Argentina – Life On The Pampas

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 labor as well as of customs and sometimes of morals. Ancient Europe can in the same way show ethnical groups with sufficiently marked features 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 the hope of cultivating the soil by their labor. 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 organization of agricultural labor and the development of their natural resources. While manufactures are still in a rudimentary state and are likely to remain so for a long time to come owing to 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’ 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 traveler. The system of cattle-breeding, primitive in the extreme at a distance from railroads, 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 whatever 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 laborer, the vastness of the plain which opens up 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 a cavalry school. No curb; only a plain bit is used, whose first effort is to bring down the animal’s head and throw him out of balance, while 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 happens 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.

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 balls, coiled behind his saddle. He makes a picturesque enough figure in the motonous 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.” When you talk of a herd of ten thousand cows, you make some impression even on a big farmer. Well, I can assure you that ten thousand head of cattle is a small affair out on the Pampas. You see a dark shadow 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 stenciled in black upon the whiteness of the sky-line like Chinese shadow pictures. 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 that makes its 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 seem now to have taken root at the opposite extremity of the horizon, while 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 no one takes 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.

Of Nature’s scourges, the drouth 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. Forage is always stored for the more precious of the stock, but to feed the herd is out of the question. The Pampas then becomes 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 remains are little by little absorbed. The birds of prey and dogs are valuable assistants, but wholly insufficient.

The railways that extend into the Pampas have not materially changed things. True, they have done away with long and tiresome rides, have furnished a means of transportation for the produce of the Pampas, and have made possible more furniture for the ranches. And yet the furniture in the Pampas homes is still meager enough. 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 theater of the Pampas. It brings with it orchestra, songs, 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, nine times out of ten, becomes 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 minute 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 hope that Argentine is finished with them forever; but the periodic explosions that have taken place there are not so ancient but that an echo of them reached my ears.

I shall leave out of the question, of course, all remote circumstances that might serve at hazzard 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 organized 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 such a scene one day at an estancia which he was visiting. He was chatting with the overseer 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 the neighboring 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, 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 six hundred horses, of which four hundred, that had been taken to a distance of from two hundred to three hundred kilometers, returned of their own ac-cord. How they contrived 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 traveler 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.”

There was a 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 civilization 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 color, 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 glamor are passed. The heavy roller of civilization 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 scrutinizing eye of the man who lives on the defensive. But today he is thoroughly civilized, and can stroll down Florida Street, in Buenos Aires, without attracting any attention. It is in vain that the theater seeks to reproduce the life of the Campo, as we occasionally see it doing. 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 gramaphone was invented the guitar was the joy of Spanish ears to the farthest confines of the Pampas. Between two outbreaks of the civil war, when men were rushing madly to 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 today; but the audacious gestures in which amorous Spain gave expression to the ardor 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 the French Pastourelle, have been reproduced on post cards 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.