The Convict Trail
AFTER creeping through slime-filled holes beneath the shrieking of swift metal; after splashing one’s plane through companionable clouds three miles above the little jagged, hero-filled ditches, and dodging other sudden-born clouds of nauseous fumes and blasting heart of steel; after these, one craves thoughts of comfortable hens, sweet-apple orchards, or ineffable themes of opera. And when nerves have cried for a time, ‘Enough,’ and an unsteady hand threatens to turn a joystick into a sign-post to Charon, the mind seeks amelioration, — some symbol of worthy content and peace, — and, for my part, I turn with all desire to the jungles of the tropics.
If one looks the jungle straight in the face and transcribes what is seen, there is evolved technical science; and until this can be done with accuracy and discretion, one can never feel worthy, now and then, of stealing quietly up a side aisle of the great green wonderland, looking obliquely at all things, observing them as actors and companions rather than as species and varieties; softening facts with quiet meditation, leavening science with thoughts of the sheer joy of existence. It should be possible occasionally to achieve this, and yet to return to science enriched and with enthusiasm, and again to play some little part in the great physical struggle — that wonderful strife which must give to future peace and contentment new appreciation, a worthier enjoyment.
It is possible to enter a jungle and become acutely aware of poison fang and rending claw, much as a pacifist considers the high adventure of righteous war. But it is infinitely more wonderful and altogether satisfying to slip quietly and receptively into the life of the jungle; to accept all things as worthy and reasonable; to feel the beauty, the joy, the majestic serenity of this age-old fraternity of nature, into whose sanctuary man’s entrance is unnoticed, his absence unregretted. The peace of the jungle is beyond all telling.
I am thinking of a very wonderful thing and words come laggardly. For it is a thing which more easily rests quietly in the deep pool of memory than stirred up and crystallized into words and phrases. It is of the making of a new trail —of the need and the planning and the achievement, of the immediate effects and possible consequences. For the effects became manifest at once, myriad, unexpected, some sinister, others altogether thrilling and wholly delightful to the soul of a naturalist. And now, many months after, they are still spreading, like a forest fire which has passed beyond control. Only in this case the land was no worse and untold numbers of creatures were better off because of our new trail.
Of the still more distant consequences I cannot write, for the book of the future is tightly sealed. But we may recall that a trail once was cut through coarse, high grass and belts of cedar, which in time became the Appian Way. And a herd of aurochs, breasting in single file dense shrubby oaks and heather toward a salt-lick, may well have foreshadowed Regent Street; the Place d’fitoile was perhaps first adumbrated by wild boars concentrating on a root-filled marsh. And why should not the Indian trail, which became a Dutch road and our Fifth Avenue, have had its first hint in a moose-track down the heart of a wooded island, leading to some hidden spring?
We left our boats stranded on the Mazaruni River bank and climbed the steep ascent to our new home in the heart of British Guiana. Our outfit was unpacked, and the laboratory and kitchen and bedrooms in the big Kalacoon house were at last more than names.
And now we surveyed our little kingdom. One path led down to our boats, another meandered eastward through the hills. But like the feathered end of the magnetic arrow, we drifted as with one will to the south. Here, at the edge of our cleared compound, we were confronted by a tangle. It was not very high, — twenty feet or so, — but dense and unbroken. Like newly trapped creatures we paced back and forth along it, looking for an opening. It was without a break. We examined it more closely, and saw a multitude of slender, graceful cane-stems hung with festoons of grass-like drapery. One of us seized a wisp of this climbing grass and pulled downward. When he dropped it, his hand dripped blood. He might as well have run a scroll-saw over his fingers. The jungle had shown its teeth.
We laughed and retreated to the upper floor for consultation. The sight we saw there decided us. In the distance, ‘not too far,’ to use the hopelessly indefinite Guiana vernacular, high over the tumbled lower growths, towered the real jungle — the high bush. This was the edge of that mighty tropical ocean of foliage, that sea of life with its surface one hundred, two hundred feet above the earth, stretching unbroken to the Andes; leagues of unknown wonderland. And here we were, after thousands of miles of voyaging to study the life of this great jungle, to find our last few yards blocked by a mass of vegetation! There was no dissenting voice. We must cut a trail, and at once, straight to the jungle.
Before we begin our trail, it will be wise to try to understand this twentyfoot tangle, stretching almost a mile back from Kalacoon. Three years before, it was pure jungle. Then man came, with axe and saw and fire, and one by one the great giants were felled, — mora, greenheart, crabwood, each crashing its way to earth after centuries of upward growth. The underbrush in the dark, high jungle is comparatively scanty. Light-starved and fungus-plagued, the shrubs and saplings are stunted and weak. So, when only the great stumps were left standing, the erstwhile jungle showed as a mere shambles of raw wood and shriveled foliage. After a time fire was applied; and quickly, as in the case of resinous trees, or with long, slow smoulderings of half-rotted, hollow giants, the huge boles were consumed.
For a period, utter desolation reigned. Charcoal and gray ash covered everything. No life stirred. Birds had flown, reptiles and insects made their escape or succumbed. Only the salfronfaced vultures swung past, on the watch for some half-charred creature. Almost at once, however, the marvelous vitality of the tropical vegetation asserted itself. Phoenix-like, from the very heart of the ashes, appeared leaves of strange shape and color. Stumps whose tissues seemed wholly turned to charcoal sent forth adventitious shoots, and splintered boughs blossomed from their wounds. Now was the lowest ebb of the jungle’s life, when man, for the success of his commercial aims, should take instant advantage. But plans miscarried, and the ruin wrought was left to Nature.
The destruction of the jungle had been complete, and the searing flames had destroyed all forest seeds. In their place, by some magic, there sprang up at once a maze of weeds, vines, and woody shrubs, reeds, ferns, and grasses, all foreign to the dark jungle, their nearest congeners miles away. Yet here were their seeds and spores, baffling all attempts at tracing their migration or the time they had lain dormant.
When we had begun to penetrate this new-born tangle, we found it possible, by comparing various spots, to follow its growth in past time. The first things to appear in the burned jungle area were grasses or grass-like plants and prostrate vines. These latter climbed over the fallen tree-trunks, and covered the charred stumps with a glory of blossoms — white convolvulous gleaming everywhere, then pale yellow allamandas, and later, orchidlike, violet, butterfly peas, which at first flowered among the ashes, but climbed as soon as they found support. Little by little, a five-finger vine flung whole chains of bloom over stumps, logs, and bushes — a beautiful, blood-red passion flower, whose buds looked like strings of tiny Chinese lanterns.
Soon another type of plant appeared, with hollow and jointed stems, pushing out fans of fingered leaves, swiftly, wasting no time in branching, but content with a single spike piercing up through strata of grass and reeds, through shrubs and bushes, until it won to the open sky. This was the cecropia, or trumpet tree, falsely appearing firm and solid-stemmed, but quite dominant in the neglected tangle.
We started early one morning, with small axes and sharp machetes, and in single file began to cut and hew and tear a narrow trail southward. For some distance we found almost a pure culture of the cecropia trees, through which we made rapid progress which aroused entirely false hopes. It was a joy to crash obliquely through the crisp hollow stems at one blow from our great knives. The second man cut again at the base, and the rest took the severed stems and threw or pushed them to one side, cutting away any smaller growths. We soon learned to be careful in handling the stems, for they were sanctuary for scores of a small stinging ant, whose race had practised preparedness for many generations, and which rushed out when the stem was split by cutlass or axe.
As we went on, we learned that differences in soil, which were not apparent when the great jungle covered everything, had now become of much importance. On high sandy spots the cecropias did not get that flying start which they needed for their vertical straightaway dash. Here a community of hollow reeds or bamboo grass appeared from no one knows where. They had grown and multiplied until their stems fairly touched one another, forming a dense, impenetrable thicket of green, silicious tubes eight to twelve feet in length. These were smooth and hard as glass, and tapered beautifully, making wonderfully light and strong arrows, with which our Akawai Indians shot fish. Slow indeed wras our progress through this. The silica dulled and chipped our blades, and the points of the cut stems lamed us at a touch.
But whatever the character of the vegetation, whether a tangle of various thorny nightshades, a grove of cecropias, or a serried phalanx of reeds, the terrible razor-grass overran all. Gracefully it hung in emerald loops from branch to branch, festooning living foliage and dead stump alike, with masses of slender fronds. It appeared soft and loose-hung, as if one could brush it away with a sweep of the hand. But it was the most punishing of all living things, insidiously cutting to the bone as we grasped it, and binding all this new growth together with bands more efficient than steel.
The age-old jungle is kind to the intruder; its floor is smooth and open, one’s footsteps fall upon soft moss, the air is cooled and shadowed by the foliage high overhead. Here, in this mushroom growth of only three years, our progress became slower and ever more difficult. Our hands bled and were cut until we could barely keep them gripped about the cutlass handles; our trail opened up a lane down which poured the seething heat of the sun’s direct rays; thorns penetrated our moccasins, and ants dropped down our necks, and bit and stung simultaneously with opposite ends of their anatomy. Five minutes’ chopping and hacking was all that the leader could stand, who would then give way to another. Fifty yards of a narrow lane represented our combined efforts the first day.
Direction was a constant source of trouble. Every three or four feet we had to consult a compass, so confusing was the tangle. Sudden gullies blocked us; a barren, half-open, sandy slope cheered us for a few yards. It was Nature’s defense, and excelled any barbed-wire entanglement I have ever seen since at the battle-front.
Once I came to a steep concealed gully. The razor-grass had been particularly bad, giving like elastic to blows of the cutlass, and then flying back across my face. I was adrip with perspiration, panting in the heat, when I slid part way down the bank, and, chopping away a solid mass of huge elephant’s ears, uncovered a tree-trunk bridging the swamp. It brought to mind the bridge from Bad to Worse in the terrible Dubious Land. Strange insects fled from the great leaves, lizards whisked past me, hummingbirds whirred close to my face — the very sound seeming to increase the heat. I slipped and fell off the log, splashing into the hot water and warm mud, and sat in it for a while, too fagged to move. Then the rest of the party came up, and we clambered slowly to the top of the next rise, and there caught sight of the jungle’s edge; it seemed a trifle nearer, and we went on with renewed courage.
Shortly afterwards two of us were resting in a patch of reeds while the third worked some distance ahead, when there came a sudden low growl and rush. Instinctively we rose on the instant, just in time to see a jaguar swerve off to one side and disappear in a swish of swaying reed-stems. I have never known one of these animals to attack a man, and in this case he had undoubtedly heard but not scented us, and the attack ceased the moment we proved to be other than deer or similar prey. The incident came and passed too swiftly for thought: but now, when we realized that this was a bit of the real wild life of the jungle, our enthusiasm never flagged, and we kept steadily at the heartbreaking work, resting only now and then for our cuts to heal.
Then a government official, who was our guest, took pity on us, and for science’ sake, obtained special dispensation. One morning we went out and found in our compound several huge, blue-uniformed policemen, who saluted, and with real black magic produced twenty convicts — negroes and coolies — armed with cutlasses. So began the second phase of what we now named the Convict Trail.
We had already fought our painful way through a half mile of the terrible maze, and now we heartily welcomed this new aid, whether good-natured murderers and burglars, or, like Sippy, Slorg, and Slith, mere thieves. We watched them strip to their black skins and begin a real assault. On a front of ten to fifteen feet, the tangle fairly dissolved before our eyes, and their great tough palms and soles made little moment of the razor-grass and thorns.
With my friend Hope, an honest forger, I went on far ahead and laid the course for the jungle. In especially dense parts we climbed to the summit of great jungle-stumps and stretched a white sheet to guide the trail-cutters.
Day after day the score of convicts returned with their guards, and at last we saw the path unite with an old game and Indian trail in the cool shade of the jungle, and Kalacoon was in direct contact with the great tropical forest.
I have passed lightly over the really frightful pain and exhaustion which we experienced in the initial part of this work, and which emphasized the tremendous difference between the ageold jungle untouched by man, and the terrible tangle which springs after he has destroyed the primeval vegetation.
After this came our reward, and never a day passed but the trail yielded many wonderful facts. The wilderness creatures soon found this wide swath, and day and night used it, making it an exciting thing to peer around a corner, to see what strange beings were sitting or feeding in our little street.
Before the trail was quite completed, it yielded one of the most exciting hunts of our trip — the noosing of a giant bushmaster, the most deadly serpent of the Tropics. Nupee, my Akawai Indian hunter, two nestling trogons, and Easter eve — these things led to the capture of the Master of the Bush; for nothing in the Tropics is direct, premeditated.
My thoughts were far from poisonous serpents when Nupee came into our Kalacoon laboratory late on a Saturday afternoon. Outdoors he had deposited the coarser game intended for the mess, consisting, to-day, of a small deer, a tinamou or maam, and two agoutis. But now, with his quiet smile, he held out his lesser booty, which he always brought in to me, offering in his slender, effeminate hands his contribution to science. Usually this was a bird of brilliant plumage, or a nestful of maam’s eggs, with shells like great spheres of burnished emeralds. These he would carry in a basket so cunningly woven from a single palm-frond, that it shared our interest in its contents. To-day he presented two nestling trogons, and this was against rules. For we desired only to know where such nests were, there to go and study and photograph.
‘Nupee, listen! You sabe we no want bird here. Must go and show nest, eh?’
Accompanied by one of us, off he started again, without a murmur. In the slanting rays of the sun he walked lightly down the trail from Kalacoon, as if he had not been hunting since early dawn. An hour passed, and the sun swung still lower, when a panting voice gasped out, —
’Huge labaria, yards long! Big as leg!’
The flight of queen bees and their swarms, the call to arms in a sleeping camp, create somewhat the commotion that the newsof the bushmaster aroused with us. For he is really what his name implies. What the elephant is to the African jungles and the buffalo to Malaysia, this serpent is to the Guiana wilderness. He fears nothing, save one thing, hunting ants, before which all the world flees. And this was the first bushmaster of the rainy season.
Nupee had been left to mount guard over the serpent, which had been found near the trogon tree. Already the light was failing; so we walked rapidly, with gun, snake-pole, and canvas bag. Parrakeets hurtled bamboowards to roost; doves scurried off, and small rails flew from our path and flopped into the reeds. Our route led from the open compound of Kalacoon, through the freshly cut Convict Trail, toward the edge of the high bush; and we did not slacken speed until we were in the dim light which filtered through the western branches.
At the top of the slope we heard a yell, — a veritable Red Indian yell, — and there our Akawai hunter was dancing excitedly about, shouting to us to come on. ‘Snake, he move! Snake, he move!’ We arrived, panting, and he tremblingly led me along a fallen tree and pointed to the dead leaves. I well knew the color and pattern of the bushmaster. I had had them brought to me dead, and had killed them myself, and I had seen them in their cage behind glass. But now, though I was thinking bushmaster and looking bushmaster, my eyes insisted on registering dead leaves. Eager as I was to begin operations before darkness closed down, it was a full three minutes before I could honestly say, ‘This is leaf; that is snake.'
The pattern and pigment of the cunningly arranged coils were that of the jungle-floor, anywhere; a design of dead leaves, reddish-yellow, pinkish, darkbrown, etched with mould, fungus, and decay, and with all the shadows and high lights which the heaped-up plant tissues throw upon one another. In the centre of this dread plaque, this reptilian mirage, silent and motionless, rested the head. I knew it was triangular and flattened, because I had dissected such heads in times past; but now my senses revealed to me only an irregularity in the contour, a central focus in this jungle-mat the unraveling of which spelt death.
It was a big snake, seven or eight feet long, and heavy-bodied — by no means a one-man job. Again we carefully examined the screw-eyes on the pole, and each looked behind for a possible line of escape.
I quickly formed my method of attack. Nupee was sent to cut forked sticks; but his enthusiasm at having work to do away from the scene of immediate conflict was so sincere, that he vanished altogether and returned with the sticks only when our shouts announced the end of the struggle. An Indian will smilingly undergo any physical hardship, and he will face any creature in the jungle, except the bushmaster.
We approached from three sides, bringing snake-pole, free noose, and gun to bear. Slowly the noose on the pole pushed nearer and nearer. I had no idea how he would react to the attack — whether he would receive it quietly, or, as I have seen the king cobra in Burma, become enraged and attack in turn.
The cord touched his nose, and he drew back close to some bushy stems. Again it dangled against his head, and his tongue played like lightning. And now he sent forth the warning of his mastership, — a sharp whirrrrr! — and the tip of his tail became a blur, the rough scales rasping and vibrating against the dead leaves, and giving out a sound not less sharp and sinister than the instrumental rattling of his near relatives.
For a moment the head hung motionless, then the noose-man made a lunge and pulled his cord. The great serpent drew back like a flash, and turning, undulated slowly away toward the darker depths of the forest. There was no panic, no fear of pursuit in his movements. He had encountered something quite new to his experience, and the knowledge of his own power made it easy for him to gauge that of an opponent. He feared neither deer nor tapir, yet at their approach he would sound his warning as a reciprocal precaution, poison against hoofs. And now, when his warning had no effect on this new disturbing thing, he chose dignifiedly to withdraw.
I crept quickly along on one side, and with the gun-barrel slightly deflected his course, so that he was headed toward an open space, free from brush and bush-ropes. Here the pole-man awaited him, the noose spread and swaying a few inches from the leaves. Steadily the snake held to his course, and without consciousness of danger, pushed his head cleanly into the circle of cord. A sudden snap of the line and pandemonium began. The snake lashed and curled and whipped up a whirlpool of debris, while one of us held grimly on to the noose and the rest tried to disentangle the whirling coils and make certain of a tight grip close behind the head, praying for the screweyes to hold fast. Even with the scant inch of neck ahead of the noose, the head had such play that I had to pin it down with the gun-barrel before we dared seize it. When our fingers gained their safe hold and pressed, the great mouth opened wide, a gaping expanse of snowy-white tissue, and the inchlong fangs appeared erect, each draped under the folds of its sheath like a rapier beneath a courtier’s cloak.
When once the serpent felt himself conquered, he ceased to struggle; and this was fortunate, for in the dim light we stumbled more than once as we sidled and backed through the maze of lianas and over fallen logs.
Nupee now appeared, unashamed and wide-eyed with excitement. He followed and picked up the wreck of battle—gun, hats, and bags, which had been thrown aside or knocked off in the struggle. With locked step, so as not to wrench the long body, we marched back to Kalacoon. Now and then a great shudder would pass through the hanging loops, and a spasm of muscular stress that tested our strength. It was no easy matter to hold the snake, for the scales on his back were as rough and hard as a file, and a sudden twist fairly took the skin off one’s hand.
I cleaned his mouth of all dirt and debris, and then we laid him on the ground, and, without stretching, found that he measured a good eight feet and a half. With no relaxing of care, we slid him into the wired box which would be his home until he was liberated in his roomier quarters in the Zoological Park in New York.
Close to the very entrance of the Convict Trail, behind Kalacoon, stood four sentinel trees. Every day we passed and repassed them on the way to and from the jungle. For many days we paid very little attention to them, except, to be grateful for the shade cast by their dense foliage of glossy leaves. Their trunks were their most striking feature, the bark almost concealed by a maze of beautifully colored lichens, different forms overlapping one another in many places, forming a palimpsest of gray, white, pink, mauve, and lilac. One day a streaked flycatcher chose the tip of a branch for her nest, and this we watched and photographed and robbed for science’ sake, and again we thought no more of the four trees.
Late in April, however, there came a change. The leaves had been shed some time in January, and the fallen foliage formed a dry mass on the ground which crackled under foot. Now each branch and twig began to send out clusters of small buds, and one day — a week after Easter — these burst into indescribable glory. Every lichened bough and branch and twig was lined with a soft mass of bloom, clear, bright cerise, which reflected its brilliance on the foliage itself. After two days a rain of stamens began, and soon the ground beneath the trees was solid cerise, a carpet of tens of thousands of fallen stamens. This is no exaggeration, for in each blossom there were more than four hundred stamens, and within the length of a foot, on one small branch, were often a score of blooms.
This feast of color was wonderful enough, and it made us want to know more of these trees. But all the information we could glean was that they were called French cashew. Yet they had not nearly finished with the surprises they had in store. A hummingbird or two was not an uncommon sight along the trail at any time; but now we began to notice an increase in numbers. Then it was observed that the tiny birds seemed to focus their flight upon one part of the clearing, and this proved to be the four cashew trees.
The next few days made the trees ever memorable: they were the Mecca of all the hummingbirds in the jungle. In early morning the air for many yards resounded with a dull droning, as of a swarming of giant bees. Standing or sitting beneath, we could detect the units of this host, and then the individuals forced themselves on our notice. Back and forth the hummers swooped and swung, now poising in front of a mass of blossom and probing deeply among the stamens, now dashing off at a tangent, squeaking or chattering their loudest. The magnitude of the total sound made by these feathered atoms was astounding: piercing squeaks, shrill insect-like tones, and now and then a real song, diminutive trills and warbles, as if from a flock of song-birds a very long distance away. Combats and encounters were frequent — some mere sparring bouts, while, when two would go at it in earnest, their humming and squeaks and throb of wings were audible above the general noise.
This being an effect, I looked for the cause. The massed cerise bloom gave forth comparatively little perfume; but at the base of each flower, hidden and protected by the twenty-score densely ranked stamens, was a cup of honey; not a nectary, with one or two delicately distilled drops, but a good thimbleful, a veritable stein of liquor. No creature without a long proboscis or bill could penetrate the chevaux-de-frise of stamens, and to reach the honey the hummingbirds had to probe to their eyes. They came out with forehead well dusted with pollen, and carried it to the next blossom. The destiny of the flower was now fulfilled, the pot of honey might dry up, the stamens rain to the earth, and the glory of Tyrian rose pass into the dull hues of decay.
Day after day, as we watched this kaleidoscope of vegetable and avian hues, we came to know more intimately the units which formed the mass. There were at least fifteen species, and all had their peculiarities of flight and plumage so marked that they soon became recognizable at sight.
After our eyes had become accustomed to specific differences in these atoms of birds, we began to notice the eccentricities of individuals. This was made easy by the persistence with which certain birds usurped and clung to favorite perches. One tufted midget, clad in resplendent emerald armor, selected a bare twig on a nearby shrub, and from there challenged every hummer that came in sight, whether larger, smaller, or of his own kind. He considered the cashew trees as his own special property, and so far as his side of them went, he made good his claim. I have never seen such a concentration of virile combative force in so condensed a form.
In some such way as vultures concentrate upon carrion, so news of the cashew sweets had passed through the jungle. Not by any altruistic agency we may be certain, as we watch the selfish, irritable little beings, but by subtle scent, or, as with the vultures, by the jealous watching of each other’s actions. I observed closely for one hour, and counted one hundred and forty six hummingbirds coming to the tree. During the day at least one thousand must visit it.
They did not have a monopoly of the cashew manna, for now and then a honey-creeper or flower-pecker flew into the tree and took toll of the sweets. But these were scarcely noticeable. We had almost a pure culture of hummingbirds to watch and vainly to attempt to study, for more elusive creatures do not exist. The Convict Trail revealed no more beautiful sight than this concentration of the smallest, most active, and most gorgeous birds in the world.
Such treats — floral and avian — were all that might be expected of any tree, but the cashews had still more treasures in store. The weeks passed, and we had almost forgotten the flowers and hummingbirds, when a new odor greeted us — the sweet, intense smell of over-ripe fruit. We noticed a scattering of soft yellow cashews fallen here and there, and simultaneously there arrived the hosts of fruit-eating birds. From the most delicate of turquoise honeycreepers to great red and black grosbeaks, they thronged the trees. All day a perfect stream of tanagers — green, azure, and wine-colored — flew in and about the manna. And for a whole week we gloried in this new feast of color, before the last riddled cashew dropped, to be henceforth the prize of great wasps and gauze-winged flies, which guzzled its fermented juice and helped in the general redistribution of its flesh — back, to the elements of the tropic mould, to await the swarms of fingering rootlets, a renewed synthesis — to rise again for a time high in air, again to become part of blossom and bird and insect.
It was along this Convict Trail that I sank the series of pits which trapped unwary walkers of the night; and halfway out, at pit number 5, the army ants waged their wonderful warfare.1
In fact, it was while watching operations in another sector of this same battle-front, that I found myself all unintentionally in the sleeping chamber of the heliconias.
Tired from a long day’s work in the laboratory, I wandered slowly along the Convict Trail, aimlessly, in that wholly relaxed state which always seems to invite small adventures. It is a mental condition wholly desirable, but not to be achieved consciously. One cannot say, ‘Lo, I will now be relaxed, receptive.’ It must come subconsciously, unnoticed, induced by a certain wearied content of body or mind; and then many secret doors stand ajar, any one of which may be opened and passed if the gods approve. My stroll was marked at first, however, by only one quaint happening. For several weeks the jolly little trail lizards had been carrying on most enthusiastic courtships, marked with much bowing and posing and a terrific amount of scrambling about. The previous day — that of the first rains — numbers of lizardlets appeared, and at the same time the brown tree-lizards initiated their season of love-making. I had often watched them battle with one another — combats wholly futile so far as any damage was concerned. But the vanquished invariably gave up to his conquerer the last thing he had swallowed, the victor receiving it in a gluttonous rather than a gracious spirit, but allowing his captive to escape.
I surprised one of these dark brown chaps in the trail, and seized him well up toward the head, to preserve his tail intact. Hardly had I lifted him from the ground, when he turned his head, considered me calmly with his bright little eyes, and forthwith solemnly spat out a still living ant in my direction. The inquiring look he then gave me was exceedingly embarrassing. Who was I, not to be bound in chivalry by the quaint customs of his race!
With dignity and certainty of acceptance he had surrendered; calmly and without doubt he had proffered his little substitute of sword. It was, I felt, infinitely preferable to any guttural and cowardly ‘Kamerad!’ Feeling rather shamefaced, I accepted the weakly struggling ant, gently lowered the small saurian to the ground, and opened my fingers. He went as he had surrendered, with steadiness and without terror. From the summit of a fallen log he turned and watched me walk slowly out of sight, and I at least felt the better for the encounter.
Of all tropical butterflies heliconias seem the most casual and irresponsible. The background of the wings of many is jet-black, and on this sable canvas are splashed the boldest of yellow streaks and the most conspicuous of scarlet spots. Unquestionably protected by nauseous body-fluids, they flaunt their glaring colors in measured, impudent flight, weaving their way slowly through the jungle, in the face of lizard and bird. Warningly colored they assuredly are. One cannot think of them except as flitting aimlessly on their way, usually threading the densest part of the undergrowth. No butterflies are more conspicuous or easier to capture.
They must feed, they must pay court and mate, and they must stop long enough in their aimless wanderings to deposit their eggs on particular plants, by an instinct which we have never fathomed. But these are consummations hidden from the casual observer.
Now, however, I am prepared for any unexpected meaningful trait, for I have surprised them in a habit which presupposes memory, sociability, and caution, manifested at least subconsciously.
The late afternoon had worn on, and after leaving my lizard, I had squatted at the edge of a small glade. This glade was my private property, and the way by which one reached it from the nearby Convict Trail was a pressure trail, not a cut one. One pushed one’s way through the reeds, which flew back into place and revealed nothing. Lifting my strained eyes from the tragedies of a hastening column of army ants, I saw that an unusual number of heliconias was flitting about the glade — both species, the Reds and the Yellows. All were fluttering slowly about, and as I watched, one by one they alighted on the very tips of bare twigs, upside down with closed wings. In this position they were almost invisible, even a sideview showing only the subdued underwing pigments, which blended with the pastel colors of twilight in the glade, reflected from variegated leaves and from the opening blossoms of the scarlet passion-vine. Perhaps the most significant fact of this sleeping posture was the very evident protection it afforded to butterflies, which in motion during their waking hours are undoubtedly warningly colored and advertised to the world as inedible. Hanging perpendicularly beneath the twig, although they were almost in the open, with little or no foliage overhead, they presented no surface to the rain of the night, and all faced northeast — the certain direction of both rain and wind.
The first one or two roosting butterflies I thought must be due to accidental association; but I soon saw my error. I counted twelve of the Redspots and eight. Yellows on two small bushes, and a few minutes’ search revealed forty-three more. All were swung invariably from the tips of bare twigs, and there was very evident segregation of the two kinds, one on each side of the glade.
When I disturbed them, they flew up in a colorful flurry, flapped about for a minute or less, and returned, each to its particular perch. After two or three gentle waves of the wings and a momentary shifting of feet, they settled again to perfect rest. This persistent choice of position was invariably the case, as I observed in a number of butterflies which had recognizable tears in their wings. No matter how often they were disturbed, they never made a mistake in the number of their cabin. A certain section of a particular twig on a definite branch was the resting place of some one heliconia, and he always claimed it.
Several were bright and fresh, newly emerged, but the remainder were somewhat faded and chipped at the edges. The delicate little beings slept soundly.
I waited until dusk began finally to settle down, and crept gently toward a Red-spot. I brought my face close and aroused no sign of life. Then I reached up and slowly detached the butterfly from its resting-place. It moved its feet slightly, but soon became quiet. Then, as gently, I replaced it, and at the touch of the twig, its feet took new hold. When I released its wings, it did not fly but sank back into the same position as before.
I wondered if I was the first scientist to pluck a sleeping butterfly from a jungle-tree and replace it unawakened. At the time I was more impressed by the romantic beauty of it all than by its psychological significance. I wondered if heliconias ever dreamed. I compared the peacefulness of this little company with the fierce ants which even now were just disappearing from view. These were my thoughts, rather than later meditations on whether this might not be a sort of atavistic social instinct, faintly reminiscent of the gregariousness of their caterpillar youth.
From any point of view I shall think better of all butterflies for this discovery: their desire for company, the instinctive wisdom of place and posture, the gentleness and silence of the little foregathering in the jungle. As I walked back along the trail, several latecomers passed me, vibrating softly through the twilight, headed for their glade of dreams.
Subsequent visits to this glade emphasized the strength of association of this little fraternity, by realization of its temporal brevity. Three weeks after I first discovered the glade, I returned in late afternoon, and waited silently. For a time I feared that the mariposal fellowship was a thing of the past. But a few minutes before five, the first Redspot fluttered by, in and out among the twigs and leaves, as one slips an aeroplane through openings in drifting clouds. One by one, from all directions, the rest followed, until I counted twelve, twenty, thirty-four. Many of the twigs were now vacant, and most of the heliconias were tattered and forlorn, just able to keep at their fluttering level. There was something infinitely pathetic in this little company, which in less than a month had become so out-at-elbow, so aged, with death close ahead, yet with all their remaining strength making their way from north and from south, from dense and from open jungle, to keep tryst for this silent, somnolent communion.
I rose quietly and passed carefully from the glade, disturbing none of the paper-thin silhouettes, so like the foliage in outward seeming, yet so individual, each perhaps with dim dreams of flowers and little meetings and windtossings; certainly with small adventures awaiting their awakening on the morrow, and a very certain kismet such a short way ahead.
Two weeks after this, only three butterflies came to the glade, one newly painted, freshly emerged, the other two old and tattered and very weary.
I loitered on my homeward way, and before I reached Kalacoon found myself in the Convict Trail in full moonlight. At one turn of the path a peculiar tinkling reached my ear. It was a veritable silver wire of sound—so high, so tenuous that one had to think as well as listen, to keep it in audible focus. I pushed through a growth of cecropias, and at once lost the sound, never to hear it again, but in its place there appeared a very wonderful thing — a good-sized tree standing alone and exposed, bathed in full moonlight , and yet gleaming as brightly as if silhouetted against complete darkness, by the greenish light of numberless fireflies. After the first marvel of the sudden sight, I approached and pulled down a branch, and counted twenty-six glowing insects, as close together as the blossoms on a Japanese cherry-stem. There were hundreds upon hundreds, all clustered together in candelabra’d glory, hidden from the view of all the world, at the farther side of this dense thicket. As I left, I remembered with gratitude the silver wire of sound which had guided me, and in a far corner of my mind I stored a new memory — one which I could draw upon at need in times of pain, or intolerance, or perhaps in some lull of battle; the thought of a tree all aglow with living flames, in the moonlight of the Convict Trail.
- See the Atlantic for April, 1917.↩