Jul

22

 Subtract 200 from 2014, add a little steam, and you're thrown into present day Amazonia. Today I spoke during a 50-cent canoe taxi ride from Iquitos city shore to shore of Prospero Island about life on an amazon farm that is an American success story. Prospero Island is two miles in diameter – half as big six months ago – at 4 steamy degrees south of the equator. The Isle has a natural irrigation system from the dripping rainforest and an inimitable fertilization system with a seasonal 35 feet vertical drop in water level. Hence, we would land twenty minutes later on the Island when it is nearly its smallest, and richest, for the 500 farmers.

Aboard the 30' pecapeca (motorized canoe) taxi, I spoke with Señora Verde, and penetrated her chocolate eyes, because I always liked gardening. I slept as an infant in a hand-paw dug flowerbed depression with a Basset like it was a cradle, once as a tyke my mother told me if I kept digging in the potato patch I'd reach China and I tried till eight feet, as a teen weeded the neighbors' shrubbery for free, in university only Farmhouse Fraternity rushed me, and I actually ended up living now in a 10' hole in the ground (with a trailer pushed in) like a savvy mammal of the Sonora desert. I would not say I found God, nor would I admit missing him.

By the time our canoe taxi reached the outlying island, I knew enough to tell you how to become an Amazon farmer. It begins with a machete. When John Denver sang that 'Life on the farm is kinda lay back…' he was daydreaming. In the Amazon, the machete replaces the shovel; a wheelbarrow in lieu of tractor; and canoe to market in place of a truck. The overhead amounts to the cost of the seeds. When it comes time to fertilize, following three annual crops, the river rises ten vertical meters, laps over the land and covers the family's two hectares (five acres) with one meter of water. Five months later, the water blanket evaporates, leaving an inch or so of rich black deposit from the Amazon River. The food quality down here in the jungle tropics is due to the soil, and water, from days of travel and hundreds of miles upriver at the base of the Andes Range, and its snow melt. It's a fascinating balance.

Ayn Rand, who loved a good farmer in Anthem, wrote 'The fields are black and ploughed, and they lie like a great fan before us, with their furrows gathered in some hand beyond the sky, spreading forth from that hand, opening wide apart as they come toward us, like black pleats that sparkle with thin, green spangles.' This better describes the four Verde children with brushed hair, sun dried clothes, and river polished shoes, rather than the muddy shore the taxi bumped in the traditional Amazon docking to hit and stick. Señora Verde boasted rising, 'I made the children with my husband to work the farm, because that's what life is about.' The kids, three boys, a youngest sister, and all aged 4-10, beamed until the calluses on their hands and feet nearly popped.

The leading strategy of American farming, and worldwide, is crop rotation or changing plants in succession on the same land to preserve the productive capacity of the soil. For example, the rich, clay loam of the Black Hills of South Dakota resembles the banks around us on the Rio Amazon where it's slippery to hike but if you fall the mouthful of dirt tastes okay. The primary crop in the Black Hills is corn, which is especially demanding for soil nutrients, and not everything does well after an encore of corn. Although corn taxes the soil, if potatoes follow, they leave it fairly unhindered. Potatoes and squash, being both big leafy plants, back-to-back serve as cleaning crops to reduce weed pressure, in preparation for beans in the next rotation. Beans are fantastic nitrogen fixers, which prepare the earth for corn again. They are called the 'Four Brothers'; they sustain each other.

However, this earth chess isn't played down on the Amazon farms. Señora Verde plants corn, then corn, and a third crop of corn. The initial yield's the biggest (10¨ long x 2¨ diameter), the sweetest, and most plentiful. The second crop is still good, and the third poorer. Then rises the Amazon River during the five month 'fertilization season' when the soil is totally refreshed. And it's organic.

Millions of families throughout the Amazon sit in their huts like frogs throughout the five month high water, and this has made them a patient, verbal society. As the water rises from the snowmelt from December through April the island diameter shrinks 50%, which in land area is like turning a XL pizza into a small. Up comes the river slapping at the ladders to the hut platforms on 8' stilts. The kids no longer walk to school, which is also raised on 8' pilings, but canoe there. For the past two years, the water change has been 40 vertical feet and flowing into their living rooms, so they smile and paddle in the front door to the supper table, or bed, where belongings are heaped for a couple months until the ebb. Virtually everyone on the island admits to an amphibian's insight, and enjoys the dry season more.

There are two types of farms on the Isle: group owned, which is shared, and individual or family owned. She prefers their independent farm in trying to explain an individuality that when her corn is ripe today, mine may be tomorrow, but she doesn't want to labor both days for us. She teaches her children not to depend upon the debt nor gratitude of others. Sow, the family labors alone. And so, the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Now, the old family farm of the Verdes is popping up the cash crop and the children have corn kernels in place of missing teeth in their smiles. They say still they enjoy the taste of it after pulling hundreds of thousands of ears in their short lifetimes. Harvest is the most joyful part of farming around the globe, but in the Amazon it's achieved differently. The corn is plucked and stuck into rice bags the size of pillow cases that, when full, weigh about 20 pounds each. These are loaded from the field into a wheelbarrow and carted a quarter-mile to the family motorized canoe, which carries the harvest two miles across the strait to the Iquitos Mercado Productores. This rambling shoreside market reminds me of the first supermarket that supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. Until then, where was all the food? It was in gardens, homes, local fields, and forests, cellars and pantries, and on the tables. Now, with markets, one may specialize in something outside agriculture, while remembering the most important product is produce. Each Verde crop of approximately 1000 sacks sells for $5 each, so thrice yearly the family nets $5,000 for a royal total, almost pure profit, of $15,000 per annum.

The Señora grins that theirs is the richest, because they are the hardest working, family on the Isle. Then she admits that she toils during the hot, dry season that she may afford to make more babies during the stilted high water who will grow into workers. They spend the profit on clothes, school books, and an extended family. None of the other families work as hard as the Verdes, she claims, and right now her husband is weeding in the field with the sole farm tool, a 3' machete, while many of the rest are drinking the local aguardiente alcohol. She describes farming as a progression of hope, and with two index fingers rising in parallel points at a direct proportion between how hard one works and the standard of living. Many of the other families jump out of Aesop's Fable of the Grasshopper and Ants who sing through the planting season, and watch their ribs stick further and further out during the high water, as opposed to fewer Ant families like the Verdes who never want.

A farm is a manipulative creation. The maker is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has breaks, but has no end. Things must be done now and not later. The threat the farm gets on you, that keeps you running from furrow to furrow, is this: do it now.

It's time to get you a pair of overalls.


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