Dear Friends: On this cold foggy afternoon, I look out the window where I sit at our dining room table and see our immediate neighbor to the west, Magdalena, doing her weekly washing in the small field behind her house. She pulls the clothes out of a big plastic basin sitting on the ground and rubs them hard with a bar of soap on a wedge-shaped tree trunk. The wedge is resting on a crude wooden box, propped up with bricks at each corner. It barely reaches 18 inches, but Magdalena is short and she has good leverage leaning over. She sloshes clean water from a bucket onto the pants and t-shirts of her teenage kids and her own bright wool skirts. She squeezes the water out and lays the clothes on the grassy ground beside her, to be hung on the barbed wire fence between our fields. I just checked the temperature outside: 55 degrees F. So I’m happy to see she is wearing rubber gloves, some slight protection. Now the fog is drifting in so thick I can barely see the long black braid that hangs down her back below the bottom of her pink sweater. Her white felt hat. Wool tights. Blue skirt. (Below: Magdalena several years ago when we were building our/her retaining wall).

There are no animals behind her house today – but we often see pigs (in a twig-and-stick shelter at the bottom of her land), sheep, a cow, chickens, and guinea pigs and rabbits in pens nearer the house. Magdalena owns another property up the mountain and the family seems to move their animals up and down.  This is really a story about our neighbors and the views from our house, not an easy subject while I try to respect privacy and cultural differences. When we bought the Cañar property 12 years ago, we had an almost 140-degree panoramic view that ran from the west, where the clouds come up from the coast, to the north view of the high mountains (my header image), and to the east, where we could just see the lower mountains that mark the boundary with the Amazon basin (though a neighbor’s tall concrete wall already blocked some of that view). This magnificent panorama was the reason we bought the land and positioned our house so the windows in the living/dining area would capture it. A beautiful cypress tree at the bottom of our lot (belonging to our neighbor) framed the view of the mountains. I loved that tree, and used it in every panoramic photo at the time.I painted the block wall a dark green and planted vines (despite Michael’s protests that it was not our wall). We came back the next year to see our neighbor Miguel up in the tree hacking away at it with a machete. I foolishly ran down and asked him if he had to do that – it was such a beautiful tree. Yes, he said, its branches were bothering his señora in her wood-fire, tin-roofed kitchen. Now it looked like this (below), but I still loved it and our crops (here quinoa) helped harmonize the scene.After that, every year we came back to find drastic changes to our sector which, unbeknownst to us, had been slated for urbanización to accommodate the fast-growing region of Cañar. We watched as a private “charismatic church” was built on the other side of Magdalena, constructed higgledy-piggledy of concrete block with a large back wall blocking our view to the west. The field below that became a housing development when a local man bought the agricultural land, went to New York and sold most of the lots to migrants from Cañar. I grew a thick hedge to block all that, with only the steeple and cross showing above, and for awhile I liked the green-neon cross but it soon went out.Another year we came back to see that Miguel had chopped off the top of the tree and it looked very sick.Our neighbors are poor. Magdalena has at least four children but only the two youngest live with her now. Years ago she told us her husband was in the U.S. and sending money back to build a new house, but the towering pile of bricks that she gestured to as evidence then is still there, stacked near the road. Meanwhile, her family lives in two small wattle-and-daub structures that abut our property: a windowless cook shack and a slightly larger shack for sleeping. Years ago they added a separate bathroom.

Magdalena is illiterate, and she knows her survival depends on her willingness to fight. Years ago, when we finalized property lines, she argued fiercely about where a rock marked the edge of her property. Michael measured, then moved the marker 20 centimeters into our side and said he was giving her a little bit of our land. She was happy – then!  But over the years, when she complained that our land was eroding down onto hers, we built a retaining wall; when she complained that our poplar tree was sending up seedlings in her dirt patio, we took it down. When she complained that our broom hedge was hanging onto her side, making it easier for thieves to creep in, we sent our garden-helper over to cut it back. Lately, when we run into one another on our road, Magdalena is very friendly.

MIGUEL: Miguel: lives to the northeast of us with his wife and children and grandchildren on a small lot. He’s older – between 60 and 70 – and mestizo, but like Magdalena he is poor. I frequently meet him on the road, always wearing a funny floppy cloth hat and raggedy clothes. Hola vecina! (neighborhe always greets me. When we moved in, Miguel’s back stone wall bulged into our property. When doing measurements for our fence, Michael told Miguel we would keep the line as defined by his bulging wall. He was pleased.

Then, last year I was horrified to see a block construction going up directly in our view of the mountains. Miguel and helpers were building a house. But wait – they’re tearing it down. No, here it comes again, facing the other direction and even more intrusive of our view. Of course. we could say nothing. Miguel and his wife deserve a real house, however ugly and despite lack of zoning laws.

When we arrived last year, the tree and bulging rock wall were gone and in their place a 10-foot concrete block wall, with the hated rebar sticking up another ten feet in case Miguel wants to expand upward. The house is done and it’s a mess, with an adjacent shed with corrugated tin sheets making a sort of overlapping roof. On the outside of the wall facing us for some crazy reason – a padded headboard with a heart – and a big yellow tarp hangs down from his balcony, which is blocked off with a sort of wooden pallet.

This year Miguel complains that the vines I planted are climbing into his house – “almost into our bed,” – he joked. We sent the garden-helper to trim the vines. I asked in exchange that his grandkids stop throwing garbage into our field. Agreed.  But what about that capuli tree? he asked, pointing to a volunteer cherry tree that I’m counting on to help partially cover up the wall. “The roots will be coming into our patio soon,” he said. “That’s MY tree,” I answered more strongly that I meant to, “and I don’t think the roots are coming for you.”  He backed down and the tree stays. For now.

I look out one late afternoon at a beautiful sunset and see Miguel standing on his half-made balcony, dreamingly admiring the view – the same 140-degree panoramic view we once had. Ours now – if measured from wall to wall – is down to about 45-degrees. But Miguel and I admire the sunset together, neighbors coexisting for good or bad in our gorgeous little world.


Cañar Book Club

Well, the members of our virtual book club have been quiet since the holidays, but I’d love to hear what new books have come your way, and what you are reading/liking/hating. For my part, I’m reading both non-fiction (lunch) and fiction (bedtime), a practice I learned from my mother to keep two books going. (In her case, it was to keep the dullest one for bedtime so the narrative wouldn’t get her excited and keep her awake.) I don’t have that problem, so I’m reading over lunchtime The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea WulfHeavy going, but I love the early history of “our” part of the world. Humboldt was an early explorer of Ecuador and, according to one map, I think he might have come through Cañar territory around 1801. At night, for relaxation, a fiction book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy. The result of a mix-up: I thought I was reading the new book by Arundahati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Took me a while to figure that out, given the similarity of authors’ names and poetic titles. Not the brilliance of Arundahati Roy, but I’m enjoying it.

All for now. Stay in touch!




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25 thoughts on “Neighbors!

  1. Mezclar autores porque los nombres son similares es algo que generalmente ocurre! Un beso grande para ambos, desde Buenos Aires.

  2. Judy, Hello. Really enjoyed reading how your pastoral vista has undergone the slings and arrows of change. The titles of the two Roy books roughly replicate the emotional tone of your blog. We all long for the perfect location, the perfect view, the cabin by the lake, etc., but ultimately, this longing in its purest sense becomes illusory. We all suffer the rude indignities of neighbors and the blitzkrieg of commercial development. Yet, despite this relentless reality, many still cultivate the utmost happiness in whatever constrained location we find ourselves. It can be a Zen garden inside the urban wasteland, five minutes of sunlight in a prison cell, or a tree poking out from a crack in the shopping mall parking lot. Even in Blake’s “Satanic Mills” of modern civilization, human nature strives to realign itself with the ever-diminishing natural world.

  3. Whoa, you’ve said like I could not have. “…slings and arrows of change” is brilliant. May I use it? And the symmetry of the two titles and my state is apt. I read the blog to Michael, before some last changes, and he thought it was too critical, that I shouldn’t be revealing these things about our neighbors. But I added that last para to mean that we each do find the utmost happiness in our own ways, Miguel on his balcony with his expansive view and me on my porch with a limited one. Thanks for seeing that and adding your own poetic comments!

  4. Our view of the landscape may be beset with constrictions that limit the scope of our vision, constrictions that build around us and our neighbors, but if we live half way right, our outlook can remain vast and all-seeing. Mr. Blake: He who sees with not through the eye, Forever lives the lie. Bill Maxwell, once the fiction editor of The New Yorker used to say the best view from a writer’s window was a blank wall set off by no more than a garbage can or a gas meter. Less sometimes excites and makes for more–enlarges the mind and frees the heart…
    As for the view from my window into the forest here outside Oslo, it has been colonized and cheapened by a paint-ball war game park which infuriates my pacifist spouse, but luckily the winter storms are playing havoc with its trenches, redoubts and bivouacs; thankfully, the moose still pass by in the gathering mist. Next week the sun will hit us again after an 8 week hiatus.

  5. Richard – I appreciate your comments and will try to remember what Mr. Blake and Mr. Maxwell said. But, along with Liv, I sometimes can’t help but complain. At least we have sun nearly 12 hours a day, year round. I’m grateful for that…

  6. Sister Jude, Loved this telling of the view from your house. I understand so well
    what you’re going through, and the effort it takes to rethink every year why it
    happens, and how to address it! (You have a house and wanted a perfect view,
    they just want a house!) Our house in San Miguel Allende, Mex. once looked out
    on acres of natural beauty and now is enclosed in square feet of brick walls.
    The city has grown around us. It’s now house on top of house, all beautiful, but….
    I remind myself, well. so is Positano, Italy! It’s the way of the world. There are
    8 billion of us. We turn around and fly back to Santa Fe, drive to the top of our hill.
    and look down on what is , for the time being, still a beautiful view. Why? It’s
    what we gave the Native Americans when we took their land away, and we
    pale faces can’t touch it! A Reservation…in the true sense. Love Char

  7. What a wonderful post! It takes a very wise person to know when to compromise and when not to!

  8. Judita: You have touched a common, jangly nerve with this post! As you know, I talked Bruce into buying our home primarily for the view to the north and the east. Since that 2008 purchase, we have invested our time and treasure (metaphorically!) into sustaining and improving our view. First taking down decrepit cottonwoods that obscured our view of the water; then punching holes in the log cabin exterior to create 4 new windows (east) and sliding doors (north). Soon afterward, you and Michael helped us plant spindly sequoia seedlings across the slough on public utilities property (shh!) to mask the chain link fence with its crown of concertina wire on top. Like you (planting vines, painting concrete wall), we’ve eagerly transgressed property lines to improve our view. To the east, we’ve reclaimed golf course property swamped by blackberry tangles, replanting wildflowers and shrubs by the water. One thing I wonder – is the yearning for a long view of the natural world a result not only of differences in economic status, culture and geography? I wonder if it’s also a recent phenomenon even among the middle class in the US. The family who built our house themselves in 1947 (with obvious love and attention) did not choose to engineer views of the water nor of the acres of green expanse to the east that promised a winter alpenglow peek of Mt. Hood. On a bike ride in Pendleton a few years ago, we stopped to catch our breaths at the top of the hill rimming the city that offered a gorgeous, sweeping view of the basin below. I noted many turn of the 20th century homes dotting that hill, many facing the inward side, and none with more than a double-hung window or two facing the valley below. Could the need to conserve heat be the only factor in that choice? Doesn’t seem like the complete answer. And now in Portland, the westside, Mt. Hood facing, view-loving condo denizens wage a battle against the eastside developers – just how high are the developers now permitted to build, once some have secured their views? We calibrate (and recalibrate) what is important to us, as density encroaches bit by concrete bit.

  9. Your comment “you want a house with a view; they just want a house,” is so to the point. Here, the minute someone buys a lot they put up a 10-foot wall all around, even blocking out spectacular views. Security from thieves? Safety of enclosed spaces? I don’t get, but as you say it’s the way of the world…

  10. It has been fun to be a part of, and observe, while you and Bruce have tried to acquire that “perfect view,” especially the surreptitious plantings across the slough. Maybe creating and conserving what we want to see out our windows is a 21-century conceit? I dunno…but thanks for all the hard thinking on the subject….

  11. Judy. So wonderful to get your communiques from Ecuador. I sympathize with your ever-more truncated view. We live in a century old urban neighbourhood which doesn’t change much except for occasional renovations of adjacent houses, and the removal of a dying old tree. But it’s been a long time since there was much of a view besides the houses opposite and the traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) of Torontonians visiting High Park or heading down to the Lakeshore.

    I wanted to contribute a suggestion to the Cañar Book Club, though it’s not a book I have read recently. Donald and I were doing a cull of our books and papers last month, and it got me looking seriously at which books I wanted to keep and which I was prepared to pass on. One of the ones I decided to keep was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, a “novel of the ice age” and a story of a young man’s coming of age maybe 30,000 years ago. It’s difficult to know exactly where the novel is set, and at first I thought it was somewhere on the west coast of Canada. But I think now that it must be the west coast of the USA, perhaps Washington State or even Oregon. As you are more familiar with the geography there, you might have a better chance of figuring it out. I really like Robinson’s books, but some of them get bogged down in detail that the story could do without. Not this one! It is absolutely fascinating. I think you would enjoy it.


  12. Thanks Jennifer. “Shaman” goes on my wishlist for next year and into the next Cañar Book Club posting. Though not going back as far as 30,000 years (more like 210) Michael and I just enjoyed “Astoria, Astor & Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire” by Peter Stark, about the early (failed) efforts to settle the region of coastal Oregon/Washington.

  13. Thanks for the interesting description of the neighbors. It was fun to mentally picture it having visited and seen the area.
    I love my neighbors – it’s always a give and take situation. When anything bothers me I remember they put up with my reconstruction a few years ago that took far too many months – all so I could have a bathroom on my main floor.
    Best wishes, Connie

  14. Ahhhh, neighbors – More difficult when laws and policies are non-existent or unenforced. You two are in a tough position as gringos in the highlands. I think you deal with it very gracefully! I just finished The Orphan Master’s Son – about North Korea – did you have that in a previous post? Alarming and eye-opening. Currently reading How to Live a Feminist Life (despite hating “instructional” books) and The Power by Naomi Alderman.

  15. Your blog also reminds me Václav Cílek’s writing in “Bees of the Invisible–Awakening of a Place. He’s a Czech geologist and poet. He writes about “rules of landscape.” One rule is called “The Rule of Resonance”: A smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a great place of pilgrimage, where one is only a visitor.

  16. Interesting your comment today, because I’ve just been escorting around Cañar a group of Lewis & Clark students, here for three days to have a “cultural experience.” I was apologizing for the homeliness of Cañar – they are living in Cuenca for a semester – and several of them said, “no. no, this is exactly what we expected Cuenca to be, a smaller welcoming and charming town. Made me happy! ” I guess the Rule of Resonance applies here.

  17. Dear Judy
    What a wonderful way to share what clearly is happening to many of us .The beautiful Bauhouse home in Quito build by my father in 1950 had a clear and beatiful view of Pichincha . Now several very tall buildings serounding it take this lovely panorama away long the , sunlightlight . Half of the view is cut off by a building which on sunny mornings reflects so brightly it becomes blinding.
    I guess the title of it all is “progress “! Alas . And we learn to ,all the same ,count our blessings such as the fact that for the past 50 years there has been Zen meditation in the basement of the house each Saturday morning at 7 am followed by a communitarian breakfast ! View or less of one !
    Warmest regards Katya

  18. Agreed…a wonderful book!!
    (The gentleman in Moscow )
    Just finished Yann Martel’s New book- high mts of Portugal- weirdly consuming and surprise ending!

  19. A thought : Might that headboard with the heart be interpreted as a sort of Valentine to you and Michael, thanking you for being amicable in the midst of this changing neighborhood…?

    The object of our discontent: a gravel mine.

  20. Dear Katya: I just saw this comment, thank you! As I write I hear concrete blocks being unloaded at our neighbor Maria’s house (the one I mentioned had never built but had a stack of bricks since we came to Cañar). Not for long. But we too are philosophical and although we don’t have a Zen meditation center nearby we do have an enclosed patio with glass roof, plants and a fountain. Our personal Zen center. And a sfor the view – we simply must share it! Saludos, Judy B

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