Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

“Smiling Morn”

“The light of the morning, When the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; As the tender grass springing out of the earth By clear shining after rain.”

Holy Writ.

A cloudless sky, the long grass wet with the night’s gentle shower, a thin veil of mist on the hills, a glassy, steel-blue sea, the air saturated with the essences from myriads of leaves and scented with the last whiffs from the tea-trees and the primal blossoms of the wattles — such are the features of this smiling morn.

A spangled drongo — ardent lover of light and free air — talkatively announced the dawn long before its coming; the noisy pitta — bird of the moist soil and leafy gloom — triumphs in three notes. For an hour the scrub fowl have been violently noisy, but have retired to the recesses of the jungle, whence comes an occasional chuckle of satisfaction or a coarse, triumphant crow. The fasciated honey-eater has loudly called “with a voice that seemed the very sound of happiness”; the leaden flycatcher, often silent but seldom still, has twittered and whispered plaintively; the sun-birds are playing gymnastics among the lemon blossoms, and the centre of activity for butterflies is the red-flowered shrub bordering the wavering path.

Since — sometimes wantonly, often thoughtlessly — man interferes with plants, time out of mind the banqueting-table of the butterflies, is it not a duty to provide substitutes for devastated natural vegetation? When it is discovered that a plant, introduced to give satisfaction to the lust of the eye, provides from year’s end to year’s end nectar as unfailing as the widow’s cruse of oil, is it not becoming to reproduce it plentifully so that excited and virtuous insects may be encouraged to return to former scenes? If not a duty, at least it is a source of happiness, for the particular insects which revel in the nectar of the perpetually flowering shrub are the two most gorgeous butterflies of the land — pleasantly known as Ulysses and Cassandra.

Science changes its titles so frequently that unless the intellect is to be increasingly burdened it is well to refuse to be divorced from the old and often explicit and fulfilling names. Cassandra is the lovely green and gold fly which dances in the air so delightfully when he woos his sober, fluttering mate. That of gorgeous royal blue with black edging to the wings and dandyish swallow-tails, which wanders far and wide and flies high and swiftly, is Ulysses.

This glorious morn the ruddy shrub is as lively as a merry-go-round with the feasting and antics of flitting gems, and there are others by the dozen attentive to less seductive fare. For half an hour the courtship of a perfect Ulysses has interfered with the staid ways of those not in holiday humour. Unlike Cassandra, there is little in appearance to distinguish the sexes, nor in the wooing does the dame exhibit staid demeanour. The object of Ulysses’ love is almost, if not quite, as brilliantly decorated as himself. She is not, therefore, to be fascinated by the display of blue no more lustrous than that of her own proud wings. He may flit and toss about her, but she seems to take scanty notice of his affected aerial limpings. Her raiment is just as brave, and she has swallow-tails too. The wider black margin on her wings is no badge of subserviency, but rather an additional charm inciting tremulous fascination. She may soar over the mango-trees with ease as careless as his, and slide down straight to the red flowers with like certainty. She is not to be bewildered by his gyrations, nor thrilled by mock hostile swoops. However sprightly his activities, she has a mood to correspond and power to mimic. Indeed, is she not indifferent? — so much on an equality with him that she might say:

“If thou thinkest I am too easily won, I’ll frown and be perverse, and say thee nay.”

Might she not say more at the moment, since her airs are those of independence? Possibly she imagines hers to be the superior sex. Is she to be distinguished from her wooer as she flits from him disdainfully? Can she not imitate his most audacious feats? Ah! but for how long may she restrain primal emotions? The blue-mantled dandy understands his art. His wings beat with the passion of the dominant lover. He tosses himself before her, impeding her flight until she imitates his antics. Tossing is not the privilege of his sex. She exercises her right to toss, and the pair toss in delightful but bewildering confusion, like jewels sent skyward by a conjurer. And thus having established her rights if not her equality, she consents to play the part Nature decrees, and the pair tumble and toss over the mango-trees, while half a dozen others sip contentedly the red flowers.

Many other winged creatures flit and glisten in the garden and down along the grass-invaded path between the coco-nuts. Dragon-flies hover over the moist spots, transparent wings carrying coral-red bodies, and two sand-wasps pilot my steps, following the narrow ribbon of bare ground as a fish the course of a shallow stream, buzzing ominously as if in warning of some possible mischance. They are friends, and will in a moment swerve, and boom back to the shafts they have excavated in sand as depositaries for their eggs, and into which they will pack living caterpillars as fresh food for their young. They dig with such deftness and vigour that the sand is expelled in a continuous jet. When the mouth of the shaft, round to exactness, is lumbered with soil, the insect emerges backward and shovels away dog-like with its forelegs. Then it disappears again, until the sand-jet has made another encumbering heap.

These alert and furiously resentful insects are endowed with resourcefulness and “intelligence” in keeping with their physical activities. One had foraged a caterpillar in bulk and weight beyond its flight strength, and was, therefore, compelled to haul it along the toilful earth. On the wing the wasp finds its home unhesitatingly. On the unfamiliar ground it lost its bearings, and, moreover, the lumbering caterpillar had to be tugged through a bewildering forest of grass stems, among which it went astray. During a pause the wasp surveyed the scene, and, locating the shaft, after stupendous exertions deposited its prey conveniently thereto, to find itself confronted with a problem, since the diameter of the caterpillar exceeded that of the shaft. It seemed to reflect for a few moments, and then with feverish haste enlarged the shaft. Another difficulty had then to be overcome. Was it possible to force such a bulky and unwieldy body head first down — the habitual way? The insect came to a rapid decision in the negative. Backing into the shaft, it seized the caterpillar by the head and drew it down, presently emerging, and how it managed to squeeze past so tight a plug is another of the magics of the morn. Having butted with its highly competent head the caterpillar well home, the wasp selected a neatly fitting stone as a wad, and, filling the shaft with earth, strewed the surface with grass fragments, to the artistic concealment of the site.

On the beach is another industrious winged miner which has not learned the art of the rapid evacuation of the spoil, but follows the slower ways of the crab, carrying the sand in a pellet between the forelegs, and as it backs out jerking it rearward until a tidy heap is made. But it is a fussy worker, so charged with nervous energy that its glittering wings quiver even while down in the depths of its shaft, as you may assure yourself if you hearken attentively when neither the sea nor air makes competitive noises.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32