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Our Sub Gardener by E. C. B.

 

He who doubts that civilized progress and industry is beneficial to birds, and promotes their comfort and multiplication, never saw the robin and the purple grakle following the plough on a summer's morning. The ploughman is not more punctually afield than his unbidden but welcome feathered attendants. They are ahead of him, perched patiently in the trees that dot fence or hedgerow. They see the team afar off, and as the gate rattles in opening for its admission the glad tidings is sent down the line in whistle or chirrup, the most musical of breakfast-bells. The worm that but for the intrusive ploughshare would blush unseen beneath the soil, and but for the feathered detective on the lookout for him would regain his subterranean retreat, might take a less cheery view of the philosophy of the matter; but he too is, taken collectively, favored by tillage and fattens on high-farming like an English squire. But we are not at present occupied with his feelings. Somebody must suffer in the battledore game of eat and be eaten, and we shall let the chain of continuous destruction rest here with the grub that reaps where he hath not sown. Horse, man and bird are honestly and harmoniously picking up a living at the expense of a fourth party that also thrives in the long run.

Not many of us get out with the plough at the orthodox hour of sunrise. It is a privilege few, comparatively, possess, and fewer still enjoy. The doctors recommend it warmly, on the ground that, though perhaps productive of rheumatism, it is death to dyspepsia. The faculty have, however, on this point piped to us in vain, and it is not at all in consequence of their advice that those who luxuriate in early agriculture adopt that system of hygiene, any more than the birds, who, as we have remarked, are first up and out, and who, at this season, in flat defiance of all medical rules, adopt a purely animal diet. Later, long after Lent, their food is varied with fruits and seeds, but never to such an extent as to amount to vegetarianism. This carnivorous taste ranks high in the "charm of earliest birds" so interesting to the cultivator. He, as a rule, is not wrapped up in the strawberry or the cherry that in the fulness of time comes to be levied on, in very moderate percentage, by a few of his musical associates. We do not forget that the blackbird has a weakness for planted maize, and that the quota of the cornhill is very truly and safely stated in the doggerel—

One for de blackbird, one for de crow,

Two for de cut-worm, and two for to grow.

The cut-worm is here correctly defined as the enemy, while the excise claimed by the birds is head-money for his extirpation. An adaptation of this instructive couplet to gardening for the guidance of those of us who do not farm, but garden in a small way, would naturally enlarge the allowance of the cut-worm. From the more limited demesne the crow and the grakle are generally excluded. What is their loss is the cut-worm's gain. Nowhere does he run (or burrow) riot more successfully than in old gardens. Living in darkness, from an apparent consciousness that his deeds are evil, he seems to be fully advised of all that goes on above ground. One would fancy that he has a complete system of subterranean telegraphs, like those coming into vogue in Europe. He learns within a few hours or minutes of every new lot of plants sprouting from the seed or set out from the hotbed. Upon both he sets systematically to work, following his row with a precision and thoroughness at once admirable and exasperating. You go out of a May afternoon, and with the tenderest care establish in their summer homes your very choicest plants. Reverse "One counted them at break of day, and when the sun set where were they?" and the tale that greets you the next morning is told. Did the spoiler need them for food, you would be partly reconciled to his proceedings, or at least would know how to frame some sort of an excuse for them. But he merely divides the succulent stem close to the surface of the ground, above or below, and leaves the wreck unutilized even by him. A comfort is that flight is not his forte. He is generally to be found by the exploring penknife or trowel close by the scene of his crime, and is thus easily subjected to condign punishment. But his wife, family and friends survive in different spots of the adjacent underworld, to give evidence of their existence only in subsequent havoc. The titillative rake or the peremptory hoe does not help you much in their discovery; for their color is that of the soil, their size as various as that of bits of gravel, and they are not easily perceptible to a cursory glance from the ordinary height of the eye. Here is where keener optics than yours, sharpened perhaps by a keener impulse—that of the stomach—come to the rescue. The catbird, whose imploring mew you listened to from your bed some time before thinking proper to respond to it, is intently watching operations from the other end of the border or the square. His lusty youngsters have been trained, after the good old fashion, to early hours, and they are impatient for breakfast. Their parent sees what you do not, and astonishes you by suddenly pouncing upon a bit of earth you have just broken and seizing a stout worm. This stranger, if presentable to the family circle, he is at once off with, his spouse taking his place in the field. Or the youngsters may still be in futuro. All the same: whatever turns up is welcome to him. His appetite seems as insatiable as that of half a dozen nestlings: they, you know, will eat three or four times their own weight in twelve hours. He is thus immensely useful to you, but your appreciation of that fact is as nothing to his estimate of your value to him. He accepts you as a being sent for his benefit. You are a part of his scheme of providence. True, he pities while he rejoices over you. Your blindness and stupidity in not seeing the fat and luscious tidbits he snaps up from almost beneath your feet is of course a subject of wonder and disdain. But he learns to make allowances for you, and comes to view your failings charitably, especially as they enure to his benefit, and so lean to Virtue's side. Fear of you he has none. Indeed, you inspire in him a certain sense of protection, for in your presence his habitual vigilance is lulled, and his apprehensive glances over his right and left shoulders fall to a lower figure per minute. He has learned there to feel safe from hawk and cat, and knows enough of other birds to be sure that none of them will "jump" his little claim of fifty feet square whereof you are the moving centre. His individual audacity gives him the sway of that small empire, and he doubts not that you will support him in acting up to the motto of the Iron Crown of the Lombards. His cousin the robin may, and very probably does, hover on the outskirts, but an exact distance measures the comparative boldness and familiarity of the two species. The catbird is, say, ten yards more companionable than his red-vested relative in the latter's most genial and trustful mood; and his faith is of a more robust type and less easily and permanently weakened by rebuffs. The robin rarely hovers round you, but likes to have the whole premises quietly to himself. His attachment does not take a personal hue, but is rather to locality. His acquaintanceship with you is never so intimate as that of the catbird, who soon recognizes your step, your dress and the peculiar touch and cadence of your hoe, even as a college oarsman will identify the stroke of a chum or a rival a quarter of a mile off. If the robin does fix your individuality in his mind, he deigns to make no sign thereof. At most he accepts you as part of the mechanism of creation. You make no draft upon his bump of reverence. He does not set you on his Olympus. This mark of the spirit which makes him, on the whole, a more respectable and dignified character than his less gayly-dressed cousin tends in some sense to commend him the less to you, since we all like the homage of the "inferior animals," birds or voters. You half dislike the independence of the robin, who is equally at home in the parterre or the forest, on the gravel-walk or in the upper air. On the other you have more hold. He is rarely seen higher than twenty feet above ground, and is strictly an appendage of the shrubbery and the orchard. Even in his unhappy voice there is a domestic tone, closely imitated as it is from Grimalkin. Imitated, we say, for we have never been able fully to believe that this mew is the bird's original note. We shall ever incline to the impression that it is an acquired dialect, picked up in the mere wantonness born of a conscious and exceptional power of mimicry.

E. C. B.