Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter IX

Idle Days

Before the snow, which has given rise to so long a digression, had quite ceased falling the blue sky was smiling again, and I set forth on my muddy walk home. Under the brilliant sun the white mantle very soon began to exhibit broad black lines and rents, and in a brief space of time the earth had recovered its wonted appearance — the cheerful greenish-bluish-grey, which is Nature’s livery at all times in this part of Patagonia; while from the dripping thorn bushes the birds resumed their singing.

If the birds of this region do not excel those of other lands in sweetness, compass, and variety (and I am not sure that they do not), for constancy in singing they indubitably carry the palm. In spring and early summer their notes are incessant; and the choir is then led by that incomparable melodist, the white-banded mocking-bird, a summer visitor. Even in the coldest months of winter, June and July, when the sun shines, the hoarse crooning of the spotted ‘Columba’, resembling that of the wood-pigeon of Europe, and the softer, more sigh-like lamentations of the ‘Zenaida maculata’, so replete with wild pathos, are heard from the leafless willows fringing the river. Meanwhile, in the bosky uplands, one hears the songs of many passerine species; and always amongst them, with lively hurried notes, the black-headed Magellanic siskin. The scarlet-breasted or military starling sings on the coldest days and during the most boisterous weather: nor can the rainiest sky cheat the grey finches, ‘Diuca minor’, of their morning and evening hymns, sung by many individuals in joyous concert. The common mocking-bird is still more indefatigable, and sheltering himself from the cold blast continues till after dark warbling out snatches of song from his inexhaustible repertory; his own music being apparently necessary as food and air to his existence.

Warm lovely days succeeded the snowfall. Rising each morning I could reverently exclaim with the human singer,

O gift of God! O perfect Day!

Whereon should no man work but play.

Days windless and serene to their very end, bright with a cloudless sky, and sunshine sweet and pleasant to behold, making the grey solitudes smile as if conscious of the heavenly influence. It is a common saying in this country that “once in a hundred years, a man dies in Patagonia.” I do not think any other region of the globe can boast of a saying to equal that; though it has been ill-naturedly suggested that the proverb might owe its origin to the fact that most people in Patagonia meet with some violent end. I do not myself believe there is any climate in the world to compare with the winter of the east coast of Patagonia; and although its summer might seem disagreeable to some persons on account of the violent winds that prevail at that season, the atmosphere at all times is so dry and pure as to make pulmonary complaints unknown. A wealthy tradesman of the town told me that from boyhood he suffered from weak lungs and asthma; in search of health he left his country, Spain, and settled in Buenos Ayres, where he formed ties and entered into business. But his old enemy found him there; his asthma became worse and worse, and at last, on his doctor’s recommendation, he went on a visit to Patagonia, where in a short time he was restored to complete health — such health as he had never previously known. He went back rejoicing to Buenos Ayres, only to fall ill again and to find his life growing a burden to him. Finally, in desperation, he sold his business and went back to the only country where existence was possible; and when I knew him he had been permanently settled there for about fourteen years, during which time he had enjoyed the most perfect health.

But he was not happy. He confided to me that he had purchased health at a very heavy cost, since he found it impossible ever to accommodate himself to such a rude existence; that he was essentially a child of civilisation, a man of the pavement, whose pleasure was in society, in newspapers, the play, and in the café where one meets one’s friends of an evening and has a pleasant game of dominoes. As these things which he valued were merely dust and ashes to me, I did not sympathise deeply with his discontent, nor consider that it mattered much which portion of the globe he made choice of for a residence. But the facts of his case interested me; and if I should have a reader who has other ideals, who has felt the mystery and glory of life overcoming his soul with wonder and desire, and who bears in his system the canker of consumption which threatens to darken the vision prematurely — to such a one I would say, TRY PATAGONIA. It is far to travel, and in place of the smoothness of Madeira there would be roughness; but how far men go, into what rough places, in search of rubies and ingots of gold; and life is more than these.

During this beautiful weather merely to exist has seemed to me a sufficient pleasure: sometimes rowing on the river, which is here about nine hundred feet wide — going up to the town with the tide and returning with the current when only a slight exertion suffices to keep the boat swiftly gliding over the pure green water. At other times I amuse myself by seeking for the resinous gum, known here by its Indian name ‘maken’. The scraggy wide-spreading bush, a kind of juniper, it is found on, repays me with many a scratch and rent for all the amber tears I steal. The gum is found in little lumps on the underside of the lower branches, and is, when fresh, semi-transparent and sticky as bird-lime. To fit it for use the natives make it into pellets, and hold it on the point of a stick over a basin of cold water; a coal of fire is then approached to it, causing it to melt and trickle down by drops into the basin. The drops, hardened by the process, are then kneaded with the fingers, cold water being added occasionally, till the gum becomes thick and opaque like putty. To chew it properly requires a great deal of practice, and when this indigenous art has been acquired a small ball of maken may be kept in the mouth two or three hours every day, and used for a week or longer without losing its agreeable resinous flavour or diminishing in bulk, so firmly does it hold together. The maken-chewer, on taking the ball or quid from his mouth, washes it and puts it by for future use, just as one does with a tooth-brush. Chewing gum is not merely an idle habit, and the least that can be said in its favour is that it allays the desire for excessive smoking — no small advantage to the idle dwellers, white or red, in this desert land; it also preserves the teeth by keeping them free from extraneous matter, and gives them such a pearly lustre as I have never seen outside of this region.

My own attempts at chewing maken have, so far, proved signal failures. Somehow the gum invariably spreads itself in a thin coat over the interior of my mouth, covering the palate like a sticking-plaster and enclosing the teeth in a stubborn rubber case. Nothing will serve to remove it when it comes to this pass but raw suet, vigorously chewed for half an hour, with occasional sips of cold water to harden the delightful mixture and induce it to come away. The culmination of the mess is when the gum spreads over the lips and becomes entangled in the hairs that overshadow them; and when the closed mouth has to be carefully opened with the fingers, until these also become sticky and hold together firmly as if united by a membrane. All this comes about through the neglect of a simple precaution, and never happens to the accomplished masticator, who is to the manner born. When the gum is still fresh occasionally it loses the quality of stiffness artificially imparted to it, and suddenly, without rhyme or reason, retransforms itself into the raw material as it came from the tree. The adept, knowing by certain indications when this is about to happen, takes a mouthful of cold water at the critical moment, and so averts a result so discouraging to the novice. Maken-chewing is a habit common to everybody throughout the entire territory of Patagonia, and for this reason I have described the delightful practice at some length.

When disinclined for gum-chewing I ramble for hours through the bushes to listen to the birds, learning their language and making myself familiar with their habits. How coy are some species whose instincts ever impel them to concealment! What vigilance, keen and never relaxed, is theirs! Difficult even to catch a passing glimpse of them as they skulk from notice, how much more so to observe them disporting themselves without fear or restraint, unconscious of any intrusive presence! Yet such observation only satisfies the naturalist, and when obtained it amply repays the silence, the watching, and the waiting it costs. In some cases the opportunities are so rare that whilst they are being sought, and without ever actually occurring, the observer day by day grows more familiar with the manners of the wild creatures that still succeed in eluding his sight.

Now the little cock (‘Rhinocrypta lanceolata’), an amusing bird that lives on the ground, carries its tail erect and looks wonderfully like a very small bantam, has spied me, and full of alarm, utters his loud chirrup from an adjacent bush. Gently I steal towards him, careful to tread on the sand, then peer cautiously into the foliage. For a few moments he scolds me with loud, emphatic tones, and then is silent. Fancying him still in the same place, I walk about the bush many times, striving to catch sight of him. Suddenly the loud chirrup is resumed in a bush a stone’s-throw away; and soon, getting tired of this game of hide-and-seek, in which the bird has all the fun and I all the seeking, I give it up and ramble on.

Then, perhaps, the measured, deep, percussive tones of the subterranean ‘Ctenomys’, well named ‘oculto’ in the vernacular, resound within a dozen yards of my feet. So near and loud do they sound, I am convinced the shy little rodent has ventured for a moment to visit the sunshine. I might possibly even catch a momentary glimpse of him, sitting, trembling at the slightest sound, turning his restless bright black eyes this way and that to make sure that no insidious foe is lurking near. For while the mole’s eyes have dwindled to mere specks, a dark subterranean life has had a contrary effect on the ‘oculto’s’ orbs, and made them large, although not so large as in some cave-rodents. On tiptoe, scarcely breathing, I approach the intervening bush and peep round it, only to find that he has already vanished! A hillock of damp, fresh sand, bearing the impress of a tail and a pair of little feet, show that he has been busy there, and had sat only a moment ago swelling the silky fur of his bosom with those deep, mysterious sounds. Cautiously, silently, I had approached him, but the subtle fox and the velvet-footed cat would have drawn near with still greater silence and caution, yet he would have baffled them both. Of all shy mammals he is the shyest; in him fear is never overcome by curiosity, and days, even weeks, may now elapse before I come so near seeing the ‘Ctenomys magellanica’ again.

It is near sunset, and, hark! as I ramble on I hear in the low scrub before me the crested tinamous (‘Calodromus elegans’), the wild fowl of this region, and in size like the English pheasant, just beginning their evening call. It is a long, sweetly-modulated note, somewhat flute-like, and sounding clear and far in the quiet evening air. The covey is a large one, I conjecture, for many voices are joined in the concert. I mark the spot and walk on; but at my approach, however quiet and masked with bushes it may be, one by one the shy vocalists drop their parts. The last to cease repeats his note half a dozen times, then the contagion reaches him and he too becomes silent. I whistle and he answers; for a few minutes we keep up the duet, then, aware of the deception, he is silent again. I resume my walk and pass and repass fifty times through the scattered scrub, knowing all the time that I am walking about amongst the birds, as they sit turning their furtive eyes to watch my movements, yet concealed from me by that wonderful adaptive resemblance in the colour of their plumage to the sere grass and foliage around them, and by that correlated instinct which bids them sit still in their places. I find many evidences of their presence — prettily-mottled feathers dropped when they preened their wings, also a dozen or twenty neat circular hollows scooped in the sand in which they recently dusted themselves. There are also little chains of footprints running from one hollow to the other; for these pulverising pits serve the same birds every day, and, there being more birds in the covey than there are pits, the bird that does not quickly secure a place doubtless runs from pit to pit in search of one unoccupied. Doubtless there are many pretty quarrels too; and the older, stronger bird, regular in the observance of this cleanly luxurious habit, must, ‘per fas et nefas’, find accommodation somewhere.

I leave the favoured haunt, but when hardly a hundred yards away the birds resume their call in the precise spot I have just quitted; first one and then two are heard, then twenty voices join in the pleasing concert. Already fear, an emotion strong but transitory in all wild creatures, has passed from them, and they are free and happy as if my wandering shadow had never fallen across them.

Twilight comes and brings an end to these useless researches; useless, I say, and take great delight in saying it, for if there is anything one feels inclined to abhor in this placid land, it is the doctrine that all our investigations into nature are for some benefit, present or future, to the human race.

Night also brings supper, welcome to the hungry man, and hours of basking in the genial light and warmth of a wood fire, I on one side, and my bachelor host on the other. The smoke curls up from our silent lips whilst idle reveries possess our minds — fit termination of a day spent as we have spent it: for my host is also an idler, only a more accomplished one than I can ever hope to be.

We read little; my companion has never learnt letters, and I, less fortunate in that respect, having only been able to discover one book in the house, a Spanish ‘Libro de Misa’, beautifully printed in red and black letters, and bound in scarlet morocco, I take this book and read, until he, tired of listening to prayers, however beautiful, challenges me to a game of cards. For some time we could not hit on anything to play for, cigarettes being common property, but at length we thought of stories, the loser of most games during the evening to tell the other a story, as a mild soporific, after retiring. My host invariably won, which was not very strange, for he had been a professional gambler most of his days, and could deal himself the killing cards every time he shuffled. More than once I caught him in the very act, for he despised his antagonist and was careless, and lectured him on the immorality of cheating at cards, even when we were only playing for love, or for something next door to it. My strictures amused his Patagonian mind very much; he explained that what I called cheating was only a superior kind of skill acquired by much study and long practice; so it happened that every night I was compelled to draw on my memory or invention for stories to pay my losses.

Only at night one feels the winter here, but in September one knows that it has gone, though summer birds have not yet returned, nor the forest of dwarf mimosas burst into brilliant yellow bloom. Through all seasons the general aspect of nature remains the same, owing to the grey undeciduous foliage of the tree and shrub vegetation covering the country.

As spring advances each day dawns apparently more brilliantly beautiful than the preceding one, and after breakfast I roam forth, unencumbered with gun, in search of recreation.

Hard by my residence there is a hill called the “Parrots’ Cliff,” where the swift current of the river, altering its course, has eaten into the shore till a sheer smooth precipice over a hundred feet high has been formed. In ancient times the summit must have been the site of an Indian village, for I am continually picking up arrow-heads here; at present the face of the cliff is inhabited by a flock of screaming Patagonian parrots, that have their ancestral breeding-holes in the soft rock. It is also haunted by a flock of pigeons that have taken to a feral life, by one pair of little hawks (‘Falco sparverius’), and a colony of purple martins; only these last have not yet returned from their equatorial wanderings. Quiet reigns along the precipice when I reach it, for the vociferous parrots are away feeding. I lie down on my breast and peer over the edge; far, far beneath me a number of coots are peacefully disporting themselves in the water. I take a stone the bigness of my hand, and, poising it over the perilous rim, drop it upon them: down, down, down it drops; oh, simple, unsuspecting coots, beware! Splash it falls in the middle of the flock, sending up a column of water ten feet high, and then what a panic seizes on the birds! They tumble over as if shot, dive down incontinently, then reappearing, pause not to look about them, but spring away with all that marvellous flutter and splutter of which coots alone are capable; the wings beating rapidly, the long legs and lobed feet sprawling behind or striking the surface, away they scud, flying and tumbling over the water, spreading needless alarm through flocks of pin-tails, shrill-voiced widgeons, and stately black-necked swans, but never pausing until the opposite shore of the river is reached.

Pleased with the success of my experiment, I quit the precipice, to the great relief of the blue pigeons and of the little hawks; these last having viewed my proceedings with great jealousy, for they have already taken possession of a hole in the rock with a view to nidification.

Further on in my rambles I discover a nest of the large black leaf-cutting ant (‘Oecodoma’) found over the entire South American continent — and a leading member of that social tribe of insects of which it has been said that they rank intellectually next to ourselves. Certainly this ant, in its actions, simulates man’s intellect very closely, and not in the unpleasant manner of species having warrior castes and slaves. The leaf-cutter is exclusively agricultural in its habits, and constructs subterranean galleries, in which it stores fresh leaves in amazing quantities. The leaves are not eaten, but are cut up into small pieces and arranged in beds: these beds quickly become frosted over with a growth of minute fungus; this the ant industriously gathers and stores for use, and when the artificial bed is exhausted the withered leaves are carried out to make room for a layer of fresh ones. Thus the ‘Oecodoma’ literally grows its own food, and in this respect appears to have reached a stage beyond the most highly developed ant communities hitherto described. Another interesting fact is that, although the leaf-cutters have a peaceful disposition, never showing resentment except when gratuitously interfered with, they are just as courageous as any purely predatory species, only their angry emotions and warlike qualities always appear to be dominated by reason and the public good. Occasionally a community of leaf-cutters goes to war with a neighbouring colony of ants of some other species; in this, as in everything else, they seem to act with a definite purpose and great deliberation. Wars are infrequent but in all those I have witnessed — and I have known this species from childhood — the fate of the nation is decided in one great pitched battle. A spacious bare level spot of ground is chosen, where the contending armies meet, the fight raging for several hours at a stretch, to be renewed on several consecutive days. The combatants, equally sprinkled over a wide area, are seen engaged in single combat or in small groups, while others, non-fighters, run briskly about removing the dead and disabled warriors from the field of battle.

Perhaps some reader, who has made the acquaintance of nature in a London square, will smile at my wonderful ant story. Well, I have smiled too, and cried a little, perhaps, when, witnessing one of these “decisive battles of the world,” I have thought that the stable civilisation of the ‘Oecodoma’ ants will probably continue to flourish on the earth when our feverish dream of progress has ceased to vex it. Does that notion seem very fantastical? Might not such a thought have crossed the mind of some priestly Peruvian, idly watching the labours of a colony of leaf-cutters — a thousand years ago, let us say, before the canker had entered into his system to make it, long ere the Spaniard came, ripe for death? History preserves one brief fragment which goes to show that the Incas themselves were not altogether enslaved by the sublime traditions they taught the vulgar; that they also possessed, like philosophic moderns, some conception of that implacable power of nature which orders all things, and is above Viracocha and Pachacamac and the majestic gods that rode the whirlwind and tempest, and had their thrones on the everlasting peaks of the Andes. Five or six centuries have probably made little change in the economy of the ‘Oecodoma’, but the splendid civilisation of the children of the sun, albeit it bore on the face of it the impress of unchangeableness and endless duration, has vanished utterly from the earth.

To return from this digression. The nest I have discovered is more populous than London, and there are several roads diverging from it, each one four or five inches wide, and winding away hundreds of yards through the bushes. Never was any thoroughfare in a great city fuller of busy hurrying people than one of these roads. Sitting beside one, just where it wound over the soft yellow sand, I grew tired of watching the endless procession of little toilers, each one carrying a leaf in his jaws; and very soon there came into my ear a whisper from somebody:

Who finds some mischief still For idle hands to do.

It is always pleasant to have even a hypothetical somebody on whom to shuffle the responsibility of our evil actions. Warning my conscience that I am only going to try a scientific experiment, one not nearly so cruel as many in which the pious Spallanzani took great delight, I scoop a deep pit in the sand; and the ants, keeping on their way with their usual blind, stupid sagacity, tumble pell-mell over each other into it. On, on they come, in scores and in hundreds, like an endless flock of sheep jumping down a pit into which the crazy bell-wether has led the way: soon the hundreds have swelled to thousands, and the yawning gulf begins to fill with an inky mass of wriggling, biting, struggling ants. Every falling leaf-cutter carries down a few grains of treacherous sand with it, making the descent easier, and soon the pit is full to overflowing. In five minutes more they will all be out again at their accustomed labours, just a little sore about the legs, perhaps, where they have bitten one another, but no worse for their tumble, and all that will remain of the dreadful cavern will be a slight depression in the soil.

Satisfied with the result, I resume my solitary ramble, and by-and-by coming upon a fine Escandalosa bush I resolve to add incendiarism to my list of misdeeds. It might appear strange that a bush should be called Escandalosa, which means simply Scandalous, or, to prevent mistakes, which simply means Scandalous; but this is one of those quaint names the Argentine peasants have bestowed on some of their curious plants — dry love, the devil’s snuff-box, bashful weed, and many others. The Escandalosa is a wide-spreading shrub, three to five feet high, thickly clothed with prickly leaves, and covered all the year round with large pale-yellow immortal flowers; and the curious thing about the plant is that when touched with fire it blazes up like a pile of wood shavings, and is immediately consumed to ashes with a marvellous noise of hissing and crackling. And thus the bush I have found burns itself up on my placing a lighted match at its roots.

I enjoy the spectacle amazingly while it lasts, the brilliant tongues of white flame darting and leaping through the dark foliage making a very pretty show; but presently, contemplating the heap of white ashes at my feet where the green miracle, covered with its everlasting flowers, flourished a moment ago, I begin to feel heartily ashamed of myself. For how have I spent my day? I remember with remorse the practical joke perpetrated on the simple-minded coots, also the consternation caused to a whole colony of industrious ants; for the idler looks impatiently on the occupations of others, and is always glad of an opportunity of showing up the futility of their labours. But what motive had I in burning this flowering bush that neither toiled nor spun, this slow-growing plant, useless amongst plants as I amongst my fellow-men? Is it not the fact that something of the spirit of our simian progenitors survives in us still? Who that has noticed monkeys in captivity — their profound inconsequent gravity and insane delight in their own unreasonableness — has not envied them their immunity from cold criticism? That intense relief which all men, whether grave or gay, experience in escaping from conventional trammels into the solitude, what is it, after all, but the delight of going back to nature, to be for a time, what we are always pining to be, wild animals, unconfined monkeys, with nothing to restrain us in our gambols, and with only a keener sense of the ridiculous to distinguish us from other creatures?

But what, I suddenly think, if some person in search of roots and gums, or only curious to know how a field naturalist spends his days, gunless in the woods, should be secretly following and watching me all the time?

I spring up alarmed, and cast my eyes rapidly around me. Merciful heavens! what is that suspiciously human-looking object seventy yards away amongst the bushes? Ah, relief inexpressible, it is only the pretty hare-like ‘Dolichotis patagonica’ sitting up on his haunches, gazing at me with a meek wonder in his large round timid eyes.

The little birds are bolder and come in crowds, peering curiously from every twig, chirping and twittering with occasional explosions of shrill derisive laughter. I feel myself blushing all over my face; their jeering remarks become intolerable, and, owl-like, I fly from their persecutions to hide myself in a close thicket. There, with grey-green curtains about and around me, I lie on a floor of soft yellow sand, silent and motionless as my neighbour the little spider seated on his geometric web, till the waning light and the flute of the tinamou send me home to supper.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38