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The Voyage Of The Beagle (1839)

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Author Topic: The Voyage Of The Beagle (1839)  (Read 1916 times)
Deanna Witmer
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« Reply #30 on: February 08, 2009, 11:46:49 pm »

The Gauchos think that the Indians consider the tree as the god itself, but it seems for more probable that they regard it as the altar. The only cause which I can imagine for this choice, is its being a landmark in a dangerous passage. The Sierra de la Ventana is visible at an immense distance; and a Gaucho told me that he was once riding with an Indian a few miles to the north of the Rio Colorado when the Indian commenced making the same loud noise which is usual at the first sight of the distant tree, putting his hand to his head, and then pointing in the direction of the Sierra. Upon being asked the reason of this, the Indian said in broken Spanish, "First see the Sierra." About two leagues beyond this curious tree we halted for the night: at this instant an unfortunate cow was spied by the lynx-eyed Gauchos, who set off in full chase, and in a few minutes dragged her in with their lazos, and slaughtered her. We here had the four necessaries of life "en el campo," -- pasture for the horses, water (only a muddy puddle), meat and firewood. The Gauchos were in high spirits at finding all these luxuries; and we soon set to work at the poor cow. This was the first night which I passed under the open sky, with the gear of the recado for my bed. There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life -- to be able at any moment to pull up your horse, and say, "Here we will pass the night." The death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gipsy-group of Gauchos making their beds round the fire, have left in my mind a strongly-marked picture of this first night, which will never be forgotten.

The next day the country continued similar to that above described. It is inhabited by few birds or animals of any kind. Occasionally a deer, or a Guanaco (wild Llama) may be seen; but the Agouti (Cavia Patagonica) is the commonest quadruped. This animal here represents our hares. It differs, however, from that genus in many essential respects; for instance, it has only three toes behind. It is also nearly twice the size, weighing from twenty to twenty-five pounds. The Agouti is a true friend of the desert; it is a common feature of the landscape to see two or three hopping quickly one after the other in a straight line across these wild plains. They are found as far north as the Sierra Tapalguen (lat. 37° 30'), where the plain rather suddenly becomes greener and more humid; and their southern limit is between Port Desire and St. Julian, where there is no change in the nature of the country. It is a singular fact, that although the Agouti is not now found as far south as Port St. Julian, yet that Captain Wood, in his voyage in 1670, talks of them as being numerous there. What cause can have altered, in a wide, uninhabited, and rarely-visited country, the range of an animal like this? It appears also, from the number shot by Captain Wood in one day at Port Desire, that they must have been considerably more abundant there formerly than at present. Where the Bizcacha lives and makes its burrows, the Agouti uses them; but where, as at Bahia Blanca, the Bizcacha is not found, the Agouti burrows for itself. The same thing occurs with the little owl of the Pampas (Athene cunicularia), which has so often been described as standing like a sentinel at the mouth of the burrows; for in Banda Oriental, owing to the absence of the Bizcacha, it is obliged to hollow out its own habitation.

The next morning, as we approached the Rio Colorado, the appearance of the country changed; we soon came on a plain covered with turf, which, from its flowers, tall clover, and little owls, resembled the Pampas. We passed also a muddy swamp of considerable extent, which in summer dries, and becomes incrusted with various salts; and hence is called a salitral. It was covered by low succulent plants, of the same kind with those growing on the sea-shore. The Colorado, at the pass where we crossed it, is only about sixty yards wide; generally it must be nearly double that width. Its course is very tortuous, being marked by willow-trees and beds of reeds: in a direct line the distance to the mouth of the river is said to be nine leagues, but by water twenty-five. We were delayed crossing in the canoe by some immense troops of mares, which were swimming the river in order to follow a division of troops into the interior. A more ludicrous spectacle I never beheld than the hundreds and hundreds of heads, all directed one way, with pointed ears and distended snorting nostrils, appearing just above the water like a great shoal of some amphibious animal. Mare's flesh is the only food which the soldiers have when on an expedition. This gives them a great facility of movement; for the distance to which horses can be driven over these plains is quite surprising: I have been assured that an unloaded horse can travel a hundred miles a day for many days successively.

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