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Full Online Book HomeEssaysEgg-time: A 'gip'-trap
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Egg-time: A 'gip'-trap Post by :hpandw Category :Essays Author :Richard Jefferies Date :April 2011 Read :1710

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Egg-time: A 'gip'-trap

There is no sweeter time in the woods than just before the nesting begins in earnest. Is it the rising sap that causes a pleasant odour to emanate from every green thing? Idling along the hedgerows towards the woodlands there may perchance be seen small tufts of white rabbit's fur in the grass, torn from herself by the doe to form a warm lining to the hole in which her litter will appear: a 'sign' this that often guides a robber to her nest.

Yonder on the rising ground, towering even in their fall over the low (lately cut) ash plantation, lie the giant limbs of the mighty oaks, thrown just as they felt the quickening heat. The bark has been stripped from the trunk and branches; the sun has turned the exposed surface to a deep buff colour, which contrasts with the fresh green of the underwood around and renders them visible afar.

When the oak first puts forth its buds the woods take a ruddy tint. Gradually the background of green comes to the front, and the oak-apples swell, streaked with rosy stains, whence their semblance to the edible fruit of the orchard. All unconscious of the white or red cross daubed on the rough bark, the tree prepares its glory of leaf, though doomed the while by that sad mark to the axe.

Cutting away the bushes with his billhook, the woodman next swings the cumbrous grub-axe, whose wide edge clears the earth from the larger roots. Then he puts his pipe in his pocket, and settles to the serious work of the 'great axe,' as he calls it. I never could use this ungainly tool aright: a top-heavy, clumsy, awkward thing, it rules you instead of you ruling it. The handle, too, is flat--almost with an edge itself sometimes--and is quite beyond the grasp of any but hands of iron. Now the American axe feels balanced like a sword; this is because of the peculiar curve of the handle. To strike you stand with the left foot slightly forward, and the left hand uppermost: the 'S' curve (it is of course not nearly so crooked as the letter) of the American axe adjusts itself to the anatomy of the attitude, so to speak.

The straight English handle does not; it is stiff, and strains the muscles; but the common 'great axe' has the advantage that it is also used for splitting logs and gnarled 'butts.' An American axe is too beautiful a tool for that rude work. The American was designed to strike at the trunk of the tree several feet from the ground, the English axe is always directed to the great roots at the base.

A dexterous woodman can swing his tool alternately left hand or right hand uppermost. The difference looks trifling; but try it, and you will be astonished at the difficulty. The blows echo and the chips fly, till the base of the tree, that naturally is much larger, is reduced to the size of the trunk or less. Now a pause, while one swarms up to 'line' it--_i.e._ to attach a rope as high as possible to guide the 'stick' in its fall.

It is commonly said that in climbing it is best to look up--a maxim that has been used for moral illustrations; but it is a mistake. In ascending a tree you should never look higher than the brim of your hat, unless when quite still and resting on a branch; temporary blindness would be the penalty in this case. Particles of decayed bark, the borings of insects in dead wood, dust, and fragments of twigs, rush down in little streams and fill the eyes. The quantity of woody powder that adheres to a tree is surprising; every motion dislodges it from a thousand minute crevices. As for firs, in climbing a fir one cannot look up at all--dead sticks, needles, and dust pour down, and the branches are so thick together that the head has to be forced through them. The line fixed, the saw is applied, and by slow degrees the butt cut nearly through. Unless much overbalanced on one side by the limbs, an oak will stand on a still day when almost off.

Some now seize the rope, and alternately pull and slacken, which gives the tree a tottering movement. One more daring than the rest drives a wedge into the saw-cut as it opens when the tree sways. It sways--it staggers; a loud crack as the fibres part, then with a slow heave over it goes, and, descending, twists upon the base. The vast limbs plough into the sward; the twigs are crushed; the boughs, after striking the earth, rebound and swish upwards. See that you stand clear, for the least branch will thresh you down. The flat surface of the exposed butt is blue with stains from the steel of the saw.

Light taps with a small sharp axe, that cut the rind but no deeper, ring the trunk at intervals. Then the barking irons are inserted; they are rods of iron forged at the top something like a narrow shallow spoon. The bark from the trunk comes off in huge semi-cylinders almost large enough for a canoe. But that from the branches is best. You may mark how at the base the bark is two inches thick, lessening to a few lines on the topmost boughs. If it sticks a little, hammer it with the iron: it peels with a peculiar sound, and the juicy sap glistens white between. It is this that, drying in the sun, gives the barked tree its colour: in time the wood bleaches paler, and after a winter becomes grey. Inside, the bark is white streaked with brown; presently it will be all brown. While some strip it, others collect the pieces, and with them build toy-like sheds of bark, which is the manner of stacking it.

From the peeled tree there rises a sweet odour of sap: the green mead, the green underwood and hawthorn around, are all lit up with the genial sunbeams. The beautiful wind-anemones are gone, too tender and lovely for so rude an earth; but the wild hyacinths droop their blue bells under the wood, and the cowslips rise in the grass. The nightingale sings without ceasing; the soft 'coo-coo' of the dove sounds hard by; the merry cuckoo calls as he flies from elm to elm; the wood-pigeons rise and smite their wings together over the firs. In the mere below the coots are at play; they chase each other along the surface of the water and indulge in wild evolutions. Everything is happy. As the plough-boys stroll along they pluck the young succulent hawthorn leaves and nibble them.

It is the sweetest time of all for wandering in the wood. The brambles have not yet grown so bushy as to check the passage; the thistles that in autumn will be as tall as the shoulder and thick as a walking-stick are as yet no bar; burrs do not attach themselves at every step, though the broad burdock leaves are spreading wide. In its full development the burdock is almost a shrub rather than a plant, with a woody stem an inch or more in diameter.

Up in the fir trees the nests of the pigeons are sometimes so big that it appears as if they must use the same year after year, adding fresh twigs, else they could hardly attain such bulk. Those in the ash-poles are not nearly so large. In the open drives blue cartridge-cases lie among the grass, the brass part tarnished by the rain, thrown hurriedly aside from the smoking breech last autumn. But the guns are silent in the racks, though the keeper still carries his gun to shoot the vermin, which are extremely busy at this season. Vermin, however, do not quite agree among themselves: weasels and stoats are deadly enemies of mice and rats. Where rats are plentiful there they are sure to come; they will follow a rat into a dwelling-house.

Here the green drive shows traces of the poaching it received from the thick-planted hoofs of the hunt when the leaves were off and the blast of the horn sounded fitfully as the gale carried the sound away. The vixen is now at peace, though perhaps it would scarcely be safe to wander too near the close-shaven mead where the keeper is occupied more and more every day with his pheasant-hatching. And far down on the lonely outlying farms, where even in fox-hunting England the music of the hounds is hardly heard in three years (because no great coverts cause the run to take that way), foul murder is sometimes done on Reynard or his family. A hedge-cutter marks the sleeping-place in the withies where the fox curls up by day; and with his rusty gun, that sometimes slaughters a roaming pheasant, sends the shot through the red side of the slumbering animal. Then, thrust ignobly into a sack, he shoulders the fox and marches round from door to door, tumbling the limp body rudely down on the pitching stones to prove that the fowls will now be safe, and to be rewarded with beer and small coin. A dead fox is profit to him for a fortnight. These evil deeds of course are cloaked as far as possible.

Leaving now the wood for the lane that wanders through the meadows, a mower comes sidling up, and, looking mysteriously around with his hand behind under his coat, 'You med have un for sixpence,' he says, and produces a partridge into whose body the point of the scythe ran as she sat on her nest in the grass, and whose struggles were ended by a blow from the rubber or whetstone flung at her head. He has got the eggs somewhere hidden under a swathe.

The men that are so expert at finding partridges' eggs to sell to the keepers know well beforehand whereabouts the birds are likely to lay. If a stranger who had made no previous observations went into the fields to find these eggs, with full permission to do so, he would probably wander in vain. The grass is long, and the nest has little to distinguish it from the ground; the old bird will sit so close that one may pass almost over her. Without a right of search in open daylight the difficulty is of course much greater. A man cannot quarter the fields when the crop is high and leave no trail.

Farmers object to the trampling and damage of their property; and a keeper does not like to see a labourer loafing about, because he is not certain that the eggs when found will be conscientiously delivered to him. They may be taken elsewhere, or they may even be broken out of spite if the finder thinks he has a grudge to repay. Now that every field is enclosed, and for the most part well cultivated and looked after, the business of the egg-stealer is considerably diminished. He cannot roam over the country at his fancy; his egg-finding is nearly restricted to the locality of which he possesses minute knowledge.

Thus workmen engaged in the towns, but sleeping several miles out in the villages, can keep a register of the slight indications they observe morning after morning as they cross the fields by the footpath to their labour. Early in the spring they notice that the partridges have paired: as time advances they see the pair day after day in the same meadow, and mark the spot. Those who work in the fields, again, have still better opportunities: the bird-keeping lads too have little else to do at that season than watch for nests. In the meadows the labourer as he walks to and fro with the 'bush' passes over every inch of the ground. The 'bush' is a mass of thorn bushes fixed in a frame and drawn by a horse; it acts like a light harrow, and leaves the meadow in strips like the pile of green velvet, stroked in narrow bands, one this way, one that, laying the grass blades in the directions it travels. Solitary work of this kind--for it requires but one man--is very favourable to observation. When the proper time arrives the searcher knows within a little where the nest must be, and has but a small space to beat.

The pheasant being so large a bird, its motions are easy to watch; and the nest is speedily found, because, being in the hedge or under bushes, there is a definite place in which to look, instead of the broad surface of the field. Pheasants will get out of the preserves in the breeding season and wander into the mounds, so that the space the keeper has to range is then enlarged threefold. Both pheasants and partridges are frequently killed on their nests; when the eggs are hard the birds remain to the last moment, and are often knocked over.

Besides poachers, the eggs have to run the chance of being destroyed by carrion crows, and occasionally by rooks. Rooks, though generally cleanly feeders, will at times eat almost anything, from a mussel to a fledgeling bird. Magpies and jays are accused of being equally dangerous enemies of eggs and young birds, and so too are snakes. Weasels, stoats, and rats spare neither egg, parents, nor offspring. Some of the dogs that run wild will devour eggs; and hawks pounce on the brood if they see an opportunity. Owls are said to do the same. The fitchew, the badger, and the hedgehog have a similarly evil reputation; but the first is rare, the second almost exterminated in many districts; the third--the poor hedgehog--is common, and some keepers have a bitter dislike to them. Swine are credited, with the same mischief as the worst of vermin at this particular season; but nowadays swine are not allowed to run wild in cultivated districts, except in the autumn when the acorns are falling.

As the nests are on the ground they are peculiarly accessible, and the eggs, being large, are tempting. Perhaps the mowing machine is as destructive as anything; and after all these there is the risk of a wet season and of disease. Let the care exercised be never so great, a certain amount of mortality must occur.

While the young partridges gradually become strong and swift, the nuts are increasing in size, and ripening upon the bough. The very hazel has a pleasant sound--not a nut-tree hedge existed in the neighbourhood that we did not know and visit. We noted the progress of the bushes from the earliest spring, and the catkins to the perfect nut.

There are threads of brilliant scarlet upon the hazel in February, though the gloom of winter lingers and the 'Shuck--a--sheck!' of the fieldfare fleeing before the snow sounds overhead. On the slender branches grow green ovals, from whose tips tiny scarlet plumes rise and curl over.

It often happens that while the tall rods with speckled bark grow vigorously the stole is hollow and decaying when the hardy fern flourishes around it. Before the summer ricks are all carted the nuts are full of sweet milky matter, and the shell begins to harden. A hazel bough with a good crook is then sought by the men that are thinking of the wheat harvest: they trim it for a 'vagging' stick, with which to pull the straw towards them. True reaping is now never seen: 'vagging' makes the short stubble that forces the partridges into the turnips. Maple boughs, whose bark is so strongly ribbed, are also good for 'vagging' sticks.

Nut-tree is used for bonds to tie up faggots, and split for the shepherds' hurdles. In winter sometimes a store of nuts and acorns may be seen fallen in a stream down the side of a bank, scratched out from a mouse's hole, as they say, by Reynard, who devours the little provident creature without regard for its wisdom. So that man and wild animals derive pleasure or use from the hazel in many ways. When the nuts are ripe the carters' lads do not care to ride sideways on the broad backs of the horses as they jog homewards along the lane, but are ever in the hedges.

There were plenty in the double-mounds to which we had access; but the shepherd, who had learned his craft on the Downs, said that the nuts grew there in such immense quantities as determined us to see them. Sitting on the felled ash under the shade of the hawthorn hedge, where the butcher-birds every year used to stick the humble-bees on the thorns, he described the route--a mere waggon track--and the situation of the largest copses.

The waggon track we found crossed the elevated plains close under and between the Downs, following at the foot, as it seemed, for an endless distance the curve of a range. The slope bounded the track on one side: on the other it was enclosed by a low bank covered with dead thorn thickly entangled, which enclosed the cornfields. The space between the hedge and the hill was as far as we could throw one of the bleached flints lying on the sward. It was dotted with hawthorn trees and furze, and full of dry brown grass. A few scattered firs, the remnants of extinct plantations, grew on the slope, and green 'fairy rings' marked it here and there.

These fairy rings have a somewhat different appearance from the dark green semicircles found in the meadows and called by the same name: the latter are often only segments of circles, are found near hedges, and almost always either under a tree or where a tree has been. There were more mushrooms on the side of the hill than we cared to carry. Some eat mushrooms raw--fresh as taken from the ground, with a little salt: to me the taste is then too strong. Of the many ways of cooking them the simplest is the best; that is, on a gridiron over wood embers on the hearth.

Every few minutes a hare started out of the dry grass: he always scampered up the Down and stopped to look at us from the ridge. The hare runs faster up hill than down. By the cornfields there were wire nettings to stop them; but nothing is easier than for any passer-by who feels an interest in hares and rabbits, and does not like to see them jealously excluded, to open a gap. Hares were very numerous--temptingly so. Not far from where the track crossed a lonely road was a gipsy encampment; that swarthy people are ever about when anything is going on, and the reapers were busy in the corn. The dead dry thorns of the hedge answered very well to boil their pot with. Their tents, formed by thrusting the ends of long bent rods like half-hoops into the turf, looked dark like the canvas of a barge.

These 'gips'--country folk do not say gipsy--were unknown to us; but we were on terms with some members of a tribe who called at our house several times in the course of the year to buy willow. The men wore golden earrings, and bought 'Black Sally,' a withy that has a dark bark, for pegs, and 'bolts' of osier for basket-making. A bolt is a bundle of forty inches in circumference. Though the women tell fortunes, and mix the 'dark man' and the 'light man,' the 'journey' and the 'letter' to perfection, till the ladies half believe, I doubt if they know much of true palmistry. The magic of the past always had a charm for me. I had learned to know the lines, from that which winds along at the base of the thumb-ball and if clear means health and long life, to that which crosses close to the fingers and indicates the course of love, and had traced them on many a delicate palm. So that the 'gips' could tell me nothing new.

The women are the hardiest in the country; they simply ignore the weather. Even the hedgers and ditchers and the sturdiest labourers choose the lee side of the hedge when they pause to eat their luncheons; but the 'gips' do not trouble to seek such shelter. Passing over the hills one winter's day, when the Downs looked all alike, being covered with snow, I came across a 'gip' family sitting on the ground in a lane, old and young exposed to the blast. In that there was nothing remarkable, but I recollect it because the young mother, handsome in the style of her race, had her neck and brown bust quite bare, and the white snowflakes drove thickly aslant upon her. Their complexion looks more dusky in winter, so that the contrast of the colours made me wish for an artist to paint it. And he might have put the grey embers of a fire gone out, and the twisted stem of a hawthorn bush with red haws above.

A mile beyond the gipsy tents we entered among the copses: scattered ash plantations, and hazel thickets with narrow green tracks between. Further in, the nut-tree bushes were more numerous, and we became separated though within call. Presently a low whistle like the peewit's (our signal) called me to Orion. On the border of a thicket, near an open field of swedes, he had found a hare in a wire. It was a beauty--the soft fur smooth to stroke, not so much as a shot-hole in the black-marked ears. Wired or netted hares and rabbits are much preferred by the dealers to those that have been shot--and so, too, netted partridges--because they look so clean and tempt the purchaser. The blacksmith Ikey, who bought our rabbits, used to sew up the shot wounds when they were much knocked about, and trimmed up the shattered ones in the cleverest way.

To pull up the plug and take wire and hare too was the first impulse; yet we hesitated. Why did the man who set the snare let his game lie till that hour of the day? He should have visited it long before: it had a suspicious look altogether. It would also have been nearly impossible to carry the hare so many miles by daylight and past villages: even with the largest pockets it would have been doubtful, for the hare had stiffened as he lay stretched out. So, carefully replacing him just as we found him, we left the spot and re-entered the copse.

The shepherd certainly was right; the quantity of nuts was immense: the best and largest bunches grew at the edge of the thickets, perhaps because they received more air and light than the bushes within that were surrounded by boughs. It thus happened that we were in the green pathway when some one suddenly spoke from behind, and, turning, there was a man in a velveteen jacket who had just stepped out of the bushes. The keeper was pleasant enough and readily allowed us to handle his gun--a very good weapon, though a little thin at the muzzle--for a man likes to see his gun admired. He said there were finer nuts in a valley he pointed out, and then carefully instructed us how to get back into the waggon track without returning by the same path. An old barn was the landmark; and, with a request from him not to break the bushes, he left us.

Down in the wooded vale we paused. The whole thing was now clear: the hare in the wire was a trap laid for the 'gips' whose camp was below. The keeper had been waiting about doubtless where he could command the various tracks up the hill, had seen us come that way, and did not wish us to return in the same direction; because if the 'gip' saw any one at all he would not approach his snare. Whether the hare had actually been caught by the wire, or had been put in by the keeper, it was not easy to tell.

We wandered on in the valley wood, going from bush to bush, little heeding whither we went. There are no woods so silent as the nut-tree; there is scarce a sound in them at that time except the occasional rustle of a rabbit, and the 'thump, thump' they sometimes make underground in their buries after a sudden fright. So that the keen plaintive whistle of a kingfisher was almost startling. But we soon found the stream in the hollow. Broader than a brook and yet not quite a river, it flowed swift and clear, so that every flint at the bottom was visible. The nut-tree bushes came down to the edge: the ground was too firm for much rush or sedge; the streams that come out of the chalk are not so thickly fringed with vegetation as others.

Some little way along there was a rounded sarsen boulder not far from shore, whose brown top was so nearly on a level with the surface that at one moment the water just covered it, and the next left it exposed. By it we spied a trout; but the hill above gave 'Velvet' the command of the hollow; and it was too risky even to think of. After that the nuts were tame; there was nothing left but to turn homewards. As for trout-fishing, there is nothing so easy. Take the top joint off the rod, and put the wire on the second, which is stronger, fill the basket, and replace the fly. There were fellows who used to paddle in canoes up a certain river (not this little stream), pick out the largest trout, and shoot them with pistols, under pretence of practising at water-rats.


(The end)
Richard Jefferies's essay: Egg-Time: A 'Gip'-Trap

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