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Northern Trails, Book I.   By: (1867-1952)

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William J. Long




In the original preface to "Northern Trails" the author stated that, with the solitary exception of the salmon's life in the sea after he vanishes from human sight, every incident recorded here is founded squarely upon personal and accurate observation of animal life and habits. I now repeat and emphasize that statement. Even when the observations are, for the reader's sake, put into the form of a connected story, there is not one trait or habit mentioned which is not true to animal life.

Such a statement ought to be enough, especially as I have repeatedly furnished evidence from reliable eye witnesses to support every observation that the critics have challenged; but of late a strenuous public attack has been made upon the wolf story in this volume by two men claiming to speak with authority. They take radical exception to my record of a big white wolf killing a young caribou by snapping at the chest and heart. They declared this method of killing to be "a mathematical impossibility" and, by inference, a gross falsehood, utterly ruinous to true ideas of wolves and of natural history.

As no facts or proofs are given to support this charge, the first thing which a sensible man naturally does is to examine the fitness of the critics, in order to ascertain upon what knowledge or experience they base their dogmatic statements. One of these critics is a man who has no personal knowledge of wolves or caribou, who asserts that the animal has no possibility of reason or intelligence, and who has for years publicly denied the observations of other men which tend to disprove his ancient theory. It seems hardly worth while to argue about either wolves or men with such a naturalist, or to point out that Descartes' idea of animals, as purely mechanical or automatic creatures, has long since been laid aside and was never considered seriously by any man who had lived close to either wild or domestic animals. The second critic's knowledge of wolves consists almost entirely of what he has happened to see when chasing the creatures with dogs and hunters. Judging by his own nature books, with their barbaric records of slaughter, his experience of wild animals was gained while killing them. Such a man will undoubtedly discover some things about animals, how they fight and hide and escape their human enemies; but it hardly needs any argument to show that the man who goes into the woods with dogs and rifles and the desire to kill can never understand any living animal.

If you examine now any of the little books which he condemns, you will find a totally different story: no record of chasing and killing, but only of patient watching, of creeping near to wild animals and winning their confidence whenever it is possible, of following them day and night with no motive but the pure love of the thing and no object but to see exactly what each animal is doing and to understand, so far as a man can, the mystery of its dumb life.

Naturally a man in this attitude will see many traits of animal life which are hidden from the game killer as well as from the scientific collector of skins. For instance, practically all wild animals are shy and timid and run away at man's approach. This is the general experience not only of hunters but of casual observers in the woods. Yet my own experience has many times shown me exactly the opposite trait: that when these same shy animals find me unexpectedly close at hand, more than half the time they show no fear whatever but only an eager curiosity to know who and what the creature is that sits so quietly near them. Sometimes, indeed, they seem almost to understand the mental attitude which has no thought of harm but only of sympathy and friendly interest. Once I was followed for hours by a young wolf which acted precisely like a lost dog, too timid to approach and too curious or lonely to run away. He even wagged his tail when I called to him softly... Continue reading book >>

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