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Chapter 11:
Brute Neighbors
Sometimes I had a companion in my fishing, who came through the
village to my house from the other side of the town, and the
catching of the dinner was as much a social exercise as the eating
of it.
Hermit. I wonder what the world is doing now. I have not heard
so much as a locust over the sweet-fern these three hours. The
pigeons are all asleep upon their roosts—no flutter from them.
Was that a farmer's noon horn which sounded from beyond the woods
just now? The hands are coming in to boiled salt beef and cider and
Indian bread. Why will men worry themselves so? He that does not
eat need not work. I wonder how much they have reaped. Who would
live there where a body can never think for the barking of Bose?
And oh, the housekeeping! to keep bright the devil's door-knobs, and
scour his tubs this bright day! Better not keep a house. Say, some
hollow tree; and then for morning calls and dinner-parties! Only a
woodpecker tapping. Oh, they swarm; the sun is too warm there; they
are born too far into life for me. I have water from the spring,
and a loaf of brown bread on the shelf.—Hark! I hear a rustling
of the leaves. Is it some ill-fed village hound yielding to the
instinct of the chase? or the lost pig which is said to be in these
woods, whose tracks I saw after the rain? It comes on apace; my
sumachs and sweetbriers tremble.—Eh, Mr. Poet, is it you? How do
you like the world to-day?
Poet. See those clouds; how they hang! That's the greatest
thing I have seen to-day. There's nothing like it in old paintings,
nothing like it in foreign lands—unless when we were off the
coast of Spain. That's a true Mediterranean sky. I thought, as I
have my living to get, and have not eaten to-day, that I might go
a-fishing. That's the true industry for poets. It is the only
trade I have learned. Come, let's along.
Hermit. I cannot resist. My brown bread will soon be gone. I
will go with you gladly soon, but I am just concluding a serious
meditation. I think that I am near the end of it. Leave me alone,
then, for a while. But that we may not be delayed, you shall be
digging the bait meanwhile. Angleworms are rarely to be met with in
these parts, where the soil was never fattened with manure; the race
is nearly extinct. The sport of digging the bait is nearly equal to
that of catching the fish, when one's appetite is not too keen; and
this you may have all to yourself today. I would advise you to set
in the spade down yonder among the ground-nuts, where you see the
johnswort waving. I think that I may warrant you one worm to every
three sods you turn up, if you look well in among the roots of the
grass, as if you were weeding. Or, if you choose to go farther, it
will not be unwise, for I have found the increase of fair bait to be
very nearly as the squares of the distances.
Hermit alone. Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly
in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I
go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should soon bring this meditation
to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I
was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was
in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me. If it
would do any good, I would whistle for them. When they make us an
offer, is it wise to say, We will think of it? My thoughts have
left no track, and I cannot find the path again. What was it that I
was thinking of? It was a very hazy day. I will just try these
three sentences of Confutsee; they may fetch that state about again.
I know not whether it was the dumps or a budding ecstasy. Mem.
There never is but one opportunity of a kind.
Poet. How now, Hermit, is it too soon? I have got just
thirteen whole ones, beside several which are imperfect or
undersized; but they will do for the smaller fry; they do not cover
up the hook so much. Those village worms are quite too large; a
shiner may make a meal off one without finding the skewer.
Hermit. Well, then, let's be off. Shall we to the Concord?
There's good sport there if the water be not too high.
Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?
Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors; as if
nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice? I suspect that
Pilpay & Co. have put animals to their best use, for they are all
beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our
The mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which
are said to have been introduced into the country, but a wild native
kind not found in the village. I sent one to a distinguished
naturalist, and it interested him much. When I was building, one of
these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid the
second floor, and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly
at lunch time and pick up the crumbs at my feet. It probably had
never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar, and
would run over my shoes and up my clothes. It could readily ascend
the sides of the room by short impulses, like a squirrel, which it
resembled in its motions. At length, as I leaned with my elbow on
the bench one day, it ran up my clothes, and along my sleeve, and
round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the
latter close, and dodged and played at bopeep with it; and when at
last I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it
came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterward cleaned its
face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.
A phoebe soon built in my shed, and a robin for protection in a
pine which grew against the house. In June the partridge (Tetrao
umbellus), which is so shy a bird, led her brood past my windows,
from the woods in the rear to the front of my house, clucking and
calling to them like a hen, and in all her behavior proving herself
the hen of the woods. The young suddenly disperse on your approach,
at a signal from the mother, as if a whirlwind had swept them away,
and they so exactly resemble the dried leaves and twigs that many a
traveler has placed his foot in the midst of a brood, and heard the
whir of the old bird as she flew off, and her anxious calls and
mewing, or seen her trail her wings to attract his attention,
without suspecting their neighborhood. The parent will sometimes
roll and spin round before you in such a dishabille, that you
cannot, for a few moments, detect what kind of creature it is. The
young squat still and flat, often running their heads under a leaf,
and mind only their mother's directions given from a distance, nor
will your approach make them run again and betray themselves. You
may even tread on them, or have your eyes on them for a minute,
without discovering them. I have held them in my open hand at such
a time, and still their only care, obedient to their mother and
their instinct, was to squat there without fear or trembling. So
perfect is this instinct, that once, when I had laid them on the
leaves again, and one accidentally fell on its side, it was found
with the rest in exactly the same position ten minutes afterward.
They are not callow like the young of most birds, but more perfectly
developed and precocious even than chickens. The remarkably adult
yet innocent expression of their open and serene eyes is very
memorable. All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest
not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by
experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is
coeval with the sky it reflects. The woods do not yield another
such a gem. The traveller does not often look into such a limpid
well. The ignorant or reckless sportsman often shoots the parent at
such a time, and leaves these innocents to fall a prey to some
prowling beast or bird, or gradually mingle with the decaying leaves
which they so much resemble. It is said that when hatched by a hen
they will directly disperse on some alarm, and so are lost, for they
never hear the mother's call which gathers them again. These were
my hens and chickens.
It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free though
secret in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the
neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only. How retired the
otter manages to live here! He grows to be four feet long, as big
as a small boy, perhaps without any human being getting a glimpse of
him. I formerly saw the raccoon in the woods behind where my house
is built, and probably still heard their whinnering at night.
Commonly I rested an hour or two in the shade at noon, after
planting, and ate my lunch, and read a little by a spring which was
the source of a swamp and of a brook, oozing from under Brister's
Hill, half a mile from my field. The approach to this was through a
succession of descending grassy hollows, full of young pitch pines,
into a larger wood about the swamp. There, in a very secluded and
shaded spot, under a spreading white pine, there was yet a clean,
firm sward to sit on. I had dug out the spring and made a well of
clear gray water, where I could dip up a pailful without roiling it,
and thither I went for this purpose almost every day in midsummer,
when the pond was warmest. Thither, too, the woodcock led her
brood, to probe the mud for worms, flying but a foot above them down
the bank, while they ran in a troop beneath; but at last, spying me,
she would leave her young and circle round and round me, nearer and
nearer till within four or five feet, pretending broken wings and
legs, to attract my attention, and get off her young, who would
already have taken up their march, with faint, wiry peep, single
file through the swamp, as she directed. Or I heard the peep of the
young when I could not see the parent bird. There too the turtle
doves sat over the spring, or fluttered from bough to bough of the
soft white pines over my head; or the red squirrel, coursing down
the nearest bough, was particularly familiar and inquisitive. You
only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods
that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.
I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day
when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I
observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly
half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another.
Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled
and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was
surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants,
that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of
ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two
red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all
the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already
strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only
battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever
trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red
republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the
other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet
without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought
so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each
other's embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at
noonday prepared to fight till the sun went down, or life went out.
The smaller red champion had fastened himself like a vice to his
adversary's front, and through all the tumblings on that field never
for an instant ceased to gnaw at one of his feelers near the root,
having already caused the other to go by the board; while the
stronger black one dashed him from side to side, and, as I saw on
looking nearer, had already divested him of several of his members.
They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested
the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their
battle-cry was "Conquer or die." In the meanwhile there came along
a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of
excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken
part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his
limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or
upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his
wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He
saw this unequal combat from afar—for the blacks were nearly
twice the size of the red—he drew near with rapid pace till be
stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then,
watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and
commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg,
leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were
three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been
invented which put all other locks and cements to shame. I should
not have wondered by this time to find that they had their
respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing
their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the
dying combatants. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had
been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And
certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at
least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment's
comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for
the patriotism and heroism displayed. For numbers and for carnage
it was an Austerlitz or Dresden. Concord Fight! Two killed on the
patriots' side, and Luther Blanchard wounded! Why here every ant
was a Buttrick—"Fire! for God's sake fire!"—and thousands
shared the fate of Davis and Hosmer. There was not one hireling
there. I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as
much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their
tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and
memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker
Hill, at least.
I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly
described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it
under a tumbler on my window-sill, in order to see the issue.
Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that,
though he was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy,
having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn
away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black
warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to
pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer's eyes shone with
ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour
longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier
had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still
living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly
trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as
ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without
feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many
other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half
an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off
over the window-sill in that crippled state. Whether he finally
survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some
Hotel des Invalides, I do not know; but I thought that his industry
would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was
victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of
that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by
witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle
before my door.
Kirby and Spence tell us that the battles of ants have long been
celebrated and the date of them recorded, though they say that Huber
is the only modern author who appears to have witnessed them.
"AEneas Sylvius," say they, "after giving a very circumstantial
account of one contested with great obstinacy by a great and small
species on the trunk of a pear tree," adds that "this action was
fought in the pontificate of Eugenius the Fourth, in the presence of
Nicholas Pistoriensis, an eminent lawyer, who related the whole,
history of the battle with the greatest fidelity." A similar
engagement between great and small ants is recorded by Olaus Magnus,
in which the small ones, being victorious, are said to have buried
the bodies of their own soldiers, but left those of their giant
enemies a prey to the birds. This event happened previous to the
expulsion of the tyrant Christiern the Second from Sweden." The
battle which I witnessed took place in the Presidency of Polk, five
years before the passage of Webster's Fugitive-Slave Bill.
Many a village Bose, fit only to course a mud-turtle in a
victualling cellar, sported his heavy quarters in the woods, without
the knowledge of his master, and ineffectually smelled at old fox
burrows and woodchucks' holes; led perchance by some slight cur
which nimbly threaded the wood, and might still inspire a natural
terror in its denizens;—now far behind his guide, barking like a
canine bull toward some small squirrel which had treed itself for
scrutiny, then, cantering off, bending the bushes with his weight,
imagining that he is on the track of some stray member of the
jerbilla family. Once I was surprised to see a cat walking along
the stony shore of the pond, for they rarely wander so far from
home. The surprise was mutual. Nevertheless the most domestic cat,
which has lain on a rug all her days, appears quite at home in the
woods, and, by her sly and stealthy behavior, proves herself more
native there than the regular inhabitants. Once, when berrying, I
met with a cat with young kittens in the woods, quite wild, and they
all, like their mother, had their backs up and were fiercely
spitting at me. A few years before I lived in the woods there was
what was called a "winged cat" in one of the farm-houses in Lincoln
nearest the pond, Mr. Gilian Baker's. When I called to see her in
June, 1842, she was gone a-hunting in the woods, as was her wont (I
am not sure whether it was a male or female, and so use the more
common pronoun), but her mistress told me that she came into the
neighborhood a little more than a year before, in April, and was
finally taken into their house; that she was of a dark brownish-gray
color, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a
large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick
and flatted out along her sides, forming stripes ten or twelve
inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff,
the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring
these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her "wings,"
which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about
them. Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild
animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists,
prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and
domestic cat. This would have been the right kind of cat for me to
keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet's cat be winged
as well as his horse?
In the fall the loon (Colymbus glacialis) came, as usual, to
moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild
laughter before I had risen. At rumor of his arrival all the
Mill-dam sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs and on foot, two by two
and three by three, with patent rifles and conical balls and
spy-glasses. They come rustling through the woods like autumn
leaves, at least ten men to one loon. Some station themselves on
this side of the pond, some on that, for the poor bird cannot be
omnipresent; if he dive here he must come up there. But now the
kind October wind rises, rustling the leaves and rippling the
surface of the water, so that no loon can be heard or seen, though
his foes sweep the pond with spy-glasses, and make the woods resound
with their discharges. The waves generously rise and dash angrily,
taking sides with all water-fowl, and our sportsmen must beat a
retreat to town and shop and unfinished jobs. But they were too
often successful. When I went to get a pail of water early in the
morning I frequently saw this stately bird sailing out of my cove
within a few rods. If I endeavored to overtake him in a boat, in
order to see how he would manoeuvre, he would dive and be completely
lost, so that I did not discover him again, sometimes, till the
latter part of the day. But I was more than a match for him on the
surface. He commonly went off in a rain.
As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October
afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes,
like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a
loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a
few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself.
I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was
nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the
direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came
to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval;
and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than
before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half
a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface,
turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and
the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up
where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest
distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up
his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to
the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While
he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine
his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth
surface of the pond, a man against a loon. Suddenly your
adversary's checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is
to place yours nearest to where his will appear again. Sometimes he
would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having
apparently passed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he
and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would
immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine
where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be
speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit
the bottom of the pond in its deepest part. It is said that loons
have been caught in the New York lakes eighty feet beneath the
surface, with hooks set for trout—though Walden is deeper than
that. How surprised must the fishes be to see this ungainly visitor
from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools! Yet he
appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface,
and swam much faster there. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he
approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and
instantly dived again. I found that it was as well for me to rest
on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate
where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my
eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his
unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much
cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by
that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He
was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the
splash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But
after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and
swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how
serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the
surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual
note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a
water-fowl; but occasionally, when he had balked me most
successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn
unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as
when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls.
This was his looning—perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard
here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he
laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.
Though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth
that I could see where he broke the surface when I did not hear him.
His white breast, the stillness of the air, and the smoothness of
the water were all against him. At length having come up fifty rods
off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the
god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the
east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty
rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon
answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him
disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.
For hours, in fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and
veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman; tricks
which they will have less need to practise in Louisiana bayous.
When compelled to rise they would sometimes circle round and round
and over the pond at a considerable height, from which they could
easily see to other ponds and the river, like black motes in the
sky; and, when I thought they had gone off thither long since, they
would settle down by a slanting flight of a quarter of a mile on to
a distant part which was left free; but what beside safety they got
by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love
its water for the same reason that I do.
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