Monday, October 22, 2007


The forest nearby is mixed growth. Thirty years ago this forest was cleared to raise cattle, but many of the most impressive trees were left for shade. The ranching was abandoned fairly quickly and now vigorous young plants compete with the towering old growth.

Through this forest passes a stony road, which is under siege by the jungle. Over the edges of the lane, the biomass bulges to reclaim the light and space. The soil is shallow and trees are easily unmoored by the tropical storms which routinely sweep through, dropping leaves as big as baby blankets, and white trunks, like bleached carcasses, into the road.

One morning I set up my easel on the side of the lane, when a thin man appeared at the bend and began to clear the road. As he worked, he kept his body low, torso parallel to the ground so that his machete could sweep an inch above the surface, neatly slicing grass at the root. Sometimes he straightened and used a rod held in his left hand to position shoots for severing by the blade in his right. Bending at the waist, he also used the rod to push refuse to the side and the tip of the machete to impale large debris and flip it into the bush. He was dressed in long green pants, rubber boots and a rust-colored tee shirt and as he progressed toward me, I noticed the toughened complexion and enlarged joints of an older man. The skin of his face, pulled tight over his skull, was stretched irregularly around a damaged right eye. The asymmetry of his face, however, did not confuse the benignly sober look he gave me when he arrived at my easel and introduced himself as Antonio. Since I don’t speak Spanish, our greeting was as incomplete as an embrace without arms.

Through gesture he asked to see what I was painting and I showed him a composition inspired by an orange-dotted butterfly that had been commuting between us. He smiled and laughed a little over the image and said that it was good. In pantomime, I returned the complement and praised the efficiency of his work. We bowed and smiled and got back to our tasks, now companions.

By noon he had cleared one side of a half mile of road. After lunch as the temperature and humidity continued to climb, he began on the other side, adeptly defining an edge between road and jungle. On his return trip down the road, he stopped again to check on my progress. I looked at Antonio, who was dry and calm, through spectacles fogged by water that gushed from my brow and cascaded merrily over my nose. Although he registered my distress, he did not embarrass me by noting it. Once again he complemented the picture, and returned to his work.

As he moved down the road, I realized that Antonio’s performance was one of the most poised I have ever seen. The action, clearing a mile of road in a day, was well defined, necessary and challenging. The pacing of the event was hypnotically engrossing. His stately rhythm was a result of a body perfectly attuned to its climate. The movement was elegant. Each of his gestures was composed to cut and clear without waste. His understanding of the heft, hardness and edge of his tools was absolute and, consequently, never awkward. In contrast to my sweaty performance under the mixed canopy that day, Antonio demonstrated that grace is self-made not bestowed.