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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

"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

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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