Home and Shop Companion 0109
Home and Shop Companion 0109

Rural Ramblings – Spring 1979
Ralph C. Miller

Lives of great men oft’ remind us
we can make our lives sublime
And in parting leave behind us
footprints on the sands of time.

If the ‘Last Minstrel’ will forgive my borrowing his phrase this bit is about that: Footprints on the sands of time. A rural ramble of some time ago, over 3.5?MILLION YEARS if we can believe the experts.

If you read National Geographic you know what I am referring to; if not you may have read of it in your newspaper or heard it on the TV News. Briefly, Dr. Mary Leakey and her team of Paleontologists have uncovered the prints of two primates along with ancestral elephants, giraffes, rhinos, pigs, hyenas and sabre-toothed tigers; all of these walked across the African plain through volcanic ash in the shadow of an eruption a long time ago.

I’m no expert but that just has to be the most exciting discovery – yes, even the most exciting event in currently recorded history. Moon walking, Tutankhamen, world wars, mid-east crises, inflation; these are yesterday’s gossip or today’s trivia but the discovery of those footprints on the Laetoli grasslands of Tanzania just hits me where I live. Throw out a considerable part of the theory of evolution, the comparatively recent advent of man and a great deal more.

Two people – short people, yes, but people, walking upright – crossed that open stretch of countryside so long ago that the mind boggles. Before apemen, cavemen, missing links or what have you were supposed to have lived, long before that these two humans walked North across that expanse of damp volcanic ash and disappeared into history. They emerge today as inspiration to those troubled by the predictions of the early demise of man.

Now before I get jumped on by those who want everything in pigeonholes let me say that I know that science calls them humanoids, homanids or worse (I wouldn’t like to be called Australopithecus even if I was sure of what it meant). Humanlike, dawn man or whatever you call them, to me they are early man or woman – people. One wonders what the paleontologist of a few million years hence will say of us. Homanids might be the kindest thing we would get.

I agree that this isn’t a magazine that habitually comments on the latest archaeological findings but I have said before that everything relates to farming at some point. I suspect that we can shove the antecedents of the farmer back more than the estimated 8000 years as well. I find it difficult to believe that somewhere else along that 3,592,000 year trail some lazy, clever rube didn’t peg a few stones and brandish a club to herd his dinner closer to the tribal fire or drop a few grain seeds along the bank in front of his cave or brush hut. If only there had been a SFJ there to record it.

Not quite so long ago (after the flood, at least), I awoke to find that our ship’s engines had stopped and we were at anchor. It was not yet full light but looking out a porthole there were fairy lights all around the harbor. A tiny shuttle ferry was crossing just astern and we were obviously THERE. THERE was to be a new experience for the farm boy. Two and a half years looking over my shoulder in the Pacific in wartime was over; this was billed as a quote “Tropical Paradise” unquote where the war had swept on and was no longer a factor. I won’t dwell on the personal aspects of that tour of duty except to say that after 34 years the best part of it is still with me in the person of my wife.

Like the earlier Eden there were drawbacks – no snakes – but problems in Paradise. For one thing the island is small, about 35 miles by 100 miles with one of the world’s highest birthrates. For another, much of it is mountainous which is not altogether conducive to farming either for subsistence or gain. Almost all the limited plain was held by a few wealthy (often absentee) landholders and planted exclusively to cane for sugar or rum.

The poor worked the cane, chiefly during harvest, for what they could get. In the mountains here and there they raised all they could. Coffee, tobacco and semi-tropical fruits and vegetables for themselves and those who could afford to buy them. Bananas, some citrus and berries, squash and sweet potatoes were the more familiar things. In addition they grew some more exotic varieties: Apia, malanga, yautia both white and yellow, the breadfruit which is used also as a vegetable and panas de pepita, small and nutlike to boil or roast. Plantain is really of the banana family but also baked, fried or boiled. Among the fruits were the mango, the papaya and the mamey. All these formed some portion of the diet.

Mainly the staples of their diet were from older times, rice, salt codfish, beans – the dried foods that lent themselves to shipping without refrigeration. For added protein they ate a lot of fish, and some meat – sometimes beef but more often pork or goat. Chickens were to be had in the public markets and could be found in not a few back yards although a lot of those were fighting cocks and not bred for eating, not even the losers.

With the ballooning population, limited land, wartime jobs winding down and little other prospects in the island’s cities, it was hardly a wealthy situation. The only relief valve was emigration and people left in droves.

We lived there again for some 18 months not too long after the war when the Editor of SFJ was learning to walk and talk. The situation was nearly as described with a slight difference. An enlightened local Government was making some progress in altering the prognosis. They were breaking up the large landholdings, the sugar plantations, calling for diversification, assisting the poor in building homes, electrifying the country areas and making a determined effort to bring in light manufacturing and industry to absorb some of the fleeing hordes.

We have been back to the island to visit a few times over the years; the last time in February. I still love it and the people but I mourn too for the time I remember. The overall standard of living has risen markedly but they have paid dearly for that.

Almost all of the sugar plantations are gone. I would surmise that they import some sugar as they do most other food. Where once stood sugar cane and sugar mills, housing tracts and condominiums blanket the plains and climb the hillsides. In the mountains and remote valleys new houses are still interspersed with occasional fields and pastures and some agriculture is carried on. Cattle, sheep and goats graze some high meadows; banana groves mount steep slopes; huge juicy pineapples flourish under irrigation in the dry southern valleys, but these are really the exceptions.

Almost the whole of the island is on the way to becoming one vast metropolitan area complete with suburbs, traffic jams and the multitude of ills inherent in urban living. The 13th floor of an expensive condominium is a long step up from a rural cottage or 2 rooms over a garage. Except that now they must live behind a locked door, behind a padlocked gate, in a locked building with 24 hour armed guards.

The expensive automobile takes them just where the bus used to – only now it takes longer. They eat anything they wish, imported, at a price that used to keep them for a month. Along the way they acquired a maid, a gardener and a cleaning woman. When they could no longer get any of them to work they traded in the home for the apartment where a cleaning woman comes now and then when she wants to (and for what she is paid she could have had her own staff of help back there).

We can certainly appreciate that many, if not all, of the poor are better off – at least on paper. Food Stamps, welfare and make-work programs have brought them above the starvation level. Only now food must be imported, for who wants to hoe hillsides, fish the seas or gather coconuts when food stamps will purchase TV dinners for the microwave. The coffee and breadfruit trees still dot the hillsides but it is scarcely possible to get anyone to pick coffee berries or bring down breadfruits. Coffee is imported from Santo Domingo, breadfruit is passé; Pizza, Tacos, Big Mac and Colonel Sanders are the gustatory passwords today.

The ‘Good Life,’ and too many of the emigres have returned to enjoy it, swelling the already unmanageable population. Frantic and fretting they jam streets, crowd each other for living space and compete for pesos while they nervously assure any who will listen that all will be right if they don’t rock the boat.

And the land – what of the land? What isn’t already swallowed by urbanizations seems to be in the hands of a few wealthy land-holders (often absentees).

Still the hunger for the country and a place of one’s own is not dead. On the Southwest corner of the island we visited such a place. Five acres carved out of one of the last big cane fields. Five acres – one each for five members of one family. Two of them lived there full time; one more had a house to which they came as often as city duties allowed; the other two just visited when they could and dreamed of SOME DAY.

One had a cow, one a pig and one raised fighting roosters. These, a couple of fruit trees and a small patch of perennial gandules (pigeon peas) completed the visible attempts at farming and yet they clung to it desperately, an anchor in a wild gale.

There are a few, pitifully few, still hanging on. On a TV show in memory of an old country singer the camera panned over much of the area he had loved far back in the mountains. There was still a team of oxen plowing (I suppose by request). I remember many such when I first went there but now they are even rarer than here where we live.

With the tremendous population growth there I have little faith that they could ever become self-sufficient for food, not even to the extent they were when I first knew the island. I do think some encouragement could help reverse the trend; even more I believe if sociologists would put it in a proper perspective it might serve us as a warning of where we are headed. I’m not sure that it will take another 35 years either; we’re pretty far down the road.

They have abundant water although there are dry areas that take irrigation. The soil is deep and fertile even on the hills and the climate is a farmer’s dream. On the North slope and in the karst areas foliage and plant growth is so lush as to seem indecent, disturbing. When plants grow like that how can there be hungry people, people eating yams from Louisiana, bananas from South America and all the dry and sterile prepared foods from American processors. We have exported far more than Coca Cola.

In spite of inflation there is little doubt that from a financial standpoint many individuals are better off both on that island and here in America. Whether the race as a whole has benefited is something else. There are other considerations surely. Sacrificing individual quality of life, integrity, health and the future for young people may be too great a price for ‘la vida dulce.’

And then I keep going back to those footprints disappearing into time. When the researchers get through cleaning off that part of the plain they may know a bit more of where those people were coming from; but never where they might have gone. Something swept all that away.

There have been a lot of advanced civilizations in the past. Probably many more than we know. The experts are usually at a loss to know how or why they disappeared. Something just swept them away. Trouble is, afterward mankind always seemed to have had to start over – in 3 or 4 million years who knows how many times. If a little oftener we had been able to trace the footprints we might be farther down the trail today. Was it Santana who said, “Those who have not learned the lesson of history are condemned to repeat it?”

In thinking of Small Farmers we need to improve the lot and methods of all country folk, to encourage research and better goals. At the same time we ought to hang on to the lore of the simpler past. Those lessons of history show that we may need it again, much sooner than we think. If I read the indicators right, and this trip reinforced that reading, we are over the falls on a tightrope right now.

The worst of it is that we have insisted on exporting our brand of culture to what we euphemistically refer to as developing nations. What we want them to develop is the same brand of headache we have, then we can sell them headache pills. We’ve encouraged them to beat their plowshares into gasoline pumps, if I may paraphrase. I suppose if we have to go back to tilling the land with pointed sticks we would like them all for company.

Home and Shop Companion 0109

This island visit (to Puerto Rico, if you haven’t guessed) was only the culmination of a longer trip. We’ll get down the rest of the road another day.

I guess it has seemed like the doomsday trail but it wasn’t really. I enjoyed most of it. I said at the beginning that those ancient footprints should be an inspiration and an indication of how long we have survived. It just seems such a waste if we have come so far and learned so little. But then one of the triumphs of a country ramble is going back to see where you started. I’ll cling to that.

Home and Shop Companion 0109

Home and Shop Companion 0109