My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XVII

Wet Season Days

“The north-east spends his rage; he now shut up

Within his iron cave, the effusive south

Warms the wide air and o’er the vault of heaven

Breathes the big clouds with vernal showers distent.”

THOMSON.

Just as in the spring a young man’s fancies lightly turn to thoughts of love, so at the beginning of each new year in tropical Queensland the minds of the weather sages become sensitive and impressionable. All the tarnish is rubbed off the recollection of former ill manners on the part of the weather, when about the middle of January the wind begins to bluster and to abuse good-natured trees, shaking off twigs and whirling branches like a tipsy bully striving to dislocate a weak man’s arm at the shoulder. We remember dubious events all too vividly when the recitation of them does not make for mutual consolation.

In January, 1909, for two days the sea burst on the black rocks of the islet in the bay in clouds of foam. It was all bombast, froth and bubble, or rather a gentle back-hander, for the cyclone was playing all sorts of naughty pranks elsewhere. But why were we apprehensive? In disobedience to the scriptural injunction, we had observed the clouds and the birds. Twice a flock of lesser frigate-birds, those dark, fish-tailed high-fliers which are for ever cutting animated “W’s” in the air with long lithe wings — had appeared. Seldom do they come unless as harbingers of boisterous weather. On each recent occasion they had been absolutely trustworthy messengers. Watching them soaring and swooping, we said one to another: “Behold the cyclone cometh!” But it did not. With a passing flick of its tail it passed elsewhere.

Altogether, however, we had very queer weather and two or three “rum” sorts of nights. On the 19th the morning was calm, the sky brilliantly clear. A north-east breeze sprang up at noon. Deep violet thunder-clouds gathered in the west, and, muttering and grumbling, rolled across the narrow strait slowly and sullenly. Australia scowled at our penitent Island, threatening direful inflictions — lightning, thunder, and an overwhelming cataclysm. Behind that frowning Providence there was a smiling face. The good storm, albeit black and angry, behaved benignly. Gentle rain came, and a picturesque little electrical display to a humming accompaniment of far distant thunder, followed by a soothingly cool south-westerly breeze. Just at sundown the weather-god, repenting of his frown, bestowed a glorious benediction.

All afternoon a damp pall had overhung the Island, mopping up feeble sounds and strangely muffling the stronger. Now it was translated. Lifting so that the summits only of the hills were capped, the haze (for it became nothing more) assumed a luminous yellow saffron suffused with sage green. Against this singularly lovely, ample “cloth” branches and leaves of steadfast trees stood out in high relief. All the lower levels became transparently clear, the definition of distant objects magically sharpened, spaces translucent. In a sea which shone like polished silver the islet was a gem — green enamel, amethyst rocks, golden sand. The bold white trunks of giant tea-trees glowed; the creamy blooms of bloodwoods were as flecks of snow; the tips of the fronds of coco-nut palms flickered vividly as burnished steel; the white-painted house assumed speckless purity. All light colours were heightened; ruddy browns and sombre greens seemed to have been smartened up by touches of fresh paint and varnish. An idealistic artist had revealed for once living tints and uncomprehended hues.

Was it not a landscape fresh from Nature’s brush divinely transmogrified by one bold smudge of yellow-green haze? Or was the effect partly due to the dust raised by the golden fringe of the blue mantle which the sun trailed over the glowing hills? I know naught of the chemistry of colours, nor why this yellow-green medium should so clarify and etherealise the atmosphere. But was ever clear sunset half so affecting? This tinted, luminous cloud had bewitched the commonplace, converting familiar surroundings into fairyland itself. If all the world’s a stage, this truly was one of the rarest transformation scenes.

What was about to happen? Surely this mysterious colouring portended some astounding phenomena? Again, nothing did happen, save a stilly night and grey.

VEGETATION AND MOISTURE

It seems fitting and quite safe to point a moral, by allusion to certain conditions prevalent during 1907. Between January 1st and June 30th 80.80 inches of rain were registered. July, August, September, and October provided only 1.74 inches, which quantity bespeaks quite a phenomenal draught. The catchment area of the creek which discharges into Brammo Bay is less than forty acres, and for the most part consists of exceedingly steep declivities. The head of the creek is seven hundred feet above sea level, and its total length less than three-quarters of a mile. Yet, notwithstanding the circumscribed extent of the catchment, the steep, in places almost precipitous, descents, and that for months the rain was insufficient to cause a surface flow, the creek which had cut a gully or canyon forty feet deep across the plateau, never ceased running, the turbulence of the wet season having merely subsided into a tinkling trickle. During the dry period the atmosphere was the reverse of humid; but the almost impenetrable shield of vegetation — the beauty and glory of the Island — discounted loss by evaporation. One can well imagine that in the absence of this gracious protection the creek would cease to flow a week or so after the cessation of rain.

The marked but consistent decrease of water in the creek by day and its rise during the night having excited interest, a series of measurements was taken, the result being somewhat astonishing. One day’s readings will suffice, for scarcely any variation from them was recorded for weeks, concurrent meteorological conditions undergoing no sudden or decided change while the experiment was in progress:

Sunday, November 10, 1907.

Inches.
6.30 a.m. 10 1/4
9 “ 10
Noon (high tide) 6 5/8
3 p.m. 3
5.30 p.m. 1 1/2
6.10 “ (sundown) 1 1/2
7.10 “ 3 7/8
9 “ 10 1/8

At 7 a.m. on the 11th and 12th the water stood at 10 1/4 inches and I assume that to have been the constant level throughout the night.

The conclusion I draw (rightly or wrongly) from the fact emphasised by these figures is that the mass of vegetation exercises a direct and immediate effect upon the flow of water by gravitation from the catchment. A continual and increasing demand for refreshment existing during the day, the root spongioles are in active operation intercepting the moisture in its descent and absorbing it, while with the lessening of the temperature on the going down of the sun reaction begins, the stomata of the leaves exercise their functions, and by the absorption of gas react on the root films, which for the time relax their duty of arresting the passage of minute particles of water, with a very definite result on the nocturnal flow.

THE ODOUR OF THE DEATH ADDER

February 2, 1909.

Whenever I take my walks abroad I have the companionship of a couple of Irish terriers, enthusiastic hunters of all sorts of “vermin,” from the jeering scrub fowl, which they never catch, to the slothful, spiny ant-eater, which they are counselled not to molest. Lizards and occasionally snakes are disposed of without ceremony, though in the case of the snakes the tactics of the dogs are quite discreet. Several years ago the dogs (not those which now faithfully attend my walks, for more than one generation has passed away) attracted attention by yapping enthusiastically. I flatter myself that I understand the language of my own dogs sufficiently to enable me to judge when they have detected something demanding my co-operation in the killing. When assistance is needed, there are notes of urgent appeal in their exclamations. As a rule my opinion is not asked in respect of lizards, or rats, or the like; but snakes are invariably held up until an armed force arrives.

On the occasion referred to I found them in a frenzy of excitement, feinting and snapping at something sheltering at the base of a tussock of grass. Peering closely, I saw, half concealed beneath grass, sand, and leaves, what I took to be a death adder, which I summarily shot. Then it became apparent that the dogs had blundered, for the reptile was a lizard. The mistake in identity, was, however, excusable, for in size, shape, colouring, and marking it so closely resembled an adder that I was not readily convinced to the contrary. Placing the two pieces into which the shot had divided the creature in juxtaposition, I sympathised with the dogs more strongly, feeling certain that no one would have hesitated to give the harmless lizard a very bad character. Before firing the fatal shot the distention of the body had confirmed my opinion as to identity, and the method of partial concealment and of lying inert were significant of the dangerous little snake. I had no doubt at the time, too, that it emitted a deceptive odour, which, being similar to that of the adder, had been chiefly instrumental in exciting extraordinary suspicion on the part of the terriers.

Dogs of another generation were concerned in a repetition of this experience in its significant details more recently. Having crossed a creek ahead, frantic appeals were made, but before I could reach the spot the excitement got beyond bounds, and I saw one of them snap up something, shake it viciously, and toss it away with every manifestation of repugnance and caution. Again I presumed the squirming reptile to be an adder, for the dogs, with bristling backs and uplifted lips, walked round it gingerly, sniffing and starting as if it were most fearsome and detestable. The bulk of the reptile gradually subsided, confirming the opinion that the dog had actually killed an adder, a feat I had never known it perform. Investigation again proved that an innocent lizard parading as an offensive snake had lost its life. Does not this evidence suggest that the lizard assumes the similitude and the odour of the adder, its tactics of concealment, and its characteristic habit of puffing itself out in order to warn off its foes? The spontaneous, unsuborned, and independent evidence of two sets of dogs cannot be wholly disregarded.

Testimony confirmatory of the contention that adders do diffuse a specific odour, too subtle for man’s perception though readily detectable by the sensitive faculties of lower animals, and that such odour affrights and therefore protects them from the reptiles, is contained in Captain Parker Gillmore’s work, “The Great Thirst Land.” Having killed a small specimen of the horned adder — the “poor venomous fowl” with which Cleopatra ended her gaudy days — and having handled it to examine the poison glands and returned to his pony, he writes: “As soon as I advanced my hand to his head-stall to reverse the reins over his head, he shied back as if in great alarm, and it required some minutes before he would permit me to closely approach. The reason of this conduct in so staid and proper-minded an animal is obvious. In handling the adder some of the smell attached to its body must have adhered to my hands.”

When four dogs and one horse, all apparently honourable and well brought up, agree on such a point, to theorise to the contrary would be ungracious.

NEPTUNE’S HANDICRAFT

February 16, 1909.

An easterly breeze coincident with a flowing tide occasionally (though not invariably) creates a gentle swirl in Brammo Bay, a swirl so placid as to be imperceptible in default of such indices as driftwood. Under such a condition Neptune makes playthings which possibly in some future age may puzzle men who happen to ponder seriously on first causes. I recall an afternoon when such playthings were being manufactured abundantly. Globular, oval, and sausage-shaped dollops of dark-grey mud were twirling and rolling on the fringe of listless wavelets. The uniformity of the several models and their apparent solidity excited curiosity. Upon investigation all the large examples were more or less coated with sand. Some were so completely and smoothly enveloped that they appeared to be actual balls of sand and shell grit. The mass, however, was found to be mud mixed with fine sand, with generally a shell or portion thereof, or a fragment of coral as a kernel or core. In fact, each of the dollops was a fair sample of the material of the ocean floor extending from the inner edge of the coral to the beach.

With so many samples in view one could observe the whole process of formation. The crescentic sweep of the wavelets rolled fragments of shell or coral in the mud, successive revolutions adding to the respective bulks by accretion. As the tide rose each piece was trundled on to the sloping beach, to be rolled and compressed until coated with a mosaic of white shell chips, angularities of silica and micaceous spangles, the finished article being cast aside as the tide receded.

Sometimes the wavelets did the kneading and rolling so clumsily that the nodule was malformed, but the majority were singularly symmetrical, evidencing nice adjustment between the degree of adhesiveness of the “pug” and the applied force of the wave. Several weighed nearly a quarter of a pound, while the majority were not much bigger than marbles, and the oval was the most frequent form.

Is it reasonable to conjecture that some of these singular formations which Neptune turned out by the score during an idle afternoon may be preserved — kernels of sedimentary rock each in a case of sandstone — throughout the wreck of matter to form the texts of scientific homilies in ages to come?

THE ATROCITY OF THE SNAKE

September 28, 1909.

A red snake discovered in a coop with a hen and clutch of chicks. The coop had been deemed snake-proof, but the slim snake had easily passed in at the half-inch mesh wire-netting in front. Upon investigation it was found that the snake had swallowed one chick (and had thereby become a prisoner), had killed three others and maimed a fifth so that it died, and that the hen had killed the snake by pecking its head. The snake (a non-venomous species) was about a yard long and had killed the chicks by constriction. If snakes are in the habit of killing more than they can eat of the broods of wild birds, how enormous the toll they take!

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