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the country, I have been led to the conclusion that the forest formerly extended much further towards the Pacific, and has been beaten back principally by the agency of man.
The ancient Indians of Nicaragua were an agricultural race, their principal food then, as now, being maize; and in all the ancient graves, the stone for grinding corn is found placed there, as the one thing that was considered indispensable. They cut down patches of the forest and burnt it to plant their corn, as all along the edge of it they do stiil. The first time the forest is cut down, and the ground planted, the soil contains seeds of the forest trees, which, after the corn is gathered, spring up and regain possession of the ground, so that in twenty years, if such a spot is left alone, it will scarcely differ from the surrounding untouched forest. But it does not remain unmolested. After two or three years it is cut down again and a great change takes place. The soil does not now contain seeds of forest trees, and in their stead a great variety of weedy-looking shrubs, only found where the land has been cultivated, spring up. Grass, too, begins to get a hold on the ground; if it prevails, the Indian, or Mestizo, does not attempt to grow corn there again, as he knows the grass will spoil it, and he is too indolent to weed it out. Often, however, the brushwood has been cut down and burnt, and fresh crops of corn grown several times before the grass has gained such an advantage that the cultivator gives up the attempt to plant maize. There is then a struggle between the weedy shrubs and the grass. The leaf-cutting ants come to the aid of the latter. Grass they will not touch, excepting to clear it away from their paths. The thick forest they do not like, possibly because beneath its shade the ground is kept too damp for their fungus beds. But along the edge of the forest, by the sides of roads through it, that let in the air and sunshine, and in clearings, they abound. They are especially fond of the leaves of young trees, many of which are destroyed by them. Should the brushwood ultimately prevail, and cover the ground, the Indian, or Mestizo, comes again after a few years, cuts it down, and replants it with maize. But as most of his old clearings get covered with grass, he is continually encroaching on the edge of the forest, beating it back gradually, but surely, towards the north-east. As this process has probably been going on for thousands of years, I believe that the edge of the forest is several miles nearer the Atlantic than it was originally.
In this way many acres in the neighbourhood of Pital were taken from the forest, and added to the grass-lands, whilst I was in the country. The brushwood-land does not yield such good crops as the virgin forest, but it is nearer to the huts of the cultivators, who live out on the savannahs, so that whenever the weedy shrubs gain possession of a spot sufficiently large for a clearing, and choke off the grass, these places are again cut down and burnt, and thus the forest is never allowed to establish outposts, or advanced stations, in the disputed ground. What would be the result if man were withdrawn from the scene, I do not know, but I believe that the forest would slowly, but surely, regain the ground that it has lost through long centuries. The thickets and dense brushwood that always spring up along the edge of the forest, and consist of many shrubs that the leaf-cutting ants do not touch, would gradually spread, and beat back the grass. In their shade and shelter, seeds from the forest would vegetate and grow, and thus, I think, very slowly, inch by inch, the forest would regain its long-lost territory, and gradually extend its limits towards the south-west, until it reached its old boundaries, where a change in the physical character of the land, or in the amount of moisture precipitated, would stay its further progress. It is far more likely, however, that man will drive back the forest to the very Atlantic than that he will quit the scene.
After passing the Indian graves, about a league from Libertad, we turned off to the right, by a path that led directly to the Mico, without going through the town. After crossing several rounded grassy hills, we reached the river, and found it swollen with recent rains, but fordable. Sometimes travellers are detained several days, unable to cross, and I was always glad when, returning to the mines, I had put it behind me. Now and then a traveller is drowned when attempting to cross the swollen river, but these accidents are rare, as it is well known, by certain rocks being covered, when it is unfordable. If carried away, a traveller has little chance to save his life, as just below the crossing, the river is rapid and the banks precipitous. I heard of one man who had had a very narrow escape. He was trying to cross on muleback, but his beast lost its footing, rolled over, and was rapidly washed away. The poor man was carried into the roaring rapids, and would soon have been drowned, but a herdsman on the bank, who was looking for cattle, threw his lasso cleverly over the drowning traveller, and dragged him on shore. Some of the “vacqueros," as the herdsmen are called, are wonderfully adroit in throwing the lasso; when riding at full speed, they throw it over the horns of the cattle, or the heads of the horses, and can hold the strongest if sideways on. But I have seen some old bulls that knew how to get loose; they would run straight away from the vacquero in places where he could not ride round them, and getting a straight pull on the lasso, would break it, or draw it out of his hands. There are no horses or mules, and very few cattle, however, that know how to do this, I was told by the herdsmen.
After crossing the river, we soon reached Pital, where I had a cup of tea and got a fresh mule. We now turned nearly at right angles to our former course, and struck into the dark forest, the road through which I have already described. It was very wet and muddy. In some places, although it was only the commencement of the wet season, the mules sank above their knees.. On this occasion, as on many others, I had often to notice how well the mule remembered places where in some former
it had avoided a particularly bad part by making a detour. I was riding a mule that had tender feet, having just recovered from the bite of a spider, that had occasioned the loss of one of its hoofs, and when it came near to a place where it could escape the deep mud by going over a stony part it would slacken its pace and look first at the mud, then at the stones, evidently balancing in its mind which was the lesser evil. Sometimes, too, when it came to a very bad place, which was better at the sides, I left it to itself, and it would be so undecided which side was the best, that making
towards. one it would look towards the other, and end by getting into the worst of the mud. It was just like many men who cannot decide which of two courses to take, and end by a middle one, which is worse than either. And just as in men, so in mules, there is every variety of disposition and ability. Some are easily led, others most obstinate and headstrong ; some wise and prudent, others foolish and rash. The memory of localities is much stronger in horses and mules than in man. When travelling along a road that they have been over only once, and that some years before, where there are numerous branch roads and turnings, they will never make a mistake, even in the dark; and I have often, at night, when I could not make out the road myself, left them to their own guidance, and they have taken me safely to my destination. Only once was I misled, and that through the too good memory of my mule. Many years before it had been taken to a pasture of good grass, and recollecting this, it took me several miles out of my road towards its old feeding-ground, causing me to be benighted in consequence.
I reached the mines at nine o'clock, and found that during my absence it had been raining almost continuously, although at Juigalpa there had been only a few slight showers.