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- The Wonders of Instinct - 5/12 -
They proceed in single file, in a continuous row, each touching with its head the rear of the one in front of it. The complex twists and turns described in his vagaries by the caterpillar leading the van are scrupulously described by all the others. No Greek theoria winding its way to the Eleusinian festivals was ever more orderly. Hence the name of Processionary given to the gnawer of the pine.
His character is complete when we add that he is a rope-dancer all his life long: he walks only on the tight-rope, a silken rail placed in position as he advances. The caterpillar who chances to be at the head of the procession dribbles his thread without ceasing and fixes it on the path which his fickle preferences cause him to take. The thread is so tiny that the eye, though armed with a magnifying-glass, suspects it rather than sees it.
But a second caterpillar steps on the slender foot-board and doubles it with his thread; a third trebles it; and all the others, however many there be, add the sticky spray from their spinnerets, so much so that, when the procession has marched by, there remains, as a record of its passing, a narrow white ribbon whose dazzling whiteness shimmers in the sun. Very much more sumptuous than ours, their system of road-making consists in upholstering with silk instead of macadamizing. We sprinkle our roads with broken stones and level them by the pressure of a heavy steam-roller; they lay over their paths a soft satin rail, a work of general interest to which each contributes his thread.
What is the use of all this luxury? Could they not, like other caterpillars, walk about without these costly preparations? I see two reasons for their mode of progression. It is night when the Processionaries sally forth to browse upon the pine-leaves. They leave their nest, situated at the top of a bough, in profound darkness; they go down the denuded pole till they come to the nearest branch that has not yet been gnawed, a branch which becomes lower and lower by degrees as the consumers finish stripping the upper storeys; they climb up this untouched branch and spread over the green needles.
When they have had their suppers and begin to feel the keen night air, the next thing is to return to the shelter of the house. Measured in a straight line, the distance is not great, hardly an arm's length; but it cannot be covered in this way on foot. The caterpillars have to climb down from one crossing to the next, from the needle to the twig, from the twig to the branch, from the branch to the bough and from the bough, by a no less angular path, to go back home. It is useless to rely upon sight as a guide on this long and erratic journey. The Processionary, it is true, has five ocular specks on either side of his head, but they are so infinitesimal, so difficult to make out through the magnifying-glass, that we cannot attribute to them any great power of vision. Besides, what good would those short-sighted lenses be in the absence of light, in black darkness?
It is equally useless to think of the sense of smell. Has the Processional any olfactory powers or has he not? I do not know. Without giving a positive answer to the question, I can at least declare that his sense of smell is exceedingly dull and in no way suited to help him find his way. This is proved, in my experiments, by a number of hungry caterpillars that, after a long fast, pass close beside a pine-branch without betraying any eagerness of showing a sign of stopping. It is the sense of touch that tells them where they are. So long as their lips do not chance to light upon the pasture-land, not one of them settles there, though he be ravenous. They do not hasten to food which they have scented from afar; they stop at a branch which they encounter on their way.
Apart from sight and smell, what remains to guide them in returning to the nest? The ribbon spun on the road. In the Cretan labyrinth, Theseus would have been lost but for the clue of thread with which Ariadne supplied him. The spreading maze of the pine-needles is, especially at night, as inextricable a labyrinth as that constructed for Minos. The Processionary finds his way through it, without the possibility of a mistake, by the aid of his bit of silk. At the time for going home, each easily recovers either his own thread or one or other of the neighbouring threads, spread fanwise by the diverging herd; one by one the scattered tribe line up on the common ribbon, which started from the nest; and the sated caravan finds its way back to the manor with absolute certainty.
Longer expeditions are made in the daytime, even in winter, if the weather be fine. Our caterpillars then come down from the tree, venture on the ground, march in procession for a distance of thirty yards or so. The object of these sallies is not to look for food, for the native pine-tree is far from being exhausted: the shorn branches hardly count amid the vast leafage. Moreover, the caterpillars observe complete abstinence till nightfall. The trippers have no other object than a constitutional, a pilgrimage to the outskirts to see what these are like, possibly an inspection of the locality where, later on, they mean to bury themselves in the sand for their metamorphosis.
It goes without saying that, in these greater evolutions, the guiding cord is not neglected. It is now more necessary than ever. All contribute to it from the produce of their spinnerets, as is the invariable rule whenever there is a progression. Not one takes a step forward without fixing to the path the thread from his lips.
If the series forming the procession be at all long, the ribbon is dilated sufficiently to make it easy to find; nevertheless, on the homeward journey, it is not picked up without some hesitation. For observe that the caterpillars when on the march never turn completely; to wheel round on their tight-rope is a method utterly unknown to them. In order therefore to regain the road already covered, they have to describe a zigzag whose windings and extent are determined by the leader's fancy. Hence come gropings and roamings which are sometimes prolonged to the point of causing the herd to spend the night out of doors. It is not a serious matter. They collect into a motionless cluster. To-morrow the search will start afresh and will sooner or later be successful. Oftener still the winding curve meets the guide-thread at the first attempt. As soon as the first caterpillar has the rail between his legs, all hesitation ceases; and the band makes for the nest with hurried steps.
The use of this silk-tapestried roadway is evident from a second point of view. To protect himself against the severity of the winter which he has to face when working, the Pine Caterpillar weaves himself a shelter in which he spends his bad hours, his days of enforced idleness. Alone, with none but the meagre resources of his silk-glands, he would find difficulty in protecting himself on the top of a branch buffeted by the winds. A substantial dwelling, proof against snow, gales and icy fogs, requires the cooperation of a large number. Out of the individual's piled-up atoms, the community obtains a spacious and durable establishment.
The enterprise takes a long time to complete. Every evening, when the weather permits, the building has to be strengthened and enlarged. It is indispensable, therefore, that the corporation of workers should not be dissolved while the stormy season continues and the insects are still in the caterpillar stage. But, without special arrangements, each nocturnal expedition at grazing-time would be a cause of separation. At that moment of appetite for food there is a return to individualism. The caterpillars become more or less scattered, settling singly on the branches around; each browses his pine-needle separately. How are they to find one another afterwards and become a community again?
The several threads left on the road make this easy. With that guide, every caterpillar, however far he may be, comes back to his companions without ever missing the way. They come hurrying from a host of twigs, from here, from there, from above, from below; and soon the scattered legion reforms into a group. The silk thread is something more than a road-making expedient: it is the social bond, the system that keeps the members of the brotherhood indissolubly united.
At the head of every procession, long or short, goes a first caterpillar whom I will call the leader of the march or file, though the word leader, which I use for the want of a better, is a little out of place here. Nothing, in fact, distinguishes this caterpillar from the others: it just depends upon the order in which they happen to line up; and mere chance brings him to the front. Among the Processionaries, every captain is an officer of fortune. The actual leader leads; presently he will be a subaltern, if the line should break up in consequence of some accident and be formed anew in a different order.
His temporary functions give him an attitude of his own. While the others follow passively in a close file, he, the captain, tosses himself about and with an abrupt movement flings the front of his body hither and thither. As he marches ahead he seems to be seeking his way. Does he in point of fact explore the country? Does he choose the most practicable places? Or are his hesitations merely the result of the absence of a guiding thread on ground that has not yet been covered? His subordinates follow very placidly, reassured by the cord which they hold between their legs; he, deprived of that support, is uneasy.
Why cannot I read what passes under his black, shiny skull, so like a drop of tar to look at? To judge by actions, there is here a modicum of discernment which is able, after experimenting, to recognize excessive roughnesses, over-slippery surfaces, dusty places that offer no resistance and, above all, the threads left by other excursionists. This is all or nearly all that my long acquaintance with the Processionaries has taught me as to their mentality. Poor brains, indeed; poor creatures, whose commonwealth has its safety hanging upon a thread!
The processions vary greatly in length. The finest that I have seen manoeuvring on the ground measured twelve or thirteen yards and numbered about three hundred caterpillars, drawn up with absolute precision in a wavy line. But, if there were only two in a row the order would still be perfect: the second touches and follows the first.
By February I have processions of all lengths in the greenhouse. What tricks can I play upon them? I see only two: to do away with the leader; and to cut the thread.
The suppression of the leader of the file produces nothing striking. If the thing is done without creating a disturbance, the procession does not alter its ways at all. The second caterpillar, promoted to captain, knows the duties of his rank off-hand: he selects and leads, or rather he hesitates and gropes.
The breaking of the silk ribbon is not very important either. I remove a caterpillar from the middle of the file. With my scissors, so as not to cause a commotion in the ranks, I cut the piece of ribbon on which he stood and clear away every thread of it. As a result of this breach, the procession acquires two marching leaders, each independent of the other. It may be that the one in the rear joins the file ahead of him, from which he is separated by but a slender interval; in that case, things return to their original condition. More frequently, the two parts do not become reunited. In that case, we have two distinct processions, each of which wanders where it pleases and diverges from the other. Nevertheless, both will be able to return to the nest by discovering sooner or later, in the course of their peregrinations, the ribbon on the other side of the break.
These two experiments are only moderately interesting. I have thought out another, one more fertile in possibilities. I propose to make the caterpillars describe a close circuit, after the ribbons running from it and liable to bring about a change of direction have been destroyed. The locomotive engine pursues its invariable course so long as it is not shunted on to a branch-line. If the Processionaries find the silken rail always clear in front of them, with no switches anywhere, will they continue on the same track, will they persist in following a road that never comes to an end? What we have to do is to produce this circuit, which is unknown under ordinary conditions, by artificial means.
The first idea that suggests itself is to seize with the forceps the silk ribbon at the back of the train, to bend it without shaking it and to bring the end of it ahead of the file. If the caterpillar marching in the van steps upon it, the thing is done: the others will follow him faithfully. The operation is very simple in theory but most difficult in practice and produces no useful results. The ribbon, which is extremely slight, breaks under the weight of the grains of sand that stick to it and are lifted with it. If it does not break, the caterpillars at the back, however delicately we may go to work, feel a disturbance which makes them curl up or even let go.
There is a yet greater difficulty: the leader refuses the ribbon laid before him; the cut end makes him distrustful. Failing to see the regular, uninterrupted road, he slants off to the right or left, he escapes at a tangent. If I try to interfere and to bring him back to the path of my choosing, he persists in his refusal, shrivels up, does not budge, and soon the whole procession is in confusion. We will not insist: the method is a poor one, very wasteful of effort for at best a problematical success.
We ought to interfere as little as possible and obtain a natural closed circuit. Can it be done? Yes. It lies in our power, without the least meddling, to see a procession march along a perfect circular track. I owe this result, which is eminently deserving of our attention, to pure chance.
On the shelf with the layer of sand in which the nests are planted stand some big palm-vases measuring nearly a yard and a half in circumference at the top. The caterpillars often scale the sides and climb up to the moulding which forms a cornice around the opening. This place suits them for their processions, perhaps because of the absolute firmness of the surface, where there is no fear of landslides, as on the loose, sandy soil below; and also, perhaps, because of the horizontal position, which is favourable to repose after the fatigue of the ascent. It provides me with a circular track all ready-made. I have nothing to do but wait for an occasion propitious to my plans. This occasion is not long in coming.
On the 30th of January, 1896, a little before twelve o'clock in the day, I discover a numerous troop making their way up and gradually reaching the popular cornice. Slowly, in single file, the caterpillars climb the great vase, mount the ledge and advance in regular procession, while others are constantly arriving and continuing the series. I wait for the string to close up, that is to say, for the leader, who keeps following the circular moulding, to return to the point from which he started. My object is achieved in a quarter of an hour. The closed circuit is realized magnificently, in something very nearly approaching a circle.
The next thing is to get rid of the rest of the ascending column, which would disturb the fine order of the procession by an excess of newcomers; it is also important that we should do away with all the silken paths, both new and old, that can put the cornice into communication with the ground. With a thick hair-pencil I sweep away the surplus climbers; with a big brush, one that leaves no smell behind it--for this might afterwards prove confusing--I carefully rub down the vase and get rid of every thread which the caterpillars have laid on the march. When these preparations are finished, a curious sight awaits us.
In the interrupted circular procession there is no longer a leader. Each caterpillar is preceded by another on whose heels he follows guided by the silk track, the work of the whole party; he again has a companion close behind him, following him in the same orderly way. And this is repeated without variation throughout the length of the chain. None commands, or rather none modifies the trail according to his fancy; all obey, trusting in the guide who ought normally to lead the march and who in reality has been abolished by my trickery.
From the first circuit of the edge of the tub the rail of silk has been laid in position and is soon turned into a narrow ribbon by the procession, which never ceases dribbling its thread as it goes. The rail is simply doubled and has no branches anywhere, for my brush has destroyed them all. What will the caterpillars do on this deceptive, closed path? Will they walk endlessly round and round until their strength gives out entirely?
The old schoolmen were fond of quoting Buridan's Ass, that famous Donkey who, when placed between two bundles of hay, starved to death because he was unable to decide in favour of either by breaking the equilibrium between two equal but opposite attractions. They slandered the worthy animal. The Ass, who is no more foolish than any one else, would reply to the logical snare by feasting off both bundles. Will my caterpillars show a little of his mother wit? Will they, after many attempts, be able to break the equilibrium of their closed circuit, which keeps them on a road without a turning? Will they make up their minds to swerve to this side or that, which is the only method of reaching their bundle of hay, the green branch yonder, quite near, not two feet off?
I thought that they would and I was wrong. I said to myself:
"The procession will go on turning for some time, for an hour, two hours, perhaps; then the caterpillars will perceive their mistake. They will abandon the deceptive road and make their descent somewhere or other."
That they should remain up there, hard pressed by hunger and the lack of cover, when nothing prevented them from going away, seemed to me inconceivable imbecility. Facts, however, forced me to accept the incredible. Let us describe them in detail.
The circular procession begins, as I have said, on the 30th of January, about midday, in splendid weather. The caterpillars march at an even pace, each touching the stern of the one in front of him. The unbroken chain eliminates the leader with his changes of direction; and all follow mechanically, as faithful to their circle as are the hands of a watch. The headless file has no liberty left, no will; it has become mere clockwork. And this continues for hours and hours. My success goes far beyond my wildest suspicions. I stand amazed at it, or rather I am stupefied.
Meanwhile, the multiplied circuits change the original rail into a superb ribbon a twelfth of an inch broad. I can easily see it glittering on the red ground of the pot. The day is drawing to a close and no alteration has yet taken place in the position of the trail. A striking proof confirms this.
The trajectory is not a plane curve, but one which, at a certain point, deviates and goes down a little way to the lower surface of the cornice, returning to the top some eight inches farther. I marked these two points of deviation in pencil on the vase at the outset. Well, all that afternoon and, more conclusive still, on the following days, right to the end of this mad dance, I see the string of caterpillars dip under the ledge at the first point and come to the top again at the second. Once the first thread is laid, the road to be pursued is permanently established.
If the road does not vary, the speed does. I measure nine centimetres (3 1/2 inches.--Translator's Note.) a minute as the average distance covered. But there are more or less lengthy halts; the pace slackens at times, especially when the temperature falls. At ten o'clock in the evening the walk is little more than a lazy swaying of the body. I foresee an early halt, in consequence of the cold, of fatigue and doubtless also of hunger.
Grazing-time has arrived. The caterpillars have come crowding from all the nests in the greenhouse to browse upon the pine-branches planted by myself beside the silken purses. Those in the garden do the same, for the temperature is mild. The others, lined up along the earthenware cornice, would gladly take part in the feast; they are bound to have an appetite after a ten hours' walk. The branch stands green and tempting not a hand's-breadth away. To reach it they need but go down; and the poor wretches, foolish slaves of their ribbon that they are, cannot make up their minds to do so. I leave the famished ones at half-past ten, persuaded that they will take counsel with their pillow and that on the morrow things will have resumed their ordinary course.
I was wrong. I was expecting too much of them when I accorded them that faint gleam of intelligence which the tribulations of a distressful stomach ought, one would think, to have aroused. I visit them at dawn. They are lined up as on the day before, but motionless. When the air grows a little warmer, they shake off their torpor, revive and start walking again. The circular procession begins anew, like that which I have already seen. There is nothing more and nothing less to be noted in their machine-like obstinacy.
This time it is a bitter night. A cold snap has supervened, was indeed foretold in the evening by the garden caterpillars, who refused to come out despite appearances which to my duller senses seemed to promise a continuation of the fine weather. At daybreak the rosemary-walks are all asparkle with rime and for the second time this year there is a sharp frost. The large pond in the garden is frozen over. What can the caterpillars in the conservatory be doing? Let us go and see.
All are ensconced in their nests, except the stubborn processionists on the edge of the vase, who, deprived of shelter as they are, seem to have spent a very bad night. I find them clustered in two heaps, without any attempt at order. They have suffered less from the cold, thus huddled together.
'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The severity of the night has caused the ring to break into two segments which will, perhaps, afford a chance of safety. Each group, as it survives and resumes its walk, will presently be headed by a leader who, not being obliged to follow a caterpillar in front of him, will possess some liberty of movement and perhaps be able to make the procession swerve to one side. Remember that, in the ordinary processions, the caterpillar walking ahead acts as a scout. While the others, if nothing occurs to create excitement, keep to their ranks, he attends to his duties as a leader and is continually turning his head to this side and that, investigating, seeking, groping, making his choice. And things happen as he decides: the band follows him faithfully. Remember also that, even on a road which has already been travelled and beribboned, the guiding caterpillar continues to explore.
There is reason to believe that the Processionaries who have lost their way on the ledge will find a chance of safety here. Let us watch them. On recovering from their torpor, the two groups line up by degrees into two distinct files. There are therefore two leaders, free to go where they please, independent of each other. Will they succeed in leaving the enchanted circle? At the sight of their large black heads swaying anxiously from side to side, I am inclined to think so for a moment. But I am soon undeceived. As the ranks fill out, the two sections of the chain meet and the circle is reconstituted. The momentary leaders once more become simple subordinates; and again the caterpillars march round and round all day.
For the second time in succession, the night, which is very calm and magnificently starry, brings a hard frost. In the morning the Processionaries on the tub, the only ones who have camped unsheltered, are gathered into a heap which largely overflows both sides of the fatal ribbon. I am present at the awakening of the numbed ones. The first to take the road is, as luck will have it, outside the track. Hesitatingly he ventures into unknown ground. He reaches the top of the rim and descends upon the other side on the earth in the vase. He is followed by six others, no more. Perhaps the rest of the troop, who have not fully recovered from their nocturnal torpor, are too lazy to bestir themselves.
The result of this brief delay is a return to the old track. The caterpillars embark on the silken trail and the circular march is resumed, this time in the form of a ring with a gap in it. There is no attempt, however, to strike a new course on the part of the guide whom this gap has placed at the head. A chance of stepping outside the magic circle has presented itself at last; and he does not know how to avail himself of it.
As for the caterpillars who have made their way to the inside of the vase, their lot is hardly improved. They climb to the top of the palm, starving and seeking for food. Finding nothing to eat that suits them, they retrace their steps by following the thread which they have left on the way, climb the ledge of the pot, strike the procession again and, without further anxiety, slip back into the ranks. Once more the ring is complete, once more the circle turns and turns.
Then when will the deliverance come? There is a legend that tells of poor souls dragged along in an endless round until the hellish charm is broken by a drop of holy water. What drop will good fortune sprinkle on my Processionaries to dissolve their circle and bring them back to the nest? I see only two means of conjuring the spell and obtaining a release from the circuit. These two means are two painful ordeals. A strange linking of cause and effect: from sorrow and wretchedness good is to come.
And, first, shriveling as the result of cold, the caterpillars gather together without any order, heap themselves some on the path, some, more numerous these, outside it. Among the latter there may be, sooner or later, some revolutionary who, scorning the beaten track, will trace out a new road and lead the troop back home. We have just seen an instance of it. Seven penetrated to the interior of the vase and climbed the palm. True, it was an attempt with no result but still an attempt. For complete success, all that need be done would have been to take the opposite slope. An even chance is a great thing. Another time we shall be more successful.
In the second place, the exhaustion due to fatigue and hunger. A lame one stops, unable to go farther. In front of the defaulter the procession still continues to wend its way for a short time. The ranks close up and an empty space appears. On coming to himself and resuming the march, the caterpillar who has caused the breach becomes a leader, having nothing before him. The least desire for emancipation is all that he wants to make him launch the band into a new path which perhaps will be the saving path.
In short, when the Processionaries' train is in difficulties, what it needs, unlike ours, is to run off the rails. The side-tracking is left to the caprice of a leader who alone is capable of turning to the right or left; and this leader is absolutely non-existent so long as the ring remains unbroken. Lastly, the breaking of the circle, the one stroke of luck, is the result of a chaotic halt, caused principally by excess of fatigue or cold.
The liberating accident, especially that of fatigue, occurs fairly often. In the course of the same day, the moving circumference is cut up several times into two or three sections; but continuity soon returns and no change takes place. Things go on just the same. The bold innovator who is to save the situation has not yet had his inspiration.
There is nothing new on the fourth day, after an icy night like the previous one; nothing to tell except the following detail. Yesterday I did not remove the trace left by the few caterpillars who made their way to the inside of the vase. This trace, together with a junction connecting it with the circular road, is discovered in the course of the morning. Half the troop takes advantage of it to visit the earth in the pot and climb the palm; the other half remains on the ledge and continues to walk along the old rail. In the afternoon the band of emigrants rejoins the others, the circuit is completed and things return to their original condition.
We come to the fifth day. The night frost becomes more intense, without however as yet reaching the greenhouse. It is followed by bright sunshine in a calm and limpid sky. As soon as the sun's rays have warmed the panes a little, the caterpillars, lying in heaps, wake up and resume their evolutions on the ledge of the vase. This time the fine order of the beginning is disturbed and a certain disorder becomes manifest, apparently an omen of deliverance near at hand. The scouting-path inside the vase, which was upholstered in silk yesterday and the day before, is to-day followed to its origin on the rim by a part of the band and is then deserted after a short loop. The other caterpillars follow the usual ribbon. The result of this bifurcation is two almost equal files, walking along the ledge in the same direction, at a short distance from each other, sometimes meeting, separating farther on, in every case with some lack of order.
Weariness increases the confusion. The crippled, who refuse to go on, are many. Breaches increase; files are split up into sections each of which has its leader, who pokes the front of his body this way and that to explore the ground. Everything seems to point to the disintegration which will bring safety. My hopes are once more disappointed. Before the night the single file is reconstituted and the invincible gyration resumed.
Heat comes, just as suddenly as the cold did. To-day, the 4th of February, is a beautiful, mild day. The greenhouse is full of life. Numerous festoons of caterpillars, issuing from the nests, meander along the sand on the shelf. Above them, at every moment, the ring on the ledge of the vase breaks up and comes together again. For the first time I see daring leaders who, drunk with heat, standing only on their hinder prolegs at the extreme edge of the earthenware rim, fling themselves forward into space, twisting about, sounding the depths. The endeavour is frequently repeated, while the whole troop stops. The caterpillars' heads give sudden jerks, their bodies wriggle.
One of the pioneers decides to take the plunge. He slips under the ledge. Four follow him. The others, still confiding in the perfidious silken path, dare not copy him and continue to go along the old road.
The short string detached from the general chain gropes about a great deal, hesitates long on the side of the vase; it goes half-way down, then climbs up again slantwise, rejoins and takes its place in the procession. This time the attempt has failed, though at the foot of the vase, not nine inches away, there lay a bunch of pine-needles which I had placed there with the object of enticing the hungry ones. Smell and sight told them nothing. Near as they were to the goal, they went up again.
No matter, the endeavour has its uses. Threads were laid on the way and will serve as a lure to further enterprise. The road of deliverance has its first landmarks. And, two days later, on the eighth day of the experiment, the caterpillars--now singly, anon in small groups, then again in strings of some length--come down from the ledge by following the staked-out path. At sunset the last of the laggards is back in the nest.
Now for a little arithmetic. For seven times twenty-four hours the caterpillars have remained on the ledge of the vase. To make an ample allowance for stops due to the weariness of this one or that and above all for the rest taken during the colder hours of the night, we will deduct one-half of the time. This leaves eighty-four hours' walking. The average pace is nine centimetres a minute. (3 1/2 inches.--Translator's Note.) The aggregate distance covered, therefore, is 453 metres, a good deal more than a quarter of a mile, which is a great walk for these little crawlers. The circumference of the vase, the perimeter of the track, is exactly 1 metre 35. (4 feet 5 inches.--Translator's Note.) Therefore the circle covered, always in the same direction and always without result, was described three hundred and thirty-five times.
These figures surprise me, though I am already familiar with the abysmal stupidity of insects as a class whenever the least accident occurs. I feel inclined to ask myself whether the Processionaries were not kept up there so long by the difficulties and dangers of the descent rather than by the lack of any gleam of intelligence in their benighted minds. The facts, however, reply that the descent is as easy as the ascent.
The caterpillar has a very supple back, well adapted for twisting round projections or slipping underneath. He can walk with the same ease vertically or horizontally, with his back down or up. Besides, he never moves forward until he has fixed his thread to the ground. With this support to his feet, he has no falls to fear, no matter what his position.
I had a proof of this before my eyes during a whole week. As I have already said, the track, instead of keeping on one level, bends twice, dips at a certain point under the ledge of the vase and reappears at the top a little farther on. At one part of the circuit, therefore, the procession walks on the lower surface of the rim; and this inverted position implies so little discomfort or danger that it is renewed at each turn for all the caterpillars from first to last.
It is out of the question then to suggest the dread of a false step on the edge of the rim which is so nimbly turned at each point of inflexion. The caterpillars in distress, starved, shelterless, chilled with cold at night, cling obstinately to the silk ribbon covered hundreds of times, because they lack the rudimentary glimmers of reason which would advise them to abandon it.
Experience and reflection are not in their province. The ordeal of a five hundred yards' march and three to four hundred turns teach them nothing; and it takes casual circumstances to bring them back to the nest. They would perish on their insidious ribbon if the disorder of the nocturnal encampments and the halts due to fatigue did not cast a few threads outside the circular path. Some three or four move along these trails, laid without an object, stray a little way and, thanks to their wanderings, prepare the descent, which is at last accomplished in short strings favoured by chance.
The school most highly honoured to-day is very anxious to find the origin of reason in the dregs of the animal kingdom. Let me call its attention to the Pine Processionary.
CHAPTER 9. THE SPIDERS.
THE NARBONNE LYCOSA, OR BLACK-BELLIED TARANTULA.
Michelet has told us how, as a printer's apprentice in a cellar, he established amicable relations with a Spider. (Jules Michelet (1798-1874), author of "L'Oiseau" and "L'Insecte," in addition to the historical works for which he is chiefly known. As a lad, he helped his father, a printer by trade, in setting type.--Translator's Note.) At a certain hour of the day, a ray of sunlight would glint through the window of the gloomy workshop and light up the little compositor's case. Then his eight-legged neighbour would come down from her web and on the edge of the case take her share of the sunshine. The boy did not interfere with her; he welcomed the trusting visitor as a friend and as a pleasant diversion from the long monotony. When we lack the society of our fellow-men, we take refuge in that of animals, without always losing by the change.
I do not, thank God, suffer from the melancholy of a cellar: my solitude is gay with light and verdure; I attend, whenever I please, the fields' high festival, the Thrushes' concert, the Crickets' symphony; and yet my friendly commerce with the Spider is marked by an even greater devotion than the young type-setter's. I admit her to the intimacy of my study, I make room for her among my books, I set her in the sun on my window-ledge, I visit her assiduously at her home, in the country. The object of our relations is not to create a means of escape from the petty worries of life, pin-pricks whereof I have my share like other men, a very large share, indeed; I propose to submit to the Spider a host of questions whereto, at times, she condescends to reply.
To what fair problems does not the habit of frequenting her give rise! To set them forth worthily, the marvellous art which the little printer was to acquire were not too much. One needs the pen of a Michelet; and I have but a rough, blunt pencil. Let us try, nevertheless: even when poorly clad, truth is still beautiful.
The most robust Spider in my district is the Narbonne Lycosa, or Black-bellied Tarantula, clad in black velvet on the lower surface, especially under the belly, with brown chevrons on the abdomen and grey and white rings around the legs. Her favourite home is the dry, pebbly ground, covered with sun-scorched thyme. In my harmas laboratory there are quite twenty of this Spider's burrows. Rarely do I pass by one of these haunts without giving a glance down the pit where gleam, like diamonds, the four great eyes, the four telescopes, of the hermit. The four others, which are much smaller, are not visible at that depth.
Would I have greater riches, I have but to walk a hundred yards from my house, on the neighbouring plateau, once a shady forest, to-day a dreary solitude where the Cricket browses and the Wheat-ear flits from stone to stone. The love of lucre has laid waste the land. Because wine paid handsomely, they pulled up the forest to plant the vine. Then came the Phylloxera, the vine-stocks perished and the once green table-land is now no more than a desolate stretch where a few tufts of hardy grasses sprout among the pebbles. This waste-land is the Lycosa's paradise: in an hour's time, if need were, I should discover a hundred burrows within a limited range.
These dwellings are pits about a foot deep, perpendicular at first and then bent elbow-wise. The average diameter is an inch. On the edge of the hole stands a kerb, formed of straw, bits and scraps of all sorts and even small pebbles, the size of a hazel-nut. The whole is kept in place and cemented with silk. Often, the Spider confines herself to drawing together the dry blades of the nearest grass, which she ties down with the straps from her spinnerets, without removing the blades from the stems; often, also, she rejects this scaffolding in favour of a masonry constructed of small stones. The nature of the kerb is decided by the nature of the materials within the Lycosa's reach, in the close neighbourhood of the building-yard. There is no selection: everything meets with approval, provided that it be near at hand.
The direction is perpendicular, in so far as obstacles, frequent in a soil of this kind, permit. A bit of gravel can be extracted and hoisted outside; but a flint is an immovable boulder which the Spider avoids by giving a bend to her gallery. If more such are met with, the residence becomes a winding cave, with stone vaults, with lobbies communicating by means of sharp passages.
This lack of plan has no attendant drawbacks, so well does the owner, from long habit, know every corner and storey of her mansion. If any interesting buzz occur overhead, the Lycosa climbs up from her rugged manor with the same speed as from a vertical shaft. Perhaps she even finds the windings and turnings an advantage, when she has to drag into her den a prey that happens to defend itself.
As a rule, the end of the burrow widens into a side-chamber, a lounge or resting-place where the Spider meditates at length and is content to lead a life of quiet when her belly is full.
When she reaches maturity and is once settled, the Lycosa becomes eminently domesticated. I have been living in close communion with her for the last three years. I have installed her in large earthen pans on the window-sills of my study and I have her daily under my eyes. Well, it is very rarely that I happen on her outside, a few inches from her hole, back to which she bolts at the least alarm.
We may take it then that, when not in captivity, the Lycosa does not go far afield to gather the wherewithal to build her parapet and that she makes shift with what she finds upon her threshold. In these conditions, the building-stones are soon exhausted and the masonry ceases for lack of materials.
The wish came over me to see what dimensions the circular edifice would assume, if the Spider were given an unlimited supply. With captives to whom I myself act as purveyor the thing is easy enough. Were it only with a view to helping whoso may one day care to continue these relations with the big Spider of the waste-lands, let me describe how my subjects are housed.
A good-sized earthenware pan, some nine inches deep, is filled with a red, clayey earth, rich in pebbles, similar, in short, to that of the places haunted by the Lycosa. Properly moistened into a paste, the artificial soil is heaped, layer by layer, around a central reed, of a bore equal to that of the animal's natural burrow. When the receptacle is filled to the top, I withdraw the reed, which leaves a yawning, perpendicular shaft. I thus obtain the abode which shall replace that of the fields.
To find the hermit to inhabit it is merely the matter of a walk in the neighbourhood. When removed from her own dwelling, which is turned topsy-turvy by my trowel, and placed in possession of the den produced by my art, the Lycosa at once disappears into that den. She does not come out again, seeks nothing better elsewhere. A large wire-gauze cover rests on the soil in the pan and prevents escape.
In any case, the watch, in this respect, makes no demand upon my diligence. The prisoner is satisfied with her new abode and manifests no regret for her natural burrow. There is no attempt at flight on her part. Let me not omit to add that each pan must receive not more than one inhabitant. The Lycosa is very intolerant. To her a neighbour is fair game, to be eaten without scruple when one has might on one's side. Time was when, unaware of this fierce intolerance, which is more savage still at breeding time, I saw hideous orgies perpetrated in my overstocked cages. I shall have occasion to describe those tragedies later.
Let us meanwhile consider the isolated Lycosae. They do not touch up the dwelling which I have moulded for them with a bit of reed; at most, now and again, perhaps with the object of forming a lounge or bedroom at the bottom, they fling out a few loads of rubbish. But all, little by little, build the kerb that is to edge the mouth.
I have given them plenty of first-rate materials, far superior to those which they use when left to their own resources. These consist, first, for the foundations, of little smooth stones, some of which are as large as an almond. With this road-metal are mingled short strips of raphia, or palm-fibre, flexible ribbons, easily bent. These stand for the Spider's usual basket-work, consisting of slender stalks and dry blades of grass. Lastly, by way of an unprecedented treasure, never yet employed by a Lycosa, I place at my captives' disposal some thick threads of wool, cut into inch lengths.
As I wish, at the same time, to find out whether my animals, with the magnificent lenses of their eyes, are able to distinguish colours and prefer one colour to another, I mix up bits of wool of different hues: there are red, green, white, and yellow pieces. If the Spider have any preference, she can choose where she pleases.
The Lycosa always works at night, a regrettable circumstance, which does not allow me to follow the worker's methods. I see the result; and that is all. Were I to visit the building-yard by the light of a lantern, I should be no wiser. The Spider, who is very shy, would at once dive into her lair; and I should have lost my sleep for nothing. Furthermore, she is not a very diligent labourer; she likes to take her time. Two or three bits of wool or raphia placed in position represent a whole night's work. And to this slowness we must add long spells of utter idleness.
Two months pass; and the result of my liberality surpasses my expectations. Possessing more windfalls than they know what to do with, all picked up in their immediate neighbourhood, my Lycosae have built themselves donjon-keeps the like of which their race has not yet known. Around the orifice, on a slightly sloping bank, small, flat, smooth stones have been laid to form a broken, flagged pavement. The larger stones, which are Cyclopean blocks compared with the size of the animal that has shifted them, are employed as abundantly as the others.
On this rockwork stands the donjon. It is an interlacing of raphia and bits of wool, picked up at random, without distinction of shade. Red and white, green and yellow are mixed without any attempt at order. The Lycosa is indifferent to the joys of colour.
The ultimate result is a sort of muff, a couple of inches high. Bands of silk, supplied by the spinnerets, unite the pieces, so that the whole resembles a coarse fabric. Without being absolutely faultless, for there are always awkward pieces on the outside, which the worker could not handle, the gaudy building is not devoid of merit. The bird lining its nest would do no better. Whoso sees the curious, many-coloured productions in my pans takes them for an outcome of my industry, contrived with a view to some experimental mischief; and his surprise is great when I confess who the real author is. No one would ever believe the Spider capable of constructing such a monument.
It goes without saying that, in a state of liberty, on our barren waste-lands, the Lycosa does not indulge in such sumptuous architecture. I have given the reason: she is too great a stay-at-home to go in search of materials and she makes use of the limited resources which she finds around her. Bits of earth, small chips of stone, a few twigs, a few withered grasses: that is all, or nearly all. Wherefore the work is generally quite modest and reduced to a parapet that hardly attracts attention.
My captives teach us that, when materials are plentiful, especially textile materials that remove all fears of landslip, the Lycosa delights in tall turrets. She understands the art of donjon-building and puts it into practice as often as she possesses the means.
What is the purpose of this turret? My pans will tell us that. An enthusiastic votary of the chase, so long as she is not permanently fixed, the Lycosa, once she has set up house, prefers to lie in ambush and wait for the quarry. Every day, when the heat is greatest, I see my captives come up slowly from under ground and lean upon the battlements of their woolly castle-keep. They are then really magnificent in their stately gravity. With their swelling belly contained within the aperture, their head outside, their glassy eyes staring, their legs gathered for a spring, for hours and hours they wait, motionless, bathing voluptuously in the sun.
Should a tit-bit to her liking happen to pass, forthwith the watcher darts from her tall tower, swift as an arrow from the bow. With a dagger-thrust in the neck, she stabs the jugular of the Locust, Dragon-fly or other prey whereof I am the purveyor; and she as quickly scales the donjon and retires with her capture. The performance is a wonderful exhibition of skill and speed.
Very seldom is a quarry missed, provided that it pass at a convenient distance, within the range of the huntress' bound. But, if the prey be at some distance, for instance on the wire of the cage, the Lycosa takes no notice of it. Scorning to go in pursuit, she allows it to roam at will. She never strikes except when sure of her stroke. She achieves this by means of her tower. Hiding behind the wall, she sees the stranger advancing, keeps her eyes on him and suddenly pounces when he comes within reach. These abrupt tactics make the thing a certainty. Though he were winged and swift of flight, the unwary one who approaches the ambush is lost.
This presumes, it is true, an exemplary patience on the Lycosa's part; for the burrow has naught that can serve to entice victims. At best, the ledge provided by the turret may, at rare intervals, tempt some weary wayfarer to use it as a resting-place. But, if the quarry do not come to-day, it is sure to come to-morrow, the next day, or later, for the Locusts hop innumerable in the waste-land, nor are they always able to regulate their leaps. Some day or other, chance is bound to bring one of them within the purlieus of the burrow. This is the moment to spring upon the pilgrim from the ramparts. Until then, we maintain a stoical vigilance. We shall dine when we can; but we shall end by dining.
The Lycosa, therefore, well aware of these lingering eventualities, waits and is not unduly distressed by a prolonged abstinence. She has an accommodating stomach, which is satisfied to be gorged to-day and to remain empty afterwards for goodness knows how long. I have sometimes neglected my catering duties for weeks at a time; and my boarders have been none the worse for it. After a more or less protracted fast, they do not pine away, but are smitten with a wolf-like hunger. All these ravenous eaters are alike: they guzzle to excess to-day, in anticipation of to-morrow's dearth.
Chance, a poor stand-by, sometimes contrives very well. At the beginning of the month of August, the children call me to the far side of the enclosure, rejoicing in a find which they have made under the rosemary-bushes. It is a magnificent Lycosa, with an enormous belly, the sign of an impending delivery.
Early one morning, ten days later, I find her preparing for her confinement. A silk network is first spun on the ground, covering an extent about equal to the palm of one's hand. It is coarse and shapeless, but firmly fixed. This is the floor on which the Spider means to operate.
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