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The Vagaries of Nature by Jonathan F. Kelley


Nature seems to have her fitful, frightful, and funny moods, as well as all her children. Now she gets up a stone bridge, the gigantic proportions and the symmetrical development of which attract great attention from all tourists and historians who venture into or speak of “old Virginia.” The old dame goes down far into the bowels of Mother Earth, in Kentucky, and builds herself, silently and alone, a stupendous under-ground palace, that laughs to scorn the puny efforts of man in that branch of business. She gets up sugar-loaf mountains, pillars of salt, great granite breastworks, and stone towers; hews out figure-heads, old men's noses on the beetling cliffs of New Hampshire, and throws up rocky palisades along the Hudson, that win wonder and delight from the floating million. Instances out of all number might be raked up, home and abroad, to show how the old dame has cut didoes in the prosecution of her manifold duties. But in Australia, it would seem, nature has taken most especial pains to appear slightly ridiculous or very eccentric.

Old Captain Rocksalt informs us—and there is always wit, wisdom, and truth in the old man's stories—that he made voyages to Australia many times within the past thirty years, and having visited about all the sea-ports of the Continent, lived and almost died in Australia, his notes are worthy of attention. Capt. Cook discovered and named Botany Bay, the name originating from the fact that the land was covered with a luxurious growth of Botanical specimens. The Dutch discovered and named Van Diemen's Land. The English at once concluded to make Botany Bay a penal colony, and the first living freight of criminals and soldiers sent out, was some 700 in number, in 1788; but Capt. Phillip, the commander of the fleet, being dissatisfied with the looks of Botany Bay, hunted up a better place, and sailed to it. When Capt. Cook was cruising off there, one of his sailors, on the look out, cried, “Land ho!”

Cook was over his wine and beef, in the cabin, and it took him some time to “tumble up” on deck.

“Where the deuce is your land, eh?” bawls the old cruiser.

“Larboard beam, sir!” responds the “lookout;” and, sure enough, a long, faint streak of land was visible from deck. The “lookout” announced a harbor, head-lands, &c.; but the rum old captain, not being able to see any such indication, with a chuckle, says he—

“You booby! harbor, eh? Ha, ha! well, we'll call it a port, you powder monkey—Port Jackson!

And faith, so the lookout, Jackson, became sponsor to the finest harbor in all Australia; for Capt. Phillip, upon rediscovering the harbor, took his fleet into it, and then and there began the now flourishing city of Sydney.

Australia is an Island, lying opposite another—New Zealand. It is on the Indian Ocean, south side, while the east opens to the Pacific. Australia claims to contain a superficial area of over three million square miles, part desert, rather mountainous, and all being in one of the finest climates on the face of the earth. The air is dry, the soil light and sandy; the high winds stir up the dust and fine sand, and make ophthalmy the only positive ill peculiar to the country. Sheep-grazing, wool-growing, and boiling down sheep and cattle for tallow was the great business of the country from its earliest settlement up to 1851, when the gold fever swept the land.

Australia was inhabited by over 100,000 natives, black cannibals of the ugliest description; but at this day not a hundred of them remain. The natives were exceeding stupid and useless; the first settlers, who, as Capt. Rocksalt observes, were jail-birds and scape-gallows, were not very dainty in dealing with the obnoxious natives; so they determined to get rid of them as fast and easy as possible. For this purpose, they used to gather a horde of them together, and give them poisoned bread and rum, and so kill them off by hundreds. It was a sharp sort of practice, but the ends seemed to justify the means.

Gold, “laying around loose,” as it did, was, no doubt, discovered years ago; but not in quantities to lead the ignorant to believe money could be made hunting it. People may be stupid; but it requires a far greener capacity than most of them would confess to—at least, ten years ago—to make them believe gold could be picked up in chunks out in the open fields.

But Australia began to be populated; by convicts first; and then by far better people; though the very worst felons sent out often became decent and respectable men, which is indeed a great “puff,” we think, for the healthfulness of the climate. A convict shepherd now and then used to bring into Sydney small lumps of gold and sell them to the watch-makers, and as he refused to say where or how he got them, it was suspicioned that he had secreted guineas or jewelry somewhere, and occasionally melted them for sale.

However, one day the thing broke out, nearly simultaneously, all over Australia. Gold was lying around everywhere. The rocks, ledges, bars, gullies, and river-banks, which were daily familiar to the eyes of thousands, all of a sudden turned up bright and shining gold. Old Dame Nature must have laughed in her sleeve to see the fun and uproar—the scrabble and rush she had caused in her vast household.

“It did beat all!” exclaims the old Captain. “In forty-eight hours Sydney was half-depopulated, Port Phillip nearly desolate, while the interior villages or towns—Bathurst, &c., were run clean out!”

Stores were shut up, the clerks running to the mines, and the proprietors after the clerks. Mechanics dropped work and put out; servants left without winking, leaving people to wait on themselves; doctors left what few patients they had, and bolted for the fields of Ophir; lawyers packed up and cut stick, following their clients and victims to the brighter fields of “causes” and effects. The newspapers became so short-handed that dailies were knocked into weeklies, and the weeklies into cocked hats, or something near it—mere eight-by-ten “handbills.”

These “discoveries” wrought as sudden as singular a revolution in men, manners, and things. As we said before, Australia was the very apex of singularities in the way of Dame Nature's fancy-work, long before the gold mania broke out; but now she seemed bent on a general and miscellaneous freak, making the staid, matter-of-fact Englishmen as full of caprice as the land they were living in.

“Only look at it!” exclaims the Captain: “the day comes in the middle of our nights! When we're turning in at home, they are turning out in Australia. Summer begins in the middle of winter; and for snow storms they get rain, thunder and lightning. About the time we are getting used to our woollens and hot fires of the holidays, they are roasting with heat, and going around in linen jackets and wilted dickeys. The land is full of flowers of every hue, gay and beautiful, gorgeous and sublime to look at, but as senseless to the smell and as inodorous as so many dried chips. The swans are numerous, but jet black. The few animals in the country are all provided with pockets in their 'overcoats,' or skin, in which to stow their young ones, or provender. Some of the rivers really appear,” says the Captain, “to run up stream! I was completely taken down,” says the Captain, “by a bunch of the finest pears you ever saw. Myself and a friend were up the country, and I sees a fine pear tree, breaking down with as elegant-looking fruit as I ever saw.

“'Well, by ginger,' says I, 'them are about as fine pears as I've seen these twenty years!'

“'Yes,' says my friend, who was a resident in the country; 'perhaps you would like to try a few?'

“'That I shall,' says I; so I ups and knocks down a few, and it was a job to get them down, I tell you; and when I had one between my teeth I gave it a nip—see there, two teeth broke off,” says the Captain, showing us the fact; “the fine pears were mere wood!

“The country is well supplied with fine birds; but they are dumb as beetles, sir—never heard a bird sing or whistle a note in Australia. The trees make no shade, the leaves hang from the stems edge up, and look just as if they had been whipped into shreds by a gale of wind; and you rarely see a tree with a bit of bark on it.

“But what completely upset me, was the cherries, sir—fine cherries, plenty of them, but the stones were all on the outside! The bees have no stings, the snakes no fangs, and the eagles are all white. The north wind is hot, the south wind cold. Our longest days are in summer; but in Australia, sir, the shortest days come in summer, and the longest in winter; and,” says the Captain, “I can't begin to tell you how many curious didoes nature seems to cut, in that country; but, altogether, it's one of the queerest countries I ever did see, by ginger!”

And we have come to the conclusion—it is. If the gold continues to “turn up” in such boulders and “nuggets” as recently reported, Australia is bound to be the richest and most densely populated, as well as queerest country known to man.


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