Chapter V - Aspects Of The Plain

Appearance of a green level land--Cardoon and giant thistles--Villages of the Vizcacha, a large burrowing rodent--Groves and plantations seen like islands on the wide level plains--Trees planted by the early colonists--Decline of the colonists from an agricultural to a pastoral people--Houses as part of the landscape--Flesh diet of the gauchos-- Summer change in the aspect of the plain--The water-like mirage--The giant thistle and a "thistle year"--Fear of fires--An incident at a fire--The pampero, or south-west wind, and the fall of the thistles --Thistle-down and thistle-seed as food for animals--A great pampero storm--Big hailstones--Damage caused by hail--Zango, an old horse, killed--Zango and his master.

As a small boy of six but well able to ride bare-backed at a fast gallop without falling off, I invite the reader, mounted too, albeit on nothing but an imaginary animal, to follow me a league or so from the gate to some spot where the land rises to a couple or three or four feet above the surrounding level. There, sitting on our horses, we shall command a wider horizon than even the tallest man would have standing on his own legs, and in this way get a better idea of the district in which ten of the most impressionable years of my life, from five to fifteen, were spent.

We see all round us a flat land, its horizon a perfect ring of misty blue colour where the crystal-blue dome of the sky rests on the level green world. Green in late autumn, winter, and spring, or say from April to November, but not all like a green lawn or field: there were smooth areas where sheep had pastured, but the surface varied greatly and was mostly more or less rough. In places the land as far as one could see was covered with a dense growth of cardoon thistles, or wild artichoke, of a bluish or grey-green colour, while in other places the giant thistle flourished, a plant with big variegated green and white leaves, and standing when in flower six to ten feet high.

There were other breaks and roughnesses on that flat green expanse caused by the _vizcachas,_ a big rodent the size of a hare, a mighty burrower in the earth. Vizcachas swarmed in all that district where they have now practically been exterminated, and lived in villages, called _vizcacheras,_ composed of thirty or forty huge burrows--about the size of half a dozen badgers' earths grouped together. The earth thrown out of these diggings formed a mound, and being bare of vegetation it appeared in the landscape as a clay-coloured spot on the green surface. Sitting on a horse one could count a score to fifty or sixty of these mounds or vizcacheras on the surrounding plain.

On all this visible earth there were no fences, and no trees excepting those which had been planted at the old estancia houses, and these being far apart the groves and plantations looked like small islands of trees, or mounds, blue in the distance, on the great plain or pampa. They were mostly shade trees, the commonest being the Lombardy poplar, which of all trees is the easiest one to grow in that land. And these trees at the estancias or cattle-ranches were, at the time I am writing about, almost invariably aged and in many instances in an advanced state of decay. It is interesting to know how these old groves and plantations ever came into existence in a land where at that time there was practically no tree-planting.

The first colonists who made their homes in this vast vacant space, called the pampas, came from a land where the people are accustomed to sit in the shade of trees, where corn and wine and oil are supposed to be necessaries, and where there is salad in the garden. Naturally they made gardens and planted trees, both for shade and fruit, wherever they built themselves a house on the pampas, and no doubt for two or three generations they tried to live as people live in Spain, in the rural districts. But now the main business of their lives was cattle- raising, and as the cattle roamed at will over the vast plains and were more like wild than domestic animals, it was a life on horseback. They could no longer dig or plough the earth or protect their crops from insects and birds and their own animals. They gave up their oil and wine and bread and lived on flesh alone. They sat in the shade and ate the fruit of trees planted by their fathers or their great- grandfathers until the trees died of old age, or were blown down or killed by the cattle, and there was no more shade and fruit.

It thus came about that the Spanish colonists on the pampas declined from the state of an agricultural people to that of an exclusively pastoral and hunting one; and later, when the Spanish yoke, as it was called, was shaken off, the incessant throat-cutting wars of the various factions, which were like the wars of "crows and pies," except that knives were used instead of beaks, confirmed and sunk them deeper in their wild and barbarous manner of life.

Thus, too, the tree-clumps on the pampas were mostly remains of a vanished past. To these clumps or plantations we shall return later on when I come to describe the home life of some of our nearest neighbours; here the houses only, with or without trees growing about them, need be mentioned as parts of the landscape. The houses were always low and scarcely visible at a distance of a mile and a half: one always had to stoop on entering a door. They were built of burnt or unburnt brick, more often clay and brushwood, and thatched with sedges or bulrushes. At some of the better houses there would be a small garden, a few yards of soil protected in some way from the poultry and animals, in which a few flowers and herbs were grown, especially parsley, rue, sage, tansy, and horehound. But there was no other cultivation attempted, and no vegetables were eaten except onions and garlic, which were bought at the stores, with bread, rice, mate tea, oil, vinegar, raisins, cinnamon, pepper, cummin seed, and whatever else they could afford to season their meat-pies or give a flavour to the monotonous diet of cow's flesh and mutton and pig. Almost the only game eaten was ostrich, armadillo, and tinamou (the partridge of the country), which the boys could catch by snaring or running them down. Wild duck, plover, and such birds they rarely or never tasted, as they could not shoot; and as to the big rodent, the vizcacha, which swarmed everywhere, no gaucho would touch its flesh, although to my taste it was better than rabbit.

The summer change in the aspect of the plain would begin in November: the dead dry grass would take on a yellowish-brown colour, the giant thistle a dark rust brown, and at this season, from November to February, the grove or plantation at the estancia house, with its deep fresh unchanging verdure and shade, was a veritable refuge on the vast flat yellow earth. It was then, when the water-courses were gradually drying up and the thirsty days coming to flocks and herds, that the mocking illusion of the mirage was constantly about us. Quite early in spring, on any warm cloudless day, this water-mirage was visible, and was like the appearance on a hot summer's day of the atmosphere in England when the air near the surface becomes visible, when one sees it dancing before one's eyes, like thin wavering and ascending tongues of flame--crystal-clear flames mixed with flames of a faint pearly or silver grey. On the level and hotter pampas this appearance is intensified, and the faintly visible wavering flames change to an appearance of lakelets or sheets of water looking as if ruffled by the wind and shining like molten silver in the sun. The resemblance to water is increased when there are groves and buildings on the horizon, which look like dark blue islands or banks in the distance, while the cattle and horses feeding not far from the spectator appear to be wading knee or belly deep in the brilliant water.

The aspect of the plain was different in what was called a "thistle year," when the giant thistles, which usually occupied definite areas or grew in isolated patches, suddenly sprang up everywhere, and for a season covered most of the land. In these luxuriant years the plants grew as thick as sedges and bulrushes in their beds, and were taller than usual, attaining a height of about ten feet. The wonder was to see a plant which throws out leaves as large as those of the rhubarb, with its stems so close together as to be almost touching. Standing among the thistles in the growing season one could in a sense hear them growing, as the huge leaves freed themselves with a jerk from a cramped position, producing a crackling sound. It was like the crackling sound of the furze seed-vessels which one hears in June in England, only much louder.

To the gaucho who lives half his day on his horse and loves his freedom as much as a wild bird, a thistle year was a hateful period of restraint. His small, low-roofed, mud house was then too like a cage to him, as the tall thistles hemmed it in and shut out the view on all sides. On his horse he was compelled to keep to the narrow cattle track and to draw in or draw up his legs to keep them from the long pricking spines. In those distant primitive days the gaucho if a poor man was usually shod with nothing but a pair of iron spurs.

By the end of November the thistles would be dead, and their huge hollow stalks as dry and light as the shaft of a bird's feather--a feather-shaft twice as big round as a broomstick and six to eight feet long. The roots were not only dead but turned to dust in the ground, so that one could push a stalk from its place with one finger, but it would not fall since it was held up by scores of other sticks all round it, and these by hundreds more, and the hundreds by thousands and millions. The thistle dead was just as great a nuisance as the thistle living, and in this dead dry condition they would sometimes stand all through December and January when the days were hottest and the danger of fire was ever present to people's minds. At any moment a careless spark from a cigarette might kindle a dangerous blaze. At such times the sight of smoke in the distance would cause every man who saw it to mount his horse and fly to the danger-spot, where an attempt would be made to stop the fire by making a broad path in the thistles some fifty to a hundred yards ahead of it. One way to make the path was to lasso and kill a few sheep from the nearest flock and drag them up and down at a gallop through the dense thistles until a broad space was clear where the flames could be stamped and beaten out with horse-rugs. But sheep to be used in this way were not always to be found on the spot, and even when a broad space could be made, if a hot north wind was blowing it would carry showers of sparks and burning sticks to the other side and the fire would travel on.

I remember going to one of these big fires when I was about twelve years old. It broke out a few miles from home and was travelling in our direction; I saw my father mount and dash off, but it took me half an hour or more to catch a horse for myself, so that I arrived late on the scene. A fresh fire had broken out a quarter of a mile in advance of the main one, where most of the men were fighting the flames; and to this spot I went first, and found some half a dozen neighbours who had just arrived on the scene. Before we started operations about twenty men from the main fire came galloping up to us. They had made their path, but seeing this new fire so far ahead, had left it in despair after an hour's hard hot work, and had flown to the new danger spot. As they came up I looked in wonder at one who rode ahead, a tall black man in his shirt sleeves who was a stranger to me. "Who is this black fellow, I wonder?" said I to myself, and just then he shouted to me in English, "Hullo, my boy, what are you doing here?" It was my father; an hour's fighting with the flames in a cloud of black ashes in that burning sun and wind had made him look like a pure-blooded negro!

During December and January when this desert world of thistles dead and dry as tinder continued standing, a menace and danger, the one desire and hope of every one was for the pampero--the south-west wind, which in hot weather is apt to come with startling suddenness, and to blow with extraordinary violence. And it would come at last, usually in the afternoon of a close hot day, after the north wind had been blowing persistently for days with a breath as from a furnace. At last the hateful wind would drop and a strange gloom that was not from any cloud would cover the sky; and by and by a cloud would rise, a dull dark cloud as of a mountain becoming visible on the plain at an enormous distance. In a little while it would cover half the sky, and there would be thunder and lightning and a torrent of rain, and at the same moment the wind would strike and roar in the bent-down trees and shake the house. And in an hour or two it would perhaps be all over, and next morning the detested thistles would be gone, or at all events levelled to the ground.

After such a storm the sense of relief to the horseman, now able to mount and gallop forth in any direction over the wide plain and see the earth once more spread out for miles before him, was like that of a prisoner released from his cell, or of the sick man, when he at length repairs his vigour lost and breathes and walks again.

To this day it gives me a thrill, or perhaps it would be safer to say the ghost of a vanished thrill, when I remember the relief it was in my case, albeit I was never so tied to a horse, so parasitical, as the gaucho, after one of these great thistle-levelling pampero winds. It was a rare pleasure to ride out and gallop my horse over wide brown stretches of level land, to hear his hard hoofs crushing the hollow desiccated stalks covering the earth in millions like the bones of a countless host of perished foes. It was a queer kind of joy, a mixed feeling with a dash of gratified revenge to give it a sharp savour.

After all this abuse of the giant thistle, the Cardo asnal of the natives and Carduus mariana of the botanists, it may sound odd to say that a "thistle year" was a blessing in some ways. It was an anxious year on account of the fear of fire, and a season of great apprehension too when reports of robberies and other crimes were abroad in the land, especially for the poor women who were left so much alone in their low-roofed hovels, shut in by the dense prickly growth. But a thistle year was called a fat year, since the animals-- cattle, horses, sheep, and even pigs--browsed freely on the huge leaves and soft sweetish-tasting stems, and were in excellent condition. The only drawbacks were that the riding-horses lost strength as they gained in fat, and cow's milk didn't taste nice.

The best and fattest time would come when the hardening plant was no longer fit to eat and the flowers began to shed their seed. Each flower, in size like a small coffee-cup, would open out in a white mass and shed its scores of silvery balls, and these when freed of heavy seed would float aloft in the wind, and the whole air as far as one could see would be filled with millions and myriads of floating balls. The fallen seed was so abundant as to cover the ground under the dead but still standing plants. It is a long, slender seed, about the size of a grain of Carolina rice, of a greenish or bluish-grey colour, spotted with black. The sheep feasted on it, using their mobile and extensible upper lips like a crumb-brush to gather it into their mouths. Horses gathered it in the same way, but the cattle were out of it, either because they could not learn the trick, or because their lips and tongues cannot be used to gather a crumb-like food. Pigs, however, flourished on it, and to birds, domestic and wild, it was even more than to the mammals.

In conclusion of this chapter I will return for a page or two to the subject of the pampero, the south-west wind of the Argentine pampas, to describe the greatest of all the great pampero storms I have witnessed. This was when I was in my seventh year.

The wind blowing from this quarter is not like the south-west wind of the North Atlantic and Britain, a warm wind laden with moisture from hot tropical seas--that great wind which Joseph Conrad in his _Mirror of the Sea_ has personified in one of the sublimest passages in recent literature. It is an excessively violent wind, as all mariners know who have encountered it on the South Atlantic off the River Plate, but it is cool and dry, although it frequently comes with great thunder- clouds and torrents of rain and hail. The rain may last half-an-hour to half-a-day, but when over the sky is without a vapour and a spell of fine weather ensues.

It was in sultry summer weather, and towards evening all of us boys and girls went out for a ramble on the plain, and were about a quarter of a mile from home when a blackness appeared in the south-west, and began to cover the sky in that quarter so rapidly that, taking alarm, we started homewards as fast as we could run. But the stupendous slaty-black darkness, mixed with yellow clouds of dust, gained on us, and before we got to the gate the terrified screams of wild birds reached our ears, and glancing back we saw multitudes of gulls and plover flying madly before the storm, trying to keep ahead of it. Then a swarm of big dragon-flies came like a cloud over us, and was gone in an instant, and just as we reached the gate the first big drops splashed down in the form of liquid mud. We had hardly got indoors before the tempest broke in its full fury, a blackness as of night, a blended uproar of thunder and wind, blinding flashes of lightning, and torrents of rain. Then as the first thick darkness began to pass away, we saw that the air was white with falling hailstones of an extraordinary size and appearance. They were big as fowls' eggs, but not egg-shaped: they were flat, and about half-an-inch thick, and being white, looked like little blocks or bricklets made of compressed snow. The hail continued falling until the earth was white with them, and in spite of their great size they were driven by the furious wind into drifts two or three feet deep against the walls of the buildings.

It was evening and growing dark when the storm ended, but the light next morning revealed the damage we had suffered. Pumpkins, gourds, and water-melons were cut to pieces, and most of the vegetables, including the Indian corn, were destroyed. The fruit trees, too, had suffered greatly. Forty or fifty sheep had been killed outright, and hundreds more were so much hurt that for days they went limping about or appeared stupefied from blows on the head. Three of our heifers were dead, and one horse--an old loved riding-horse with a history, old Zango--the whole house was in grief at his death! He belonged originally to a cavalry officer who had an extraordinary affection for him--a rare thing in a land where horseflesh was too cheap, and men as a rule careless of their animals and even cruel. The officer had spent years in the Banda Oriental, in guerilla warfare, and had ridden Zango in every fight in which he had been engaged. Coming back to Buenos Ayres he brought the old horse home with him. Two or three years later he came to my father, whom he had come to know very well, and said he had been ordered to the upper provinces and was in great trouble about his horse. He was twenty years old, he said, and no longer fit to be ridden in a fight; and of all the people he knew there was but one man in whose care he wished to leave his horse. I know, he said, that if you will take him and promise to care for him until his old life ends, he will be safe; and I should be happy about him--as happy as I can be without the horse I have loved more than any other being on earth. My father consented, and had kept the old horse for over nine years when he was killed by the hail. He was a well-shaped dark brown animal, with long mane and tail, but, as I knew him, always lean and old- looking, and the chief use he was put to was for the children to take their first riding-lessons on his back.

My parents had already experienced one great sadness on account of Zango before his strange death. For years they had looked for a letter, a message, from the absent officer, and had often pictured his return and joy at finding alive still and embracing his beloved old friend again. But he never returned, and no message came and no news could be heard of him, and it was at last concluded that he had lost his life in that distant part of the country, where there had been much fighting.

To return to the hailstones. The greatest destruction had fallen on the wild birds. Before the storm immense numbers of golden plover had appeared and were in large flocks on the plain. One of our native boys rode in and offered to get a sackful of plover for the table, and getting the sack he took me up on his horse behind him. A mile or so from home we came upon scores of dead plover lying together where they had been in close flocks, but my companion would not pick up a dead bird. There were others running about with one wing broken, and these he went after, leaving me to hold his horse, and catching them would wring their necks and drop them in the sack. When he had collected two or three dozen he remounted and we rode back.

Later that morning we heard of one human being, a boy of six, in one of our poor neighbours' houses, who had lost his life in a curious way. He was standing in the middle of the room, gazing out at the falling hail, when a hailstone, cutting through the thatched roof, struck him on the head and killed him instantly.