There’s an American pioneer spirit that I love. It seems for a couple of decades everyone got heavy, comfortable and complacent with 24/7 convenience stores, loans, drive-thru’s, and golf carts to get you all the way through Walmarts, and a zillion cable channels, and the old homey stuff like helping out, joining in, dusting down and making do went out the window. Maybe that’s just a skewed perception based on TV viewing. All I know is that it was a long gap between The Waltons and Beverley Hillbillies, and reality shows about patching up derelict houses, sifting through storage units, shooting ducks, digging for gold, and making moonshine.
Anyway, driving from Detroit to New Orleans, and coast to coast and back again, I came across many clever, opinionated, ambitious and philosophical Americans who were bored of watching programs on television about rich people spending money, or young women identifying murder victims by something they’ve found with their tweezers. Whether galvanized into action by the collapse of the banks, nostalgia or bad TV I cannot say, but they, at least, had their eyes on a new frontier and were pioneers of sorts.
The prime spot for Spanish colonials in Central America was Guatemala where all the money and action was. Aside from cautionary visits by bishops, settlers in the backwater of Costa Rica were pretty much left to get on with things. They became farmers and mavericks; most adopted the laissez-faire attitude that translates as pura vida, some got a grip on all that space and freedom, and emerged as visionaries. This freedom and distance attracted a new wave of settlers in the latter half of the 20th century, and, as a result, Costa Rica is full of people who are escaping, on the run, trying again, thinking big, in search of something better – or the descendants of them.
I’ve been writing up notes and interviews I did a while back with the families who in 1951, heaved and winched their pick-up trucks loaded with tents and chickens up the muddy ravines and into the cloud forests and founded Monteverde. The move was kick-started by the Fairhope Four, (three Rockwells, and Wilford Guindon), Quaker farmers in Alabama, who refused to register for the draft in 1949, and were sent to prison in Tallahassee. Costa Rica, where the military had just been abolished, and the farming was good, proved irresistible and nine families (with ages ranging from one year old to 81) swapped Alabama and Iowa for 3000 remote acres which they named Monteverde. Eston Rockwell described it as ‘the last outpost of civilization’.
For those first years, they lived in tents and squatters’ shacks, getting their dairy farms going, having their prayer meetings under a carbide lamp. It was all mud, ticks, and challenges, described fondly and bravely in their letters and diary entries. They hunted (tepiscuintle: good, sloth:terrible), got water from the river, feasted on their stocks of canned cherries, and Viennese sausages, ran up clothing on their imported sewing machine, made cake and candies from guava, and kept jolly with community dinners, softball, potlucks, pie socials, and eventually, square dancing. The women studied Childbirth without Fear written by a man, and delivered each other’s babies, hoping that nothing would go wrong in September and October when the roads were impassable. For the children, almost all cousins, it was paradise, a childhood shared with animals.
In westerns, and films about settlers and pioneers, there is always a lot of time dedicated to shots of men digging, women carrying stuff, and children doing their bit before the rains come and ruin the corn, or the Indians come and scalp the young ones and steal the old ones. In films, pioneering rarely looks fun, or ends well.
I was prompted into dusting down the Monteverde interviews and thinking about all this, partly because of the rain (see last post), and partly because of the effort and satisfaction of creating things, (see last post but one). How did it all work out for these settlers? Tune in next week.
My own Monteverde photos and slides are in a box, inside a box, inside a storage unit in London. So, I have done a devilish thing and borrowed one temporarily, in return for a plug for phombo.com where this image – along with similar – is available to download as wallpaper.