Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter VI

The War with Nature

During my sojourn on the Rio Negro letters and papers reached me only at rare intervals. On one occasion I passed very nearly two months without seeing a newspaper. I remember, when at the end of that time one was put before me, I snatched it up eagerly, and began hastily scanning the columns, or column-headings rather, in search of startling items from abroad, and that after a couple of minutes I laid it down again to listen to someone talking in the room, and that I eventually left the place without reading the paper at all. I suppose I snatched it up at first mechanically, just as a cat, even when not hungry, pounces on a mouse it sees scuttling across its path. It was simply the survival of an old habit — a trick played by unconscious memory on the intellect, like the action of the person who has resided all his life in a hovel, and who, on entering a cathedral door or passing under a lofty archway, unwittingly stoops to avoid bumping his forehead against an imaginary lintel. I was conscious on quitting the room, where I had cast aside the unread newspaper, that the old interest in the affairs of the world at large had in a great measure forsaken me; yet the thought did not seem a degrading one, nor was I at all startled at this newly-discovered indifference, though up till then I had always been profoundly interested in the moves on the great political chessboard of the world. How had I spent those fifty or sixty days, I asked myself, and from what enchanted cup had I drunk the oblivious draught which had wrought so great a change in me? The answer was that I had drunk from the cup of Nature, that my days had been spent with peace. It then also seemed to me that the passion for politics, the perpetual craving of the mind for some new thing, is after all only a feverish artificial feeling, a necessary accompaniment of the conditions we live in, perhaps, but from which one rapidly recovers when it can no longer be pandered to, just as a toper, when removed from temptation, recovers a healthy tone of body, and finds to his surprise that he is able to exist without the aid of stimulants. It is easy enough to relapse from this free and pleasant condition; in the latter case the emancipated man goes back to the bottle, in the former to the perusal of leading articles and of the fiery utterances of those who make politics their trade. That I have never been guilty of backsliding I cannot boast; nevertheless the lesson Nature taught me in that lonely country was not wholly wasted, and while I was in that condition of mind I found it very agreeable. I was delighted to discover that the stimulus derived from many daily telegrams and much discussion of remote probabilities were not necessary to keep my mind from lethargy. Things about which I had hitherto cared little now occupied my thoughts and supplied me with pleasurable excitement. How fresh and how human it seemed to feel a keen interest in the village annals, the domestic life, the simple pleasures, cares, and struggles of the people I lived with! This is a feeling only to be experienced in any great degree by the soul that has ceased to vex itself with the ambitious schemes of Russia, the attitude of the Sublime Porte, and the meeting or breaking up of parliaments. When the Eastern Question had lost its ancient fascination for me I found a world large enough for my sympathies in the little community of men and women on the Rio Negro. Here for upwards of a century the colony has existed, cut off, as it were, by hundreds of desert leagues from all communion with fellow-christians, surrounded by a great wilderness, waterless and overgrown with thorns, peopled only by pumas, ostriches, and wandering tribes of savage men. In this romantic isolation the colonists spend their whole lives, roaming in childhood over the wooded uplands; in after life with one cloud always on their otherwise sunlit horizon — the fear of the red man, and always ready to fly to arms and mount their horses when the cannon booms forth its loud alarm from the fort.

It must of necessity have been a case of war to the knife with these white aliens — war not only with the wild tribes that cherish an undying feud against the robbers of their inheritance, but also with Nature. For when man begins to cultivate the soil, to introduce domestic cattle, and to slay a larger number of wild animals than he requires for food — and civilised man must do all that to create the conditions he imagines necessary to his existence — from that moment does he place himself in antagonism with Nature, and has thereafter to suffer countless persecutions at her hands. After a century of residence in the valley the colonist has established his position so that he cannot be driven out. Twenty-five years ago it was still possible for a great cacique to gallop into the town, clattering his silver harness and flourishing his spear, to demand with loud threats of vengeance his unpaid annual tribute of cattle, knife-blades, indigo, and cochineal. Now the red man’s spirit is broken; in numbers and in courage he is declining. during the last decade the desert places have been abundantly watered with his blood, and, before many years are over, the old vendetta will be forgotten, for he will have ceased to exist.

Nature, albeit now without his aid, still maintains the conflict, enlisting the elements, with bird, beast, and insect, against the hated white disturber, whose way of life is not in harmony with her way.

There are the animal foes. Pumas infest the settlement. At all seasons a few of these sly but withal audacious robbers haunt the riverside; but in winter a great many lean and hungry individuals come down from the uplands to slay the sheep and horses, and it is extremely difficult to track them to their hiding-places in the thorny thickets overhanging the valley. I was told that not less than a hundred pumas were killed annually by the shepherds and herdsmen. The depredations of the locusts are on a much larger scale. In summer I frequently rode over miles of ground where they literally carpeted the earth with their numbers, rising in clouds before me, causing a sound as of a loud wind with their wings. It was always the same, I was told; every year they appeared at some point in the valley to destroy the crops and pasturage. Then there were birds of many species and in incalculable numbers. To an idle sportsman without a stake in the country it was paradise. At one spot I noticed all the wheat ruined, most of the stalks being stripped and broken, presenting a very curious appearance; I was surprised to hear from the owner of the desolate fields that in this instance the coots had been the culprits. Thousands of these birds came up from the river every night, and in spite of all he could do to frighten them away they had succeeded in wasting his corn.

On either side of the long straggling settlement spreads the uninhabited desert — uninhabitable, in fact, for it is waterless, with a sterile gravelly soil that only produces a thorny vegetation of dwarf trees. It serves, however, as a breeding-place for myriads of winged creatures; and never a season passes but it sends down its hungry legions of one kind or another into the valley. During my stay pigeons, ducks, and geese were the greatest foes of the farmer. When the sowing season commenced the pigeons (‘Columba maculosa’) came in myriads to devour the grain, which is here sown broadcast. Shooting and poisoning them was practised on some farms, while on others dogs were trained to hunt the birds from the ground; but notwithstanding all these measures, half the seed committed to the earth was devoured. When the corn was fully ripe and ready to be harvested, then came the brown duck (‘Dafila spinacauda’) in millions to feast on the grain. Early in the winter the arrival of the migratory upland geese (‘Chloephaga magellanica’) was dreaded. It is scarcely possible to keep them from the fields when the wheat is young or just beginning to sprout; and I have frequently seen flocks of these birds quietly feeding under the very shadow of the fluttering scarecrows set up to frighten them. They do even greater injury to the pasture-lands, where they are often so numerous as to denude the earth of the tender young clover, thus depriving the sheep of their only food. On some estates mounted boys were kept scouring the plains, and driving up the flocks with loud shouts; but their labours were quite profitless; fresh armies of geese on their way north were continually pouring in, making a vast camping ground of the valley, till scarcely a blade of grass remained for the perishing cattle.

Viewed from a distance, in comfortable homes, this contest of man with the numberless destructive forces of Nature is always looked on as the great drawback in the free life of the settler — the drop of bitter in the cup which spoils its taste. It is a false notion, although it would no doubt be upheld as true by most of those who are actually engaged in the contest, and should know. This is strange, but not unaccountable. Our feelings become modified and changed altogether with regard to many things as we progress in life, and experience widens, but in most cases the old expressions are still used. We continue to call black black, because we were taught so, and have always called it black, although it may now seem purple or blue or some other colour. We learn a kind of emasculated language in the nursery, from schoolmasters, and books written indoors, and it has to serve us. It proves false, but its falsity is perhaps never clearly recognised; Nature emancipates us and the feeling changes, but there has been no conscious reasoning on the matter, and thought is vague. One hears a person relating the struggles and storms of his early or past life, and receiving without protest expressions of sympathy and pity from his listeners; but he knows in his heart, albeit his brain may be and generally is in a mist, that these were the very things that exhilarated him, that if he had missed them his life would have been savourless. For the healthy man, or for the man whose virile instincts have not become atrophied in the artificial conditions we exist in, strife of some kind, if not physical then mental, is essential to happiness. It is a principle of Nature that only by means of strife can strength be maintained. No sooner is any species placed above it, or over-protected, than degeneration begins. But about the condition of the inferior animals, with regard to the comparative dulness or brightness of their lives, we do not concern ourselves. It is pleasant to be able to believe that they are all in a sense happy, although hard to believe that they are happy in the same degree. The sloth, for instance, that most over-protected mammalian, fast asleep as he hugs his branch, and the wild cat that has to save himself, and must for ever and always keep all his faculties keen and brightly polished. With regard to man, who has the power of self-analysis and of seeing in his own mind all minds, the case is very different, and it does concern us to know the truth. A great deal — very many pages, chapters, and even books — might be written on this subject, but to write them is happily unnecessary, since everyone can easily find out the truth from his own experience. This will tell him which satisfied him most in the end — the rough days or the smooth in his life; and which was most highly valued — the good he struggled for or that which came to him in some other way. Even as a child, or as a small boy, assuming that his early years were passed in fairly natural conditions, the knocks and bruises and scratches and stings of infuriated humble-bees he suffered served only to excite a spirit that had something of conscious power and gladness in it; and in this the child was father to the man. But the subject which specially concerns me just now is the settler’s life in some new and rough district; and as it appears that the greatest, the most real, and in many cases the only pleasures of such an existence are habitually spoken of as pains, the subject is one on which I may be pardoned for dwelling at some length.

If Mill’s doctrine be true, that all our happiness results from delusion, that to one capable of seeing things as they are life must be an intolerable burden, then it may seem only a cruel kindness to whisper into the ear of the emigrant the warning: “That which thou goeth forth to seek thou shalt not find.”

It is not said, be it remembered, that he will not find happiness, which, like the rain and sunshine, although in more moderate measure, comes alike to all men; it is only said that the particular form of happiness to which he looks forward will never be his. But one need not fear to whisper the warning, nor even to shout it from the house-tops, for, to begin with, he will not believe nor listen to it. His mind is fixed on the three glorious prizes that lure him away — Adventure, Distinction, Gold. These bright and shining apples are perhaps just as common at home as abroad, and as easily gathered; but the young enthusiast, surveying coasts five or ten thousand miles away through his mental telescope, sees them apparently hanging on very much lower branches, and imagines that to pluck them he has only to transport himself beyond the ocean. To drop this metaphor, adventure in that distant place will be as common as the air he breathes, giving him much invigorating pleasure by the way, while he advances to possess himself of other more satisfying things. With the nimble brains, brave spirit, and willing hands characteristic of the inhabitants of the British Islands, he will assuredly be able to achieve distinction — that pretty bit of ribbon which most men are willing enough to wear.

This, however, is only a matter of secondary importance; the chief prize will always be the yellow metal. Knowing how much can be done with it at home where it is held in great esteem, he will take care to provide himself with an abundant supply against his return. The precise way in which it is to be acquired he will not trouble himself about until he reaches his destination. It will perhaps flow in upon him through business channels; in most cases it will be thought more agreeable to pick it up in its native state during his walks abroad in the forest. The simple-minded aborigines, always ready to humour an eccentric taste, will assist him in collecting it; and, finally, for a small consideration in the form of coloured beads and pocket-mirrors, convey it in large sacks and hampers to the place of embarkation. It is not meant that the immigrant in all cases paints his particular delusion in colours bright as these; let him shade the picture until it corresponds in tone with his individual creation — a dream and a delusion it will nevertheless remain. Not in these things which will never be his, nor in still cherishing the dream, will he find his pleasure, but in something very different.

I speak not of that large percentage of immigrants who are doomed to find no pleasure at all, and no good. To the youth of ardent generous temperament, arrived in some far-off city where all men are free and equal, and the starched conventionalities of the Old World are unknown, it is perhaps the hardest thing to believe that when he slips down not a hand will be put forth to raise him; that when he pronounces these common words, “I have come to the end of my tether,” instantly all the smiling faces surrounding him will vanish as if by magic; that the few sovereigns remaining in his pocket at any time are as a chain, shortened each day by a link, holding him back from some terrible destiny . . . . Let us delay no longer in this moral place of skulls, but follow that wise and sturdy youth who, wrapping his cloak about his face, passes unharmed through the poisonous atmosphere of the landing-place, and hurries a thousand miles away, while ever

Before him, like a blood-red flag,

flutters and shines the dream that lures him on. And now at his journey’s end comes reality to lay rude hands on him with rough shaking. Meanwhile, before he has quite recovered from the shock, that red flag on which his dreamy eyes have been so long fixed stays not, but travels on and on to disappear at last like a sunset cloud in the distant horizon. He does not miss it greatly after all. The actual is much in his thoughts. When a man is buffeting the waves he does not curiously examine the landscape before him and complain that there are no bright flowers on the trees. New experience takes the place of vanished dreams, which, like water-lilies, blossom only on stagnant pools. Here are none of the innumerable appliances to secure comfort he has been used to from infancy, regarding them almost as spontaneous productions of the earth; no hand to perform a hundred necessary offices, so that this dainty gentleman is obliged to blacken his own boots, tame and harness to the plough his own bullocks or horses, kill and cook his own mutton. Nothing is here, in fact, but harsh Nature reluctant to be subdued; while he, to subdue her and make his own conditions, has only a pair of soft weak hands.

To one fresh from the softness and smoothness of civilisation, unaccustomed to manual labour, how hard then is the lot of the settler! Behind him physical comfort and beautiful dreams; before him the prospect of long years of unremitting toil, every day of which will unfit him more and more for a return to the gentle life of the past; while, for only result, he will have food enough to satisfy hunger, and a rude shelter from extremes of heat and cold, from torrents of winter rain and blinding clouds of summer dust. Yet is he happy. For the vanished substantial comforts and airy splendours there is a compensation gilding his rough existence with a better brightness than that of any hope of future prosperity which may yet linger in his mind. It is the feeling the settler experiences from the moment of his induction into the desert that he is engaged in a conflict, and there is no feeling comparable with it to put a man on his mettle and inspire him with a healthy and enduring interest in life. To this feeling is added the charm of novelty caused by that endless procession of surprises which Nature prepares for the pioneer — an experience unknown to the rural life of countries that have long been under cultivation. The greatest drawbacks and difficulties encountered have this charm strongest in them, and are robbed by it of half their power to discourage the mind.

The young enthusiast, hurrying about London to speak his farewells and look after his outfit, will perhaps laugh at this, for his delusion is still dear to him. But I am not discouraging him; I am, on the contrary, telling him of a rill of pure water out there where he is going, where, for many years to come, he will refresh himself every day, and learn to feel (if not to think and to say) that it is the sweetest rill in existence.

It is rough living with unsubdued, or only partially subdued, Nature, but there is a wonderful fascination in it. The patient, leaden-footed, but always obedient drudge, who goes forth uncomplainingly, albeit often with a sullen face, about her work, day after day, year after year; who never rebels, never murmurs against her bad task-master Man, although sometimes the strength fails her so that she cannot complete the appointed task — this is Nature at home in England. How strange to see this stolid, immutable creature transformed beyond the seas into a flighty, capricious thing, that will not be wholly ruled by you, a beautiful wayward Undine, delighting you with her originality, and most lovable when she teases most; a being of extremes, always either in laughter or tears, a tyrant and a slave alternately; today shattering to pieces the work of yesterday; now cheerfully doing more than is required of her; anon the frantic vixen that buries her malignant teeth into the hand that strikes or caresses her. All these rapid incomprehensible changes, even when most vexing and destructive to your plans, interest your mind, and call up a hundred latent energies it is a joy to discover. But you have not yet sounded all her depths; nor can you imagine, seeing her frequent gay smiles, to what length her fierce resentment may carry her. sometimes, as if roused to sudden frenzy at the indignities you are subjecting her to — hacking at her trees, turning up her cushioned soil, and trampling down her grass and flowers — she arrays herself in her blackest, most terrible aspect, and like a beautiful woman who in her fury has no regard for her beauty, she plucks up her noblest trees by the roots, and scooping up the very soil from the earth, whirls it aloft to give a more horrible gloom to the heavens. And darkness not being terrifying enough, she kindles up the mighty chaos she has created into a blaze of intolerable light, while the solid world is shaken to its foundations with her wrathful thunders. When destruction seems about to fall on man and all his works, when you are prostrate and ready to perish with excessive fear, lo, the mood changes, the furious passion has spent itself, and there is no trace left of it when you look up only to encounter her peaceful reassuring smile. These sublime moods are, however, infrequent and soon forgotten; man learns to despise the threats of a cataclysm that never comes, and goes forth once more to level the ancient trees, to invert the soil, and pasture his herds on her grasses and flowers. He will subdue the wild thing at last, but not yet; many years will she struggle to retain her ancient sweet supremacy; he cannot alter all at once the old order to which she clings tenaciously, as the red man to his savage life. Her attempt to frighten him away has failed. He laughs at her mask of terrors — he knows that it is only a mask; and it suffocates her and cannot be long endured. She will cast it aside and fight him another way. She will stoop to his yoke and be docile only to betray and defeat him at the last. A thousand strange tricks and surprises will she invent to molest him. In a hundred forms she will buzz in his ears and prick his flesh with stings; she will sicken him with the perfume of flowers, and poison him with sweet honey; and when he lies down to rest, she will startle him with the sudden apparition of a pair of lidless eyes and a flickering forked tongue. He scatters the seed, and when he looks for the green heads to appear, the earth opens, and lo, an army of long-faced, yellow grasshoppers come forth! She, too, walking invisible at his side, had scattered her miraculous seed along with his. He will not be beaten by her: he slays her striped and spotted creatures; he dries up her marshes; he consumes her forests and prairies with fire, and her wild things perish in myriads; he covers her plains with herds of cattle, and waving fields of corn, and orchards of fruit-bearing trees. She hides her bitter wrath in her heart, secretly she goes out at dawn of day and blows her trumpet on the hills, summoning her innumerable children to her aid. She is hard-pressed and cries to her children that love her to come and deliver her. Nor are they slow to hear. From north and south, from east and west, they come in armies of creeping things and in clouds that darken the air. Mice and crickets swarm in the fields; a thousand insolent birds pull his scarecrows to pieces, and carry off the straw stuffing to build their nests; every green thing is devoured; the trees, stripped of their bark, stand like great white skeletons in the bare desolate fields, cracked and scorched by the pitiless sun. When he is in despair deliverance comes; famine falls on the mighty host of his enemies; they devour each other and perish utterly. Still he lives to lament his loss; to strive still, unsubdued and resolute. She, too, laments her lost children, which now, being dead, serve only to fertilise the soil and give fresh strength to her implacable enemy. And she, too, is unsubdued; she dries her tears and laughs again; she has found out a new weapon it will take him long to wrest from her hands. Out of many little humble plants she fashions the mighty noxious weeds; they spring up in his footsteps, following him everywhere, and possess his fields like parasites, sucking up their moisture and killing their fertility. Everywhere, as if by a miracle, is spread the mantle of rich, green, noisome leaves, and the corn is smothered in beautiful flowers that yield only bitter seed and poison fruit. He may cut them down in the morning, in the night time they will grow again. With her beloved weeds she will wear out his spirit and break his heart; she will sit still at a distance and laugh while he grows weary of the hopeless struggle; and, at last, when he is ready to faint, she will go forth once more and blow her trumpet on the hills and call her innumerable children to come and fall on and destroy him utterly.

This is no mere fancy portrait, for Nature herself sat for it in the desert, and it is painted in true colours. Such is the contest the settler embarks in — so various in its fortunes, so full of great and sudden vicissitudes, calling for so much vigilance and strategy on his part. If the dreams he sets out with are never realised, he is no worse off in this respect than others. To one, born and bred on the plains, the distant mountain range is ever a region of enchantment; when he reaches it the glory is no more; the opalescent tints and blue ethereal shadows of noon, the violet hues of the sunset have vanished. There is nothing after all but a rude confusion of piled rocks; but although this is not what he expected, he ends by preferring the mountain’s roughness to the monotony of the plain. The man who finishes his course by a fall from his horse, or is swept away and drowned when fording a swollen stream, has, in most cases, spent a happier life than he who dies of apoplexy in a counting-house or dining-room; or who, finding that end which seemed so infinitely beautiful to Leigh Hunt (which to me seems so unutterably hateful), drops his white face on the open book before him. Certainly he has been less world-weary, and has never been heard to whine and snivel about the vanity of all things.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55