In the Gulf Stream by Charles Kingsley

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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 zo÷phytes, 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, zo÷phytes, 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 that

“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 Phœnician 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.

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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 sargasso.

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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.