Along with his wife, Susanna, and two hired gaucho hands, Juan manages 1,000 cattle, 2,000 sheep, 84 horses and four dogs. The recent economic collapse led the couple to open their ranch to visitors. But make no mistake—Panagea Estancia (panagea-uruguay.blogspot.com) is a working ranch, and visitors earn their keep. The homestead runs on traditional gaucho values: austerity, discipline and self-sufficiency; an independent spirit forged by a demanding physical reality. The house, built by Juan’s great-grandfather, has no flushing toilet, and the electricity—available only two hours a day—comes from a generator. Visitors sleep in the main house, usually two or three in a room. At 5 am, Juan sets out coffee and water in the kitchen and politely tells me to make my own breakfast. Cups for maté—the hot, grassy herbal drink ubiquitous in South America—litter the mantel. Pigs, chickens and orphaned foals meander outside the house.
Down in the corral, where we’re saddling up, a sign reads it’s not about the horse. Immediately intellectualizing, I say to Juan, “Oh, riiiight, people bring their own baggage, their aspirations, their dreams, pinning it all on the horse, but in fact it’s about them?”
“That’s too deep for me,” he responds dryly. “Everybody blames the horses when the horse doesn’t do what they want, but it’s always the rider’s fault.” I shut up, and we gallop off on smart, responsive horses, chasing down stray cattle and rustling groups of outliers. Juan’s hired gauchos are in the nearby town of Taquerembó for an annual festival, so I am his only helper. Every time Juan corrects me, I work harder and faster to redirect the herd; I cling to every Perfecto! with pride.
By 2 pm we have corralled 30 cows. Now it’s time to determine which of them are pregnant and therefore to be spared. Juan, a large-animal vet, pulls out a razor-thin clear glove the length of my arm and blows into it. Then he explains how I must screw my hand into the rectum of each cow (going in via the vagina would introduce bacteria and probably cause abortion). I take heart in knowing I would not be involved in this had I not earned his respect in the roundup, but still I falter.
“Can’t she just pee on a stick?” I ask, half joking.
Silence. The man does not waste words.
“Have no mercy!” he bellows as I feebly try to gain entry, apologizing to the cow. Suffice it to say, diving into the huge, hot intestinal tracts of cows is an athletic, sloppy job. Messy for sure, but by the fourth cow I am secretly inspired. When I am up to my shoulder, earlobe to arse, I curve my arm down and feel for an amniotic sack, telltale cyst-like bulbs or a fetus itself. “Sometimes the fetal calf will even try to nibble on your hand,” says Juan. After each examination, Juan checks my work; my record of success in identifying pregnancy is 100 percent.
There’s no real explanation for this. My diagnoses felt somewhere between guesswork and just knowing, but they kept being right. I think of Sharon Lerner’s comment about being “unclouded.”
“Wild guesses,” says Juan, straight faced but quietly pleased. “It usually takes years of training to identify pregnancy. I should take you to a casino.”
As we relax over ice-cold local Patricia beer and spicy fresh chorizo, we talk about Juan’s two young daughters, who are outside, exploring, nearly all the time. Before leaving for Uruguay, I’d conducted a straw poll among my middle-aged peers, asking about their experiences in the preadolescent years. They often spoke of a link between a childhood spent immersed in the natural world and their authentic selves. Richard Louv writes about this vital connection between kids and nature in Last Child in the Woods and about the piles of new research that link “our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature.” Maybe spending time -shoulder-deep in the natural world is not a luxury but an essential—and not just for nine-year-olds?