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and the Watch sadly dwindled. All but three of the strongholds

time:2023-12-02 10:26:54source:androidauthor:xsn

Sometimes of autumn evenings there, when the hollow of heaven flames like the interior of a chalice, and waves and clouds are flying in one wild rout of broken gold,--you may see the tawny grasses all covered with something like husks,--wheat-colored husks,--large, flat, and disposed evenly along the lee-side of each swaying stalk, so as to present only their edges to the wind. But, if you approach, those pale husks all break open to display strange splendors of scarlet and seal-brown, with arabesque mottlings in white and black: they change into wondrous living blossoms, which detach themselves before your eyes and rise in air, and flutter away by thousands to settle down farther off, and turn into wheat-colored husks once more ... a whirling flower-drift of sleepy butterflies!

and the Watch sadly dwindled. All but three of the strongholds

Southwest, across the pass, gleams beautiful Grande Isle: primitively a wilderness of palmetto (latanier);--then drained, diked, and cultivated by Spanish sugar-planters; and now familiar chiefly as a bathing-resort. Since the war the ocean reclaimed its own;--the cane-fields have degenerated into sandy plains, over which tramways wind to the smooth beach;--the plantation-residences have been converted into rustic hotels, and the negro-quarters remodelled into villages of cozy cottages for the reception of guests. But with its imposing groves of oak, its golden wealth of orange-trees, its odorous lanes of oleander.

and the Watch sadly dwindled. All but three of the strongholds

its broad grazing-meadows yellow-starred with wild camomile, Grande Isle remains the prettiest island of the Gulf; and its loveliness is exceptional. For the bleakness of Grand Terre is reiterated by most of the other islands,--Caillou, Cassetete, Calumet, Wine Island, the twin Timbaliers, Gull Island, and the many islets haunted by the gray pelican,--all of which are little more than sand-bars covered with wiry grasses, prairie-cane, and scrub-timber. Last Island (L'Ile Derniere),--well worthy a long visit in other years, in spite of its remoteness, is now a ghastly desolation twenty-five miles long. Lying nearly forty miles west of Grande Isle, it was nevertheless far more populated a generation ago: it was not only the most celebrated island of the group, but also the most fashionable watering-place of the aristocratic South;--to-day it is visited by fishermen only, at long intervals. Its admirable beach in many respects resembled that of Grande Isle to-day; the accommodations also were much similar, although finer: a charming village of cottages facing the Gulf near the western end. The hotel itself was a massive two-story construction of timber, containing many apartments, together with a large dining-room and dancing-hall. In rear of the hotel was a bayou, where passengers landed--"Village Bayou" it is still called by seamen;--but the deep channel which now cuts the island in two a little eastwardly did not exist while the village remained. The sea tore it out in one night--the same night when trees, fields, dwellings, all vanished into the Gulf, leaving no vestige of former human habitation except a few of those strong brick props and foundations upon which the frame houses and cisterns had been raised. One living creature was found there after the cataclysm--a cow! But how that solitary cow survived the fury of a storm-flood that actually rent the island in twain has ever remained a mystery ...

and the Watch sadly dwindled. All but three of the strongholds

On the Gulf side of these islands you may observe that the trees--when there are any trees--all bend away from the sea; and, even of bright, hot days when the wind sleeps, there is something grotesquely pathetic in their look of agonized terror. A group of oaks at Grande Isle I remember as especially suggestive: five stooping silhouettes in line against the horizon, like fleeing women with streaming garments and wind-blown hair,--bowing grievously and thrusting out arms desperately northward as to save themselves from falling. And they are being pursued indeed;--for the sea is devouring the land. Many and many a mile of ground has yielded to the tireless charging of Ocean's cavalry: far out you can see, through a good glass, the porpoises at play where of old the sugar-cane shook out its million bannerets; and shark-fins now seam deep water above a site where pigeons used to coo. Men build dikes; but the besieging tides bring up their battering-rams--whole forests of drift--huge trunks of water-oak and weighty cypress. Forever the yellow Mississippi strives to build; forever the sea struggles to destroy;--and amid their eternal strife the islands and the promontories change shape, more slowly, but not less fantastically, than the clouds of heaven.

And worthy of study are those wan battle-grounds where the woods made their last brave stand against the irresistible invasion,--usually at some long point of sea-marsh, widely fringed with billowing sand. Just where the waves curl beyond such a point you may discern a multitude of blackened, snaggy shapes protruding above the water,--some high enough to resemble ruined chimneys, others bearing a startling likeness to enormous skeleton-feet and skeleton-hands,--with crustaceous white growths clinging to them here and there like remnants of integument. These are bodies and limbs of drowned oaks,--so long drowned that the shell-scurf is inch-thick upon parts of them. Farther in upon the beach immense trunks lie overthrown. Some look like vast broken columns; some suggest colossal torsos imbedded, and seem to reach out mutilated stumps in despair from their deepening graves;--and beside these are others which have kept their feet with astounding obstinacy, although the barbarian tides have been charging them for twenty years, and gradually torn away the soil above and beneath their roots. The sand around,--soft beneath and thinly crusted upon the surface,--is everywhere pierced with holes made by a beautifully mottled and semi-diaphanous crab, with hairy legs, big staring eyes, and milk-white claws;--while in the green sedges beyond there is a perpetual rustling, as of some strong wind beating among reeds: a marvellous creeping of "fiddlers," which the inexperienced visitor might at first mistake for so many peculiar beetles, as they run about sideways, each with his huge single claw folded upon his body like a wing-case. Year by year that rustling strip of green land grows narrower; the sand spreads and sinks, shuddering and wrinkling like a living brown skin; and the last standing corpses of the oaks, ever clinging with naked, dead feet to the sliding beach, lean more and more out of the perpendicular. As the sands subside, the stumps appear to creep; their intertwisted masses of snakish roots seem to crawl, to writhe,--like the reaching arms of cephalopods....

... Grande Terre is going: the sea mines her fort, and will before many years carry the ramparts by storm. Grande Isle is going,--slowly but surely: the Gulf has eaten three miles into her meadowed land. Last Island has gone! How it went I first heard from the lips of a veteran pilot, while we sat one evening together on the trunk of a drifted cypress which some high tide had pressed deeply into the Grande Isle beach. The day had been tropically warm; we had sought the shore for a breath of living air. Sunset came, and with it the ponderous heat lifted,--a sudden breeze blew,--lightnings flickered in the darkening horizon,--wind and water began to strive together,--and soon all the low coast boomed. Then my companion began his story; perhaps the coming of the storm inspired him to speak! And as I listened to him, listening also to the clamoring of the coast, there flashed back to me recollection of a singular Breton fancy: that the Voice of the Sea is never one voice, but a tumult of many voices--voices of drowned men,--the muttering of multitudinous dead,--the moaning of innumerable ghosts, all rising, to rage against the living, at the great Witch call of storms....

The charm of a single summer day on these island shores is something impossible to express, never to be forgotten. Rarely, in the paler zones, do earth and heaven take such luminosity: those will best understand me who have seen the splendor of a West Indian sky. And yet there is a tenderness of tint, a caress of color, in these Gulf-days which is not of the Antilles,--a spirituality, as of eternal tropical spring. It must have been to even such a sky that Xenophanes lifted up his eyes of old when he vowed the Infinite Blue was God;--it was indeed under such a sky that De Soto named the vastest and grandest of Southern havens Espiritu Santo,--the Bay of the Holy Ghost. There is a something unutterable in this bright Gulf-air that compels awe,--something vital, something holy, something pantheistic: and reverentially the mind asks itself if what the eye beholds is not the Pneuma indeed, the Infinite Breath, the Divine Ghost, the great Blue Soul of the Unknown. All, all is blue in the calm,--save the low land under your feet, which you almost forget, since it seems only as a tiny green flake afloat in the liquid eternity of day. Then slowly, caressingly, irresistibly, the witchery of the Infinite grows upon you: out of Time and Space you begin to dream with open eyes,--to drift into delicious oblivion of facts,--to forget the past, the present, the substantial,--to comprehend nothing but the existence of that infinite Blue Ghost as something into which you would wish to melt utterly away forever....

And this day-magic of azure endures sometimes for months together. Cloudlessly the dawn reddens up through a violet east:

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