Ship Of The Desert
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
A VERY wonderful thing occurred early in the year 1913. A French aeroplane flew for hundreds of miles across the great Sahara desert which, for many hundreds of years before, men had been able to cross only on camels. This was done because the French government hopes that modern airships may be substituted for camels as "ships of the desert." These first experiments may be the beginning of wonderful changes in the way the world's work is done, but the way the camel has worked for men is one of the world's greatest stories. No human invention is as wonderful as the way the camel is made for its life and its work.
What do we think of first when we think of a camel? A hump, is it not? Probably most of us think of the hump first in recollecting what we have seen of camels, living or in pictures. Then if we ask, "Why do camels have humps?" we may begin to learn how they become wonderful animals.
The answer is that the hump helps to fit them to cross deserts where they cannot find food. When a camel has all the food it needs for several weeks, its hump grows very fat until it has a week's "provisions" stored up in it. We have read how our American bears go into caves and sleep during very cold weather, without coming out for food. When they go to sleep very plump and come out very lean, we say they have been "living on their own fat." In this same sense, the camel "lives on his own hump" in crossing the desert. With nothing but dry twigs and withered leaves to chew, a camel which had a full meal and a full hump when starting across the desert, may carry over 500 pounds on his back and keep both his good health and his good nature.
So although we may think the hump ugly as well as strange-looking, it is very useful to the camel. If we call it the most wonderful invention for storing up provisions, we are right as far as our own inventions are concerned. It is more convenient and reliable than any human invention. As we think of luncheon baskets and haversacks for carrying provisions, that does not make us think of any-thing as wonderful as the way the camel carries its food or its extra supply of water for a week or ten day's travel in the desert.
A long line of soldiers, marching with their food in their haversacks, carry water in canteens, made of metal and slung by straps to their shoulders. They cannot carry food and water enough for a week as a line of camels can when they start to cross the desert. Soldiers must have wagon trains to follow them.
Like other animals which "chew the cud," the camel has "four stomachs," which may be thought of as a single stomach divided into four parts, but no other animal is supplied with natural canteens or water-cells in its stomach as is the camel. When it drinks before starting into the desert until its stomach is filled with water, it is also filling a number of water-pouches or cells which have their mouths around the walls of its "first stomach." These mouths open until the pouches are filled with water. Then a muscle around the neck of each pouch closes it so as to keep the water for future use.
This seems so strange that for a long time it was not believed in Europe and America. Now it is known to be true. The next time we see a camel in the zoological gar-den, we may see something else that is equally strange. Looking the first time at the camel's nostrils, we may see them open and they will not seem very remarkable. But if we see the animal when dust is flying, it may seem not to have any nostrils at all. We might know from this that it is a desert animal. It can open its nostrils or close them at will. If it could not, it would die in the desert in spite of its power to carry water in its stomach and provisions in its hump. When there is a windstorm in the desert and the air is full of flying sand, the camel closes its nostrils and does not choke to death as a horse might do in such terrible sandstorms as those of the Sahara desert.
We know of nothing more wonderful than the ways of life itself, as the bodies of animals are suited to the lives they lead.
We learn this as we study the history of the camel. If it seems strange, it is not more wonderful than the way the camel's life has helped human life. It is now known that there were camels on earth before there were human beings. For this reason it is said to be "one of the oldest animals." It is also known almost as surely that men of our nearest kindred lived first on earth in the countries of Asia, which are the home of the camel. It has always lived and worked in the service of man since its known history began. We know of wild horses, wild cattle, wild goats and wild hogs, but of no wild camels. It was at work for man long before we read of it in the story of Joseph and his brethren.
The camel with one hump, we see oftenest, is the Arabian camel. It is also called the "dromedary," or running camel, because some of its best "breeds" are famous for their swiftness. They can run a hundred miles a day with a man on their backs. In the time of Abraham and of Job, they were used for carrying passengers and freight across the desert as they are now. Job had 3,000 camels and his loss was great when the Chaldeans stole them. Before anything is certainly known about Europe, it is known that "camel lines" did the work in Asia which "railroad lines" do in America and Europe now. Merchants had regular "lines" of travel three thousand years ago or more. Over these, they drove their "camel trains," carrying goods as they are now carried by our railroad trains. Another name for a camel train is a "caravan." In Asiatic Turkey, in Persia, and in Africa, the Arabian camel is still doing the work which in other countries is done by railroads. North and east of Arabia, as the climate grows too cold for the Arabian camel or dromedary, there is found the camel with two humps and coarser hair. It is able to bear considerable cold without dying. It is called "the Bactrian camel," after the ancient name of the country in which it first became known to Greek and Roman writers. By using great trains of camels, trade was carried on for centuries between the Arabs, Persians, Hindoos and Chinese in spite of the vast deserts which had to be crossed. If we remember that during nearly 3,000 years, the camel did for Asia what locomotives and auto-mobiles are now doing for America, we can get a better idea of what we owe the camel by remembering that for hundreds of years our own ancestors certainly lived in Asia and probably used camel lines as we now use rail-road lines. With this in mind, we understand why the Arabs first called the camel "the ship of the desert."
When we see that a camel's feet are padded, we under-stand that this makes it easier for the animal to move in the soft sand of the desert. But the breast of the animal and its knees are also padded, so that it is not painful for it to kneel to be loaded. It is supposed that these pads are due to "its long ages of service to man." It kneels patiently for its rider to mount it, or for the load of from 500 to 1,000 pounds which a strong camel can carry through the desert. If the load is too heavy, however, an educated camel will not rise until some of it is taken off. Camels are educated by their work as well as by their instincts. In the desert, they can "scent water" when it is far out of sight of their riders and drivers. The life of a caravan may be saved by a camel when all are about to perish with thirst. It is said that an old camel will sometimes throw up its head, scent the air and break across the desert, leading a caravan which has lost its way in a sandstorm to an oasis, far out of sight of human eyes. The Arabs tell many stories of the intelligence of camels which are not always believed. To Americans and Europeans, they seem stupid, because they are trained for only one kind of work. Arabs, who do not think them stupid or ugly, write poetry about them as we do about the war-horse. Generally the Arabs are kind to them, but not always. Nor are camels always patient. It is said that they remember blows and bad treatment for a long time. When angry they are fierce, biting and kicking so that they might easily kill a man. It is said that when an Arab knows his camel is. justly angry with him, he will let the animal start to revenge its injuries and then will slip out of reach, leaving his long mantle for the animal to bite and kick. After this, it is said, that the man and the camel will "make friends" again.
If you look for the camel in a book of natural history which uses scientific terms, it will be found under the "order of ruminants," or animals which chew the cud after eating. We find, however, that the camel belongs to a family of its own, with very few members. It is now plentiful in Northern Africa, but it was carried there by the Arabs. In the Old World, it is native only in Asia. In the New World, the ``lama" or llama of South America belongs to the camel family. It is now a domestic animal as the camel is in Asia and Africa, but it has in South America several relatives which are still wild. It is much smaller than the camel, being only about three feet high at the shoulder. Its neck and head are much like the camel's, but it has no hump. It is said that though very patient, kneeling to be loaded, it also will refuse to get up when overloaded. It cannot carry more than about 125 pounds for any long distance. It was being used by the Peruvians when Pizarro and his Spaniards first conquered their country for its gold. It is still used to carry goods up the steep paths of the Andes mountains where not even a sure-footed mule can go safely. In 1912, when electric cars from the United States were first used in the famous old Spanish-American city of Potosi, it was still getting freight by trains of lamas. The lama loses its temper occasionally, as the camel does, but instead of biting when angry, it spits at you.
The hair of the lama is woven into cloth and its skin is tanned for leather. Its flesh and that of its wild kin is used for food. Finally these animals in South America are likely to be bred in great numbers to supply clothing to other countries. The "alpaca" whose hair is made into fine cloth, well known in this country, is one of these small South American animals of the camel family.
The flesh of the Arab camel is not pleasant to Europeans, but to the Arabs, camel's flesh supplies food, while camel's skin gives them leather, and camel's hair clothing. John the Baptist wore a coarse dress made of camel's hair. The Arabs weave it into coarse cloth for their tents. It can also be woven into very fine and costly shawls. Sometimes, it is brought to the United States and mixed with wool in men's underclothing. We know it best, however, in the camel's hair brushes used by artists. They are the best. Throw away the cheap brushes in your color box and buy the best camel's hair "pencils." You will find that the brush of camel's hair will make you think much more of your colors. If we learn to use a brush of his own hair to draw a lifelike picture of the camel in swift motion across the sands of the Arabian or African desert, we may cease to think of him as an ugly animal and learn to think of him as the Arab poets did when they named him "the ship of the desert."