The Cedars of Nonsuch
EVERY time I come up from diving among the coral reefs I find I have an increased interest in botany. Under water I associate with an astonishing number of animals masquerading as plants: sea lilies, lichens, fungus, moss, grass, fruit trees, vines, blossoms, shrubs, ancient and weather-beaten trees — all are represented, and only by careful scrutiny is the animal character apparent. I come up and see the trees and lesser plants of Nonsuch swaying in the currents of air, I note their forms, colors, and patterns, and instinctively I watch for sudden unplantish movements. I look for a visiting insect to be seized and eaten; I wonder if the jellyfish which drops when ripe from the branch of its parent has no simile on land.
And then I think of the sundew trapping and devouring its prey, of the ‘ nervousness ’ of sensitive plants, of the capable defense of nettles, the sleeping postures of flowers, and the almost reasoned efforts of vines to attain light and water. There come to mind the terrible tragedies of trees choked to death by parasites; the time when a bamboo sprout carried my hat out of reach in three days, and the sad death of a carrot from alcoholism as portrayed by Sir Chandra Bose. The ‘ sleep ’ of plants must be a very light one, and stirred by many ambitious dreams.
The plants of Nonsuch Island have a compelling interest wholly lacking in those of a great tropical forest or in the Canadian woods. An army is a thing of no vital, absorbing interest, but a single soldier may hold our attention unwaveringly. In a jungle our concentration is distracted by the multiplicity of forms which cover every inch of ground and reach high up into the sky. On Nonsuch I could easily count the cedar trees and learn something of the individuality of each.
One trenchant difference between the pseudo-flora of undersea and the flora on shore is that currents seem to have no effect on the shape of the former. Branch coral, in fact, seems to lean a little toward any steady current of water, perhaps because it carries the only source of food. Sea plumes are eager, as children at table are eager — swaying slightly toward the door of the butler’s pantry whence dessert is imminent. I am certain that no bend of abysmal branch or twist of animal blossom anywhere reveals the direction of the Gulf Stream.
Even on one of those rare Bermuda days when not a breath stirs and the sea is glassy, or when a northeast storm is raging, a single glance at the cedars before my laboratory and I could predict southerly and westerly winds for well-nigh the remaining three hundred and sixty-three days of the year!
The moulding power of the invisible is a theme which in force and effect is worthy of the best expression the human mind can give, and the thoughts I have about my leaning cedars are very wonderful ones. They stir and rise in my mind, they course down my arm and hand, reach my pen point, and — dry there.
Nonsuch botany spreads over half the world, not only as immigrants and stowaways, but in the power of suggestion. Witness the cedars. I listen at night to the wind soughing through their branches, I sniff at a bunch of the dried, leafy twigs hung over my bed, and as the dawn comes up and snuffs out many stars, a planet or two, and St. David’s light, the tossing of dark green foliage outside my door is the undulating of a magic emerald carpet, which, aided by the sound and scent, carries me mentally, sensually, and emotionally to the biting cold among the deodars of Garhwal.
A hundred feet from my doorway is a solid clump of cactus. I have not yet tried this, but I am sure that one day I shall sit down close to it in a driving rain, with the surf pounding fullvoiced a few yards beyond and hurling spray over me with every breaker. And I am equally certain that contemplation of the strange, thorny pads will be all that will be necessary to obliterate sight, sound, and feel of a Bermuda gale, and substitute the hot dry breathlessness of a sandy desert. The mere mention of the illusion at this moment is fostered by the caroling of a Japanese robin in the distance, which recalls, for me, the first unbelievable notes of a canyon wren in a Mexican arroyo.
One memorable evening on Nonsuch my path was suddenly blocked by an odor — so abrupt, so intense, that it might well have been a tangible barrier, and out of the exhalation of a newborn cereus were conjured all the subconsciously recorded details of a Guiana jungle. Leaving all abstract sentiment, I sit down anywhere among the open vegetation of Nonsuch and am at home — head deep in a field of goldenrod.
I cannot keep away from the theme of the cedars, for their importance is dominant. Even Dr. Britton writes of the Bermuda juniper as ‘one of the most interesting of all trees,’and if ‘N. L.’ himself thinks so, after his intimacy with alphas and omegas of plants, there is no doubt about it. If Bermuda were decedared it would enter the category of desert islands. Brangman, near us, is epitomized by the fact that not even a cedar grows upon it. In a land of immigrants, stowaways, and garden escapes, the cedar can boast of autochthonous origin, which is a nice, hot-potato-mouth way of saying it is an original inhabitant.
The first arrivals, who were also the first humans to be washed ashore from the outer reefs, found forests of cedars. From these the survivors of the wrecks of the Bonaventura and the Sea Venture were able to build ships strong enough to carry them to Newfoundland and to Virginia. Later settlers had excellent reason for denuding the island of these primitive giants, for at that time they had not learned the Bermuda method of building comfortable, everlasting houses by sawing out a cellar and piling it up. The intimate place of the cedar in human life is indicated by the perfect suitability of the fragrant, wine-colored wood for the fashioning of cradles, wedding chests, and coffins, to say nothing of ducking stools and gallows. As early as 1622 a law was passed to prevent complete deforestation; to-day one cherishes these trees like precious tapestries or netsukes.
There is no question of the native character of the Bermuda cedar; it is found growing wild nowhere else in the world. But a delicate question of its scientific name gives to think of the exciting laws of scientific nomenclature. One hundred and sixty years after Henry May of the Bonaventura was saved by a cedar ‘barke’ which he and his shipmates built in Bermuda, Linnæus figured two cedars on the same page, the first of which he called Juniperus barbadensis and the second bermudiana, for self-evident reasons. There is cause now to think that both were specimens of the Bermuda cedar, in which case the good and true meaning of language must be sacrificed to give place to priority, which is the handmaiden of Einstein’s place-time. Yet, though we laugh at calling the Bermuda cedar barbadensis, there is a sound basic idea in it — the necessity of uniformity in humanistic views of science.
But let us go back a little way, beyond Linnæus, beyond Henry May, before the ancestors of Bermudez ever were, and before the time of the first Bermuda cedar tree. To-day we know that the nearest related cedar is that of Cuba — nine hundred miles to the southeast. Day after day in April and May I watch newly arrived birds on Nonsuch which have made this distance in one flight. I put several cedar berries into our bird cage and they are snapped up at once. The following morning the hard seeds lie on the earth of the cage, stripped clean of flesh and ready for sprouting. The application of these various facts is only an extension of the fence lines of young cedars in upland New England pastures, unconsciously planted and aligned by roosting waxwings. And so, ‘Dearly Beloved,’ we have the probable story of how the juniper came to Bermuda.
On the north or sheltered slopes of Nonsuch the cedars grow high and symmetrically. They stretch their branches lazily up and outward, and their trunks have thickened steadily and grown straightly through the years. The sound of the surf comes faintly from the distance and now and then the howl of gales passes just overhead in company with low, scudding storm clouds. But these proud cedars have no fear of the elements. There is hardly a dead branch among them, and, like the winter coat of camels, their outside bark hangs loose and dangles undisturbed. We pass over the crest of the island and come to my particular trees, just in front of my door. They still have plenty of height and girth; I can easily walk about beneath their branches, but their tops are flattened and they lean rather heavily to the north and the east. Beyond them, farther down the slope, the cedars begin to crouch with humped shoulders, their backs turned toward the blasts, their fingers stretched ahead, dodging one another for light and air, but with stream lines lying in the paths of least resistance. And now we approach the very edge of the low ledge on whose farther side lies death to all the beings of land. Yet the phalanx of brave cedars does not falter. All soil has gone, there are only rugged rocks with cracks and crevices for roothold. The branches sweep the ground, bracing themselves here and there with knotty elbows. In size, trunks have become branches, branches twigs, yet all keep their character. Given the slightest shelter of a hollow and a cedar staggers to its knees, a replica of the pines of Fujiyama.
These cedars on their knees are the most interesting of all. They emerge from their natal crack in a great gnarly mass of indeterminate root-stem. Their trunk is in appearance a horizontal branch, conforming to the angle of the hill, yet clear of it. I rather imagine that the terrific rasping friction of merely resting upon the rocks would spell destruction within a few gales’ time. It would seem as if the eternal blasting power of the wind fairly blows the sap of life out of the windward branches, for most of these are dead, with occasional spurts of green springing from the heart of the straggling, bleached branch bones, the skeleton of long-past years. Sometimes perhaps the killing was quickly done — some devastating storm of many days’ duration which kept air and twigs saturated with salt.
Beyond the asylums of the shellhole hollows, down the cedars go on all fours again. Now the sea lavender and the oxeye and even the lowly tassel plant call them brother; a little farther waterward and they mingle with the prostrate stems of the seaside morningglories, creeping upon their bellies, but still with every proud character of their race, their leaf-strung twigs no whit different from those waving fifty feet above the ground.
I like to go down to this front line of battle in a high wind and see the opposing forces in full action. Surely it must have been during a lull that a berry rolled or was carried into this far crevice. It sprouted and took root, and soon the first test came. Since then the pressure has been almost mathematically constant for the plant to adjust root and height so nicely to maintain its balance and hold. One day last week, from no especial stress of weather, one of the proud cedars of the north slope fell over, perhaps from its overconfident topheaviness. Its roots sprawled in mid-air, rather soft and of no great length. Here, where seventh waves spout spray over me as I sit, I use all my strength and pluck a cedarling from its crack. It is not a foot high and has twenty slender, leafscaled twigs. Its root is three times as thick as its superstructure, twice as long, and has five lateral rootlets, revealing as many side cracks. I go a few yards inland and replant the sturdy little cedar, giving it a most excellent crack and much tamped-down earth. Then, wholly without justice or logic, I pull up one of its brethren of similar size and cut through the rooty stem to find it started life about nine years ago.
In a little depression, in the sheltered lee of a giant brother, an infant cedar sprouted less than a year ago. There is none of the blue-green, closescaled character of the older plants, but widespread, pale emerald, spinelike leaves, which show more in common with the creeping spurge on the rock beneath. Like the cedars of the northern slope, the infant thinks the whole world is an easy place to live in, and is only lulled by the roar of the storms. Doubtless it looks with scorn at its brethren overhead, bowing before the blasts. But when its pliant topmost twig reaches the level of the surrounding rocks, and a winter’s gale flattens it like tissue, the roots will have to develop new strength, and the fancied security of the little plant must give place to the glory of lifelong combat. After long search I find the whole story on one small plant — smug juvenile confidence, adolescent surprise and quick preparedness, and finally the dense, close-scaled armor and adequate defense of maturity. For every cedar which has fought its way to success, thousands upon thousands must have sprouted, lived hopefully for a space, only to have their sap die down and cease, lifelessly to hold aloft futile, dead twigs, until at last these fell and returned to the stuff of which cedars are made.
The berries on my laboratory trees are now, in August, ready to fall, much eaten by insects and long past their prime. Beyond, in Sprayland, close to the ocean, the crop of cedar berries has only begun; they are either very small, just after flowering, or still greenish white with none of the purplish bloom of maturity. And the male trees are still powdered with the last billion grains of pollen dust. The tiny feminine cedars seem to win in the last test; at the sheer rim of ocean I find a pitiful offering of berries, perhaps four on the whole plant, fertilized in the very mist from the breakers, and maturing where they are reflected in the tide-pools. These heroic ‘bitter-enders’ can scatter their offspring nowhere but in the ocean itself — achieving victory under terrific obstacles, for a culmination only of defeat.
I climb back to the second line, where the kneeling cedars draw breath between storms. Prying up the stiff branches and scraping away some of the sandstone, I find ancient trunks sprouting from still older bases. One of these is a bole of unusually large size, one end of which was in some past year cut off rather unskillfully with an axe. I bare part of the circumference, the rest being hidden behind recently solidified sand. A fourteen-inch cedar on the north slope of Nonsuch had seventynine rings. This old, bleached, metalhard trunk shows one hundred far from the heart.
My final count of two hundred and seventy-six is conservative, for I could not reach the very centre, nor was the chopping an event of the immediate past. I scratched on a smooth bit of sandstone the sum in subtraction, and got my initial date as 1653. In an attempt to cut off a splinter, my knife blade broke as cleanly as if I had tried to whittle a steel girder.
I looked over to Castle Island and realized that its old, ruined fort had been built forty years before my tree had taken root. But not until I returned to the laboratory and delved into Bermudian history could I fix on any single item of this year. In an old archive I found that in St. George’s, three miles away to the northeast, on April 17, 1653, there took place the trial of John Middleton for witchcraft. The evidence of one Robert Priestly was as follows: —
Who saith that on Fryday last, being the 15th of this instant, he being removeing Mr. Tucker’s cattell in the evening in a peece of ground near to the house of John Middleton, he saw right oppositt agt the house, a Black creatuer lye soe upon the ground in the shape of a catt but farre Bigger, with eyes like fier, and a tayle near as long as a mans arme, And this examynate being some whitt daunted at the first sight, yet tooke courage & went upp close to yt to look on yt. he only saw it move the head, and drawne his knife with a resolution to stabb yt: as he lift up his hand and knife to strike at yt with all his force, he being a strong man, he found he had no power to strike it. Att which this examanate was so amazed and affrighted that his hayre stood up right on his head, and he departeing from yt looked backe, & sawe the said creatuer turn the heade and look wishfully after this examt, but he ran away & left yt: reporting the same to the servant in his house, with much feare. And further saith not.
After prolonged evidence and examination, the account of the trial concludes: —
The Jury for the keeper of the Commonwealth of England doth present John Middleton of Sandys Tribe in the Somer Islands, Planter, for that he not having the feare of God before his eyes hath feloniously wickedly and abominably consulted and consented to and with the Devill to become a witch. As doth appear by severall signes and markes upon his Body, and that diabolicall sin of witchcraft hath put in practice now lately upon the Body or person of John Makaraton, a Skotsman of about the age of 50 years: and him hath vexed tormented and disquieted contrary to the peace of the Commonwealth of England and the dignity thereof.
This Bill being put to the consideration of the Grand Inquest was found Billa vera and for his further triall he put himselfe upon God and the Country, whereof a jury of 12 men sworne did find him guilty, and sentance of death was pronounced upon him, and he wase executed at Georges towne at the common place of execution the 9th day of May 1653.
Brother Middleton, when he saw there was no escape for himself, apparently decided to make it unpleasant for sundry persons for whom he did not care. For example, he testified against one Goody Christian Stevenson, who, although a kindly soul, always helping her neighbors in times of sickness and trouble, yet, because two small warts inside her mouth did not bleed when pricked, was convicted and hung eleven days after John Middleton.
So it was with such things as these that my cedar in early life was contemporary. And I marveled. And then I looked toward the northeast, my mind going many miles beyond St. George’s to the land of America and to Tennessee; I remembered the arguments against the teaching of Evolution, and it occurred to me that this was only some four years ago — and I marveled again!
If the plants of Nonsuch could, like the morning stars, sing together, the chorus of Cedar and Sage and Goldenrod would arise from nine tenths of them, these three natives forming the major part of the trees, the shrubs and the weed-like annuals. Yet there are dozens of others all represented by a few plants. As I look over a list which we made out in early spring, I am impressed with the charm of the common names, something almost wholly lacking in fish. When we return from a fishing trip we have hamlets, hinds, gags, groupers, porgies, and breams — titles as uncouth and meaningless as their owners are graceful and beautiful. But sea lavender, seaside goldenrod, tassel plant, sea rocket, star-of-theearth, mallow, rosy primrose, oleander, poor-man’s-weatherglass — these are a delight to tell over, euphonious or meaningful, or both.
In spring Nonsuch is picked out with thousands of pink stars as the oleanders burst forth; later comes the rose red of hibiscus, and gradually, in the autumn months, a background of golden spires sets the island agleam. It is a pleasant alarm when a half-grown great blue heron rises with a sudden raucous outburst from the beach, or a young tropic bird squawks beneath your very feet, but to be surprised by a flower is an even keener joy. I recall, in a waste of gray and silver rocks, when a tiny brilliant, face looked up at me, and I saw my first scarlet pimpernel. And after I had found others and had become used to them, I stumbled unexpectedly upon the rare blue race, and Nonsuch gained a new charm. Nothing becomes more monotonous, mile after mile through a car window, than endless wheat fields, and yet to us the finding of a single stalk of wheat growing on our island was a memorable event. It was very probably the only living wheat for a thousand miles. In the matter of plant surprises we need not wallow forever in sweet sentimentalism — the careless somnambulist on Nonsuch may encounter cactus or nettle, obliterating for the time being all charm of botany.
I have made a list of the plants of Nonsuch arranged according to distribution and probable method of arrival. The European and West Indian derivations are about equal, and from the latter region about as many must have reached Bermuda by floating as were carried by birds, while a much smaller number doubtless braved the hundreds of miles of water by parachuting on the steady southwest winds.
An illustration of the distributing power of winged seeds came to notice close to my laboratory. A dense growth of green weeds sprang up early in the year on the site of an old garden, and in July blossomed and formed seed. It proved to be the hairy horseweed, and from this time on we seldom forgot the hairy horseweed, alias Leptilon linifolium. In coffee cups, aquaria, in deep-sea hauls from a mile down, between one’s eyes and book, entangled in pen points — everywhere the tiny, pappus-winged seeds drifted their way, soundless and buoyant as diminutive balloons.
One of my last walks was through the cedar forest of the sheltered slope. The pounding of the surf was inaudible here, but a low, restless wind eddied down through the branches. I stood and listened, and heard a perfect reproduction of the sound of the waves as I should hear them beyond the crest. It was most strange to listen to this false echo among the trees, a sound as hollow and meaningless to these pampered cedars as the roaring of the ocean which we like to fancy lies in a seashell — equally, I am sorry to say, in a teacup.
When I come to choose a plant to carry back to my home, I shall creep far into one of the great caves which wind and water have etched into the heart of Nonsuch, and beneath a sunlit crevice I shall pick a root of maidenhair fern — one whose ancestor was carried (who knows how many years this side of the last glacial epoch) high in air, the atoms of spores whirling as they swept onward, billions of them dusting the troubled waters of midocean, until this one alighted in safety. And alighted not only on land, but on some particular bit of soil suitable for germination and fruition. When next we are carried away with enthusiasm by some new feat of airplanes, let us not forget the Flight of the First Fern.