South America Today - Farming and Sport
( Originally Published 1911 )
ROMAN civilisation ended in those latifundia which, amongst other causes, are usually considered to have brought about the ruin of Italy. The immense estates of the Argentine Campo were not built up, however, by the expropriation of small farmers, as was the case in decadent Rome. They are simply the result of wholesale seizure of land at the expense of the savages who were incapable of utilising it. Without discussing the origin of all landed property, or to what extent our legal principles and our practice agree, I simply note the fact that the conquistadores and their descendants set down as res nullius whatever it suited them to appropriate.
The principle once established (this is the commencement of every civilisation), there remained only to fix the approximate extent of land likely to satisfy the appetite of the European newcomer. Do you remember a fine story, by Tolstoy, of a man who was given, by I know not what tribe of the steppe, as much land as he could walk round in a day? Once started, the sole idea of the poor wretch was continually to enlarge the circumference. It was only at the price of a tremendous effort that he completed the circle, falling dead at the moment of accomplishing his journey. The first settlers, who followed the Genoese, took probably less trouble, though their greed was as great. But as the land depends for its value on labour, the result for Tolstoy's hero and for the conquistadores was not so very different. Thus, when the first ploughshare turned the first sod, the estate, whatever its proportions, had to bear some relation to human capacity. The large domains of to-day—measuring from two to a hundred square miles—have proceeded from still larger ones, and gradually, as the much-needed labour comes forward to undertake the task, we shall see the further cutting up of preposterous holdings.
This is inevitable in the near future, and this alone will render possible scientific farming, which is highly necessary for the development of agriculture. A farmer who knows nothing of manure of any sort, who is making his first experiments in irrigation, and who burns his flax straw for want of knowing how to utilise it, will, for a long time to come, continue to swamp the markets of Europe with his grain and his meat, but only on condition that he is satisfied with small profits and gives quantity in place of quality. These are the conditions of life on the Campo, such as I have tried to sketch them.
It remains for me to introduce the chief agent in this huge movement of cattle-rearing and agriculture, who, in his own person and that of his overseers, administers the Pampas ; he is the owner of the estancia, the estanciero.
The word estancia—since it represents something non-existent with us—is not easy to translate. Let us put it down as the most sumptuous form of primitive ownership. I might call it the seat of an agricultural feudalism if the peon were a man to accept serfdom—something resembling a democratic principality, if the two words can be coupled together.
When we meet him on the boulevard, the estanciero, who talks of his immeasurable estate and his innumerable herds, seems to us a fabulous creature. It is quite another matter to see him on horseback amidst his peons in the Pam-pas, which, in default of the customary features of private property, appears in its nakedness to be nobody's land—that is to say, everybody's land.
The contrast between the estanciero's personal refinement and the English comfort of his family abode, and the primitive rusticity of the surrounding country, suggests the inconsistencies of barbarism undergoing the civilising process.
As I have already observed, the results obtained are due to a progression of efforts in which the chief, even if assisted by an overseer, necessarily plays a large part. For although it is easy to dazzle the European with fantastic figures, without sacrificing the truth, it is wise to remember that success is not automatic, and that from the elements alone (to say nothing of locusts) serious difficulties are to be expected. M. Basset, whose competence is beyond question, told me that, having lost money in conducting experiments on a large estate, he decided to sell the place. In the meantime land had gone up in value, and he was able to recover himself on the sale of the unworked plots. " I should have made a lot of money," he concluded, " if I had not farmed any of my land." This shows that in the Argentine, as elsewhere, there are risks to be run. The estanciero takes these risks, but if he were content to wait on chance to enhance the value of his land, he would not contribute as largely as he does to the wealth of the Rue de la Paix.
We are always being told that the word dearest to Creole indolence is manana (" tomorrow"), but the exigencies of economic success tend to modify customs. The Argentino, like the Yankee, is more and more inclined to do overnight the work that might be put off to the morrow. At all events, absenteeism is unknown on the estancia, for this would spell ruin at short notice. It is true the estanciero has the reputation of mortgaging freely his estates, and, when a good harvest makes it possible, of hastening to purchase more land so as to increase his output. What can I say, unless that every economic error must be paid for sooner or later, and that in spite of whatever may remain of " Creole indolence," all are forced in the end to seek their profits in an improvement of the system of cultivation?
Grand seigneur I called him—a grand seigneur on colonial soil, where his dwelling is a rustic palace that is something between a farmhouse and a mansion. Simple in structure, wood being the principal element, it is built on the ground-floor, colonial fashion. The comforts of English life are reflected in the large rooms, and both furniture and the domestic arrangements are admirable. Large and rich pieces of furniture belong to the days when difficulties of travelling made a provision of the sort indispensable. Large bookcases, filled with heavy volumes, denote a time before the coming of the railway to scatter on the winds leaves from the Tree of Knowledge. Here is every inducement for reflection—paintings, or, rather, pictures; massive plate, gold-smiths' work won as prizes in cattle shows, whose medals fill large frames, to say nothing of photographs of prize beasts. And, better than all the rest, was the hospitality of other times, Now that every one travels without ceasing, the ancient hospitality has lost its savour. There still linger vestiges of it in those countries where civilisation is not advanced enough to protect the traveller from unpleasant contingencies. Let me hasten to add that amongst these one need not count the risk of starvation in an estancia. No doubt the abundance of cattle counts for something. In any case, the estanciero is admirable in this respect. I wish I could give unstinted praise to the upchero, the asado, of which I have already spoken. But I shall not be able to do that until the Argentino has got out of the habit of handing the meat to the cook while it is still warm, for this requires a power of mastication which European debility denies to our jaws.
All kitchen-gardens are alike, and you cannot expect to find the pleasure-gardens of an estancia laid out by a Lenôtre. Even if that miracle had been worked, what good would it be when the locusts had passed over it? In one estancia, near Buenos Aires, considered the handsomest in the Argentine, which the kindness of its owner throws open to any foreign visitor, I beheld a park of a thousand hectares, where, amid the groves of tall trees, animals wander, giving the illusion of wildness. The grey ostriches that are there imagine, perhaps, that they are free. We admire some handsome bulls which are stalled here. The eucalyptus, planted some-times singly and sometimes in broad avenues, towered above us at a height no other tree could rival. In this favoured spot the rich vegetation has nothing to fear from the locusts. Every species grows freely, as it will. For this reason, the overseer, anxious we should miss none of the rare species on which he prides himself, led us, with an air of mystery, to the edge of a low hill, where, with an authoritative gesture, he stopped us before an ordinary-looking tree, destitute of leaves, which had to me a familiar air.
" Yes, it is an oak you are looking at. An old European oak in the Argentine. What say you to that?"
I admit with prejudice that it is an oak, though at the same time confessing that I have seen others more favourable. And at the risk of being misunderstood, I acknowledge that it is not European flora that most interests me in the Argentine Republic.
The special feature of this fine park is the quarter reserved for the bulls. The specimens I saw, which were led past us, are magnificent beasts, bearing witness to methodical and pro-longed selection. The best English breeds are gloriously represented, not only in the beasts imported from Europe, but also in Argentine-bred animals, which would do honour to any country.
The management and staff of the stables are entirely English. Stallions of world-wide fame are paraded by English stud-grooms that we may admire beauty of line united to beauty of action.
Now we were to see the trainers at work, not upon " wild " horses, since they belong to by-gone days, but simply upon young animals that have not yet been ridden. As a matter of fact, the problem here is exactly the same as with us, but I venture to think that our system is vastly superior. The colts are collected in an enclosure called the corral. Pray do not conjure up a picture of Mazeppa's steed, with fiery eye and bristling mane, as depicted in the favourite chromo. There is nothing here but ardour of youth and grace of movement. The object is to accustom the horse to man and his needs. This our Norman boys quickly achieve by a mixture of skill and kindness which does not preclude firmness of hand. The system of the Argentine peon is very different. First he catches the neck of the animal in a noose and leads him out of the enclosure to a piece of rough ground. There, with a few movements of the lasso, the limbs are so tied that the simplest movement must make the unfortunate victim lose his balance and bring him heavily to earth at the risk of breaking his bones. The creature is terrified, naturally. Meantime, five or six men run in upon him—each an expert in his own way; and when he is so bound he can no longer move, the bit is adjusted and a sheepskin saddle adroitly buckled. All that now remains is to set the animal on his feet so that the horseman may mount. The rope is then relaxed as swiftly as it was tightened, and the colt, on his four feet, firmly held by the head, his eyes blindfolded, might perhaps get over his fright if his two forefeet were not still tied together by a last knot to prevent him running away. The peon gives the signal, and as the last loop is removed he leaps into the saddle and urges his mount straight ahead with the air of riding a savage brute and with a lavish use of his riding crop. Two horsemen, called " sponsors," accompany him, rending the air with their cries and beating the creature with pitiless crops. By the time he has travelled two hundred yards in this way the horse is mad with terror, and asks nothing better than to be allowed to stop. Perhaps there are exceptions; I did not happen to see them. On the other hand, I did see poor beasts that offered not the slightest resistance, and whose angelic gentleness should have disarmed the executioner. It appears that when this performance has been gone through five or six times the colt surrenders unconditionally. In the days when horses were wild upon the prairies these practices might have had some excuse. Nowadays we have different ideas.
All these branches of work require, as may be supposed, a fairly complete set of buildings. Consequently, around the farmer's house there are outbuildings of every style of architecture which make the estancia a sort of small village, whence radiates the work undertaken on the Pampas. Thus ordered and thus spent, life in the fields is a " solitude " broken every moment by great herds and gauchos ever on the march. It has nothing to daunt even a man who is anxious not to lose touch with his fellow-creatures in these days of extreme civilisation. Therefore it is not surprising that a stay of some months at the estancia forms an agreeable part of the programme which the daily life of the Argentine landholder forces on all his family. The railway is never far off, since it brings colonists and is responsible for the whole agricultural movement. Railway construction proceeds at the normal rate of about five hundred kilometres per annum. The provinces of Buenos Aires, of Cordoba, of Santa Fe, which alone furnish eighty per cent. of the agricultural exports, are naturally the most favoured; and also, naturally, it is on the Pampas, the immense reservoir of fertilising energy, that is concentrated the maximum of labour for the extension of the means of communication that are so swiftly and richly remunerative.
Thus it is not too difficult to move about in the Campo. Moreover, the motor-car—running now on a road, now on the great green carpet where movable gates provide a passage through the wire fencing—facilitates a pleasant inter-change of neighbourly relations. I have said that absenteeism is unknown in the estancia. Often the head of the family, when kept for some reason in the city, confides the management of the estate to one of his sons, who in this way turns to magnificent account the grand energy of youth and manhood in intensely interesting work. What more natural than for the family to gather in the fine summer months beneath the shade of the farms, amid its herds so full of life, to enjoy the beauty of the harvest ripened with the warm kisses of the sun? The rides are unending beneath the pure sky of the long mornings, in the strengthening breeze which sets the blood coursing through the pulses with renewed force. In Brazil I heard people pity the Argentinos because they lacked the resource of the mountains in the great heat of summer. The Andes are, indeed, too far distant even with the railway that now crosses them. (The Transandine line is now working between the Argentine and Chile—forty hours' run from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso or Santiago.) But the costly pleasures of a sojourn at Mar del Plata are quickly exhausted. The estancia offers a beautiful retreat of active and fruitful peace. There are visits to the farmers who, little by little, are coming to reside on the domain of the estancia (purchasing the ground originally taken on lease, and grouping themselves in such-wise that villages are in process of formation), or the continual inspection of the herds (rodeo).
Another occupation is watching over the harvest which spreads across the Pampas. There are daily pretexts for trips that combine pleasure with usefulness. The tall ricks grow in numbers, the grain falls to the snorting measure of smoking engines, the lean native cattle of the Pampas yield their place to monstrous Durhams, to Herefords, with their handsome white heads, to Percherons, to Boulonnais, to Lincoln sheep, with their heavy fleeces. It is by no means certain that the amusements of Trouville or Vichy are superior to those of the estancia. We may be allowed to think that the "gentleman-farmer" has chosen the better part.
I have said nothing of game-shooting. We must admit that in this respect the resources of the Pampas are greater than those of France. Hares and partridges are on the programme, as they are with us. M. Py told me he had tried to acclimatise the quail—in vain. Some thousands of birds were let loose in a selected part of the Pampas and disappeared for good. The history of the hare is very different. About fifty years ago some Germans liberated a few couples at various points of the Pampas, and the same animal which at home produces only one or two young each year began to swarm like the rabbit. Several families every year—and what families ! The result, disastrous for farming, is that from eighty to a hundred hares may be reckoned to every hectare, and you can-not walk on the Pampas without perceiving a pair of long ears that spring up out of the grass every moment. The flesh has a poor reputation, perhaps for the reason that here they neglect that elementary operation which follows immediately on the death of the animal in our country. The partridge, smaller than ours, is a solitary creature. Its flesh is white and rather insipid. The martinette (tinamou), a sort of intermediary between the partridge and the pheasant, is the best of the Pampas game. One may hunt it without turning to right or to left—certain always of not returning with empty hands. The favourite amusement is the rabat, or the "rope," and shooting from the motor-car.
For the rabat horsemen are needed. A dozen or two of peons ride off at a gallop in no matter what direction, since the game is everywhere, to meet at a point out of sight and return at the top of their speed to the sportsmen. Then, long before you hear their shouts or see their out-lines on the horizon, there suddenly appears along the uncertain line at which earth and sky meet a swarm of creatures which rush and cross each other in every direction. Whether the mass is near or far off it is impossible to say, since there are no objects to measure by. If far, all these black spots on the luminous background may be horns. To our inexperienced eye they give the illusion of a herd of oxen. Then suddenly the truth becomes manifest. You have before you some hundreds of hares, which will quickly be within gunshot. But the animal is sharp to discern the danger, and, in less time than it takes to write it, the troop that was heading in a mass straight for the line of fire melts away until only the foolish ones at the back are left to continue their course with the acquired momentum. In this way the carnage, which promised to be terrible, resolves itself into ten or twelve more or less lucky shots apiece. This is inevitable, since the wire fence which effectually stops horses and cattle is powerless against running game. The day when the destruction of the hare is decided upon, which is certainly desirable, it will only be necessary to fence in three sides of an enclosure and drive the game towards the opening. In the present state of affairs the mere sight of three or four hundred hares running straight towards the guns, even though they make a right-about turn just in time, is an entertainment much appreciated by Europeans.
Shooting a la corde has a different aspect. The mounted peons form up to make a line of beaters a hundred yards apart. But, unlike our own battues, the beater precedes the shooter, instead of walking towards him. The reason is that every peon is attached to his comrade to right and to left by a rope of twisted wires, which sweeps the ground and puts up every living creature to the guns, which follow behind at the pace of a horse's walk. The hare does not wait till the rope reaches him. Often he gets away out of reach. But there is such an abundance of game that none misses the animal that may escape. The important point is for the peons to keep well in line, else huntsmen and horsemen are likely to get a charge of lead. At the Eldorado, M. Villanueva's place, this happened twice or three times in the same day. The partridge (always flying singly) and the martinette are never weary of marking time. They run before one without haste, and apparently determined not to fly away.
It occasionally happens that a sportsman tires of his game and wants to end it. Several times I left the line of guns and ran upon the enemy, which, without any excitement, still kept its distance and never gave its pursuer the satisfaction of seeing it even hasten its step. You look around for a stone, a bit of wood, or a lump of earth, which should have the effect of driving off the creature. On the Pampas is neither pebble, nor stick, nor clod of earth. You have no resource but to swear and make violent gestures that have no effect at all. The martinette, too, has a way of glancing sideways at you which expresses a profound contempt for the entire human race. All generous minds are sensitive to rudeness and feel a just vexation when thus treated. The rapid chase is the more painful that you have very soon before you several martinettes and as many partridges which fly backwards and forwards, leaving you in doubt at which to point your weapon, while, at the same time, you know that in leaving the line of fire you expose yourself to all the guns which may be tempted, by fur or feather, to aim in your direction. There is only one way out of this critical situation that I know of. It is to fling your cap at the running bird. He will fly off then and keep his distance.
The victory would be yours afterwards were it not that the chase under a sun that would seem hot even in summer has left you out of breath. To take aim while struggling for breath is to risk missing the bird. Happily, both part-ridge and martinette have a straight, low, and heavy flight, which permits you to return to the estancia without dishonour. Such are the peripatetics of this amusing form of sport, in which, all along the line, firing is incessant. The steady walk of the guns is only checked by the rope getting caught occasionally on some tuft of grass, or by an encounter, not at all rare, with the carcass of horse or ox in process of decomposition. Having left on his own initiative, he at least escapes from man's ferocity. You pass without even having to hold your nose, so thoroughly does the strong, purifying air of the Pampas carry away in its boundless currents every germ that cannot be returned to the soil to perform the eternal labour of fertilisation. On all sides the last vestiges of clean and fretted bones tell us how lives now ended are taking on new forms of life, and in the gentle murmur of the grass that bends to the breeze the huge white skeletons that brave the blue of heaven have all the eloquence of philosophy in their tale of the supreme defeat of living matter beneath the irresistible triumph of fatality.
With no other break in the horizon but the distant ombu, a group of paraisos, a ranch, or travelling herd, the murderous band pursues its way. The walking is good, and the motorcar, which follows slowly in the rear, is at hand to pick up the weary sportsman. But before that point is reached one is tempted to cast off, little by little, articles of clothing which rapidly become a burden under the sun's rays. A shirt and trousers are already much. Even so, a rest becomes necessary, and those who have any acquaintance with M. Villanueva will guess that there was present a cart laden with refreshments. Halts like these, in the precious shade of the car, are not without charm, if you have taken the wise precaution to put on something warm. When the incidents of the day have been thoroughly discussed the chase is resumed, but if you are really done up do not imagine your fun is over. The auto will take your place in the line of march behind the rope of peons, and, apart from the game of running after martinettes, nothing is changed. The endless prairie is so truly a billiard-table of turf that not a jolt need be felt, and, after a few attempts, one gets the knack of firing from the car with a good average of successful shots. The hare suffers most; martinette and partridge get off more easily. It must be admitted that the experienced chauffeur is a powerful auxiliary. In any case, if you are shooting the less brilliant, the pleasure of sport in repose, varied by all sorts of unforeseen circumstances, more than compensates for the misses and lends a flavour to the sport that is lacking in European shooting parties.
Better still—the day is slowly dying: soon the party will break up, but the shooting will go on all the same. The silent peons come up to say good-night. Dumbly, with courteous gestures, final greetings are exchanged, and then the order is given to set the helm for Eldorado. But there is still light enough to see by. So here we are zigzagging across the Pampas in complicated turns and twists, as one spot or another appears more favourable for game. And the slaughter is terrific, for hares abound. Martinette and partridge, with their dark plumage, have nothing to fear from us now. In the faint light of the setting sun the hare makes still an admirable target, and plover and falcon offer supplementary diversions. The gay little owl alone finds grace with the guns. And when the "dark light " of the poet left us no resource but to shoot at each other, pity or perhaps fear of the last agony sufficed to make us hold our hand. The gentle horned beasts moved out of our way, fixing on us their stupidly soft eyes, and leaving us wholly remorseless, while in the freshening breeze and empty blackness of sky and land we burst in upon the lights of hospitable Eldorado.
This simple tale of a day's sport in the Pampas has no other merit than that of being strictly accurate. The Argentinos might very well con-tent themselves with the pleasures they have ready to their hand at all seasons of the year, for in these regions, half-way between barbarism and civilisation, the gamekeeper is unknown.
But man can never be content with what is offered to him. Therefore the wealthy estanciero takes infinite trouble to get thousands of pheasants sent out to him from our coverts, so that he may breed them in his preserves. In districts that are not menaced by the locusts the birds will be let loose shortly in the woods, and the Argentine will then pride herself on shooting such as that of Saint-Germain. It is be-cause of this approaching change that I have set down these impressions of a day's sport in conditions which will soon belong to a vanished age.