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TOWARD THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY
FROM the mountain-tops the stream leads toward the east over the Eyebrows of the Jungle, La Ceja de la Montana, letting loose a deluge from its black clouds. Caught between walls of red and black striped rock, the valley grows deeper and hotter and filled with mist. The water accumulates brightly colored pebbles. It rolls over ungathered bits of gold in its sand and rushes them along with slivers of glistening mica. All about is the sound of springs "whose waters moss has turned aside." Buried in luxuriant vegetation, it slides on beneath thickets of guava, golden cassia, and red-leaved tilandsia bushes, hung with rank passion vines, whose ripened fruit, the crackly granadilla, lies everywhere upon the ground. A mammoth iguana, munching the flesh-colored bignonias, falls occasionally from the tree-tops.
Small, richly plumed parrots nest in the rock walls. A whole book might be written about the parrots, various as vegetation itself, flashing multi-colored light as they scream through the air-spaces. There is the toucan, turning his bill with its accessory head around to gloss his splendid plumage in a ray of sunlight. At the other end of the scale are the meek little green parroquets with perpendicular bills, hardly larger than sparrows, which go in pairs and move in parallel lines. Every variety keeps together, each to its kind.
There are other large, fruit-eating birds; birds with curiously shaped tail feathers; birds with crests and ornamental plumage. As variegated as their forms are their curious cries. The black ox-bird bellows like a bull, the black and red tunqui grunts like a pig, and wood-pigeons cry like children. Occasionally "jets of brilliant melody" sparkle among the trees, but more often the notes have a mysterious, aerial quality "like the tinkling of a far-off bell suspended in the air."
Here hangs the wonderful nest, four feet long, of the pouched starling, bound together with spiders' webs as strong as silk. Such is jungle lavishness that plants and animals are given endowments useless to them in their struggle for existence. The bird which builds such a palatial nest has no advantage over any other. Its wondrous, unplantlike power gives to the sensitive plant no superiority. Struck with paralysis, it can recoil at a touch, but that forms no link with its fellow plants. Such a feat is not an attribute nor in any way a necessity of vegetable life. It can hardly compensate the sensitive plant for its lack of perfume and bright flower, the right of every growing thing.
Chatter of monkeys mingles with roar of falling water, hairy manikins, shrieking and gamboling, "very gentle and delightful apes," Father Acosta called them. Tiny, blear-eyed monkeys scream in disapproval of all they can see, hear, or smell. Scarlet-faced monkeys, owl-faced monkeys, swing from branch to branch with crazy gestures, "taking one turn of the tail at least around anything in passing, just provisionally."
In the Valley of the Perené
Thick masses of quinar trees are draped in luxuriant parasites, and agave bushes are filled with red flowers. The wonderful maguey grows here, yielding water, oil, and vinegar, honey, thread, needles, and soap. Its juice boiled in rain-water takes away weariness.
Clear water drips over blocks of granite, covering the stone with moss in falling. The terrible jaguar lies curled up asleep in some far-off notch, gently purring. Ferns and palms, forerunners of the great empire of vegetation below, cluster along the brooks swelled with snow. "Tall and whispering crowds of tree ferns" droop their filmy fronds from lofty, slender stems. Ferns of every conceivable size and texture smother rocks and decaying trees. Some are as small as mosses, others appear monstrous, like those of a moonlight night. Hummingbirds flit above the pomegranates or lose themselves in a banana blossom. "The rose-colored plumage of the silky cuckoo peeps out like a flower from the thick foliage."
It is an earthly paradise, where bloodsucking bats emerge at night and lightning rages uncontrolled, destroying trees and cracking open precipices. Pumas live in these clefts hewn through the mountains, and they spring on to the shoulders of a victim, drawing back the head until the neck snaps. Pumayacu is the stream of the puma, with its tumultuous torrent whose very stones are treacherous.
Such are the rain-soaked slopes of the Andes, a tangled mass of jungle. The woods are all enchanted. Thousands of fairies dance in the sunbeams, and during the rain myriads of them hide in the flowers. If disturbed, they disappear underground. One can never be sure that "what one surveys is what it purports to be, nor even, that in surveying nothing, one is not gazing through an invisible being," as Guenelette observed so long ago.
The half-Indian guide began to speak, taking a coca-leaf from his fawn-skin pouch.
"Pigmies live in the undergrowth. They are not more than so tall,... and very, very wild. No, they're not monkeys. They have a language, although we cannot understand it. How do I know they live here? Why! I know! Have I ever seen them? No. But — I've seen their shadows.
"And then there are jaguars near here, jaguars with the hoofs of bullocks. At night I can hear them springing upon the thatch of my thin roof. They roar and roar and one might call them the devil himself if one did not know that they were jaguars with the feet of bullocks. Have I ever seen them?... No, but then — I've seen the prints of their hoofs.
"Here in the bottom of the river, lying full length, lives the great Mother of Waters. She is so long that she could stretch from bank to bank and lie sleeping on either side at the same time. That is why she lies lengthwise in the river bed. Sometimes there is an awful, rumbling noise, like an approaching earthquake. Then the waters of the river are churned like the smallest mountain torrent tumbling over a rock in mid-stream. The great snake lifts her head, then her heavy body from the stream bed, and crashes off through the jungle. The track she leaves behind her is a desert waste; no growing thing is left, and the wake is as broad, why, as broad as this stream, under which she is now lying," and he pointed with wide eyes to the water, rushing headlong to join the Amazon.
All the snakes of that particular locality did miracles, so I was told by a wise man who could himself turn men into beasts at will.
"This river," the guide concluded, "used to flow up on one side and down on the other, until white men sailed upon it. Then one half turned about, and the river now flows in but one direction, as you can see."
As the gloomy, bottomless ravines descend, the forest becomes more dense, with murmurs of flowing water everywhere. Mists hang from above, barely concealing the jagged, black peaks. Sheets of continuous foam veil the side of a polished cliff. Water drips over every precipice. Cascades tumble from one mossed basin to another or let fall a clear column into a rock-pool deeply buried in tropical vegetation.
Finally mountains and ravines subside, and with the energy of one final, mighty leap, the rushing water plunges into the heart of the jungle, comes to rest, then glides out with the flush of a flood-tide across the Land of Water.
"As the serpents of this basin exceed all other serpents in size, so does the Amazon exceed all other rivers." As the whirl of branches is to the trunk of a tree, as everything in nature is tributary to something else, so are streamlets in the mountains of the snowy desert to this mighty river. Collecting itself upon the frozen puna far up among the clouds, it gets an impetus which makes fresh, wide stretches of ocean thousands of miles away.
So vast is the Amazon that, like the Andes which form a barrier to separate two worlds, different species of animals inhabit its opposite banks. It swarms with fish that will fight for a right to live, and some of them, the paichi, for instance, reach the length of ten feet and must be caught by harpooning. The water is full of swimming animals. There are river-cows like sea-lions, and oceanic fauna such as frigate birds and flying-fish. In the mud along the banks are tracks of crocodiles and tortoises.
The Amazon has gained mastery over the land and has turned it into a sposhy ocean, interspersed with flats of jungle flowers. A watery labyrinth, "an aquatic not a terrestrial basin," it is the Mediterranean of South America. The greatest river in the world twists and turns about, makes short cuts across its own bends and leaves behind a delicious lagoon here, or a little, land-locked inlet there. The Victoria Regia spreads its great, leathery leaves, and scarlet ibises tilt about upon them.
This land beyond the Andes is known as the "rain-shadow." The already overflowing rivers are constantly swelling, since it rains so violently that a stream of the Amazon valley can rise fifteen feet in a single night. A passing and re-passing is continually going on, for, as the water flows back toward the ocean, the winds above it are returning from the Atlantic, bringing rain to moisten the jungle and to be stopped only by the wall of the Andes.
Rain discloses the resources of the jungle. Plants push, burst upward in astonishing growth. Flowers paint themselves with ineffable new colors distilled from the rain, and those whose day has come and gone lie in heaps of yellow, pink, and white petals on the ground, fallen from beyond the tree-tops.
A single, heavy tapir, anta, the somber-colored wood-cow, roused by the rain and encouraged by the added gloom, wanders forth to tear off new sprouts within its reach. Peccaries rustle by in little droves — wild pigs which, it is said, will bite around a tree if their object of attack has climbed beyond reach. The minute, silky marmoset, filled with perennial terror and shivering at the rain, has crept into shelter, and just daring to show its wrinkled little face, howls dismally.
It is after a rain, too, when the wondrous notes of the organista, the sweet flute-bird, drip through the trees, mellow, melancholy, yet with a musical accuracy of pitch as dear-cut as the circle of a drop of water fallen on a slab of alabaster. These notes share the mystery of the vast silence itself. Even savages rest on their paddles to listen. Would you capture the magician and carry the jungle-silence home? You can take the little gray bird — but it always dies in captivity.