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Two Years in the French West Indies By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 8762

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


... We enter the grands-bois,-the primitive forest,-the "high woods."

As seen with a field-glass from St. Pierre, these woods present only the appearance of a band of moss belting the volcano, and following all its corrugations,-so densely do the leafy crests intermingle. But on actually entering them, you find yourself at once in green twilight, among lofty trunks uprising everywhere like huge pillars wrapped with vines;-and the interspaces between these bulks are all occupied by lianas and parasitic creepers,-some monstrous,-veritable parasite-trees,-ascending at all angles, or dropping straight down from the tallest crests to take root again. The effect in the dim light is that of innumerable black ropes and cables of varying thicknesses stretched taut from the soil to the tree-tops, and also from branch to branch, like rigging. There are rare and remarkable trees here,-acomats, courbarils, balatas, ceibas or fromagers, acajous, gommiers;-hundreds have been cut down by charcoal-makers; but the forest is still grand. It is to be regretted that the Government has placed no restriction upon the barbarous destruction of trees by the charbonniers, which is going on throughout the island. Many valuable woods are rapidly disappearing. The courbaril, yielding a fine-grained, heavy, chocolate-colored timber; the balata, giving a wood even heavier, denser, and darker; the acajou, producing a rich red wood, with a strong scent of cedar; the bois-de-fer; the bois d'Inde; the superb acomat,-all used to flourish by tens of thousands upon these volcanic slopes, whose productiveness is eighteen times greater than that of the richest European soil. All Martinique furniture used to be made of native woods; and the colored cabinet-makers still produce work which would probably astonish New York or London manufacturers. But to-day the island exports no more hard woods: it has even been found necessary to import much from neighboring islands;-and yet the destruction of forests still goes on. The domestic fabrication of charcoal from forest-trees has been estimated at 1,400,000 hectolitres per annum. Primitive forest still covers the island to the extent of 21.37 per cent; but to find precious woods now, one must climb heights like those of Pelée and Carbet, or penetrate into the mountains of the interior.

Most common formerly on these slopes were the gommiers, from which canoes of a single piece, forty-five feet long by seven wide, used to be made. There are plenty of gommiers still; but the difficulty of transporting them to the shore has latterly caused a demand for the gommiers of Dominica. The dimensions of canoes now made from these trees rarely exceed fifteen feet in length by eighteen inches in width: the art of making them is an inheritance from the ancient Caribs. First the trunk is shaped to the form of the canoe, and pointed at both ends; it is then hollowed out. The width of the hollow does not exceed six inches at the widest part; but the cavity is then filled with wet sand, which in the course of some weeks widens the excavation by its weight, and gives the boat perfect form. Finally gunwales of plank are fastened on; seats are put in-generally four;-and no boat is more durable nor more swift.

... We climb. There is a trace rather than a foot-path;-no visible soil, only vegetable detritus, with roots woven over it in every direction. The foot never rests on a flat surface,-only upon surfaces of roots; and these are covered, like every protruding branch along the route, with a slimy green moss, slippery as ice. Unless accustomed to walking in tropical woods, one will fall at every step. In a little while I find it impossible to advance. Our nearest guide, observing my predicament, turns, and without moving the bundle upon his head, cuts and trims me an excellent staff with a few strokes of his cutlass. This staff not only saves me from dangerous slips, but also serves at times to probe the way; for the further we proceed, the vaguer the path becomes. It was made by the chasseurs-de-choux (cabbage-hunters),-the negro mountaineers who live by furnishing heads of young cabbage-palm to the city markets; and these men also keep it open,-otherwise the woods would grow over it in a month. Two chasseurs-de-choux stride past us as we advance, with their freshly gathered palm-salad upon their heads, wrappe

d in cachibou or balisier leaves, and tied with lianas. The palmiste-franc easily reaches a stature of one hundred feet; but the young trees are so eagerly sought for by the chasseurs-de-choux that in these woods few reach a height of even twelve feet before being cut.

... Walking becomes more difficult;-there seems no termination to the grands-bois: always the same faint green light, the same rude natural stair-way of slippery roots,-half the time hidden by fern leaves and vines. Sharp ammoniacal scents are in the air; a dew, cold as ice-water, drenches our clothing. Unfamiliar insects make trilling noises in dark places; and now and then a series of soft clear notes ring out, almost like a thrush's whistle: the chant of a little tree-frog. The path becomes more and more overgrown; and but for the constant excursions of the cabbage-hunters, we should certainly have to cutlass every foot of the way through creepers and brambles. More and more amazing also is the interminable interweaving of roots: the whole forest is thus spun together-not underground so much as overground. These tropical trees do not strike deep, although able to climb steep slopes of porphyry and basalt: they send out great far-reaching webs of roots,-each such web interknotting with others all round it, and these in turn with further ones;-while between their reticulations lianas ascend and descend: and a nameless multitude of shrubs as tough as india-rubber push up, together with mosses, grasses, and ferns. Square miles upon square miles of woods are thus interlocked and interbound into one mass solid enough to resist the pressure of a hurricane; and where there is no path already made, entrance into them can only be effected by the most dexterous cutlassing.

An inexperienced stranger might be puzzled to understand how this cutlassing is done. It is no easy feat to sever with one blow a liana thick as a man's arm; the trained cutlasser does it without apparent difficulty: moreover, he cuts horizontally, so as to prevent the severed top presenting a sharp angle and proving afterwards dangerous. He never appears to strike hard,-only to give light taps with his blade, which flickers continually about him as he moves. Our own guides in cutlassing are not at all inconvenienced by their loads; they walk perfectly upright, never stumble, never slip, never hesitate, and do not even seem to perspire: their bare feet are prehensile. Some creoles in our party, habituated to the woods, walk nearly as well in their shoes; but they carry no loads.

... At last we are rejoiced to observe that the trees are becoming smaller;-there are no more colossal trunks;-there are frequent glimpses of sky: the sun has risen well above the peaks, and sends occasional beams down through the leaves. Ten minutes, and we reach a clear space,-a wild savane, very steep, above which looms a higher belt of woods. Here we take another short rest.

Northward the view is cut off by a ridge covered with herbaceous vegetation;-but to the south-west it is open, over a gorge of which both sides are shrouded in sombre green-crests of trees forming a solid curtain against the sun. Beyond the outer and lower cliff valley-surfaces appear miles away, flinging up broad gleams of cane-gold; further off greens disappear into blues, and the fantastic masses of Carbet loom up far higher than before. St. Pierre, in a curve of the coast, is a little red-and-yellow semicircular streak, less than two inches long. The interspaces between far mountain chains,-masses of pyramids, cones, single and double humps, queer blue angles as of raised knees under coverings,-resemble misty lakes: they are filled with brume;-the sea-line has vanished altogether. Only the horizon, enormously heightened, can be discerned as a circling band of faint yellowish light,-auroral, ghostly,-almost on a level with the tips of the Pitons. Between this vague horizon and the shore, the sea no longer looks like sea, but like a second hollow sky reversed. All the landscape has unreal beauty:-there are no keen lines; there are no definite beginnings or endings; the tints are half-colors only;-peaks rise suddenly from mysteries of bluish fog as from a flood; land melts into sea the same hue. It gives one the idea of some great aquarelle unfinished,-abandoned before tones were deepened and details brought out.

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