Landscapes of Silence

Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley

“Landscapes of Silence” is a project I began in 1985. I was studying law at Catholic University in Quito, and every weekend I would drive out to the mountain. On those trips, I grew to know the wind. The wind is the voice of the mountain, the wind tells us when we are welcome, when it’s best to go back — it guides us, accompanies us. The Andes became a part of me; I grew to know their cruel, savage side, and I came to know their gentleness.

Up in the Andes, clouds dwell at ground level — they touch the earth, they kiss it. Clouds merge with rock, slip into people’s houses, wander down the narrow paths, fill the air with microscopic particles of cold and moisture. The wind and the clouds need each other; they complement each other. Clouds move fast, and they allow light to pass through them, or they hide it. The sun shines brilliantly, and then a minute later every trace of warmth has vanished.

That was the way it was when I took the photo on the left in Zumbahua. It was a dark, impenetrable afternoon. Then suddenly the sky opened, the mountain was illuminated. The light lasted for a few minutes and then the afternoon returned to its habitual gloom.

I have been given many gifts in my life, moments when everything has come together and I’ve been at peace with the world. This was one of those moments. It was what Karl Jung calls “synchronicity.” Light, wind, clouds had conspired, and I was privileged to witness that.

Since I was six years old, photography has been a constant companion. It’s a concrete, ordinary sort of exercise: paying attention to what’s around you. As the years passed I realized that to be a photographer, you have to be there, “in the moment,” as they say. That sounds like a cliché, but for me it’s essential.

The main purpose of meditation is to learn to be in the moment, to be there, where you are. Often, we think about what we did or didn’t do, or did badly, what we have to do, what we wish would happen. Our mind is so full of noise that we can’t be where we are.

And then of course, because we’re thinking about a thousand things at once, we can’t fully experience that world that lies before us. It’s impossible to take photographs if you haven’t focused all your senses on just that, taking the photograph. If you aren’t “in the moment.”

When my life is a little off its axis, when I feel lost, I try to go back to nature. Nature teaches us peace, teaches us that all things pass, teaches us that the great drama of life, too, passes. Those lines from the poetry of St. Teresa of Avila — “Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all thing pass” — sound very much like Buddhist thought, or Taoist.

Human experience is common to us all — we confront the same mysteries, the same doubts and fears, the same quests. And our ultimate referent is there before us — nature and its cycles, nature and its constant renewal, nature as a space in which death and life meet. We are nature, and nature is us.

And precisely because we are nature, how it hurts me that my mountains are being destroyed. When we wound them, we wound ourselves. We live in a world filled with violence. I wrote the words that follow over twenty years ago, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the damage that was to come:

“Ecuador is becoming a desert. In the Sierra only an insignificant percentage of first-growth forest is left. The erosion is alarming. . . . Humanity continues to think it can dominate nature, take everything from it, pull what’s left out by the roots. And yet these Andes are irremediably alive.

“I have seen hundreds of mountains denuded, stripped, wounded. And yet they aren’t dead; they fight to stay alive.

“I have seen fields and pastures stretching up into the sides of hills and mountains, stripping away the wildness as they go. I have seen them invade the plain, the forest, the jungle.

“But I have also seen places that have not been desolated by ambition and ignorance. There, life has an indescribable strength — green floods your eyes, you seen animals and birds, the mountain is still sacred, mysterious, incomprehensible.”

On tiptoe, meekly, aware of my fragility, yet needing to hear its deep, throaty voice. . . That’s how I’d like to approach my land. Thirsty for silence. There.