Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jean Grave, The Adventures of Nono — Chapter IX

THE ADVENTURES OF NONO
by JEAN GRAVE

 [continued from Chapter VIII]
IX

THE PROMENADE

Nono had been in Autonomie for some time, and that time seemed to have passed like a dream.
The time passed quietly; each day brought diverse labors and pleasures, which prevented the children from being bored for a single minute.
Nono now knew all his comrades by name, knew who their parents were, what they did, and what country they came from.
Most of the time, school-hours were spent in the gardens, on the lawns; but, for variety, they had long since planned a long walk in the woods that bordered the country of Autonomie. And that day had come.
On the night before, they prepared all the gear necessary for that excursion, which would be, at the same time, a lesson in natural history.
They had to carry little walking sticks, equipped with hammers, to detach bits of rocks, and little iron spades, to dig up, roots and all, the plants that they wanted to study or bring back to Autonomie... Some nets, to catch insects in flight, completed that naturalist’s kit.
The supplies were packed in small bags, fit to the shoulders of the little boys who, being the strongest, were in charge of carrying the provisions of the troupe. Each had, in addition, a lunch sack, a canteen, and a cup hung at their side.
When everyone was ready, they set out, early in the morning, before the sun became too warm, and made the walk too tiring.
Initiativa, another good spirit of Autonomie, the sister of Liberta and Solidaria, led the column.
The children walked, chatter among themselves or singing ballads that Harmomia, daughter of Solidaria, had composed for them.
It was only when they had reach some less familiar paths that they began to concern themselves with finding some uncommon species to serve for the basis of the lesson when they stopped. Each went exploring along the trail, and under the bushes, taking care only to keep walking in the direction of their stopping place.
For his part, Nono discovered some splendid flowers, with the shape of a long-necked vase. He ran, breathless, to show his find to Botanicus, one of their teachers, saying:
“Look, Mr. Botanicus, at the fine flytrap I just found!” and he very carefully opened one of the flowers, which was torn, but, despite his precautions, two or three little flies, with green-gold glints, flew out.
Botunicus took the flowers, then adjusted his gold glasses on his nose, and declared:
“This is the Aristolochia clematitis, Birthwort, a plant of the Aristolochiaceae family, and not a common flytrap. What could make you believe that it is, is that, indeed, when that plant is is in bloom, it is designed so as to allow the entry of small insects like the ones you see imprisoned. But you see these hairs that are planted along the deck on the inside of the flower, the points of which are pointed at the bottom?
And he showed them the inside the open flower.
“Well, as long as the flower is not fertilized, the hairs that let many flies enter, prevent them from leaving. The flies, struggling, let pollen, which they have carried in from outside, fall on the stigmas of the flower. As soon as the flower is fertilized, the hairs fall and let the prisoners escape; but, first, the anthers open, releasing the pollen that they contain, and the flies carry it to other plants.
And he showed them a more mature flower, where the hairs inside had indeed fallen.
Botanicus was an original being who had only recently come to live in Autonomie. He knew all the natural history by heart; at first sight, he could tell the name, family, genus, species, habitat, and flowering time, if it was a plant; the spawning time, it was an insect. He was a real walking dictionary.
But, apart from natural history, he was phenomenally naive. Clumsy with his fingers, he was incapable of any manual labor. When he wanted to help others in the colony, it was rare that some accident did not occur. If he wanted, for example, to help set the table, one was sure to see stacks of plates broken, or a bottle or two of milk spilled on the tablecloth.
In the beginning, the children had tried to make him understand that they were faster without him, but Botanicus, who insisted on making himself useful, persisted in wanting to help whenever work presented itself; so that the Autonomiens made up their minds to simply strive to prevent the accidents when they saw them about to occur.
Before coming to Autonomie, he had a job as a professor of plant physiology in a laboratory in Paris. If he had had the smallest shred of ambition, a bit of flexibility, was able to flatter the men in power, and possessed a bit more skill at bending the truths and comparisons that came out of his lessons, he would doubtless have attained a high position, with great honors and large salaries.
But, absorbed by his favorite passion, study, he concerned himself very little with these petty concerns. He was delighted when he was able to classify a new species, or when he came to discover some unknown aspect of insect behavior.
More than once, during his lessons, he would issue new insights he derived from his studies and apply them to social life, which, most often, went against the theories that the men of power taught.
Botanicus was far from doing this is a spirit of opposition. To tell the truth, most often he expressed his most subversive ideas without suspecting that he made a critique against the society in which he lived; but they were only the more terrible for their scientific truth. So, places, honors and fat salaries went to less leaned, whose science was made up from lessons learned rather than  individual studies, but who knew how to ingeniously dress up and disguise the truths, when the happened to be found in their lessons.
And one fine day, under the pretext of cutting costs, they cut Botanicus’ chair, to rid themselves of the embarrassing professor.
Botanicus entered a school where they taught official science to the little offspring of those who call themselves the “Establishment;” but, one more, he could not hold his tongue, and as he had a very indulgent, character, could not speak any harsh words, let alone punish the horrible little brats, who trembled before their previous teacher, who overburdened them with homework, bad grades, a forbidding them from leaving, were not slow to make fun of the new one, to play the most terrible tricks on him, which served as a pretext for the administration to dismiss him, and put him on the street.
Solidaria, who knew him, had brought him to Autonomie, putting at his disposition plants, insects, instruments and everything that he would need for his studies, on the single condition that he teach others what he knew. Botanicus had accepted gladly; for there was no greater pleasure for him, when he had made a discovery, than to share it with everyone.
After living some time in Autonomie, he was not slow to realize how much his faculties had been distorted by limiting himself to a single study; that is why he had tried to get used to the ordinary things in life; but, with each mistake, he understood that it was too late. So, with a big, resigned smile, he said to the children:
“I am too old to change now. You must, my children, take me as I am. But let my example be a lesson for you. Don’t let your preferences prevent you from being aware, even of the things that seem least important.
Such was the man. But let us return to our walk. Just now, I see Pat who advances with a plant that he has just dug up, and that he seems to examine with great interest.
“Mr. Botanicus, look at this funny plant. I think it is a fly trap!”
“Here,” said Botanicus, securing his glasses, and raising the plant to the level of his eyes, “is the Dionaea muscipula, a sort of plant from the droseraceae family, with radical leaves, cut on the edges with deep indentations, of which the two halves — as you can see” — and they admired the plant — “are dyed a pretty flesh-pink and snap back suddenly, like a bear trap, on the insect which, attracted by the brilliance of that color, is imprudent enough to settle there.
“But that plant does not only take prisoners, it eats them!”
And as the children opened their questioning eyes:
Yes, they eat them! not like you eat an apple with the mouth and teeth. But leave it for some time with that fly that it has taken, the leaf that has closed will reopen, but there will no longer be a fly. It will have digested it!”
“Mr. Botanicus! Mr. Botanicus, said Mab, rushing up. Come see a black insect, which rolls a ball ten times as big as him.
“That,” said Botanicus, when he had arrived, always armed with his glasses, near the insects, “is the Scerabeus sacer, a beetle distinguished by a rasped front, the prothorax of which is, on the sides, lined with little raised points, marked at the elytra with six slight longitudinal grooves. The hind legs are without points on their rear edge; it has a black fringe at the head, thorax and legs. The females have red-brown hind legs. A slightly shiny black coloration finishes the characterization of the sacred scarab. The Egyptians had a great veneration for them. They made them the symbol of life.
It will bury that ball that you see it rolling; inside, an egg is deposited. When the little one is hatched, it will only have its cradle to eat, made of the most delicate part of that ball that you see ground up by that band of scarabs of all sorts, which deserve the name of dung beetles that is given to them.”
Botanicus had stopped to breath, while the children examined the very busy insects.
They indeed saw them moving in the sticky mass. They could witness the construction of the ball that has so intrigued the children.
A sacred scarab gathered under its belly, the parts that it had chosen, and gave them a first shape, then began to roll the plug with its legs, finished rounding it off by gradually adding material.
“If we had the time,” said Botanicus who had recovered his breath,we could follow this insect in his work. We would see some of them who make balls the size of an apple. There are some who make them the size of a fist. Then you could admire their ingenuity in rolling them up to the place where they have resolved to bury them, and also, how, sometimes, some of their fellow creatures are found who, under the pretext of helping them, rob them of fruit of their labor, just as it happens among human beings. — But that would take too much time. We must be on our way.”
And, little by little, the group spread along the paths, through the shrubs, in search of some curiosity. They stopped from time to time to rally the stragglers.
Having already walked for a few hours, the children began to feel their appetites awaken, when they came to a large clearing, carpeted with a beautiful lawn of short, thick grass. At the center rose a magnificent cedar tree, under which they set their table.
Not far away, shaded by a huge willow, welled a fresh spring, where the went to supply themselves with water to mix with the excellent beverages made with the fruits that they harvested in Autonomie.
The provisions unpacked, they did them justice, for the hikers had built up an appetite. Then, when things calmed down a bit, the happy, exuberant children overwhelmed Solidaria, Botanicus, and Initiativa with questions and requests on all sorts of things.
Botanicus, for his part, had a lot to do to respond to all, with the name of a plant, its classification, the use of some of its organs, its properties, its special features.
For the insects, when they were well examined, they were given their freedom, from which the butterflies, especially, were hardly able to profit after so much handling, their delicate wings having been subjected to too much damage to be much use to them.
It was the great recommendation of Solidaria to only take those that were absolutely necessary, and to take the greatest care in catching them, in order not to crease their wings.
Finally, when everyone was rested, they set on their way. But they had had enough botanizing, Botanicus led the little band to a quarry where he could give them some basic notions of geology.
It was a sand pit, open to the sky, where they could descend to the bottom. Botanicus noted that the land mass was made up of several beds of different colors and material, explaining to them that this differentiation of the layers was due to the various causes that combined there; that they were deposits that were brought by the waters and slowly accumulated, each layer requiring thousands and tens of thousands of years.
Then, digging in the sand, they happened to find some of those flints carved by primitive peoples to serve as instruments, tools and weapons, and of which Botanicus had already spoken to them on other excursions.
This time, he showed them how to recognize a flint that had been intentially shaped, drawing the different shapes of those that they knew.
Having unearthed a kidney-shaped flint, and arming himself with a large, round stone, he tried to give them some notion of the way in which it is supposed that our ancestors struck in order to obtain this long blades, thin and sharp on the edges, that we suppose to have been knives; these others, wide, almost quadrangular, that we designate with the name of axes. But, despite all his attempts, he only managed to obtain some specimens that we very imperfect and very misshapen compared to those that they had discovered.
But, even so, it was enough to give the children an and idea of the mechanism of operation. The imperfection of the attempts, Botanicus explained to them, came from a lack of practice. The amenities of life in the present have so spoiled us, that if we had to return to the conditions existence of prehistoric peoples, we would have to display, to make what they hade with a rudimentary brain, an enormous amount of effort and intelligence.
Further along, stood a dolmen. Botanicus led his listeners to it. He pointed out the enormous weight of the large stones of which it was made. In France he added, we have long attributed their construction to the Gauls, claiming to recognize the altars on which they made their sacrifices; but if the Gauls were able to use them for that purpose, we now know that they existed long before them.
They were the funerary monuments of an unknown population that has left its traces across Europe and Africa. Some excavations carried out inside have allowed us to find some of the pottery and contemporary instruments of the men who carved the stone.
But as it was time to go, they hastily made a light snack on the leftovers from lunch, and went merrily on their way to Autonomie, keeping in groups.

[Continued in Chapter X]
 
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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