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ANIMALS OF DARKNESS AND LIGHT
WHAT a land of silence! The vast forest seems wholly uninhabited save for the chatter of a passing train of harlequin parrots or angry apes. And yet it is not silence. There is the great movement of lapsing and becoming perpetually going on; both composition and decomposition rustling on toward completion. They are mere phases of that "illimitable sun force which destroys as swiftly as it generates and generates again as swiftly as it destroys."
"So fast do the flowers expand that an actual heat, which may be tested by the thermometer, is given off during fructification." The tepid water forces all growing things to prodigious size. Exuberance seems to have no boundaries. The length of the young shoots is only less amazing than their growth in a single day. Leaves expand until they are twenty feet long, and ferns tangle their own fronds in haste to push out to the utmost limit of their nature. One sees things growing in the damp heat as one hears a yucca palm grow.
But where growth is on a stupendous scale, there decay is exuberant, for "the powers that build are the powers that putrefy." Above are light, warmth, and moisture: such are conditions of growth. Below are darkness, warmth, and moisture: such are conditions of decay. Which is more effectual, that mighty power of evolution elaborating "the rain-water hurrying aloft" into tissue of leaf and flower, or those great forces of dissolution which can so soon transmute the fallen trunk of iron-wood into a pregnant, humid mound? It merely lapses into those elements composing it, and is instantly absorbed by fresh leaves culminating to-night.
The noble heat blends the smell of laboring sap and that of aromatic mosses with the pungent odor of decay, the damp smell of death with those sweet poisons which drip off the trees and envelop like a caress. The incense tree was described by Martin Fernandez de Enciza in the early sixteenth century. "Incense doth hang at its boughs," he said, "as the ice doth at the tiles of a house in the winter season." Over-ripe fruit drops smashing on the ground with scent of strawberries. A musky humming-bird leaves behind a thin trail of heady perfume. The air is filled with vegetable breath, weird, far-off blossoms, mere ghosts of fragrance mingling in a wave of sweetness. Smell is indeed man's most emotional sense. It gives a poignancy to a remembered scene which no detailed picture can, and sharpens the whole sight perception. An entire chapter should be written about jungle-perfume.
The silence of day is succeeded by the "soundless tune" that fills the night. It surges up from below and shuts down from above. Pervasive as the murmuring of water, it spreads out through the night, pierced by a sudden brilliant squeak near at hand. With darkness settles a humming, booming, drumming, croaking, deafening uproar from thousands of diversified insect throats filling up every chink of space, each one crowding out the other. Insects here are not a miniature, far-off chorus, one ingredient of a summer night, but overwhelming, terrifying, absorbing the dark atmosphere.
Mysterious animals live in the depths of the ocean where no ray of light has ever pierced. They light the way for their own fishing, as the glow-worm is struck by its own brightness before seeing any other. Fire-beetles and phosphorescent caterpillars and flickering fireflies — little stitches of a shining thread in the soft, verdured blackness of the tepid night — make the primeval forest discernible.
The true life of the jungle begins with darkness and ends with light. As if the habitual gloom were not deep enough, jungle animals wait until night has enclosed them further to carry on their life activities, those weird creatures which lurk in the shade, primeval instincts always alert, living on suffrance in this land of vegetation. They have persisted since early geologic ages, the only remnants of their kind, haunting the nights from then until now. Dwarfs of a former age, growing constantly smaller and fewer and less important, they will dwindle through coming ages until zoological gardens can no longer be supplied, and their toothless skulls in glass cases will be the only evidence that they ever existed.
The antediluvian ant-eater hunches along on his stiff, curved claws, stopping now and then to rake out a crowded ant-hill, whose compact, crawling interior he cleans out with an efficient slash of his spiral tongue.
The giant armadillo, the glyptodon of former ages, developed a complete coat-of-mail by which his small descendant is still protected. He can open and shut the scales at will, hiding himself inside them. He trundles to and fro, burrowing out well-flavored roots. His voice is dull, without ring or expression. But his little shell is used as the bowl of a curious, three-stringed guitar from which natives can coax sweet sounds.
The tapir is another twilight animal, protected by his enormously thick hide. He snuffs about with his long snout, follows paths made by himself to the water, and sounds his queer whistle as alarm.
The cavernous croak of the violet-colored throat-bladder matches the twilight. The goat-sucker, with softly flapping wings, rises to greet the night, and from deep within the forest resounds the drawling cry of the sloth. His small, ghoulish face peers into the oncoming darkness.
Night settles. Bloodthirsty bats emerge, bright eyes flashing eagerly. Leaf-nosed vampires, whose empire is gloom, are prepared for their nightly bacchanale.
When utter blackness has obliterated the jungle, the carbunculo slinks slowly out of the thickets. "If followed, he opens a flap in his forehead from under which an extraordinary brilliant and dazzling light issues, proceeding from a precious stone; any foolhardy person who ventures to grasp at it is blinded, the flap is let down under the long black hair and the animal disappears into darkness. The Incas believed in him. The viceroys in their official instructions to the missionaries, placed the carbunculo in the first order of desiderata."
"The velvet nap which on his wings doth lie,
The silken down with which his back is dight,
His broad, outstretched horns, his hairy thighs,
His glorious colors, and his glistening eyes!"
With great broad strokes the tropical butterfly descends at sunset time to the jungle pool. The soft color of its wings is hardly distinguishable from the mold. It sips the water quietly.
A small bird, ready for a feast, swoops down with a whir of wings... but where is the butterfly? In its place is a fierce owl, bulging eyes flashing, and every feather on his head bristling in eagerness for his prey. The little bird of supper-intentions has precipitately departed, never to return, a permanent lesson learned in the terror of an instant; yet it was learned from the under side of a butterfly.
Who so much as a butterfly is a child of the sun? Evoked by his warmth, it comes forth with all faculties developed for the fullest enjoyment of a new life, in which it seeks out the sun-spaces in the damp forest. What a direct response to warmth in the up and down motion of a butterfly's wings, wide-spread on a sunny mass of leaves! How quickly it folds its lustrous wings and sinks, drooping, upon a flower when the sun goes in, as rainbows disappear at the sun's withdrawal!
Nor does its sun-worship end here; for Iris, symbol of the sun, is imprisoned upon its wings. Those magic wings! Nature writes upon them all the changes which the organism undergoes, the patterns of the minute feathers, the direction of the fine veins, their shapes, their pencillings varying with the slightest external change. Each can be distinguished from all the rest by what is written on these evanescent tablets, the most delicate on which laws have ever been inscribed.
The Peruvian butterflies have a world-wide reputation, from the triple-tailed theclas making up in elegance of form for their diminutive size, to the azure morphos, those noble insects as large as two hands laid side by side, the desideratum of collectors who press their burnished wings between glass walls. Abnormal tails reach in abnormal directions like ingrowing horns, sharply pointed and oddly curved. An imp-like dot of silver near by calls attention to them. Bold, uneven blotches of gold and black are surrounded by demure, parallel lines. A spot of crimson pulsates in the midst of a whole wing of iridescence. The extravagant creature carries his black velvet body about on yellow legs. Some are as finely mottled as partridge feathers. In others the design just glimmers through mother-of-pearl. Some are transparent in color, a stained glass window leaded in design with living veins. The spaces between veins, however small, are exquisitely fashioned, and always the corresponding patterns of the two sides are perfectly aligned. Some are transparent like dragon-flies' wings. Some are almost veinless, visible only by a dip of color on the tip of the wing — phantom butterflies. From others, apparently colorless, certain lights can flash the segment of a rainbow.
What fine fitness in a French expression for the blues — papillons noirs!
Many of the most brilliant butterflies are so colored because they are unpalatable, even uneatable, flaunting their warnings in the face of the lizard, which might eat them unawares were they not so conspicuous. They can flutter lazily about, with no attempt at concealment, preserved by their own poison. In making the injurious butterfly resplendent, nature saves both the butterfly and the bird which might have gulped it down.
Others are preserved by having adopted bark-designs or leaf-color or twig-shapes. Some even float about mimicking each other, if advantageous to do so. Some gain protection by imitating the brilliantly colored but uneatable butterflies for which they are mistaken. Mimicry or warning, each protects as is most beneficial, by concealing or making conspicuous. Seen and recognized, they are not molested; or, hidden, they escape notice.
How varied are their habits! Poisonous ones fly slowly. Others merely frisk about, toying with life, air, and sunlight; skirt-dancers they are called (megaluras), "sown and carried away again by the light air." Some heavy-bodied butterflies gain protection by flight so rapid as to make them mistaken for humming-birds. The broad, strong strokes of the wide-winged morphos float them across wide rivers. The flight of butterflies is a biologist's problem, as well as their colored juices and seasonal forms.
Some, flying low, have their greatest brilliancy on the under side of the wings; others, flying high, are dull underneath to protect them from enemies below, as the bell-bird, whose home is in the dazzling sunshine above the tree-tops, is made invisible to any eyes looking upward by its snow-white plumage and transparent wings.
"Crepuscular" butterflies emerge at sunset. Such are the caligos, amazing creatures equipped on the under side with an owl's head, which can terrify their pursuers by merely turning wrong side out. All animals are suspicious of a strange-looking eye; and at dusk, when the butterfly descends to the jungle pool to drink, the owl-eyes are particularly effective. The harmless butterfly spreads the one view of itself to the enemy which could save its life, and continues slowly to sip the dark water.
Some butterflies stop in the gloomiest shades of the forest in darkness of noon. They all love the damp, and quantities of them surround puddles. Some settle with wings erect, some expand them and rest head downward, pressed closely against the supporting surface. The "swallow-tails" never allow their long tails to touch anything. Some alight upon the end of a stick, others rest upon dead leaves, others upon rocks or sand, some on the under surface of leaves, entirely disappearing when they alight.
While some are protected for motion, others are protected for rest. Flickering noiselessly into the deep, wet shade in the network of vines and succulent leaves, they flash out into the clear sunlight. The glow of colors pulsates on their shining blue wings, intense as the fathomless blaze of a fragment of copper-saturated driftwood. Creatures of the sky they are, indeed, touched with the celestial hue. It was not without reason that the Greeks gave the same name to this wondrous insect and to the soul.