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An essay by John Burroughs

Touches Of Nature

Title:     Touches Of Nature
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]


WHEREVER Nature has commissioned one creature to prey upon another, she has preserved the balance by forewarning that other creature of what she has done. Nature says to the cat, "Catch the mouse," and she equips her for that purpose; but on the selfsame day she says to the mouse, "Be wary,--the cat is watching for you." Nature takes care that none of her creatures have smooth sailing, the whole voyage at least. Why has she not made the mosquito noiseless and its bite itchless? Simply because in that case the odds would be too greatly in its favor. She has taken especial pains to enable the owl to fly softly and silently, because the creatures it preys upon are small and wary, and never venture far from their holes. She has not shown the same caution in the case of the crow, because the crow feeds on dead flesh, or on grubs and beetles, or fruit and grain, that do not need to be approached stealthily. The big fish love to cat up the little fish, and the little fish know it, and, on the very day they are hatched, seek shallow water, and put little sandbars between themselves and their too loving parents.

How easily a bird's tail, or that of any fowl, or in fact any part of the plumage, comes out when the hold of its would-be capturer is upon this alone; and how hard it yields in the dead bird! No doubt there is relaxation in the former case. Nature says to the pursuer, "Hold on," and to the pursued, "Let your tail go." What is the tortuous, zigzag course of those slow-flying moths for but to make it difficult for the birds to snap them up? The skunk is a slow, witless creature, and the fox and lynx love its meat; yet it carries a bloodless weapon that neither likes to face.

I recently heard of an ingenious method a certain other simple and slow-going creature has of baffling its enemy. A friend of mine was walking in the fields when he saw a commotion in the grass a few yards off. Approaching the spot, he found a snake--the common garter snake--trying to swallow a lizard. And how do you suppose the lizard was defeating the benevolent designs of the snake? By simply taking hold of its own tail and making itself into a hoop. The snake went round and round, and could find neither beginning nor end. Who was the old giant that found himself wrestling with Time? This little snake had a tougher customer the other day in the bit of eternity it was trying to swallow.

The snake itself has not the same wit, because I lately saw a black snake in the woods trying to swallow the garter snake, and he had made some headway, though the little snake was fighting every inch of the ground, hooking his tail about sticks and bushes, and pulling back with all his might, apparently not liking the look of things down there at all. I thought it well to let him have a good taste of his own doctrines, when I put my foot down against further proceedings.

This arming of one creature against another is often cited as an evidence of the wisdom of Nature, but it is rather an evidence of her impartiality. She does not care a fig more for one creature than for another, and is equally on the side of both, or perhaps it would be better to say she does not care a fig for either. Every creature must take its chances, and man is no exception. We can ride if we know how and are going her way, or we can be run over if we fall or make a mistake. Nature does not care whether the hunter slay the beast or the beast the hunter; she will make good compost of them both, and her ends are prospered whichever succeeds.

"If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again."

What is the end of Nature? Where is the end of a sphere? The sphere balances at any and every point. So everything in Nature is at the top, and yet no _one_ thing is at the top.

She works with reference to no measure of time, no limit of space, and with an abundance of material, not expressed by exhaustless. Did you think Niagara a great exhibition of power? What is that, then, that withdraws noiseless and invisible in the ground about, and of which Niagara is but the lifting of the finger?

Nature is thoroughly selfish, and looks only to her own ends. One thing she is bent upon, and that is keeping up the supply, multiplying endlessly and scattering as she multiplies. Did Nature have in view our delectation when she made the apple, the peach, the plum, the cherry? Undoubtedly; but only as a means to her own private ends. What a bribe or a wage is the pulp of these delicacies to all creatures to come and sow their seed! And Nature has taken care to make the seed indigestible, so that, though the fruit be eaten, the germ is not, but only planted.

God made the crab, but man made the pippin; but the pippin cannot propagate itself, and exists only by violence and usurpation. Bacon says, "It is easier to deceive Nature than to force her," but it seems to me the nurserymen really force her. They cut off the head of a savage and clap on the head of a fine gentleman, and the crab becomes a Swaar or a Baldwin. Or is it a kind of deception practiced upon Nature, which succeeds only by being carefully concealed? If we could play the same tricks upon her in the human species, how the great geniuses could be preserved and propagated, and the world stocked with them! But what a frightful condition of things that would be! No new men, but a tiresome and endless repetition of the old ones,--a world perpetually stocked with Newtons and Shakespeares!

We say Nature knows best, and has adapted this or that to our wants or to our constitution,--sound to the ear, light and color to the eye; but she has not done any such thing, but has adapted man to these things. The physical cosmos is the mould, and man is the molten metal that is poured into it. The light fashioned the eye, the laws of sound made the ear; in fact, man is the outcome of Nature and not the reverse. Creatures that live forever in the dark have no eyes; and would not any one of our senses perish and be shed, as it were, in a world where it could not be used?


It is well to let down our metropolitan pride a little. Man thinks himself at the top, and that the immense display and prodigality of Nature are for him. But they are no more for him than they are for the birds and beasts, and he is no more at the top than they are. He appeared upon the stage when the play had advanced to a certain point, and he will disappear from the stage when the play has reached another point, and the great drama will go on without him. The geological ages, the convulsions and parturition throes of the globe, were to bring him forth no more than the beetles. Is not all this wealth of the seasons, these solar and sidereal influences, this depth and vitality and internal fire, these seas, and rivers, and oceans, and atmospheric currents, as necessary to the life of the ants and worms we tread under foot as to our own? And does the sun shine for me any more than for yon butterfly? What I mean to say is, we cannot put our finger upon this or that and say, Here is the end of Nature. The Infinite cannot be measured. The plan of Nature is so immense,--but she has no plan, no scheme, but to go on and on forever. What is size, what is time, distance, to the Infinite? Nothing. The Infinite knows no time, no space, no great, no small, no beginning, no end.

I sometimes think that the earth and the worlds are a kind of nervous ganglia in an organization of which we can form no conception, or less even than that. If one of the globules of blood that circulate in our veins were magnified enough million times, we might see a globe teeming with life and power. Such is this earth of ours, coursing in the veins of the Infinite. Size is only relative, and the imagination finds no end to the series either way.


Looking out of the car window one day, I saw the pretty and unusual sight of an eagle sitting upon the ice in the river, surrounded by half a dozen or more crows. The crows appeared as if looking up to the noble bird and attending his movements. "Are those its young?" asked a gentleman by my side. How much did that man know--not about eagles, but about Nature? If he had been familiar with geese or hens, or with donkeys, he would not have asked that question. The ancients had an axiom that he who knew one truth knew all truths; so much else becomes knowable when one vital fact is thoroughly known. You have a key, a standard, and cannot be deceived. Chemistry, geology, astronomy, natural history, all admit one to the same measureless interiors.

I heard a great man say that he could see how much of the theology of the day would fall before the standard of him who had got even the insects. And let any one set about studying these creatures carefully, and he will see the force of the remark. We learn the tremendous doctrine of metamorphosis from the insect world; and have not the bee and the ant taught man wisdom from the first? I was highly edified the past summer by observing the ways and doings of a colony of black hornets that established themselves under one of the projecting gables of my house. This hornet has the reputation of being a very ugly customer, but I found it no trouble to live on the most friendly terms with her. She was as little disposed to quarrel as I was. She is indeed the eagle among hornets, and very noble and dignified in her bearing. She used to come freely into the house and prey upon the flies. You would hear that deep, mellow hum, and see the black falcon poising on wing, or striking here and there at the flies, that scattered on her approach like chickens before a hawk. When she had caught one, she would alight upon some object and proceed to dress and draw her game. The wings were sheared off, the legs cut away, the bristles trimmed, then the body thoroughly bruised and broken. When the work was completed, the fly was rolled up into a small pellet, and with it under her arm the hornet flew to her nest, where no doubt in due time it was properly served up on the royal board. Every dinner inside these paper walls is a state dinner, for the queen is always present.

I used to mount the ladder to within two or three feet of the nest and observe the proceedings. I at first thought the workshop must be inside,--a place where the pulp was mixed, and perhaps treated with chemicals; for each hornet, when she came with her burden of materials, passed into the nest, and then, after a few moments, emerged again and crawled to the place of building. But I one day stopped up the entrance with some cotton, when no one happened to be on guard, and then observed that, when the loaded hornet could not get inside, she, after some deliberation, proceeded to the unfinished part and went forward with her work. Hence I inferred that maybe the hornet went inside to report and to receive orders, or possibly to surrender her material into fresh hands. Her career when away from the nest is beset with dangers; the colony is never large, and the safe return of every hornet is no doubt a matter of solicitude to the royal mother.

The hornet was the first paper-maker, and holds the original patent. The paper it makes is about like that of the newspaper; nearly as firm, and made of essentially the same material,--woody fibres scraped from old rails and boards. And there is news on it, too, if one could make out the characters.

When I stopped the entrance with cotton, there was no commotion or excitement, as there would have been in the case of yellow-jackets. Those outside went to pulling, and those inside went to pushing and chewing. Only once did one of the outsiders come down and look me suspiciously in the face, and inquire very plainly what my business might be up there. I bowed my head, being at the top of a twenty- foot ladder, and had nothing to say.

The cotton was chewed and moistened about the edges till every fibre was loosened, when the mass dropped. But instantly the entrance was made smaller, and changed so as to make the feat of stopping it more difficult.


There are those who look at Nature from the standpoint of conventional and artificial life,-- from parlor windows and through gilt-edged poems,--the. sentimentalists. At the other extreme are those who do not look at Nature at all, but are a grown part of her, and look away from her toward the other class,--the backwoodsmen and pioneers, and all rude and simple persons. Then there are those in whom the two are united or merged,--the great poets and artists. In them the sentimentalist is corrected and cured, and the hairy and taciturn frontiersman has had experience to some purpose. The true poet knows more about Nature than the naturalist because he carries her open secrets in his heart. Eckermann could instruct Goethe in ornithology, but could not Goethe instruct Eckermann in the meaning and mystery of the bird? It is my privilege to number among my friends a man who has passed his life in cities amid the throngs of men, who never goes to the woods or to the country, or hunts or fishes, and yet he is the true naturalist. I think he studies the orbs. I think day and night and the stars, and the faces of men and women, have taught him all there is worth knowing.

We run to Nature because we are afraid of man. Our artists paint the landscape because they cannot paint the human face. If we could look into the eyes of a man as coolly as we can into the eyes of an animal, the products of our pens and brushes would be quite different from what they are.


But I suspect, after all, it makes but little difference to which school you go, whether to the woods or to the city. A sincere man learns pretty much the same things in both places. The differences are superficial, the resemblances deep and many. The hermit is a hermit, and the poet a poet, whether he grow up in the town or the country. I was forcibly reminded of this fact recently on opening the works of Charles Lamb after I had been reading those of our Henry Thoreau. Lamb cared nothing for nature, Thoreau for little else. One was as attached to the city and the life of the street and tavern as the other to the country and the life of animals and plants. Yet they are close akin. They give out the same tone and are pitched in about the same key. Their methods are the same; so are their quaintness and scorn of rhetoric. Thoreau has the drier humor, as might be expected, and is less stomachic. There is more juice and unction in Lamb, but this he owes to his nationality. Both are essayists who in a less reflective age would have been poets pure and simple. Both were spare, high-nosed men, and I fancy a resemblance even in their portraits. Thoreau is the Lamb of New England fields and woods, and Lamb is the Thoreau of London streets and clubs. There was a willfulness and perversity about Thoreau, behind which he concealed his shyness and his thin skin, and there was a similar foil in Lamb, though less marked, on account of his good-nature; that was a part of his armor, too.


Speaking of Thoreau's dry humor reminds me how surely the old English unctuous and sympathetic humor is dying out or has died out of our literature. Our first notable crop of authors had it,-- Paulding, Cooper, Irving, and in a measure Hawthorne,--but our later humorists have it not at all, but in its stead an intellectual quickness and perception of the ludicrous that is not unmixed with scorn.

One of the marks of the great humorist, like Cervantes, or Sterne, or Scott, is that he approaches his subject, not through his head merely, but through his heart, his love, his humanity. His humor is full of compassion, full of the milk of human kindness, and does not separate him from his subject, but unites him to it by vital ties. How Sterne loved Uncle Toby and sympathized with him, and Cervantes his luckless knight! I fear our humorists would have made fun of them, would have shown them up and stood aloof superior, and "laughed a laugh of merry scorn." Whatever else the great humorist or poet, or any artist, may be or do, there is no contempt in his laughter. And this point cannot be too strongly insisted on in view of the fact that nearly all our humorous writers seem impressed with the conviction that their own dignity and self- respect require them to _look down_ upon what they portray. But it is only little men who look down upon anything or speak down to anybody. One sees every day how clear it is that specially fine, delicate, intellectual persons cannot portray satisfactorily coarse, common, uncultured characters. Their attitude is at once scornful and supercilious. The great man, like Socrates, or Dr. Johnson, or Abraham Lincoln, is just as surely coarse as he is fine, but the complaint I make with our humorists is that they are fine and not coarse in any healthful and manly sense. A great part of the best literature and the best art is of the vital fluids, the bowels, the chest, the appetites, and is to be read and judged only through love and compassion. Let us pray for unction, which is the marrowfat of humor, and for humility, which is the badge of manhood.

As the voice of the American has retreated from his chest to his throat and nasal passages, so there is danger that his contribution to literature will soon cease to imply any blood or viscera, or healthful carnality, or depth of human and manly affection, and will be the fruit entirely of our toploftical brilliancy and cleverness.

What I complain of is just as true of the essayists and the critics as of the novelists. The prevailing tone here also is born of a feeling of immense superiority. How our lofty young men, for instance, look down upon Carlyle, and administer their masterly rebukes to him! But see how Carlyle treats Burns, or Scott, or Johnson, or Novalis, or any of his heroes. Ay, there's the rub; he makes heroes of them, which is not a trick of small natures. He can say of Johnson that he was "moonstruck," but it is from no lofty height of fancied superiority, but he uses the word as a naturalist uses a term to describe an object he loves.

What we want, and perhaps have got more of than I am ready to admit, is a race of writers who affiliate with their subjects, and enter into them through their blood, their sexuality and manliness, instead of standing apart and criticising them and writing about them through mere intellectual cleverness and "smartness."


There is a feeling in heroic poetry, or in a burst of eloquence, that I sometimes catch in quite different fields. I caught it this morning, for instance, when I saw the belated trains go by, and knew how they had been battling with storm, darkness, and distance, and had triumphed. They were due at my place in the night, but did not pass till after eight o'clock in the morning. Two trains coupled together,--the fast mail and the express,--making an immense line of coaches hauled by two engines. They had come from the West, and were all covered with snow and ice, like soldiers with the dust of battle upon them. They had massed their forces, and were now moving with augmented speed, and with a resolution that was epic and grand. Talk about the railroad dispelling the romance from the landscape; if it does, it brings the heroic element in. The moving train is a proud spectacle, especially on stormy and tempestuous nights. When I look out and see its light, steady and unflickering as the planets, and hear the roar of its advancing tread, or its sound diminishing in the distance, I am comforted and made stout of heart. O night, where is thy stay! O space, where is thy victory! Or to see the fast mail pass in the morning is as good as a page of Homer. It quickens one's pulse for all day. It is the Ajax of trains. I hear its defiant, warning whistle, hear it thunder over the bridges, and its sharp, rushing ring among the rocks, and in the winter mornings see its glancing, meteoric lights, or in summer its white form bursting through the silence and the shadows, its plume of smoke lying flat upon its roofs and stretching far behind,--a sight better than a battle. It is something of the same feeling one has in witnessing any wild, free careering in storms, and in floods in nature; or in beholding the charge of an army; or in listening to an eloquent man, or to a hundred instruments of music in full blast,--it is triumph, victory. What is eloquence but mass in motion,--a flood, a cataract, an express train, a cavalry charge? We are literally carried away, swept from our feet, and recover our senses again as best we can.

I experienced the same emotion when I saw them go by with the sunken steamer. The procession moved slowly and solemnly. It was like a funeral cortege,--a long line of grim floats and barges and boxes, with their bowed and solemn derricks, the pall-bearers; and underneath in her watery grave, where she had been for six months, the sunken steamer, partially lifted and borne along. Next day the procession went back again, and the spectacle was still more eloquent. The steamer had been taken to the flats above and raised till her walking-beam was out of water; her bell also was exposed and cleaned and rung, and the wreckers' Herculean labor seemed nearly over. But that night the winds and the storms held high carnival. It looked like preconcerted action on the part of tide, tempest, and rain to defeat these wreckers, for the elements all pulled together and pulled till cables and hawser snapped like threads. Back the procession started, anchors were dragged or lost, immense new cables were quickly taken ashore and fastened to trees; but no use: trees were upturned, the cables stretched till they grew small and sang like harp-strings, then parted; back, back against the desperate efforts of the men, till within a few feet of her old grave, when there was a great commotion among the craft, floats were overturned, enormous chains parted, colossal timbers were snapped like pipestems, and, with a sound that filled all the air, the steamer plunged to the bottom again in seventy feet of water.


I am glad to observe that all the poetry of the midsummer harvesting has not gone out with the scythe and the whetstone. The line of mowers was a pretty sight, if one did not sympathize too deeply with the human backs turned up there to the sun, and the sound of the whetstone, coming up from the meadows in the dewy morning, was pleasant music. But I find the sound of the mowing- machine and the patent reaper is even more in tune with the voices of Nature at this season. The characteristic sounds of midsummer are the sharp, whirring crescendo of the cicada or harvest fly, and the rasping, stridulous notes of the nocturnal insects. The mowing- machine repeats and imitates these sounds. 'T is like the hum of a locust or the shuffling of a mighty grasshopper. More than that, the grass and the grain at this season have become hard. The timothy stalk is like a file; the rye straw is glazed with flint; the grasshoppers snap sharply as they fly up in front of you; the bird-songs have ceased; the ground crackles under foot; the eye of day is brassy and merciless; and in harmony with all these things is the rattle of the mower and the hay-tedder.


'T is an evidence of how directly we are related to Nature, that we more or less sympathize with the weather, and take on the color of the day. Goethe said he worked easiest on a high barometer. One is like a chimney that draws well some days and won't draw at all on others, and the secret is mainly in the condition of the atmosphere. Anything positive and decided with the weather is a good omen. A pouring rain may be more auspicious than a sleeping sunshine. When the stove draws well, the fogs and fumes will leave your mind. I find there is great virtue in the bare ground, and have been much put out at times by those white angelic days we have in winter, such as Whittier has so well described in these lines:--

"Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament;
No cloud above, no earth below,
A universe of sky and snow."

On such days my spirit gets snow-blind; all things take on the same color, or no color; my thought loses its perspective; the inner world is a blank like the outer, and all my great ideals are wrapped in the same monotonous and expressionless commonplace. The blackest of black days are better.

Why does snow so kill the landscape and blot out our interest in it? Not merely because it is cold, and the symbol of death,--for I imagine as many inches of apple blossoms would have about the same effect,--but because it expresses nothing. White is a negative; a perfect blank. The eye was made for color, and for the earthy tints, and, when these are denied it, the mind is very apt to sympathize and to suffer also.

Then when the sap begins to mount in the trees, and the spring languor comes, does not one grow restless indoors? The sun puts out the fire, the people say, and the spring sun certainly makes one's intellectual light grow dim. Why should not a man sympathize with the seasons and the moods and phases of Nature? He is an apple upon this tree, or rather he is a babe at this breast, and what his great mother feels affects him also.


I have frequently been surprised, in late fall and early winter, to see how unequal or irregular was the encroachment of the frost upon the earth. If there is suddenly a great fall in the mercury, the frost lays siege to the soil and effects a lodgment here and there, and extends its conquests gradually. At one place in the field you can easily run your staff through into the soft ground, when a few rods farther on it will be as hard as a rock. A little covering of dry grass or leaves is a great protection. The moist places hold out long, and the spring runs never freeze. You find the frost has gone several inches into the plowed ground, but on going to the woods, and poking away the leaves and debris under the hemlocks and cedars, you find there is no frost at all. The Earth freezes her ears and toes and naked places first, and her body last.

If heat were visible, or if we should represent it say by smoke, then the December landscape would present a curious spectacle. We should see the smoke lying low over the meadows, thickest in the hollows and moist places, and where the turf is oldest and densest. It would cling to the fences and ravines. Under every evergreen tree we should see the vapor rising and filling the branches, while the woods of pine and hemlock would be blue with it long after it had disappeared from the open country. It would rise from the tops of the trees, and be carried this way and that with the wind. The valleys of the great rivers, like the Hudson, would overflow with it. Large bodies of water become regular magazines in which heat is stored during the summer, and they give it out again during the fall and early winter. The early frosts keep well back from the Hudson, skulking behind the ridges, and hardly come over in sight at any point. But they grow bold as the season advances, till the river's fires, too, I are put out and Winter covers it with his snows.


One of the strong and original strokes of Nature was when she made the loon. It is always refreshing to contemplate a creature so positive and characteristic. He is the great diver and flyer under water. The loon is the genius loci of the wild northern lakes, as solitary as they are. Some birds represent the majesty of nature, like the eagles; others its ferocity, like the hawks; others its cunning, like the crow; others its sweetness and melody, like the song-birds. The loon represents its wildness and solitariness. It is cousin to the beaver. It has the feathers of a bird and the fur of an animal, and the heart of both. It is as quick and cunning as it is bold and resolute. It dives with such marvelous quickness that the shot of the gunner get there just in time "to cut across a circle of descending tail feathers and a couple of little jets of water flung upward by the web feet of the loon." When disabled so that it can neither dive nor fly, it is said to face its foe, look him in the face with its clear, piercing eye, and fight resolutely till death. The gunners say there is something in its wailing, piteous cry, when dying, almost human in its agony. The loon is, in the strictest sense, an aquatic fowl. It can barely walk upon the land, and one species at least cannot take flight from the shore. But in the water its feet are more than feet, and its wings more than wings. It plunges into this denser air and flies with incredible speed. Its head and beak form a sharp point to its tapering neck. Its wings are far in front and its legs equally far in the rear, and its course through the crystal depths is like the speed of an arrow. In the northern lakes it has been taken forty feet under water upon hooks baited for the great lake trout. I had never seen one till last fall, when one appeared on the river in front of my house. I knew instantly it was the loon. Who could not tell a loon a half mile or more away, though he had never seen one before? The river was like glass, and every movement of the bird as it sported about broke the surface into ripples, that revealed it far and wide. Presently a boat shot out from shore, and went ripping up the surface toward the loon. The creature at once seemed to divine the intentions of the boatman, and sidled off obliquely, keeping a sharp lookout as if to make sure it was pursued. A steamer came down and passed between them, and when the way was again clear, the loon was still swimming on the surface. Presently it disappeared under the water, and the boatman pulled sharp and hard. In a few moments the bird reappeared some rods farther on, as if to make an observation. Seeing it was being pursued, and no mistake, it dived quickly, and, when it came up again, had gone many times as far as the boat had in the same space of time. Then it dived again, and distanced its pursuer so easily that he gave over the chase and rested upon his oars. But the bird made a final plunge, and, when it emerged upon the surface again, it was over a mile away. Its course must have been, and doubtless was, an actual flight under water, and half as fast as the crow flies in the air.

The loon would have delighted the old poets. Its wild, demoniac laughter awakens the echoes on the solitary lakes, and its ferity and hardiness are kindred to those robust spirits.


One notable difference between man and the four-footed animals which has often occurred to me is in the eye, and the greater perfection, or rather supremacy, of the sense of sight in the human species. All the animals--the dog, the fox, the wolf, the deer, the cow, the horse--depend mainly upon the senses of hearing and smell. Almost their entire powers of discrimination are confined to these two senses. The dog picks his master out of the crowd by smell, and the cow her calf out of the herd. Sight is only partial recognition. The question can only be settled beyond all doubt by the aid of the nose. The fox, alert and cunning as he is, will pass within a few yards of the hunter and not know him from a stump. A squirrel will run across your lap, and a marmot between your feet, if you are motionless. When a herd of cattle see a strange object, they are not satisfied till each one has sniffed it; and the horse is cured of his fright at the robe, or the meal-bag, or other object, as soon as he can be induced to smell it. There is a great deal of speculation in the eye of an animal, but very little science. Then you cannot catch an animal's eye; he looks at you, but not into your eye. The dog directs his gaze toward your face, but, for aught you can tell, it centres upon your mouth or nose. The same with your horse or cow. Their eye is vague and indefinite.

Not so with the birds. The bird has the human eye in its clearness, its power, and its supremacy over the other senses. How acute their sense of smell may be is uncertain; their hearing is sharp enough, but their vision is the most remarkable. A crow or a hawk, or any of the larger birds, will not mistake you for a stump or a rock, stand you never so still amid the bushes. But they cannot separate you from your horse or team. A hawk reads a man on horseback as one animal, and reads it as a horse. None of the sharp-scented animals could be thus deceived.

The bird has man's brain also in its size. The brain of a song-bird is even much larger in proportion than that of the greatest human monarch, and its life is correspondingly intense and high-strung. But the bird's eye is superficial. It is on the outside of his head. It is round, that it may take in a full circle at a glance.

All the quadrupeds emphasize their direct forward gaze by a corresponding movement of the ears, as if to supplement and aid one sense with another. But man's eye seldom needs the confirmation of his ear, while it is so set, and his head so poised, that his look is forcible and pointed without being thus seconded.


I once saw a cow that had lost her cud. How forlorn and desolate and sick at heart that cow looked! No more rumination, no more of that second and finer mastication, no more of that sweet and juicy reverie under the spreading trees, or in the stall. Then the farmer took an elder and scraped the bark and put something with it, and made the cow a cud, and, after due waiting, the experiment took, a response came back, and the mysterious machinery was once more in motion, and the cow was herself again.

Have you, O poet, or essayist, or story-writer, never lost your cud, and wandered about days and weeks without being able to start a single thought or an image that tasted good,--your literary appetite dull or all gone, and the conviction daily growing that it was all over with you in that direction? A little elder-bark, something fresh and bitter from the woods, is about the best thing you can take.


Notwithstanding what I have elsewhere said about the desolation of snow, when one looks closely it is little more than a thin veil after all, and takes and repeats the form of whatever it covers. Every path through the fields is just as plain as before. On every hand the ground sends tokens, and the curves and slopes are not of the snow, but of the earth beneath. In like manner the rankest vegetation hides the ground less than we think. Looking across a wide valley in the month of July, I have noted that the fields, except the meadows, had a ruddy tinge, and that corn, which near at hand seemed to completely envelop the soil, at that distance gave only a slight shade of green. The color of the ground everywhere predominated, and I doubt not that, if we could see the earth from a point sufficiently removed, as from the moon, its ruddy hue, like that of Mars, would alone be visible.

What is a man but a miniature earth, with many disguises in the way of manners, possessions, dissemblances? Yet through all--through all the work of his hands and all the thoughts of his mind--how surely the ground quality of him, the fundamental hue, whether it be this or that, makes itself felt and is alone important!


Men follow their noses, it is said. I have wondered why the Greek did not follow his nose in architecture,--did not copy those arches that spring from it as from a pier, and support his brow,--but always and everywhere used the post and the lintel. There was something in that face that has never reappeared in the human countenance. I am thinking especially of that straight, strong profile. Is it really godlike, or is this impression the result of association? But any suggestion or reminiscence of it in the modern face at once gives one the idea of strength. It is a face strong in the loins, or it suggests a high, elastic instep. It is the face of order and proportion. Those arches are the symbols of law and self-control. The point of greatest interest is the union of the nose with the brow,--that strong, high embankment; it makes the bridge from the ideal to the real sure and easy. All the Greek's ideas passed readily into form. In the modern face the arches are more or less crushed, and the nose is severed from the brow,--hence the abstract and the analytic; hence the preponderance of the speculative intellect over creative power.


I have thought that the boy is the only true lover of Nature, and that we, who make such a dead set at studying and admiring her, come very wide of the mark. "The nonchalance of a boy who is sure of his dinner," says our Emerson, "is the healthy attitude of humanity." The boy is a part of Nature; he is as indifferent, as careless, as vagrant as she. He browses, he digs, he hunts, he climbs, he halloes, he feeds on roots and greens and mast. He uses things roughly and without sentiment. The coolness with which boys will drown dogs or cats, or hang them to trees, or murder young birds, or torture frogs or squirrels, is like Nature's own mercilessness.

Certain it is that we often get some of the best touches of nature from children. Childhood is a world by itself, and we listen to children when they frankly speak out of it with a strange interest. There is such a freedom from responsibility and from worldly wisdom,--it is heavenly wisdom. There is no sentiment in children, because there is no ruin; nothing has gone to decay about them yet,--not a leaf or a twig. Until he is well into his teens, and sometimes later, a boy is like a bean-pod before the fruit has developed,--indefinite, succulent, rich in possibilities which are only vaguely outlined. He is a pericarp merely. How rudimental are all his ideas! I knew a boy who began his school composition on swallows by saying there were two kinds of swallows,--chimney swallows and swallows.

Girls come to themselves sooner; are indeed, from the first, more definite and "translatable."


Who will write the natural history of the boy? One of the first points to be taken account of is his clannishness. The boys of one neighborhood are always pitted against those of an adjoining neighborhood, or of one end of the town against those of the other end. A bridge, a river, a railroad track, are always boundaries of hostile or semi-hostile tribes. The boys that go up the road from the country school hoot derisively at those that go down the road, and not infrequently add the insult of stones; and the down-roaders return the hooting and the missiles with interest.

Often there is open war, and the boys meet and have regular battles. A few years since, the boys of two rival towns on opposite sides of the Ohio River became so belligerent that the authorities had to interfere. Whenever an Ohio boy was caught on the West Virginia side of the river, he was unmercifully beaten; and when a West Virginia boy was discovered on the Ohio side, he was pounced upon in the same manner. One day a vast number of boys, about one hundred and fifty on a side, met by appointment upon the ice and engaged in a pitched battle. Every conceivable missile was used, including pistols. The battle, says the local paper, raged with fury for about two hours. One boy received a wound behind the ear, from the effects of which he died the next morning. More recently the boys of a large manufacturing town of New Jersey were divided into two hostile clans that came into frequent collision. One Saturday both sides mustered their forces, and a regular fight ensued, one boy here also losing his life from the encounter.

Every village and settlement is at times the scene of these youthful collisions When a new boy appears in the village, or at the country school, how the other boys crowd around him and take his measure, or pick at him and insult him to try his mettle!

I knew a boy, twelve or thirteen years old, who was sent to help a drover with some cattle as far as a certain village ten miles from his home. After the place was reached, and while the boy was eating his cracker and candies, he strolled about the village, and fell in with some other boys playing upon a bridge. In a short time a large number of children of all sizes had collected upon the bridge. The new-comer was presently challenged by the boys of his own age to jump with them. This he readily did, and cleared their farthest mark. Then he gave them a sample of his stone-throwing, and at this pastime he also far surpassed his competitors. Before long, the feeling of the crowd began to set against him, showing itself first in the smaller fry, who began half playfully to throw pebbles and lumps of dry earth at him. Then they would run up slyly and strike him with sticks. Presently the large ones began to tease him in like manner, till the contagion of hostility spread, and the whole pack was arrayed against the strange boy. He kept them at bay for a few moments with his stick, till, the feeling mounting higher and higher, he broke through their ranks, and fled precipitately toward home, with the throng of little and big at his heels. Gradually the girls and smaller boys dropped behind, till at the end of the first fifty rods only two boys of about his own size, with wrath and determination in their faces, kept up the pursuit. But to these he added the final insult of beating them at running also, and reached, much blown, a point beyond which they refused to follow.

The world the boy lives in is separate and distinct from the world the man lives in. It is a world inhabited only by boys. No events are important or of any moment save those affecting boys. How they ignore the presence of their elders on the street, shouting out their invitations, their appointments, their pass-words from our midst, as from the veriest solitude! They have peculiar calls, whistles, signals, by which they communicate with each other at long distances, like birds or wild creatures. And there is as genuine a wildness about these notes and calls as about those of a fox or a coon.

The boy is a savage, a barbarian, in his taste,--devouring roots, leaves, bark, unripe fruit; and in the kind of music or discord he delights in,--of harmony he has no perception. He has his fashions that spread from city to city. In one of our large cities the rage at one time was an old tin can with a string attached, out of which they tortured the most savage and ear-splitting discords. The police were obliged to interfere and suppress the nuisance. On another occasion, at Christmas, they all came forth with tin horns, and nearly drove the town distracted with the hideous uproar.

Another savage trait of the boy is his untruthfulness. Corner him, and the chances are ten to one he will lie his way out. Conscience is a plant of slow growth in the boy. If caught in one lie, he invents another. I know a boy who was in the habit of eating apples in school. His teacher finally caught him in the act, and, without removing his eye from him, called him to the middle of the floor.

"I saw you this time," said the teacher.

"Saw me what?" said the boy innocently.

"Bite that apple," replied the teacher.

"No, sir," said the rascal.

"Open your mouth;" and from its depths the teacher, with his thumb and finger, took out the piece of apple.

"Did n't know it was there," said the boy, unabashed.

Nearly all the moral sentiment and graces are late in maturing in the boy. He has no proper self-respect till past his majority. Of course there are exceptions, but they are mostly windfalls. The good boys die young. We lament the wickedness and thoughtlessness of the young vagabonds at the same time that we know it is mainly the acridity and bitterness of the unripe fruit that we are lamenting.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Touches Of Nature