The Cycle of the North
A murmur through the barrens — "Come: now the change of year,"
And fur and feather, hair and hide, are very wise to hear.
THE timber fails just beyond the 59th parallel. First the
delicate white birch dwindles, then the smooth bark poplar before
his rougher brother, then the spruce vanishes, till, beside the
river beds that tempestuous waters have cut deep below the plains,
there is only a fringe of tamarack and willow and dwarf pine.
Spring moves at first gently across these solitudes. There is a
strange period in April, when the stark rigour of winter is
alleviated by soft hollows in the north winds. There are pauses and
cessations, intermittent and slowly more constant, and then the
winds swing suddenly from east and south. Instantly there is a
divine change. On sunward slopes the snow is sucked up into these
gentle airs, and May floats up from warmer latitudes across leagues
of wild heather and caribou moss.
Then the sturdy growths spring into life. The anemone spreads in
great stunted patches of lilac bloom. The snow forget-me-not
thrusts through the shreds of winter's disappearing blanket, white
as that winter itself, and wild croci flaunt yellow blossoms
streaked with fiery red. On low land the tulip is star scattered in
deep moss, red also like fire, and the dwarf saskatoons prepare for
their profusion of hardy pears.
But ere the blossoms come the population of the barren lands
grows with the lengthening days. First the eagles in royal
austerity, beating north to breed on the islands of the Arctic.
Then dancing clouds of grey-white snow-birds, vociferous rooks and
swift wedges of great Canada geese, flanked with drifting flocks of
ducks. All these are hardy birds, equipped for the broken weather
that yet must come. In the weeks that follow there is a quick
procession, a general immigration of smaller geese and ducks, of
cranes, wood-peckers and plover, and last of all the swans,
incredibly high and marvellously swift, whipping the air with huge
wings, whose tip feathers are worn and broken in the long passage
from Florida and the Carribean, and the remoteness of South
On land there is movement and life. Vast herds of caribou does
ripple steadily north to bear their young, secure because nature
has robbed their hooves of scent, and the grey wolves, the enemies
of their race, cannot thereby track them. Along the steep shores of
Hudson's Bay, the she-bear issues lean and ravenous, with the young
she has borne and nourished behind, a snow bank, while she fasted
the winter long. The salt shores are fringed with her hungry
sisters, with tall coast wolves, and white and red foxes, all
seeking the dead things from the sea. Musk oxen leave the fringe of
timber and graze suspiciously, snuffing flies and mosquitos and
wasps into their red throats, of which many shall sicken and
Now come July and August when the earth is bright with roses and
fruit. The yellow moon-berry swells from the centre of its
four-leaved white flower. The eyeberry runs riot, Crow-berries
shine like black pearls amid their star-shaped foliage. The
blueberry is everywhere, with low, flat bushes and clusters of oval
sweetness. The cranberry climbs on the rocks and sands. The
snakeberry nods in single perfection, poisonous on its slender
stem, and kinikinic, the weed-berry, waits till some wandering
redman shall pluck and dry it for the redman's tobacco.
The plains are carpeted with the profuse blossom of the wild
tea, whose velvety-pointed leaf brings comfort by many a camp fire.
Next the soil, the coarse, green moss thrusts out its plum-coloured
bloom or spreads viewless beneath grey tufts that live upon its
surface. On the rocks, splintered by the ice, black lichens stick,
thick and cuplike, ere they whiten and die.
And all this time the days are getting longer and the air
milder, and the stiff earth turns to slacken her rigid joints and
yield the wonderful life that lives but for weeks. Now, too, may be
seen the operations of those vital laws and customs that rule the
wild. The bulls of the musk oxen patrol their herds in a shaggy and
truculent circle, outside of which their outlaws, outlaws by age or
ill temper, are pulled down by their ancient enemies. Across the
flat country a swan's nest marks bay and point. Here the mother
bird hatches her young, while the husband hies to the congregation
of males, meeting daily where the food is good. The conclave is
that of a club, severely masculine, and the lords of many nests
commune noisily together. To the club also, may come the mother,
should her mate be killed, to choose another spouse; but only for
this intimate and selective purpose is her approach permitted.
Coastwise, range packs of white foxes, defenceless singly, but
invincible together, and the grey wolves hunt the polar bear,
surrounding him with a ring of snapping jaws, when the salt mud
sinks under his feet at low tide.
Then, as the year fattens, comes the physical change, and fur
and feather, worn, matted and broken, are put away for the new
covering that grows before the autumn closes. The swans cluster in
solitary places to moult, places where there are periwinkles and
clams and crabs and berries for the taking. The caribou move slowly
with patches of new hair spreading on their multi-coloured flanks.
Everywhere there is an easing and slackening of the eternal war.
Carcajou, the wolverine, is too lazy to steal, and eats dead fish,
and the white bears drowse in the languid heat.
In September there is a quickening of wild blood. From lonely
places the fat moulting birds begin to waddle toward the coast.
There is a touch of frost at night, and all plants and fruits fling
themselves out with ultimate and prodigal profusion. In the north
the caribou does turn with their young and begin to trot south with
the sound of a multitude of clicking hoofs and horns, for they do
not shed their antlers like the bucks. Then also small tribes that
neither hibernate nor eat moss, the rats and beaver and squirrels,
replenish their stores.
Gradually the salt water edges become peopled with travellers
preparing for that most wonderful journey in the world. Mallard,
widgeon, teal, plover, geese, swans, all the broad and narrow
billed brotherhood assembles. Night and day the tumult of them
ascends. There is eating of sand for digestion, and digging of
shellfish to harden muscles softened by the sweet things of the
plains, for it is common knowledge that there will be no more sea
food till they sight the swamps of the Gulf of Mexico. The air is
black with trial flights of young birds trying the strength of
young pinions, coming back to earth with calls and whistles and
quacking and trumpeting. Old birds, strong of wing and weatherwise,
mount to invisible spaces looking for that whisper of the north
they all await, till as the autumn days of Indian summer pass, the
colonies grow strong and clean and confident.
And then, of a sudden, there is stillness in the air and a grey
sky, and with a few white flakes the word of the mysterious north
has come. A crisping of the shallow pools and the ducks climb
circling into a slender wedge, with the wisest and strongest at the
point of it. In two hours the shores are desolate of ducks, for
they have far to travel and must start betimes. And so the
marvellous procession marshalls its appointed order with the wisdom
that lies behind the flat skulls and beady eyes of winged things.
As they come they go. The weaker ones first who must stay and rest
often by the way and brave innumerable dangers in their short
journeys, till only are left the swans, whose single flight can be
a thousand miles, who seek the high altitudes where the air is
thin. Then, when the swans have gone, the royal eagles throb down
from the Arctic in lonely passage along deserted leagues, and when
the eagles have sped there is silence on the coasts.
Little by little the ice forms. Lakes narrow. Headland joins to
headland. The male white bears follow out, fishing for seals and
walrus. Wood buffalo and musk oxen seek shelter in the land of
little sticks, and only the coast caribou and bigger wolves brave
the open. The barren ground bear hides himself in warmth and sleep
and carcajou finds a deserted foxhole.
Then comes the snow, light, impalpable and fine like star dust,
and behind it the first breathing of that north wind that searches
the plain for months. The land tightens, shrinks and hardens. Its
rugged ridges are smoothed out in soft curves that swim into each
other. Day is obliterated in the half light of a sun that seems a
stranger in these regions of death, till with relentless force and
swiftness rises the steady drone of the wind. Winter has come to
the barren lands.