Saturday, 3 March 2012

Condor's View

Condor's View

'Turning and turning in a widening gyre', the condor disregards humanity entire. Rocks aplenty, snow to spare, light that lambent chilled the air. No straight lines or unnatural masses of a single colour, which usually betokened human activity. It would have been much the same all along the spine of South America. Along the Pacific coast some signs remained, small towns and villages tenuously linked by dirt tracks, very little traveled beyond the adjacent farm plots. Even at sea the small boats did not venture often beyond the fishing grounds.It was peaceful. It was serene. It was dull. Such humans as existed were at one with nature in their simple lives and early deaths. Where nature had not provided a predator to sharpen their wits with fear, they preyed upon each other, although in a desultory way. Occasionally the snow of the peaks might be seen to have been stained by the blood of human sacrifices to appease the spirits of the heights and seek the favour of their fierily irascible natures, which rather than venting their wrath as flaming lava, shaking earth and sullen smoke, might be induced to grant the favour of access to veins of metal and other gifts of heaven and earth.Still more rarely might be found a lonely mystic communing silently with the spirits of sky and mountain, uninterested in gifts of wealth and social status, but seeking to soar in condor form above the concerns of men, yet able to cast a wide ranging eye over the scene
of their activities, passing in spirit over the awesome expanses of sky, ocean and land.

There was no sign of any great state or empire, nor even of organisation beyond a few villages, no sign of commerce or industry beyond the crudest local level, no sign of large scale building or warfare. There was altogether little sign of culture, of arts or sciences or manners beyond the possession and manufacture of some bronze implements, axes, breastplates, mirrors, ornaments, made from the copper still found in what had been Chile and the tin from what had been Bolivia. These, decorated with feathers from jungle birds traded over the mountains and supplemented by pottery and colourful cloth and a little carpentry, joinery and very occasional masonry would have appeared no more than mediocre achievements set alongside any other bronze-age culture. Nor were they distinguished by spectacular or profound mental achievements of myth, religion, astronomy, mathematics or folk-tales. No great kings or warrior chiefs, no merchant princes, no philosophers, no prophets or priests of mighty temples, no great poets, no writers, no thinkers, no sculptors or painters. Nothing to raise them to be worthy of notice, except an inordinate awe of witches and shamans and a great fear that their neighbors were all highly skilled
practitioners of evil, each directed against other.

Had our suppositous condor's gaze drifted eastwards across the continent, what would it have seen? Across it's greatest width sprawled the Amazon basin, a reinvigorated Green Hell of disease ridden swamp and jungle whose heat and humidity was only bearable by a thin population of renewed bands of savages, even more primitive than those of the Pacific coast and mountains. These were an admixture of the original Amerindians and the detritus of the decaying civilisation which had encroached upon them, Darwinian survivors in this world of decay. To its south lay the great and almost empty plains of the pampas. No burning tigers illuminated the nights of these forests either, although the shamans ensured that the villagers were greatly in awe of jaguar and snake spirits.

The collapse of the United States and of Europe so long ago, brutally struck down by the nuclear club of their supposed ally; and the continued depletion of oil, fossil fuels and mineral resources had killed the market for beef which had driven the expansion of ranching into the territory of the Amazon. Now, so many centuries later - seven, eight, nine - ( who was counting?), the jungle had reclaimed it's own and pustulated as violently and vigorously as it ever had, filled with as much disease, distress, venom, vermin, exhaustion, death and despair for all who had no place there, as could be experienced let alone imagined. Now ranching to supply local needs and the shrunken cities of the east coast had retreated to more favourable areas.

Civilisation of a semi-modern sort had likewise ebbed to the Atlantic and Caribbean coast where it had begun.Here the old cities remained, focus of the farmland, mines, plantations and industry not very far away. It was spread out along the coastline, linked by small ships as much as by road. Brazil had retained the most populous economy and strongest state. It had gradually subsumed its smaller neighbors along the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts under its hegemony.This had in part been achieved by marital and economic and political alliances between the prominent families who owned most of the property and claimed the right to occupy public office and to raise and lead military forces. These previously independent countries had lapsed into a series of provinces consisting of jungle outposts with somnolent garrisons,linked by river and sea,receiving occasional orders and officials from the
capital, Rio de Janeiro. The one-time capital Brasilia, had long since been abandoned to the jungle from which it had been pretentiously and pointlessly hacked.The leading landowners, merchants and industrialists of each region ran things more or less as they liked through the agency of their own gangs of toughs, mediating their disputes through provincial assemblies, backed they hoped by the local military commanders in the rare event of local uprisings of peasants or trouble from the savages of the interior, offering fulsome praise and promises reinforced by bribes to El Presidente and his officials far away in Rio.

Effectively this was an empire, which might as well have been called the Empire of Brazil, although nominally it remained a Republic, because the noble families were too jealous of each other to allow any one of them to assume the regnal let alone the imperial dignity. Pettifogging lawyers and historians might even suggest that it was a collection of allied republics, since they had not all been formally annexed by Brazil, but that would merely have been an antiquarian quibble. Nobility, or at least gentility, was fairly easily obtained or attained. It was a matter of social and legal acceptance or recognition. A bombastic legal petition accepted by the provincial assembly, which naturally consisted of gentlemen and nobles, was the formal route. Usually these petitions were stuffed with dubious genealogy and doubtful histories of worthy achievements to justify recognition of a fanciful coat of arms, carefully checked against the central records of the College of Heralds in Rio to ensure that it was different from all the others. Higher titles were likewise self-assumed, granted by the provincial assemblies but severely limited by what a critical and jealous audience of peers would accept. The families of many of the northern barons had come to wealth and social prominence through the sale of drugs, and centuries later more fastidious nobles would still call them Knights of the Needle and sneer that their proper heraldry should be a syringe rampant on a coca leaf. Thus a king or emperor was not needed to grant titles of nobility, so the ruler could continue to be called a President, which conveniently fended off the nitpicking constitutional lawyers.

It should not be thought that the bulk of the population felt oppressed or deprived of some great benefit called Democracy or Socialism. The masses may have huddled, but they definitely were not 'yearning to breathe free'. There were no Marxist intellectuals, no blood-stained young murderers from rich families repeating the crazed mantras of their maniacal professors babbling of smashing the world and remaking it in their own image. Such bandits as existed were more honest about their motives.There were universities, but these had reverted to their proper functions of providing an 'ivory tower' environment for a small intellectual class to pursue academic concerns. There were also training facilities for the professions of medicine, priesthood and law and to staff the upper levels of bureaucracy. These people were neither numerous nor troublesome. They had lost the insolent fancy that
they should be publicly paid to subvert public morals. The collapse and disappearance of the old world had ended the plague of over-education, the proliferation of drones unable to attain or appreciate the achievements of the higher levels of intellect and spirit, and unfitted for anything useful, yet arrogantly and adamantly certain of entitlement to an upper-middle class life with a duty to impose damaging nonsense on the people around them. There were no more 'Lefties' and no one missed them.

On paper, or depicted on a map, although there were few enough of those any more, this was a huge domain, the mighty empire of a whole continent. The reality was far smaller and more ramshackle, although still impressively extensive. The President, for what he hoped would be a long life, could regard himself as the monarch of all he surveyed, provided his survey was sweeping rather than exacting. It would be folly to expect anything so unrealistic as honesty or efficiency from his subordinates, insanity to issue orders which would or could not be obeyed or which might inflame the irritable pride and murderous jealousy of his tin-pot nobles, courtiers and generals. Each of these worthies was equipped with a long roll of sonorous names and titles attesting to immense family pride, ancient claims, rivalries and well rehearsed grievances, their ruthless ambition stoked by less fortunate relatives who all expected to profit from the further advancement of the family member currently best positioned to achieve his and their desires. Not surprisingly, tenancy of the Presidential palace was often short and terminated unexpectedly. A prudent president affected to believe the flattery and lies poured into his ears, maintained a lot of spies and informers who sometimes told the truth, and enjoyed the perquisites of his position for as long as possible. Happily for him, his officials and their rag-tag troops armed with muskets, spears, knives or bows,(supplemented by formidable irregular cavalry) they had no reason to suspect the existence of the zealously Republican Americans, let alone the terrifyingly industrious and imperial Germans. Even more happily, the latter had no interest in them.

The problem they knew about came from their neighbors to the north, the cannibalistic Mexicans. Indeed these were their only neighbors, in the sense of an organised state, and they were not well known. There was nothing so civilised as diplomatic relations with them. They were the sort of 'relations' no one would want to acknowledge, the sort who would be the black sheep in any family of nations, whose existence constituted a blot on the family escutcheon and who would not be invited to family gatherings. In fact the only 'relation' they had was as victims of their savage attacks, which were frequently and indignantly reported to EL Presidente by the officials and leading citizens of the northern coastal regions subjected to terrifying sea raids sweeping away thousands of people for temple sacrifice and sale in the meat markets of Mexican cities. Since they did not scruple to establish temporary shrines and flay, sacrifice and eat victims before they moved on, evidence of their proclivities and intentions was readily available. Horrifying stories of these raids were related throughout the country. The Brazilians did not have an aggressive naval tradition and numerous flotillas of fast moving small ships, which is what they would have needed to intercept the raiding craft and to find and destroy their bases, so they remained invitingly open to attack along a vast coastline. On land the raiders terrified the badly armed, badly trained and badly disciplined local infantry, who would not face the raiders unless behind stout defences. The cavalry was willing and able to inflict casualties on them, but they were not able to cover every point or respond with sufficient alacrity, so they mostly defended the estates of influential landowners, if they were near the main towns. Thus far the major towns in the north, those defended by large garrisons, were safe, but the countryside was being picked bare and the life of the Caribbean coastlands was being seriously disrupted. In reality there was little but their own ignorance, and the current profitability of shorter raids to stop the Mexicans from extending their raids down the Atlantic coast, and perhaps even burning El Presidente's own palace around his ears. This did not reflect well on El Presidente, who began to feel a coup coming on, and who made sure that his governors and garrison commanders knew that it did not reflect well on them or their prospects.

The Brazilians did not know it, but the increasing scale and intensity of the attacks on them was the result of the successful American defence against similar raids. Most of those who raided the Americans died, and the Americans exacted revenge by seizing more Mexican territory and property, killing or expelling the inhabitants, and making very clear that further raids would result in still greater losses. Pressure shifted to the less well armed and organised peoples of Central America, the islands of the Caribbean, and then to the mainland of South America. There was no organised invasion or plan to conquer Brazil, just the initiative of the leaders of many war bands and hunters of sacrificial victims who would extend and expand their raids until they reached some natural limit, ran out of victims, or
were repeatedly and decisively defeated by superior forces. It was not clear whether Brazil would prove to be a superior force.

Not everyone was sympathetic to the plight of the North. El Presidente had been present at a gathering of some of the 'best people' where it had been jested that the needle-knights of the north were simply meeting and getting to know their cousins, the flayers and cannibals of a little further north.This gibe contained enough truth, racially and morally, to be mildly amusing. El Presidente however had been chilled by an implication. 'What if they actually joined their no-longer-so-distant cousins? What if they went over to them and helped them to destroy the rest of the country?' Even more ghastly thoughts came to him,'What if, instead of eating the savages of the interior and even those semi-domesticated savages of the great plantations and city slums, the Mexicans recruited them or converted them to their even more savage religion?' 'What if the Mexicans, tiring of long voyages, simply settled in Brazil and ate their way south?'

Glancing around he saw that these were the men who belonged to the longest established and most noble and civilised families, who controlled the greatest estates and the best cavalry units. They would not throw in their lot with savages, but some very disturbing possibilities had arisen. His Excellency became silent and preoccupied.He left the gathering sooner than expected. Speculation and gossip spread in his absence. 'Was he ill?' 'Had he been poisoned?' 'Did he know of some new disaster?' 'Was there a plot afoot?' 'How may I best secure my own position and that of my family in the event of a coup?' Before that evening there had been no coup plot, after it people were looking to join one.

Where men had stood, soon there would be more carrion for condors and other scavengers to devour.

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