Walden North—Winter Animals
Winter in Walden North reveals sights/sites of inspiration—
A curious phenomenon, counter to much ‘human’ sense occurs here on a daily basis during the long winter months. Here, severe conditions—largely impassible snow-drifted forests, snow-clad browsing fields, as well as dangerous, frigid temperatures that plummet to -30F or below—sharply reduce food sources for non-hibernating animals. Despite such imposing challenges to survival for both the individual and the species, winter animals in Walden North display a simply extraordinary act of generosity among one another—sharing.
Thoreau described this phenomenon in the “Winter Animals” chapter in Walden. Saving some of his stores of corn, he would regularly leave out food for the neighboring animals. What he discovered provided profound insights into Nature’s ways:
“In the course of the winter I threw out half a bushel of ears of sweet corn on to the snow crust by my door and was amused by watching the motions of the various animals . . . In the twilight and the night the rabbits came regularly and made a hearty meal. All day long the red squirrels came and went . . . At length, the jays arrive . . . also came the chickadees in flocks . . . picking up the crumbs the squirrels had dropped . . . The partridges came out of the woods morning and evening to feed there.”
Many of us up here in Walden North have observed similar acts of astonishing generosity among our animal neighbors. Here, herds of deer, rafters of turkeys, families of coyotes and moose, and various flocks of ravens, doves, finches, grosbeaks, jays, snow buntings and others arrive at our bird and wild animal feeders, taking turns to partake in various winter meals.
The flocking and herding tendencies of these animals, called aggregation, or the act of grouping together in close physical proximity, provide some intriguing insights into the ‘nature of animal natures’. While members of the same species share physical space and move together in groups when temperatures drop, wondrously there appears to be no increase in aggression. As Bernd Heinrich points out in Winter World: “There are many advantages to different animals to aggregate in winter besides keeping warm, but doing so in order to fight is not one of them.” (WW, 237) In fact, this consummate observer of natural phenomena points out that unlike human aggregation resulting in increased aggression, animal flocking inspires cooperation—conscious acts of kindness.
Some animal groups even invite members of different species to share their physical space for a variety of reasons, including increasing bodily warmth through thermal massing, enhancing protection against common predators and sharing knowledge of food sources. This last trait can appear astonishing to humans, more accustomed to greed than generosity. My forthcoming novel, The Road to Walden North, chronicles this inspirational behavior—based on my own and others’ interactions with winter animals.
The frigid air shocked Kate as she emerged from the warm log cabin. She stood shivering in the dawning light, rhythmically bouncing from one foot to another to warm herself.
“Stand still,” Channing whispered.
“Is it the deer again?” As Kate turned in the direction of his finger, her eyes widened.
He nodded almost imperceptibly. “That and more.”
Over one dozen deer, now dark grey, were bent over the feeder. Another half dozen or so along the outskirts of the field stood guard, sniffing the air as they constantly moved their heads from side to side, while a few huddled in groups of two, their bodies crossed, each head staring in a different direction. Kate shook her own in awe.
As she continued to watch, she leaned over to Channing. “Something is different,” she whispered. “Why is it they are not competing for the food like last time?”
Glancing at her sideways, he almost smiled. “Winter animals,” he said. “They are a lesson for us humans.”
She turned to him. “In what way?”
Nodding, he said only, “You’ll see.”
After the first deer left the feeder, they retreated together back along the edge of the field, replacing the former sentries. The new group congregated around the grains.
Kate turned back to Channing. “It’s like an orchestrated dance.”
Raising his eyebrow, he said, “Ah, but our deer are following the beat of an inner rhythm—the drumming of the soul of Nature.”
“Oh? Thoreauvian deer, are they?” She glanced over at him briefly with a wry smile before resuming her focus on the animals.
“Naturally,” he chuckled, apparently delighted with his pun. Looking over at her with anticipation, he asked, “What else did you notice?”
She watched the new deer, some of whom were already moving away. “They don’t seem to be very hungry,” she said with a glance in his direction. “Maybe it was just my excitement over seeing them the last time, but they seemed to eat a lot more than now.”
He nodded. “Precisely.”
Arching her eyebrow, she asked, “Why—wouldn’t the cold make them more hungry than in the fall?”
“You can see for yourself,” he said with a glance.
After stepping back inside the cabin to warm themselves from the bitter cold, Kate continued to watch in a mesmerized daze, while Channing went over to the wood cookstove to make some tea.
“Anything?” Channing’s voice called from behind.
“Well, the deer seem to have left since no new ones are appearing,” she said. She turned back to look at him, her eyebrow furrowed. “Is there something else I should watch for?”
Nodding, he smiled, saying, “Yes, indeed. The parade will continue in new form.”
He walked over, and laying a mug on the table next to her chair, plopped down in the adjoining one, threw up his gangly legs onto to the ottoman, and sunk back. “Now it gets really interesting,” he said with a sidelong glance.
Kate looked at him in surprise. “More than it has already?” she asked, before shifting her focus back to the scene outside the window. They both sat peering into the morning light when Kate announced, “Looks like we have company—a really big deer.” She briefly glanced at Channing. “A male maybe?”
Leaning forward, he shook his head. “Yes, that’s a male, Kaitlin, but it’s no stag.”
Kate studied the emerging form as it entered the field, heading straight toward the feeder. “Its walk is different,” she commented, “more genteel, even though the animal is so much bigger.”
“Yes, indeed,” he said agreeably.
She continued watching before crying out, “Look! There are two others, though one is much smaller and thin. Must be the baby.” The animals bent over and ate from the feeder, each raising its head after grabbing a mouthful and chewed before going for more. Kate turned excitedly to Channing. “Are they elk?”
His eyes looked kind when he turned to her. “No, no elk east of the Mississippi. They are moose—the last two, a cow and her yearling.”
“Really? Moose? I’ve never seen one before now.” Her eyes shimmered her thrill of discovery. Turning back, she resumed her observation. “Their legs seem so thin and wobbly that it looks like they could easily fall right over.”
Channing nodded. “Those slender legs of theirs make it possible for them to run through low brush quickly without getting stuck.”
“Absolutely amazing,” she said as she watched them spellbound.
He looked at her. “What do you mean—that they can run easily through the forest despite their size, or that you are able to sit here and watch them.”
“Well, both, I guess,” she said with a smile. Taking a quick sip of her tea, she continued watching. “So this is the parade you referred to earlier?”
Rolling his mug slowly in his hand, he nodded and said, “Oh, there should be more.”
Kate watched as the moose finished up and glided back into the forest, it seemed to her, almost effortlessly. “They are so dainty for such large animals.”
Channing let out a low laugh. “Yes, that is a good word to describe their movement—despite their size.”
Kate suddenly called out, “Ok, so what is this new creature?” She pointed over to the edge of the field.
They both watched as the animal made its way through the snow with its head down and tail extended. “Seems like he knows exactly where to go,” Kate said.
“Oh, he does. He comes almost daily now these days.”
“So what is it? A wolf?” She turned to Channing. “Incredible,” she exclaimed with a shake of her head. “This is National Geographic in real time.” Her eyes caught a new creature emerging from the trees. “Another one—no, wait, three more!” she announced.
Nodding, Channing said, “That would be the family of coyotes that live here in the woods close to our house. We hear them singing at night. The parents have been teaching the pups how to catch food all fall.”
He looked over at Kate’s blank expression. “They howl when they have caught their food. You might have heard them last night.” He said it more as a statement than a question.
She turned back to watch as the parents stretched to reach the food, using their noses to throw some onto the ground where their pups sat waiting. “They show such loving concern for their young ones.” She glanced over at Channing.
“Of course,” he said, nodding. “More so than do many human parents.”
Kate looked at him as she tried to express her impressions. “That’s it—they seem so human, despite their appearance.”
Throwing her a sidelong glance, he countered, his tone dry, “Or perhaps we humans have more animal in us than we realize.”
After they disappeared down the field, Kate sat back and faced Channing. “I don’t get the parade,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “They all appear so,” she stopped, gazing out briefly searching for the right word, “considerate.”
With a slight scowl, Channing said, “More than our fellow men and women might act if searching for food for themselves in such challenging conditions.”
Kate gave a vigorous nod. “Exactly. They seem to be cooperating with one another, leaving food for the next group.” She shook her head thoughtfully from side to side. “Extraordinary. I would never have expected that.”
“Yes,” he said nodding, “Nature is full of profound insights.”
She looked at him before speaking. “It’s so different here from nature programs, which tend to depict animals as voracious predators.” She waved her hand at the window. “Not like these genteel individuals.”
Channing smiled. “An eye-opening experience, isn’t it,” he said, “to discover the inner graciousness and generosity of wild animals. Truly a lesson for we humans.”
From The Road to Walden North
(Forthcoming, Green Writers Press)
Ishmael’s proclamation in Moby-Dick regarding the wondrous creatures of the watery world applies equally well to the winter animals of Walden North: “Is there not meaning in this?”