Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
It is tempting to dwell on the difficulties of pioneering dry tropical forest revegetation because the obstacles and challenges are a kind of earth news. Reporting them is a way to spread the whys and hows of carrying out work that is urgently necessary but involves truly arduous effort. There is a high spirit of creativity that goes along with it that also needs to be told. This élan comes from the inventive way a day unfolds as the requisite problems of practicing a craft in a unique way are countered. From the moment we walk out the door to become engaged with one of the field sites, we begin responding to conditions as they are found, and the process of discovery and spontaneous interaction that comes into play occupies and rewards our consciousness completely.
At the vivero (greenhouse) this morning Renée and I first emptied a twenty-five liter can of organic garbage that we had carried out on the bus from our office/apartment onto the ample compost pile. This sounds funkier than it is because no one minds (live chickens and pails of shrimp sometimes accompany other passengers) and there is even a space for this behind the driver. Besides, the fare collector automatically helps put the container on and off in spite of the odor. In six months or so using only our household can and kitchen waste from the University Catholica cafeteria, this pile produced enough finished compost to half-way fill the trench that stretches the length of the greenhouse, about eight large rice sacks worth. While Renée turned on the faucet for the watering hose, I discovered a cow pile just two meters from the greenhouse door and retrieved a shovel to toss the cause of concern about another group of animals getting at our plants onto the compost pile as well.
Once inside we were alarmed at how much the vigorous and luxuriant leaved native Fernan Sanchez tree seedlings had outgrown their shallow seedbed. The depth of their roots into the solid clay soil underlying a few inches of compost on top of the bed was unknown since growing this species is a new experience.
I used a trowel to make an experimental circle three or four inches from the largest of the overgrown seedlings while Renée was occupied with watering the rest of several hundred plants growing in beds or already in maturing sacks on their way to becoming plantable saplings. (Watering had been the ostensible reason for the trip before overgrown Fernan Sanchez upstaged the morning’s original purpose.) The trowel blade was completely buried before gentle prying back and forth finally caused the stem to move, a bad sign since it meant the root was at least as deep as the length of the trowel. When the whole plant finally responded to steady pressure and swayed with each prying movement, it was levered out of the ground.
That was the first time I saw how Fernan Sanchez grew by producing a deep taproot that for this particular individual was at least half a foot long. The dry orange clay it had aggressively bored through fell away, leaving the surprisingly lengthy main root with its whiskers of surrounding root hairs completely bare. Fortunately, there is a sack of large size bags kept close to the beds and I rushed to get one for placing the plant safely back into soil, but this time in a container that would be filled with a rich growing mixture. Renée helped hold the sides of the bag apart and smooth the dirt to cover the root. We added water before carrying the plant in its new maturing medium over to a vacant space on the greenhouse floor to start a section for these transplants.
Although quick work was obviously needed to resolve the problem before roots of twenty-five or so remaining plants would continue to grow at who knew what speed and ultimately require some kind of major earth removal, I felt there needed to be more tests with various techniques before getting the rest of them out of the ground less perilously. For the second attempt I dug deeper until the trowel handle was partially buried. This permitted a clump of soil to remain around part of the root system. The third trial was without the small trowel but instead using a broad-bladed shovel that could actually bring up more soil than was needed. Deep watering the plants before digging also seemed a good idea. Now we were ready to make a production line to set up bags half-filled with soil in advance and became deeply absorbed in removingthe rest of the seedlings. We didn’t stop until all but a few of the smallest plants were left, feeling something like paramedics who had just saved accident victims.
Greenhouse interiors are about twice as humid as the outside air and breezes don’t enter. Even though the sky remained fortuitously overcast throughout the morning, our bodies heated up very quickly. Sweat was dripping from m y nose and I hung my cap on a rafter so that moisture could evaporate from my soaked hair. We were in a kind of trance. Renée fell completely silent but jazz riffs of half-century old tunes like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Time After Time” came unsummoned out of my mouth. It was time to stop when I tried to replicate Coltrane’s first solo on “My Favorite Things” ! The intensity of problem solving, the single-minded concentration on each step of the process, the muscle tension of bending over to perform delicate movements without stopping, and the exertion of will to break away when necessary from one phase of activity like filling a bag meticulously to then haul it carefully to the steadily increasing storage rows has a strange effect on the sense of time. Rather than progressing second by second as for example in a race, it is more like the time that elapses when one racer moves up on the lead runner, steadily compresses the gap, and then passes. Time that oozes out like a thick liquid and slides away. We were unaware as it was happening but at least three hours passed while transplanting.
To finish up the chores at the University site we slacked the thirst of some more recent plantings above the greenhouse from water bottles carried with us and examined bamboo water feeders that Renée is installing beside each plant. Using sections about a foot long left over from a construction site and removing the internal separating walls, she pounds them into the ground either straight up or at an angle a few inches away from new plants. The pointed ends have small holes drilled to release water from inside the tubes underground directly into the root systems without losing moisture to a larger surface area and evaporation. Like almost everything else we did this morning, it is a previously unknown procedure guided by intuitively felt reasonableness. It will be watched and refined in nearly the same way a finished painting or sculpture is gradually created.
Renée said, “I’m getting really hungry. We missed lunch.” “It can’t be too late for restaurant almuerzo. They serve until two,” I said referring to a cheap two-course midday meal with hopefulness. “It’s too late for that,” she replied casually but definitely. That couldn’t be right. I pulled the wristwatch I had taken off in the greenhouse out of my pocket and at first thought it read only twelve fifteen until I rotated the face to see with disbelief that it was actually three. Five hours passed since we left our place as though there had only been two.