Read THINGS TO SEE IN AUTUMNTIME of Woodland Tales , free online book, by Ernest Thompson Seton, on


The Purple and Gold of Autumn

There was once an old gentleman named Father Time, and he had four beautiful daughters.

The eldest was called Winter Time. She was tall and pale. She dressed chiefly in white wool trimmed with wonderful lacework. She was much admired by some, but others considered her very cold and distant. And most agreed that she was the least winsome of the sisters.

The second one was called Spring Time, and she was dressed in beautiful golden-green satin. She had a gentle, sunny disposition; some thought her the loveliest.

The third was Summer Time, and her robe was dark-green velvet. She was warm-hearted and most attractive, full of life and energy, and as unlike the eldest sister as possible.

The youngest was Autumn Time. She certainly was a wonderful creature, with red rosy cheeks, plump form, and riotous good spirits. Her robes were gorgeous and a little extravagant, for she wore a new one every day, and of all that she had, the one that she loved the best and wore the latest was of purple and gold. We can go out in October and see the purple and gold, and gather some scraps of the robe, for it is on every wayside and every hillside.


Why the Chicadee Goes Crazy Twice a Year

A long time ago, when it was always summer in our woods, the Chicadees lived merrily with their cousins, and frolicked the whole year round. But one day Mother Carey sent the small birds a warning that they must move to the South, when the leaves fell from the trees, for hard frost and snow were coming, and maybe starvation too.

All the cousins of the Chicadees listened to the warning and got ready to go; but Tomtit, their leader, only laughed and turned a dozen wheels around a twig that served him for a bar.

“Go to the South?” said he. “Not I; I am too happy here; and as for frost and snow, I never saw any, and I don’t believe there are such things.”

Very soon the leaves fell from the trees and the Nut-hatches and the King-wrens were so busy getting ready to go that the Chicadees left off play for a minute, to ask questions. They were not pleased with the answer they got, for the messenger had said that all of them were to take a long, long journey that would last for days, and the little King-wrens had actually to go as far as the Gulf of Mexico. Besides, they were to fly by night, to avoid their enemies, the Hawks, and the weather at this season was sure to be stormy. So the Chicadees said it was all nonsense, and went off, singing and chasing one another through the woods, led by Tomtit singing a new song in which he made fun of the travellers.

Tom Tom Tiddy-Mouse!
Hid away in our house,
Hid his brother in the cellar,
Wasn’t he a silly feller?

But their cousins were quite serious. They picked out wise leaders and formed themselves into bands. They learned that they must follow their leader, they must twitter as they flew in the darkness, so as to let those behind know where\he leaders were; they must follow the great rivers southward; they must wait for a full moon before starting, and never travel by day.

The noisy, rollicking Chicadees continued to make fun of their cousins as they saw them now gathering in the woods along the river; and at length, when the moon was big, bright, and full, the cousins arose to the call of the leaders and all flew away in the gloom. The Chicadees said that all the cousins were crazy, made some good jokes about the Gulf of Mexico, and then dashed away on their favourite game of tag and tumble through the woods, which, however, did seem rather quiet now, and bare of leaves; while the weather, too, was certainly turning uncomfortably cool.

At length the frost and snow really did come, and the Chicadees were in a bad way. Indeed, they were frightened out of their wits, and dashed hither and thither, seeking in vain for some one to set them aright on the way to the warm land. They flew wildly about the woods, till they were truly crazy. I suppose there was not a squirrel-hole or a hollow log in the neighbourhood that some Chicadee did not enter to inquire if this was the Gulf of Mexico. But no one could tell anything about it, no one was going that way, and the great river was hidden under ice and snow.

About this time a messenger from Mother Carey was passing with a message to the Caribou in the Far North; but all he could tell the Chicadees was that he could not be their guide, as he had other business. “Besides,” he said, “you had the same notice as your cousins whom you called ‘crazy.’ And from what I know of Mother Carey, you will probably have to stick it out here all through the snow, not only now, but in every winter after this; so you may as well make the best of it.”

This was sad news for the Chicadee Tomtits; but they were brave little fellows, and seeing they could not help themselves, they went about making the best of it. Before a week had gone by they were in their usual good spirits again, scrambling about the snowy twigs, or chasing one another as before.

They were glad to remember now that Mother Carey said that winter would end. They told each other about it so much that even at its beginning, when a fresh blizzard came on, they would gleefully remark to one another that it was a “sign of spring,” and one or another of the flock would lift his voice in the sweet little chant that we all know so well:

Another would take it up and answer back:

and they would keep on repeating the song until the dreary woods rang again with the good news, and the wood-people learned to love the brave little bird that sets his face so cheerfully, to meet so hard a case.

And winter did end. Spring did come at last. And the sign of its coming was when the ice broke on the stream and the pussy willow came purring out above it. The air was full of the good news. The Chicadees felt it, and knew it through and through. They went mad with joy, chasing each other round and round the trees and through the hollow logs, shouting “The spring is here, the spring is here, Hurree, Hurree, Hurree,” and in another week their joyous lives were going on as before the trouble came.

But to this day, when the chill wind blows through the deserted woods, the Chicadees seem to lose their wits for a few days, and dart into all sorts of queer places. They may then be found in great cities, or open prairies, cellars, chimneys, and hollow logs; and the next time you find one of the wanderers in any out-of-the-way corner, be sure to remember that the Chicadee goes crazy twice a year, in the fall and in the spring, and probably went into his strange hole or town in search of the Gulf of Mexico.


The Story of the Quaking Aspen or Poplar

The leaf of the Quaking Asp is like the one marked “a” in the drawing. Its trunk is smooth, greenish, or whitish, with black knots of bark like “c”. All the farmers know it as Popple, or White Poplar; but the hunters call it Quaking Asp or Aspen.

The name “quaking” was given because it is for ever shaking its leaves; the slightest wind sets them all rustling. They move so easily because each leaf-stem is like a thin, flat strap set on edge; while the leaf-stem of such as the oak is nearly round and scarcely rustles at all. Why does the Quaking Asp do this? No doubt, because it lives in places where the hot dust falls thick on the leaves at times, and if it did not have some trick of shaking it off, the leaf would be choked and bent so that the tree could scarcely breathe; for the leaves are the lungs of the trees. So remember, when the Poplar rustles loudly, it is coughing to clear its lungs of the dust.

Some trees try to hide their troubles, and quickly cover up their wounds; but the Aspen has a very touchy skin and, once it is wounded, it shows the scar as long as it lives. We can, therefore, go to any Aspen tree, and have it tell us the story of its life. Here is the picture of one. The black marks at the forks (c) are scars of growth; the belts of dots (d) were wounds given by a sapsucker to rob it of its sap; the flat places (e) show where a Red Squirrel gnawed off the outer bark.

If a Raccoon climbed the tree (f), or an insect bored into the trunk, we are sure to see a record of it in this sensitive bark.

Now, last of all, the paper on which this story is printed was likely made out of Aspen wood.


The Witch-hazel

These are the things to make you remember the Witch-hazel; its forked twig was used-nay, still is used-as a magic rod to show where there is running water underground; that is, where it is possible to find water by sinking a well. Its nuts are explosive, and go off with a snap, shooting the seeds that are inside, ten or twenty feet away, when the cold dry days of autumn come. Third, its curious golden-thread flowers appear in the fall.

As Cracked Jimmy used to sing:-

Witch-hazel blossoms in the fall,
To cure the chills and fevers all.
-Two Little Savages.

On November 16, 1919, after a sharp frost, I went out in the morning to get some Witch-hazel flowers for this drawing, and found them blooming away in the cold air, vigorously as ever. Imagine a flower that can bloom while it is freezing. In the drawing I have shown the flower, like a 4-lipped cup with four yellow snakes coiling out of it.

But these are not the deadly snakes one hears about. They are rather symbols of old AEsculapius, the famous healer of the long ago, whose emblem was the cup of life with curling snakes of wisdom about it. In the Witch-hazel has been found a soothing balm for many an ache and pain. The Witch-hazel you buy in the drugstores, is made out of the bark of this tree. If you chew one of the little branches you will know it by the taste.

Near the top is a flower that is finished, its snakes have fled; and at the top of all is a bud for next year. That is, they are-is, has-been and going-to-be. The nuts are shown in the corner.

Note, last of all, that it is a sociable little tree; it always goes with a crowd. There are generally three or four Witch-hazels from one root, and there is always a family of cousins not far away.


How the Shad Came and How the Chestnut Got Its Burrs

In the woods of Poconic there once roamed a very discontented Porcupine. She was forever fretting. She complained that everything was wrong, till it was perfectly scandalous, and Wahkonda, the Great Spirit, getting tired of her grumbling, said:

“You and the world I have made don’t seem to fit; one or the other must be wrong. It is easier to change you. You don’t like the trees, you are unhappy on the ground, and think everything is upside down, therefore I’ll turn you inside out, and put you in the water.” And so the Porcupine was turned into a new creature, a fish, called the Shad. That is why he is so full of little sharp bones.

Then after the old Porcupine had been turned into a Shad, the young ones missed their mother, and crawled up into a high Chestnut tree to look for her coming. Wahkonda happened to pass that way, and they all chattered their teeth at him, thinking themselves safe. They were not wicked, but at heart quite good, only badly brought up; oh, so ill-trained, and some of them chattered and groaned as Wahkonda came nearer. Then Wahkonda was sorry for them, remembering that he had taken their mother from them, and said: “You look very well up there, you little Porkys, so you had better stay there for always, and be part of the Chestnut tree.” And he touched each one with his magic wand and turned it into a burr that grew tight to the tree. That is how it came about. There they hang like a lot of little Porcupines on the twigs of the tree. They are spiney and dangerous, utterly without manners, and yet most of them have a good little heart inside.


How the Littlest Owl Came

After the Great Spirit had made the world and the creatures in it, he made the Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo. This was like an Owl, but bigger than anything else alive, and his voice was like a river plunging over a rocky ledge. He was so big that he thought he had done it all himself, and he became puffed up. He forgot the Great Spirit, who decided to teach him a lesson in this wise:

He called the Blue-jay, the mischief-maker of the woods, and told him what to do. Away went the Blue-jay to the mountain at the top of which was the Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo making thunder in his throat. The Blue-jay flew up to his ear, and said: “Pooh, Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo, you don’t call that a big noise! You should hear Niagara; then you would never twitter again.”

The Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo was so mad at hearing his big wonderful song called a twitter, that he said: “Niagara, Niagara! I’m sick of hearing about Niagara. I will go and silence Niagara with my voice.” So he flew to Niagara while the Blue-jay snickered and followed to see the fun.

Now when Niagara Falls was made the Great Spirit said to it, “Flow on for ever.” That last word of the Great Spirit it took up as it rushed on, and never ceases to thunder out “For ever! For ever! For ever!”

When they came to Niagara the mighty cataract, the Blue-jay said, “Now, Gitchee, you can beat that I am sure.” So Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo began bawling to drown the noise of it, but could not make himself heard.

“Wa-wa-wa,” said the Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo, with great effort and only for a few heart beats.

For ever, For ever, For ever,” thundered the river, steadily, easily, ceaselessly.

“Wa-wa-wa !” shrieked Gitchee O-kok-o-hoo; but his voice was so utterly lost that he could not hear it himself, and he began to feel small, and smaller; and as he began to feel small, a strange thing happened-he began to get small and smaller, until he was no bigger than a Sparrow; and his voice, instead of being like a great cataract, became like the dropping of water, just a little


And this is why the Indians give to this smallest of the Owls the name of “The Water-dropping Bird,” who was once the greatest of all creatures, but is now shrunk to be the littlest of the Owls, because he became proud and forgot the Great Spirit.


The Wood-witch and the Bog-nuts

Once upon a time there was a rich boy, who knew all about the city, and nothing about the woods. He went for an outing into the wilderness, and got lost. He wandered all day until he was very tired and hungry. The sun was low when he came to a little pathway. He followed it, and it led to a small log cabin. When he knocked, an old woman opened the door. He said, “Please, Ma’am, I am lost and very hungry, will you give me something to eat?”

The old woman looked sharply at his clothes, and knew that he was rich, so she said: “Poor people are wise, they can take care of themselves in the woods. They don’t get lost. But you rich people are fools, and I wish you would go away.”

“I will, if you’ll give me something to eat,” he answered.

Then the old woman said: “Listen, foolish rich boy, in the woods beside you right now is a friend who feeds the poor people, maybe she will feed you. She is tall and slim, her eyes are brownish purple and her hair is green, and by this you may know her-she has five fingers on one hand and seven on the other. Her house is in the brier thicket; she climbs to the roof and stands there all day waving her hands, and shouting out in wood-talk, ‘There are cocoanuts in my cellar.’

“Now go and find her, maybe she will feed you. She always feeds us poor folks,” and the witch slammed the door.

The boy was puzzled. As he stood in doubt, there was a loud noise, and his friends arrived. They brought him the food and comfort that he needed.

Then he said: “I wish to know what that old wood-witch meant by the lady with the purple eyes and green hair.” So he went again to the log cabin and knocked.

When the old woman came, and saw a lot of people about, she was frightened for she knew she had been unkind. But the boy said: “Now Granny, you needn’t be afraid, I want you to show me the friend that has seven fingers and a cellar full of cocoanuts.”

“I’ll show you, if you promise to do me no harm,” she answered.

“Of course, I’ll promise,” replied the boy.

Then Granny Wood-witch went hobbling to the nearest thicket and cackled out loud, as she pointed out a trailing vine that had sometimes five leaflets on a stalk and sometimes seven. “See, see, that’s the lady. See seven fingers on that hand and five on this. Now follow her feet down and dig in the ground.”

They dug and found strings of lovely brown nuts as big as walnuts.

“See, see,” chuckled the wood-witch. “See the cocoanuts in the cellar.”

Go forth and look for it, ye Woodcrafters. You will find it throughout Eastern America on the edge of every wood. Its flower is like a purple-brown sweet-pea, and is in bloom all summer long. Follow down its vine, dig out a few of the potatoes or nuts, and try them, raw, boiled, or if ye wish to eat them as Indian Cake, clean them, cut them in slices, dry till hard, pound them up into meal, and make a cake the same as you would of oatmeal.

The wild things love them, the Indians love them, and this was the bread of the wood-witch. The books call it Bog Potato and Ground Nuts. It is the third secret of the woods.


The Mud-dauber Wasp

If you look under the roof of any wooden barn in Eastern America you are likely to see the nest of the common Mud-wasp.

If you look on warm sunny days along the edge of some mud puddle you are sure to see a curious steel-blue wasp, with a very thin waist, working away at a lump of mud. She seems to be breathing hard with her body, as she works with her yellow legs, but she finally goes off laden with a gob of mud. This is the Mud-wasp at work, building a strong mud-nest for her family. The nest is the one we have seen hung under the roof of the shed, always put where no rain can reach it.

In the drawing are two of these nests.

Once the cradle is ready, the mother Wasp goes spider-hunting. Whenever she can find a spider, she pounces on it, and with her sting, she stabs it in the body, so as to paralyze it, but not kill it. Then she carries it to the mud cell and packs it in, at the far end. Many spiders are caught and preserved this way, for they do not usually die though they cannot move.

When the cell is full, the Wasp lays an egg on the last spider, and seals up the opening with a mud lid.

Very soon the egg hatches out a little white grub which begins on the spider next to him, eating the legs first, and the body last, so as to keep it alive as long as possible, though of course the spider has no feeling. Then he eats the next spider, and the next, growing as he eats, until he nearly fills the cell, and the spiders are all eaten up.

Now the grub goes to sleep, and next spring comes out as a full-grown Mud-wasp to do exactly as the mother did, though it never saw that Mother or had a lesson from any one in the many strange things it must do to live.

I went into my boat-house to-day, November 20, 1919, to get a mud nest for this drawing. There were 86 on the roof; some of them with 20 or 30 cells, and besides there was a lot of paper nests by other Wasps. The nest I took had two cells, one open and empty, and the other with a mud lid on tight. This held a long, shiny brown transparent case, in which was a white grub much too small for the big coat he was wearing. The grub was sound asleep, and would have come out next spring, as a big steel-blue Mud-wasp had I let him alone. But there are plenty of Mud-wasps so I fed him to the Chicadees, which likely is what Mother Carey would have done.


The Cicada and the Katydid

Once upon a time, long, long ago, the birds whose job it was to make the woods merry with their songs, decided to go on strike. They said, “We have sung all day, all springtime, and half way through the summer, but now we are moulting, the weather is frightfully hot; we need a rest, and we are going to stop singing, to take a holiday.”

Then Dame Nature, who is sometimes called the All-mother, or Mother Carey, said: “Dear me, this will never do! No songbirds, woods silent all through the dog-days. Now who will be strike-breakers and volunteer to supply the music till the birds get once more in a good humour?”

Then up at that question got a long-winged insect like a big fly, and a long-legged insect like a green grasshopper, and both said at once, “I will.” Amid low murmurs of “Scab! Scab!” from many of the Wood-birds.

“You. I forgot that you two had any voices at all!” said Mother Carey.

Then the long-winged creature, whose name is Cicada, began, “True, my voice isn’t much, but I have invented a most successful musical Castanet. Listen!”

Then he began an extraordinary racket like an alarm clock, a threshing machine, and a buzz-saw all going together. He filled the grove with his noise, and set all the woodfolk laughing with his funny performance. Though, of course, he didn’t mean to be funny; he thought it was fine.

Then as the Cicada ceased, Mother Carey said to the Green Hopper, whose name was Katy, “Now, Katy, what can you do?”

“I do not brag of my voice, dear Mother,” said she, “but I am a thrilling performer on the violin.”

Then she humped herself up over a green fiddle that she had under her cloak, and nearly deafened them with its hoarse screechings.

There was no doubt that these two could make as much noise as a wood full of birds; both were eager to take sole charge, and a bitter dispute arose as to whose idea it was first.

But Mother Carey settled it by dividing the time. “You,” she said to Cicada, “can take charge of the music by day, and you,” she said to the Green one, “must take it up at sundown in place of the nightingale, and keep it up, till the night breaks, and both of you continue till the frost comes, or until the birds are back on the job.”

That is how it all came about.

But there is considerable feeling yet among the Katies, that they should get all the night work, and never be seen performing. They think that their ancestor was the original inventor of this cheap substitute for bird song. And it is made all the worse by a division among themselves. Some say “she did” and some say “she didn’t.” If you notice in early August, they are nearly all shouting, “Katy-did.” Then by the end of the month, “Katy-didn’t” is stronger. In September it is still mixed. In October their work is over, the chorus ended, but you hear an occasional “Katy-did” and finally as late as Indian Summer, which is Hallowe’en, I have heard the last of the fiddlers rasp out “she did”; and do it in daytime, too, as though to flout the followers of Cicada. And, if the last word be truth, as they say, we may consider it settled, that Katy really and truly did. And yet I believe next year the same dispute will arise, and we shall have the noisy argument all over again.

If you look at the portraits of Cicada, the Hotweather-bug or Locust, and of the Katydid, you will not see their musical instruments very plainly, but believe me they have them; and you can hear them any late summer hot-weather time, in any part of the Eastern States and some parts of southern Canada.

And now let me finish with a secret. Katy is not a lady at all, but a he-one disguised in green silk stockings, and a green satin dress.


The Digger Wasp that Killed the Cicada

Strange things are done in the realm of Mother Carey; strange things and cruel. At least so they seem to us, for we do not know the plan that is behind them. We know only that sometimes love must be cruel. I am going to tell you of a strange happening, that you may see any hot day in August. And this is how it came about.

At that meeting in the woods when the Cicada and the Katydid undertook to be musicians, while the birds were on strike, there was one strong insect who gave off an angry “Bizz, Bizz” that sounded like “Scab, Scab.” That was the big yellow-and-black Digger Wasp, the biggest of the wasps, with a sting that is as bad as that of a baby rattlesnake. And that very day she declared war on the Cicada and his kind. The Katydids she could not touch, because the Wasp cannot see at night.

But the Cicada was easy to find. As soon as the day got hot, and that awful buzzing began in the trees, the Big Digger got her sting ready, and went booming along in the direction of the sound.

Now Mother Carey had given the Cicada bright eyes and strong wings, and it was his own business to take care of himself; but he was so pleased with his music that he never saw the fierce Digger Wasp, till she charged on him. And before he could spread his wings, she had stabbed him through.

His song died away in a few shrieks, and then the Cicada lay still. But not dead, for the Digger had stuck her poison dagger into the nerve centre, so that he was paralyzed and helpless, but still living.

Now the Digger set about a plan. She wanted to get that Cicada body into her den, to feed her young ones with it. But the Cicada was bigger and heavier than she was, so that she could not carry it. However, she was bent on doing it, she got all ready, took tight hold with her claws, then swooped from the tree, flying as strongly as she could, till the weight of the Cicada brought her to the ground within fifty feet, while the den was fully a hundred feet away. But the Wasp dragged the Cicada up the trunk of another tree, then took another long sloping flight as before. One more climb and skid down, brought her to her den-a hole in a bank that she had dug out; that is why she is called the Digger Wasp. The passage was a foot long and had a crook in the middle. At the end was a round room an inch and a half high. Here the Digger left her victim’s body and right on its breast, to one side, laid an egg.

This hatched in two or three days, and began to feed on the Cicada. In a week it had eaten the Cicada and grown to be a big fat grub. Then it spun a cocoon, and made itself into a bundle-baby, resting all autumn and all winter in that dark den.

But when the spring came with its glorious wakening up, great changes came over the bundle-baby of the Digger. It threw off the cocoon and its outer skin, and came forth from the gloom into the sunshine, a big strong Digger Wasp with a sting of its own, and a deadly feud with all screaming Cicadas. Although it never saw its mother, or got any lessons from her, it goes after the buzzing hotweather-bugs, when August comes, and treats them exactly as she did.


How the Indian Summer Came

Wahkonda, the Great Spirit, the Ruler of the World, had found pleasure the whole summer long in making mountains, lakes, and forests. Then when the autumn came, and the leaves fell from the trees, He lighted His pipe and sat down to look over the things He had made.

As He did so, the north wind arose for Cold Time was coming, and blew the smoke and ashes of the pipe into His face. Then He said: “Cease your blowing, all ye winds, until I have finished smoking.” So, of course, there was dead calm.

Wahkonda smoked for ten days, and during all that time there were no clouds in the sky, for there was no wind to bring them; there was unbroken, calm sunny weather. But neither was there any wind to carry off the smoke, so it hung, as the teepee smoke hangs at sunrise, and it drifted over the valleys and forests in a blue haze.

Then at last when the Great Spirit finished His smoke and His meditation, He emptied out His pipe. That was the signal, the north wind broke loose, and came howling down from the hills, driving the leaves before it, and warning all wild things to be ready, for soon there would be winter in the woods.

And it hath been so ever since. When the leaves have fallen and before yet the Ice-king is here, there come, for a little while, the calm dreamy days, when the Great Spirit is smoking His pipe, and the smoke is on the land. The Red-men call them the Smoking Days, but we call it Indian Summer.