Read THINGS TO KNOW of Woodland Tales , free online book, by Ernest Thompson Seton, on ReadCentral.com.

TALE 1

How the Pine Tree Tells Its Own Story

Suppose you are in the woods, and your woods in Canada, or the Northern
States; you would see at once two kinds of trees: Pines and Hardwoods.

Pines, or Evergreens, have leaves like needles, and are green all the year round; they bear cones and have soft wood.

The Hardwoods, or Broadleaves, sometimes called Shedders, have broad leaves that are shed in the fall; they bear nuts or berries and have hard wood.

Remember this, every tree that grows has flowers and seeds; and the tree can always be told by its seeds, that is, its fruit. If you find a tree with cones on it, you know it belongs to the Pine family. If you find one with broad leaves and nuts or berries, it belongs to the Hardwoods.

Of these the Pines always seem to me more interesting.

In September, 1002, I had a good chance to study Pine trees in the mountains of Idaho. There was a small one that had to be cut down, so I made careful drawings of it. It was fourteen years old, and across the stump it showed one ring of wood for each year of growth, and a circle of branches on the trunk for each year. Notice that between the branches, the trunk did not taper; it was an even cylinder, but got suddenly smaller at each knot by the same amount of wood as was needed by those branches for their wood.

If we begin in the centre of the stump, and at the bottom of the trunk, we find that the little tree tells us its own story of its life and troubles. Its first year, judging by the bottom section of the trunk (N and by the inmost ring, was just ordinary. Next year according to section 2 and ring 2, it had a fine season and grew nearly twice as much as the first year. The third year the baby Pine had a very hard time, and nearly died. Maybe it was a dry summer, so the little tree grew only 2-1/2 inches higher while the ring of wood it added was no thicker than a sheet of paper. Next year, the fourth, it did better. And the next was about its best year, for it grew 7-1/2 inches higher, and put on a fine fat ring of wood, as you see.

In its eleventh year, it had some new troubles; either the season was dry, or the trees about too shady, or maybe disease attacked it. For it grew but a poor shoot on the top, and the ring of wood on the stump is about the thinnest of all.

Of course, a saw-cut along the second joint showed but thirteen rings, and the third but twelve while one through the top joint, the one which grew this year, showed but a single ring.

Thus the Pine tree has in itself a record of its whole life; and this is easy to read when the tree is small; but in later life the lower limbs disappear, and the only complete record is in the rings of growth that show on the stump. These never fail to tell the truth.

Of course, you are not to go around cutting down trees merely to count their rings and read their history, but you should look at the rings whenever a new stump gives you a good chance. Then Hardwoods as well as Pines will spread before you the chapters of their life; one ring for each year that they have lived.

TALE 2

Blazes

All hunters and Indians have signs to let their people know the way. Some of these signs are on trees, and are called “Blazes.” One of those much used is a little piece of bark chipped off to show the white wood; it means: “This is the way, or the place.” Another sign is like an arrow, and means: “Over there,” or “Go in that direction.” No matter what language they speak, the blazes tell everyone alike. So a blaze is a simple mark that tells us something without using words or letters, and it depends on where it is placed for part of its meaning.

On the following page are some blazes used in our towns to-day. You will find many more if you look, some in books; some on the adjoining page.

TALE 3

Totems

A Totem is a simple form used as the emblem or symbol of a man, a group of men, an animal, or an idea; it does not use or refer to words or letters, so it is the same in all languages. Unlike the blaze it does not depend on its position for part of its meaning.

Among peoples that cannot read or write, each leading man had a Totem that he used, instead of writing his name. He put this mark on his property, and at length put it on his shield and armour to distinguish him in battle. Out of this grew heraldry.

Modern trade-marks are Totems though often spoiled by words or letters added. The Totem continues in use because it is so easy to see a long way off, and can be understood by all, no matter what their language. Most of the great railway companies have a Totem and the use of such things is increasing to-day.

Here in the drawing are some Totems seen daily in our towns. Doubtless you can add to the number.

TALE 4

Symbols

If you have thought much about it, O Guide! you will surely find that, for decoration, it is better to use a beautiful symbol of anything, rather than a good photograph of it. For the symbol lets the imagination loose, and the other chains it to the ground; the one is the spirit, and the other the corpse. These things you cannot tell to the little folks, but you can prove them to yourself, and you will see why I wish to give some symbols here for use.

There is another reason, one which you can give to them. It is this: Only the highly trained artist can make a good portrait drawing, while the smallest child, if it sticks to symbols, is sure, in some degree, of a pleasant success in its very first effort.

These that I give, are copied from Indian art, and whether in colour, in raised modelling, or in black lines, can be used successfully to decorate anything that you are likely to make.

TALE 5

Sign Language

All men, especially wild men, and some animals have a language of signs. That is, they talk to each other without making any sounds; using instead, the movements of parts of the body. This is “eye talk,” while words are “ear talk.”

Among the animals, horses bob their heads when they are hungry and paw with a front foot when thirsty or eager to be off. Dogs wag their tails when pleased, and cows shake their heads when angry.

Policemen, firemen, railway men, and others use signs because there is too much noise to be heard. School children use signs because they are not allowed to talk in school. Most children know the signs for “yes” and “no,” “come here,” “go away,” “hurry up,” “you can’t touch me,” “hush!”, “shame on you!”, “up,” “down,” “word of honour,” “swimming,” etc.

The traffic policeman is using signs all day long. By a movement of the hand he signals:-stop, go on, come here, hurry up, wait, turn around, go by, stay back, over there, you look out, right here, and one or two others.

How many signs can you add to these two lists?

TALE 6

The Language of Hens

Yes; Hens talk somewhat as we do; only they haven’t so many words, and don’t depend on them as we have to.

There are only ten words in ordinary hen-talk.

The cluck, cluck of the mother means “Come along, kiddies.”

The low kawk of warning, usually for a hawk.

The chuck, chuck of invitation means, “Good food.”

The tuk-ut-e-ah-tuk means, “Bless my soul, what is that?”

The cut, cut, get your hair cut, of a Hen that has just laid and is feeling greatly relieved; no doubt, saying, “Thank goodness, that’s done!” or maybe it is a notice to her mate or friend that “Business is over, let’s have some fun. Where are you?”

The soft, long-drawn tawk-tawk-tawk, that is uttered as the Hen strolls about, corresponds to the whistling of the small boy; that is, it is a mere pastime, expressing freedom from fear or annoyance.

The long, harsh, crauk, crauk of fear when captured.

The quick clack, clack, clatter when springing up in fear of capture.

The put, put of hunger.

And, of course, the peep, peep of chickens and the
cock-a-doodle-doo, which is the song of the Rooster.

Some Hens may have more; but these given here are hen-talk for mother-love, warning, invitation, surprise, exultation, cheerfulness, fear, astonishment, and hunger. Not a bad beginning in the way of language.

TALE 7

Why the Squirrel Wears a Bushy Tail

“Oh, Mother, look at that Gray Squirrel!” shouted Billie. “What a beautiful bushy tail he has!” Then, after a pause he added, “Mother, what is its tail for? Why is it so big and fluffy? I know a ’Possum has a tail to hang on a limb with, and a Fish can swim with his tail, but why is a Gray Squirrel’s tail so bushy and soft?”

Alas! Mother didn’t know, and couldn’t tell where to find out. It was long after, that little Billie got the answer to his childish, but really important question. The Alligator may use his tail as a club, the Horse, his tail as a fly-flapper, the Porcupine his tail as a spiked war-club, the ’Possum his as a hooked hanger, the Fox his as a muffler, the Fish his as a paddle; but the Gray Squirrel’s tail is a parachute, a landeasy. I have seen a Gray Squirrel fall fifty feet to the ground, but his tail was in good condition; he spread it to the utmost and it landed him safely right side up.

I remember also a story of a Squirrel that lost his tail by an accident. It didn’t seem to matter much for a while. The stump healed up, and the Squirrel was pert as ever; but one day he missed his hold in jumping, and fell to the ground. Ordinarily, that would have been a small matter; but without his tail he was jarred so severely that a dog, who saw him fall, ran up and killed him before he could recover and climb a tree.

TALE 8

Why a Dog Wags His Tail

There is an old story that the Dog said to the Cat: “Cat, you are a fool; you growl when you are pleased and wag your tail when you are angry.” Which happens to be true; and makes us ask: Why does a Dog wag his tail to mean friendship?

The fact is, it is part of a wig-wag code, which is doubly interesting now that all our boys are learning wig-wagging with a white flag. We think that our army people invented this method; but Woodcraft men know better.

First, notice that any Dog that has any white on his body has at least a little white on the end of his tail. This is well known; and the reason is that the wild ancestor had a white brush on the end of his tail; a white flag, indeed; and this was the flag of his signal code.

Suppose, then, that a wild Dog, prowling through the woods, sights some other animal. Instantly he crouches; for it is good woodcraft to avoid being seen and then watch from your hiding-place. As the stranger comes near, the crouching Dog sees that it is one of his own kind, and that it is needless to hide any longer; indeed, that it is impossible to remain hidden. So the moment the stranger stops and looks at the crouching Dog, the latter stands straight up on all fours, raises his tail up high, and wags the white tip from side to side in the sign which means, “Let’s be friends.”

Every Dog knows the sign, every Dog in every town does it yet; every boy has seen it a thousand times. We flatter ourselves that we invented the wig-wag code with our little white flag. Maybe so; but the Dog had it long before we did.

TALE 9

Why the Dog Turns Around Three Times Before Lying Down

Yes, they all do it; the big St. Bernard, the foolish littlest lap Dog, the ragged street Dog; give them bare boards, or a silken cushion, or snow, three turns around and down they go.

Why? Not so hard to answer as some simple questions. Long, long ago, the wild great-great-grandfather of the Dog-a yellow creature with black hair sprinkled on his back, sharp ears, light spots over his eyes, and a white tail-tip-used to live in the woods, or on the prairies. He did not have a home to which he might return every time he wanted to rest or sleep; so he camped wherever he found himself, on the plains, in a thicket, or even in some hole in a rock; and he carried his bedclothes on his back. But he always found it worth while to add a little comfort by smoothing the grass, the leaves, the twigs, or the pebbles before lying down; and the simplest way to do this was by curling up, and turning round three times, with the body brushing the high grass or pebbles into a comfortable shape for a bed.

Yes, and they all do it to-day just the same, big and little, which is only one of the many proofs that they are descended from the same wild-wood great-grandfather, and still remember his habits.

TALE 10

The Deathcup of Diablo

The world went very well in those bright days of the long ago, when the wedding of El Sol and Maka Ina set all living things rejoicing. Green youth and sparkling happiness were everywhere. Only one there was-Diablo-who found in it poor comfort. He had no pleasure in the growing grass. The buttercups annoyed him with the gayness of their gold. It was at this time he chewed their stalks, so that many ever since have been flattened and mangled. And the cherry with its fragrant bloom he breathed on with his poison breath, so its limbs were burnt and blackened into horrid canker bumps. And poisonous froth he blew on the sprouting rose leaves, so they blackened and withered away. The jewel weed, friend of the humming birds, he trampled down, but it rose so many times and so bravely, that he left the yellow dodder like an herb-worm, or a root-born leech to suck its blood all summer long, and break it down. Then to trail over the trunks of trees and suck their life, he left the demon vine, the Poison Ivy with its touch of burning fire. He put the Snapping Turtle in the beautiful lakes to destroy its harmless creatures and the Yellow-eyed Whizz he sent, and the Witherbloom with its breath of flame.

And last he made the Deathcup Toadstool, and sowed it in the woods.

He saw the Squirrels eating and storing up the sweet red russula. He saw it furnish food to mice and deer, so he fashioned the Deathcup Amanita to be like it; and scattered it wherever good mushrooms grew, a trap for the unwary.

Tall and shapely is the Deathcup; beautiful to look upon and smelling like a mushroom. But beware of it, a very little is enough, a morsel of the cup; the next night or maybe a day later the poison pangs set in. Too late perhaps for medicine to help, and Amanita, the Deathcup, the child of Diablo, has claimed another victim.

How shall we know the deadly Amanita among its kindly cousins, the good mushrooms? Wise men say by these:-The poison cup from which its springs; the white kid collar on its neck; the white or yellow gills; and the white spores that fall from its gills if the cup, without the stem, be laid gills down on a black paper for an hour.

By these things we may know the wan Demon of the woods, but the wisest Guides say to their tribe:-“Because death lurks in that shapely mushroom, though there are a hundred good for food, they are much alike, and safety bids you shun them; let them all alone.”

So Diablo went on his way rejoicing because he had spoiled so much good food for good folk.

This, the danger of the Deathcup, is the Seventh Secret of the Woods.

TALE 11

Poison Ivy or the Three-Fingered Demon of the Woods

You have been hearing about good fairies and good old Mother Carey and Medicine in the Sky. Now I am going to warn you against the three-fingered Demon, the wicked snakevine that basks on stone walls and climbs up the tree trunk, and does more harm than all the other plants, vines, trees, and bushes put together; for it is not like the Deathcup, easy to see and easy to let alone.

This is the Poison Ivy. Does it not look poisonous as it crawls snake-like up some trunk, sending suckers out into the tree to suck the sap; and oozing all over its limbs with poison in tiny wicked little drops? Sometimes it does not climb but crawls on the ground, but by this ye may always know it: It has only three fingers on its hand; that is, only three leaflets on each stalk.

The one thing that looks like it, is the Boston Ivy, but that does not grow in the woods, and the Poison Ivy leaf always has the little bump and bite out on the side of the leaf as you see in the drawing.

It is known and feared for its power to sting and blister the skin when it is handled or even touched. The sting begins with an unpleasant itching which gets worse, especially if rubbed, until it blisters and breaks open with sores which are very hard to heal.

The cause of the sting is a blistering oil, which is found in tiny drops on all parts of the leaf and branches; it is a fixed oil; that is, it will not dry up, and as long as it is on the skin, it keeps on burning and blistering, worse and worse.

THE CURE

And this is the cure for the sting of the Demon Vine:-

Anything that will dissolve and remove oil without injuring the skin:-

Hot water, as hot as you can stand it, is good; a little salt in it helps.

Hot soapy water is good.

Hot water with washing soda is good.

A wash of alcohol is good.

But best of all is a wash of strong alcohol in which is a little sugar of lead as an antiseptic.

The Guide should remember that three persons out of five are immune from Poison Ivy, while a few are so sensitive that they are poisoned by flies carrying it to them on their feet. It can be easily cured if treated at once; if neglected it often becomes very bad and may need the help of a doctor.

This is the Eighth Secret of the Woods.

TALE 12

The Medicine in the Sky

This is one of the greatest and best secrets of Woodcraft-The Medicine in the Sky.

Let me tell you a story about it. There was once an Indian who left his own people, to live with the white man, in the East. But the Great Spirit was displeased, for he did not mean the Indian to live in houses or cities. After a year, the red man came back very thin and sick, coughing nearly all night, instead of sleeping. He believed himself dying.

The wise old Medicine Man of his tribe said, “You need the Medicine of the Sky.” He took it and got quite well and strong.

Another Indian, who had gone to visit with a distant tribe of red men, came back with some sickness on his skin that made it very sore. It was far worse than Poison Ivy, for it began to eat into his flesh. The Medicine Man said, “Sky Medicine will cure you.” And it did.

One day a white man, a trader, came with chest protectors to sell to the Indians. He was sure they needed them, because he did; and, although so well wrapped up, he was always cold. He suffered whenever the wind blew. The old Medicine Man said, “We don’t need your chest pads, and you would not if you took the Sky Medicine.” So the trader tried it, and by and by, to his surprise and joy, no matter whether it was hot or cold outdoors, he was comfortable.

This man had a friend who was a learned professor in a college, and he told him about the great thing he had learned from the old Indian. The professor was not old, but he was very sick and feeble in body. He could not sleep nights. His hair was falling out, and his mind filled with gloomy thoughts. The whole world seemed dark to him. He knew it was a kind of disease, and he went away out West to see his friend. Then he met the Medicine Man and said to him, “Can you help me?”

The wise old Indian said, “Oh, white man, where do you spend your days?”

“I spend them at my desk, in my study, or in the classroom.”

“Yes, and your nights?”

“In my study among my books.”

“And where do you sleep?”

“I don’t sleep much, though I have a comfortable bed.”

“In the house?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Listen, then, O foolish white man. The Great Spirit set Big Medicine in the sky to cure our ills. And you hide from it day and night. What do you expect but evil? This do and be saved. Take the Sky Medicine in measure of your strength.”

He did so and it saved him. His strength came back. His cheeks grew ruddy, his hands grew steady, his hair ceased falling out, he slept like a baby. He was happy.

Now what is the Sky Medicine? It is the glorious sunlight, that cures so many human ills. We ask every Woodcrafter to hold on to its blessings.

And in this wise, O Guide, you must give it to the little ones. Make it an honourable exploit to be sunburnt to the elbows without blistering; another to be sunburnt to the shoulders; another to the waist; and greatest of all, when sunburnt all over. How are they to get this? Let them go to some quiet place for the last, and let the glory fall on their naked bodies, for ten minutes each day. Some more, and some less, according to their strength, and this is the measure-so long as it is pleasant, it is good.

In this way they will inherit one of the good things of the woods and be strong and hardened, for there is no greater medicine than the Sun in the sky.

TALE 13

The Angel of the Night

O Guide of the young Tribe! Know you the Twelfth Secret of the Woods? Know you what walked around your tent on that thirtieth night of your camp out? No! I think you knew, if you continued for thirty nights, but you knew not that you knew. These things, then, you should have in heart, and give to those you are leading.

The Great Spirit does not put out good air in the daytime and poison air at night. It is the same pure air at night, only cooler. Therefore use more clothing while you sleep. But while the outdoor air is pure, the indoor may be foul. Therefore sleep out of doors, and you will learn the blessedness of the night, and the night air, with its cooling kindly influence laden.

Those who come here to our Camp from life in town and sleeping in close rooms, are unaccustomed, and nervous it may be, so that they sleep little at first. But each night brings its balm of rest. Strength comes. Some know it in a week. The town-worn and nerve-weary find it at farthest in half a moon. And in one full moon be sure of this, when the night comes down you will find the blessed balm that the Great Spirit meant for all of us. You will sleep, a calm sweet vitalizing sleep.

You will know this the twelfth secret of the woods: What walked around your tent that thirtieth night? You know not, you heard nothing, for you slept. Yet when the morning comes you feel and know that round your couch, with wings and hands upraised in blessed soothing influence, there passed the Angel of the Night, with healing under her wings, and peace. You saw her not, you heard her not, but the sweet healing of her presence will be with you for many after moons.