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It is snowing now as I write this; all the countryside is white and cold, and I concentrate on keeping warm. But time was when the slow fall of large white flakes would have been a romantical, almost magical lure to the mystery of the dark woods where the woodcock lie, or the sere, dun fields of the golden plover, or the red bog of the snipe and goose. For sport is the key to the gates of another world. Through these gates one goes back to a world that is gone, crowded out of the way by our cities, but which may be overtaken when sport leads us down the ways of time whither that world has traveled.
In that lost world Man was a hunter, familiar with woods and hills and streams, and only as a hunter can he find them again. For as a hunter he must know something of the lives of those he hunts, whether they be birds or beasts or fishes, and his lost world is still their world. And in hunting them and learning something of their lives, as he must to compete with them, he comes to understand them, and, paradoxical indeed though it be, to sympathize with them; and it is that odd sympathy that opens to him the gates of the lost world and makes him free of its streams and hills. Calls come to him from that world even in cities-geese going over high, or even the hoot of an owl: they may be heard, or missed, in their season almost anywhere. Men in cities look at their almanacs to tell them the time of year, but Nature's time of year can vary by many weeks from the time told by the almanac, and in that ampler, freer world wild voices tell it exactly, having learned from winter itself the moment at which it moves, and telling the news of it to all who will hear. The geese will tell it high among windy clouds, and the golden plover in long wedges, flying over low hills and singing as they fly. And the voice of the woodcock tells it too; but in the lonely clamor of the late autumnal skies his little cry is all but lost and Man can only know by Nature's almanac, which is the birds' mysterious timetable, when the woodcock will have arrived. For these birds slip into the dark woods almost as silently as a ghost in an old story into a haunted tower, and they ride on a wild wind and come with the snow.
The ways of a woodcock are only to be revealed by some wise old man who, perhaps having once been taught to read but having forgotten how, has since learned all he knows from observation of the ways of Nature, so silent and undemonstrative that in the noise of our civilization they go unnoticed by many more learned men. Such a man's talk is always interesting, for he seems closer to eternal things than men can be who walk mostly pavements; but to a boy he is like what a prophet was to the Israelites. And, indeed, old gamekeepers, whom I remember and will remember all my life, when talking to a boy spoke mostly in prophecies, foretelling how the November moon would bring the woodcock from Norway, how green plover coming early over a long line of hills foretold an early winter, and when the geese would come into the bog. All these were things of Earth, Earth in mysterious moods, but when one of them spoke of the bog he strayed a little further and was inclined to speak of things a bit beyond Earth, of leprechauns and the Little People, and even sometimes of Tir-nan-Ogue, the land that is just beyond Earth a little way to the west, where under eternal apple blossoms walked the everlasting young. Of the Little People he always spoke guardedly, so that from them it was easy to turn him back to what a boy yearned to know, which was whether the woodcock were in. And perhaps he would say, "It snowed all last night and the north wind is blowing," and no more, as though that were enough.
"Shall we go to Long Wood now?" one would blurt out eagerly.
"Better give them a day to settle in," he would say.
And all that day perhaps the sky would be enchanted with snow, and the north wind would drop that night like a tired horse, and where he dropped the snow would lie quietly smiling; and tall, bearded men would be gathered next morning and would line up in a wood and beat it with sticks, shouting "Hi, cock" as they went.
If one is in line with the beaters, the woodcock will get up with an exciting whir of his wings; but, if one is far ahead and the beaters are coming toward one, he will glide past as silently as a dream. That is the best place to stand, ahead of the beaters. One may see more woodcock, walking with them; but that rapid and twisting bird is very likely soon to get on the far side of a tree, so that shooting at them inside the wood is very difficult. It is not easy at any time, and all one can do is to aim well in front, and to remember that all one's life, for it is very easily forgotten at any age. Indeed, one's first woodcock was probably brought down on the day that one decided for the first time to give a fair trial to one's elders' advice, which seemed so absurd at first, not to aim at the bird, or anywhere near him, but some yards in front.
And what a memory that is, one's first woodcock! One never forgets it. One remembers it when the treasure he carries, the two pinfeathers, are no longer of any interest to one. But at the time these were carefully collected from under the rudimentary wings, for the woodcock has two miniature extra ones, as though Nature had thought for a moment of giving him four wings, but had changed her mind and given up the idea. These two delicate little feathers are not easily perceived on a woodcock, but they may sometimes be seen in the band of a man's hat. I wonder if a knight who had killed a dragon ever wore any scale of his in his hat. I should think he did; for Man does not alter so much as we may suppose, and if a man who has shot a woodcock feels like showing that little trophy today, sportsmen probably felt much the same in that twilight of time when legend was fading away in the glare of the dawn of history.
Only once in my life have I seen a woodcock on her nest, and that I had to be shown by a gamekeeper, for I never found it by myself. This lover of solitude and silent places had chosen a strange place for her nest, but had chosen it very cleverly. She knew, or great Nature knew and told her, who her chief enemy was, and with wise strategy she concentrated on avoiding him, and made her leafy nest in a narrow waste space, too small for anyone to cultivate or be concerned with at all, between two roads and a railway, close to a keeper's house. There was not much traffic on those roads, and less on the railway, but enough to discourage a fox; and, if he came, the keeper's dogs would have given warning at once; and the woodcock, knowing who her chief enemy was, hatched her eggs there and was safe.
In the still of dim evenings, that almost silent bird may be seen, a black patch drifting swiftly across fading colors low in the luminous sky, leaving the woods for his marshy feeding grounds or coming into the wood. Then his small cry, which one so rarely hears, may be heard in the stillness of nightfall. In the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy's War and Peace, is a description of a man waiting at evening in a wood to shoot a flighting woodcock. The English translation says that the man was waiting for snipe, but I think that this must be a mistake in an otherwise very fine translation, all the more easily made because in the French a woodcock is called b�casse and the snipe b�cassine, so that the Russians may have names for those two birds as closely resembling as that, and snipe would not be likely to be coming into a wood.