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Feminine Traits in Wild Things

ISSUE:  Spring 1927


The thing happened at a place called Fox Bay, deep in the wild and fragrant heart of the romantic San-tee Country; and though at the time I was only about ten years old, the impression left with me was so vivid —probably because of the pathetic beauty and charm of it —that I have always treasured it among my fondest woodland recollections. I was riding the woods with my father, a pastime in which I delighted as a boy, rounding up stray stock, particularly the mothers that had wandered away from the plantation to give birth to their young in the fastness of the solitary greenwood. It was in late May, and the foliage everywhere was dense and lustrous. Giant ferns of an incredible tender green drooped regally in the dim savannas; jasmines rioted everywhere, blowing their golden trumpets from the massive pines that they wreathed, the white-barked hollies, the aromatic sweet-bays. The air was still save for the droning of bees, and the faint chanting of the pines, and the delicate singing of a parula warbler. It was a magic scene, and magic affairs were about to begin.

At the head of Fox Bay my father and I separated, each one of us riding one side of the misty swamp, from the lambent bosom of which odors as out of a dewy dreamland were delicately exhaled. I rode down a little wood-path through the green broomsedge bordering the swamp. I could now and then hear my father’s horse, beyond the wall of greenery; but once, as I drew rein to listen, I heard another sound. Something was stealthily walking in the shallow water of the swamp. It might be some of our strayed stock. I waited where I was, behind a clump of green bays. Presently there stept, or, more accurately, there stole with elfin grace, palpitant and beautiful, a mother doe, behind her a tiny fawn. My father had evidently disturbed them where they had been couched in the dim swamp, and she had led her baby across the swamp to avoid the danger. Now the two were in full view of me: a wild mother and her little one. The keen awareness of the doe was extraordinary to watch; she did not even move her head without a certain tremulous wariness. One ear was turned back toward the swamp whence she had come, the other forward toward the open pinelands. The fawn, apparently imagining that all this was a morning frolic arranged for his especial entertainment, was inclined to frisk. Several times he made cunning little starts and jumps. To these the mother made no objection until my horse happened to stamp his foot. We were hidden from view, and the wind was from the deer to us, so that they could not get our scent. But the doe had heard the sound, and she knew that danger might be near. Then followed what I have always loved to recall.

At a faint bleat from his mother, the fawn came and stood a little ahead of her, on the right, facing ahead. I have no doubt that she told him where to stand. Her beautiful head was now high, her body tense. Had she been alone, she probably would have stolen off; but she had a charge to keep. The fawn didn’t enjoy standing still. He began to fidget. My horse stamped his foot softly. At that the doe raised her right forefoot gracefully, set the hoof on the fawn’s back, at the withers, and gently pressed down. Into the dewy covert of the broomsedge the tiny creature sank, deftly hidden by his mother, while she never for a moment relaxed her vigil of love. . . . I thought (or at least have come to think since then): here is a wild heart of the wasteland, hriniming with mother-love. Defenseless, she is approached by unknown danger. Her first thought is for her baby. In the few days that he has been at her side, she has trained him well to listen, to obey, to trust. Peril menaces; she is afraid that the marauder will see her fawn, and, realizing its helplessness, will attack it. So she hides it, shields it; with the grace that wild beauty alone possesses, she finds a covert and a hiding-place for her little one. . . Surely, the genuine Mother Heart is in these wild things— wondrous affection, watchful devotion, tireless sacrifice!


The incident just recorded, and many others like it, have long since led me to ask two questions: first, do the females in wild life have definite traits which distinguish them from the males? If they do, how are these traits manifested in behavior? The longer I observe these creatures of the wastelands, the more human they appear; many of their domestic problems are identical with some of ours, and their modes of solving them are sometimes similar, sometimes vastly superior. I am a little puzzled to distinguish what we are to call a purely feminine trait; but I shall do the best I can, not going beyond inferences that are drawn from what I myself have observed, and asking the reader’s considerate judgment on a matter that must needs have somewhat shadowy boundaries.

In wild life the bringing into the world and the caring for the young is a consideration that appears to be left almost wholly to the mothers. It is therefore perfectly normal in them to develop traits peculiar to them. The doe was concerned for her fawn; her thought was not for herself. Where, at this time, we may ask, was the buck? The answer is simple: the buck has nothing whatsoever to do with the rearing of the fawn. Indeed, there are naturalists who believe that by a marvelous provision of Nature the stag carries soft tender antlers when the fawn is young, else he might, with the truculence that is almost habitually his, attack his own young. The great things that concern him in fife are his own welfare, his own physical supremacy, his own safety. But in her meek wise heart the doe carries those deep hopes and fears that are concerned with the continuance of a Race. With birth and mothering she is absorbed; with the great elemental essential things that shall not change so long as life endures on the earth. I think I have detected in does a delicacy of perception, a sensitiveness about others, with the art of shielding them, and a concern over the epic matters of existence that I have not discovered in the big burly manful stags, selfish, self-conscious, powerful, vain. A buck looks out for himself, but a doe mothers the Race.

In much the same way, it appears to me, despite man’s wars and tumults, despite his superb assumptions and thrilling achievements, after all, upon the meek almighty shoulders of woman rests the burden of the world. Often impatient with all but the gravest and most beautiful things in life, she is the warden and the savior of humanity. The Creator dowered her with the irresistible quality of insistence, knowing full well that no mere physical strength can cope with the other quality; that no rock, however tenoned and mortised and grim of visage, can resist the ceaseless gentle dropping of water.

I have been wondering whether the maternal instinct, which is essentially sacrificial, does not carry with it a kind of spiritual fibre that is peculiar to feminine nature. I realize that I am on the boundaries of ^a shadowy land when I begin to talk about things spiritual; yet in motherhood is a recognizable quality of divinity; without the depth and quality of her devotion, no species could survive. I have seen wild mothers display traits of daring, of affection, of sacrifice that I have never seen in members of the opposite sex. Not long ago, for example, I was walking under a young maple, not quite out in full leaf. Suddenly at my very feet, with much commotion and with strange cries of distress, a dove fell. It struck the ground with sickening force; then it began to beat its wings impotently, at the same time retreating. Poor pitiful fugitive! What but motherlove could make her so valiantly, so perfectly feign distress? Glancing upward I saw her two young, hardly feathered, side by side on a low limb. I followed the retreating mother, and she led me more than a hundred yards—attracting to herself the danger that had menaced her babies. I have yet to see a male dove display such intelligence of courage. He will flute his mournful whistle, he will sail proudly in the mating season, but out of his nature has been left that mystic love which finds its joy in giving, not in receiving; not in glorifying self, but in sacrificing self.

One cannot make many such observations without coming to the conclusion that, at least in wild life, the male has a different kind of temperament, perhaps a different heart; certainly a different outlook upon life. Lord Byron claimed (upon I know not what reasonable assumption of authority) that love is a woman’s whole existence, whereas a man can find and can enjoy a score of other interests. It seems to me fairer to say that women are more intent upon essentially great things, the greatest of which is love. Men usually act from motives relative to their interest; women from motives relative to the preservation of the human family. Man loves the triumphs of today; woman, the integrity of the soul’s tomorrow.


That, in natural life, females are more thoughtful and wise than males there can be small doubt. Males spend much of their time in sleeping, fighting, curiously investigating, idling, bullying. Their mates are modest, retiring, industrious, infallibly occupied in some essential task. I recall watching the behavior of two black-ducks that had nested in the lush grass of a small meadow through which ran a trout-brook. The grass there was tall and wavy; the swift narrow stream brimmed its low banks, forming all sorts of delightful tiny estuaries and bays, retired mistily among the reeds and grasses. In the marsh-edges beside a miniature bayou i found the nest, with eleven eggs. The hen was on it; upon my approach, she slipped away into the water, her bright eyes fixed on me. The stealth of her escape was prompted by the desire to prevent my detecting the treasures that she was leaving. The old drake I flushed in the sedges a hundred yards away. . . . Two weeks later, near the same place, I came on the mother with her elfin babies. She had them in a little bay, into the still waters of which dipped silvery grasses. The drake was nowhere in sight. When I made myself known, the mother, uttering lamentable cries flapped her way toward me—then off to one side, desperately, devotedly trying to “draw my fire.” The tiny ducklings meanwhile dived, or innocently hid in plain sight beside tussocks of swamp-grass. Two of the little adventurers came my way underwater, and as it had the pearly clearness of a spring-fed stream, I could discern them easily. They had gone under, but they did not seem to know that they need not keep on swimming, especially since their fairylike bodies, mere balls of down, were exceedingly hard to keep down. One elf, swimming valiantly, came close to me; completely played out, and irresistibly buoyed by his own lightness, he bobbed up beside me, his beady eyes glistening. Gallant infant! He did not see me; and there beside a marsh-stem he sat, enigmatic, obedient to the mother’s warning. . . . In wild life there are few liars; and the guardian does not need to call “Wolf” more than once.

I retreated from the scene, but hid behind a heavy haw-tree in the nearby meadow. Soon the lamenting mother ceased her cries, swam toward her scattered family, calling them softly and reassuringly; and ere long, reunited, they moved silently off into the misty fastness of the deeper marsh. . . . Where, meanwhile, had the father of the family been? I could find him nowhere in the meadow, though a day later I saw him there. As far as he was concerned, the whole brood might have perished. It is true that with certain birds and animals the domestic cares are sometimes shared. That is, the males assist in a more or less clumsy and inefficient fashion. Yet I repeat what I believe is nearly always true: that the burden for the rearing and care and protection of the children devolves upon the female. It is the mother upon whom rests the safety and the continuance of a species. Nor is this so much a wild-life fact as it is a feminine fact. Unless most of my observations have been wrong, or unless from them I am drawing false conclusions, it is the mother who, from the time that the young first appear in the world, protects, guides, comforts, shields them with her life.

As i think of this subject of comparing the Feminine in the natural world with the Masculine, the more I realize that care must be exercised in making generalizations. There are certain modern authors who are supposed to be experts in the matter of analyzing the characters and the motives of women; but the more I read of these writers, the less convinced am I that they really know much. They and their publishers are very insistent upon the fact of their omniscience, yet the business appears to me so essentially mysterious as to be likely to yield less to smart investigators than to patient observers. The subject is naturally of profound and eternal interest. Kipling, with his customary discernment, has sung that the female is more deadly than the male; but he stopped too short. There assuredly are traits far more attractive and vital than deadliness that distinguish the feminine from the masculine nature.


It has seemed to me, in years of watching wild life in waste places, that the females are not only a little keener in alertness, persistent in having their vital ways, unselfish, and valiant-for-others than the males, but they appear possessed of a self-sustaining joy that is lacking in their lordly consorts. They give evidence of being more satisfied with life as it is than are the restless, roaming males. Perhaps it is because into their keeping are given the almighty issues of life and death. They have a far deeper patience and a calmer acceptance of fife than have their mates. I remember with what curious interest I watched, not long since, in the mountains of southern Pennsylvania, the contrasted behavior of two wild turkeys, male and female. It was in early May, and the sexes had separated, the male to roam the wild glens and the solitary ridges in lonely self-interest; the female to find a nesting place, to lay her eggs, to hatch them, and then to rear her young amid a thousand imminent dangers.

Far be it from me to animadvert upon the grand system of Nature; yet it does appear that life is incalculably more interesting, dangerous, noble and glorious for a mother than for a father. Certainly it is so in wild life. . . . The big gobbler that I came upon was raking the leaves thoughtfully under a wildgrape vine. I had heard his noise in the leaves, and had crept up to him by getting above him on a ridge and looking down at him at work in a shadowy hollow. He was all alone. He was hunting food to satisfy his own hunger. I suppose he had no thought for any other living thing. After a few moments he walked from beneath the heavy vines, and into the full dreamy sunlight his lordship stepped. I never saw a more stately wild creature; regal, superb, the sheen on his neck and shoulders glinting soft iridescence. Monarch of the dim kingdom of the mountains, matchless in speed and in sagacity, yet his role was an inferior one: grubbing in the woods-earth for food for himself. He may lead the flock in the autumn and the winter, but after the mating season, Nature directs that he take a very diminished seat. And his glamour is still more seriously abated when we look upon his modest mate.

I found her perhaps a mile away, stealing in a silent, self-effacing way along the pine-bordered edges of an old upland pasture. I think no wild creature of equal size is capable of moving with more caution than the turkey hen going to her nest. She was close on me before I saw her; and she was as silent as an apparition. Moreover, about her was an air of dread secrecy, as if she were the bearer of great and mortal tidings. She did not see me; and by a little cautious maneuvering I was able to follow her unobserved. Whereas in normal times wild turkeys usually travel with their heads high, in going to her nest the hen is likely to travel with her whole body low, an indescribable meekness and modesty about her. By following her at a great distance, I at last discovered her nest, but did not attempt to approach it until, on another day, she had left it for her few minutes of rest and relaxation. Yet a wild turkey will not readily quit her nest if she suspects danger; and so closely does she sit, especially as the time approaches for the eggs to hatch, that it is not impossible to catch her on her nest. Wild Mother, with the wary palpitant heart and the mighty urge of love! The whole process of motherhood apparently has a transfiguring effect upon the soul; and it is only the feminine spirit that has the privilege so to be glorified.

During a long month this wild mother managed to protect her nest and eggs, though in those same woods dwelt wildcat and fox, weasel and skunk, and a score of other natural enemies. Nature probably helped her a little; for it is said that when a bird is incubating, she gives off less scent than she does at other times. On this point I have no authentic information; yet if it were not so, I hardly see how a wild turkey or a quail could ever hatch a brood in wild country. At any rate, this nest beside the old pine log, dewily overhung by a thin tangle of foxgrapes and broom-sedge, remained safe.

When the brood came out, I watched them. The mother would lead them slowly and gently down the thickety margin of the woods, being especially partial to an old ditch-bank that had both shelter and sunshine. I used to see her walking ahead of her querulously piping brood, always alert, always anxious; her head now very high, watching; now, very low, clucking and calling softly to her little ones. Though I had this wild mother under observation about six weeks, I never saw the gobbler but once, and he was then intent upon himself. More than likely he had left the neighborhood. It is customary, during the season when the turkey hens are doing the difficult and dangerous work of rearing the young, for the gobblers to roam away together. They range far by themselves, and only rejoin the flocks in autumn, or not at all. I have known solitary gobblers, and others that went in pairs, until the mating season.


The mere fact that a work of utter sacrifice and unselfishness devolves upon the wild mother accounts, it seems to me, for the development in her of a spiritual superiority; we develop physically, I take it, by acquiring for ourselves; but spiritually we develop by giving to others. The truly great of heart are those who spend their souls. I think this law holds in the natural world as well as it does in humanity’s realm. Feminine nature in wild life appears to have a divination, a delicacy and a celestial felicity, that is, in its sphere, identical with that spiritual grace inherent in womankind.

But wild mothers also have feminine faults. I remember one day seeing a mother fox and three little cubs coming down a woodland path. I was on a log, concealed by a clump of myrtles. Just to see what would happen, when the foxes were quite close, with the wind blowing from them to me, I tossed a little ball of earth at the mother. It struck her in the flank; and as she had not seen whence it had come, she imagined that one of her babies had played a senseless trick on her. Turning sharply, she gave the nearest cub a sharp cuff that sent him sprawling. Meanwhile she growled and glared at the two others that cowered before her anger. . . .

Was this behavior of hers feminine? Well, perhaps. The nervous tension under which a mother lives sometimes makes the human nerves give way. But, while her hands may punish, her heart never does. Was her behavior forgivable? Well, the chill austerity of unctious goodness is often redeemed by a little display of human weakness; and those imperfections that reason discerns may be among those very qualities which provoke love by the frailty that mortality thereby confesses.

To me the greenwood has always offered that kind of magic that has upon it the bloom of wonder: the blue above the towering trees; the hush that is a little stiller than silence; the hale odors awaft from shy thickets; the little leaves glinting in the lustrous gloom; the wildflower’s immaculate grace; the veery’s song, that is full of green shadows and dew and halcyon love. And the other wild things—they teach me much about life, telling me not to use its oar too clumsily; telling me that not only human life but that all life is sacred; and that in feminine character at least, here in the deepest wildwood, are discoverable traits that have in them the quality of divinity.


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