Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter III

Valley of the Black River

Still a lingerer in the hospitable shade of the Mission House, my chief pleasure during the early days of February was in observing the autumnal muster of the purple swallows — ‘Progne furcata’ — a species which was abundant at this point, breeding in the cliffs overhanging the river; also, like so many other swallows in all places, under the eaves of houses. It is a large, beautiful bird, its whole upper plumage of a rich, glossy, deep purple hue, its under surface black. No such large swallows as this, with other members of its genus, are known in the Old World; and a visitor from Europe would probably, on first seeing one of these birds, mistake it for a swift; but it has not got the narrow, scythe-shaped wings of the swift, nor does it rush through the air in the swift’s mad way; on the contrary, its flight is much calmer, with fewer quick doublings, than that of other swallows. It also differs from most members of its family in possessing a set song of several modulated notes, which are occasionally warbled in a leisurely manner as the bird soars high in the air: as a melodist it should rank high among the hirundines.

The trees of the Mission House proved very attractive to these birds; the tall Lombardy poplars were specially favoured, which seems strange, for in a high wind (and it was very windy just then) the slim unresting tree forms as bad a perching-place as a bird could well settle on. Nevertheless, to the poplars they would come when the wind was most violent; first hovering or wheeling about in an immense flock, then, as occasion offered, dropping down, a few at a time, to cling, like roosting locusts, to the thin vertical branches, clustering thicker and thicker until the high trees looked black with them; then a mightier gust would smite and sway the tall tops down, and the swallows, blown from their insecure perch, would rise in a purple cloud to scatter chattering all over the windy heavens, only to return and congregate, hovering and clinging as before.

Lying on the grass, close to the river bank, I would watch them by the hour, noting their unrest and indecision, the strangeness and wild spirit that made the wind and vexed poplars congenial to them; for something new and strange had come to trouble them — the subtle breath

That in a powerful language, felt, not heard, Instructs the fowls of heaven.

But as to the character of that breath I vainly questioned Nature — she being the only woman who can keep a secret, even from a lover.

Rain came at last, and fell continuously during an entire night. Next morning (February 14th) when I went out and looked up at the sky, covered with grey hurrying clouds, I saw a flock of forty or fifty large swallows speeding north; and after these I saw no more; for on that first wet morning, before I had risen, the purple cloud had forsaken the valley.

I missed them greatly, and wished that they had delayed their going, since it was easier and more hopeful to ponder on the mystery of their instinct when they were with me. That break in the tenor of their lives; the enforced change of habits; the conflict between two opposite emotions — the ties of place that held them back, seen and guessed in their actions, and the voice that called them away, speaking ever more imperatively, which so wrought in them that at moments they were beside themselves — noting all this, hearing and seeing it at all hours of the day, I seemed to be nearer to the discovery of some hidden truth than when they were no longer in sight. But now they were gone, and with their departure had vanished my last excuse for resting longer inactive — at that spot, at all events.

I started afresh on my up-river journey, and paid a long visit to an English estancia about sixty miles from the town. I spent much of my time there in solitary rambles, tasting once more of the “sweet and bitter cup of wild Nature.” Her colour was grey, her mood pensive as winter deepened, and there was nothing in the cup to inflame the fancy. But it was tonic. My rides were often to the hills, or terraced uplands, outside of the level valley; but my description of that grey desolate solitude and its effects on me must be reserved for a later chapter, when I shall have dropped once for all this thread of narrative, slight and loosely held as it is. In the present chapter and the succeeding one I shall treat of the aspects of nature in the valley itself. For I did not remain too long at any one point, but during the autumn, winter, and spring months I resided at various points, and visited the mouth of the river and adjacent plains on both sides, then went up river again to a distance of something over a hundred miles.

The valley, in this space, does not vary much in appearance; it may be described as the level bed of an ancient river, five or six miles wide, cut out in the plateau, with the existing river — a swift, deep stream, two hundred to three hundred yards broad — serpentining along its middle. But it does not keep to the middle; in its windings it approaches now the north, now the south, plateau, and at some points touches the extreme limits of the valley, and even cuts into the bank-like front of the high land, which forms a sheer cliff above the current, in some spots a hundred feet high.

The river was certainly miscalled Cusar-leofu, or Black River, by the aborigines, unless the epithet referred only to its swiftness and dangerous character; for it is not black at all in appearance, like its Amazonian namesake. The water, which flows from the Andes across a continent of stone and gravel, is wonderfully pure, in colour a clear sea-green. So green does it look to the eye in some lights that when dipped up in a glass vessel one marvels to see it changed, no longer green, but crystal as dew- or rain-drop. Doubtless man is naturally scientific, and finds out why things are not what they seem, and gets to the bottom of all mysteries; but his older, deeper, primitive, still persistent nature is non-scientific and mythical, and, in spite of reason, he wonders at the change; — it is a miracle, a manifestation of the intelligent life and power that is in all things.

The river has its turbid days, although few and far between. One morning, on going down to the water, I was astonished to find it no longer the lovely hue of the previous evening, but dull red — red with the red earth that some swollen tributary hundreds of miles to the west had poured into its current. This change lasts only a day or two, after which the river runs green and pure again.

The valley at the end of a long hot windy summer had an excessively dry and barren appearance. The country, I was told, had suffered from scarcity of rain for three years: at some points even the roots of the dry dead grass had been blown away, and when the wind was strong a cloud of yellow dust hung all day over the valley. In such places sheep were dying of starvation: cattle and horses fared better, as they went out into the uplands to browse on the bushes. The valley soil is thin, being principally sand and gravel, with a slight admixture of vegetable mould; and its original vegetation was made up of coarse perennial grasses, herbaceous shrubs and rushes: the domestic cattle introduced by the white settlers destroyed these slow-growing grasses and plants, and, as has happened in most temperate regions of the globe colonised by Europeans, the sweet, quick-growing, short-lived grasses and clovers of the Old World sprang up and occupied the soil. Here, however, owing to its poverty, the excessive dryness of the climate, and the violence of the winds that prevail in summer, the new imported vegetation has proved but a sorry substitute for the old and vanished. It does not grow large enough to retain the scanty moisture, it is too short-lived, and the frail quickly-perishing rootlets do not bind the earth together, like the tough fibrous blanket formed by the old grasses. The heat burns it to dust and ashes, the wind blows it away, blade and root, and the surface soil with it, in many places disclosing the yellow underlying sand with all that was buried in it of old. For the result of this stripping of the surface has been that the sites of numberless villages of the former inhabitants of the valley have been brought to light. I have visited a dozen such village sites in the course of one hour’s walk, so numerous were they. Where the village had been a populous one, or inhabited for a long period, the ground was a perfect bed of chipped stones, and among these fragments were found arrow-heads, flint knives and scrapers, mortars and pestles, large round stones with a groove in the middle, pieces of hard polished stone used as anvils, perforated shells, fragments of pottery, and bones of animals. My host remarked one day that the valley that year had produced nothing but a plentiful crop of arrow-heads. The anthropologist could not have wished for a more favourable year or for a better crop. I collected a large number of these objects; and some three or four hundred arrow-heads which I picked up are at present, I believe, in the famous Pitt–Rivers collection. But I was over-careful. The finest of my treasures, the most curious and beautiful objects I could select, packed apart for greater safety, were unfortunately lost in transit — a severe blow, which hurt me more than the wound I had received on the knee.

At some of the villages I examined, within a few yards of the ground where the huts had stood, I found deposits of bones of animals that had been used as food. These were of the rhea, huanaco, deer, peccary, ‘Dolichotis’ or Patagonian hare, armadillo, coypú, vizcacha, with others of smaller mammals and birds. Most numerous among them were the bones of the small cavy (‘Cavia australis’), a form of the guinea-pig; and of the tuco-tuco (‘Ctenomys magellanica’), a small rodent with the habits of the mole.

A most interesting fact was that the arrow-heads I picked up in different villages were of two widely different kinds — the large and rudely fashioned, resembling the Palaeolithic arrow-heads of Europe, and the highly-finished, or Neolithic, arrow-heads of various forms and sizes, but in most specimens an inch and a half to two inches long. Here there were the remains of the two great periods of the Stone Age, the last of which continued down till the discovery and colonisation of the country by

Europeans. The weapons and other objects of the latter period were the most abundant, and occurred in the valley: the ruder more ancient weapons were found on the hill-sides, in places where the river cuts into the plateau. The site where I picked up the largest number had been buried to a depth of seven or eight feet; only where the water after heavy rains had washed great masses of sand and gravel away, the arrow-heads, with other weapons and implements, had been exposed. These deeply-buried settlements were doubtless very ancient.

Coming back to the more modern work, I was delighted to find traces of a something like division of labour in different villages; of the individuality of the worker, and a distinct artistic or aesthetic taste. I was led to this conclusion by the discovery of a village site where no large round stones, knives and scrapers were found, and no large arrow-heads of the usual type. The only arrow-heads at this spot were about half an inch long, and were probably used only to shoot small birds and mammals. Not only were they minute but most exquisitely finished, with a fine serration, and, without an exception, made of some beautiful stone — crystal, agate, and green, yellow, and horn-coloured flint. It was impossible to take half-a-dozen of these gems of colour and workmanship in the hand and not be impressed at once with the idea that beauty had been as much an aim to the worker as utility. Along with these fine arrow-heads I found nothing except one small well-pointed dagger of red stone, its handle a cross, about four inches long, and as slender and almost as well rounded as an ordinary lead pencil.

When on this quest I sometimes attempted to picture to myself something of the outer and inner life of the long-vanished inhabitants. The red men of today may be of the same race and blood, the lineal descendants of the workers in stone in Patagonia; but they are without doubt so changed, and have lost so much, that their progenitors would not know them, nor acknowledge them as relations. Here, as in North America, contact with a superior race has debased them and ensured their destruction. Some of their wild blood will continue to flow in the veins of those who have taken their place; but as a race they will be blotted out from earth, as utterly extinct in a few decades as the mound-makers of the Mississippi valley, and the races that built the forest-grown cities of Yucutan and Central America. The men of the past in the Patagonian valley were alone with nature, makers of their own weapons and self-sustaining, untouched by any outside influence, and with no knowledge of any world beyond their valley and the adjacent uninhabited uplands. And yet, judging even from that dim partial glimpse I had had of their vanished life, in the weapons and fragments I had picked up, it seemed evident that the mind was not wholly dormant in them, and that they were slowly progressing to a higher condition.

Beyond that fact I could not go: all efforts to know more, or to imagine more, ended in failure, as all such efforts must end. On another occasion, as I propose to show in a later chapter, the wished vision of the past came unsought and unexpectedly to me, and for a while I saw nature as the savage sees it, and as he saw it in that stone age I pondered over, only without the supernaturalism that has so large a place in his mind. By taking thought I am convinced that we can make no progress in this direction, simply because we cannot voluntarily escape from our own personality, our environment, our outlook on nature.

Not only were my efforts idle, but merely to think on the subject sometimes had the effect of bringing a shadow, a something of melancholy, over my mind, the temper which is fatal to investigation, causing “all things to droop and languish.” In such a mood I would make my way to one of the half-a-dozen ancient burial-places existing in the neighbourhood of the house I was staying at. As a preference I would go to the largest and most populous, where half an acre of earth was strewn thick with crumbling skeletons. Here by searching closely a few arrow-heads and ornaments, that had been interred with the dead, could also be found. And here I would sit and walk about on the hot barren yellow sand — the faithless sand to which the bitter secret had so long ago been vainly entrusted; careful in walking not to touch an exposed skull with my foot, although the hoof of the next wild thing that passed would shatter it to pieces like a vessel of fragile glass. The polished intensely white surfaces of such skulls as had been longest exposed to the sun reflected the noonday light so powerfully that it almost pained the eyes to look at them. In places where they were thickly crowded together, I would stop to take them up and examine them, one by one, only to put them carefully down again; and sometimes, holding one in my hand, I would pour out the yellow sand that filled its cavity; and watching the shining stream as it fell, only the vainest of vain thoughts and conjectures were mine.

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