Where there’s fire there’s….

M. at fireplace

…great pleasure in the evenings, warm in front of our newly repaired fireplace. It only took a couple of days of a “maestro” and his helper on the rooftop, tearing down the upper chimney and tossing flying chunks of brick, tiles, adobe and concrete into the yard below, where they gouged out great chunks of grass. This followed by more days of interior work, with clouds of dust and more debris as the inside chimney came down, along with scorched boards and beams. That left a hole into the sky from our living room, so in the evenings Michael and I hunkered around the dining room table, where we ate, watched our entertainment on my laptop, and tried to resist going to bed too early. Then, another “maestro” came to install a steel chimney, followed by a day or so of cleanup, and – ¡que milagro! – we had a fireplace again. But will it work as well?

clean up chimney

steel maestro

For those of you who like the details, the new chimney, the round steel tube you see on the left, is slightly larger than the old, square one that leaked gas and smoke because it had not been well attached. But with a fire it drew like a dream! The new chimney takes more work to start a fire without smoking up the living room, because the larger shaft of cold air must be heated before the chimney begins to draw. In other words, it’s trickier to get a fire going. But Michael is learning new methods, and last night, as he sat in front of his crackling, non-smoking fire at cocktail hour (see first photo above), he waxed eloquent about the Zen of firewood and fire making and announced he felt a haiku coming on….

Two logs, placed just so….A smaller one goes between…Fire awakes in dance

Don’t laugh. Friends from Norway wrote: “Lots of wood houses and fireplaces here. The bestseller last year was a book called On Firewood. It was followed by a 6-hour TV show that the USA made fun of, about woodcutting, wood stacking, wood burning and et cetera et cetera. Millions have responded from around the world. So, Michael, Judy, you are in the loop. Norway still has chimney sweeps, no longer gender specific, with ladders and brushes and black outfits. Very serious stuff.”

*  *  *  *plowing w mountains

Another pleasure of living in Cañar is watching daily life around us. When that includes looking out our windows on a Saturday morning to see that Jose Maria and his family are preparing to plow our back field, we feel especially lucky. “You’d better come with your camera,” Michael yelled as Jose Maria was lashing a wooden yoke to the horns of two bulls. He attached a long wooden shaft to the yoke, both hard-carved, with a triangular steel plow, also lashed on with cowhide. The hoke and plow come in pieces so they can be carried by a man and his wife into fields near or far, part of a tradition of cultivating the land that goes back hundreds of years, since draft animals were introduced to the New World by the Spanish. Narcisa and two daughters brought five or six of their sheep to graze for the day on the weeds before they were plowed under. Nothing is wasted.

close up yoke

This plowing of our field happens only once in the six months we’re here – usually about this time. Crops are planted according to the rainy seasons – the spring rains have just begun – but we never know when plowing will happen. So we were particularly happy that friends from Portland were visiting and able to see this wonderful sight. Our arrangement with Jose Maria and his family is this: they watch our house and water our patio plants while we’re gone, and in return they plant our land for their two yearly crops: corn, potatoes, peas and, this time, quinoa.

As the bulls pulled, Jose Maria kept the plow buried in the ground with his weight (very hard work) and yelled in a special language only the bulls seem to understand, telling them when to stop, go and turn around. His middle daughter Sarita, 14, suddenly looking like a lovely young woman, walked ahead to guide the bulls, or stopped to gather potatoes of the last crop that the plowing uncovered, with Narcisa, her mother and Maria, the youngest daughter.

Sarita with papas

Lourdes, the oldest daughter, had a kidney transplant last fall and she doesn’t work in the fields. She was at home preparing lunch. Around 1:00, Lourdes and Maria appeared with food wrapped in shawls on their backs, including warm boiled potatoes and hot sauce made with chile, parsley and peanuts. They family sat in the field for a picnic, and shared with us  – delicious. In return, Michael offered the traditional drink for plantings and harvests, canelaso, a hot tea with a shot of Zhumir alcohol added for the men.

After lunch, plowing and harvesting continued all day, until dusk.

harvesting papas


Sarita + LourdesSarita braiding Lourdes’ hair. Lourdes is 16 now and doing well with her new kidney, although her growth has been seriously compromised by her disease. At least now, free of dialysis, she has a chance for a normal life. An excellent student before her kidney failure three years ago, she will be able to return to high school next September. Later in the day, while her family worked in the field, Lourdes sat on our front lawn and read a book by Isabel Allende. We invited her to come sit by the fire, but she said she was fine, and would stay right where she was.

“Our House in the Clouds” heading to bookstores

Dear Friends: Well, the great number of responses to my last chronicle, “Where There’s Smoke….,” fell into two categories, no three: (1) chimney fire stories, (2) chimney fire solutions, and (3) Justified. Turns out there are many fellow “guilty-pleasure” fans out there of this TV series set in Harlan County, Kentucky. One responder, who didn’t send advice or suggestions, wrote that at least we were lucky to see two episodes of Justified before the fire.

Thank you everyone. I had no idea. Workers are up on the roof right now, knocking down the chimney and throwing great chunks of concrete, wood, bricks and tiles onto the lawn. (Note that one talking on a cell phone.) There’s no such thing around here as clean-up-as-you-go construction. We’ll be dealing with this mess for weeks…or months or years, just as I’m still finding roofing nails in the garden from the original construction job, six years ago. Later this week, a “maestro” will come to tear out the inside chimney and insert a steel flue, presently been fabricated in Cuenca (someone just called asking for the measurements that were taken last week and lost). I still can’t imagine how this will work, but with such interest I will be sure to keep you informed.


In other news, I hear from University of Texas Press that “Our House in the Clouds,” is available online and will be in bookstores March 15. You can order it directly from the publisher, (for the best price at a 33% discount, though I don’t know about shipping costs) at http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/blaour.html

house in clouds cover small

…or from Amazon, where you can take a peak inside the book: http://www.amazon.com/Our-House-Clouds-Building-Ecuador/dp/0292745273/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1359385891&sr=8-3&keywords=judy+blankenship

Or, best of all, support your local independent bookstore. I love Dwell magazine’s map of bookstores across America. Check it out to find the store nearest you, and If you know of one not listed, you can submit it to the site. http://www.dwell.com/map/independent-bookstores-across-america.

This is my second book about our life in Ecuador. Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador, traced our first year living full-time in Cañar, in 2000-01. The book came out in 2005 and was short-listed for the 2006 Oregon Book Awards. The new book tells the story of building our house, with traditional materials and local workers, and living half-permanently in the community. Both books grew out of my monthly chronicles and daily journals, and the total process, from proposal to publication, took about three years for each. I am not a fast writer, even when I have the raw material at hand, and my publisher, University of Texas Press, is not a fast publisher. Working on the academic model, a manuscript must go through a review process, sometimes twice, with outside readers. The readers make suggestions; the author rewrites, then resubmits for final approval. This first stage can take up to 18 months, and only then does one receive a contract to publish. After that, I took about six months of my Portland life to rewrite several chapters and select sixty photographs. (A few examples below…)

13.1 house w roof copy17.1 patio Michael copy

10.1 framed house copy building wall

Last August, when I received the final proofs (a typeset copy of the book), I was given a leisurely month to read and respond with any last-minute changes. Then a copy editor took it on, and we went back and forth with final tweaks. No rushing, no drama, and that’s what I like about working with UT Press. I have time for life along the way, time to do other projects, time to travel, time to be with my mother in her last months. The book went into production in September, to press in December, “hit the warehouse” a couple of weeks ago, and is now heading to bookstores.

Now what? I wonder. Do I have another Cañar book in me? I don’t think so, though I’d love to do a photography book some day. For the moment, I’m enthused about my visual history archive project, which I hope to concentrate on fully next year. I’ve been printing the glass-plate negatives of a town photographer, Rigoberto Navas, taken from the 1930’s–1950’s, and find these images fascinating as they record the time of the hacienda, when Cañar was pretty much a feudal place and most indigenous Cañaris were chattels of the large landowners. Agrarian reform didn’t become a reality until the 1970’s! Here’s one of my favorite images that gives an idea of the social relations at the time:

1 reinas, caballos y peones

Another exciting development has been contact with an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, Preston Wilson, who was here in Cañar in 1968-70, helping to organize agricultural cooperatives. He has sent scans of 150 beautiful photographs for the archive – some of them taken right around where we live. A couple of examples, in now-extinct Kodachrome, I believe:


view of chaglabanThis second photo was taken very close to our house, with the same view. To show the difference irrigation has made to this countryside, 40 years later, I attach a photo taken today from our front porch. I keep waiting for the clouds to clear so you can see the same line of the Andes, but they are not cooperating…

view from porch

Stay in touch. I love hearing from you, and I’ve learned how to check my comments, and reply promptly.