify them now by their twigs alone? Seeds of many kinds are ripe; a collection of various types makes an interesting and educational exhibit; some—bittersweet, virgin’s bower, milkweed—are exceedingly decorative.

Then there are the fungi. I made the discovery one year that November was a good time to learn some of the mushrooms. Fall rains had promoted their growth and the woods and fields were full of them. In a few minutes’ walk I collected eight kinds, all in their prime. There were others, too, which I later found.

Don’t let the frosty mornings of winter discourage you. Get out and hike. You will find many things!

* * * * *

The other day, while hiking up a little stream valley six or seven miles from the Cabin, I heard once more the old familiar cry of the prairie chicken. I used to hear this call right near home in years past, but have not heard it for perhaps a decade. One reason may be that the neighborhood is becoming more populous and the chickens have been driven further out.

Let us hope that this rare bird is holding its own in the country as a whole.

I have been practicing what I  preach. We have been having a run of mild, sunny weather with the ground snowless and free of mud. On December 15th, the temperature here at the Cabin was the same as at Jacksonville, Florida. I have taken advantage of this fine weather to make many field trips with net and bucket. Five aquaria have been stocked with little fish and various odd and ungainly water creatures which I propose to study when the weather is not so enticing.

If you have never looked at Spirogyra through a microscope, you should manage to do so somehow. In ponds and streams Spiro gyra is a rather unattractive mass of green which often clogs your net and causes trouble in other ways. But put it under the low power. Then it becomes interwoven strands made of long narrow cells placed end to end. Inside the cells are bright green ribbons wound in regular spirals, with here and there a green dot. No wonder some of the water living creatures subsist on it. It looks good enough to eat!

This is but one example of nature’s beauty that is revealed to us by the microscope. Everywhere we turn we can find things that have unsuspected charm when placed on the glass slide. In addition to the beauty we can see about us, there is a minute world which man’s eye cannot perceive, unless aided by powerful lenses.

Not all of this minute world is beautiful, perhaps, but it is full of never ending interest. Many of the little one-celled animals, for instance, can hardly be called beautiful, but the nature lover will sit for hours watching their antics as they swim around in a drop of water. And such things can be collected in the dead of winter and observed in a warm laboratory.

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