Wanderings in Brazil (December 1881)

Number 16 in a series. Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his many travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. All of his trips are described in my biography of Morris, A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon, but in that text I only quote fragments of some of his World columns. Morris’s own writing is wonderfully evocative, and conveys his remarkable appreciation of natural beauty–but also his cultural chauvinism (which, considering his era, was mild by comparison to other travel narratives). The following column was printed on February 28, 1882, while on his sixth journey. On this trip Morris seemed focused on gathering as many orchids as he could, and one of his plant hunting expeditions is described in detail in this column.

Lake of Manacapuru, Brazil, December 15 [1881].–The inverno, or rainy season, is now upon us, the most disagreeable time of the year. Rubber gatherers are now returning from the far interior to the little villages. Turtle hunting and pirarucu fishing are practically at an end, for the waters are rising rapidly and will soon cover all sand-bars and flood the low forests, and the inhabitants will spend the next five months In the settlements, keeping the “Saints’ days,” here called festas, but, like the fandangos of the Peruvians, nothing more than drunken orgies.

At this season of the year the Indians will not accompany any one on any long journey, and during the last month I have “paddled my own canoe” in more ways than one. Since writing my last letter to THE WORLD I have worked my way slowly up the large lake of Manacapuru, and now have swung my hammock in an Indian hut only a day’s journey from the houses of the Muras [Mura]Indians. I find it somewhat difficult to write my notes, for this house has more than its share of hungry children and barking dogs, each striving with the other in making noise. The mother sits quietly on the floor smoking her pipe, and pays no attention to her numerous progeny.

Soon we hear the measured stroke of a paddle, and Manuel, the owner of the hut, appears with a large basket strapped to his back full of the rich purple fruit of the Bacaba palm (Oenocarpus bacaba). The hungry children are now delighted by the expectation of having a feast of Bacaba wine. While the woman is preparing the Bacaba, Manuel tells me of his day in the forest and shows me the pseudo bulb and leaf of an orchid that I have not seen before, and after a great deal of talking and several small presents he at last consents to show me where he obtained the plant.

Meanwhile an old earthen pan filled with water and Bacaba fruit has been put on the fire, and is watched carefully by the army of children. Just as soon as the water becomes slightly warm the pan is removed from the fire and the fruit, which is about the size of a grape, is rubbed together, thus removing the thin pulp; cold water is added to the juice, which is lighter in color but just as rich and pleasant to the taste as the far-famed Assai of Para. Large bowls filled with the Bacaba are handed around and the wine is drunk mixed with faranhia [farina], the coarse bread of the country. This noble palm is found growing in great quantities on the highlands which border the lake, often attaining the height of eighty feet. Below the dark crown of leaves hangs the purple fruit, which is not only made into drink but also yields a rich clear oil.

After coffee in the morning,Manuel and I got ready for our expedition. We were soon dressed in marching order, not loaded down with heavy rubber coat and high-top boots, but in light Massachusetts drilling, with short shirt, open in front and worn outside the trousers; a gun, field-glasses for spying out orchids, and a long wood knife completed my equipment. Manuel carried the provisions. Leaving the house we took our boat and paddled along the high rolling bank of the lake. No canoes were in sight, only a few flocks of noisy gulls which wheeled above our heads and the white herons scattered along the muddy shore. Paddling for several hours, we left our canoe and drawing our knives cut our way into the forest, where we soon found an old path leading to the westward. After a half hour’s tramp we reached the top of one of the hills, some distance from the lake.

Here we had a far-reaching view of the lake and its large islands. While smoking our cigarettes Manuel told me no one knew the upper part of the lake. Canoes ascend it some twenty days’ journey to the rubber and Brazil-nut forests, which, if all reports be true, are among the richest In Brazil. Formerly all the land lying between the River Negro and the lake of Manucapuru was inhabited by the Mura Indians, but to-day I know of but four malocas, or houses, of this tribe on the lake. Manacapunu has many outlets into the Amazon and is also connected by numerous channels with a large lake known as Annaina, which lies far to the westward. During the high waters there are more than a hundred square miles of flooded forest, but during the dry season all the islands and sandy beaches are the camping ground of Indians engaged in pirarucu fishing.

Again we marched on, now using our knives and often wading some clear cold streams whose banks were covered with curious ferns or beautiful variegated caladiums. A damp, earthy smell seems to prevail in these forests during the rainy season–possibly the odor of decaying vegetation; but often, as we slowly cut our way we would perceive a faint breeze laden with a strange perfume. While plodding along Manuel suddenly paused and whispered “Macaco!” (monkey). Creeping through the underbrush for a very short distance I saw in a tall tree four large monkeys fast asleep. They were guaribas (mycetes), or howling monkeys, and were sitting all drawn up as it were, with their heads between their legs, some ninety feet above our heads, dreaming of their last midnight concert. Loading my gun with a heavy ball I took careful aim at the nearest monkey. Accompanying the report of the gun was the noise of cracking branches as the monkeys sprang into the adjoining trees, but one, the first I ever shot, came tumbling to the ground.

The guariba monkeys are widely scattered through the whole valley. There are two kinds, the red inhabiting the north and the black the south bank of the Amazon. These howlers go in gangs of from ten to twenty, and on dark, rainy days and at night make the forest ring with their howling. An old male generally begins the concert, the rest joining in at intervals. This monkey is rarely seen in captivity. I brought one from the River Napo and for nearly two months was much interested in watching its habits. It slept nearly all day, but it was wide awake at night, when it would take its food. When making the low guttural noise it would always close its eyes as if delighted with its own music. Orton says that they have under the jaw a bony goiter—an expansion of the os hyoideum–by which they produce their loud rolling noise. I have often seen this bony cup-like goiter in the Indian houses, where it is believed that water drunk from it will cure all cases of cold or whooping-cough. I do not fancy monkey meat–that is guariba—it is too rank and coarse.

Tired with our day’s tramp we slept soundly until morning, and after a bath in the cold stream we again struck into the damp forests, Manuel carrying the rest of the monkey’s bones and picking them clean as he marched along. By 9 o’clock we entered a forest, the trees of which were low, wide and spreading. Great bromelias and tillandsians which had fallen from the trees were growing in the ground, some with spikes two feet long bearing curious red flowers. Now for the first time did I see orchids. Many epidendrums covered the trees, while growing on the decaying stumps were several plants of cynocohes, to me the most curious of all orchids. I passed these by, for I was looking for the plant that Manuel had shown me some days before. Deeper and deeper we entered the damp, silent forest, wet to the skin and tormented by ants; for in cutting our way we frequently brought a nest down upon us. In the afternoon we arrived at the banks of a large creek, where Manuel pointed out the plants. By the aid of my glass I saw that they were Cattleyas, but of what species I could not determine. The leaves were broad and of a darker green than those of C. el dorado.

During the rest of the afternoon I gathered many plants. Towards evening Manual wandered off into the forest after Bacaba, and on his return brought me a magnificent plant in bloom. Without a doubt I have several hundred plants of Cattleya warneri. The flowers are pure white, lip large, also white, and the throat of a deep yellow. On our return to the lake one of the plants bloomed, and I was delighted to find it a variety of C. warneri, for in the white lip was a streak of purple. I left nearly all my plants in the forest, for, by next month the stream will admit a large canoe, so then I can bring my orchids down to the lake and not have to carry them through the tangled forest. On the following day we began our return march and reached the Indian hut with hardly a rag on us, but satisfied with the result of our days spent tn the forest. –Ernest Morris

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