Page images
PDF
EPUB

mandioca is the staple food. Maize has been introduced by the Portuguese, but it has no native name, and is used mostly for feeding cattle and fowls, scarcely at all for the food of the people. This fundamental difference in the food of the indigenes points to a very early separation between the peoples. In the West Indian Islands, Cuba and Hayti seem to have been peopled from Yucatan, and Florida, Porto Rico, and all the islands to the southwards, from Venezuela.

In Central America, the bread made from the maize is prepared at the present day exactly as it was in ancient Mexico. The grain is first of all boiled along with wood ashes or a little lime: the alkali loosens the outer skin of the grain, and this is rubbed off with the hands in running water, a little of it at a time, placed upon a slightly concave stone, called a metlate, from the Aztec metlatl, on which it is rubbed with another stone shaped like a rolling-pin. A little water is thrown on it as it is bruised, and it is thus formed into paste. A ball of the paste is taken and flattened out between the hands into a cake about ten inches diameter and threesixteenths of an inch thick, which is baked on a slightly concave earthenware pan. The cakes so made are called tortillas, and are very nutritious. When travelling, I preferred them myself to bread made from wheaten flour. When well made and eaten warm, they are very palatable.

There are a few small sugar plantations near Pital. The juice is pressed out of the canes by rude wooden rollers set upright in threes, the centre one driving the one on each side of it by projecting cogs. The whole are set in motion by oxen travelling round the same as

Ch. IV.]
THE GREAT FOREST.

57 in a thrashing-mill. The ungreased axles of the rollers, squeaking and screeching like a score of tormented pigs, generally inform the traveller of their vicinity long before he reaches them. The juice is boiled, and an impure sugar made from it. I do not think that sugar-cane was known to the ancient inhabitants of this country: it is not mentioned by the historians of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, nor has it, like maize and cacao, any native name.

As soon as we passed Pital we entered the great forest, the black margin of which we had seen for many miles, that extends from this point to the Atlantic. At first the road lay through small trees and brushwood, a second growth that had sprung up where the original forest had been cut for maize plantations; but after passing a brook bordered by numerous plants of the pita, from which a fine fibre is obtained, and which gives its name to Pital, we entered the primeval forest. On each side of the road great trees towered up, carrying their crowns out of sight amongst a canopy of foliage, winding round everything, and with lianas hanging from nearly every bough, and passing from tree to tree, entangling the giants in a great network of coiling cables, like another Samson, the simile being strengthened by the fact that many of the trees are really strangled in the winding folds. Sometimes a tree appears covered with beautiful flowers, which do not belong to it, but to one of the lianas that twines through its branches and sends down great ropes like stems to the ground. Climbing ferns and vanilla cling to the trunks, and a thousand epiphytes perch themselves on the branches. Amongst these are large arums that send down aërial roots, tough

and strong, and universally used instead of cordage by the natives. Amongst the undergrowth several small species of palms, varying in height from two to fifteen feet, are common; and now and then magnificent tree ferns, sending off their feathery crowns twenty feet from the ground, delight the sight with their graceful elegance. Great broadleaved heliconiæ, leathery melastomæ, and succulentstemmed, lop-sided leaved, and flesh-coloured begonias are abundant, and typical of tropical American forests; but not less so are the cecropia trees, with their white stems and large palmated leaves standing up like great candelabra. Sometimes the ground is carpeted with large flowers, yellow, pink, or white, that have fallen from some invisible tree-top above, or the air is filled with a delicious perfume, the source of which one seeks around in vain, for the flowers that cause it are far overhead out of sight, lost in the great overshadowing crown of verdure. Numerous babbling brooks intersect the forest, with moss-covered stones and fern-clad nooks. One's thoughts are led away to the green dells in English denes, but are soon recalled; for the sparkling pools are the favourite haunts of the fairy humming-birds; like an arrow, one will dart up the brook, and poised on wings moving with almost invisible velocity, clothed in purple, golden, or emerald glory, hang suspended in the air; it is scen gazing with startled look at the intruder, then with a sudden jerk, turning round first one eye, then the other, it disappears like a flash of light.

Unlike the plains and savannahs we crossed yesterday, where the ground was parched up in the dry season, the Atlantic forest, bathed in the rains distilled from the north-east trades, is ever verdant. Perennial moisture

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

reigns in the soil, perennial summer in the air, and vegetation luxuriates in ceaseless activity and verdure all the year round. Unknown are the autumn tints, the bright browns and yellows of English woods, much less the crimsons, purples, and yellows of Canada, where the dying foliage rivals, nay, excels the expiring dolphin in splendour. Unknown the cold sleep of winter; unknown the lovely awakening of vegetation at the first gentle touch of spring. A ceaseless round of ever-active life weaves the forest scenery of the tropics into one monotonous whole, of which the component parts exhibit in detail untold variety and beauty.

To the genial influence of ever-present moisture and heat we must ascribe the infinite variety of the trees of these forests. They do not grow in clusters or masses of single species, like our oaks, beeches, and firs, but every tree is different from its neighbour, and they crowd upon each other in unsocial rivalry, each trying to overtop the other. Therefore we see the great straight trunks rising a hundred feet without a branch, and carrying their domes of foliage directly up to where the balmy breezes blow and the sun's rays quicken. Lianas hurry up to the light and sunshine, and innumerable epiphytes perch themselves high upon the branches.

The road through the forest was very bad, the mud deep and tenacious, the hills steep and slippery, and the mules had to struggle and plunge along through from two to three feet of sticky clay. One part, named the Nispral, was especially steep and difficult to descend, the road being worn into great ruts. We crossed the ranges and brooks nearly at right angles, and were always ascending or descending About two we reached a

DAGU

THE NATURALIS

V NICARAG

60 THE NATURALIST IN NICARAGUA. [Ch. IV. clearing and hacienda, belonging to an enterprising German, named Melzer, near a brook called Las Lajas, who was cultivating plantains and vegetables, and had also commenced brick and tile making, besides planting some thousands of coffee trees. His large clearings were a pleasant change from the forest through which we had been toiling, and we stayed a few minutes at his house. After passing over another league of foresta covered ranges, we reached Pavon, one of the mines of the Chontales Company, and passing the Javali mine soon arrived at Santo Domingo, the head-quarters of the gold-mining company whose operations I had come out to superintend.

« EelmineJätka »