In front of us was the unit of civilization,—the police-station, wooden, on wooden stilts (as all well-built houses are here), to insure a draught of air beneath them. We were, of course, asked to come in and sit down, but preferred looking about, under our umbrellas; for the heat was intense. The soil is half pitch, half brown earth, among which the pitch sweals in and out as tallow sweals from a candle. It is always in slow motion under the heat of the tropic sun; and no wonder if some of the cottages have sunk right and left in such a treacherous foundation. A stone or brick house could not stand here; but wood and palm-thatch are both light and tough enough to be safe, let the ground give way as it will.
The soil, however, is very rich. The pitch certainly does not injure vegetation, though plants will not grow actually in it. The first plants which caught our eyes were pine-apples, for which La Brea is famous. The heat of the soil, as well as the air, brings them to special perfection. They grow about anywhere, unprotected by hedge or fence; for the negroes here seem honest enough, at least toward each other; and at the corner of the house was a bush worth looking at, for we had heard of it for many a year. It bore prickly, heart-shaped pods an inch long, filled with seeds coated with a red waxy pulp.
This was a famous plant—Bixa orellana Roucou; and that pulp was the well-known annotto dye of commerce. In England and Holland it is used merely, I believe, to color cheeses, but in the Spanish Main to color human beings. The Indian of the Orinoco prefers paint to clothes; and when he has “roucoued” himself from head to foot, considers himself in full dress, whether for war or dancing. Doubtless he knows his own business best from long experience. Indeed, as we stood broiling on the shore, we began somewhat to regret that European manners and customs prevented our adopting the Guaraon and Arrawak fashion.
[Illustration: THE MULE-CART.]
The mule-cart arrived; the lady of the party was put into it on a chair, and slowly bumped and rattled past the corner of Dundonald Street—so named after the old sea-hero, who was, in his life-time, full of projects for utilizing this same pitch—and up in pitch road, with a pitch gutter on each side.
The pitch in the road has been, most of it, laid down by hand, and is slowly working down the slight incline, leaving pools and ruts full of water, often invisible, because covered with a film of brown pitch-dust, and so letting in the unwary walker over his shoes. The pitch in the gutter-bank is in its native place, and as it spues slowly out of the soil into the ditch in odd wreaths and lumps, we could watch, in little, the process which has produced the whole deposit—probably the whole lake itself.
A bullock-cart, laden with pitch, came jolting down past us, and we observed that the lumps, when the fracture is fresh, have all a drawn out look; that the very air bubbles in them, which are often very numerous, are all drawn out likewise, long and oval, like the air-bubbles in some ductile lavas.