[Issue 13 / 1 May 15]
Tocantins – the eastern Amazon – Brazil, 1991
There’s a story they tell in the backlands about a young man who goes to the Festa of São João – when the rural people feast, dance quadrilhas, and light a bonfire against the darkness of the winter solstice. It is evening when he arrives – moonlit night. He is not from this place – he has walked two leagues to get here – but he is welcomed. He stands with the men, listening to their laughing exchanges, drinking the hot cinnamon-spiced quentão. Growing tired of men’s company, he wanders down a path between two fields, and there he meets her.
She is beautiful in the moonlight. Light catches her long dark hair, her rich olive skin, the strong carved bones of her face. They speak a few words – her voice is low, melodious. He asks her to dance, and she accepts. Taking her hand, they walk back toward the ring of people and there, in the moonlight and the dim distant flickering of the bonfire, to the music of the accordion and the rebeca fiddle, they dance. All night they dance. She seldom speaks – when she does, it is with the same soft tones – gentle and understanding. But she listens – he finds himself talking to her of his thoughts, his dreams. Then the first cock crows, and suddenly she turns and – in an instant – is gone.
As the sun rises, he looks for her. She has given him her name, “Maria,” but half the women in the backlands are named “Maria.” People shake their heads, shrug their shoulders – but finally, following the suggestion of an old woman, he comes to a wattle house in the back fields. He calls her name. There is a moment’s silence and then she comes out, eyes cast down, hands clenched in front of her.
In the bright, harsh sunlight, he sees that she is not beautiful. The sun that mercilessly illuminates her face has lined it and hardened it. Fine wrinkles radiate from her eyes, around her mouth, and the line of her mouth tells him she is missing teeth. She is perhaps twenty-two, but years of hard labor make her look twenty years older.
She raises her eyes and looks at him. In those brown eyes, he sees the woman of last night – the woman of the soft, melodious voice, the woman who listens. He reaches out his hands and takes hers. “I love you,” he says, and knows that he will forever.
This, in its way, is the story of Tim Burnham. Except it wasn’t a woman he fell in love with. It was a place, a people, the land.
It was a moonlit night the first time he came to Pedra Branca. He had driven out from Itacajá in the Toyota jeep – four hours over increasingly sketchy dirt roads. The last few miles were barely a track in the long savannah grass, winding at the end up to the top of a rise, to the rambling thatched-roof house, the scattered outbuildings, the huge mango tree, the tiny chapel. He cut the motor of the jeep and stepped out into the cool night. In the moment of silence, before he was enfolded in the quiet-spoken hospitality of the people flowing from the house, he stood struck by the moonlit beauty of the place. The white plastered walls of the house glimmered, the mango cast a bold deep-black shadow, the chapel’s cross stood outlined against the black-silver sky. He fell in love.
And then he was surrounded – he was expected – by the family of the place and their neighbors, ushered into the front room with its clean-swept dirt floor, its half dozen rough wood chairs, its single kerosene lantern. Old Seu Antonio welcomed him – the daughters and daughters-in-law of the house brought out food (saved for him alone at this late hour) – rice and black beans, okra, toasted manioc flour, chicken. They talked awhile – the men yawning (it was past eight o’clock) – as he ate. He had brought his hammock as he always did – as everybody did – in these places, and after supper strung it up in a room with half a dozen other men, took off his shirt and shoes, picked up his sheet, and lay down in the dark. Those around him quickly fell asleep. He lay awake for half an hour, listening to the moonlit silence of the place.
In the morning he awoke – later than the others but very early for him – put on a clean shirt and stepped outside. The morning light glared on the pocked front wall of the chapel, the thin plastered wattle of the house, the bare dirt of the yard between. It was a place – dusty in the dry season, muddy in the wet season – like a hundred other places he had visited. Only the giant mango maintained its dignity, standing sixty feet tall and casting a solid circle of cool, luxurious shade.
He saw at once that last night’s beauty had been an illusion. But he had already fallen in love.
Tim Burnham was not a farmer, but a lawyer. He and his wife, Molly, had been invited by the Franciscan Friars five years earlier to come to the eastern Amazon. Land was becoming more valuable, and land-grabbers – grileiros – were pressuring small landholders throughout the region – bribes, threats, crop burnings, beatings. Murder. For five years Tim and Molly had been working with subsistence farmers, organizing community groups, schools, rural workers’ unions – coordinating with Church lawyers, helping people understand their rights. They had helped with the back breaking work of harvesting field rice – under the eyes of hostile gunmen. They had received death threats. They had learned one morning that a whole village had stayed awake watching their house the night before, because the village had heard that land-grabbers threatened to kill them.
“Finally we may be arriving somewhere before the land-grabbers,” the bishop had said. He was referring to this little, backward corner of the state where the land – hilly and rocky – was not yet as valuable. And here Tim was working, helping the people get ready.
Pedra Branca was not a village, but a large farm run by Seu Antonio, his sons and sons-in-law. Its central location in the area – and the hospitality of Seu Antonio and his family – made it a focal point for all the farms around. The small school was housed in one of the outbuildings, and one of Seu Antonio’s daughters taught there. Another was dona da capela, organizing rosaries and prayer meetings in the chapel. It was the central place for a large area, and it was logical for Tim to make it his headquarters.
Seu Antonio and most of his neighbors had been on the land for decades. Seu Antonio did not know dates – Tim estimated the old man to be at least seventy. He had come here as a small boy, out of the drought-ridden Northeast – “before the time of Getúlio” – Getúlio Vargas, the dictator – so that would be the 1920s. But, like most of his neighbors, he had no title. Quietly, thoroughly, Tim began to work with him – with all of them – to gather the necessary documents.
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you had a mistress there,” Molly joked. But she knew the mistress was not a woman, but the place itself, the people, the land. She came with him whenever she could, and understood his love for the place. The women eagerly welcomed her, enfolded her and drew her into the kitchen. Molly always learned fifty times as much as Tim did on these rural visits: the men talked about weather and the crops, the women talked about old people and babies, love affairs and feuds, wife beaters and shrews, men who loved their wives and women who loved their husbands – and those who did not.
He walked for hours with Seu Antonio in his fields. Seu Antonio knew intimately every tarefa of his land. Every slope, every waterway, every group of trees – each field, each garden area, even the forest reserve. He was that rarest of beings – the leader who is also an innovator. He listened carefully to the Church extension agent – he experimented with ginger, with sesame – he planted fruit trees. He was raising bees. He rotated crops, composted, gathered chicken and cattle manure. He never burnt his fields.
He refused to use pesticides. “Would I put poison on my wife, on my children? Why would I put it on my fields?”
One afternoon, walking out on the ridge behind the house, overlooking the fields, Seu Antonio stopped and turned to Tim.
“A man who does not love a woman uses and disposes,” Seu Antonio said. He made a sexual thrusting motion with his arm, then the motion of throwing away. “But a man who loves cares, protects.”
The old man turned toward the fields. “A man must marry the land,” he said. “Care for her” (land – terra – a feminine word in Portuguese).
The two men stood there, on the hill, silently, for a few minutes. It was late afternoon, and the sun was less glaring, beginning to give a golden glow to all the land below.
Seu Antonio turned to him.
“Seu Fagundes is leaving the land,” he said. Fagundes was a neighbor with a small, fertile farm. “He’s old, and his only son has gone off to São Paulo. He is looking for someone to buy his land – someone who will love it, care for it.”
A slight breeze cooled them. A flock of birds rose from a tree below and flew through the cooling air. The evening insects began to sing.
“Why don’t you buy it?” Seu Antonio said. “Come here and live among us.”
He told Molly about it later. They had left Pedra Branca but stopped the jeep on another rise, a few miles away, and got out to look over the gloaming landscape. Most of their drive back would be in the dark, but they could reach a good dirt road before deep darkness set in.
“Could you do it?” she asked quietly. “Is it your calling?”
He paused for a moment, then slowly shook his head. They stood together, silent, looking out over the lost land.