Patagonia Lost, Part I:|
The Wind at Twilight
Spying on Sunday
The Lamb in Winter
In the Wind
Uncharted Bends, Part II:
Your Hand in Mine
Glossary of Terms
Collection of Poetry by © Sylvia Maclagan
I spent my childhood and adolescence in the fruit-growing valley of Río Negro, in northern Patagonia, Argentina. During the 20th Century, the construction of a vast system of dams and irrigation canals has transformed the sandy but fertile soil of this region into an extensive green belt divided into neat farms. Tight rows of poplars act as windbreaks to protect the apple-harvest and side crops from fierce Patagonian winds. My father managed a lovely farm called Achalay, bordered by the Neuquén River. I grew up by this river. Over time, I stayed in or visited various parts of Patagonia, by road, air and sea, down to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn - as well as Malvinas Islands - but I do not claim to know its entirety. It’s a vast region with enormously contrasting landscapes of immense beauty, either manifest or concealed from undiscerning eyes. I say this because the scrublands are usually traversed at high speed by motorists who wish to spend their holidays at some of the glorious resorts in the mountains or by the seaside. Tourism is now a flourishing industry, although distances are awesome and airport infrastructure is barely adequate for those who plan to visit the more remote attractions.
Yet for no reason that I know of, the desolation of the steppes and tablelands holds an enormous fascination for me. From the farm, standing on the banks of the Neuquén River, I used to gaze out at the “bardas” or buttes with sparse vegetation that seemed to extend forever. They were so entirely different from the shady, cool farm with its organized, busy life centred around the care and harvesting of apple-crops. Nevertheless, I quote Charles Darwin: “....Why, then, and this is not just my own personal peculiarity, have these empty spaces fixed themselves so indelibly on my memory?” (Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle). Perhaps desolation exerts a unique sort of magnetism on some people.
On occasion, when the Neuquén was shallow enough, I would wade across its pebbly basin and wander for hours on the wild side, the stretches of magic and imagination, unknown, untamed and untouched. When the sun was not too hot, I would lie on some sandy space and gaze up at the huge sky, seemingly empty, till I fell asleep. Nobody ever disturbed me. Nobody seemed to miss me, either. Just before darkness closed in, I would be back at our red-tiled chalet, breathless and hungry, and no questions were asked. But I was a cautious child: the rare sight of a figure on the distant slopes, maybe a lone horseman or a hill dweller, would determine me to retrace my steps, even scamper back across the rippling Neuquén to our “safe” side. Nowadays, I am grateful for the unusual freedom allowed me, though I do not think it was intentional. My mother was simply of the dreamy sort, not at all authoritarian, and extremely busy anyway, cooking, sewing, mending, knitting. My father seemed too immersed in his own responsibilities to wonder about my whereabouts, except on one memorable occasion when I set fire to a haystack by the corrals...but never mind that !
Seemingly, whatever went on outside our home and my mother’s beloved garden and vegetable patch was of no consequence. Most days, I hung around with the farmhands’ kids and until I was ten I attended the rural school with them. I had orders not to enter their adobe huts, especially on Sundays, yet vigilance was minimal. The dark, musty interiors, windowless except for the tiny cooking areas, seemed scary enough, anyway. Siesta time was ideal for breaking rules, but any time served to satisfy my infinite curiosity for the occult, the shadowy and even savage side of Nature. The farm, with its secret glades, shaded canals, marshes, willow-trees and countless other charms, was the ideal place for a child with my inclinations.
My father took us on trips to other regions of Río Negro Province, such as the resort city of Bariloche, overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi. But more often we drove in other directions, to estancias, where the landscape was quite barren and totally different from our green valley. Everywhere we went I seemed to take with me that exciting mixture of curiosity and adventure, which I have now attempted to transmit in verse, alongside topics and issues that were not mentioned back then.
The sad part is that, looking back, I realize that a sombre process was already functioning during my childhood, when words like ecology and biodiversity did not form part of our daily vocabulary. Gradually but inexorably, the most charming aspects of the farm were disappearing, thanks to technology and commercial interests. My father’s job, as administrator of the farm, was to turn it into a money-making concern. First to go were the varieties of apples that had low market value: Black and Red Winesap, King David, Yellow Newton Pippin and others which I have forgotten, gave way to Red Delicious and Grannie Smith. Today, in the big city of Buenos Aires, one can rarely buy anything else.
Then down went two fantastic rows of Japanese Peaches, the giant flat variety that we used to pick off the trees and bite into, their juice running down our chins and arms. No, said my father, we can’t afford to keep them any longer, its apples, apples, apples....all the way. Eventually, I grew to hate apples, which appeared on our table either fresh or in various recipes, seven days a week. There were stacks of apple crates on racks in an icy-cold storehouse, for the winter months. The only fun part was hunting for mice among sacks and wooden boxes, occasionally finding a nest with baby mice, which I quickly hid from my father’s eyes, lest he destroy them.
Along with the disappearance of exciting fruits and the row of eucalyptus trees by our house, several acres of scrubby, untended sand dunes by the river were eventually “cleaned up”, levelled, fertilized, irrigated and sown with alfalfa. When poplar cordons had grown sufficiently high, walnut trees were planted. I admit that this grove of towering walnut trees eventually became a sensational success, but I had lost another of Nature’s playgrounds, where partridges and hares and other little wild animals, even snakes, had been my friends.
Next, the marsh near our home was to be filled in... Daddy, Daddy, but we LOVE to play in the marsh, we love to wade knee-deep in the sticky black mud, play amongst the crackling winter rushes, flatten them down into hiding places and tunnels.... and what about the gallaretas and other swamp birds that, come Springtime, build their floating nests around the green reeds, rising and falling regally with the waters from the cañadón? And the water-snakes and the tadpoles and the herons? Daddy, PLEASE don’t get rid of the marsh, please please please....
I do believe that my Daddy really did not want to fill in this low-lying area which we could view from the windows of our house, but we were always being told that “land here is too valuable to be wasted”. Wasted?
So the marsh went, and the magic glades of wild creepers by its borders went, and an overgrown orchard of plums and cherries and asparagus beds went, and one day my brother went away to become an engineer and then I went away too. I returned many times to the farm, but as the years passed its fascination waned. There were simply more exciting places in the world to visit, or else my senses had become too impaired to capture the magic I had once known.
Nevertheless, something once captured by the senses is stored in secret compartments of the mind. This small book of poetry is an attempt to share with others a picture of “my” Patagonia, a region that a surprising number of people in the world still think of as legendary, not really existent at all. Yet if we think of Patagonia in terms of poetry, they are partly right, since poems are a product of the imagination and may, hopefully, express the universal essence of concrete global, not local issues. Also, velocity appears to have superseded time in this cyber-technological world, thereby dispensing with truth in the headlong rush to compete and conquer. Where and what is, indeed, the Patagonia that I once knew, or the one that conscientious people are trying to save, today, from the ruinous advance of exploitation?
Even more precisely, I would have liked to explain here about the Mapuche, the rightful dwellers of the South, but I prefer to let the poems speak for them. This subject was not mentioned during my childhood. I have since read a great deal about these true lovers of Earth. The history of conquests repeats itself on all continents: the same brutal treatment, carnage, constant injustice, matching reservations of barren salt-wastes for the ancient guardians of our planet. I wish I could do or say something to put time in reverse, make things happen another way, a better way. I wish I could wish the shameful deeds away. But no amount of wishing will help; nothing can change except through a sincere worldwide effort to resolve the wrongs, employing durable, fair measures. ~ S.M., September 2006.
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