Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Burning sugar cane on Saint Agnes' Eve

Last night , Saint Agnes’ Eve, we saw them burning the Santa Inez cane fields. We watched the cane fields burn. I admit to being mesmerized. CSB and Heidi expressed some dismay at the extent of my fascination with the burning fields and engaged in pointless speculation as to any pyromaniac tendencies I might have. (None.)
These were cane fields named for Saint Agnes (Inez is her Spanish name), the martyred virgin who at the age of thirteen defied Diocletian (AD 304). He was so frustrated by her unwillingness to worship his gods even when threatened with horrible tortures, that he perpetrated the ultimate assault upon her purity: he sent her to a brothel to be there abused and used. Not single lusty male complied, so awed were they all by her aura of sanctity, and in the end Diocletian had her martyred in the one of the more usual ways. (The sources differ between decapitation and burning.) She is the patron saint not only of bodily purity but also of general cleanliness, and hotels.

Santa Inês (Saint Agnes)by Francisco de Zurbarán
Back in the fields, the sugar cane flickers, then flames up; once the whole clump is solidly aflame sparks will shoot up to 30 feet in the air; they glisten like stars in the thick black smoke.
We first saw the flames flickering from a distance, surrounded and surmounted by billowing clouds of smoke moving swiftly with the wind.
Then we got closer. Gabriel (yes, named for a guardian angel) told us that in Costa Rica they are only allowed to burn 35% of the fields in any given season, for environmental reasons, so they must choose wisely. Last night they were burning at Santa Inez.

We stood on the dirt road just beside the burning field. Two men wearing vests with reflecting tape walked the perimeter with their diesel torches, igniting the dry leaves and stalks.
I had heard that when the cane fields burn all the snakes, rats and other creatures slither, run and hightail out of the inferno, but alas we saw none of those. Heidi was especially disappointed, especially as early in the day we had seen a fellow holding up two (dead) tobobo gatos (which a visit to the dictionary tells me is the local name for, yes, Fer-de-lance, that really dangerous snake that can kill a cow).

Since 5 AM the Nicaraguan cane cutters will have already been there, cutting the hot but still sharp, charred cane stalks, as quickly as possible, because once the field has been burned you have about 12 hours to cut the cane and deliver it to the mill before the sucrose content (Which is all that really counts, the POL) starts declining. Cane cutting must rank in the top five worst jobs in the world.

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