Close Call, Solemn Solstice

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador 

Burro droppings and a partially gnawed algarrobo sapling. These powerful auguries must have been left just after we left the day before. They were in a planting site that although begun during the rainy season we had only now started to dig the first postholes for a protective fence. Renee and Bevan saw these signs of potential disaster when they luckily returned the next day and with the help of two volunteers from another project finished setting posts and stringing three strands of wire to complete the enclosure. 

This revegetation site occupies part of a bluff above the new flood control drainage canal in the Jorge Lomas barrio of Leonidas Plaza suburb that adjoins Bahia de Caraquez, and it is a classic. A mixture of dry tropical forest trees were used: durable algarrobo (a fast-growing relative of Southwest Desert mesquite), soil-improving guachapeli, and a local favorite but more slow-growing hardwood, black guayacan. They were meticulously placed at the bottom of several slumps on this denuded area in such a way as to bolster the two to four feet high faces of potential slides that might otherwise progress to the edge and slide over the bluff if they weren’t held back in this way. The young trees are over a meter apart so that when fully grown there won’t be severe crowding of the canopies. Sides of the site were outlined with plants as well, and when both parts of the design mature they will join the surrounding stand of intact trees to form a complete forest up to the lip of the bluff. 

What a maddening waste of both Brian’s and Renee’s creative expertise and all of the volunteer time it would have been to lose this site to burros, horses, cattle, or native animals desperate for wet green succulence during the upcoming bone-dry months! It was as close as I ever want to come to dealing with that particular variety of disappointed frustration. Instead, we glow with the delicious pridefulness of having been right about installing the fence in this spot, and choosing barbed wire in spite of its expense, even when the tightly compacted clay soil proved nearly as hard as digging into bricks.

Working remote sites such as this has built-in challenges that seriously contend with revegetating the most effective places along a six kilometers long strip that will dissolve in mud slides unless trees are planted. Our transportation usually starts with a bus ride carrying tools, water, compost, and saplings. The cost of only eighteen cents each is a break but the trip can be as long as twenty-five minutes both ways to devour about an hour of the workday. Then comes an inevitable hike to the site. Because erosion is often worst near the steepest points of a watercourse, the walk in carrying everything we’ll need is usually as long or longer than to the furthest house along the road or trail. As a final trek, there’s most likely a climb up a slope that might be a fifty per cent grade or greater to a place chosen as most suitable for plantings. After achieving this high point there will be trips back and forth to the bottom to carry up whatever materials are called for in the stages of digging holes, filling them with compost, placing plants, and watering. 

Despite the effort or because of succeeding at it, this work can be satisfying at a level shared by few other direct involvements with growing things. There are as frequent natural encounters that are usually associated with wilderness expeditions: outrageously colored butterflies, rarely seen birds, animal signs of all kinds, strangely shaped trees, unusual leaves, unexpected footfalls, and too many other first-time events to recount. Simultaneously, you know with unequivocal certitude how hard it is to complete each job. It is a physical truth absorbed while overcoming obstructions and disregarding fatigue as though mountaineering instead of planting a kind of garden in a natural setting. You surprise yourself with the thought that although people would generally agree that this effort is needed, few of them would actually do it, or could even understand how difficult it is to do.

The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the winter solstice in the Southern, but at the equator has a little of both without resembling either. Bahia is only a few minutes of latitude below the planet-dividing line. When the solstice moment came at 14:57 in the afternoon on June 20th, a sunny, hot day suddenly clouded over and an unlikely cold wind began to blow. Our days have been like this sometimes without a special planetary event, so it wasn’t too unexpected even if a little eerie about the timing. Sunset seemed to be coming neither later nor earlier than usual, and .the tide was headed out at about the normal rate. I walked on the beach seeing black and white aquatic birds with red feet that I had never noticed, perfectly camouflaged crabs that only gave themselves away when they moved and therefore evolved contrary to their bright red, skittish cousins and stand calmly motionless only inches away, spiny clams who stick into the mud as the tide recedes, and frigate birds in steadily increasing numbers performing the exquisite play of riding thermals and breezes from the ocean-facing cliffs upward in the highest spiraling columns possible.  

When I returned the sun showed partially below the cloudbank for only a few seconds before leaving our small group of would-be celebrants in growing darkness and cold. The still-wet surfer in the group began shivering and his skin turned blue-white resembling marble in a shadow. The wind grew too high for a planned fire on the beach. Summer/winter solstice 2004 at the equator turned out to be a time for melancholy, almost a visit to pay respects in a cemetery for passed on years.

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