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Children of the Night

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

The afterglow had been so brilliant that its suffused radiance of color did not seem to die, but softly to merge with the mellow light of the moon, streaming goldenly through the lonely stretches of pine forest. After a long delightful day in the woods, I had started home about sundown; but the glamour of the evening forest stayed me, and I was still two miles from the plantation gateway when the iridescent afterglow and the serene moonlight performed their mystical rite of marriage. Twilight wras soon passed. The “dead vast and middle of the night” had not yet come. Should I not stav out for a few hours in this silvery silent country? Was not all this beauty about me tangible romance? Out of dusky sweet thickets were deliciously exhaled aromas from sweetbay and myrtle, ilex and gallberry; while from the long sleeping savannas, wearing the mist like raiment, there breathed an odorous cool wind that set the tall golden broomsedge whispering elfinly. Surely these were the alluring aromas of Eden itself. And through all this beauty and mystery, I knew, there would soon be journeying those Children of the Night—those shadowy creatures that hide themselves by day, and come forth delicately under the pale career of moon and stars to roam the dim and lovely forests of darkness and silence. For when one-half of creation sleeps, another half wakens; and it is an eerie, obscure, fascinating half. I shall try in simple fashion to tell of the behavior of some of the wild creatures I have seen and heard in the deep of night.

Candor compels me to admit that such observations often lack that degree of completeness and accuracy that it is possible to attain when observing by daylight. Some allowance must be made for the dimness of the light, and some for the natural difficulty that the human vision has with the moonlight. But I shall recount in good faith what I believe I saw; then I shall at least be telling a moral, if not a downright physical, truth.

Of the more savage roamers of the night, I have not the acquaintance that I have with the gentler and the more timid creatures; yet I have heard and seen some of the former; and while I realized that there could hardly be any genuine peril from them, nevertheless they afforded a most decided thrill. On this same evening that I was describing, I turned off the road and went down to the dim, dewy borders of a wild and winding watercourse known as Montgomery Branch. Here and there piles of drifted trash and leaves had made miniature natural dams, and over these the water fell musically. I found that greenwood music deepening as the darkness set in. When the very last light was tingeing the tops of the tallest swamp-tupelos, I saw doves fleeting to roost in a swarthy pine-thicket. I saw and heard woodcock speeding eerily in enigmatic flight through the glimmering thicket; and after I could no longer see them, I could hear them, for woodcock apparently prefer to move by night, and experience no difficulty in flying through the darkest forest. In the lonely swamp I heard the owls, the veritable oracles of the night, begin their weird intoning. Phantom huntsmen of the dark, they Avere starting their wild soft whooping. Ere long, over the Avoods deep silence fell. Even the murmuring pines ceased to chant their Arespers; Suddenly, out of a yellow canebrake some sixty yards from me, a place all misty and spectral, there came the savage snarling cry of a wildcat; and had I not known Avhat it was, it would have chilled my blood. We are familiar with the many curious cries and calls given by the domestic cat. This vague yowling is a habit also of the wildcat; but his cries have a definite boldness and wildness in them that are quite distinct. Before this icily cruel cry came, I thought that the forest had settled to stillness; but at the sound of that dread menace, a deeper silence came; a crouching, palpitating, breath-holding silence, the trembling stillness of terror. For the wildcat is the ancient, wise, implacable enemy of practically all wild life that is inferior to him in size, and to many forms that are larger but not so strong. I did not see this wildcat. The moonlight in the little glade was bright enough to make discernment of him possible. But he did not appear. Yet to this day I can hear that rasping snarl, defiant as only a feline cry can be, perfectly interpreting, too, the nature of the beast. Unlike a great many people, a wildcat has a voice that goes admirably with his character and his temperament. He belongs essentially to an age of savagery; perhaps to the Age of Monsters.

Not far from the glen where I heard the wildcat I had built in some young pines a platform from which I used often to watch deer. Not only was this place a famous “crossing,” but my stand overlooked what had once been a big churchyard. But the church had been burned, so that now nothing remained save a blank space of white sand—a curiously inviolate area on which the bushes and grass did not seem to care to encroach. In this white arena deer could be seen admirably, not only because of the high visibility afforded but because to such a place deer are naturally attracted. After brushing through the woods, they appear to delight in open places. Besides, I had put some rock-salt on one of the charred sills of the ancient church. A deer will barter his soul for salt.

In country in which they are not much hunted, deer may walk about rather freely in the daytime; and they do this in any case when there are sharp changes in the weather, as, for example, when a heavy snowstorm sets in. But in North America, where the wild deer is hunted in practically every locality, it has become a creature of the night. To me it appears that there is a rather remarkable resemblance between the deer and the rabbit—and the similarity does not end with the possession by each of a white tail. They come forth at about the same hour. They feed during the same period; they eat practically the same things. The manner in which they take their food is almost ludicrously similar. A rabbit frequently rears up to reach his food; so does a deer. And it is a startling thing to see a ten-point buck ap « parently in the act of climbing a tree; I have measured crop-pings that a stag had made from a young birch seven and a half feet from the ground. In the manner in which they bed down for the day, crouch warily upon the approach of an enemy, and bound away when the suspense can be stood no longer, the deer and the rabbit are alike. So too are their manoeuvres when pursued. Like a cottontail, a whitetail will make an explosive, an amazing break for liberty; then shortly thereafter will stop to listen, will skulk into cover, will steal along craftily a few yards farther, will stand in a palpitant listening posture; and, if long pursued, will always have a tendency to return at length to the place whence it had been started. In every one of these particulars the rabbit acts precisely like the deer. A buck-rabbit is a miniature stag.

Watching for deer at night is truly a fascinating business. I used to see many other creatures from my platform, but the deer were by far the most interesting. Let us say that it is eleven o’clock. The white moon is now high above the purple pines, flooding the sandy arena before me with pearly radiance. Occasionally, from the distant plantation settlements I can hear the bark of a dog; now a barred owl hoots from the riverbank; a wandering flock of teal speeds by over the forest, their wings making thin music. But the deer, though they are so comparatively larger, and though they are coming through the brush, are far less noisy than the teal. From observations made scores of times, I am rather sure that, under ordinary conditions, a wild turkey makes as much noise as a deer in moving about; indeed, a flock of turkeys can be exceedingly boisterous. But a deer, unless crashing away, from a pursuer, is perhaps the most quiet animal in all the world for his size. Though five deer are about to emerge from the forest-greenery into the amphitheatre below my lookout-post, I am not sure of their coming. I think I hear a halting sedulous brushing aside of the dewy myrtles; possibly the slight cracking of a dry twig that has been stepped upon. Of course, these deer are traveling in an ancient animal-path, with a wet sandy bottom; and doubtless they know every foot of it. Nevertheless their approach is characteristic: they softly reconnoitre, doing as much pausing as advancing. What is it they so dread in these woods whence their natural enemies, panthers and wolves, have been removed at least a century ago? It is Man they fear.

Here they come. Out of the misty shadow’s into the celestial moonlight they steal, almost like pilgrims arriving, after a darksome journey, at some bright and blessed place. Two does are leading the band; then comes the hart royal, a magnificent full-antlered stag; then two yearlings follow. Their pace is slow and wary; their heads are alternately held high, and then low to the ground. Once or twice I see one of the deer extend its head straight out, with the ears forward. Not infrequently I have detected the presence of a deer by the movement of its ears. Upon the sense of smell the deer depends chiefly for safety; then upon hearing; last, upon sight; for the eyesight of a deer is not strong. It can detect movement, but its power of vision is not great.

Here before me in the mysterious moonlight are five vividly wild creatures; yet gentle, timid, asking no boon save that of life itself. I know where they are going: a mile behind my platform there is a dense pine-thicket where mushrooms grow; it is toward there that these deer are headed. Perhaps, ere the night is gone, they will visit my patch of sweet potatoes, on the succulent vines of which they voraciously feed; last year black Gabriel lost all of his halfripe peaches from marauding deer. Possibly they will call on him tonight.

I noticed that as one of these deer stood head-on to me, I could hardly distinguish it, so eerily did the moonlight and the sand and its own coloring blend. But as soon as one would turn sideways, its complete shape came out clearly. For full live minutes they stayed in the clearing, walking about, listening, looking, apparently enjoying the openness and the serenity of it all. Why should not wild creatures enjoy scenes and odors and beauty as we do? Have we not failed utterly to give them credit for a capacity to enjoy?

Once, at the far-off howl of a dog, the old stag stamped the ground nervously, his head rose regally high, and I heard him suspire uneasily. Now they are going. Almost under my tree they troop, falling silently into a shadowy line—stealing wraithlike through the forest-aisles, vanishing like visions. To watch a deer by moonlight is to see something ethereal.

Among the great mountains of western North Carolina, where I spent sixteen summers, of all the wild life that I saw or heard, including one memorable encounter with a timber-rattler, the finding of the nest of an albino quail, and hearing one night from a lonely gorge the mournful scream of a panther—nothing really engaged my interest so much as the flying-squirrels. On our place, which consisted of two big wooded knolls and a tract of valley land —the whole being far removed from the highway, nestling aerie-like against Couch Mountain, there were a great many big oaks and chestnuts with hollows in them. Tall awkward sourwoods were there also, which never grew very large, and which seemed to have some affliction of the joints, for all of them were crooked, and all seemed to have hollows. Most of these holes were the homes of flying-squirrels — those elfin gray acrobats of the dusk — those daring voyageurs of the twilight and of the mysterious night. For hours, both after sunset and in the later night I used to enjoy these graceful aeronauts, of the truly remarkable character of which far too little has been said.

Here, halfway down the grassy slope of the hill in front of the house, an ancient black oak towered fifty feet to the first limb. At this crotch there was a hole; and in the dark abyss beneath there was apparently a regular ancestral home for flying-squirrels. One evening I counted eleven squirrels emerging from that old homestead.

Let us sav that the sun has now foundered behind the hero-wave of Mt. Pisgah, rising grandly among the mountain-breakers’ sea of flaming heliotrope. Rayed gigantic spears of light slant blazingly to the zenith. Remotely the outline of the Great Smokies can be seen, the outer combers of that mighty ocean of hills, the white horses of that magic sea and of that fabulous shore. Swiftly the incredible pageant fades. The earth and the sky darken, though a violet radiance lingers. In the Cane Creek Valley the Clans of the Mist hold one of their eerie and silent meetings. The stars begin to blink out. A stillness born of shadows and of dew is on the world. But on this wooded knoll there is great activity. I can both see and hear flying-squirrels.

Here is one on the big dying chestnut; he has just sailed to it from the patriarch black oak. I can hear the squirrel travel scratchingly up the rough corrugated bark. Light enough lingers for me to see him. On he goes, looking down frequently to discover how high he is. From the time when his last movement is made and the moment when he takes his thrilling leap into space, several seconds may elapse. The squirrel, although he had a parachute that never fails to open, is carefully estimating the whole situation: his own position, whether favorable or not for the sheer plunge; the distance to the desired goal; the lay of the land—for even the slightest slope or roll of the country beneath must be taken scrupulously into consideration. Having watched these eerie acrobats on scores of occasions, in the afterglow, when the light had a certain suffused vividness, I am sure that I never saw one make a false leap. Once I did see a baby fall short—a pathetic little gray aeronaut. But the hard bump that he got did not deter him from taking another and a higher leap a few moments later.

The flying-squirrel knows with nice exactness what his height from the ground should be in order to accomplish a certain glide. I have often watched one, poised for a leap, change his mind, climb higher, get a better stance, and then spring confidently out into space. In this leap, the four legs are violently extended, stretching wide the strange thin membrane on either side of the body. The landing after this extraordinary fight is almost invariably made on the side of a tree, low down; and immediately upon alighting, the squirrel begins to climb; and almost before the observer is aware of what is happening, the climber has attained sufficient altitude for another leap.

Many a night, in its deepest hours, I have listened to the methodical telltale sounds that showed me, as clearly as if I could see the authors, that the flying-squirrels were at their usual aerial performances, undeterred by the immense darkness that shrouded the world. These are true children of the night, gray nymphs of the shadows, winged voyageurs of the dewy heavens under the light of stars.

In most legend and story there are but two birds that are supposed to haunt the night—the owl and the bat; and the latter is no bird at all, but a mammal! Yet there are a good many other birds that are often active after dark—some systematically, others occasionally.

One evening, after fishing late for trout, I stopped by the edges of a big breeding-pond for goldfish, situated in a wild meadow. It was in April, when some of the wild ducks which are supposed to be migrating are still lingering in alluring places; and I hoped to see some of them dropping into the pond at dusk. The west was still roseate when the first fleeting visitors came—five green-winged teal rushing out of the vastness and silence of nowhere. They dipped steeply to the water, flared wildly and yet in perfect unison, turned dizzily, and then glided to the glimmering water with little cries of delight. There they were softly mirrored in the fading lake. . . . Just as dark set in, I heard the wings of other ducks; and from the resounding splash that soon came, I was certain that a pair of either mallards or blackducks had settled. There were gallinules lurking in the cattails, and these called to one another in their strange excited fashion. As most aquatic birds do much of their feeding at night, and are excessively fond of drowsing and of preening themselves by day, I am sure that they have a remarkable power of seeing in the dark. Certainly it is infinitely better than man’s. At night, in waste fields frequented by wildfowl, I have always been surprised to find that ducks were apparently more wary at night than in the daytime; for frequently, in trying to stalk them, in a canoe drifting noiselessly down the moving waters of a canal or a small creek, I have had the birds flushed as far away as if I had been after them in full sunlight. And every hunter knows that if he stands unshielded in an old ricefield at twilight, expecting that ducks will not notice him, he is sure to be observed, however motionless he may be.

Besides the gallinules and the wild ducks, other visitors came into the goldfish sanctuary; chief of these were arrant marauders, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons. There were three of the former and at least seven of the latter. I could barely make them out by starlight; but thev were easily identified bv their raucous voices. I suppose in all nature there is not a more unlovely sound than that made by the great blue heron: nor is that of the night-heron much more melodious. Both these waders are night-feeders; and so obscure are the habits of the night-heron that a large colony can exist near a town without its presence being known. To their feeding-grounds they journey at dusk, returning at dawn; and during the day they secrete themselves in evergreens. Despite the full darkness now settled over the misty pond, I could see several of these grim pirates, standing spectrally in the faintly gleaming tide. Save for the occasional splash of a musk-rat and the outraged cry of a blackbird that something had startled from his roost in the marsh, all was silent. Yet a deceptive stillness it was, for the course of life had not ceased because of the coming of night. It had merely changed. Nor were the creatures awake the denizens of the fenland alone; for, far in the lonely sky I heard the human sweet whistle of the upland plover, flying in restless delight above the clover field where he had his nest.

When one lives on a remote plantation, as I have done, he is likely to form the habit, before he goes to bed, of taking a last look out into the night to make sure that all is quiet among the stock; that there is no forest-fire approaching; to listen, perhaps, to the mysterious voices of the night. I used to linger on the porch, or in the big yard under the huge live-oaks, or far down the road on the borders of the pine forest, drinking deep the dark wine of night, sparkling with stars. Lovers of the darkness are probably conscious that they are more spiritually aware than they can be in daytime. Perhaps, too, our physical senses are more keen. Night, with her loneliness and her beauty, takes us back into the ancient childhood of the race. Upon that dewy bosom our spirits delightedly rest.

One moonlit night in late October I heard a great outcry among the hounds; and supposing intruders to be about, I dressed and went into the yard. There was no need for a lantern, for the moonlight was blanching the tall magnolias, the dreamful oaks, the wide fields. Even the thickets, dark by day, had an eerie brightness. No sooner was I down the steps than a screech owl, dropping on muted wings out of the shadows of an oak, clapped his bill at me, cried out in his ghostly querulous way, veered upward, and, with his head on one side, perched on a dead walnut-limb. This sort of performance on the part of this bird is the kind to send a plantation negro flying homeward full of tales of hants and other horrors. And, though we know that the screech owl is only bird, it is nevertheless a most uncanny, fussy, resentful-of-intrusion creature. Hardly real, it is like a drifting dead leaf come to life, a shadow vitalized; and it comes into being spectrally, when the white fingers of the dusk close softly the curtains of the night.

Going down to their pen to quiet the hounds, I heard a regular owl-chorus across the river; a curious stentorian medley—voicing with weird felicity the strange and solitary beauty of the sleeping world. But in the virgin timber that stands in the ancient negro graveyard I heard my favorite owl-note: that of the great horned owl. Could any sound be more remote, melancholy, supernal ? It is one of the supreme spiritual voices of all nature. One of the most impressive of all the feathered kingdom, the horned owl always appears to me regal, splendid. His face shows aboriginal sagacity. His brows are thunderous. And I can listen fascinated to his lonely calls, mournful, soft, and beautiful.

What disturbed the hounds, I never discovered. But I believe that the wave-lengths of their souls had been stirred by the voices of the owls; indeed, the nature of their singing made me sure of this; for the voice of a hound whose spirit is grieved is of a pathetic quality very different from the timbre of his ordinary note.


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