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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XLI


Plague of Thistles in Australia and New Zealand—How to deal with them—Cnicus Acaulis, Great Milk Thistle, or Stemless Thistle—Fierce Fight between two Seals, "Nelson" and "Villeneuve."

It is true to a proverb that one may have too much even of a good thing. It was the most natural thing in the world, for instance, that our countrymen should have introduced the thistle, the national emblem, into the fertile plains and straths of Australia and New Zealand, to remind them of home, and to speak to them, even at the Antipodes, of memories and traditions that patriotism will in nowise "willingly let die." The inevitable result of such introduction, however, was not foreseen, or rather was never thought of. A correspondent in the province of Otago, in a very pleasant letter by last mail [August 1874] informs us that the "symbol dear" of Burns has so flourished and spread over large tracts of land in New Zealand as to be already an intolerable nuisance; so much so, that legislative enactments are being passed, in view, if possible, to its total extirpation. "You may think I exaggerate," says our friend, "but I positively do not, when I tell you that in the course of a fifty miles ride the other day I saw whole paddocks containing many hundred acres of splendid land quite overrun with thistles, so close, and thick, and formidable, that neither man nor horse could force a way through them. And such thistles, too ! I measured several that were quite eight feet in height, and as thick in the stem as my wrist, with spikes on them as large as horse-shoe nails, and as sharp-pointed as the sharpest needle. The proprietor of one of the paddocks thus over-grown with thistles swore at them awfully—and most unpatriotically, too, you will say, for he was a Scotchman—when I spoke to him on the subject. I assure you it is a very serious matter, for unless the obnoxious weed is somehow got rid of, many places will soon be uninhabitable, and, as you can easily understand, the evil is daily and rapidly becoming worse. The thistles are at present ripe, with large heads like cauliflowers, and when a smart breeze is blowing, where they are plentiful, the air is filled with thistle-down like a heavy snow-storm. If you, who know so many things, could only suggest some effectual way of ridding ourselves of this pest, you would be doing us a very real service." At home, too, thistles, if not more plentiful, are at least ol larger growth than usual. In a corner of our own garden,- for instance, there is still growing at the present moment a splendid fellow, nearly six feet in height, to which we pay a daily visit in admiration of its lusty growth, and the rich emerald green of its imbricated involucral leaves. We have purposely preserved it unhurt till now, as something of a curiosity, but in a day or two it must be cut down, for the seeds are fast ripening, and it were unwise, if not actually criminal, to allow them to escape on downy wings only to fall and germinate after their kind, a very nuisance, elsewhere. Most herbaceous plants will bleed to death if cut down two years running, just as they have about attained half their growth; and we can only suggest to our New Zealand friends that they should treat their thistle fields after a similar fashion. Let them be mowed down when about half, or rather more than half-grown, with the scythe for two consecutive seasons, and Ave believe the roots will infallibly die and disappear. "We have known bracken, ragwort, and burr-dock, &c. very effectively disposed of in this way, and have some confidence that thistles, too, might be thoroughly eradicated by a similar process of vital wounding at the hastiest stage of growth. From our correspondent's description of them, we should say that the New Zealand thistles, so loudly complained of, are of the same species as that in our garden, the Carduus marianus of botanists, or Great Milk Thistle, a biennial common over all Europe, but nowhere so plentiful as in Scotland, whence it is probable that it is so frequently pointed to by poets, painters, and patriots as the Scotch Thistle, though its claims to the high honour of being the actual and real national emblem are somewhat questionable. The tradition in the south and southwest, where the true story, if ever there was a true story in the matter, is most likely to have rooted itself in its perfectest form, is to the effect that, during an invasion of the Norsemen, the Danes advancing against the Scots on a dark night, one of their barefooted scouts, when prowling about the Scottish encampment, chanced to tread on a thistle, the sharp prickles of which piercing his foot, caused him to utter a loud imprecation, which reaching the ears of the Scots, hitherto lying in fancied security, warned them that the enemy was at hand, and enabled them, instantly standing to their arms, to take their foes at such disadvantage that the fierce Norsemen were totally routed and driven to their ships with immense slaughter. The thistle that thus opportunely prevented the Scots being taken unawares is still pointed out, not, however, as being any of the large, formidable, long-stemmed varieties, but the stemless thistle that spreads out its leaves and spikes quite close to the ground, common enough in old pastures and waste grass lands. The stemless thistle is botanically known as the Cnicus acaulis, and lowly and unpretending as it may seem at first sight, there is, we make bold to assert, no species of thistle so well entitled to bear and boast the grand old legend, Nemo me impune lacessit. Its spines are as fine, and quite as tough and piercing withal, as the finest cambric needle ; impossible, too, of extraction, once it has fairly penetrated the flesh, except by a surgical operation; and we have a shrewd suspicion that it is to some extent poisonous, for, from the moment one pierces the flesh till its expulsion hy suppuration of the part, the pain is keen and excruciating beyond conception. Barefooted Dane, Saxon, or Celt, unexpectedly treading on a nearly ripe and full-formed Cnicus, might well be excused an oath, however lusty and loud, in acknowledgment and hearty execration of such an impediment. "We can say something of a Cnicus spike wound from personal experience. Several years ago, when we were younger and lighter than we are to-day, we were vaulting over a wall that divided an infield of corn from an outfield of old pasture. Safely over, but alighting awkwardly, we slipped forward and fell, instinctively stretching out our hands to secure ourselves as we came almost headlong to the ground. The fall was nothing, but one of our hands had, as ill-luck would have it, alighted, with all our weight upon it, in the very bosom of a full-armed, irate Cnicus. The palm of the hand somehow escaped, but one of the prickles entered our wrist, and the pain was at once intense— stinging, sharp, and burning, as if the spike was the point of a red-hot needle from the fire. It could not be extracted, for it could not be seen; and there was nothing for it but patience and such local applications as might best aid the inevitable suppuration by which alone, after fourteen days' acute pain, relief was finally obtained. Upon the whole, then, and keeping the barefooted Danish scout tradition in view, we are disposed to consider the stemless Cnicus as the true national emblem. If there be any doubt, the honour, at all events, must be left between itself and the burly, big-stemmed Murianus. Of a certainty, in any case, the cotton thistle (Onopordon acantliium), though frequently spoken of by horticulturists and amateur gardeners as the Scotch thistle, cannot be the species indicated, for this last is not properly a Scotch plant at all, it being rarely, if ever, found growing wild anywhere north of the Tweed, though comparatively common in England. The first pu blic and properly authenticated mention of the thistle as the national badge is, we believe, in an inventory of the jewels and wardrobe effects of James III., about the year 1467. Whether there was an "ancient" Order of the Thistle seems doubtful; what is commonly called the revival of the order dates from the reign of James the Seventh of Scotland, Second of England, in 1687.

A more natural and less apocryphal combat than the recent dwarf and bulldog business at Hanley is the following. Be not alarmed ; ours is simply a brief account of a fight, fierce and and furious enough to be sure, but very natural—for of the Phocidce, we suppose, as of the "bears and lions" in the well-known hymn, it may be predicted that "'tis their nature to"—a fight, then, between a pair of dog-seals in the bay under our house a few evenings ago. In nothing else are the results of the Gun Tax Act so pleasantly manifest as in the increased, and still increasing, confidence and friendly relations now so happily established between seals and sea-birds of every kind and the sea-side naturalist, as, throwing books and papers for the time aside, he takes his evening walk abroad Avithin sight and sound of the setting sunlit sea, that gently murmers the while, as if for very gladness, in response to the rosy smile of the departing god. Ever since the beginning of summer, a large dog-seal, recognisable as such by his immense, square, bulldog-like head and fierce hirsute beard, has made our beautiful Onich Bay his favourite evening fishing-ground, until Ave have come to know him perfectly; no difficult matter either, for he has a curious grey patch, larger than one's hand, on his left cheek, and, unlike most seals, sinks, not log-like, when he disappears under water, but almost always with a lively "header," in which the whole back, arched and shining, is brought to view, as if for our special delectation, as we sit and watch his graceful motions with a glass powerful enough to detect the wary and intelligent glance of his beautiful dark-brown eye, and count, if need were, every separate bristle in his moustache. He is a big and powerful animal, and when in our bay doubtless accounts himself lord of all he surveys, for, of the hundreds of seals in Loch Leven, he alone constantly frequents this particular semi-oval, sandy-bottomed inlet, his size and strength probably ensuring it to him as a sort of reserve, in which woe unto the interloping poacher caught sight of flagrante dclicto by the bright eye of "Lord Nelson," as we have long since called him, and all the people about call him, for he is now known to everybody in the hamlet, and frequently spoken about with all the interest attached to a wild animal, actually suspicious and shy, but perfectly harmless, when, with a confidence extremely rare in animals of its kind, it approaches human habitations. On the afternoon of Friday last, "Nelson" was fishing, as usual, in our bay, which at the time was mirror-smooth and calm as calm could be. We had watched him for some time through our glass, and seen him come to the surface more than once, and dispose of a flounder in his usual quiet and leisurely way, when, somewhat to our surprise, we caught sight of another seal, seemingly as large as "Nelson " himself, and about a hundred yards from him ; and at the same moment his "lordship" evidently saw him too ! There could be no mistake about it, for he, first raising himself half-way out of the water, and gazing excitedly around, with a splendid header and a very significant flourish of his hind flippers, instantly dived ; the stranger seal also, who probably knew what was coming, diving immediately afterwards. What happened below is only known to such subaqueous spectators as might be about at the moment; we can only bear witness to what followed, and that was, that in about two minutes there was wild splashing and violent commotion of the waters near the spot at which the stranger seal had disappeared, from the centre of which turmoil the two seals soon emerged, fighting in fierce grip like a pair of enraged bulldogs. For several minutes this wild combat continued; Greek had met Greek; the belligerents hugging each other, bear-like, with their anterior flippers, and tearing at each other's heads and throats with their terrible fangs, for the canine teeth of seals are exceedingly formidable, and their strength of jaw enormous. All this time they wrestled and rolled over and over each other in deadly and desperate encounter, the sea for yards around them one sheet of boiling, hissing foam, here and there streaked with blood, as we could plainly discern by the aid of the glass, for we had, in the meantime, advanced to the very margin of the sea, and were standing within some thirty yards of them. In the wild hurly-burly of the conflict, it was impossible to see or say whether "Nelson" or "Villeneuve" was winning—for by the latter name had our son, who was along with us, already dubbed the stranger seal, as, with true boy-like interest and eagerness, he watched the fight. Had there been any betting on the event, we, knowing "Nelson," and believing in his prowess—for it was impossible to be impartial in such a case—would probably have laid two to one freely on our favourite; remembering, too, the pithy Gaelic adage, ''S laidir cu air a dhunan fein:" Strong is the dog that has his own home knoll for a battle-field ! As it was, the battle was fought out and finished under water, so that we were not privileged to see the last of it. After a final fierce worry, in which the combatants reared their bodies more than half-way out of the water, and much surface splashing and somersaulting, the belligerents, as if by common consent, disappeared, still fighting, however, as the hundreds of bursting bubbles that for a time kept coming to the surface clearly testified. In about a couple of minutes the stranger seal came to the surface, swimming rapidly seawards; he had evidently had enough of it; and shortly afterwards, "Nelson," known at once by the grey patch on his cheek, reappeared in the centre of the bay, quietly floating about, as if thoroughly tired of the tussle, and shaking his head dog-fashion now and again, from which we gathered that " Villeneuve," though beaten, had left his mark upon the victor, and the victor was in this wise very significantly acknowledging the fact. It is worthy of remark, that throughout the whole of this curious fight, though from first to last it was as fierce and furious as anything of the kind could be, not a sound was uttered by either combatant, except an occasional heavy, sigh-like breathing, which was probably involuntary, and merely the natural result of unwonted physical exertion. And yet seals are by no means dumb, for their curious bleatings— we can find no better word for it—in the breeding season, must be known to every sea-side naturalist. "Nelson," the reader will perhaps be glad to hear, is all right again, and, as yet, sole admiral of our bay, in which at this moment, as we write, he is busy fishing for supper.


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