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Ch. 6 - To Nature and Back Again

It was probably owing to the fact that my place of lodgment
in New York overlooked the waving trees of Central Park
that I was consumed, all the summer through, with a great
longing for the woods. To me, as a lover of Nature, the
waving of a tree conveys thoughts which are never conveyed
to me except by seeing a tree wave.

This longing grew upon me. I became restless with it. In
the daytime I dreamed over my work. At night my sleep
was broken and restless. At times I would even wander
forth, at night into the park, and there, deep in the
night shadow of the trees, imagine myself alone in the
recesses of the dark woods remote from the toil and fret
of our distracted civilization.

This increasing feeling culminated in the resolve which
becomes the subject of this narrative. The thought came
to me suddenly one night. I woke from my sleep with a
plan fully matured in my mind. It was this: I would, for
one month, cast off all the travail and cares of civilized
life and become again the wild man of the woods that Nature
made me. My plan was to go to the edge of the great
woods, somewhere in New England, divest myself of my
clothes--except only my union suit--crawl into the woods,
stay there a month and then crawl out again. To a trained
woodsman and crawler like myself the thing was simplicity
itself. For food I knew that I could rely on berries,
roots, shoots, mosses, mushrooms, fungi, bungi--in fact
the whole of Nature's ample storehouse; for my drink,
the running brook and the quiet pool; and for my companions
the twittering chipmunk, the chickadee, the chocktaw,
the choo-choo, the chow-chow, and the hundred and one
inhabitants of the forgotten glade and the tangled thicket.

Fortunately for me, my resolve came to me upon the last
day in August. The month of September was my vacation.
My time was my own. I was free to go.

On my rising in the morning my preparations were soon
made; or, rather, there were practically no preparations
to make. I had but to supply myself with a camera, my
one necessity in the woods, and to say good-bye to my
friends. Even this last ordeal I wished to make as brief
as possible. I had no wish to arouse their anxiety over
the dangerous, perhaps foolhardy, project that I had in
mind. I wished, as far as possible, to say good-bye in
such a way as to allay the very natural fears which my
undertaking would excite in the minds of my friends.

From myself, although trained in the craft of the woods,
I could not conceal the danger that I incurred. Yet the
danger was almost forgotten in the extraordinary and
novel interest that attached to the experiment. Would it
prove possible for a man, unaided by our civilized arts
and industries, to maintain himself naked--except for
his union suit--in the heart of the woods? Could he do
it, or could he not? And if he couldn't what then?

But this last thought I put from me. Time alone could
answer the question.

As in duty bound, I went first to the place of business
where I am employed, to shake hands and say good-bye to
my employer.

"I am going," I said, "to spend a month naked alone in
the woods."

He looked up from his desk with genial kindliness.

"That's right," he said, "get a good rest."

"My plan is," I added, "to live on berries and funguses."

"Fine," he answered. "Well, have a good time, old
man--good-bye."

Then I dropped in casually upon one of my friends.

"Well," I said, "I'm off to New England to spend a month
naked."

"Nantucket," he said, "or Newport?"

"No," I answered, speaking as lightly as I could. "I'm
going into the woods and stay there naked for a month."

"Oh, yes," he said. "I see. Well, good-bye, old chap--see
you when you get back."

After that I called upon two or three other men to say
a brief word of farewell. I could not help feeling slightly
nettled, I must confess, at the very casual way in which
they seemed to take my announcement. "Oh, yes," they said,
"naked in the woods, eh? Well, ta-ta till you get back."

Here was a man about to risk his life--for there was no
denying the fact--in a great sociological experiment,
yet they received the announcement with absolute unconcern.
It offered one more assurance, had I needed it, of the
degenerate state of the civilization upon which I was
turning my back.

On my way to the train I happened to run into a newspaper
reporter with whom I have some acquaintance.

"I'm just off," I said, "to New England to spend a month
naked--at least naked all but my union suit--in the woods;
no doubt you'll like a few details about it for your paper."

"Thanks, old man," he said, "we've pretty well given up
running that nature stuff. We couldn't do anything with
it--unless, of course, anything happens to you. Then we'd
be glad to give you some space."

Several of my friends had at least the decency to see me
off on the train. One, and one alone accompanied me on
the long night-ride to New England in order that he might
bring back my clothes, my watch, and other possessions
from the point where I should enter the woods, together
with such few messages of farewell as I might scribble
at the last moment.

It was early morning when we arrived at the wayside
station where we were to alight. From here we walked to
the edge of the woods. Arrived at this point we halted.
I took off my clothes, with the exception of my union
suit. Then, taking a pot of brown stain from my valise,
I proceeded to dye my face and hands and my union suit
itself a deep butternut brown.

"What's that for?" asked my friend.

"For protection," I answered. "Don't you know that all
animals are protected by their peculiar markings that
render them invisible? The caterpillar looks like the
leaf it eats from; the scales of the fish counterfeit
the glistening water of the brook; the bear and the
'possum are coloured like the tree-trunks on which they
climb. There!" I added, as I concluded my task. "I am
now invisible."

"Gee!" said my friend.

I handed him back the valise and the empty paint-pot,
dropped to my hands and knees--my camera slung about my
neck--and proceeded to crawl into the bush. My friend
stood watching me.

"Why don't you stand up and walk?" I heard him call.

I turned half round and growled at him. Then I plunged
deeper into the bush, growling as I went.

After ten minutes' active crawling I found myself in the
heart of the forest. It reached all about me on every
side for hundreds of miles. All around me was the unbroken
stillness of the woods. Not a sound reached my ear save
the twittering of a squirrel, or squirl, in the branches
high above my head or the far-distant call of a loon
hovering over some woodland lake.

I judged that I had reached a spot suitable for my
habitation.

My first care was to make a fire. Difficult though it
might appear to the degenerate dweller of the city to do
this, to the trained woodsman, such as I had now become,
it is nothing. I selected a dry stick, rubbed it vigorously
against my hind leg, and in a few moments it broke into
a generous blaze. Half an hour later I was sitting beside
a glowing fire of twigs discussing with great gusto an
appetizing mess of boiled grass and fungi cooked in a
hollow stone.

I ate my fill, not pausing till I was full, careless, as
the natural man ever is, of the morrow. Then, stretched
out upon the pine-needles at the foot of a great tree,
I lay in drowsy contentment listening to the song of the
birds, the hum of the myriad insects and the strident
note of the squirrel high above me. At times I would give
utterance to the soft answering call, known to every
woodsman, that is part of the freemasonry of animal
speech. As I lay thus, I would not have exchanged places
with the pale dweller in the city for all the wealth in
the world. Here I lay remote from the world, happy, full
of grass, listening to the crooning of the birds.

But the mood of inaction and reflection cannot last, even
with the lover of Nature. It was time to be up and doing.
Much lay before me to be done before the setting of the
sun should bring with it, as I fully expected it would,
darkness. Before night fell I must build a house, make
myself a suit of clothes, lay in a store of nuts, and in
short prepare myself for the oncoming of winter, which,
in the bush, may come on at any time in the summer.

I rose briskly from the ground to my hands and knees and
set myself to the building of my house. The method that
I intended to follow here was merely that which Nature
has long since taught to the beaver and which, moreover,
is known and practised by the gauchos of the pampas, by
the googoos of Rhodesia and by many other tribes. I had
but to select a suitable growth of trees and gnaw them
down with my teeth, taking care so to gnaw them that each
should fall into the place appointed for it in the
building. The sides, once erected in this fashion, another
row of trees, properly situated, is gnawed down to fall
crosswise as the roof.

I set myself briskly to work and in half an hour had
already the satisfaction of seeing my habitation rising
into shape. I was still gnawing with unabated energy when
I was interrupted by a low growling in the underbrush.
With animal caution I shrank behind a tree, growling in
return. I could see something moving in the bushes,
evidently an animal of large size. From its snarl I judged
it to be a bear. I could hear it moving nearer to me. It
was about to attack me. A savage joy thrilled through me
at the thought, while my union suit bristled with rage
from head to foot as I emitted growl after growl of
defiance. I bared my teeth to the gums, snarling, and
lashed my flank with my hind foot. Eagerly I watched for
the onrush of the bear. In savage combat who strikes
first wins. It was my idea, as soon as the bear should
appear, to bite off its front legs one after the other.
This initial advantage once gained, I had no doubt of
ultimate victory.

The brushes parted. I caught a glimpse of a long brown
body and a hairy head. Then the creature reared up,
breasting itself against a log, full in front of me.
Great heavens! It was not a bear at all. It was a man.

He was dressed, as I was, in a union suit, and his face
and hands, like mine, were stained a butternut brown.
His hair was long and matted and two weeks' stubble of
beard was on his face.

For a minute we both glared at one another, still growling.
Then the man rose up to a standing position with a muttered
exclamation of disgust.

"Ah, cut it out," he said. "Let's talk English."

He walked over towards me and sat down upon a log in an
attitude that seemed to convey the same disgust as the
expression of his features. Then he looked round about him.

"What are you doing?" he said.

"Building a house," I answered.

"I know," he said with a nod. "What are you here for?"

"Why," I explained, "my plan is this: I want to see
whether a man can come out here in the woods, naked, with
no aid but that of his own hands and his own ingenuity and--"

"Yes, yes, I know," interrupted the disconsolate man.
"Earn himself a livelihood in the wilderness, live as
the cave-man lived, carefree and far from the curse of
civilization!"

"That's it. That was my idea," I said, my enthusiasm
rekindling as I spoke. "That's what I'm doing; my food
is to be the rude grass and the roots that Nature furnishes
for her children, and for my drink--"

"Yes, yes," he interrupted again with impatience, "for
your drink the running rill, for your bed the sweet couch of
hemlock, and for your canopy the open sky lit with the soft
stars in the deep-purple vault of the dewy night. I know."

"Great heavens, man!" I exclaimed. "That's my idea exactly.
In fact, those are my very phrases. How could you have
guessed it?"

He made a gesture with his hand to indicate weariness
and disillusionment.

"Pshaw!" he said. "I know it because I've been doing it.
I've been here a fortnight now on this open-air,
life-in-the-woods game. Well, I'm sick of it! This last
lets me out."

"What last?" I asked.

"Why, meeting you. Do you realize that you are the
nineteenth man that I've met in the last three days
running about naked in the woods? They're all doing it.
The woods are full of them."

"You don't say so!" I gasped.

"Fact. Wherever you go in the bush you find naked men
all working out this same blasted old experiment. Why,
when you get a little farther in you'll see signs up:
NAKED MEN NOT ALLOWED IN THIS BUSH, and NAKED MEN KEEP
OFF, and GENTLEMEN WHO ARE NAKED WILL KINDLY KEEP TO THE
HIGH ROAD, and a lot of things like that. You must have
come in at a wrong place or you'd have noticed the little
shanties that they have now at the edge of the New England
bush with signs up: UNION SUITS BOUGHT AND SOLD, CAMERAS
FOR SALE OR TO RENT, HIGHEST PRICE FOR CAST-OFF CLOTHING,
and all that sort of thing."

"No," I said. "I saw nothing."

"Well, you look when you go back. As for me, I'm done
with it. The thing's worked out. I'm going back to the
city to see whether I can't, right there in the heart of
the city, earn myself a livelihood with my unaided hands
and brains. That's the real problem; no more bumming on
the animals for me. This bush business is too easy. Well,
good-bye; I'm off."

"But stop a minute," I said. "How is it that, if what
you say is true, I haven't seen or heard anybody in the
bush, and I've been here since the middle of the morning?"

"Nonsense," the man answered. "They were probably all
round you but you didn't recognize them."

"No, no, it's not possible. I lay here dreaming beneath
a tree and there wasn't a sound, except the twittering
of a squirrel and, far away, the cry of a lake-loon,
nothing else."

"Exactly, the twittering of a squirrel! That was some
feller up the tree twittering to beat the band to let on
that he was a squirrel, and no doubt some other feller
calling out like a loon over near the lake. I suppose
you gave them the answering cry?"

"I did," I said. "I gave that low guttural note which--"

"Precisely--which is the universal greeting in the
freemasonry of animal speech. I see you've got it all
down pat. Well, good-bye again. I'm off. Oh, don't bother
to growl, please. I'm sick of that line of stuff."

"Good-bye," I said.

He slid through the bushes and disappeared. I sat where
I was, musing, my work interrupted, a mood of bitter
disillusionment heavy upon me. So I sat, it may have been
for hours.

In the far distance I could hear the faint cry of a
bittern in some lonely marsh.

"Now, who the deuce is making that noise?" I muttered.
"Some silly fool, I suppose, trying to think he's a
waterfowl. Cut it out!"

Long I lay, my dream of the woods shattered, wondering
what to do.

Then suddenly there came to my ear the loud sound of
voices, human voices, strident and eager, with nothing
of the animal growl in them.

"He's in there. I seen him!" I heard some one call.

Rapidly I dived sideways into the underbrush, my animal
instinct strong upon me again, growling as I went.
Instinctively I knew that it was I that they were after.
All the animal joy of being hunted came over me. My union
suit stood up on end with mingled fear and rage.

As fast as I could I retreated into the wood. Yet somehow,
as I moved, the wood, instead of growing denser, seemed
to thin out. I crouched low, still growling and endeavouring
to bury myself in the thicket. I was filled with a wild
sense of exhilaration such as any lover of the wild life
would feel at the knowledge that he is being chased, that
some one is after him, that some one is perhaps just a
few feet behind him, waiting to stick a pitchfork into
him as he runs. There is no ecstasy like this.

Then I realized that my pursuers had closed in on me. I
was surrounded on all sides.

The woods had somehow grown thin. They were like the mere
shrubbery of a park--it might be of Central Park itself.
I could hear among the deeper tones of men the shrill
voices of boys. "There he is," one cried, "going through
them bushes! Look at him humping himself!" "What is it,
what's the sport?" another called. "Some crazy guy loose
in the park in his underclothes and the cops after him."

Then they closed in on me. I recognized the blue suits
of the police force and their short clubs. In a few
minutes I was dragged out of the shrubbery and stood in
the open park in my pyjamas, wide awake, shivering in
the chilly air of early morning.

Fortunately for me, it was decided at the police-court
that sleep-walking is not an offence against the law. I
was dismissed with a caution.

My vacation is still before me, and I still propose to
spend it naked. But I shall do so at Atlantic City.

Stephen Leacock