Page images
PDF
EPUB

Ch. IV.]

THE GREAT FOREST.

are set in motion by oxen travelling round the same as 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 the sugarcane 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; lianas wound round every trunk and hung from every bough, passing from tree to tree, and entangling the giants in a great network of coiling cables, as the serpents did Laocoon ; 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 rope-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 broad-leaved heliconiæ, leathery melastomæ, and succulent-stemmed, lop-sided leaved begonias are abundant, and typical of tropical American forests. 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, for the source of which one seeks around in vain, as 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, and 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 ; gazing with startled look at the intruder, with a sudden jerk, turning round first one eye, then the other, and suddenly disappear like a flash of light.

Unlike the plains and savannahs we crossed yesterday, where the ground is parched up in the dry season, the Atlantic forest, bathed in the rains distilled from the Ch. IV.]

ROAD THROUGH THE FOREST.

59

north-east trades, is ever verdant. Perennial moisture, 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. For this reason 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 up on 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 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 riding over another league of forestcovered ranges, we reached Pavon, one of the mines of the Chontales Company, and passing the Javali mine soon arrived at Santo Domingo, the headquarters of the gold-mining company whose operations I had come out to superintend.

CHAPTER V.

Geographical position of Santo Domingo-Physical geography—The in

habitants-Mixed races-Negroes and Indians compared— Women

- Establishment of the Chontales Gold-Mining Company-My house and garden-Fruits-Plantains and bananas—Probably not indigenous to America--Propagated from shoots-Do not generally mature their seeds-Fig-trees–Granadillos and PapawsVegetables—Dependence of flowers on insects for their fertilisation

-Insect plagues—Leaf-cutting ants—Their method of defoliating trees—Their nests-Some trees are not touched by the antsForeign trees are very subject to their attack—Method of destroying the ants—Migration of the ants from a nest attacked-Corrosive sublimate causes a sort of madness amongst them-Indian plan of preventing their ascending young trees-Leaf-cutting ants are fungus growers and eaters — The sagacity of the ants.

The gold-mining village of Santo Domingo is situated in the province of Chontales, Nicaragua, in lat. 12° 16' N. and long. 84° 59' W., nearly midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, where Central America begins to widen out northward of the narrow isthmus of Panama and Costa Rica. It is in the midst of the great forest that covers most of the Atlantic slope of Central America, and which continues unbroken from where we had entered it, at Pital, eastward to the Atlantic; westward it terminates in a sinuous margin about seven miles from the village, and there commence the lightly timbered and grassy plains and savannahs stretching to the Lake of Nicaragua. The surface of the land in the

« EelmineJätka »