The Road to Hum by Federico Naguil
I had a dream. A hot land populated by huge trees and animals. A deep-water river running fast, dragging almost everything in its way. Millions of insects being devoured by all sorts of birds and fish. A dense scent filled with pollen, herbs, fruits and beasts. And the sweet stench of death sneaking into everything. The brown color of the water, turned brown by the earth dragged from the very distant river tributaries. The sun which heats the earth until it cracks, or stops at millions of ferns and leaves which create a second ground between the treetops. Storms that arrive and darken everything. Black rain that falls while the winds at the mouth of the river bring along a huge flood that makes the river double its size. It is now almost red and dark. The night swallows most of the witnesses and the clouds swallow the stars, only lightning and bolts illuminate the incessant running of the waters. And of time.
It is a green and white meadow, filled with pastures frozen by the cold. Blood flows unleashed through the veins of the great glyptodont. The hearts of the men around it also seem to burst. It is a huge and slow beast defending itself with its tail and its armor. Blood streams down its neck, barely visible under its shell and javelin nailed to its side. The giant armadillo strikes with his tail, which much like a club falls on one of the hunters, who collapses on the ground, as the others manage to stop his march and finish it off with their spears. A small red river glides through the pastures. The steam ascends slowly from this stream of plasma which, before coagulating, spills into the real river, still running placidly with its gray, almost frozen waters. Enormous bonfires fill the meadow with smoke and scare the flies away. Bodies dance and sing until the night falls. Darkness.
The flight of the chimango creates an ellipsis over the improvised village by the river. Down below, the men gut fish and throw the viscera in the sand. Under the shadow of the straw roofs, some women slowly pluck a rhea and other younger girls thread a couple guinea pigs on a stick by the fire. Dozens of birds of prey now surround the feast, some landing for a few seconds to capture some scraps and others stand on the nearby trees. A sparrow hawk falls threaded by a kid’s arrow. A blast is heard in the distance, a far-off thunder, under the sun, at ground level. The men look at each other; they grab their boleadoras, spears and bows. Women and children quickly gather mats and tools. The warriors run along the path protected by the trees, until they sight the galleon next to an island and the bearded men with their pikes, their muskets, and their armor. Silence.
A boat slowly crosses the waters populated by water hyacinths. Only the waning moon and the stars illuminate the river and the ferryman. Parallel to the shore, the man rows energetically but stealthily, taking advantage of the reeds to conceal himself stretch by stretch. Sometimes he raises the oars and stops his march on the slow inertia of the waters. If a close gallop is heard, or voices or crackles not from the boat, one must stop rowing. Near his destination, he eats the jerky and drinks the water. Guided by experience, he begins to take the boat towards the beach, perpendicular, to land. The load is heavy, flotation at its limit. Suddenly, the clouds cover the moon completely, he lifts the oars trying to hear better when a log strikes the boat, which jumps up, then comes down, soaking him completely. Horses are neighing; it’s too late to stop now. He takes the rifle but it will not do, the flint is soaked. He closes his eyes.
They rebelled, at last, and more difficult than the struggle against the patrones and the armed guards, more difficult than killing, or seeing their companions die from the bullets whistling as they fled, or by the sabers of the guards at a gallop, more difficult than ruining a hand or a foot by breaking shackles with stones, the most difficult was to see many of the women and the few children, who were always holding the rest back, die. They died of exhaustion, of infections and insolation. The first week the group of blacks only had nine women, two of whom could not walk. Five children under twelve, three girls, four infants and twenty men. On their march towards the North there was, initially, bread and water, afterwards, they killed cows and horses; there was no time to rescue much more than tongues, loins and shoulders, but at least there was no hunger. They went to the islands of a remote river, to found a community of free blacks. Nothing survived but their legend.
Near the protection offered by the town, there was a path that followed the river to the West, between native forests, swamps and chircas. Despite the possible dangers, she used to go out walking alone at dusk and enjoyed sitting by the river. At seventeen, she was the youngest of the three daughters in the family, and perhaps the most beautiful, with her blond long hair sometimes tied in a bun and with a comb, and her pale dresses and her graceful walk. The young man usually fished on the opposite bank and fell in love with that nymph who was able to make sunsets even more beautiful. So wide was the river and so monumental in that precise spot, it was impossible for him to see her in greater detail than perhaps enough to notice that subtle movement as she walked or her hair like copper, falling and shining on her pale face. He had little to offer her, a poor fisherman’s son. But still he watched her. Over the years he watched her grow, later accompanied by her husband. “I know who you are” she told him years later, already a widow.
The man was a cattle driver, which kept him away from the house for weeks, and if he had to go to Brazil, for months. The woman was used to those absences, but that winter had been especially cruel in bringing neither husband nor sustenance. Seven small children to feed. Huge storms and frost that had made the river grow and ruined the garden. No more animals but an old horse, the hens extinct. A large bag of gofio and a couple of yerba servings remained, after the chickpeas and potatoes were finished. The storm was raging and the wind had taken the eave and parts of the roof from where cold and water came in. The wood still kept them warm around the fire inside the shack. The mother left the eldest, aged ten, in charge. She saddled and galloped away, with the carbine and the boleadoras. After two days of waiting, during a night of storm and fear, the mother walked in, carrying with her rhea eggs and haunches.
That night, for the performance of the great singer, the town responded with all its finery. Garlands were put up that afternoon, from the club and all the way to the port, and lit at sunset. The vessel which brought the Argentinean star by the river, also carried glamorous passengers. The club extended its tables almost half a block over the main road and took advantage of the atmosphere to organize a concert by a típica tango orchestra. A luxurious preamble to what would follow at night. A huge crowd was there: over a hundred humble young men and women, in their best rags, had surrounded the entrance to be near the idol, although knowing that they would never make it inside. Along came a red voiture with the star behind the wheel; the cries were heard from afar. “Open the doors,” said the singer, to the delight of the poor. That night, people standing up filled every corner of the room. He sang for everyone.
In the same rivers we step and do not step, [because] we are and we are not [the same ones]. Heraclitus of Ephesus
The Hum river, whose name means to me or ours in Guenoa dialect and black in the Guarani language, travels almost 800 kilometers from its origin in Brazil, most of which extends along Uruguayan territory, from East to West, dividing the country in half. This river, now called Río Negro, ends its long journey against another river, the Uruguay, which descends from Brazil until merging with the Paraná River down south and together forming the Rio de la Plata. In the encounter between the Rio Negro and the Uruguay River there are dozens of islands, which have been populated by different indigenous cultures: Guenoas, Chanás, Charrúas, Yaros and Guaraníes since time immemorial. This natural border is one of the most important historical sites of the so-called Banda Oriental and what in the end turned out to be the Eastern Republic of Uruguay. With the arrival of Spanish ships around 1600, it was one of the emblematic sites of both meeting and clashing of cultures. In 1624 the town of Santo Domingo Soriano was founded, the oldest dwelling in the country still in existence. In 1811, near this area, the first uprising against Spanish rule took place, the Grito de Asencio, marking the beginning of the independence revolution. During that same process, General José Gervasio Artigas settled there, making the area one of his headquarters, before being defeated and leaving to Paraguay in what was known as the Exodus of the Easterners, years later.
This area, paradigmatic as well in the introduction of livestock, still, to this day, symbolizes the simple and austere life of the few dwellers who, as in the past, live off the river, but at the same time it has become an area of great agricultural and industrial investments, of transgenic crops, traditional livestock production and large forest plantations with their associated industries, currently in the midst of a process of even greater expansion. Today, this vast navigable river runs mortally wounded by human depredation and pollution. Natives long ago extinct, it is now the criollos of the river, the peasants and fishermen who are becoming extinct; the native forests and their animals, the wetlands, all preys to progress, in the pursuit of global industries and markets. A worldview and a millennial river agonizing at the hands of capital and apathy. A loss of lives, a loss of sense.
I watch the waters, calm yet powerful, in their hustle and bustle. I think about the millions of years of History running along its margins, which in turn are not that many compared to the age of the continent. It is not even possible to measure that much time. I feel. How many millions of stories about the world and about humankind running along the river will remain untold? However, I tell myself, the mere act of wondering about them and of asking about them, brings me to a giant crucible of images, memories, stories and anecdotes. There are vestiges, fragments of other times and beings that we will never get to know, but which -from their dark spaces, on the Earth or in our memory- force us to mentally reconstruct them. They shall never be complete stories, finished, but shall remain as remains, larger, at the most, or just stories describing worlds that only existed in the imagination. From an eternal cycle, nature cuts through time. Nothing ever remains unchanged. Nothing forever remains. Wholeness and nothingness, life and death merge, blend, unite. Time, infinite, crosses and abandons all moments. In a poetic human analogy, we are like the stars that gave us life, finite universes, each unique and unrepeatable, blessed with light and elements, condemned to darkness after shining, in a wonderful, relentless dance. The ever elusive cycle of eternity, the life that never loses its meaning nor does it ever have it at all. Life seeking sense. The space that unites and at the same time separates. Change is the order of chaos. And the Universe, creator of life, remains indifferent to our concrete becoming. Nevertheless, some part of us may catch a glimpse of timelessness and infinity. The significance of everything beyond the small, concrete existence of our being. Our living presence is barely an instant in the age of the Universe, but we are not separate entities, and we may feel, or at least infer, the eternal, intertwined condition of the cosmos of which we are part. Just a few seconds of glances and thoughts that the Universe gives as a gift to itself, only to later, much like a spark or a dying star, return to darkness. I look at the river, with the night already penetrating its waters. The moon and the starry sky are reflected in its running mirror, flooding every space of the soul.
What might have happened to that wooden rowboat, painted red, which Great-grandfather bought second hand and used to take us through a thousand mornings and afternoons of fishing, pirate adventures and explorations? A practically destroyed old photo is the sole witness of that boat which soon died in the garden, awaiting repairs which never happened.
Foal boots, once so common and a symbol of pride, barely survive now. Only a few who make and sell them to other few others. The man with the mustache wearing them, while smoking his rolled cigarette, also nods for the photo, somewhat evasive.
The “Doña”, as adult women are still called in neighborhoods and small towns, tells that the “asados” of the past were unsurpassed, because on one hand cattle at the time enjoyed more freedom and ate better pastures, but, she goes to tell me, such great secret, in my ear: the key was the now extinct wood of certain native forests and trees.
It is hard to imagine that those two seasoned gentlemen, so big and looking so stern, are also the skinny, smiling little boys diving and splashing in the water with other children. They sometimes swam all the way to the islands, they say, and I look at them and do not know whether to believe them or not.
My mother tells me that her grandmother used to tell her about a pier that used to be here, exactly where we are standing now, and about the largest surubi ever seen being caught. Yesterday a countryman made the news of the day, after fishing a sturgeon.
The man was a school teacher, but also an amateur fossil collector. He sought, found and classified fossil bones all along and across the river and its tributaries. Moreover, he made maps locating each finding. His was a passion that helped understand the past, but also the presence and changes in the animals of the present.
There they are, newlyweds, and there, in the dress her mother made, look at her, how happy she was and how she was grabbing his arm. They were very much in love. The house -they built it little by little-, had an orchard. After the floods they had to move, but they had already raised their three children by then. They keep coming back, anyway.
Those dance parties were beautiful, you know. You could always hear “milonga”, waltz and tango. And oh dear, the dances. With a couple dimes you could get a good meal and drink, and you just had to cross the street and play some bingo, or a round of two of “truco”.
She did not smile, maybe only a few times, when grandchildren came to visit or with a baby or some animal. A puppy dog or little bird, which she loved. Other than that, you’d never see her smile. Once they told me that it was because she was a Charrúa.
We used to go hunting with my father, and fishing, quite a bit, with shotgun and buoys, a large tent. Sometimes we stayed for two or three days on some empty beach against the native forest or on some island as well. But if you ask me what I miss the most, I’d say none of that. What I miss is going on walks along the coast with my mother.
He did not like to talk, it was not like him to chat. He grew up without school or parents, raised by his feral uncle who had always lived in the forest. Words? Only to go this way or that way. He liked to lie down and listen to the wind in the trees. …
This work is many things in one. It is firstly a field research on the meeting of the Río Negro and the Río Uruguay conducted by Andrés Boero Madrid over the course of many years, before this was even the idea of a project. Over a decade ago he settled in Villa Soriano, where some of his ancestors lived, a few generations ago, and began to patiently weave a network of stories and contacts which later led him towards these dwellers and these specific locations. He walked through the territory, he generated an extensive body of interviews and records in diverse formats, the coined materials, always related to the knowledge of the past and the present of this area and its inhabitants. After this work, he brought other artists to participate, who contributed with the research from their own particular perspectives. The aim was more than anything else, to learn to listen and to look, from a different perspective. From the point of sensitivity and respect inevitably tied to someone who is learning.
Hum later became a museum exhibition which showed the developments of the Project: a work of art composed of diverse elements and objects, grouped, combined with painting, video broadcast, light and sound. There, from paintings made with mud and clay to objects recovered from the area: a lantern, dock rope, a rusty knife, a piece of anchor and dozens of other objects from same place but from different pasts. In a room deliberately empty the elements would metaphorically float in an open space. An emptiness that allowed to see and hear and maybe to even suggest sailing, with a cloth or raised sail, lit by the reflection of the moon on the water.
Finally, this book appears, built upon its predecessors and combining a large number of the author’s original photos, inspired by the different experiences, journeys, quests and sensations brought about by this process next to the river, in the passing of time and its inhabitants, with a selection of archive photos, historic, family photos, contributions from the neighbors during the interviews which were part of the research. Andres’s photos are also inspired by the material subjectivity of his own everyday existence as inhabitant of this area of the world, marked by the river. But put together – if I may – this work is more than all that: it is an excuse for every reader/participant to relate to a subjective myriad of signs, symbols and archetypes they somehow belong to, insofar as they are part of the history of a community. A small part, always unfinished, always in progress, of the history of humankind.
These vestiges, these traces, these signs of ourselves and our paths are also signs and metaphors for the finite and the brevity of our existence before the vastness of the Universe we belong to. The river and its course, that source of life and death, is also a metaphor about the passing of time and the impossibility to capture the past, the experience. Over constant change, in spite of the persistence of the cycles. We are never the same and we are also survivors carrying with them the whole story still unknown to us. Somehow, there is, however, a shared worldview between the man hunting a large beast dozens or thousands of years ago and this artist living today by the river. Jumping across or continuing along generations, in there lies a sense of belonging to the earth, of also being the fire and the water, of being the same prey that feeds us, the tree, the moon and the stars. This maybe guides the author in his hunt for images, in a process that brings out and projects the exterior to the interior of the self, and vice versa.
Andrés, filmmaker and visual artist, is also an animal hunter of emotions, of memories and feelings, both of his own and of others’, of intertwined, interlaced lives, of sensations trapped in images impossible to describe with words, of trees, forests, skies and rivers made of feelings. A hunter of his Grandma’s stories, who as a child grew in the river’s small islands, running, swimming and singing, free as a local native and who can still recall the scent of that place. Or the stories of her father, his great grandfather, the lumberjack, leading an austere life, with an enormous strength to survive around Nature.
There is an energy running through the smoke of an almost eternal fire, the mud of the shore at our feet, which continues inside us and inside the rest of the beings, the plants and the times. In that duality which is existence, the light, the force of the sun and its shadows, or the reflections of the moon as it creates tides in the darkness of the waters are symbols of something elusive, wonderful and at the same time unrelenting. Of an inward journey, of a journey to the origin. Of a journey that can never allow a finishing line, one that will remain forever magical and incomplete, just like a dream. A mirror where we can see ourselves next to everything and part of everything. Time moves on. I see the waters, again, running placidly along the colossal course. I close my eyes and allow myself that space, those seconds, until I open my eyes again. Time is this instant. I breathe, the wind rocks the trees, stirrings waters and memories. Silence.