The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 10.

Juigalpa. A Nicaraguan family. Description of the road from Juigalpa to Santo Domingo. Comparative scarcity of insects in Nicaragua in 1872. Water-bearing plants. Insect-traps. The south-western edge of the forest region. Influence of cultivation upon it. Sagacity of the mule.

THE site of Juigalpa is beautifully chosen, as is usual with the old Indian towns. It is on a level dry piece of land, about three hundred feet above the river. A rocky brook behind the town supplies the water for drinking and cooking purposes. The large square or plaza has the church at one end; on the other three sides are red-tiled adobe houses and stores, with floors of clay or red bricks. Streets branch off at right angles from the square, and are crossed by others. The best houses are those nearest the square. Those on the outskirts are mere thatched hovels, with open sides of bamboo poles. The house I stayed at was at the corner of one of the square blocks, and from the angle the view extended in four directions along the level roads. Each way the prospect was bounded by hills in the distance. North-east were the white cliffs of the Amerrique range, mantled with dark wood. The intervening country could not be seen, and only a small portion of the range itself; framed in, as it were, by the sides of the street. It looked close at hand, like a piece of artificial rockery, or the grey walls of a castle covered with ivy. The range to the south-west is several miles distant; and is called San Miguelito by the Spaniards, but I could not learn its Indian name.

Our host was a musician, and his wife attended to the guests. As usual, a number of relations lived with them, including the mother of our hostess and two of her brothers. It was a very fair sample of a family amongst what may be called the middle class in Nicaragua. The master of the house plays occasionally in a band at dances and festas, and holds a respectable position at Juigalpa, where the highest families keep stores and shops.

The only work is done by the females — the men keep up their dignity by lounging about all day, or lolling in a hammock, all wearied with their slothfulness, and looking discontented and unhappy. One brother told me he was a carpenter, the other a shoemaker, but that there was nothing to do in Juigalpa. I suggested that they should go to Libertad, where there was plenty of work. They said there was too much rain there. As long as their brother-in-law will allow them, they will remain lounging about his house; and that will probably be as long as he has one, for I noticed that the wealthier Nicaraguans are rather proud of having a lot of relations hanging about and dependent on them. Now and then they do little spells of work — get in the cows or doctor one that is sick — but I doubt if any of them average more than half an hour’s work per day. Even this may be an equivalent for their board, which does not cost much, being only a few tortillas and beans.

To this have the descendants of the Spanish conquerors come throughout the length and breadth of the land. With perennial summer and a fertile soil they might drink the waters of abundance, but the bands of indolence have wound round them generation after generation, and now they are so bound up in the drowsy folds of slothfulness that they cannot break their silken fetters. Not a green vegetable, not a fruit, can you buy at Juigalpa. Beef, or a fowl — brown beans, rice, and tortillas — form the only fare. When Mexico becomes one of the United States, all Central America will soon follow. Railways will be pushed from the north into the tropics, and a constant stream of immigration will change the face of the country, and fill it with farms and gardens, orange groves, and coffee, sugar, cacao, and indigo plantations. No progress need be expected from the present inhabitants.

Having finished our business in Juigalpa, we arranged to start on our return early the next morning, Velasquez going round by Acoyapo whilst Rito accompanied me to the mines. I had a fowl cooked overnight to take with us, and set off at six o’clock. I shall make some remarks on the road on points not touched on in my account of the journey out. After leaving Juigalpa, we descended to the river by a rocky and steep path, crossed it, and then passed over alluvial-like plains intersected by a few nearly dry river beds, to the foot of the south-western side of the Amerrique hills, then gradually ascended the range that separates the Juigalpa district from that of Libertad. The ground was gravelly and dry, with stony hillocks covered with low trees and bushes. After ascending about a thousand feet, the ground became much moister, and we reached an Indian hut on the side of the range, where a few bananas and a little maize was grown. Indian women, naked to the waist, were, as usual, bruising maize, this being their employment from morning to night, whilst the men were sitting about idle. Some mangy-looking dogs set up a loud barking as we approached. To one of them clung a young spider-monkey. A number of parrots also gave evidence of the great fondness the Indians have for animal pets. There is scarcely a house where some bird or beast is not kept; and the Indian women are very clever in taming birds, probably by their constant kindness and gentleness to them, and by feeding them out of their mouths and fondling them. From near here we had a fine view, and saw that we had come up the side of a wide valley, bounded on the right by the Amerrique range, on the left by high rounded grassy hills, on one of which we could make out the cattle hacienda of La Puerta. Lines of trees and bamboo thickets marked the course of numerous brooks that joined lower down and formed the small rivers we had crossed. Looking down the valley it opened out into a wide plain, with here and there sharp-topped conical hills, such as abound in Central America, where they appear to have been taken as landmarks by the Indians, as many of the old roads lead past them. Beyond the plain in the grey distance were the waters of the lake and the peaks of Ometepec and Madera.

We had now to ascend the side of a ravine, the road, or rather path, being through a bamboo thicket for about a mile, the bamboos touching our knees on either side and arching close overhead, so that we had to lie on the mules’ necks a great part of the way. Some portions of the road were dangerously steep and rocky; but as fully a league in distance is saved by taking this by-path, instead of the main road by way of La Puerta, I generally preferred travelling by it, especially as I often took rare and new beetles on the bushes. I usually, when travelling, carried a net fixed to a short stick, and caught the insects as I passed along, off the leaves, without stopping; so abundant were they, that it was very rare for me to take the shortest journey without finding some new species to add to my collection. On this journey I did not, however, take many insects, as the latter half of the year 1872, for some reason or other, was a very unfavourable season for them.1 The scarcity of beetles was very remarkable. The wet season set in a little earlier than usual, but I do not think that this caused the dearth of insects as at Juigalpa, where there had been scarcely any rain, there were very few compared with the two former years. The year before, when the season was nearly as wet, beetles, especially longicorns, had been very abundant; and the first half of 1872 had not been characterised by any scarcity of them. Some of the fine longicorns that appear in April were numerous. No less than five specimens of a large and beautiful one (Deliathis nivea, Bates), white, with black spots, that we considered one of our greatest rarities, were taken in that month. It was not until the end of May that the great scarcity of beetles, compared with their abundance in former years, became apparent. I think all classes of beetles had suffered. Many fine lamellicorns, that were generally numerous, were not seen at all; neither were many species of longicorns, usually common. A fig-tree that I had growing in my garden had been much injured by a longicorn (Taeniotes scalaris) in 1870 and 1871, but was not touched in 1872.

1 It is curious that Mr. W.H. Hudson should have selected this same summer of 1872–73 as affording on the pampas of South America an exceptionally good example of one of those “waves of life” in which there is a sudden and inordinate increase in many forms of animal life. See “The Naturalist in La Plata” chapter 3.

Butterflies were also scarce, but it was the second season that they had been so. Some ants were affected; in others, such as the leaf-cutter, I noted no perceptible diminution in number. A little ant (Pheidole sp.) that used to swarm on a passion flower which grew over the house, attending on the honey glands, and scale insects, disappeared altogether; and another species (Hypoclinea sp.) that it used to drive away took its place. A small stinging black ant (Solenopsis sp.), that was a great plague in the houses, was also fortunately scarce. In the beginning of June nearly all the white ants or termites (“Comiens” of the Nicaraguans) died. In some parts of my house they lay in little heaps, just as they dropped from the nests above in the roof, and most of the nests were entirely depopulated. I examined some of the dead termites with a magnifier, but could detect no difference in them, excepting that they seemed a little swollen.

That some epidemic prevailed amongst the insects there can be no doubt; and it is curious that it should have attacked so many different species and classes. I am not sure that it was confined to the insects, for there was also a great mortality amongst the fowls, many dying from inflammation of the crop, and two large parrots fell victims to the same disease. This disease amongst the birds may not, however, have been connected in any way with that amongst the insects. I recollect that in 1865 there was a somewhat similar mortality amongst the wasps in North Wales. In the autumn of the preceding year they had been exceedingly abundant, and very destructive to the fruit. In the next spring, numerous females that had hibernated commenced making their paper nests, and I anticipated a still greater plague of wasps in the autumn than we had had the year before; but some epidemic carried off nearly all the females before they finished building their nests, and in the autumn scarcely a wasp was to be seen. I saw also in the Natural History magazines notices of their scarcity in all parts of England.

The great mortality amongst the insects of Chontales in 1872 has some bearing on the origin of species, for in times of such great epidemics we may suspect that the gradations that connect extreme forms of the same species may become extinct. Darwin has shown how very slight differences in the colour of the skin and hair are sometimes correlated with great immunity from certain diseases, and from the action of some vegetable poisons, and the attacks of certain parasites.1 Any varieties of species of insects that could withstand better than others these great and probably periodical epidemics, would certainly obtain a great advantage over those not so protected; and thus the survival of one form, and the extinction of another, might be brought about. We see two species of the same genus, as in many insects, differing but little from each other, yet quite distinct, and we ask why, if these have descended from one parent form, do not the innumerable gradations that must have connected them exist also? There is but one answer; we are ignorant what characters are of essential value to each species; we do not know why white terriers are more subject than darker-coloured ones to the attacks of the fatal distemper; why yellow-fleshed peaches in America suffer more from diseases than the white-fleshed varieties; why white chickens are most liable to the gapes; or why the caterpillars of silkworms, which produce white cocoons, are not attacked by fungus so much as those that produce yellow cocoons? Yet in all these cases, and many others, it has been shown that immunity from disease is correlated with some slight difference in colour or structure, but as to the cause of that immunity we are entirely ignorant.

1 “Descent of Man” volume 1 page 242; and “Animals and Plants under Domestication” volume 2 pages 227–230. I have taken the examples given from the same author.

At last we reached the summit of the range, which is probably not less than three thousand feet above the sea, and entered on the district of Libertad. Rounded boggy hills covered with grass, sedgy plants, and stunted trees replaced the dry gravelly soil of the Juigalpa district. The low trees bore innumerable epiphytal plants on their trunks and boughs. Many of these are species of Tillandsia, which sit perched up on the small branches like birds. They have sheathing leaves that hold at their base a supply of water that must be very useful to them in the dry season. Insects get drowned in this water, and the plants may derive some nourishment from their decomposing bodies, but I believe the principal object is to obtain a supply of moisture, as the roots of the plants do not hang down to the ground, like those of many other epiphytes in the tropics, nor are they provided with bulbs like the orchids. Some plants that hold liquids in cup-shaped leaves are simply insect traps, many of them growing in bogs, where the supply of moisture is perennial and constant. Such is the Indian-cup (Sarracenia) that grows in the bogs of Canada, and the Californian pitcher-plant (Darlingtonia californica), which also grows in bogs, and is such an excellent fly-trap, that there is generally a layer of from two to five inches of decomposing insects lying at the bottom of the cup.1 The different species of Drosera, or sun-dews, possess quite a different apparatus for catching insects, and they also live in bogs, which supports the inference that plants growing in such situations have some especial need to obtain nutriment, which they cannot draw from the decaying vegetation on which they live. Possibly they obtain the salts of potash in this way. I did not notice any provision in the leaves of the Bromeliaceous epiphytes of Chontales to ensure the capture of insects, but often saw their dead bodies in the water held at the base of the leaves, and any that came to drink would be very liable to slip into the water from off the nearly perpendicular side of the leaf and be drowned. It is not impossible that the small supply of mineral salts required for the organisation of these plants that do not draw any nutriment from the earth may be obtained from dead insects, but, as I have already stated, I believe that the principal object is to lay up a store of water to carry them safely through the dry season. Incidentally, the further advantage has been gained that insects fall into the receptacles of water and are drowned, affording in their decomposition nourishment to the plants.

1 See “Nature” volume 3 pages 159 and 167.

Our road now lay over the damp grassy hills of the Libertad district. It edged away from the Amerrique range on our right. To our left, about three miles distant, rose the dark sinuous line of the great forest of the Atlantic slope. Only a fringe of dark-foliaged trees in the foreground was visible, the higher ground behind was shrouded in a sombre pall of thick clouds that never lifted, but seemed to cover a gloomy and mysterious country beyond. Though I had dived into the recesses of these mountains again and again, and knew that they were covered with beautiful vegetation and full of animal life, yet the sight of that leaden-coloured barrier of cloud resting on the forest tops, whilst the savannahs were bathed in sunshine, ever raised in my mind vague sensations of the unknown and the unfathomable. Our course was nearly parallel to this gloomy forest, but we gradually approached it. The line that separates it from the grassy savannahs is sinuous and irregular. In some places a dark promontory of trees juts out into the savannahs, in others a green grassy hill is seen almost surrounded by forest. When I first came to the country, I was much puzzled to understand why the forest should end just where it did. It is not because of any change in the nature of the soil or bedrock. It cannot be for lack of moisture, for around Libertad it rains for at least six months out of the twelve. The surface of the ground is not level on the savannahs, but consists of hill and dale, just as in the forest. Altogether the conditions seemed to be exactly the same, and it appeared a difficult matter to account for the fact that the forest should end at an irregular but definite line, and that at that boundary grassy savannahs should commence. After seeing the changes that were wrought during the four and a half years that I was in the country, I have been led to the conclusion that the forest formerly extended much further towards the Pacific, and has been beaten back principally by the agency of man. The ancient Indians of Nicaragua were an agricultural race, their principal food then, as now, being maize; and in all the ancient graves, the stone for grinding corn is found placed there, as the one thing that was considered indispensable. They cut down patches of the forest and burnt it to plant their corn, as all along the edge of it they do still. The first time the forest is cut down, and the ground planted, the soil contains seeds of the forest trees, which, after the corn is gathered, spring up and regain possession of the ground, so that in twenty years, if such a spot is left alone, it will scarcely differ from the surrounding untouched forest. But it does not remain unmolested. After two or three years it is cut down again and a great change takes place. The soil does not now contain seeds of forest trees, and in their stead a great variety of weedy-looking shrubs, only found where the land has been cultivated, spring up. Grass, too, begins to get a hold on the ground; if it prevails, the Indian, or Mestizo, does not attempt to grow corn there again, as he knows the grass will spoil it, and he is too indolent to weed it out. Often, however, the brushwood has been cut down and burnt, and fresh crops of corn grown several times before the grass has gained such an advantage that the cultivator gives up the attempt to plant maize. There is then a struggle between the weedy shrubs and the grass. The leaf-cutting ants come to the aid of the latter. Grass they will not touch, excepting to clear it away from their paths. The thick forest they do not like, possibly because beneath its shade the ground is kept too damp for their fungus beds. But along the edge of the forest, by the sides of roads through it, that let in the air and sunshine, and in clearings, they abound. They are especially fond of the leaves of young trees, many of which are destroyed by them. Should the brushwood ultimately prevail, and cover the ground, the Indian or Mestizo comes again after a few years, cuts it down, and replants it with maize. But as most of his old clearings get covered with grass, he is continually encroaching on the edge of the forest, beating it back gradually, but surely, towards the north-east. As this process has probably been going on for thousands of years, I believe that the edge of the forest is several miles nearer the Atlantic than it was originally.

In this way many acres in the neighbourhood of Pital were taken from the forest, and added to the grass-lands, whilst I was in the country. The brushwood-land does not yield such good crops as the virgin forest, but it is nearer to the huts of the cultivators, who live out on the savannahs, so that whenever the weedy shrubs gain possession of a spot sufficiently large for a clearing, and choke off the grass, these places are again cut down and burnt, and thus the forest is never allowed to establish outposts, or advanced stations, in the disputed ground. What would be the result if man were withdrawn from the scene, I do not know, but I believe that the forest would slowly, but surely, regain the ground that it has lost through long centuries. The thickets and dense brushwood that always spring up along the edge of the forest, and consist of many shrubs that the leaf-cutting ants do not touch, would gradually spread, and beat back the grass. In their shade and shelter, seeds from the forest would vegetate and grow, and thus, I think, very slowly, inch by inch, the forest would regain its long-lost territory, and gradually extend its limits towards the south-west, until it reached its old boundaries, where a change in the physical character of the land, or in the amount of moisture precipitated, would stay its further progress. It is far more likely, however, that man will drive back the forest to the very Atlantic than that he will quit the scene.

After passing the Indian graves, about a league from Libertad, we turned off to the right, by a path that led directly to the Mico, without going through the town. After crossing several rounded grassy hills, we reached the river, and found it swollen with recent rains, but fordable. Sometimes travellers are detained several days, unable to cross, and I was always glad when, returning to the mines, I had put it behind me. Now and then a traveller is drowned when attempting to cross the swollen river, but these accidents are rare, as it is well known, by certain rocks being covered, when it is unfordable. If carried away, a traveller has little chance to save his life, as just below the crossing the river is rapid and the banks precipitous. I heard of one man who had had a very narrow escape. He was trying to cross on mule-back, but his beast lost its footing, rolled over, and was rapidly washed away. The poor man was carried into the roaring rapids, and would soon have been drowned, but a herdsman on the bank, who was looking for cattle, threw his lasso cleverly over the drowning traveller, and dragged him on shore. Some of the “vacqueros,” as the herdsmen are called, are wonderfully adroit in throwing the lasso; when riding at full speed, they throw it over the horns of the cattle, or the heads of the horses, and can hold the strongest if sideways on. But I have seen some old bulls that knew how to get loose; they would run straight away from the vacquero in places where he could not ride round them, and getting a straight pull on the lasso, would break it, or draw it out of his hands. There are no horses or mules, and very few cattle, however, that know how to do this, I was told by the herdsmen.

After crossing the river, we soon reached Pital, where I had a cup of tea and got a fresh mule. We now turned nearly at right angles to our former course, and struck into the dark forest, the road through which I have already described. It was very wet and muddy. In some places, although it was only the commencement of the wet season, the mules sank above their knees. On this occasion, as on many others, I had often to notice how well the mule remembered places where in some former year it had avoided a particularly bad part by making a detour. I was riding a mule that had tender feet, having just recovered from the bite of a spider, that had occasioned the loss of one of its hoofs, and when it came near to a place where it could escape the deep mud by going over a stony part it would slacken its pace and look first at the mud, then at the stones, evidently balancing in its mind which was the lesser evil. Sometimes, too, when it came to a very bad place, which was better at the sides, I left it to itself, and it would be so undecided which side was the best, that making towards one it would look towards the other, and end by getting into the worst of the mud. It was just like many men who cannot decide which of two courses to take, and end by a middle one, which is worse than either. And just as in men, so in mules, there is every variety of disposition and ability. Some are easily led, others most obstinate and headstrong; some wise and prudent, others foolish and rash. The memory of localities is much stronger in horses and mules than in man. When travelling along a road that they have been over only once, and that some years before, where there are numerous branch roads and turnings, they will never make a mistake, even in the dark; and I have often, at night, when I could not make out the road myself, left them to their own guidance, and they have taken me safely to my destination. Only once was I misled, and that through the too good memory of my mule. Many years before it had been taken to a pasture of good grass, and recollecting this, it took me several miles out of my road towards its old feeding-ground, causing me to be benighted in consequence.

I reached the mines at nine o’clock, and found that during my absence it had been raining almost continuously, although at Juigalpa there had been only a few slight showers.

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