Beans and Seeds
Januaries, Nature greets our eyes / exactly as it must have theirs: / every square inch filling in with foliage...
from “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” Elizabeth Bishop
The man trudging across the sand with strings of beads draped over his arm approaches hopefully. I don’t wave him away, so he starts talking to me, introducing himself. His name is António, he says. Would I like to see what he’s selling? Beads fashioned from wood, some from shells. This one, he says, is pau-brasil, the seeds harvested from the Amazon.
He holds out the glossy red beads for me to touch. They’re striking, offset against his dark black skin.
How much? I ask.
Twenty reais, he says.
I say nothing, look away, deciding if I want the necklace, and if so do I want to bargain for it? I glance down at my sons, who are digging in the sand, burying my feet in a hole.
Fifteen, he says.
Tá, I say. OK. I fumble through the beach bag for some crumpled bills.
Pau-brasil, or Brazilwood, is the national tree of Brazil; the country was named for the tree, which the Portuguese discovered in expansive forests when they arrived on the coast of South America on April 22, 1500.
Cabral’s secretary looked out from the ship’s deck and penned a letter back to Portugal: so thick with trees, he wrote, so vast & of such foliage--
Hard to imagine that vast foliage now. Here it’s just sand, lined with barracas, shacks selling coconuts and beer. Behind that, the highway, small rundown condominiums, scruffy cobbled streets lined with auto repair shops and hair salons.
But the beach is still undeniably beautiful. Stare out at the water, and you can almost imagine Cabral on the horizon, approaching for the first time what he called not Brazil, but Island of the True Cross.
It’s the last day of the year. The owners of the barracas are setting out white tablecloths on the plastic tables, wiping down the counters in preparation for the revelers. Behind us, the palms are strung with ribbons.
On old maps of Brazil, the coastline is notched with palms and tributaries, anchor places named for saints and extinct Indians. Compass rose, windrose. The sailing ships inked in the margins, perched on the waves as though they too were a permanent feature, something by which you could chart your course.
In the summer--December, January, February--the children are off from school for months. Our nanny Dete brings her son Felipe to work with her, and so we take Felipe with us to the beach. He can’t swim, but floats on his back in the shallows, looking up.
“There’s only one ocean in the world,” he says, dreamily; half a question, half a philosophical treatise on geography.
Tide erases and redraws the lines.
As in the old maps, inland is conjectural, and largely empty.
I finger the pau-brasil beads I’ve bought, and slip them into the beach bag with the towels and sunscreen. Their smooth, elliptical surfaces clink against each other, a red snake slithering to the bottom.
Brazil, January 1, 2010: At five a.m., the baby wakes me with his insistent cry. I hold him in my arms, slip on my flip-flops and walk outside. The sky is beginning to lighten, but the air is heavy with smoke and ash. The speakers blare Michael Jackson. The doormen, their black ties askew, are clearing the tables away, the last stragglers popping the raft of balloons that have half-drifted into the swimming pool.
We dress in white. We walk across the street to the beach, and throw flowers in the ocean, hibiscus and yellow trumpet flower. We jump under seven waves, make seven wishes.
The smell of burning dissipates slowly, then intensifies again, as the wind shifts. Somewhere, beyond the mato, a bonfire is turning wood to ash, people setting their unwanted belongings aflame.
Brazilwood takes its name from the Portuguese brasa, for hot coals, because of the wood’s deep, ember-red color.
The pau-brasil tree is in the pea family; the small red seeds strung into necklaces are in fact a type of inedible legume.
It was originally prized for the red and blue dyes it yields. At one point, during the eighteenth century, one hundred and sixty-eight acres of central Paris were piled six feet high with logs of pau-brasil. Then in the mid-1800s, these dyes were replaced with the invention of cheaper aniline ones, and Brazilwood fell out of fashion.
The wood is still used in making violin bows, though. Now that the tree is in danger of extinction, the bow-makers have been the ones to take up the cause of its preservation.
Bishop published her poem in her collection Questions of Travel in 1965, while she was living in Brazil. Maybe at the time, it was possible to imagine a world untouched. (Maybe in some parts of the country it still is, I don’t know. Not in Salvador, though.)
The epigraph she chose (embroidered nature...tapestried landscape) suggests that by creating art about a place, the art necessarily becomes entwined with the natural world, changing it, embroidering it. By putting the landscape in a poem, we inherently, inevitably appropriate it.
Still, you have to admit, there’s a difference between writing a poem about nature and putting up a Walmart.
Bishop lived in Ouro Preto, a historic town in the interior state of Minas Gerais. Now even Ouro Preto has its share of chain stores and sprawl.
In 1970, Bishop wrote of the fields filled with wildflowers, and the Waterfall of the Little Swallows. Like the bird women in her poem, who, pursued by the Christian discoverers, retreat into the forest, the waterfall seems to intimate the sense in which the natural world eludes us, constantly slipping from our grasp: “It keeps descending, disappears into a cavern, and is never seen again. It talks as it goes, but the words are lost...”
In the kitchen, Dete is putting on more rice to boil. Three enormous pots seethe on the stove. She rolls more collards, slicing them to thin ribbons. Black turtle beans are the base of feijoada. But feijoada transcends mere beans and rice. It’s an accumulated stratum of flavors, as though you could taste time itself--the intricate, layered flavors of sun-dried meat, jerky salted and desalted, soaked and rinsed, the faint oceanic brine; the beans dried on rooftops, hardened into their glossy shells, then softening again, earthy and dark.
The broth is a thick silt, muddy and saline as the inlet we cross over to get to the ocean at Praia do Forte, where the road thins to a narrow pass between the dunes and the sea.
People float in and out of the house. Several kids are perched on the branch of the algoroba tree, dangling their bare feet down. Someone takes out a guitar. Under the pau-brasil in front of our house, its patchy bark and shaggy, gray-green leaves, we pull up the white plastic chairs. We sing the songs we have in common--Tom Jobim, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell. Don’t it always seem to go...
Behind the walls of the condominium is a nature preserve, a small, dying strip of the mato atlántico, which once stretched for thousands of miles along this coast.
Uncounted acres of palms and pau-brasil and plants whose names have been lost.
“Some people think a bow is only wood and hair,” says Günter Seifert, a violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic. “But the bow can be more essential to expressing the soul of the music than the violin is.”
I slip back into the kitchen, to dry the dishes while Dete finishes washing. The enormous five-gallon vat of feijoada is almost empty, just a thick dark sludge on the bottom of the pot.
We can hear them on the veranda, singing the same songs, the Portuguese ones that Dete hums along to, the English ones she can’t understand.
Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
Dete reaches over and touches my necklace. Pau-brasil, she says. Pretty.
I think about giving her the beads. Maybe it would be the right thing to do, but I want to keep them. I tell myself they mean something different to me than they would to her--to me they’re a shiny memento, small kernel of this country that I can bring back with me. To Dete their beauty is commonplace, familiar as her own knuckles, the bones’ polished rosary.
Instead I slip her an extra hundred reais. She smiles slightly, almost imperceptibly, and thanks me.
Over the dunes behind our house, the planes lift off, touch down, their blue lights blinking silently. Cloud cover moves in, the moon, smooth as a polished seed, retreating behind it.
Eleanor Stanford is the author of a memoir, História, História: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography) and a poetry collection, The Book of Sleep (Carnegie Mellon Press). More at www.eleanorstanford.com.