Traveler: you have arrived at the air’s most transparent region.
In the Age of Discovery, books appear filled with extraordinary news and fanciful geographies. History, obliged to discover new worlds, overflows its classical channel, and so political fact cedes its post to ethnographic discourse and to the picture-painting of civilizations. 16th century historians fix the frame of just-found lands—lands like this one appear to the eyes of Europe: accented by surprise, sometimes exaggerated. The diligent Giovanni Battista Ramusio publishes his peculiar pilgrim’s compilation Delle Navigationi et Viaggi in Venice in the year 1550. The work consists of three volumes in-folio that were later reprinted individually, and illustrated with profusion and enchantment. Its usefulness cannot be doubted; the 16th century chroniclers of the Indies (Solís, at least) came upon some of Cortes’ letters in the book's Italian translations.
In its illustrations, delicate and innocent, in keeping with the elegance of the time, we begin to see the progressive conquest of the coasts; tiny boats slide along a line that crosses the sea; in the open ocean, a sea monster twists, like a hunter’s horn, and in the corner a fabulous nautical star projects its rays. From the bosom of the impressionistic clouds, a fat-cheeked Aeolus blows, indicating the course of the winds—the constant guardian of the sons of Ulysses. See the footprints of African life, beneath the traditional palm tree next to the squat straw hut, always smoking; men and beasts of other climes, minute and detailed scenes, exotic plants and imagined islands. And on the coasts of New France, groups of natives given over to hunting and fishing, to dancing or the building of cities. An imagination like that of Stevenson, capable of dreaming Treasure Island before a child’s cartography, would have woven into Ramusio’s illustrations a thousand and one delights for our cloudy days.
Finally, the illustrations describe the vegetation of Anáhuac. Hold, here, your eyes: here is a new art of nature.
Ceres' ears of corn and paradisical plantains, fruits ripe with unknown honey; but, above all, the typical plants: the Mexican biznaga—image of the timid porcupine—, the maguey (which we are told drinks from rocks), that flowers at ground level, then tosses its plumage high into the air; the organ cactus, its branches joined like the reeds of Pan's pipes; the discs of the nopal—like a candelabra—joined in a necessary hierarchy pleasing to the eyes: all of this appears to us as an emblematic flower, as though conceived to decorate a coat of arms. In the sharp outlines of the illustrations, fruit and leaf, stem and root, are abstract forms, their clarity undisturbed by color.
These plants, protected by thorns, announce that nature here is not, like in the south or on the coasts, abundant in saps or nourishing vapors. The land of Anáhuac hardly even exhibits fertility at the edges of the lakes. But over the course of centuries, man will contrive to drain away the waters, working like a beaver, returning to the valley its own terrible character: —In the hostile, alkaline earth, plants stiffen, raising the thorns of their vegetable claws against drought.
The desiccation of the valley has been going on from 1449 to 1900. Three races have worked on it, and almost three civilizations—how little there is in common between the viceroyal organization and the prodigious political fiction that gave us thirty years of Augustan peace! Three monarchical regimes, divided by parentheses of anarchy, are here an example of how the work of the state grows and corrects itself before the same threats of nature and the same land to hoe. From Netzahualcóyotl to the second Luís de Velasco, and from them to Porfirio Díaz, the slogan seems to be, drain the land. Our century found us still digging up the last shovelful and tearing open the last ditch.
The draining of the lakes is its own small drama with its own heroes and scenic backdrop. Ruíz de Alarcón had vaguely foreseen it in his comedy El semejante a sí mismo. Before a great assembly overseen by the Viceroy and the Archbishop, the sluices were opened: the immense waters riding in through the deep cuts. This, the stage. And the plot, the intrigues of Alonso Arias and the tragic error of Adrian Boot, the self-sufficient Dutchman, until the bars of the prison close behind Enrico Martín, who holds his level aloft with a steady hand.
Like the spirit of disaster, the vengeful water spied over the city; troubling the dreams of that cruel and petty people, sweeping clean its flowering stones; lying in wait, blue eye open, for its brave bastions.
When the makers of the desert finish their labors, the social catastrophe erupts.
The American traveler is condemned to hear the same question from Europeans: are there many trees in America? We would surprise them if we were to speak of an American Castile higher than Spain's, more harmonious, surely less bitter however much they are broken by enormous mountains instead of by hills, where the air glitters like a mirror and enjoys perennial autumn. The Spanish plain suggests ascetic thoughts; the Mexican valley, simple and sober ones. What one gains in tragedy, the other in formal precision.
Our nature has two opposing aspects. One, the virgin jungle of America, so long-sung it is hardly worth describing. An obligatory object of praise in the Old World, it inspires Chateaubriand's verbal effusions. Hothouse where energies seem to spend themselves with generous abandon, where our spirit drowns in intoxicating fumes, it is the exaltation of life and the vital image of anarchy: the bursts of greenery tumbling down the mountainside, the Gordian knots of creepers and lianas, the tents of banana trees, the treacherous shadows of trees that lull the traveler to sleep and steal over his senses, overpowering vegetation, slow and voluptuous torpor, all to the whir and whine of insects. The cries of parrots, the thunder of waterfalls, the savage eyes of beasts! In these profusions of fire and fantasy, other tropical regions surely outdo us.
Ours, Anáhuac's, is something better and more bracing. At least for those who like to have their wills alert and minds clear at all hours. The most quintessential vision of our nature is in the regions of the central highlands: there, the harsh, heraldic vegetation, the organized landscape, the atmosphere's intense clarity in which colors themselves drown, the general harmony of the design which compensates for that loss, the luminous ether which brings each thing into singular relief, and, at last, to put it in the words of the modest and sensitive Fray Manuel de Navarrate:
a resplendant light
that makes the face of heaven shine.
So observed a great traveler, whose name merits the pride of New Spain; a classical and universal man like those of the Renaissance, who resuscitated in his century the ancient way of acquiring wisdom on the road, and the habit of writing only of his own memories and meditations: in his Political Essay, Baron von Humboldt noted the strange reverberation of the sun's rays on the mountainous mass of the central highlands, where the air purifies.
In that landscape, not without a certain aristocratic sterility, where the eyes wander with discernment, the mind deciphers every line and caresses every curve; beneath the brilliance of that air and in its pervasive freshness and placidity, those undiscovered men let their broad, meditative, spiritual gaze wander. Ecstatic before the cactus with its eagle and its serpent—the happy essence of our country—they heard the bird's prophetic voice promising them refuge on those hospitable lakes. Later, from that little stilt village a city had welled up, repopulated with the incursions of mythological warriors that came from the Seven Caves—the cradle of the seven tribes spilling over our land. Later, the city became an empire, and the clamor of a Cyclopean civilization, like that of Babylon and Egypt, endured, wearying, until the ill-starred days of Moctezuma the Mournful. And so it was then, in an enviable hour of amazement, having crossed the snowy volcanic peaks, Cortés' men (“dust, sweat, and iron”), peeked over that orb of resonance and resplendence—the sweeping cirque of mountains.
At their feet, in a mirage of crystals, the picturesque city spread out, emanating from the temple, so that its radiant streets extended the corners of the pyramid.
To their ears, in some dark and bloody rite, came howling the moan of the ancient oboe and, multiplied by the echo, the throb of the savage drum.
* * * * *
It resembled the house of enchantments that the book
of Amadís describes... I know not how to describe it.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo
* * * * *
The conversations come to life without clamor: the race has fine ears, and sometimes they speak in secret. Sweet clicks can be heard; the vowels flow and consonants tend to liquify. The chatter is a delicious music. Those x's, those tl's, those ch's that so alarm us written, drip from the lips of the Indian with the smoothness of maguey syrup.
* * * * *
The water, oozing, trills in the pungent jars.
* * * * *
The flower, mother of the smile.
If in all the manifestations of indigenous life nature played as important a role as revealed in the accounts of the conquistador, if the garden's flowers were the adornment of both gods and men, the refined motif of both the plastic arts and the hieroglyphs, they could not be absent in the poetry.
The historical age in which the conquistadors arrived proceeded precisely from the rain of flowers that fell on the heads of men at the end of the fourth cosmic sun. The land avenged its old shortages, and men waved the flags of jubilation. In the drawings of the Vatican codex, this is represented by a triangular figure adorned with trellises of plants; the goddess of licit loves, hung with verdant ribbons trailing to the ground, while seeds burst from above, dropping leaves and flowers.
The principal material for studying the artistic representation of plants in America is found in the monuments of culture that flowered in the valley of Mexico immediately before the conquest. Hieroglyphic writing offers the most varied and abundant material. The flower was one of the twenty signs of the days; the flower is also the sign of the noble and the lovely, and, at the same time, represents all perfumes and drinks. It also arises from the blood of sacrifice, and crowns the hieroglyph for oratory. Garlands, trees, maguey, and maize alternate as the hieroglyphs for places. The flower is painted in a schematic mode, reduced to a strict symmetry, seen in profile or in the mouth of the corolla. In the same way, a defined scheme is used to represent the tree: it is here a trunk that opens in three equal branches crowned with leaves, and there two diverging trunks that ramify in a symmetrical manner.
In the stone and clay sculptures there are isolated flowers—without leaves—and radiant fruited trees, some as attributes of the divine, others as personal adornment or decoration for utensils.
In the pottery of Cholula, the background of the pots flaunts a floral star, and on the interior and exterior walls of the vase run interlaced calyxes. The cups of the spinners have black flowers on a yellow background, and, on occasion, the flower appears to be evoked merely by a few fugitive lines.
We also seek the flower, nature, and the landscape of the valley in the indigenous poetry.
* * * * *
But glorious it was to see, how the open region
Was filled with horses and chariots…
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Whatever historical doctrine one professes (and I am not one of those who dream of absurd perpetuations of indigenous traditions nor place too much faith in perpetuations of the Spanish), it unites us with the race of yesterday, without speaking of blood, with the community of effort to dominate our dense and fierce nature; the effort which is the brute base of history. Much more profoundly, we are united by the community of quotidian emotion when faced with the same natural object. The confrontation of human sensibility with the same natural world cultivates and engenders a common soul. But if one accepts neither one nor the other—neither the work of collective action, nor of collective contemplation, let it be conceded that the historical feeling is part of contemporary life, and that without its glow, our valleys and our mountains would be like a theater without light. . .