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Friday, January 7, 2022

Seton - A Rabbit's Story of His Life, Written by Himself - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

Have you gone for a hike lately?  For many of us right now that means bundling up!  Wind chills and snow have much of the northern hemisphere very much in the grip of winter!  

More about that in today's story, but first a look back at last week.  Public Domain Day was a week ago on January 1st with many 1926 U.S. works and international works by authors, composers, and more also being added.  That latter is worth noting:

I went through my personal collection and found my 1926 edition of Ernest Thompson Seton's Woodland Tales, not realizing an earlier 1922 edition was already at Project Gutenberg.  In Seton's "Things to See in Wintertime" section he has a "Tale" he called "Tracks and the Stories They Tell" with the most common tracks of Dog, Cat, Sparrow, Chicken, and Robin.  He called it a "Tale", but it's really the following #56 that is actually a Tale.  He found a story  discovered by following the tracks of a rabbit all the way through to some final  feathers to solve a Woodland murder mystery.  His illustration is small and a bit hard to follow.  I was able to enlarge it a bit to make it slightly easier to follow.  I would recommend, if you wanted to re-tell the story, getting an artist to make a larger version.  (There's a limit  as to how large a picture may be enlarged before it becomes unreadable.)

One other quick note, Seton in the Preface called his stories "Mother Carey Tales."  Mother Carey is usually a personification of the sea, but he used it as a Mother Nature figure, complete with all the favoring of the strong over the weak.

A Rabbit's Story of His Life, Written by Himself

Yes, the Rabbit wrote it himself and about himself in the oldest writing on earth, that is the tracks of his feet.

A WOODCRAFT TRAGEDY As shown by the Tracks and Signs in the Snow A WOODCRAFT TRAGEDY
As shown by the Tracks and Signs in the Snow

In February of 1885, one morning after a light snowfall, I went tramping through the woods north of Toronto, when I came on something that always makes me stop and look—the fresh tracks of an animal. This was the track of a Cottontail Rabbit and I followed its windings with thrills of interest. There it began under a little brush pile (a); the bed of brown leaves showing that he settled there, before the snow-fall began. Now here (b) he leaped out after the snow ceased, for the tracks are sharp, and sat looking around. See the two long marks of his hind feet and in front the two smaller prints of his front feet; behind is the mark made by his tail, showing that he was sitting on it.

Then he had taken alarm at something and dashed off at speed (c), for now his hind feet are tracking ahead of the front feet, as in most bounding forefoots, and the faster he goes, the farther ahead those hind feet get.

See now how he dodged about here and there, this way and that, among the trees, as though trying to escape some dreaded enemy (c, d, e, f).

But what enemy? There are no other tracks, and still the wild jumping went on.

I began to think that the Rabbit was crazy, flying from an imaginary foe; possibly that I was on the track of a March Hare. But at "g" I found on the trail for the first time a few drops of blood. That told me that the Rabbit was in real danger but gave no clue to its source.

At "h" I found more blood and at "j" I got a new thrill, for there, plain enough on each side of the Rabbit track, were finger-like marks, and the truth dawned on me that these were the prints of great wings. The Rabbit was fleeing from an eagle, a hawk, or an owl. Some twenty yards farther "k" I found in the snow the remains of the luckless Rabbit partly devoured. Then I knew that the eagle had not done it, for he would have taken the Rabbit's body away, not eaten him up there. So it must have been a hawk or an owl. I looked for something to tell me which, and I got it. Right by the Rabbit's remains was the large twin-toed track (l) that told me that an owl had been there, and that therefore he was the criminal. Had it been a hawk the mark would have been as shown in the left lower corner, three toes forward and one back, whereas the owl usually sets his foot with two toes forward and two backward, as in the sketch. This, then, I felt sure was the work of an owl. But which owl? There were two, maybe three kinds in that valley. I wished to know exactly and, looking for further evidence, I found on a sapling near by a big soft, downy, owlish feather (m) with three brown bars across it; which told me plainly that a Barred Owl or Hoot Owl had been there recently, and that he was almost certainly the killer of the Cottontail.

This may sound like a story of Sherlock Holmes among the animals—a flimsy tale of circumstantial evidence. But while I was making my notes, what should come flying through the woods but the Owl himself, back to make another meal, no doubt. He alighted on a branch just above my head, barely ten feet up, and there gave me the best of proof, next to eye witness of the deed, that all I had gathered from the tracks and signs in the snow was quite true.

I had no camera in those days, but had my sketch book, and as he sat, I made a drawing which hangs to-day among my pictures that are beyond price.

Here, then, is a chapter of wild life which no man saw, which man could not have seen, for the presence of a man would have prevented it. And yet we know it was true, for it was written by the Rabbit himself.

If you have the seeing eye, you will be able to read many strange and thrilling happenings written for you thus in the snow, the mud, and even the sand and the dust.


Seton in this story and the study of animal tracks in "Tale 55" encourages us to see nature's stories.  I try to observe those stories on my snowy hikes, but confess snow depths make it hard to get a clear view.  They're sometimes as difficult to decipher as in Seton's own small illustrations.


Now for the "fine print" about Keeping the Stories in Public Domain.  (You can always enlarge it on your computer.)

This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown -
         - Richard Martin -
         - Spirit of Trees -
         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - 
           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!

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