Throughout the day at work I often will be struck by brief moments of nostalgia – rich but fleeting images of places I’ve been with feelings attached. The memory is visual, but as much as anything it is a moment in a place – the way the light, the air, the sounds, the scenery natural and human came together to form an encompassing clearly realized tableau. Because such things interest me, these are often imbued with what I know of the history and geography of the place.
When I lived in Itapua in the southeast of Paraguay during my second year of Peace Corps service I would go on long bike rides through the countryside all around the town of Natalio where I lived. It was farmland, formerly rainforest. It has been cleared in the past 50 years and is now in a second phase of its settlement, of consolidation of land holdings and infrastructure. The land is still rough though – the first wave of settlement is still visible most places, in the forested gullies, tiny hamlets, improvised bridges and powerpoles, and mud and dust everywhere. I took a number of these rides, north, east, west and south on my rickety Peace Corps-issue bike and the landscapes, all products of human and natural forces, never failed to fascinate me.
Eastern Itapua is a broad plateau cut by the great Parana River and many small rivers and streams. When you are on top of the plateau you can see for many many miles in any direction to an undulating horizon of receding flat topped hills. The land feels ancient and vast. Of course I couldn’t help thinking of the Guarani Indians and Jesuit missionaries who were there three hundred years ago, fleeing from Portuguese raiders and slave-traders and building strange beautiful churches hundreds of miles from any imperial city.
The dirt road cross the countryside mostly in long straight lines. A few follow the land more closely, sticking to a ridge or negotiating the curve of a stream. These often have a parallel road cut in a straight line a short distance away. Thus the two phases of settlement leave their distinctive marks cut into the land.
There are hamlets of all sizes scattered throughout the countryside. Even a cluster of three or four homesteads will often have a tiny store on one of the homes, serving immediate neighbors and those further spread. There are tiny one-room schools throughout as well, though these are disappearing as agriculture is industrialized and the need for the labor of farmhands is reduced. The population brought by the first wave of settlement and lang clearing is reduced by the next wave of economic consolidation.
I took many pictures on these rides, though not nearly as many as I wish I had now. The camera I had then, a cheap digital Kodak point and shoot was a piece of garbage, and I manipulated the originals crudely to try and convey more of what I thought I was seeing. I drew a few of these landscapes as well, though I have always planned to do more. Paint is really the right medium for these flowing forms I suspect. The human presence was profound but also immediate and clear. Farms, pastures, simple homes, schools and stores, working animals and machines. The elements of place knit together in a seemingly endless stretch of land far from any disruption in the form of cities, mountains or the sea. These green, open, vibrant lands will haunt me the rest of my life.