The Legend of Little Mouse
In the Great Western Forests of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest stand the majestic Douglas Fir trees. Towering 200 to 300 feet over the creatures of the forest floor, Douglas Fir is a strong tree, able to survive the harshest challenges of the wild. Its thick bark and lofty canopy make it resistant to damage from the frequent fires of the West. The cones of most conifers might be characterized as interesting, but not beautiful. Here the cone of the Douglas Firs stands apart from the rest. It is quite beautiful, especially in the early summer when it is colored in green and purple with funny papery appendages - three-lobed bracts protruding from beneath each developing scale.
Such curious things, those cones, those bracts. Why bracts? What purpose do they serve? For everything must have a purpose.
I found no satisfying explanation for the odd little bracts, until I heard a story about the Douglas Fir and its curious cone. It seems that long ago in an ancient forest a summer storm sent a bolt of lightning that broke the tranquility of the forest.
Where the bolt entered the ground a flame arose. So small a flame. Hardly something to be concerned about. Until a dry southerly wind began to blow and before anyone knew it the forest was ablaze. Needles coating the forest floor were quickly turned to ash, small trees were consumed as the flames rose higher. The creatures of the forest became alarmed. They had seen fire before and knew to get to the lake. But the lake was a long way off and this fire was gaining strength, its flames licking up more and more ground, threatening to overtake them. All the animals began to fear for their lives.
Madam Doe sprang away, so fleet of foot, leaping over logs and dodging trees. She would have no trouble reaching the lake. Bear loped along pushing through anything in his way with his brute force. But Little Mouse, running as fast as he could, began to fear he could not out run the flames. He called out to the other creatures of the forest for help.
“Young Cottontail, please stop and let me climb on your back so you can carry me to safety with your bounding strides!”
But Cottontail called back, “I can not stop to carry you. You will weigh me down and I might not make it to the lake.” And he disappeared down the hillside.
As Little Mouse’s panic rose he saw the shadow of his enemy, Owl, pass over him. Perhaps he would spare Little Mouse. “Mr. Owl, please have mercy. Swoop down and carry me in your talons to safety.”
“I can not come back for you”, he replied, without even turning his head. “The heat will singe my feathers and I will not be able to fly.” Like a ghost he disappeared into the smoke.
Then Little Mouse saw Fox catching up to him from behind. But she didn’t look at him like she usually does. She leapt right past him. In desperation he cried out to her, “Mrs. Fox, won’t you carry me in your mouth to the lake?”
But Mrs. Fox called back, “I must hurry to my den and gather up my kits to carry them in my mouth to the lake. There is no time or room for you.” And with that she hurdled the great roots of Douglas Fir and was out of sight.
Then Little Mouse heard a deep voice call down to him from high above. “Little Mouse, waste no time! Climb up into my branches.” It was Douglas Fir speaking. “Climb high, for my bark is thick and will stop the flames from climbing my trunk. My branches are high, the fire will not reach you here.”
So Little Mouse jumped onto the roots of Douglas Fir and climbed as fast as he could. He climbed and climbed until the flames began to look small below him and the air began to cool in Douglas Fir's mighty canopy. Weary from fear and exhausted, Little Mouse crawled under the sheltering scales of an open cone high in Douglas Fir’s branches. And there he fell asleep in safety.
It wasn’t long before the Great Spirit, the Creator of the Forest, heard the tale of Douglas Fir’s compassion for Little Mouse. To honor Douglas Fir, the Creator gave him a mark that would be with him forever so all the creatures of the forest would remember to be kind to those in need. And so, to this day we see the hind legs and tail of a sleeping Little Mouse tucked inside the cones of Douglas Fir.
Author's Note: This was a story told to me many years ago at a retreat in Pike National Forest, Colorado. I was told it has its origin in an old Native American folk tale. I’m sure I'm not recalling it exactly and have altered the story somewhat in my retelling. Nonetheless, I believe I have done no harm to the original point of the story, and hope you have enjoyed it.
All photos and text are Copyright © Julia Flanagan unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
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