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
In the weeks before I was born, my father encounters a statistic that shows that women in their 5th pregnancy have a higher chance of hemorrhaging. My father is concerned. While my mother is a universal donor, she can only receive O- blood in return. Since the only blood bank in the province of Pastaza, is a walking blood bank (my mother), my father fears that were my mother to hemorrhage, she would die. So he sends my mother on the 9-hour mountain road up to Quito and asks a medical missionary colleague for a favor, he asks that he track down O- blood for my mother and have it on hand in case of emergency. But for some reason (the excuses vary), the doctor doesn’t come through.
In Quito, while my mother waits, she stays in a room above the hospital. She reads the Bible. She prays. She imagines holding me in her arms. My mother has a powerful imagination. When she goes into labor, she calls a missionary nurse, a friend of hers living across the street who comes to help her. Together, they walk through the hospital halls throughout the day and in the evening they head to the delivery room. At 9:30 p.m. on May 12, 1965, my mother gives birth in the company of medical staff but otherwise, alone. I am born loud and healthy, a whopping 9 + lbs.
The pediatrician checks me and goes home.
The obstetrician checks on my mother and goes home.
But then, several hours after delivery, just as my father feared, my mother begins to bleed. The hospital has no O- blood. The resident dials the obstetrician who has gone home to bed and doesn’t answer his telephone. Now, the resident holds my mother’s life in his hands.
Desperate to keep my mother alive, the resident massages her belly and talks to her. “Tell me a story, Señora. Tell me the story of your life.”
And this is the story that comes to my mother as she hovers beneath the rippling curtains of death:
Earlier that year my father takes my mother on a romantic get-away to a simple elegant hotel in the forest run by an elegant man, Don Francisco. The lodge has a small menagerie--jungle animals chained or trapped in cages. A watusa, a howler monkey, a spider monkey, a marmoset, a capuchin chained at the leg, a honey bear, a tortoise, a giant anteater, a sloth, a blue macaw eating bananas, a rainbow boa, and, an ocelot pacing his cage.
My mother admires the ocelot.
Later that night, after dinner, my father remains in the dining room talking to the other guests and my mother returns to her cabin. My mother bathes by candlelight. She slips into her negligee. Traces the curve of her lips with dark lipstick, brushes her glistening mahogany hair, and then she climbs into bed and waits for my father.
In the dark corner of the room, something stirs. The flame flickers in shimmering eyes as the ocelot emerges from the shadows. He circles the bed, twitching his tail in slow anticipation. My mother watches him and then, slowly, slides up on the bed and stands with her back to the wall. She calls for my father. My father doesn’t hear her.
The ocelot takes his time. Back and forth he circles the bed, admiring my beautiful mother, her green eyes, her glowing skin...
My mother calls louder. Before long someone knocks on her cabin door. “Señora? Señora? Can I help you?” The elegant Don Francisco has heard her.
“Help me,” she calls, “the ocelot…”
Don Francisco knocks again. “Señora, tranquila. Come, unlock the door for me and I will capture the ocelot. I will help you, Señora! I will save you! But first, you must unlock the door.”
But my mother, caught between modesty or an intuitive sense of increasing danger, refuses. “Help me! I want my husband.”
Don Fransisco keeps knocking, insisting. The ocelot paces. Watching. Waiting.
She calls again and again, “Please, get my husband.” Finally, Don Fransisco leaves my mother to the ocelot and goes to search out my father who comes, as he should, and rescues her.
In my mythic life, this is the story of my conception: the ocelot pacing at the foot of the bed, my mother in the candlelight, both overcome with desire...
This is the story my mother tells as she is alone and dying. When she finishes her story, she drifts into dreams. “Wake me up,” she murmurs to the resident who continues massaging her belly, “Wake me up before I die, I might have something to say.”
In the dark morning hours after my birth, an official at the American embassy opens their citizen files and searches for a universal donor. Just before dawn, before the very first sunrise of my life, the blood of an American colonel saves my mother’s life.
My mother weeps for days after I am born. She wants to see no one.
Perhaps we all are.
Before my mother travels to Quito for my birth, my parents send my oldest brother out in the MAF Cessna with Frank Colinger, a single American missionary, to Arajuno.
Arajuno is a Kichwa community with an airstrip built by Shell, the Dutch oil company in their search for oil in the late 1930's. Between 1945 and 1962, 23 new Evangelical churches and missions are welcomed to Ecuador in part to challenge the iron grip of the Catholic church over the country, but also with the hope that they would successfully missionize the Amazon, “pacifying” the people and opening up the Ecuadorian Amazon to oil.
As they work to bring Christ’s gospel to the Amazon, the missionaries use the abandoned oil strips to reach the forest communities. Arajuno is one of the river communities on these strips.
My brother is 10. He follows Frank down mud paths from house to house visiting families, sitting on wooden benches, drinking chicha. They hunt in the forest. They watch the rain.
They watch the river rise.
Several days into their visit, tragedy strikes.
While my brother stands on the bank watching, a canoe carrying children across the flooded river to school overturns. 10 children drown. Sisters, brothers, cousins--all lost to the swollen river.
One by one, the river gives up the bodies. One by one, the fathers and uncles pull their children in. The children are older and younger than my brother. Some families have lost more than one child.
For the next few nights, my brother follows Frank from house to house as they attend the wakes. At every house, as they approach, they can hear the wailing. The keening pierces the forest, a sharp song of sorrow that flows through the darkness and continues through the rising light of day, it swells with the sun and falls after noon and then calls for the darkness to return. Sometimes the rain swallows the song and sometimes the sorrow swallows the rain.
My brother comes to me cloaked in the spirits of these children.
Years later he tells me that when he sees me for the first time, he recognizes me.
My mother was a universal donor.
I remember her telling the story of how when she was in college a boyfriend asked her to marry him but said that before she gave him her answer she needed to read a 70-page missive that he had written by hand.
He planned on being a pastor and so much of the letter was about his expectations of her as a "good pastor's wife." One of the requirements was that she play piano in his church. My mother was in turmoil. She thought she ought to marry him but wasn't so keen on all the requirements, nor was she so keen on him. She found him a bit arrogant and he was very invested in the idea that women should be silent and subservient to their husbands.
My mother wasn't the silent type. She was also peeved that he thought her fitting, in part, because she played the piano. Finally, after much prayer and heartfelt conversations with my grandmother, she gathered her courage and told him no.
And then she found my father.
My father was very shy and my mother was extraordinarily outgoing. She basically organized the relationship and eventually, they were married.
He was a doctor headed for the Amazon and, by good fortune, she had O- blood and was a universal donor. My dad had married a walking blood bank.
In Shell, our family lived across the street from the hospital. We didn't have a telephone and when emergency patients came in at night the nurse would cross the street and throw pebbles at my parent's window to wake my father up. Frequently, if the patient needed blood, my father would return, gently wake my mother, ask my mother to stretch out her arm and take her blood.
It always made me smile that my mother was annoyed by the pastor who assumed she would play piano in his church, but not phased by the doctor who would take her blood whenever a patient needed it.
Sunday, April 26. Day 41 of Quito’s COVID19 Lockdown.
We wake before dawn and watch the lights shift across Pichincha. My husband muses, “Boredom is the compost of creativity.”
I check in on my baby caterpillars to see if they survived the night.
I open the jar and my heart sinks as I see dozens of little black balls. I think the caterpillars have died and these are the remains of their tiny bodies. My guilt rises.
I grab my phone and focus my camera into the jar and am relieved to find the babies happily inching along and see that the black balls are caterpillar scat. They are eating!
They have eaten holes into one of the lemon verbena leaves and so I decide to add more and break off a twig from my potted lemon verbena plant, adding it to the jar.
I have been beating back a plague of aphids in my beloved lemon verbena and one of the surviving aphids falls into the jar with the twig.
I balance my phone on the top of the jar, focus my camera and turn on the video. By sheer luck, I capture a baby caterpillar’s first encounter with this aphid and, by all accounts, my housebound aphid’s first encounter with a caterpillar. I film them as they slowly approach each other. The aphid tentatively reaches out it’s antenna to touch the caterpillar. The caterpillar raises its body, dancing back and forth momentarily like a miniature cobra. She stretches out her neck and then chomps on the aphid’s antenna. The aphid jumps back and stumbles away.
Wild kingdom, miniature scale.
Happy Sunday everyone.