A Natural Hothouse

Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador

There isn’t a way for me to know from experience how it would feel to have been born somewhere near the equator and later move to the northern temperate zone. But it is powerfully clear how the equator feels to someone who comes from nearly half-way to the north pole. Especially after working outdoors at comparatively heavy labor to plant paja macho grass and muyullo tree stakes for Planet Drum Foundation’s revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. 

The sun is directly overhead much of the time here in a way that is only typical of summer in the northern temperate area. On a cloudless day, it emits penetrating heat that is reminiscent of being too close to a steam radiator in a New York apartment building. In the shade, whatever air movement that happens to exist contrarily blows occasional puffs of heat across the face and arms. In open places, the sun imprints a burning spot on any part of the body it touches. The top of the head when hatless is perhaps the most susceptible because heat rolls off of it downward like a hot shower. Your knees can buckle when standing up fast. I’m sitting indoors writing this while looking out at glaring white light on the sidewalk. Some men walking by have their shirts rolled upward to mid-chest. It’s only 9:30 AM and sweat is running freely from my neck. 

Plants grow with a lushness, speed, profusion, and diversity that is unfamiliar in most other places. These are greenhouse conditions. The high-wattage light bulb of the sun rises in practically the same spot every day. It also sets regularly in the same place. Every day is the same length, and so is every night. It’s hot enough during both periods to perspire without moving.

This is the four-five months rainy season when downpours, cool only in contrast, are followed by heat that bakes water out of the soil and into the air as though wet dough in an oven was becoming bread. The effective humidity during this process is palpable like a sponge damp with hot water pressed against the body. Walking feels almost like rowing against the hot, soggy air.

The effects of this climate on humans and plants came together as an illuminating tandem during a replanting session three days ago. We worked on the face of a seventy-five degree slope, nearly lying on the ground. Paja macho clumps had been carefully chopped out of a large native stand nearby. They were then divided into single stalks with some roots attached by twisting the clump, not an easy task with this grass whose name implies rugged toughness. We took a handful of paja macho and a muyullo stake and walked to where the trail came close to the slope, and then edged with spider-like carefulness onto the bare, soft clay slope. A plunge of the stake made a perfect-size hole for placing grass at half-foot distances in a line across the face of the slope. 

“When you’re done, you plant the stake! Can you imagine any better way,” said Nicola, working just above me planting two rows at a time, the distance between her fully stretched-out thigh and the ground forming fifteen degrees of clear space when she reached above her head to place grass in the upper row. 

“Using native plants. That came from the same locale where we’re replanting. With the sun out after the first rains. In damp soil that would erode otherwise. With a crew from the barrio. This is it! Marcelo, oro puro (pure gold)!” I yelled down the line to where Marcelo and some others were placing muyullo stakes (that had already begun sprouting small green leaves) in yard-long spaces along the lines of grass. When we finished, there were hundreds of stalks and stakes dotting the naked slope. Below this spot on more level ground there were stakes of hobo and seedlings of algarrobo trees to encompass about a hectare (two and a half acres). 

We had spent three hours in the late afternoon sun, and as I walked back to our starting point my whole body sagged. It was an act of will to walk erect or in a straight line. I smiled stupidly, euphoric and exhausted in the same moment. Heat was draining energy away through the soles of my feet, and it was replaced with a revelation of the links between plants and soil, climate and sweat, barrio and wildness, and the separate but united identity of the workers. Even though I slumped to sit on the ground in the shade, shirt completely soaked with sweat and feeling waves of dizzying internal tightness, all of the problems to get to this point were negligible compared to the time-scale and meaning of what we had just done. Human faults and errors, personality conflicts, cultural gulfs, even overwhelming social problems, were on a different level compared to the vastly embracing reality of plants. 

Grass grows fastest. For two or three years it will cover the slope so that more rain rolls off and less of it saturates the soil. Trees will grow taller, much faster than in less tropical places, and eventually shade out most of the grass, but by then the native tree roots will start to tightly grip the soil. When heavy rains come again, and this may be sooner and even greater than previously because of global weather changes, drops of water will diffuse more evenly when they strike millions of tree leaves. The remaining grass and several species of shrubs that we’ll plant later when the seedlings are tall enough will cause much of the rain to run off. Even if an excess of water enters and the soil saturates more than normally, a deep continuous web of tree roots will help hold it back from sliding much more than a retaining wall could. 

The most magical aspect of the process of natural succession from grasses to a thick grove of trees and bushes is the shifting habitat that will be made for a chain of indigenous species. From rodents to possibly mascota, the large spotted cat of the dry tropical forest. Accompanied by various birds and butterflies at different phases along the way. 

Yesterday we started another section that we’re calling Station II. It adjoins the first part and has even more wreckage of houses that slid. There’s a cement staircase running from top to bottom of the slide area that has been shifted, lifted and broken in at least five places. We’ll leave it, Marcelo says, “As a sacred memorial to those who were killed.” I have the spooky feeling of being at the birth of a ruin that will puzzle future archeologists. 

Station II is at the edge of an even steeper slope that is the boundary of an “invasion” (squatter) green banana garden plot. While Marcelo and I twisted apart blades of paja macho, a shy girl of the squatter shack came out and pretended to play with a hammer while she watched us. Marcelo left to meet up with a group of thirty uniformed students from Eloy Alfaro high school who we could see walking up the road on the opposite side of the barrio canyon to meet us. I asked the girl’s name and learned that she was Monica and thirteen years old, the average age of the students. Poverty thin and shoeless, a life-shaping chasm existed between her and them. I brought a bag of grass clumps to where she was sitting on a half-burned log and showed her how to twist off one blade with some roots attached. She was immediately proficient at it. I asked if she had been one of the children in Flor-Maria’s new Ecology Club and she nodded with a quiet, “Si.” While we worked she asked if the students were coming to this place by her shack. They were her only spontaneously spoken words. I told her that they were and asked if she would join us. She stared ahead silently. We finished the bag of clumps and waited without talking. 

Eduardo led his class carrying stakes and more grass clumps. They quickly over-ran the small station, standing perilously in a line along the edge of the steep slope. “Cuidado (careful),” I told them, imagining a dozen boys in khaki pants and white shirts with ties tumbling down together with girls in sailor shirts and dark blue skirts. Marcelo stood below the slide area and looked upward instructing them with playful gestures and jokes about planting grass and muyullo. Then they formed an amazing bucket brigade to pass plants along an angled line of fifty feet from the top to the bottom of the slide face, leaving piles at various points. When they began putting plants into the soil, another eighteen students of the same age but in different uniforms from Miguel Malverde school at the bottom of the barrio filed through the wreckage from across the canyon to join us. At least two hundred and fifty paja macho blades and probably an equal number of muyullo stakes were planted in less than an hour. We have a total of five to six acres of our wild corridor planted at this time. 

I looked for Monica but couldn’t find her during the instruction period. Then I called into her shack when the students began planting. She eventually came to the door and listened to my entreaties to work with us impassively. She answered by shutting the door. But later she reappeared at the edge of the group. I don’t want to project my own suppositions, but if it had been me at that hugely self-conscious age, I would have felt like an outcast in spite of any adult’s urging, much less a gringo who spoke Spanish as though it was coming out of a shredder. She vanished again after a short period. Maybe we’ll see her when we come back to finish there and move on to establish Station III tomorrow. Getting Monica involved more deeply would be a bonus from our work whose value to her can only be guessed.

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