producer, guitarist, founder of Windham Hill Records
March 29, 2002
Santa Maria El Tule
On the way to Teotitlan del Valle, in Santa Maria El Tule, you can see the world's largest tree. Not the tallest (I think that's the Sequoia in California), but the biggest in circumference. I'd seen pictures of this massive cedar, but there is nothing that can prepare you for it. At 2000 years of age, it's not young by any means, but there are trees nearly twice that age. The Bristle Cone pines in the White Mountains between California and Nevada are 3800 years old, but tiny, stunted little things. This tree is not stunted. In Santa Maria they sell a postcard of a little girl in a light blue dress standing at the base of the tree. The photograph is horizontal. The girl is so small her smile is barely visible and yet the photo still does not capture the edge of the tree's trunk on either side. Go to a football field and start uncoiling rope at the goal line and go out past midfield until you reach the far 40 yard line. Make a rough circle of that rope. That's the base of the tree. Or go out into a parking lot and drop a book on the pavement to mark a starting place. Now take sixty giant steps (you almost have to run to make them large enough) and describe a circle. You've just run around the tree. My hope is that enough people will be encouraged to try the latter experiment so that others observing them from high rises will think they've witnessed the onset of a new neurological disorder.
Santa Maria El Tule is an isolated little town today, but was infinitely more so until very recently. The town's people knew the tree was big, of course, but had no real appreciation for how unique it was. Eight years ago it had lost all but a few of it's leaves and had turned decidedly brown from years of neglect and lack of water. Then some professor arrived from Mexico City and started yelling at them to wake up and smell the roses. Not only was this the largest tree in the world, but it was potentially the biggest source of income the town had ever known in it's entire history. The tree began receiving a lot of attention and 5000 liters of water a day and made a dramatic recovery. The tree was also threatened by another scourge in the person of a furniture manufacturer from Oregon. This visionary saw only board feet of lumber and offered to buy the tree. There must be a special hell for these people. Thankfully the town eventually rejected his offer after a period of all-too-serious consideration.
This is one of the few places in Mexico where the face of Christ has not been seen, but lots of other images emerge from the twists and turns and burls of the tree. A local boy will take you on a tour of the tree for 5 pesos. He carries a small mirror to reflect light onto the part of the tree he wishes to highlight. Here is the face of The Lion, here The Elephant (actually one of the most obvious outlines). You proceed through The Dolphin, The Bull and The Three Wise Men before coming to what the kid obviously regards as the high point of the tour. He crouches on his haunches, getting low to the subject, holding out his mirror between the iron fence and proudly points to what is, at least to him and the other boys so employed, "Monica Lewinski's Butts." I suggest Jennifer Lopez's Butts to be more contemporary (not to mention far more aesthetic), but he insists not.
I am not psychic. There are mysteries in this lifetime, thank God, but I am a skeptic and do not pretend to have any particular abilities beyond being able to play a decent melody, drive a car without slamming into trees habitually and slug 16 penny nails into softwood pretty well after some warm-up. But this really happened. Mario took me to the village of San Martin to the home of an artist, Jacobo Angeles, who had passed away and whose home is now a school where promising young painters in Mexico are encouraged to dream. The courtyard of this home is a magical garden; three story Bougainvillea, royal palms and flowering vines. As we left and closed the heavy iron gates behind us, I turned and looked to a staircase of stone and terra cotta. My eyes didn't see anything but a staircase. But somewhere in my imagination I saw the fan of a peacock as it climbed the stairs, turned on the landing and disappeared. The gate closed, Mario and I walked toward the outdoor market and I said, "Mario, I just dreamed a peacock." Mario stopped dead in his tracks and said, "When Jacobo was alive, peacocks lived in the Hacienda. They have not been there since he died."
(I recommend reading Katanchel next)
Photos by Will Ackerman