Published letter (WCP5417.6136)

[1] [p. 167]

Guia, Upper Rio Negro [1851]1

I am now just going to start again for Javita in Venezuela, near the sources of the Rio Negro and the Oronooko [Orinoco],2 so will first write you some account of my doings, which I hope may reach you before the end of the year. After an inland voyage of seventeen hundred miles the same eternal boundless forest ocean still surrounds me; the country is still the same almost perfect plane, though at distant intervals there are masses of granite from 500 to 4,000 feet high rising like giants above the forest plane. The river is still from half a mile to a mile wide, and crowded with innumerable islands in its whole course. It is perhaps the most wonderful river in the world. Below for about 500 miles it is a complete sea of islands, from ten to twenty miles wide. In that distance only once was there a clear view from shore to shore. In the Rio Negro district insects seem as yet much less plentiful than about Para [Pará].3 Here the weather has been very wet and they do not appear, and in the forest there are scarcely any to be found. My experience now leads me to the conclusion that butterflies are most abundant in places where the forest has been extensively cleared and a second growth reached a considerable age, and which is intersected by numerous reads and paths. In these second growth forests and particularly in roads and pathways, a much greater variety of plants is to be found than in the unbroken forest, and the broken light and shade and open way for flight seems to induce these insects to assemble there. Another thing is, that in the forest it is impossible to use the net, or to chase an insect, or to go over a great space of ground, and so I find that when there are no paths or roads I cannot get insects. This is I believe a principal reason why I have as yet obtained so few insects in the Rio Negro, for there are no roads, and the forest paths are very narrow tracks interrupted by fallen trees and obstructed by creepers and spring plants. I am now making this voyage to Javita principally for the sake of a fine open road through the forest, where goods are carried from the Rio Negro to the Oronooka[sic] navigation, to avoid the circuitous passage of the Cassiquaire [sic]. Here therefore I shall be able to see if my ideas of the causes of the apparent absence of insects in the Rio Negro are just. The mountainous and Campo districts of Brazil appear to have very few Lepidoptera, while it is therefore the Coleoptera abound. I am therefore inclined to think that it is an open mountainous country with scattered wood that is most favourable to the production of Coleoptera, while such a country never abounds in Lepidoptera to an equal extent with a district of virgin forest. Birds are numerous and beautiful here, but difficult to procure; and of five or six of the most beautiful and valuable species which are sometimes abundant here I have not yet been able to get a single specimen. But I live in the hope always[.] The other day I got some of the beautiful and till lately excessively rare Umbrella Chatterer. Hummingbirds are the most valuable but they are scarce here. I expect to find them and Coleoptera abundant only when I reach the Andes.

You allude to the genus Ascalaphus. In the Amazon district it is rather abundant. I think I have collected at least 6 or 8 species. They are forest insect. Some are 4 inches expanse. Ants of course are excessively abundant, both in species and individuals. There are many biting and stinging species. I have only collected the most remarkable. They vary in size from a hardly visible point to an inch long. The sting of one of the large ones is very severe, causing fever and intolerable pain for 24 hours. Another kind renders whole trees leafless, and in houses will in a night cut up a sack containing rice, &c., as if it had been snipped all over with a pair of scissors. This species in the winged state is eaten;— the swollen abdomen, being full of a fatty matter, very agreeable either raw or roasted. They are often eaten alive, pulling off the abdomen, and throwing away the head and thorax with the wings and legs attached, which go crawling away while the remainder is passing into your stomach. I never eat them in this cannibal fashion, but roasted or toasted they are really very good. You ask me if I draw? Certain subjects I do; landscapes, buildings &c.; flowers, trees, and fishes; but the human form, mammalia, birds and insects — anything that requires perfect symmetry, — I cannot manage. I am now much interested in Icthyology, as indeed any naturalist must be in this country. I draw and describe every species of fish I meet with; I only began in earnest six months back and have already figured, &c., a hundred species; and I have no doubt before I return of getting double or perhaps three times that number. I draw almost all in a scale, using the compass to take great trouble to insure minute accuracy in all the parts; and I think I succeed pretty well. Though there are numbers of very closely allied species, I find their distinctions can almost always be represented by a good drawing. I do them in lead pencil without colour, as the colours of the same species I find to vary so much, and to be so difficult to imitate, as to mislead instead of helping in the determination of a species. I hope to be able to publish a useful work on the subject when I return. I am also endeavouring to make characteristic sketches of all the species of Palms, which are very interesting and numerous in the Amazon valley. I am also much interested in the geography of the country, and with the assistance of a prismatic compass make a sketch map of all the rivers I ascend, and determine my latitudes and longitudes, as near as a pocket sextant and good watch will allow me. So you will see with these pursuits, keeping up a full journal, skinning birds and animals, and collecting insects, I have plenty to do. In fact, I am only unhappy when I am obliged to be idle for a day, for I always have prominently before me the idea of how much I shall regret my return to England not having made good use of my time. It is only now I am beginning to perceive how much there is to observe here, and what a wonderful country it really is, and though there is not a day or a night passes without my thoughts turning fondly towards home, (that sweet word for which these southern languages have no equivalent,) yet they but make me more anxious to see, examine, and understand this great country, before I return once more to enjoy the blessings of civilization and the society of friends and relations in old England. It is these feelings which determine me to make a voyage up the Amazon, to near its sources in the Andes, which, if I can successfully do, will make me better acquainted with the great Amazon Valley than any European traveller. I like the climate; I enjoy excellent health, and am now so accustomed to the mode of life as not to feel as privations what I thought I could never do without. To live without bread, butter, milk, or potatoes, as here I do, would be thought a great privation in a civilised country, and when we are sometimes also without sugar, or it its substitute, molasses, I find it a little hard. To buy anything here one has to send 700 miles to the nearest shop, and then, perhaps, as occurred the other day, it has not what one wants. In this river we enjoy a great blessing, it being quite free from mosquitoes, which in the whole Amazon are a great plague. There are however, here a number of minute flies, and some larger ones, which pierce dreadfully, making the blood trickle down all the exposed parts of the body, and causing great irritation and inflammation. Among the intellectual pleasures of travelling I may number that of learning to express one’s ideas in another language. I am but a very dull linguist, but I am now pretty well at home in the Portuguese, and find a positive pleasure in observing the various idioms and modes of expression, and in feeling the language in all common conversation come as spontaneously forth as the mother tongue. Here, however, few of the Indians speak Portuguese, the native language being in general use. These I find great difficulty in getting hold of. I am very slow at languages, "because I cannot speak by mere hearing". I always want to know the exact meaning of the phrase I hear used, and am always afraid of using it on improper occasions; so when no one is near who is able to clear up the difficulty, I get inextricably puzzled. Now, too, that I go to Venezuela, I shall have to pick up the Spanish, which being so nearly allied to the Portuguese, will not, I think, be very difficult.

I should like you to secure me a series as perfect as you can, of your diurnal lepidoptera, also a series of parrot skins, and when I return I will let you have an illustrative set of butterflies, or whatever else you may wish for.4

With kind, &c. | I remain, | your affectionate friend and brother naturalist | A. R. Wallace

Dated by context
The editor notes, "It will be seen that the names of several of the places are spelt differently to the usual mode; but the writer having himself visited all of them, it is probable he had found them thus pronounced."
The editor adds the following note: "Here follows some account of the insects, especially the butterflies."
The editor notes, "Here follows a list of the families of 700 species of butterflies all captured by the writer."

Please cite as “WCP5417,” in Beccaloni, G. W. (ed.), Ɛpsilon: The Alfred Russel Wallace Collection accessed on 26 February 2024, https://epsilon.ac.uk/view/wallace/letters/WCP5417