South America Today - Pampas Life
( Originally Published 1911 )
EVERY capital is a world in itself —a world in which national and foreign elements blend; but to understand the life of a nation one must go out into the country. A vast territory, ten times the size of France, extending from Patagonia to Paraguay and Bolivia, will naturally offer the greatest diversity of soil and climate, representing differing conditions of labour as well as of customs and sometimes of morals. Our ancient Europe can in the same way show ethnical groups with sufficiently marked features (such as in our French provinces) which a long history has not been able to destroy or even to modify.
It is quite another matter when, on a continent with no history at all, you get men of every origin spread over it, brought thither by a community of interest and in the hope of cultivating the soil by their labour. I have already said what racial characteristics subsist. The colonist will, of course, at first do all he can to remain what the land of his birth has made him; the first evidence of this is his tendency to fall into groups and form national colonies. But the land of his adoption will in time surely force upon him the inevitable conditions of a new mode of life, the very necessity of adapting himself to changed conditions making of him a new creature, to be later definitely moulded by success.
The Pampas are not the Argentine. They form, however, so predominant a part that they have shaped the man and the race by imposing on them their organisation of agricultural labour and the development of their natural re-sources. Whilst manufactures are still in a rudimentary state and are likely to remain so for a long time to come owing to the lack of coal, the Pampas from the Andes to the ocean offer an immense plain of the same alluvial soil from end to end, ready to respond in the same degree to the same effort of stock-raising or agriculture. An identical stretch of unbroken ground, with identical surface, identical pools of subterranean water, no special features to call for other than the unchanging life of the Campo.
Naturally, the first experiments were made in the most rudimentary fashion on the half-wild herds of cattle that could not be improved unless the European market were thrown open. As soon as this outlet was assured the whole effort of skill and money was directed towards the improvement of stock, and the progress made in a few years of work far exceeded the brightest hopes of those early days. And as at the same time a powerful impetus was given to wheat-growing, the Pampas from one end to the other of their vast extent immediately took on a dual aspect : cattle farms (herds grazing on natural or artificial pastures), and acres of grain (wheat, oats, maize, and flax)—this is the only picture that the Pampas offer or ever can offer to the traveller. The system of cattle-breeding, primitive in the extreme at a distance from rail-roads, improves in proportion as the line draws nearer; wherever the iron road passes there is an immediate development of land under cultivation.
All this goes to make up a man of the Campo —the estanciero, colonist, peon, gaucho, or what-ever other name he may be called. Certain conditions of living and working are forced upon him from which there is no escape. Whether landed proprietor, farmer, servant, or agricultural labourer, the vastness of the plain which opens in front of him, the distance between inhabited dwellings, the roughness of the roads, leave him no other means of communication but the horse, which abounds everywhere and can be unceremoniously borrowed on occasion. The man of the Campo is a horseman. He is certainly not an elegant horseman, whose riding would be appreciated at the Saumur Cavalry School. No curb; only a plain bit is used, whose first effect is to bring down the animal's head and throw him out of balance, whilst his rider, to remedy this defect, raises his hands as high as his head. To the unsightliness of this picture is added an unstable seat. As very often hap-pens in similar circumstances, instinct and determination more or less making up for all mistakes, the rider manages approximately to keep on his beast's back, thanks partly to the fact that the horse is rarely required to go at more than a moderate pace over level ground. The hoof never by any chance can strike on a stone, though it may be caught in a hole; the active little creole horse excels in avoiding this danger. One can ask no more of him. (I shall have something to say later of the way wild horses are broken in.)
On his enormous saddle of sheepskin, the peon or gaucho, his hat pulled well down over his eyes, his shoulders draped in the folds of the poncho,—a blanket with a hole in it for the head to pass through,—is encumbered with a whip whose handle serves on occasion as a mallet, and a lasso, with or without metal halls, coiled be-hind his saddle. He makes a picturesque enough figure in the monotonous expanse of earth and sky, where rancho or tree, beast or man, stand out in high relief against a background of glaring light. Without sign or syllable, his eyes fixed on the empty horizon, the man passes through the silence of infinite solitude, rising like a ghost from the nothingness of the horizon at one point to sink again into nothingness at another. When riding in a troop, they talk together in low tones. There are none of those outbursts of fun that you might expect in a land of sunshine. It is the gravity natural to men brought face to face with Nature in the pitiless light of sky and earth where no fold or break in the surface arrests the glance or fixes the attention.
Still, there are those gigantic herds of horned cattle or horses which fill an appreciable portion of the melancholy plain—" green in winter, yellow in summer." I say nothing of the great flocks of sheep because there were none in the districts which I visited. When you talk of a herd of ten thousand cows, you make some impression on even a big farmer of the Charolais. Well, I can assure you that out in the Pampas ten thousand head of cattle is a small affair. You see a dark shadow that rises on the horizon that might be either a village or a group of haycocks, until the vague shifting of the mass suggests to your mind the idea of some form of life. The lines show clearer, groups break off and stand out, pointed horns appear, and at last you find you are watching the tranquil passage of a monstrous herd, whose outlines are stencilled in black upon the whiteness of the skyline like the Chinese shadow pictures I saw on one occasion at the Chat Noir (in Montmartre) when the flocks of the patriarchs were flung upon the sheet. So distinct are the shapes here that you lose the sense of distance and are astonished at the harmony of nonchalant impulse, as irresistible as slow, which can thus set in movement this huge living mass and make it pass before us like a vision of Fate. The dream fantasy is the more striking because it changes so rapidly. Withdraw your eyes a moment from the picture, and it is entirely altered. The heavy mass of migrating cattle seems now to have taken root at the opposite extremity of the horizon, whilst in the depths of the luminous distance shadowy patches of haze more or less distinct betoken further living bodies, some stationary, some in motion. These are mirages of the Pampas of which none takes any heed; but upon me they made a powerful impression, for I saw in them the whole tragedy of this land, from the tuft of grass on which the eyes of the beast first saw the light down to the last step of that fateful journey which ends at the slide of the slaughter-house.
The rapid travelling of the motor-car multiplies one's point of view. The vast estates on the Pampas, which run from two to a hundred square miles in extent, are further divided into large sections bounded by wire fencing to limit the wandering of the herds. The roads are marked out by a double row of wire. What dust and what mud may be found thereon, according to weather conditions, may be imagined, since there is not the smallest pebble to be found there. Yet vehicles do, it appears venture along these paths, and even arrive at their destination. You may also meet flocks of sheep and oxen on them, and families of pigs engaged in breakfasting on a sheep that has been relieved of its skin. In less than an hour its bones, picked clean, are scattered along the way, where in process of time they will contribute precious phosphates to the soil. Naturally, on such a " road," the automobile does not yearn to travel; rather does it prefer the green smoothness of the immense prairie. Here there are no police regulations to annoy the motorist. No other law but your own fancy and a certain thought for the savoury lunch that is awaiting you at the next estancia. When you reach it you will discover that the monstrous herds on the horizon were merely these gentle creatures, placid in their happy ignorance of the fell designs that are the hidden causes of man's kindness to them. Do we astonish them? Or are they wholly in-different? Their eyes are fixed on our panting machines as ours are on the grazing beasts, and not a spark is struck by the meeting of the two intelligences, the one so calmly definite and the other too soon checked in its effort to under-stand. Obedient to the rebenque (whip) of the peon, the herd, which in motion looks so threatening, allows itself to be stopped or led by the cries and rapid movements of the horsemen going at a hand-gallop. The sight of any object that waves in the wind (whether coat or poncho) is equally effectual.
If one expects the cows, which are penned for milking (three quarts a day as an average), the only apparent relations between man and beast consist in the easy use of this instrument of terror. Nothing is done for the flock except to provide the mill which automatically feeds the water-troughs, and to see to the safe arrival of the bulls intended to improve the breed, and to select those from the herd destined for the freezing machines; for all their other needs Providence is expected to provide—quite a different regime from that prevailing in our French stock-farms. Of shelter against wind or sun there is none. The grass is there when the drought has not burnt it up, also an ugly thistle which no one troubles to pull up and which sometimes overruns the pasture. Of Nature's scourges, the drought is the most to be feared, for it falls with fearful suddenness on great stretches of the Campo. In the absence of rain, neither turf nor forage nor harvest can be looked for; for the cattle, death is certain. Winter in any case is a hard season for them. Their coats lose their gloss, their flanks fall in, and their pointed bones witness to their sufferings, which the icy breath of the pampero does nothing to assuage. With the spring comes the hope of rain. But if this hope is betrayed, nothing can save innumerable herds from starvation and death. For-age is always stored for the more precious of the stock, but to feed the herd is out of the question. The Pampas then become one vast cemetery where hundreds of thousands of dead cattle are lying in heaps beyond all possibility of burial. It is the custom to leave the body of the beast that dies by the way to the tender mercies of the wind and the sun, the rain and the earth, into whose wide-open pores the re-mains are little by little absorbed. The birds of prey and dogs are valuable assistants but wholly insufficient. One of my friends told me that it was by no means uncommon for the dogs to re-turn to the farm from the Campo bearing a horrible smell about them. For my part, if I was often revolted by the spectacle of putrefying carcasses lying about the Pampas and seen either on my walks or from the railway-train —some even lying festering in pools close to dwelling-houses—I cannot say that my olfactory nerves were ever troubled. I occasionally spoke of the danger of poisonous fly-bites, but I got only vague replies.
In my personal experience, whenever I met something disagreeable on my walks about the Pampas, the carcass was invariably completely mummified, the skin being so thoroughly tanned that the object might have been carefully prepared for a museum of comparative anatomy. But when death was recent, and the summer season had set in, with its attendant flies, I should certainly avoid the neighbour-hood.
It will surprise no one to hear that I took the liberty of calling the attention of two or three statesmen to the dangers of this unfortunate custom and the detestable impression it is bound to make on travellers. The reply invariably was that the Argentine was suffering, and would, no doubt, continue to suffer for some time to come, from a lack of hands and that the thousands of animals which under normal conditions perished in the Pampas could never find grave-diggers. When, therefore, a dry season killed off as many as ten thousand sheep on a single ranch, there was no alternative but to bow to the inevitable.
We see that cattle-rearing in the Argentine has its ups and downs. At every turn Nature intervenes with its elements of success or disaster. Man's role is to furnish a minimum of labour, and by the force of circumstances, he is compelled to reckon on quantity for his modicum of success; but the fact does not prevent his successful efforts to improve the quality. As I have already said, he will give any prize to secure a fine strain. It is naturally from England that he gets his stock for breeding, since the customers for his meat are chiefly English. On all hands I was told that the results were most satisfactory. As regards their breed of horses, the result is manifest. But as for the cattle, I take the liberty of disagreeing with those who declare that the Argentine can send to our slaughter-houses at La Villette meat as fine as our own at half its price. If, however, I am firmly convinced that our palate would not readily be satisfied with the frozen meat that seems to please the English, I am quite aware that there is a distinction to be drawn between the choice beasts, generally magnificent, that make such a show at exhibitions and the common run of the average flock, amongst which truth compels me to admit there are some very indifferent animals. It will require a long time and a change of system on the cattle-rearing farms for the Argentine ever to equal the fine products of our French breeders. It cannot be otherwise as long as the young animal, bred somewhat at haphazard and born on the open camp between the corpses of some of its relations, is left to grow up as best it can, exposed . to every change of temperature. Everywhere I came upon young calves abandoned by their mothers as soon as born, and only sought out when the time for feeding came round; it can-not be said that the stock would bear comparison with the average produce of a Norman or Charolais byre. Not all the quality of its mother's milk will suffice to make up for the ground lost by neglect.
As I have said, the troops of horses seem to have lost the least. I speak less of their appearance than of their action, which often seemed to me remarkable. You cannot imagine the pleasure it is to glide swiftly across the Pampas in a motor-car with a troop of young horses on either side of you, neighing and galloping to keep up with the machine. But do not, pray, call them " wild horses."
Tradition to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe there are no wild horses in the Argentine. There are horses, and there are horsemen who treat them brutally under the pretext of breaking them in. This is a survival of ancient times which not even the universality of the horse in civilised countries can destroy. Any English squire will get more out of a young horse by quiet skill and kindness than can ever be obtained by the useless and cruel lasso, to which I shall return later.
I have shown you the Pampas alive with the swarms of their new civilisation. We are far enough from the romantic descriptions so dear to story-tellers. We all know now that the redskin of North America bears no resemblance to the portraits painted of him by Chateaubriand or Fenimore Cooper. The Pampas, in full process of evolution, are getting more human and losing their distinctive features. They were once as bare, to quote the joke of a poet, now a member of the Académie Française, "as the speech of an academician "; man has undertaken to raise up orchards, groves, and even forests. Once they were the refuge of more or less innocent beasts. The son of Adam, by the mere fact of his presence, treads out all life that can-not be made of use to himself.
I said that the ombu was the only tree that flourished in the Pampas, for the simple reason that the locusts devour every other vegetable product, including clover, crops, and trees of all sorts. The damage caused by these insects, which descend in clouds and destroy in a moment the harvest, is only too well known by our Algerian colonists. Wherever the cloud descends vegetation vanishes. In a few hours every leaf is gone from the tree, and only the kernel, clean and dry, is left on the branch as a mute witness of the irreparable disaster. I did not see the locusts, but I was shown the result of their work, most conscientiously carried out. Men who have put long months of toil into their land see, with impotent rage, all the fruit of their toil swept off in the twinkling of an eye. The Government lays out some mil-lions yearly to assuage in some sort the mischief done. But the only remedy applied up to the present consists in making such a din on the approach of the baneful host as to induce them to go on farther and land at a neighbour's. As altruism, this course is not above reproach. Another way is to dig ditches in which to bury them alive, but this is mere child's play. If you inquire the origin of the scourge you will get the sulky reply that the pest comes from Chaco, and that some men have travelled thither to verify the statement, but the country proving impenetrable, the project has for the moment been abandoned. I hasten to place these insufficient data before the European public.
Alone victorious over the locusts by the repugnance it inspires, and over man by its glorious uselessness, the ombu here and there spreads its triumphant arms near some ranch; occasionally, on the pasturage of the Campo, it may be seen extending its shelter to some quadruped that shuns the rays of the sun. Around his estancia the farmer plants his orchard and his ornamental thicket, which will flourish or not at the will of the insects. After the passage of the destructive horde it requires at least two years for the country to recover. The eucalyptus, owing to its rapid growth, gives very good results, but the favourite tree in the Pampas is the paraiso—the Tree of Paradise—which is admirable rather for its flower than its form, and withstands to some extent the locust, through sheer force of resistance. Occasionally one comes upon a small wood, in which the ornevo —the cardinal—sings and the dove coos.
For the Campo has a whole population of running or flying creatures, whose principal virtue is that of being satisfied with little in the shape of a shelter. The gardens and parks of the estancias provide a natural asylum for a world of winged songsters, in whom man, softened by isolation, has not yet inspired terror.
But the Pampas in their nudity are not with-out signs of life. There is the guanaco, smaller than the llama, larger than the stork, which has already retreated far from Buenos Aires. The grey ostrich, formerly abundant, has been decimated by the lasso of the gaucho, who, at the risk of getting a kick that may rip him open, attacks the beast that struggles wildly in the bonds of the cruel rope, drags out his handsomest feathers, and then lets him go. The really " wild " ostrich has disappeared from the Pampas. Numbers may be seen from the window of the train, but they are all confined in fenced parks, and are really in captivity.
I cannot be expected to give a list of all the creatures that swarm on or under the soil of the Campo. There is nothing to be said about the prairie-dog, which has been systematically destroyed on account of the damage it does. I must mention the tatou, a small creature with a pointed muzzle, something between a lizard and a tortoise, and with the shell of the latter. It burrows into the ground, as certain of our European species do. The gaucho considers its flesh excellent, declaring that it tastes like pork. Perhaps the surest way of getting the taste of pork is to address oneself to the pig himself, here popularly known as the " creole pig," a lovable little black beast that plays with the children in tiny muddy pools in the neighbourhood of the ranches.
Passing by the hare (imported from Europe), the small partridge, and the martinette (tina- mou), to which I shall return presently, I may mention the plover (abundant) and the birds of carrion, which settle all disputes for the possession of the ground according to the dictates of a boundless appetite, and the small owl, so tame that it rises every few yards with a cheerful cry to come down again a few yards farther on, following all your movements with a questioning eye. At the mouth of its burrow, or on the stake that marks the boundary of the ranch, its pretty form is a feature in the landscape. Finally, I must not forget the ornevo, to be found near the estancias and in the woods, a charming, tame little bird, that chatters all the time like a good many people, and builds a mud nest in the branches, in the shape of an oven divided into two apartments, whose tiny door opens always to the north, whence comes the warmth. If you lose yourself in the forest you need no compass but this. The gauchos hold the bird in pious respect. Legend has it that he never works on Sundays at his nest. Here is one who wants no legislation for a repos hebdomadaire any more than he does for the regulation of the liquor sale. Oh, the superiority of our "inferior brethren "!
I heard a good deal about the great lakes in which thousands of black-necked swans and rose-pink flamingoes may be seen at play. I was never able to visit these fascinating birds. To make up for this M. Onelli presented me with two handsome black-throated swans, which, how-ever, were not able to stand the climate of Normandy.
Having thus sketched the principal features, it remains to fill in the picture of the ranch and estancia. I have shown you the primitive cabin of the Robinson Crusoe of the Campo. I have drawn a picture of the colonist and the gaucho; it is not necessary to go back to him again. I have shown the diverse elements of his existence. The railway has not changed anything in it except by abolishing the inter-minable rides of earlier days and the tiresome monotony of convoying freight waggons to the town markets. The railway, moreover, brings within reach of the ranch the conveniences of modern furniture.
In the huts of the half-castes, near Tucuman, the only piece of furniture I saw was a pair of trestles, on which was laid the mat which served as seat, bed, or table—the kitchen being always outside. In the Pampas, dwellings that look modest, and even less than modest, generally boast an easy-chair, a chest of drawers, with a clock, a sewing-machine, and gramophone, which, when fortune comes, is completed by a piano. The gramophone is the theatre of the Pampas. It brings with it orchestra, song, words, and the whole equipment of " art " suited to the aesthetic sense of its hearers. Thus on all sides dreadful nasal sounds twang out, to the great joy of the youth of the colony.
The morals of the Campo are what the conditions of life there have made them. Men who are crowded together in large cities are exposed to many temptations. When too far removed from the restraint of public opinion, the danger is no less great. In all circumstances a witness acts as a curb. In the Pampas as it used to be, the witness, nine times out of ten, became an accomplice. Between the menace of a distant and vague police force and the ever-present fear of the Indian, the gaucho became a soldier of fortune, prepared for any bold stroke. With his dagger in his belt, his gun on his shoulder, and the lasso on his saddle-bow, he rode over the eternal prairie in search of adventures, and ready at any moment for the drama that might be awaiting him. To his other qualities must be added a generous hospitality, that dispensed to all comers his more or less well-gotten goods; he had in him the material for an admirable leader in revolutionary times. I saw no revolutions, and I hope the Argentine has finished with them for ever; but the periodic explosions that have taken place there are not so ancient but that an echo of them reached my ear. I shall leave out of the question, of course, all more remote circumstances that might serve at hazard to put a body of adventurers in motion. You were on the side of General X or General Z, according to the hopes of the party; but, in reality, that had little to do with it. When the signal was once given a military force had to be organised, and the means adopted were admirably simple. Any weapon that could be of use in battle was picked up, and a band would present themselves at the door of an estancia.
" We are for General X. All the peons here must follow us. To arms ! To horse ! "
And the order would be obeyed; otherwise, the estancia and its herds would suffer. With such a system of recruiting, troops were quickly collected, and a few such visits would suffice to bring together a very respectable force of men. My friend Biessy, the artist, with whom I had the pleasure of making the journey, witnessed just such a scene one day at an estancia which he was visiting. He was chatting with the over-seer when the man, hearing a suspicious sound, flung himself down and put his ear to the ground. A moment later he rose, looking anxious.
" There are horsemen galloping this way. What can have happened? " And sure enough, a minute later, there appeared a band of men so oddly equipped that at first they were taken for masqueraders. It was carnival time. The leader, however, came forward and called on the overseer to place all his peons at the service of the revolutionaries. Biessy himself only escaped by claiming the rights of a French citizen. And do not imagine that all this was a comedy. The dominant sentiment in their camp was by no means a respect for human life. On both sides these brave peons fought furiously, asking no questions about the party in whose cause they happened to be enrolled. The overseer of a neighbouring estancia, who was talking with M. Biessy when called to parley with the revolutionaries, was shot dead a few hours later for having offered resistance to them.
If men are thus unceremoniously enrolled—I use the present tense because one never knows what may happen—it may be imagined the horses are borrowed still more freely. A curious thing is that when the war is over, and these creatures are again at liberty, they find their way back quite easily to their own pastures.
The overseer of one estancia told me that the last revolution had cost him 600 horses, of which 400, that had been taken to a distance of from 200 to 300 kilometres, returned of their own accord. How they contrive to steer their course over the Pampas, with their inextricable tangle of wire fencing, I do not undertake to explain. When I inquired of the overseer whether it were not possible to steal one of his horses without being discovered, he replied, "Oh, it is like picking an apple in Normandy ! It often happens that a traveller on a tired horse lassoes another to continue his journey. But on reaching his destination he sets the animal at liberty, and he invariably makes his way back to the herd."
I have already spoken of the time when the gaucho would fell an ox to obtain a steak for lunch. In some of the more remote districts it is possible that the custom still subsists. But it is none the less true that a growing civilisation and the railway, which is its most effectual and rapid instrument, are changing the gaucho, together with his surroundings and his sphere of action. The gaucho on foot is very like any other man. His flowing necktie of brilliant colour, once the party signal, has been toned down. His poncho, admirably adapted to the climatic conditions of camp life in the Campo, is now used by the townsmen, who throw it over their arm or shoulder according to the variations in the temperature. The sombrero, like the slashed breeches or high boots, is no longer distinctive. There remains only the heavy stirrup of romantic design, more or less artistically ornamented, but now often replaced by a simple ring of rope or iron. The days of roystering glamour are passed. The heavy roller of civilisation levels all the elements of modern existence to make way for the utilitarian but inaesthetic triumph of uniformity. Yet a little longer and the life of the Campo will be nothing but a memory, for with his picturesque dress the type itself is disappearing.
The modern gaucho has preserved from his ancestors the slowness in speech, the reserved manner, and scrutinising eye of the man who lives on the defensive. But to-day he is thoroughly civilised, and can stroll down Florida Street, in Buenos Aires, without attracting any attention. It is in vain that the theatre seeks to reproduce the life of the Campo, as I saw it attempted at the Apollo. What can it show us beyond the eternal comedy of love, or the absurdities of the wife of the gaucho who has too suddenly acquired a fortune? Both subjects belong to all times and all countries, in the same way as every dance and every song are common to any assembly of young humanity. Long before the gramophone was invented the guitar was the joy of Spanish ears to the farthest confines of the Pampas. Between two outbreaks of civil war, when men were rushing madly to meet death, joyous songs and plaintive refrains alternated beneath the branches of the ombu, where the youth of the district met, and the sudden dramas of the ranch made them the more eager to drink deep of the pleasure they knew to be fleeting. They danced the Pericou and the Tango, as they still do to-day; but the audacious gestures in which amorous Spain gave expression to the ardour of its feelings have now passed into the domain of history. The " Creole balls," where may be seen graceful young girls in soft white draperies, dancing in a chain that resembles our Pastourelle, have been reproduced on postcards and are familiar to all. There are, there will ever be in the Pampas—at least, I fondly hope so—graceful young girls dressed in white and destined to rouse the love instinct which never seems to sleep in an Italian or Spanish breast. But the trouble we take to reconstruct on the stage, for the edification of travellers from Europe, the real Tango, in all the antique effrontery of its ingeniousness, proves that the heroic age, made up of the naif and the barbarous, is fast losing its last vestiges of character in the wilderness of civilised monotony. The Tango is disappearing rapidly. On the other hand, at Rio de Janeiro, in the flower of my seventieth year, I actually figured in the official quadrille of the President of the Republic, to the shame of French choregraphy. Alas! alas!