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.





Rearing And Observing Them While Alive Red And Black Against White facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback