Look Away - Lo Sguardo Del Male
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For the most part, however, additions to the flora, and still more tothe fauna, were very gradually made; so much so that most of thespecies now found in the group did not arrive there till after the endof the Glacial epoch, and belong essentially to the modern Europeanassemblage of plants and animals. This was partly because the islandsthemselves were surrounded by pack-ice during that chilly period, whichinterrupted for a time the course of my experiment. It was interesting,too, after the ice cleared away, to note what kinds could manage bystray accidents to cross the ocean with a fair chance of sprouting orhatching out on the new soil, and which were totally unable by originalconstitution to survive the ordeal of immersion in the sea. Forinstance, I looked anxiously at first for the arrival of some casualacorn or some floating filbert, which might stock my islands withwaving greenery of oaks and hazel bushes. But I gradually discovered,in the course of a few centuries, that these heavy nuts never floatedsecurely so far as the outskirts of my little archipelago; and thatconsequently no chestnuts, apple trees, beeches, alders, larches, orpines ever came to diversify my island valleys. The seeds that didreally reach us from time to time belonged rather to one or other offour special classes. Either they were very small and light, like thespores of ferns, fungi, and club-mosses; or they were winged andfeathery, like dandelion and thistle-down; or they were the stones offruits that are eaten by birds, like rose-hips and hawthorn; or theywere chaffy grains, enclosed in papery scales, like grasses and sedges,of a kind well adapted to be readily borne on the surface of the water.In all these ways new plants did really get wafted by slow degrees tothe islands; and if they were of kinds adapted to the climate they grewand flourished, living down the first growth of ferns and flowerlessherbs in the rich valleys.
Artillery marks a higher stage than the sling and the stone. Just so,in many plants, a step higher in the evolutionary scale as regards themethod of dispersion, the capsule itself bursts open explosively, andscatters its contents to the four winds of heaven. Such plants may besaid to discharge their grains on the principle of the bow and arrow.The balsam is a familiar example of this startling mode of moving tofresh fields and pastures new: its capsule consists of five longstraight valves, which break asunder elastically the moment they aretouched, when fully ripe, and shed their seeds on all sides, like somany small bombshells. Our friend the squirting cucumber, which servedas the prime text for this present discourse, falls into somewhat thesame category, though in other ways it rather resembles the truesucculent fruits, and belongs, indeed, to the same family as the melon,the gourd, the pumpkin, and the vegetable-marrow, almost all of whichare edible and in every way fruit-like. Among English weeds, the littlebittercress that grows on dry walls and hedge-banks forms an excellentexample of the same device. Village children love to touch the long,ripe, brown capsules on the top with one timid finger, and then jumpaway, half laughing, half terrified, when the mild-looking little plantgoes off suddenly with a small bang and shoots its grains like acatapult point-blank in their faces.
At the present day, it is true, both the prickly-pear cactus and theAmerican agave (which the world at large insists upon confounding withthe aloe, a member of a totally distinct family) have spread themselvesin an apparently wild condition over all the rocky coasts both ofSouthern Europe and of Northern Africa. The alien desert weeds havefixed their roots firmly in the sunbaked clefts of Ligurian Apennines;the tall candelabrum of the western agave has reared its great spike ofbranching blossoms (which flower, not once in a century, as legendavers, but once in some fifteen years or so) on all the baskinghillsides of the Mauritanian Atlas. But for the origin, and thereforefor the evolutionary history, of either plant, we must look away fromthe shore of the inland sea to the arid expanse of the Mexican desert.It was there, among the sweltering rocks of the Tierras Calientes, thatthese ungainly cactuses first learned to clothe themselves in pricklymail, to store in their loose tissues an abundant supply of stickymoisture, and to set at defiance the persistent attacks of all externalenemies. The prickly pear, in fact, is a typical instance of a desertplant, as the camel is a typical instance of a desert animal. Each laysitself out to endure the long droughts of its almost rainless habitatby drinking as much as it can when opportunity offers, hoarding up thesuperfluous water for future use, and economising evaporation by everymeans in its power.
Maggiore, indeed, least fortunate of the three main sheets, is beingattacked by the insidious foe at three points simultaneously. At theupper end, the Ticino, that furious radical river, has filled in alarge arm, which once spread far away up the valley towards Bellinzona.A little lower down, the Maggia near Locarno carries in a freshcontribution of mud, which forms another fan-shaped delta, andstretches its ugly mass half across the lake, compelling the steamersto make a considerable detour eastward. This delta is rapidly extendinginto the open water, and will in time fill in the whole remaining spacefrom bank to bank, cutting off the upper end of the lake about Locarnofrom the main basin by a partition of lowland. This upper end will thenform a separate minor lake, and the Ticino will flow out of it acrossthe intervening mud flat into the new and smaller Maggiore of ourgreat-great-grandchildren. If you doubt it, look what the torrent ofthe Toce, the third assailing battalion of the persistent mud force,has already done in the neighbourhood of Pallanza. It has entirely cutoff the upper end of the bay, that turns westward towards the Simplon,by a partition of mud; and this isolated upper bit forms now in our ownday a separate lake, the Lago di Mergozzo, divided from the main sheetby an uninteresting mud bank. In process of time, no doubt, the wholeof Maggiore will be similarly filled in by the advancing mud sheet, andwill become a level alluvial plain, surrounded by mountains, andgreatly admired by the astute Piedmontese cultivator.
One can mark, too, various stages in this gradual process of seculardescent from the wind-swept hills into the valleys below, as freercommunications and greater security made access to water, roads, andrivers of greater importance than mere defence or elevated position. AtBath, for example, it was the Pax Romana that brought down the townfrom the stockaded height of Caer Badon, and the Hill of Solisbury tothe ford and the hot springs in the valley of the Avon. At Old Sarum,on the other hand, the hill-top town remained much longer: it livedfrom the Celtic first into the Roman and then into the West Saxonworld; it had a cathedral of its own in Norman times; and even longafter Bishop Roger Poore founded the New Sarum, which we now callSalisbury, at the point where the great west road passed the riverbelow, the hill-top town continued to be inhabited, and, as everybodyknows, when all its population had finally dwindled away, retained somevestige of its ancient importance by returning a member of its own fora single farmhouse to the unreformed Parliament till '32. As forFiesole, though Florence has long since superseded it as the capital ofthe Arno Valley, the town itself still lives on to our own time in adead-alive way, and, like Norman. Old Sarum, retains even now itsbeautiful old cathedral, its Palazzo Pretorio, and its acknowledgedclaims to ancient boroughship. In England, I know by personalexperience only one such hill-top town of the antique sort stillsurviving, and that is Shaftsbury; but I am told that Launceston, withits strong castle overlooking the Tamar, is even a finer example. Thisrelatively early disappearance of the hill-top fortress from our ownmidst is in part due, no doubt, to the early growth of the industrialspirit in England, and our long-continued freedom from domesticwarfare. But all over Southern Europe, as everybody must have noticed,the hill-top town, perched, like Eza, on the very summit of a pointedpinnacle, still remains everywhere in evidence as a common object ofthe country in our own day. 59ce067264