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Edge of the Jungle
by William Beebe
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On the following morning new surprises awaited me. The great mass of the ants had moved in the night, vanishing with every egg and immature larva; but there was left in the corner of the flat board a swarm of about one-quarter of the entire number, enshrouding a host of older larvae. The cleaning zones, the cripples' gathering-room, all had given way to new activities, on the flat board, down near the kitchen middens, and in every horizontal crack.

The cause of all this strange excitement, this braving of the terrible dangers of fumes which had threatened to destroy the entire colony the night before, suddenly was made plain as I watched. A critical time was at hand in the lives of the all-precious larvae, when they could not be moved—the period of spinning, of beginning the transformation from larvae to pupae. This evidently was an operation which had to take place outside the nest and demanded some sort of light covering. On the flat board were several thousand ants and a dozen or more groups of full-grown larvae. Workers of all sizes were searching everywhere for some covering for the tender immature creatures. They had chewed up all available loose splinters of wood, and near the rotten, termite-eaten ends, the sound of dozens of jaws gnawing all at once was plainly audible. This unaccustomed, unmilitary labor produced a quantity of fine sawdust, which was sprinkled over the larvae. I had made a partition of a bit of a British officer's tent which I had used in India and China, made of several layers of colored canvas and cloth. The ants found a loose end of this, teased it out and unraveled it, so that all the larvae near by were blanketed with a gay, parti-colored covering of fuzz.

All this strange work was hurried and carried on under great excitement. The scores of big soldiers on guard appeared rather ill at ease, as if they had wandered by mistake into the wrong department. They sauntered about, bumped into larvae, turned and fled. A constant stream of workers from the nest brought hundreds more larvae; and no sooner had they been planted and debris of sorts sifted over them, than they began spinning. A few had already swathed themselves in cocoons—exceedingly thin coverings of pinkish silk. As this took place out of the nest,—in the jungle they must be covered with wood and leaves. The vital necessity for this was not apparent, for none of this debris was incorporated into the silk of the cocoons, which were clean and homogeneous. Yet the hundreds of ants gnawed and tore and labored to gather this little dust, as if their very lives depended upon it.

With my hand-lens focused just beyond mandible reach of the biggest soldier, I leaned forward from my insulated chair, hovering like a great astral eye looking down at this marvelously important business of little lives. Here were thousands of army ants, not killing, not carrying booty, nor even suspended quiescent as organic molecules in the structure of the home, yet in feverish activity equaled only by battle, making ready for the great change of their foster offspring. I watched the very first thread of silk drawn between the larva and the outside world, and in an incredibly short time the cocoon was outlined in a tissue-thin, transparent aura, within which the tenant could be seen skilfully weaving its own shroud.

When first brought from the nest, the larvae lay quite straight and still; but almost at once they bent far over in the spinning position. Then some officious worker would come along, and the unfortunate larva would be snatched up, carried off, and jammed down in some neighboring empty space, like a bolt of cloth rearranged upon a shelf. Then another ant would approach, antennae the larva, disapprove, and again shift its position. It was a real survival of the lucky, as to who should avoid being exhausted by kindness and over-solicitude. I uttered many a chuckle at the half-ensilked unfortunates being toted about like mummies, and occasionally giving a sturdy, impatient kick which upset their tormentors and for a moment created a little swirl of mild excitement.

There was no order of packing. The larvae were fitted together anyway, and meagerly covered with dust of wood and shreds of cloth. One big tissue of wood nearly an inch square was too great a temptation to be let alone, and during the course of my observation it covered in turn almost every group of larvae in sight, ending by being accidentally shunted over the edge and killing a worker near the kitchen middens. There was only a single layer of larvae; in no case were they piled up, and when the platform became crowded, a new column was formed and hundreds taken outside. To the casual eye there was no difference between these legionaries and a column bringing in booty of insects, eggs, and pupae; yet here all was solicitude, never a bite too severe, or a blunder of undue force.

The sights I saw in this second day's accessible nest-swarm would warrant a season's meditation and study, but one thing impressed me above all others. Sometimes, when I carefully pried open one section and looked deep within, I could see large chambers with the larvae in piles, besides being held in the mandibles of the components of the walls and ceilings. Now and then a curious little ghost-like form would flit across the chamber, coming to rest, gnome-like, on larva or ant. Again and again I saw these little springtails skip through the very scimitar mandibles of a soldier, while the workers paid no attention to them. I wondered if they were not quite odorless, intangible to the ants, invisible guests which lived close to them, going where, doing what they willed, yet never perceived by the thousands of inhabitants. They seemed to live in a kind of fourth dimensional state, a realm comparable to that which we people with ghosts and spirits. It was a most uncanny, altogether absorbing, intensely interesting relationship; and sometimes, when I ponder on some general aspect of the great jungle,—a forest of greenheart, a mighty rushing river, a crashing, blasting thunderstorm,—my mind suddenly reverts by way of contrast to the tiny ghosts of springtails flitting silently among the terrible living chambers of the army ants.

On the following morning I expected to achieve still greater intimacy in the lives of the mummy soldier embryos; but at dawn every trace of nesting swarm, larvae, pupae and soldiers was gone. A few dead workers were being already carried off by small ants which never would have dared approach them in life. A big blue morpho butterfly flapped slowly past out of the jungle, and in its wake came the distant notes—high and sharp—of the white-fronted antbirds; and I knew that the legionaries were again abroad, radiating on their silent, dynamic paths of life from some new temporary nest deep in the jungle.



IV

A JUNGLE BEACH

A jungle moon first showed me my beach. For a week I had looked at it in blazing sunlight, walked across it, even sat on it in the intervals of getting wonted to the new laboratory; yet I had not perceived it. Colonel Roosevelt once said to me that he would rather perceive things from the point of view of a field-mouse, than be a human being and merely see them. And in my case it was when I could no longer see the beach that I began to discern its significance.

This British Guiana beach, just in front of my Kartabo bungalow, was remarkably diversified, and in a few steps, or strokes of a paddle, I could pass from clean sand to mangroves and muckamucka swamp, thence to out-jutting rocks, and on to the Edge of the World, all within a distance of a hundred yards. For a time my beach walks resulted in inarticulate reaction. After months in the blindfolded canyons of New York's streets, a hemicircle of horizon, a hemisphere of sky, and a vast expanse of open water lent itself neither to calm appraisal nor to impromptu cuff-notes.

It was recalled to my mind that the miracle of sunrise occurred every morning, and was not a rather belated alternation of illumination, following the quenching of Broadway's lights. And the moon I found was as dependable as when I timed my Himalayan expeditions by her shadowings. To these phenomena I soon became re-accustomed, and could watch a bird or outwit an insect in the face of a foreglow and silent burst of flame that shamed all the barrages ever laid down. But cosmic happenings kept drawing my attention and paralyzing my activities for long afterward. With a double rainbow and four storms in action at once; or a wall of rain like sawn steel slowly drawing up one river while the Mazaruni remains in full sunlight; with Pegasus galloping toward the zenith at midnight and the Pleiades just clearing the Penal Settlement, I could not always keep on dissecting, or recording, or verifying the erroneousness of one of my recently formed theories.

There was Thuban, gazing steadily upon my little mahogany bungalow, as, six millenniums ago, he had shone unfalteringly down the little stone tube that led his rays into the Queen's Chamber, in the very heart of great Cheops. Just clearing a low palm was the present North Star, while, high above, Vega shone, patiently waiting to take her place half a million years hence. When beginning her nightly climb, Vega drew a thin, trembling thread of argent over the still water, just as in other years she had laid for me a slender silver strand of wire across frozen snow, and on one memorable night traced the ghost of a reflection over damp sand near the Nile—pale as the wraiths of the early Pharaohs.

Low on the eastern horizon, straight outward from my beach, was the beginning and end of the great zodiac band—the golden Hamal of Aries and the paired stars of Pisces; and behind, over the black jungle, glowed the Southern Cross. But night after night, as I watched on the beach, the sight which moved me most was the dull speck of emerald mist, a merest smudge on the slate of the heavens,—the spiral nebula in Andromeda,—a universe in the making, of a size unthinkable to human minds.

The power of my jungle beach to attract and hold attention was not only direct and sensory,—through sight and sound and scent,—but often indirect, seemingly by occult means. Time after time, on an impulse, I followed some casual line of thought and action, and found myself at last on or near the beach, on a lead that eventually would take me to the verge or into the water.

Once I did what for me was a most unusual thing. I woke in the middle of the night without apparent reason. The moonlight was pouring in a white flood through the bamboos, and the jungle was breathless and silent. Through my window I could see Jennie, our pet monkey, lying aloft, asleep on her little verandah, head cushioned on both hands, tail curled around her dangling chain, as a spider guards her web-strands for hint of disturbing vibrations. I knew that the slightest touch on that chain would awaken her, and indeed it seemed as if the very thought of it had been enough; for she opened her eyes, sent me the highest of insect-like notes and turned over, pushing her head within the shadow of her little house. I wondered if animals, too, were, like the Malays and so many savage tribes, afraid of the moonlight—the "luna-cy" danger in those strange color-strained rays, whose power must be greater than we realize. Beyond the monkey roosted Robert, the great macaw, wide-awake, watching me with all that broadside of intensive gaze of which only a parrot is capable.

The three of us seemed to be the only living things in the world, and for a long time we—monkey, macaw, and man—listened. Then all but the man became uneasy. The monkey raised herself and listened, uncurled her tail, shifted, and listened. The macaw drew himself up, feathers close, forgot me, and listened. They, unlike me, were not merely listening—they were hearing something. Then there came, very slowly and deliberately, as if reluctant to break through the silent moonlight, a sound, low and constant, impossible to identify, but clearly audible even to my ears. For just an instant longer it held, sustained and quivering, then swiftly rose into a crashing roar—the sound of a great tree falling. I sat up and heard the whole long descent; but at the end, after the moment of silence, there was no deep boom—the sound of the mighty bole striking and rebounding from the earth itself. I wondered about this for a while; then the monkey and I went to sleep, leaving the macaw alone conscious in the moonlight, watching through the night with his great round, yellow orbs, and thinking the thoughts that macaws always think in the moonlight.

The next day the macaw and the monkey had forgotten all about the midnight sound, but I searched and found why there was no final boom. And my search ended at my beach. A bit of overhanging bank had given way and a tall tree had fallen headlong into the water, its roots sprawling helplessly in mid-air. Like rats deserting a sinking ship, a whole Noah's ark of tree-living creatures was hastening along a single cable shorewards: tree-crickets; ants laden with eggs and larvae; mantids gesticulating as they walked, like old men who mumble to themselves; wood-roaches, some green and leaf-like, others, facsimiles of trilobites—but fleet of foot and with one goal.

What was a catastrophe for a tree and a shift of home for the tenants was good fortune for me, and I walked easily out along the trunk and branches and examined the strange parasitic growths and the homes which were being so rapidly deserted. The tide came up and covered the lower half of the prostrate tree, drowning what creatures had not made their escape and quickening the air-plants with a false rain, which in course of time would rot their very hearts.

But the first few days were only the overture of changes in this shift of conditions. Tropic vegetation is so tenacious of life that it struggles and adapts itself with all the cunning of a Japanese wrestler. We cut saplings and thrust them into mud or the crevices of rocks at low tide far from shore, to mark our channel, and before long we have buoys of foliage banners waving from the bare poles above water. We erect a tall bamboo flagpole on the bank, and before long our flag is almost hidden by the sprouting leaves, and the pulley so blocked that we have occasionally to lower and lop it.

So the fallen tree, still gripping the nutritious bank with a moiety of roots, turned slowly in its fibrous stiffness and directed its life and sap and hopes upward. During the succeeding weeks I watched trunk and branches swell and bud out new trunks, new branches, guided, controlled, by gravity, light, and warmth; and just beyond the reach of the tides, leaves sprouted, flowers opened and fruit ripened. Weeks after the last slow invertebrate plodder had made his escape shorewards, the taut liana strand was again crowded with a mass of passing life—a maze of vines and creepers, whose tendrils and suckers reached and curled and pressed onward, fighting for gangway to shore, through days and weeks, as the animal life which preceded them had made the most of seconds and minutes.

The half-circle of exposed raw bank became in its turn the center of a myriad activities. Great green kingfishers began at once to burrow; tiny emerald ones chose softer places up among the wreckage of wrenched roots; wasps came and chopped out bits for the walls and partitions of their cells; spiders hung their cobwebs between ratlines of rootlets; and hummingbirds promptly followed and plucked them from their silken nets, and then took the nets to bind their own tiny air-castles. Finally, other interests intervened, and like Jennie and Robert, I gradually forgot the tree that fell without an echo.

In the jungle no action or organism is separate, or quite apart, and this thing which came to the three of us suddenly at midnight led by devious means to another magic phase of the shore.

A little to the south along my beach is the Edge of the World. At least, it looks very much as I have always imagined that place must look, and I have never been beyond it; so that, after listening to many arguments in courts of law, and hearing the reasoning of bolsheviki, teetotalers, and pacifists, I feel that I am quite reasonable as human beings go. And best of all, it hurts no one, and annoys only a few of my scientific friends, who feel that one cannot indulge in such ideas at the wonderful hour of twilight, and yet at eight o'clock the following morning describe with impeccable accuracy the bronchial semi-rings, and the intricate mosaic of cartilage which characterizes and supports the membranis tympaniformis of Attila thamnophiloides; a dogma which halves life and its interests.

The Edge of the World has always meant a place where usual things are different; and my southern stretch of beach was that, because of roots. Whenever in digging I have come across a root and seen its living flesh, perhaps pink or rose or pale green, so far underground, I have desired to know roots better; and now I found my opportunity. I walked along the proper trail, through right and usual trees, with reasonable foliage and normal trunks, and suddenly I stepped down over the Edge. Overhead and all around there was still the foliage. It shut out the sun except for greenish, moderated spots and beams. The branches dipped low in front over the water, shutting out the sky except along the tops of the cross-river jungle. Thus a great green-roofed chamber was formed; and here, between jungle and the water-level of the world, was the Kingdom of the Roots.

Great trees had in their youth fallen far forward, undermined by the water, then slowly taken a new reach upward and stretched forth great feet and hands of roots, palms pressing against the mud, curved backs and thews of shoulders braced against one another and the drag of the tides. Little by little the old prostrate trunks were entirely obliterated by this fantastic network. There were no fine fibers or rootlets here; only great beams and buttresses, bridges and up-ended spirals, grown together or spreading wide apart. Root merged with trunk, and great boles became roots and then boles again in this unreasonable land. For here, in place of damp, black mold and soil, water alternated with dark-shadowed air; and so I was able for a time to live the life of a root, resting quietly among them, watching and feeling them, and moving very slowly, with no thought of time, as roots must.

I liked to wait until the last ripple had lapped against the sand beneath, and then slip quietly in from the margin of the jungle and perch—like a great tree-frog—on some convenient shelf. Seumas and Brigid would have enjoyed it, in spite of the fact that the Leprechauns seemed to have just gone. I found myself usually in a little room, walled with high-arched, thin sheets of living roots, some of which would form solid planks three feet wide and twelve long, and only an inch or two in thickness. These were always on edge, and might be smooth and sheer, or suddenly sprout five stubby, mittened fingers, or pairs of curved and galloping legs—and this thought gave substance to the simile which had occurred again and again: these trees reminded me of centaurs with proud, upright man torsos, and great curved backs. In one, a root dropped down and rested on the back, as a centaur who turns might rest his hand on his withers.

When I chanced upon an easy perch, and a stray idea came to mind, I squatted or sat or sprawled, and wrote, and strange things often happened to me. Once, while writing rapidly on a small sheet of paper, I found my lines growing closer and closer together until my fingers cramped, and the consciousness of the change overlaid the thoughts that were driving hand and pen. I then realized that, without thinking, I had been following a succession of faint lines, cross-ruled on my white paper, and looking up, I saw that a leaf-filtered opening had reflected strands of a spider-web just above my head, and I had been adapting my lines to the narrow spaces, my chirography controlled by cobweb shadows.

The first unreality of the roots was their rigidity. I stepped from one slender tendon of wood to the next, expecting a bending which never occurred. They might have been turned to stone, and even little twigs resting on the bark often proved to have grown fast. And this was the more unexpected because of the grace of curve and line, fold upon fold, with no sharp angles, but as full of charm of contour as their grays and olives were harmonious in color. Photographs showed a little of this; sketches revealed more; but the great splendid things themselves, devoid of similes and human imagination, were soul-satisfying in their simplicity.

I seldom sat in one spot more than a few minutes, but climbed and shifted, tried new seats, couches, perches, grips, sprawling out along the tops of two parallel monsters, or slipping under their bellies, always finding some easy way to swing up again. Two openings just permitted me to squeeze through, and I wondered whether, in another year, or ten, or fifty, the holes would have grown smaller. I became imbued with the quiet joy of these roots, so that I hated to touch the ground. Once I stepped down on the beach after something I had dropped, and the soft yielding of the sand was so unpleasant that I did not afterwards leave this strange mid-zone until I had to return. Unlike Antaeus, I seemed to gain strength and poise by disassociation with the earth.

Here and there were pockets in the folds of the sweeping draperies, and each pocket was worth picking. When one tried to paint the roots, these pockets seemed made expressly to take the place of palette cups, except that now and then a crab resented the infusion of Hooker's green with his Vandyke brown puddle, and seized the end of the brush. The crabs were worthy tenants of such strange architecture, with comical eyes twiddling on the end of their stalks, and their white-mittened fists feinting and threatening as I looked into their little dark rain or tide-pools.

I found three pockets on one wall, which seemed as if they must have been "salted" for my benefit; and in them, as elsewhere on my beach, the two extremes of life met. The topmost one, curiously enough, contained a small crab, together with a large water-beetle at the farther end. Both seemed rather self-conscious, and there was no hint of fraternizing. The beetle seemed to be merely existing until darkness, when he could fly to more water and better company; and the crab appeared to be waiting for the beetle to go.

The next pocket was a long, narrow, horizontal fold, and I hoped to find real excitement among its aquatic folk; but to my surprise it had no bottom, but was a deep chute or socket, opening far below to the sand. However, this was not my discovery, and I saw dimly a weird little head looking up at me—a gecko lizard, which called this crevice home and the crabs neighbors. I hailed him as the only other backboned friend who shared the root-world with me, and then listened to a high, sweet tone, which came forth in swinging rhythm. It took some time for my eyes to become accustomed to the semi-darkness, and then I saw what the gecko saw—a big yellow-bodied fly humming in this cavern, and swinging in a small orbit as she sang. Now and then she dashed out past me and hovered in mid-air, when her note sank to a low, dull hum. Back again, and the sound rose and fell, and gained ten times in volume from the echo or reverberations. Each time she passed, the little lizard licked his chops and swallowed—a sort of vicarious expression of faith or desire; or was he in a Christian Science frame of mind, saying, "My, how good that fly tasted!" each time the dipteron passed? The fly was just as inexplicable, braving danger and darkness time after time, to leave the sunshine and vibrate in the dusk to the enormously magnified song of its wings.

With eyes that had forgotten the outside light, I leaned close to the opening and rested my forehead against the lichens of the wall of wood. The fly was frightened away, the gecko slipped lower, seemingly without effort, and in a hollowed side of the cavernous root I saw a mist, a quivering, so tenuous and indistinct that at first it might have been the dancing of motes. I saw that they were living creatures—the most delicate of tiny crane-flies—at rest looking like long-legged mosquitoes. Deep within this root, farther from the light than even the singing fly had ventured, these tiny beings whirled madly in mid-air—subterranean dervishes, using up energy for their own inexplicable ends, of which one very interested naturalist could make nothing.

Three weeks afterward I happened to pass at high tide in the canoe and peered into this pocket. The gecko was where geckos go in the space of three weeks, and the fly also had vanished, either within or without the gecko. But the crane-flies were still there: to my roughly appraising eyes the same flies, doing the same dance in exactly the same place. Three weeks later, and again I returned, this time intentionally, to see whether the dance still continued; and it was in full swing. That same night at midnight I climbed down, flashed a light upon them, and there they whirled and vibrated, silently, incredibly rapid, unceasingly.

After a thousand hours all the surroundings had changed. New leaves had sprouted, flowers faded and turned to fruit, the moon had twice attained her full brightness, our earth and sun and the whole solar system had swept headlong a full two-score million miles on the endless swing toward Vega. Only the roots and the crane-flies remained. A thousand hours had apparently made no difference to them. The roots might have been the granite near by, fashioned by primeval earth-flame, and the flies but vibrating atoms within the granite, made visible by some alchemy of elements in this weird Rim of the World.

And so a new memory is mine; and when one of these insects comes to my lamp in whatever part of the world, fluttering weakly, legs breaking off at the slightest touch, I shall cease to worry about the scientific problems that loom too great for my brain, or about the imperfection of whatever I am doing, and shall welcome the crane-fly and strive to free him from this fatal passion for flame, directing him again into the night; for he may be looking for a dark pocket in a root, a pocket on the Edge of the World, where crane-flies may vibrate with their fellows in an eternal dance. And so, in some ordained way, he will fulfil his destiny and I acquire merit.

* * * * *

To write of sunrises and moonlight is to commit literary harikiri; but as that terminates life, so may I end this. And I choose the morning and the midnight of the sixth of August, for reasons both greater and less than cosmic. Early that morning, looking out from the beach over the Mazacuni, as we called the union of the two great rivers, there was wind, yet no wind, as the sun prepared to lift above the horizon. The great soft-walled jungle was clear and distinct. Every reed at the landing had its unbroken counterpart in the still surface. But at the apex of the waters, the smoke of all the battles in the world had gathered, and upon this the sun slowly concentrated his powers, until he tore apart the cloak of mist, turning the dark surface, first to oxidized, and then to shining quicksilver. Instantaneously the same shaft of light touched the tips of the highest trees, and as if in response to a poised baton, there broke forth that wonder of the world—the Zoroastrian chorus of tens of thousands of jungle creatures.

Over the quicksilver surface little individual breezes wandered here and there. I could clearly see the beginning and the end of them, and one that drifted ashore and passed me felt like the lightest touch of a breath. One saw only the ripple on the water; one thought of invisible wings and trailing unseen robes.

With the increasing warmth the water-mist rose slowly, like a last quiet breath of night; and as it ascended,—the edges changing from silvery gray to grayish white,—it gathered close its shredded margins, grew smaller as it rose higher, and finally became a cloud. I watched it and wondered about its fate. Before the day was past, it might darken in its might, hurl forth thunders and jagged light, and lose its very substance in down-poured liquid. Or, after drifting idly high in air, the still-born cloud might garb itself in rich purple and gold for the pageant of the west, and again descend to brood over the coming marvel of another sunrise.

The tallest of bamboos lean over our low, lazy spread of bungalow; and late this very night, in the full moonlight, I leave my cot and walk down to the beach over a shadow carpet of Japanese filigree. The air over the white sand is as quiet and feelingless to my skin as complete, comfortable clothing. On one side is the dark river; on the other, the darker jungle full of gentle rustlings, low, velvety breaths of sound; and I slip into the water and swim out, out, out. Then I turn over and float along with the almost tangible moonlight flooding down on face and water. Suddenly the whole air is broken by the chorus of big red baboons, which rolls and tumbles toward me in masses of sound along the surface and goes trembling, echoing on over shore and jungle, till hurled back by the answering chorus of another clan. It stirs one to the marrow, for there is far more in it than the mere roaring of monkeys; and I turn uneasily, and slowly surge back toward the sand, overhand now, making companionable splashes.

And then again I stop, treading water softly, with face alone between river and sky; for the monkeys have ceased, and very faint and low, but blended in wonderful minor harmony, comes another chorus—from three miles down the river: the convicts singing hymns in their cells at midnight. And I ground gently and sit in the silvered shadows with little bewildered shrimps flicking against me, and unlanguaged thoughts come and go—impossible similes, too poignant phrases to be stopped and fettered with words, and I am neither scientist nor man nor naked organism, but just mind. With the coming of silence I look around and again consciously take in the scene. I am very glad to be alive, and to know that the possible dangers of jungle and water have not kept me armed and indoors. I feel, somehow, as if my very daring and gentle slipping-off of all signs of dominance and protection on entering into this realm had made friends of all the rare but possible serpents and scorpions, sting-rays and perai, vampires and electric eels. For a while I know the happiness of Mowgli.

And I think of people who would live more joyful lives in dense communities, who would be more tolerant, and more certain of straightforward friendship, if they could have as a background a fundamental hour of living such as this, a leaven for the rest of what, in comparison, seems mere existence.

At last I go back between the bamboos and their shadows, from unreal reality into a definiteness of cot and pajamas and electric torch. But wild nature still keeps touch with me; for as I write these lines, curled up on the edge of the cot, two vampires hawk back and forth so close that the wind from their wings dries my ink. And the soundness of my sleep is such that time does not exist between their last crepuscular squeak and the first wiry twittering of a blue tanager, in full sunshine, from a palm overhanging my beach.



V

A BIT OF USELESSNESS

A most admirable servant of mine once risked his life to reach a magnificent Bornean orchid, and tried to poison me an hour later when he thought I was going to take the plant away from him. This does not mean necessarily that we should look with suspicion upon all gardeners and lovers of flowers. It emphasizes, rather, the fact of the universal and deep-rooted appreciation of the glories of the vegetable kingdom. Long before the fatal harvest time, I am certain that Eve must have plucked a spray of apple blossoms with perfect impunity.

A vast amount of bad poetry and a much less quantity of excellent verse has been written about flowers, much of which follows to the letter Mark Twain's injunction about Truth. It must be admitted that the relations existing between the honeysuckle and the bee are basely practical and wholly selfish. A butterfly's admiration of a flower is no whit less than the blossom's conscious appreciation of its own beauties. There are ants which spend most of their life making gardens, knowing the uses of fertilizers, mulching, planting seeds, exercising patience, recognizing the time of ripeness, and gathering the edible fruit. But this is underground, and the ants are blind.

There is a bird, however—the bower bird of Australia—which appears to take real delight in bright things, especially pebbles and flowers for their own sake. Its little lean-to, or bower of sticks, which has been built in our own Zoological Park in New York City, is fronted by a cleared space, which is usually mossy. To this it brings its colorful treasures, sometimes a score of bright star blossoms, which are renewed when faded and replaced by others. All this has, probably, something to do with courtship, which should inspire a sonnet.

From the first pre-Egyptian who crudely scratched a lotus on his dish of clay, down to the jolly Feckenham men, the human race has given to flowers something more than idle curiosity, something less than mere earnest of fruit or berry.

At twelve thousand feet I have seen one of my Tibetans with nothing but a few shreds of straw between his bare feet and the snow, probe around the south edge of melting drifts until he found brilliant little primroses to stick behind his ears. I have been ushered into the little-used, musty best-parlor of a New England farmhouse, and seen fresh vases of homely, old-fashioned flowers—so recently placed for my edification, that drops of water still glistened like dewdrops on the dusty plush mat beneath. I have sat in the seat of honor of a Dyak communal house, looked up at the circle of all too recent heads, and seen a gay flower in each hollow eye socket, placed there for my approval. With a cluster of colored petals swaying in the breeze, one may at times bridge centuries or span the earth.

And now as I sit writing these words in my jungle laboratory, a small dusky hand steals around an aquarium and deposits a beautiful spray of orchids on my table. The little face appears, and I can distinguish the high cheek bones of Indian blood, the flattened nose and slight kink of negro, and the faint trace of white—probably of some long forgotten Dutch sailor, who came and went to Guiana, while New York City was still a browsing ground for moose.

So neither race nor age nor melange of blood can eradicate the love of flowers. It would be a wonderful thing to know about the first garden that ever was, and I wish that "Best Beloved" had demanded this. I am sure it was long before the day of dog, or cow, or horse, or even she who walked alone. The only way we can imagine it, is to go to some wild part of the earth, where are fortunate people who have never heard of seed catalogs or lawn mowers.

Here in British Guiana I can run the whole gamut of gardens, within a few miles of where I am writing. A mile above my laboratory up-river, is the thatched benab of an Akawai Indian—whose house is a roof, whose rooms are hammocks, whose estate is the jungle. Degas can speak English, and knows the use of my 28-gauge double barrel well enough to bring us a constant supply of delicious bushmeat—peccary, deer, monkey, bush turkeys and agoutis. But Grandmother has no language but her native Akawai. She is a good friend of mine, and we hold long conversations, neither of us bothering with the letter, but only the spirit of communication. She is a tiny person, bowed and wrinkled as only an old Indian squaw can be, always jolly and chuckling to herself, although Degas tells me that the world is gradually darkening for her. And she vainly begs me to clear the film which is slowly closing over her eyes. She labors in a true landscape garden—the small circle wrested with cutlass and fire from the great jungle, and kept free only by constant cutting of the vines and lianas which creep out almost in a night, like sinister octopus tentacles, to strangle the strange upstarts and rejungle the bit of sunlit glade.

Although to the eye a mass of tangled vegetation, an Indian's garden may be resolved into several phases—all utterly practical, with color and flowers as mere by-products. First come the provisions, for if Degas were not hunting for me, and eating my rations, he would be out with bow and blowpipe, or fish-hooks, while the women worked all day in the cassava field. It is his part to clear and burn the forest, it is hers to grub up the rich mold, to plant and to weed. Plots and beds are unknown, for in every direction are fallen trees, too large to burn or be chopped up, and great sprawling roots. Between these, sprouts of cassava and banana are stuck, and the yams and melons which form the food of these primitive people. Cassava is as vital to these Indians as the air they breathe. It is their wheat and corn and rice, their soup and salad and dessert, their ice and their wine, for besides being their staple food, it provides casareep which preserves their meat, and piwarie which, like excellent wine, brightens life for them occasionally, or dims it if overindulged in—which is equally true of food, or companionship, or the oxygen in the air we breathe.

Besides this cultivation, Grandmother has a small group of plants which are only indirectly concerned with food. One is kunami, whose leaves are pounded into pulp, and used for poisoning the water of jungle streams, with the surprising result that the fish all leap out on the bank and can be gathered as one picks up nuts. When I first visited Grandmother's garden, she had a few pitiful little cotton plants from whose stunted bolls she extracted every fiber and made a most excellent thread. In fact, when she made some bead aprons for me, she rejected my spool of cotton and chose her own, twisted between thumb and finger. I sent for seed of the big Sea Island cotton, and her face almost unwrinkled with delight when she saw the packets with seed larger than she had ever known.

Far off in one corner I make certain I have found beauty for beauty's sake, a group of exquisite caladiums and amaryllis, beautiful flowers and rich green leaves with spots and slashes of white and crimson. But this is the hunter's garden, and Grandmother has no part in it, perhaps is not even allowed to approach it. It is the beena garden—the charms for good luck in hunting. The similarity of the leaves to the head or other parts of deer or peccary or red-gilled fish, decides the most favorable choice, and the acrid, smarting juice of the tuber rubbed into the skin, or the hooks and arrows anointed, is considered sufficient to produce the desired result. Long ago I discovered that this demand for immediate physical sensation was a necessary corollary of doctoring, so I always give two medicines—one for its curative properties, and the other, bitter, sour, acid or anything disagreeable, for arousing and sustaining faith in my ability.

The Indian's medicine plants, like his true name, he keeps to himself, and although I feel certain that Grandmother had somewhere a toothache bush, or pain leaves—yarbs and simples for various miseries—I could never discover them. Half a dozen tall tobacco plants brought from the far interior, eked out the occasional tins of cigarettes in which Degas indulged, and always the flame-colored little buck-peppers lightened up the shadows of the benab, as hot to the palate as their color to the eye.

One day just as I was leaving, Grandmother led me to a palm nearby, and to one of its ancient frond-sheaths was fastened a small brown branch to which a few blue-green leaves were attached. I had never seen anything like it. She mumbled and touched it with her shriveled, bent fingers. I could understand nothing, and sent for Degas, who came and explained grudgingly, "Me no know what for—toko-nook just name—have got smell when yellow." And so at last I found the bit of uselessness, which, carried onward and developed in ages to come, as it had been elsewhere in ages past, was to evolve into botany, and back-yard gardens, and greenhouses, and wars of roses, and beautiful paintings, and music with a soul of its own, and verse more than human. To Degas the toko-nook was "just name," "and it was nothing more." But he was forgiven, for he had all unwittingly sowed the seeds of religion, through faith in his glowing caladiums. But Grandmother, though all the sunlight seemed dusk, and the dawn but as night, yet clung to her little plant, whose glory was that it was of no use whatsoever, but in months to come would be yellow, and would smell.

Farther down river, in the small hamlets of the bovianders—the people of mixed blood—the practical was still necessity, but almost every thatched and wattled hut had its swinging orchid branch, and perhaps a hideous painted tub with picketed rim, in which grew a golden splash of croton. This ostentatious floweritis might furnish a theme for a wholly new phase of the subject—for in almost every respect these people are less worthy human beings—physically, mentally and morally—than the Indians. But one cannot shift literary overalls for philosophical paragraphs in mid-article, so let us take the little river steamer down stream for forty miles to the coast of British Guiana, and there see what Nature herself does in the way of gardens. We drive twenty miles or more before we reach Georgetown, and the sides of the road are lined for most of the distance with huts and hovels of East Indian coolies and native Guiana negroes. Some are made of boxes, others of bark, more of thatch or rough-hewn boards and barrel staves, and some of split bamboo. But they resemble one another in several respects—all are ramshackle, all lean with the grace of Pisa, all have shutters and doors, so that at night they may be hermetically closed, and all are half-hidden in the folds of a curtain of flowers. The most shiftless, unlovely hovel, poised ready to return to its original chemical elements, is embowered in a mosaic of color, which in a northern garden would be worth a king's ransom—or to be strictly modern, should I not say a labor foreman's or a comrade's ransom!

The deep trench which extends along the front of these sad dwellings is sometimes blue with water hyacinths; next the water disappears beneath a maze of tall stalks, topped with a pink mist of lotus; then come floating lilies and more hyacinths. Wherever there is sufficient clear water, the wonderful curve of a cocoanut palm is etched upon it, reflection meeting palm, to form a dendritic pattern unequaled in human devising.

Over a hut of rusty oil-cans, bougainvillia stretches its glowing branches, sometimes cerise, sometimes purple, or allamanders fill the air with a golden haze from their glowing search-lights, either hiding the huts altogether, or softening their details into picturesque ruins. I remember one coolie dwelling which was dirtier and less habitable than the meanest stable, and all around it were hundreds upon hundreds of frangipanni blooms—the white and gold temple flowers of the East—giving forth of scent and color all that a flower is capable, to alleviate the miserable blot of human construction. Now and then a flamboyant tree comes into view, and as, at night, the head-lights of an approaching car eclipse all else, so this tree of burning scarlet draws eye and mind from adjacent human-made squalor. In all the tropics of the world I scarcely remember to have seen more magnificent color than in these unattended, wilful-grown gardens.

In tropical cities such as Georgetown, there are very beautiful private gardens, and the public one is second only to that of Java. But for the most part one is as conscious of the very dreadful borders of brick, or bottles, or conchs, as of the flowers themselves. Some one who is a master gardener will some day write of the possibilities of a tropical garden, which will hold the reader as does desire to behold the gardens of Carcassonne itself.



VI

GUINEVERE THE MYSTERIOUS

Again the Guiana jungle comes wonderfully to the eye and mysteriously to the mind; again my khakis and sneakers are skin-comfortable; again I am squatted on a pleasant mat of leaves in a miniature gorge, miles back of my Kartabo bungalow. Life elsewhere has already become unthinkable. I recall a place boiling with worried people, rent with unpleasing sounds, and beset with unsatisfactory pleasures. In less than a year I shall long for a sight of these worried people, my ears will strain to catch the unpleasing sounds, and I shall plunge with joy into the unsatisfactory pleasures. To-day, however, all these have passed from mind, and I settle down another notch, head snuggled on knees, and sway, elephant-fashion, with sheer joy, as a musky, exciting odor comes drifting, apparently by its own volition, down through the windless little gorge.

If I permit a concrete, scientific reaction, I must acknowledge the source to be a passing bug,—a giant bug,—related distantly to our malodorous northern squash-bug, but emitting a scent as different as orchids' breath from grocery garlic. But I accept this delicate volatility as simply another pastel-soft sense-impression—as an earnest of the worthy, smelly things of old jungles. There is no breeze, no slightest shift of air-particles; yet down the gorge comes this cloud,—a cloud unsensible except to nostrils,—eddying as if swirling around the edges of leaves, riding on the air as gently as the low, distant crooning of great, sleepy jungle doves.

With two senses so perfectly occupied, sight becomes superfluous and I close my eyes. And straightway the scent and the murmur usurp my whole mind with a vivid memory. I am still squatting, but in a dark, fragrant room; and the murmur is still of doves; but the room is in the cool, still heart of the Queen's Golden Monastery in northern Burma, within storm-sound of Tibet, and the doves are perched among the glitter and tinkling bells of the pagoda roofs. I am squatting very quietly, for I am tired, after photographing carved peacocks and junglefowl in the marvelous fretwork of the outer balconies, There are idols all about me—or so it would appear to a missionary; for my part, I can think only of the wonderful face of the old Lama who sits near me, a face peaceful with the something for which most of us would desert what we are doing, if by that we could attain it. Near him are two young priests, sitting as motionless as the Buddha in front of them.

After a half-hour of the strange thing that we call time, the Lama speaks, very low and very; softly:

"The surface of the mirror is clouded with a breath."

Out of a long silence one of the neophytes replies, "The mirror can be wiped clear."

Again the world becomes incense and doves,—in the silence and peace of that monastery, it may have been a few minutes or a decade,—and the second Tibetan whispers, "There is no need to wipe the mirror."

When I have left behind the world of inharmonious colors, of polluted waters, of soot-stained walls and smoke-tinged air, the green of jungle comes like a cooling bath of delicate tints and shades. I think of all the green things I have loved—of malachite in matrix and table-top; of jade, not factory-hewn baubles, but age-mellowed signets, fashioned by lovers of their craft, and seasoned by the toying yellow fingers of generations of forgotten Chinese emperors—jade, as Dunsany would say, of the exact shade of the right color. I think too, of dainty emerald scarves that are seen and lost in a flash at a dance; of the air-cooled, living green of curling breakers; of a lonely light that gleams to starboard of an unknown passing vessel, and of the transparent green of northern lights that flicker and play on winter nights high over the garish glare of Broadway.

Now, in late afternoon, when I opened my eyes in the little gorge, the soft green vibrations merged insensibly with the longer waves of the doves' voices and with the dying odor. Soon the green alone was dominant; and when I had finished thinking of pleasant, far-off green things, the wonderful emerald of my great tree-frog of last year came to mind,—Gawain the mysterious,—and I wondered if I should ever solve his life.

In front of me was a little jungle rainpool. At the base of the miniature precipice of the gorge, this pool was a thing of clay. It was milky in consistence, from the roiling of suspended clay; and when the surface caught a glint of light and reflected it, only the clay and mud walls about came to the eye. It was a very regular pool, a man's height in diameter, and, for all I knew, from two inches to two miles deep. I became absorbed in a sort of subaquatic mirage, in which I seemed to distinguish reflections beneath the surface. My eyes refocused with a jerk, and I realized that something had unconsciously been perceived by my rods and cones, and short-circuited to my duller brain. Where a moment before was an unbroken translucent surface, were now thirteen strange beings who had appeared from the depths, and were mumbling oxygen with trembling lips.

In days to come, through all the months, I should again and again be surprised and cheated and puzzled—all phases of delight in the beings who share the earth's life with me. This was one of the first of the year, and I stiffened into one large eye.

I did not know whether they were fish, fairy shrimps, or frogs; I had never seen anything like them, and they were wholly unexpected. I so much desired to know what they were, that I sat quietly—as I enjoy keeping a treasured letter to the last, or reserving the frosting until the cake is eaten. It occurred to me that, had it not been for the Kaiser, I might have been forbidden this mystery; a chain of occurrences: Kaiser—war—submarines—glass-shortage for dreadnoughts—mica port-holes needed—Guiana prospector—abandoned pits—rainy season—mysterious tenants—me!

When I squatted by the side of the pool, no sign of life was visible. Far up through the green foliage of the jungle I could see a solid ceiling of cloud, while beneath me the liquid clay of the pool was equally opaque and lifeless. As a seer watches the surface of his crystal ball, so I gazed at my six-foot circle of milky water. My shift forward was like the fall of a tree: it brought into existence about it a temporary circle of silence and fear—a circle whose periphery began at once to contract; and after a few minutes the gorge again accepted me as a part of its harmless self. A huge bee zoomed past, and just behind my head a hummingbird beat the air into a froth of sound, as vibrant as the richest tones of a cello. My concentrated interest seemed to become known to the life of the surrounding glade, and I was bombarded with sight, sound, and odor, as if on purpose to distract my attention. But I remained unmoved, and indications of rare and desirable beings passed unheeded.

A flotilla of little water-striders came rowing themselves along, racing for a struggling ant which had fallen into the milky quicksand. These were in my line of vision, so I watched them for a while, letting the corner of my eye keep guard for the real aristocrats of the milky sea—whoever they were. My eye was close enough, my elevation sufficiently low to become one with the water-striders, and to become excited over the adventures of these little petrels; and in my absorption I almost forgot my chief quest. As soaring birds seem at times to rest against the very substance of cloud, as if upheld by some thin lift of air, so these insects glided as easily and skimmed as swiftly upon the surface film of water. I did not know even the genus of this tropical form; but insect taxonomists have been particularly happy in their given names—I recalled Hydrobates, Aquarius, and remigis.

The spur-winged jacanas are very skilful in their dainty treading of water-lily leaves; but here were good-sized insects rowing about on the water itself. They supported themselves on the four hinder legs, rowing with the middle pair, and steering with the hinder ones, while the front limbs were held aloft ready for the seizing of prey. I watched three of them approach the ant, which was struggling to reach the shore, and the first to reach it hesitated not a moment, but leaped into the air from a take-off of mere aqueous surface film, landed full upon the drowning unfortunate, grasped it, and at the same instant gave a mighty sweep with its oars, to escape from its pursuing, envious companions. Off went the twelve dimples, marking the aquatic footprints of the trio of striders; and as the bearer of the ant dodged one of its own kind, it was suddenly threatened by a small, jet submarine of a diving beetle. At the very moment when the pursuit was hottest, and it seemed anybody's ant, I looked aside, and the little water-bugs passed from my sight forever—for scattered over the surface were seven strange, mumbling mouths. Close as I was, their nature still eluded me. At my slightest movement all vanished, not with the virile splash of a fish or the healthy roll and dip of a porpoise, but with a weird, vertical withdrawing—the seven dissolving into the milk to join their six fellows.

This was sufficient to banish further meditative surmising, and I crept swiftly to a point of vantage, and with sweep-net awaited their reappearance. It was five minutes before faint, discolored spots indicated their rising, and at least two minutes more before they actually disturbed the surface. With eight or nine in view, I dipped quickly and got nothing. Then I sank my net deeply and waited again. This time ten minutes passed, and then I swept deep and swiftly, and drew up the net with four flopping, struggling super-tadpoles. They struggled for only a moment, and then lay quietly waiting for what might be sent by the guardian of the fate of tadpoles—surely some quaint little god-relation of Neptune, Pan, and St. Vitus. Gently shunted into a glass jar, these surprising tads accepted the new environment with quiet philosophy; and when I reached the laboratory and transferred them again, they dignifiedly righted themselves in the swirling current, and hung in mid-aquarium, waiting—forever waiting.

It was difficult to think of them as tadpoles, when the word brought to mind hosts of little black wrigglers filling puddles and swamps of our northern country. These were slow-moving, graceful creatures, partly transparent, partly reflecting every hue of the spectrum, with broad, waving scarlet and hyaline fins, and strange, fish-like mouths and eyes. Their habits were as unpollywoglike as their appearance. I visited their micaceous pool again and again; and if I could have spent days instead of hours with them, no moment of ennui would have intervened.

My acquaintanceship with tadpoles in the past had not aroused me to enthusiasm in the matter of their mental ability; as, for example, the inmates of the next aquarium to that of the Redfins, where I kept a herd or brood or school of Short-tailed Blacks—pollywogs of the Giant Toad (Bufo marinus). At earliest dawn they swam aimlessly about and mumbled; at high noon they mumbled and still swam; at midnight they refused to be otherwise occupied. It was possible to alarm them; but even while they fled they mumbled.

In bodily form my Redfins were fish, but mentally they had advanced a little beyond the usual tadpole train of reactions, reaching forward toward the varied activities of the future amphibian. One noticeable thing was their segregation, whether in the mica pools, or in two other smaller ones near by, in which I found them. Each held a pure culture of Redfins, and I found that this was no accident, but aided and enforced by the tads themselves. Twice, while I watched them, I saw definite pursuit of an alien pollywog,—the larva of the Scarlet-thighed Leaf-walker (Phyllobates inguinalis),—which fled headlong. The second time the attack was so persistent that the lesser tadpole leaped from the water, wriggled its way to a damp heap of leaves, and slipped down between them. For tadpoles to take such action as this was as reasonable as for an orchid to push a fellow blossom aside on the approach of a fertilizing hawk-moth. This momentary co-operation, and the concerted elimination of the undesired tadpole, affected me as the thought of the first consciousness of power of synchronous rhythm coming to ape men: it seemed a spark of tadpole genius—an adumbration of possibilities which now would end in the dull consciousness of the future frog, but which might, in past ages, have been a vital link in the development of an ancestral Ereops.

My Redfins were assuredly no common tadpoles, and an intolerant pollywog offers worthy research for the naturalist. Straining their medium of its opacity, I drew off the clayey liquid and replaced it with the clearer brown, wallaba-stained water of the Mazaruni; and thereafter all their doings, all their intimacies, were at my mercy. I felt as must have felt the first aviator who flew unheralded over an oriental city, with its patios and house-roofs spread naked beneath him.

It was on one of the early days of observation that an astounding thought came to me—before I had lost perspective in intensive watching, before familiarity had assuaged some of the marvel of these super-tadpoles. Most of those in my jar were of a like size, just short of an inch; but one was much larger, and correspondingly gorgeous in color and graceful in movement. As she swept slowly past my line of vision, she turned and looked, first at me, then up at the limits of her world, with a slow deliberateness and a hint of expression which struck deep into my memory. Green came to mind,—something clad in a smock of emerald, with a waist-coat of mother-of-pearl, and great sprawling arms,—and I found myself thinking of Gawain, our mystery frog of a year ago, who came without warning, and withheld all the secrets of his life. And I glanced again at this super-tad,—as unlike her ultimate development as the grub is unlike the beetle,—and one of us exclaimed, "It is the same, or nearly, but more delicate, more beautiful; it must be Guinevere." And so, probably for the first time in the world, there came to be a pet tadpole, one with an absurd name which will forever be more significant to us than the term applied by a forgotten herpetologist many years ago.

And Guinevere became known to all who had to do with the laboratory. Her health and daily development and color-change were things to be inquired after and discussed; one of us watched her closely and made notes of her life, one painted every radical development of color and pattern, another photographed her, and another brought her delectable scum. She was waited upon as sedulously as a termite queen. And she rewarded us by living, which was all we asked.

It is difficult for a diver to express his emotions on paper, and verbal arguments with a dentist are usually one-sided. So must the spirit of a tadpole suffer greatly from handicaps of the flesh. A mumbling mouth and an uncontrollable, flagellating tail, connected by a pinwheel of intestine, are scant material wherewith to attempt new experiments, whereon to nourish aspirations. Yet the Redfins, as typified by Guinevere, have done both, and given time enough, they may emulate or surpass the achievements of larval axolotls, or the astounding egg-producing maggots of certain gnats, thus realizing all the possibilities of froghood while yet cribbed within the lowly casing of a pollywog.

In the first place Guinevere had ceased being positively thigmotactic, and, writing as a technical herpetologist, I need add no more. In fact, all my readers, whether Batrachologists or Casuals, will agree that this is an unheard-of achievement. But before I loosen the technical etymology and become casually more explicit, let me hold this term in suspense a moment, as I once did, fascinated by the sheer sound of the syllables, as they first came to my ears years ago in a university lecture. There is that of possibility in being positively thigmotactic which makes one dread the necessity of exposing and limiting its meaning, of digging down to its mathematically accurate roots. It could never be called a flower of speech: it is an over-ripe fruit rather: heavy-stoned, thin-fleshed—an essentially practical term. It is eminently suited to its purpose, and so widely used that my friend the editor must accept it; not looking askance as he did at my definition of a vampire as a vespertilial anaesthetist, or breaking into open but wholly ineffectual rebellion, at the past tense of the verb to candelabra. I admit that the conjugation

I candelabra You candelabra He candelabras

arouses a ripple of confusion in the mind; but it is far more important to use words than to parse them, anyway, so I acclaim perfect clarity for "The fireflies candelabraed the trees!"

Not to know the precise meaning of being positively thigmotactic is a stimulant to the imagination, which opens the way to an entire essay on the disadvantages of education—a thought once strongly aroused by the glorious red-and-gold hieroglyphic signs of the Peking merchants—signs which have always thrilled me more than the utmost efforts of our modern psychological advertisers.

Having crossed unconsciously by such a slender etymological bridge from my jungle tadpole to China, it occurs to me that the Chinese are the most positively thigmotactic people in the world. I have walked through block after block of subterranean catacombs, beneath city streets which were literally packed full of humanity, and I have seen hot mud pondlets along the Min River wholly eclipsed by shivering Chinamen packed sardinewise, twenty or thirty in layers, or radiating like the spokes of a great wheel which has fallen into the mud.

From my brood of Short-tailed Blacks, a half-dozen tadpoles wandered off now and then, each scum-mumbling by himself. Shortly his positivism asserted itself and back he wriggled, twisting in and out of the mass of his fellows, or at the approach of danger nuzzling into the dead leaves at the bottom, content only with the feeling of something pressing against his sides and tail. His physical make-up, simple as it is, has proved perfectly adapted to this touch system of life: flat-bottomed, with rather narrow, paddle-shaped tail-fins which, beginning well back of the body, interfere in no way with the pollywog's instincts, he can thigmotact to his heart's content. His eyes are also adapted to looking upward, discerning dimly dangers from above, and whatever else catches the attention of a bottom-loving pollywog. His mouth is well below, as best suits bottom mumbling.

Compared with these polloi pollywogs, Redfins were as hummingbirds to quail. Their very origin was unique; for while the toad tadpoles wriggled their way free from egg gelatine deposited in the water itself, the Redfins were literally rained down. Within a folded leaf the parents left the eggs—a leaf carefully chosen as overhanging a suitable ditch, or pit, or puddle. If all signs of weather and season failed and a sudden drought set in, sap would dry, leaf would shrivel, and the pitiful gamble for life of the little jungle frogs would be lost; the spoonful of froth would collapse bubble by bubble, and, finally, a thin dry film on the brown leaf would in turn vanish, and Guinevere and her companions would never have been.

But untold centuries of unconscious necessity have made these tree-frogs infallible weather prophets, and the liberating rain soon sifted through the jungle foliage. In the streaming drops which funneled from the curled leaf, tadpole after tadpole hurtled downward and splashed headlong into the water; their parents and the rain and gravitation had performed their part, and from now on fate lay with the super-tads themselves—except when a passing naturalist brought new complications, new demands of Karma, as strange and unpredictable as if from another planet or universe.

Only close examination showed that these were tadpoles, not fish, judged by the staring eyes, and broad fins stained above and below with orange-scarlet—colors doomed to oblivion in the native, milky waters, but glowing brilliantly in my aquarium. Although they were provided with such an expanse of fin, the only part used for ordinary progression was the extreme tip, a mere threadlike streamer, which whipped in never-ending spirals, lashing forward, backward, and sideways. So rapid was this motion, and so short the flagellum, that the tadpole did not even tremble or vibrate as it moved, but forged steadily onward, without a tremor.

The head was buffy yellow, changing to bittersweet orange back of the eyes and on the gills. The body was dotted with a host of minute specks of gold and silver. On the sides and below, this gave place to a rich bronze, and then to a clear, iridescent silvery blue. The eye proper was silvery white, but the upper part of the eyeball fairly glowed with color. In front it was jet black flecked with gold, merging behind into a brilliant blue. Yet this patch of jeweled tissue was visible only rarely as the tadpole turned forward, and in the opaque liquid of the mica pool must have ever been hidden. And even if plainly seen, of what use was a shred of rainbow to a sexless tadpole in the depths of a shady pool!

With high-arched fins, beginning at neck and throat, body compressed as in a racing yacht, there could be no bottom life for Guinevere. Whenever she touched a horizontal surface,—whether leaf or twig,—she careened; when she sculled through a narrow passage in the floating algae, her fins bent and rippled as they were pressed bodywards. So she and her fellow brood lived in mid-aquarium, or at most rested lightly against stem or glass, suspended by gentle suction of the complex mouth. Once, when I inserted a long streamer of delicate water-weed, it remained upright, like some strange tree of carboniferous memory. After an hour I found this the perching-place of fourteen Redfin tads, and at the very summit was Guinevere. The rest were arranged nearly in altitudinal size—two large tadpoles being close below Guinevere, and a bevy of six tiny chaps lowest down. All were lightly poised, swaying in mid-water, at a gently sloping angle, like some unheard-of, orange-stained, aquatic autumn foliage.

For two weeks Guinevere remained almost as I have described her, gaining slightly in size, but with little alteration of color or pattern. Then came the time of the great change: we felt it to be imminent before any outward signs indicated its approach. And for four more days there was no hint except the sudden growth of the hind legs. From tiny dangling appendages with minute toes and indefinite knees, they enlarged and bent, and became miniature but perfect frog's limbs.

She had now reached a length of two inches, and her delicate colors and waving fins made her daily more marvelous. The strange thing about the hind limbs was that, although so large and perfect, they were quite useless. They could not even be unflexed; and other mere pollywogs near by were wriggling toes, calves, and thighs while yet these were but imperfect buds. When she dived suddenly, the toes occasionally moved a little; but as a whole, they merely sagged and drifted like some extraneous things entangled in the body.

Smoothly and gracefully Guinevere moved about the aquarium. Her gills lifted and closed rhythmically—twice as slowly as compared with the three or four times every second of her breathless young tadpolehood. Several times on the fourteenth day, she came quietly to the surface for a gulp of air.

Looking at her from above, two little bulges were visible on either side of the body—the ensheathed elbows pressing outward. Twice, when she lurched forward in alarm, I saw these front limbs jerk spasmodically; and when she was resting quietly, they rubbed and pushed impatiently against their mittened tissue.

And now began a restless shifting, a slow, strange dance in mid-water, wholly unlike any movement of her smaller companions; up and down, slowly revolving on oblique planes, with rhythmical turns and sinkings—this continued for an hour, when I was called for lunch. And as if to punish me for this material digression and desertion, when I returned, in half an hour, the miracle had happened.

Guinevere still danced in stately cadence, with the other Redfins at a distance going about their several businesses. She danced alone—a dance of change, of happenings of tremendous import, of symbolism as majestic as it was age-old. Here in this little glass aquarium the tadpole Guinevere had just freed her arms—she, with waving scarlet fins, watching me with lidless white and staring eyes, still with fish-like, fin-bound body. She danced upright, with new-born arms folded across her breast, tail-tip flagellating frenziedly, stretching long fingers with disks like cymbals, reaching out for the land she had never trod, limbs flexed for leaps she had never made.

A few days before and Guinevere had been a fish, then a helpless biped, and now suddenly, somewhere between my salad and coffee, she became an aquatic quadruped. Strangest of all, her hands were mobile, her feet useless; and when the dance was at an end, and she sank slowly to the bottom, she came to rest on the very tips of her two longest fingers; her legs and toes still drifting high and useless. Just before she ceased, her arms stretched out right froggily, her weird eyes rolled about, and she gulped a mighty gulp of the strange thin medium that covered the surface of her liquid home.

At midnight of this same day only three things existed in the world—on my table I turned from the Bhagavad-Gita to Drinkwater's Reverie and back again; then I looked up to the jar of clear water and watched Guinevere hovering motionless. At six the next morning she was crouched safely on a bit of paper a foot from the aquarium. She had missed the open window, the four-foot drop to the floor, and a neighboring aquarium stocked with voracious fish: surely the gods of pollywogs were kind to me. The great fins were gone—dissolved into blobs of dull pink; the tail was a mere stub, the feet drawn close, and a glance at her head showed that Guinevere had become a frog almost within an hour. Three things I hastened to observe: the pupils of her eyes were vertical, revealing her genus Phyllomedusa (making apt our choice of the feminine); by a gentle urging I saw that the first and second toes were equal in length; and a glance at her little humped back showed a scattering of white calcareous spots, giving the clue to her specific personality—bicolor: thus were we introduced to Phyllomedusa bicolor, alias Guinevere, and thus was established beyond doubt her close relationship to Gawain.

During that first day, within three hours, during most of which I watched her closely, Guinevere's change in color was beyond belief. For an hour she leaped from time to time; but after that, and for the rest of her life, she crept in strange unfroglike fashion, raised high on all four limbs, with her stubby tail curled upward, and reaching out one weird limb after another. If one's hand approached within a foot, she saw it and stretched forth appealing, skinny fingers.

At two o'clock she was clad in a general cinnamon buff; then a shade of glaucous green began to creep over head and upper eyelids, onward over her face, finally coloring body and limbs. Beneath, the little pollyfrog fairly glowed with bright apricot orange, throat and tail amparo purple, mouth green, and sides rich pale blue. To this maze of color we must add a strange, new expression, born of the prominent eyes, together with the line of the mouth extending straight back with a final jeering, upward lift; in front, the lower lip thick and protruding, which, with the slanting eyes, gave a leering, devilish smirk, while her set, stiff, exact posture compelled a vivid thought of the sphinx. Never have I seen such a remarkable combination. It fascinated us. We looked at Guinevere, and then at the tadpoles swimming quietly in their tank, and evolution in its wildest conceptions appeared a tame truism.

This was the acme of Guinevere's change, the pinnacle of her development. Thereafter her transformations were rhythmical, alternating with the day and night. Through the nights of activity she was garbed in rich, warm brown. With the coming of dawn, as she climbed slowly upward, her color shifted through chestnut to maroon; this maroon then died out on the mid-back to a delicate, dull violet-blue, which in turn became obscured in the sunlight by turquoise, which crept slowly along the sides. Carefully and laboriously she clambered up, up to the topmost frond, and there performed her little toilet, scraping head and face with her hands, passing the hinder limbs over her back to brush off every grain of sand. The eyes had meanwhile lost their black-flecked, golden, nocturnal iridescence, and had gradually paled to a clear silvery blue, while the great pupil of darkness narrowed to a slit.

Little by little her limbs and digits were drawn in out of sight, and the tiny jeweled being crouched low, hoping for a day of comfortable clouds, a little moisture, and a swift passage of time to the next period of darkness, when it was fitting and right for Guineveres to seek their small meed of sustenance, to grow to frog's full estate, and to fulfil as well as might be what destiny the jungle offered. To unravel the meaning of it all is beyond even attempting. The breath of mist ever clouds the mirror, and only as regards a tiny segment of the life-history of Guinevere can I say, "There is no need to wipe the mirror."



VII

A JUNGLE LABOR-UNION

Pterodactyl Pups led me to the wonderful Attas—the most astounding of the jungle labor-unions. We were all sitting on the Mazaruni bank, the night before the full moon, immediately in front of my British Guiana laboratory. All the jungle was silent in the white light, with now and then the splash of a big river fish. On the end of the bench was the monosyllabic Scot, who ceased the exquisite painting of mora buttresses and jungle shadows only for the equal fascination of searching bats for parasites. Then the great physician, who had come six thousand miles to peer into the eyes of birds and lizards in my dark-room, working with a gentle hypnotic manner that made the little beings seem to enjoy the experience. On my right sat an army captain, who had given more thought to the possible secrets of French chaffinches than to the approaching barrage. There was also the artist, who could draw a lizard's head like a Japanese print, but preferred to depict impressionistic Laocoon roots.

These and others sat with me on the long bench and watched the moonpath. The conversation had begun with possible former life on the moon, then shifted to Conan Doyle's The Lost World, based on the great Roraima plateau, a hundred and fifty miles west of where we were sitting. Then we spoke of the amusing world-wide rumor, which had started no one knows how, that I had recently discovered a pterodactyl. One delightful result of this had been a letter from a little English girl, which would have made a worthy chapter-subject for Dream Days. For years she and her little sister had peopled a wood near her home with pterodactyls, but had somehow never quite seen one; and would I tell her a little about them—whether they had scales, or made nests; so that those in the wood might be a little easier to recognize.

When strange things are discussed for a long time, in the light of a tropical moon, at the edge of a dark, whispering jungle, the mind becomes singularly imaginative and receptive; and, as I looked through powerful binoculars at the great suspended globe, the dead craters and precipices became very vivid and near. Suddenly, without warning, there flapped into my field, a huge shapeless creature. It was no bird, and there was nothing of the bat in its flight—the wings moved with steady rhythmical beats, and drove it straight onward. The wings were skinny, the body large and of a pale ashy hue. For a moment I was shaken. One of the others had seen it, and he, too, did not speak, but concentrated every sense into the end of the little tubes. By the time I had begun to find words, I realized that a giant fruit bat had flown from utter darkness across my line of sight; and by close watching we soon saw others. But for a very few seconds these Pterodactyl Pups, as I nicknamed them, gave me all the thrill of a sudden glimpse into the life of past ages. The last time I had seen fruit bats was in the gardens of Perideniya, Ceylon. I had forgotten that they occurred in Guiana, and was wholly unprepared for the sight of bats a yard across, with a heron's flight, passing high over the Mazaruni in the moonlight.

The talk ended on the misfortune of the configuration of human anatomy, which makes sky-searching so uncomfortable a habit. This outlook was probably developed to a greater extent during the war than ever before; and I can remember many evenings in Paris and London when a sinister half-moon kept the faces of millions turned searchingly upward. But whether in city or jungle, sky-scanning is a neck-aching affair.

The following day my experience with the Pterodactyl Pups was not forgotten, and as a direct result of looking out for soaring vultures and eagles, with hopes of again seeing a white-plumaged King and the regal Harpy, I caught sight of a tiny mote high up in mid-sky. I thought at first it was a martin or swift; but it descended, slowly spiraling, and became too small for any bird. With a final, long, descending curve, it alighted in the compound of our bungalow laboratory and rested quietly—a great queen of the leaf-cutting Attas returning from her marriage flight. After a few minutes she stirred, walked a few steps, cleaned her antennae, and searched nervously about on the sand. A foot away was a tiny sprig of indigo, the offspring of some seed planted two or three centuries ago by a thrifty Dutchman. In the shade of its three leaves the insect paused, and at once began scraping at the sand with her jaws. She loosened grain after grain, and as they came free they were moistened, agglutinated, and pressed back against her forelegs. When at last a good-sized ball was formed, she picked it up, turned around and, after some fussy indecision, deposited it on the sand behind her. Then she returned to the very shallow, round depression, and began to gather a second ball.

I thought of the first handful of sand thrown out for the base of Cheops, of the first brick placed in position for the Great Wall, of a fresh-cut trunk, rough-hewn and squared for a log-cabin on Manhattan; of the first shovelful of earth flung out of the line of the Panama Canal. Yet none seemed worthy of comparison with even what little I knew of the significance of this ant's labor, for this was earnest of what would make trivial the engineering skill of Egyptians, of Chinese patience, of municipal pride and continental schism.

Imagine sawing off a barn-door at the top of a giant sequoia, growing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and then, with five or six children clinging to it, descending the tree, and carrying it up the canyon walls against a subway rush of rude people, who elbowed and pushed blindly against you. This is what hundreds of leaf-cutting ants accomplish daily, when cutting leaves from a tall bush, at the foot of the bank near the laboratory.

There are three dominant labor-unions in the jungle, all social insects, two of them ants, never interfering with each other's field of action, and all supremely illustrative of conditions resulting from absolute equality, free-and-equalness, communalism, socialism carried to the (forgive me!) anth power. The Army Ants are carnivorous, predatory, militant nomads; the Termites are vegetarian scavengers, sedentary, negative and provincial; the Attas, or leaf-cutting ants, are vegetarians, active and dominant, and in many ways the most interesting of all.

The casual observer becomes aware of them through their raids upon gardens; and indeed the Attas are a very serious menace to agriculture in many parts of the tropics, where their nests, although underground, may be as large as a house and contain millions of individuals. While their choice among wild plants is exceedingly varied, it seems that there are certain things they will not touch; but when any human-reared flower, vegetable, shrub, vine, or tree is planted, the Attas rejoice, and straightway desert the native vegetation to fall upon the newcomers. Their whims and irregular feeding habits make it difficult to guard against them. They will work all round a garden for weeks, perhaps pass through it en route to some tree that they are defoliating, and then suddenly, one night, every Atta in the world seems possessed with a desire to work havoc, and at daylight the next morning, the garden looks like winter stubble—a vast expanse of stems and twigs, without a single remaining leaf. Volumes have been written, and a whole chemist's shop of deadly concoctions devised, for combating these ants, and still they go steadily on, gathering leaves which, as we shall see, they do not even use for food.

Although essentially a tropical family, Attas have pushed as far north as New Jersey, where they make a tiny nest, a few inches across, and bring to it bits of pine needles.

In a jungle Baedeker, we should double-star these insects, and paragraph them as "Atta, named by Fabricius in 1804; the Kartabo species, cephalotes; Leaf-cutting or Cushie or Parasol Ants; very abundant. Atta, a subgenus of Atta, which is a genus of Attii, which is a tribe of Myrmicinae, which is a subfamily of Formicidae," etc.

With a feeling of slightly greater intimacy, of mental possession, we set out, armed with a name of one hundred and seventeen years' standing, and find a big Atta worker carving away at a bit of leaf, exactly as his ancestors had done for probably one hundred and seventeen thousand years.

We gently lift him from his labor, and a drop of chloroform banishes from his ganglia all memory of the hundred thousand years of pruning. Under the lens his strange personality becomes manifest, and we wonder whether the old Danish zoologist had in mind the slender toe-tips which support him, or in a chuckling mood made him a namesake of C. Quintius Atta. A close-up shows a very comic little being, encased in a prickly, chestnut-colored armor, which should make him fearless in a den of a hundred anteaters. The front view of his head is a bit mephistophelian, for it is drawn upward into two horny spines; but the side view recalls a little girl with her hair brushed very tightly up and back from her face.

The connection between Atta and the world about him is furnished by this same head: two huge, flail-shaped antennae arching up like aerial, detached eyebrows—vehicles, through their golden pile, of senses which foil our most delicate tests. Outside of these are two little shoe-button eyes; and we are not certain whether they reflect to the head ganglion two or three hundred bits of leaf, or one large mosaic leaf. Below all is swung the pair of great scythes, so edged and hung that they can function as jaws, rip-saws, scissors, forceps, and clamps. The thorax, like the head of a titanothere, bears three pairs of horns—a great irregular expanse of tumbled, rock-like skin and thorn, a foundation for three pairs of long legs, and sheltering somewhere in its heart a thread of ant-life; finally, two little pedicels lead to a rounded abdomen, smaller than the head. This Third-of-an-inch is a worker Atta to the physical eye; and if we catch another, or ten, or ten million, we find that some are small, others much larger, but that all are cast in the same mold, all indistinguishable except, perhaps, to the shoe-button eyes.

When a worker has traveled along the Atta trails, and has followed the temporary mob-instinct and climbed bush or tree, the same irresistible force drives him out upon a leaf. Here, apparently, instinct slightly loosens its hold, and he seems to become individual for a moment, to look about, and to decide upon a suitable edge or corner of green leaf. But even in this he probably has no choice. At any rate, he secures a good hold and sinks his jaws into the tissue. Standing firmly on the leaf, he measures his distance by cutting across a segment of a circle, with one of his hind feet as a center. This gives a very true curve, and provides a leaf-load of suitable size. He does not scissor his way across, but bit by bit sinks the tip of one jaw, hook-like, into the surface, and brings the other up to it, slicing through the tissue with surprising ease. He stands upon the leaf, and I always expect to see him cut himself and his load free, Irishman-wise. But one or two of his feet have invariably secured a grip on the plant, sufficient to hold him safely. Even if one or two of his fellows are at work farther down the leaf, he has power enough in his slight grip to suspend all until they have finished and clambered up over him with their loads.

Holding his bit of leaf edge-wise, he bends his head down as far as possible, and secures a strong purchase along the very rim. Then, as he raises his head, the leaf rises with it, suspended high over his back, out of the way. Down the stem or tree-trunk he trudges, head first, fighting with gravitation, until he reaches the ground. After a few feet, or, measured by his stature, several hundred yards, his infallible instinct guides him around pebble boulders, mossy orchards, and grass jungles to a specially prepared path.

Thus in words, in sentences, we may describe the cutting of a single leaf; but only in the imagination can we visualize the cell-like or crystal-like duplication of this throughout all the great forests of Guiana and of South America. As I write, a million jaws snip through their stint; as you read, ten million Attas begin on new bits of leaf. And all in silence and in dim light, legions passing along the little jungle roads, unending lines of trembling banners, a political parade of ultra socialism, a procession of chlorophyll floats illustrating unreasoning unmorality, a fairy replica of "Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane."

In their leaf-cutting, Attas have mastered mass, but not form. I have never seen one cut off a piece too heavy to carry, but many a hard-sliced bit has had to be deserted because of the configuration of the upper edge. On almost any trail, an ant can be found with a two-inch stem of grass, attempting to pass under a twig an inch overhead. After five or ten minutes of pushing, backing, and pulling, he may accidentally march off to one side, or reach up and climb over; but usually he drops his burden. His little works have been wound up, and set at the mark "home"; and though he has now dropped the prize for which he walked a dozen ant-miles, yet any idea of cutting another stem, or of picking up a slice of leaf from those lying along the trail, never occurs to him. He sets off homeward, and if any emotion of sorrow, regret, disappointment, or secret relief troubles his ganglia, no trace of it appears in antennae, carriage, or speed. I can very readily conceive of his trudging sturdily all the way back to the nest, entering it, and going to the place where he would have dumped his load, having fulfilled his duty in the spirit at least. Then, if there comes a click in his internal time-clock, he may set out upon another quest—more cabined, cribbed, and confined than any member of a Cook's tourist party.

I once watched an ant with a piece of leaf which had a regular shepherd's crook at the top, and if his adventures of fifty feet could have been caught on a moving-picture film, Charlie Chaplin would have had an arthropod rival. It hooked on stems and pulled its bearer off his feet, it careened and ensnared the leaves of other ants, at one place mixing up with half a dozen. A big thistledown became tangled in it, and well-nigh blew away with leaf and all; hardly a foot of his path was smooth-going. But he persisted, and I watched him reach the nest, after two hours of tugging and falling and interference with traffic.

Occasionally an ant will slip in crossing a twiggy crevasse, and his leaf become tightly wedged. After sprawling on his back and vainly clawing at the air for a while, he gets up, brushes off his antennae, and sets to work. For fifteen minutes I have watched an Atta in this predicament, stodgily endeavoring to lift his leaf while standing on it at the same time. The equation of push equaling pull is fourth dimensional to the Attas.

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