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JUNGLE GLOOM AND JUNGLE SHEEN
SINCE the earth was first moistened by rain, and plants first grew, no limit has been set to the rights of vegetation in the jungle. Its sway is uncontested. It has known no master. Its insatiable desire to reach up and out and down has been uncurbed and undirected. And heaven seems to wish it well. Intensest heat, light, and moisture are showered upon it. Under such conditions, life would spring spontaneously into being, were there not myriads of progenitors to be responsible for whatever form it chose to take.
All the creative force of nature is behind the infinitely varying forms, and the frightful luxuriance of reproduction. Vegetation has the extravagance of first geologic ages, bursting with life, rejoicing in weird, vegetable arabesques and green out-thrusts of leaves.
Amazing trees yield coloring matter of yellow, red, and blue. Trees cure bites of snakes, the malignant manzanillo infects any one who sleeps beneath it. Then there is the cow-tree of milky sap, the red-wooded blood tree, and those furnishing food for curious animals, which transform it into curious shapes. Beneath the ironwood, whose sharp edges are hard as steel, crawls the sensitive plant. There are whole forests of cinchona, whose beautiful flowers are forgotten because of the value of the bark. The dead man's tree grows here, whose stems are sucked by witch-doctors to produce a trance; also the wonderful tree of rain, which Boussingault referred to when he said: "By the light of the moon we could distinctly see drops of water dripping from the branches." The drier the night the more water it condenses, letting it fall upon the ground beneath. Ponderous leafage overarches great trunks, columns of a giant's castle, each with its peculiar color. While some are smooth, others are deeply fissured or armed with long spikes. Most of the tree-trunks are indistinguishable for the mass of vines "sculptured" upon them. They cleave to the smooth bark, darting out roots as they ascend. "The green eaves of foliage seem supported by pillars of leaves."
Tapering ribbons sway to and fro, tangling themselves in the long moss-beards. "Green, fleshy chains" festoon themselves upon the branches, and hang heavily on slender stems. They stretch taut from one tree to another, or rigid, fasten tree-tops to the ground. The whole jungle is knit together. If a supporting tree falls, the confused masses of lianas adhering to it snatch at whatever is nearest for a fresh start. They twist about each other tighter and tighter, gaining always a firmer and firmer hold as they ascend. Far up above, they will weave back and forth a close fabric, spreading out wide roofs of flowers.
Indistinguishable tree from creeper, parasite from supporter, all are clamoring for space and light and air. Those which have struggled through to the top reach toward the scalding sun or alternate cooling deluge, riotous, irrepressible in vigor, radiant with color, distilling intense perfume, drooping with the succulence of their own leaves and stems, breaking with the weight of their over-developed fruit.
Vegetation invades everything. It even shoots out over the water, covering it with lovely forms. Hardly a growing thing can get its impulse directly from the soil. That was long ago preëmpted. There must be other things to grow upon or in. Wherever there is a suspicion of foothold, a new form of life springs up spontaneously, gleaning nourishment from whatever it touches, exuberantly prolific from the start, parasites one and all, living at the expense of some earlier comer.
Even parasites have their own parasitic growth. Parasites flourish as trees self-grafted upon trees. Draperies and tapestries and motionless cascades, this inundation of parasitic life falls back again to the ground in great growing clumps. What indeed is a parasite?
Little rifts of color have collected here and there, concentrated deep in the nooks and crevices of trees, moulded into orchid form. Some are tiny as mosses and grow upon the ground, dewy-looking, little violet-colored flowers. Some lie upon the water, some droop over the edge of precipices, their great mass of fleshy, aerial roots sucking damp nourishment from the air. Certain trees seem destined by nature as orchid gardens. Numberless varieties, each with its peculiar bearing, perch upon the limbs, night-scented blossoms with a spongy texture fringed and fluted in a thousand ways; beautiful monsters of crimson and black, whose queer little phantom faces, with beards of fine hairs, make mouths at you. Hot and moist, the imperceptible odor of each mingles with the mass of other imperceptible odors, oppressive at last by sheer force of numbers.
The habits of orchids, if so they may be called, are amazing; for example: their attraction of insects and means of scattering their pollen about on a moth's body; their bright color luring day-flyers and their strong odor night-flyers to the same flower; the elastic flaps, a resource of others for a similar end. As Darwin said: "With parts capable of movement and other parts endowed with something so like, though no doubt really different from sensibility, they seem to us in our ignorance as if modeled by the wildest caprice."
Whimsical and wayward, restrained by no precedent, an orchid dares defiance in all the properties it possesses, odor, form, and color, so that the line of its descent is sometimes impossible to distinguish. This anarchist of flowers throws out an unexpected leaf or petal wherever it chooses, and if interfered with, refuses even to produce its own blossoms, veering off in independence. The most elegant flower that grows, able to conventionalize even nature herself by lusciously designed leaves — patterns whose suitable background would be courts of kings — riots here alone in "languid magnificence," merely glanced at by a passing humming-bird.
If a tree or a vine has a little less succulence than its neighbor or a little less vital impulse, nature calmly watches it pounced upon and extinguished. No one "compassionately tries to save the unfit from the consequences of their unfitness." Having endowed this prolific land, the lavish elements can withdraw and survey unmoved the scattering showers of seeds, that prodigal industry of plants in busily perfecting seeds which will never be given an opportunity to grow. So little chance has a seed that new attempts at life are more secure if supplied by the energy of the parent stem. The elements are not responsible for the death-struggle of vegetation which results. As far as they are concerned, each seed that falls and each little shoot that springs upward would be given an equal chance. But every form being equally favored, its neighbors contest its right to live. Cooperation to make life possible at all, only begins when united force is needed to conquer a common foe. Life here is for viper and vampire as well as for butterfly, and the parasite has an equal chance with the benevolent vine. It is a battlefield where militant nature fights in civil warfare through the ages. Plants once given birth demand the right to make the most of their own particular form of life, fighting for sun, fighting for air, fighting for the right to live. Ironically enough, warfare is fiercest between forms most closely allied. "They interlace, strangle, and devour each other." Parasitic alliances are possible only between very divergent forms, each benefiting by the use of what the other does not need. Parasites are leapt upon by other parasites; there is strife even among them. Forever fighting with each other, they all suffer equally from hereditary enemies descending from above or creeping up from below, capturing by attack or poisoning by stealth.
Plants not only crowd their neighbors out of the soil, they seem to dispute the air as well. Each begrudges the other a breathing space. The ingenuity of nature is taxed to invent compensations to each for lack of what it has a right to expect as its due. An impenetrable disguise of buttresses is substituted for roots and want of underground space. Air-roots drop from branches. Smaller trees, adapted to the dimness, live in the shade of larger ones. Nature uses every subterfuge, restrained by nothing known as customary. Plants maintain a life whose pertinacity we have no scale for measuring. Each asserts its own individuality and insists upon it with inexhaustible energy. Each is convinced of its own desirability, convinced it was intended to live, proclaiming that intention to the death of its neighbor.
Out of the remains of the dead arises a new generation with an increase of vital impulse. The instant a plant has reached a sense of completeness, it is sprung upon, twitched from decay into the vitality of some lovely form whose time has come. Whatever lapses into the past is at once metamorphosed. Whatever should look forward for opportunity would be snuffed out by some exuberant growth determined on immediate perfection.
There can be no seasons in the jungle, no general periods of growth, maturity, or rest. All stages of development are flaunting from independent plants in a single locality. Each is appropriating whatever it can use in the elements or in its neighbor to weave into its own perfecting tissue. Each is as little influenced by the other as are two trees rubbing against each other with the wind, mingling their branches and blending their foliage. Though forced during a lifetime to closest proximity, they are members of remote families, and the nature of neither is modified in the slightest degree.
Indeed, all seasons concentrate on a single tree; for some of the massive fruits require more than a year to ripen, so that fruit is maturing and flowers are budding on the same tree.
Only heat can penetrate. Light is almost excluded by the unbroken canopy of interlaced branches. It is left up above, absorbed into whirls of vivid flower or expanding the luscious leaves. Heat and moisture are imprisoned. Plants flourish in "the boundless, deep immensity of shade." Left in wan half-light they push up into the "green gloaming," adapted to the dimness yet straining upward to the light which would kill them if they could reach it. Even bats sometimes make mistakes and emerge at noonday, unhooking themselves from branches on which the sun has never shone. All forms are confused, and the strange shapes but half-seen are concealed by others no less vague.
Deep within the wilderness, more silent than the noiseless solitude itself, lies a mysterious lagoon sacred to the giant Mother of Waters. All about, coiled in the half-putrescent, vegetable mould, are myriads of venomous creatures, gliding, writhing, crawling in and out. Minute snakes, whose bite is death, curl in tendrils or lie like coral necklaces upon the leaves. Larger ones drape in vinelike garlands overhead, to be distinguished from a blossoming festoon only by a sudden, loose-swinging end.
But the pool! What wet blackness and horrid mystery! The surface of the water is never ruffled by a breeze. It has no moods. Unperturbed in perpetual gloom it lies in quivering stagnation, oozing nauseous odors under the twilight of a full, tropical noon. No roseate spoonbill, no delicate white heron tilts about upon its banks. The black, stagnant water can barely cover the solid, seething mass of "hairy, scaly, spiny, blear-eyed, bulbous, shapeless monsters, without name... wallowing, inter-wriggling, and devouring each other."
Here sleeps the Mother of Waters, congenially imbedded, her shining coils slipping about over each other — the great yacumama — the mighty boa-constrictor, who can swallow almost any creature whole, and whose breath withers any beast lured within reach by her fascinating poison. Humanely she intoxicates before squeezing the unyielding bones to pulp of digestible consistency.
Sometimes she unfolds her darkly iridescent coils out into the hospitable closeness of the jungle. Laboriously she winds upward in overarching trees; but, as if too languid, leaves part of her frightful weight dragging below. She looks moss-grown, like the stem of an old tree, and treelike, remains motionless for days at a time. When she does wander forth in search of prey, a track follows through the lush, yielding vegetation — her huge weight lingering heavily upon succulent stems.
The atmosphere is full of color — weird, miasmic exhalations. Next to the shade lingering under the dark velvet foliage on the edges of streams, the glossy leaves toss off sheets of silver light or reflect a "russet glamour" from their under sides. Beds of yellow butterflies settle along river banks and concentrate the sunlight with blinding intensity. Every leaf seems to blaze like a gem; even the black shadows pulsate with inner light. It is part of jungle mystery that even the light comes in iridescence.
Legions of beautifully colored spiders silently spin their geometric webs. Insects all dipped in silver, with waving antennae laid back along their heads, red beetles with golden heads and wings of chintz, buzz to and fro. Moss-grown leaf-insects — ossified, living scarabs — walk about on tree-trunks. Stinging bees and wasps fill chinks of jungle trees with wild honey. Myriads of ants swarm: driver ants; parasol ants carrying a bit of leaf about over their heads; fever-bearing ants, and ants that live in the hollow, white stems of the cecropia tree and furnish the sloth's food. Centipedes hurry by, legs moving with "invisible rapidity like a vibration," and numerous flies, ticks, mosquitoes, cicadas, dragon-flies. Some of these strange beings need two or three years of larval life to prepare for a flight of a single hour, possibly after sunset. What a limited idea of the world must they have who never see the light of day!
We are assured that the unseen world is a very substantial place; so is the microscopic. And an ear-trumpet reveals a new universe of sound. What a region of ultra-violet murmurings must lie beyond that we never catch at all! If only an elemental apperception can grasp the vastness of the jungle, what can be said of the delicacy of its silver-point drawing? For here is greatness on the invisible scale, "a creation at the same time immense and imperceptible."
Side by side with sloths, ant-eaters, and armadillos, dwarf descendants of mastodon days, still lumbering about undeveloped in spite of their ancient lineage, humming-birds have flashed through the ages. They have profited by cycles of centuries to elaborate their little bodies beyond imagination with pendent beards, crests, waving ear-tufts, and ornaments colored in fantastic manner. Their tails, fashioned in queer shapes, always consist of ten feathers. Even the tiny, sharp feet, minute as they are, differ greatly in form and are sometimes covered with a delicate, white down. There are feathers on a humming-bird's eyelids. The little saw-edged tongues for extracting insects from flower-honey all differ. Their bills are as long as their bodies, and their tails are twice as long.
What can be said of their color, brighter than any other in nature? The hue of every precious stone, the luster of every metal sparkles from some part of the diminutive body. Often only a twinkling of emerald-gold-green or ruby-colored light reveals their passing —
"A route of evanescence with a revolving wheel!"
Sometimes the flash comes from throat or back or brow of iridescence, sometimes from a body sheathed in little gold scales; sometimes from the very tips of long white feathers frilling the neck about. The colors come and go, shift and change with every motion, "embers flung about by invisible hands." The wing feathers are gray. No eye could discern anything but a dusky film, so a bright display would be lost!
And all this is within a thimble's compass, for the smallest of all humming-birds grows in Peru. It is hardly larger than a bumblebee, and the giant of the race measures less than a swallow. Doctor Brehm says the Dwarf Humming-bird is the only one that has a song.
There is as much diversity in the names of the humming-bird as in everything else pertaining to it: Tresses-of-the-day-star, Rays-of-the-sun, Sun-gems, Sun-stars, Flame-bearers, Frou-frou, Pecker-of-flowers, Flower-sipper, Honey-sucker, Sipper-of-roses, Fly-bird, and the sweet Colibri. It has, besides, many local names, as Tominejo, tomin being the smallest weight.
Birds migrate south from the tropics as well as north. The humming-bird whirls through the jungle and luxuriant valleys of the Andes, out to islands in the Pacific, and follows the fuchsia down to the very boundaries of barrenness in the tail of South America. A mere dab of brain can engineer this infinitesimal motor from Patagonia to Canada. One minute Flame-bearer lives only inside the crater of an extinct volcano in Veragua, marked with red like the fire-stealer wren of Brittany, and many battle with storms of the high Andes and can be seen mingling their vivid flashes with snow. They who live by means of flowers! One called Sappho, a blend of red and green, lives upon the bleak heights of Bolivia, frequenting the haunts of the condor.
It has been thought that the humming-bird has no wish-bone, its frame being more compact than such construction would allow, in order to withstand the immense strain of its wings —immense, yes, measured by millimeters. At any rate the largest organ is the breast muscle, and the heart is three times as large as the stomach. Its senses are alert, and a well developed skull could prove the excellence of the brain beneath did not its habits do so.
The humming-bird always trusts itself to the air for however brief a distance, and flings its supple body about from one flower to another in vibrating flight. Now it hovers near without disordering a petal, now it hangs from tall grasses by the tip of its thornlike bill, a sparkling of wings with spurts of precious stones in a setting of petals, lost in another instant in wide air.
Never smutted by earth, because never touching it, the humming-bird juggles among the flowers. It never follows all the flowers of a single bush nor even exhausts all the sweetness of a single flower — "a dart, a glance, a sip, and away;" butterflies, a symbol of caprice, are not more fickle. This utterly erratic creature performing its aerial gambols holds within itself the reason for its being unmolested by any enemy — the chase not being worth the morsel!
Ineffable is the whole field of its labor. The coarsest materials of its nests are the finest straws it can pick up. Inside they are lined with down and spiders' webs. Consistently they are attached to a pendent branch or long-swinging vine. Thither the humming-bird flies to supply a family's microscopic wants.
To a giant looking through a microscope, what a revelation of the infinite industry of nature in worlds beyond the grasp of any sense of his, the humming-bird would be!