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- The Life of the Fly - 20/49 -
suspended hammock until the spinneret is level with the support furnished by the close tangle of rootlets. With a quick movement, it shifts its burden, gets it as nearly by the middle as it can, so that the two ends stick out equally on either side, and chooses the spot to place it, whereupon the spinneret sets to work at once, while the little fore legs hold the scrap of root motionless in its transversal position. The soldering is effected with a touch of silk in the middle of the bit and along a certain distance to the right and left, as far as the bending of the head permits.
Without delay, other sticks are speared in like manner at a distance, cut off and placed in position. As the immediate neighborhood is stripped, the material is gathered at a yet greater distance and the caddis worm bends even farther from its support, which now holds only its last few segments. It is a curious gymnastic display, that of this soft, hanging spine turning and swaying, while the grapnels feel in every direction for a thread.
All this labor results in a sort of casing of little white cords. The work lacks firmness and regularity. Nevertheless, judging by the builder's methods, I can see that the building would not be devoid of merit if the materials gave it a better chance. The caddis worm estimates the size of its pieces very fairly; it cuts them all to nearly the same length; it always arranges them crosswise on the margin of the case; it fixes them by the middle.
Nor is this all: the manner of working helps the general arrangement considerably. When the bricklayer is building the narrow shaft of a factory chimney, he stands in the center of his turret and turns round and round while gradually laying new rows. The caddis worm acts in the same way. It twists round in its sheath; it adopts without inconvenience whatever position it pleases, so as to bring its spinneret full face with the point to be gummed. There is no straining of the neck to left or right, no throwing back of the head to reach points behind. The animal has constantly before it, within the exact range of its implements, the place at which the bit is to be fixed. When the piece is soldered, the worm turns a little aside, to a length equal to that of the last soldering, and here, along an extent which hardly ever varies, an extent determined by the swing which its head is able to give, it fixes the next piece.
These several conditions ought to result in a geometrically ordered dwelling, having a regular polygon as an opening. Then how comes it that the cylinder of bits of root is so confused, so clumsily fashioned? The reason is this: the worker possesses talent, but the materials do not lend themselves to accurate work. The rootlets supply stumps of very uneven shape and thickness. They include big and small ones, straight and bent, simple and ramified. To combine all these dissimilar pieces into an orderly whole is hardly possible, all the more so as the caddis worm does not appear to attach very much importance to its cylinder, which is a temporary work, hurriedly constructed to afford a speedy shelter. Matters are urgent; and very soft fibers, clipped with a bite of the mandibles, are more quickly gathered and more easily put together than joists, which require the patient work of the saw. The inaccurate cylinder, in short, held in position by numerous guy ropes, is a base upon which a solid and definite structure will rise before long. Soon, the original work will crumble to ruins and disappear, whereas the new one, a permanent structure, will even outlast the owner.
The insects reared in a tumbler show yet another method of building the first dwelling. This time, the caddis worm is given a few very leafy stalks of pond weed (Potamogeton densum) and a bundle of small dry twigs. It perches on a leaf, which the nippers of the mandibles cut half across. The portion left untouched will act as a lanyard and give the necessary steadiness to the early operations.
From an adjoining leaf a section is cut out entirely, an angular and good sized piece. There is plenty of material and no need for economy. The piece is soldered with silk to the strip which was not wholly cut off. The result of three or four similar operations is to surround the Caddis worm with a conical bag, whose wide mouth is scalloped with pointed and very irregular notches. The work of the nippers continues; fresh pieces are fixed, from one to another, inside the funnel, not far from the edge, so that the bag lengthens, tapers and ends by wrapping the animal in a light and floating drapery.
Thus clad for the time being, either in the fine silk of the pond weed or in the linsey-woolsey supplied by the roots of the watercress, the caddis worm begins to think of building a more solid sheath. The present casing will serve as a foundation for the stronger building. But the necessary materials are seldom near at hand: you have to go and fetch them, you have to move your position, an effort which has been avoided until now. With this object, the caddis worm cuts its moorings, that is to say, the rootlets which keep the cylinder fixed, or else the half-severed leaf of pond weed on which the cone-shaped bag has come into being.
The worm is now free. The smallness of the artificial pond, the tumbler, soon brings it into touch with what it is seeking. This is a little faggot of dry twigs, which I have selected of equal length and of slight thickness. Displaying greater care than it did when treating the slender roots, the carpenter measures out the requisite length on the joist. The distance to which it has to extend its body in order to reach the point where the break will be made tells it pretty accurately what length of stick it wants.
The piece is patiently sawn off with the mandibles; it is next taken in the fore legs and held crosswise below the neck. The backward movement which brings the caddis worm home also brings the bit of twig to the edge of the tube. Thereupon, the methods employed in working with the scraps of root are renewed in precisely the same manner. The sticks are scaffolded to the regulation height, all alike in length, amply soldered in the middle and free at either end.
With the picked materials provided, the carpenter has turned out a work of some elegance. The joists are all arranged crosswise, because this way is the handiest for carrying the sticks and putting them in position; they are fixed by the middle, because the two arms that hold the stick while the spinneret does its work require an equal grasp on either side; each soldering covers a length which is seen to be practically invariable, because it is equal to the width described by the head in bending first to this side and then to that when the silk is emitted; the whole assumes a polygonal shape, not far removed from a rectilinear pentagon, because, between laying one piece and the next, the caddis worm turns by the width of an arc corresponding with the length of a soldering. The regularity of the method produces the regularity of the work; but it is essential, of course, that the materials should lend themselves to precise coordination.
In its natural pond, the caddis worm does not often have at its disposal the picked joists which I give it in the tumbler. It comes across something of everything; and that something of everything it employs as it finds it. Bits of wood, large seeds, empty shells, stubble stalks, shapeless fragments are used in the building for better or for worse, just as they occur, without being trimmed by the saw; and this jumble, the result of chance, results in a shockingly faulty structure.
The caddis worm does not forget its talents; but it lacks choice pieces. Give it a proper timber yard and it at once reverts to correct architecture, of which it carries the plans within itself. With small, dead pond snails, all of the same size, it fashions a splendid patchwork scabbard; with a cluster of slender roots, reduced by rotting to their stiff, straight, woody axis, it manufactures pretty specimens of wicker work which could serve as models to our basket makers.
Let us watch it at work when it is unable to use its favorite joist. There is no point in giving it clumsy building stones; that would only bring us back to the uncouth sheaths. Its propensity to make use of soaked seeds, those of the iris, for instance, suggests that I might try grains. I select rice, which, because of its hardness, will be tantamount to wood and, because of its clean whiteness and its oval shape, will lend itself to artistic masonry.
Obviously, my denuded caddis worms cannot start their work with bricks of this kind. Where would they fix their first layer? They must have a foundation, quick and easy to build. This is once more supplied by a temporary cylinder of watercress roots. On this support follow the grains of rice, which, grouped one atop the other, straight or slanting, end by giving a magnificent turret of ivory. Next to the sheaths made of tiny snail shells, this is the prettiest thing with which the caddis worm's industry has furnished me. A fine sense of order has returned, because the materials, regular and of identical character, have cooperated with the correct method of the worker.
The two demonstrations are enough. Sticks and grains of rice make it plain that the caddis worm is not the bungler that one would expect from the monstrous buildings in the pond. Those Cyclopean piles, those mad conglomerations, are the inevitable results of chance finds, which are used for the best because there is no choice. The water carpenter has an art of its own, has method and rules of symmetry. When well served by fortune, it is quite able to turn out good work; when ill-served, it acts like others: the work which it turns out is bad. Poverty makes for ugliness.
There is another matter wherein the caddis worm deserves our attention. With a perseverance which repeated trials do not tire, it makes itself a new tube when I strip it. This is opposed to the habits of the generality of insects, which do not recommence the thing once done, but simply continue it according to the usual rules, taking no account of the ruined or vanished portions. The caddis worm is a striking exception: it starts again. Whence does it derive this capacity?
I begin by learning that, given a sudden alarm, it readily leaves its scabbard. When I go fishing for caddis worms, I put them in tin boxes, containing no other moisture than that wherewith my catches are soaked. I heap them up loosely, to avoid any grievous tumult and to fill the space at my disposal as best I may. I take no further precaution. This is enough to keep the caddis worms in good condition during the two or three hours which I devote to fishing and to walking home.
On my return, I find that a number of them have left their houses. They are swarming naked among the empty scabbards and those still occupied by their inhabitants. It is a pitiful sight to see these evicted ones dragging their bare abdomens and their frail respiratory threads over the bristling sticks. There is no great harm done, however; and I empty the whole lot into the glass pond.
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