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Under the Sun/A Preliminary Warning of the Contents of this Book


Ridentem dicere verum, quid vetat?

I HAVE it not in my nature to look at the animal world merely as a congregation of beasts. Nor can I bring myself to believe that everything, whether in fur, feathers, or scales, was created for my own special benefit as a human being. Man was not created till the sixth day, and is therefore the junior among the animals. It took no better effort of creative will to produce him than to produce caterpillars. Moreover, earth was already populated before he came, and sufficiently complete without him. He was a noble afterthought. Indeed, rather than maintain that man was created “higher than the beasts,” for the increase of his own self-importance, I would believe that he was created “a little lower than the angels,” for the increase of his humility.

At any rate, I prefer to think of the things of “the speechless world” as races of fellow creatures that have a very great deal in common with ourselves, but whom the pitiless advance of human interests is perpetually dispossessing, and who are doomed to extinction under the Juggernath of civilization. Nature builds only upon ruins. The driving-wheel of Progress is Suffering.

Thus, so much the more should we feel tenderly towards the smaller lives about us, the things that the Creator has placed amongst us to enjoy the same earth as ourselves, but whom we compel to serve us so long as they can, and to die out when our end is served. Except in Holy Writ there is nothing so beautiful or so manful as the teaching of Buddha, the evangelist of universal tenderness; and approaching nature we ought to remember that it is the very Temple of temples, and that we may not minister there unless we have on the ephod of pity.

You will think, no doubt, that if I feel so seriously, I ought not to try to make fun out of these animals and birds and fishes and insects. But why not? Ridentem dicere verum, quid vetat? Besides, I know that if it were wrong to laugh over monkeys and cats and giraffes, I should feel that it was — and wouldn’t do it. But, at any rate, if I say anything in this book that either the beasts or their friends think unkind or unjust, I am sorry for it. Attribute it, Reader, to want of knowledge, not to want of Sympathy; and if you would be generous do not think me too much in earnest when I am serious, nor altogether in fun because I jest.

One of the very few positive facts we have about Adam is that he gave names to all the living things in Eden: not of course those by which even antiquity knew them, but names such as Primitive Man, wherever he still exists, distinguishes the creatures about him by. To him, for instance, the squirrel is “the thing that sits in the shadow of its tail,” and in Akkadian nomenclature there is no lion, but only “the great-voiced one.” We have only to see how the Red Indians individualize their fauna, to understand the nature of Adam’s names.

But to be able to name the creatures, furred and feathered, with such picturesque appropriateness argues a knowledge of their habits founded upon personal observation, and the legend therefore that tells us how the Angels failed to execute the orders of the Creator is not at all an absurd one. Allah, it is said, told the Angels — who were sneering at man — to name the animals, and they tried to do so, but could not. So then he turned to Adam, and the Angels stood listening, ashamed, as the patriarch drew a picture of each creature in a word. The angelic host of course had no sympathy with them. Indeed, perhaps, they had no knowledge whatever of the earth and its things; for it is possible, as Milton supposes, that the Angels never left the upper sky except on special missions. With Adam it was different. In his habits of daily life he was in the closest sympathy with other animals, and virtually one of themselves. Each beast and bird therefore, as it passed before him, suggested to him at once some distinguishing epithet, and he found no difficulty in assigning to every individual an appropriate name, and appointing each his proper place in the system of creation. Now, Adam was probably nothing of an analogist, but he was certainly the father of naturalists.

It is generally supposed that this system has now developed into an unconstitutional monarchy, but there is much more to be said on the side of its being an oligarchy.

Thus in the beginning of days all power was in the hands of the Titans, the mammoths and the mastodons of antiquity; but in time a more vigorous race of beasts was gradually developed, and the Saturn and Tellus, Ops and Typhon, of the primeval earth were one by one unseated and dispossessed of power by the younger creatures, — the eagles of Jupiter and the tigers of Bacchus, the serpents of Athene and the wolves of Mars.

The elder rulers of the wild world accepted at their hands the dignity of extinction; and instead of a few behemoths, lording it over the vast commonwealth of the earth, there were developed many nations of lesser things, divided into their tribes and clans, and transacting, each within their own countries, all the duties of life, exercising the high functions of authority, and carrying on the work of an orderly world.

On land, the tiger and the lion, the python, the polar bear and the grizzly, gradually rose to the acknowledged dignity of crowned heads. In the air there was the royal condor and the eagle, with a peerage of falcons. In the mysterious empire of the sea there was but one supreme authority, the sea-serpent, with its terrible lieutenants, the octopus and the devil-fish.

Yet none of these are absolute autocrats beyond the immediate territory they reside in. They have all to pay in vexed boundaries the penalty of extended dominion. Thus, though the tiger may be supreme in the jungles of the Himalayan Terai, he finds upon his wild Naga frontier the irreconcilable rhinoceros, and in the fierce Guzerati country there is the maneless lion. Up among the hills are the fearless Ghoorkha leopards; and in the broken lowlands along the river that stout old Rohilla thakoor, the wild boar, resents all royal interference. The lion, again, they say, is king in Africa, yet the gorilla Zulus it over the forests within the lion’s territory; the ostrich on the plain despises all his mandates, and in the earldom of the rivers the crocodile cares nothing for his favor or his wrath. The lion, indeed, claims to be king of the beasts; but, loud as his roar is, it does not quite reach across the Atlantic, and we find the puma not only asserting leonine authority, but actually usurping the royal title as “the American lion;” just as in Africa, under the lion’s very nose, the leopard claims an equality of power by calling itself “the tiger.” The polar bear can command no homage from the walrus, nor the grizzly bear levy taxes from the bison. The python, “the emperor” of Mexican folk-lore, has none to attack him, but on the other hand, he does not venture to treat the jaguar as a serf.

Among the birds of the air, though eagles are kings, the raven asserts a melancholy supremacy over the solitudes of wildernesses, and the albatross is monarch of the waves. No one will deny the aristocracy of the flamingo, the bustard, or the swan, or dispute the nobility of the ibis on the Nile, or of the birds of Paradise in their leafy Edens of the Eastern Seas. For pretenders to high place we have the peacock and the vulture; and as democrats, to incite the proletariat of fowldom to disaffection and even turbulence, we need not search further than the crows.

In the sea, the Kraken is king. It is the hierophant of the oceanic mysteries, secret as a Prince of the Assassins or Veiled Prophet, and sacred from its very secrecy, like the Lama of Thibet or the Unseen God of the Tartars. Yet there are those who dispute the weird majesty of the hidden potentate, for the whales, to north and south, enjoy a limited sovereignty, while all along the belt of the tropics the pirate sharks scourge the sea-folk as they will.

Even this, after all, is too narrow a view of the wild world. And I find myself, catholic as I am in my regard for the things in fur and feathers, offending very often against the dignity of beasts and birds. How easy it is, for instance, to misunderstand the animals; to think the worse of the bear for sulking, when it is only weary of seeking explanation for its captivity; to quarrel with the dulness of a caged fish-hawk that sits dreaming of spring-time among the crags that overlook Lake Erie. Remember the geese of Apfel, and take the moral of their story to heart. I have told it before, I know, but morals are never obsolete.

A farmer’s wife had been making some cherry brandy; but as she found, during the process, that the fruit was unsound, she threw the whole mess out into the yard, and, without looking to see what followed, shut down the window.

Now, as it fell out, a party of geese, good fellows all of them, happened to be waddling by at the time, and, seeing the cherries trundling about, at once investigated them. The preliminary inquiry proving satisfactory, these misguided poultry set to and swallowed the whole lot. “No heeltaps” was the order of the carouse ; and so they finished all the cherries off at one sitting, so to speak.

The effect of the spirituous fruit was soon apparent, for on trying to make the gate which led from the scene of the debauch to the horsepond, they found everything against them. Whether a high wind had got up, or what had happened, they could not tell, but it seemed to the geese as if there was an uncommonly high sea running, and the ground set in towards them with a strong steady swell that was most embarrassing to progress. To escape these difficulties some lashed their rudders and hove to, others tried to run before the wind, while the rest tacked for the pigsty. But there was no living in such weather, and one by one the craft lurched over and went down all standing.

Meanwhile the dame, the unconscious cause of this disaster, was attracted by the noise in the fowl-yard, and looking out saw all her ten geese behaving as if they were mad. The gander himself, usually so solemn and decorous, was balancing himself on his beak, and spinning round the while in a prodigious flurry of feathers and dust, while the old grey goose, remarkable even among her kind for the circumspection of her conduct, was lying stomach upwards in the gutter, feebly gesticulating with her legs. Others of the party were no less conspicuous for the extravagance of their attitudes and gestures, while the remainder were to be seen lying in a helpless confusion of feathers in the lee scuppers, that is to say, in the gutter by the pigsty.

Perplexed by the spectacle, the dame called in her neighbors, and after careful investigation it was decided in counsel that the birds had died of poison. Under these circumstances their carcasses were worth nothing for food, but, as the neighbors said, their feathers were not poisoned, and so, the next day being market day, they set to work, then and there, and plucked the ten geese bare. Not a feather did they leave on the gander, not a tuft of down on the old grey goose; and, the job completed, they left the dame with her bag full of plumage and her ten plucked geese, not without assuring her, we may be certain, of their sympathy with her in her loss.

Next morning the good woman got up as usual and, remembering the feathers down stairs, dressed betimes, for she hoped, thrifty soul, to get them off her hands that very day at market. And then she bethought her of the ten plucked bodies lying out under the porch, and resolved that they should be buried before she went. But as she approached the door, on these decent rites intent, and was turning the key, there fell on her ears the sound of a familiar voice — and then another — and another — until at last the astonished dame heard in full chorus the well-known accents of all her plucked and poisoned geese! The throat of the old gander sounded, no doubt, a trifle husky, and the grey goose spoke in muffled tones suggestive of a chastening headache; but there was no mistaking those voices, and the dame, fumbling at the door, wondered what it all might mean.

Has a goose a ghost? Did any one ever read or hear of a spectre of a gander?

The key turned at last; the door opened, and there, quacking in subdued tones, suppliant and shivering, stood all her flock! There they stood, the ten miserable birds, with splitting headaches and parched tongues, contrite and dejected, asking to have their feathers back again. The situation was painful to both parties. The forlorn geese saw in each other’s persons the humiliating reflection of their own condition, while the dame, guiltily conscious of that bag full of feathers, remembered how the one lapse of Noah, — in that “aged surprisal of six hundred years, and unexpected inebriation from the unknown effects of wine,” — has been excused by religion and the unanimous voice of posterity. She, and her neighbors with her, however, had hastily misjudged the geese, and, finding them dead drunk, had stripped them, without remembering for a moment that if feathers are easy to get off they are very hard to put on. Here were the geese before her, bald, penitent, and shaking with the cold. There in the corner were their feathers, in a bag. But how could they be brought together? Even supposing each goose could recognize its own, how were they to be reclothed? Tarring and feathering were out of the question, for that would be to add insult to injury; and to try to stick all the feathers into their places again, one by one, was a labor such as only folk in fairy tales could ever hope to accomplish.

So she called in her neighbors again; but they proved only sorry comforters, for they reminded her that after all the fault was her own, that it was she and no one else who had thrown the brandied cherries to the geese. The poor fowls, brought up to confide in her, and repaying her care of them by trustful reliance, could never, her neighbors said, have been expected to guess that when she threw the vinous fruit in their path she, their own familiar mistress, at whose hands they looked for all that was good, could have intended to betray them into the shocking excesses of intoxication, and deceive them to their ruin. Yet so it had been. Accepting the feast spread out before them, the geese had partaken gladly, gratefully, freely, of the insidious cherry; and the result was this, that the geese were in one place and their feathers were in another! At last, weary of the reproaches of her friends, the widow gathered all her bald poultry about her round the kitchen fire, and sat down to make them flannel jackets, — registering a solemn vow, as she did so, never to jump hastily at conclusions about either bird or beast, lest she might again fall into the error of misconstruing their conduct.

The mischief, however, was done; for the geese, who had got drunk with brandied cherries, and been plucked by mistake in consequence, had good reason for withholding from human beings for ever afterwards that pleasing trustfulness which characterizes the domestic fowl. They would never again approach their food without suspicion, nor look upon a gathering of the neighbors except as a dark conspiracy against their feathers. The dame herself, whom hitherto they had been wont to greet with tumultuous acclaim, and whose footsteps to and fro they had been accustomed to follow so closely, would become to them an object of distrust. Instead of tumbling over each other in their glad hurry to meet her in the morning, or crowding round her full of gossip and small goose-confidences when she came to pen them up for the night, they would eye her askance from a distance, approach her only strategically, and accept her gifts with reproachful hesitation. And how keenly the dame would feel such estrangement I leave my readers to judge for themselves.

· · · · · · ·

This untoward inebriation of the geese points, however, another lesson; for I cannot but see in it one more of those deplorable instances of moral deterioration of the animal world which from time to time obtrude themselves, unwelcome, upon.the notice of lovers of nature.

In Belgium and other places men try to make dogs believe they are donkeys or ponies by harnessing them to carts, but the attempt can never succeed; for a dog thus employed will always be a very indifferent donkey, and never a good dog. In Paris, again, the other day a man demoralized all his bees by bringing their hives into the city and putting them down next a sugar warehouse. The bees, hitherto as pure-minded and upright insects as one could have wished to meet in a summer’s day, developed at once an unnatural aversion to labor, and a not less unnatural tendency to larceny. Instead of winging their industrious way to the distant clover-fields, and there gathering the innocent honey, they swarmed in disorderly mobs upon the sugar casks next door, and crawled about with their ill-gotten burdens upon the surrounding pavement. The owner of the hives benefited immensely by the proximity of the saccharine deposits, but it was at the sacrifice of all moral tone in the bees which he had tempted and which had fallen.

We never tire of protesting against the unnatural relations of lion and lion-tamer, and of reminding the keepers of menageries that instinct is irrepressible, untamable, and immortal; and every now and then a lion, tired of foolery, knocks a man into mummy. The narrative is always the same, whether it happens at San Francisco or at Birmingham. A lion’s keeper goes into the beast’s cage to clean it, and having, as he supposed, seen all the occupants safely out, sets to work. As it happens, however, the sliding door which divides the two compartments of the cage has not fallen securely into its place, and an old lion, seeing his opportunity, springs at the opening. The door gives way, and the next instant the beast has seized his keeper. A number of people, powerless of course to give assistance, are looking on ; but fortunately there is also present some professional lion-tamer, belonging to the establishment, and this man, with great courage, rushes straight into the cage and confronts the lion. Discipline and a loaded stick triumph over instinct. The lion releases its prey and the unfortunate keeper is at once dragged out.

Now it is easy enough, after such an incident as this, to talk of lions as savage brutes, and then to moralize over the foolhardiness of men who have grown accustomed to lions, and think that lions have therefore grown accustomed to them. But surely it is much more just to the animals to remember that it is the most natural thing in the world for a flesh-eating animal to spring at meat when it sees it within its reach.

The marvel, indeed, in these narratives always is the lion’s forbearance. In the end that staggering blow right between the eyes is accepted by him as a very forcible argument; but before the gallant lion-tamer comes to his friend’s rescue, at such a terrible risk to himself, the lion has always had plenty of time to do what he liked with the keeper he had caught, or at any rate to gobble up a good luncheon. When a lion is in a hurry it does not as a rule take him long to make a meal; but in the accidents that occur in menageries it does not seem to occur to the beast that there is any necessity for haste. Long captivity has made his practices unnatural. He has forgotten his old habits of hurried feeding. He had caught a man sure enough, for there the man was, and it was quite early in the morning. But he had all the day before him, so he thought; and, though he remarked that there was a great deal of unusual excitement on the other side of his bars, and that the human beings who were generally so leisurely seemed strangely flurried about something on this particular occasion, he had the cage to himself, and there was no occasion that he saw for making a hurried meal. But he had misunderstood the facts of the case. He had no right to eat the keeper, for the man had only come in to clean his cage, and not to be eaten. The excitement outside was owing to the lion’s own inconsiderate and greedy conduct. But if they did not want him to eat the keeper, why did they put him into the cage?