A Book of Natural History Part 22

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In the fall the loon (_Colymbus glacialis_) came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild laughter before I had risen. At rumor of his arrival all the Mill-dam sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs and on foot, two by two and three by three, with patent rifles and conical b.a.l.l.s and spy-gla.s.ses. They come rustling through the woods like autumn leaves, at least ten men to one loon. Some station themselves on this side of the pond, some on that, for the poor bird cannot be omnipresent; if he dive here he must come up there.

But now the kind October wind rises, rustling the leaves and rippling the surface of the water, so that no loon can be heard or seen, though his foes sweep the pond with spy-gla.s.ses, and make the woods resound with their discharges. The waves generously rise and dash angrily, taking sides with all waterfowl, and our sportsmen must beat a retreat to town and shop and unfinished jobs. But they were too often successful. When I went to get a pail of water early in the morning I frequently saw this stately bird sailing out of my cove within a few rods. If I endeavored to overtake him in a boat, in order to see how he would manuvre, he would dive and be completely lost, so that I did not discover him again, sometimes, till the latter part of the day.

But I was more than a match for him on the surface. He commonly went off in a rain.

As I was paddling along the north sh.o.r.e one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the sh.o.r.e toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before.

He manuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he coolly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the wildest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.

Suddenly your adversary's checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again.

Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having apparently pa.s.sed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swam farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part. It is said that loons have been caught in the New York lakes eighty feet beneath the surface, with hooks set for trout,--though Walden is deeper than that. How surprised must the fishes be to see this ungainly visitor from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools!

Yet he appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and instantly dived again. I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh?

Did not his white breast enough betray him?

He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the plash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a waterfowl; but occasionally when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning,--perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.

Though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth that I could see where he broke the surface when I did not hear him. His white breast, the stillness of the air, and the smoothness of the water were all against him. At length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the G.o.d of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his G.o.d was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.

For hours, in fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman; tricks which they will have less need to practise in Louisiana bayous. When compelled to rise they would sometimes circle round and round and over the pond at a considerable height, from which they could easily see to other ponds and the river, like black motes in the sky; and, when I thought they had gone off thither long since, they would settle down by a slanting flight of a quarter of a mile on to a distant part which was left free; but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do.






I want you to take a journey with me which I took in imagination a few days ago, as I lay on my back on the sunny moor and watched the Dartmoor ponies.

It was a calm misty morning one day last week, giving promise of a bright and sunny day, when I started off for a long walk across the moor to visit the famous stone-circles, many of which are to be found not far off the track, called Abbot's Way, leading from Buckfast Abbey, on the Dart, to the Abbey of Tavistock, on the Tavy.

My mind was full of the olden times as I pictured to myself how, seven hundred years or more ago, some Benedictine monk from Tavistock Abbey, in his black robe and cowl, paced this narrow path on his way to his Cistercian brethren at Buckfast, meeting some of them on his road as they wandered over the desolate moor in their white robes and black scapularies in search of stray sheep. For the Cistercians were shepherds and wool-weavers, while the Benedictines devoted themselves to learning, and the track of about twenty-five miles from one abbey to the other, which still remains, was worn by the members of the two communities and their dependents, the only variety in whose lives consisted probably in these occasional visits one to the other.

Yet even these monks belonged to modern times compared to the ancient Britons who raised the stone-circles, and buried their dead in the barrows scattered here and there over the moor; and my mind drifted back to the days when, long before that pathway was worn, men clad in the skins of beasts hunted wild animals over the ground on which I was treading, and lived in caves and holes of the ground.

I wondered, as I thought of them, whether the cultured monks and the uncivilized Britons delighted as much in the rugged scenery of the moor as I did that morning. For many miles in front of me the moor stretched out wild and treeless; the sun was shining brightly upon the ma.s.s of yellow furze and deep-red heather, drawing up the moisture from the ground, and causing a kind of watery haze to shimmer over the landscape; while the early mist was rising off the _tors_, or hill-tops, in the distance, curling in fanciful wreaths around the rugged and stony summits, as it dispersed gradually in the increasing heat of the day.

The cattle which were scattered in groups here and there feeding on the dewy gra.s.s were enjoying the happiest time of the year. The moor, which in winter affords them scarcely a bare subsistence, is now richly covered with fresh young gra.s.s, and the st.u.r.dy oxen fed solemnly and deliberately, while the wild Dartmoor ponies and their colts scampered joyously along, shaking their manes and long flowing tails, and neighing to each other as they went; or cl.u.s.tered together on some verdant spot, where the colts teased and bit each other for fun, as they gambolled round their mothers.

It was a pleasure, there on the open moor, with the lark soaring overhead, and the b.u.t.terflies and bees hovering among the sweet-smelling furze blossoms, to see horses free and joyous, with no thought of bit or bridle, harness or saddle, whose hoofs had never been handled by the shoeing-smith, nor their coats touched with the singeing iron. Those little colts, with their thick heads, s.h.a.ggy coats, and flowing tails, will have at least two years more freedom before they know what it is to be driven or beaten. Only once a year are they gathered together, claimed by their owners and branded with an initial, and then left again to wander where they will. True, it is a freedom which sometimes has its drawbacks, for if the winter is severe the only food they can get will be the furze-tops, off which they sc.r.a.pe the snow with their feet; yet it is very precious in itself, for they can gallop when and where they choose, with head erect, sniffing at the wind and crying to each other for the very joy of life.

Now as I strolled across the moor and watched their gambols, thinking how like free wild animals they seemed, my thoughts roamed far away, and I saw in imagination scenes where other untamed animals of the horse tribe are living unfettered all their lives long.

First there rose before my mind the level gra.s.s-covered pampas of South America, where wild horses share the boundless plains with troops of the rhea, or American ostrich, and wander, each horse with as many mares as he can collect, in companies of hundreds or even thousands in a troop. These horses are now truly wild, and live freely from youth to age, unless they are unfortunate enough to be caught in the more inhabited regions by the la.s.so of the hunter. In the broad pampas, the home of herds of wild cattle, they dread nothing. There, as they roam with one bold stallion as their leader, even beasts of prey hesitate to approach them, for, when they form into a dense ma.s.s with the mothers and young in their centre, their heels deal blows which even the fierce jaguar does not care to encounter, and they trample their enemy to death in a very short time. Yet these are not the original wild horses we are seeking, they are the descendants of tame animals, brought from Europe by the Spaniards to Buenos Ayres in 1535, whose descendants have regained their freedom on the boundless pampas and prairies.

As I was picturing them careering over the plains, another scene presented itself and took their place. Now I no longer saw around me tall pampas-gra.s.s with the long necks of the rheas appearing above it, for I was on the edge of a dreary, scantily covered plain between the Aral Sea and the Balkash Lake in Tartary. To the south lies a barren sandy desert, to the north the fertile plains of the Kirghiz steppes, where the Tartar feeds his flocks, and herds of antelopes gallop over the fresh green pasture; and between these is a kind of no-man's land, where low scanty shrubs and stunted gra.s.s seem to promise but a poor feeding-ground.

Yet here the small long-legged but powerful "Tarpans," the wild horses of the treeless plains of Russia and Tartary, were picking their morning meal. St.u.r.dy wicked little fellows they are, with their s.h.a.ggy light-brown coats, short wiry manes, erect ears, and fiery watchful eyes. They might well be supposed to be true wild horses, whose ancestors had never been tamed by man; and yet it is more probable that even they escaped in early times from the Tartars, and have held their own ever since, over the gra.s.sy steppes of Russia and on the confines of the plains of Tartary. Sometimes they live almost alone, especially on the barren wastes where they have been seen in winter, sc.r.a.ping the snow off the herbage as our ponies do on Dartmoor. At other times, as in the south of Russia, where they wander between the Dnieper and the Don, they gather in vast herds and live a free life, not fearing even the wolves, which they beat to the ground with their hoofs. From one green oasis to another they travel over miles of ground.

"A thousand horse--and none to ride!

With flowing tail, and flying mane, Wide nostrils--never stretched by pain, Mouths bloodless to the bit or rein, And feet that iron never shod, And flanks unscarred by spur or rod, A thousand horse, the wild, the free, Like waves that follow o'er the sea."[11]

[11] Byron's _Mazeppa_.

As I followed them in their course I fancied I saw troops of yet another animal of the horse tribe, the "Kulan," or _Equus hemionus_, which is a kind of half horse, half a.s.s (p. 393), living on the Kirghiz steppes of Tartary and spreading far beyond the range of the Tarpan into Tibet. Here at last we have a truly wild animal, never probably brought into subjection by man. The number of names he possesses shows how widely he has spread. The Tartars call him "Kulan," the Tibetans "Kiang," while the Mongolians give him the unp.r.o.nounceable name of "Dschiggetai." He will not submit to any of them, but if caught and confined soon breaks away again to his old life, a "free and fetterless creature."

No one has ever yet settled the question whether he is a horse or an a.s.s, probably because he represents an animal truly between the two.

His head is graceful, his body light, his legs slender and fleet, yet his ears are long and a.s.s-like; he has narrow hoofs, and a tail with a tuft at the end like all the a.s.s tribe; his color is a yellow brown, and he has a short dark mane and a long dark stripe down his back as a donkey has, though this last character you may also see in many of our Devonshire ponies. Living often on the high plateaux, sometimes as much as fifteen hundred feet above the sea, this "child of the steppes" travels in large companies even as far as the rich meadows of Central Asia; in summer wandering in green pastures, and in winter seeking the hunger-steppes where st.u.r.dy plants grow. And when autumn comes the young steeds go off alone to the mountain heights to survey the country around and call wildly for mates, whom, when found, they will keep close to them through all the next year, even though they mingle with thousands of others.

Till about ten years ago the _Equus hemionus_ was the only truly wild horse known, but in the winter of 187980 the Russian traveller Przevalsky brought back from Central Asia a much more horse-like animal, called by the Tartars "Kertag" and by the Mongols "Statur." It is a clumsy, thick-set, whitish-gray creature with strong legs and a large, heavy, reddish-colored head; its legs have a red tint down to the knees, beyond which they are blackish down to the hoofs. But the ears are small, and it has the broad hoofs of the true horse, and warts on his hind legs, which no animal of the a.s.s tribe has. This horse, like the Kiang, travels in small troops of from five to fifteen, led through the wildest parts of the Dsungarian desert, between the Altai and Tianschan Mountains, by an old stallion. They are extremely shy, and see, hear, and smell very quickly, so that they are off like lightning whenever anything approaches them.

So having travelled over America, Europe, and Asia, was my quest ended? No; for from the dreary Asiatic deserts my thoughts wandered to a far warmer and more fertile land, where between the Blue Nile and the Red Sea rise the lofty highlands of Abyssinia, among which the African wild a.s.s (_Asinus taeniopus_), the probable ancestor of our donkeys, feeds in troops on the rich gra.s.ses of the slopes, and then onwards to the bank of a river in Central Africa where on the edge of a forest, with rich pastures beyond, elephants and rhinoceroses, antelopes and buffaloes, lions and hyaenas, creep down in the cool of the evening to slake their thirst in the flowing stream. There I saw the herds of Zebras in all their striped beauty coming down from the mountain regions to the north, and mingling with the darker-colored but graceful quaggas from the southern plains, and I half-grieved at the thought how these untamed and free rovers are being slowly but surely surrounded by man closing in upon them on every side.

I might now have travelled still farther in search of the Onager, or wild a.s.s of the Asiatic and Indian deserts, but at this point a more interesting and far wider question presented itself, as I flung myself down on the moor to ponder over the early history of all these tribes.

Where have they all come from? Where shall we look for the first ancestors of these wild and graceful animals? For the answer to this question I had to travel back to America, to those Western United States where Professor Marsh has made such grand discoveries in horse history. For there, in the very country where horses were supposed never to have been before the Spaniards brought them a few centuries ago, we have now found the true birthplace of the equine race.

Come back with me to a time so remote that we cannot measure it even by hundred of thousands of years, and let us visit the territories of Utah and Wyoming. Those highlands were very different then from what they are now. Just risen out of the seas of the Cretaceous Period, they were then clothed with dense forests of palms, tree-ferns, and screw-pines, magnolias and laurels, interspersed with wide-spreading lakes, on the margins of which strange and curious animals fed and flourished. There were large beasts with teeth like the tapir and the bear, and feet like the elephant; and others far more dangerous, half bear, half hyaena, prowling around to attack the clumsy paleotherium or the anoplotherium, something between a rhinoceros and a horse, which grazed by the waterside, while graceful antelopes fed on the rich gra.s.s. And among these were some little animals no bigger than foxes, with four toes and a splint for the fifth, on their front feet, and three toes on the hind ones.

These clumsy little animals, whose bones have been found in the rocks of Utah and Wyoming, have been called _Eohippus_, or horses of the dawn, by naturalists. They were animals with real toes, yet their bones and teeth show that they belonged to the horse tribe, and already the fifth toe common to most other toed animals was beginning to disappear.

This was in the Eocene Period, and before it pa.s.sed away with its screw-pines and tree-ferns, another rather larger animal, called the Orohippus, had taken the place of the small one, and he had only four toes on his front feet. The splint had disappeared, and as time went on still other animals followed, always with fewer toes, while they gained slender fleet legs, together with an increase in size and in gracefulness. First one as large as a sheep (Mesohippus) had only three toes and a splint. Then the splint again disappeared, and one large and two dwindling toes only remained, till finally these two became mere splints, leaving one large toe or hoof with almost imperceptible splints, which may be seen on the fetlock of a horse's skeleton.

You must notice that a horse's foot really begins at the point which we call his knee in the front legs, and at his hock in his hind legs.

His true knee and elbow are close up to the body. What we call his foot or hoof is really the end of the strong, broad, middle toe covered with a hoof, and farther up his foot we can feel two small splints, which are remains of two other toes.

[Ill.u.s.tration: SKELETON OF HORSE OR a.s.s.

i, Incisor teeth. g, Grinding teeth, with the gap between the two as in all gra.s.s-feeders. k, Knee. h, Hock or heel. f, Foot. s, Splints or remains of the two lost toes. e, Elbow. w, Wrist. h, Hand-bone. t, Middle toe of three joints, 1, 2, 3 forming the hoof.]

Meanwhile during these long succeeding ages while the foot was lengthening out into a slender limb the animals became larger, more powerful, and more swift, the neck and head became longer and more graceful, the brain-case larger in front and the teeth decreased in number, so that there is now a large gap between the biting teeth and the grinding teeth of a horse. Their slender limbs too became more flexible and fit for running and galloping, till we find the whole skeleton the same in shape, though not in size, as in our own horses and a.s.ses now.

They did not, however, during all this time remain confined to America, for, from the time when they arrived at an animal called _Miohippus_, or lesser horse, which came after the Mesohippus and had only three toes on each foot, we find their remains in Europe, where they lived in company with the giraffes, opossums, and monkeys which roamed over these parts in those ancient times. Then a little later we find them in Africa and India; so that the horse tribe, represented by creatures about as large as donkeys, had spread far and wide over the world.

And now, curiously enough, they began to forsake, or to die out in, the land of their birth. Why they did so we do not know; but while in the old world as a.s.ses, quaggas, and zebras, and probably horses, they flourished in Asia, Europe, and Africa, they certainly died out in America, so that ages afterwards, when that land was discovered, no animal of the horse tribe was found in it.

And the true horse, where did he arise? Born and bred probably in Central Asia from some animal like the "Kulan," or the "Kertag," he proved too useful to savage tribes to be allowed his freedom, and it is doubtful whether in any part of the world he escaped subjection. In our own country he probably roamed as a wild animal till the savages, who fed upon him, learned in time to put him to work; and when the Romans came they found the Britons with fine and well-trained horses.

Yet though tamed and made to know his master, he has, as we have seen, broken loose again in almost all parts of the world--in American on the prairies and pampas, in Europe and Asia on the steppes, and in Australia in the bush. And even in Great Britain, where so few patches of uncultivated land still remain, the young colts of Dartmoor, Exmoor, and Shetland, though born of domesticated mothers, seems to a.s.sert their descent from wild and free ancestors as they throw out their heels and toss up their heads with a shrill neigh, and fly against the wind with streaming manes and outstretched tails as the Kulan, the Tarpan, and the Zebra do in the wild desert or gra.s.sy plain.


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A Book of Natural History Part 22 summary

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