It had been one of those days when the sun could not seem to make up its mind whether it wanted to hide behind a curtain of clouds or look out over the world. Throughout the day the light had alternated between the brilliant gold of autumn leaves and the darkness that inspired the owl to open his eyes. The sky was sometimes a deep azure blue, laced with soft white clouds; sometimes it was the deep gray of a wolf's coat, streaked with distant white lightning and growling black thunder.
Now, just as the sun was beginning to set on the hilly horizon, a gray squirrel poked her head over the leafy edge of her nest in an oak tree. She blinked and peered toward the hills as the sun surrendered to dark cloaks of gray-blue cloud that were slowly and steadily pulling across the sky. The clouds were ominous and held trouble for the little squirrel. She was young and nervous. In her anxiousness to evade the predators that lurked on the forest floor, she had not built her winter nest in the giant oak's strong, secure arms nearer the trunk, but dangerously high in the slender fingers, where the wind blew the strongest, and the rain struck like bullets.
Hunger forced the squirrel to abandon these troubling thoughts. She thought of acorns, and began her journey to the earth.
She clambered over the mass of sticks and leaves of her nest. A breeze wrapped around the flimsy branches and the squirrel swung for a moment before continuing on toward the rough bark of the tree's sturdy body. She flicked her tail with agitation. With every step she realized how quickly the wind was picking up, and how urgent was her need to find a new home for the cold, gusty months ahead. The approaching storm was not going to be friendly.
On her way to the ground, the squirrel passed a hole in the tree. Curious, she poked her head inside. The entrance to the hole was small, but inside it was roomy and cozy. It was also uninhabited. There was no owl dozing in the hole like the booming great horned monarch a few trees down from the squirrel's oak. There was no raccoon with its harlequin mask and bushy ringed tail. The only living thing in the room was an old bark beetle, a descendant of the bark beetle who had chewed out the hole long ago.
The squirrel was not bothered by the beetle. She knew she had found her new winter shelter, and, reassured, she continued down.
However, as soon as the squirrel felt the worn dirt under her paws, she was immediately unnerved again. She was an inhabitant of the trees. She survived high in the secretive world of branches and wood. But the ground was insecure, alien—swarming with predators. The squirrel flicked her tail again and looked around. She had expert eyesight, and good color vision; she did not see the scarlet flash of a fox, or the plodding brown boots of a human.
Gingerly the squirrel inched across the ground. After a while she came to a patch of earth that had imprinted itself in her mind earlier that autumn. She began to dig feverishly. Her little paws neatly shoveled away the top layer of soil to uncover the scrumptious acorn she had buried a few weeks ago. Eagerly she popped it into her mouth and went to another nut-cache, until the ground was pocketed with harvested holes. Even in her bliss the squirrel glanced around the forest floor for predators.
But predators did not live only on the ground. On a branch on the pine tree a short distance from the squirrel, the noble great horned owl was brooding, his eyes half-closed. His feathers were fluffed, his feathery horns standing straight up on his head. His yellow eyes were dull.
The squirrel made a quick jump to another cache. This sudden movement attracted the owl and made him alert. His eyes snapped to attention. He dug his talons into the branch and yawned. As the squirrel continued to hop across the ground, the owl twisted his head around until it was nearly upside-down, the better to see every part of the squirrel, the prey.
For many days now the owl had gone without a substantial meal. His unhealthy feathers were notched with pale streaks that told of his hunger. The owl extended his long, brown wings and flapped silently from the pine.
The squirrel's head shot up. She looked around, wide-eyed. Just as the owl whirled above her, a snarl of thunder erupted. The squirrel leaped narrowly away and raced up the tree to her new home in the bark beetle's hole.
The owl hooted his eerie call and it merged with the deep thunder. He flew to another tree to sulk and wait for more prey.
Another movement below made him lift his wings—but he saw that it was not food. It was a red fox, loping down an old hunting trail with a rabbit in her mouth. The vixen had four hungry kits in a den near the stream that snaked through the forest. She was having to feed them constantly, for the kits were growing rapidly and would leave her in early winter. As if to remind the fox of her purpose, a chilly breeze descended from the looming gray-blue storm cloud and ruffled her fur.
The determined fox quickened her pace. The starving owl flapped his wings.
He struck the vixen's mouth and gripped the rabbit in his talons. The fox was reluctant to let go of her well-earned catch. Her own young were hungry. She growled menacingly and pulled, neck muscles rippling. The owl held tight, leaning backwards and flapping to keep his balance. The vixen's jaws ached. She was forced to let go.
In a few seconds the owl had soared to a high limb and was voraciously tearing off pieces of meat with his hooked beak. The vixen snarled at him and continued down the hunting trail.
A boom of thunder drummed through the still air. The vixen trotted briskly through the trees until she reached a meadow below the foothills of the mountains. Here, many voles and mice made their homes. The blue-black light was thick, but the fox could see as well in darkness as she could in daylight. Her nose was even more powerful than her eyes, and she sniffed eagerly through the grass.
Mourning doves and mockingbirds in the surrounding treetops were serenading the fall storm. Their low, melancholy coos and shrill, busy cries clashed like storm clouds and sunlight. The fox glanced briefly at them, then breathed in the earthy smells of the meadow. She caught the scent of a mole, crouching in its underground lair.
The mole was feeding on worms in one of the many tunnels of his huge earthen network. He felt the atmospheric changes, the humidity above ground, and knew that a storm was on the way. In the wetness following the rain showers hundreds of earthworms would slither up into the moisture. The mole would go into the world above the soil for the first time in his short life and feast.
As the first raindrops began to plop above his head, the mole shoveled upward with his plow-like forepaws, following a long, pink earthworm. The mole could not see—his eyes were just fleshy bumps on his dull face—or hear. But his powerful nose and sensitive feet guided him toward the alien land above the dark tunnels. After a few shoves of his mighty forefeet, the mole burst into the air.
No sooner had the mole made the transition from one world to another than the fox was above him. She snapped her fearsome teeth, and the mole retreated hurriedly into the safety of his chamber. He shoveled dirt behind him, blocking up the hole, and scurried a distance to his favorite sleeping cavern. When his heartbeat had slowed somewhat, he curled up into a warm ball and fell asleep.
Meanwhile, the desperate, hungry fox dug away the earth of the mole's escape tunnel. But it was no use. Although a small, awkward-looking creature, the mole was fast, and he was safe in his bedroom a quarter-mile away from where the fox had attacked.
When the vixen was about to turn and head home with no food for her kits, she caught the scent of a field mouse. It was feeding on seeds a short distance away. Before it could escape, the fox reared on her hind legs, bounced high into the air, and shot straight down like an arrow into the grass. After she had gobbled down the field mouse, she came across several more, and pounced and ate until she was full.
The rain was falling heavier now, and, ears folded, tail straight out behind her, the fox ran to the dry shelter of the trees.
She retraced her scent-trail back to her den, a shallow pit dug under a fallen tree. The kits were waiting for her there, and they greeted her exuberantly, yelping and jumping with excitement. Then they gathered around and licked their mother's lips, inducing her to cough up a heap of fresh mouse meat for them. The kits set upon it hungrily. This routine of feeding, common among mammals, was the most sensible way of nourishing the young. It meant that the vixen could catch and eat more food, and that there was no meat trail to lead predators to the fox den.
When all the foxes were satisfied, the mother fox led her litter inside the den. She curled herself around the four small bodies, until all were warm and safe and sleeping soundly.
The rain roared as it sailed through the matted ceiling of tree limbs. The wind tore at branches and leaves. Thunder crashed and lightning split the sky. One slender electrical arm reached down and struck the trunk of a nearby tree, a towering giant of more than one hundred years and uncountable storms. With a terrifying creak the tree sailed toward the ground. It shook the earth as it fell.
All across the forest animals were waiting out the storm. A pair of song sparrows were fluffed up to keep dry. They had tried to sleep, but the wind and thunder kept them awake. They were mates, and huddled close on their tree branch.
In her den in the side of a mountain foothill a black bear was curled into a tight ball. The sound of the falling tree woke her. She lifted her head drowsily and looked out at the cascading rain and howling wind. The bear was pregnant—she would give birth early next year—but now she was just beginning her winter routine, during which time she would rest and eat, rest and eat, until winter pushed her into the depths of hibernation. She blinked at the storm, yawned, and went back to sleep.
All through that night the storm raged, hurtling wind and icy rain against the trees. Thunder roared like the irritable mate of the bear, lightning lit up the dark world of the mole as he searched for worms near the top layer of soil.
In the middle of the night the mother fox lifted her head. She was uneasy. Rainwater was seeping into her den under the log. The storm was not weakening, and it grew muddier in the tight shelter. The vixen stood and nudged her kits awake. Yawning, whimpering, the young foxes stirred. Their mother urged them to their feet. A rivulet of water was now streaming into the den. The foxes would have to find a new shelter.
The kits stared wide-eyed at the sopping world around them. The ground shook with the awesome power of the thunder and rain. Fiery lightning exploded overhead. The young foxes yelped and clustered around their mother. One of the kits, the weakest and smallest in the litter, shivered and moaned helplessly. The vixen picked up the runt by the scruff of his neck and led the rest of the kits through the forest.
The great horned owl saw the foxes pass beneath him and rolled out his haunting call. He was stuffed with the rabbit he had stolen from the mother fox earlier, and called, not to prepare for a hunt, but merely to frighten the foxes. The vixen gave a low growl and the kits hurried along.
As the wind died down to a ghostly whisper, the fox family arrived at their destination. The tired mother looked up to see a mass of rocks in a shady pine grove. She loped over to it and dropped the pup she had been carrying. The others stumbled with exhaustion to their new home and flopped in the secure darkness of the crags. The mother fox licked them until they felt warm and dry again, then pushed her nose into her brush and sighed contentedly, lulled to sleep by the thunder rumbling in the distance.
Inside her hole in the oak tree, the little squirrel twitched and fluttered her eyes. She went to the entrance and craned her neck. She tilted an ear toward the mountains. She waited for a long time, but no more thunder growled. The rain no longer fell in heavy, icy sheets but in gentle, pattering drops, until the gray clouds were swept quickly away to reveal the stars above, shining with a soft, pale glow. A drop of water collected on a branch and plopped upon the squirrel's head. The squirrel went back inside her den. She preferred the silence and dryness of her new nest to the wet outdoors.
The dark hours wore on until, at last, just above the tops of the distant mountains, a halo of sunlight peeked up. It shed a dull, wintery blue light over the land. The song sparrows shook the dampness from their bodies, pressed their feathers flat, and puffed out their breasts. Their whistling carols rang in the air. The storm was gone.
Animals from all over the forest listened intently to the song and looked out at the pale, down-soft light. The bear stretched and rolled out of her den to grow fat on blueberries until she fasted for the winter and resumed her hibernation. The mole did not hear the song, but he felt the air pressure lift and the humidity sweep away and plowed up out of the soil. A worm slithered under his toes, and he ate heartily.
When the sun was high above the snowy peaks, and their song had ended, the sparrows stretched their wings and flapped away from the tree branch. Powerful, instinctive emotions had been triggered within them with the ending of the autumn storm. They flew south to warmer climates, with more sparrows clustering on until the sky was alive with fluttering, twittering birds.
The fox pups looked curiously up at the feathery air and lapped rainwater from the tips of leaves. They watched a white-tailed doe glide elegantly through the forest. Two antlered bucks strode up to her. Their smooth new antlers gleamed in the light of the dawn. They pawed the ground and charged, their racks clashing with a loud crack in the still air. It was the confrontational time of rut, the mating season for the deer. The fox kits took little interest in the noisy battle and proceeded to pounce on each other's tails.
The sky looked like a great wild fish, pale grayish blue with a streak of orange-pink splashed along the low horizon. Under its solemn light the forest shone with a magnificent freshness and grandeur.
The animals went on with their daily lives. A bark beetle began to chew a new hole in an oak tree, which would one day be used by one of the gray squirrel's grandchildren. Two earthworms came together in the soil to reproduce, and the mole went back underground, with the reassuring knowledge that there was plenty of food to be had. The deer battled for mates, the foxes played, and the great horned owl quietly surveyed his prosperous kingdom.
And hundreds of other species of animals and insects and birds went on with the turning of the earth, in the shimmering wetness and the sparkling beauty after the storm.