Karen Blixen wrote feelingly about her farm in Africa. Meryl Streep memorably lent her voice and image to the tale. Robert Redford was the quintessential great white hunter, Denis Finch-Hatton. It should really be ffynch-Hatton, coming as he did, from Anglo-Irish landed gentry. Romantic stuff. I saw photos of Finch-Hatton recently. He didn’t look like Robert Redford at all. Bald, with round specs, rather skinny. In fact he looked more like me.
Many years ago Time magazine sought me out. They mentioned many of my good qualities, identifying me as a potential mover and shaker. They sent me a plastic privilege card, entitling me to astonishing reductions on the annual subscription. They promised that I would be aware of what was going on in the world and that I would become a fascinating conversationalist. How could I refuse? Sadly there was no money-back guarantee in the event of failure. I talked to people about Eisenhower’s heart problems (copiously illustrated),General de Castries and Dien Bien Phu, Mossadegh, the weeping premier, Windscale/Calder Hall/Sellafield nuclear power station, (any time a problem arises they change the name), ‘the friendly giant.’ People began to shuffle away. I knew too much. My scintillating conversation overwhelmed them.
There was a way out. The government of Paraguay advertised in Time the sale of land at $100 per acre, in the days when there were several dollars to the pound. The deal gave you 50% grassland and 50% virgin forest. I suspect that they had disgruntled Rhodesian and South African farmers in mind, at a time when the ‘wind of change’ was gaining force in Africa. They wanted sturdy pioneers and maybe some great white hunters. Ah, well!
One phrase in the advertisement has stayed with me: ‘There are indigenous people living in the forest lands. You would have to reach your own accommodation with them.’ The argument is persuasive. They don’t exploit the resources to the maximum. It would be my responsibility to bring progress and enlightenment to the forest people. It would be for their own good. All this could be accomplished for a mere fistful of dollars. They would in fact, thank me in later years for my generosity. I might of course, have to move them on to make way for soya beans.
Notice the gaucho’s boots and the stirrup just wide enough for his big toe. He took all that he needed from the land and from the herds of cattle and horses sent across the great river by the Spaniards at the peak of imperial power. He was not in thrall to ‘progress’. ‘Progress’ caused him to lose his toe-hold on the land.
A while ago we visited a glittering casino on Native-American land in California. There were many braves supervising the bus-loads of pensioners, with the impassivity we know so well from Western movies. I was scalped. Margaret won $15, almost enough for a patch of maize or a couple of trees in Paraguay.
I still encounter Time in doctor’s waiting rooms. Have you heard that some chap called Neil Something-or other, has landed on the Moon?
“The gaucho studied the horses under the shade of the trees. They shook their heads and snorted. They flicked their tails to dislodge the flies. Their skin flickered and twitched at the irritating insects. The gaucho liked the white colt best. He nudged his horse closer. The animals under the trees began to move. He swung his rope gently, waiting for a clear throw. The horses moved out from the shade. He moved to cross their path. They broke into a trot, almost in unison. He dug in his spurs just as the lead animals accelerated, and dropped the noose around the neck of the white colt. He vaulted from the saddle, quickly taking a turn with the rope around the bole of a tree. The colt struggled and bucked, but it was in vain.The gaucho drew it closer to him, until it was within arm’s length. The terrified animal stared at him, its eyes rolling. The gaucho drew his long knife and at a stroke, he severed the jugular. The colt faltered. It staggered. A fountain of blood spurted from its neck. Its knees buckled and it fell in its own blood in the grass.
The gaucho worked swiftly. He cut a circle at the top of the hind legs and again, just above the fetlocks. With the aid of his knife, he loosened the skin at the top, tugging sharply, until he had flayed the entire leg, turning the skin inside out like a stocking. He chopped throught tendon and bone to remove the hooves and pulled the skin free. He moved some distance away from the colt to avoid the gathering flies. He squatted and worked on the skin with his knife, whistling tunelessly through his teeth. He scraped away all traces of flesh or fat until the hide gleamed white and dry. He pulled off his old boots and threw them away. He drew on his new botas de potro, fitting his heel snugly into the bend of the knee, so that the skin of the pastern covered his foot, except where his toes protruded to afford a better grip on the stirrup. He laced the top with the old thongs, turning down a couple of stylish inches of white skin. He slipped on his silver spurs and regarded his handiwork with immense satisfaction.. He retrieved his horse and swung into the saddle.
Birds dropped on the carcass of the white colt as he rode away. A wild dog slouched out of the bushes. It sniffed the air. The birds squabbled and flapped as they tore at the exposed flesh.”
In the Shadow of the Ombú Tree Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Chaos Press 2005.
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