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Etching 21 Night Fires from Martius's Flora Brasiliensis 1840. Thanks to Lehigh U., Special Collections ! Color by Alberto Chor

#21 A nocturnal spectacle, fields scorched by fires in western part of the province of Minas Gerais.

Latin translation by Ben Hennelly

Already above, in explicating etching #16, we spoke about the method of land cultivation common in Brazil, and at the same time described how the forests, inasmuch as they are thought ground very friendly to the production of crops, are beforehand made suitable for cultivation by means of fire. It is again through the use of fire that they think the fields can be rendered more fertile and, especially, better fit to support herd animals. Broadly stretched tracts of interior land, and these covered with field vegetation, are planted only in individual locations, and most of all where they are watered by a stream or river and, for this reason, are occupied by small groves--just as the streams of northern Europe usually have neighboring alder groves--, or where Capoes forests (etching #2) rise up from the fields like islands formed from trees; but the greatest part by far of those fields serve no end other than for pasture. The grass and various herbaceous plants and low-lying bushes that grow together there are burned up by the tropical sun's heat, and the leaves either fall and become scattered by the force of winds, or they remain as a rough carpeting unwelcome to the grazing flocks. Indeed there are some species of grasses that, like many Stipeae are so hardened and dry because of their long, scabrous ears that they can even kill herd animals. Some of these grasses, called Barba de Bode by the inhabitants because they resemble the beard of she-goats, are feared so much that fields of Barba de Bode are sold piecemeal at a lesser price, as if of baser character.

And so the Brazilian farmer, to whose whole doctrine and method of cultivation a proper discipline of the meadows with regular harvesting and hay-cutting would be inconsistent, thinks it advantageous to order that the stalks and straw be left banished in the fields, and the force of the flames which travel easily through the very arid places destroys them. From this, the ground is thought to receive the stimulus of fertility, nor does ash from a fire seem to contribute little to this. During that time the herds are held in courtyards, constructed on the near side of the flames' domain, and either are fed only with maize or are sent out into pastures covered with sufficient grass because of more abundant moisture.

At the end of the year's dry season, when the plants are altogether dead, those fires are set with due consideration for the prevailing wind. The plants that live only one year are completely destroyed by the fires and, if their seeds had not earlier been shaken out and thus removed from the flames' destruction, it would happen that they disappear entirely from the fields. But also the multitude of annual plants is not so great, relatively speaking; whereas the trees and the herbaceous plants and bushes that live several years resist the quickly passing flames and are renewed in the following year from their rhizomes and older branches.

Many herbaceous plants and Cyperaceae found in these fields are covered and defended by ample sheaths that protect their stalks, so that the fire's touch does not affect the young sprouts. At the same time only the uppermost buds of the shrubs and trees perish, so that the lower are able to put out new branches and fresh foliage. But if the conflagration recurs fairly often, it cannot fail to happen but that those trees appear mutilated and damaged somehow in their limbs, as also a great part of the trunk's exterior is carbonized and ruined. It is far from our intention to list here the individual genera or species of the plants that vest these fields, which occupy in their broad extent the greater part of the interior of Minas, inasmuch as we aim only to render clear and apparent the particular nature of a certain region, to the extent that it gets its life and color from its plants. We add only one thing: those traveling through these burning desert spaces often observe clouds, black by day, at night glowing at their peaks, which the winds collect from the ash and soot and drive through the fields, terrible to look upon; the same sight which the columns of clouds presented to the Israelites as they made their way through the desert (Exodus chapter 13, verse 21).

#21 of 42 expedition commentaries

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