As you start up the hill above the village the going is steep, and loose rock slides beneath your feet, requiring care, but with increasing altitude the trail levels off a bit and runs through scruffy vegetation. The undergrowth isn’t majestic but has an appeal of its own. Most wild places do. There is a complexity of life, a dance of many creatures doing many things. Soon you are well above the town, and the lake stretches off yet further toward the horizon.
I have climbed the hill countless times. Usually the path is empty, though occasionally I encounter Mexican boys and girls running up it for exercise. This is not for the weak. There is a place just before a sharp upslope where a large, fast, black insect often hovers threateningly, as if protecting something, but backs off before I get close enough really to see it. Once, much higher, a pudgy brown snake left the trail in front of me. Maybe a rattler. I wanted no truck with it, nor it with me. We both found this to be a workable arrangement.
A while back I saw something small moving on the trail. At first I couldn’t resolve it. Pieces of gravel seemed to be going somewhere. On examination, I saw a pair of dung beetles pushing what appeared to be a deer dropping. They stood on their heads and shoved mightily with their hind legs. Somehow they kept it moving in a consistent direction.
My first thought was that I was glad that I made my living by different means, my second that maybe I didn’t. Maybe most of us live by shoving dung of one sort or another. I suppose though that few of us do it while standing on our heads. There is progress after all.
On cloudy days an intense stillness hangs over the hills and the leaves darken against a silvery sky. Then I like to sit on the big rock by the little white chapel that sits on a flat spot. Every Easter the townspeople reenact the ordeal of Christ, climbing the hill past the Stations of the Cross, which are marked by white stones, and ending at the chapel. It is hardly more than an open concrete room, and usually deserted.
Sometimes a gringo comes past the chapel with his dogs. These are always friendly and courteous, both owners and animals. People who walk over difficult trails are simply better folk than those who ride dirt bikes or tour buses. I do not know why. I have seen it on many week-long trips along the Appalachian Trail, over the mountainous spine of Taiwan, and deep in the Grand Canyon.
Often, while supervising dry hills in the distance — they explode into green when the rains come — I wonder why people live as they do. In Washington the young go to law school, itself inexplicable, and then work twelve-hour days for many years so as to become partners at the noted firm of Linger, Loiter, and Dawdle. This seems to me a fate greatly to be avoided. They must have a reason for doing it. I just don’t know what it is. At the ends of their lives I suppose they can reflect that they saved Lockheed-Martin a great deal in taxes, and won an important suit over a municipal parking lot.
There is in Chile a farming community, Nuevo Braunau I believe, settled long ago by Germans and now a museum of sorts. The region is still undeveloped or, as I would say, unruined. The farm buildings are of wood, large, solid and homey. Germans being Germans, books line the shelves and victrolas gape on tables. In a framed photograph from the 1800s I looked into the eyes of a lovely dark-haired girl of perhaps nineteen, now dust, standing before the farmhouse with her parents and carefully-groomed little brothers. She looked intelligent and faintly amused, as if having a secret that she wasn’t going to tell me.
What must their lives have been? Comfortable, certainly. There was nothing of the frontier in the place. Quiet, decent and, I suspect, contented. Intellectually engaged, I further suspect. We have made farmer a synonym for empty-headed and foolish, but of course it isn’t so. People had fewer books then but knew them better, if I may judge by my grandparents.
I would wager that the small boys in the photograph did well. Children are happier, and turn out better, amid woods and fields than in suburban malls, if I may judge by observation. Family farming is not to be sneezed at. Running a good spread requires greater ability and self-reliance than, say, being Supervisor of Stultifying Business Records for some urban government. Plowing a field is more dignified, actually produces something of value, and you can think while you are doing it. Not so with the stultifying records.
Behind the sitting-rock by the chapel, another trail, little known I think, leads steeply up some hundreds of yards to a pair of erect flat rocks, colored a rich gold by lichens. This is usually as far as I go. Depending on the season, a steady wind blows over them.
I am doubtless mad. For I hear in the wind — I do not know what exactly, but intimations of things beyond the acres of dull green cubicles full of trapped humanity, and underground garages redolent of motor oil, and sirens shrieking the night through. Perhaps it is just me. Still, I wonder whether we haven’t built a world that we don’t want quite as much as we thought we were going to. Maybe we weren’t intended to live on top of each other.
As evidence of this proposition I note how many people in the unvarying suburbs would like to be somewhere else. (See? I do not imagine that I have a unique grasp of the inescapable.) But the economy needs the administrative equivalent of assembly-line workers. The retirement system ties people to the job as tightly as serfdom tied them to the land. And we have been well trained that the purpose of life is the consumption of things produced in factories.
But I ramble. Things are as they are. Coming down I found the black watcher in his, or more likely her, appointed position over the trail. She hovered motionless, just a dark spot in the air. Then she suddenly wasn’t there any longer, but a foot to the right. The creature is that fast. Why did she need such speed? Not for growing vegetables, I surmised. But she got out of my way when I walked toward her. That was the important thing.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.