AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles AmblesideOnline.org

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
The Beech-Tree Annal

by Mary L. Armitt.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 651-659


WINTER PENSIONERS

It seems a dreary, melancholy season, when in November the rain streams down before a south-west wind, and the very last leaves of summer flutter down with the weight of it. The garden grass-plant that yesterday was swept, is to-day patterned over with ruddy brown spots. The great beech-trees that stand over against it, and stretch--a little grove that shelters the drive-away to the gateway, are now getting bared for the winter; they rise against the grey-white sky like a forest of masts and spars, while a single horn-beam amongst them shows as a delicate shimmer of green.

The yearly course of the trees is now almost over. Tightly do they wrap themselves up and prepare for the onslaughts of winter. And this is perhaps as good a time as any at which to recite the tale of the beeches. They have no calendar as we have, that stops short at December 31. Their course is rounded, as the earth's about the sun; there is neither beginning nor end to it. Even now, when the trees seem inert, they are not in reality so; they have but withdrawn their juices, and those elements manufactured by the leaves from the summer sunshine, into the interior, there to be stored and transfused into vital forces that shall result in the outburst of new leaves and fresh flowers of future springs. Even whilst the now "detruded leaf" sat firmly on its perch, and as long ago as July last, did the bud that lay below it hold the future year's leaves complete, all ready in miniature (yet large enough to be made out with a simple lens), and waiting, in delicate wrappings of bract, for the far-off time of unfolding.

How complex is Nature! How interlocked are her manifold forms! Here is the beech-tree, whose vital movements are actuated and controlled by the earth's rotation round the sun, getting its food from soil and air; while it, in its turn, feeds and fosters many forms of animal life. It affects the migration of birds in its neighbourhood that come, as do also small quadrupeds, to devour its seed; it yields its juices to a host of smaller creatures; while to many others does it give shelter for increase within the security of its branches.

Just now, the off-time for the tree itself, is perhaps the most lively season of the year for its pensioners. So eager are they that they hardly wait for the ripening of the fruit; and to mark the beginning of the stream of winter visitors to the trees we have to hark back a month or two. In July it was that the first squirrel was noted, racing along the drive from one clump of trees to another, scampering up the big smooth grey bole, leaping lightly across the topmost swaying boughs still shrouded in leaves, to find and pierce with sharp teeth the still green, hard-shut nuts. The wood-pigeons, too, that were bred in the fir-wood below the crag hard by, had an early eye on the beech harvest. They fed through the summer in the hay meadow below--where surely it was the henpenny (yellow rattle), with big round seeds, that detained them so long--and next passed to the beeches, to anticipate the feast laid out for them in the branches. They come first in small flocks, with stealthy wing, and are seldom seen, large and grey-bodied though they be. They come and come--indeed, we begin to suspect that these growing parties are not all nestlings of these parts, but are strangers from afar. They are going to stay till the last morsel is done-and how much it must take to fill their big bodies each day!--and need forces them to depart.

But this anticipates. Next after the pigeons come the small titmice that are not so cautious, but call out to their fellows in the branches with cheerful cries. Two species of the family--I can state from observation-feed directly upon the beech-mast, as well as upon the insects of the tree. These are the great titmouse and the coal titmouse. Both great and coal possess stouter, longer necks than their mouse--like cousins, which perhaps enables them to deal better with such hard food as the beech-nut. Their sharp bills strike with pick-like blows from the neck and enter the bristly shell--probably when its valves begin to slacken--and so obtain the kernel. But these birds are not particular; they come to the trees in autumns when no fruit is borne to search the stems, crevice by crevice, for the insect life that lurks there. I have often observed them about this business during brief abatements in heavy rain, when no doubt tiny winged things are to be found taking shelter in such Liliputian doorways and sheds as the giant tree's bark affords.

By this time the fruits' brown burr, that still accentuates each topmost bough with a terminal spot, is gaping and empty. The fruit is fallen, shaken down either by ravening bird (for all birds strew more than they eat) or by autumn storms. When the western gales set in, that clear the trees of their summer burdens, the beeches are at their most resonant time. Night after night comes the noise of them on the darkened air; sounds softer than shrieks, higher than a roar, while the wind seems to rush up the organ-pipe of trunk, and break in the fine mesh of strings above; sounds multifid, symphonic, mixed, no word can express the weird sense of commotion they bring, of strife that strengthens, of great forces in conflict, the wind that would rend, the tree which resists.

Now, bared by the storm, is to be seen the whole beautiful anatomy of the trees; their grace of outline from majestic trunk to farthest feathery tip. Now gleams yellow the early southern sunset through the mesh of the boughs; now of nights lie the mass of them, faintly distinguishable, against the deep moonlit sky, while the owl that hoots is not to be discovered, though his "bodeful" cry (as Chaucer has it) fascinates the ear. And now can be more clearly descried the tree-creeper, as he ambles, mouse-like, up the trunk, peeping into every cupboard and crack that the tree provides for him, for storage of insect food; or flitting, with sharp cry that betokens a fellow, across to the base of the next trunk.

After the gales, the birds no more crowd the branches; they forage instead the damp ground of the shrubbery below. All through November and December the ring-doves are here, getting ever tamer as food gets harder to find, and, we surmise, richer to taste. A sick bird may be seen patrolling the open front of the house in the rain, where the ground has not been so well searched; though in general the tribe keeps quiet and close. Bold magpies come, ten at a time, and jays too from the neighbouring woods. A pair may be seen just now in the low light of a late November morning, below the beech-tree nearest to the house. They are off guard, for strangely enough all birds seem to know the house's breakfast hour, and the time is not yet half-past eight; the jay believes he has but to control his hideous voice for all, for the moment, to be well. And all is well; for the peeper behind the window is no bird-slayer. The bird is searching the grass beneath the tree, while his mate pecks a kernel upon the lowest bough. But when he has found a good nut himself, he hops up to the bough (looking with his handsome shades, and the white patch above black tail and between black-edged wings, like a gigantic bullfinch), and she hops down. Because the bough is the birds' right good and serviceable chopping-board.

It seems a wonder, after all this searching and eating, this gobbling of little birds and big birds, that one morsel of fallen seed should be left. Yet all through the winter, while frosts blacken the hedge-rows, and snow-falls obstruct the food-getting elsewhere, do parties of birds still patrol the shrubbery. The flocks of chaffinches even, that resort to it much at this time, I suspect of feeding on scraps of mast. Certain it is that the coal titmice do: and delightful it is to watch them at work some damp morning of mid-winter, when mild rain has temporarily banished frost and cheered their spirits, as their tiny notes of contentment prove. Eight or nine birds are close by, too eager to notice us, drifting about the ground like blown leaves. The actual leaves lie so sodden and soft that each little bird as it alights has to rear its head for observation. Or else from the lowest bough of a shrub it takes careful note of the earth below, leaning down with head set sideways. Cunning little observer! Quick it is down, and quick back with the prize, to pick it invariably, as the jay does, upon the bough. Yet at this time the human eye searches in vain for a sound kernel--not a hollow shell with abortive seed lying unswollen at the bottom of the divisions, but a good starchy mass that has been stored up by the parent tree for the nourishment of the seedling before this can strike the soil and "fend for" itself. It is a question, however, whether the smaller birds may not eat these abortive seeds rejected by the larger birds.

Then come real strangers, one thousand mile wanderers, to seek for this beechen treasure. The worst of winter weather has by this time set in. Bitter frosts; snow-showers borne on fierce gales, when the light is temporarily darkened and nothing is visible without the windows but a grey-white sheet moving at a high speed. Then from the unseen beeches comes a dull, deep roar, different altogether from the full, yet broken and symphonic sounds of the western winds; and as the gale falls a trifle, a yew-tree next the house becomes visible through the swirl of snow, still wildly tossing its branches. Or else comes a spell of deep, successive snow-falls, when country roads are impassible to feet, when fasting rooks huddle disconsolate in sheltered coppices, or follow the sheep-tracks across the white fields, seeking there to reach the ground that gives them life. And this may be followed by dank mists, that obscure the light and choke the breath. It is weather such as this that brings our rarest birds to the beeches. Not more than a glimpse of them shall we see. Perhaps a dozen largish finch-like birds will catch the eye as they rise from the ground, and with simultaneous beat of silvery-grey underwing, not straggling after one another as the chaffinch does, cross to the trees on the other side the house.

This simple sight means more; for these are but a detachment of a great regiment, which, if we go out in such unpropitious weather, we shall probably find in ambush about the neighbouring premises, either lurking round the oat-strewn farm quarters, or taking refuge in the higher parts of the beech-trees, where they perch silent and upright. If we are fortunate enough to remain out of sight ourselves (a hard business!) we may presently watch them drop to the bur-strewn ground in numbers, moving restlessly and in starling-like swarms about it. We may hear their wild, garrulous note--"yak, yak!"--harsher than the chaffinch's "yup"; we may see, should the light improve, the handsome shades of brown that the birds' plumage carries, the fine bright buff patches and white streaks that adorn shoulders and wings of the male birds, as well as the pale patch between the outspread wings. For these are the bramblings, or mountain finches, that descend upon us from more northern climes when winter is hardest.

After all these depredations by all sorts of birds, single and in armies, early and late comers, is there any one single albumen-filled seed left of the hosts--millions almost--showered down by the tree in generous profusion, by which its sole intention in forming the seed shall be fulfilled, viz., to carry on its life when its own forces will be exhausted and death will overtake it? Has one single seed escaped these hungry, lynx-eyed legions? It seems hardly likely; yet---

But this again anticipates.

At present the year has only just turned. Our human calendar stands at mid or late January. Now the frost-breaking has a more hopeful and genuine feel; and when February comes in with possibly mild warmth, the snow-drops below the beeches (that get nothing from the trees but a genial summer shade) make ready for a show. Pioneered by a sharp, green blade, each little white blossom shoots above the soil, prepared, in the first pale sunshine that offers, to shake itself loose, along with hundreds of its companions, and to spread the old brown earth with new blossoms of white. It is a time of general promise and first putting-forth. The brown banshee owl, that now of nights "waits" about the beeches, no doubt throws sweet premonitory love-sensations into that wail of his if we did but read his tones aright. The rooks, at all events, are no whit behind the snowdrops. All through the winter, when the days have been mild and open, they have come to the beech-trees to pay what we may call reminiscent and, indeed, proprietary visits; for the rooks--though they seem not to share in the general partiality for beech-mast, and adhere to their preference for acorns--have a most intimate and particular connection with this grove. Here are their houses, those inverted wigwams in which they lay their eggs and rear their young; and no doubt, if their view were examined, they would be found to consider that these trees-the result of complex natural forces that require seventy or eighty years to mature--had come to size and perfection for no other purpose than to hold rooks' nests in their topmost boughs. These nests generally last through winter, and often through several years. This causes the spot to be constantly attractive to the birds, for each pair likes to keep an eye on its own particular dwelling, besides there being a home-like feel about the place to old and young alike which draws them here when they are tired of strutting about the fields with spread toes, to clasp these said toes about the twigs and to perch, as each bird had done through a long stage of its adolescence. They come at these times as a noisy host, topping the trees with black forms that duck horizontally, and call, "Caw, caw!" as if to say, 'Here we are--here are our trees! Let no one meddle with what is ours!"

But when February sets in--that is, if it be of a "fill-dyke" persuasion--the rooks come with a different air. They are a community still, but one made up of jealous, dual units (if one may be allowed the expression), each one with a separate interest. They stay longer in the trees, and here and there two may be seen perching apart, while blandishments, of a rookish character, pass between them. The old nests are taken over--either by their rightful possessors or others. Indeed, if the winter has been stormy, and nests are fewer, there is a good deal of squabbling and disputing, and four or six birds may be seen floundering about one nest, the favourite mode of discomfiting a rook-enemy being often resorted to, viz., to grasp his "primaries" well in the beak, and then with spread wing to drop off the bough, and so force him to tumble, or else to lose one of a bird's most precious possessions, the quill feather that is his weapon of flight. Held by the wing, he is at a tremendous disadvantage. Then old nests begin to be patched, in a leisurely way; the first twigs are borne with an air as if twig-carrying were a light amusement, with no real end in view. But as the month goes on, the interest waxes greater--that is, provided the weather be still propitious--and by-and-by it is so deeply engaged that on some night towards the end of the month the birds case in their lots with the nests and roost by them. They clasp with vice-like claws those slender topmost twigs--so slender that they sway in every breeze, and yet so touch that they bear the big birds without injury other than some loss of leaves--sink their sable heads, and, after a few uneasy starts, go to sleep, nearer to heaven surely than any other dreamer, feathered or human.

By February, too, other birds are conscious of lengthening days, and of milder atmospheric conditions, which herald the season of nesting. The chaffinch, though still keeping in flocks, essays to sing that song, that in April we are destined to hear too much of. The starlings return to our mountain-lands from the unknown parts (possibly the neighbouring sea-board, or it may be, still further afield), where they have passed the worst of the season. The great winter armies are broken up now into small contingents, that begin to resort to their own particular locality. The three or four pairs that belong to the house that stands between the beech-trees, now regularly ajourn, after they have fed in the moist fields below, to the trees. There they will try an evening concert of high skirling notes; they will rise and sweep round in circular flights, manifestly imitating the rooks at their evening sports, and whom, though they do not mount so high in air, they certainly outdo in precision and form of evolution.

Nay, they soon break up into couples that desire to pass the leisure time after breakfast apart. The couple may be seen at its old station in the solitary beech that overhangs the northern gable of the house, very much to the impeding of chimney-action and the inconvenience of the dwellers. Here in the lower boughs the male starling sits and sings, while in the fuller March sunshine his breast gleams changefully purple, and on his neck as he turns it, with accompanying shake of wing, there are wonderful glints of green. Suddenly he bethinks him and stops, drops to the roof-gutter close below, and scuttles nimbly into that cosy hole where last year he assisted Mrs. Starling to bring up a fine family. He is quickly out again and she is after him. Query: shall he begin to clean out the premises at once and be getting forward? No! while these nasty night frosts keep coming back and hardening the ground of mornings, so that one's beak fairly tingles with the efforts to break it, it is no use doing much. Why! only four days back snow lay thick, so that sixty to seventy starlings were forced to congregate again upon the strip of meadow that the outermost beeches had sheltered. So our starling hops up again, and wisely spends his energy singing to his admiring spouse.

Very funny is his singing, for the starling represents the comic element in bird-life. He may be called the Corney Grain or Grossmith of the songsters. He takes every bird off, and shows its weak points with a humour that is not any less telling because it is so carefully concealed. For it is always funniest when the joker remains serious himself. He is occasionally so exact in his mimicry that he can (for a second or two) make an April fool-in March or some other month--of an innocent, trusting mortal. A prettily uttered "Choosie, choosie," has made one glance up in amazement, thinking to see a pied wagtail in the unusual post of a spruce fir-tree, only to see a sable mockery there. Indeed, I have run round the house believing that, at last, I had caught an owl "too-whitting" in the daytime, to discover the hoaxer in this very starling above the gable. But this, fortunately for the faith of mortals, is not usual. The bird loves variety and will hardly ever persist in one effect sufficiently long to deceive, but grinds on generally with a pot-pourri of borrowed scraps from others' songs, intermingled with his own peculiar gurgle, just as a barrel-organ empties itself of extraneous tunes from favourite operas. Should the starling happen to live near a marsh or mere, where the call of wild fowl, duck and coot often meets his ear, he will produce imitations of them that are absolutely ludicrous, and in the midst of his high skirl, to which he beats time with his wings, he will suddenly interject a deep, thick gutteral, repeated several times, exactly in the way that, in a certain now ancient comic song, the grunting of a pig is thrown in, in order to convulse a drawing-room audience with laughter. In both cases the absurdity lies in the character of the sound being utterly incongruous to the speaker.

(To be continued.)