Dear Friends – in a routine that has become familiar after 17 years, I recognize the first signs: time rushing by at unnatural speed, projects that dawdled along for months suddenly require urgent attention; visitors who put off visiting arrive at the door (often with great amounts of garden or crop produce), meetings delayed for months suddenly solidify. All of which is to say these last two weeks in May are unusally busy. Still, I wanted to squeeze in one last chronicle because I really miss being in touch with you all while we’re in Portland.
This is also a time when I get around to tasks I’ve put off for months. On a sunny day last week I took off on a long solitary walk – about 5 kilometers – down to a comuna called Cuchucún where, in 2000, my early photography student José Miguel and I went to interview, photograph and film a musician, Pedro Pichisaca. Now, 23 years later and feeling lost on the empty road, I stopped to ask a man the way. “Pedro Pichisaca? He died 10 years ago! I’m his uncle.” He pointed out the house in the distance, and after winding down and down the mountain, I asked again as I got closer. A a neighbor in her field pointed to a small house and said the widow of Pedro lived there. I knocked, her son answered (I saw Pedro’s face in his) and after about ten minutes the widow came cautiously to the door. She recognized me but did not invite me in. She took the large envelope I offered and studied the photos – contact sheets and color prints. Then she looked up at me and asked politely, “But where’s the video?”
Chagrined, I came home and after a two-hour nap found the video on an old hard drive, and called her son to ask him to come by with a flash drive to download. Hard evidence can be found in the two screen shots below from the video. This was a good reminder of how important it is to return images and videos to folks who so kindly collaborate with our documentary ways. After 23 years, Pedro’s widow had not forgotten that motion and sound bring back a beloved person, not stills.
This is also a time when I’m aware the Cañarean cycle of life. We came in December to find two nests with little cheepers in the giant aloe plant in the atrium. Now, we watch as two rufous collared sparrows come and go from under the glass roof, either building a new nest or renovating the two empty ones that I can still see. Our own little aviary.
In the back field we find two bulls cleaning up the remains of the corn/bean/squash crop, as our compadres José Maria and Narcisa prepare to plow and replant. Their dogs keep watch from our back porch, somehow knowing this will again be their alternative home for the next six months.
Speaking of dogs, we had some puppy excitement a couple of weeks ago. I was in a zoom conversation looking out the window towards the street when I saw a woman I didn’t know come through the gate with a large shopping bag. She dumped three puppies onto the lawn. I yelled for Michael, who ran out and began chasing the puppies as I caught up with the woman as she started to leave.
“We can’t have puppies,” I said. “Why don’t you sell them at the Sunday open market?” She said little, only that she had three more in same litter and couldn’t take care of all the dogs. She stood patiently as Michael corralled the puppies and put them back in the bag. But as soon as she walked out the gate she dumped them on the edge of the road, where there was traffic. I ran out to check they were OK, but someone in a car had already stopped and taken away these beautiful healthy little creatures. (A friend pointed out they would sell for about $500 each in Portland.)
Two weeks ago we held the first all-scholarship meeting since before Covid, with current scholars along with a couple of graduates to give motivation, inspiration and lessons learned. Luisa, the physician, talked about the difficulties of getting married and having a baby while in university (stony faces all around). And Paiwa, the engineer, talked about the long road to a scholarship for a master’s in the US – learning English being the key. Afterward, lunch, a cake, and a final photo in the front yard.
And that’s it for this year in Cañar, folks. The house darkens as Michael put up the shutters yesterday, even after kindly friends sent a message that they thought it was too dangerous and that Michael should get a neighbor to help. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure Magdalena (our troublesome neighbor) would love to help me.”
I ran out to assist, but got distracted photographing my flowers for the last time.
Cañar Book Club
I have some last recommendations for summer reading.
Maya in Portland: The Ministry For the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. “Speculative fiction that takes place a bit in the future, when disasters from climate change have become bigger and scarier. Robinson manages to create a visceral sense of what can/will go wrong and the effect on humanity, but also a really imaginative look at the kinds of things that could solve some of the problems and halt the worst of the destruction. There are interesting characters and a plot, as well, making it an absorbing read on several levels. Mostly, it really makes you think about the big issues we face, yet without despair. Impressive!
She also liked Rebecca Makai’s The Great Believers, about the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s in Chicago, and it’s aftermath. “Very absorbing.”
Nancy in Portland: Independent People by Halldor Laxness, an Icelandic writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 in part based on this masterpiece (he wrote many books). Set in sheep herding country in early 20th century Iceland, it’s an intimate, richly detailed story of a stubborn man who’s determined to get out from under the quasi-feudal economic system of landholding at that time. Jane Smiley called it “one of the best books of the 20th Century.” It’s dense and complex, very character-based, and leavened by sardonic humor.
Julie in Vermont: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was a book club favorite here, and I’d recommend the same author writing on her mother and remarkable grandmother in Half Broke Horses.
My reading has been all over the place as I grow impatient with my iPad and yearn for a paper book and characters that I can love. I gave up on the Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest (fed up with reading about Columbus and his ilk risking their lives for gold and silver to bring genocide and slavery to the New World). Then The Candy Store by Jennifer Egan. Clever, as always, but do I like any of these characters enough to keep reading 350 pages? No. Then, Fellowship Point by Alice Elliot Dark, after reading a review. Ho hum! Should I care about resolving ownership of a point of land in Maine owned by wealthy Philadelphians? Finally, from the library, The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. Ahhhh, a sprawling novel by a favorite writer, set in India beginning in 1900, 775 pages to go, and 24 hours of travel ahead. I’m happy!
As always, I love hearing from you. We have tickets back to Cañar on December 1, so if you’ve been wanting to visit Ecuador, start making your plans for 2024!