In The Gulf Stream



The appearance of the first fragments of gulf-weed caused quite a

little excitement, and set an enthusiastic pair of naturalists, a

midland hunting squire, and a travelled scientific doctor who had been

twelve years in the Eastern Archipelago, fishing eagerly over the

bows, with an extemporized grapple of wire, for gulf-weed, a specimen

of which they did not catch. However, more and more still would come

in a day or two, perhaps whole acres, even whole leagues, and then (so

we hoped, but hoped in vain) we should have our feast of zoophytes,

crustacea, and what not.



Meanwhile it must be remembered that this gulf-weed has not, as some

of the uninitiated fancy from its name, anything to do with the Gulf

Stream, along the southern edge of which we were streaming. Thrust

away to the south by that great ocean-river, it lies in a vast eddy,

or central pool of the Atlantic, between the Gulf Stream and the

equatorial current, unmoved save by surface-drifts of wind, as

floating weeds collect and range slowly round and round in the still

corners of a tumbling-bay or salmon pool. One glance at a bit of the

weed, as it floats past, showed that it was like no Fucus of our

shores, or any thing we ever saw before. The difference of look is

undefinable in words, but clear enough. One sees in a moment that the

sargassos, of which there are several species on tropical shores, are

a genus of themselves and by themselves; and a certain awe may, if the

beholder be at once scientific and poetical, come over him at the

first sight of this famous and unique variety thereof, which has lost

ages since the habit of growing on rock or sea-bottom, but propagates

itself forever floating, and feeds among its branches a whole family

of fish, crabs, cuttle-fish, zoophytes, mollusks, which, like the

plant which shelters them, are found nowhere else in the world. And

that awe, springing from "the scientific use of the imagination,"

would be increased if he recollected the theory--not altogether

impossible--that this sargasso (and possibly some of the animals which

cling to it) marks the site of an Atlantic continent, sunk long ages

since; and that transformed by the necessities of life from a rooting

to a floating plant,



"Still it remembers its august abodes,"



and wanders round and round as if in search of the rocks where once it

grew. We looked eagerly day by day for more and more gulf-weed, hoping

that



"Slimy things would crawl with legs

Upon that slimy sea,"



and thought of the memorable day when Columbus's ship first plunged

her bows into the tangled "ocean meadow," and the sailors, naturally

enough, were ready to mutiny, fearing hidden shoals, ignorant that

they had four miles of blue water beneath their keel, and half

recollecting old Greek and Phoenician legends of a weedy sea off the

coast of Africa, where the vegetation stopped the ships, and kept them

entangled till all on board were starved.



Day after day we passed more and more of it, often in long

processions, ranged in the direction of the wind; while, a few feet

below the surface, here and there floated large fronds of a

lettuce-like weed, seemingly an ulva, the bright green of which, as

well as the rich orange hue of the sargasso, brought out by contrast

the intense blue of the water.



Very remarkable, meanwhile, and unexpected, was the opacity and

seeming solidity of the ocean when looked down on from the bows.

Whether sapphire under the sunlight, or all but black under the

clouds, or laced and streaked with beads of foam, rising out of the

nether darkness, it looks as though it could resist the hand; as if

one might almost walk on it; so unlike any liquid, as seen near shore

or inland, is this leaping, heaving plain, reminding one, by its

innumerable conchoidal curves, not of water, not even of ice, but

rather of obsidian.



After all, we got little of the sargasso. Only in a sailing ship and

in calms or light breezes can its treasures be explored. Twelve knots

an hour is a pace sufficient to tear off the weed, as it is hauled

alongside, all living things which are not rooted to it. We got,

therefore, no crustacea; neither did we get a single specimen of the

calamaries, which may be described as cuttle-fish carrying hooks on

their arms as well as suckers, the lingering descendants of a most

ancient form, which existed as far back as the era of the shallow

oolitic seas, x or y thousand years ago. A tiny curled spirorbis,

a lepraria, with its thousand-fold cells, and a tiny polype belonging

to the campanularias, with a creeping stem, which sends up here and

there a yellow-stalked bell, were all the parasites we saw. But the

sargasso itself is a curious instance of the fashion in which one form

so often mimics another of a quite different family. When fresh out of

the water it resembles not a sea-weed so much as a sprig of some

willow-leaved shrub, burdened with yellow berries, large and small;

for every broken bit of it seems growing, and throwing out ever new

berries and leaves--or what, for want of a better word, must be called

leaves in a sea-weed. For it must be remembered that the frond of a

sea-weed is not merely leaf, but root also; that it not only breathes

air, but feeds on water; and that even the so-called root by which a

sea-weed holds to the rock is really only an anchor, holding

mechanically to the stone, but not deriving, as the root of a

land-plant would, any nourishment from it. Therefore it is, that to

grow while uprooted and floating, though impossible to most

land-plants, is easy enough to many sea-weeds, and especially to the

sargasso.



The flying-fish now began to be a source of continual amusement, as

they scuttled away from under the bows of the ship, mistaking her,

probably, for some huge devouring whale. So strange are they when

first seen, though long read of and looked for, that it is difficult

to recollect that they are actually fish. The first little one was

mistaken for a dragon-fly, the first big one for a gray plover. The

flight is almost exactly like that of a quail or partridge-flight I

must say; for in spite of all that has been learnedly written to the

contrary, it was too difficult as yet for the English sportsmen on

board to believe that their motion was not a true flight, aided by the

vibration of the wings, and not a mere impulse given (as in the leap

of the salmon) by a rush under water. That they can change their

course at will is plain to one who looks down on them from the lofty

deck, and still more from the paddle-box. The length of the flight

seems too great to be attributed to a few strokes of the tail; while

the plain fact that they renew their flight after touching, and only

touching, the surface, would seem to show that it was not due only to

the original impetus, for that would be retarded, instead of being

quickened, every time they touched. Such were our first impressions,

and they were confirmed by what we saw on the voyage home.



The nights as yet, we will not say disappointed us--for to see new

stars, like Canopus and Fomalhaut, shining in the far south; even to

see Sirius, in his ever-changing blaze of red and blue, riding high in

a December heaven, is interesting enough; but the brilliance of the

stars is not, at least at this season, equal to that of a frosty sky

in England. Nevertheless, to make up for the deficiency, the clouds

were glorious--so glorious that I longed again and again, as I did

afterward in the West Indies, that Mr. Ruskin were by my side, to see

and to describe, as none but he can do. The evening skies are fit

weeds for widowed Eos weeping over the dying Sun; thin, formless,

rent--in carelessness, not in rage; and of all the hues of early autumn

leaves, purple and brown, with green and primrose lakes of air

between; but all hues weakened, mingled, chastened into loneliness,

tenderness, regretfulness, through which still shines, in endless

vistas of clear western light, the hope of the returning day. More and

more faint, the pageant fades below toward the white haze of the

horizon, where, in sharpest contrast, leaps and welters against it the

black, jagged sea; and richer and richer it glows upward till it cuts

the azure overhead; until, only too soon,



"The sun's rim dips, the stars rush out,

At one stride comes the dark,"



to be succeeded, after long balmy night, by a sunrise which repeats

the colors of the sunset, but this time gaudy, dazzling, triumphant,

as befits the season of faith and hope. Such imagery, it may be said,

is hackneyed now, and trite even to impertinence. It might be so at

home; but here, in presence of the magnificent pageant of tropic

sunlight, it is natural, almost inevitable; and the old myth of the

daily birth and death of Helios, and the bridal joys and widowed tears

of Eos, reinvents itself in the human mind as soon as it asserts its

power--it may be its sacred right--to translate nature into the language

of the feelings.





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