Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter IV

Aspects of the Valley

To go back for a brief space to those Golgothas that I frequently visited in the valley, not as collector nor archaeologist, and in no scientific spirit, but only, as it seemed, to indulge in mournful thoughts. If by looking into the empty cavity of one of those broken unburied skulls I had been able to see, as in a magic glass, an image of the world as it once existed in the living brain, what should I have seen? Such a question would not and could not, I imagine, be suggested by the sight of a bleached broken human skull in any other region; but in Patagonia it does not seem grotesque, nor merely idle, nor quite fanciful, like Buffon’s notion of a geometric figure impressed on the hive-bee’s brain. On the contrary, it strikes one there as natural; and the answer to it is easy, and only one answer is possible.

In the cavity, extending from side to side, there would have appeared a band of colour; its margins grey, growing fainter and bluer outwardly, and finally fading into nothing; between the grey edges the band would be green; and along this green middle band, not always keeping to the centre, there would appear a sinuous shiny line, like a serpent with glittering skin lying at rest on the grass. For the river must have been to the aboriginal inhabitants of the valley the one great central unforgettable fact in nature and man’s life. If as nomads or colonists from some cis — or transAndean country they had originally brought hither traditions, and some supernatural system that took its form and colour from a different nature, these had been modified, if not wholly dissolved and washed away in that swift eternal green current, by the side of which they continued to dwell from generation to generation, forgetting all ancient things. The shining stream was always in sight, and when, turning their backs on it, they climbed out of the valley, they saw only grey desolation — a desert where life was impossible to man — fading into the blue haze of the horizon; and there was nothing beyond it. On that grey strip, on the borders of the unknown beyond, they could search for tortoises, and hunt a few wild animals, and gather a few wild fruits, and hard woods and spines for weapons; and then return to the river, as children go back to their mother. All things were reflected in its waters, the infinite blue sky, the clouds and heavenly bodies; the trees and tall herbage on its banks, and their dark faces; and just as they were mirrored in it, so its current was mirrored in their minds. The old man, grown blind with age, from constantly seeing its image so bright and persistent, would be unconscious of his blindness. It was thus more to him than all other objects and forces in nature; the Inca might worship sun and lightning and rainbow; to the inhabitant of the valley the river was more than these, the most powerful thing in nature, the most beneficent, and his chief god.

I do not know, nor can anyone know, whether the former dwellers in the valley left any descendants, any survivors of that age that left some traces of a brightening intellect on its stone work. Probably not; the few Indians now inhabiting the valley are most probably modern colonists of another family or nation; yet it did not surprise me to hear that some of these half-tame, half-christianised savages had, not long before my visit, sacrificed a white bull to the river, slaying it on the bank and casting its warm, bleeding body into the current.

Even the European colonists have not been unaffected psychologically by the peculiar conditions they live in, and by the river, on which they are dependent. When first I became cognisant of this feeling, which was very soon, I was disposed to laugh a little at the very large place THE RIVER occupied in all men’s minds; but after a few months of life on its banks it was hardly less to me than to others, and I experienced a kind of shame when I recalled my former want of reverence, as if I had made a jest of something sacred. Nor to this day can I think of the Patagonian river merely as one of the rivers I know. Other streams, by comparison, seem vulgar, with no higher purpose than to water man and beast, and to serve, like canals, as a means of transport.

One day, to the house where I was staying near the town there came a native lady on a visit, bringing with her six bright blue-eyed children. As we, the elders, sat in the living-room, sipping mate and talking, one of the youngsters, an intelligent-looking boy of nine, came in from play, and getting him by me I amused him for a while with some yarns and with talk about beasts and birds. He asked me where I lived. My home, I said, was in the Buenos Ayrean pampas, far north of Patagonia.

“Is it near the river,” he asked, “right on the bank, like this house?”

I explained that it was on a great, grassy, level plain, that there was no river there, and that when I went out on horseback I did not have to ride up and down a valley, but galloped away in any direction — north, south, east, or west. He listened with a twinkle in his eyes, then with a merry laugh ran out again to join the others at their game. It was as if I had told him that I lived up in a tree that grew to the clouds, or under the sea, or some such impossible thing; it was nothing but a joke to him. His mother, sitting near, had been listening to us, and when the boy laughed and ran out, I remarked to her that to a child born and living always in that valley, shut in by the thorny, waterless uplands, it was, perhaps, inconceivable that in other places people could exist out of a valley and away from a river. She looked at me with a puzzled expression in her eyes, as if trying to see something mentally which her eyes had never seen — trying, in fact, to create something out of nothing. She agreed with me in some hesitating words, and I felt that I had put my foot in it; for only then I recalled the fact that she also had been born in the valley — the great-grand-daughter of one of the original founders of the colony — and was probably as incapable as the child of imagining any other conditions than those she had always been accustomed to.

It struck me that the children here have a very healthy, happy life, especially those whose homes are in the narrow parts of the valley, who are able to ramble every day into the thorny uplands in search of birds’ eggs and other pretty things, and the wild flavours and little adventures that count for so much with the very young. In birds’ eggs, the greatest prizes are those of the partridge-like tinamous, the beautifully mottled and crested martineta (‘Calodromas elegans’), that lays a dozen eggs as large as those of a fowl, with deep-green polished shells; and the smaller Nothura darwini, whose eggs vary in tint from wine-purple to a reddish-purple or liver colour. In summer and autumn fruits and sweet gums are not scarce. One grey-leafed herbaceous shrub is much sought after for its sap, that oozes from the stem and hardens in small globes and lumps that look and taste like white sugar. There is a small disc-shaped cactus, growing close to the surface, and well defended with sharp spines, which bears a pinkish-yellow fruit with a pleasant taste. There is also a large cactus, four or five feet high, so dark-green as to appear almost black among the pale-grey bushes. It bears a splendid crimson flower, and a crimson fruit that is insipid and not considered worth eating; but being of so beautiful a colour, to see it is sufficient pleasure. The plant is not very common, and one does not see too many of the fruits even in a long day’s ramble:

Like stones of worth, they thinly placèd are.

The chanar bears a fruit like a cherry in size, and, like a cherry, with a stone inside; it has a white pulp and a golden skin; the flavour is peculiar and delicious, and seemed to be greatly appreciated by the birds, so that the children get little. Another wild fruit is that of the ‘piquellin’ (‘Condalia spinosa’), the dark-leafed bush which was mentioned in the first chapter. Its oval-shaped berries are less than currants in size, but are in such profusion that the broad tops of the bushes become masses of deep colour in autumn. There are two varieties, one crimson, the other purple-black, like sloes and blackberries. They have a strong but not unpleasant flavour, and the children are so fond of them that, like the babes in the wood, their little lips are all bestained and red with the beautiful juice.

The magnetism of the river (to go back to that subject) is probably intensified by the prevailing monotonous greys, greens, and browns of nature on either side of it. It has the powerful effect of brightness, which fascinates us, as it does the moth, and the eye is drawn to it as to a path of shining silver — that is, of silver in some conditions of the atmosphere, and of polished steel in others. At ordinary times there is no other brightness in nature to draw the sight away and divide the attention. Only twice in the year, for a brief season in spring and again in autumn, there is anything like large masses of bright colour in the vegetation to delight the eyes. The commonest of the grey-foliaged plants that grow on the high grounds along the borders of the valley is the chanar (‘Gurliaca decorticans’), a tree in form, but scarcely more than a bush in size. In late October it bears a profusion of flowers in clusters, in shape, size, and brilliant yellow colour resembling the flower of the broom. At this season the uplands along the valley have a strangely gay appearance. Again, there is yellow in the autumn — the deeper yellow of xanthophyll — when the leaves of the red willows growing on the banks of the river change their colour before falling. This willow (‘Salix humboldtiana’) is the only large wild tree in the country; but whether it grew here prior to the advent of the Spanish or not, I do not know. But its existence is now doomed as a large tree of a century’s majestic growth, forming a suitable perch and look-out for the harpy and grey eagles, common in the valley, and the still more common vultures and ‘Polybori’, and of the high-roosting, noble black-faced ibis; a home and house, too, of the Magellanic eagle-owl and the spotted wild cat (‘Felis geoffroyi’); and where even the puma could lie at ease on a horizontal branch thirty or forty feet above the earth. Being of soft wood, it can be cut down very easily; and when felled and lashed in rafts on the river, it is floated down-stream to supply the inhabitants with a cheap wood for fuel, building, and other purposes.

At the highest point I reached in my rambles along the valley, about a hundred and twenty miles from the coast, there was a very extensive grove or wood of this willow, many of the trees very large, and some dead from age. I visited this spot with an English friend, who resided some twenty miles lower down, and spent a day and a half wading about waist-deep through the tall, coarse grasses and rushes under the gaunt, leafless trees, for the season was midwinter. The weather was the worst I had experienced in the country, being piercingly cold, with a violent wind and frequent storms of rain and sleet. The rough, wet boles of the trees rose up tall and straight like black pillars from the rank herbage beneath, and on the higher branches innumerable black vultures (‘Cathartes atratus’) were perched, waiting all the dreary day long for fair weather to fly abroad in search of food.

On the ground this vulture does not appear to advantage, especially when bobbing and jumping about, performing the “buzzard lope,” when quarrelling with his fellows over a carcase: but when perched aloft, his small naked rugous head and neck and horny curved beak seen well defined above the broad black surface of the folded wing, he does not show badly. As I had no wish to make a bag of vultures and saw nothing else, I shot nothing.

A little past noon on the second day we saddled our horses and started on our homeward ride; and although the wind still blew a gale, lashing the river into a long line of foam on the opposite shore, and bringing storms of rain and sleet at intervals, this proved a very delightful ride, one that shines in memory above all other rides I have taken. We went at a swift gallop along the north bank, and never had grey Patagonia looked more soberly and sadly grey than on this afternoon. The soil, except in places where the winter grass had spread over it, had taken a darker brown colour from the rain it had imbibed, and the bosky uplands a deeper grey than ever, while the whole vast sky was stormy and dark. But after a time the westering sun began to shine through the rifts behind us, while before us on the wild flying clouds appeared a rainbow with hues so vivid that we shouted aloud with joy at the sight of such loveliness. For nearly an hour we rode with this vision of glory always before us; grove after grove of leafless black-barked willow-trees on our right hand, and grey thorny hill after hill on our left, did we pass in our swift ride, while great flocks of upland geese continually rose up before us, with shrill whistlings mingled with solemn deep droning cries; and the arch of watery fire still lived, now fading as the flying wrack grew thinner and thinner, then, just when it seemed about to vanish, brightening once more to a new and more wonderful splendour, its arch ever widening to greater proportions as the sun sunk lower in the sky.

I do not suppose that the colours were really more vivid than in numberless other rainbows I have seen; it was, I think, the universal greyness of earth and heaven in that grey winter season, in a region where colour is so sparsely used by Nature, that made it seem so supremely beautiful, so that the sight of it affected us like wine.

The eyes, says Bacon, are ever most pleased with a lively embroidery on a sad and sombre ground. This was taught to us by the green and violet arch on the slaty-grey vapour. But Nature is too wise

To blunt the fine point of seldom pleasure.

The day of supernatural splendour and glory comes only after many days that are only natural, and of a neutral colour. It is watched and waited for, and when it comes is like a day of some great festival and rejoicing — the day when peace was made, when our love was returned, when a child was born to us. Such sights are like certain sounds, that not only delight us with their pure and beautiful quality, but wake in us feelings that we cannot fathom nor analyse. They are familiar, yet stranger than the strangest things, with a beauty that is not of the earth, as if a loved friend, long dead, had unexpectedly looked back to us from heaven, transfigured. It strikes me as strange that, so far as we know, the Incas were the only worshippers of the rainbow.

One evening in the autumn of the year, near the town, I was witness of an extraordinary and very magnificent sunset effect. The sky was clear except for a few masses of cloud low down in the west; and these, some time after the sun had disappeared, assumed more vivid and glowing colours, while the pale yellow sky beyond became more luminous and flame-like. All at once, as I stood not far from the bank, looking westward across the river, the water changed from green to an intense crimson hue, this extending on both hands as far as I could see. The tide was running out, and in the middle of the river, where the surface was roughened into waves by the current, it quivered and sparkled like crimson flame, while near the opposite shore, where rows of tall Lombardy poplars threw their shadow on the surface, it was violet-coloured. This appearance lasted for five or six minutes, then the crimson colour grew darker by degrees until it disappeared. I have frequently read and heard of such a phenomenon, and many persons have assured me that they have witnessed it “with their own eyes.” But what they have witnessed one does not know. I have often seen the surface of water, of the ocean, or a lake, or river, flushed with a rosy colour at sunset; but to see, some time after sunset, the waters of a river changed to blood and crimson fire, this appearance lasting until the twilight drew on, and the earth and trees looked black by contrast, has been my lot once only on this occasion; and I imagine that if any river on the globe was known to take such an appearance frequently, it would become as celebrated, and draw pilgrims as far to see it, as Chimborazo and the Falls of Niagara.

Between the town and the sea, a distance of about twenty miles, the valley is mostly on the south side of the river; on the north side the current comes very near, and in many places washes the upland. I visited the sea by both ways, and rode for some distance along the coast on both sides of the river. North of the river the beach was shingle and sand, backed by low sand dunes extending away into infinitude; but on the south side, outside the valley, a sheer stupendous precipice faced the ocean. A slight adventure I had with a condor, the only bird of that species I met with in Patagonia, will give some idea of the height of this sheer wall of rock. I was riding with a friend along the cliff when the majestic bird appeared, and swooping downwards hovered at a height of forty feet above our heads. My companion raised his gun and fired, and we heard the shot rattle loudly on the stiff quills of the broad motionless wings. There is no doubt that some of the shot entered its flesh, as it quickly swept down over the edge of the cliff and disappeared from our sight. We got off our horses, and crawling to the edge of the dreadful cliff looked down, but could see nothing of the bird. Remounting we rode on for a little over a mile, until coming to the end of the cliff we went down under it and galloped back over the narrow strip of beach which appears at low tide. Arrived at the spot where the bird had been lost we caught sight of it once more, perched at the mouth of a small cavity in the face of the rocky wall near the summit, and looking at that height no bigger than a buzzard. He was far beyond the reach of shot, and safe, and if not fatally wounded, may soar above that desolate coast, and fight with vultures and grey eagles over the carcases of stranded fishes and seals for half a century to come.

Close to the mouth of the river there is a low flat island, about half a mile in length, covered in most part by a dense growth of coarse grass and rushes. It is inhabited by a herd of swine; and although these animals do not increase, they have been able to maintain their existence for a long period without diminishing in number, in spite of the occasional great tides that flood the whole island, and of multitudes of hungry eagles and caranchos always on the look-out for stray sucklings. Many years ago, while some gauchos were driving a troop of half-wild cows near the shore on the neighbouring mainland, a heifer took to the water and succeeded in swimming to the island, where she was lost to her owner. About a year later this animal was seen by a man who had gone to the island to cut rushes for thatching purposes. The cow and the pigs, to the number of about twenty-five or twenty-six, were lying fast asleep in a small grassy hollow where he found them, the cow stretched out at full length on the ground, and the pigs grouped or rather heaped around her; for they were all apparently ambitious to rest with their heads pillowed on her, so that she was almost concealed under them. Presently one of the drove, more wakeful than his fellows, became aware of his presence and gave the alarm, whereupon they started up like one animal and vanished into a rush-bed. The cow, thus doomed to live “alone, yet not alone,” was subsequently seen on several occasions by the rush-cutters, always with her fierce followers grouped round her like a bodyguard. This continued for some years, and the fame of the cow that had become the leader and queen of the wild island pigs was spread abroad in the valley; then a human being, who was not a “sentimentalist,” betook himself to her little kingdom with a musket loaded with ball, and succeeded in finding and shooting her.

In spite of what we have been taught, it is sometimes borne in on us that man is a little lower than the brutes.

After hearing this incident one does not at once sit down with a good appetite to roast beef or swine’s flesh.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55