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Nkima Speaks

Swinging on the Limbs of Fiction

David A. Adams

Vine Swinger!

Tarzan of the Apes may be the most famous of the tree swingers, but he wasn’t the first. In 1897 Stanley Waterloo wrote The Story of Ab: A Tale of the Time of the Cave Man. Here we find the earliest of the fictional brachiators, Red-Spot, the mother of Ab. She had a handy method of climbing with her child, which Waterloo describes as follows:

“Very nearly above them swung down one of the branches of a great beech tree. The mother threw the child into the hollow of her left arm, and leaped upward a yard to catch the branch with her right hand. So she hung dangling. Then, instantly, holding him firmly by one arm in her left hand, she lowered the child between her legs and clasped them about him closely. And then, had it been your fortune to be born in those times, you might have seen good climbing. With both her strong arms free, this vigorous matron ran up the stout beech limb which depended downward from the great bole of the tree until she was twenty feet above the ground, and then, lifting herself into a comfortable place, in a moment was sitting there at ease, her legs and one arm coiled about the big branch and a smaller upstanding one, while the other arm held the brown babe close to her bosom” (Waterloo, 15-16.)

Ab’s father, One-Ear, was equally as adept in moving through the arboreal expanses. After Red-Spot gave her “strange call, a quavering minor wail,” (which probably sounded like Maureen O’Sullivan’s yodel) her mate answered and came to her aid since she and her child were being threatened by a wild boar.

“There was a prompt reply; the voice seemed suddenly higher in the air and then came, swinging easily from branch to branch along the treetops, the father of Ab, a person who felt a natural and aggressive interest in what was going on” (Waterloo,17).

Of course “Ab, who could climb like a young monkey,” later became a tree scrambler himself. He and his friend, Oak, make nests in the trees and are generally at home in the branches.

“It was but the work of a half hour for these boys, with their arboreal gifts, to twine additional limbs together and to construct for themselves a solid nest and lookout where they might rest at ease, at a distance above the greatest leap of any beast existing” (Waterloo, 50).

Another early tree swinger appears in Jack London’s Before Adam in 1906. London’s dream-hero is the direct descendant of Waterloo’s Ab as demonstrated by the opening scene of a child’s rescue from a wild boar. However, this mother uses a different method of handling her child, who was probably older.

“So sudden and formidable was her appearance that the boar involuntarily bunched himself together on the defensive and bristled as she swerved toward him. Then she swerved toward me. She had quite taken the breath out of him. I knew just what to do in that moment of time she had gained. I leaped to meet her, catching her about the waist and holding on hand and foot—yes, by my feet; I could hold on by them as readily as by my hands ... As I say, I leaped to meet her, and on the instant she leaped straight up into the air, catching an overhanging branch with her hands. The next instant, with clashing tusks, the boar drove past underneath” (London, 293).

The London-ape-child’s father, as in the Waterloo book, comes to the rescue, swinging through the trees.

“...his appearance was no more unusual than the manner of his coming, there to my mother and me as we perched above the angry wild pigs. He came through the trees, leaping from limb to limb and from tree to tree; and he came swiftly. I can wee him now, in my wake-a-day life, as I write this, swinging along through the trees, a four-handed, hairy creature, howling with rage, pausing now and again to beat his chest with his clenched fist, leaping ten-and-fifteen foot gaps, catching a branch with one hand and swinging on across another gap to catch with his other hand and go on, never hesitating, never at a loss as to how to proceed on his arboreal way” (London 294).

Even though these stories may have preceded Edgar Rice Burroughs' ape-man, Tarzan remains the king of the tree swingers. London’s hairy man could leap 10 to 15 foot gaps, but Tarzan could already negotiate 20 foot gaps at the age of ten.

“He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top, and grasp with unerring precision, and without apparent jar, a limb waving wildly in the path of an approaching tornado” (Tarzan of the Apes).

Now, that’s real swinging.