Peace Corps Writers
Mortiz Thomsen’s The Farm on the River of Emeralds (page 2)
Mortiz Thomsen’s The Farm on the River of Emeralds
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4

The Farm on the River of Emeralds is no longer in print. Used copies can be found through for prices from $15 to $38.

      Each chapter of The Farm on the River of Emeralds centers on these characters. “The People of Male” is about a sort of conglomeration of local men (boys among them as well, although in poor societies you don’t find “teenagers,” just sickly infants and toddlers who seem to one day skip ahead to full, wounded adulthood). They just seem to come with the property at first: “They mistook our pity for weakness, or perhaps they thought we were so stupid that we found them indispensable,” he writes. At first they drive Ramon and Thomsen crazy with their laziness and ineptitude — Thomsen often creeps up on them only to find them napping in the fields surrounded by orange and banana peels, or they see him coming and the whole group suddenly erupts into a slashing, frenzied blur of machetes and axes. He can’t always bring himself to fire them, though; rather, he ends up hiring many of their sons and brothers, and begins to see not just laziness in their work habits:

     Yet, watching, I began to grieve for them, for they were still under the illusion of their power to direct their own lives, lost in the magnificence of the newly awakened awareness of their own manhood, lost in their dreams of how they would conquer life. How modest their expectations and, in this brutal land, how impossible to fulfill. I knew they had no future; they lacked the opportunities and the inner discipline to do anything but end up like their fathers. Have you ever watched a little herd of lambs as they frisk and play in the slaughterhouse corral? . . . Watching them, one forgave them everything — they were so trapped, so doomed. On the weekends it seemed relatively unimportant that they were impossibly lousy workers.

     Thomsen is learning, and fast, that applying “middle-class North American standards” to the culture of poverty he is now smack in the middle of makes no sense whatsoever, and will serve only to alienate him further from his neighbors:

    O.K., so the worker doesn’t work very well because he eats so badly. O.K., so out of desperation a man steals. Now it gets complicated and confusing. How can this poor worker who suffers so from malnutrition dance for twelve hours straight or, on Sunday afternoons, play futbol [soccer] with such fierce sustained enthusiasm? Why does the thief like as not end up in the local saloon, dead drunk from the sale of your radio or his neighbor’s chickens? . . . And now that worst and most delicate of questions, which made the head reel, Wasn’t it possible that the man who stole your radio actually regarded you as his friend?

It’s probably no coincidence that The Farm on the River of Emeralds often reads like a war narrative — Thomsen served as a bombardier on a B-17 squadron in the European theater in World War II — and it was a war with many fronts. His equal partnership with Ramon is cause for many heated, painful exchanges; at the same time they must present a united front to the local workers, who bring their own battles and demands to the farm. Thomsen’s Peace Corps experience has left him with a belief that modern farming techniques can be the salvation of third-world farmers (“I had wanted to stun the province with twentieth-century technology . . . that modern system of that uses fifteen times more energy per acre than a farmer in an undeveloped country.”), a belief that dissolves in the face of monsoon-like rains, failed crops, non-existent markets, and the intractable mindset of desperately poor people, the “Walking Wounded” of a full chapter.

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