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I finally, finally spent a few minutes taking photos on the farm today.

The rhubarb is alive again, popping forth crinkled leaves from buxom pink buds on the soil surface.  The biggest leaves are the size of my palm, and I find myself wondering how many 2-inch stalks it would take to make a rhubarb pie.  But no, it deserves to grow.

Just downhill from the herb garden, the garlic’s standing proudly.  It came up a while back, after months of wondering and waiting if I’d done something terribly wrong.  It’s a tidy crop, keeping to linear geometry for the most part, for now.  The one love of elephant garlic is the exception, trouncing out at a 75 degree curve from its straw bed.

(The Elephant)

And, to my joy, the plum trees’ buds are swelling greenish white, readying themselves to break.  They’ve had a hard time at life, being alternately pruned, not pruned, watered, not watered, weeded or smothered by lawn.  On some branches, their shoots are so short it’s hard to tell one year’s growth from the next.  We’ve done our best to send them off well this season, at least.  I did my best to encourage some fresh growth this week, snipping and thinning and separating skyward branches with chunks of wood chips.  What will, in twenty and a half years, be arm-sized scaffolds supporting truckloads of sweet ripe fruit.  Please?

There is so much more, waiting.  Just waiting.

Tossed to the compost.

From Monday, February 6.
A nearly full moon, already, again. I can’t quite recall what I was doing during the last full moon– I guess it was just after the new year, just as I was beginning again. This evening she came up bursting and wailing, a beacon in an already shimmering landscape. We’ve seen so much sun this winter. It doesn’t feel like winter, really, except the chill. Frost laces each morning, diamonds sparkling my path to the farm, and as I turn the bend around Hendrick’s Park–that shadow looming resolutely across the Laurel Valley– the sunrise is fuller, more golden and promising, day by day. The light is returning! Just today I seeded half of our onion crop for the year, ever so gingerly tucking dozens of deep black seed-cups under our home-made potting mix. Eight parts soil, four parts compost, four parts sand and vermiculite, and a couple cups of fish meal, lime, and kelp. I keep finding critters in it. I hope they aren’t onion seed-eating critters.
Such momentous occasions as seeding a whole year’s crop on one little table happen so often in my life there that I fail to celebrate them, usually. What to do at the first spotting of crocus shoots under a dim eave in the drizzle of January? How can one possibly commemorate such a joyous act of courage? To trust– to know– that her leaves will grow fully and be cradled by broadening days and milder nights, even in the midst of frosts and torrential storms– that she is exactly as she should be… Who taught the crocus such bravery and poise?
Perhaps the moon, murmuring silver wisps of support into the ground below our feet. Perhaps the frost is just an echo.

Microbes are blowing my mind.  Well, no: I can accept how active, ubiquitous, and adaptable they are.  I get that.  Okay.  To my rational, scientific mind they make perfect sense.  Give them the right temperature, moisture, and material, and they’ll eat and reproduce like mad until their poop outweighs their food.  Even then, they’ll continue, calling in their cousins to work on the stuff left over.  To my human parts, though– my eyes, ears, and hands, which can never perceive the billions of microorganisms engulfing and supporting me every second– microbes make magic.

Take, for example, the compost piles.  We have a few separate systems at the Laurel Valley Educational Farm, which sit in varying states of care throughout the year.  The classic 3-bin demonstration compost is waiting to be turned this week.  That’s where I killed the baby mouse.  Another is settling down in the lower field, likely to sit cold and solid for months before we muster the strength and time to churn the woody pepper stems and Brassica stalks that would have overwhelmed the top compost.  The top compost.  It is, as of Thursday, my pride and joy.  I spent an entire day forking and raking and wrestling its three piles over on themselves, carefully layering the chunkiest pieces to the middle to ensure even cooking.  The last, almost-ready pile started as a long woody mess when I arrived in August, and it’s now been reduced to a cubic yard of straggling straw and stems now (hopefully) smothered amidst the sweet black of finished compost.  The second pile had been turned a couple weeks ago by a rowdy group of students.  Their style was impressively haphazard, which is generally a fine approach to making compost.  Throw it in a pile, literally, and come back next season.

The problem with that, though, is that you come back to find a pile of debris with a bucket-sized chunk of finished black fertilizer steaming in the middle.  The debris inevitably remains around the borders of any compost, so you have to keep turning the pile to digest every last leaf.  On Thursday, I realized that the key to quick decomposition is simply a matter of habitat.  My task is to create an ideal environment for the host of microbes waiting (who knows where?) to inhabit my piles, settle down, and eat themselves silly.  If they’re happy–lo and behold!– the pile will quite miraculously melt into the ground.  Just look what happened to the freshest pile (on the left) over the weekend:

A job well done, Thursday October 27

 

Steaming and ecstatic, Monday October 31

I feel like a huge nerd for being so into it, but seriously.  This stuff is incredible.  The bottom of the newest pile has been sitting for a few weeks, and it had been fully soaked by rain and then covered by a deluge of spent summer crops.  After raking the top few feet off the top, I finally came to the oven in the middle.  It had become so wet and heavy that anaerobic bacteria took hold, letting off a stench that could shrivel even my wide and open-minded scent palette.  When I stopped to lean on my pitchfork and catch my breath, I heard a dim munching sound from below.  On closer inspection, I saw that the bubbling noise was emanating from a writhing, busy mass of maggots at my feet.  They were insatiable and unstoppable!  After just a few minutes, the population of macroinvertebrates– clearly a gold mine to a serious compost pile builder like myself– had already retreated to darker dinner tables in the sludge.  I spent the rest of the afternoon carefully coating the fresher innards of my new pile with this pre-cooked nursery of decomposers.  My imagination ran wild with the potential in that pile: the maggots would run straight to the middle, where I’d stashed all the toughest new material, and the whole thing would come alive for a precious few weeks with a lively succession of bacteria, fungi, and bugs.  They would all be so happy.

So far, my fantasy seems to be running true.  The pile was steaming furiously when I arrived at work this morning, half the height it was when I left on Friday.  In my microbial imagination, the center of the pile is literally cooking with activity, scorching and digesting the plant material that we humans discard.  I sit and eat tender lettuce leaves and sweet juicy peppers while the real world runs on slime and feces.

Really, it does.  And so, of course, do we.  Whether or not we want to admit it, our lives are utterly dependent on the poop and corpses of a bunch of invisible life forms.  What a way to make us feel truly human: humble, lowly, of the ground.

Today is my last day in Ecuador.

…Wait, ¿¿¿Qué???  How did that happen?!  While I have been soaking up sun and wandering markets and letting español plant itself surely in my brain, four and a half months passed.  Right under my nose.  Like my constant ache for home and simultaneous love for this country could continue forever, side by side confounding and delighting me.  I want to cry when I think of how joyous it will be to reunite with my family and friends, and I want to cry when I think of how much I will miss the places and people I´ve known here.  I already miss many of them, more than I imagined was possible.  I will miss being able to get on or off an interprovincial bus at any point along the highway (forget bus stations!), and the whirl of raucous music bumping in time with the curves and jolts in the journey.  I will miss the steep scent of eucalyptus that cuts through the Panamerican highway smog and inundates me, welcoming me back to the Sierra.  The rows of roasting chickens in windows along every street, and the way they stealthily pique my appetite even when out of sight.  The sight of indigenous women in ponchos and felt hats, colorful and daring amidst the hubbub of modern Quito.  A warm sea.  One-dollar golden coins jingling in my pockets.  Machetes and banana trees and being told I´m linda by random passerby.

I will miss making fleeting decisions and acting them without needing to consult anyone.  What I look forward to, though, is having people I love and trust to consult, when needed.  I look forward to reliable hot showers and free, clean public bathrooms.  To not worrying about only having $20 bills that no one can break.  To exercising my precise usage of the English language, and to fresh greens and salads at my disposal.  I look forward to having a cell phone and a computer, and to spinning my gorgeous nieces until we´re dizzy and giggling.  I can´t wait to show you more photographs and try to express all that I´ve been unable to in writing.  It will be good.  It will be, and has been, all very good.

All this time to myself has given me an opportunity to brainstorm– probably far too much– about what to Do With My Life.  The world works in myriad, mysterious, marvelous ways, and I can´t say that I have a much firmer idea about how to continue than when I arrived here.  I might still need to study more (in Academia) to satisfy my tenacious search for understanding.  I will certainly be practicing more agriculture and participating in local food movements– what I see as solutions to un montón de problemas that we face.  No matter what, the fact that I often catch myself thinking in Spanish will serve some good.  De ley voy a seguir con todo que me gusta, y de ley seguir encontrando lo bueno más y más cada año.

I named this blog from a song I wrote late last year: ¨I´m the shape of milk pouring, steady, steady…¨  Funny, now, that the shape of milk has shaped my many paths during my stay here in Ecuador.  Fresh milk first flowed into my life at the FBU farm, every morning at sunrise, and made its place in my heart (and stomach) during my stay with Marco.  It has made instant coffee delicious and ¨boring¨ queso fresco ever-distinct and tasty.  What strikes me now is that it is dearly missing from my homeland.  Even whole fat organic milk can´t compare with that glob of yellowish cream floating atop a pot of boiled milk from a nearby vaca.

Maybe I´ll end up raising cows and providing you all with the sweetness of that daily froth.  In the meantime, as paisajes and avenidas fade to memory and my body adjusts to clean tap water and burritos, I´ll be saying a long, loving adiosGracias.

Every morning, I wake to the sounds of dozens of birds and bugs and breezes, frantic and excited for another day of sun and rain.  I lift the mosquito net over my head, just enough to peer out the window into Armando’s plot of land, bursting with greens and changing every second as the early light grows and shifts.  There’s one tree back there whose trunk is covered in a creeper with round, neon little leaves.  The other day I was up to grab my book and spotted a Motmot in that tree, relatively still and silent with its brilliant blue tail hanging nonchalantly toward me.  I could hardly contain myself, searching for the binoculars without taking my eyes of that tail, sure that it would fly away just as I opened the case… but it stayed, just hopping up a few branches as I gawked from the open-air bathroom.

Why does nature express itself so creatively, so exuberantly, here in this particular place?  Sure, it could simply be a matter of humidity and heat, of eons of evolution and careful conservation efforts in recent years.  Who knows, it could even be that some divine being decided to bless these hills and valleys with its most inspired designs.  These days, though, I can’t shake the idea from my mind that there’s some sort of magic in the mix.  The glitter and flap of iridescent blue butterflies sweeps me into a world where magia becomes possible–even necessary.

This morning we dragged ourselves out into the sunrise, high above Mindo and past where the canopy tours run, to search for some of the thousands of bird species that grace this forest.  I had been out once before, alone, and saw dozens of gorgeous species, few of which I could identify.  Though everything is enthralling with or without a name, I was happy to have Armando pointing out bird calls and differences between males and females and subspecies along the way.  Of course the small lemon tanager males are more brilliant than the females, with blindingly yellow streaks under their jet-black wings; songbird sexes are always relatively easy to tell apart.  The toucans are harder.  There are not only males and females, but also at least three species that we saw– one with a distinct, red-spotted chest and two that look the same to my untrained eyes.  They were chatting and singing to one another across the gravel road, high in the trees but easy to spot, cocking their heads and preening their feathers.  Occasionally one would stretch its black wings out, feather tips silhouetted neatly against the sky, and glide silently to another branch.  Whether they were chasing each other, joking or teasing or crying longingly for a mate, I am left wondering.  How do they choose whom to love?  I find it hard to believe it´s simply a matter of the biggest beak or loveliest cackle.

But what do I know about toucan love?

Then there were the quetzals, stunningly sparkling and marine-colored.  They are normally scarce and certainly difficult to see perched in camouflage against the canopy, but today we saw at least three pairs, chasing one another and hunting for insects in the wide-open ravines that lead down to the Rio Mindo.  I surely would have missed them had I been alone, but Armando patiently pointed out each one and we stood in awe as their red tails flashed in and out of sight.  Instead of singing, sometimes they just laugh like hyenas, like they´ve got some secret I´d be a fool to guess at.

¨Qué más quieres ver?¨ asked Armando after we’d marvelled some time over toucans and quetzals, the two most magnificent, ¨exotic¨ birds to my eyes.  A hawk, a woodpecker, an eagle?

And just past the next curve, he shushed me over to look up at a branch hanging over the road, dripping with epiphytes: a hawk, silent and serious, glaring over the valley below.  He (she?) then starting calling, slowly and softly at first, almost gently, then crescendoing steadily into a wild war cry.  As it let out the last deafening pulse, it opened its wings and dropped away around the curve, out of sight.

As the sun finally crept over the canopy and my stomach started growling, I didn’t need to know much more.  That this place is perpetually happening, that its life force cycles in every direction, up and through every [damned] mosquito and [steadfast] hawk, every day of the year, doesn´t require that I know about it.  The fact that I can, just a bit… magic.

-Monday, May 2

It was well past nightfall, raining off and on and freezing.  Hanes, my new friend from the FBU farm and weekend travel companion, turned to me: ¨I think it´s better that we can´t see much,¨ pointing down– down— to some tungsten lights in the valley below where our bus swerved and braked, jolted and rumbled from Latacunga to Zumbahua.  By now, the combination of hair-raising curves and inexact drivers doesn´t make me flinch, too hard.  I laid my head back again, dozing despite the cramped seat and line of locals murmuring in the aisle beside me.

When we arrived at Zumbahua, a small but vibrant community along the windy road to Quevedo in the lowlands, a young man immediately offered a cabinet to Quilotoa.  Gee whiz, we thinking we´d call it a day (early rise and harvest at FBU, Easter lunch of fanesca bean soup, and six hours of transit already), but… might as well catch a ride when it´s handed to you, right?  Unsure of how long we´d be shivering on the little board in the back of the camioneta, Hanes retrieved her sleeping bag and we huddled closer with another young woman at our side, swinging back and forth at every hairpin curve.  Zumbahua´s lights slowly disappeared as I noticed the shadows of the antiplano peaks against faint stars.  It had cleared, finally.  At long last, I was arriving at Laguna Quilotoa, a place I´ve dreamed about for months: high, thin air, chilly breezes, views of Mount Cotopaxi and rolling green fields below… and of course, the lake.  My sleepiness slipped away, and even before I laid eyes on Laguna Quilotoa, I felt more alive, bristling and giddy with anticipation.

Just look…

Sunrise over Laguna Quilotoa, with the twin Iliniza mountains in the distance.

Early morning, completely blown away by this place.  It looks similar to Oregon´s Crater Lake, but the trail around the rim is only 7.5 miles (compared to 35 miles).

The colors of the water shifted throughout the morning, from deep blue to bright turquoise and pale yellow near the edges.

Me and Hanes above the town, jolly and energized by the views and sun.  She spoke of how badly she wished her relatives could be there with us.  I can´t think of one person I know that wouldn´t love it.

Looking west where the clouds cleared for short glimpses of jagged hills.

The entire rim was llena with wildflowers: purple lupines, yellow columbines, bright pink bells, and even Indian paintbrush.  The alpine plains are livelier and more colorful than you might think.

Giddy after the biggest climb, looking south-east toward Latacunga.  Mind you, the town of Quilotoa is at 3850 meters, so we were huffing it at over 12,000 feet for parts of the hike.  My legs still ached a bit from the Quito-Mindo hike, but my lungs felt great.

About 2/3 around the lake, it started to fog over, rain, and even hail on us.  I hardly minded the frozen fingers and wet feet as we crossed paths with alpacas, lambs, and locals yelling in Kichwa about an impending mudslide we had to cross.  By far, one of the highlights of my time in Ecuador.

I walked more than a marathon yesterday, loaded with a pack, through mud and across streams, to return to Mindo from Quito.  Now every time I move my legs I’m reminded of the journey.  But it feels good.

I went to visit Armando again on Saturday, and after a couple days of hanging out with the beach bunch, we got it together to do the walk he´d mentioned many a time.  It actually runs from a small suburb south of Quito, called Lloa, and follows the Rio Blanco, which then joins with others to become Rio Cinto, past Volcán Pichincha and the thickening cloud forest reserve called Mindo-Nambillo.  Juanita, a friend who lives in Quito and expressed interest last time we talked about it, joined us in the afternoon, and we were walking by 4 pm.  With only two hours of daylight on Monday, we made it perhaps 8 kilometers in before night fell and it started to rain.

My feet were already aching from the rubber boots I´d bought for the trek.  We quickly set up our tents and huddled together to feast on some pork fritada, mote (hominy), papas, and sweet plantains we´d bought in Lloa.  The mosquitos were swarming our flashlight, just a thin netting between us and agony.  Although the rain continued off and on throughout the night and I woke up dozens of times to get more comfortable, we awoke dry and well-rested.  Miraculous.

For breakfast, I had the first bite of peanut butter since I left the states three and a half months ago.  Bread, banana, brown sugar.  Juanita was in love instantly (she lived in Houston for most of her life, though– how could she have missed banana-PB combo?) and was dreaming of those sandwiches for the rest of the day.

So, here´s the math: we started walking at 7:30 am.  Stopped at 9:45 for about a half hour to eat tuna and avocado (and a lot more).  Got slowed down at one point to scale a small, root-entwined cliff where the path had been swept away by the shifting Rio Cinto.  A couple pauses to take photos, gather water from little streams, or pop some toasted fava beans.  Stopped again at about 3:30 to eat, by then brain-dead, wobbly, and slap-happy.  Got picked up, joyous!, by a truck at 5:00 pm, just 4 km from Mindo.  All in all, we walked about 45 km (28ish miles) in 8-9 hours.  Not bad, eh?

Armando helping Juanita across one of the many streams.  She brought hiking shoes instead of rubber boots, but she quickly gave up on trying to stay dry and clean and ended up covered up to her shins.  Tough gal.

What with the distance still to travel, the sharp pains in my toes and feet, and the impossibly mucky, rocky terrain to concentrate on, I surely missed the majority of the scenery– not to mention the record diversity of plants and animals.  That said, I´m walking with some gems: the morning sun gilding epiphyte-covered guava trees, a section in pura selva that felt akin to the Old Growth Trail in Corvallis, gigantic heart-shaped leaves and hordes of yellow-beaked toucans and green parrots squawking over the way north.

Armando and I were cracking up all evening as we tried to hobble our way back to the house.  I went down for a 10-minute nap at 7 pm and ended up eating dinner when I woke, groggy, three hours later.  Even though we´re fit and strong, I guess walking a marathon with an extra 20 pounds requires a wee bit more training.

Martes, 12.4.11 @ FBU

6:20– First wakening, from the kitten that is now staying in the volunteer house.  I want to name it Pluma since it´s so light and feathery, and it´s face reminds me of a bird sometimes.  The German boys have given it a boy´s name, even though we already know it´s female.  Its whiskers tickle my cheeks as it rouses for the day.

6:30– My alarm finally goes off and I force myself not to fall back into my wild dreams.  I´m signed up to collect milk this morning (and show the new volunteer, Felix, where to do it), so I can´t drift back.  I throw off the four thick wool blankets and follow Pluma to the bathroom.

6:50– After leaving the two liters of fresh, still-warm milk to boil with Felix in the kitchen, I set back out in my rubber boots to feed the chickens and collect any eggs they´ve left over the weekend.  They are the same kind as our old chickens on Bell Avenue, and as I open the door to their run I´m bombarded by memories of leading Camus, Gloria, Rosey and Pollo around the back yard with a stalk of flowering broccoli.  They stare and cluck as I measure out their daily corn ration, chasing me to the feeder past verdant tufts of grass.  Something must be done to make them eat that grass.  The yolks just aren´t orange enough… but they´ll do.  Twenty eggs.

7:05– I retreat to my room for 20 minutes of yoga.  My mind switches back and forth between concentration ont eh stretches and everything there is to do on the farm.  The volunteer coordinator and de facto huerta manager, Fred, is in Guatemala this week doing a training in microbusiness, and he basically put me in charge of the garden while he´s away.  Yesterday I spent all morning flinging myself from bed to bed, feeling almost frantic about what needs doing.  Much of it is already planted, but the thought of manually preparing all the spent beds– hoe, deeply, in clay-mud, wheelbarrow compost and pumice, pitchfork it in, rake it out, shape the bed…– makes my back ache even more.  Ahhh, back to that stretch.  Temporary relief.

7:30– I emerge again for breakfast.  Today, since we´re one egg short of a full cubeta to sell in the afternoon, I go for oatmeal.  Mix water and milk, boil with oats, add salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and top with a couple of those famous ripe oritos.  No coffee for now, though I might buy some when we go to Intag later this week to pick up warm-weather produce from an allied farmer.  They have an association of organic farmers there, and they happen to produce the best quality café in the country.

7:50– Philip, another young German who´s here at FBU for a whole year (the gap year is paid for by the government if they choose social service like this), finally enters the kitchen.  I was about to go wake him up, since today is harvest day and, though I helped last week, he´s needed to direct the show.

8:00– I go out to ¨piddle around¨ until the others are ready.  I find one of the giant pigs with an hours-old litter of nine piglets, all dazzling and fluffy, stirring around her overfull teats.  One is laying, bare and soggy, ont he other side of the concrete pen.   It was stillborn, I learn later.  The rest look healthy and already plump.

8:20– We begin harvest.  Felix, Kirsten (another new German, a bit older and here for just a few weeks), and I set out to collect chard.  A sad crop, but we gather four bunches of ten leaves each, plus a pile of holey or old leaves for the cows.  Kirsten gets pulled out by Esteban, who runs the tree nursery, to help move 5000 saplings.  She wants to practice her Spanish anyway, right?

9:30– As we harvest, I can´t help jumping back to GTF last year.  The smell of lettuce butt as the ugly leaves fall to the ground.  How many times did it take me to make a presentable bunch of chard?  Delicate cauliflower leaves hugging the glistening head– almost coy.  And carrots: how I miss those power hoses on a muddy day.

10:00– Felix, Philip, and I finish the harvest: 4 chard, 2 celery, 10 head lettuce and 6 romaine, 14 beautiful broccoli, 8 cauliflower ranging from golf ball to plate-sized, a few tomate de arbol, 4 nice fennel, several zucchini, and a pile of stout carrots.  Last week we made about $15 selling to various restaurants and conscious individuals in Tabacundo and Cayambe.  Compared to Corvallis prices, our customers are some lucky SOBS.

10:20– I´m zig-zagging plastic string between two not-so-taut wires we´re just rigged for the sweet peas.  Poor things were flopping all over the place.  Despite the mud (and therefore kinda wiggly posts) and hand-tightened wire, I can already see the plants happier.  Two weeks from now the supports will be smothered, I reckon.

10:30– I sign out to make lunch.  Collect 6 or 7 loose heads of broccoli, a couple romaine, some neglected beets, arugula, and the carrots left over from Saturday´s sales on the Panamericana.  So much to do in the garden, but it feels good to walk away for now.

11:50– I´m ladling quinoa-broccoli-onion soup into the blender as people trickle in from work.  I want the soup to be cream of broccoli, so I do one more blender-full before carrying out the salad and boiled beets.  The soup is a successful experiment, chunky and creamy with a nice grainy texture thanks to the quinoa.  Lots of veggies for one meal, but I´m happy as a clam and relieved that everyone eats it without a fuss (… well, I´m the only one eating the beet greens…).

1:00– After cleaning the kitchen, taking the compost to the pigs, and collecting three more eggs to fill the cubeta, I need to lie down for a minute.  Nobody´s about to give me a hard time.  And besides, Valentine (the fourth German, here for a year) ends up reading and sleeping all afternoon instead of going to sell with the others.  It´s raining for the moment, though, so…

1:30– I´m back in the garden, somehow getting myself to hoe up a little bed where I want to transplant chard and onion.  After hauling compost and cascajo (the pumice), I´m only half disappointed to be forced under cover by the rain.  I retreat to start a project that´s been calling me since I first got here and spilled a handful of cabbage seeds while trying to find the rosemary packet.

2:00– The seed shed.  It´s a mess.   Filthy, like with rotting potatoes against one wall and a pile of semi-fresh cow shit right in the middle.  (Why, cow, here?!)  I get to work, piling and sorting what I can on the floor (boots, old milk jugs, animal medicines, bunched sheets…) before honing in on the seeds.  Most are in a plastic storage bin, but some are lying out in packets or cans, and even in the bin there´s exactly zero sense of organization.  After a half hour or so of sorting and deciphering hand-written labels, I´m standing in front of a shelf full of plastic cups: the Brassica, the lettuces, the onions, etc.  At the bottom of the bin, I find a big bag of soy beans and couple disintegrating baggies of purple corn.  And sunflower seeds!  I´m excited.

4:00– After a proper inventory with Felix and another six eggs collected from the henhouse, I sit down with a cup of German black tea and try to make sense– for the second time in a week– of what needs to get done in the huerta.  Seeds we have, seeds we need, starts ready to transplant… and to top it all off, what phase of moon we´re in.  Today´s the first quarter, so five days from now ill be perfect for seeding fruits, leaves, and bus crops.  Roots and some leaves are best left for once the moon is waning; the gravity shift pulls all sap and water (and blood, apparently!) downward, so roots develop faster.  Vice versa for fruits (sap and water pulled up by the waxing moon means greater production above ground)– but leaves like lettuce and arugula are a draw since we´d like big leaves but no flowers.  How much of a difference does this practice actually make?  Lots, according to the old volunteer coordinator and most farmers here.  I believe it, but for now I´ll worry more about getting anything to grow at all.

5:10– I´m running down toward Picalqui, the nearest village, and somehow I´ve dodged the rain.  It´s easy flying downhill, long as I don´t slip or trip over bumpy grass or cobblestone.  Once I hit the valley floor and begin to climb, I remember that I´m at almost 10,000 feet.  Huff.  But hey, it´s easier by the day.  To distract myself, I remember my mantra from running with Marco: ¨Fuerza fuerza no se para!¨ I wonder if I have a future in garden planning, and what adventures I´ll get up to with Maria in May.

7:00– As we eat mashed potatoes and frittata prepared by Felix, he and Valentine try to teach me some German.  They´re insisting that you can never write how someone speaks (like, ¨Gimme that¨ or ¨Nothin´to it!¨) in German.  Blasphemy, they say.  One day, perhaps I will understand.  For now, my English has gotten more clear and proper so they understand me, and I can never quite figure out whether I think and dream in Spanish or not.  Almenos un poco.

9:30– After writing all this, I go out to brush my teeth and am pleasantly surprised and amused that the whole house is dark.  We be tired.

It´s amazing how quickly my life can change, and how easy it is for me to sink into a new form of living.  I am now living about 30 minutes south Puyo, just on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazonía, with a man named Marco.  He happens to be one of the few practicing shamans outside of the interior forest (where some tribes still live relatively traditional lives), and for the next three weeks I will be learning from him, working for him, and doing a good deal of time-passing on the beautiful property he care-takes.  On Wednesday, after almost a full, lazy day of rain, we woke before sunrise to walk in the forest…

After about a half-hour of walking through cattle ground (mostly tall maiz-like grass spotted with palms), as the sun´s light gradually flooded the valley, we reached the first river.  ¿Tienes miedo de las alturas? Marco asked as we approached.  Well, No, normalmente no… This crossing didn´t change that: just a log, rather slippery, a foot wide and only 5 or 6 meters across to the other side.  I chose not to look away from the log as I stepped along, but in retrospect I´d guess the fall would have been about 12 feet.  Not bad.

From this first river, we continued through tall grasses– now more scarce among the forested pockets– and Marco pulled a bunch of tiny coconuts, still a bit bitter, down from a tree for us to suck on.  Further on we found a delicate menthol plant, roots pungent and refreshing, then a ¨crab´s claw¨, a type of thin red stalk with a rhubarb-like texture that subdues thirst.  Soon we found a couple of plants used in the wedding ceremonies of his ancestral tribe, the Andoas of Peru: a long thread-like vine that they would wrap over the shoulders and around the torso and waist of the bride and groom, then tied around their joined wrists to signify their union.  The ceremony then continued, rather bizarrely by Western standards, as such: the bride and groom were rubbed head to toe with an aphrodisiac plant whose leaves smell strongly of cloves and cinnamon, then lead to a bed of heart-shaped leaves on the ground.  To complete the marriage, they would then make love, all riled up from the aphrodisiac, in the middle of a circle of elder witnesses of the tribe.  After this, they would sit on a pile of ortigas (akin to stinging nettle) to awaken their energies and ensure a productive, fruitful life together.

I wish I could videotape every single conversation I´ve had with Marco.  It is all that fascinating.

The cinnamon-scented uagra simaiyucca, a traditional aphrodesiac.

On with the selva.  At the next river, Marco crossed with a rope swing but then accidentally let go of the rope… so, I proceeded to hack away at a nearby tree with his machete in order to fashion a pole to rescue the rope.  Machete hacking is harder than it looks, and I don´t fully understand how he can clear so many branches and ferns as he walks along– ching!  ching!– so nonchalantly.  We ended up walking along opposite banks after I caught, threw, and re-lost the rope over the river.  Boots off to avoid flooding my feet, steady does it through the current, and we arrived on the other bank.  Finally, selva primaria.  One of the only parcels this far west.

Almost immediately, Marco pointed out the sound of a jaguar off in the trees, alert to our smell, and he reminded me to stay close– don´t stray too far back– because jaguars always prey on the last person in line.  This species was relatively small of rosey-tan in color like a puma (though we didn´t see it)– the same kind that he once encountered at night, alone, stalking along the forest floor.  It´d scampered off when Marco finally directed his flashlight in its eyes.  He´s also run across a black panther, bigger and more aggressive, but it, too, snuck away rather than confront him.  Soon after the jaguar´s soft call faded, we stopped to smell the spicy bark of a tree and were soon running downhill after what sounded like a monkey, about 50 meters away.  After just a couple glimpses, Marco could tell it was only an ardilla, a type of squirrel.  Still looked like a monkey to me!

Eventually, after many more stops to look at plants and tree bark and listen to bird calls, we arrived at the Quindi Pakcha: Waterfall Where the Hummingbirds Nest.  All around were these bright red flowers, Labios de Mama Negra, which start as luscious lips and eventually turn into leaves, like a poinsettia.    The waterfall itself is small but magnificent, and the area around it is steadfast and calm, with huge fern fronds hanging over its banks, giant trees loaded with epiphytes at every bend, mosses and river shrimp and giant iridescent blue butterflies flapping downstream.  Like a dream, hidden yet more real than anything in ¨our¨ world: lemon tea, porches, reggaeton bumping from the cafe next door.

At the waterfall with Labios de Mama Negra.

Without much delay, we stripped to our swimsuits, gingerly stepped out along a log overhanging the cascada, and whump! jumped into the bubbly mess below.    Ah yes, before that, though, Marco asked if I´d been in any selva or river here before, and proceeded to rub a plant that grows all along its banks over my arms, head, and legs so that the river would accept me and keep me from harm.  It worked.  Swimming in that freezing water revived me like nothing had since the coast– the water smelled different from any I´ve ever jumped in, almost musty but still clean and fresh.

After we swam a bit, we sat on a rock in the river while Marco recounted more of his history.  It was at this waterfall, about 20 years ago, that his brother began to teach him and impart his shamanistic powers.  Each morning they would rise from their nearby camp just before 5 am in order to beat the hummingbirds to the waterfall.  The tiny colibrí bathed and drank at 5 am sharp every day, and the brothers came before them so that they could receive the full strength and power of the cascada.  He grew up very near to this spot, before there were roads or power or people.  His father died when he was just 4 years by falling from a roof he was fixing; he is suspected to have been negatively affected by a rival shaman, and Marco´s father actually foresaw his death under the influence of a powerful forest plant, maricahua, that shamans use to foretell the future, converse with plants, and solve mysteries.  Marco grew up here with his mother and brothers, tending small plots of yucca, papachina, and maíz heavily supplemented with the forest´s abundance: foot-long fish in every river, snakes, monkeys and meat from all kinds of other mammals.  Before the highway was built when he was 12, before people flooded the region to hunt and log and mine resources, before his family had the opportunities to watch TV, buy new conveniences, and listen to modern music, Marco and his family hunted with blow guns, tips laced with a precious mix of three rare jungle plants.  Their shirts and dresses lasted years out of necessity– they took the best care of them because they only had one.  When the highway first came, they were elated to have better contact with the outside world; it was a welcome treat and change from such a rustic life.  By the time Marco began school at 16 years old, he had begun to notice that the animals were scarcer–his only clue of a disappearing forest and way of life.  Still, after stopping high school in his early twenties, he didn´t fully realize the gravity of change in his homeland, and he proceeded to marry, have kids, and work in town.  When his brother, who´d learned the shamanic ways from their father before his death, began to pass on that wisdom– entering the selva and cultivating a vast knowledge of all the plants and animals there– Marco finally fully realized the irreversible changes that the highway has brought.  Now, organizations and citizens´groups are sometimes plagued by corruption and misguided decision-making in the face of intense pressure from extractive industries.  From where I stand, people like Marco– truly dedicated and determined to retain their dwindling oral knowledge and conserve what forest remains–are the brightest hope for this forest in a world gone mad for money and ¨progress.¨

River-crossing on Saturday with two Italian guests.

There is so much more to share, and I hope to upload photos and descriptions of more of the curative plants that I´m getting to know.  For now, here´s a short list of some of the things Marco and this forest could help you with:

Blood-coagulant to slow snake venom (bark), labor-inducer and pain relief (large pink flowers), abortions (leaves with blood-red spots), varicose veins (leaves with purple undersides), cancer prevention (small striped leaves), wart removal and circulation enhancer (tree with blood-red sap), stress reduction (long leaves), and removal of mal aire in a bath of several leaves.

I would love to hear more comments and questions, as I have way too much to share and could use some starting points!

Surfboards in Mompiche, hand-made by our host, Figu.

Sea water and salty tan skin.

One of the dozens of comedors along the beach in Canoa.

Thursday Feb 10, eating breakfast at the Coco Loco Hostal in Canoa.

Yesterday I went out to swim at sunset and fell into such a pleasant, blissful state of play and being: the waves came consistently, foaming and frothing, eating their way toward me until– the glassy water around me was gobbled up by whitewash.  Quick inhale, pull my head under the swell and feel my long hair rip and curl in the storm above.  Sometimes my ears would whirr and click as the pressure instantly shifted around my neck, so delicate for an ocean.  So delicate.  Pop back to the air, where the world had become a cacophony of crackles and fizz, patches of lacy white foam dancing between my arms, dissipating into the darkening waters.  Look west: golden wisps fading into a deep, dull red just atop the horizon, blanketed in billows and bubbles.  A wave approaches, bigger than the last, as the undercurrent rips my toes from the steady sandbank below; the sun disappears behind its crest, bouncing and flying over my head, horribly powerful yet transitory.  A quick shadow from a frigate bird shoots overhead, the moon hangs waxing crescent, and I notice that my skin looks darker, almost brown, skimming the sherbet foam.  Darkness is falling, cliffs fading to café.  I fall back, paddle widely between the crashes, over and over and over I will never leave.