Edge of the Jungle

by William Beebe. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1921. 8vo, x+303 pp. $2.50.
ONE must work one’s way into Edge of the Jungle by paragraphs, a page at a time. The wild riot of its tropical undergrowth is all but impenetrable. The reader must cut his way, and fight the swoon that the heat and the color and the fierce confusion lay upon his reeling senses. The book is the jungle; and not the mere edge of it either. Every passage is heralded with the sound of wings and ‘the crash of pigments.’ Bamboo-stalks fall with a ‘roaring swish’ and a ‘terrific impact ; butterflies flit by with thrills that ‘mosaic into’ the author’s ‘boreal muse’; he sees four tiny ivory spheres (butterfly eggs) upon a leaf, and thinks of the coming night, when with pocket lens ‘ unswung,’ he shall sit and strain with all his might, ‘striving without the use of [his] powerful stereos, to separate from translucent mist of gases, the denser nucleus of the mighty cosmos in Andoromeda.’ The giant green tree-frog inhabiting the bungalow ‘was an intermittent reincarnation, vibrating between the inorganic and the essence of vitality,’who, in the hours of daylight, ‘preferred the rôle of a hunched-up pebble of malachite; or, if he could find a leaf, he drew eighteen purple vacuum toes beneath him, veiled his eyes with opalescent lids, and slipped from the mineral to the vegetable kingdom.'
This is a frog, and a page from anywhere among the 303 in Edge of the Jungle. Mr. Beebe is a scientist, but he was certainly cut out for an epic poet. Where is there such another combination of science and poetry, of observation and fancy, of fact and reveling, rioting, bejungled imagination? This is a new species of nature-writing – a scientist gone jungle-mad. There is nothing remotely like it in The Jungle Books; but there is a passage in the chapter ‘Letting in the Jungle,’in which Kipling describes the coming of the wild elephants, which pretty nearly describes the calm fury of Mr. Beebe’s style when he lets it jungle.
As the papers appeared singly in the magazines, this rich exotic tangle of style was wild and strange, and just uncanny enough to be pleasing. Perhaps the reviewer should take the book a chapter at a time: ‘The Attas at Home,’ then ‘The Bay of Butterflies,’ then ‘Hammock Nights.’ Certainly, no one can read further, follow one dissolving kaleidoscopic description alter another, for more than a chapter at a time, and keep the jungle of confusion out.
But this may be by design. Here may be an attempt to make a real jungle in a book — not a Jungle Book; and in this the author has been wonderfully successful. Perhaps no weaker imagination, no less daring pen ought to tackle the jungle, and certainly no other pen has come so near to putting the jungle into print.
Many a reader will wonder ‘if these things are so’ — if they could see what Mr. Beebe sees. The answer must be that of Burroughs, who tells such readers that what he sees in the woods differs from what appears in his pages as the sweet water of the flowers differs from the honey which the bee deposits in the cell; for the sweet water undergoes a chemical change on the way from the field to the hive, by the addition of a drop of the bee herself in the shape of formic acid. We know Mr. Beebe too well to doubt his facts; we only wish there were more facts mixed in with the abundant poetry — more of the real Attas along with the wonder of this amazing story. Neither Maeterlinck nor Fabre has anything approaching the scope and the complication of the thrilling home-life of these leaf-cutting ants in the Guiana jungle. If this were poetry instead of prose (and science at that!), then matter and manner were truly mated. That Mr. Beebe was lifted from a New Jersey salt-marsh and dropped into this Guiana jungle is enough to account for the spell upon his pen; but we wish he had told us more of the jungle.