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W.H. Hudson

American-English Naturalist

1841-1922

A selection from
THE NATURALIST IN LA PLATA

Narrated by Michael Kramer

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THE DESERT PAMPAS

During recent years we have heard much about the great and rapid changes now going on in the plants and animals of all the temperate regions of the globe colonized by Europeans. These changes, if taken merely as evidence of material progress, must be a matter of rejoicing to those who are satisfied, and more than satisfied, with our system of civilization, or method of outwitting Nature by the removal of all checks on the undue increase of our own species. To one who finds a charm in things as they exist in the unconquered provinces of Nature's dominions, and who, not being over-anxious to reach the end of his journey, is content to perform it on horseback, or in a waggon drawn by bullocks, it is permissible to lament the altered aspect of the earth's surface, together with the disappearance of numberless noble and beautiful forms, both of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. For he cannot find it in his heart to love the forms by which they are replaced; these are cultivated and domesticated, and have only become useful to man at the cost of that grace and spirit which freedom and wildness give. In numbers they are many—twenty-five millions of sheep in this district, fifty millions in that, a hundred millions in a third—but how few are the species in place of those destroyed? and when the owner of many sheep and much wheat desires variety—for he possesses this instinctive desire, albeit in conflict with and overborne by the perverted instinct of destruction—what is there left to him, beyond his very own, except the weeds that spring up in his fields under all skies, ringing him round with old-world monotonous forms, as tenacious of their undesired union with him as the rats and cockroaches that inhabit his house?

We hear most frequently of North America, New Zealand, and Australia in this connection; but nowhere on the globe has civilization "written strange defeatures" more markedly than on that great area of level country called by English writers the pampas, but by the Spanish more appropriately La Pampa—from the Quichua word signifying open space or country—since it forms in most part one continuous plain, extending on its eastern border from the river Parana, in latitude 32 degrees, to the Patagonian formation on the river Colorado, and comprising about two hundred thousand square miles of humid, grassy country.

This district has been colonized by Europeans since the middle of the sixteenth century; but down to within a very few years ago immigration was on too limited a scale to make any very great change; and, speaking only of the pampean country, the conquered territory was a long, thinly-settled strip, purely pastoral, and the Indians, with their primitive mode of warfare, were able to keep back the invaders from the greater portion of their ancestral hunting-grounds. Not twenty years ago a ride of two hundred miles, starting from the capital city, Buenos Ayres, was enough to place one well beyond the furthest south-western frontier outpost. In 1879 the Argentine Government determined to rid the country of the aborigines, or, at all events, to break their hostile and predatory spirit once for all; with the result that the entire area of the grassy pampas, with a great portion of the sterile pampas and Patagonia, has been made available to the emigrant. There is no longer anything to deter the starvelings of the Old World from possessing themselves of this new land of promise, flowing, like Australia, with milk and tallow, if not with honey; any emasculated migrant from a Genoese or Neapolitan slum is now competent to "fight the wilderness" out there, with his eight-shilling fowling-piece and the implements of his trade. The barbarians no longer exist to frighten his soul with dreadful war cries; they have moved away to another more remote and shadowy region, called in their own language Alhuemapu, and not known to geographers. For the results so long and ardently wished for have swiftly followed on General Roca's military expedition; and the changes witnessed during the last decade on the pampas exceed in magnitude those which had been previously effected by three centuries of occupation.

In view of this wave of change now rapidly sweeping away the old order, with whatever beauty and grace it possessed, it might not seem inopportune at the present moment to give a rapid sketch, from the field naturalist's point of view, of the great plain, as it existed before the agencies introduced by European colonists had done their work, and as it still exists in its remoter parts.

The humid, grassy, pampean country extends, roughly speaking, half-way from the Atlantic Ocean and the Plata and Paraná rivers to the Andes, and passes gradually into the "Monte Formation," or sterile pampa—a sandy, more or less barren district, producing a dry, harsh, ligneous vegetation, principally thorny bushes and low trees, of which the chañar (Gurliaca decorticans) is the most common; hence the name of "Chañar-steppe" used by some writers: and this formation extends southwards down into Patagonia. Scientists have not yet been able to explain why the pampas, with a humid climate, and a soil exceedingly rich, have produced nothing but grass, while the dry, sterile territories on their north, west, and south borders have an arborescent vegetation. Darwin's conjecture that the extreme violence of the pampero, or south-west wind, prevented trees from growing, is now proved to have been ill-founded since the introduction of the Eucalyptus globulus; for this noble tree attains to an extraordinary height on the pampas, and exhibits there a luxuriance of foliage never seen in Australia.

To this level area—my "parish of Selborne," or, at all events, a goodly portion of it—with the sea on one hand, and on the other the practically infinite expanse of grassy desert—another sea, not "in vast fluctuations fixed," but in comparative calm—I should like to conduct the reader in imagination: a country all the easier to be imagined on account of the absence of mountains, woods, lakes, and rivers. There is, indeed, little to be imagined—not even a sense of vastness; and Darwin, touching on this point, in the Journal of a Naturalist, aptly says:—"At sea, a person's eye being six feet above the surface of the water, his horizon is two miles and four-fifths distant. In like manner, the more level the plain, the more nearly does the horizon approach within these narrow limits; and this, in my opinion, entirely destroys the grandeur which one would have imagined that a vast plain would have possessed."

I remember my first experience of a hill, after having been always shut within "these narrow limits." It was one of the range of sierras near Cape Corrientes, and not above eight hundred feet high; yet, when I had gained the summit, I was amazed at the vastness of the earth, as it appeared to me from that modest elevation. Persons born and bred on the pampas, when they first visit a mountainous district, frequently experience a sensation as of "a ball in the throat" which seems to prevent free respiration.

In most places the rich, dry soil is occupied by a coarse grass, three or four feet high, growing in large tussocks, and all the year round of a deep green; a few slender herbs and trefoils, with long, twining stems, maintain a frail existence among the tussocks; but the strong grass crowds out most plants, and scarcely a flower relieves its uniform everlasting verdure. There are patches, sometimes large areas, where it does not grow, and these are carpeted by small creeping herbs of a livelier green, and are gay in spring with flowers, chiefly of the composite and papilionaceous kinds; and verbenas, scarlet, purple, rose, and white. On moist or marshy grounds there are also several lilies, yellow, white, and red, two or three flags, and various other small flowers; but altogether the flora of the pampas is the poorest in species of any fertile district on the globe. On moist clayey ground flourishes the stately pampa grass, Gynerium argenteum, the spears of which often attain a height of eight or nine feet. I have ridden through many leagues of this grass with the feathery spikes high as my head, and often higher. It would be impossible for me to give anything like an adequate idea of the exquisite loveliness, at certain times and seasons, of this queen of grasses, the chief glory of the solitary pampa. Everyone is familiar with it in cultivation; but the garden-plant has a sadly decaying, draggled look at all times, and to my mind, is often positively ugly with its dense withering mass of coarse leaves, drooping on the ground, and bundle of spikes, always of the same dead white or dirty cream-colour. Now colour—the various ethereal tints that give a blush to its cloud-like purity—is one of the chief beauties of this grass on its native soil; and travellers who have galloped across the pampas at a season of the year when the spikes are dead, and white as paper or parchment, have certainly missed its greatest charm. The plant is social, and in some places where scarcely any other kind exists it covers large areas with a sea of fleecy-white plumes; in late summer, and in autumn, the tints are seen, varying from the most delicate rose, tender and illusive as the blush on the white under-plumage of some gulls, to purple and violaceous. At no time does it look so perfect as in the evening, before and after sunset, when the softened light imparts a mistiness to the crowding plumes, and the traveller cannot help fancying that the tints, which then seem richest, are caught from the level rays of the sun, or reflected from the coloured vapours of the afterglow.

The last occasion on which I saw the pampa grass in its full beauty was at the close of a bright day in March, ending in one of those perfect sunsets seen only in the wilderness, where no lines of house or hedge mar the enchanting disorder of nature, and the earth and sky tints are in harmony. I had been travelling all day with one companion, and for two hours we had ridden through the matchless grass, which spread away for miles on every side, the myriads of white spears, touched with varied colour, blending in the distance and appearing almost like the surface of a cloud. Hearing a swishing sound behind us, we turned sharply round, and saw, not forty yards away in our rear, a party of five mounted Indians, coming swiftly towards us: but at the very moment we saw them their animals came to a dead halt, and at the same instant the five riders leaped up, and stood erect on their horses' backs. Satisfied that they had no intention of attacking us, and were only looking out for strayed horses, we continued watching them for some time, as they stood gazing away over the plain in different directions, motionless and silent, like bronze men on strange horse-shaped pedestals of dark stone; so dark in their copper skins and long black hair, against the far-off ethereal sky, flushed with amber light; and at their feet, and all around, the cloud of white and faintly-blushing plumes. That farewell scene was printed very vividly on my memory, but cannot be shown to another, nor could it be even if a Ruskin's pen or a Turner's pencil were mine; for the flight of the sea-mew is not more impossible to us than the power to picture forth the image of Nature in our souls, when she reveals herself in one of those "special moments" which have "special grace" in situations where her wild beauty has never been spoiled by man.

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