The following essay is an excerpt from my memoir in progress, The Covid Chronicles: Lessons from Pacha Mama in the Face of Despair. Portions and versions of this essay first appeared in Real Ground a comforting and inspiring journal that surfaced from The Natural History Institute in the early days of COVID. A more polished version later appeared in Minding Nature, a journal from The Center for Humans and Nature. I am grateful to both Tom Fleischner and Gavin Van Horn for receiving versions of this essay and shepherding it into the world. A shorter version of the essay is included in Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations! This five-volume series explores our deep interconnections with the living world and the interdependence that exists between humans and nonhuman beings. Filled with essays, interviews, poetry, and stories of solidarity, Kinship is a guide and companion into the ways we can deepen our care and respect for the whole community of life. You can order the series by following the link below to the Center for Humans and Nature.
The Empathy of Birds
We are floating down the Tiputini River. My son sits in the front of the canoe listening. He is 14. He turns his head slightly, lifting his ear to the concert that pulses around us. We are in Yasuni National Park, the most biodiverse corner of the Amazon. He listens a little more and then begins to whistle a haunting 3-point song. He pauses, listens, waits, and then out of the canopy we hear the whistle returned. My son is singing with a Panguana, an Undulated Tinamou. Their call and response last for over an hour.
We visit the Casa del Alabado, the house of praise. Elegant stone carvings housed in glass stare out at us. They are w´akas. Ancient sacred beings. Carved thousands of years ago, we don’t know exactly who these stones represent, but their eyes look like birds. Owls.
Our guide pours water into a ceramic u-shaped bottle with two necks, a replica of one of the many Pre-Columbian sonorous objects in the Alabado collection. A tiny red bird perches on the rim of one of the necks. Small holes circle the other like a flute. She tips the bottle back and forth, her fingers flowing over the holes in the lip. The songs of birds swell into the room--a canopy full of calls rising up from the waters swirling through the dark hollows of this ancient instrument.
Perhaps this, too, is w’aka.
The ceramic flute astonishes with its liquid concert of songs and yet, it does not surprise me that a talented and observant musician who grew up in this living land thousands of years ago conjured out of clay this musical wonder, for we live in the land of birds.
In this tiny country the size of Colorado there are 1,670 identified species of birds, almost twice as many species as in all of North America. Hummingbirds alone, those fierce jewels of the air, represent 132 of those species. There are migratory birds who make their home in this land and other lands as well. There are birds that arrived here generations ago and found this land pleasing and decided to stay. There are newly arrived birds. And then, there are 41 species of birds who transformed into their current selves in relation to this particular place. Thirty-four species endemic to Galapagos. Seven endemic to the mainland. You have likely heard of our brilliant hummingbirds, our Andean Condors, our Waved Albatross, our Flightless Cormorant, and of course, our Darwin finches.
There is an old w’aka story, recorded for the first time in 1653 by the Catholic priest Padre Bernabe Cobo. Still told today, the story recounts the origin of the Cañari people in southern Ecuador.
The story goes something like this:
It is said that after the Great Flood, two brothers survived on a mountain. As the waters began to recede, they gathered sticks and built a rustic shelter. During the day they hunted for roots and herbs and at night they returned to their makeshift home. One morning, two Guacamayo sisters cloaked in shimmering blue feathers flew high across the forest and spotted the men below. They watched as the brothers returned to their home shivering, prepared their spare meal and then fell exhausted, lonely, in their cold beds.
The Guacamayo sisters felt pity for the brothers. One morning they waited for the men to leave and flew down to the shelter and transformed into two beautiful women with blue shawls. The women built a fire, prepared chicha and delicious food and then flew away.
When the brothers returned, they were astonished to find their house warmed and beautiful food laid out for them. This went on for several days. Overwhelmed by curiosity, the brothers decided to hide and see who was coming to their aid. They dug a hole in the darkest corner of the house and watched as the shimmering Guacamayo sisters descended, transformed into Cañari women and began to work, bringing joy to their home. The brothers whispered and decided to capture these women. The men grabbed the sisters, holding on to them before they could slip back into birds. They spoke to the women and convinced them to stay with them and marry them.
These are the first fathers and mothers of the Cañari people: brothers who survived the Great Flood and captured Guacamayo sisters; birds who, in their keen empathy, transformed into women to help the brothers in the face of devastation and despair.
* * * * *
Early morning. A fluffy layer of clouds blanket Guagua Pichincha, the volcano rising before me. I was born on the flanks of this mountain, as was my daughter.
I have crawled out of bed after a sleepless night to write. This is the amber hour--that predawn smoky ring of time when the Earth’s dreams interweave with our own. I light candles, open the window and lean out as far as I can to hear the soulful aria of a Great Thrush and the tsi-kiri-ki of hummingbirds rising from the clutch of pines circling our 8-story building.
I reread the text above. Written only a few weeks ago, my words speak to me as if over a great chasm.
Today is Sunday, March 29, 2020. We are in Day 13 of Quito's COVID19 total lockdown. We are confined to our 4th floor apartment in a nationwide quarantine. My husband and son are with me. My beloved daughter is a heartbreak away.
The House of Praise is now shuttered. Yasuni closed.
Here in Quito, birdwatching is now defined by our wrap around windows. I follow the swoop and dive of Blue-and-White Swallows. Listen for the soft rhythmic murmur of Eared Doves perched momentarily on our window ledge before our cats startle them away. I scan the pines with a fierce intensity. Look! There! A Sparkling Violetear! And there! A Black-tailed Trainbearer! I watch with hungry delight as the hummingbirds spar and dance in the air.
I learn new names. Spinus magellanicus. Jilguero Encapuchado. The Hooded Siskin with its black head and bright yellow body forages for a moment on a branch and then, in a flash of gold, flits away. Phrygilus plebejus ocularis. Frigilio Pechicenizo. Grey-blue, the Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch stares up at me as his branch sways in the midmorning breeze.
I crane my neck to track a Peregrine Falcon soaring above our building.
Over the past few weeks we have tracked the novel coronavirus as it sweeps across countries, ravaging China, Iran, Italy, Spain. We have watched in disbelief as the U.S., U.K. and Brazil have been slow to recognize the existential threat circulating in our midst.
In Ecuador we believe that our government has acted swiftly though the virus has already slipped like a ruthless band of thieves through our city gates. In a state of alarm, Ecuador closes its borders with two days warning.
As soon as I hear the news, I call my daughter, a college freshman in New York, and tell her to leave immediately. With the help of so many friends, we get her masked and gloved onto planes headed south. But then, a faulty bathroom in her connecting flight leaves her stranded for four hours. The wait is excruciating. She arrives in Florida missing her flight to Quito by minutes. As I write, my dearest first born is marooned in the U.S. In my bones I feel she has been caught on the wrong side of a border, ambushed by an unseen enemy in what promises to be a devastating war.
I obsess on the miserable absurdity of her delay--a broken bathroom! Later, she tells me that her plane was full of raucous “bros” headed for Spring Break. We see them in news footage crowding beaches bragging about their invincibility. “Nothing is going to keep me from partying,” one sunburned blond boasts to the camera.
Five days into quarantine, my beautiful son turns 15. We tele-celebrate. Perched on my phone screen, my daughter sings Happy Birthday to her brother from 4,379 kilometers away. As my son blows out his candles and his sister calls out to him in love, I shut my eyes and with the silken powers of Chagall, I will my beautiful children up over the Andes eastward to the Amazon, back into the forest and into that canoe with the lulling ripple of the Tiputini and the mournful song of the Panguana to comfort us all.
"I pray to the birds,” Terry Tempest Williams writes, “I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.” ("Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place")
I am trying to listen.
* * * * *
I want to tell you a love story.
It is said that in the time before, the w’aka Cuni Raya Viracocha wandered throughout the world searching for his lost love Caui Llaca. He traveled disguised as a beggar and as he searched all over the world, he encountered all kinds of people and creatures, some who treated him well and others who did not. The skunk that told Viracocha that he’d never find Caui Llaca, received a curse. “As for you, because of what you’ve just told me, you’ll never go around in the daytime. You’ll only walk at night, stinking disgustingly. People will be revolted by you.”
But the condor flying high above Viracocha called down to him encouraging him to be strong and take heart for Caui Llaca was just a little ways ahead and Viracocha would surely catch up to her if only he kept going. Viracocha blessed the condor, “You’ll live a long life. You alone will eat any dead animal from the wild mountain slopes, both guanacos and vicuñas, of any kind and in any number. And if anybody should kill you, he’ll die himself, too.”
Filthy, hungry and exhausted, Viracocha approached people working in the fields and asked for food. Some people took pity on him, “Come, grandfather,” they would say, “come rest in the shade of this beautiful tree. Let me bring you some water to wash your face, some chicha, some quinoa soup and potatoes.” “Thank you, my children,” and Viracocha would bless them, and their fields would fill with potatoes, their llamas would give birth and their quinoa harvests would be plentiful.
But others would curse Viracocha when he asked for help. “Get out of here you miserable wretch with your filth and disease!” And they would throw rocks at him and chase him away. Viracocha would grow angry and curse them in return, leaving illness at their door. In their fields, their potatoes would turn to stone, their crops rotted and their animals died. “Whenever he met anyone who gave him good news,” the Huarochirí manuscript tells us, “[Viracocha] conferred on him a good fortune. But he went along viciously cursing those who gave him bad news.”
* * * * *
I want to tell you a love story.
Cuzco, 1621. In his treatise on the extirpation of idolatry in Peru, Pablo José de Arriaga, a Jesuit Spanish inquisitor, describes ritual practices he encountered in the Andes. Worship in Spanish is adorar, to adore, and while Arriaga encounters what he sees as idolatry, what he describes in effect, is Andean adoration--expressions of profound love and active reverence--for the sacred, living land.
Arriaga described how in certain seasons on specific fiestas, Andeans adored Inti, the sun. They adored Quilla the moon. They honored specific stars along with Hillapa or Libiac, lightening. They adored Mamacocha, the sea and Mamapacha, the earth. They adored the Puquois or the springs and in places where there was little water, they asked the springs to not dry up. They adored the rivers and before they crossed the river, they performed a ritual called mayuchulla where they would take some of the water in their hands and ask permission to safely cross the river or to fish in the waters without coming to harm. They loved the Cerros, or high mountains and large rock formations and the rocks themselves, which they called by name…. They adored their Pacarinas, their place of origin, those mountains, springs, rivers and lakes from which the First Man and the First Woman of their people were born.
Coming from a foreign world, oceans away and carrying with him an alienated understanding of our relation to the Earth, Arriaga describes the Andean w’aka world not in love or awe, but rather out of disdain. “All of these things listed above,” Arriaga goes on to write, “are Huaca which they adore as God, and which you cannot remove from their eyes, because these things are fixed, and immobile, and so you must try... to remove these things from their hearts showing them the truth and revealing the lies....”. He describes these practices in advance of equally detailed instructions on how to wipe these rituals out.
Remove the sun, the moon. Remove the earth, the sea. Remove Guagua Pichincha...if not from your eyes, then from your heart. No surprise. This impossible task gives birth to grotesque visions and violence. But this is a longer story--for another time.
Writing earlier, in 1609, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a second generation Incan leader born after the conquest and converted to Christianity, wrote that the term w’aka not only meant a “sacred thing” such as “idols, rocks, great stones or trees which the enemy [meaning Satan] entered to make the people believe he was a god” but, in addition, Andeans “also give the name huaca[w’aka] to things they have offered to the Sun, such as figures of men, birds, and animals…. The same name is given to all those things which for their beauty or excellence stand above other things of the same kind, such as a rose, an apple, or a pippin, or any other fruit that is better or more beautiful than the rest…. On the other hand, they give the name huaca to ugly and monstrous things…the great serpents of the Antis…eerie thing that is out of the usual course of nature, as a woman who gives birth to twins… double–yolked eggs are huaca….”
17th century Andeans described as w’aka those things that provoked love, terror and awe. W’aka included the beautiful and the monstrous, the horrifying and the strange. The term captured objects of art, the exquisitely wrought offerings made and laid in respect and love at sacred sites. It described the springs and mountains, their pacarinas, those living places that gave them birth. It described ancestors and primordial beings who later transformed into revered features of the living land. W’aka traces out the pulsing interwoven fabric of sacred life, the vibrant flow of kinship across the quilted earth.
Over time, after the conquest, people associated w’aka with ancestral burial sites and because of the Spaniards lust for gold, common parlance equated huaca with looted treasure. At the hands of the Spaniards, w’aka objects of art expressing and honoring the most creative, intimate and sacred of connections with all that lives were melted down into bricks and shipped off to Europe as looted treasure. From 1500 to 1650, the Spanish treasure fleets carried an estimated 180 tons of gold and a 16,000 tons of silver from South America to Europe
Today w’aka is a term that looks backward in history, though many contemporary Andeans ritually honor, love and adore the living world around them in ways that resonate with Arriaga’s description.
I am always moved when I read these colonial descriptions of w’aka and the Andean response of love, respect and awe for the mountains, for the springs and the rivers. For the sun, the moon, and the stars. For Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, and Mama Cocha, Mother Ocean.
These are not my ancestors or my cultural heritage. I am the daughter of American Evangelical medical missionaries. I was born to this land through the twisted turns of colonial and neo-colonial history. Like the chicks of migratory birds who have made their homes here, it is my suerte, my damned luck and strange providence, to have been born to the Andes and to have lived as a child in the Amazon. From my experience, this land is both breath-giving and breathtaking. I was born here. My daughter was born here. My mother died here. My life has been sewn into the sacred fabric of this land. I resonate with this Andean concept of w’aka, this word that speaks to the powerful encounter with this beautiful, generous and terrifying earth.
I think about the w’aka world.
The Guacamayo mothers of the Cañari transformed in an act of empathy are w’aka.
The elegant carved stones in the house of praise are w’aka.
The mesmerizing water whistle that conjures birds out of an ancient canopy is w’aka.
My birth volcano, Guagua Pichincha, rising in splendor before me is w’aka.
The thrush’s predawn aria soothing my heart is w’aka.
Is COVID19 w’aka?
* * * * *
Good Friday, April 10, 2020. We are in Day 25 of Quito’s COVID lockdown. The Angel of Death is flying low overhead. Earlier this week we tele-celebrated Pesach with my daughter staying with my brother in Maryland. New York state now has more COVID cases than any single country. Drone footage of mass graves on Hart Island and grotesque images of seeping bodies abandoned on our streets in Guayaquil stream across international news.
In my sorrow and worry, I watch the face of the mountain before me.
Guagua means child and Guagua Pichincha is the son of the sultry and seductive volcano Isabel Tungurahua whose jealous husbands and lovers fight in fiery fury over her. I love Tungurahua. A lifetime ago, I organized funding and my doctoral work so that I could live on her skirts off and on for 7 years. I would hike on her slopes and bury little gifts at sunset just under the surface of the grass. I bathed in her volcanic springs, watched her dance at dawn and at sunset and under the rising moon as the clouds from the Amazon poured past her.
My daughter took form in the midst of her rising volcanic currents.
I adored Tungurahua and then she erupted when I was seven months pregnant and the military evacuated the entire town and threw our little family back onto the flanks of Pichincha where one clear October morning a week later, without warning, Pichincha also erupted and silently threw up a 12 kilometer cloud of ash and gas into the cerulean sky.
These volcanoes are alive. Depending which mountain you live near, Pichincha’s father is either the massive volcano Chimborazo, the tallest mountain on the planet if measured from the center of the earth, or the nearby elegant stratocone Cotopaxi. In Cotopaxi province they say that when the child Guagua Pichincha cries, his father Cotopaxi complains, and his mother Tungurahua responds. These mountains are family.
We live in the ring of fire, along the Avenue of the Volcanoes: 32 volcanoes on our mainland and 15 volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands. You may be familiar with Edwin Church´s paintings The Heart of the Andes or Cotopaxi or perhaps you have seen Alexander von Humboldt's 1807 Tableau Physique mapping the vegetation on the rising flanks of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, tracking the changing range of different creatures living along the flanks of the mountains in relation to altitude. Most certainly you have heard of our life-giving islands in the Galápagos Archipelago that burst up from craters at the bottom of the sea where the beaks of Darwin’s famous finches change shape as they seek nourishment from the plants around them. They evolve, not after centuries of pressure, but in the span of a few short generations allowing their offspring to survive.
Myths of creation in this region reflect this intense eco-diversity. Out of each island, each mountain, each canyon, each forest and river stream, springs new life. So too, myths from this region recount how out of these places new people are born. The myths of creation and transformation endemic to the equatorial Andean region--where, centuries later, Darwin’s observations on the Galapagos islands just off the mainland led to Western theories of natural selection--are mythologies describing MANY creations always in motion where creatures continually transform in relation to place and in relation to one another, in an intricate web of creative interaction and exchange. These biodiverse mythologies describe ethical landscapes of consequence in inter-species relations.
Andean accounts of their Pacarinas and their rooted connection to profoundly biodiverse interrelated places served as one of the greatest obstacles to Catholic conversion and provided a kind of mythic inoculation against the full cultural, theological, ritual and cosmological forces of erasure and re-orientation that a colonizing Christianity proposed. When Catholic priests recounted the Genesis myth of how God created the world and the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, Andeans understood this creation account to be true...for the Spaniards. From the Andean point of view, the story of the Garden of Eden was a mythic account of the foreigner’s Pacarina. Communal rootedness in a biodiverse region where endemic species emerge from mountain peak to mountain peak and from valley to valley and all through the lowlands in between, nurtured a pluralistic ontological mind frame that embraced the existence of multiple interconnected realities and histories where plural truths, identities and experiences can be active all at one time.
In 2008, Ecuador’s congress passed a new constitution encompassing a plural multi-cultural, multi-nation state that reflected Andean and Amazonian cosmological connections to the Earth. It is the first constitution in the world to establish and protect the inherent rights of Nature naming and acknowledging Pacha Mama, our Mother Earth, as a living, evolving being. Article 71 states that “Nature or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and realized, must be respected for its inherent right to existence including the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structures, functions and evolving processes.”
I am moved by this description of Pacha Mama’s rights. I am moved that Ecuador’s congress reflected the biodiverse realities of this region and identified a critical aspect of Nature’s rights as the right to evolve, the right to transform...for this is where I find hope and comfort, in the power of evolution, in the beak of the finch.
As Pulitzer Prize winning author Jonathan Weiner writes in The Beak of the Finch, “The original meaning of the world evolution--the unrolling of a scroll--suggested a metamorphosis, as of moths or beetles or butterflies. But the insects’ metamorphosis has a conclusion, a finished adult form. The Darwinian view of evolution shows that the unrolling scroll is always being written, inscribed as it unrolls. The letters are composed by the hand of the moment, by the circumstances of the day itself. We are not completed as we stand, this is not our final stage. There can be no finished form for us or for anything else alive, anything that travels from generation to generation. The Book of Life is still being written. The end of the story is not predestined. Our evolution continues.”
* * * * *
April 17, 2020. Day 32 of Quito’s COVID19 lockdown. I wake before dawn and check my phone. It opens to my calendar and helpfully reports “no upcoming destinations!” I amble out to the living room and, as the sun rises, I notice something odd in the upper third of our window. For the last few days I thought it was a pale-yellow smudge on the outside of the pane but today I take the time to look more closely and find that the smudge is a clutch of eggs laid on the inside of the glass.
What mother chose this spot for her offspring?
The tiny round eggs have been laid in precise rows, angling together into a mesmerizing pattern. Her creative geometry dazzles me.
What creatures await, their lives unfolding soon to emerge with new eyes to take in the expansive city and the mesmerizing volcano beyond?
I rummage through my storage closets and find a package of picture hangers encased in carton with a small plastic viewing window. It’s perfect. I empty it out, strip off the carton, set the viewing window over the clutch of eggs and seal it with scotch tape. I step back and admire this makeshift incubator. I worry momentarily that they may need fresh air or that perhaps they will scorch from the sun. But what can I do? This is where their mother laid them and this is how I can best watch over them without killing them or risking a mass caterpillar escape through our apartment.
My husband is none too pleased at this plastic contraption—this quirky entomological incubator disrupting our cherished view. It’s true, it isn’t pretty, but I am certain that in a short span of days a world will emerge in this small frame. The opportunity to observe the spawning of new life doesn’t usually fall out of the sky and if it does, and you happen to be in your apartment in a pandemic lockdown, you should thank your lucky stars that you were given front row seats to one of Nature’s glorious mysteries. Plus, it’s not like we will be entertaining guests soon and, as my phone so cogently reminds me, we have no current destination.
* * * * *
Friday, April 24, 2020. Day 7 of Insect Egg Incubation.This is our 6th Shabbat in quarantine. Time is shifting. Already we are forming new rituals. Every Friday night we tele celebrate cross continentally. We hook up Zoom and connect three separate households. My daughter harbored with my brother and sister-in-law in Maryland and my husband’s sister and her wife who dial in from just outside of D.C. In the late afternoon, through the screen of my I-phone, I make challah with my daughter and catch up with my brother in his kitchen.
In this time of our global metamorphosis, a gazillion itty bitty caterpillars have been born on our windowpane held in place by my makeshift incubator. Just in time for Shabbat! I watch them, amazed as they scoot along the glass with the quiet city and sleeping volcano behind them.
At night I dream that my house has been invaded by hundreds of huge, fat white caterpillars. They crawl on the beams, climb up the stairs, pour out of the closets, march in trains out from under the living room rug. I grow concerned. In the dream, I see their mother—a beautiful triangular moth with brown patterns on her wings, fancy red fern antenna and elegant, delicate feet. Fluffy red, white and black stripes decorate her body. She is extraordinary and I am comforted that these fat marching caterpillars overtaking my home are on their way to this brilliant new state of being.
* * * * *
Saturday, April 25. Day 40. In Quito we have completed our cuarentena but the virus is still spreading and we cannot go outside. Quarantine comes from the Italian word “quarenta” meaning 40 and a quarentena refers to the 40 days that ships arriving in Venice would have to wait before disembarking in an effort to protect the city from the spread of the Black Plague. In the Genesis story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights before stopping. After escaping Pharaoh and crossing the Dead Sea, the 12 tribes followed Moses and wandered in the desert for 40 years, lost and murmuring in fury. Before entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days in the desert. The Christian calendar marks 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter and 40 days again from Jesus’ resurrection to his ascension. In the sacred world, the number 40 is mythically important and often connects us to events of forced reflection in an era of tumult, confusion, and radical change.
On this 40th day of lockdown, there is a pathetic poetic resonance to medieval times when, on the news, we watch footage of Donald Trump encouraging scientists to inject patients with detergent or light in order to rid the human body of the virus. I wonder if he will turn next to leeches. In the unending expansion of stubborn willful ignorance, it is clear that we have returned to the Dark Ages and we are in desperate need of light. Clearly, this time of tumult and confusion calls for deeper reflection. I am somewhat amazed that we have made it this far alive.
The morning sun grows stronger and the time comes to move my miniature caterpillar colony into a jar. I am worried that when I open their incubator they will fall onto the floor and happily find my house plants or favorite wool sweaters and devour them in their ravenous hunger. Out of an abundance of caution, I tape a paper bag to the window below the incubator in order to catch any stragglers. I carefully peel off the tape around the plastic viewing window and then use two envelopes to collect the caterpillar babies. I slide them off the paper. Some of the caterpillars spin out fine threads as they fall into the jar. Hungry, hungry caterpillars! I remember reading to my children and a purple collaged face of a caterpillar stares up at me from a distant corner of my imagination.
At a friend’s suggestion, I add in lettuce. I worry about them starving and add a few other kinds of leaves just in case--a broken begonia leaf and two lemon verbena leaves gathered from my indoor potted garden. I measure one of the caterpillars with a clear plastic ruler. 2 millimeters! I watch them scamper along the glass for a long time through the amplified viewing panel of my phone camera. They scrunch along intently, little inchworms unaware of the impermeable borders circumscribing their lives.
* * * * *
Sunday, April 26. Day 41. We wake before dawn and watch the light shift across Pichincha’s slopes. 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 bush, adding it to the jar.
I have been beating back a plague of aphids in my beloved house plants and, unexpectedly, one of the surviving aphids falls into the jar with the twig.
I balance my phone on the rim 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 suddenly chomps on the aphid’s antenna. The aphid jumps back and stumbles away.
Is it curiosity that I have witnessed between them? Hunger? Fear? Surprise? Confusion? Pain?
* * * * *
We cannot evolve in a vacuum. We evolve in cross-personal, cross-cultural, and cross-creatural contact. We evolve through extraordinary bonds of empathy and enmity, in exchanges of appreciation and frustration, in responses to curiosity and fear. We live in a pulsing web of relation. Attracting and repelling, we evolve in an ongoing exchange of blessings and curses, in positive and negative interactions along with another kind. We evolve through our ingenuity, through creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and kinship. And we evolve through competition and trickery and domination and predation and fear.
When I think about evolution and what it might mean for human beings, I am compelled by the ways that creatures survive, adapt and evolve through the ingenious powers of their creative solutions, often through their ability to reach across the species divide and cooperate with another kind. The traits that propel natural selection include: Survival of the creative. Survival of the cooperative. Survival of the welcoming. Survival of the bridge builders. Survival of the observant. Survival of the seductive. Survival of the inclusive. Survival of the artistic. Survival of the resilient. Survival of the strategic. Survival of the flexible. Survival of the colorful. Survival of the transparent. Survival of the musical. Survival of the fragrant. Survival of the generous. Survival of the impervious. Survival of the ingenious. Survival of the bold. Survival of the shy. Survival of the prickly. Survival of the silky. I can go on….
Through the expression of our unique, diverse and astounding gifts, we adapt, transform and evolve communally in relation to the living land and all living things. Each of us plays our part in this collective transformation. Our web of relation spins the world together.
But we find ourselves in deep trouble. We have been witnessing globally a parasitic deformation of an economic and social myth that is devouring us all. Propelled by the lucre lust of a predatory global plutocracy, this zombie mythic mash-up pulses with a twisted Christian heart fetishizing the sacrificial lamb and the protective inoculative blood of Jesus, it feeds on unfettered capitalism and it moves on the faux scientific limbs of Social Darwinism’s survival of the fittest. It justifies a social and economic structure of human domination, predation, control and extermination that privileges the dominant ONE (one person, one group, one nation, one species, one gender, one race, one sexuality, one religion, one creation, one history, en fin...) feeding the devouring maw of consumerism, gluttony and unfettered greed. This disfigured and alienated mythology justifies the predatory elite’s abuse of power over other people, other creatures, and the extended natural world. We are witnessing a mythic zombie invading host bodies on a global scale--whether individuals, religious communities, political parties, or corporations.
I watch in fury as the w’aka world is reduced to extracted, looted treasure.
I am reminded of the zombie Amazonian fungi, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that creeps through the body of its ant host until it finally takes over the ant’s brain controlling the ant’s every movement in order to maximize the spread of its toxic spores. Or the Leucochloridium paradoxum, another zombie parasite that cycles through birds and snails. The snails ingest the parasite by eating bird shit. Once infested, the parasite makes its way through the snail’s body into its head where the larva infests its eyes in a pulsing writhing ball, blinding the snail. Controlled by the parasite, the snails climb trees and then, these creatures who usually prefer the shade of the forest floor, seek out the sunlight where the birds find them and eat their eyes.
During the COVID19 pandemic, we can see this grotesque mythic beast inspiring political leaders to proclaim that they will sacrifice their lives to COVID19 for their children’s economic security. It propels the ultra-wealthy to fund protests riling up the Christian right and the white middle class and poor, to revolt against state quarantines in the United States inspiring protestors to risk their lives and, in a macabre irony, hold up a sign in Tennessee that reads, “Sacrifice the weak.”
I remember Yeats.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
* * * * *
Years ago, when I was living on Tungurahua’s slopes studying Andean mythologies and ritual relationships to mountains, I read an interview by Joseph Bastian of an Aymara woman who described her community’s relationship to Kaata, their home mountain and pacarina, their place of origin. I think about her observations all the time. We are like the mountain and the mountain is like us, she said. We feed the mountain and the mountain feeds us. In a cycle of nourishing exchange the mountain provides its bounty. We eat from the mountain and at some point, our bodies return to the land and the mountain, in turn, will also be satisfied; the mountain will eat us. The Aymaran woman described a reciprocal cycle of balance, gratitude, nourishment, love, appreciation, responsibility, respect and exchange.
Now as I watch Pichincha before me, I am absorbed by this cycle of nourishment and gratitude. I think about my beloved Tungurahua, so many kilometers from here, as I watch the evening colors shift across her son’s sensuous slopes. The constant sift of veils rise and fall, glisten, go slack, clear, gather and then drop in a heavy dull slate, then momentarily illuminate, resplendent, glowing purple, orange, gold and then silver and back to creams, blue grays and purples once again. I am deeply grateful to this mountain that nourishes my spirit even now in my COVID lockdown. I write and wonder what more I can do in return.
And I grieve, for the cycle has slid off its axis. In our unstoppable greed, we have abandoned our role and responsibility in this mutual relationship of respect, care and nourishment. The wheel of time and consumption spins ever faster and faster as we ceaselessly devour the earth.
Yeats’s falcon spirals above us.
We devour the mountain and …? We abuse another and …? We curse another and …? The weight of ellipses lingers above us. Its impending slice grazes our necks.
Then suddenly, surprise! Here we are! Stopped in our tracks! Locked down!
Stomach turning images of China’s wet markets have now been replaced by satellite images of mass graves in Iran. Drone images of mass graves in New York. Containers full of oozing cardboard coffins in our own Guayaquil streets. Stunned and stilled into submission, we watch in horror as earth’s microbial emissaries threaten and consume us.
Ellipses complete! Indeed. When we devour the earth, the earth will surely devour us.
And here I am--like many of you--strangely safe with my cats and my houseplants and my new terrarium of caterpillars, holed up with my husband and son in my Andean eyrie, witnessing through a flat screen this mind bending suffering where the most physically, socially and economically vulnerable of our human community are dying, along with so many of our brave and knowledgeable healing warriors. Alone. In isolation. En masse...while the rest of us watch from our sofas.
And--like many of you--in the midst of this cataclysm I find comfort and nourishment in the avian aria at dawn and the drama of clouds rising and falling across the rugged flanks of my mountain.
It is impossible to reconcile.
I read the news. The banks of a river in our cloud forest has collapsed tearing down with it pipelines carrying oil out of the Amazon. At least 15,800 barrels of heavy crude now flows through the Coca and Napo rivers poisoning the waters of Yasuni, the most biodiverse corner of the Amazon. It is the biggest oil spill in the region in more than a decade. Over 120,000 people are affected. 120 Amazonian communities face a triple threat of seasonal floods, COVID19 and now this massive oil spill killing the fish and poisoning the land. Months ago, assessments of the pipeline identified erosion on the riverbank. The assessments pinpointed the risk of collapse. No one acted. This was totally preventable.
I read the news and see that on the world’s market, petroleum has lost all value.
It is impossible to reconcile.
Here in Quito, above empty streets, I breathe in sweet air and think of Pacha Mama resting. The sea turtles nesting. The incessant tremor of human noise quieting...if only for a time. But what a time! The world has slowed back to a rhythm that beats in concert with my heart.
I count all the ways that COVID19 acts as an emissary of evolution, as a powerful immune response pushing back against sustained assaults and all that ails our beloved earth--an intelligent surgical strike against a lethal onslaught, a strategic pushback against a persistent and sustained deadly parasitic threat--our greedy, gluttonous, blind, self-absorbed, misplaced, misinformed, deadly human kind.
We devour the earth. The earth will devour us.
Scientists have told us that destruction of habitat and abuse of wildlife has brought COVID19 into our midst and makes us more vulnerable for the next pandemic.
The microbial message is brutal and clear: ¡Ubícate!
To survive and thrive, we must understand our proper place in this shimmering, pulsing w’aka web of life. We must reconfigure our relation to the communal human and more than human world or suffer--AS A SPECIES, AS A PLANET--the devastating consequences that arise in response to this fundamental human misunderstanding and resulting imbalance. We must move. We must step off our deadly predatory pedestal and stop devouring everything in our range. We must change our relation to the world, change our behavior, activate empathy, collectively evolve.
Die or transform.
This observation is not new. It has grown stale. It is worn.
I lift my eyes to the hills and pray. From whence cometh my help?
Ever despairing and ever hopeful, I think of my itty bitty caterpillars and wonder if perhaps NOW in our confinement, as we squirm inside our forced cocoons, we will respond to this existential pressure and evolve. Perhaps NOW, forever chastened, we will learn our lesson and scale down, forced to emerge with new forms of moving, seeing, acting, feeding, feeling, touching, relating and being.
We must be conscious and intentional. Who will we choose to be? What new gifts will we treasure and express? How will we relate to one another? What are we willing to leave behind? What is this new world that we will call, collectively, into being? Through the window of this time we must pause and ask ourselves, how can we change?
We must act. We must intentionally and collectively evolve. In answer to our despair, we must reach out and realign our relation to the wondrous w’aka world.
And so, in this w’aka moment when our lives have grown at once chaotic and still, I turn for guidance to the myths born from this generous land that gave birth to me. I turn to my mountain, to Guagua Pichincha, to Pacha Mama, to this most beautiful and biodiverse luminescent sliver of our Mother Earth. I remember the time when waters erased the face of the earth and two brothers climbed to the top of their mountain and survived because Guacamayo sisters reached out in compassion across the species divide. I remember the skunk, cursed for his indifference and cruelty in the face of another’s suffering. I remember the condor, blessed for giving hope to a destitute beggar as he searched for his lost love in a foreign land.
On my Facebook feed someone posts a video of a pair of endangered condors soaring through cerulean skies over Quito’s silent airport.
My heart aches in joy. My heart aches in longing.
My heart aches in absolute despair.
I think of Yeats and his reeling birds. I think of Viracocha and his blessing.
I sing and pray to the birds.
May those who have ears, hear.
I sing and pray to the birds.
May those who have life, transform.
 Ibid., 49.
 Pablo José de Arriaga, La Extirpación de la idolatría en el Perú [1621, ser. 2, vol.1 of Colección de libros y documentos referentes a la historia del Perú, ed. Horacio H. Urteaga (Lima: Imprenta y Librería San Martín, 1920), 19-21.
 Ibid., 22.
 El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru , trans. Harold V. Livermore (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987), I: 76–77.