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THE JUNGLE IN PARADOX
"There is a strange beast, the which for his great heavinesse, and slownesse in moving, they call Perico-ligero, or the little-light-dogge; hee hath three nailes to every hand, and mooves both hand and feete as it were by compasse, and very heavily; it is in face like to a monkie, and hath a shrill crie; it climeth trees, and eates ants."FATHER ACOSTA
THE uncouth sloth! Can any greater emblem of misery be conceived? He hangs upside down upon a branch like a bundle of rags on a nail. His hair is like dried grass, stiff, with a greenish tinge, and, as might be expected, goes the wrong way. His long arms are jointless, swinging to and fro like the end of a rope. He can turn his head all about, till his round, simple face meets the wind; then he opens his toothless mouth to take it in, giving rise to a tradition that he lives on air. His want of teeth is supplied by long nails — his only means of attack — with which he scrapes out ants. Whether he lives upon cecropia buds and dew, as Doctor Brehm declares, or upon armies of ants swarming in the hollow stems of the cecropia tree, it is certain that he haunts only that tree, which spreads out broad leaves whose white, lower sides reflect light into the sepulchral shade. It furnishes him with more food than he needs, and food is his only necessity.
A Sloth, from the Historiae Reruns Naturalism Brasiliae, Amsterdam, 1648
The rain pours, he listlessly hugs his branch, a sorry spectacle, emitting from time to time a deep sigh. His eye is dull, he knows no joy, no sorrow. He needs no sleep, no relief from a life which is nothing but respite. The odds seem too great against him to perform the simplest acts of life.
The climax of activity is reached when, like a wad, he falls to the ground, apparently devoid of life.
After a while he unrolls and progresses with circumspection upon closed claws to the next cecropia tree. Then he climbs to the very top, where he begins to eat, supplied with food on the down journey. Hunger compelling, he unbends from a position of unusual discomfort and pushes himself along his branch upside down. Over-cautious in every motion, he never loosens his rigid hold from one limb until securely clamped to the next one. Each movement causes a long, sad yowl of pain. It is amazing that so cutting a sound can issue from his soft mouth.
His weird cry is a jungle symbol — mysterious hint of antediluvian days when the elephantine sloth lifted up a mammoth wail to be taken up by the glyptodon and the dodo.
In the desert man exclaims: "If only there were water! The soil is fertile. There is sunlight and warmth enough to make a tropical paradise. If only there were water!" And so, although he does not exactly worship water as the Yuncas of antiquity did, this man sings secretly in his heart a hymn to the god of water.
Up on the icy highlands man exclaims: "If only there were warmth! The soil is fertile, there is plenty of water, only warmth is lacking to make a paradise. If only there were warmth!" And he sympathizes with the Incas, whose god was the Sun, and waits through the long night-watches until, with his rising, life is renewed.
In the jungle, water brings fertility to a soil bathed in the light and warmth of a tropical sun. It pours down from melting snows of the mountain-tops and gushes from the ground to meet the rain. Here, where man might live with least effort, he squats on the lowest rung of the human ladder, his savage desires satisfied as soon as realized. The sun needs no propitiatory offerings, water needs no exhortation. Invisible powers have conferred all gifts which his mind could imagine or his heart desire.
But in the midst of luxuriant plenty, like the Indian above the mine, poverty-struck for want of the very riches he sits upon, he is merely dying out for lack of everything with which he is surrounded. With a remedy at his command for every ill, he hangs about his neck a string of tapirs' claws in case of need. As there is lack of nothing to supply his wants, so there are few wants to be supplied. A whole tribe lives on a single species of tree, like insects depending on one fruit or leaf for subsistence, or the sloth hanging on the cecropia tree, which has senses sufficient to appreciate sights and sounds and smells, but remains insensible. The jungle people seem to recognize the likeness and call one another "beast of the cecropia tree."
As there is surplus of everything here, evil gifts have been bestowed as well. Poisonous insects sting for life; the fierce jaguar and fatal vampire, whose velvet kisses are a death-brand, bite for life; so do snakes; and the huge boa crushes the bones of its victim. The strong attack the weak, the cunning inveigle the unwary. Injurious or beneficent, all must fight for life, joining in the great struggle. Each variety contends with every other, vegetation fights to keep out animals, animals with birds, insects with one another, and all against the water, whose level silently rises over its foes. So man must struggle against nature. The jungle is his only teacher. He takes from it what it offers. He is the mere imitator of the vegetable world, a product of it in modified form. He sees strife in air, earth, and water. His religion can conceive only strife of two extremes, dying and living, evil and good, one injurious, the other beneficial. Evil spirits inhabit birds and beasts and whirlpools of the mighty rivers. The dim forest is filled with powers of destruction. They lurk in the black lizard and less dangerous ones in the parroquets. Since all sickness is brought by evil spirits, it is they to whom prayers are made. Some jungle savages believe in a transformation into animals and name their children for them. If there are any thoughts of a future life, they are in jungle terms. After death these people wish to be turned into animals, which sometimes happens. "On the eighth day a red deer jumped from the grave and ran away into the forest. They did not see the soul enter the deer, but they saw the deer rise from the grave"! Some worship sun and moon, an Inca custom. But the moon with its phases and its weird shadows in the jungle is involved in special mystery. These savages understand the jungle, but facts plain to us compose their mystery.
If a man is sick, something grows near by to set him all right again. They use nature's remedies against her poisons, as they have learned from birds and beasts to do. They collect various sympathetic medicines, such as teeth of poisonous snakes, and carefully fix them in leaves and tubes of rushes — powerful specifics against headache and blindness. They fill flask-gourds with balsams, and collect odorous gum for incense.
War is their only object lesson, so quite naturally their only preëminence is in the art of killing. The chief cause of war is stealing of women; some are worth as much as a hatchet, some only the price of a knife. In times of fighting the savages howl through a giant reed in blood-curdling discord. They shoot with parrot-feathered cactus-arrows dipped in famous poisons, or thrust through an enemy with a macana — a wooden sword as sharp as steel —or fell him with a club of wood like iron. Then they make drums of his skin to serve as warning to his friends. They protect themselves with a shield of creeping plants interwoven, covered with a tapir skin and edged with the feathers of parrots.
The only amicable exchanges between tribes are the poisons done up in reeds into which they will dip the arrows used each against the other. Some poisons, made by women and old men, can kill an animal without injuring his flesh for the use of man. Some make him merely wither away. Some do not take effect until three days after the wound is inflicted.
The whole history of man, beginning with the Stone Age, could be studied among the wild tribes of Amazonian Peru. The largest tribe numbers nearly twenty-five thousand, many but a few families, and one tribe has now not a single member left. Differing each from the other, they are similar only in that they all represent the first steps of human development.
A savage of the jungle perforates his face to insert feathers and shells; he gouges it with sharp flints and rubs in indelible color. He slashes his lips both within and without and stretches his ear-lobes as far as the shoulder. Then he inserts knobs of chonta-palm wood. He paints his face yellow and suspends a red bean from his nose. Or he paints his face in the four quarters, blue, yellow, red, and black, and dyes his hair red with achote, his body orange with armatto, staining it in design with dark juices. The Prios color their teeth; others leave their teeth unstained and wear a long, yellow mantle. The Conibo flattens his head, or that of his child, between boards into fantastic shapes, leaving holes through which the cranium can develop. He leaves single locks of hair on conspicuous promontories. Toucans' feathers are stuck to them with wax. On days of celebration he dances in ropes of iridescent birds strung through the bills, his bead girdles of barbaric design hung with humming-birds as tassels. He knows no fashion but personal caprice. There is no limit to the vagaries of the world about him, neither are any suggested for his own decoration. Cross-wise over his shoulders he slings long scarfs of brilliantly colored birds hung at the end of chains made of their little leg-bones, along with boxes of poison for his arrow-heads. His necklaces are of the teeth of jaguars, wildcats, and monkeys, or of the curling teeth of the white-lipped peccary. From his anklets and wristlets of heavy, wooden beans he shakes a jungle call, wielding a feather scepter in savage rhythm about the stiff feather halo upon his head.
As might be expected, the jungle savage adores music, if so it may be called. He imitates the cries of forest animals. Some tribes have war songs; then they use a bone flute or a reed. The Aguarunas have a violin with three strings. This is the most intelligent tribe, but they use their superior intelligence in reducing the heads of their enemies. One is often compelled to wonder whether greater brain-development means greater usefulness.
These seem to be the facts: The head of an enemy being cut off, poisons are poured into it, softening the bones so that they can be drawn out through the neck. They are then replaced by red-hot stones to which the head, reduced to one-fifth its original size, adjusts itself in the steam of a bonfire made of roots of certain palms.
A jungle story runs that a scientist from Germany tried to investigate these sinister processes. But his head, in miniature form, was soon stuck upon a pole. It could be recognized by the long, reddish beard, which had retained its original proportions.
To qualify as a warrior a youth must possess at least one reduced head of his own making. As time goes on, he adorns himself with more and more such trophies.
Some similar custom existed on the coast in ancient times, for these little masks have been found in the huacas (grave mounds). The first reduced heads were exhibited in Lima in 1862 under the rare title, "Heads of the Incas"!
The Macas and Jivaros are believed to have this practice as well, and a tribe exists near the Cusicuari, the Rio Negro, and the Orinoco, reported as able to reduce entire bodies in the same manner.
Some tribes preserve their enemies' hands, others keep their teeth, and some eat their enemies whole. A man speaking a different dialect is eaten like an animal of a different species. The Amahuacas pulverize the bones and eat the ashes in their food, in order to absorb the physical strength as well as the moral virtues of the person gone before. Although they are never eaten, the women of cannibal tribes are said to be more cannibalistic than the men. Prior to such feasts they fatten the prisoners of war, who "rather enjoy the prospect, and gorge themselves to accommodate their keepers. They occupy themselves tranquilly with their duties as slaves without attempting to escape."
Another practice of the Aguarunas is making the tundoy, or tunduli, their jungle signal-service. They hollow a tree-trunk and make three holes in it with red-hot stones, then hang it aloft on a high tree, fastening the lower end securely to the ground. Blows upon it with a wooden mallet reverberate as far as ten miles, and form a code, by their swiftness or slowness and their pitch above, between, or below the holes. As a hundred words suffice for a language, so would three tones for a drum of war. Primitive man in the primeval jungle sending blood-curdling signals to reduce the heads of his enemies! Reverberations whose wave-lengths are intercepted on their echoing passage through the forest by the flight of royal butterflies and challenged by the chatter of antediluvian apes!
The weaker tribes are actually, not in name merely, pushed back into the woods. Many traits in us find a literal, physical parallel in them. We speak of "licking the dust;" in the jungle there are tribes of earth-eating savages. A civilized man in the jungle learns their literal ways. He puts gunpowder on the bite of a serpent and cauterizes by igniting it. Having no language adequately to express the venomous thoughts they may feel, they use poisoned arrows. They literally reduce an enemy's head, and are more humane than we, doing it after death!
The Inje-inje represent the Stone Age, both in their tools and language. They come out of inaccessible hiding-places to perform their primeval rites by full moon and are the least known of all the savage tribes. This small tribe of the Inje-inje, whose name is the sum of their language, need only a word to steer their craft through life. As has been said, the development of language from the primitive Inje-inje to the somewhat developed Aguaruna can be studied in this mysterious place. No tribe can count further than ten; most of them use only a movement of the fingers. Though there are hundreds of "languages," not one Amazonian tribe can write.
In temperate zones nature is to be relied upon. Roots grow in the ground, branches and leaves in the air, flowers come forth at certain seasons, and fruit follows. Trees give us shade in which no fever lurks. Vegetables do not relieve agony and want, as insects and plants do not cause it. No animals lie in wait to seize us, no snakes to uncurl and engulf us. Rain comes in measurable quantities. We live on a tempered, miniature scale. We can afford to neglect reckoning with nature, for we understand her laws, and we direct her by that understanding.
But what can be said of the jungle? Had we thought of gardens as suitably placed in tree-tops? Or of an edge of wood as sharp as an edge of steel? Here accustomed flowers grow as shrubs, and shrubs as trees. It is a region where insects are mistaken for birds, where animals imitate a flower on the branch where they like to rest; where plants have fragrance, and blossoms burst forth from roots or rough bark; where birds gain protection by assuming the dazzling colors of tropical sunlight, and butterflies by the warning colors of their neighbors. It is a region where roots grow in the air; oils, wax, and honey are secreted by leaves; where the death of anything gives new, vital impulse to something else, and parasites are as significant as their supporters. Curious region, where there are night-flying butterflies and softly-feathered moths to fly in the daytime; where everything is reversed: animals, whose normal is upside down, prefer tree-tops to the ground, birds of prey are frightened by the painting on a butterfly's wings, caterpillars sting, spiders kill birds, and water is the principal element of the land.
Dramatic indeed is the silent jungle. The insect is imprisoned in the throat of the orchid, whose honey it had been unwarily seeking. Trees distil venom. Plants have fangs. Perfumes affect the brain. Cold, green creepers blister like fire. From vampires which suck your blood as you sleep, to the touch of a vine which paralyzes your entire body, the jungle knows all modes of attack and furnishes the cure for every ill it has created.
What can be taken as the symbol of the jungle? The snake, mysterious, deadly, bound together in savage traditions with lightning, wind, fire-streams of lava, and river-whirlpools, those emblems of serpent treachery? Or butterflies, with their symbolism of life-recurrent?
Or the orchid, emblem of wayward unwholesomeness? In the troops of monkeys which skip, swing, bounce from tree to tree, throwing themselves to be caught by prehensile tails, is its exuberance. In the honey dripping from hollow trees and running off unused, is typified its surplus. Iridescence darting from insects and from birds, rainbows glinting over cataracts or caught by the equatorial sunshine from misty hillsides, might be its symbol; or the beneficence of jungle trees and bushes.
Not one would be more or less typical than any other. All are equally emblematic. If we think of caprice, there is law; of life, there is death; of beauty, there is horror. When each seems most dominant, then its opposite is most uncontrolled.
The seed dies that the plant may live; the blossom withers that the fruit may set; the worm vanishes that the butterfly may spread its wide wings and fly. Plus and minus signs are never far apart indeed.