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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/50

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

distributed, is most abundant in the shallows of our chain of Great Lakes. In some places many thousand acres are occupied by it, and it resembles fields of grain. The stalk is often seven or eight feet in height, projecting four or five feet above the water. In the autumn, when the seeds are ripe, such localities are now thronged with waterfowl, which are very fond of it. In early days, while the Indians were numerous about the Great Lakes, the wild-rice harvest was an important epoch in their year. As usual, the labor of collecting the seed fell to the lot of the women. These, pushing their canoes into the thickest growth, bent the heavily-laden tassels down and beat off the seeds with sticks. In this way their boats were soon loaded, and the grain became their most important resource during the long winter that followed. The shores of the west end of Lake Erie are still occupied by the wild rice, just as in ancient times, for it grows where man can neither cultivate the soil nor navigate the water. Here, where it was gathered in greater quantities than anywhere else by the Indians, it still feeds great flocks of water-fowl, but not a human being. The grain is small, with great difficulty separated from its envelopes—is, in fact, a poor kind of oat, which was superseded by the wheat of the white man in the estimation of the Indian long before he took his departure to the happy hunting-grounds.

Mescal. The different species of Agave have played a most important part in the economy of the native population of Northern Mexico and our Southwestern Territories. From them they have obtained food which, though not to our taste, is in their estimation a luxury. They have also distilled from them intoxicating liquors which, for the time being, have made them happier than the food they ate, and from some of the species they have obtained fibers of great strength, of which they have made varied use. At least two species (A. Parryi and A. Palmeri) are known by the popular name mescal among the Indians and Mexicans. Of these the central bud from which the flower-stalk springs is, at certain seasons, charged with a sweet, gummy substance which is prepared beforehand to supply the rapid drain of material in the growth of the flower-scape, flowers, and fruit. When cut out at this time it looks somewhat like a small cabbage; this is roasted in the ashes, and is considered by some of the Indian tribes a great delicacy. It is very sweet, but is a mass of fibers, and I can only compare it to oakum dipped in molasses. Probably its sweetness commends it to those who get very little sugar in other forms. Sometimes this central bud when roasted is distilled, and furnishes a fiery kind of whisky, which is also known as mescal.

The maguey, or century-plant (Agave Americana), throughout Northern Mexico supplies both fermented and distilled liquors. It is sometimes cultivated for this purpose, but over large districts is so common as to be the most striking feature in the vegetation, and the demand is fully supplied from this spontaneous growth. The Indian