Saturday February 2, 2008
Fine dust from the earth he tills is etched in the lines of his sun-weathered face. The dirt embedded under the nails of his small strong hands is the same dirt that produced the cantaloupe you may be having for breakfast today.
I've watched him work during my two-week visit to Susaan Straus’ and Ricardo Ceriani’s 50-acre farm in Nogales, Chile. He harvested 20,000 cantaloupes during this time - cantaloupes he had grown from seed. Each afternoon the fruit dealer’s truck lumbered out the dirt road to the highway, Don Pedro had confirmed the melon count on board.
That was for starters. By 8:00 AM other days, he’d hitched his fifty pound steel plow behind his muscular, dutiful red mare, LaRubia, and tilled several acres of corn fields. He’s prepared several more acres for a cabbage crop. He’s repaired rustic farm implements as they wear out and kept his eye on everything that moves or grows.
Don Pedro Biernay is 66 years old and has worked the fields since he was 16. He splurged once and took a week vacation. God knows how he relaxed. Born in Quillota, about two hours north of Santiago and a short drive to Nogales, Don Pedro and his family have lived in a small shack on the perimeter of this farm for decades. His grandfather immigrated to Chile from France.
He hasn’t reported in sick in fifty years. Sore and tired, yes, but way too proud to stay home. For the painful arthritis, he captures a honeybee and allows it to sting his shoulder. He says his shoulder feels better after the treatment. (Note: a Google inquiry surprised me with accounts acknowledging the effectiveness of this treatment.)
When my friends Ricardo Ceriani and Susaan Straus bought the farm from Sr. Saffi, Don Pedro was in the same category as the outbuildings - he came with the farm, a wizened miracle in a battered white leather hat.
He reads and understands the dirt beneath his feet, the clouds over his head, and things that grow around him with the ease with which you digest your morning paper. The birds, sun, weather, and winds speak to him in tongues he understands.
How often does the newly planted corn field need to be irrigated? Don Pedro knows. What will grow faster, melons or potatoes? Don Pedro knows. How many seasons will that plot of land produce alfalfa for Ricardo’s horses before it’s time to plant something else to give the land a rest? Ask Don Pedro.
He leads a hard, simple life. A few years ago, his fourteen-year-old grandson was killed as he stepped from behind a bus into oncoming traffic. Shortly thereafter, a daughter bore another grandchild. “God takes away with one hand and gives with the other,” Don Pedro said to Ricardo not long afterward.
Every morning, I see him, immaculate in his clean blue and white shirt and work jeans, making purposeful strides to his next job. I've never seen him at rest.
When it comes time to celebrate, his 5’8” 135 pound wiry body can consume and hold prodigious amounts of local red wine mixed with Coca Cola. And, as he did at the Saturday BBQ to celebrate the completion of the framing of a new barn, he holds forth with the same vigor he puts into plowing the land.
Class lines are still distinctly drawn here in the post-feudal countryside. Don Pedro is an “old school” laborer. He’s never approached, never mind entered, the Patron’s little farmhouse on a tiny hillock 100 yards away. but here in the barn that will hold orange produce before it’s shipped to market, he sits across from Ricardo, the Patron, and yaks with him as though they were a couple of country boys enjoying a Saturday picnic.
Here I was, sitting next to Don Pedro, a part of and, due to language barrier, apart from the celebration, when I heard the word “Clinton” and realized he was asking me a question.
“He wants to know who you think will win the election, Hillary Clinton or the black man Obama,” Ricardo translated for me. I felt some kind of cultural lightning bolt had struck the corrugated metal roof of the barn. A major recalculation on every assumption I had about Don Pedro and god knows how many others in the Spanish-speaking country crowd around me was in order.
For the next 15 minutes, with Ricardo acting as the UN interpreter, I had a conversation with Don Pedro about the US presidential election, the Yankee and Confederate war about slaves (he wanted to know which side was ‘blue’ and which side was ‘grey’), the president who was a woodsman and had a tall hat (Lincoln) and the American war about tea and why it started.
“How do you know about these things?" I said, wondering if he could read the incredulity writ across my face.
“I read, ”he said with a grin that did little to disguise a sense of pride.
“He says he used to lie down with a candle on his chest and read every night when he was a boy. When it got too late his father would make him blow out the candle, “ Ricardo said. “Once he went all the way to Valparaiso to find a book.” I recalled the story about Honest Abe allegedly walking miles to return a book. Here was another country boy with a thirst for knowledge sitting right beside me.
Apparently, I’ve had to travel several thousand miles into the southern hemisphere to relearn the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” lesson. I suspect it won’t be the last time I’ll need to relearn it.