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RECOLLECTIONS OF CHILDHOOD




Almost as much as insects and birds--the former so dear to the
child, who loves to rear his cockchafers and rose beetles on a bed
of hawthorn in a box pierced with holes; the latter an irresistible
temptation, with their nests and their eggs and their little ones
opening tiny yellow beaks--the mushroom early won my heart with its
varied shapes and colors. I can still see myself as an innocent
small boy sporting my first braces and beginning to know my way
through the cabalistic mazes of my reading book, I see myself in
ecstasy before the first bird's nest found and the first mushroom
gathered. Let us relate these grave events. Old age loves to
meditate the past.

O happy days when curiosity awakens and frees us from the limbo of
unconsciousness, your distant memory makes me live my best years
over again. Disturbed at its siesta by some wayfarer, the
partridge's young brood hastily disperses. Each pretty little ball
of down scurries off and disappears in the brushwood; but, when
quiet is restored, at the first summoning note they all return
under the mother's wing. Even so, recalled by memory, do my
recollections of childhood return, those other fledglings which
have lost so many of their feathers on the brambles of life. Some,
which have hardly come out of the bushes, have aching heads and
tottering steps; some are missing, stifled in some dark corner of
the thicket; some remain in their full freshness. Now of those
which have escaped the clutches of time the liveliest are the
first-born. For them the soft wax of childish memory has been
converted into enduring bronze.

On that day, wealthy and leisured, with an apple for my lunch and
all my time to myself, I decided to visit the brow of the
neighboring hill, hitherto looked upon as the boundary of the
world. Right at the top is a row of trees which, turning their
backs to the wind, bend and toss about as though to uproot
themselves and take to flight. How often, from the little window
in my home, have I not seen them bowing their heads in stormy
weather; how often have I not watched them writhing like madmen
amid the snow dust which the north wind's broom raises and smoothes
along the hillside! 'What are they doing up there, those desolate
trees? I am interested in their supple backs, today still and
upright against the blue of the sky, tomorrow shaken when the
clouds pass overhead. I am gladdened by their calmness; I am
distressed by their terrified gestures. They are my friends. I
have them before my eyes at every hour of the day. In the morning,
the sun rises behind their transparent screen and ascends in its
glory. Where does it come from? I am going to climb up there and
perhaps I shall find out.

I mount the slope. It is a lean grass sward close-cropped by the
sheep. It has no bushes, fertile in rents and tears, for which I
should have to answer on returning home, nor any rocks, the scaling
of which involves like dangers; nothing but large, flat stones,
scattered here and there. I. have only to go straight on, over
smooth ground. But the sward is as steep as a sloping roof. It is
long, ever so long; and my legs are very short. From time to time,
I look up. My friends, the trees on the hilltop, seem to be no
nearer. Cheerily, sonny! Scramble away!

What is this at my feet? A lovely bird has flown from its hiding
place under the eaves of a big stone. Bless us, here's a nest made
of hair and fine straw! It's the first I have ever found, the first
of the joys which the birds are to bring me. And in this nest are
six eggs, laid prettily side by side; and those eggs are a
magnificent blue, as though steeped in a dye of celestial azure.
Overpowered with happiness, I lie down on the grass and stare.

Meanwhile, the mother, with a little clap of her gullet--'Tack!
Tack !'--flies anxiously from stone to stone, not far from the
intruder. My age knows no pity, is still too barbarous to
understand maternal anguish. A plan is running in my head, a plan
worthy of a little beast of prey. I will come back in a fortnight
and collect the nestlings before they can fly away. In the
meantime, I will just take one of those pretty blue eggs, only one,
as a trophy. Lest it should be crushed, I place the fragile thing
on a little moss in the scoop of my hand. Let him cast a stone at
me that has not, in his childhood, known the rapture of finding his
first nest.

My delicate burden, which would be ruined by a false step, makes me
give up the remainder of the climb. Some other day I shall see the
trees on the hilltop over which the sun rises. I go down the slope
again. At the bottom, I meet the parish priest's curate reading
his breviary as he takes his walk. He sees me coming solemnly
along, like a relic bearer; he catches sight of my hand hiding
something behind my back: 'What have you there, my boy? ' he asks.

All abashed, I open my hand and show my blue egg on its bed of
moss.

'Ah!' says his reverence. 'A Saxicola's egg! Where did you get it?
'

'Up there, father, under a stone.'

Question follows question; and my peccadillo stands confessed. By
chance I found a nest which I was not looking for. There were six
eggs in it. I took one of them--here it is--and I am waiting for
the rest to hatch. I shall go back for the others when the young
birds have their quill feathers.

'You mustn't do that, my little friend,' replies the priest. 'You
mustn't rob the mother of her brood; you must respect the innocent
little ones; you must let God's birds grow up and fly from the
nest. They are the joy of the fields and they clear the earth of
its vermin. Be a good boy, now, and don't touch the nest.'

I promise and the curate continues his walk. I come home with two
good seeds cast on the fallows of my childish brain. An
authoritative word has taught me that spoiling birds' nests is a
bad action. I did not quite understand how the bird comes to our
aid by destroying vermin, the scourge of the crops; but I felt, at
the bottom of my heart, that it is wrong to afflict the mothers.

'Saxicola,' the priest had said, on seeing my find.

'Hullo!' said I to myself. 'Animals have names, just like
ourselves. Who named them? What are all my different
acquaintances in the woods and meadows called? What does Saxicola
mean? '

Years passed and Latin taught me that Saxicola means an inhabitant
of the rocks. My bird, in fact, was flying from one rocky point to
the other while I lay in ecstasy before its eggs; its house, its
nest, had the rim of a large stone for a roof. Further knowledge
gleaned from books taught me that the lover of stony hillsides is
also called the Motteux, or clodhopper, because, in the plowing
season, she flies from clod to clod, inspecting the furrows rich in
unearthed grubworms. Lastly, I came upon the Provencal expression
Cul-blanc, which is also a picturesque term, suggesting the patch
on the bird's rump which spreads out like a white butterfly
flitting over the fields.

Thus did the vocabulary come into being that would one day allow me
to greet by their real names the thousand actors on the stage of
the fields, the thousand little flowers that smile at us from the
wayside. The word which the curate had spoken without attaching
the least importance to it revealed a world to me, the world of
plants and animals designated by their real names. To the future
must belong the task of deciphering some pages of the immense
lexicon; for today I will content myself with remembering the
Saxicola, or stonechat.

On the west, my village crumbles into an avalanche of garden
patches, in which plums and apples ripen. Low bulging walls,
blackened with the stains of lichens and mosses, support the
terraces. The brook runs at the foot of the slope. It can be
cleared almost everywhere at a bound. In the wider parts, flat
stones standing out of the water serve as a foot bridge. There is
no such thing as a whirlpool, the terror of mothers when the
children are away; it is nowhere more than knee deep. Dear little
brook, so tranquil, cool and clear, I have seen majestic rivers
since, I have seen the boundless sea; but nothing in my memories
equals your modest falls. About you clings all the hallowed
pleasure of my first impressions.

A miller has bethought him of putting the brook, which used to flow
so gaily through the fields, to work. Halfway up the slope, a
watercourse, economizing the gradient, diverts part of the water
and conducts it into a large reservoir, which supplies the mill
wheels with motor power. This basin stands beside a frequented
path and is walled off at the end.

One day, hoisting myself on a playfellow's shoulders, I looked over
the melancholy wall, all bearded with ferns. I saw bottomless
stagnant waters, covered with slimy green. In the gaps in the
sticky carpet, a sort of dumpy, black-and-yellow reptile was lazily
swimming. Today, I should call it a salamander; at that time, it
appeared to me the offspring of the serpent and the dragon, of whom
we were told such bloodcurdling tales when we sat up at night.
Hoo! I've seen enough: let's get down again, quick!

The brook runs below. Alders and ash, bending forward on either
bank, mingle their branches and form a verdant arch. At their
feet, behind a porch of great twisted roots, are watery caverns
prolonged by gloomy corridors. On the threshold of these
fastnesses shimmers a glint of sunshine, cut into ovals by the
leafy sieve above.

This is the haunt of the red-necktied minnows. Come along very
gently, lie flat on the ground and look. What pretty little fish
they are, with their scarlet throats! Clustering side by side, with
their heads turned against the stream, they puff their cheeks out
and in, rinsing their mouths incessantly. To keep their stationary
position in the running water, they need naught but a slight quiver
of their tail and of the fin on their back. A leaf falls from the
tree. Whoosh! The whole troop has disappeared.

On the other side of the brook is a spinney of beeches, with
smooth, straight trunks, like pillars. In their majestic, shady
branches sit chattering crows, drawing from their wings old
feathers replaced by new. The ground is padded with moss. At
one's first step on the downy carpet, the eye is caught by a
mushroom, not yet full-spread and looking like an egg dropped there
by some vagrant hen. It is the first that I have picked, the first
that have I turned round and round in my fingers, inquiring into
its structure with that vague curiosity which is the first
awakening of observation.

Soon, I find others, differing in size, shape and color. It is a
real treat for my prentice eyes. Some are fashioned like bells,
like extinguishers, like cups; some are drawn out into spindles,
hollowed into funnels, rounded into hemispheres. I come upon some
that are broken and are weeping milky tears; I step on some that,
instantly, become tinged with blue; I see some big ones that are
crumbling into rot and swarming with worms. Others, shaped like
pears, are dry and open at the top with a round hole, a sort of
chimney whence a whiff of smoke escapes when I prod their under
side with my finger. These are the most curious. I fill my
pockets with them to make them smoke at my leisure, until I exhaust
the contents, which are at last reduced to a kind of tinder.

What fun I had in that delightful spinney! I returned to it many a
time after my first find; and here, in the company of the crows, I
received my first lessons in mushroom lore. My harvests, I need
hardly say, were not admitted to the house. The mushroom, or the
bouturel, as we called it, had a bad reputation for poisoning
people. That was enough to make mother banish it from the family
table. I could scarcely understand how the bouturel, so attractive
in appearance, came to be so wicked; however, I accepted the
experience of my elders; and no disaster ever ensued from my rash
friendship with the poisoner.

As my visits to the beech clump were repeated, I managed to divide
my finds into three categories. In the first, which was the most
numerous, the mushroom was furnished underneath with little
radiating leaves. In the second, the lower surface was lined with
a thick pad pricked with hardly visible holes. In the third, it
bristled with tiny spots similar to the papillae on a cat's tongue.
The need of some order to assist the memory made me invent a
classification for myself.

Very much later there fell into my hands certain small books from
which I learnt that my three categories were well known; they even
had Latin names, which fact was far from displeasing to me.
Ennobled by Latin which provided me with my first exercises and
translations, glorified by the ancient language which the rector
used in saying his mass, the mushroom rose in my esteem. To
deserve so learned an appellation, it must possess a genuine
importance.

The same books told me the name of the one that had amused me so
much with its smoking chimney. It is called the puffball in
English, but its French name is the vesse-de-loup. I disliked the
expression, which to my mind smacked of bad company. Next to it
was a more decent denomination: Lycoperdon; but this was only so in
appearance, for Greek roots sooner or later taught me that
Lycoperdon means vesse-de-loup and nothing else. The history of
plants abounds in terms which it is not always desirable to
translate. Bequeathed to us by earlier ages less reticent than
ours, botany has often retained the brutal frankness of words that
set propriety at defiance.

How far off are those blessed times when my childish curiosity
sought solitary exercise in making itself acquainted with the
mushroom! 'Eheu! Fugaces labuntur anni!' said Horace. Ah, yes, the
years glide fleeting by, especially when they are nearing their
end! They were the merry brook that dallies among the willows on
imperceptible slopes; today, they are the torrent swirling a
thousand straws along, as it rushes towards the abyss. Fleeting
though they be, let us make the most of them. At nightfall, the
woodcutter hastens to bind his last fagots. Even so, in my
declining days, I, a humble woodcutter in the forest of science,
make haste to put my bundle of sticks in order. 'What will remain
of my researches on the subject of instinct? Not much, apparently;
at most, one or two windows opened on a world that has not yet been
explored with all the attention which it deserves.

A worse destiny awaits the mushrooms, which were my botanical joys
from my earliest youth. I have never ceased to keep up my
acquaintance with them. To this day, for the mere pleasure of
renewing it, I go, with a halting step, to visit them on fine
autumn afternoons. I still love to see the fat heads of the
boletes, the tops of the agarics and the coral-red tufts of the
clavaria emerge above the carpet pink with heather.

At Serignan, my last stage, they have lavished their seductions
upon me, so plentiful are they on the neighboring hills, wooded
with holm oak, arbutus and rosemary. During these latter years,
their wealth inspired me with an insane plan: that of collecting in
effigy what I was unable to keep in its natural state in an
herbarium. I began to paint life size pictures of all the species
in my neighborhood, from the largest to the smallest. I know
nothing of the art of painting in watercolors. No matter: what I
have never seen practiced I will invent, managing badly at first,
then a little better, at last well. The paintbrush will make a
change from the strain of my daily output of prose.

I end by possessing some hundreds of sheets representing the
mushrooms of the neighborhood in their natural size and colors. My
collection has a certain value. If it lacks artistic finish, at
least it boasts the merit of accuracy. It brings me visitors on
Sundays, country people, who stare at it in all simplicity,
astounded that such fine pictures should be done by hand, without a
copy and without compasses. They at once recognize the mushroom
represented; they tell me its popular name, thus proving the
fidelity of my brush.

Well, what will become of this great pile of drawings, the object
of so much work? No doubt, my family will keep the relic for a
time; but, sooner or later, taking up too much space, shifted from
cupboard to cupboard, from attic to attic, gnawed by the rats,
foxed, dirtied and stained, it will fall into the hands of some
little grandnephews who will cut it into squares to make paper
caps. It is the universal rule. What our illusions have most
fondly cherished comes to a pitiful end under the claws of ruthless
reality.





Next: INSECTS AND MUSHROOMS

Previous: A PARASITE OF THE MAGGOT



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