LOS RASTROJOS

For many years I was content to rent the houses we lived in, either near or in the city of Mérida, but early on we decided it would be good to have a place of our own in the mountains – wild mountains where it was easy to leave all trace of modern life behind – for holidays and as a ‘refuge’. I liked to drive in my jeep to remote districts and one day I met on the road (he stopped me to ask for matches) a man who wanted to sell a big property, more than five hundred hectares, at the end of a distant valley he pointed to. None of his family wanted to be peasants any longer; this was happening all through the area.

 

Return

At last we come
to the hidden valleys
and the slopes that guard them
like panthers.

The yellow light
of a ripe garden
swells and cracks
our walls.

Love is freed
of its disasters,
eternity returns
to the body.

Our pulse is timed
to earth spinning
and through our flesh
sap runs.

 

Remembering…

I come to the river; in the shade
of dark trees stand
the earthen walls

I remember – the water falls
white among boulders
to the mill; I look

and remember – the hawk
soars above me,
in the pool scarlet

leaves whirl, I dive
I remember the scarlet
leaves whirl

here

 

Some time later we went to look at the place. In those days we still had to walk the last few hours up the valley (even now the road doesn’t reach the house); we hired two donkeys at the last village on the road, but I gave up mine to the owner of the land, who was seriously out of breath, and discovered the pleasure of matching my energy to the steep, narrow paths. The end of the valley was green, with crumbling earth walls dividing the fields and forest in the riverbed below us. There were big trees over the gate to the ruined house. The land sloped up from the home fields toward a rocky ridge and was bounded on one side by a rushing stream. Sitting on a rock below a water fall, surrounded by stones that resembled huge dogs’ heads, I knew the place had already taken me over.

I bought it, Los Rastrojos, Stubble Fields (it cost less than the jeep), and we started gradually to rebuild the house by adding to the two rooms that remained at the back of the collapsed patio. The builders and the maestro were neighbors and the materials, the earth that was beaten to build the tapia walls and the trees that became pillars and roof beams, were all carried from close by. We stayed there several times a years for holidays and an occasional long weekend. It took a long time to explore the whole of our land, and go beyond it to the high ridges and the mysterious lake in a further valley, entirely solitary scenes that still have the resonance of the first day of creation.

Laguna de Don Pedro

No ordering principle,
just the shapes of rock
and bristly plants,
the occurrences of wind,
a world without people.

The lake in the hollow
below the ridge is black,
green, restless, inert,
beyond pure, cruel,
so far a mind must recede
to admit it.

 

This was the place that, however foolishly, I dreamed of preserving and restoring to its natural strength and purity, making it an ideal setting for a life in the light of the Great Mother. I defended it, sometimes angrily, against the impositions of neighbors and threats of change from the outside world; and I expended on it time and energy that could have brought me achievements and relationships in a more ‘normal’, sociable life. I fled to it when I should have faced tensions down in town or when I lacked patience to carry through on other possibilities. I was only sporadically aware of what I was doing and it was in any case beyond my control. It was not all illusion. The joy of being there and discovering to the full my own connection to earth and its elements was immense, and I’ve become more and more aware as I’ve traveled in other countries how many people long for this experience, and just what a privilege (as well as a curse, it has sometimes seemed) finding Los Rastrojos has been.

It was always strange to me to say the place was mine. How can one own a mountainside with all its rocks and small streams and tough bushes, its birds and lizards rustling among the plant stems? To me this feeling was metaphysical rather than political; it’s our president who might say so much land should not belong to one person and decide it has to be shared. He could yet do so, though there have been no confiscations in our mountains where the land is poor and doesn’t produce much. Now the place belongs to my son and he is trying to revive parts of it to make a living. It used to support several families, in not unbearable poverty, but the cultivable land is tired and we never wanted to breed cattle.

We have never been able to rid the land of cattle either. My dream of letting the alders and flowering shrubs and tough grass grow back, and making it a haven for the few animals that remain in the area (lapas, lochas, foxes, a rare bear or mountain lion) was defeated always by the stubborn persistence of a neighboring family in using our land to graze their animals. We quarreled with them endlessly. The law and local usage were against them, they promised hypocritically many times to help mend fences and keep the animals out, we had the sympathy of other neighbors who also suffered from their cunning; but nothing has worked in all these years and the cattle – or cattle of many generations later – are still there.

When I bought the land I didn’t think of the community relationships it implied. The nearest house to ours is ten minutes’ walk away and invisible, and the houses on the opposite slope of the steep valley were at first just part of the view. There were no sounds of habitation except occasional shouts across the valley; there was no electricity for radios – or for lights. There still isn’t, though it seems that will finally change at any moment, and I have to be happy that a little more comfort is coming to people’s lives; even if it’s one more blow to the vision of a renewed natural realm that has obstinately flickered on at the back of my mind. The people in the houses are my neighbors now, and have been for many years, and I’m fully aware of their harsh reality, neglected by successive governments and foundering on the unfulfilled promises of this one.

With some of the neighbors I have always had friendly relations, some of the old people, dead now, I have sincerely loved, others I have quarreled with to the point of insult on both sides, mostly because of cattle on my land. My oldest remaining neighbor, Ernesto, I detested for years for his cunning and am now deeply fond of (his creased old boot of a face), for the brave vitality that keeps him plowing and thinking and listening to ‘the box’, an old, small battery-run radio. He has told me that the world has gone into eclipse in this new century, and since his concept of eclipse, ‘clise’, includes plants sickening and dying as well as an unhealthy darkness, I find his intuition admirable.

His house is the only one behind mine, on the path that leads over the last ridge in the cordillera to the plains. It’s a traditional earth-walled, tiled-roof house, its dusty rooms (one with an altar for the Virgin and Christ Child) built around a rough stone patio where harness, wooden chests half full of grain, onions drying on the ground, corncobs hanging in bunches, reveal the content of the life lived there.  At evening the light in the sky and on the slopes descending from the rough ridges opposite, where my land lies, is sweet and mysteriously pure, heaven touching earth. But I know the life of those people is not heaven, not at all.

The other very old house in our area belonged to Adela, the most moving example I know of human persistence in the face of hardship. She was tiny and thin, old already when I first met her; she lived high up on the hill behind me, on the border of my land, and many times I dried out beside her blackened hearth (the kitchen was completely black, walls and roof as well) after getting caught by rain in my rambling. She had been abandoned by a feckless husband with five young children, two of them twins so small they were almost midgets, and managed to survive by working pieces of land far distant from each other, walking for hours every day along the steep stony paths, eating a bare minimum for survival. A granddaughter was living with her at the end, with illegitimate children of her own, in the leaking, dilapidated house. Adela never complained and was always welcoming. She made beautiful Christmas cribs with an arch of moss and aromatic berries. For her I wish I could believe in a reward elsewhere.

As a memorial I will name here other neighbors, now dead, who were part of that world when I first knew it: Miguel, elegant in his black poncho on a tall white mule, calling at the house to visit my son (they called each other ‘mi cucaracha’); Dorila, the local midwife, always neat and pretty in her cotton dress and round hat; Luis, our nearest neighbor, with his sweet, toothless smile and his leather thong sandals he made himself. Through them I glimpsed a communal past with a style and dignity amid harsh conditions that was already almost lost.

 

Old Luis

Old Luis stiff with rage
stone deaf and baffled numb
escapes from a son’s house
to shuffle barrio streets
in search of deliverance
from cinder block walls
naked female legs
on silent TV screen
and obtuse kindness;

wants only to die at home
snug in his dirty poncho
and earth porch over
the steep maize-skirted valley,
facing the silent mountain
whose harsh aspiring massiveness
has grown through his eyes
and answers time.
Elodia’s garden

Ranks of pansy faces
stare in one direction
toward the empty yard –

ghosts of children that were,
grandfather Luis purple
or brown like his earth walls

and others whose souls stayed behind
when they left for town,
or were born and died in a whisper
and an “angel’s” wake.

Some were only suggestions,
unwelcome semen
or dreams for a future lost
because a community
ran out of grace.

The new generation, the young men especially, are not interested in tradition and its values and want only to acquire material advantages for as little work as possible – and in many cases to get drunk often. But in earlier years the rites of the community provided moments where reality coincided with my mythological vision. There is or was (some families can’t afford the expense any longer) a New Year festival in each house, the paradura del Niño, to which all the neighbors come, some from quite far away, on foot or on horseback (and lately on motorbikes). At our house there have been as many as eighty people, counting the children and nursing babies. To the accompaniment of violin and cuatro, with sung verses telling the Christmas story, the child Jesus is lifted from his crib by his appointed godparents and carried in procession round the patio, the neighbors following as shepherds holding candles, and returned standing up (parado) with arms outstretched in glory. It’s a syncretic rite, part Christian celebration of the birth and part indigenous rite of passage. After the verses comes a rosary where only the men sing, in parts softly and falsetto as if confiding the secret of the Virgin birth in each others’ ears. A rite in the tradition of the goddess. The whole occasion, which includes the house providing for everyone coffee, bread and cheese, a special cake, eggnog and firewater, and a substantial soup, is (yes, it still can be) full of good will and ingenuous faith, all differences forgotten.

 

It’s Not Too Late to Praise

A distant pink veil

washes down the rough face of the mountain
to its foundations

the only colour in the world

 

In the mules’ coats
designs made by rain

their breath is warm

their legs are perfect columns

 

The sun wins the fight
with the clouds that surrounded it climbing
behind the ridge

lights the sky

dries the blades of grass
shines through the red petals of the geraniums

 

Hooves sink in the stream
splash the banks

the water goes on weaving transient braids

combs the fringes of red root tips

shakes the branch trapped between stones

 

The wind sways the sun’s rays

the sun burns the wind’s cables

brightness blows even at the zenith

 

Mule steps

a bird takes alarmed flight

whirlwind of chaff
over the winnowing circle

 

The steep paths converge
and the trails skirting the slope

joyful prints in the dust

toward the paved porches

toward the altar

 

Men’s high voices
sing the secret to each other

echo from the belly of the hills

flow with the sap of harvests

break on the silence of night

defy oblivion.

 

Shadow overflows the valley’s folds

reaches the path

up above the day
slowly loses its colours

 

Morning star

watch over this land

watch over all its ends

and its beginnings

 

I was probably present also at the last ‘angel wake’ in that community. When a baby died at birth or less than a year old, people believed it was innocent and would go straight to heaven, so the wake was a celebration, with food and music. On this occasion the tiny premature girl, beaky like a little bird, was dressed in a white gown with iridescent plastic wings and crown and sat on a table with her eyes propped open with matchsticks, facing the festive mourners. The mother, though of course she wept, also felt comforted.

 

Angelito

Tiny body
enthroned on the table,
white nylon crown and wings,
rose in its mouth,

beak like a baby bird.
Sobbing the mother touches
the still soft flesh,
strokes the dress.

Louder sound the violin
maracas and singing;
the little half open eyes
seem to watch the party.

The candles are used up
the bottles, the voices
the tears almost.
It’s four in the morning.

The neighborhood’s malice
has dissolved in the heat
of the wake. I take leave:
am I laughing or crying?

 

A neighbor who has long since descended into dementia at his son’s house in the squalid barrio where exiles from the mountains tend to gather, told me once as a deep secret how to get in touch with the ancient gods of the mountains, the ‘cheses’, who used to disguise themselves as peasants in shabby ponchos to visit the market in town and might be willing to accept a drink in the darkness of night near a lonely house. They address you only as ‘countryman’, he said, and they can tell you exactly when you will die. Others told stories of how they stole away people lost in the mountain mists to their houses in the lakes. Now, no one except anthropologists talks about the cheses any longer, or if they do they snigger to show they don’t believe those quaint old stories.

 

The Descent of Ches

i
Walking in the highlands
the body perseveres mechanically
carrying the eyes
and behind the eyes the hollowness
of height…
suddenly a bellow of laughter -
the innocent killer in the mist
or among earth walls the voices
of rulers: who was Don Pedro?
what giant erected this reef?
what is it that howls
among the rocks at the pass?

ii
“The owner of the heights is mute,
he’s an old man in a tawny poncho,
he likes his drink…”

“The deer belong to them and the trout.
They keep cattle that stray,
they have a house with wide verandas
inside the lake…”

“They don’t let you see them,
they call you: Look fellow
countryman – they know no other greeting -
look countryman, and they speak to you,
they let you know the day and hour
of your death…”

iii
Cheses, spirits
of the mists and rocks,
of water and light, forgive us…

Once you were masters
of these heights and souls,
devotion is still waning,
you hide,

in your place a breath
imprint yearning
still bears witness to your presence
subtle now
a shadow’s nimbus…
Guardians

The corner of an eye catches
a slight quiver in the grass

the hidden sun projects
a pinkish outline
or a baffled mood
a white shadow

the lines of rocks
exert their force –

and the spirits of place
are born.

The little red field
Petra’s pool
the broken ridge
acquire face and limbs

They are tranquil presences
like pictures, they laugh
like pebbles in the stream

or they make horrid caves
of their bottomless throats
shoot out scarlet tongues
dance like severed phalluses
inhabit whole nights
of black hide…

 

However, it was not just the decay of local community and tradition that defeated my utopian dream; after all I had expected nothing of the neighbors and they gave me immense gifts – as well as making my life difficult in ways that were also traditional. What could be more so in a peasant community than quarrels over fences and grazing. There were other forces. My son always thought – quite reasonably – that the place should serve more practical ends and be modernized accordingly (just as an example, I would have kept the earth floors, when concrete is obviously easier and more hygienic). And I myself in the end was not brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to withdraw from my other worlds and go and live there, even after I retired from lecturing. But by then many illusions had been lost anyway.

I tried to organize uses for the place in accord with my desire to keep it ‘pure’, but without success. A group from a Buddhist community came once for a retreat, and found it ideal for the practice of the elements, but the logistics of getting there from the community center on Margarita Island defeated attempts to hold such retreats regularly. The BioAndina foundation, which was reintroducing condors to the Venezuelan Andes, let four of them loose at the top of our land. It was magnificent to see them fly there, but the foolish creatures, having been bred in captivity, apparently wanted to live nearer to people and moved further down the mountains. Two of them were killed by people, and the others vanished when the radio transmitters attached to their legs ran down.  So I gave up and let my son take over and I keep trying to help him prosper there, though his project is far from mine.

What is amazing is not that the reality of the late twentieth century was finally stronger than my will to reverse time and the withdrawal from nature, but that for so long I was able to sustain the perception of an alternative realm and the dream of preserving it and making it flourish. Holidays we spent there in the early years, solitary weeks then and later when the children had their own concerns, I lived in the clearer light of a self-contained sphere composed of wind, rocks, running water, rough paths above precipices, earth walls, kitchens where fires built of a few sticks were always ready to heat coffee or soup and the women at the hearth were smiling and naively curious.

 

Timeless

History has resigned in the fold
of my arm, only summer
is burning in the rock
and light stirring splintered
on the river.


Savage Meditation

First I see air

the rising sun
kindles dust motes
hovering with gnats
spiders’ threads shimmer
among quivering leaves

I push through heat

the rough hill in front of me
swells with the breath
of a bristly animal
comes closer than an embrace
and forces itself through my senses
filling horizon and stomach

Beside the river

I watch flee
among the playing lights
water in webs and whirlpools
surface fluid,
I shut my eyes, chains
of stone weave
chains of flowers
chain constancy
and emptiness
and I hear
the water flow

After bathing

belly slack on hot stone
skull hardened by the scent
of damp mineral
over my body scales form
hands fold
clinging to the rock
across millennia

the tiny eyes…

 

Lion

i
The puma – mountain lion -
came down to the neighbour’s field
and killed two sheep.

Weeks ago he must have gone back
to his rocks and wind-stunted forest
and high lakes,

but at night I hear him run
when the horses rustle and neigh
above the house

and he’s there when I walk
in daylight among shrubs
on the hillside.

When I breathe hard,
at the end of exhalation
he’s there, waiting.

ii
Come lion,
leap out of the growths
where my eyes reach for you,

break me from the crown
with your claws of light,
reduce me to flesh
and sight.

 

Dust and wind

Poems that lick the instant
want to fix it, catch it,
and watching myself love
is nostalgia.

I may be eternal
at some bend in the path
buffeted by the wind
or chopping onion for soup,
but not in the arms of desire.

I stray like a lonely bitch
over the hillsides
and the hillsides are mine:

echo of footsteps
at the track’s edges
breeze in dry underbrush and ears –
how could I be the words
in the brain’s circuit?
I’ll be the hollow space
where I fit

I’ll be a bone polished
by dust and wind
white as the light…

 

After I found out that persecution of native indios by Catholic authorities had been particularly strong in our part of the mountains, I imagined myself in the character of a witch who resisted it, though she probably had more affinity with European pagans than with the native peoples of America.

 

Witch’s Poem

Night is crying.
Give back to night
the body of her shadows,
the face in her veils
and she will be your friend.

Winter is crying.
Give back to the solstice
its power to clean.
The child is born -
hold him to the wind
so he will grow strong.
The solstice wind
sucks the year’s shards
to their tomb in the sky.

Death is crying.
Give back to death
her crown of peace.
The world is dying
of strangled deaths -
untie the ropes
of law and fear
and they’ll become showers
to feed the earth,
they’ll become favours
to quicken the mothers
of new sons.


Witch’s Poem , ii

Fire is my element.
As ash I’ll return to earth
and often I’ve sheltered
at the foot of earth walls, or run
on dusty paths;

it’s air that takes up smoke
or the mists that dress the highlands
framing new places,
it spins a rope in the wind
clear as a stream;

in water I’m born again,
I love the falls and the lake
green as parrot’s wings;
but candles in shrines
and the whiteness of the moon

come alight in my head
and the sun’s rays wake me
and reveal the world.
I’ll fall through the space of my sorrows
the to the centre of his eye of fire.


Request

If it’s any use to ask
I want when madness comes
(how long can a woman defend
her clarity)

to be here, a body
among branches and beasts
with my eyes full of sky
and clay under my feet.

I’m not ashamed to think
I’d live on roots
get drunk on smoke
and couple with goats.

It’s worse to be exposed
to the fierce glare of walls
and disgust, and swallow
their poison.

One day climbing the ridge
I’ll slip off and shatter,
my bones will turn to dust
only the dogs know where

or the river in flood
will deposit me in a cave
and a shrew will make its house
in my skull.

 

Gradually it got through to me that the deterioration of values in the country in general (not to mention the world) had contaminated my magic valley too, and that the life I’d meant to found there was an illusion. We weren’t living there as a family, and no one from outside had done more than visit with us and enjoy a few days. No lover had ever accompanied me there. I’d always had attacks of dejection at obstacles I found there (the cattle, specially); in the end I felt most keenly and sometimes obsessively the pain of the failures in my life when I was there, because of the contrast between my real situation and the dream that still seemed to cling to the landscape and the paths that crossed it. And to the beautiful house we’d built, the most real embodiment of plans and hopes. For a while watching the illusion recede was a pain like the loss of a great love, but it eventually became dull. The place is still there, after all, and can be revisited, but the shine of revelation is not on it any more.

 

Absence of the King

This isn’t your countryside
maybe never was
though a lord once stood with
the lady of streams

lady still of hill slopes
and bitter berries,
lady of childbirth
and sung rosaries.

Aren’t you the father
of the child born on the altar
who never grows up to dispense
a new order?

The climbing eagles,
the midday sun,
the stern rocks massing
give no word.
Light aging

Billowing curtains in fresh sunlight
were an image of hearts’ spring
and home renewed.

Today, sheets on the line
have blown into my yard
a tired and aging light

a stream of desolate yielding
to unfulfilment and shattered sweetness

its surface stamped
with shriveled petals
manes of dead horses
lines of forgotten poems

and no promises are left.
Second Sun

The sun went down quietly
behind the hill, the air
exhaled its tension,
a rosy luminescence
softened the peaks opposite.

I turned a bend in the path.

The sun hung fused and demented
in the sky’s circular field
and on all sides rose
penetrating to the bone
an icy white mist.

 

Still, when the sun comes out after rain in a fertile season, and the hillsides sparkle and glow, it’s beautiful and deep like no other place. What it offers is not a promise of any future, but just its own presence.

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