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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/February 1895/Nature's Triumph


IN the temperate regions of the world man overcomes Nature, but in the tropics he makes little or no impression. The Indian has lived in the great forest of South America for ages, yet hardly a trace of his presence can be found. The ordinary traveler sees no sign of him for perhaps a hundred miles, and would be inclined to say that nothing but a desolate wilderness had ever existed. Yet, if we believe the early travelers, the coast from the river Orinoco to the Amazon was once fairly well peopled. The powerful Carib—the savage of "Robinson Crusoe"—was guardian of the coast, and strong enough to repel every invasion of the Spaniard, while the gentle Arawak—"Man Friday" occupied the upper reaches of every little creek.

Even where the country is not deserted the Indian villages are still hid away in the virgin forest, the inhabitants and their palm-covered shelters harmonizing with everything around. Unlike the clearing of a plantation, they make no impression on the forest; they form a part of one great whole, every portion of which has accommodated itself to every other. Tropical man does not rule Nature, but is himself a part of her great domain.

The old Dutch sugar planter with his slaves made little more impression on the forest than the savage. True, his clearing was larger and lasted as long as his struggle with Nature was kept up; but when, finding out the superior fertility of the coast lands, he abandoned it and retired, the forest quickly incorporated it with herself. For about a hundred miles up the Berbice and Demerara Rivers the banks were once lined with plantations; now, beyond some ten miles, every one of these has reverted to dense forest, here and there only a few negro huts indicating that man still lives there, like the Indian, without making any real impression.

The stages in the onward march of the forest over a clearing are most interesting. Perhaps two or three hundred acres had been planted with sugar canes, and fifty in plantains, vegetables, and fruit. There would be a fair-sized dwelling house, a water or cattle sugar mill, huts for the negroes, and a wharf on the river bank. The planter decided to give up the place, as he had an offer of a more fertile piece of land on the coast. Taking away everything portable, including the machinery of his mill, he abandoned the rest, carried away his negroes, and left the clearing to Nature.

Let us look upon the plantation a year later. Already a thicket has grown up which is only penetrable by the constant use of a cutlass. After a great deal of labor we reach the borders of the once tidy clearing. What a wonderful sight! Along the line of forest trees a dense wall of creepers rises sixty to a hundred feet high, forming an effective veil to the dark arcades beyond. From these stretch out long ropes, twining vegetable serpents, and giants' fingers, all moving toward what was once the open space. Some are hundreds of yards long, rooting at the joints, whence other branches radiate and form the dense obstruction we have cut through.

The creepers, twiners, and scramblers have not yet reached the house, but Nature is at work there also. Round it was once an orchard of oranges, limes, star apples, and other tropical fruit, with a few flowering shrubs. Most of these are now overrun with the blood-sucking loranths—vegetable leeches—which are continually draining their juices and evidently fattening on the spoil. These exotic bushes and trees have no business here; they are intruders. If man protects them and destroys their enemies they can thrive, but if he abandons them they must perish. Perhaps you are thirsty and look for an orange, but among a dozen trees not a single fruit can be found, and never will be again. Under these trees tall, sturdy grasses rise up to your shoulders and with great straggling bushes do their best to prevent the fruit trees from gaining a living for themselves, much less for the parasites that swarm over their branches.

The house itself is almost hidden in foliage. On the brick pillars wild figs have germinated and already insinuated their aerial roots into every crevice, while their glossy stems and leaves almost cover the sides of the building. Then, that rampant creeper, the cissus (C. sicyoides), is running up the walls and over the roof, which it covers entirely. Clearing away the vegetation which blocks the entrance, you find the stairs falling to pieces, and only by climbing can you reach what was once the front door. After hacking with the cutlass, room is made to push through and you enter. But don't be in a hurry; take care of the flooring; hold on to the creepers until you have sounded the boards, or you may fall through. Crash! There goes one foot through the first board. Draw it up and try another. It cracks but does not yield, and as your eyes become accustomed to the half light a dark cave with brown stalactites is dimly seen. These stalactites are the aërial roots of the cissus, which have been thrown straight down through holes in the roof, and now spread great masses of fibers over the floor, some finding their way into cracks and joints and thence to the earth below. In the corners of the rooms are great oval brown masses, the nests of termites or wood ants, the inhabitants of which are hard at work tunneling every board and rafter until they will become so brittle as to almost fall to pieces by their own weight. Ultimately, when the house frame is thus weakened, the structure will be only kept in shape by its wild figs and creeper stems, the roof will fall in, and the whole become an intricate jungle of interlacing stems.

A few years later trees have grown up to smother the creepers, and only an expert can say that a clearing once existed here.

If an estate of several hundred acres can be so easily effaced, what shall we say of the ordinary squatter's clearing? On the upper Demerara River are hundreds of little settlements in the possession of negroes and half-Indians. Some are crowded with fruit trees struggling with a thick and almost impregnable undergrowth, which is partly cleared now and then to admit of picking the fruit. Near the river stands the dwelling house—a shed thatched with palm leaves—on either side of which will be one of two calabash trees to supply the substitute for plates and dishes which is so indispensable. On these grow scarlet rodriguezias and other small orchids, while even a specimen of the "baboon's throat" (Coryanthes) or "thick-leaf parasite" (Oncidium lanceanum) may have been put up in the forks. If there are any young girls in the house, there will probably be a few dracænas, crotons, or perhaps a hibiscus planted beside the path from the river.

Immediately behind is the forest, reaching out its hands, as it were, to embrace the little half-clearing. Whiplike extensions of scrambling vines stretch over the fruit trees and bring one after another under their canopy. The occupier of this little paradise sees little of what is going on and cares less. Like the Indian, he considers weeding a part of the woman's duties, while the Creole woman has very loose ideas on this matter. If there are children, they crave for fruit, and are disappointed when none is to be obtained; but even if they knew the reason they could hardly be expected to do anything. The man at last begins to see how the jungle is advancing, and looks on helplessly. To fight with such a tangle is too hard for the man of the tropics; he would rather make a fresh clearing. At last the house is surrounded and the creepers run over the thatch. Probably the uprights have already been attacked by wood ants and threaten to give way. A new house must be built, and this can be done better on a fresh clearing; so the place is abandoned, and Nature again triumphs. A few months later and the landing is choked, the house fallen, and the jungle impenetrable.

The plantations before mentioned belonged to the upper districts, and were abandoned a century or more ago. There have been, however, many large estates near the mouths of the rivers and along the coasts given up during the last fifty years. No matter how large the clearing, if it is in the forest region, it must ultimately be obliterated. Here and there a brick chimney is seen peeping above the level of the forest, but otherwise there is not the slightest appearance from outside that this was once a flourishing sugar plantation. Examine it carefully, however, and you will find what at first sight appeared to be virgin forest only "second growth." This consists of fast-growing, soft-wooded trees, which in the struggle for life have outstripped the more hard timber trees of the forest proper.

Cut a way through the dense jungle on the river side, and if you are a skillful bushman the site of the house and buildings may be found. Above everything else stands the brick chimney, but what a transformation! It is so covered with wild fig roots as to be almost indistinguishable, while the top is decorated with an immense bush which will ultimately develop into a tree. Around the base of the shaft the remains of boilers and other ironwork have colored the soil, and among these may be seen broken bricks, slates, and glass. Look round carefully, and perhaps you may find the family burying place. Here are tombs with marble slabs, cracked and broken by the slow but powerful leverage of the fig roots, and by putting the pieces together you may perhaps read that Hier legt begraven den Wel Edele Gestrenge Heer ——. The despotic owner of all he surveyed—land, animals, men, women, and children—is now gone, and Nature has spurned his handiwork under her feet.

Outside the forest region and near the coast is a line of swamps, and on the rich alluvium reclaimed from these the sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations of the present century were established. Several hundred have been abandoned at different times, but these do not become incorporated with the forest. From the swamp they were reclaimed, and to that state they have mostly returned.

When in cultivation the estate is walled in, as it were, with earthen dams on every side, those at the back and front beingmost important. By means of the former the swamp water is kept out and by the latter the sea, while the inclosed area is freed from the heavy rainfall by means of sluices and draining engines. When abandoned these arrangements soon get out of order. The outfalls are choked, the dams are perforated by crabs or broken down by floods, and soon the ground becomes more and more sodden. The sugar-cane plants which were left in the ground sprout freely, but, as they now have to compete with a rampant host of weeds, they are unable to cover the ground, but grow in isolated patches. This, of course, allows their enemies all the more scope, and the competition soon becomes serious. The delicate Bahama grass (Cynodon dactylon) comes first and overruns the surface, but this has soon to give way to a lot of wiry, prickly shrubs which are fitted to grow almost anywhere. These include black sage (Varronia curassavica), prickly solanums, sensitive plants, and wild indigo. As they steal their nourishment from the soil, the canes never become strong enough to smother them, but languish more and more until obliged to succumb. By this time the seeds of a number of straggling bushes and trees have found their opportunity, and the clammy cherry (Cordia), hog-plum (Spondias), and wild fig come up here and there, growing very quickly and partly ousting out the smaller plants. Alongside the draining canals thickets of prickly shrubs and scrambling vines soon make their appearance, and, as they grow, obstruct the outflow of water more and more. Then, as the water rises after a day's rainfall of perhaps seven or eight inches, the front dam is washed away and the sea comes over at the next spring tide, filling the trenches in front with brackish water. The courida (Avicennia) and mangrove (Rhizophora) which guard the shore now advance, and with them an army of beach weeds, including that triply armed invader, the nicker (Giulandina bonducella). Soon crabsperforate every part of the sea dam, and the whole front becomes a great mangrove swamp.

While this transformation has been taking place in front, Nature has not been inactive behind. There is a large body of water in the swamps always trying to find an exit, and it is only by strict attention to the slightest breach that the planter keeps his estate from getting inundated. Now, of course, there is no one to attend to this matter, and when the heavy rains fall the flood carries down the weakened dam and makes a greater inundation behind than there is in front. The canes, which have hitherto managed to exist after a fashion, now rot, and with them go the Bahama grass and some of the other weeds which only live on comparatively dry land. These, however, are soon replaced by a host of sedges, grasses, and marsh shrubs which make as impenetrable a jungle as the others. Now the vegetation forms two distinct zones, that in front comprising littoral plants; and behind, those of the fresh-water savanna.

Rarely, however, is an estate on the coast allowed to revert entirely to its pristine condition, as there is generally a public road to be kept up which necessitates a proper sea dam. It follows, therefore, that the mangrove swamp is kept outside the boundary line and the abandoned plantation is partially drained to prevent danger to the road from floods aback. In such cases the vegetation is not so rampant, but it is still far beyond anything seen in temperate climates. Every trench is filled with water plants, and the land is overrun with sour grass (Paspalum conjugatum). This grass, which is the pest of every pasture in the wet season, covers a waterlogged plantation almost to the exclusion of everything else. During the rains it is ahead of everything, and it is only during a drought that it languishes a little. Then, the Bahama grass and a few other weeds find room for a small show, to be again vanquished, however, as the next wet season sets in. Where once was the battlefield of man and Nature is now the scene of an annual struggle between two great armies of plants. Man fought against both, and they maintained a most gallant defense, only retiring inch by inch. Now they have both rushed in to fight each other for the mastery.

For some time after the plantation has been abandoned the lines of the draining trenches, and even the geometrical shape of the cane beds, can still be traced, but when there is nothing in the way of the flood, either in front or behind, these soon fill up or sink to one uniform level. It is, however, sometimes possible to find relics of the plantation buildings, as the débris often rises above the level of other portions of the estate. The bricks and all other materials of any value were removed prior to its abandonment, but there were always heaps of rubbish not worth carting away, and these remain, covered with weeds, to tell the investigator of some future age what manner of people lived here. Even if the whole plantation has become a swamp, these heaps form little islands amid the ooze, and, in a very dry season, when the savanna has been burned, they stand up like the mounds of the Caribs, to which they are somewhat analogous.

To understand this analogy, we must go back to some past age long before the discovery of America. The original coast line of British Guiana is now some twenty miles inland; but ages ago, no doubt, the present sand-reefs were washed by the ocean. The great rivers brought down sand, mud, and vegetable matter in solution, as they do to-day. These suspended and dissolved substances were deposited in the shape of sandbanks and shoals and became little islands. To these the cannibals retired from all enemies, and enjoyed their horrible feasts in seclusion and without fear, in the way so well described by Defoe.

Under mounds of sand, covered with forest trees, the remains of the Carib's feast can still be found and recognized. These mounds are most common in the northwestern district of British Guiana—the Canibalor Terra of the early voyagers and the Caribana of Raleigh. Some are situated several miles from the present coast line, and were probably occupied for many years, as the heaps of shells, bits of pottery, stone weapons, and, most horrible of all, human bones broken for the marrow, must have taken a long time to accumulate. Now they are hidden in the virgin forest, and only by accident have a few been discovered. Nature has triumphed, and the Carib is virtually extinct.

In one respect the savage leaves a more lasting record of his former presence than the white man. The steel knife or axe crumbles away under the influence of heat and moisture, and even the great iron sugar pan throws oil thick flakes of oxide until it falls into dust. But the stone axe of the Indian is as lasting as the rock itself, and might be safely said to be an imperishable record. Gold-diggers not infrequently come upon them at depths of six or eight feet in our river bottoms, and they are found in canal excavations as well as in the cannibal mounds. In Guiana they are not necessarily ancient, as they were in use everywhere up to three centuries ago, and are still utilized in shaping pottery. Even a century ago it would not have been hard to find some of them put to their proper use—i. e., to scrape away the charred portions of wood in excavating a canoe.

Besides the mounds and stone implements, the educated eye sees other evidences of the Indian's presence at some former time. The Arawak in the past, as in the present, generally made his settlement on a sand reef, and hardly a creek is without indications of his former presence. A stranger is so bewildered with the great tangle of vegetation, and the variety of form and color in leaf and flower, that he can hardly perceive these traces; but the naturalist's attention is arrested at once.

From the creek there is a gentle ascent to a slight elevation, where the aspect of the vegetation differs somewhat from its surroundings. Here is a clump of pineapples, and close by an impenetrable thicket of krattee, the material from which hammock and bow strings were made. Look a little closer, and perhaps a few variegated caladiums or scarlet-flowered belladonna lilies (Hippeastrum equestre), or even a specimen of the giant reed (Gynerium saccharoides),may be seen. A stranger, seeing the beauty of form and color, might wonder how they came there; but the naturalist can say at once that here, in some past time, was an Indian settlement, and these are his footprints.

It might also be thought from these relics of the red man's presence that he understood the decorative value of plants and flowers. Such, however, is not the case; for, although he formerly painted his skin with red, dark blue, and white pigments, and, like a child, was fond of staring colors, he did not grow these handsome leaves and flowers to satisfy such a taste. He does not wear garlands, although he undoubtedly has a most delicate taste in the arrangement of feathers for his headdress and waist-belt. As for his women, they—with the exception of a bead apron, on which is worked a pretty geometrical pattern—never decorate themselves in any way. Why, then, do they grow these lilies and caladiums? The answer shows one of the most interesting sides of the Indian character.

They are beenas, or charms, to make them good hunters, fishermen, or shooters. The beena notion pervades the Indian's whole life, as providing meat is his duty above everything else. There seems to be no rule in regard to the choice of beenas, except that their use must always be painful. The most universal, and that which seems to have a general application, is the nose beena, a whip made of eta fiber, which is put up one of the nostrils and drawn through the back of the mouth. This is used when a boy reaches manhood, to make him skillful in all his operations. Then there are particular beenas for every animal—the jaguar, tapir, peccary, labba, and even birds and fishes. The beautiful suffused crimson variety of Caladium bicolor is the jaguar beena, and other blotched and spotted kinds and the lilies are used for different quadrupeds. If the Indian hunter fails in shooting a particular animal and returns home without meat, he is dejected, and appears to think some virtue has gone out of him. The beast has got the better of the man, and he must renew his strength. To do this, he digs up a root of caladium or lily, and, after slashing himself with a knife on breast and arms, rubs the acrid juice into the wounds. Of course, the operation is very painful, but he does not mind that; the more excruciating the torture the better the charm is working. Next day he goes forth into the forest with renewed confidence, and is likely to be more successful on that account alone.

However, we are wandering away from our subject, and must return to the traces of man's presence in the forest. If the little spot on the sand hill has been recently abandoned, a dark patch of humus shows where the benab or hut once stood, and this will be covered with prickly solanums and other weeds, from which the bare white sand in the neighborhood is entirely free. Sometimes narrow paths into the forest or down to the creek can still be discerned by the careful observer, even after very long periods, as the comparatively barren san^ reef does not obliterate every trace so quickly as does the forest. It may be possible even to find the way to what was once the cassava field—now either an impenetrable jungle or apparently virgin forest. It winds through and under the trees, where a little light has been able to penetrate, obstructed by young trees or crossed by bush-ropes, but fairly conspicuous in the darker arcades. If you succeed in finding the field, and it has been abandoned for only two or three years, the jungle is impenetrable; while after twenty, except for the absence of very large trees, it is unrecognizable.

The plants we have mentioned as indicators of man's presence at some former period are never found truly wild in the forest. They have been—we were going to say cultivated, but that would be a misstatement—grown by the Indians for ages, and are now so thoroughly naturalized as to exist apart from his presence. If the top of a pineapple is thrown down beside the path, it will be sure to grow if there is sufficient light and the soil is porous. It thus becomes an indicator of old tracks over the sand reefs, and will sometimes enable the lost wanderer to retrace his footsteps. Even the forest itself is intersected with tracks which often lead the hunter astray, and give him great trouble to find the right way on his return. Some are almost effaced, others conspicuous for a short distance, and then blocked by some great tree. The path is older than the tree, and yet can be discerned in certain lights, although easily missed when looked for from a different point. Even in returning by the same track the difference in direction will often cause hesitation and doubt.

The ground in the forest is undulating, and if we follow an old track it is always obliterated in the gullies, but may be recovered on the opposite slope. Creeks and small watercourses cross it, or perhaps it stops entirely at the little stream where formerly the Indian embarked in his canoe to reach the great river. No canoe can pass now, and perhaps there is not in existence a single descendant of his tribe. Yet the track is visible. and above on the hill are pineapples and other relics of his former presence.

On the savannas of the far interior we can also find a few traces of the red man of the past. Here there are no trees, but only a low, scrubby vegetation. Slight elevations here and there are still dotted by the circular dwellings of Macusis, Wapisianos, and Arecunas; but many a mound that was once the site of a village is now deserted, and not a trace of the dwellings remains. Yet, from a distance, dependent on light and shade, indistinct footpaths can be traced, while on the top the want of even a few scattered plants is an indication to the educated eye that a village once stood there. Then, again, there are little creeks near by, in which stepping-stones have been placed, and on one mound have been seen a number of stones arranged as an oval, which could only have been placed there by man.

Although these faint traces may be discovered when carefully looked for, the general result is a virtual obliteration of man's handiwork. No important buildings of stone have ever been erected in British Guiana, but two brick forts show what would happen if even great buildings were abandoned. One of these was deserted about the year 1740, and the other since 1812. Both have been long since hidden among the trees, and even their ruined walls are overgrown, so that it would only be possible to see them at a great expense of time and labor. Burying-grounds in different parts of the colony are in the same condition, and one in Georgetown, abandoned as late as 1840, and nominally cared for, is covered with vegetation, and its tombs almost hidden. When brought to light, as they are sometimes in the dry season by the withering of the tall grasses and weeds, what a picture of Nature's handiwork is there! Every tomb has been taken over by one or more wild figs, and their aërial roots have insinuated themselves between each brick and slab until the sides are cracked and bulged, and the tops lifted off, broken to pieces, and removed. Man's battle was continuous as long as he lived; after his death Nature triumphed.


In a paper read to the Anthropological Section of the American Association, Dr. Brinton called attention to a number of peculiarities in the human skeleton which had attracted the notice of anatomists, and which had frequently been interpreted as signs of reversion to an apelike ancestry. Most of these, however, can be explained by mechanical function, or excess or deficiency of nutrition; and when they can be so explained, this is the only interpretation they should receive. They can no longer be offered as evidence of the theory of evolution, nor considered as criteria or marks of the human races. The doctor gave a long list of such peculiarities and showed the evidence that they are the results of functional working and pathological causes.