Tour Of The Caribbean - The High Woods
( Originally Published 1925 )
So prodigal in the tropics is the growth of all things green that if the good folk of Port of Spain were to march out of their town on a certain day and not come back again until five years had passed they would find the place lost in jungle, the familiar streets blocked with undergrowth, the tram-lines faint streaks in the moss, and the church hidden beneath creepers.
A drift of luxuriant green, some fathoms deep, covers the whole island, silting up the valleys, making level the ravines, and bridging over each smaller river so that it creeps through the shadows like a snake. This wealth of green pours down from the hills into the town, "a waterfall of leaf and glowing flower." It penetrates everywhere, through the outskirts, like a lava stream. It trickles into the very streets. It is hard to keep it at bay. Let a road be closed and in a while it becomes a meadow of weeds. Let a garden be deserted and it at once relapses into the savagery of a tangled wood. There are no bare places in the tropics. Even the rock that stands up like a bleached bone will find some kindly leaf to cover it.
The country around Port of Spain is eminently beautiful, a wonder of valley and peak, of purple shadows, of soft gullies full of blue haze, of splashes of brilliant colour. Looked down upon from a height it is the country of an epic, the land of the primeval romance, majestic, solemn, unconfined. Here is an unclimbable crag covered with trees to its summit, not with lean pines or starving larches, but with the pampered trees of a summer wood. On its height should be one of those precipice-walled, many-turreted castles that Gustave Dore loved to draw. Here is a valley, like the Maraval valley, where the road roams through a tunnel of bamboos, where the path is strewn with flowers as if a procession of gallants had just passed by, where the stream by the wayside is so domed with foliage that the noise of its water on the pebbles seems to come from underground.
There is many a mountain pass in Trinidad. Of the view from the summit of one of these Kingsley has written in this wise : " We were aware, between the tree-stems, of a green misty gulf beneath our very feet, which seemed at the first glance boundless, but which gradually resolved itself into mile after mile of forest, rushing down into the sea. The hues of the distant woodlands, twenty miles away, seen through a veil of ultramarine, mingled with the pale greens and blues of the water, and they again with the pale sky, till the eye could hardly discern where land and sea parted from each other."' By the sea is often a windy beach along whose sands a line of lanky cocoanut trees will stretch away for miles. They ever wave their arms in the breeze as if signalling to someone at sea. In a stifling bay, where the water is still, and where the very shadows are stagnant, is a mangrove swamp. The roots of the tree are as the meshes of some cunning net, its tentacles grope seawards like the arms of an octopus. From the mud it spreads in will bubble up a fetid gas with a sound like the gurgle of drowning men, while the sludge it covers is alive with slimy things.
There are still in Trinidad wide tracks of uncultivated land where flourishes " the forest primeval." This is the country as it met the eyes of the first adventurers, the pathless jungle which so fascinated Charles Kingsley that he writes reverently of his first visit to the High Woods (as these forests are called) " I have seen them at last"!
It was near Sangre Grande, under the kindly guidance of Mr. Lickfold, that I made my acquaintance with the High Woods. The world-old jungle is almost impenetrable. Those who would traverse its perplexing depths must follow the method of the early explorer, and hack a way through with a cutlass. So compact is the undergrowth that no trace of the ground is to be seen. For all one could tell the mass of verdure may, like a sand-drift, cover the ruins of cities. Out of the tangle of green rise huge spectral trunks, struggling to reach the sky to breathe, struggling to rid themselves of the web of creepers, vines and parasites which cling to them and drag them down, as the snakes did Laocoon. Ropes forty feet long dangle from the topmost boughs, and it only needs Jack-o'-the-Beanstalk to climb them and tell of the wonders to be seen upon the sunny side of the great canopy of leaves that shuts the daylight from the world.
There are church-like aisles hung with festoons of lianas as if with rags of votive banners which had fluttered there a century. Aerial bridges of creeper-stems swing up aloft from bough to bough over chasms laced and wreathed with an entanglement of green. There are violet-black gaps in the palisade of trees which reveal unimagined depths. In many a dark arbour in the bush some West Indian Merlin may have lived, while the golden auriole that darts out of the shadow might be the spirit of the dead magician.
In this drowsy land the air is hot, heavy and stifling, " breeding," as Raleigh says, " great faintness." Were it not for the brilliant butterflies and moths that glide to and fro one would imagine it was too dense with damp for winged things to fly in. The dim green light is as that of moonlight. The sounds in the woods are strange, for the leaves are strange and their rustling is unlike that heard in any English spinney. The cords that are dropped from the skies, like the strings of an AEolian harp, must utter still more unwonted notes whenever a wind finds its way into these steamy shades. Through the dancing haze, through the languorous vapour that fills the forest as with the smoke of incense, through the fume of dead leaves there comes ever a strange hum of life, the drone of insects, the rustle of the darting lizard, the flutter of hurrying wings.
The vegetation of the tropics is profligate and extravagant. A West Indian jungle shows to what excess the libertinage of leaf and stem may reach. Everything in this spendthrift forest is immoderate and exaggerated. The undergrowth is to a man what a plot of weeds is to a hiding mouse, or what the woods of Brobdingnag were to Gulliver. Here is a creeper that covers half an acre. Here is a plant like a violet in its form, but it would shelter a child. Here is a geranium leaf, but it is shining and stiff and measures two feet across, This bush might be made of parsley were it not so magnified that it rises to the height of many feet. This thicket suggests a clump of bracken, yet such is the size of every fern-like fan that it would hide a dozen horsemen. These woods of Munchausen, these gardens of the megalomaniac are very wonderful, but they are wearisome by their persistent in-temperance and parade.
I think that the most beautiful tree in this part of the world is the Bois Immortel. It is found in the cacao plantations, where it shades and shelters the cacao bushes. Hence its name " Madre de Cacao." In the cool weather the Immortel becomes bare of leaves—a rare occurrence in the tropics. Its stem and boughs being grey they look, as they stand out of the green thicket, wintry and dead. Suddenly, so it seems, the whole crown of the tree becomes covered with marvellous blossoms, with delicate flowers of coral red or ruddy orange. This mass of palpitating colour lifted aloft in the sun against the blue sky is a marvel to see. The name is not to be wondered at. The skeleton tree rises from the verdant earth like a figure of death, and when it seems utterly withered, a blush of radiant petals covers its barrenness and so it breaks into life again.
Before leaving the High Woods I am reminded that a lady of Sangre Grande showed me much of that beautiful country and, amongst other things, a new cemetery of which the village folk were proud. She told me that the first body buried in this ground was that of a coolie baby whose parents had adopted Christianity. Coffins being costly the dead child had been placed in a deal box in which tinned milk had been shipped to the island from Europe. As the sorrowing relatives shuffled round the grave, the lady noticed that there was an inscription upon the lid of the would-be coffin. On looking closer she observed that it read, in heavily stencilled letters, as follows : " Stow away from boilers."