Imagini ale paginilor
PDF
ePub

30

NOTES OF A NATURALIST.

One of the effects of the habitual use of maps on a small scale is that untravelled persons, even though conversant with the facts of geography, feel it difficult to realize the great dimensions of the more distant parts of the world as compared with our diminutive European continent. Thus it came on me with something of surprise that the Bay of Panama is fully a hundred and twenty sea miles across from headland to headland, and that the run from Panama to Callao, which is scarcely one-third of the length of the South American continent, is rather longer than that from Bergen to the Straits of Gibraltar. The case, of course, is much worse with those accustomed to use maps on Mercator's projection. It profits nothing to explain, even to the most intelligent youth, the nature and amount of the errors involved in that mode of representing a spherical surface on a plane. I verily believe that all the mischief done by the stupidity, ignorance, and perversity of the writers of bad schoolbooks is trifling compared to the amount of false ideas spread through the world by the productions of that respectable Fleming.

The steamers of the Pacific Mail Company employed for the traffic between San Francisco and Valparaiso are as perfectly suited to the peculiar conditions of the navigation as they would be unfit for long seavoyages in any other part of the world. In the calm waters of this region, rarely ruffled even by a stiff breeze, the fortunate seamen engaged in this service know no hardships from storm or cold. Their only anxiety is from the fogs that at some seasons beset parts of the coast. In each voyage they pass under

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

sun,

a vertical sun, but the air and the water are cooler than in any other part of the equatorial zone; and all that is needed for their physical comfort, and that of their passengers, is free ventilation and shade from the

These desiderata are fully secured. The maindeck is open to the air, and the steerage passengers, who are encamped amidships and on the fore-deck, are satisfied at night with the amount of privacy secured by hanging sone piece of stuff to represent a curtain round each family group. On the upper deck are ranged the state rooms of the first-class passengers, each with a door and window opening seaward. Above this, again, a spar-deck carried flush from stem to stern affords ample opportunity for exercise, and is itself sheltered from the sun by an awning during the hot hours.

In such conditions, where merely to breathe is to enjoy, the only danger is that of subsiding into mere lotus-eating. From this I was fortunately preserved by the rather troublesome task of drying in satisfactory condition the plants which I had hastily gathered in Jamaica and in crossing the isthmus.

I had supposed that the distinctly green colour of the water in Panama Bay, so different from the blue tint of the open Atlantic, might be due to some local peculiarity ; but on the following day, April 7, while about a hundred miles from land, I observed that the same colour was preserved, and I subsequently extended the observation along the coast to about 5° south, where we encountered the antarctic current. Farther south I should describe the hue of the water as a somewhat turbid dark blue, reminding one of the

32

NOTES OF A NATURALIST.

vater of the North Atlantic as seen in approaching the British Islands.

At daybreak on April 8 we found ourselves approaching the port of Buenaventura. Long before it was possible to land I was ready, thrilling with interest and curiosity respecting a region so entirely new-an interest enhanced, perhaps, by the extent of ignorance of which I was inwardly conscious. Knowing this place to be the only port of an extensive tract, including much of the coast region of New Granada, lying only a few degrees from the equator, and rich in all sorts of tropical produce, I had formed a very undue idea of its importance. Although the rise and fall of the tide are very moderate on this coast, the ricketty wooden wharf could not be reached at low water. There was nothing for it but to land on the mud, and scramble up the slippery slope to the top of the bank of half-consolidated marl, from twenty to forty feet above the shore, on which the little town is built. It consists of some two hundred houses and stores, nearly all mere plank sheds, but, as usual throughout South America, the inhabitants rejoice in dreams of future wealth and importance to be secured by a railway communicating with the interior. There was no time to be lost ; notice had been given that the ship's stay was to be very brief, and even before landing it was apparent that the tropical forest was close at hand. In truth, the last houses are within a stone's throw of the skirts of the forest. Just at this point I was attracted by a leafless bush, evidently one of the spinous species of Solanum, with large, yellow, obversely pear-shaped fruits. As

FIRST VIEW OF A TROPICAL FOREST.

33

I was about cutting off a specimen, the people, who here seemed very friendly, rushed out of the nearest house and vociferated in warning tones, “Mata ! mata !” I was afterwards assured that the fruit is here considered a deadly poison. It appears to be one of the rather numerous varieties of Solanum mammosum, a species widely spread through the hotter parts of America.

Being warned not to go out of hearing of the steamwhistle that was to summon us back to the ship, I was obliged to content myself with three short inroads into the forest, through which numerous paths had been cleared. The first effect was perfectly bewildering. The variety of new forms of vegetation surrounding one on every side was simply distracting. Of the larger trees I could, indeed, make out nothing, but the smaller trees and shrubs, crowded together wherever they could reach the daylight, were more than enough to occupy the too short moments.

Of the general character of the climate there could be no doubt. In spite of the blazing sun, with a shade temperature of about 85° Fahr., the ground was everywhere moist. Ferns and Selaginella met the eye at every turn, with numerous Cyperacer; and in an open spot, among a crowd of less familiar forms, I found a minute Utricularia, scarcely an inch in height. But the predominant feature, and that which interested me most keenly, was the abundance and variety of Melastomacea. Within the first ten minutes I had gathered specimens of seven species, all of them but one large shrubs. Of the climbers and parasites that give its most distinctive features to the

D

[ocr errors][merged small]

tropical forest, I could in so hurried a peep make out very little. I owe one beautiful species, hitherto undescribed, to my friend W—, who, having wandered in another direction, spied the scarlet flowers of the epiphyte, which I have named Anthopterus Wardii, on the trunk of a tree, which was promptly climbed by the active negro who had accompanied him.*

Too soon came the summons of the steam-whistle. As we called on our way at the office of the Pacific Company's agent, we were shown a number of the finer sort of so-called Panama hats, which are chiefly made on this part of the coast. Even on the spot they are expensive articles, a hundred dollars not being considered an unreasonable price for one of the better sort.

Some writers of high authority on geographical botany have held that the most marked division of the flora of tropical South America is that between the regions lying east and west of the Andes. It would be the extreme of rashness for one who has seen so little as I have done of the vegetation of a few scattered points in so vast a region to attempt to draw conclusions from his own observations ; but, on the other hand, writers in Europe, even though so learned and so careful as Grisebach and Engler, are under the great disadvantage that the materials available, whether in botanical works or in herbaria, are generally incomplete as regards localities. How is it possible to form any clear picture of the flora of a special district when so large a proportion of the

* For a list of the plants collected here, see a paper in the Journal of the Linnean Society, vol. xxii.

« ÎnapoiContinuați »