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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 6819

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The Jardin des Plantes is not absolutely secure from visits of the serpent; for the trigonocephalus goes everywhere,-mounting to the very summits of the cocoa-palms, swimming rivers, ascending walls, hiding in thatched roofs, breeding in bagasse heaps. But, despite what has been printed to the contrary, this reptile fears man and hates light: it rarely shows itself voluntarily during the day. Therefore, if you desire, to obtain some conception of the magnificence of Martinique vegetation, without incurring the risk of entering the high woods, you can do so by visiting the Jardin des Plantes,-only taking care to use your eyes well while climbing over fallen trees, or picking your way through dead branches. The garden is less than a mile from the city, on the slopes of the Morne Parnasse; and the primitive forest itself has been utilized in the formation of it,-so that the greater part of the garden is a primitive growth. Nature has accomplished here infinitely more than art of man (though such art has done much to lend the place its charm),-and until within a very recent time the result might have been deemed, without exaggeration, one of the wonders of the world.

A moment after passing the gate you are in twilight,-though the sun may be blinding on the white road without. All about you is a green gloaming, up through which you see immense trunks rising. Follow the first path that slopes up on your left as you proceed, if you wish to obtain the best general view of the place in the shortest possible time. As you proceed, the garden on your right deepens more and more into a sort of ravine;-on your left rises a sort of foliage-shrouded cliff; and all this in a beautiful crepuscular dimness, made by the foliage of great trees meeting overhead. Palms rooted a hundred feet below you hold their heads a hundred feet above you; yet they can barely reach the light.... Farther on the ravine widens to frame in two tiny lakes, dotted with artificial islands, which are miniatures of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Dominica: these are covered with tropical plants, many of which are total strangers even here: they are natives of India, Senegambia, Algeria, and the most eastern East. Arbores. cent ferps of unfammiliar elegance curve up from path-verge lake-brink; and the great arbre-du-voyageur outspreads its colossal fan. Giant lianas droop down over the way in loops and festoons; tapering green cords, which are creepers descending to take root, hang everywhere; and parasites with stems thick as cables coil about the trees like boas. Trunks shooting up out of sight, into the green wilderness above, display no bark; you cannot guess what sort of trees they are; they are so thickly wrapped in creepers as to seem pillars of leaves. Between you and the sky, where everything is fighting for sun, there is an almost unbroken vault of leaves, a cloudy green confusion in which nothing particular is distinguishable.

You come to breaks now and then in the green steep to your left,-openings created for cascades pouring down from one mossed basin of brown stone to another,-or gaps occupied by flights of stone steps, green with mosses, and chocolate-colored by age. These steps lead to loftier paths; and all the stone-work,-the grottos, bridges, basins, terraces, steps,-are darkened by time and velveted with mossy things.... It is of another century, this garden: special ordi

nances were passed concerning it during the French Revolution (An. II.);-it is very quaint; it suggests an art spirit as old as Versailles, or older; but it is indescribably beautiful even now.

... At last you near the end, to hear the roar of falling water;-there is a break in the vault of green above the bed of a river below you; and at a sudden turn you in sight of the cascade. Before you is the Morne itself; and against the burst of descending light you discern a precipice-verge. Over it, down one green furrow in its brow, tumbles the rolling foam of a cataract, like falling smoke, to be caught below in a succession of moss-covered basins. The first clear leap of the water is nearly seventy feet.... Did Josephine ever rest upon that shadowed bench near by?... She knew all these paths by heart: surely they must have haunted her dreams in the after-time!

Returning by another path, you may have a view of other cascades-though none so imposing. But they are beautiful; and you will not soon forget the effect of one,-flanked at its summit by white-stemmed palms which lift their leaves so high into the light that the loftiness of them gives the sensation of vertigo.... Dizzy also the magnificence of the great colonnade of palmistes and angelins, two hundred feet high, through which: you pass if you follow the river-path from the cascade-the famed Allée des duels....

The vast height, the pillared solemnity of the ancient trees in the green dimness, the solitude, the strangeness of shapes but half seen,-suggesting fancies of silent aspiration, or triumph, or despair,-all combine to produce a singular impression of awe.... You are alone; you hear no human voice,-no sounds but the rushing of the river over its volcanic rocks, and the creeping of millions of lizards and tree-frogs and little toads. You see no human face; but you see all around you the labor of man being gnawed and devoured by nature,-broken bridges, sliding steps, fallen arches, strangled fountains with empty basins;-and everywhere arises the pungent odor of decay. This omnipresent odor affects one unpleasantly;-it never ceases to remind you that where Nature is most puissant to charm, there also is she mightiest to destroy.

The beautiful garden is now little more than a wreck of what it once was; since the fall of the Empire it has been shamefully abused and neglected. Some agronome sent out to take charge of it by the Republic, began its destruction by cutting down acres of enormous and magnificent trees,-including a superb alley of plants,-for the purpose of experimenting with roses. But the rose-trees would not be cultivated there; and the serpents avenged the demolition by making the experimental garden unsafe to enter;-they always swarm into underbrush and shrubbery after forest-trees have been clearedd away.... Subsequently the garden was greatly damaged by storms and torrential rains; the mountain river overflowed, carrying bridges away and demolishing stone-work. No attempt was made to repair these destructions; but neglect alone would not have ruined the lovliness of the place;-barbarism was necessary! Under the present negro-radical regime orders have been given for the wanton destruction of trees older than the colony itself;-and marvels that could not be replaced in a hundred generations were cut down and converted into charcoal for the use of public institutions.

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