The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/Physical History of the Valley of the Amazons

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A year or two ago I published in the Atlantic Monthly, as part of a series of geological sketches, a number of articles on the glacial phenomena of the Northern hemisphere. To-day I am led to add a new chapter to that strange history, taken from the Southern hemisphere, and even from the tropics themselves.

I am prepared to find that the statement of this new phase of the glacial period will awaken among my scientific colleagues an opposition even more violent than that by which the first announcement of my views on this subject was met. I am, however, willing to bide my time; feeling sure that, as the theory of the ancient extension of glaciers in Europe has gradually come to be accepted by geologists, so will the existence of like phenomena, both in North and South America, during the same epoch, be recognized sooner or later as part of a great series of physical events extending over the whole globe. Indeed, when the ice period is fully understood, it will be seen that the absurdity lies in supposing that climatic conditions so intense could be limited to a small portion of the world's surface. If the geological winter existed at all, it must have been cosmic; and it is quite as rational to look for its traces in the Western as in the Eastern hemisphere, to the south of the equator as to the north of it. Impressed by this wider view of the subject, confirmed by a number of unpublished investigations which I have made during the last three or four years in the United States, I came to South America, expecting to find in the tropical regions new evidences of a by-gone glacial period, though, of course, under different aspects. Such a result seemed to me the logical sequence of what I had already observed in Europe and in North America.

On my arrival in Rio de Janeiro,—the port at which I first landed in Brazil,—my attention was immediately attracted by a very peculiar formation, consisting of an ochraceous, highly ferruginous sandy clay. During a stay of three months in Rio, whence I made many excursions into the neighboring country, I had opportunities of studying this deposit, both in the province of Rio de Janeiro and in the adjoining province of Minas Geraes. I found that it rested everywhere upon the undulating surfaces of the solid rocks in place, was almost entirely destitute of stratification, and contained a variety of pebbles and boulders. The pebbles were chiefly quartz, sometimes scattered indiscriminately throughout the deposit, sometimes lying in a seam between it and the rock below; while the boulders were either sunk in its mass or resting loose on the surface. At Tijuca, a few miles out of the city of Rio, among the picturesque hills lying to the southwest of it, these phenomena may be seen in great perfection. Near Bennett's Hotel—a favorite resort, not only with the citizens of Rio, but with all sojourners there who care to leave the town occasionally for its beautiful environs—may be seen a great number of erratic boulders, having no connection whatever with the rock in place, and also a bluff of this superficial deposit studded with boulders, resting above the partially stratified metamorphic rock. Other excellent opportunities for observing this formation, also within easy reach from the city, are afforded along the whole line of the Railroad of Dom Pedro Segundo, where the cuts expose admirable sections, showing the red, unstratified, homogeneous mass of sandy clay resting above the solid rock, and often divided from it by a thin bed of pebbles. There can be no doubt, in the mind of any one familiar with similar facts observed in other parts of the world, that this is one of the many forms of drift connected with glacial action. I was, however, far from anticipating, when I first met it in the neighborhood of Rio, that I should afterwards find it spreading over the surface of the country, from north to south and from east to west, with a continuity which gives legible connection to the whole geological history of the continent.

It is true that the extensive decomposition of the underlying rock, penetrating sometimes to a considerable depth, makes it often difficult to distinguish between it and the drift; and the problem is made still more puzzling by the fact that the surface of the drift, when baked by exposure to the hot sun, often assumes the appearance of decomposed rock, so that great care is required for a correct interpretation of the facts. A little practice, however, trains the eye to read these appearances aright, and I may say that I have learned to recognize everywhere the limit between the two formations. There is indeed one safe guide, namely, the undulating line, reminding one of roches moutonnées,[1] and marking the irregular surface of the rock on which the drift was accumulated; whatever modifications the one or the other may have undergone, this line seems never to disappear. Another deceptive feature, arising from the frequent disintegration of the rocks and from the brittle character of some of them, is the presence of loose fragments, which simulate erratic boulders, but are in fact only detached masses of the rock in place. A careful examination of their structure, however, will at once show the geologist whether they belong where they are found, or have been brought from a distance to their present resting-place.

But while the features to which I have alluded are unquestionably drift phenomena, they present in their wider extension, and especially in the northern part of Brazil, as will hereafter be seen, some phases of glacial action hitherto unobserved. Just as the investigation of the ice period in the United States has shown us that ice-fields may move over open level plains, as well as along the slopes of mountain valleys, so does a study of the same class of facts in South America reveal new and unlooked-for features in the history of the ice period. Some will say, that the fact of the advance of ice-fields over an open country is by no means established, inasmuch as many geologists believe all the so-called glacial traces, viz. striæ, furrows, polish, etc., found in the United States, to have been made by floating icebergs at a time when the continent was submerged. To this I can only answer, that in the State of Maine I have followed, compass in hand, the same set of furrows, running from north to south in one unvarying line, over a surface of one hundred and thirty miles from the Katahdin Iron Range to the sea-shore. These furrows follow all the inequalities of the country, ascending ranges of hills varying from twelve to fifteen hundred feet in height, and descending into the intervening valleys only two or three hundred feet above the sea, or sometimes even on a level with it. I take it to be impossible that a floating mass of ice should travel onward in one rectilinear direction, turning neither to the right nor to the left, for such a distance. Equally impossible would it be for a detached mass of ice, swimming on the surface of the water, or even with its base sunk considerably below it, to furrow in a straight line the summits and sides of the hills, and the beds of the valleys. It would be carried over the depressions without touching bottom. Instead of ascending the mountains, it would remain stranded against any elevation which rose greatly above its own basis, and, if caught between two parallel ridges, would float up and down between them. Moreover, the action of solid, unbroken ice, moving over the ground in immediate contact with it, is so different from that of floating ice-rafts or icebergs, that, though the latter have unquestionably dropped erratic boulders, and made furrows and striæ on the surface where they happened to be grounded, these phenomena will easily be distinguished from the more connected traces of glaciers, or extensive sheets of ice, resting directly upon the face of the country and advancing over it.

There seems thus far to be an inextricable confusion, in the ideas of many geologists, as to the respective action of currents, icebergs, and glaciers. It is time they should learn to distinguish between classes of facts so different from each other, and so easily recognized after the discrimination has once been made. As to the southward movement of an immense field of ice, extending over the whole north, it seems inevitable, the moment we admit that snow may accumulate around the pole in such quantities as to initiate a pressure radiating in every direction. Snow, alternately thawing and freezing, must, like water, find its level at last. A sheet of snow ten or fifteen thousand feet in thickness, extending all over the northern and southern portions of the globe, must necessarily lead, in the end, to the formation of a northern and southern cap of ice, moving toward the equator.

I have spoken of Tijuca and the Dom Pedro Railroad as favorable localities for studying the peculiar southern drift; but one meets it in every direction. A sheet of drift, consisting of the same homogeneous, unstratified paste, and containing loose materials of all sorts and sizes, covers the country. It is of very uneven thickness,—sometimes thrown into relief, as it were, by the surrounding denudations, and rising into hills,—sometimes reduced to a thin layer,—sometimes, as, for instance, on steep slopes, washed entirely away, leaving the bare face of the rock exposed. It has, however, remained comparatively undisturbed on some very abrupt ascents; as, for instance, on the Corcovado, along the path leading up the mountain, are some very fine banks of drift,—the more striking from the contrast of their deep red color with the surrounding vegetation. I have myself followed this sheet of drift from Rio de Janeiro to the top of the Serra do Mar, where, just outside the pretty town of Petropolis, the river Piabanha may be seen flowing between banks of drift, in which it has excavated its bed; thence I have traced it along the beautiful macadamized road leading to Juiz de Fora in the province of Minas Geraes, and beyond this to the farther side of the Serra da Babylonia. Throughout this whole tract of country, in the greater part of which travelling is easy and delightful,—an admirable line of diligences, over one of the finest roads in the world, being established as far as Juiz de Fora,—the drift may be seen along the roadside, in immediate contact with the native crystalline rock. The fertility of the land, also, is a guide to the presence of drift. Wherever it lies thickest over the surface, there are the most flourishing coffee-plantations; and I believe that a more systematic regard to this fact would have a most beneficial influence upon the agricultural interests of the country. No doubt the fertility arises from the great variety of chemical elements contained in the drift, and the kneading process it has undergone beneath the gigantic ice-plough,—a process which makes glacial drift everywhere the most fertile soil. Since my return from the Amazons, my impression as to the general distribution of these phenomena has been confirmed by the reports of some of my assistants, who have been travelling in other parts of the country. Mr. Frederick C. Hartt, accompanied by Mr. Copeland, one of the volunteer aids of the expedition, has been making collections and geological observations in the province of Spiritu Santo, in the valley of the Rio Doce, and afterwards in the valley of the Mucury. He informs me that he has found everywhere the same sheet of red, unstratified clay, with pebbles and occasional boulders, overlying the rock in place. Mr. Orestes St. John, who, taking the road through the interior, has visited, with the same objects in view, the valleys of the Rio San Francisco and the Rio das Velhas, and also the valley of Piauhy, gives the same account, with the exception that he found no erratic boulders in these more northern regions. The rarity of erratic boulders, not only in the deposits of the Amazons proper, but in those of the whole region which may be considered as the Amazonian basin, is accounted for, as we shall see hereafter, by the mode of their formation. The observations of Mr. Hartt and Mr. St. John are the more valuable, because I had employed them both, on our first arrival in Rio, in making geological surveys of different sections on the Dom Pedro Railroad, so that they had a great familiarity with those formations before starting on their separate journeys. Recently, Mr. St. John and myself having met at Pará on returning from our respective journeys, I have had an opportunity of comparing on the spot his geological sections from the valley of the Piauhy with the Amazonian deposits. There can be no doubt of the absolute identity of the formations in these valleys.

Having arranged the work of my assistants, and sent several of them to collect and make geological examinations in other directions, I myself, with the rest of my companions, proceeded up the coast to Pará. I was surprised to find at every step of my progress the same geological phenomena which had met me at Rio. As the steamer stops for a number of hours, or sometimes for a day or two, at Bahia, Maceio, Pernambuco, Parahiba, Natal, Ceara, and Maranham, I had many opportunities for observation. It was my friend Major Coutinho, already an experienced Amazonian traveller, who first told me that this formation continued through the whole valley of the Amazons, and was also to be found on all of its affluents which he had visited, although he had never thought of referring it to so recent a period. And here let me interrupt the course of my remarks to say, that the facts recorded in this article are by no means exclusively the result of my own investigations. They are in great part due to this able and intelligent young Brazilian, a member of the government corps of engineers, who, by the kindness of the Emperor, was associated with me in my Amazonian expedition. I can truly say that he has been my good genius throughout the whole journey, saving me, by his previous knowledge of the ground, from the futile and misdirected expenditure of means and time often inevitable in a new country, where one is imperfectly acquainted both with the people and their language. We have worked together in this investigation; my only advantage over him being my greater familiarity with like phenomena in Europe and North America, and consequent readiness in the practical handling of the facts, and in perceiving their connection. Major Coutinho's assertion, that on the banks of the Amazons I should find the same red, unstratified clay as in Rio and along the southern coast, seemed to me at first almost incredible, impressed as I was with the generally received notions as to the ancient character of the Amazonian deposits, referred by Humboldt to the Devonian, and by Martins to the Triassic period, and considered by all travellers to be at least as old as the Tertiaries. The result, however, confirmed his report, at least so far as the component materials of the formation are concerned; but, as will be seen hereafter, the mode of their deposition, and the time at which it took place, have not been the same at the north and south; and this difference of circumstances has modified the aspect of a formation essentially the same throughout. At first sight, it would indeed appear that this formation, as it exists in the valley of the Amazons, is identical with that of Rio; but it differs from it in the rarity of its boulders, and in showing occasional signs of stratification. It is also everywhere underlaid by coarse, well-stratified deposits, resembling somewhat the recife of Bahia and Pernambuco; whereas the unstratified drift of the south rests immediately upon the undulating surface of whatever rock happens to make the foundation of the country, whether stratified or crystalline. The peculiar sandstone on which the Amazonian clay rests exists nowhere else. Before proceeding, however, to describe the Amazonian deposits in detail, I ought to say something of the nature and origin of the valley itself.

The Valley of the Amazons was first sketched out by the elevation of two tracts of land; namely, the plateau of Guiana on the north, and the central plateau of Brazil on the south. It is probable that, at the time these two table-lands were lifted above the sea-level, the Andes did not exist, and the ocean flowed between them through an open strait. It would seem (and this is a curious result of modern geological investigations) that the portions of the earth's surface earliest raised above the ocean have trended from east to west. The first tract of land lifted above the waters in North America was also a long continental island, running from Newfoundland almost to the present base of the Rocky Mountains. This tendency may be attributed to various causes,—to the rotation of the earth, the consequent depression of its poles, and the breaking of its crust along the lines of greatest tension thus produced. At a later period, the upheaval of the Andes took place, closing the western side of this strait, and thus transforming it into a gulf, open only toward the east. Little or nothing is known of the earlier stratified deposits resting against the crystalline masses first uplifted in the Amazonian Valley. There is here no sequence, as in North America, of Azoic, Silurian, Devonian, and Carboniferous formations, shored up against each other by the gradual upheaval of the continent, although unquestionably older palæozoic and secondary beds underlie, here and there, the later formations. Indeed, Major Coutinho has found palæozoic deposits, with characteristic shells, in the valley of the Rio Tapajos, at the first cascade, and carboniferous deposits have been noticed along the Rio Guapore and the Rio Marnore. But the first chapter in the valley's geological history about which we have connected and trustworthy data is that of the cretaceous period. It seems certain, that, at the close of the secondary age, the whole Amazonian basin became lined with a cretaceous deposit, the margins of which crop out at various localities on its borders. They have been observed along its southern limits, on its western outskirts along the Andes, in Venezuela along the shore-line of mountains, and also in certain localities near its eastern edge. I well remember that one of the first things which awakened my interest in the geology of the Amazonian Valley was the sight of some cretaceous fossil fishes from the province of Ceara. These fossil fishes were collected by Mr. George Gardner, to whom science is indebted for the most extensive information yet obtained respecting the geology of that part of Brazil. In this connection, let me say that here and elsewhere I shall speak of the provinces of Ceara, Piauhy, and Maranham as belonging geologically to the Valley of the Amazons, though their shore is bathed by the ocean, and their rivers empty directly into the Atlantic. But I entertain no doubt, and I hope I may hereafter be able to show, that, at an earlier period, the northeastern coast of Brazil stretched much farther seaward than in our day; so far, indeed, that in those times the rivers of all these provinces must have been tributaries of the Amazon in its eastward course. The evidence for this conclusion is substantially derived from the identity of the deposits in the valleys belonging to these provinces with those of the valleys through which the actual tributaries of the Amazons flow; as, for instance, the Tocantins, the Xingu, the Tapajos, the Madura, etc. Besides the fossils above alluded to from the eastern borders of this ancient basin, I have had recently another evidence of its cretaceous character from its southern region. Mr. William Chandless, on his return from a late journey on the Rio Purus, presented me with a series of fossil remains of the highest interest, and undoubtedly belonging to the cretaceous period. They were collected by himself on the Rio Aquiry, an affluent of the Rio Purus. Most of them were found in place between the tenth and eleventh degrees of south latitude, and the sixty-seventh and sixty-ninth degrees of west longitude from Greenwich, in localities varying from 430 to 650 feet above the sea-level. There are among them remains of Mososaurus, and of fishes closely allied to those already represented by Faujas in his description of Maestricht, and characteristic, as is well known to geological students, of the most recent cretaceous period.

Thus in its main features the Valley of the Amazons, like that of the Mississippi, is a cretaceous basin. This resemblance suggests a further comparison between the twin continents of North and South America. Not only is their general form the same, but their framework as we may call it, that is, the lay of their great mountain-chains and of their table-lands, with the extensive intervening depressions, presents a striking similarity. Indeed, a zoölogist, accustomed to trace a like structure under variously modified animal forms, cannot but have his homological studies recalled to his mind by the coincidence between certain physical features in the northern and southern parts of the Western hemisphere. And yet here, as throughout all nature, these correspondences are combined with a distinctness of individualization, which leaves its respective character not only to each continent as a whole, but also to the different regions circumscribed within its borders. In both, however, the highest mountain-chains, the Rocky Mountains and Coast Range with their wide intervening table-land in North America, and the chain of the Andes with its lesser plateaus in South America, run along the western coast; both have a great eastern promontory,—Newfoundland in the northern continent, and Cape St. Roque in the southern;—and though the resemblance between the inland elevations is perhaps less striking, yet the Canadian range, the White Mountains, and the Alleghanies may very fairly be compared to the table-lands of Guiana and Brazil, and the Serra do Mar. Similar correspondences may be traced among the river systems. The Amazons and the St. Lawrence, though so different in dimensions, remind us of each other by their trend and geographical position; and while the one is fed by the largest river system in the world, the other drains the most extensive lake surfaces known to exist in immediate contiguity. The Orinoco, with its bay, recalls Hudson's Bay and its many tributaries, and the Rio Magdalena may be said to be the South American Mackenzie; while the Rio de la Plata represents geographically our Mississippi, and the Paraguay recalls the Missouri. The Parana may be compared to the Ohio; the Pilcomayo, Vermejo, and Salado rivers, to the River Platte, the Arkansas, and the Red River in the United States; while the rivers farther south, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, represent the rivers of Patagonia and the southern parts of the Argentine Republic. Not only is there this general correspondence between the mountain elevations and the river systems, but as the larger river basins of North America—those of the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, and the Mackenzie—meet in the low tracts extending along the foot of the Rocky Mountains, so do the basins of the Amazons, the Rio de la Plata, and the Orinoco join each other along the eastern slope of the Andes.

But while in geographical homology the Amazons compare with the St. Lawrence, and the Mississippi with the Rio de la Plata, the Mississippi and the Amazons, as has been said, resemble each other in their local geological character. They have both received a substratum of cretaceous beds, above which are accumulated their more recent deposits, so that, in their most prominent geological features, both may be considered as cretaceous basins, containing extensive deposits of a very recent age. Of the history of the Amazonian Valley during the periods immediately following the Cretaceous, we know little or nothing. Whether the Tertiary deposits are hidden under the more modern ones, or whether they are wholly wanting, the basin having, perhaps, been raised above the sea-level before that time, or whether they have been swept away by the tremendous inundations in the valley, which have certainly destroyed a great part of the cretaceous deposit, they have never been observed in any part of the Amazonian basin. Whatever tertiary deposits are represented in geological maps of this region are so marked in consequence of an incorrect identification of strata belonging, in fact, to a much more recent period.

A minute and extensive survey of the Valley of the Amazons is by no means an easy task, and its difficulty is greatly increased by the fact that the lower formations are only accessible on the river margins during the vasante, as it is called, or dry season, when the waters shrink in their beds, leaving a great part of their banks exposed. It happened that the first three or four months of my journey, August, September, October, and November, were those when the waters are lowest,—reaching their minimum in September and October, and beginning to rise again in November,—so that I had an excellent opportunity in ascending the river to observe its geological structure. Throughout its whole length, three distinct geological formations may be traced, the two lower of which have followed in immediate succession, and are conformable with one another, while the third rests unconformably upon them, following all the inequalities of the greatly denudated surface presented by the second formation. Notwithstanding this seeming interruption in the sequence of these deposits, the third, as we shall presently see, belongs to the same series, and was accumulated in the same basin. The lowest set of beds of the whole series is rarely visible, but it seems everywhere to consist of sandstone, or even of loose sands well stratified, the coarser materials lying invariably below, and the finer above. Upon this lower set of beds rests everywhere an extensive deposit of fine laminated clays, varying in thickness, but frequently dividing into layers as thin as a sheet of paper. In some localities they exhibit in patches an extraordinary variety of beautiful colors,—pink, orange, crimson, yellow, gray, blue, and also black and white. The Indians are very skilful in preparing paints from these colored clays, with which they ornament their pottery, and the bowls of various shapes and sizes made from the fruit of the Cuieira-tree. These clay deposits assume occasionally a peculiar appearance, and one which might mislead the observer as to their true nature. When their surface has been long exposed to the action of the atmosphere and to the heat of the burning sun, they look so much like clay slates of the oldest geological epochs, that, at first sight, I took them for primary slates, my attention being attracted to them by a regular cleavage as distinct as that of the most ancient clay slates. And yet at Tonantins, on the banks of the Solimoens, in a locality where their exposed surfaces had this primordial appearance, I found in these very beds a considerable amount of well-preserved leaves, the character of which proves their recent origin. These leaves do not even indicate as ancient a period as the Tertiaries, but resemble so closely the vegetation of to-day, that I have no doubt, when examined by competent authority, they will be identified with living plants. The presence of such an extensive clay formation, stretching over a surface of more than three thousand miles in length and about seven hundred in breadth, is not easily explained under any ordinary circumstances. The fact that it is so thoroughly laminated shows that, in the basin in which it was formed, the waters must have been unusually quiet, containing identical materials throughout, and that these materials must have been deposited over the whole bottom in the same way. It is usually separated from the superincumbent beds by a glazed crust of hard, compact sandstone, almost resembling a ferruginous quartzite.

Upon this follow beds of sand and sandstone, varying in the regularity of their strata, reddish in color, often highly ferruginous, and more or less nodulous or porous. They present frequent traces of cross-stratification, alternating with regularly stratified horizontal beds, with here and there an intervening layer of clay. It would seem as if the character of the water basin had now changed, and as if the waters under which this second formation was deposited had vibrated between storm and calm,—had sometimes flowed more gently, and again had been tossed to and fro,—giving to some of the beds the aspect of true torrential deposits. Indeed, these sandstone formations present a great variety of aspects. Sometimes they are very regularly laminated, or assume even the appearance of the hardest quartzite. This is usually the case with the uppermost beds. In other localities, and more especially in the lowermost beds, the whole mass is honeycombed, as if drilled by worms or boring shells, the hard parts enclosing softer sands or clays. Occasionally the ferruginous materials prevail to such an extent, that some of these beds might be mistaken for bog ore, while others contain a large amount of clay, more regularly stratified, and alternating with strata of sandstone, thus recalling the most characteristic forms of the Old Red or Triassic formations. This resemblance has, no doubt, led to the identification of the Amazonian deposits with the more ancient formations of Europe. At Monte Alegre, of which I shall presently speak more in detail, such a clay bed divides the lower from the upper sandstone. The thickness of these sandstones is extremely variable. In the basin of the Amazons proper, they hardly rise anywhere above the level of high water during the rainy season, while at low water, in the summer months, they maybe seen everywhere along the river-banks. It will be seen, however, that the limit between high and low water gives no true measure of the original thickness of the whole series.

In the neighborhood of Almeirim, at a short distance from the northern bank of the river, and nearly parallel with its course, there rises a line of low hills, interrupted here and there, but extending in evident connection from Almeirim through the region of Monte Alegre to the heights of Obidos. These hills have attracted the attention of travellers, not only from their height, which appears greater than it is, because they rise abruptly from an extensive plain, but also on account of their curious form, many of them being perfectly level on top, like smooth tables, and very abruptly divided from each other by low, intervening spaces.[2] Nothing has hitherto been known of the geological structure of these hills, but they have been usually represented as the southernmost spurs of the table-land of Guiana. On ascending the river, I felt the greatest curiosity to examine them; but at the time I was deeply engrossed in studying the distribution of fishes in the Amazonian waters, and in making large ichthyological collections, for which it was very important not to miss the season of low water, when the fishes are most easily obtained. I was, therefore, obliged to leave this most interesting geological problem, and content myself with examining the structure of the valley so far as it could be seen on the river-banks and in the neighborhood of my different collecting stations. On my return, however, when my collections were completed, I was free to pursue this investigation, in which Major Coutinho was as much interested as myself. We determined to select Monte Alegre as the centre of our exploration, the serra in that region being higher than elsewhere. As I was detained by indisposition at Manaos, for some days, at the time we had appointed for the excursion, Major Coutinho preceded me, and had already made one trip to the serra, with some very interesting results, when I joined him, and we made a second journey together.

Monte Alegre lies on a side arm of the Amazons, a little off from its main course. This side arm, called the Rio Gurupatuba, is simply a channel running parallel with the Amazons, and cutting through from a higher to a lower point. Its dimensions are, however, greatly exaggerated in all the maps thus far published, where it is usually made to appear as a considerable northern tributary of the Amazons. The town stands on an elevated terrace, separated from the main stream by the Rio Gurupatuba, and by an extensive flat, consisting of numerous lakes divided from each other by low alluvial land, and mostly connected by narrow channels. To the west of the town, this terrace sinks abruptly to a wide sandy plain called the Campos, covered with a low forest growth, and bordered on its farther limit by the picturesque serra of Erreré. The form of this mountain is so abrupt, its rise from the plain so bold and sudden, that it seems more than twice its real height. Judging by the eye, and comparing it with the mountains I had last seen,—the Corcovado, the Gavia and Tijuca range in the neighborhood of Rio,—I had supposed it to be three or four thousand feet high, and was greatly astonished when our barometric observations showed it to be somewhat less than nine hundred feet in its most elevated point. This, however, agrees with Martins's measurement of the Almeirim hills, which he says are eight hundred feet in height.

Major Coutinho and I reached the serra by different roads; he crossing the Campos on horseback with Captain Faria, the commander of our steamer, and one or two other friends from Monte Alegre, who joined our party, while I went by canoe. The canoe journey is somewhat longer. A two hours' ride across the Campos brings you to the foot of the mountain, whereas the trip by boat takes more than twice that time. But I preferred going by water, as it gave me an opportunity of seeing the vast variety of animals haunting the river-banks and lakes. As this was almost the only occasion in all my journey when I passed a day in the pure enjoyment of nature, without the labor of collecting,—which in this hot climate, where specimens require such immediate and constant attention, is very great,—I am tempted to interrupt our geology for a moment, to give an account of it. I learned how rich a single day may be in this wonderful tropical world, if one's eyes are only open to the wealth of animal and vegetable life. Indeed, a few hours so spent in the field, in simply watching animals and plants, teaches more of the distribution of life than a month of closet study; for under such circumstances all things are seen in their true relations. Unhappily, it is not easy to present the picture as a whole, for all our written descriptions are more or less dependent on nomenclature, and the local names are hardly known out of the districts where they belong, while systematic names are familiar to few.

I started before daylight; but, as the dawn began to redden the sky, large flocks of ducks, and of the small Amazonian geese, might be seen flying towards the lakes. Here and there a cormorant sat alone on the branch of a dead tree, or a kingfisher poised himself over the water, watching for his prey. Numerous gulls were gathered in large companies on the trees along the river-shore; alligators lay on its surface, diving with a sudden plash at the approach of our canoe; and occasionally a porpoise emerged from the water, showing himself for a moment and then disappearing again. Sometimes we startled a herd of capivara, resting on the water's edge; and once we saw a sloth, sitting upon the branch of an Imbauba (Cecropia) tree, rolled up in its peculiar attitude, the very picture of indolence, with its head sunk between its arms. Much of the river-shore consisted of low alluvial land, and was covered with that peculiar and beautiful grass known as Capim; this grass makes an excellent pasturage for cattle, and the abundance of it in this region renders the district of Monte Alegre very favorable for agricultural purposes. Here and there, where the red clay soil rose above the level of the water, a palm-thatched cabin stood on the low bluff, with a few trees about it. Such a house was usually the centre of a cattle farm, and large herds might be seen grazing in the adjoining fields. Along the river-banks, where the country is chiefly open, with extensive low marshy grounds, the only palm to be seen is the Maraja. After keeping along the Rio Gurupatuba for some distance, we turned to the right into a narrow stream, which has the character of an Igarapé in its lower course, though higher up it drains the country between the serra of Erreré and that of Tajury, and assumes the appearance of a small river. It is named after the serra, and is known as the Rio Erreré. This stream, narrow and picturesque, and often so overgrown with capim that the canoe pursued its course with difficulty, passed through a magnificent forest of the beautiful fan-palm, called here the Miriti (Mauritia flexuosa). This forest stretched for miles, overshadowing, as a kind of underbrush, many smaller trees and innumerable shrubs, some of which bore bright, conspicuous flowers. It seemed to me a strange spectacle,—a forest of monocotyledonous trees with a dicotyledonous undergrowth; the inferior plants thus towering above and sheltering the superior ones. Among the lower trees were many Leguminosæ,—one of the most striking, called Fava, having a colossal pod. The whole mass of vegetation was woven together by innumerable lianas and creeping vines, in the midst of which the flowers of the Bignonia, with its open, trumpet-shaped corolla, were conspicuous. The capim was bright with the blossoms of the mallow growing in its midst, and was often edged with the broad-leaved Aninga, a large aquatic Arum.

Through such a forest, where the animal life was no less rich and varied than the vegetation, our boat glided slowly for hours. The number and variety of birds struck me with astonishment. The coarse sedgy grasses on either side were full of water birds, one of the most common of which was a small chestnut-brown wading bird, the Jaçana (Parra), whose toes are immensely long in proportion to its size, enabling it to run upon the surface of the aquatic vegetation, as if it were solid ground. It was in the month of January, their breeding season, and at every turn of the boat we started them up in pairs. Their flat, open nests generally contained five flesh-colored eggs, streaked in zigzag with dark brown lines. The other waders were a snow-white heron, another ash-colored, smaller species, and a large white stork. The ash-colored herons were always in pairs, the white one always single, standing quiet and alone on the edge of the water, or half hidden in the green capim. The trees and bushes were full of small warbler-like birds, which it would be difficult to characterize separately. To the ordinary observer they might seem like the small birds of our woods; but there was one species among them which attracted my attention by its numbers, and also because it builds the most extraordinary nest, considering the size of the bird itself, that I have ever seen. It is known among the country people by two names, as the Pedreiro or the Forneiro, both names referring, as will be seen, to the nature of its habitation. This singular nest is built of clay, and is as hard as stone (pedra), while it has the form of the round mandioca oven (forno) in which the country people prepare their farinha, or flour, made from the mandioca root. It is about a foot in diameter, and stands edgewise upon a branch, or in the crotch of a tree. Among the smaller birds, I noticed bright Tanagers, and also a species resembling the Canary. Besides these, there were the wagtails, the black and white widow finches, the hang-nests, or Japé, as they are called here, with their pendent bag-like dwellings, and the familiar "Bem ti vi." Humming-birds, which we are always apt to associate with tropical vegetation, were very scarce. I saw but a few specimens. Thrushes and doves were more frequent, and I noticed also three or four kinds of woodpeckers. Of these latter there were countless numbers along our canoe path, flying overhead in dense crowds, and, at times, drowning every other sound in their high, noisy chatter.

These made a deep impression upon me. Indeed, in all regions, however far away from his own home, in the midst of a fauna and flora entirely new to him, the traveller is startled occasionally by the song of a bird or the sight of a flower so familiar that it transports him at once to woods where every tree is like a friend to him. It seems as if something akin to what in our own mental experience we call reminiscence or association existed in the workings of nature; for though the organic combinations are so distinct in different climates and countries, they never wholly exclude each other. Every zoölogical and botanical province retains some link which binds it to all the rest, and makes it part of the general harmony. The Arctic lichen is found growing under the shadow of the palm on the rocks of the tropical serra, and the song of the thrush and the tap of the woodpecker mingle with the sharp discordant cries of the parrot and paroquet.

Birds of prey, also, were not wanting. Among them was one about the size of our kite, and called the Red Hawk, which was so tame that, even when our canoe passed immediately under the low branch on which he was sitting, he did not fly away. But of all the groups of birds, the most striking as compared with corresponding groups in the temperate zone, and the one which reminded me the most directly of the fact that every region has its peculiar animal world, was that of the gallinaceous birds. The most frequent is the Cigana, to be seen in groups of fifteen or twenty, perched upon trees overhanging the water, and feeding upon berries. At night they roost in pairs, but in the daytime are always in larger companies. In their appearance they have something of the character of both the pheasant and peacock, and yet do not closely resemble either. It is a curious fact, that, with the exception of some small partridge-like gallinaceous birds, all the representatives of this family in Brazil, and especially in the Valley of the Amazons, belong to types which do not exist in other parts of the world. Here we find neither pheasants, nor cocks of the woods, nor grouse; but in their place abound the Mutun, the Jaçu, the Jacami, and the Unicorn (Crax, Penelope, Psophia, and Palamedea), all of which are so remote from the gallinaceous types found farther north, that they remind one quite as much of the bustard, and other ostrich-like birds, as of the hen and pheasant. They differ also from Northern gallinaceous birds in the greater uniformity of the sexes, none of them exhibiting those striking differences between the males and females which we see in the pheasants, the cocks of the woods, and in our barn-yard fowls. While birds abounded in such numbers, insects were rather scarce. I saw but few and small butterflies, and beetles were still more rare. The most numerous insects were the dragon-flies,—some with crimson bodies, black heads, and burnished wings,—others with large green bodies, crossed by blue bands. Of land shells I saw but one creeping along the reeds; and of water shells I gathered only a few small Ampullariæ.

Having ascended the river to a point nearly on a line with the serra, I landed, and struck across the Campos on foot. Here I entered upon an entirely different region,—a dry, open plain, with scanty vegetation. The most prominent plants were clusters of cactus and curua palms, a kind of stemless, low palm, with broad, elegant leaves springing vase-like from the ground. In these dry, sandy fields, rising gradually toward the serra, I observed in the deeper gullies formed by the heavy rains the laminated clays which are everywhere the foundation of the Amazonian strata. They here presented again so much the character of ordinary clay slates, that I thought I had at last come upon some old geological formation. Instead of this I only obtained fresh evidence that, by baking them, the burning sun of the tropics may produce upon laminated clays of recent origin the same effect as plutonic agents have produced upon the ancient clays, that is, it may change them into metamorphic slates. As I approached the serra, I was again reminded how, under the most dissimilar circumstances, similar features recur everywhere in nature. I came suddenly upon a little creek, bordered with the usual vegetation of such shallow water-courses, and on its brink stood a sand-piper, which flew away at my approach, uttering its peculiar cry, so like what one hears at home that, had I not seen him, I should have recognized him by his voice.

After an hour's walk under the scorching sun, I was glad to find myself at the hamlet of Erreré, near the foot of the serra, where I rejoined my companions. It was already noon, and they had arrived some time before. They had, however, waited breakfast for me, to which we all brought a good appetite. Breakfast over, we slung our hammocks under the trees, and during the heat of the day enjoyed the rest which we had so richly earned.


  1. The name consecrated by De Saussure to designate certain rocks in Switzerland, which have had their surfaces rounded under the action of the glaciers. Their gently swelling outlines are thought to resemble sheep resting on the ground, and for this reason the people in the Alps call them roches moutonnées.
  2. The atlas in Martins's "Journey to Brazil," or the sketch accompanying Bates's description of these hills in his "Naturalist on the Amazons," will give an idea of their aspect.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.