With all this terrible expenditure of energy, the activities of these ants are functional within very narrow limits. The blazing sun causes them to drop their burdens and flee for home; a heavy wind frustrates them, for they cannot reef. When a gale arises and sweeps an exposed portion of the trail, their only resource is to cut away all sail and heave it overboard. A sudden downpour reduces a thousand banners and waving, bright-colored petals to debris, to be trodden under foot. Sometimes, after a ten-minute storm, the trails will be carpeted with thousands of bits of green mosaic, which the outgoing hordes will trample in their search for more leaves. On a dark night little seems to be done; but at dawn and dusk, and in the moonlight or clear starlight, the greatest activity is manifest.
Attas are such unpalatable creatures that they are singularly free from dangers. There is a tacit armistice between them and the other labor-unions. The army ants occasionally make use of their trails when they are deserted; but when the two great races of ants meet, each antennaes the aura of the other, and turns respectfully aside. When termites wish to traverse an Atta trail, they burrow beneath it, or build a covered causeway across, through which they pass and repass at will, and over which the Attas trudge, uncaring and unconscious of its significance.
Only creatures with the toughest of digestions would dare to include these prickly, strong-jawed, meatless insects in a bill of fare. Now and then I have found an ani, or black cuckoo, with a few in its stomach: but an ani can swallow a stinging-haired caterpillar and enjoy it. The most consistent feeder upon Attas is the giant marine toad. Two hundred Attas in a night is not an uncommon meal, the exact number being verifiable by a count of the undigested remains of heads and abdomens. Bufo marinus is the gardener's best friend in this tropic land, and besides, he is a gentleman and a philosopher, if ever an amphibian was one.
While the cutting of living foliage is the chief aim in life of these ants, yet they take advantage of the flotsam and jetsam along the shore, and each low tide finds a column from some nearby nest salvaging flowerets, leaves, and even tiny berries. A sudden wash of tide lifts a hundred ants with their burdens and then sets them down again, when they start off as if nothing had happened.
The paths or trails of the Attas represent very remarkable feats of engineering, and wind about through jungle and glade for surprising distances. I once traced a very old and wide trail for well over two hundred yards. Taking little Third-of-an-inch for a type (although he would rank as a rather large Atta), and comparing him with a six-foot man, we reckon this trail, ant-ratio, as a full twenty-five miles. Belt records a leaf-cutter's trail half a mile long, which would mean that every ant that went out, cut his tiny bit of leaf, and returned, would traverse a distance of a hundred and sixteen miles. This was an extreme; but our Atta may take it for granted, speaking antly, that once on the home trail, he has, at the least, four or five miles ahead of him.
The Atta roads are clean swept, as straight as possible, and very conspicuous in the jungle. The chief high-roads leading from very large nests are a good foot across, and the white sand of their beds is visible a long distance away. I once knew a family of opossums living in a stump in the center of a dense thicket. When they left at evening, they always climbed along as far as an Atta trail, dropped down to it, and followed it for twenty or thirty yards. During the rains I have occasionally found tracks of agoutis and deer in these roads. So it would be very possible for the Attas to lay the foundation for an animal trail, and this, a la calf-path, for the street of a future city.
The part that scent plays in the trails is evidenced if we scatter an inch or two of fresh sand across the road. A mass of ants banks against the strange obstruction on both sides, on the one hand a solid phalanx of waving green banners, and on the other a mob of empty-jawed workers with wildly waving antennae. Scouts from both sides slowly wander forward, and finally reach one another and pass across. But not for ten minutes does anything like regular traffic begin again.
When carrying a large piece of leaf, and traveling at a fair rate of speed, the ants average about a foot in ten seconds, although many go the same distance in five. I tested the speed of an Atta, and then I saw that its leaf seemed to have a peculiar-shaped bug upon it, and picked it up with its bearer. Finding the blemish to be only a bit of fungus, I replaced it. Half an hour later I was seated by a trail far away, when suddenly my ant with the blemished spot appeared. It was unmistakable, for I had noticed that the spot was exactly that of the Egyptian symbol of life. I paced the trail, and found that seventy yards away it joined the spot where I had first seen my friend. So, with occasional spurts, he had done two hundred and ten feet in thirty minutes, and this in spite of the fact that he had picked up a supercargo.
Two parts of hydrogen and one of oxygen, under the proper stimulus, invariably result in water; two and two, considered calmly and without passion, combine into four; the workings of instinct, especially in social insects, is so mechanical that its results can almost be demonstrated in formula; and yet here was my Atta leaf-carrier burdened with a minim. The worker Attas vary greatly in size, as a glance at a populous trail will show. They have been christened macrergates, desmergates and micrergates; or we may call the largest Maxims, the average middle class Mediums, and the tiny chaps Minims, and all have more or less separate functions in the ecology of the colony. The Minims are replicas in miniature of the big chaps, except that their armor is pale cinnamon rather than chestnut. Although they can bite ferociously, they are too small to cut through leaves, and they have very definite duties in the nest; yet they are found with every leaf-cutting gang, hastening along with their larger brethren, but never doing anything, that I could detect, at their journey's end. I have a suspicion that the little Minims, who are very numerous, function as light cavalry; for in case of danger they are as eager at attack as the great soldiers, and the leaf-cutters, absorbed in their arduous labor, would benefit greatly from the immunity ensured by a flying corps of their little bulldog comrades.
I can readily imagine that these nestling Minims become weary and foot-sore (like bank-clerks guarding a reservoir), and if instinct allows such abominable individuality, they must often wish themselves back at the nest, for every mile of a Medium is three miles to them.
Here is where our mechanical formula breaks down; for, often, as many as one in every five leaves that pass bears aloft a Minim or two, clinging desperately to the waving leaf and getting a free ride at the expense of the already overburdened Medium. Ten is the extreme number seen, but six to eight Minims collected on a single leaf is not uncommon. Several times I have seen one of these little banner-riders shift deftly from leaf to leaf, when a swifter carrier passed by, as a circus bareback rider changes steeds at full gallop.
Once I saw enacted above ground, and in the light of day, something which may have had its roots in an anlage of divine discontent. If I were describing the episode half a century ago, I should entitle it, "The Battle of the Giants, or Emotion Enthroned." A quadruple line of leaf-carriers was disappearing down a hole in front of the laboratory, bumped and pushed by an out-pouring, empty-jawed mass of workers. As I watched them, I became aware of an area of great excitement beyond the hole. Getting down as nearly as possible to ant height, I witnessed a terrible struggle. Two giants—of the largest soldier Maxim caste—were locked in each other's jaws, and to my horror, I saw that each had lost his abdomen. The antennae and the abdomen petiole are the only vulnerable portions of an Atta, and long after he has lost these apparently dispensable portions of his anatomy, he is able to walk, fight, and continue an active but erratic life. These mighty-jawed fellows seem never to come to the surface unless danger threatens; and my mind went down into the black, musty depths, where it is the duty of these soldiers to walk about and wait for trouble. What could have raised the ire of such stolid neuters against one another? Was it sheer lack of something to do? or was there a cell or two of the winged caste lying fallow within their bodies, which, stirring at last, inspired a will to battle, a passing echo of romance, of the activities of the male Atta?
Their unnatural combat had stirred scores of smaller workers to the highest pitch of excitement. Now and then, out of the melee, a Medium would emerge, with a tiny Minim in his jaws. One of these carried his still living burden many feet away, along an unused trail, and dropped it. I examined the small ant, and found that it had lost an antenna, and its body was crushed. When the ball of fighters cleared, twelve small ants were seen clinging to the legs and heads of the mutilated giants, and now and then these would loosen their hold on each other, turn, and crush one of their small tormenters. Several times I saw a Medium rush up and tear a small ant away, apparently quite insane with excitement.
Occasionally the least exhausted giant would stagger to his four and a half remaining legs, hoist his assailant, together with a mass of the midgets, high in air, and stagger for a few steps, before falling beneath the onrush of new attackers. It made me wish to help the great insect, who, for aught I knew, was doomed because he was different—because he had dared to be an individual.
I left them struggling there, and half an hour later, when I returned, the episode was just coming to a climax. My Atta hero was exerting his last strength, flinging off the pile that assaulted him, fighting all the easier because of the loss of his heavy body. He lurched forward, dragging the second giant, now dead, not toward the deserted trail or the world of jungle around him, but headlong into the lines of stupid leaf-carriers, scattering green leaves and flower-petals in all directions. Only when dozens of ants threw themselves upon him, many of them biting each other in their wild confusion, did he rear up for the last time, and, with the whole mob, rolled down into the yawning mouth of the Atta nesting-hole, disappearing from view, and carrying with him all those hurrying up the steep sides. It was a great battle. I was breathing fast with sympathy, and whatever his cause, I was on his side.
The next day both giants were lying on the old, disused trail; the revolt against absolute democracy was over; ten thousand ants passed to and fro without a dissenting thought, or any thought, and the Spirit of the Attas was content.
THE ATTAS AT HOME
Clambering through white, pasty mud which stuck to our boots by the pound, peering through bitter cold mist which seemed but a thinner skim of mud, drenched by flurries of icy drops shaken from the atmosphere by a passing moan and a crash, breathing air heavy with a sweet, horrible, penetrating odor—such was the world as it existed for an hour one night, while I and the Commandant of Douaumont wandered about completely lost, on the top of his own fort. We finally stumbled on the little grated opening through which the lookout peered unceasingly over the landscape of mud. The mist lifted and we rediscovered the cave-like entrance, watched for a moment the ominous golden dumb-bells rising from the premier ligne, scraped our boots on a German helmet and went down again into the strangest sanctuary in the world.
This was the vision which flashed through my mind as I began vigil at an enormous nest of Attas—the leaf-cutting ants of the British Guiana jungle. In front of me was a glade, about thirty feet across, devoid of green growth, and filled with a great irregular expanse of earth and mud. Relative to the height of the Attas, my six feet must seem a good half mile, and from this height I looked down and saw again the same inconceivably sticky clay of France. There were the rain-washed gullies, the half-roofed entrances to the vast underground fortresses, clean-swept, perfect roads, as efficient as the arteries of Verdun, flapping dead leaves like the omnipresent, worn-out scare-crows of camouflage, and over in one corner, to complete the simile, were a dozen shell-holes, the homes of voracious ant-lions, which, for passing insects, were unexploded mines, set at hair trigger.
My Atta city was only two hundred feet away from the laboratory, in fairly high jungle, within sound of the dinner triangle, and of the lapping waves on the Mazaruni shore. To sit near by and concentrate solely upon the doings of these ant people, was as easy as watching a single circus ring of performing elephants, while two more rings, a maze of trapezes, a race track and side-shows were in full swing. The jungle around me teemed with interesting happenings and distracting sights and sounds. The very last time I visited the nest and became absorbed in a line of incoming ants, I heard the shrill squeaking of an angry hummingbird overhead. I looked up, and there, ten feet above, was a furry tamandua anteater slowly climbing a straight purpleheart trunk, while around and around his head buzzed and swore the little fury—a pinch of cinnamon feathers, ablaze with rage. The curved claws of the unheeding anteater fitted around the trunk and the strong prehensile tail flattened against the bark, so that the creature seemed to put forth no more exertion than if walking along a fallen log. Now and then it stopped and daintily picked at a bit of termite nest.
With such side-shows it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on the Attas. Yet they offered problems for years of study. The glade was a little world in itself, with visitors and tenants, comedy and tragedy, sounds and silences. It was an ant-made glade, with all new growths either choked by upflung, earthen hillocks, or leaves bitten off as soon as they appeared. The casual visitors were the most conspicuous, an occasional trogon swooping across—a glowing, feathered comet of emerald, azurite and gold; or, slowly drifting in and out among the vines and coming to rest with waving wings, a yellow and red spotted Ithomiid,—or was it a Heliconiid or a Danaiid?—with such bewildering models and marvelous mimics it was impossible to tell without capture and close examination. Giant, purple tarantula-hawks hummed past, scanning the leaves for their prey.
Another class of glade haunters were those who came strictly on business,—plasterers and sculptors, who found wet clay ready to their needs. Great golden and rufous bees blundered down and gouged out bucketsful of mud; while slender-bodied, dainty, ebony wasps, after much fastidious picking of place, would detach a tiny bit of the whitest clay, place it in their snuff-box holder, clean their feet and antennae, run their rapier in and out and delicately take to wing.
Little black trigonid bees had their special quarry, a small deep valley in the midst of a waste of interlacing Bad Lands, on the side of a precipitous butte. Here they picked and shoveled to their hearts' content, plastering their thighs until their wings would hardly lift them. They braced their feet, whirred, lifted unevenly, and sank back with a jar. Then turning, they bit off a piece of ballast, and heaving it over the precipice, swung off on an even keel.
Close examination of some of the craters and volcanic-like cones revealed many species of ants, beetles and roaches searching for bits of food—the scavengers of this small world. But the most interesting were the actual parasites, flies of many colors and sizes, humming past like little planes and zeppelins over this hidden city, ready to drop a bomb in the form of an egg deposited on the refuse heaps or on the ants themselves. The explosion might come slowly, but it would be none the less deadly. Once I detected a hint of the complexity of the glade life—beautiful metallic green flies walking swiftly about on long legs, searching nervously, whose eggs would be deposited near those of other flies, their larvae to feed upon the others—parasites upon parasites.
As I had resolutely put the doings of the treetops away from my consciousness, so now I forgot visitors and parasites, and armed myself for the excavation of this buried metropolis. I rubbed vaseline on my high boots, and about the tops bound a band of teased-out absorbent cotton. My pick and shovel I treated likewise, and thus I was comparatively insulated. Without precautions no living being could withstand the slow, implacable attack of disturbed Attas. At present I walked unmolested across the glade. The millions beneath my feet were as unconscious of my presence as they were of the breeze in the palm fronds overhead.
At the first deep shovel thrust, a slow-moving flood of reddish-brown began to pour forth from the crumbled earth—the outposts of the Atta Maxims moving upward to the attack. For a few seconds only workers of various sizes appeared, then an enormous head heaved upward and there came into the light of day the first Atta soldier. He was twice as large as a large worker and heavy in proportion. Instead of being drawn up into two spines, the top of his head was rounded, bald and shiny, and only at the back were the two spines visible, shifted downward. The front of the head was thickly clothed with golden hair, which hung down bang-like over a round, glistening, single, median eye. One by one, and then shoulder to shoulder, these Cyclopean Maxims lumbered forth to battle, and soon my boots were covered in spite of the grease, all sinking their mandibles deep into the leather.
When I unpacked these boots this year I found the heads and jaws of two Attas still firmly attached, relics of some forgotten foray of the preceding year. This mechanical, vise-like grip, wholly independent of life or death, is utilized by the Guiana Indians. In place of stitching up extensive wounds, a number of these giant Atta Maxims are collected, and their jaws applied to the edges of the skin, which are drawn together. The ants take hold, their bodies are snipped off, and the row of jaws remains until the wound is healed.
Over and around the out-pouring soldiers, the tiny workers ran and bit and chewed away at whatever they could reach. Dozens of ants made their way up to the cotton, but found the utmost difficulty in clambering over the loose fluff. Now and then, however, a needle-like nip at the back of my neck, showed that some pioneer of these shock troops had broken through, when I was thankful that Attas could only bite and not sting as well. At such a time as this, the greatest difference is apparent between these and the Eciton army ants. The Eciton soldier with his long, curved scimitars and his swift, nervous movements, was to one of these great insects as a fighting d'Artagnan would be to an armored tank. The results were much the same however,—perfect efficiency.
I now dug swiftly and crashed with pick down through three feet of soil. The great entrance arteries of the nest branched and bifurcated, separated and anastomosed, while here and there were chambers varying in size from a cocoanut to a football. These were filled with what looked like soft grayish sponge covered with whitish mold, and these somber affairs were the raison d'etre for all the leaf-cutting, the trails, the struggles through jungles, the constant battling against wind and rain and sun.
But the labors of the Attas are only renewed when a worker disappears down a hole with his hard-earned bit of leaf. He drops it and goes on his way. We do not know what this way is, but my guess is that he turns around and goes after another leaf. Whatever the nests of Attas possess, they are without recreation rooms. These sluggard-instructors do not know enough to take a vacation; their faces are fashioned for biting, but not for laughing or yawning. I once dabbed fifteen Mediums with a touch of white paint as they approached the nest, and within five minutes thirteen of them had emerged and started on the back track again.
The leaf is taken in charge by another Medium, hosts of whom are everywhere. Once after a spadeful, I placed my eye as close as possible to a small heap of green leaves, and around one oblong bit were five Mediums, each with a considerable amount of chewed and mumbled tissue in front of him. This is the only time I have ever succeeded in finding these ants actually at this work. The leaves are chewed thoroughly and built up into the sponge gardens, being used neither for thatch nor for food, but as fertilizer. And not for any strange subterranean berry or kernel or fruit, but for a fungus or mushroom. The spores sprout and proliferate rapidly, the gray mycelia covering the garden, and at the end of each thread is a little knobbed body filled with liquid. This forms the sole food of the ants in the nest, but a drop of honey placed by a busy trail will draw a circle of workers at any time—both Mediums and Minims, who surround it and drink their fill.
When the fungus garden is in full growth, the nest labors of the Minims begin, and until the knobbed bodies are actually ripe, they never cease to weed and to prune, thus killing off the multitude of other fungi and foreign organisms, and by pruning they keep their particular fungus growing, and prevent it from fructifying. The fungus of the Attas is a particular species with the resonant, Dunsanyesque name of Rozites gongylophora. It is quite unknown outside of the nests of these ants, and is as artificial as a banana.
Only in Calcutta bazaars at night, and in underground streets of Pekin, have I seen stranger beings than I unearthed in my Atta nest. Now and then there rolled out of a shovelful of earth, an unbelievably big and rotund Cicada larva—which in the course of time, whether in one or in seventeen years, would emerge as the great marbled winged Cicada gigas, spreading five inches from tip to tip. Small tarantulas, with beautiful wine-colored cephalothorax, made their home deep in the nest, guarded, perhaps, by their dense covering of hair; slender scorpions sidled out from the ruins. They were bare, with vulnerable joints, but they had the advantage of a pair of hands, and long, mobile arms, which could quickly and skilfully pluck an attacking ant from any part of their anatomy.
The strangest of all the tenants were the tiny, amber-colored roaches which clung frantically to the heads of the great soldier ants, or scurried over the tumultuous mounds, searching for a crevice sanctuary. They were funny, fat little beings, wholly blind, yet supremely conscious of the danger that threatened, and with only the single thought of getting below the surface as quickly as possible. The Attas had very few insect guests, but this cockroach is one which had made himself perfectly at home. Through century upon century he had become more and more specialized and adapted to Atta life, eyes slipping until they were no more than faint specks, legs and antennae changing, gait becoming altered to whatever speed and carriage best suited little guests in big underground halls and galleries. He and his race had evolved unseen and unnoticed even by the Maxim policemen. But when nineteen hundred humanly historical years had passed, a man with a keen sense of fitness named him Little Friend of the Attas; and so for a few more years, until scientists give place to the next caste, Attaphila will, all unconsciously, bear a name.
Attaphilas have staked their whole gamble of existence on the continued possibility of guest-ship with the Attas. Although they lived near the fungus gardens they did not feed upon them, but gathered secretions from the armored skin of the giant soldiers, who apparently did not object, and showed no hostility to their diminutive masseurs. A summer boarder may be quite at home on a farm, and safe from all ordinary dangers, but he must keep out of the way of scythes and sickles if he chooses to haunt the hay-fields. And so Attaphila, snug and safe, deep in the heart of the nest, had to keep on the qui vive when the ant harvesters came to glean in the fungus gardens. Snip, snip, snip, on all sides in the musty darkness, the keen mandibles sheared the edible heads, and though the little Attaphilas dodged and ran, yet most of them, in course of time, lost part of an antenna or even a whole one.
Thus the Little Friend of the Leaf-cutters lives easily through his term of weeks or months, or perhaps even a year, and has nothing to fear for food or mate, or from enemies. But Attaphilas cannot all live in a single nest, and we realize that there must come a crisis, when they pass out into a strange world of terrible light and multitudes of foes. For these pampered, degenerate roaches to find another Atta nest unaided, would be inconceivable. In the big nest which I excavated I observed them on the back and heads not only of the large soldiers, but also of the queens which swarmed in one portion of the galleries; and indeed, of twelve queens, seven had roaches clinging to them. This has been noted also of a Brazilian species, and we suddenly realize what splendid sports these humble insects are. They resolutely prepare for their gamble—l'aventure magnifique—the slenderest fighting chance, and we are almost inclined to forget the irresponsible implacability of instinct, and cheer the little fellows for lining up on this forlorn hope. When the time comes, the queens leave, and are off up into the unheard-of sky, as if an earthworm should soar with eagle's feathers; past the gauntlet of voracious flycatchers and hawks, to the millionth chance of meeting an acceptable male of the same species. After the mating, comes the solitary search for a suitable site, and only when the pitifully unfair gamble has been won by a single fortunate queen, does the Attaphila climb tremblingly down and accept what fate has sent. His ninety and nine fellows have met death in almost as many ways.
With the exception of these strange inmates there are very few tenants or guests in the nests of the Attas. Unlike the termites and Ecitons, who harbor a host of weird boarders, the leaf-cutters are able to keep their nest free from undesirables.
Once, far down in the nest, I came upon three young queens, recently emerged, slow and stupid, with wings dull and glazed, who crawled with awkward haste back into darkness. And again twelve winged females were grouped in one small chamber, restless and confused. This was the only glimpse I ever had of Atta royalty at home.
Good fortune was with me, however, on a memorable fifth of May, when returning from a monkey hunt in high jungle. As I came out into the edge of a clearing, a low humming attracted my attention. It was ventriloquial, and my ear refused to trace it. It sounded exactly like a great aerodrome far in the distance, with a score or more of planes tuning up. I chanced to see a large bee-like insect rising through the branches, and following back along its path, I suddenly perceived the rarest of sights—an Atta nest entrance boiling with the excitement of a flight of winged kings and queens. So engrossed were the ants that they paid no attention to me, and I was able to creep up close and kneel within two feet of the hole. The main nest was twenty feet away, and this was a special exit made for the occasion—a triumphal gateway erected far away from the humdrum leaf traffic.
The two-inch, arched hole led obliquely down into darkness, while brilliant sunshine illumined the earthen take-off and the surrounding mass of pink Mazaruni primroses. Up this corridor was coming, slowly, with dignity, as befitted the occasion, a pageant of royalty. The king males were more active, as they were smaller in size than the females, but they were veritable giants in comparison with the workers. The queens seemed like beings of another race, with their great bowed thorax supporting the folded wings, heads correspondingly large, with less jaw development, but greatly increased keenness of vision. In comparison with the Minims, these queens were as a human being one hundred feet in height.
I selected one large queen as she appeared and watched her closely. Slowly and with great effort she climbed the steep ascent into the blazing sunlight. Five tiny Minims were clinging to her body and wings, all scrubbing and cleaning as hard as they could. She chose a clear space, spread her wings, wide and flat, stood high upon her six legs and waited. I fairly shouted at this change, for slight though it was, it worked magic, and the queen Atta was a queen no more, but a miniature, straddle-legged aeroplane, pushed into position, and overrun by a crowd of mechanics, putting the finishing touches, tightening the wires, oiling every pliable crevice. A Medium came along, tugged at a leg and the obliging little plane lifted it for inspection. For three minutes this kept up, and then the plane became a queen and moved restlessly. Without warning, as if some irresponsible mechanic had turned the primed propellers, the four mighty wings whirred—and four Minims were hurled head over heels a foot away, snapped from their positions. The sound of the wings was almost too exact an imitation of the snarl of a starting plane—the comparison was absurd in its exactness of timbre and resonance. It was only a test, however, and the moment the queen became quiet the upset mechanics clambered back. They crawled beneath her, scraped her feet and antennae, licked her eyes and jaws, and went over every shred of wing tissue. Then again she buzzed, this time sending only a single Minim sprawling. Again she stopped after lifting herself an inch, but immediately started up, and now rose rather unsteadily, but without pause, and slowly ascended above the nest and the primroses. Circling once, she passed through green leaves and glowing balls of fruit, into the blue sky.
Thus I followed the passing of one queen Atta into the jungle world, as far as human eyes would permit, and my mind returned to the mote which I had detected at an equally great height—the queen descending after her marriage—as isolated as she had started.
We have seen how the little blind roaches occasionally cling to an emerging queen and so are transplanted to a new nest. But the queen bears something far more valuable. More faithfully than ever virgin tended temple fires, each departing queen fills a little pouch in the lower part of her mouth with a pellet of the precious fungus, and here it is carefully guarded until the time comes for its propagation in the new nest.
When she has descended to earth and excavated a little chamber, she closes the entrance, and for forty days and nights labors at the founding of a new colony. She plants the little fungus cutting and tends it with the utmost solicitude. The care and feeding in her past life have stored within her the substance for vast numbers of eggs. Nine out of ten which she lays she eats to give her the strength to go on with her labors, and when the first larvae emerge, they, too, are fed with surplus eggs. In time they pupate and at the end of six weeks the first workers—all tiny Minims—hatch. Small as they are, born in darkness, yet no education is needed. The Spirit of the Attas infuses them. Play and rest are the only things incomprehensible to them, and they take charge at once, of fungus, of excavation, of the care of the queen and eggs, the feeding of the larvae, and as soon as the huskier Mediums appear, they break through into the upper world and one day the first bit of green leaf is carried down into the nest.
The queen rests. Henceforth, as far as we know, she becomes a mere egg-producing machine, fed mechanically by mechanical workers, the food transformed by physiological mechanics into yolk and then deposited. The aeroplane has become transformed into an incubator.
One wonders whether, throughout the long hours, weeks and months, in darkness which renders her eyes a mockery, there ever comes to her dull ganglion a flash of memory of The Day, of the rushing wind, the escape from pursuing puff-birds, the jungle stretching away for miles beneath, her mate, the cool tap of drops from a passing shower, the volplane to earth, and the obliteration of all save labor. Did she once look behind her, did she turn aside for a second, just to feel the cool silk of petals?
As we have seen, an Atta worker is a member of the most implacable labor-union in the world: he believes in a twenty-four hour day, no pay, no play, no rest—he is a cog in a machine-driven Good-for-the-greatest-number. After studying these beings for a week, one longs to go out and shout for kaisers and tsars, for selfishness and crime—anything as a relief from such terrible unthinking altruism. All Atta workers are born free and equal—which is well; and they remain so—which is what a Buddhist priest once called "gashang"—or so it sounded, and which he explained as a state where plants and animals and men were crystal-like in growth and existence. What a welcome sight it would be to see a Medium mount a bit of twig, antennae a crowd of Minims about him, and start off on a foray of his own!
We may jeer or condemn the Attas for their hard-shell existence, but there comes to mind again and again, the wonder of it all. Are the hosts of little beings really responsible; have they not evolved into a pocket, a mental cul-de-sac, a swamping of individuality, pooling their personalities? And what is it they have gained—what pledge of success in food, in safety, in propagation? They are not separate entities, they have none of the freedom of action, of choice, of individuality of the solitary wasps. They are the somatic cells of the body politic, while deep within the nest are the guarded sexual cells—the winged kings and queens, which from time to time, exactly as in isolated organisms, are thrown off to propagate, and to found new nests. They, no less than the workers, are parts of something more subtle than the visible Attas and their material nest. Whether I go to the ant as sluggard, or myrmocologist, or accidentally, via Pterodactyl Pups, a day spent with them invariably leaves me with my whole being concentrated on this mysterious Atta Ego. Call it Vibration, Aura, Spirit of the nest, clothe ignorance in whatever term seems appropriate, we cannot deny its existence and power.
As with the Army ants, the flowing lines of leaf-cutters always brought to mind great arteries, filled with pulsating, tumbling corpuscles. When an obstruction appeared, as a fallen leaf, across the great sandy track, a dozen, or twenty or a hundred workers gathered—like leucocytes—and removed the interfering object. If I injured a worker who was about to enter the nest, I inoculated the Atta organism with a pernicious, foreign body. Even the victim himself was dimly aware of the law of fitness. Again and again he yielded to the call of the nest, only to turn aside at the last moment. From a normal link in the endless Atta chain, he had become an outcast—snapped at by every passing ant, self-banished, wandering off at nightfall to die somewhere in the wilderness of grass. When well, an Atta has relations but no friends, when ill, every jaw is against him.
As I write this seated at my laboratory table, by turning down my lamp and looking out, I can see the star dust of Orion's nebula, and without moving from my chair, Rigel, Sirius, Capella and Betelgeuze—the blue, white, yellow and red evolution of so-called lifeless cosmic matter. A few slides from the aquarium at my side reveal an evolutionary sequence to the heavenly host—the simplest of earthly organisms playing fast and loose with the borderland, not only of plants and animals, but of the one and of the many-celled. First a swimming lily, Stentor, a solitary animal bloom, twenty-five to the inch; Cothurnia, a double lily, and Gonium, with a quartet of cells clinging tremulously together, progressing unsteadily—materially toward the rim of my field of vision—in the evolution of earthly life toward sponges, peripatus, ants and man.
I was interrupted in my microcosmus just as it occurred to me that Chesterton would heartily approve of my approximation of Sirius and Stentor, of Capella and Cothurnia—the universe balanced. My attention was drawn from the atom Gonium—whose brave little spirit was striving to keep his foursome one—a primordial struggle toward unity of self and division of labor; my consciousness climbed the microscope tube and came to rest upon a slim glass of amber liquid on my laboratory table: a servant had brought a cocktail, for it was New Year's Eve. (Now the thought came that there were a number of worthy people who would also approve of this approximation!) I looked at the small spirituous luxury, and I thought of my friends in New York, and then of the Attas in front of the laboratory. With my electric flash I went out into the starlight, and found the usual hosts struggling nestward with their chlorophyll burdens, and rushing frantically out into the black jungle for more and yet more leaves. My mind swept back over evolution from star-dust to Kartabo compound, from Gonium to man, and to these leaf-cutting ants. And I wondered whether the Attas were any the better for being denied the stimulus of temptation, or whether I was any the worse for the opportunity of refusing a second glass. I went back into the house, and voiced a toast to tolerance, to temperance, and—to pterodactyls—and drank my cocktail.
There is a great gulf between pancakes and truffles: an eternal, fixed, abysmal canyon. It is like the chasm between beds and hammocks. It is not to be denied and not to be traversed; for if pancakes with syrup are a necessary of life, then truffles with anything must be, by the very nature of things, a supreme and undisputed luxury, a regal food for royalty and the chosen of the earth. There cannot be a shadow of a doubt that these two are divided; and it is not alone a mere arbitrary division of poverty and riches as it would appear on the surface. It is an alienation brought about by profound and fundamental differences; for the gulf between them is that gulf which separates the prosaic, the ordinary, the commonplace, from all that is colored and enlivened by romance.
The romance of truffles endows the very word itself with a halo, an aristocratic halo full of mystery and suggestion. One remembers the hunters who must track their quarry through marshy and treacherous lands, and one cannot forget their confiding catspaw, that desolated pig, created only to be betrayed and robbed of the fungi of his labors. He is one of the pathetic characters of history, born to secret sorrow, victimized by those superior tastes which do not become his lowly station. Born to labor and to suffer, but not to eat. To this day he commands my sympathy; his ghost—lean, bourgeois, reproachful—looks out at me from every market-place in the world where the truffle proclaims his faithful service.
But the pancake is a pancake, nothing more. It is without inherent or artificial glamour; and this unfortunately, when you come right down to it, is true of food in general. For food, after all, is one of the lesser considerations; the connoisseur, the gourmet, even the gourmand, spends no more than four hours out of the day at his table. From the cycle, he may select four in which to eat; but whether he will or not, he must set aside seven of the twenty-four in which to sleep.
Sleeping, then, as opposed to eating, is of almost double importance, since it consumes nearly twice as much time—and time, in itself, is the most valuable thing in the world. Considered from this angle, it seems incredible that we have no connoisseurs of sleep. For we have none. Therefore it is with some temerity that I declare sleep to be one of the romances of existence, and not by any chance the simple necessary it is reputed to be.
However, this romance, in company with whatever is worthy, is not to be discovered without the proper labor. Life is not all truffles. Neither do they grow in modest back-yards to be picked of mornings by the maid-of-all-work. A mere bed, notwithstanding its magic camouflage of coverings, of canopy, of disguised pillows, of shining brass or fluted carven posts, is, pancake like, never surrounded by this aura of romance. No, it is hammock sleep which is the sweetest of all slumber. Not in the hideous, dyed affairs of our summer porches, with their miserable curved sticks to keep the strands apart, and their maddening creaks which grow in length and discord the higher one swings—but in a hammock woven by Carib Indians. An Indian hammock selected at random will not suffice; it must be a Carib and none other. For they, themselves, are part and parcel of the romance, since they are not alone a quaint and poetic people, but the direct descendants of those remote Americans who were the first to see the caravels of Columbus. Indeed, he paid the initial tribute to their skill, for in the diary of his first voyage he writes,—
"A great many Indians in canoes came to the ship to-day for the purpose of bartering their cotton, and hamacas or nets in which they sleep."
It is supposed that this name owes its being to the hamack tree, from the bark of which they were woven. However that may be, the modern hammock of these tropical Red Men is so light and so delicate in texture that during the day one may wear it as a sash, while at night it forms an incomparable couch.
But one does not drop off to sleep in this before a just and proper preparation. This presents complexities. First, the hammock must be slung with just the right amount of tautness; then, the novice must master the knack of winding himself in his blanket that he may slide gently into his aerial bed and rest at right angles to the tied ends, thus permitting the free side-meshes to curl up naturally over his feet and head. This cannot be taught. It is an art; and any art is one-tenth technique, and nine-tenths natural talent. However, it is possible to acquire a certain virtuosity, which, after all is said, is but pure mechanical skill as opposed to sheer genius. One might, perhaps, get a hint by watching the living chrysalid of a potential moon-moth wriggle back into its cocoon—but little is to be learned from human teaching. However, if, night after night, one observes his Indians, a certain instinctive knowledge will arise to aid and abet him in his task. Then, after his patient apprenticeship, he may reap as he has sowed. If it is to be disaster, it is as immediate as it is ignominious; but if success is to be his portion, then he is destined to rest, wholly relaxed, upon a couch encushioned and resilient beyond belief. He finds himself exalted and supreme above all mundane disturbances, with the treetops and the stars for his canopy, and the earth a shadowy floor far beneath. This gentle aerial support is distributed throughout hundreds of fine meshes, and the sole contact with the earth is through twin living boles, pulsing with swift running sap, whose lichened bark and moonlit foliage excel any tapestry of man's devising.
Perhaps it is atavistic—this desire to rest and swing in a hamaca. For these are not unlike the treetop couches of our arboreal ancestors, such a one as I have seen an orang-utan weave in a few minutes in the swaying crotch of a tree. At any rate, the hammock is not dependent upon four walls, upon rooms and houses, and it partakes altogether of the wilderness. Its movement is aeolian—yielding to every breath of air. It has even its own weird harmony—for I have often heard a low, whistling hum as the air rushed through the cordage mesh. In a sudden tropical gale every taut strand of my hamaca has seemed a separate, melodious, orchestral note, while I was buffeted to and fro, marking time to some rhythmic and reckless tune of the wind playing fortissimo on the woven strings about me. The climax of this musical outburst was not without a mild element of danger—sufficient to create that enviable state of mind wherein the sense of security and the knowledge that a minor catastrophe may perhaps be brought about are weighed one against the other.
Special, unexpected, and interesting minor dangers are also the province of the hamaca. Once, in the tropics, a great fruit fell on the elastic strands and bounced upon my body. There was an ominous swish of the air in the sweeping arc which this missile described, also a goodly shower of leaves; and since the fusillade took place at midnight, it was, all in all, a somewhat alarming visitation. However, there were no honorable scars to mark its advent; and what is more important, from all my hundreds of hammock nights, I have no other memory of any actual or threatened danger which was not due to human carelessness or stupidity. It is true that once, in another continent, by the light of a campfire, I saw the long, liana-like body of a harmless tree-snake wind down from one of my fronded bed-posts and, like a living woof following its shuttle, weave a passing pattern of emerald through the pale meshes. But this heralded no harm, for the poisonous reptiles of that region never climb; and so, since I was worn out by a hard day, I shut my eyes and slept neither better nor worse because of the transient confidence of a neighborly serpent.
As a matter of fact, the wilderness provides but few real perils, and in a hammock one is safely removed from these. One lies in a stratum above all damp and chill of the ground, beyond the reach of crawling tick and looping leech; and with an enveloping mosquitaro, or mosquito shirt, as the Venezuelans call it, one is fortified even in the worst haunts of these most disturbing of all pests.
Once my ring rope slipped and the hammock settled, but not enough to wake me up and force me to set it to rights. I was aware that something had gone wrong, but, half asleep, I preferred to leave the matter in the lap of the gods. Later, as a result, I was awakened several times by the patting of tiny paws against my body, as small jungle-folk, standing on their hind-legs, essayed to solve the mystery of the swaying, silent, bulging affair directly overhead. I was unlike any tree or branch or liana which had come their way before; I do not doubt that they thought me some new kind of ant-nest, since these structures are alike only as their purpose in life is identical—for they express every possible variation in shape, size, color, design, and position. As for their curiosity, I could make no complaint, for, at best, my visitors could not be so inquisitive as I, inasmuch as I had crossed one ocean and two continents with no greater object than to pry into their personal and civic affairs as well as those of their neighbors. To say nothing of their environment and other matters.
That my rope slipped was the direct result of my own inefficiency. The hammock protects one from the dangers of the outside world, but like any man-made structure, it shows evidences of those imperfections which are part and parcel of human nature, and serve, no doubt, to make it interesting. But one may at least strive for perfection by being careful. Therefore tie the ropes of your hammock yourself, or examine and test the job done for you. The master of hammocks makes a knot the name of which I do not know—I cannot so much as describe it. But I would like to twist it again—two quick turns, a push and a pull; then, the greater the strain put upon it, the greater its resistance.
This trustworthiness commands respect and admiration, but it is in the morning that one feels the glow of real gratitude; for, in striking camp at dawn, one has but to give a single jerk and the rope is straightened out, without so much as a second's delay. It is the tying, however, which must be well done—this I learned from bitter experience.
It was one morning, years ago, but the memory of it is with me still, vivid and painful. One of the party had left her hammock, which was tied securely since she was skilful in such matters, to sit down and rest in another, belonging to a servant. This was slung at one end of a high, tropical porch, which was without the railing that surrounds the more pretentious verandahs of civilization, so that the hammock swung free, first over the rough flooring, then a little out over the yard itself. A rope slipped, the faulty knot gave way, and she fell backward—a seven-foot fall with no support of any kind by which she might save herself. A broken wrist was the price she had to pay for another's carelessness—a broken wrist which, in civilization, is perhaps, one of the lesser tragedies; but this was in the very heart of the Guiana wilderness. Many hours from ether and surgical skill, such an accident assumes alarming proportions. Therefore, I repeat my warning: tie your knots or examine them.
It is true, that, when all is said and done, a dweller in hammocks may bring upon himself any number of diverse dangers of a character never described in books or imagined in fiction. A fellow naturalist of mine never lost an opportunity to set innumerable traps for the lesser jungle-folk, such as mice and opossums, all of which he religiously measured and skinned, so that each, in its death, should add its mite to human knowledge. As a fisherman runs out set lines, so would he place his traps in a circle under his hammock, using a cord to tie each and every one to the meshes. This done, it was his custom to lie at ease and wait for the click below which would usher in a new specimen,—perhaps a new species,—to be lifted up, removed, and safely cached until morning. This strategic method served a double purpose: it conserved natural energy, and it protected the catch. For if the traps were set in the jungle and trustfully confided to its care until the break of day, the ants would leave a beautifully cleaned skeleton, intact, all unnecessarily entrapped.
Now it happened that once, when he had set his nocturnal traps, he straightway went to sleep in the midst of all the small jungle people who were calling for mates and new life, so that he did not hear the click which was to warn him that another little beast of fur had come unawares upon his death. But he heard, suddenly, a disturbance in the low ferns beneath his hammock. He reached over and caught hold of one of the cords, finding the attendant trap heavy with prey. He was on the point of feeling his way to the trap itself, when instead, by some subconscious prompting, he reached over and snapped on his flashlight. And there before him, hanging in mid-air, striking viciously at his fingers which were just beyond its reach, was a young fer-de-lance—one of the deadliest of tropical serpents. His nerves gave way, and with a crash the trap fell to the ground where he could hear it stirring and thrashing about among the dead leaves. This ominous rustling did not encourage sleep; he lay there for a long time listening,—and every minute is longer in the darkness,—while his hammock quivered and trembled with the reaction.
Guided by this, I might enter into a new field of naturalizing and say to those who might, in excitement, be tempted to do otherwise, "Look at your traps before lifting them." But my audience would be too limited; I will refrain from so doing.
It is true that this brief experience might be looked upon as one illustration of the perils of the wilderness, since it is not customary for the fer-de-lance to frequent the city and the town. But this would give rise to a footless argument, leading nowhere. For danger is everywhere—it lurks in every shadow and is hidden in the bright sunlight, it is the uninvited guest, the invisible pedestrian who walks beside you in the crowded street ceaselessly, without tiring. But even a fer-de-lance should rather add to the number of hammock devotees than diminish them; for the three feet or more of elevation is as good as so many miles between the two of you. And three miles from any serpent is sufficient.
It may be that the very word danger is subjected to a different interpretation in each one of our mental dictionaries. It is elastic, comprehensive. To some it may include whatever is terrible, terrifying; to others it may symbolize a worthy antagonist, one who throws down the gauntlet and asks no questions, but who will make a good and fair fight wherein advantage is neither taken nor given. I suppose, to be bitten by vampires would be thought a danger by many who have not graduated from the mattress of civilization to this cubiculum of the wilderness. This is due, in part, to an ignorance, which is to be condoned; and this ignorance, in turn, is due to that lack of desire for a knowledge of new countries and new experiences, which lack is to be deplored and openly mourned. Many years ago, in Mexico, when I first entered the vampire zone, I was apprised of the fact by the clotted blood on my horse's neck in the early morning. In actually seeing this evidence, I experienced the diverse emotions of the discoverer, although as a matter of fact I had discovered nothing more than the verification of a scientific commonplace. It so happened that I had read, at one time, many conflicting statements of the workings of this aerial leech; therefore, finding myself in his native habitat, I went to all sorts of trouble to become a victim to his sorceries. The great toe is the favorite and stereotyped point of attack, we are told; so, in my hammock, my great toes were conscientiously exposed night after night, but not until a decade later was my curiosity satisfied.
I presume that this was a matter of ill luck, rather than a personal matter between the vampire and me. Therefore, as a direct result of this and like experiences, I have learned to make proper allowances for the whims of the Fates. I have learned that it is their pleasure to deluge me with rainstorms at unpropitious moments, also to send me, with my hammock, to eminently desirable countries, which, however, are barren of trees and scourged of every respectable shrub. That the showers may not find me unprepared, I pack with my hamaca an extra length of rope, to be stretched taut from foot-post to head-post, that a tarpaulin or canvas may be slung over it. When a treeless country is presented to me in prospect, I have two stout stakes prepared, and I do not move forward without them.
It is a wonderful thing to see an experienced hammocker take his stakes, first one, then the other, and plunge them into the ground three or four times, measuring at one glance the exact distance and angle, and securing magically that mysterious "give" so essential to well-being and comfort. Any one can sink them like fence-posts, so that they stand deep and rigid, a reproach and an accusation; but it requires a particular skill to judge by the pull whether or not they will hold through the night and at the same time yield with gentle and supple swing to the least movement of the sleeper. A Carib knows, instantly, worthy and unworthy ground. I have seen an Indian sink his hamaca posts into sand with one swift, concentrated motion, mathematical in its precision and surety, so that he might enter at once into a peaceful night of tranquil and unbroken slumber, while I, a tenderfoot then, must needs beat my stakes down into the ground with tremendous energy, only to come to earth with a resounding thwack the moment I mounted my couch.
The Red Man made his comment, smiling: "Yellow earth, much squeeze." Which, being translated, informed me that the clayey ground I had chosen, hard though it seemed, was more like putty in that it would slip and slip with the prolonged pressure until the post fell inward and catastrophe crowned my endeavor.
So it follows that the hammock, in company with an adequate tarpaulin and two trustworthy stakes, will survive the heaviest downpour as well as the most arid and uncompromising desert. But since it is man-made, with finite limitations, nature is not without means to defeat its purpose. The hammock cannot cope with the cold—real cold, that is, not the sudden chill of tropical night which a blanket resists, but the cold of the north or of high altitudes. This is the realm of the sleeping-bag, the joy of which is another story. More than once I have had to use a hammock at high levels, since there was nothing else at hand; and the numbness of the Arctic was mine. Every mesh seemed to invite a separate draught. The winds of heaven—all four—played unceasingly upon me, and I became in due time a swaying mummy of ice. It was my delusion that I was a dead Indian cached aloft upon my arboreal bier—which is not a normal state of mind for the sleeping explorer.
Anything rather than this helpless surrender to the elements. Better the lowlands and that fantastic shroud, the mosquitaro. For even to wind one's self into this is an experience of note. It is ingenious, and called the mosquito shirt because of its general shape, which is as much like a shirt as anything else. A large round center covers the hammock, and two sleeves extend up the supporting strands and inclose the ends, being tied to the ring-ropes. If at sundown swarms of mosquitoes become unbearable, one retires into his netting funnel, and there disrobes. Clothes are rolled into a bundle and tied to the hammock, that one may close one's eyes reasonably confident that the supply will not be diminished by some small marauder. It is then that a miracle is enacted. For one is at last enabled, under these propitious circumstances, to achieve the impossible, to control and manipulate the void and the invisible, to obey that unforgotten advice of one's youth, "Oh, g'wan—crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after you!" At an early age, this unnatural advice held my mind, so that I devised innumerable means of verifying it; I was filled with a despair and longing whenever I met it anew. But it was an ambition appeased only in maturity. And this is the miracle of the tropics: climb up into the hamaca, and, at this altitude, draw in the hole of the mosquitaro funnel, making it fast with a single knot. It is done. One is at rest, and lying back, listens to the humming of all the mosquitoes in the world, to be lulled to sleep by the sad, minor singing of their myriad wings. But though I have slung my hammock in many lands, on all the continents, I have few memories of netting nights. Usually, both in tropics and in tempered climes, one may boldly lie with face uncovered to the night.
And this brings us to the greatest joy of hammock life, admission to the secrets of the wilderness, initiation to new intimacies and subtleties of this kingdom, at once welcomed and delicately ignored as any honored guest should be. For this one must make unwonted demands upon one's nocturnal senses. From habit, perhaps, it is natural to lie with the eyes wide open, but with all the faculties concentrated on the two senses which bring impressions from the world of darkness—hearing and smell. In a jungle hut a loud cry from out of the black treetops now and then reaches the ear; in a tent the faint noises of the night outside are borne on the wind, and at times the silhouette of a passing animal moves slowly across the heavy cloth; but in a hamaca one is not thus set apart to be baffled by hidden mysteries—one is given the very point of view of the creatures who live and die in the open.
Through the meshes which press gently against one's face comes every sound which our human ears can distinguish and set apart from the silence—a silence which in itself is only a mirage of apparent soundlessness, a testimonial to the imperfection of our senses. The moaning and whining of some distant beast of prey is brought on the breeze to mingle with the silken swishing of the palm fronds overhead and the insistent chirping of many insects—a chirping so fine and shrill that it verges upon the very limits of our hearing. And these, combined, unified, are no more than the ground surge beneath the countless waves of sound. For the voice of the jungle is the voice of love, of hatred, of hope, of despair—and in the night-time, when the dominance of sense-activity shifts from eye to ear, from retina to nostril, it cries aloud its confidences to all the world. But the human mind is not equal to a true understanding of these; for in a tropical jungle the birds and the frogs, the beasts and the insects are sending out their messages so swiftly one upon the other, that the senses fail of their mission and only chaos and a great confusion are carried to the brain. The whirring of invisible wings and the movement of the wind in the low branches become one and the same: it is an epic, told in some strange tongue, an epic filled to overflowing with tragedy, with poetry and mystery. The cloth of this drama is woven from many-colored threads, for Nature is lavish with her pigment, reckless with life and death. She is generous because there is no need for her to be miserly. And in the darkness, I have heard the working of her will, translating as best I could.
In the darkness, I have at times heard the tramping of many feet; in a land traversed only by Indian trails I have listened to an overloaded freight train toiling up a steep grade; I have heard the noise of distant battle and the cries of the victor and the vanquished. Hard by, among the trees, I have heard a woman seized, have heard her crying, pleading for mercy, have heard her choking and sobbing till the end came in a terrible, gasping sigh; and then, in the sudden silence, there was a movement and thrashing about in the topmost branches, and the flutter and whirr of great wings moving swiftly away from me into the heart of the jungle—the only clue to the author of this vocal tragedy. Once, a Pan of the woods tuned up his pipes—striking a false note now and then, as if it were his whim to appear no more than the veriest amateur; then suddenly, with the full liquid sweetness of his reeds, bursting into a strain so wonderful, so silvery clear, that I lay with mouth open to still the beating of blood in my ears, hardly breathing, that I might catch every vibration of his song. When the last note died away, there was utter stillness about me for an instant—nothing stirred, nothing moved; the wind seemed to have forsaken the leaves. From a great distance, as if he were going deeper into the woods, I heard him once more tuning up his pipes; but he did not play again.
Beside me, I heard the low voice of one of my natives murmuring, "Muerte ha pasado." My mind took up this phrase, repeating it, giving it the rhythm of Pan's song—a rhythm delicate, sustained, full of color and meaning in itself. I was ashamed that one of my kind could translate such sweet and poignant music into a superstition, could believe that it was the song of death,—the death that passes,—and not the voice of life. But it may have been that he was wiser in such matters than I; superstitions are many times no more than truth in masquerade. For I could call it by no name—whether bird or beast, creature of fur or feather or scale. And not for one, but for a thousand creatures within my hearing, any obscure nocturnal sound may have heralded the end of life. Song and death may go hand in hand, and such a song may be a beautiful one, unsung, unuttered until this moment when Nature demands the final payment for what she has given so lavishly. In the open, the dominant note is the call to a mate, and with it, that there may be color and form and contrast, there is that note of pure vocal exuberance which is beauty for beauty and for nothing else; but in this harmony there is sometimes the cry of a creature who has come upon death unawares, a creature who has perhaps been dumb all the days of his life, only to cry aloud this once for pity, for mercy, or for faith, in this hour of his extremity. Of all, the most terrible is the death-scream of a horse,—a cry of frightful timbre,—treasured, according to some secret law, until this dire instant when for him death indeed passes.
It was years ago that I heard the pipes of Pan; but one does not forget these mysteries of the jungle night: the sounds and scents and the dim, glimpsed ghosts which flit through the darkness and the deepest shadow mark a place for themselves in one's memory, which is not erased. I have lain in my hammock looking at a tapestry of green draped over a half-fallen tree, and then for a few minutes have turned to watch the bats flicker across a bit of sky visible through the dark branches. When I looked back again at the tapestry, although the dusk had only a moment before settled into the deeper blue of twilight, a score of great lustrous stars were shining there, making new patterns in the green drapery; for in this short time, the spectral blooms of the night had awakened and flooded my resting-place with their fragrance.
And these were but the first of the flowers; for when the brief tropic twilight is quenched, a new world is born. The leaves and blossoms of the day are at rest, and the birds and insects sleep. New blooms open, strange scents pour forth. Even our dull senses respond to these; for just as the eye is dimmed, so are the other senses quickened in the sudden night of the jungle. Nearby, so close that one can reach out and touch them, the pale Cereus moons expand, exhaling their sweetness, subtle breaths of fragrance calling for the very life of their race to the whirring hawkmoths. The tiny miller who, through the hours of glare has crouched beneath a leaf, flutters upward, and the trail of her perfume summons her mate perhaps half a mile down wind. The civet cat, stimulated by love or war, fills the glade with an odor so pungent that it seems as if the other senses must mark it.
Although there may seem not a breath of air in motion, yet the tide of scent is never still. One's moistened finger may reveal no cool side, since there is not the vestige of a breeze; but faint odors arrive, become stronger, and die away, or are wholly dissipated by an onrush of others, so musky or so sweet that one can almost taste them. These have their secret purposes, since Nature is not wasteful. If she creates beautiful things, it is to serve some ultimate end; it is her whim to walk in obscure paths, but her goal is fixed and immutable. However, her designs are hidden and not easy to decipher; at best, one achieves, not knowledge, but a few isolated facts.
Sport in a hammock might, by the casual thinker, be considered as limited to dreams of the hunt and chase. Yet I have found at my disposal a score of amusements. When the dusk has just settled down, and the little bats fill every glade in the forest, a box of beetles or grasshoppers—or even bits of chopped meat—offers the possibility of a new and neglected sport, in effect the inversion of baiting a school of fish. Toss a grasshopper into the air and he has only time to spread his wings for a parachute to earth, when a bat swoops past so quickly that the eyes refuse to see any single effort—but the grasshopper has vanished. As for the piece of meat, it is drawn like a magnet to the fierce little face. Once I tried the experiment of a bit of blunted bent wire on a long piece of thread, and at the very first cast I entangled a flutter-mouse and pulled him in. I was aghast when I saw what I had captured. A body hardly as large as that of a mouse was topped with the head of a fiend incarnate. Between his red puffed lips his teeth showed needle-sharp and ivory-white; his eyes were as evil as a caricature from Simplicissimus, and set deep in his head, while his ears and nose were monstrous with fold upon fold of skinny flaps. It was not a living face, but a mask of frightful mobility.
I set him free, deeming anything so ugly well worthy of life, if such could find sustenance among his fellows and win a mate for himself somewhere in this world. But he, for all his hideousness and unseemly mien, is not the vampire; the blood-sucking bat has won a mantle of deceit from the hands of Nature—a garb that gives him a modest and not unpleasing appearance, and makes it a difficult matter to distinguish him from his guileless confreres of our summer evenings.
But in the tropics,—the native land of the hammock,—not only the mysteries of the night, but the affairs of the day may be legitimately investigated from this aerial point of view. It is a fetish of belief in hot countries that every unacclimatized white man must, sooner or later, succumb to that sacred custom, the siesta. In the cool of the day he may work vigorously, but this hour of rest is indispensable. To a healthful person, living a reasonable life, the siesta is sheer luxury. However, in camp, when the sun nears the zenith and the hush which settles over the jungle proclaims that most of the wild creatures are resting, one may swing one's hammock in the very heart of this primitive forest and straightway be admitted into a new province, where rare and unsuspected experiences are open to the wayfarer. This is not the province of sleep or dreams, where all things are possible and preeminently reasonable; for one does not go through sundry hardships and all manner of self-denial, only to be blindfolded on the very threshold of his ambition. No naturalist of a temperament which begrudges every unused hour will, for a moment, think of sleep under such conditions. It is not true that the rest and quiet are necessary to cool the Northern blood for active work in the afternoon, but the eye and the brain can combine relaxation with keenest attention.
In the northlands the difference in the temperature of the early dawn and high noon is so slight that the effect on birds and other creatures, as well as plants of all kinds, is not profound. But in the tropics a change takes place which is as pronounced as that brought about by day and night. Above all, the volume of sound becomes no more than a pianissimo melody; for the chorus of birds and insects dies away little by little with the increase of heat. There is something geometrical about this, something precise and fine in this working of a natural law—a law from which no living being is immune, for at length one unconsciously lies motionless, overcome by the warmth and this illusion of silence.
The swaying of the hammock sets in motion a cool breeze, and lying at full length, one is admitted at high noon to a new domain which has no other portal but this. At this hour, the jungle shows few evidences of life, not a chirp of bird or song of insect, and no rustling of leaves in the heat which has descended so surely and so inevitably. But from hidden places and cool shadows come broken sounds and whisperings, which cover the gamut from insects to mammals and unite to make a drowsy and contented murmuring—a musical undertone of amity and goodwill. For pursuit and killing are at the lowest ebb, the stifling heat being the flag of truce in the world-wide struggle for life and food and mate—a struggle which halts for naught else, day or night.
Lying quietly, the confidence of every unconventional and adventurous wanderer will include your couch, since courage is a natural virtue when the spirit of friendliness is abroad in the land. I felt that I had acquired merit that eventful day when a pair of hummingbirds—thimblefuls of fluff with flaming breastplates and caps of gold—looked upon me with such favor that they made the strands of my hamaca their boudoir. I was not conscious of their designs upon me until I saw them whirring toward me, two bright, swiftly moving atoms, glowing like tiny meteors, humming like a very battalion of bees. They betook themselves to two chosen cords and, close together, settled themselves with no further demands upon existence. A hundred of them could have rested upon the pair of strands; even the dragon-flies which dashed past had a wider spread of wing; but for these two there were a myriad glistening featherlets to be oiled and arranged, two pairs of slender wings to be whipped clean of every speck of dust, two delicate, sharp bills to be wiped again and again and cleared of microscopic drops of nectar. Then—like the great eagles roosting high overhead in the clefts of the mountainside—these mites of birds must needs tuck their heads beneath their wings for sleep; thus we three rested in the violent heat.
On other days, in Borneo, weaver birds have brought dried grasses and woven them into the fabric of my hammock, making me indeed feel that my couch was a part of the wilderness. At times, some of the larger birds have crept close to my glade, to sleep in the shadows of the low jungle-growth. But these were, one and all, timid folk, politely incurious, with evident respect for the rights of the individual. But once, some others of a ruder and more barbaric temperament advanced upon me unawares, and found me unprepared for their coming. I was dozing quietly, glad to escape for an instant the insistent screaming of a cicada which seemed to have gone mad in the heat, when a low rustling caught my ear—a sound of moving leaves without wind; the voice of a breeze in the midst of breathless heat. There was in it something sinister and foreboding. I leaned over the edge of my hammock, and saw coming toward me, in a broad, irregular front, a great army of ants, battalion after battalion of them flowing like a sea of living motes over twigs and leaves and stems. I knew the danger and I half sat up, prepared to roll out and walk to one side. Then I gaged my supporting strands; tested them until they vibrated and hummed, and lay back, watching, to see what would come about. I knew that no creature in the world could stay in the path of this horde and live. To kill an insect or a great bird would require only a few minutes, and the death of a jaguar or a tapir would mean only a few more. Against this attack, claws, teeth, poison-fangs would be idle weapons.
In the van fled a cloud of terrified insects—those gifted with flight to wing their way far off, while the humbler ones went running headlong, their legs, four, six, or a hundred, making the swiftest pace vouchsafed them. There were foolish folk who climbed up low ferns, achieving the swaying, topmost fronds only to be trailed by the savage ants and brought down to instant death.
Even the winged ones were not immune, for if they hesitated a second, an ant would seize upon them, and, although carried into the air, would not loosen his grip, but cling to them, obstruct their flight, and perhaps bring them to earth in the heart of the jungle, where, cut off from their kind, the single combat would be waged to the death. From where I watched, I saw massacres innumerable; terrible battles in which some creature—a giant beside an ant—fought for his life, crushing to death scores of the enemy before giving up.
They were a merciless army and their number was countless, with host upon host following close on each other's heels. A horde of warriors found a bird in my game-bag, and left of it hardly a feather. I wondered whether they would discover me, and they did, though I think it was more by accident than by intention. Nevertheless a half-dozen ants appeared on the foot-strands, nervously twiddling their antennae in my direction. Their appraisal was brief; with no more than a second's delay they started toward me. I waited until they were well on their way, then vigorously twanged the cords under them harpwise, sending all the scouts into mid-air and headlong down among their fellows. So far as I know, this was a revolutionary maneuver in military tactics, comparable only to the explosion of a set mine. But even so, when the last of this brigade had gone on their menacing, pitiless way, and the danger had passed to a new province, I could not help thinking of the certain, inexorable fate of a man who, unable to move from his hammock or to make any defense, should be thus exposed to their attack. There could be no help for him if but one of this great host should scent him out and carry the word back to the rank and file.
It was after this army had been lost in the black shadows of the forest floor, that I remembered those others who had come with them—those attendant birds of prey who profit by the evil work of this legion. For, hovering over them, sometimes a little in advance, there had been a flying squadron of antbirds and others which had come to feed, not on the ants, but on the insects which had been frightened into flight. At one time, three of these dropped down to perch on my hammock, nervous, watchful, and alert, waiting but a moment before darting after some ill-fated moth or grasshopper which, in its great panic, had escaped one danger only to fall an easy victim to another. For a little while, the twittering and chirping of these camp-followers, these feathered profiteers, was brought back to me on the wind; and when it had died away, I took up my work again in a glade in which no voice of insect reached my ears. The hunting ants had done their work thoroughly.
And so it comes about that by day or by night the hammock carries with it its own reward to those who have learned but one thing—that there is a chasm between pancakes and truffles. It is an open door to a new land which does not fail of its promise, a land in which the prosaic, the ordinary, the everyday have no place, since they have been shouldered out, dethroned, by a new and competent perspective. The god of hammocks is unfailingly kind, just, and generous to those who have found pancakes wanting and have discovered by inspiration, or what-not, that truffles do not grow in back-yards to be served at early breakfast by the maid-of-all-work. Which proves, I believe, that a mere bed may be a block in the path of philosophy, a commonplace, and that truffles and hammocks—hammocks unquestionably—are twin doors to the land of romance.
The swayer in hammocks may find amusement and may enrich science by his record of observations; his memory will be more vivid, his caste the worthier, for the intimacy with wild things achieved when swinging between earth and sky, unfettered by mattress or roof.
A TROPIC GARDEN
Take an automobile and into it pile a superman, a great evolutionist, an artist, an ornithologist, a poet, a botanist, a photographer, a musician, an author, adorable youngsters of fifteen, and a tired business man, and within half an hour I shall have drawn from them superlatives of appreciation, each after his own method of emotional expression—whether a flood of exclamations, or silence. This is no light boast, for at one time or another, I have done all this, but in only one place—the Botanical Gardens of Georgetown, British Guiana. As I hold it sacrilege to think of dying without again seeing the Taj Mahal, or the Hills from Darjeeling, so something of ethics seems involved in my soul's necessity of again watching the homing of the herons in these tropic gardens at evening.
In the busy, unlovely streets of the waterfront of Georgetown, one is often jostled; in the markets, it is often difficult at times to make one's way; but in the gardens a solitary laborer grubs among the roots, a coolie woman swings by with a bundle of grass on her head, or, in the late afternoon, an occasional motor whirrs past. Mankind seems almost an interloper, rather than architect and owner of these wonder-gardens. His presence is due far more often to business, his transit marked by speed, than the slow walking or loitering which real appreciation demands.
A guide-book will doubtless give the exact acreage, tell the mileage of excellent roads, record the date of establishment, and the number of species of palms and orchids. But it will have nothing to say of the marvels of the slow decay of a Victoria Regia leaf, or of the spiral descent of a white egret, or of the feelings which Roosevelt and I shared one evening, when four manatees rose beneath us. It was from a little curved Japanese bridge, and the next morning we were to start up-country to my jungle laboratory. There was not a ripple on the water, but here I chose to stand still and wait. After ten minutes of silence, I put a question and Roosevelt said, "I would willingly stand for two days to catch a good glimpse of a wild manatee." And St. Francis heard, and, one after another, four great backs slowly heaved up; then an ill-formed head and an impossible mouth, with the unbelievable harelip, and before our eyes the sea-cows snorted and gamboled.
Again, four years later, I put my whole soul into a prayer for manatees, and again with success. During a few moments' interval of a tropical downpour, I stood on the same little bridge with Henry Fairfield Osborn. We had only half an hour left in the tropics; the steamer was on the point of sailing; what, in ten minutes, could be seen of tropical life! I stood helpless, waiting, hoping for anything which might show itself in this magic garden, where to-day the foliage was glistening malachite and the clouds a great flat bowl of oxidized silver.
The air brightened, and a tree leaning far across the water came into view. On its under side was a long silhouetted line of one and twenty little fish-eating bats, tiny spots of fur and skinny web, all so much alike that they might well have been one bat and twenty shadows.
A small crocodile broke water into air which for him held no moisture, looked at the bats, then at us, and slipped back into the world of crocodiles. A cackle arose, so shrill and sudden, that it seemed to have been the cause of the shower of drops from the palm-fronds; and then, on the great leaves of the Regia, which defy simile, we perceived the first feathered folk of this single tropical glimpse—spur-winged jacanas, whose rich rufus and cool lemon-yellow no dampness could deaden. With them were gallinules and small green herons, and across the pink mist of lotos blossoms just beyond, three egrets drew three lines of purest white—and vanished. It was not at all real, this onrush of bird and blossom revealed by the temporary erasing of the driven lines of gray rain.
Like a spendthrift in the midst of a winning game, I still watched eagerly and ungratefully for manatees. Kiskadees splashed rather than flew through the drenched air, an invisible black witch bubbled somewhere to herself, and a wren sang three notes and a trill which died out in a liquid gurgle. Then came another crocodile, and finally the manatees. Not only did they rise and splash and roll and indolently flick themselves with their great flippers, but they stood upright on their tails, like Alice's carpenter's companion, and one fondled its young as a water-mamma should. Then the largest stretched up as far as any manatee can ever leave the water, and caught and munched a drooping sprig of bamboo. Watching the great puffing lips, we again thought of walruses; but only a caterpillar could emulate that sideways mumbling—the strangest mouth of any mammal. But from behind, the rounded head, the shapely neck, the little baby manatee held carefully in the curve of a flipper, made legends of mermaids seem very reasonable; and if I had been an early voyageur, I should assuredly have had stories to tell of mer-kiddies as well. As we watched, the young one played about, slowly and deliberately, without frisk or gambol, but determinedly, intently, as if realizing its duty to an abstract conception of youth and warm-blooded mammalness.
The earth holds few breathing beings stranger than these manatees. Their life is a slow progression through muddy water from one bed of lilies or reeds to another. Every few minutes, day and night, year after year, they come to the surface for a lungful of the air which they must have, but in which they cannot live. In place of hands they have flippers, which paddle them leisurely along, which also serve to hold the infant manatee, and occasionally to scratch themselves when leeches irritate. The courtship of sea-cows, the qualities which appeal most to their dull minds, the way they protect the callow youngsters from voracious crocodiles, how or where they sleep—of all this we are ignorant. We belong to the same class, but the line between water and air is a no man's land which neither of us can pass for more than a few seconds.
When their big black hulks heaved slowly upward, it brought to my mind the huge glistening backs of elephants bathing in Indian streams; and this resemblance is not wholly fantastic. Not far from the oldest Egyptian ruins, excavations have brought to light ruins millions of years more ancient—the fossil bones of great creatures as strange as any that live in the realm of fairyland or fiction. Among them was revealed the ancestry of elephants, which was also that of manatees. Far back in geological times the tapir-like Moeritherium, which wandered through Eocene swamps, had within itself the prophecy of two diverse lines. One would gain great tusks and a long, mobile trunk and live its life in distant tropical jungles; and another branch was to sink still deeper into the swamp-water, where its hind-legs would weaken and vanish as it touched dry land less and less. And here to-day we watched a quartette of these manatees, living contented lives and breeding in the gardens of Georgetown.
The mist again drifted its skeins around leaf and branch, gray things became grayer, drops formed in mid-air and slipped slowly through other slower forming drops, and a moment later rain was falling gently. We went away, and to our mind's eye the manatees behind that gray curtain still munch bamboos, the spur-wings stretch their colorful wings cloudward, and the bubble-eyed crocodiles float intermittently between two watery zones.
To say that these are beautiful botanical gardens is like the statement that sunsets are admirable events. It is better to think of them as a setting, focusing about the greatest water-lily in the world, or, as we have seen, the strangest mammal; or as an exhibit of roots—roots as varied and as exquisite as a hall of famous sculpture; or as a wilderness of tapestry foliage, in texture from cobweb to burlap; or as a heaven-roofed, sun-furnaced greenhouse of blossoms, from the tiniest of dull-green orchids to the fifty-foot spike of taliput bloom. With this foundation of vegetation recall that the Demerara coast is a paradise for herons, egrets, bitterns, gallinules, jacanas, and hawks, and think of these trees and foliage, islands and marsh, as a nesting and roosting focus for hundreds of such birds. Thus, considering the gardens indirectly, one comes gradually to the realization of their wonderful character.