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NATURE HAPPENINGS - July 2003

A Tale of a Tail
by Damian Fagan

This story starts with a tale, then ends with a tail.

Legend has it that long ago, when small rodents ruled the forest, that a particular mouse named Mallow boosted of his fearlessness. He claimed to be Lord of the Forest Litter, ruler of Things Fallen From Above. He could climb a tree much better than Vole, and he could burrow deeper than Rabbit. His claims made him a legend in his own mind.

Now one day a terrible storm descended upon the mountains. Winds blew with a fury and lightning streaked through the sky. Hail the size of grasshoppers pelted the earth and thunder made the trees jump. Like the crooked fingers of some old hag, lightning spread across the mountains and touched off fires as it moved across the forest. What started as a puff of smoke soon became a raging inferno.

Mouse was so terrified that he could barely move. Mule deer bounded over him and Turkey got the flock out of there. The Long-Eared woke up and hissed in displeasure. As other rodents scurried past him seeking safety in the rock slopes or beneath the waters of the forest ponds, Mouse could only shake with fear. His boasting was like a Western movie set - all front, no foundation. As the fires leapt across the tree crowns, Mouse could only watch in awe.

Fortunately for Mouse, Porcupine waddled over him, his spines striking deep into Mouse’s fur. Mouse jumped with a realization that he was not quite dead yet. His pain brought him back into reality and with this second chance, he raced before the hungry tongue of flames lapped up the forest fuels.

Seeking shelter from the fire, Mouse spied a large tree with thick bark and strong limbs. Thinking that this tree could provide him with shelter, Mouse ran up the bark just as the flames burned away the hairs on his narrow tail. Without a moment to spare, Mouse burrowed deep beneath a shield on the tree’s cone, willing his body into a space too large for his fitting. The fire raced across the forest carpet, climbed as high as it could along the furrowed bark, and did not succeed in toasting this plump, mouse Mallow.


To this day, legend has it, the Douglas fir tree that provided safe haven for Mouse holds an annual remembrance of this occasion. The tree’s cones, borne hanging from stout limbs, have thumbnail-shaped scales from which protrude tiny appendages. These appendages, upon closer inspection, resemble the tiny hind legs and hairless tail of one, toasted mouse.
Though the tale ends with a tail, one has only to go high up into the La Sals to see the evidence for themselves. Douglas fir trees, their thick bark furrowed like a watermelon field, grow at elevations intermixed with aspen, white fir, and Engelmann spruce. Their pendulous cones hang down like bad habits, unlike the upright cones of the white fir. Their leaves have a much softer feel than the needle-like Engelmann spruce - beware the offering of a spruce’s handshake. Not admitted into the genus of True Firs (Abies), the Douglas fir was named after its poor imitation of a hemlock - Pseudotsuga, means “false hemlock.”

Though Mouse survived the fire, barely, it was his bad fortune to select a tree with fire resistant bark. Others had the same idea. Unfortunately, Mouse was eaten by Redtail who happened to be perched in that same tree. The last known sighting of Mouse was his tail disappearing down Redtail’s throat. Such are the ways of Nature.

 

 

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