Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 17

THE CONTRAST

THE wealth of foliage, leaves at their largest, is responsible for the gloom of the wood; beneath the trees all is in shade, though dappled with circular light patches, where a beam has found a pinhole or crack to penetrate. It is difficult to push one's way through the undergrowth, the saplings are so tough, and brambles, armed with clinging, tearing hooks, trail everywhere in the waist-high grass. The litter of old reed-stems is hidden by the new growth, but jagged broken staves wait for the unwary foot, and the ancient stocks of cut osiers cause one to stumble; it is easy to step from the Wood into the water, so similar is the terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. Purple and yellow loosestrife push their showy heads above the sedges; young willows and birches are surrounded by reeds and rushes. Above the sapling sycamores stand the staunch old oaks, the graceful birches, and the sombre firs; nearer the water are gnarled willows and alders, whose roots straggle out over the water, for winter storms have washed the soil between them.

Few birds are singing, though they are by no means silent; call notes, to and from youngsters, resound on every hand. Yet in the dense leafage the birds are barely visible. We catch the flash of the white wing-bar of the chaffinch which is hunting aphides in the tops; we hear the wheezy, insistent cries of juvenile starlings, the luit of the anxious willow wren, the low chitter of the reed-warbler near the water's edge. The dunnock, in neat quaker garb, pipes beneath the evergreens as it turns over the leaves of last autumn; the great tit calls sharply, the jay utters a heart-rending shriek, and the wood-pigeon clatters through the branches on noisy wing. All, including the young thrush which seeps continuously only a few feet away, are hidden or only visible for a moment. The trustful robin is the only bird really in evidence, tor no sooner do we enter the wood than we hear its subdued song of welcome, and see it flit across our path to perch eyeing us with friendly gaze; it exhibits no annoyance at our presence and certainly no apprehension. Man, it shows by its behaviour, is looked upon as a friend, a companion. Beyond the reed fringe the playful mallard flappers are splashing; their elders chuckle in contented tones, and now and again utter a sonorous quack. Coots and moorhens utter explosive and loud metallic remarks; immature grebes with striped cheeks and necks follow their stately parents with incessant querulous demands for attention, and now and again the cheerful dabchick ripples out its laughing trill.

The bird voices are accompanied by a constant murmur, which rises and falls in volume and varies in quality. A puff of wind raises a gentle rustle amidst the leaves; a gleam of sunshine and the buzz of millions of gauzy insect wings swells into a boom. The stout and bustling humble-bee leads with a deep bass rumble as it blunders from blossom to blossom on the bramble or stirs the dust amidst the tree roots as it searches for something, the bee alone knows what. The hover fly hangs motionless in the ride, its whirring wings—a mere blurr to our slow sight—singing tenor; the annoying banded gnat produces a shrill treble scream two inches from our ear. Reflexly we raise an arm and sweep the air, but never hit the singer. A small tortoiseshell butterfly and many diurnal moths, a skimming, darting dragonfly, "with loud latticed sails," bees and wasps of various kinds, two-winged flies of every description, from a great bluebottle with a chequered back to a tiny midge, flit, dart, or hover. From each wing comes some sound, some vibration, perceptible or imperceptible, which in the aggregate makes the busy, joyful hum of the wood. What does it all mean? The enjoyment of summer? The joy of living?

Look at the scene from another standpoint; look closely and critically, and watch the varying actors in this great life drama. Is it comedy or tragedy? The big leaves are stained, ragged, and torn; aphis, coccid, and fungus have blotched or scored them; leaf-miners have left their subcutaneous tracks in their tissues; larvæ have riddled and devoured their living flesh, drained their life blood. There are defoliated twigs on the oak, and a pretty little green-winged moth on the trunk; it and the mottled umber know what has become of those leaves; tortrix and geometer caterpillars were nourished upon them. A passing chaffinch sees the moth; one snap and it is gone. Everywhere is evidence of the larval insatiability of moth, beetle, sawfly, and dipteron, and everywhere ichneumons and other predaceous insects have attacked the caterpillars. Fungi push their brown or lurid red caps through the rotting leaf-mould, flourishing on decay; spongy fungus galls knob the half-submerged roots of the alder; fungi spot the decaying broken twigs and branches. One huge limb of the old white willow is down, and decomposition is destroying good timber; the wood-louse and centipede use its bellowing carcase for a shelter. An ancient oak is struggling for breath in the strangle-hold of the ivy; woody nightshade, honeysuckle, and other climbers trail over and smother any bush or shrub in their way. For yards the young reeds are already bruised and broken, for the weight of hundreds of roosting starlings has exceeded their power of endurance.

A rabbit screams, or the hunger cry of some young birp turns to a shrill note of terror and ends in a gasping sob; the stoat or fox is at work, the fierce sparrowhawk or relentless carrion crow has secured a victim. And at night the cries of fear, the shrieks of pain are frequent and startling, for then the nocturnal carnivores and the owls are hunting. The stoat and weasel attack the rat, itself a ferocious marauder; the fox stalks and captures the rabbit, or rudely disturbs the slumbers of the roosting bird; the otter slays the flapper and the strong-jawed pike, which is itself responsible for the murder of many a downy infant coot and grebe. The noisy jay could tell why some of the birds are childless; its blue eye discovered the nest. The gentle dunnock, the trustful robin, the ever-busy little wren killed the spider when it was thrusting its poison fangs into the nerve ganglia of the predaceous fly, whose beak was plunged into a smaller member of its order when it blundered into the fatal snare. The dragonfly and other hovering insects are keenly seeking possible victims; the wasp bears off the dismembered but still moving prey to the ever-hungry grubs. The solitary wasp laboriously drags the paralysed spider or caterpillar to be entombed alive for the edification of its still unborn children, children which it will never see; sealed in the tunnel the captive, inert but alive, will be consumed by a future wasp. The young thrush sees the bumble-bee and disables it with a peck, then, scared by the angry buzz, leaves it to perish; the ants hasten the end. The lumbering dor-beetle, wandering across the ride, carries with it a host of parasitical mites; if these are bloodsuckers its days are numbered.

What is the real condition, what the actual feelings of these inhabitants of a joyful and beautiful world which is scarred and stained with the lust of blood? We cannot tell, but we may hazard a guess. We are predatory, flesh-eating animals ourselves; we, too, live in an atmosphere of accident, outrage, and sudden death. We know it, and are constantly reminded of it, yet we live hopefully, peacefully, with an easy, often thoughtless confidence that we and ours are immune, will escape the dangers which surround us. These other creatures, their methods of living and their actions moulded by heredity and the manifold forces of environment, may exist in the same careless, trustful way. Were they not keen of sight for prey, swift to pursue and strike, they would starve; were they not keen to sight pursuer, smart and active so as to escape, they would be slain. When they are hunting, feeding, playing, or paying court, their every action suggests the real enjoyment of perfected power. May we not reasonably believe that they do enjoy life, and that the other actions, suggestive of anxiety or fear, are merely the outcome of heredity, the inborn necessity of "keeping the eyes skinned"? We may even go further, and believe that their wiles to escape from their enemies, either by speed or concealment, are as reflex as our effort to whisk away the blood-sucking gnat. Unconsciously they see, hear, or scent danger, and without thought act in the promptest and most effective way to avoid it. But the hand failed to localise the goat, and wing or limb are not infallible; when the failure comes there is but one inevitable result—annihilation.