Wild-Animal Painting in the Jungle

I

A LONG while ago I formed a vague, magnificent idea of the perfect job for a young woman with artistic tendencies. It was to be so interesting that it would seem more like play than work; it was to require extensive travel in rare and foreign lands; it was to make some use of the artistic tendencies. I used to dream of such a job as I went bleakly about my various occupations, such as assisting at the legerdemain of interior decorators, or degrading oriental perfections to terms of a modern rugfactory, or building feeble disguises for player kings and queens, or filling in the cracks of my time with painting lessons, sadly convinced the while that you cannot learn to be a painter and accomplish anything else the same year.

And lo, the dream came true. The perfect job is mine. The vague, magnificent idea had given me no hint of the fantastic delight in store for me. Several years ago I began to try my hand at sketching animals from life, at the Tropical Research Station of the New York Zoölogical Society, in British Guiana. Lately this nebulous project has become a real and fascinating job — Staff Artist of the Station; and it combines the best features of work and play. It necessitates travel to some of the most wonderful places in the world, and it has used and developed my artistic tendencies. It has the additional charm of being practically unique. I have had to work out for myself many of the details of my profession. For instance, there is no such thing as a school of snake artists, so when the problem of making a portrait of a snake presented itself I had to think up the technique for myself. There were many odd little worries connected with this problem, such as the invention of the proper anæsthetic for deadly reptiles, to put them out of the misery of posing and yet allow the colors of life to linger from day to day. Then the temperaments of wild creatures have had to be studied. I have had to discover — by the process of elimination mostly, I am afraid — which were friendly, or curious, or sedentary, and which preferred a long leap into the unknown to any dealings whatsoever with me.

There is considerable contrast between this work and the usual job. The environment, for instance, is so far removed from that of most working artists: all the difference between a shelf in a steel honeycomb at the end of a trail between cigar stores and subway pillars, and a clearing in the midst of the South American jungle. And our trail southward from New York leads over mountainous waves and the submarine ranges below, and is varied by visions of the Antilles, and enhanced by a diversity of beings — travelers, colonials, natives, an endless procession of outlanders who seem to have only human nature in common.

I love the moment when our ship, which has been so recently roped to the edge of Brooklyn, is tied up to one of the mouldy, molasses-scented wharves of Georgetown, and becomes again, by the magic of a lowered gangway, merely a peculiar and absurdly elaborate piece of a continent. Between this end of our ocean voyage and the last lap of our journey occurs a merry interlude in the queer little capital of Demerara. Nearly all the inhabitants hate the place, and can never understand our enthusiasm for it. I should probably not be exhilarated at the prospect of spending the rest of my life there, but I enjoy evey inch of its funny, seedy streets.

The Georgetown market is a tropical marvel. You cannot imagine it ever coming to an end, there is such perpetual motion to it. It is like a scene gotten up by a conscientious stagemanager who is bent on missing no detail of color or noise or incident. And nothing ever seems to happen. They just go on rehearsing with energy, apparently waiting for the travelers who drive up in cabs and go strolling about with calm detachment. There is much to be seen. Vegetables are changed from their dull selves into actual scenery. All kinds — with no names, but many colors — are laid out under your feet. Piles of mangoes and star apples and breadfruit bulge around and through all partitions. Immense oceans of pink macaroni are gathered in braids and ringlets. Barter is frantically carried on by brilliant creatures who range through all the extravagant out-sizes peculiar to the black race, and who look more like caricatures of themselves than anything else. Tubers of every known variety and hybrid are humped about the toes of huddled little coolie women, themselves hardly distinguishable from their wares, they are so brown and dusty and sombre, with only the faintest spark of visibility in the gleams of sifted sunlight on nosering and silver anklet. These little coolie people are quiet, but all around them is the din of the market-place, and the uproar of savage color, and the scent of many casual curry-colored meals.

We emerge from Georgetown and its diversions by way of the most freakish little railroad. Then come the last laps of our journey — forty miles of the Essequibo River by Government steamer, and finally a few miles of the Mazaruni in our own unspeakable ‘Evinrude,’ which lives or not as the mood takes it. And there we are at Kartabo Point, the nicest place in the world, where I can sit in a bamboo grove, with my pet monkey companionable at my elbow, and thoroughly enjoy myself sketching anything from a rainbow boa to a vampire bat.

II

The Director of the Tropical Research Station has written most comprehensively and delightfully about our life and work in this beautiful camp. I wish merely to give an idea of my share of the work, and something of the effect the wilderness has on myself, an artist inmate, as I pursue my profession at the edge of the dark rain forest, with vivid serpent or tapestried lizard in one hand, and the best grade of Japanese paintbrush in the other.

My especial task is to record, as accurately as may be, the natural colors and expressions of the lesser creatures of the jungle: snakes, frogs, lizards, insects, every type of animal whose appearance is seriously altered by death and museum preparation. The integuments and trappings of these units of living tissue are more strange and miraculous than the most extraordinary fabrics of the inanimate world. Their variety of colors and patterns and textures is unending, and the close study of them is a delight. Birds’ feathers and the wings of butterflies are wonderful; but birds can look quite presentable stuffed for many years, and all you have to do to preserve a butterfly for your great-grandchildren is put it under glass. So, much as I may long to try to reproduce a sun-bittern’s wing or a moth’s feathered domino, I am obliged to leave them alone. It seems that the colors in these cases are often not pigment at all, but merely refracted light. Until the actual feather-andscale substance of the hidden prisms moulds away, the light goes right on cleverly splitting up into a thousand color schemes; or when pigments are present they are comparatively stable, so that macaws look out from museum cases in the same green and blue and yellow that they wore in the forests; kingfishers never put off their glittering uniforms; the paint is as fresh now as ever on the quiet wings of a million dead butterflies.

But the bright surface of reptiles’ scales declines with their wearers. The leathern skin of toads becomes grizzled in alcohol. The papier-mâché masks and queer gossamer costumes of bugs collapse or shrivel when the freakish little gnomes are entombed in their orderly museum-vaults. Most remarkable and significant in the appearance of most of these creatures — and soonest extinguished by death — are their eyes. This is especially true of snakes. The instant they pass, a dreadful mildew creeps up over the sparkling black pupil and the decoration of the brilliant iris, until the eye looks like a mouldering moonstone. The scales catch this creeping death next: the brightness goes, though the actual color usually remains for several hours. This dullness is more like the slow coming of a shadow than the draining away of color. The skin shrinks into ridges and what little expression the animal had in life turns into the lost look of a skull.

Death is even more objectionable in the case of lizards, who have so much more personality than snakes. Their lissome, active bodies sink utterly, like a person prostrated in the depths of despair; their eyelids — which are more than the poor old snakes have — decently veil the vacancy left by the passing of the bright nervous spirit. The colors of lizards’ skins flicker and waver up and down their length, it seems, almost with their emotions. There is a blazing green wood-lizard who becomes ashen in captivity and remains so except when he is particularly enraged, when he flares up again into brilliant green. You can actually watch the waves of color flowing rapidly, as if projected by a revolving spotlight. And when this particular lizard dies, the color simply fades in one terrible ebbing.

You can see that the thing for the artist to do is to get to work as quickly as possible and work exclusively from the living model. As fast as the natives and Indians and my thoughtful colleagues bring in fourand six-footed sitters, I endeavor to turn out sketches. Sometimes there is a desperate race between my brush and the Grim Reaper, when the captive is injured or reduced to fatal melancholia by his imprisonment. Sometimes an extra spurt of life gets ahead of my merely human fingers, as when a tadpole telescopes his tail and turns into a young frog right before my eyes, or when a caterpillar disappears from view in his cocoon, or a chrysalis goes to work and hatches, while I am taking time off to eat lunch or clean my paintbox. Sometimes all goes very briskly indeed, and I have to take my subjects in order of their rarity or their susceptibility to death.

I remember once being very busy with a weird red cricket, when in walked the Director with a rare and exquisite viper — tiny, very venomous, gray-green and orange with black tattooing — which had been trying to bite him through his hat. I started immediately to get impressions of its marvelous looks before it should have time to die and turn into a horrid faded shoestring. I can still remember the slightly delirious feeling it gave me to watch it swaying and hissing on my desk, and striking with the few inches of its glimmering green back that the space allowed. I worked as fast as I could to get all the details of its colors. It was so small that it was necessary to anæsthetize it before I could even attempt to approach a microscope to its wicked little face and draft in the complexities of its head-patterns. In the meantime the wretched scarlet cricket made a complete get-away.

My models are always escaping. The whole camp knows what a commotion in the studio end of the laboratory means — something has hopped or crept or slithered out of my window, and is making off hot-foot through the second growth to the dense jungle beyond. I have been most harshly criticized for this. Dreadful imprecations are heard when I fail to detain some sleuth-like snake or butter-footed lizard who has found an imperfection in his cage and is making the best of it. The casual architecture of my little cages and prisons is partly responsible for this, to say nothing of the temperaments of all concerned. My little amateur Houdini tree frogs are stuck into glass boxes with movable tops, in and out of which they are continually being hauled as I study their postures and articulations from a distance, or hold them up to squint at them through my trusty hand-lens, an inch from my eye. A tree frog is one of the most annoying creatures to handle. Its great sticky toes grasp and clutch, its hind legs develop the most terrific leverage, and it simply shoe-horns itself up and out of the firmest fist. The low cunning of toads is astonishing. They swell up when you try to hold them, so that you feel as if you had a handful of dirigible; then, when you get all set and are about to dash in the first bold strokes of your portrait, they blow out their breath with a loud sigh and jump through the window.

Lizards are restless and spend most of their time scrabbling away at the glass. What extremely rudimentary capacity they possess for being puzzled is taxed to the limit by this uncanny substance which they cannot see or diagnose, but which prevents them from leaving. They inspect its invisibility with first one bright cocked eye, then the other, give up scratching a minute to ponder, then give up the pondering and go back to their hopeless scraping. I have occasionally come across lizards who seemed to like me, and who would perch on my shoulder or arm by the hour. I once had a huge iguana who stood and glared at me for a whole morning without moving a muscle. He could n’t have realized what an excellent model he was making, or I am sure he would never have done it. Some of the great buffoons of marine toads are surprisingly tolerant, and will sit around all day in silent friendship, immovable except when you fling them a fly. In this case the face is faster than the eye — one lightning snap of the toad’s features and it is all over with the fly.

Sometimes when our specimens get away, we are able to recapture them by much beating of the bush and wild Indian yelling. Possibly the poor little creatures stop from sheer shock at the numbers and noises of their pursuers. But it is very difficult to find a snake when it has slunk off behind a bookcase or draped itself into the scenery; lizards can skitter over the ground at a terrific rate of speed, and they usually disappear from view against any wild background. And caterpillars can get through the most unlikely cracks: they simply wave themselves off the premises with undulations of their fuzzy selves. They are just as apt to wander to Brazil as to stop in our rafters and metamorphose within reach.

It is odd how almost all of my little animals know the direction in which safety and shelter lie. No matter how much I turn them about on my desk, they quite definitely insist on facing toward their old homesteads in the hidden depths of the forest. I have been guilty of a perverse and unnecessarily sentimental joy when something has gotten clean away. You must have been a prisoner of some kind to truly know what freedom is, and it seems to me that my little toads, hopping triumphantly off through the leaves, have it all over their friends who have never been helpless in a hot human paw, or jumbled about on a desk with English paints and Japanese inks and brushes.

III

There is nothing monotonous about my tiny tropical studio. When I sketch snakes, I hold them by the neck if they are not too large. Quite often they will consent to have a tail wound about my wrist, and will hold very still and cause no trouble of any kind. But there are some very nervous treesnakes who seem to have to keep wriggling around, who love to get head and neck free from my fingers, and reach back threateningly toward my knuckles. Also their lengths of elaborate scaly body start looping about my ink-bottles and prodding the pans of paint up out of my paintbox, and scattering pens and brushes off at all sorts of tangents. Or they start to disappear up my sleeve, causing the most creepy sensations. Sometimes all my tools have to be stowed to make room for an enormous hog-tied lizard or crocodile, who reposes on my blotter and wriggles spitefully. Traffic is very brisk among my incoming and outgoing specimens. And besides my legitimate models there are usually several tiny house-lizards snooping about in the shade of my thumbtacks; gorgeous butterflies flutter in and out; sometimes a humming bird flashes in for one quivering, puzzled moment. Squadrons of infinitesimal red ants campaign across my blotter, and hold an Austerlitz or Marston Moor every minute or so upon the topography of my paintbox. A tarantula once failed to watch his step while cruising about in the rafters above my head, and came hurtling down upon my arm. Contrary to my expectations, he departed without sampling me.

Whole batches of specimens which seem to be doing well in captivity are ignored for days; then we suddenly find that they have escaped, or thought up a disguise, or eaten each other, or acquired a family. Young frogs feed on each other. A nice little aquariumful of brothers is quite likely to turn in a day or two into one prosperouslooking composite frog. A perfectly plain, dark-brown tree toad will turn over night into a silver ghost of himself. An egg case will lie around for days; then one morning no egg case will be visible — merely a crumpled bit of tissue and forty or fifty baby spiders or praying mantises running about.

When I began this work of reproducing the perishable appearances of wild creatures, I specialized on their eyes, which were in almost every case quite individual in each species. I enlarged them and tried to get every detail of their color and pattern. Then it began to seem childish to do just a great jewel of an eye with no setting, so I ended by making enlargements of the whole head, and as much of the neck as was graceful or significant — or would fit on the paper. And wherever possible I have added to these magnified drawings a small sketch of the subject in natural size and preferably in action. It was when I commenced using a microscope on the skins and eyes of these animals that I realized the actual labor of my job was as delightful as the preliminaries and side interests of it.

I have talked so constantly about microscopes at home that most of my friends have hurriedly gotten them for their children, apparently taking my word for it that no home can be complete without one.

It hardly seems true that live cells can form the colors and textures that you find in the scales of reptiles. There is no end to the variety of surfaces and patinas and weird schemes of decoration. There is a remarkable green tree snake with a sharp nose and eight feet of narrow gleaming body, which merges completely with the leaves of a bamboo branch. I put in a busy day transferring his features to paper. His skin has the look of tawny crumpled suède, overlaid with polished plates of copper green, each perfect with rounded edges and porcelain surface, so supple and closely placed that you can feel nothing between your fingers but a smoothness like the touch of cold silk. The color deepens as the scales develop into the jig-saw shapes that fit around the eyes and nostrils. He has a lowering yellow eyebrow, painted straight across where his forehead should be, and an eye like a topaz, with brown imperfections in it.

His nearest relation is pale gray, with the same incredible suède skin, a blue-white, very defective chin, and a jade eye, badly corroded with mother-of-pearl spots.

The various kinds of boa constrictors are wonderful enough when you just see them from a reasonable distance, but they become mythical under a lens. The water boa has a deep gray-blue sheen that turns his orange rings to purple and the dark background to electric blue. The rainbow boa, and to a less extent the large land boa, have the most beautiful sheen of all. Sometimes it seems as if the millions of rainbow prisms in the scales were giving off a fine fiery mist of spectrum colors. You can see this with the naked eye, so you can imagine what it is under a microscope.

Also picture to yourself the problem of the miserable human artist who must record these things on paper with a few earthen pigments and a bunch of camel’s hairs!

The deadly snakes — bushmaster, fer-de-lance, rattler — have skins of rough chain-mail, and great headplates of rusty steel and copper, studded with fantastic keels and mountain peaks. Their eyes, too, manage to look rusty though they are really hard and smooth. Their cold corrugated coils feel deadly, but this is probably nothing but imagination. The poisonous coral snakes are quite different, with their look of red-and-black lacquer, as delicate and dully gleaming as any Chinese treasure.

There are over fifty species of snakes found in the small area around our camp, all extraordinary and all different. And we acquire them in all sorts of ways. The natives approach with the meekest, tiniest creatures dangling at the ends of enormous poles. Or little native children appear with an old gin-bottle full of snake and no way to get it out. Or the Indians tell us about a fifteen-foot boa constrictor up in the woods, and we go ourselves and capture it and fetch it triumphantly home on our shoulders. Once we were brightly assuring some nervous guests that snakes never came into the house. Just at that moment a long thin treesnake wafted himself down from the roof and hung by two unimportant vertebræ above our tea table, gazing about with a friendly leer!

Having practically immovable features and no eyelids and very little roll to their eyes, snakes are confined to a few stock expressions: a silly pious aspect when they roll their eyes upward, a nasty crafty look when they partially submerge them in their upper jaw, and a travesty of grim EarlyVictorian pomposity when they look down their nose. Baby snakes have their eyes tremendously popped, which gives them an expression somewhere between that of youthful innocence and utter vacuity.

Lizards are incredibly beautiful objects. Their backs are covered with a thousand designs that man has never thought of for his tapestries. They have the same dim, glowing, fenestrated colors that you find in tapestries and old rugs. In spite of their astonishing beauty, many wild creatures have color schemes which we of the western world have been trained to consider quite dreadful — purplish pinks and pea-soup greens in close association, and so on. But I have never seen a lizard whose vestments and gauntlets and boots were not decorated in accordance with the most exacting standards of civilized æsthetics. Their colors always blend and they are further enhanced by the dull web of scale-edges spread over them. The most incidental tones of the head are repeated somewhere, on back or elbow-joint or tail. The most brilliant colors are brought close up to the dullest in splendid climaxes of chiaroscuro.

In fact, the eye of one’s artistic appreciation never fails to be rested when looking upon these glorious little mysteries of nature.

Evolution has surpassed herself in the decoration of lizards’ faces. Blue, that flickers very quietly on a certain forest-lizard’s back, is developed into tiles of blue faience on his sculptured cheeks. His dull, rusty body-colors turn into absolute velvet-black on his throat and about his neck. When you gaze through a lens your glance seems to skid off the burnished surfaces of his face and simply sink into the night of these jagged rifts. On further inspection you see that his head scales of gray and blue enamel acquire keels of coral along his chin, and flower alarmingly into cabbages of sharp turquoise around the abalone pearl of his eardrum.

This lizard is about the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, yet in the woods he scarcely shows against a dull green leaf, and his life-size portrait on my paper causes no undue comment. But an ant’s-eye view of him reveals the amazing details of his physique anti the fastidious perfection of his jeweled-velvet masquerade.

When I read that you must have one kind of face cream for the day and another for night, and So-and-So’s drops to make your eyes sparkle, and eyelashes by the yard to veil them alluringly, and an efficient combination of chemicals to fight the film that would otherwise dull the brilliancy of one of your crowning glories, it strikes me that there is something of an abyss between even the improved human being of the twentieth century and that dim little slip of enameled loveliness snooping about in the dust of a thousand jungle trees.

The huge tree iguanas are architectural triumphs. There is a noble dignity in their majolica facades, and an expression of arrogant ferocity in their golden eyes, that I am sure illumined the countenances of the warriors of Salamis or the fearless Vikings of the Conquests. We had a proud, uncompromising old grandfather of an iguana once, whose hide was perfectly marvelous: of a texture somewhere between giant lichens and thin old bronze rusting away with blue-green verdigris. His head was encased in great plates of turquoise matrix, roughhewn as in Tibetan jewelry, and jumbled about in an unsolved Chinese puzzle except along his chin and on his neck, where they were beautifully matched and graded and interspersed with enormous rounded scales of pink and sky-blue majolica. From the top of his head to the tip of his tail, like the feathers in an Indian’s headdress, went a crest of upright green scales, each with a backward crescent curve. He used to lash the sides of his glass cage with his powerful tail, and then stand motionless and shoot lightnings of exasperated rage from his fierce eyes, looking just as mad as he felt — like a person having difficulties with Central in a glass telephone-booth.

I have eaten queer things and hold myself in readiness for anything, but I have never been present when iguana steak was going around; either our specimens were shipped immediately to the Zoo in New York, or they hung around camp so long that they got into a rather poor state of repair, or too thin to appeal to the palate. I suppose I would sample iguana meat, if it seemed the thing to do at the time, but for some peculiar reason it strikes me as more outlandish to cat this spirited, fabidous dragon of the forests than any of the other oddish things we have eaten — monkey, armadillo, electric eel, and so forth.

I feel as if that were one humiliation too dreadful to offer such a race of mystic, haughty creatures. As bad as if you stuffed an octopus of the South Seas and made it into an atrocity of a chandelier and twisted its tentacles about to hold candles; or made a filigree tiara out of rattlesnakes’ fangs; or dolls’ gloves out of bat-wings.

There are lizards with faintly glimmering backs of old worn cloisonné; and lizards that look like nothing but a bag of bones plastered over with an imitation of gray tree-bark; and lively little creatures covered with orange and brown rug-designs, with yellow-specked scarlet throats, like strawberries; and quiet little apparitions clothed in terra-cotta suède, with bright blue eyes; and inch-long yellow geckos walking on the ceiling, with orange-spotted tails and black-andwhite clowns’ heads; and lizards with scarcely any more anatomy than an iridescent pencil; and great thicklimbed burrowing lizards, covered completely with yellow-and-black tiling.

Turtles are a problem for an artist. If you lay them down they either retire from view with all their features, or else start earnestly for the next county. Like some people, they seem to think that if they push enough they will get anywhere. I had a pleasant little scarlet-headed turtle once, named Anatole, who did not particularly enjoy studio life. The only way I could do anything with him was by holding him up by the shell. I had to wrap up my hand to keep him from scraping my fist with his feet, which he kept moving nervously, like an old lady up in a Ferris Wheel. We had another old sleuth of a turtle who could disguise himself in about one minute as nothing at all, with no more material to work with than one decayed bamboo leaf and a bit of nondescript background.

It is as hard to describe in words the skins of frogs and toads as it is to reproduce them on paper with paints.

All these surfaces resolve themselves under the microscope into a fine pitted leather, but to the naked eye they have a multiplicity of textures — damp black velvet; dusty plush; embossed suède; old stippled parchment; crumpled fruit-skins, — an endless variety of outward appearances which are all the more remarkable because they are supported by amphibian flesh anti blood, — surfaces like those of mould-covered marbles, or the decaying skin of Camembert cheese, or ancestral Sèvres, or cork, or corroded damascene.

They have gold and silver and amber eyes; and black eyes with cuneiform patterns traced over them; and level slits of pupils between great coronas of blazing color; and dull eyes flecked through with flakes of gold like the ‘eau-de-vie de Danzig’ we got once in Martinique. They have towering bony ridges flaring up from their eyebrows, which sometimes give them an intellectual look, and which always increase their impressive bow-legged dignity. And all sorts of materials are stretched across their eardrums — iridescent gray silk, and gun-metal gossamer, and fabric of mother-of-pearl. When they are elaborately decorated with designs, which is almost always, the greatest amount of the pattern is on the head, and particularly about the wide frog-mouth. They have outlandish masks with savage white streaks and spots; or pink moustaches and sideboards; and great sagging double chins of pebbly leather, which give them an appearance of advanced age and common sense.

Of course, with the immense traffic in frogs going on all the time we have droves of tadpoles. We had what we called the ‘tadpole vortex’ one summer. All my regular work was interspersed with feverish painting of restless frogprogeny — eggs and featureless tadpoles and adolescent polywogs and baby frogs with their tails melting fast. These last were the most trying. They would hop around, or else crouch dejectedly in the dimmest corners with their hands and feet welded into a solid mass under the chin. You could not hold them without annihilating them or at least ruining their delicate skin. And they were so tiny that they could shroud themselves in the distorting moisture that was drawn up around them by capillary attraction.

Birds with painted beaks, fish, crabs, armadillos, opossums, insects—these are some of my many models. Birds are a comfort, because you can hope to finish with the few who have perishable pigments on their beaks or faces. Fish, crabs, eels, worms, spiders — there are a million subjects that I shall never be able to cope with. Mammals, being fairly large and easy to look at, have already received attention from artists, and are regarded much more casually than the uncounted, silentfooted myriads of beetleand bugspooks, skulking under leaves and in the hearts of flowers.

I don’t think all the insects in the world will ever be known, there are such depressing quantities of them, and they pick such secret, impossible places to live in. With my very casual sketching of them I have barely touched the outer fringes of the world of leafmantes, and old mossback crickets, and gold-plated bees, and topaz wasps preying on Roman-striped caterpillars; membracids with Eiffel Towers and Crystal Palaces on their foreheads, and ghoulish, gleaming beetles, and ten thousand others that it exhausts you to think of.

IV

All the time that I am supposably absorbed in my work, I am really trying desperately to concentrate and not dream too much about my glorious environment. I find myself wasting long spaces of time in wonder at the beauty of the forests, and the incredible weather, at the brown rivers, and the look of the tropical sky, and at the sparkling peace and beauty of our bamboo grove. I sometimes feel like holding a shaded mirror up to the brilliant spectacle, and resting my eyes with its quiet, silver reflections. In our small clearing, on the white beaches, and along the dim forest trails, I can never seem to accept as usual and familiar the omnipresent trees and the tropical river highways flowing between them. They are enchanted at sunrise: the trees standing dark and colorless, and the rivers moving like dark molten glass with a faint bloom of flower dust across them, and scattered with cold bubbles of foam from the rapids beyond. As the sun gets up, the bubbles dissolve and the water begins to smoke faintly.

Up the straight stretch of tide and current before us sweep all the different kinds of tropical weather — storms that split upon our frail tents, and singing trade winds, and mist that eats out the substance of the trees and faintly touches with shadow the curved and lissome planes of their invisible branches. And far up the Cuyuni we can watch the sunsets, like brimming Grails of light, slowly burning down somewhere beyond the Andes.

I often used to take my work out under the bamboo trees, when the wind was not too high and my subject and its cage were portable. Then I could have Mishkin, our little ringtailed monkey, sitting beside me, cheerfully conversing with himself, or picking wasps out of the air, or craftily watching to see if I had any chocolate about me. He used to be morbidly interested in my models — a little afraid of them sometimes, but unable to keep from looking at them. He would make terrible faces at the snakes, and I would catch him unsuccessfully trying to get up the nerve to touch them. He loved the atmosphere of the place as much as I did.

I am afraid that I go into a trance in a bamboo grove. The leaves have such a beautiful rustle. In a small breeze all the leaves quiver in unison, and remind me of nothing so much as the glinting bows of the first and second violins of an orchestra, when they really get going in the overture to Tannhäuser.

The dead bamboo leaves have a thousand ways of falling to earth. They flutter down in slow narrowing coils, or fluted spirals; or they dart like fairy javelins along a falling arc of wind. Or the leaf flickers in the air like a golden butterfly, while its faint blue shadow on the ground plays and capers like the ghost of a lizard, the two drawing closer and closer till they die at the same instant and become one in a sere, lifeless strip of tissue.

In a big wind and rain the bamboos bend almost to the ground, and storms of leaves fly from them and swirl about in warm sodden rain-pools.

All sorts of living things venture out from the forest or in from the rivers, and flash past my easel. Once a quiet little brown snake wound his way through my particular clump of trees. A protracted hunt was held around and over me for a vicious crapaud snake who was finally caught hissing and striking under the bank below me. My little monkey would spot retiring gray lizards as they walked innocently on the bark, and the next thing I knew they would be disappearing tail-first down his throat. He used to pull the tree-stumps apart with his thumbless hands, or peer into the fallen calyxes, then rush back to sit on the arm of my chair and loudly chew up his find.

I love all the extraneous delights of jungle life. Something seems to happen to the processes of your imagination. The pictures of this inner world take on a strange reality, set here against the dimensionless stillness of the forest. Your mind appears to exist in a different medium — something much more peaceful than the dust-laden noise that envelops a city, where the very space between the buildings has changed into a tattered substance of smells and absurdly gyrating atoms.

The magic of books is augmented for me by their juxtaposition with these unwonted surroundings of wild jungle. As they stand on our rough shelves, in substance no more than hostages to rapacious moulds and insects of prey, in essence they seem to me like so many narrow dusty doors to all the fabulous gardens of the world and the treasure houses of science and history and romance. Hack of the sombre texts, where the bookworms creep, lie the open files of Darwin’s carefully garnered facts, and the stored-up crystals of Huxley’s mind; gaping sea-chests full of the strange treasures of Conrad, the gilded graces of Meredith, the graven, unearthly images of Dunsany, Blackwood’s living dreams; the vignettes of Claudel, lying about like the fragments of jewels.

Books are books, without a doubt, wherever they happen to be, and I suppose their glamour is a constant quantity, whether they are ranged in a stately library, or huddled beneath the gas-jet in a poor student’s hallroom, or stored on the toothless shelves of an ancient secondhand shop. But for me, at least, their lustre grows when I think of them crowding out a few square feet of space that has never been invaded by anything more tangible than the growth of a bamboo stem or the morning creep of a boa constrictor.

V

Best of all advantages of our jungle camp is its remoteness from civilization. I spend much time, after the unprofitable habit of the young modern, railing at civilization. But I have to keep reminding myself that it is not really so bad. As an intelligent friend points out, if it were not for the arrangements of a few highly civilized persons, how would a Research Station lx; possible in the depths of British Guiana? If it were not for this gruesome state of mankind, what should we do for microscopes and firearms, chemicals, cameras, tinned provisions, and smart tropical clothes — and the subjective point of view, without which we could not possibly be conscious of our delightful isolation?

In spite of the pessimism of our Northern friends, the climate of the tropics remains a perfect medium for life and work. We seem to retain our health, and emerge at the end of many months undamaged by reptiles and malevolent insect life. Of course, to be exact, one must admit that the weather is always warm. The only frost for miles in any direction is to be found around the tops of the tall rumpunches.

But I should always prefer to spend my time in the tropics than to drag through a breat bless fetid summer in a Northern city. The air of the tropics is warm and dry and perfumed — whereas there is no air in a New York summer, and if there were, it would be hot and soggy and smelly.

Whatever the man in the street may think about such an environment and occupation as mine, I myself thoroughly enjoy it. Of course the very fact that it is unusual tends to make some people shudder uncontrollably. It is an amusing thing, however, that the extremely metropolitan person, who fastidiously shrinks from the notion of a life close to nature, has some interesting needs, such as toothbrushes made of pigs’ bristles, and hair-nets woven from Chinese pigtails, and an inartistic animal product as a base for perfumes, and an anatomical by-product of the cat, to which they hardly like to refer in polite society, which is nevertheless necessary for the production of some of the most beautiful sounds of civilized music. Also they would probably cringe away from the exudation of a silkworm, yet it is quite the thing to pay largely for intimate garments made of this mysterious substance. When people take exception to my preference for wild life, I feel like being disagreeable and logical, and pointing out some of these facts, and I hardly ever remember in time that the last thing in the world you can hope to modify is a point of view.

Five o’clock of a winter’s afternoon — in New York City and at Kartabo Point! What is going on? In New York a tide of glittering engines is setting strongly north, and disaster skulks from block to block, barely checked by the grace of brake-linings; perhaps a six-day bicycle race is in full swing, a thousand little dime-eating machines are gobbling and imperfectly digesting a million dimes, on a thousand Fifth Avenue busses; in darkened theatres, last acts are slowly drawing to a close, to the accompaniment of many persons creeping out over fallen hats and feet, their minds feverishly set on the dash across town to the five-twenty-three; dark pasty masses of humanity are being forced in and out of underground tubes, like icing out of a confectioner’s funnel; the five or six lonely English sparrows who still live in the park are gathering for the daily meeting of their Down-and-out Club.

At Kartabo we are swimming in the river, or taking tea to the music of homing parrots, or prowling in the quiet, darkening forest. A million bamboo leaves are slowly waving in the cool air. Nightwalking beetles are creeping out from under one side of their leafy homes, as the day-shift crawls in under the other. All the problems of nature that we shall never solve take spectral shape and rear their grinning, taunting features at us through the jungle aisles. Somewhere, hidden in the caverns and lofty chambers of the forest, creep or dance or flit the countless hosts of masqueraders who will never pose before my brush and paper, whose fantastic shapes and eerie beauty will never be reduced to flat films of pigment, and filed away, and carried over sea and land, to museums and exhibitions and the cold stare of metropolitan eyes.