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The Girl's Own Paper, Vol. VIII, No. 355, October 16, 1886

The Girl's Own Paper, Vol. VIII, No. 355, October 16, 1886
Author: Various
Title: The Girl's Own Paper, Vol. VIII, No. 355, October 16, 1886
Release Date: 2006-05-18
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
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[Pg 33]


Vol. VIII.—No. 355.OCTOBER 16, 1886.Price One Penny.


By the Rev. J. G. Wood, M.A., Author of "The Handy Natural History."

"Whyles owre a linn the burnie plays,
As through the glen it dimpl't;
Whyles round a rocky scaur it strays;
Whyles in a weil it dimpl't;
Whyles glittered to the nightly rays,
Wi' bickering, dancing dazzle;
Whyles cookit underneath the braes
Below the spreading hazel."
Burns: "Halloween."


The many aspects of a brook—The eye sees only that which it iscapable of seeing—Individuality of brooks and their banks—The rippling"burnie" of the hills—The gently-flowing brooks of low-lying districts—Individualitieseven of such brooks—The fresh-water brooks of Oxfordand the tidal brooks of the Kentish marshes—The swarming life inwhich they abound—An afternoon's walk—Ditches versus hedges andwalls—A brook in Cannock Chase—Its sudden changes of aspect—Thebrooks of the Wiltshire Downs and of Derbyshire.

A brook has many points of view.

In the first place, scarcely any two spectators see it in the same light.

To the rustic it is seldom more than a convenient water-tank, or, atmost, as affording some sport to boys in fishing. To its picturesquebeauties his eyes are blind, and to him the brook is, like Peter Bell'sprimrose, a brook and nothing more.

Then there are some who only view a brook as affording variety to thepursuit of the fox, and who pride themselves on their knowledge of thespots at which it can be most successfully leaped.

Others, again, who are of a geographical turn of mind, can only see ina brook a necessary portion of the water-shed of the district.

To children it is for a time dear as a playground, possessing the inestimableadvantage of enabling them tofall into it and wet their clothes fromhead to foot.

Then there are some who are keenlyalive to its changing beauties, and aregifted with artistic spirit and power ofappreciation, even if they should nothave been able to cultivate the technicalskill which would enable them totransfer to paper or canvas the scenewhich pleased them. Yet they canonly see the surface, and take little,if any, heed of the wealth of animatedlife with which the brook and its banksare peopled, or of the sounds withwhich the air is filled.

Happy are those in whom are fortunatelycombined the appreciation ofart and the gift (for it is a gift as muchas an eye for art or an ear for music) of[Pg 34]observing animal life. To them thebrook is all that it is to others, and muchbesides. To them the tiniest brook is a perpetualjoy, and of such a nature I hope arethose who read these pages.

Not only does a brook assume differentaspects, according to the individuality of thespectator, but every brook has its individuality,and so have its banks.

Often the brook "plays many parts," as inBurns' delightful stanza, which seems to haverippled from the poet's brain as spontaneouslyas its subject.

Sometimes, however, as near Oxford, it flowssilently onwards with scarcely a dimple on itsunruffled surface. Over its still waters thegnats rise and fall in their ceaseless dance.The swift-winged dragon-flies, blue, green, andred, swoop upon them like so many falconson their prey; or, in the earlier year, themayflies flutter above the stream, leaving theirshed skins, like ghostly images of themselves,sticking on every tree trunk near the brook.

On the surface of the brook are seen theshadow-like water-gnats, drifting with apparentaimlessness over the surface, buthaving in view a definite and deadly purpose,as many a half drowned insect will find to itscost.

Under the shade of the willows that overhangits banks the whirligig beetles will gather,sociably circling round and round in theirmazy dance, bumping against each other intheir swift course, but glancing off unhurtfrom the collision, protected from injury bythe stout coats of mail which they wear.

They really look like unskilful dancerspractising their "figures" for the first time.They, however, are not engaged in mereamusement, but, like the water-gnats, areabsorbed in the business of life. The naturalistknows, when he sees these creatures, that theydo not form the hundredth part of those whichare hidden from human eyes below thesurface of the little brook, and that the wholeof the stream is as instinct with life, as if ithad been haunted by the Nipens, the Undines,and the host of fairy beings with whom theold legends peopled every river and its tributaries.

They are just as wonderful, though clad inmaterial forms, as any water spirit that everwas evolved from the poet's brain, and havethe inestimable merit of being always withinreach whenever we need them.

I will venture to assert that no fairy tales,not even excepting those of the "ArabianNights," can surpass in marvel the true life-historyof the mayfly, the frog, the newt, andthe dragon-fly, as will be narrated in the courseof these pages. I may go even farther, andassert that there is no inhabitant of the brookand its banks whose biography and structureare not full of absorbing interest, and will notoccupy the longest life, if only an attempt bemade to study them thoroughly.

An almost typical example of slow-flowingbrooks is to be found in the remarkablechannels which intersect the country betweenMinster and Sandwich, and which, on theordnance map, look almost like the threads ofa spider's web. In that flat district, thefields are not divided by hedges, as in mostparts of England, or by stone walls—"dykes,"as they are termed in Ireland—such as areemployed in Derbyshire and several otherstony localities, but by channels, which have astrong individuality of their own.

Even the smallest of these brooks is influencedby the tide, so that at the twoperiods of slack water there is no perceptiblestream.

Yesterday afternoon, having an hour or soto spare at Minster, I examined slightlyseveral of these streams and their banks.The contrast between them and the correspondingbrooklets of Oxford, also a low-lyingdistrict, was very strongly marked.

In the first place, the willow, which formsso characteristic an ornament of the brooksand rivers of Oxford, is wholly absent. Mostof the streamlets are entirely destitute of evena bush by which their course can be marked;so that when, as is often the case, a heavywhite fog overhangs the entire district, lookingfrom a distance as if the land had beensunk in an ocean of milk, no one who is notfamiliarly acquainted with every yard ofground could make his way over the fieldswithout falling into the watery boundarieswhich surround them.

Some of them, however, are distinguishedby hawthorns, which take the place ofthe willows, and thrive so luxuriantly thatthey may lay claim to the title of forest trees.Blackberries, too, are exuberant in theirgrowth, and in many spots the hawthorn andblackberry on opposite sides of the brookhave intertwined their branches across it andhave completely hidden the water from sight.On these blackberries, the fruit of which wasin its green state, the drone-flies and hawk-fliessimply swarmed, telling the naturalist oftheir multitudinous successors, who at presentare in the preliminary stages of their existence.

Among the blackberries the scarlet fruitof the woody nightshade (a first cousin ofthe potato) hung in tempting clusters, andI could not help wondering whether theywould endanger the health of the youngMinsterians.

In some places the common frog-bit hadgrown with such luxuriance that it hadcompletely hidden the water, the leaves overlappingeach other as if the overcrowdedplants were trying to shoulder each other outof the way.

In most of these streamlets the conspicuousbur-reed (Spargánium ramósum) grew thickly,its singular fruit being here and there visibleamong the sword-like leaves. I cannot butthink that the mediæval weapon called the"morning star" (or "morgen-stern") wasderived from the globular, spiked fruit-clusterof the bur-reed.

A few of the streams were full of the fineplant which is popularly known by the nameof bull-rush, or bulrush (Typha latifólia), butwhich ought by rights to be called the "cat's-tail"or "reed-mace." Of this plant it is saidthat a little girl, on seeing it growing, exclaimedthat she never knew before thatsausages grew on sticks. The teasel (Dipsacus)was abundant, as were also several ofthe true thistles.

In some places one of these streams becomestoo deep for the bur-reed, and its surfaceis only diversified by the half-floatingleaves of one or two aquatic plants.

On approaching one of these places, I findthe water to be apparently without inmates.They had only been alarmed by my approach,which, as I had but little time to spare, wasnot as cautious as it ought to have been.However, I remained perfectly still, and presentlya little fish appeared from below. Itwas soon followed by a second and a third, andbefore long a whole shoal of fish were floatingalmost on the surface, looking out for insectswhich had fallen into the water.

The day being hot, and with scarcely a breathof wind, the fish soon became quite bold. Theydid not move beyond the small spot in whichthey had appeared, but they all had their tailsin slight movement, and their heads in one direction,thus showing that although the waterappeared to be perfectly motionless, there mustbe a current of some sort, fish always lying withtheir heads up the stream, so as to allow thewater to enter their mouths and pass over theirgills.

If then these sluggish streams were unlikethose of Oxford, where the ground is low, andnearly level, how utterly distinct must they befrom those of hilly and especially of rockylocalities!

In the earlier part of the present year I wascursorily examining a brook in Cannock Chase,in Staffordshire. Unfortunately, the day wassingularly inauspicious, as the sun was invisible,the atmosphere murky, and a fierce north-eastwind was blowing, a wind which affects animals,etc., especially the insect races, even moreseverely than it does man. Even the birdsremain under shelter as long as they can, andnot an insect will show itself. Neither, in consequence,will the fish be "on the feed."

On a previous visit, we had been more fortunate,trout, crayfish, etc., testifying to theprolific character of the brook, which in oneplace is only four or five feet in width, and yet,within fifty yards, it has formed itself into awide and treacherous marsh, which can onlybe crossed by jumping from one tussock ofgrass to another; and yet, again, it suddenlyspreads out into a broad and shallow torrent,the water leaping and rippling over the stonybed. Scarcely a bush marks its course, andwithin a few yards it is quite invisible.

As we shall presently see, the brooks of thechalk downs of Wiltshire, and of the regularmixture of rock and level ground, which arecharacteristic of Derbyshire, have also theirown separate individualities.

We shall, however, find many allusions tothem in the course of the work, and we willtherefore suppose ourselves to be approachingthe bank of any brook that is but little disturbedby man. What will be likely to happento us will be told in the following chapters.


Life-history of the water-rat—No sciencecan stand alone—What is a water-rat?—Thevoles of the land and water—Their remarkableteeth—The rodents and their incisor teeth—Thetooth and the chisel—The skate "iron"—Chewingthe cud—Teeth of the elephant—Feetof the water-vole—A false accusation—Water-volesin gardens—Winter stores—Catsand water-voles—Subterranean pioneering—Mentalcharacter of the water-vole—Standingfire—Its mode of eating.


A water-rat has taken alarm, and has leapedinto the brook.

A common animal enough, but none theless worthy of notice because it is common.Indeed, it is in many respects a very remarkablecreature, and we may think ourselvesfortunate that we have the opportunity ofstudying its habits and structure.

There is much more in the animal thanmeets the eye, and we cannot examine its life-historywithout at the same time touching uponthat of several other creatures. No sciencestands alone, neither does any animal, howeverinsignificant it may appear to be; and weshall find that before we have done with

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