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 water-front 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 whirs past. Mankind seems almost an interloper, rather than architect and owner of these wondergardens. 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 today the foliage was glistening malachite and the clouds a great flat bowl of oxydized 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 palmfronds; 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 warmblooded 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 swampwater, 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 midair 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.
The Victoria Regia has one thing in common with a volcano — no amount of description or of colored plates prepares one for the plant itself. In analysis we recall its dimensions, colors, and form. Standing by a trench filled with its leaves and flowers, we discard the records of memory, and cleansing the senses of pre-impressions, begin anew. The marvel is for each of us, individually, an exception to evolution; it is a special creation, like all the rainbows seen in one’s life — a thing to be reverently absorbed by sight, by scent, by touch, absorbed and realized without precedent or limit. Only ultimately do we find it necessary to adulterate this fine perception with definitive words and phrases, and so attempt to register it for ourselves or others.
I have seen many wonderful sights from an automobile, — such as my first Boche barrage and the tree ferns of Martinique, — but none to compare with the joys of vision from prehistoric tikka gharries, ancient victorias, and aged hacks. It was from the low curves of these equine rickshaws that I first learned to love Paris and Calcutta and the water-lilies of Georgetown. One of the first rites which I perform upon returning to New York is to go to the Lafayette and, after dinner, brush aside the taxi men and hail a victoria. The last time I did this, my driver was so old that two fellow drivers, younger than he and yet grandfatherly, assisted him, one holding the horse and the other helping him to his seat. Slowly ascending Fifth Avenue close to the curb and on through Central Park is like no other experience. The vehicle is so low and open that all resemblance to bus or taxi is lost. Everything is seen from a new angle. One learns incidentally that there is a guild of cab-drivers — proud, restrained, jealous. A hundred cars rush by without notice. Suddenly we see the whip brought up in salute to the dingy green top-hat, and across the avenue we perceive another victoria. And we are thrilled at the discovery, as if we had unearthed a new codex of some ancient ritual.
And so, initiated by such precedent, I have found it a worthy thing to spend hours in decrepit cabs loitering along side roads in the Botanical Gardens, watching herons and crocodiles, lilies and manatees, from the rusty leather seats. At first the driver looked at me in astonishment as I photographed or watched or wrote; but later he attended to his horse, whispering strange things into its ears, and finally deserted me. My writing was punctuated by graceful flourishes, resulting from an occasional lurch of the vehicle as the horse stepped from one to another patch of luscious grass.
Like Fujiyama, the Victoria Regia changes from hour to hour, colorshifted, wind-swung, and the mechanism of the blossoms never ceasing. In northern greenhouses it is nursed by skilled gardeners, kept in indifferent vitality by artificial heat and ventilation, with gauged light and selected water; here it was a rank growth, in its natural home, and here we knew of its antiquity from birds whose toes had been moulded through scores of centuries to tread its great leaves.
In the cool fragrance of early morning, with the sun low across the water, the leaves appeared like huge, milkywhite platters, with now and then little dancing silhouettes running over them. In another slant of light they seemed atolls scattered thickly through a dark, quiet sea, with new-blown flowers filling the whole air with slow-drifting perfume. Best of all, in late afternoon, the true colors came to the eye — six-foot circles of smooth emerald, with upturned hem of rich wine-color. Each had a tell-tale cable lying along the surface, a score of leaves radiating from one deep hidden root.
Up through mud and black trenchwater came the leaf, like a tiny fist of wrinkles, and day by day spread and uncurled, looking like the unwieldy paw of a kitten or cub. The keels and ribs covering the under-side increased in size and strength, and finally the great leaf was ironed out by the warm sun into a mighty sheet of smooth, emerald chlorophyll. Then, for a time, — no one has ever taken the trouble to find out how long, — it was at its best, swinging back and forth at its moorings with deep upright rim, a notch at one side revealing the almost invisible seam of the great lobes, and serving, also, as drainage outlet for excess of rain.
A young leaf occasionally came to grief by reaching the surface amid several large ones floating close together. Such a leaf expanded, as usual, but, like a beached boat, was gradually forced high and dry, hardening into a distorted shape and sinking only with the decay of the underlying leaves.
The deep crimson of the outside of the rim was merely a reflection tint, and vanished when the sun shone directly through; but the masses of sharp spines were very real, and quite efficient in repelling boarders. The leaf offered safe haven to any creature that could leap or fly to its surface; but its life wouid be short indeed if the casual whim of every baby crocodile or flipper of a young manatee met with no opposition.
Insects came from water and from air and called the floating leaf home, and from now on, its surface was one of the most interesting and busy arenas in this tropical landscape.
In late September I spread my observation chair at the very edge of one of the dark tarns and watched the life on the leaves. Out at the centre a fussy jacana was feeding with her two spindly-legged babies, while, still nearer, three scarlet-helmeted gallinules lumbered about, now and then tipping over a silvery and black infant which seemed puzzled as to which it should call parent. Here was a clear example, not only of the abundance of life in the tropics, but of the keen competition. The jacana invariably lays four eggs, and the gallinule, at this latitude, six or eight, yet only a fraction of the young had survived even to this tender age.
As I looked, a small crocodile rose, splashed, and sank, sending terror among the gallinules, but arousing the spur-wing jacana to a high pitch of anger. It left its young and flew directly to the widening circles and hovered, cackling loudly. These birds have ample ability to cope with the dangers which menace from beneath; but their fear was from above, and every passing heron, egret, or harmless hawk was given a quick scrutiny, with an instinctive crouch and half-spread wings.
But still the whole scene was peaceful; and as the sun grew warmer, young herons and egrets crawled out of their nests on the island a few yards away and preened their scanty plumage. Kiskadees splashed and dipped along the margin of the water. Everywhere this species seems seized with an aquatic fervor, and in localities hundreds of miles apart I have seen them gradually desert their fly-catching for surface feeding, or often plunging, kingfisher-like, bodily beneath, to emerge with a small wriggling fish — another certain reflection of overpopulation and competition.
As I sat I heard a rustle behind me, and there, not eight feet away, narrow snout held high, one tiny foot lifted, was that furry fiend, Rikki-tikki. He was too quick for me, and dived into a small clump of undergrowth and bamboos. But I wanted a specimen of mongoose, and the artist offered to beat one end of the bush. Soon I saw the gray form undulating along, and as the rustling came nearer, he shot forth, moving in great bounds. I waited until he had covered half the distance to the next clump and rolled him over. Going back to my chair, I found that neither jacana, nor gallinules, nor herons had been disturbed by my shot.
While the introduction of the mongoose into Guiana was a very reckless, foolish act, yet he seems to be having a rather hard time of it, and with islands and lily-pads as havens, and waterways in every direction, Rikki is reduced chiefly to grasshoppers and such small game. He has spread along the entire coast, through the canefields and around the rice-swamps, and it will not be his fault if he does not eventually get a foothold in the jungle itself.
No month or day or hour fails to bring vital changes — tragedies and comedies — to the network of life of these tropical gardens; but as we drive along the broad paths of an afternoon, the quiet vistas show only waving palms, weaving vultures, and swooping kiskadees, with bursts of color from bougainvillea—flamboyant, and queen of flowers. At certain times, however, the tide of visible change swelled into a veritable bore of life, gently and gradually, as quiet waters become troubled and then pass into the seething uproar of rapids. In late afternoon, when the long shadows of palms stretched their blue-black bars across the terra-cotta roads, the foliage of the green bamboo islands was dotted here and there with a scattering of young herons, white and blue and parti-colored. Idly watching them through glasses, I saw them sleepily preening their sprouting feathers, making ineffectual attempts at pecking one another, or else hunched in silent heron-dream. They were scarcely more alive than the creeping, hour-hand tendrils about them, mere double-stemmed, fluffy petaled blossoms, no more strange than the nearest vegetable blooms — the cannon-ball mystery, the sand-box puzzle, sinister orchids, and the false color-alarms of the white-bracted silverleaf. Compared with these, perching herons are right and seemly fruit.
As I watched them I suddenly stiffened in sympathy, as I saw all vegetable sloth drop away and each bird become a detached individual, plucked by an electric emotion from the appearance of a thing of sap and fibre to a vital being of tingling nerves. I followed their united glance, and overhead there vibrated, lightly as a thistledown, the first incoming adult heron, swinging in from a day’s fishing along the coast. It went on and vanished among the fronds of a distant island; but the calm had been broken, and through all the stems there ran a restless sense of anticipation, a Zeitgeist of prophetic import. One felt that memory of past things was dimming, and content with present comfort was no longer dominant. It was the future to which both the baby herons and I were looking, and for them realization came quickly. The sun had sunk still lower, and great clouds had begun to spread their robes and choose their tints for the coming pageant.
And now the vanguard of the homing host appeared,—black dots against blue and white and salmon, — thin, gaunt forms with slow-moving wings which cut the air through half the sky. The little herons and I watched them come — first a single white egret, which spiraled down, just as I had many times seen the first returning Spad eddy downward to a cluster of great hump-backed hangars; then a trio of tricolored herons, and six little blues, and after that I lost count. It seemed as if these tiny islands were magnets drawing all the herons in the world.
Parrakeets whirl roostwards with machine-like synchronism of flight; geese wheel down in more or less regular formation; but these herons concentrated along straight lines, each describing its individual radius from the spot where it caught its last fish or shrimp to its nest or the particular branch on which it will spend the night. With a hemicircle of sufficient size, one might plot all of the hundreds upon hundreds of these radii, and each would represent a distinct line, if only a heron’s width apart.
At the height of the evening’s flight there were sometimes fifty herons in sight at once, beating steadily onward until almost overhead, when they put on brakes and dropped. Some, as the little egrets, were rather awkward; while the tricolors were the most skillful, sometimes nose-diving, with a sudden flattening out just in time to reach out and grasp a branch. Once or twice, when a fitful breeze blew at sunset, I had a magnificent exhibition of aeronautics. The birds came up-wind slowly, beating their way obliquely but steadily, long legs stretched out far behind the tail and swinging pendulumlike whenever a shift of ballast was needed. They apparently did not realize the unevenness of the wind, for when they backed air, ready to descend, a sudden gust would often undercut them and over they would go, legs, wings, and neck sprawling in mid-air. After one or two somersaults or a short, swift dive, they would right themselves, feathers on end, and frantically grasp at the first leaf or twig within reach. Panting, they looked helplessly around, reorientation coming gradually.
At each arrival, a hoarse chorus went up from hungry throats, and every youngster within reach scrambled wildly forward, hopeful of a fish course. They received but scant courtesy and usually a vicious peck tumbled them off the branch. I saw a young bird fall to the water, and this mishap was from no attack, but due to his tripping over his own feet, the claws of one foot gripping those of the other in an insane clasp, which overbalanced him. He fell through a thin screen of vines and splashed half onto a small Regia leaf. With neck and wings he struggled to pull himself up, and had almost succeeded when heron and leaf sank slowly, and only the bare stem swung up again. A few bubbles led off in a silvery path toward deeper water, showing where a crocodile swam slowly off with his prey.
For a time the birds remained still, and then crept within the tangles, to their mates or nests, or quieted the clamor of the young with warm-storage fish. How each one knew its own offspring was beyond my ken, but on three separate evenings scattered through one week, I observed an individual, marked by a wing-gap of two lost feathers, come, within a quarterhour of six o’clock, and feed a great awkward youngster which had lost a single feather from each wing. So there was no hit-or-miss method — no luck in the strongest birds taking toll from more than two of the returning parents.
Observing this vesper migration in different places, I began to see orderly segregation on a large scale. All the smaller herons dwelt together on certain islands in more or less social tolerance; and on adjoining trees, separated by only a few yards, scores of hawks concentrated and roosted, content with their snail diet, and wholly ignoring their neighbors. On the other side of the gardens, in aristocratic isolation, was a colony of stately American egrets, dainty and graceful. Their circumference of radiation was almost or quite a circle, for they preferred the ricefields for their daily hunting. Here the great birds, snowy white, with flowing aigrettes, and long, curving necks, settled with dignity, and here they slept and sat on their rough nests of sticks.
When the height of homing flight of the host of herons had passed, I noticed a new element of restlessness, and here and there among the foliage appeared dull-brown figures. There occurred the comic explanation of white herons who had crept deep among the branches, again emerging in house coat of drab!! These were not the same, however, and the first glance through binoculars showed the thick-set, humped figures and huge, staring eyes of night herons.
As the last rays of the sun left the summit of the royal palms, something like the shadow of a heron flashed out and away, and then the import of these facts was impressed upon me. The egret, the night heron, the vampire — here wore three types of organisms, characterizing the actions and reactions in nature. The islands were receiving and giving up. Their heart was becoming filled with the many dayfeeding birds, and now the night-shift was leaving, and the very branch on which a night heron might have been dozing all day was now occupied, perhaps, by a sleeping egret. With eyes enlarged to gather together the scanty rays of light, the night herons were slipping away in the path of the vampires — both nocturnal, but unlike in all other ways. And I wondered if, in the very early morning, infant night herons would greet their returning parents; and if their callow young ever fell into the dark waters, what awful deathly alternates would night reveal; or were the slow-living crocodiles sleepless, with cruel eyes which never closed so soundly but that the splash of a young night heron brought instant response?