Travels in a Tree-top - Charles Conrad Abbott - ebook

Travels in a Tree-top written by an American archaeologist and naturalist Charles Conrad Abbott.  This book is one of many works by him. It has already Published in 1894. Now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as blurred or missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.

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Travels in a Tree-top


Charles Conrad Abbott

Table of Contents


















An Old-fashioned GardenBy Alice Barber Stephens


A pearly mist shut out the river, the meadows, and every field for miles. I could not detect the ripple of the outgoing tide, and the heartiest songster sent no cheerful cry above the wide-spreading and low-lying cloud; but above all this silent, desolate, and seemingly deserted outlook there was a wealth of sunshine and a canopy of deep-blue sky. Here and there, as islands in a boundless sea, were the leafy tops of a few tall trees, and these, I fancied, were tempting regions to explore. Travels in a tree-top—surely, here we have a bit of novelty in this worn-out world.

Unless wholly wedded to the town, it is not cheering to think of the surrounding country as worn out. It is but little more than two centuries since the home-seeking folk of other lands came here to trick or trade with the Indians, wild as the untamed world wherein they dwelt; and now we look almost in vain for country as Nature fashioned it. Man may make of a desert a pleasant place, but he also unmakes the forest and bares the wooded hills until as naked and desolate as the fire-swept ruins of his own construction. It is but a matter of a few thousand cart-loads of the hill moved to one side, and the swamp that the farmer dreads because it yields no dollars is obliterated. He has never considered its wealth of suggestiveness. “A fig for the flowers and vermin. I must plant more corn.”

But here and there the tall trees are still standing, and their tops are an untravelled country. I climbed an oak this cool midsummer morning; clambered beyond the mists, which were rolling away as I seated myself far above the ground, safe from intrusion, and resting trustfully on yielding branches that moved so gently in the passing breeze that I scarcely perceived their motion.

How much depends upon our point of view! The woodland path may not be charming if the undergrowth too closely shuts us in. In all we do, we seek a wider vision than our arm’s length. There may be nothing better beyond than at our feet, but we never believe it. It is as natural to ask of the distant as of the future. They are closely akin. Here in the tree-top my wants were supplied. I was only in the least important sense cribbed, cabined, and confined.

Wild life, as we call it, is very discriminating, and that part of it which notices him at all looks upon man as a land animal; one that gropes about the ground, and awkwardly at that, often stumbling and ever making more noise than his progress calls for; but when perched in a tree, as an arboreal creature, he is to be studied anew. So, at least, thought the crows that very soon discovered my lofty quarters. How they chattered and scolded! They dashed near, as if with their ebon wings to cast a spell upon me, and, craning their glossy necks, spoke words of warning. My indifference was exasperating at first, and then, as I did not move, they concluded I was asleep, dead, or a dummy, like those in the corn-fields. The loud expostulations gave place to subdued chatterings, and they were about to leave without further investigation, when, by the pressure of my foot, I snapped a dead twig. I will not attempt description. Perhaps to this day the circumstance is discussed in corvine circles.

It is difficult to realize the freedom of flight. Twisting and turning with perfect ease, adapting their bodies to every change of the fitful wind, these crows did not use their wings with that incessant motion that we need in using our limbs to walk, but floated, rose and fell, as if shadows rather than ponderable bodies. Until we can fly, or, rather, ride in flying-machines, we cannot hope to know much of this flight-life of birds, and it is the better part of their lives. But it was something to-day to be with even these crows in the air. Following their erratic flight from such a point of view, I seemed to be flying. We are given at times to wonder a great deal about birds, and they have equal reason to constantly consider us. Who can say what these crows thought of me? All I can offer to him who would solve the problem is that their curiosity was unbounded, and this is much if their curiosity and ours are akin. Of course they talked. Garner need not have gone to Africa to prove that monkeys talk, and no one can question that crows utter more than mere alarm-cries.

A word more concerning crows. What so absurd, apparently, as this?

“A single crow betokens sorrow,

Two betoken mirth,

Three predict a funeral,

And four a birth.”

Yet it is a very common saying, being repeated whenever a few, or less than five, fly over. It is repeated mechanically, of course, and then forgotten, for no one seems to worry over one or three crows as they do when a looking-glass breaks or the dropped fork sticks up in the floor. Seems to worry, and yet I strongly suspect a trace of superstition lingers in the mind of many a woman. Those who will not sit as one of thirteen at a table are not dead yet. Can it be that all this weakness is only more concealed than formerly, but none the less existent?

I watched the departing crows until they were but mere specks in the sky, and heard, or fancied I heard, their cawing when half a mile away. It is ever a sweet sound to me. It means so much, recalls a long round of jolly years; and what matters the quality of a sound if a merry heart prompts its utterance?

I was not the only occupant of the tree; there were hundreds of other and more active travellers, who often stopped to think or converse with their fellows and then hurried on. I refer to the great, shining, black ants that have such a variety of meaningless nicknames. Its English cousin is asserted to be ill-tempered, if not venomous, and both Chaucer and Shakespeare refer to them as often mad and always treacherous. I saw nothing of this to-day. They were ever on the go and always in a hurry. They seemed not to dissociate me from the tree; perhaps thought me an odd excrescence and of no importance. No one thinks of himself as such, and I forced myself upon the attention of some of the hurrying throng. It was easy to intercept them, and they grew quickly frantic; but their fellows paid no attention to such as I held captive for the moment. I had a small paper box with me, and this I stuck full of pin-holes on every side and then put half a dozen of the ants in it. Holding it in the line of the insects’ march, it immediately became a source of wonderment, and every ant that came by stopped and parleyed with the prisoners. A few returned earthward, and then a numbercame together, but beyond this I could see nothing in the way of concerted action on the part of the ants at large looking towards succoring their captive fellows. Releasing them, these detained ants at once scattered in all directions, and the incident was quickly forgotten. Where were these ants going, and what was their purpose? I wondered. I was as near the tree’s top as I dared to go, but the ants went on, apparently to the very tips of the tiniest twigs, and not one that I saw came down laden or passed up with any burden. It is not to be supposed they had no purpose in so doing, but what? There is scarcely an hour when we are not called upon to witness just such aimless activity,—that is, aimless so far as we can determine.

Nothing molested these huge black ants, although insect-eating birds came and went continually. One lordly, great-crested fly-catcher eyed them meditatively for some seconds, and then my identity suddenly dawned upon him. His harsh voice, affected by fear, was more out of tune than ever, and, coupled with his precipitant flight, was very amusing. The bird fell off the tree, but quickly caught himself, and then, as usual, curiosity overcame fear. Students of bird-ways should never forget this. The fly-catcher soon took a stand wherefrom to observe me, and, if intently staring at me for thirty seconds was not curiosity, what shall we call it? Is it fair to explain away everything by calling it mere coincidence? It is a common practice, and about as logical as the old cry of “instinct” when I went to school. To have said, when I was a boy, that a bird could think and could communicate ideas to another of its kind, would have brought down ridicule upon my head out of school, and brought down something more weighty if the idea had been expressed in a “composition.” I speak from experience.

To return to the cheerier subject of curiosity in birds: our large hawks have it to a marked degree, and advantage can be taken of this fact if you wish to trap them. I have found this particularly true in winter, when there is a general covering of the ground with snow. Food, of course, is not then quite so plenty, but this does not explain the matter. An empty steel trap on the top of a hay-stack is quite as likely to be tampered with as when baited with a mouse. The hawk will walk all around it, and then put out one foot and touch it here and there. If we can judge from the bird’s actions, the question, What is it, anyway? is running through its mind. I once played a trick upon a splendid black hawk that had been mousing over the fields for half the winter. It often perched upon a stack of straw instead of the lone hickory near by. Early one morning I placed a plump meadow-mouse on the very top of the stack, to which I had attached a dozen long strands of bright-red woollen yarn and a bladder that I had inflated. This was secured to the mouse by a silk cord, and all were so concealed by the snow and straw that the hawk noticed the mouse only. The bird was suspicious at first: it was too unusual for a mouse not to move when a hawk hovered above it. Then the bird alighted on the stack and walked about the mouse, pecking at it once, but not touching it. Then putting out one foot, he seized it with a firm grip, the talons passing through the carcass, and at the same time spread his wings and moved slowly towards the lone hickory that towered near by. I was near enough to see every movement. It was evident that the hawk did not look down at first, and saw nothing of the streaming threads and bobbing bladder; but it did a moment later, and then what a quickening of wings and hasty mounting upward! The hawk was frightened, and gave a violent jerk with one foot, as if to disengage the mouse, but it was ineffectual. The sharp claws had too strong a hold, and the effect was only to more violently bob the bladder. Then the hawk screamed and dashed into the trees near by, and was out of sight.

A curious and disappointing occurrence, while sitting aloft, was the frequent discovery of my presence by birds and their sudden right-about movement and departure. Occasionally I could see them coming as if directly towards me, but their keen eyes noticed the unusual object, and they would dart off with a promptness that showed how completely at home they were while on the wing. Even the bluebirds, usually so tame, had their misgivings, and came to rest in other trees. But if the birds were not always about and above me, there were many below, and the sweet song of the wood-robin from the tangled underbrush seemed clearer and purer than when sifted through a wilderness of leaves.

It was not until noon that the wood and open fields became silent or nearly so, for the red-eye came continually, and, whether insect-hunting in the tree or on the wing, it seemed never to cease its singing, or querulous cry, which more aptly describes its utterance. To hear this sound throughout a long summer day is depressing, particularly if you hear nothing else, for the steady hum of insect-life hardly passes for sound. It was only when I listened for it that I was aware that millions of tiny creatures were filling the air with a humming that varied only as the light breeze carried it away or brought it nearer and clearer than before. There is a vast difference between absolute and comparative or apparent silence. The former is scarcely ever a condition of the open country unless during a still, cold winter night, and never of one of our ordinary woodland tracts. We do find it, however, in the cedar swamps and pine-land, even during summer. I have often stood in “the pines” of Southern New Jersey and tried to detect some sound other than that of my own breathing, but in vain. Not a twig stirred. The dark waters of the pools were motionless; even the scattered clouds above were at rest. It was to be absolutely alone, as if the only living creature upon earth. But ere long a gentle breeze would spring up, there was a light and airy trembling of the pines, and the monotone of a whispered sigh filled the forest. Even this was a relief, and what a joy if some lonely bird passed by and even lisped of its presence! The dee-dee of a titmouse at such a time was sweeter music than the choral service that heralds the coming of a bright June morning.

At noon, the day being torrid, there was comparative silence, and yet as I looked about me I saw ceaseless activity in a small way. The ants were still journeying, and red admiral and yellow swallow-tailed butterflies came near, and the latter even passed high overhead and mingled with the chimney-swifts. Had I been on the ground, walking instead of waiting, I should have sought some sheltered spot and rested, taking a hint from much of the wild life I was watching.


Where cluster oaks and runs the rapid brook,

Repose the jutting rocks beneath the ferns;

Here seeks the thrush his hidden leafy nook,

And wandering squirrel to his hole returns.

Afar the steaming river slowly wends

Its tortuous way to mingle with the sea;

No cheerful voice its languid course attends;

The blight of silence rests upon the lea.

Where the wide meadow spreads its wealth of weeds,

Where the rank harvest waves above the field,

The testy hornet in his anger speeds,

And stolid beetle bears his brazen shield.

Give them the glowing, fiery world they love,

Give me the cool retreat beside the stream;

While sweeps the sun the noontide sky above,

Here would I linger with the birds and dream.

The Chesapeake Oak

And now what of the tree itself? Here I have been the better part of a long fore-noon, and scarcely given this fine young oak a thought. A young oak, yet a good deal older than its burden; an oak that was an acorn when the century was new, and now a sturdy growth full sixty feet high, straight of stem to its undermost branches and shapely everywhere. Such trees are not remarkable of themselves, though things of beauty, but at times how suggestive! Think of pre-Columbian America; then there were oaks to make men marvel. “There were giants in those days.” Occasionally we meet with them even now. A year ago I camped on the shore of Chesapeake Bay near an oak that measured eighteen feet six inches in circumference four feet from the ground, and in St. Paul’s church-yard, not a great way off, are five big oaks, one of which is twenty feet around shoulder high from the roots. Such trees are very old. The church-yard was enclosed two centuries ago, and these were big trees then, and so older by far than any monument of white men on the continent, except possible traces of the Norsemen. If a tree such as this in which I have been sitting is full to overflowing with suggestiveness, how much more so a noble patriarch like that upon the bay shore! It is usually not easy to realize the dimensions of a huge tree by merely looking at it, but this mammoth impressed one at first sight. The branches were themselves great trees, and together cast a circular patch of shade, at noon, three paces more than one hundred feet across. As a tree in which to ramble none could have been better shaped. The lowest branches were less than twenty feet from the ground, and after reaching horizontally a long way, curved upward and again outward, dividing finally into the leaf-bearing twigs. Course after course continued in this way, the size decreasing gradually, and the whole forming, as seen from a distance, a magnificent dome-shaped mass. Comparisons with the tree’s surroundings were full of suggestiveness. The ground immediately about was densely covered with rank ferns and the acorn sprouts of one or two years’ growth. Yet, where they were, it seemed but a smoothly-shaven lawn, so insignificant were they when seen with the tree; and the sproutland beyond, which would otherwise have been a wood, was absolutely insignificant. Yet, in truth, everything here was on a grand scale. The ferns were tall, and to prove it I sat upon the ground among them and so shut out all view of the great tree and its surroundings. I spent many hours seated upon different branches of this oak, and every one had features all its own. From those nearest the ground I surveyed the bird-life in the thicket beneath, and was entertained by a pair of nesting cardinal red-birds that came and went as freely as if quite alone, and whistled cheerfully morning, noon, and night. I fancied I made friends with these birds, for early one morning the male bird came to camp, as if to inspect my nest, thinking I was not up, and he expressed his favorable opinion in most glowing terms. A pair of doves, too, had a nest in sight, and their melancholy cooing seemed out of tune here, where Nature had done her work so well. Once, at least, while I was there, the bald eagle came for a few moments, and, big bird as he is, was not conspicuous, and had not a flash of sunlight fallen upon his yellow beak and white head, I should not have been aware of his presence, as he certainly was not of mine. What I took to be a duck-hawk, a few days later, interested me much more. He was a splendid bird, and tarried but a short time. The leaves so concealed him that I was not sure, having no field-glass at the time, but do not think I was mistaken. The eagle did not appear to disturb the fish-hawk’s temper in the least, but the great hawk did, and he was much excited until the bird disappeared in the steam and smoke that as a great cloud rested above Baltimore.

The birds of this retired spot may be divided into two classes,—those of the oak and of the sproutland growths about it, and the birds of the air, principally swallows, which hung over the tree as a trembling cloud. Never were swallows more numerous, except when flocked prior to migration. In the tree and bushes were always many birds, yet often they were far from each other. This gave me an excellent idea of what a great oak really is. Birds quite out of sight and hearing of each other were resting on branches from the same trunk. Although the middle of July, there was no lack of song, and second nesting of many familiar birds is, I judge, more common in Maryland than in New Jersey. Of all the birds that came, the little green herons were the most amusing. A pair doubtless had a nest near by, or young that were not yet on the wing. They walked sedately along the level branches, as a man might pace up and down his study, buried in deep thought. I listened carefully for some expression of content, but they made no sound except when they were startled and flew off. I was much surprised to find the beach-birds occasionally darting among the branches, and once a spotted sandpiper rested a moment near me. These birds we associate with water and the open country, although this species is less aquatic than its fellows. They were always in sight from the door of my tent, and always an earlier bird than I. I recall now standing upon the beach long before sunrise, marking the promises of the coming day, as I interpreted them. The fish-hawks were ahead of me; so, too, the little sand-pipers. Their piping at this time was very clear and musical. It was a delightful accompaniment to the rippling water. The dear old song-sparrows were quiet, and I was very glad; but with the first flooding of the sea with sunlight they all sang out, and the Chesapeake was afar off and I in the home meadows on the Delaware. I prefer novelty when away. It is well to utterly forget, at times, that which we most prize. What boots it to stand on the hill-top, if your thoughts are forever in the lowlands? Twice, from the branches of the old oak, I saw a splendid sunset, but nothing equal to the sunrise of to-day. With many a matter of this life the beginning is better than the end. We had a superb sunset last night. The color was gorgeous, but it was plain and commonplace compared to the sunrise of to-day. Perhaps no tint was really brighter in one case than in the other, but my mind was. The sunset was too closely linked with the death of the day; there was the idea of a grand finale before the curtain drops, and this tends to dull enthusiasm. It is not so with sunrise. It is all freshness,—a matter of birth, of beginning, of a new trial of life,—and with so happy an entrance, the exit should be one of gladness only; but there is no trace of pity in Nature. In awful certainty the night cometh.

I was not surprised at every visit to this tree to find some new form of life resting on its branches. A beautiful garter-snake had reached a low branch by climbing to it from a sapling that reached a little above it. There was no break in the highway that led to its very summit. The grass leaned upon ferns, these upon shrubs, these again upon saplings, and so the tree was reached. Any creeping thing could have climbed just eighty feet above the earth with far less danger than men encounter clambering over hills.