Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: Andean word-pictures

In 1979 Wendell Berry spent a week in Peru investigating traditional farming practices in the mountains and valleys of Peru. In some cases these practices predate the Spanish, meaning they're rare examples of ancient American agriculture. Out of those travels came the essay "An Agricultural Journey in Peru". I didn't fully appreciate the skill of Berry's writing until I read it. Here's an excerpt (which I've shortened slightly) that showcases Berry's eye for detail and gift for painting vivid word-pictures.

We climbed a long stretch of road that was just a shelf along the almost sheer mountain wall, hairpinning into deep coves, taking maybe three miles to go one. High up, we stopped on the roadside for lunch. As we were getting our stuff out of the car, two men came down the road on bicycles, one of them whistling "Blowing in the Wind"—which, according to Raimondo, happens also to be the tune of a Protestant hymn sung in this country. And then a large gray-backed hawk sailed along the bluff below us, not fifty feet away. . . . We ate, talked, looked at the country, watched the hawks. Aside from our own voices, the only sound was that of a distant stream.

The slope across from us, backed by another much higher one, was intensively farmed, but from where we watched it at first seemed deserted. Then, using binoculars, we saw a little party of workers digging potatoes in one of the fields, and gradually we discovered more and more people at work here and there over the whole face of the slope. While we watched, several of the groups gathered into the shelter of terraces or rocks. While we ate our lunch, they ate theirs.

Writing these notes three weeks later in Kentucky, I am aware how much the memory of that day has already faded. In my mind's eye I still keep a clear enough picture of the scene. But that is not what I am talking about. What seemed so alluring and charming then, and seems so hard to recover now, is a live sense of contrasting scales. The scale of that landscape is immense, so large as to constantly upset a stranger's judgment of distance and proportion; but within that immensity the Andean peasants practice an agriculture as small in scale, probably, as any in the world. Perched on the narrow ledge of that road, we were watching people working at least a mile away in fields the size of kitchen gardens, known with the intimacy of the lifetimes not just of individuals but of families—a knowledge centuries old.

It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to understand how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch—picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. . . . You can look at a whole mountainside covered with these little farms and not see anything egregiously wasteful or stupid.

Quoted from pp. 24-7 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

No comments: