I was eleven when I first saw Tungurahua.
It was Thanksgiving 1976. We were driving in our white Chevy van from Quito to Cuenca to see the Incan ruins of Ingapirca. We had spread a picnic. I remember the lemonade, the tuna fish sandwiches. I remember the fallow field rippling with wild flowers. I remember the clear horizontal expanse of blue sky. Then, out of nowhere: the volcano. Huge. Massive. White. Closer than my hand.
I was born to volcanoes. The youngest daughter of medical missionaries, I was born in Quito, the oldest city in the new world, and grew up on the edge of the Amazon in a military town named for Shell Oil. In Quito I would catch tadpoles on the slopes of Pichincha. In Shell I would stay up way past my bedtime watching Sangay erupt, mesmerized by the blue and green gases hovering on the jungle horizon, the red lava running down the volcano’s perfect cone. And in Baños, just above the cloud forest, I spent hours riveted to huge murky paintings of the Virgen de Agua Santa rescuing devotees from the chaos unleashed by Isabel Tungurahua.
I was born to volcanoes. I knew them all by name—Imbabura, Cotacachi, Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxi, Pichincha, Chimborazo, Sangay, El Altar.
So the odd thing was that in all those years I had never really seen Tungurahua, or perhaps, more to the point, Tungurahua had never seen me.
In Ecuador, Isabel Tungurahua’s seductive powers are legendary. She is known to have at least two husbands, one lover and a son of questionable paternity. She smokes and trembles from her many passions and every eighty years or so she erupts with a hiss of white vapor, a spray of ash, and pours forth, without censor, the hot red lava that pulses through her stone veins.
With seduction, timing is everything.
While I had lived most of my life in Ecuador, I had visited the jungles of Peru and had traveled with my family across most of the continental United States. In the summer of 1973, we drove our white Chevy van from Miami to Minneapolis to Panama. For six weeks straight we camped and ate powdered astronaut food from aluminum bags. In all, by the time I was eleven, I had visited ten countries and thirty states.
I had sweltered in Miami and frozen in Minneapolis. I had admired horses in Kentucky and Orange County. I had climbed the Statue of Liberty and the pyramids of Teotihuacán. I had visited Disney World and Disney Land. I had floated on inner tubes down the Apayacu, water skied in Mobile, ice skated on Lake Harriet, and ferried down the Panama Canal. I had smelled the chocolate air in Hershey and sulfur at Old Faithful. I had snapped Polaroids of Mount Rushmore and Chichen Itza. I had seen slices of the human brain in Chicago and the Aztec Calendar in Mexico. I had read bronze plaques at Gettysburg, visited a slave plantation in Atlanta and seen the crack in the Liberty Bell.
By 1976, the landscape of the Americas had written itself across my imagination.
I was eleven. I was reeling. I saw Tungurahua for the first time that Andean Thanksgiving and in profound silence, she somehow spoke the world.
I spent the rest of that vacation curled up in the back seat of the van on a huge pile of pillows, riding through the Andean fog, writing in a small red notebook in illegible print.
2/18/2021 0 Comments
Thursday, February 18, 2021. Day 1 of Lent. 349 days since COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks.
Something very important is happening. This is why we are sitting so still. We are being pushed at every side to stop, to pay attention, to listen, to LISTEN, Too look and see in new ways, NOT just with our eyes pegged to a screen, many, many, many screens….but also to the four walls, the 14 walls, the 55,000 walls that are all around us. The curving arch of my lover's skin.
To pay attention to water and how we use it.
To pay attention to gas and how we use it.
To pay attention to matter and how we use it.
We have this strange Idea that Nature is out there. Nature is alien to us. It is the hubris of our species. Where does cement come from anyway? It's not like it is flown in from Mars.
Is there any other kind?
Maybe all creatures have their own story of Icarus. The bird who tried to become a man but then forgot how to grow wings and hated all the insects and murdered them in fury and missed his bird beings so much that he invented wings all over again, but with so much noise and imprecision and heartache. If only he remembered how to be a bird again he would fly again.
Adversity is at the very heart of diversity. But that is the point. We are being whittled and polished and made into perfection but a strange perfection. If you have ever seen preying mantises, you will know that perfection comes in so many shapes and sizes.
Do you wonder, as I do, every time I see a praying mantis, what prayer has to do with it? With being a predator? Why is she praying before she lashes out and chomps off her lover's head?
Hell of a love story.
For my feminist friends it probably seems obvious, though I am still trying to figure it out.
For my evolutionary friends, it is obvious, and I think I have an inkling of an idea
Have you seen the orchid mantis? She is the guardian of very beautiful orchids.
I grew up on the western edges of the Amazon, on the banks of the Rio Pastaza in the foothills of the Andes with the volcano Sangay erupting in the background and El Altar on the horizon luminescent in the morning mist. I grew up on an evangelical medical missionary compound in one of the most biodiverse corners of the Amazon forest. There is a longer story here.
The compound where we lived was a large clearing in the forest on the edge of a road. The clearing encompassed a military town and an airstrip. The airstrip had been laid by Shell Oil in 1948 when the Dutch were furiously searching for oil to feed the thirsty maw of WWII war machines. There is a longer story here.
There were several buildings on the compound all made of mahogany. A hospital, several houses for the missionaries, a machine shop made of cement block and a few surrounding Amazonian style houses made from bamboo and thatched roofs. The mahogany houses stood on cement stilts with little troughs filled with burnt diesel to keep the termites out. The sides of the mahogany houses were also painted in burnt diesel. My Amazonian childhood is scented by burnt oil. There is a story here.
On the compound they planted pineapples and lemon trees for the hospital. I would spend many afternoons skirting along the edges of the forest and examining the lemon trees and pineapples. Many stories here.
The lemon trees were covered with praying mantises. There were several varieties of the thin green simple mantis, all different sizes, they were lemon tree guardians. They were incredible. Though they had a big task on their hands because they were trying to guard a whole forest of lemon trees and they didn’t evolve fast enough, they couldn’t reproduce fast enough to protect that new forest of planted lemon trees because they had never encountered such a thing before.
So they called in all of their cousins and the lemon trees were covered in mantises that were guardians of other creatures in the forest. These other mantises looked like their creatures, and so, on a lemon tree they REALLY stood out.
I wonder now if they had abandoned all their posts. All those strange looking mantises that stood out so distinctly on the lemon trees. Did the orchid mantis abandon her orchid to come and join the convening in the lemon forest? And if she did, who took up her spot? What happened to her orchid without her?
Or had they been booted out? Were they leftover guardians that didn’t have anything to guard anymore? Because their mother had been too successful and produced way more offspring than she intended and now her children were starving. All of them, every last one, and so she sent all of them out, but one, her favorite one….or so the other children thought…she kept with her so that they could figure things out together and so that she could hand off her flower creature to someone who knew what they were doing. But her other children set out and caused havoc in the world and they came to the lemon tree convention and found all of their cousins, a huge riot of cousins, mantis spring break in the lemon trees. And the lemon trees must have been coated in pheromones and the mantises were figuring out whom to fuck and whom to kill and with whom they could maybe get along and with whom they could align and whether they could take over the whole lemon forest for their own or maybe they should just be happy with this one leaf….there were so many aphids….. sooooo many aphids….the aphids were also having a lemon convention. You’ve seen them. How intelligent aphids look. They are smart. Really smart. They know how to harvest sugar and lay it out in sticky trails and this draws in the ants. So many many ants. Little black sugar ants. The fastest ants in the forest that are so small they look like a speck of sand. Light greyish moving sand that blends in with the sugar crystals they carry above their heads.
NOTE TO PROFESSIONAL ENTOMOLOGISTS. Yes there are errors. GRAVE ERRORS. I am aware. I am working on them. I don’t have it all figured out yet. I didn’t go to school to study this, for God’s sake. I went to school to study words. ETYMOLOGY. But not even that. NARRATIVE FICTION. NARRATIVE HISTORY. If I had known I could have studied insects, I would have, but given the path I took I am remembering through a very foggy lens into the distant caverns of my childhood while nostalgia furiously paints her own narrative scope around the whole frame.
I don’t really even know if the great lemon tree massacre actually happened.
But this is how I remember it…..
This is how it begins….
As I was saying….
BEFORE I so rudely interrupted myself to dive down a rabbit hole.
It might be useful for you, my dear and patient reader, to understand that I am a story scout, a story hound, I can smell the stories all the way around. I am easily distracted.
As I was saying….so this is how it begins.
It was the Great Praying Mantis Lemon Tree Convention of 1974. I love praying mantises. I always search for them. I would collect them, except that they are solitary. So I would collect them, one by one, and then release them. I would like to have them for friends. If I could speak praying mantis language I would learn it, in a heartbeat. But in the meantime, on that fateful morning of 1974, my ignorance of the social lives and customs of mantises generated a slaughter.
It was horrific. Seared into the depth and layered tissues of my brain is this manticide that I UNLEASHED across a five meter battlefield that included two rough cement steps with scattered quartz river pebbles in them, a cement square of sidewalk broken on the corners with a black fungi eating into the crumbling concrete and a corner of lawn, jungle grass recently cut by machete.
Jungle grass is about a centimeter wide, very thick. This isn’t a species. I have no idea what it’s true name is, only that missionaries and oil men found it useful to cover their lawns in their jungle compounds as they pushed back the trees and edged forward in their insistent incessant deforestation. The missionaries hired Amazonian men to cut the grass with machetes. The oil men probably did too, though when I visited the Texaco Oil compound in Lago Agrio when I was 16 on an Advanced Biology insect collecting trip, they had a small grass cutting tractor that they had imported from the United States to cover the growing expanse of lawn. The missionary medical compound I grew up in was covered in it.
But back to the Great Praying Mantis Lemon Tree Convention of 1974 and the subsequent massacre.
My ears remember that morning. The watchful pulse of cicada, the parakeet flock spurring above us reverberating the call. I am sure there was a Conga ant that came to the edge of the scene to witness this battle.
I had captured jars full of mantises. The lemon guardian and a handful of her cousins. Who, by now, had begun to get on her nerves, they were taking over, they were pushing her back. They wanted the lemon trees for their own. She was furious.
Then I caught her. And her cousins. Or maybe it was the monthly convening of mantises, who the hell knows. I caught them.
Watched them for a while.
Was overcome with pity
One by one but fairly close to each other
I didn’t think it out in advance
I just opened the bottles and turned them
So that the mantis could come out.
And they did
One by one
And they set on each other
And the ones that didn’t escape
And then snapped off their quarries heads
I remember when several of the odd ones
Organized and set on the Lemon Queen
I remember how they reached up and grabbed at her limbs
She towered over them
The screen of my childhood goes blank then.
I don’t know. I don’t remember what happened next.
Except for a flash on the periphery of my vision, in an angle to my right I can still see a short fat brownish mantis with a large dried leaf for her head scurrying away. Slipping through the bright green machete slashed grass, the triangular tip of her leaf head poking up out of the grass and I can still remember her toddling crown--the remnants of a dry leaf inexplicably moving across the chunky lawn as she slipped through grassfields and vanished away.
Every time I see a mantis, I remember the Lemon Queen.
I mourn her.
And in my heartache, I wonder,
what must I do to make it right?
Must I confess?
Or can I sing
an Ode to the Lemon Mantis Queen?
Or should I bring my friends to that place
Where you died
And tell the story of your death
So that everyone will remember
your green and elegant life.
Should we erect a memorial?
A carved stone plaque?
In this place. On this date. My witness.
Sear our brains.
LMM Feb 18, 2021 Day 1 of Lent