List Of Contents | Contents of Winter Sunshine, by John Burroughs
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the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a
fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted
simplicity. Summer is more wooing and seductive, more versatile and
human, appeals to the affections and the sentiments, and fosters
inquiry and the art impulse. Winter is of a more heroic cast, and
addresses the intellect. The severe studies and disciplines come easier
in winter. One imposes larger tasks upon himself, and is less tolerant
of his own weaknesses.

The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in
winter; the fleshy, in summer. I should say winter had given the bone
and sinew to Literature, summer the tissues and blood.

The simplicity of winter has a deep moral.  The return of nature, after
such a career of splendor and prodigality, to habits so simple and
austere, is not lost upon either the head or the heart. It is the
philosopher coming back from the banquet and the wine to a cup of water
and a crust of bread.

And then this beautiful masquerade of the elements,--the novel
disguises our nearest friends put on! Here is another rain and another
dew, water that will not flow, nor spill, nor receive the taint of an
unclean vessel. And if we see truly, the same old beneficence and
willingness to serve lurk beneath all.

Look up at the miracle of the falling snow,--the air a dizzy maze of
whirling, eddying flakes, noiselessly transforming the world, the
exquisite crystals dropping in ditch and gutter, and disguising in the
same suit of spotless livery all objects upon which they fall. How
novel and fine the first drifts! The old, dilapidated fence is suddenly
set off with the most fantastic ruffles, scalloped and fluted after an
unheard-of fashion! Looking down a long line of decrepit stone wall, in
the trimming of which the wind had fairly run riot, I saw, as for the
first time, what a severe yet master artist old Winter is. Ah, a severe
artist! How stern the woods look, dark and cold and as rigid against
the horizon as iron!

All life and action upon the snow have an added emphasis and
significance. Every expression is underscored. Summer has few finer
pictures than this winter one of the farmer foddering his cattle from a
stack upon the clean snow,--the movement, the sharply defined figures,
the great green flakes of hay, the long file of patient cows, the
advance just arriving and pressing eagerly for the choicest
morsels,--and the bounty and providence it suggests. Or the chopper in
the woods,--the prostrate tree, the white new chips scattered about,
his easy triumph over the cold, his coat hanging to a limb, and the
clear, sharp ring of his axe. The woods are rigid and tense, keyed up
by the frost, and resound like a stringed instrument. Or the
road-breakers, sallying forth with oxen and sleds in the still, white
world, the day after the storm, to restore the lost track and demolish
the beleaguering drifts.

All sounds are sharper in winter; the air transmits better.  At night I
hear more distinctly the steady roar of the North Mountain. In summer
it is a sort of complacent purr, as the breezes stroke down its sides;
but in winter always the same low, sullen growl.

A severe artist!  No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble
and the chisel. When the nights are calm and the moon full, I go out to
gaze upon the wonderful purity of the moonlight and the snow. The air
is full of latent fire, and the cold warms me--after a different
fashion from that of the kitchen stove. The world lies about me in a
"trance of snow." The clouds are pearly and iridescent, and seem the
farthest possible remove from the condition of a storm,--the ghosts of
clouds, the indwelling beauty freed from all dross. I see the hills,
bulging with great drifts, lift themselves up cold and white against
the sky, the black lines of fences here and there obliterated by the
depth of the snow. Presently a fox barks away up next the mountain, and
I imagine I can almost see him sitting there, in his furs, upon the
illuminated surface, and looking down in my direction. As I listen, one
answers him from behind the woods in the valley. What a wild winter
sound, wild and weird, up among the ghostly hills! Since the wolf has
ceased to howl upon these mountains, and the panther to scream, there
is nothing to be compared with it. So wild! I get up in the middle of
the night to hear it. It is refreshing to the ear, and one delights to
know that such wild creatures are among us. At this season Nature makes
the most of every throb of life that can withstand her severity. How
heartily she indorses this fox! In what bold relief stand out the lives
of all walkers of the snow! The snow is a great tell-tale, and blabs as
effectually as it obliterates. I go into the woods, and know all that
has happened. I cross the fields, and if only a mouse has visited his
neighbor, the fact is chronicled.

The red fox is the only species that abounds in my locality; the little
gray fox seems to prefer a more rocky and precipitous country, and a
less rigorous climate; the cross fox is occasionally seen, and there
are traditions of the silver gray among the oldest hunters. But the red
fox is the sportsman's prize, and the only fur-bearer worthy of note in
these mountains.
[Footnote: A spur of the catskills.]

I go out in the morning, after a fresh fall of snow, and see at all
points where he has crossed the road. Here he has leisurely passed
within rifle-range of the house, evidently reconnoitring the premises
with an eye to the hen-roost. That clear, sharp track,--there is no
mistaking it for the clumsy footprint of a little dog. All his wildness
and agility are photographed in it. Here he has taken fright, or
suddenly recollected an engagement, and in long, graceful leaps, barely
touching the fence, has gone careering up the hill as fleet as the

The wild, buoyant creature, how beautiful he is!  I had often seen his
dead carcass, and at a distance had witnessed the hounds drive him
across the upper fields; but the thrill and excitement of meeting him
in his wild freedom in the woods were unknown to me till, one cold
winter day, drawn thither by the baying of a hound, I stood near the
summit of the mountain, waiting a renewal of the sound, that I might
determine the course of the dog and choose my position,--stimulated by
the ambition of all young Nimrods to bag some notable game. Long I
waited, and patiently, till, chilled and benumbed, I was about to turn
back, when, hearing a slight noise, I looked up and beheld a most
superb fox, loping along with inimitable grace and ease, evidently
disturbed, but not pursued by the hound, and so absorbed in his private
meditations that he failed to see me, though I stood transfixed with
amazement and admiration, not ten yards distant. I took his measure at
a glance,--a large male, with dark legs, and massive tail tipped with
white,--a most magnificent creature; but so astonished and fascinated
was I by this sudden appearance and matchless beauty, that not till I
had caught the last glimpse of him, as he disappeared over a knoll, did
I awake to my duty as a sportsman, and realize what an opportunity to
distinguish myself I had unconsciously let slip. I clutched my gun,
half angrily, as if it was to blame, and went home out, of humor with
myself and all fox-kind. But I have since thought better of the
experience, and concluded that I bagged the game after all, the best
part of it, and fleeced Reynard of something more valuable than his
fur, without his knowledge.

This is thoroughly a winter sound,--this voice of the hound upon the
mountain,--and one that is music to many ears. The long trumpet-like
bay, heard for a mile or more,--now faintly back in the deep recesses
of the mountain,--now distinct, but still faint, as the hound comes
over some prominent point and the wind favors,--anon entirely lost in
the gully,--then breaking out again much nearer, and growing more and
more pronounced as the dog approaches, till, when he comes around the
brow of the mountain, directly above you, the barking is loud and
sharp. On he goes along the northern spur, his voice rising and sinking
as the wind and the lay of the ground modify it, till lost to hearing.

The fox usually keeps half a mile ahead, regulating his speed by that
of the hound, occasionally pausing a moment to divert himself with a
mouse, or to contemplate the landscape, or to listen for his pursuer.
If the hound press him too closely, he leads off from mountain to
mountain, and so generally escapes the hunter; but if the pursuit be
slow, he plays about some ridge or peak, and falls a prey, though not
an easy one, to the experienced sportsman.

A most spirited and exciting chase occurs when the farm-dog gets close
upon one in the open field, as sometimes happens in the early morning.
The fox relies so confidently upon his superior speed, that I imagine
he half tempts the dog to the race. But if the dog be a smart one, and
their course lie downhill, over smooth ground, Reynard must put his
best foot forward, and then sometimes suffer the ignominy of being run
over by his pursuer, who, however, is quite unable to pick him up,
owing to the speed. But when they mount the hill, or enter the woods,
the superior nimbleness and agility of the fox tell at once, and he
easily leaves the dog far in his rear. For a cur less than his own size
he manifests little fear, especially if the two meet alone, remote from
the house. In such cases, I have seen first one turn tail, then the

A novel spectacle often occurs in summer, when the female has young.
You are rambling on the mountain, accompanied by your dog, when you are
startled by that wild, half-threatening squall, and in a moment
perceive your dog, with inverted tail, and shame and confusion in his
looks, sneaking toward you, the old fox but a few rods in his rear. You
speak to him sharply, when he bristles up, turns about, and, barking,
starts off vigorously, as if to wipe out the dishonor; but in a moment
comes sneaking back more abashed than ever, and owns himself unworthy
to be called a dog. The fox fairly shames him out of the woods. The
secret of the matter is her sex, though her conduct, for the honor of
the fox be it said, seems to be prompted only by solicitude for the
safety of her young.

One of the most notable features of the fox is his large and massive
tail. Seen running on the snow at a distance, his tail is quite as
conspicuous as his body; and, so far from appearing a burden, seems to
contribute to his lightness and buoyancy. It softens the outline of his
movements, and repeats or continues to the eye the ease and poise of
his carriage. But, pursued by the hound on a wet, thawy day, it often
becomes so heavy and bedraggled as to prove a serious inconvenience,
and compels him to take refuge in his den. He is very loath to do this;
both his pride and the traditions of his race stimulate him to run it
out, and win by fair superiority of wind and speed; and only a wound or
a heavy and moppish tail will drive him to avoid the issue in this

To learn his surpassing shrewdness and cunning, attempt to take him
with a trap. Rogue that he is, he always suspects some trick, and one
must be more of a fox than he is himself to overreach him. At first
sight it would appear easy enough. With apparent indifference he
crosses your path, or walks in your footsteps in the field, or travels
along the beaten highway, or lingers in the vicinity of stacks and
remote barns. Carry the carcass of a pig, or a fowl, or a dog, to a
distant field in midwinter, and in a few nights his tracks cover the
snow about it.

The inexperienced country youth, misled by this seeming carelessness of
Reynard, suddenly conceives a project to enrich himself with fur, and
wonders that the idea has not occurred to him before, and to others. I
knew a youthful yeoman of this kind, who imagined he had found a mine
of wealth on discovering on a remote side-hill, between two woods, a
dead porker, upon which it appeared all the foxes of the neighborhood
had nightly banqueted. The clouds were burdened with snow; and as the
first flakes commenced to eddy down, he set out, trap and broom in
hand, already counting over in imagination the silver quarters he would
receive for his first fox-skin. With the utmost care, and with a
palpitating heart, he removed enough of the trodden snow to allow the
trap to sink below the surface. Then, carefully sifting the light
element over it and sweeping his tracks full, he quickly withdrew,
laughing exultingly over the little surprise he had prepared for the
cunning rogue. The elements conspired to aid him, and the falling snow
rapidly obliterated all vestiges of his work. The next morning at dawn
he was on his way to bring in his fur. The snow had done its work
effectually, and, he believed, had kept his secret well. Arrived in
sight of the locality, he strained his vision to make out his prize
lodged against the fence at the foot of the hill. Approaching nearer,
the surface was unbroken, and doubt usurped the place of certainty in
his mind. A slight mound marked the site of the porker, but there was
no footprint near it. Looking up the hill, he saw where Reynard had
walked leisurely down toward his wonted bacon till within a few yards
of it, when he had wheeled, and with prodigious strides disappeared in
the woods. The young trapper saw at a glance what a comment this was
upon his skill in the art, and, indignantly exhuming the iron, he
walked home with it, the stream of silver quarters suddenly setting in
another direction.

The successful trapper commences in the fall, or before the first deep
snow. In a field not too remote, with an old axe he cuts a small place,
say ten inches by fourteen, in the frozen ground, and removes the earth
to the depth of three or four inches, then fills the cavity with dry
ashes, in which are placed bits of roasted cheese. Reynard is very
suspicious at first, and gives the place a wide berth. It looks like
design, and he will see how the thing behaves before he approaches too
near. But the cheese is savory and the cold severe. He ventures a
little closer every night, until he can reach and pick a piece from the
surface. Emboldened by success, like other mortals, he presently digs
freely among the ashes, and, finding a fresh supply of the delectable
morsels every night, is soon thrown off his guard and his suspicions
quite lulled. After a week of baiting in this manner, and on the eve of
a light fall of snow, the trapper carefully conceals his trap in the
bed, first smoking it thoroughly with hemlock boughs to kill or
neutralize the smell of the iron. If the weather favors and the proper
precautions have been taken, he may succeed, though the chances are
still greatly against him.

Reynard is usually caught very lightly, seldom more than the ends of
his toes being between the jaws. He sometimes works so cautiously as to
spring the trap without injury even to his toes, or may remove the
cheese night after night without even springing it. I knew an old

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