by Henry D. Thoreau
Why do you suppose so many American birds
have names like loon, or -- ye gads -- goatsucker?
|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.
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|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
wood-cock 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....
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|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 man uvred 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 coolly 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 wildest 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 swam 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 (s)plash 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 waterfowl; 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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