Monday, October 29, 2007

Two Kinds of Terror

The rain forest is a impious Mass whose chords have nothing to do with human music.

Standing at the easel studying the landscape, I realize that converting this visual cacophony into an “artistic composition” requires willful incomprehension. There is no subject here, only a density of detail. Dynamic lines and suggestive forms abound, but to comb clarity from the tangle, to make the impure immaculate, is to misconstrue. People like to differentiate and rank to make order; it is said to be an ancient need to differentiate prey from camouflage or a modern need to build the ego by distinguishing it from everything else. But these evolutionary strategies and psychological accommodations do not separate fact from fiction. The truth about art is here in the rainforest; the world is competitive chaos and artworks that represent the world as a series of discreet and understandable moments are lies. And artists are nothing more than agents of denial and perpetrators of delusion!

It would be treachery to represent this in the traditional manner, and isolate a few forms from the morass and enshrine them in layers of smoothly unfolding space. No, the truth is that there is little middle ground or deep space in the jungle. All is compressed into a block of foreground which is itself sliced into infinite parallel planes, each with it’s own drama.

It’s deceitful to separate the mist…

from the leaf,

or the leaf from the butterfly,

or the butterfly from the light,

or the light from the water,

or the water from the root,

or the root from the tree,

or the tree from the owl,

or the owl from the prey. Making a comprehensive picture of this anarchy is impossible. This is all too much. I’m overwhelmed. I’m going to lunch. Damn, I stepped on the grasshopper.

This morning a million red-bottomed ants hurry to the forest floor via the highway. The opposing 4 lanes of this 8 lane intrastate are not side by side, but superimposed, so on-coming traffic is either dodged or mounted. Dead leaves, whose empty veins are the last to rot, pave the road in slippery shades. A finger sized stick, stripped and smooth on one end and flowering with mold on the other, is easily traversed by this living stream of air breathing invertebrates, who hook and climb in unison to make a knobby ribbon of thoraxes and abdomens that arc over the cylinder on six-times-a-million legs.

Upon arrival they spread out to recover the dead and pillage the living. A squad reconnoiters a lace-winged grasshopper crushed by a careless human step. Since the carcass is too large to recover whole, a division of labor is imposed and an artful dismemberment is commenced. The juice of the head is already being sucked by a dozen small beetles, so labor is focused on removing the legs and sectioning the abdomen for transport. Within an hour nothing but a little stain is left and the red-assed squad is headed to base carrying a hind leg. Since the limb is awkwardly long and the serrations along its length catch easily, the load is assigned to three ants who enter traffic carrying the leg like a telephone pole on an eighteen-wheeler. Up to speed in the cruising lane, the leg-transport team is passed by a speeding group of eight who carry a whole millipede raised like the Madonna in a holy day procession. All march safely home and the forest floor is swept clear for the next bit of protein to fall.

Monday, October 22, 2007


The forest nearby is mixed growth. Thirty years ago this forest was cleared to raise cattle, but many of the most impressive trees were left for shade. The ranching was abandoned fairly quickly and now vigorous young plants compete with the towering old growth.

Through this forest passes a stony road, which is under siege by the jungle. Over the edges of the lane, the biomass bulges to reclaim the light and space. The soil is shallow and trees are easily unmoored by the tropical storms which routinely sweep through, dropping leaves as big as baby blankets, and white trunks, like bleached carcasses, into the road.

One morning I set up my easel on the side of the lane, when a thin man appeared at the bend and began to clear the road. As he worked, he kept his body low, torso parallel to the ground so that his machete could sweep an inch above the surface, neatly slicing grass at the root. Sometimes he straightened and used a rod held in his left hand to position shoots for severing by the blade in his right. Bending at the waist, he also used the rod to push refuse to the side and the tip of the machete to impale large debris and flip it into the bush. He was dressed in long green pants, rubber boots and a rust-colored tee shirt and as he progressed toward me, I noticed the toughened complexion and enlarged joints of an older man. The skin of his face, pulled tight over his skull, was stretched irregularly around a damaged right eye. The asymmetry of his face, however, did not confuse the benignly sober look he gave me when he arrived at my easel and introduced himself as Antonio. Since I don’t speak Spanish, our greeting was as incomplete as an embrace without arms.

Through gesture he asked to see what I was painting and I showed him a composition inspired by an orange-dotted butterfly that had been commuting between us. He smiled and laughed a little over the image and said that it was good. In pantomime, I returned the complement and praised the efficiency of his work. We bowed and smiled and got back to our tasks, now companions.

By noon he had cleared one side of a half mile of road. After lunch as the temperature and humidity continued to climb, he began on the other side, adeptly defining an edge between road and jungle. On his return trip down the road, he stopped again to check on my progress. I looked at Antonio, who was dry and calm, through spectacles fogged by water that gushed from my brow and cascaded merrily over my nose. Although he registered my distress, he did not embarrass me by noting it. Once again he complemented the picture, and returned to his work.

As he moved down the road, I realized that Antonio’s performance was one of the most poised I have ever seen. The action, clearing a mile of road in a day, was well defined, necessary and challenging. The pacing of the event was hypnotically engrossing. His stately rhythm was a result of a body perfectly attuned to its climate. The movement was elegant. Each of his gestures was composed to cut and clear without waste. His understanding of the heft, hardness and edge of his tools was absolute and, consequently, never awkward. In contrast to my sweaty performance under the mixed canopy that day, Antonio demonstrated that grace is self-made not bestowed.

Monday, October 15, 2007


In Quito I chose to stay at the Swissotel. Anxious about living in a place in which multiple inoculations are recommended, I chose the hotel for the antiseptic reputation of the managers, the Swiss.

The room was what I had requested, a chilled, tan asylum in which noise, germs, noxious gases, and strangers were effectively blocked. Except for an oblique view of the Andes, I could have been in any good hotel on earth.

I left Quito for Amazonia in a Mercedes diesel van, piloted by Raoul. If willing to drive at 100 km an hour over dirt roads and dodge potholes that could challenge an avid spelunker, one can leave the labyrinth of Quito and reach the Oriente, the Ecuadorian Amazon, in 4 hours.

For the first hour we climbed through the Andes to a dry summit, miles above sea level. The next three hours were spent rolling down mountainsides, testing for the point at which the friction of the tires was trumped by the inertia of the bus to send us rocketing through a line of space instead of hugging a curve in the road.

On the Oriente side of the summit, the scrub changed from tan to olive.

Then we passed through a cloud…

and the forest appeared.

The Tres Marias , three ribbons of spray and foam, fell from unencumbered heights to the warm and untidy valley floor.

Within just a few hours we had dropped thousands of feet and entered the tropics.

I was greeted by the very friendly staff of the Cabanas, who have been taking excellent care of me, the hapless gringo. But the first night was rough and nearly ended this Amazon adventure. Before dinner, sitting on the second story porch of the cabana, I heard rustling in the roof. Nested between corrugated sheet metal and the wooden slats of the ceiling is a colony of bats, who with wing flapping and butt thumping, scoot through the tight space to emerge into the coming night to feast on fruit and insects. Unnerved by the proximity of so many omnivores, I humored myself with the thought that I will not need a clock to know when it is the cocktail hour. After an excellent dinner of chicken, rice, fried plantain and a jug of fresh tamarind juice, I browsed the guest book. Most of the entries extolled the delights of sleeping to jungle sounds, eating fresh local foods, and conversing with the wonderful staff.

I was, however, haunted by one brief entry which read, “I survived”.

I returned for the night to my hot Cabana, and showered under the cool, rain-fed tap half expecting a tarantula to drop on my head. As it turns out, the shower is communal, but so far my only bath mate has been a frisky tree frog, who makes comic splats as he careens from wall to wall. In equal measure distressed and amused by bats, frogs, and the cryptic words of a guest gone by, I climbed into the sheets with a book. The attack of the bugs was immediate, merciless, and focused on my exposed head and neck and arms. Anxiety level rising and tolerance dropping, I switched off the light. The attacks continued through the night, but at a slower pace. At 4 AM, when the bats returned from carousing, something large landed in my ear. I jumped up to swat the wasp off the pillow, and was stung for the effort. “Be calm, Mike. In the morning, you can caulk and disinfect and reestablish a barrier between you and the vivid world”.

Back in bed, I settled to the sound of light rain, which quickly escalated into a deluge. The rain continued to build until it overwhelmed the roof and began to drip on the foot of the bed, which I didn’t sense until a volume of disturbingly rich brown water penetrated the sheets and soaked the mattress, giving notice to my toes. The wetness was trial enough, but when I realized that the exceptionally fertile juice that was leaking from the ceiling was a liquor of seasoned bat guano, I decided to leave the tropics and get back to the sanitary Swiss. But by noon the next day, the windows were sealed and the roof repaired, and patience and hope were restored.

This difficult night was a lesson about boundaries and the materials from which they are made. In the modern Swissotel, the boundaries are made of steel and glass and are impermeable. Air can not penetrate those defenses without mechanical aid. Here in the Oriente, the boundaries are made of wire mesh, whose gauge is small enough to keep out the large predators, but ample enough to let everything else penetrate the senses. I’ve adjusted to the scratching of bat feet, slowed my own pace to accommodate the heat and improved my bug management skills. And for the effort, I am getting a daily reward.

After finishing a lunch desert of sweet, tree tomatoes and sugar cane syrup that was made by Rita with the wicked laugh, I am currently sitting in a thatched, two-story viewing platform overlooking the Rio Napo. Two ants are crawling around the computer screen and three volcanoes, Sumaco, Antisana and Cotopaxi punctuate the river view. Earlier, a cartoon butterfly drifted up from the river on six inch wings of cobalt blue. A bird calls “whoo plop” in the distance and another one screams like a terrified child. Nearby, a Yellow-rumped Cacique is making a ridiculous, “loud, liquid schweeooo, with a downscale skeek, weer, and wrup”*. Black with school-bus-yellow back and rump, the Caciques dive from the cliff on which I sit to the island in the river below, where five women are slowly moving a net through the backwater for fish. It’s hot, but not like yesterday, when my sweat glands opened like fire hydrants on the streets of the lower east side in July. The thunder has started up, and it’s starting to rain.

It’s stupid to romanticize the natural world since it would just as soon eat you as it would enchant you. So it’s good to have protective barriers. But the energy intensive barricades that protect middle class Americans like me have become too isolating. Especially since the Bushies have shamelessly made fear the driving force in America. That awful first night in the Oriente was a tool, a blunt but effective one, that ripped a few holes in my defenses to let in a less filtered and more pungent life.

*(Hilty and Brown, “Birds of Columbia” ).

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Avenue of the Volcanoes, Ecuador

The descent into Quito was brief, since the city sits 2 miles in the air. The plane approached the airport from the north, slipping past the line of volcanoes that stretch the length of the Andean plateau. Upon landing I hopped into the hotel van. At the first red light, a man popped in front of the van, drank deeply from a glass bottle filled with clear liquid, and with a flick of a lighter, blew a 6 foot flame. The next day a talented pair of jugglers tried a similar but less spectacular ploy for getting cash from drivers who were waiting for the light to change.

Quito is a city of two million people, who have cast a net of irregular roads over a mountain valley. The spaghetti bowl of streets is jammed with cars, trucks and buses. The clouds of exhaust and the low regard of drivers for pedestrians makes walking through town an unappealing option.

But I didn’t know the disadvantages of walking until I had committed to seeing the town on foot. There are a number of grand churches, and graceful plazas in Quito, but it is the light that is the most striking. Because of the altitude, the sunlight is blue-white like the blinding light of a welder’s arc.

At the edge of the Plaza Grande, under an enormous stone cross, is the entrance to an Andy Warhol exhibition. Armed guards are posted at the entrance. Since militia have been present at most every museum and store I have entered, I asked an Ecuadorian friend what this was all about. He said that armed gangs of Columbians have entered the country and will rob any place with cash on the premises. I asked an American who lives here the same question, and he said that it is armed gangs of Ecuadorians who are the thieves. In this version the Columbians have become a convenient scapegoat for home grown problems resulting from extreme educational and economic inequities. The truth most likely lies between the two accounts.

I passed on the Andy Warhol, but I had a wonderful visit to the Banco Central Del Ecuador Museo Nacional, which houses a collection of Ecuadorian art from the Pre-Columbian to the present. The collection of pre-colonial Ecuadorian sculpture is thrilling. There is a clay plaque of a family -- Mom, Dad and the kids, with arms thrown around each other, looking like a snapshot from a happy holiday. Nearby there is a long-necked vessel, whose base is a full-size, human foot, with fat, wiggling toes. And there is this wonderful being above (La Tolita Region), with snakes and gnarly teeth, whose faceted face supports the notion that representation of multiple times and spaces is not unique to the cubists. Since I know nothing about these cultures, I can’t say more than that I admire the intelligent and inventive representation of human passion.

The modern representation of passion is less convincing.

But fortunately, there is love in the streets of Ecuador. So skip the modern art collections.

David handles the communications and bookings for Cabanas that is my ultimate destination and he kindly offered to show me around the Andean Plateau which has…

lovely lakes and llamas by fertile fields and cloud capped volcanoes.
We drove to the market in Otavalo to look around.

David pointed out a chess set of Incas and Conquistadors.

The collection of turtle shells and human skulls was eye catching as was…

the array of cooking spoons and …

the people who know things I can’t imagine.

We drove to Ibarra for lunch, and ate in a mall. The mall could have been anywhere in the world, except that the fast food restaurant served ceviche. Ibarra is known for it’s annual fox hunt, which was happening as we arrived. The event is modeled on the English sport, but in this version the fox is replaced by a masked bandit and the riders’ pinks are exchanged for South American cowboy gear. The event is popular with young people who turn out for massive tailgate parties that extend into a night of dancing.

On the return to Quito, I stood on the equator, one foot in the North and the other in the South.

It was a miraculous day.