Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter Twenty-nine


CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

NATURAL HISTORY OF THE VALLEY--GOLDEN LIZARDS--TAMENESS OF THE
BIRDS--MOSQUITOES--FLIES--DOGS--A SOLITARY CAT--THE CLIMATE--THE
COCOANUT TREE--SINGULAR MODES OF CLIMBING IT--AN AGILE YOUNG
CHIEF--FEARLESSNESS OF THE CHILDREN--TOO-TOO AND THE COCOANUT
TREE--THE BIRDS OF THE VALLEY

I THINK I must enlighten the reader a little about the natural
history of the valley.

Whence, in the name of Count Buffon and Baron Cuvier, came those
dogs that I saw in Typee?  Dogs!--Big hairless rats rather; all
with smooth, shining speckled hides--fat sides, and very
disagreeable faces.  Whence could they have come?  That they were
not the indigenous production of the region, I am firmly
convinced.  Indeed they seemed aware of their being interlopers,
looking fairly ashamed, and always trying to hide themselves in
some dark corner.  It was plain enough they did not feel at home
in the vale--that they wished themselves well out of it, and back
to the ugly country from which they must have come.

Scurvy curs!  they were my abhorrence; I should have liked
nothing better than to have been the death of every one of them.
In fact, on one occasion, I intimated the propriety of a canine
crusade to Mehevi; but the benevolent king would not consent to
it.  He heard me very patiently; but when I had finished, shook
his head, and told me in confidence that they were 'taboo'.

As for the animal that made the fortune of the ex-lord-mayor
Whittington, I shall never forget the day that I was lying in the
house about noon, everybody else being fast asleep; and happening
to raise my eyes, met those of a big black spectral cat, which
sat erect in the doorway, looking at me with its frightful
goggling green orbs, like one of those monstrous imps that
torment some of Teniers' saints!  I am one of those unfortunate
persons to whom the sight of these animals are, at any time an
insufferable annoyance.

Thus constitutionally averse to cats in general, the unexpected
apparition of this one in particular utterly confounded me.  When
I had a little recovered from the fascination of its glance, I
started up; the cat fled, and emboldened by this, I rushed out of
the house in pursuit; but it had disappeared.  It was the only
time I ever saw one in the valley, and how it got there I cannot
imagine.  It is just possible that it might have escaped from one
of the ships at Nukuheva.  It was in vain to seek information on
the subject from the natives, since none of them had seen the
animal, the appearance of which remains a mystery to me to this
day.

Among the few animals which are to be met with in Typee, there
was none which I looked upon with more interest than a beautiful
golden-hued species of lizard.  It measured perhaps five inches
from head to tail, and was most gracefully proportioned.  Numbers
of those creatures were to be seen basking in the sunshine upon
the thatching of the houses, and multitudes at all hours of the
day showed their glittering sides as they ran frolicking between
the spears of grass or raced in troops up and down the tall
shafts of the cocoanut trees.  But the remarkable beauty of these
little animals and their lively ways were not their only claims
upon my admiration.  They were perfectly tame and insensible to
fear.  Frequently, after seating myself upon the ground in some
shady place during the heat of the day, I would be completely
overrun with them.  If I brushed one off my arm, it would leap
perhaps into my hair: when I tried to frighten it away by gently
pinching its leg, it would turn for protection to the very hand
that attacked it.

The birds are also remarkably tame.  If you happened to see one
perched upon a branch within reach of your arm, and advanced
towards it, it did not fly away immediately, but waited quietly
looking at you, until you could almost touch it, and then took
wing slowly, less alarmed at your presence, it would seem, than
desirous of removing itself from your path.  Had salt been less
scarce in the valley than it was, this was the very place to have
gone birding with it.  I remember that once, on an uninhabited
island of the Gallipagos, a bird alighted on my outstretched arm,
while its mate chirped from an adjoining tree.  Its tameness, far
from shocking me, as a similar occurrence did Selkirk, imparted
to me the most exquisite thrill of delight I ever experienced,
and with somewhat of the same pleasure did I afterwards behold
the birds and lizards of the valley show their confidence in the
kindliness of man.

Among the numerous afflictions which the Europeans have entailed
upon some of the natives of the South Seas, is the accidental
introduction among them of that enemy of all repose and ruffler
of even tempers--the Mosquito.  At the Sandwich Islands and at
two or three of the Society group, there are now thriving
colonies of these insects, who promise ere long to supplant
altogether the aboriginal sand-flies.  They sting, buzz, and
torment, from one end of the year to the other, and by
incessantly exasperating the natives materially obstruct the
benevolent labours of the missionaries.

From this grievous visitation, however the Typees are as yet
wholly exempt; but its place is unfortunately in some degree
supplied by the occasional presence of a minute species of fly,
which, without stinging, is nevertheless productive of no little
annoyance.  The tameness of the birds and lizards is as nothing
when compared to the fearless confidence of this insect.  He will
perch upon one of your eye-lashes, and go to roost there if you
do not disturb him, or force his way through your hair, or along
the cavity of the nostril, till you almost fancy he is resolved
to explore the very brain itself.  On one occasion I was so
inconsiderate as to yawn while a number of them were hovering
around me.  I never repeated the act.  Some half-dozen darted
into the open apartment, and began walking about its ceiling; the
sensation was dreadful.  I involuntarily closed my mouth, and the
poor creatures being enveloped in inner darkness, must in their
consternation have stumbled over my palate, and been precipitated
into the gulf beneath.  At any rate, though I afterwards
charitably held my mouth open for at least five minutes, with a
view of affording egress to the stragglers, none of them ever
availed themselves of the opportunity.

There are no wild animals of any kind on the island unless it be
decided that the natives themselves are such.  The mountains and
the interior present to the eye nothing but silent solitudes,
unbroken by the roar of beasts of prey, and enlivened by few
tokens even of minute animated existence.  There are no venomous
reptiles, and no snakes of any description to be found in any of
the valleys.

In a company of Marquesan natives the weather affords no topic of
conversation.  It can hardly be said to have any vicissitudes.  
The rainy season, it is true, brings frequent showers, but they
are intermitting and refreshing.  When an islander bound on some
expedition rises from his couch in the morning, he is never
solicitous to peep out and see how the sky looks, or ascertain
from what quarter the wind blows.  He is always sure of a 'fine
day', and the promise of a few genial showers he hails with
pleasure.  There is never any of that 'remarkable weather' on the
islands which from time immemorial has been experienced in
America, and still continues to call forth the wondering
conversational exclamations of its elderly citizens.  Nor do
there even occur any of those eccentric meteorological changes
which elsewhere surprise us.  In the valley of Typee ice-creams
would never be rendered less acceptable by sudden frosts, nor
would picnic parties be deferred on account of inauspicious
snowstorms: for there day follows day in one unvarying round of
summer and sunshine, and the whole year is one long tropical
month of June just melting into July.

It is this genial climate which causes the cocoanuts to flourish
as they do.  This invaluable fruit, brought to perfection by the
rich soil of the Marquesas, and home aloft on a stately column
more than a hundred feet from the ground, would seem at first
almost inaccessible to the simple natives.  Indeed the slender,
smooth, and soaring shaft, without a single limb or protuberance
of any kind to assist one in mounting it, presents an obstacle
only to be overcome by the surprising agility and ingenuity of
the islanders.  It might be supposed that their indolence would
lead them patiently to await the period when the ripened nuts,
slowly parting from their stems, fall one by one to the ground.  
This certainly would be the case, were it not that the young
fruit, encased in a soft green husk, with the incipient meat
adhering in a jelly-like pellicle to its sides, and containing a
bumper of the most delicious nectar, is what they chiefly prize.  
They have at least twenty different terms to express as many
progressive stages in the growth of the nut.  Many of them reject
the fruit altogether except at a particular period of its growth,
which, incredible as it may appear, they seemed to me to be able
to ascertain within an hour or two.  Others are still more
capricious in their tastes; and after gathering together a heap
of the nuts of all ages, and ingeniously tapping them, will first
sip from one and then from another, as fastidiously as some
delicate wine-bibber experimenting glass in hand among his dusty
demi-johns of different vintages.

Some of the young men, with more flexible frames than their
comrades, and perhaps with more courageous souls, bad a way of
walking up the trunk of the cocoanut trees which to me seemed
little less than miraculous; and when looking at them in the act,
I experienced that curious perplexity a child feels when he
beholds a fly moving feet uppermost along a ceiling.

I will endeavour to describe the way in which Narnee, a noble
young chief, sometimes performed this feat for my peculiar
gratification; but his preliminary performances must also be
recorded.  Upon my signifying my desire that he should pluck me
the young fruit of some particular tree, the handsome savage,
throwing himself into a sudden attitude of surprise, feigns
astonishment at the apparent absurdity of the request.  
Maintaining this position for a moment, the strange emotions
depicted on his countenance soften down into one of humorous
resignation to my will, and then looking wistfully up to the
tufted top of the tree, he stands on tip-toe, straining his neck
and elevating his arm, as though endeavouring to reach the fruit
from the ground where he stands.  As if defeated in this childish
attempt, he now sinks to the earth despondingly, beating his
breast in well-acted despair; and then, starting to his feet all
at once, and throwing back his head, raises both hands, like a
school-boy about to catch a falling ball.  After continuing this
for a moment or two, as if in expectation that the fruit was
going to be tossed down to him by some good spirit in the
tree-top, he turns wildly round in another fit of despair, and
scampers off to the distance of thirty or forty yards.  Here he
remains awhile, eyeing the tree, the very picture of misery; but
the next moment, receiving, as it were, a flash of inspiration,
he rushes again towards it, and clasping both arms about the
trunk, with one elevated a little above the other, he presses the
soles of his feet close together against the tree, extending his
legs from it until they are nearly horizontal, and his body
becomes doubled into an arch; then, hand over hand and foot over
foot, he rises from the earth with steady rapidity, and almost
before you are aware of it, has gained the cradled and embowered
nest of nuts, and with boisterous glee flings the fruit to the
ground.

This mode of walking the tree is only practicable where the trunk
declines considerably from the perpendicular.  This, however, is
almost always the case; some of the perfectly straight shafts of
the trees leaning at an angle of thirty degrees.

The less active among the men, and many of the children of the
valley have another method of climbing.  They take a broad and
stout piece of bark, and secure each end of it to their ankles,
so that when the feet thus confined are extended apart, a space
of little more than twelve inches is left between them.  This
contrivance greatly facilitates the act of climbing.  The band
pressed against the tree, and closely embracing it, yields a
pretty firm support; while with the arms clasped about the trunk,
and at regular intervals sustaining the body, the feet are drawn
up nearly a yard at a time, and a corresponding elevation of the
hands immediately succeeds.  In this way I have seen little
children, scarcely five years of age, fearlessly climbing the
slender pole of a young cocoanut tree, and while hanging perhaps
fifty feet from the ground, receiving the plaudits of their
parents beneath, who clapped their hands, and encouraged them to
mount still higher.

What, thought I, on first witnessing one of these exhibitions,
would the nervous mothers of America and England say to a similar
display of hardihood in any of their children?  The Lacedemonian
nation might have approved of it, but most modern dames would
have gone into hysterics at the sight.

At the top of the cocoanut tree the numerous branches, radiating
on all sides from a common centre, form a sort of green and
waving basket, between the leaflets of which you just discern the
nuts thickly clustering together, and on the loftier trees
looking no bigger from the ground than bunches of grapes.  I
remember one adventurous little fellow--Too-Too was the rascal's
name--who had built himself a sort of aerial baby-house in the
picturesque tuft of a tree adjoining Marheyo's habitation.  He
used to spend hours there,--rustling among the branches, and
shouting with delight every time the strong gusts of wind rushing
down from the mountain side, swayed to and fro the tall and
flexible column on which he was perched.  Whenever I heard
Too-Too's musical voice sounding strangely to the ear from so
great a height, and beheld him peeping down upon me from out his
leafy covert, he always recalled to my mind Dibdin's lines--  

'There's a sweet little cherub that sits up aloft,  To look out
for the life of poor Jack.'

Birds--bright and beautiful birds--fly over the valley of Typee.  
You see them perched aloft among the immovable boughs of the
majestic bread-fruit trees, or gently swaying on the elastic
branches of the Omoo; skimming over the palmetto thatching of the
bamboo huts; passing like spirits on the wing through the shadows
of the grove, and sometimes descending into the bosom of the
valley in gleaming flights from the mountains.  Their plumage is
purple and azure, crimson and white, black and gold; with bills
of every tint: bright bloody red, jet black, and ivory white, and
their eyes are bright and sparkling; they go sailing through the
air in starry throngs; but, alas!  the spell of dumbness is upon
them all--there is not a single warbler in the valley!

I know not why it was, but the sight of these birds, generally
the ministers of gladness, always oppressed me with melancholy.  
As in their dumb beauty they hovered by me whilst I was walking,
or looked down upon me with steady curious eyes from out the
foliage, I was almost inclined to fancy that they knew they were
gazing upon a stranger, and that they commiserated his fate.


Herman Melville