The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 56 of 164

April 22nd.—The country remained the same, and was extremely uninteresting. The complete similarity of the productions throughout Patagonia is one of its most striking characters. The level plains of arid shingle support the same stunted and dwarf plants; and in the valleys the same thorn-bearing bushes grow. Everywhere we see the same birds and insects. Even the very banks of the river and of the clear streamlets which entered it, were scarcely enlivened by a brighter tint of green. The curse of sterility is on the land, and the water flowing over a bed of pebbles partakes of the same curse. Hence the number of waterfowl is very scanty; for there is nothing to support life in the stream of this barren river.

94. The desserts of Syria are characterised, according to Volney (tome i, p. 351), by woody bushes, numerous rats, gazelles and hares. In the landscape of Patagonia the guanaco replaces the gazelle, and the agouti the hare.

Patagonia, poor as she is in some respects, can however boast of a greater stock of small rodents94 than perhaps any other country in the world. Several species of mice are externally characterised by large thin ears and a very fine fur. These little animals swarm amongst the thickets in the valleys, where they cannot for months together taste a drop of water excepting the dew. They all seem to be cannibals; for no sooner was a mouse caught in one of my traps than it was devoured by others. A small and delicately-shaped fox, which is likewise very abundant, probably derives its entire support from these small animals. The guanaco is also in his proper district, herds of fifty or a hundred were common; and, as I have stated, we saw one which must have contained at least five hundred. The puma, with the condor and other carrion-hawks in its train, follows and preys upon these animals. The footsteps of the puma were to be seen almost everywhere on the banks of the river; and the remains of several guanacos, with their necks dislocated and bones broken, showed how they had met their death.

April 24th.—Like the navigators of old when approaching an unknown land, we examined and watched for the most trivial sign of a change. The drifted trunk of a tree, or a boulder of primitive rock, was hailed with joy, as if we had seen a forest growing on the flanks of the Cordillera. The top, however, of a heavy bank of clouds, which remained almost constantly in one position, was the most promising sign, and eventually turned out a true harbinger. At first the clouds were mistaken for the mountains themselves, instead of the masses of vapour condensed by their icy summits.

April 26th.—We this day met with a marked change in the geological structure of the plains. From the first starting I had carefully examined the gravel in the river, and for the two last days had noticed the presence of a few small pebbles of a very cellular basalt. These gradually increased in number and in size, but none were as large as a man’s head. This morning, however, pebbles of the same rock, but more compact, suddenly became abundant, and in the course of half an hour we saw, at the distance of five or six miles, the angular edge of a great basaltic platform. When we arrived at its base we found the stream bubbling among the fallen blocks. For the next twenty-eight miles the river-course was encumbered with these basaltic masses. Above that limit immense fragments of primitive rocks, derived from the surrounding boulder-formation, were equally numerous. None of the fragments of any considerable size had been washed more than three or four miles down the river below their parent-source: considering the singular rapidity of the great body of water in the Santa Cruz, and that no still reaches occur in any part, this example is a most striking one, of the inefficiency of rivers in transporting even moderately-sized fragments.

The basalt is only lava which has flowed beneath the sea; but the eruptions must have been on the grandest scale. At the point where we first met this formation it was 120 feet in thickness; following up the river-course, the surface imperceptibly rose and the mass became thicker, so that at forty miles above the first station it was 320 feet thick. What the thickness may be close to the Cordillera, I have no means of knowing, but the platform there attains a height of about three thousand feet above the level of the sea: we must therefore look to the mountains of that great chain for its source; and worthy of such a source are streams that have flowed over the gently inclined bed of the sea to a distance of one hundred miles. At the first glance of the basaltic cliffs on the opposite sides of the valley it was evident that the strata once were united. What power, then, has removed along a whole line of country a solid mass of very hard rock, which had an average thickness of nearly three hundred feet, and a breadth varying from rather less than two miles to four miles? The river, though it has so little power in transporting even inconsiderable fragments, yet in the lapse of ages might produce by its gradual erosion an effect, of which it is difficult to judge the amount. But in this case, independently of the insignificance of such an agency, good reasons can be assigned for believing that this valley was formerly occupied by an arm of the sea. It is needless in this work to detail the arguments leading to this conclusion, derived from the form and the nature of the step-formed terraces on both sides of the valley, from the manner in which the bottom of the valley near the Andes expands into a great estuary-like plain with sand-hillocks on it, and from the occurrence of a few sea-shells lying in the bed of the river. If I had space I could prove that South America was formerly here cut off by a strait, joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, like that of Magellan. But it may yet be asked, how has the solid basalt been removed? Geologists formerly would have brought into play the violent action of some overwhelming debacle; but in this case such a supposition would have been quite inadmissible; because, the same step-like plains with existing sea-shells lying on their surface, which front the long line of the Patagonian coast, sweep up on each side of the valley of Santa Cruz. No possible action of any flood could thus have modelled the land, either within the valley or along the open coast; and by the formation of such step-like plains or terraces the valley itself has been hollowed out. Although we know that there are tides which run within the Narrows of the Strait of Magellan at the rate of eight knots an hour, yet we must confess that it makes the head almost giddy to reflect on the number of years, century after century, which the tides, unaided by a heavy surf, must have required to have corroded so vast an area and thickness of solid basaltic lava. Nevertheless, we must believe that the strata undermined by the waters of this ancient strait were broken up into huge fragments, and these lying scattered on the beach were reduced first to smaller blocks, then to pebbles, and lastly to the most impalpable mud, which the tides drifted far into the Eastern or Western Ocean.

With the change in the geological structure of the plains the character of the landscape likewise altered. While rambling up some of the narrow and rocky defiles, I could almost have fancied myself transported back again to the barren valleys of the island of St. Jago. Among the basaltic cliffs I found some plants which I had seen nowhere else, but others I recognised as being wanderers from Tierra del Fuego. These porous rocks serve as a reservoir for the scanty rain-water; and consequently on the line where the igneous and sedimentary formations unite, some small springs (most rare occurrences in Patagonia) burst forth; and they could be distinguished at a distance by the circumscribed patches of bright green herbage.

Basaltic Glen, Rio Negro.

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