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Henry Walter Bates

English naturalist and explorer

1825-1892

A selection from
THE NATURALIST ON THE RIVER AMAZONS

Narrated by Simon Vance

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Our first trip to the mills was by land. The creek on whose banks they stand, the Iritiri, communicates with the river Pars, through another larger creek, the Magoary; so that there is a passage by water; but this is about twenty miles round. We started at sunrise, taking Isidoro with us. The road plunged at once into the forest after leaving Nazareth, so that in a few minutes we were enveloped in shade. For some distance the woods were of second growth, the original forest near the town having been formerly cleared or thinned. They were dense and impenetrable on account of the close growth of the young trees and the mass of thorny shrubs and creepers. These thickets swarmed with ants and ant-thrushes; they were also frequented by a species of puff-throated manikin, a little bird which flies occasionally across the road, emitting a strange noise, made, I believe, with its wings, and resembling the clatter of a small wooden rattle.

A mile or a mile and a half further on, the character of the woods began to change, and we then found ourselves in the primaeval forest. The appearance was greatly different from that of the swampy tract I have already described. The land was rather more elevated and undulating; the many swamp plants with their long and broad leaves were wanting, and there was less underwood, although the trees were wider apart. Through this wilderness the road continued for seven or eight miles. The same unbroken forest extends all the way to Maranham and in other directions, as we were told, a distance of about 300 miles southward and eastward of Para. In almost every hollow part the road was crossed by a brook, whose cold, dark, leaf-stained waters were bridged over by tree trunks. The ground was carpeted, as usual, by Lycopodiums, but it was also encumbered with masses of vegetable debris and a thick coating of dead leaves. Fruits of many kinds were scattered about, amongst which were many sorts of beans, some of the pods a foot long, flat and leathery in texture, others hard as stone. In one place there was a quantity of large empty wooden vessels, which Isidoro told us fell from the Sapucaya tree. They are called Monkey's drinking-cups, and are the capsules which contain the nuts sold under the name just mentioned, in Covent Garden Market. At the top of the vessel is a circular hole, in which a natural lid fits neatly. When the nuts are ripe this lid becomes loosened and the heavy cup falls with a crash, scattering the nuts over the ground. The tree which yields the nut is of immense height. It is closely allied to the Brazil-nut tree, whose seeds are also enclosed in large woody vessels; but these have no lid, and fall to the ground intact. This is the reason why the one kind of nut is so much dearer than the other; its nuts in falling are scattered about and eaten by wild animals; whilst the full, whole capsules of Brazil-nuts are collected by the natives.

What attracted us chiefly were the colossal trees. The general run of trees had not remarkably thick stems; the great and uniform height to which they grow without emitting a branch, was a much more noticeable feature than their thickness; but at intervals of a furlong or so a veritable giant towered up. Only one of these monstrous trees can grow within a given space; it monopolises the domain, and none but individuals of much inferior size can find a footing near it. The cylindrical trunks of these larger trees were generally about twenty to twenty-five feet in circumference. Von Martius mentions having measured trees in the Para district belonging to various species (Symphonia coccinea, Lecythis sp. and Crataeva Tapia), which were fifty to sixty feet in girth at the point where they become cylindrical. The height of the vast column-like stems could not be less than 100 feet from the ground to their lowest branch. Mr. Leavens, at the sawmills, told me they frequently squared logs for sawing a hundred feet long, of the Pao d'Arco and the Massaranduba. The total height of these trees, stem and crown together, may be estimated at from 180 to 200 feet; where one of them stands, the vast dome of foliage rises above the other forest trees as a domed cathedral does above the other buildings in a city.

A very remarkable feature in these trees is the growth of buttress-shaped projections around the lower part of their stems. The spaces between these buttresses, which are generally thin walls of wood, form spacious chambers, and may be compared to stalls in a stable; some of them are large enough to hold a half- dozen persons. The purpose of these structures is as obvious, at the first glance, as that of the similar props of brickwork which support a high wall. They are not peculiar to one species, but are common to most of the larger forest trees. Their nature and manner of growth are explained when a series of young trees of different ages is examined. It is then seen that they are the roots which have raised themselves ridge-like out of the earth; growing gradually upwards as the increasing height of the tree required augmented support. Thus, they are plainly intended to sustain the massive crown and trunk in these crowded forests, where lateral growth of the roots in the earth is rendered difficult by the multitude of competitors.

In some parts of the road ferns were conspicuous objects. But I afterwards found them much more numerous on the Maranham road, especially in one place where the whole forest glade formed a vast fernery; the ground was covered with terrestrial species, and the tree trunks clothed with climbing and epiphytous kinds. I saw no tree ferns in the Para district; they belong to hilly regions; some occur, however, on the Upper Amazons.

Such were the principal features in the vegetation of the wilderness; but where were the flowers? To our great disappointment we saw none, or only such as were insignificant in appearance. Orchids are very rare in the dense forests of the low lands. I believe it is now tolerably well ascertained that the majority of forest trees in equatorial Brazil have small and inconspicuous flowers. Flower-frequenting insects are also rare in the forest. Of course they would not be found where their favourite food was wanting, but I always noticed that even where flowers occurred in the forest, few or no insects were seen upon them. In the open country or campos of Santarem on the Lower Amazons, flowering trees and bushes are more abundant, and there a large number of floral insects are attracted. The forest bees of South America belonging to the genera Melipona and Euglossa are more frequently seen feeding on the sweet sap which exudes from the trees or on the excrement of birds on leaves, rather than on flowers.

We were disappointed also in not meeting with any of the larger animals in the forest. There was no tumultuous movement, or sound of life. We did not see or hear monkeys, and no tapir or jaguar crossed our path. Birds, also, appeared to be exceedingly scarce. We heard, however, occasionally, the long-drawn, wailing note of the Inambu, a kind of partridge; and, also, in the hollows on the banks, of the rivulets, the noisy notes of another bird, which seemed to go in pairs, amongst the tree-tops, calling to each other as they went. These notes resounded through the wilderness. Another solitary bird had a most sweet and melancholy song; it consisted simply of a few notes, uttered in a plaintive key, commencing high, and descending by harmonic intervals. It was probably a species of warbler of the genus Trichas. All these notes of birds are very striking and characteristic of the forest.

I afterwards saw reason to modify my opinion, founded on these first impressions, with regard to the amount and variety of animal life in this and other parts of the Amazonian forests. There is, in fact, a great variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles, but they are widely scattered, and all excessively shy of man. The region is so extensive, and uniform in the forest clothing of its surface, that it is only at long intervals that animals are seen in abundance when some particular spot is found which is more attractive than others. Brazil, moreover, is poor throughout in terrestrial mammals, and the species are of small size; they do not, therefore, form a conspicuous feature in its forests. The huntsman would be disappointed who expected to find here flocks of animals similar to the buffalo herds of North America, or the swarms of antelopes and herds of ponderous pachyderms of Southern Africa. The largest and most interesting portion of the Brazilian mammal fauna is arboreal in its habits; this feature of the animal denizens of these forests I have already alluded to. The most intensely arboreal animals in the world are the South American monkeys of the family Cebidae, many of which have a fifth hand for climbing in their prehensile tails, adapted for this function by their strong muscular development, and the naked palms under their tips. This seems to teach us that the South American fauna has been slowly adapted to a forest life, and, therefore, that extensive forests must have always existed since the region was first peopled by mammalia.

We often read, in books of travels, of the silence and gloom of the Brazilian forests. They are realities, and the impression deepens on a longer acquaintance. The few sounds of birds are of that pensive or mysterious character which intensifies the feeling of solitude rather than imparts a sense of life and cheerfulness. Sometimes, in the midst of the stillness, a sudden yell or scream will startle one; this comes from some defenseless fruit-eating animal, which is pounced upon by a tiger-cat or stealthy boa-constrictor. Morning and evening the howling monkeys make a most fearful and harrowing noise, under which it is difficult to keep up one's buoyancy of spirit. The feeling of inhospitable wildness, which the forest is calculated to inspire, is increased tenfold under this fearful uproar. Often, even in the still hours of midday, a sudden crash will be heard resounding afar through the wilderness, as some great bough or entire tree falls to the ground. There are, besides, many sounds which it is impossible to account for. I found the natives generally as much at a loss in this respect as myself. Sometimes a sound is heard like the clang of an iron bar against a hard, hollow tree, or a piercing cry rends the air; these are not repeated, and the succeeding silence tends to heighten the unpleasant impression which they make on the mind. With the native it is always the Curupira, the wild man or spirit of the forest, which produces all noises they are unable to explain. For myths are the rude theories which mankind, in the infancy of knowledge, invent to explain natural phenomena. The Curupira is a mysterious being, whose attributes are uncertain, for they vary according to locality. Sometimes he is described as a kind of orangutang, being covered with long, shaggy hair, and living in trees. At others, he is said to have cloven feet and a bright red face. He has a wife and children, and sometimes comes down to the rocas to steal the mandioca. At one time I had a Mameluco youth in my service, whose head was full of the legends and superstitions of the country. He always went with me into the forest; in fact, I could not get him to go alone, and whenever we heard any of the strange noises mentioned above. he used to tremble with fear. He would crouch down behind me, and beg of me to turn back; his alarm ceasing only after he had made a charm to protect us from the Curupira. For this purpose, he took a young palm leaf, plaited it, and formed it into a ring, which he hung to a branch on our track.

At length, after a six hour walk, we arrived at our destination, the last mile or two having been again through second-growth forest. The mills formed a large pile of buildings, pleasantly situated in a cleared tract of land, many acres in extent, and everywhere surrounded by the perpetual forest.

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