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An essay by Richard Jefferies

Among The Nuts

Title:     Among The Nuts
Author: Richard Jefferies [More Titles by Jefferies]

The nuts are ripening once more, and it is almost the time to go a-gipsying--the summer passes like the shadow of a cloud which strikes the edge of the yellow wheat and comes over and is gone; it does not give you time to rub out a single ear of corn. Before it is possible to gather the harvest of thought and observation the summer has passed, and we must bind the hastily stitched book with the crimson leaves of autumn. Under these very hazel boughs only yesterday, _i.e._ in May, looking for cuckoo-sorrel, as the wood-sorrel is called, there rolled down a brown last year's nut from among the moss of the bank. In the side of this little brown nut, at its thicker end, a round hole had been made with a sharp tool which had left the marks of its chiselling. Through this hole the kernel had been extracted by the skilful mouse. Two more nuts were found on the same bank, bored by the same carpenter. The holes looked as if he had turned the nut round and round as he gnawed. Unless the nut had shrunk, the hole was not large enough to pull the kernel out all at once; it must have been eaten little by little in many mouthfuls. The same amount of nibbling would have sawn a circle round the nut, and so, dividing the shell in two, would have let the kernel out bodily--a plan more to our fancy; but the mouse is a nibbler, and he preferred to nibble, nibble, nibble. Hard by one afternoon, as the cows were lazily swishing their tails coming home to milking, and the shadow of the thick hedge had already caused the anemones in the grass to close their petals, there was a slight rustling sound. Out into the cool grass by some cowslips there came a small dark head. It was an adder, verily a snake in the grass and flowers. His quick eye--you know the proverb, 'If his ear were as quick as his eye, No man should pass him by'--caught sight of us immediately, and he turned back. The hedge was hollow there, and the mound grown over with close-laid, narrow-leaved ivy. The viper did not sink in these leaves, but slid with a rustling sound fully exposed above them. His grey length and the chain of black diamond spots down his back, his flat head with deadly tooth, did not harmonise as the green snake does with leaf and grass. He was too marked, too prominent--a venomous foreign thing, fit for tropic sands and nothing English or native to our wilds. He seemed like a reptile that had escaped from the glass case of some collection.

The green snake or grass snake, with yellow-marked head, fits in perfectly with the floating herbage of the watery places he frequents. The eye soon grows accustomed to his curves, till he is no more startling than a frog among the water-crowfoot you are about to gather. To the adder the mind never becomes habituated; he ever remains repellent. This adder was close to a house and cowshed, and, indeed, they seem to like to be near cows. Since then a large silvery slowworm was killed just there--a great pity, for they are perfectly harmless. We saw, too, a very large lizard under the heath. Three little effets (efts) ran into one hole on the bank yesterday. Some of the men in spring went off into the woods to 'flawing,' _i.e._ to barking the oak which is thrown in May--the bark is often used now for decoration, like the Spanish cork bark. Some were talking already of the 'grit' work and looking forward to it, that is, to mowing and haymaking, which mean better wages. The farmers were grumbling that their oats were cuckoo oats, not sown till the cuckoo cried, and not likely to come to much. So, indeed, it fell out, for the oats looked very thin and spindly when the nuts turned rosy again. At work hoeing among the 'kelk' or 'kilk,' the bright yellow charlock, the labourers stood up as the cuckoo flew over singing, and blew cuckoo back to him in their hollow fists. This is a trick they have, something like whistling in the fist, and so naturally done as to deceive any one. The children had been round with the May garland, which takes the place of the May-pole, and is carried slung on a stick, and covered with a white cloth, between two little girls. The cloth is to keep the dust and sun from spoiling the flowers--the rich golden kingcups and the pale anemones trained about two hoops, one within the other. They take the cloth off to show you the garland, and surely you must pay them a penny for thought of old England. Yet there are some who would like to spoil this innocent festival. I have heard of some wealthy people living in a village who do their utmost to break up the old custom by giving presents of money to all the poor children who will go to school on that day instead of a-Maying. A very pitiful thing truly! Give them the money, and let them go a-Maying as well. The same bribe they repeat at Christmas to stay the boys from going round mumming. It is in spring that the folk make most use of herbs, such as herb tea of gorse bloom. One cottage wife exclaimed that she had no patience with women so ignorant they did not know how to use herbs, as wood-sage or wood-betony. Most of the gardens have a few plants of the milky-veined holy thistle--good, they say, against inflammations, and in which they have much faith. Soon after the May garlands the meadow orchis comes up, which is called 'dead men's hands,' and after that the 'ram's-horn' orchis, which has a twisted petal; and in the evening the bat, which they call flittermouse, appears again.

The light is never the same on a landscape many minutes together, as all know who have tried, ever so crudely, to fix the fleeting expression of the earth with pencil. It is ever changing, and in the same way as you walk by the hedges day by day there is always some fresh circumstance of nature, the interest of which in a measure blots out the past. This morning we found a bramble leaf, something about which has for the moment put the record of months aside. This bramble leaf was marked with a grey streak, which coiled and turned and ran along beside the midrib, forming a sort of thoughtless design, a design without an idea. The Greek fret seems to our eyes in its regularity and its repetition to have a human thought in it. The coils and turns upon this leaf, like many other markings of nature, form a designless design, the idea of which is not traceable back to a mind. They are the work of a leaf-boring larva which has eaten its way between the two skins of the leaf, much like boring a tunnel between the two surfaces of a sheet of paper. If you take a needle you can insert the point in the burrow and pass it along wherever the bore is straight, so that the needle lies between the to sides of the leaf. Off-hand, if any one were asked if it were possible to split a leaf, he would say no. This little creature, however, has worked along inside it, and lived there. The upper surface of the leaf is a darker green, and seems to the touch of firmer texture than the lower; there are no marks on the under surface, which does not seem touched, so that what the creature has really done is to split one surface. He has eaten along underneath it, raising it no doubt a little by the thickness of his body, as if you crept between the carpet and the floor. The softer under surface representing the floor is untouched. The woodbine leaves are often bored like this, and seem to have patterns traced upon them. There is no particle of matter so small but that it seems to have a living thing working at it and resolving it into still more minute atoms; nothing so insignificant but that upon examination it will be found to be of the utmost value to something alive. Upon almost every fir branch near the end there are little fragments like cotton, so thick in places as to quite hang the boughs with threads; these gossamer-like fragments appear to be left by some insect, perhaps an aphis; and it is curious to note how very very busy the little willow-wrens are in the fir boughs. They are constantly at work there; they sing in the firs in the earliest spring, they stay there all the summer, and now that the edge of autumn approaches their tiny beaks are still picking up insects the whole day long. The insects they devour must be as numerous as the fir needles that lie inches thick on the ground in the copse.

Across a broad, dry, sandy path, worn firm, some thousands of ants passing to and fro their nest had left a slight trail. They were hurrying on in full work, when I drew the top of my walking-stick across their road, obliterating about an inch of it. In an instant the work of the nest was stopped, and thousands upon thousands of factory hands were thrown out of employment. The walking-stick had left two little ridges of sand like minute parallel earthworks drawn across their highway. Those that came out of the nest on arriving at the little ridge on their side immediately stopped, worked their antennae in astonishment, then went up to the top of it, and seemed to try to look round. After a moment they ran back and touched those that were coming on to communicate the intelligence. Every ant that came did exactly the same thing; not one of them passed the little ridge, but all returned. By-and-by the head of the column began to spread out and search right and left for the lost track. They scouted this way and they scouted that, they turned and doubled and went through every possible evolution, hundreds of them, sometimes a score at once, yet not one of them attempted to go straight forward, which would have brought them into their old path. It was scarcely thrice the length of an ant's body to where their path began again; they could not see or scent, or in any way find out what was so short a distance in front of them. The most extraordinary thing was that not one ventured to explore straight forward; it was as if their world came to an end at that little ridge, and they were afraid to step into chaos. The same actions were going on behind the other ridge of sand just opposite, an inch away. There the column of ants that had been out foraging was met with a like difficulty, and could not find their way. There, too, hundreds of ants were exploring right and left in every direction except straight forward, in a perfect buzz of excitement. Once or twice an ant from either party happened to mount on the parallel ridges at the same time, and if they had strained forward and stretched out their antennae they could have almost touched each other. Yet they seemed quite unconscious of each other's presence. Unless in a well-worn groove a single ant appears incapable of running in a straight line. At first their motions searching about suggested the action of a pack of hounds making a cast; hounds, however, would have very soon gone forward and so picked up the trail.

If I may make a guess at the cause of this singular confusion, I think I should attribute it to some peculiarity in the brain of the ant, or else to some consideration of which we are ignorant, but which weighs with ants, and not to any absence of the physical senses. Because they do not do as we should do under similar circumstances is no proof that they do not possess the power to hear and see. Experiments, for instance, have been made with bees to find out if they have any sense of hearing, by shouting close to a bee, drawing discordant notes on the violin, striking pieces of metal together, and so on, to all of which the bee remained indifferent. What else could she do? Neither of these sounds hurt if she heard them, nor seemed to threaten danger; they simply conveyed no impression at all to her mind. Observe your favourite pussy curled up in the arm-chair at such time as she knows the dishes have been cleared away, and there is no more chance of wheedling a titbit from you. You may play the piano, or the violin, or knock with a hammer, or shout your loudest, she will take no notice, no more than if she actually had no ears at all. Are you, therefore, to conclude she does not hear you? As well conclude that people do not hear the thunder because they do not shout in answer to it. Such noises simply do not concern her, and she takes no notice. Now, though her eyes be closed, let a strange dog run in, and at the light pad pad of his feet, scarcely audible on the carpet, she is up in a moment, blazing with wrath. That is a sound that interests her. So, too, perhaps, it may be with ants and bees, who may hear and see, and yet take no apparent notice because the circumstances are not interesting, and the experiment is to them unintelligible. Fishes in particular have been often, I think, erroneously judged in this way, and have been considered deaf, and to have little intelligence, while in truth the fact is we have not discovered a way of communicating with them any more than they have found a way of talking with us. Fishes, I know, are keener of sight than I am when they are interested, and I believe they can hear equally well, and are not by any means without mind. These ants that acted so foolishly to appearance may have been influenced by some former experience of which we know nothing; there may be something in the past history of the ant which may lead them to profoundly suspect interference with their path as indicative of extreme danger. Once, perhaps, many ant-generations ago, there was some creature which acted thus in order to destroy them. This, of course, is merely an illustration put forward to suggest the idea that there may be a reason in the brain of the ant of which we know nothing. I do not know that I myself am any more rational, for looking back along the path of life I can see now how I turned and twisted and went to the right and the left in the most crooked manner, putting myself to endless trouble, when by taking one single step straight forward in the right direction, if I had only known, I might have arrived at once at the goal. Can any of us look beyond the little ridge of one day and see what will happen the day after? Some hours afterwards, towards evening, I found the ants were beginning to get over their difficulty. On one side an ant would go forward in a half-circle, on the other another ant would advance sideways, and meeting together they would touch their antennae, and then the first would travel back with the second, and so the line was reestablished. It was very much as if two batsmen at opposite wickets should run forward each halfway, and after shaking hands and conversing, one of them should lead the other safely over.

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Richard Jefferies's essay: Among The Nuts