Mother West Wind

May 12, 2012


In March this year we had a week of summer, when the temperature rose to eighty degrees and the ice that covered the beaver pond in our backyard began to melt. One day Don glanced out the kitchen window, saw splashing in the melted area, hollered for me, and we watched a sleek round head appear.

I said, “That’s Little Joe Otter!”

The name always comes to me automatically whenever we see an otter, because the first otter I ever met was in the pages of a Mother West Wind book and his name was Little Joe.

Don said, “Look.”

Another head popped out of the water. More splashing, much play.

Long ago I had learned from Thornton Burgess in his Mother West Wind books that otters love to frolic. They sure do. In winter we’ve even watched them go watersliding down an icy bank into a pool of open water near the shore, just like the mud-bank sliding I recall that Little Joe did.

Today, these two otters now climbed up on the ice. Don asked, “What’s the name of the other one?”

As usual I told him that if there was any otter in Mother West Wind other than Little Joe, I couldn’t remember.

But I could remember some of the other names in the Mother West Wind series that our grandparents gave my sister and me, books that were first read to us by our parents and then read by us on our own. A skunk to me will always be Jimmy Skunk. A mink is Billy Mink. A fox is Reddy Fox. A breeze is one of the Merry Little Breezes.

Besides these books, I also read about the Mother West Wind world in Thornton Burgess’s column in my mother’s Boston Globe. My friend Gwen’s memories go back into the past even deeper, for she is ninety-eight and remembers as a child reading the Burgess stories in her father’s Boston Herald.

After Don’s question, I wanted to refresh my memory about names, but the books from childhood were long gone, so until I could get to the library to see what they had I went online and rediscovered Jerry Muskrat, Paddy the Beaver, Johnny Chuck, Bobby Raccoon, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Danny Meadow Mouse, Tufty the Linx, Hooty the Owl, Blacky the Crow,  Sammy Jay, et al. (In my childhood, did it strike me that this was a boys’ club of creatures? If so, I accepted it. Wasn’t The Wind in the Willows peopled by Mole, Ratty, Mr. Toad, and Mr. Badger? But the books I remember rereading most often had heroines, from Raggedy Ann to Alice and Wendy.)
Names. Did Mother West Wind names inspire me to name the other creatures I encountered throughout my life, or is this simply a natural tendency to anthropomorphize?

Elsewhere in my “Neighborhood” and “Mailbox” pieces (“Making Tracks”; “Where That Barn Used to Be”), I’ve written about naming places, and other names have cropped up in the “Neighborhood,” such as Mother Goose and Father Goose for the Canada geese who attempted to nest on our abandoned beaver lodge last spring. In one of my novels I mentioned Stumpy, a chipmunk who’d lost part of her tail; she resided near our house where each spring we could watch her latest batch of babies venture out to the shock of daylight. One year she had five babies!

The chipmunk we’ve been watching most closely lately we named Lily when we noticed her last summer, because she dug her burrow in the patch of lilies of the valley in our ell dooryard, near the house foundation. Well, not just one hole appeared amongst the lily leaves but many, as if she were creating a McMansion underground. Don the Scot who has to understand how things work, including chipmunk brains, spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what the hell she was up to, while I just marveled at the mounds of dirt she dug out. How could somebody so wee move so much earth?

Late in November we watched Lily rolling her bedroll; that is, rolling dry leaves into her mouth and taking them down to her burrow. Soon we didn’t see her again, but we thought of her down there snoozing through the winter under the lily roots. Then during March she reappeared and began scampering around, which made us wonder if she really was a Lily, for from our reading we gather that it’s the males who awake early in the spring to go a-courting. But this year, with summer in March, were all the chipmunks confused? Chipmunk babies are usually born in April and emerge from the burrow a month later, so we’re waiting to see if any will be exploring the lilies of the valley. If no babies do appear, we probably should change Lily’s name to Lyman, which, according to my names book, means “from the valley.”

Speaking of Mother and Father Geese a few paragraphs ago: On the last day of March this year we noticed two Canada geese in the best sunny spot in the pond, apparently soaking up some rays. Canada geese mate for life; could this be the pair who tried nesting here last year? That had been in May. They were early this year. Were they also confused? A few days later we saw them climb up onto the beaver lodge, onto the exact place where the nest had been. We know Canada geese can be an awful nuisance and even dangerous (such as causing a plane to have to be landed on the Hudson River), but we get so few in our pond that we can enjoy them. They’re still here, and we’re hoping this year they’ll truly be Mother Goose and Father Goose with goslings, which my friend Gloria, who has seen such youngsters, calls little dust mops.

We find that we’re less likely to name birds, maybe because it’s hard to sort out individuals, but last year there was one hummingbird who always chose one particular teeny-tiny twig to alight on in the lilac bush near the hummingbird feeder. She was a female and we named her Twiggy. Thus a hummingbird brought back to us our years of 1964 to 1966 in England when London was Swinging London and I kept hemming my skirts shorter and shorter.

Don has a general name for our fine feathered friends. Years ago we lived in a second-floor apartment in an old Victorian house in Dover, New Hampshire, where, off the kitchen, on the deck built on the roof of the porch below, we had a birdfeeder to which a surprising variety of birds came. One Saturday afternoon Don lugged a fifty-pound bag of sunflower seeds from our car to the porch, across the hallway, up the long flight of stairs, through our living room and dining room into the kitchen, and dropped it with a resounding thud to the floor.

“There!” he said. “That ought to hold the Little Bastards.”

Not a name I learned from Thornton Burgess.

© 2012 by Ruth Doan MacDougall; all rights reserved
Photos by Don MacDougall © 2012; all rights reserved


Ruth's Neighborhood Blog Entries Directory

Book Reviewing (June 2017)
Winter-Spring (May 2017)
Three-Ring Circus
(Jan 2017/Mch 2017)



Restoring the Colonial Theater (July 2016)


Reunion at Sawyer's Dairy Bar (Sept. 2015)

Going to the Dump (May 2015)



A Curmudgeon's Lament (Jan 2014)

Aprons (April 2014_

Our Green-and-Stone-ribbed World (June, 2014)

Playing Tourist (Oct. 2014)


Favorite Books (January 2013)

Penny Cats (March 2013)

Why Climb a Mountain (June 2013)

Sawyer's Dairy Bar (Oct. 2013)



Neighborhood Stoves (Feb. 2012)

Mother West Wind (May)

Niobe (July 2012)

Robin SUmmer (Sept 2012)

Marion's Christmas Snowball (Dec. 2012)



The Colonial Theater (May 2011

Mother Goose (June 20110

The Lot (Dec.r2011)