The views expressed in this article are based on perspective and anecdote – they do not reflect the position of AFOP Health & Safety or of the farm mentioned.
Finished clomping across the barren, uneven terrain, I exhaled to blow sweaty hair from my face. The hose was finally beginning to melt in the hard, early sun, and I straightened up from the ground where I had laid it, waiting to give the crisped trees time to drink. The water was never enough. Every morning I watched as the late summer turned towards winter: the days just as searing, but the nights succumbing to frigid mountain winds. Still, with patient and regulated watering, the broccoli and tomatoes slowly grew. The garlic and sage could be coaxed from dusty dirt, the berries twisted wild and thorny up fence posts; the reward for my sunburnt skin came with every squash or onion we extracted from the ground and the pride of having cared for it patiently with my own hands. Cultivating that life was no easy task.
The time I spent working this land came about from wanting to understand our earth a little better. From right outside the big city, I grew up thinking the perfect pyramid of supermarket oranges could never run out, and that it was weird if one egg from the carton was smaller than the others. I never thought twice about the fact that we could buy coconut 3 blocks away, although the climate that produced them was a world away. Realizing my ignorance about my own food, I began escaping to farms ready to accept willing – but notably unskilled – labor. I was happy to sweat and learn, they were happy to have me, and I got a small taste of what it’s like to feed myself.
The first of these farms was this wide-open stretch, sitting high and flat in a valley at the foothills of the Patagonian Andes. I worked alone with the owners: the woman a happy convert from the city to the agricultural life, and her unbreakable husband proud of his foothold in this land as a native Mapuche. The months we shared were quiet and full, and as my Spanish painstakingly advanced I was more and more able to wrap myself in the stories they and their friends wove as we surrounded the campfire.
If I had come to the farm looking for lush harvests and popping green, I was in the wrong place. A year before I arrived, the entire countryside beyond the snow-capped ranges had been razed by the largest wildfire ever recorded in Argentina. What the flames hadn’t devastated they had left with layers of thin ash, muted sunlight, choked air, and abandonment as all resources were dedicated to stemming the fire. Our farm was not burned, but its plants had suffered this abuse and the bees had barely survived.
In part because of this, the shoulder-high sticks I dragged water to every day were part of a project much bigger than themselves. Groups of the local people – including the owner of my farm – had always pushed for reforestation of native trees in the cleared zones and resisted the mineral mining operations which would harm them further. Now, the wildfire had ignited a much greater push by both public and private interests to take over the now conveniently pre-cleared land for commercial purposes. The native people had always struggled with their rights to the lands to which they had no paper deed, but that they and their great-great-grandfathers were born on. The fight was one of collective political resistance, but also one of … farming.
Though the quintessential ranching of the Argentine prairies was also certainly present, agriculture rooted the people to their home. The vegetables and herbs coaxed up from the pampa fed families well beyond commercial reach, and served as deed and title: this is our land. Trees bore heavy fruit, lumber, shelter from the tunnel of wind forcing through the mountains, natural remedies, cutlery and tools, fire fuel, and represented perhaps the strongest link between the Mapuche people and their ancestry. Children in the nearby town were taught a natural respect and reverence for the land; they spent half of each school day learning about biological classification, wild gathering, sustainable agriculture techniques, and food production from native plant sources. They knew where they were from, and were visibly proud – when I joined them for a field trip and their daily classes – of their knowledge of what grew there.
Upon arriving at the farm, I gravitated naturally towards the things I recognized as familiar and valuable: the vegetables and tubers that were much of our daily meals. But as the months passed and the stories accumulated I came to love the little native trees that struggled back up through our land. Every day they became more recognizable as the same giants that survived the fire to loom over the nearby lake. They had always been the protectors, and in these tumultuous times it was our turn to protect them. As we walked the lowland shaded with the native cypress – myself and two other women gathering bark and leaves for a skin remedy – I was struck by witnessing an action both necessary and obvious, but that somehow, I had never before thought to do.
Each time our friend Paula approached a tree to take part of its harvest she gently cut her fill, turned to place her hand flat on the broad trunk, and spoke a simple word.
Thank you to the beautiful farm that hosted me as a worker and as part of the family. You know who you are.