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February 09, 2011
In Patagonia...

image of Bernardo, the sheep, and my journal: James Q Martin
image of Bernardo, the sheep, and my journal: James Q Martin
A gaucho lives alone below the dam site in a cluster of barn-like shacks. He invites us onto his land where we tie off rafts to a rickety half-submerged dock. Bernardo the sheep herder has rough hands and a youthful expression, early 30s and raised out here making a living with knife and lariat. Everything you find around his encampment is tooled, pieces of scrap metal worked into axes and wedges, tree bark rubbed raw where he tightens lariats made of pared cowhide. Standing in cool, damp shade beneath tall, plume-headed mañio trees, Bernardo seems bemused by our cameras and our many question. He cannot help grinning a behind his straight face. It is a strange day for him, suddenly a movie star. He invites us to stay the night and we accept, then he shuts us all up by dragging out a sheep by one leg to kill for our dinner. In a small pasture cleared by his family beneath rungs of waterfalls and glaciers, he turns the sheep over and holds tight around its fore with his legs and boots, soothing it until there is no struggle, his palm lifting its head. Bee-sting quick, he nicks the animal's jugular with a short, sharp blade. Then he draws a large, silver knife he wears behind his hip and runs it through. He has a gentle but effective hand, the sheep never struggling as it bleeds out. Its eyes go dim as he pumps out the last of its blood with a governing turn of his wrist.

The meat is good that night. It is smoke and blood and salt. We strip it from bone with our teeth, moist, russet-colored flesh cooked on a mañio-wood fire. One lightbulb hangs from the ceiling, barely enough light for the small room Bernardo lives in. He has somehow found enough stumps and stools for everyone to be comfortable, warm cocina between us, woodbox snapping and popping. Metal dishes clank. Salt, oil, and potatoes cook on the stove as rum goes around. When empty plates are set on the floor and couples lean into each other, the trip doctor pulls out his guitar. Timmy manufactures a drum set out of a couple pots, a stick, and an empty bottle. They rouse us with loud songs they make up as we sit up clapping, laughing, floorboards creaking. Bernardo sits back in his own cushioned chair with the look of a satisfied cat while outside the river passes in the dark.



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