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Folklore Tale of Panama

HISTORICAL NOTES: The key to the Canal across the Isthmus of Panama is Gatun Lake, formed by the Chagres River. At Gatun a gigantic dam was built between two mountains, 8,400 feet long and a half mile wide at the base. By means of this man-made mountain, the waters of the Chagres were pushed back and impounded in the valley of its 1,320-mile watershed, until they formed the largest artificial lake in existence - approximating in size, Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
With an area of 164 square miles, a shore line of 1,100 miles and a capacity of 183,000,000,000 cubic feet, Gatun Lake rests 85 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, which it easily overlooks from a distance of about six miles.

The Chagres River has its beginning in the mountains about midway of the Isthmus, and formerly ran a triumphant course of 120 miles northeast to the Caribbean Sea. It was once considered a mighty river but now, except for a few boisterous miles near its source and the six-mile stretch between Gatun and the Atlantic, its power has been curbed and its identity lost; merged into the waters of the mighty lake it was compelled to form.


BEGINNING with the soul torturing unrest which finally drove Christopher Columbus westward in search of the East, and continuing thereafter for more than four hundred years, the Isthmus of Darien reared its formidable head as the dragon which needs must be conquered before the world could realize his cherished dream of a waterway through the West to the East.

For generations after the first intrepid old conquistadores had given up as useless their determined attempts to find a natural waterway from ocean to ocean, men toyed with plans for making, themselves, what nature had failed to provide for them. Such a man-made passageway, however, was an ideal, fantastically ambitious and unreasonably impossible, said they of the sager minds. Nor did they reason illogically, because for centuries nature rallied her forces in all their primordial magnitude to give credence to such arguments. For hundreds of years the Cordilleras brushed aside as fruitless all efforts of puny man to overcome the impregnable barrier they raised in his pathway. The granite ramparts of the continent's bony spine proved a locked, immovable door against which, for four centuries, despairing hands beat with hopeless futility.

Finally there came a memorable day when the battle ended and the Cordilleras' age old challenge, "They shall not pass!" was stilled. Floating on the placid waters of a far-reaching inland sea, man triumphantly passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, not through, but over the tops of mountains which had baffled him so long.

Breathlessly thrilling is the account of that tempestuous struggle in which the titanic armaments of nature were finally conquered and rendered impotent by the cunning and strategy of man. It was a struggle which ended in a wide-spread inundation, where through a vast region of jungle, swamp, and mountain, all living creatures were forced to retreat before a swift flood of rising waters to find an isolated sanctuary on a jungle Ararat. And as an enduring testimonial to the outcome of the contest, the calm surface of Gatun Lake, from a lordly eminence in the sky, now looks far, far down at the raging breakers of the sea dashing enviously at its feet.

Whimsically beautiful is the fantastic story of this second flood - not when told by the click and whir of modernity babbling a prosaic jargon of engineering facts and figures, but as related in the childlike legends of the Hill People. They who, even as prehistoric man, gathered their little all and fled to the distant mountain tops to escape the advancing waters.

Often as they huddle round the little fires which are lighted to hold in check the night chill of the higher regions, their mournful voices rise and fall on the echoing silence as they chant over and over again the Saga of the Flood. The theme of their singing lauds not the cunning of mortal powers, but extolls, rather, the mysterious omnipotence of a god who comes not within the ken of civilized men - of Paquo Meecho, mighty and far reaching ruler of the ancient jungle world.

Commander of all the leafy legions which people the far-flung bivouacs of the forest, so the story begins, Paquo Meecho's word was an abiding law which there was no gainsaying and against which there could be no appeal. A stern god was Paquo Meecho and though he was just and fair to those who heeded his mandates, terrible was his wrath at any who opposed his sacred will. With swift hand and vengeful, he showered retribution on their heads, bringing them in quick repentance to their knees. Obedient and tractable were most of Paquo Meecho's children but there were some who chafed under the rigid dictates of his will, murmuring and complaining against his authority. Among these malcontents was the sullen Chagres River, grown vainglorious and over-proud because of the admiration accorded his rushing magnitude by the jungle world wherein he reigned. Petulantly he nursed a grievance against the jungle god and finally voiced his complaints to the listening ears about him.

"Why should I, the mighty Chagres, bow down to Paquo Meecho?" he raged as he uprooted a lofty tree and hurled a heavy boulder from its niche. "Powerful and grand am I, the lordliest of rivers and nor more shall I hearken to the tyrannous dictates of Paquo Meecho!" And with a recklessly defiant swirl of his waters he roared on down to the sea. Rustling with wonder the listening jungle murmured and likewise grew restless.

"We, too, are unjustly oppressed," grumbled the grasses. "We would fain lift our blade tips into the sunshine of the upper air, but Paquo Meecho forbids." "And we," fretted the deep carpet of moss which grew smooth and velvety in the dark shade of the forest. "Why should we have to go on covering these rocks for a million years longer simply because Paquo Meecho commands it? Let them cover themselves from now on!" And with a rebellious twist they promptly curled up, leaving the flinty surfaces dry and sear in the sunshine.

"What about us?" demanded the trees, shaking and quivering with excitement as they bent their branches to listen. "We, too, would like to live our own lives unhampered by the jungle laws of Paquo Meecho!" And rustling their impatient displeasure, they whispered and plotted among themselves the joys that should be theirs once they were emancipated from the hampering sovereignty of their forest sachem.
Determinedly the Chagres carried the campaign even to his most distant fastnesses and swiftly the spirit of revolt spread through the jungle. Over hill and dale and swamp land restless murmurs of protest were everwhere voiced by tossing branches and shispering leaves. Drunk with success, the instigator of the uprising charged triumphantly toward the sea, shouting boisterously to the listening Trades that thorughout the farthermost reaches of the Chagres Valley the reign of Paquo Meecho was no more.

Breathlessly, but with the swiftness of arrows, the Trade Winds scudded over land and sea and mountain to bear to the absent god, tidings of the rebellious uprising among his children; and he, girding the symbols of his pwoer about, hastenend home. Incensed with anger and in a voice rumbling with thunder, Paquo Meecho called his miscreant children before him. Wrathfully he condemned their impious questioning of his almighty power, and as a terrible warning to the rest of his empire, he pronounced upon the offenders a dire and awful punishment for their sins.

"Upon thee, thou wicked Chagres," he thundered, "shall fall the heaviest burden of the sentence I pronounce, for I count thee most to blame. As just punishment for thy misdeeds, nevermore shalt thou rush untrammeled to the sea. From now on and thoughout eternity thou shalt wear the yoke of toil and serve the ranks of men. "Their ships thou shalt bear forever over the very hilltops and valleys where thy seditious words took root. Instead of thy unhampered frolicking of yore,from now on thy waters shall stand placid and still even to the farthermost reaches of thy tributaries, as a reminder that, though the Chagres is a lordly river, mightier still is the power which controls him!"

Quaking with apprehension and dread foreboding, the other culprits waited as his accusing eye was turned upon them. "Because thou art not worthy longer to be numbered among my children, thou naughty moss and grasses," he said sternly, "thou shalt be banished from my sight. Since thou chooseth to listen to the voice of the Chagres instead of thy master's bidding, thou shalt abide forevermore beneath the waters where his voice only shalt thou hear!" "And now, my traitorous sentinels, thou who wert trusted as my beloved lookouts in the jungle," he went on, addressing the trees who stood with shamed crests and drooping branches. "No more shalt thou laugh and rustle in the buoyant breezes. Gaunt and bare from now on thou shalt stand lifting thy bony arms above the quelled waters of the Chagres, begging for a mercy which throughout all eternity shall be denied thee!" Silently he stood then, an outraged deity passing judgement upon trespassers of his holy edicts. But at the heartbroken moans of sorrow and consternation which rose in a wail from the listening forests, his heart softened a trifle and a note of forgiveness crept into the relentlessness of his voice as he went on speaking.

"One concession shall I make to thee, O trees; one and one only! Because of thy crimes the first part of thy punishment canst not be abated. However, when each of thee hast paid the penalty of thy folly in full, thou mayst sink to rest beneath the waters and slumber peacefully thoughout eternity upon the spot which knew thee in the full beauty of thy youth and innocence."

Leaving the condemned valley of the Chagres to weep and sigh over the immutable certainty of its doom, Paquo Meecho then set about the fulfillment of his pledge.

Speaking silently to the hearts and minds of men, he willed that they should stop for him the course of his rebellious river, and harnessing it, put it to work forevermore.

Since all things must be done which Paquo Meecho commands, the races of men hearkened and did as they were bid. As undying testimonial of their obedience to his voice, the Chagres River, once the mighty king of jungle waters, is now conquered and enslaved. Tamed and subdued, with spirit broken, he now patiently lifts the ocean-to-ocean burdens of man across the deeply submerged hill tops without a murmur - unless mayhap he whispers an occasional voiceless protest of sorrow to the ghostly minions of the jungle whose gaunt skeleton arms are stretched upward, begging and beseeching a mercy which can be granted them nevermore.

BY Sue Core - Reprint 1942.

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