Pai Ricardo’s Wood, a treasure right in the middle of Tijuca Forest
Scientists discovered a plant nursery threatened to extinction, says Ana Lúcia Azevedo
When left in peace, the tachi (Tachigalia paratyensis) reaches 25 meters, higher than some buildings not far from it. But the tachi in question is still a shrub, and its presence marks the entrance to one of the paths leading to the Atlantic Forest in all its glory – where the sky is green and the ground is dark. The tachi lives in the Mata do Pai Ricardo, a portion of the Tijuca National Park facing the Zona Sul. With an enchanted name and mysterious origin, scientists see it as almost magic, manifested in the natural regeneration of the Atlantic Forest, impressive due to its speed and richness.
– Pai Ricardo’s Wood is a treasure. The diversity is greater, the trees are very large, the canopy is closed. A patrimony of Rio. This forest is a piece of the Atlantic Forest at its utmost development. It’s not reforestation. No other metropolis in the world has anything like it – says Rogério Ribeiro do Oliveira, professor of the Department of Geography and Environment of PUC-Rio and one of the greatest experts on the Tijuca Forest.
A piece of the Atlantic Forest at its utmost development, is an expression of scientific rigor that translates into original forest, one that already existed before the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro was on the map and transformed the landscape. Pai Ricardo dissolves the myth that the Tijuca Forest is only the work of man. Whole parts of the forest are remnants of ancient forests. Other parts were reforested in 1860. But the Mata do Pai Ricardo is the jewel of their crown, it exudes mystery.
Its trees are among the largest and oldest in the city – venerable giants over 20 meters high and hundreds of years old. It faces the Zona Sul, above Horto. But hardly anyone has heard of it. It spans about 200 hectares – or 200 soccer fields. And there is also Father Ricardo himself, who named the forest, a river and a hill, and then disappeared into history without a trace.
– It is a very precious remnant. In my view, it needs special protection. The value of this forest is incalculable. It survived coal, coffee, and the metropolis. It is not very extensive, but it represents the closest that the Carioca has of the Atlantic Forest in its glory. Ana Luiza Coelho Netto, professor at the Geohecoecology Laboratory (Geoheco) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), says: “It also provides environmental services, protects the springs, lessens the heat, and helps clean the air.
The importance of Pai Ricardo is not new for researchers and connoisseurs of the Tijuca Forest. It’s in the Management Plan of the Tijuca National Park. It’s highlighted by studies dating back to the 1940s. For some reason, it has never become very well known.
– It’s a myth that the forest was totally replanted. Pai Ricardo is well preserved, and it’s an example that disproves it. Why the forest survived is another story. The dynamics of the ancient uses of the forest are still not well understood, says the head of the Tijuca National Park, Ernesto Viveiros de Castro. Ana Luiza and Rogério for more than three decades have developed studies on the Tijuca Massif. Much of what is known about the region comes from their research. However, they didn’t even expect to discover, just a few meters from the Transcarioca Trail, a nursery for the Atlantic Forest in full development. Rare species sprout and connect to regenerate the complexity of the forest.
– If I had not been here and seen it, I wouldn’t believe the speed with which the woods are renewed. The strength of this forest excites me. What we’re watching is very special – Ana Luiza says.
A Gigantic Jequitibá lies in the Pai Ricardo Wood
The nursery that enchants scientists lies where the greatest giant of Pai Ricardo is. The Jequitibá, with a name as big as its size, was 40 meters high. It gave its name to a trail and a waterfall, references for the forest goers. But in 2013, during a gale, it broke. The canopy came down and took other trees and shrubs with it.
– It’s now 22 meters. Its trunk measures 3.2 meters in diameter. This one lived more than two thousand years. The wind broke it because its trunk was old and fragile. Its time is up – says Oliveira.
The Jequitibá died. But it didn’t go away. Dead, it gives life to the forest.
– Thousands of fungi cover the trunk and roots and decompose them. There are literally millions of microorganisms that recycle the Jequitiba’s colossal amount of organic matter and return it to the forest in the form of nutrients – Ana Luiza explains.
More than just that, with the death of the giant, light came through. Large trees create a world of shadows under the treetops. In it there is an entire gene pool of other plants waiting for an opportunity, for light to emerge and start a new cycle. This can take decades, centuries or millennia.
– We watched this sleeping part of the forest wake up. When a clearing opens and the woods around are healthy, it offers nutrients and moisture, a revolution happens. This light, the shrubs and smaller plants awaken, begin to emerge, take up space.
The sapplings that will one day be giants, will close off the sky of the forest and begin a new cycle. One day, many centuries ago, this jequitibá was like the little plants we see here. It grew, survived for ages, and became heaven itself. With its death, a new cycle began – highlights Rogério Oliveira.
Near the dead giant, a bush has already taken its place. It’s a guapeba (Chrysophyllum imperiale) or marmeleiro-do-mato. But it’s the name of the árvore-do-imperador that might explain its fate better. Almost extinct due to the exploitation of its wood, this species that reaches 25 meters was considered ideal for shipbuilding. It became popular with Pedros I and II. The latter sent it to botanical gardens, he wanted to preserve it. But it got more and more rare after the Empire. Unsubstantiated reports say that in the young Republic it would have ceased to be protected due to its association with the emperor.
– This species is just a small example of what we have here – explains Oliveira.
It is not known why coffee wasn’t planted there. The Pai Ricardo Wood is not pristine, but it is preserved. Rogério Oliveira believes that the many boulders and the steep slope of the terrain may have hampered the establishment of plantations.
– It’s magic what we’re seeing happen. The process is a lot faster than what we imagine – adds Stingel Fraga, doctor in geography from PUC-Rio.
Although the fauna is not as rich as the flora, because the Pai Ricardo Wood is like an island surrounded by city and road, some animals find refuge there. Squirrels and monkeys are common. Not so much as snakes. The hollowed trunk of the old Jequitiba is a paradise for them, who find shelter and food there, in the form of wild mice and spiders, for example.
In another part of the Pai Ricardo, a hundred-year-old ajo-ajo of around 30 feet tall is reached 20 feet off the trail. The foot sinks into the carpet of leaves, vines enclose the path. Snakes also take shelter in the stumps. There, the forest is dark, and confuses one easily, removing points of reference. It is not a place for tours. And experts hope that is stays like that.
– What can’t be allowed is aggression on the woods. There are cigarette butts, scraps of food, religious offerings on the trails. People want to enjoy nature and destroy it, violate it, disrespect it. I hope there is more awareness and affection for a treasure that belongs to everyone – laments Ana Luiza.
To survive the forest, like the city around it, it needs peace.
The Mysterious Father Ricardo
Just as enveloped in the shadows as are the curves of the forest to which he gives his name is the figure of Father Ricardo. He would have been one of the slaves who worked with Major Manoel Gomes Archer in the historic reforestation of the Tijuca Massif, begun in 1862. Another possibility is that he was a spiritual leader of Afro-Brazilian religions. The first is considered unlikely since there is no reliable record of a slave with that name.
The fact is that the Tijuca Forest is loaded with spirituality through names such as that of Cachoeira das Almas, an ancient place of worship. And studies by Rogério Oliveira have already revealed a relationship between Afro-Brazilian religions and the preservation of trees considered sacred, such as fig trees. Regarding Father Ricardo, however, there is only mystery.
– In fact, the history of the Tijuca Forest is much less well known and documented than one might imagine. The very idea that everything has been replanted is a myth. Archer and his successors were important. But they reforested only one part – observes environmental historian José Augusto Padua, one of the coordinators of the Laboratory of History and Nature, at UFRJ’s History Institute.
According to Padua, it was nature itself that did most of the work:
“The mountain is the forest’s greatest friend. The slope, the stones make it difficult to access and destroy. It’s not easy to knock down and drag off a large tree on a steep slope. The one that regenerated most of the forest was nature itself – says Padua.
Even preserved places such as Pai Ricardo’s Wood retain scars from ancient uses. There are traces of charcoal from the 18th and 19th centuries. These charcoal mills were nothing more than ovens in the very woods where the coal sold in the city was produced. The ovens have disappeared, but the place where they existed is identified by the clearly artificial plateaus, planted in the middle of the steep slope. The soil under the dry leaves is dark, pure charcoal.
– The charcoal workers are an important and forgotten part of Rio’s history. But charcoal mills don’t only tell the stories of men. They also tell those of the forest – explains the doctoral student of PUC-Rio Gabriel Paes.
By studying coal it’s possible to know which tree was burned, which gives an idea of the composition of the forest.
– It maintains the anatomy of species – he adds.
It’s just not possible to discover who Father Ricardo was.