THOMAS WENTWORTH HIGGINSON’S “ASCENT OF PICO” (1856)
George Monteiro, ed.
[Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1822-1911) was, in his time, a Unitarian minister, a military officer, a poet, translator, literary critic, essayist, and anthologist, a writer of fiction and children’s histories, the co-editor of Emily Dickinson’s first two volumes of poetry, a champion of women’s and causes, and an abolitionist. It was the chronic illness of Mary Channing, his first wife, that took Higginson to the Azores for half a year or so in 1855-56. During the voyage on the Azor Higginson prepared him for his stay by reading up on the history, geography, and culture of Fayal. Higginson also saw himself as something of a “scientific” observer. At the request of Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born American scientist teaching at Harvard, Higginson collected specimens of corals, starfish, and other sea creatures. Upon his return to America, he presented his hoard to Agassiz, adding notably thereby to the Agassiz Collection, with duplicates eventually finding their way to the Worcester Natural History Museum, of which Higginson had been a founder. It was in the same “scientific” spirit that drove Higginson to climb to the top of Pico, the mountain rising from the neighboring island to which it gives its name. The title-Ascent of Pico-has been added editorially to this excerpt from Higginson’s “Manuscript Journals” (Houghton Library, Harvard University).-G.M.]
The Ascent of Pico
Wednesday morning, Apr. 7 . I sailed for Pico, furnished with shawl, indiarubber sack, & basket of two days provisions;–José d’Oliveira the guide having happened to come over that morning & returning with me. The great boat was filled with returning men women & children, sitting on long thwarts across the open hold which was filled up with merchandise & live stock. There was great jabbering as we pushed off (each having just been carried through the surf on a man’s shoulders)-but presently the two great lateen sails were spread, and we shot across the five miles to Arealarga. José sat by me & talked in very imperfect English; the people soon discovered that I spoke a little Portuguese, & also that I was going to make the ascent, both of which were exciting facts to them, & brought a flood of questions from the simple people. When José told them I was a Padre, the surprise deepened. “But he isn’t dressed like one,” they complained, on which José informed them that American Padres didn’t wear any particular dress. “In what language does he say Mass,” was the next inquiry. “He doesn’t say it at all, American Padres never do,” said the experienced José who had once been as far as Sippican, a seafaring place near New Bedford. “Then what do they do”? “O they pray & preach & read out of a big book.” The interrogator then turned to me. “Probably the Senhor Padre came here to say Mass every Sunday at the house of Senhor Carl Dabney”? I denied the imputation entirely. Then why did I come? I told them I came with my wife, who has sick. My friend’s eyes opened wide, in perfect bewilderment & he turned to José for explanation. “Didn’t you know, said he with dignity that American Padres were married,-& it’s a great a great deal better they should be (muito melhor)-to which the rest assented with a decision which quite surprised me. After this they gave me a good deal of advice about the ascent, mostly unintelligible, & then I relapsed into a humbler position & they talked & laughed among themselves & showed their purchases & one bright girl, Maria, bandied repartees with old & young & seemed the ruling spirit of the boat. Arrived at the narrow little black cove of Arealarga, it was most picturesque to see the women clustering to meet us old & young in the same picturesque dress-blue jacket, blue or white skirt, white waist with gay handkerchief crossed over the heart, & straw hat with or without a burden on top. Just as the men had staggered through the foam with us, somebody exclaimed, “O barco da casa”! & looking round I saw Sam Dabney’s dashing little boat, which had almost overtaken us, & brought Mr. Lothrop to join me, with a basket twice as big as mine, & twice as many cloaks & shawls. These we piled on the tall head of João, our second assistant, & with him & José behind us (who had already partaken of a parting glass of wine & asked me to join them) we walked along the sea road southward. We eat our luncheon as we walked & admired the bare black rocks & white surf, till presently we turned up into the barest & blackest of narrow village lanes, leaving the few white country seats of the Fayal gentry below us. There is nothing in Fayal so ugly as that street, or so picturesque as the women who pass along it. The Pico men, as I have seen them in Fayal, are tall spare straight creatures, with bundles above their little round caps, homespun jackets & trousers, & sandals of raw hide. They have simple rustic faces but no beauty; while a wealth of beauty is lavished on the girls, at which one gazes astonished. Even the complexions have often much bloom & even delicacy, despite their dark hovels, & the eyes, teeth, features & figures are often models for painters. Pausing to rest once, four girls went by us, with baskets on their heads over whose contents I draw a veil, & I thought that we might search through all Worcester & not find four such figures, they were abt sixteen, great as palm trees, full, vigorous, pliant & graceful from head to foot, not a muscle undeveloped, & thus we met them by the dozen, & all just the same, in their pretty dresses with the white parts wonderfully white.
After the village we passed the vineyards, stretching up the hillside & black as coal, the vines not being spread upon the little squares of stone wall by which each is surrounded, till the grapes are almost ripe. We kept before the guides & often had to wait for them. Sometimes our path lay between bands of earth, like those at the Caldeira, overgrown with mosses & lycopodiasm. It was very warm & Pico was cloudless before us, which was more than we had dared expect, as the morning was threatening as to cloud at least, & we came only in a sort of desperation. At 1/4 4, having left at 11 1/4 we came to a wicket gate, the transition from vineyard to the Serra, a wide belt of acres of pastureland containing multitudes of small cattle & still more of long-wooled sheep, of the whitest white & the blackest black. It is very uneven, covered with soft turf, out of which lava occasionally appears, & broken into many small hills, some with craters on the top, & all a great contrast to the region of black walled vineyard below. Halfway across this lay our abiding place for the night-only too near-but first José took us a long detour to see certain caves wh. were indeed remarkable, specimens of those of which the island is full. One was deeper than we dared penetrate without a torch, & when we returned fr. the darkness to the entrance the hanging ferns & mosses looked as if the most gorgeous of illuminations lit them up. This was my first experience of such a cave, & was quite exciting, as also another series wh. I went through alone, obliged to crawl with difficulty sometimes & made to jump quite a height over a little precipice among stalagmites of lava. No stalactites equal to those wh. were given me from another cave. The top & sides of the cave were coated with a singular glutinous matter, in large cells or bubbles, with which the mosses were mingled.
At 5 we reached little stone building, two storied, with a flight of stone steps, leading us to the second story, of whose door José at last found the key beneath a stone-a singular piece of iron.
(The Key) The lower story was occupied by five small cattle, who were carefully locked in. An upper story was about eight feet square, with an opening, secured by a shutter. It looked rather dark & damp but was very habitable-only we wished to go farther one-but José stoutly assured us that it was the best place we could occupy, that beyond were only huts for the “cow’s sons” (calves), with the cow’s sons in them, & the other man averred that farther up there was “no shelter but Christ.” We thought also of camping out, there being everywhere hills & hollows & protecting hedges of wild myrtle, but it blew strong & cold & the men were very unwilling to do it, so early in the season, & José assured us that 1/4 hour wd. take us to the end of the Serra, & an hour & a half to the mountain top, which was “a mile” he said-all being lies as we knew, but larger than we could have thought possible, & so we staid & lived to regret it.
We had our waterproof cloak spread on the ground behind one of the numerous bits of ledge which protect the ground from the winds & unpacked our basket for dinner: setting our attendants to work to cover the floor of our 2d story with branches of wild myrtle, intending to take our turn afterwards while they dined. But on our return we found the bed made, a pole across the loft decorated with my little indiarubber sack & Mr. L’s spare shoes-& a general air of having gone to housekeeping. But when I praised the bed to João, he made the usual Portuguese reply “Paciença.”
The guides had brought as usual their own rations of cornbread, & whatever we gave was extra, especially Mr. L’s bottle of wine, wh. they drank & we didn’t. While they were busy we ascended a strange little hill, a narrow ridge with deep craters on each side. Here we screened ourselves fr. the wind & looked around us. The peak on which we turned our backs was still clear, rising with sides much steeper than anything we had yet reached. All below was clear, except that a series of dense purple clouds hung over Fayal, so solid & so deep as about to extinguish the island below, especially as a drift of softer clouds was flitting between us & it, sometimes lifting to show the white houses of Horta, & at other times bringing up Castello Branco into astonishing size & isolation. Of the bank of clouds we saw the upper side; while Fayal saw the lower-it spread beyond the island on each side & in fold on fold across its higher ground. The sun sank behind it, while the long shadow of the island gradually came toward us over the water from the Espelarmarla side. At last the sun set at 1/4 7 leaving Pico behind us still in rosy glow. There were a few moments of stillness, when suddenly a little dome raised itself behind the cloud rapidly-then turned over like a porpoise and went under, while another appeared behind it, & so on. It grew dimmer, the wind blew furiously-below us were hills & small craters, Pico above us, & the Serra around us dotted white & black with reposing sheep.