Volume VIII 

Through the Cabin Window

Volume VIII: January—December, 1941

Many times in the past I have urged you hikers to make field notes and file  them for future reference.

Every now and then I receive a letter asking me what system I use in keeping field notes. That is of course a fair question. I can explain my system, but I do not guarantee that it will fall in with your requirements. It is my belief that each individual should evolve a system to his or her liking. If you have notes taken on all manner of scraps of paper and filed away in all manner of places, I think you’ll agree with me that a little brain work right now will save trouble in the future.

Well, here’s my system, for what it’s worth. There can be obtained at stationery counters 3-ring binders known as “price books” that measure approximately 6 x 8¼ inches. You can buy these books with genuine leather covers, if you want to; mine came from the great Kresge collection of odds and ends. One of these books holds all the notes and photographs I ordinarily make in a year. Therefore I put on the spine of each a sticker reading “1886” or “1941” as the case may be.

The paper for these books measures 5 x 7¾ inches with rounded corners. Right here is where economy means paying more. I used to buy cheap paper, a lot for a dime. But I find that when it is ten years old this cheap paper is yellow and brittle. This does very nicely for temporary notes, but for the other kind I buy crisp rag paper which sets me back half a dollar for a small packet. However the pages are thin and there are quite a number of them. Moreover, if you are a copious note taker, you can get more of these thin pages into each book.

I hope you don’t imagine that I carry a ring binder on each field trip. There is no need of that. A few loose pages can be carried along in a number of ways. The way I have found most convenient is this: I had made a flexible-covered binder, very little bigger than the pages themselves, with a clamp at the top for holding pages. This slips nicely into a coat pocket, or if rolled up, into almost any pocket.

I like to take notes in waterproof ink. If you use a pencil, don’t use a soft one or your notes will smear badly in your pocket and sometimes they become unreadable. Make sure the date is on each page.

You will now begin to see how easy it is to take notes in the field, then bring them home and file them in the proper place. Mine happen to be filed chronologically. You may wish to file them under subject heads. It’s true that where the trip has been strenuous the pages are often frayed, but that in itself is an eloquent field note.

Sketches may be made directly on your note paper, or on drawing paper cut to size and punched. Photographs are most effective when enlarged, cut to the 5 x 7¾ size and punched to fit the rings. Be sure to write on the back of each photograph all the data you will ever need such as title, date, place, kind of film, people in the picture and so on. If you neglect this you’ll be wondering, a year from now, what it’s all about.

Those who really go in for photography will want to have, in addition, some of the more technical data in regard to the making, developing and printing of the picture. For one reason or another I often want to make duplicates of some of my prints and it is convenient to have on them the kind of enlarging paper used, degree of enlargement and exposure time.

There are other things besides notes, sketches, and photographs that may be filed neatly away in your little shelf of nature note books: clippings, an occasional pressed leaf or blossom that struck you as unusual or attractive, autographs of others on the trip, ideas, letters from fellow naturalists. Take it from one who knows: during a long period of years your note books will gradually become valued possessions.

I am writing about this because I have received many inquiries, and because winter is a good time to get started. Whatever system you use, choose it carefully and stick to it. This will save you a vast amount of trouble later on.

* * * * *

Two Worlds

Under the bleak hillsides there are hosts of living things ready to burst into life. I sometimes marvel at this fact. The snow covers the ground. Trees bend in the wind. It is cold. Aside from a squirrel and a brave little chickadee or two, everything, apparently, is dead.

But there are living stocks of orchids and wild ginger, hepaticas and maidenhair. Within a few short weeks the trees will have new leaves, warblers will be filling the glens with music, bees will be droning from flower to flower, the air will be soft and warm.

What a contrast! Here are two worlds as far apart as the stars: the world of winter and the world of spring. We who inhabit these worlds need not migrate from one to the other; Time brings them in review before us. We must wait.

The Fourth Dimension

Time is a force of nature. It is a “fourth dimension” that must of necessity enter into our plans and calculations. Time is our friend as well as our master.

For one thing, it brings us back to the beginning of the movie, back to another spring season that we can watch. Let us try to catch some of the action we missed when we saw this fascinating movie before.

Time, moreover, gives us understanding, more capacity to enjoy nature. If you feel that time is your enemy, get busy this spring. Step outdoors into a richer, more contented life. There is no time to lose.

Little Mammal

In January I found a little furry creature drowned in a bucket of water that was left standing in the Cabin. With the ponds and streams securely locked in ice, this little animal had sought a drink of water, and had fallen in.

When wet and bedraggled, mammals do not look at all like themselves. I gazed at this little creature for many minutes without being able to identify it. At the end of that time I was almost ready to resign all claims to a knowledge of nature lore. It was nine inches long including its tail, and weighed less than 2½ ounces. In color it was grayish and brownish. The possibility of its being a rat was ruled out by the fact that the tail was covered with fur. I was sure that it was nothing that I had ever held in my hands before.

Not until I had put it by the stove and dried out its coat did the truth dawn upon me. Then I saw that it was a flying squirrel. It never occurred to me to ask how flying squirrels secure water in the wintertime. Perhaps they are hard pressed to find it.

* * * * *

Life on a Moraine

If I ever find myself with a free week-end, I intend to write a book about the above title. Many are the good tales I could tell of cars stuck in the snow, in the mud, and just stuck; of city people coming out to see us and expecting all the comforts of the pavement; of what happens when the frost is going out of the ground in March and why.

Geologists tell us that our abode is on a moraine. Many years ago, it seems, a big glacier covered this part of the earth. For some reason or other the sun got hotter and said to the glacier, “Halt!” and it halted. Then the sun said, “Melt!” and it melted. Naturally it had to drop all the pebbles, boulders, mud, and loess it was carrying. We live on the heap. If there were any gold nuggets in this mess they have been picked up long ago. I guess the boulders have been carted away for rock gardens. But the mud is still here.

The Muds of March

Summertime mud is not so bad. It has a certain regimentation to it. But March Mud, with a layer of ftozen ground beneath it and snow or rain mixed with it, is a good deal like pancake batter in consistency. And it would very likely bake up into super-excellent mud pies, but I have never investigated this angle. However, it is not relished even by the earthworms.

That great labor-making invention, the automobile, is no match for the Muds of March. I have seen cars that could boast 120 and over horsepower under their hoods wallow right down on their bellies with pitiful expressions. The more horsepower the less they get anywhere. I have seen wreckers that came to the rescue so badly mired that wreckers had to come and rescue the wreckers. And so on.

Oh well, this only lasts for a few days each March. Morainal life is really beautiful in April, May and June. If I write sordidly now, it’s only because I’m stuck in the mud.

Moses and the Stuffed Lions

In our biggest and best town, New York City, the commissioner of parks, one Moses, has sent in a report to the Mayor about the town’s museums, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums and notorious places of that nature, both public and private.

This report is said to be unasked-for and certainly it is uncalled-for. In it the commissioner is hard on these helpful institutions. He vents his spleen, so say the papers, on the motives and character of the founders; on the aims and ideals of the museums; on the present management; and on the institutions as they stand—grounds, walls and roof.

In doing so, Mr. Moses is preparing for himself a tomb in Oblivion. Yesterday the fight of the Library was uphill. Those who opposed it—who were they? Today the Museum is struggling upward in tewns much smaller than New York. It will reach the top some time.

* * * * *

Fair and Warmer (?)

The forecast was for rain and colder. But I sat on the hillside hatless and coatless, soaking up the spring sunshine. April, the gypsy, dotes on being perverse.

I was gazing at an especially luscious clump of hepatica blossoms, trying to describe them. But, as usual, I found language inadequate. “Tomorrow, I must take a color-photo of them,” I said to myself, “fetching equipment now would entail a hill-climb. And that’s entirely too much work to do in the first really pleasant weather.”

Next day: “Fair,” said the hard working weatherman. “Really?” said Gypsy April. It rained.


The Illinois State Museum at Springfield publishes a monthly bulletin, called “The Living Museum,” which points out each month some of the museum’s interesting exhibits that are available to anyone who cares to go and see.

The editor of this interesting publication is Virginia S. Eifert who has written much on nature lore. (We can’t refrain from noting in passing that several of Mrs. Eifert’s articles have appeared in NATURE NOTES.)

In a recent issue of “The Living Museum” there was a word picture of Starved Rock as it appears in wintertime. People from near and far are familiar with Starved Rock State Park which extends for miles along the Illinois River, in LaSalle County, Illinois. The park appeals to lovers of the beautiful because of its rugged scenery; it appeals to the historian because of the legends that have come down to us from the Indians and from the White men of earlier days; it appeals to the botanist because of its dripping ledges covered with ferns of many species, its rare flowers, its gnarled pines and cedars that are relics of times past; the park appeals to the geologist because of its outcroppings of St. Peter sandstone, caused by a tremendous prehistoric heaving deep down in the breast of the earth, which appears to have pushed the strata upward. These people see the park in the smiling summertime.

But someone saw it when the snow was knee-deep over the trails; when the air was clear and cold, when the ledges were slick with ice. This person, feeling a kinship with nature, must have paused and written with cold fingers a word picture of Starved Rock as it is in winter. A bit later this word-picture appeared, unsigned, in “The Living Museum.” I reprinted it word-for-word in the January, 1941, issue of NATURE NOTES.

Meanwhile Poet Edgar Lee Masters, of Spoon River Anthology fame, read the sketch and with it in hand wrote a beautiful poem of ten stanzas which he titled “Starved Rock in Winter.” Runs the prose:

...The colors of iron in the water, and the reflection of the sky, and the  green pines above, bring out an illusion of rainbow beauty in the ice. It is pale green; it is pale yellow; it is white; it is russet, with icicles of tea-color, lavender, a suggestion of blue, and brown, and red. The great mass hangs against brown walls upholstered with pale green-white lichen powder and green liverworts.

Says the poem:

Water has dripped and frozen, and many hues

Merge in the icicles, russet, blue, and green;

They hang against the Rock’s brown walls, between

The lichens, liverworts, their colors fuse

Into a rainbow splendor, while the stream

Takes the reflections of the sky, combines

Its iron color with the verdant pines...

The moral of my little tale is: Nature’s outcrops invariably cause the poet in man’s or woman’s soul to crop out; and, practicing poets sometimes depend on nature-lovers when the weather is cold.

* * * * *


Each year when the calendar leaf entitled “May” comes near the surface, I work like the deuce in the hope that I can get everything I have to do done. For it has always been my dream that I could spend May outdoors with notebook, and camera, and binoculars, and two good legs, and at least that number of eyes and ears.

But it’s always a vain hope. May catches me with things undone, letters unwritten, manuscripts unread, lots of this and that which an editor must do.

Nevertheless, as I work here in the Cabin, which is at the edge of the woods, I hear a new warbler song and out I pop like the little mechanical dog, Rex, that comes out of his kennel at the sound of your voice.

Magical Month

May! Warbiers, wildflowers, new leaves, apple blossoms, green grass, frogs, snakes, woodchucks, birds’ eggs, moths, butterflies: life at full tilt. May, the most fascinating month of the whole fascinating year!

Why don’t we just take our vacations in May? Perhaps it’s just as well we don’t. Give the birds a chance to nest, the flowers a chance to bloom, the fish a chance to spawn, before the great industry of vacationing the public begins.

If we vacationed in May what would our wildlife look like in June?

I Help Build a Nest

A pair of robins have built their nest directly above the Cabin door. The nest is, in a sense, a cooperative affair. It is on a little shelf placed there by the Editor in the hope that something of the sort would happen. The shelf is only 3½ inches wide, while the nest protrudes outward by 5½ inches.

The first day’s work by the birds was a total loss, because all of the coarse foundation material they laboriously carried up there fell off the shelf.

At nightfall I gathered it up and tried my hand at nest building. I found that what was needed was a cardboard strip thumbtacked to the front edge of the shelf to hold the material in place.

That worked fine, and next day the birds brought mud and, apparently approving my foundation weaving, began plastering. By the evening of the third day the home was completed. There followed a day and a half of rest before the first egg was laid.

Now that I have gained experience in nest building, I shall know better in the future how to put up a robin shelf. But I shall not extend my domestic help into such matters as incubation or nestling feeding. We must leave some responsibilities to the robins.

Betwixt Night and Day

It is 3:30. One can tell that a new day is near because there are gray streaks in the blue-black sky. A whip-poor-will has just begun his singsong calls. Tentatively a wood thrush rings his bell, then stops as though to adjust the pitch. A robin, several robins—the good old reliables—lean to the task of serenading the coming morn.

Now it is a gray dawn. Trees are visible. A wood peewee’s voice comes from the eerie timberland. Young rabbits hop toward the marigold bed for a last snack before going home.

Morning dusk. There are clouds in the east, but none in the west. It’s chilly now but the day will be warm, perhaps very warm, for the summer sun comes close to the earth.

A bluebird bubbles over with joy. His mate sits on their second nest in a bird-box in the orchard. Blue jays scream with maliciousness; a field sparrow runs the scale.

The clouds in the east are lined with gold. A bob-white whistles, a chickadee scolds, a crow calls. Titmice in the woods are suddenly full of business.

The wood thrush’s bell is ringing now. The world of the night has gone to bed and the chorus of morning is in full swing.

“Life Would Be Joyful”

There was a time when I was writing copy for an advertising agency. Therefore, I have studied the gentle art of concocting persuasive advertisements. Every day I see ads that come from the brains of high-priced and high-powered copywriters.

But, I’ve thought and thought and for the life of me I can’t think up a better advertisement than this. It came, the other day from a valued subscriber in Virginia:

Enclosed is my renewal. I’ve enjoyed NATURE NOTES immensely. If I could get as much satisfaction out of every dollar I spend, life would be joyful.

If you can think of a better one, let’s have it.

* * * * *

Robin Antics

Human children are not the only youngsters that like to get within range of a lawn sprinkler on hot days. During a recent hot and dry spell I noticed six gangling young robins standing in a circle about a sprinkler. I am sure they had expressions of delight on their faces.

As I watched, one of them became bold enough to approach the revolving arm of the sprinkler and stand with head raised and bill open, as though to let the spray go down its throat.

Other young robins appeared from time to time, until there were more than a dozen. A playful bird persisted in rushing at its fellows and was in turn chased by more than one.

Though fully grown, all had the distinctive plumage of the immature robin. No adults appeared. Plainly, such undignified doings were for children only.

Bathing Beauties

But the gangling young robins are not the only birds that enjoy the lawn sprinkler in question. Chipping sparrows, with their red-brown heads; field sparrows, with their pink beaks; and goldfinches are frequent visitors. Shallow pans were placed for their especial benefit, but these birds seem to prefer to bathe in the tiny pools that form in depressions of the ground.

A brilliant Baltimore oriole takes great delight in swooping down through the sparkling spray. He adds a decorative touch to the scene, to say the least. The cooling spray itself, however, is not the only magnet that draws birds to a sprinkler. As the ground becomes soaked, earthworms and insects come to the surface and are easily found.

The Danger in Ferns

Allow me to draw your attention to ferns. Growing this minute in cool glens, in the spray of waterfalls, and on moist rocky ledges are rarities that no one has ever found. To chance upon a colony of rare ferns, to photograph them, perhaps to sketch them, and to take one or two fronds for your collection is a zestful occupation for sultry summer days.

Nor does it take a lifetime to become familiar with all the ferns that are likely to be found in any one locality. Pursue the elusive hart’s tongue and you will meet many other exquisite kinds before you find the object of your search.

Go into it earnestly, and before next summer you’ll be looking for fruit dots, or squinting at the angle which the pinnae make with the rachis, or noting whether the inner basal pinnules are longer or shorter than their next-door neighbors. (Also, you’ll be quietly cursing authors for not getting together on classification.)

Notice I said: “Before next summer.” Fern fun does not end with the killing frosts of autumn. All winter you’ll be taking out your mounted specimens, comparing them with illustrations, reading about them, and looking at them more closely.

Yes, there’s danger of becoming fascinated with ferns. Why not get on the trail of a rare one, right now?

* * * * *

Aggressor Grass

About the only thing that can be said for crab grass is that it’s green in color. What an unmitigated pest of lawns and gardens it is! It is unlovely in form. It is coarse and uncultured. It spreads through aggression, by taking territory away from its neighbors.

Some people are highly allergic to the pollen of crab grass. With many others it causes an itching and a burning of the wrists and ankles through contact.

Scores of ideas have been advanced as to how to get rid of this alien. The trouble is that none of these schemes seems to work. Our expensive U.S. Department of Agriculture stands helpless before its advance.

When we get through putting aggressor nations in their places, how about getting to work on aggressor grasses? I don’t know which will prove to be the bigger task.

* * * * *

Giving Nature Half a Chance

Wildlife will come back, if given half a chance. This is shown by an example right under my nose. Next to the Cabin’s woods is a large tract of woodland that was for many years a favorite hunting ground. In spite of No Hunting signs, people always contrived to shoot almost everything in fur or feathers that made a good target. In years gone by it was always “hunted out.”

Prairie chicken, quail, squirrels, grouse were occasionally seen. But the bang, bang of the shotgun, in season and out, told why this tract of timber was so destitute of wild inhabitants.

A change has taken place. For about four years now these woods have been leased to the Illinois Department of Conservation as a game preserve. Signs conspicuously placed, state in no uncertain terms that hunting and trapping carry fines of $50 to $200. It is rare to hear a gunshot. As a result there has been a marked increase in the numbers of mammals of all kinds and birds of most of the larger species.

It is true that grouse have not come back, at least as far as I know, but given time I think this grand bird will return. Woodcocks are now occasionally seen and, in favorable habitats, quail are found. Hawks and owls, it may be noted, seem to be on the increase. Crows, however, are becoming scarce—perhaps because of a statewide campaign against them.

Among the mammals, foxes are now often seen, where before they were very rare. Fox squirrels are abundant, gray squirrels are appearing, and along the streams can be found many racoon tracks. Cotton-tail rabbits increased tremendously and reached a peak in the summer of 1939. Gardeners complained of the great rabbit nuisance. The following winter rabbit tracks were everywhere in the snows. But now this mammal seems to be on the decrease. No doubt nature is arriving at a balance through the increase of foxes and other natural enemies of the rabbit.

Of course those of us who try to raise a few chickens nearby don’t love the foxes; but then, chickens have so many woodland enemies, including roving dogs, that they must be carefully guarded anyway.

Another result of posting this tract of woodland as a game preserve, has been the improved botanical situation. Plant diggers seem to have automatically ceased to come. Now wood lilies, wild clematis, orchids, ferns and other attractive plants may be found there. Wildflower pickers, too, have been absent. Trails that were constantly kept open have grown up in brambles. In short, this tract has been let more or less alone.

It is interesting to note how promptly nature goes to work to heal the scars of ravishments of the past. In fact, she is striving all of the time to heal up such scars. There is a constant building-up pressure in the woods, and when man’s tearing down is reduced to a minimum, then this building-up process proceeds rapidly.

This is the heartening thing about conservation. All nature asks, in most cases, is to be let severely alone. She will come back, beginning now Why not, then, have more game preserves? Make sure there will be game preserves—always. And they will be the centers about which our wildlife will revolve.

* * * * *

On to Volume IX
Back to Volume VII
Back to Environment index