A Sojourn in Cuba
One day in January I climbed to the housetop to get a view of another
of the fine sunsets of this land of flowers. The landscape was a strip
of clear Gulf water, a strip of sylvan coast, a tranquil company of shell
and coral keys, and a gloriously colored sky without a threatening cloud.
All the winds were hushed and the calm of the heavens was as profound as
that of the palmy islands and their encircling waters. As I gazed from
one to another of the palm-crowned keys enclosed by the sunset-colored
dome, my eyes chanced to rest upon the fluttering sails of a Yankee schooner
that was threading the tortuous channel in the coral reef leading to the
harbor of Cedar Keys. "There," thought I, "perhaps I may
sail in that pretty white moth." she proved to be the schooner Island
One day soon after her arrival I went over the key to the harbor, for
I was now strong enough to walk. Some of her crew were ashore after water.
I waited until their casks were filled, and went with them to the vessel
in their boat. Ascertained that she was ready to sail with her cargo of
lumber for Cuba. I engaged passage on her for twenty-five dollars, and
asked her sharp-visaged captain when he would sail. "Just as soon,"
said he, "as we get a north wind. We have had northers enough when
we did not want them, and now we have this dying breath from the south."
Hurrying back to the house, I gathered my plants, took leave of my kind
friends, and went aboard, and soon, as if to calm the captain's complaints,
Boreas came foaming loud and strong. The little craft was quickly trimmed
and snugged, her inviting sails spread open, and away she dashed to her
ocean home like an exulting war-horse to the battle. Islet after islet
speedily grew dim and sank beneath the horizon. Deeper became the blue
water, and in a few hours all of Florida vanished.
This excursion on the sea, the first one after twenty years in the woods,
was of course exceedingly interesting, and I was full of hope, glad to
be once more on my journey to the South. Boreas increased in power and
the Island Belle appeared to glory in her speed and managed her full-spread
wings as gracefully as a sea-bird. In less than a day our norther increased
in strength to the storm point. Deeper and wider became the valleys, and
yet higher the hills of the round plain of water. The flying jib and gaff
topsails were lowered and mainsails close-reefed, and our
deck was white with broken wave-tops.
"You had better go below," said the captain.
"The Gulf Stream, opposed by this wind, is raising a heavy sea and
you will be sick. No landsman can stand this long." I replied that
I hoped the storm would be as violent as his ship could bear, that I enjoyed
the scenery of such a sea so much that it was impossible to be
that I had long waited in the woods for just such a storm, and that, now
that the precious thing had come, I would remain on deck and enjoy it.
"Well," said he, "if you can stand this, you are the first
landsman I ever saw that could."
I remained on deck, holding on by a rope to keep from
being washed overboard, and watched the behavior of the Belle as she dared
nobly on; but my attention was mostly directed among the glorious fields
of foam-topped waves. The wind had a mysterious voice and carried nothing
now of the songs of birds or of the rustling of palms and fragrant vines.
Its burden was gathered from a stormy expanse of crested waves and briny
tangles. I could see no striving in those magnificent wave-motions, no
raging; all the storm was apparently inspired with nature's beauty and
harmony. Every wave was obedient and harmonious as the smoothest ripple
of a forest lake, and after dark all the water was phosphorescent like
silver fire, a glorious sight.
Our luminous storm was all too short for me. Cuba's rock-waves
loomed above the white waters early in the morning. The sailors, accustomed
to detect the faintest land line, pointed out well-known guiding harbor-marks
back of the Morro Castle long before I could see them through the flying
spray. We sailed landward for several hours, the misty shore becoming
gradually more earthlike. A flock of white-plumaged ships was departing
from the Havana harbor, or, like us, seeking to enter it. No sooner had
our little schooner flapped her sails in the lee of the Castle than she
was boarded by a swarm of daintily dressed officials who were good-naturedly
and good-gesturedly making all sorts of inquiries, while our busy captain,
paying little attention to them, was giving orders to his crew.
The neck of the harbor is narrow and it is seldom possible
to sail in to appointed anchorage without the aid of a steam tug. our
captain wished to save his money, but after much profitless tacking was
compelled to take the
proffered aid of steam, when we soon reached
our quiet mid-harbor quarters and dropped anchor among
ships of every size from every sea.
I was still four or five hundred yards from land and could
determine no plant in sight excepting the long arched leaf banners of the
banana and the palm, which made a brave show on the Morro Hill. When we
were approaching the land, I observed that in some places it was distinctly
yellow and I wondered while we were yet some miles distant whether the
color belonged to the ground or to sheets of flowers. From our harbor home
I could now see that the color was plant-gold. On one side of the harbor
was a city of these yellow plants; on the other, a city of yellow stucco
houses, narrowly and confusedly congregated.
"Do you want to go ashore?" said the captain
to me. "Yes," I replied, "but I wish to go to the plant
side of the harbor." "Oh, well," he said, "come with
me now. There are some fine squares and gardens in the city, full of all
sorts of trees and flowers. Enjoy these to-day, and some other day
we will all go over the Morro Hill with you and gather shells. All kinds
of shells are over there; but these yellow slopes that you see are covered
only with weeds."
We jumped into the boat and a couple of sailors pulled us to the thronged,
noisy wharf. It was Sunday afternoon
[Doubtless January 12, 1868]
the noisiest day of a Havana week. Cathedral bells and prayers
in the forenoon, theaters and bull-fight bells and bellowings in the afternoon!
Lowly whispered prayers to the saints and the Virgin, followed by shouts
of praise or reproach to bulls and matadors! I made free with fine oranges
and bananas and many other fruits. Pineapple I had never seen before. Wandered
about the narrow streets, stunned with the babel of strange sounds and
sights; went gazing, also, among the gorgeously flowered garden squares,
and then waited among some boxed merchandise until our captain, detained
arrived. Was glad to escape to our little schooner Belle
again, weary and heavy laden with excitement and tempting fruits.
As night came on, a thousand lights starred the great town. I was now
in one of my happy dreamlands, the fairest of West India islands. But how,
I wondered, shall I be able to escape from this great city confusion? How
shall I reach nature in this delectable land? Consulting my map, I longed
to climb the central mountain range of the island and trace it through
all its forests and valleys and over its summit peaks, a distance of seven
or eight hundred miles. But alas! though out of Florida swamps, fever
was yet weighing me down, and a mile of city walking was quite exhausting.
The weather too was oppressively warm and sultry.
. During the few days since our arrival the sun usually
has risen unclouded, pouring down pure gold, rich and dense, for one or
two hours. Then islandlike masses of white-edged cumuli suddenly appeared,
grew to storm size, and in a few minutes discharged
rain in tepid
plashing bucketfuls, accompanied with high wind. This was followed by
a short space of calm, half-cloudy sky, delightfully fragrant with flowers,
and again the air would become hot, thick, and sultry.
This weather, as may readily be perceived, was severe to one so weak
and feverish, and after a dozen trials of strength over the Morro Hill
and along the coast northward for shells and flowers, I was sadly compelled
to see that no enthusiasm could enable me to walk to the interior. So I
was obliged to limit my researches to within ten or twelve miles of Havana.
Captain Parsons offered his ship as my headquarters and my weakness prevented
me from spending a single night ashore.
The daily programme for nearly all the month that I spent here was about
as follows: After breakfast a sailor rowed me ashore on the north side
of the harbor. A few minutes' walk took me past the Morro Castle and out
of sight of the town on a broad cactus common, about as solitary and untrodden
as the tangles of
Florida. Here I zigzagged and gathered prizes among
unnumbered plants and shells along the shore, stopping to press the plant
specimens and to rest in the shade of vine-heaps and bushes until sundown.
The happy hours stole away until I had to return to the schooner. Either
I was seen by the sailors who usually came for me, or I hired a boat to
take me back. Arrived, I reached up my press and a big handful of flowers,
and with a little help climbed up the side of my floating home.
Refreshed with supper and rest, I recounted my adventures in the vine
tangles, cactus thickets, sunflower swamps and along the shore among the
breakers. My flower specimens, also, and pocketfuls of shells and corals
had to be reviewed. Next followed a cool, dreamy hour on deck amid the
lights of the town and the various vessels coming and departing.
Many strange sounds were heard: the vociferous, unsmotherable bells,
the heavy thundering of cannon from the Castle, and the
the sentinels in measured time. Combined they made the most incessant sharp-angled
mass of noise that I ever was doomed to hear. Nine or ten o'clock found
me in a small bunk with the harbor wavelets tinkling outside close to my
ear. The hours of sleep were filled with dreams of heavy heat, of fruitless
efforts for the disentanglement of vines, or of running from curling breakers
back to the Morro, etc. Thus my days and nights went on.
Occasionally I was persuaded by the captain to go ashore in the evening
on his side of the harbor, accompanied perhaps by two or three other captains.
After landing and telling the sailors when to call for us, we hired a carriage
and drove to the upper end of the city, to a fine public square adorned
with shady walks and magnificent plants. A brass band in imposing uniform
played the characteristic lance-noted martial airs of the Spanish. Evening
is the fashionable hour for aristocratic drives about the streets and squares,
the only time that is delightfully cool. I never saw elsewhere people
so neatly and becomingly dressed. The proud best-family Cubans may fairly
be called beautiful, are under- rather than over-sized, with features exquisitely
moulded, and set off with silks and broadcloth in excellent taste. Strange
that their amusements should be so coarse. Bull-fighting, brain-splitting
bell-ringing, and the most piercing artificial music appeal to their taste.
The rank and wealth of Havana nobility, when out driving, seems to be
indicated by the distance of their horses from the body of the carriage.
The higher the rank, the longer the shafts of the carriage, and the clumsier
and more ponderous are the wheels, which are not unlike those of a cannon-cart.
A few of these carriages have shafts twenty-five feet in length, and the
brilliant-liveried negro driver on the lead horse, twenty or thirty feet
in advance of the horse in the shafts, is beyond calling distance of his
Havana abounds in public squares, which in all my random strolls throughout
the big town
I found to be well watered, well cared for, well planted,
and full of exceedingly showy and interesting plants, rare even amid the
exhaustless luxuriance of Cuba. These squares also contained fine marble
statuary and were furnished with seats in the shadiest places. Many of
the walks were paved instead of graveled.
The streets of Havana are crooked, labyrinthic, and exceedingly narrow.
The sidewalks are only about a foot wide. A traveler experiences delightful
relief when, heated and wearied by rains through the breadth of the dingy
yellow town, dodging a way through crowds of men and mules and lumbering
carts and carriages, he at length finds shelter in the spacious, dust-less,
cool, flowery squares; still more when, emerging from all the din and darkness
of these lanelike streets, he suddenly finds himself out in the middle
of the harbor, inhaling full-drawn breaths of the sea breezes.
The interior of the better houses which came under my observation struck
me with the profusion of dumpy, ill-proportioned pillars at the
and in the halls, and with the spacious open-fielded appearance of their
enclosed square house-gardens or courts. Cubans in general appear to me
superfinely polished, polite, and agreeable in society, but in their treatment
of animals they are cruel. I saw more downright brutal cruelty to mules
and horses during the few weeks I stayed there than in my whole life elsewhere.
Live chickens and hogs are tied in bunches by the legs and carried to market
thus, slung on a mule. In their general treatment of all sorts of animals
they seem to have no thought for them beyond cold-blooded, selfish interest.
In tropical regions it is easy to build towns, but it is difficult to
subdue their armed and united plant inhabitants, and to clear fields and
make them blossom with breadstuff. The plant people of temperate regions,
feeble, unarmed, unallied, disappear under the trampling feet of flocks,
herds, and man, leaving their homes to enslavable plants which follow the
will of man and furnish him with food. But the
armed and united plants
of the tropics hold their rightful kingdom plantfully, nor, since the first
appearance of Lord Man, have they ever suffered defeat.
A large number of Cuba's wild plants circle closely about Havana. In
five minutes' walk from the wharf I could reach the undisturbed settlements
of Nature. The field of the greater portion of my rambling researches was
a strip of rocky common, silent and unfrequented by anybody save an occasional
beggar at Nature's door asking a few roots and seeds. This natural strip
extended ten miles along the coast northward, with but few large-sized
trees and bushes, but rich in magnificent vines, cacti-composites, leguminous
plants, grasses, etc. The wild flowers of this seaside field are a happy
band, closely joined in splendid array. The trees shine with blossoms and
with light reflected from the leaves. The individuality of the vines is
lost in trackless, interlacing, twisting, overheaping union.
Our American "South" is rich in flowery
vines. In some
districts almost every tree is crowned with them, aiding each other in
grace and beauty. Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee have the grapevine in
predominant numbers and development. Farther south dwell the greenbriers
and countless leguminous vines. A vine common among the Florida islets,
perhaps belonging to the dogbane family, over-runs live-oaks and palmettos,
with frequently more than a hundred stems twisted into one cable. Yet in
no section of the South are there such complicated and such gorgeously
flowered vine-tangles as flourish in armed safety in the hot and humid
wild gardens of Cuba.
The longest and the shortest vine that I found in Cuba were both leguminous.
I have said that the harbor side of the Morro Hill is clothed with tall
yellow-flowered composites through which it is difficult to pass. But there
are smooth, velvety, lawnlike patches in these
Coming suddenly upon one of these open places, I stopped to admire its
greenness and smoothness, when I observed a
sprinkling of large papilionaceous
blossoms among the short green grass. The long composites that bordered
this little lawn were entwined and almost smothered with vines which bore
similar corollas in tropic abundance.
I at once decided that these sprinkled flowers had been blown off the
encompassing tangles and had been kept fresh by dew and by spray from the
sea. But, on stooping to pick one of them up, I was surprised to find that
it was attached to Mother Earth by a short, prostrate, slender hair of
a vine stem, bearing, besides the one large blossom, a pair or two of linear
leaves. The flower weighed more than stem, root, and leaves combined. Thus,
in a land of creeping and twining giants, we find also this charming, diminutive
-- the vine reduced to its lowest terms.
The longest vine, prostrate and untwined like its little neighbor, covers
patches of several hundred square yards with its countless branches and
close growth of upright, trifoliate, smooth green leaves. The flowers are
as plain and unshowy
in size and color as those of the sweet peas
of gardens. The seeds are large and satiny. The whole plant is noble in
its motions and features, covering the ground with a depth of unconfused
leafage which I have never seen equaled by any other plant. The extent
of leaf-surface is greater, I think, than that of a large Kentucky oak.
It grows, as far as my observation has reached, only upon shores, in a
soil composed of broken shells and corals, and extends exactly to the
water-line of the highest-reaching waves. The same plant is abundant in
The cacti form an important part of the plant population of my ramble
ground. They are various as the vines, consisting now of a diminutive joint
or two hid in the weeds, now rising into bushy trees, wide-topped, with
trunks a foot in diameter, and with glossy, dark-green joints that reflect
light like the silex-varnished palms. They are planted for fences, together
with the Spanish bayonet and agave.
In one of my first walks I was laboriously
scrambling among some
low rocks gathering ferns and vines, when I was startled by finding my
face close to a great snake, whose body was disposed carelessly like a
castaway rope among the weeds and stones. After escaping and coming to
my senses, I discovered that the snake was a member of the vegetable kingdom,
capable of no dangerous amount of locomotion, but possessed of many a fang,
and prostrate as though under the curse of Eden, "Upon thy belly shalt
thou go and dust shalt thou eat."
One day, after luxuriating in the riches of my Morro pasture, and pressing
specimens, I went down to the bank of brilliant wave-washed shells to
rest awhile in their beauty, and to watch the breakers that a powerful
norther was heaving in splendid rank along the coral boundary. I gathered
pocketfuls of shells, mostly small but fine in color and form, and bits
of rosy coral. Then I amused myself by noting the varying colors of the
waves and the different forms of their curved and blossoming crests. While
thus alone and free it was
interesting to learn the richly varied
songs, or what we mortals call the roar, of expiring breakers. I compared
their variation with the different distances to which the broken wave-water
reached landward in its farthest-flung foam-wreaths, and endeavored to
form some idea of the one great song sounding forever all around the white-blooming
shores of the world.
Rising from my shell seat, I watched a wave leaping from the deep and
coming far up the beveled strand to bloom and die in a mass of white. Then
I followed the spent waters in their return to the blue deep, wading in
their spangled, decaying fragments until chased back up the bank by the
coming of another wave. While thus playing half studiously, I discovered
in the rough, beaten deathbed of the wave a little plant with closed flowers.
It was crouching in a hollow of the brown wave-washed rock, and one by
one the chanting, dying waves rolled over it. The tips of its delicate
pink petals peered above the clasping green calyx. "Surely,"
said I, as I stooped over it for a moment
, before the oncoming of
another wave, "surely you cannot be living here! You must have been
blown from some warm bank, and rolled into this little hollow crack like
a dead shell." But, running back after every retiring wave, I found
that its roots were wedged into a shallow wrinkle of the coral rock, and
that this wave-beaten chink was indeed its dwelling-place.
I had oftentimes admired the adaptation displayed in the structure of
the stately dulse and other seaweeds, but never thought to find a highbred
flowering plant dwelling amid waves in the stormy, roaring domain of the
sea. This little plant has smooth globular leaves, fleshy and translucent
like beads, but green like those of other land plants. The flower is about
five eighths of an inch in diameter, rose-purple, opening in calm weather,
when deserted by the waves. In general appearance it is like a small portulaca.
The strand, as far as I walked it, was luxuriantly fringed with woody Compositae,
two or three feet in height, their tops purple
and golden with a
profusion of flowers. Among these I discovered a small bush whose yellow
flowers were ideal; all the parts were present regularly alternate and
in fives, and all separate, a plain harmony.
When a page is written over but once it may be easily read; but if it
be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon
becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or
thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection.
Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and overtaxed in reading the
inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written over and over uncountable
times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed
of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment
in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious
unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world.
One of the most common plants of my pasture
was the agave. It
is sometimes used for fencing. One day, in looking back from the top of
the Morro Hill, as I was returning to the Island Belle, I chanced to observe
two poplar-like trees about twenty-five feet in height. They were growing
in a dense patch of cactus and vine-knotted sunflowers. I was anxious to
see anything so homelike as a poplar, and so made haste towards the two
strange trees, making a way through the cactus and sunflower jungle that
protected them. I was surprised to find that what I took to be poplars
were agaves in flower, the first I had seen. They were almost out of flower,
and fast becoming wilted at the approach of death. Bulbs were scattered
about, and a good many still remained on the branches, which gave it a
The stem of the agave seems enormous in size when one considers that
it is the growth of a few weeks. This plant is said to make a mighty effort
to flower and mature its seeds and then to die of exhaustion. Now there
is not, so far as I have seen, a mighty effort or the need of one,
in wild Nature. She accomplishes her ends without unquiet effort, and
perhaps there is nothing more mighty in the development of the flower-stem
of the agave than in the development of a grass panicle.
Havana has a fine botanical garden. I spent pleasant hours in its magnificent
flowery arbors and around its shady fountains. There is a palm avenue which
is considered wonderfully stately and beautiful, fifty palms in two straight
lines, each rigidly perpendicular. The smooth round shafts, slightly thicker
in the middle, appear to be productions of the lathe, rather than vegetable
stems. The fifty arched crowns, inimitably balanced, blaze in the sunshine
like heaps of stars that have fallen from the skies. The stems were about
sixty or seventy feet in height, the crowns about fifteen feet in diameter.
Along a stream-bank were tall, waving bamboos, leafy as willows, and
infinitely graceful in wind gestures. There was one species of palm, with
immense bipinnate leaves and leaflets
fringed, jagged, and one-sided,
like those of
Hundreds of the most gorgeous-flowered plants,
some of them large trees, belonging to the
with what I have before seen in artificial flower-gardens, this is past
comparison the grandest. It is a perfect metropolis of the brightest and
most exuberant of garden plants, watered by handsome fountains, while
graveled and finely bordered walks slant and curve in all directions, and
in all kinds of fanciful playground styles, more like the fairy gardens
of the Arabian Nights than any ordinary man-made pleasure-ground.
In Havana I saw the strongest and the ugliest negroes that I have met
in my whole walk. The stevedores of the Havana wharf are muscled in true
giant style, enabling them to tumble and toss ponderous casks and boxes
of sugar weighing hundreds of pounds as if they were empty. I heard our
own brawny sailors, after watching them at work a few minutes, express
unbounded admiration of their strength,
and wish that their hard
outbulging muscles were for sale. The countenances of some of the negro
orange-selling dames express a devout good-natured ugliness that I never
could have conceived any arrangement of flesh and blood to be capable of.
Besides oranges they sold pineapples, bananas, and lottery tickets.
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