‘That tree is a miracle’

Climate change and the human societies causing it are ceaseless deforesters. In a 2019 study, the New York Declaration on Forests noted that the annual rate of humid tropical forest loss has gone up 44% worldwide since 2013.

Among the most devastated regions is Latin America, which sees more primary forest loss every year than any other part of the world. Ecuador’s Chocó Andino corridor, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve packed with cloud forests and every hue of toucans and velvety orchids, is slowly being eaten away by the same perennial threats haunting forests everywhere: mining, logging, agriculture, and development.

Yet Pinkul Tayta, located in a semi-urbanized valley near the Chocó Andino region, is a reminder that the disappearance of even a single tree can be cause for bereavement and reflection on our changing climate.

The solitary tree is perhaps humanity’s favorite natural figure: it appears on the flags of at least 100 governments and organizations worldwide. It plays a prodigious role in major religions and myths across the world.

And it stands firm in the memories of millions as that patient receiver of our childhood games and confidences — just as Pinkul Tayta does for generations of Pucará Alto residents.

“My dad used to say that that tree is a miracle,” Josefina Eras, a 75-year-old who was raised in Pucará Alto, said in an interview in the Kichwa language. She remembers taking her family’s pigs out to pasture near the tree when she was younger. “My mom would say that it was always as big as it was, even back when she was a little girl.”

Despite its revered status, Pinkul Tayta, like uncountable trees that have died before it, was largely felled by human influence. Its days were numbered after an accident caused by people in the very community that elected to protect it.

The funeral procession hikes past Pucará Alto’s unending crop fields. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno.

A funeral for a tree

In Pucará Alto, a funeral for a sacred tree is just like a funeral for a human.

Men carry the deceased in a ceremonial cot over their shoulders and tread somberly along the community’s principal dirt path. They pass before cinder-block homes and the hovering faces peering out their windows. As they ascend the road to Pinkul Tayta, they stop at its peak and rotate the cot to give the dead one last chance to view the Imbabura volcano and Lake San Pablo forming a stoic valley below.

For the funeral of Pinkul Tayta, however, the cot wasn’t carrying the tree itself. Inside lay the figure of a baby, sculpted with tightly wrapped bedsheets and patterned fabrics that represented the infants from recent and distant pasts buried around the tree’s base.

Most never had a name: they died before going through the traditional naming ceremony common throughout Pucará Alto, in which families decide on the child’s title only after observing how and who it is for its first few years.

“Our grandparents used to tell us that Pinkul Tayta eternally fed those infants,” said José Velasquez, president of Pucará Alta and Cahuasquí’s brother. “It was both a mother and a father figure.”

Pinkul Tayta is a member of the Euphorbiaceae plant family, and is known colloquially in Spanish as El Lechero because of the white latex that oozes from its flesh when cut. That leche, which means milk in Spanish, was the life source upon which spirits nursed, according to Velasquez. “When the tree fell a lot of the grandparents here weren’t thinking just about the tree — they were thinking about the willki wawa that were going to end up without a caretaker,” he said.

The tree was a cultural icon not just for Pucará Alto, but for Kichwa communities throughout the Otavalo region where nearly 60% of the approximately 105,000 residents are indigenous. “#OtavaloIsInMourning,” the Otavalo government tweeted in Spanish when the tree fell on Jan. 16.

“It’s a very special site for our people, a sacred site where they come to do rituals,” said Mario Conejo, Otavalo’s mayor, who attended the funeral. “Indigenous people have always had the necessity of identifying sacred spaces like this where they can connect with mother nature.”

José Velasquez lowers an offering of fruits and potatoes into a hole dug aside Pinkul Tayta’s trunk. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno.

To help livestock get pregnant, visitors who believed in the tree’s miracle power would rub candles over the body of the animal and then set the candles in the cool, Andean earth around Pinkul Tayta. Then they’d light them. Then they’d pray.

The stunning 360-degree views from Pinkul Tayta’s hill also attracted tourists from Europe and Latin America who come to witness the volcanic valleys and ranges of northern Ecuador.

But the universal respect for Pinkul Tayta and the willki wawa buried around it does not mean it lived a peaceful existence. Elders like Eras recounted gruesome memories of approaching the tree and finding bloody infant corpses that had been torn out of the ground by local dogs. It was the unfortunate result of whenever community members failed to dig deep enough graves for their young loved ones.

In 2017, the tree suffered its greatest setback.

While no one has come forward to admit responsibility, the theory put forward by community leaders is that the accident stemmed from a ritual ceremony gone wrong. People visiting the tree set lit candles near its base to pray for protection, as they’d always done. But the candles were left unattended to burn out on their own, and it’s believed that at some point winds blew them toward the tree.

Instead of depleting the wax and disappearing into smoke, their flames desiccated Pinkul Tayta and scorched deep into its trunk. Nearly 80% of the tree’s foundation was eaten away by fire.

Mario Añazco, a forest engineer at the Universidad Técnica del Norte in the nearby city of Ibarra, who was part of an academic team that researched restoring the tree, compared the damage on Pinkul Tayta to a third-degree burn on a human being. “It’s exactly the same as if you were burnt badly and it damaged your organs,” Añazco said. Even with intervention, forestry technicians concluded, the chances of recovery were slim.

Distraught by its wounds, community members propped up Pinkul Tayta’s elderly outstretching branches with struts. They placed barbed wire fencing in a ring-like enclosure around the perimeter to ensure people couldn’t access the tree after sunset and away from community vigilance.

But none of that stood a chance against a day of eager winds.

Fallen but not forgotten

(l-r) Josefina Eras and Mercedes Morales share their memories of Pinkul Tayta in front of the community church. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno.

Atop the tallest hill in Pucará Alto, the funeral procession, attended by 80-plus community members, ended at the woody base of Pinkul Tayta’s successors. Following every funeral there is a hushed celebration of life, and what remained of Pinkul Tayta is where that celebration took place.

Three new lecheros stood firm in the earth around Pinkul Tayta’s trunk when the funeral procession arrived. The soil at their base was still bare and coffee-colored from when two of them were planted two weeks earlier. (The third was planted in 2017 to help hold up Pinkul Tayta’s failing boughs after the fire.)

Neighbors had been caring for these trees on their own properties for years. On the same day Pinkul Tayta fell, Pucará Alto and the government of Otavalo assembled a team of residents and a tractor to uproot the neighbors’ lecheros and transport them to be installed, like guardians, around Pinkul Tayta’s trunk.

Some of those same community members took branches from Pinkul Tayta and planted them in parks and properties throughout Pucará Alto. “You can cut a piece off of it and plant it, and from there the tree will grow again,” Velasquez said.

At the Universidad Técnica del Norte’s forestry campus in Ibarra, a baby Pinkul Tayta is already growing. While they couldn’t save the tree, forestry engineers from the university transported cuttings from the original to their laboratory farm where they incubated offspring with the same exact genetic makeup.

Pucará Alto was never told about this. Añazco said it’s because the university’s main contact was with the government of Otavalo, and not the community itself. As a result of this reporting, Pucará Alto is now reaching out to the university to repatriate Pinkul Tayta’s sapling to the hill where its parent thrived.

Añazco doubts local lore suggesting that the original tree has lived for hundreds or even a thousand years. But it may be hard to know for sure. He says the lack of distinct seasons along the equator makes it challenging for some trees to develop growth rings — the natural rulers that scientists use to measure age.

“One lechero might live for 50 years, another for 38 years, another for 62 years,” Añazco said. “What does it depend on? The quality of the soil, the microclimate, and the treatment it receives from humans.”

For one to live even 300 or 400 years “is really unlikely,” Añazco said. “But proving it would also be difficult.”

Two months after Pinkul Tayta’s death, Velasquez and other residents are now discussing how to turn the hill and its quartet of lecheros into a source of support for the community. Mercedes Morales wants to sow rows of harvestable plants in a ring around the outer perimeter of the trees, which they’d cultivate and market to tourists.

There’s also discussion of charging a small fee, around $1, for visitors who want to enter past the barbed wire enclosure and hear from a local guide about the grand tree that once protected its willki wawa.

“Some of our neighbors like to travel, or prefer to find work elsewhere, or work as merchants,” Morales said. “But others who live here do like the idea. With five people we could do maintenance of the site, keep it clean, make shawarmishky,” she said, referring to a potable juice that comes from the agave plant.

It’s an idea made viable by the number of tourists who visit Pucará Alto every weekend. During a Sunday walk throughout the community with Cahuasquí and Morales, small groups of cars drove up and down the cobblestone path that leads to Pinkul Tayta. A young couple got off their motorcycle to buy grilled corn from a makeshift food stand managed by neighbors and asked if it was true that El Lechero had fallen.

Fallen, yes, like millions of trees before it. But forgotten by no one who loved it.

Banner image: Pucará Alto resident Alberto Cahuasquí visits what remains of Pinkul Tayta, a sacred tree that was believed to have guarded the spirits of hundreds of unnamed children buried around its base in the 20th century. Photo by Johnny Magdaleno. 

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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