My Garden in the Wilds

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers-Peden

I invite you who are holding this book, my dear friend, to follow a process that I have followed.  Working on this book I have learned to see smallness anew, to allow the small details in Nature to be more important than what is large and majestic.

I had a beautiful teacher whose name was Carolina Hidalgo Vivar.  She taught me to look at the world with gratitude and tenderness.  I have tried to take these photographs from that position.

This book is a personal, an extremely personal, portrait of Ecuador, of my country, of my homeland.  I have traveled its roads in an attempt to find healing following the death of Carolina, trying to find a formula for converting grief into beauty.

Nature reminds us that life and death are intimately interwoven.  And that life, splendid, potent, and filled with pinnacles and precipices, is a precious gift that we must celebrate with those we love.

I invite you to take an imaginary journey from the east to the west of Ecuador, from the heart of Amazonia, climbing the flanks of the Cordillera, crossing over the peaks of the Andes and its sweet inhabited valleys, descending again to the tropics, crossing ocean waters until you reach the Galapagos, which we call the Enchanted Islands.

But approach with caution, this book is not composed of grand vistas but often of small spaces ones eyes can rescue, humble landscapes, and gardens conceived by nature.


            How does one speak to a person who is no longer here? What words does one use? What does one say to be heard?

            Carolina, my dearest Carolina, you wrote me a modest little poem, that is what you called it. This book is my modest little poem for you.

            It is modest because I don’t know what language to use to reach you where you are. It is small because it has no wings to penetrate mystery. It is the language that I know best, but I am aware that it is incomplete, inadequate. I need to tell you how important you are to me, to thank you for all the gifts you gave me.

            Now after months of slow wandering around, of grieving, of looking at the persistent miracle of nature, I have realized that making a book about gardens is in truth yet another gift you are giving me. Your spirit, your memory, quickly led me to photographing what was smallest and simplest. It became an overwhelming, irresistible impetus.

            These gardens are a gift you are giving me, that we are giving to others.

            You had a deep love for trees. I remember the enormous, age-old Samaná, the raintree next to your house in Santo Domingo. I went to visit it, and it looked very sad now that you are no longer here. It was wrapped in fog and slightly bowed, with mossy whiskers that trailed to the ground.

            You held that it is impossible to defend nature only by thinking about it, that conservation must first of all be an act of tenderness.

            And your thesis was simple but absolute. “You see my Samaná, Palito, the tree I love so much? The years have turned it into an important and honorable tree. Imagine, it can’t become any more worthy because it is home to so many mosses, so many bromeliads, so many ferns, of so many little birds and insects. That tree, despite being so large and having the wrinkles, is a thousand times more fragile than you or me! It can’t defend itself! How can I look at it without feeling tender?”

            You spoke to the trees with absolute naturalness. And it broke your heart when anyone attacked them. “Look, Palito,” you would say to me. “Look at that handsome tree.” For you, young trees, and gardens, and little animals, and the hummingbirds that flew outside your window were all “handsome.”

            You always said that every person has a right to the shade of a tree, to the song of birds, to the sound of water.

            Oh how you loved nature. That’s why you went to Harvard to specialize in landscape architecture. The city distressed you, the concrete, all the square lines and pigeonholes, the space in which trees and gardens were mere decoration. The city where the most humble people have no access to nature while those with the most resources close themselves within the sterile walls of blocks and blocks of buildings.

            You were working on several municipal projects. You had the world by the tail. Your mind was bubbling, you were thinking that we must invite nature into the city, give it a fundamental presence in our lives.

            No, it isn’t merely a matter of building more and better parks, but of erasing the artificial frontiers between the wilds and what is urban. “The ravines in Quito are a miracle, they guard the last traces of native vegetation within the city,” you often said. “Our nature does not in any way resemble the parks we construct. We want to make Italian or French parks in a land that is an explosion of trees, an overabundance of bromeliads and ferns and mosses.” Our tropical vegetation is baroque, a jumble of greens and water. “On the Andean moors are the minute, the microscopic hiding from the cold, while in the tropics primordial, ancestral leaves burst out before your eyes.”

            And the parks, of course, should rid themselves of that European esthetic and fill themselves with the overflowing ethic of our mega-diversity. Those absurd oppositions between park and city, and between city and nature, would have to be demolished.

            It horrified you how alien species were being planted in reforestration programs. Those forests of cypresses or pines, so false in the heart of the moors, pained you deeply. “We are complex. We like to look like Switzerland or Canada when there is no greater beauty than the humble underbrush of our wild country.”

            “Nature is honest, Palito. Nature teaches us to look within ourselves toward what is profound. It teaches us astonishment and gratitude.”


            A few weeks after your death, in the darkest moments, you came to me in a dream, small, thin, delicate, with your natural elegance and your sweet way of smiling. “Palito, you don’t have the power to know what the future is going to bring you. Nor do you know when the persons you love most will be gone. You can’t control everything that happens in your life. The one power you have is that of your tenderness, of your goodness.”

            The power of my goodness? And I had never seen tenderness as a power.

            We frequently commit the error of thinking that tender people are fragile, defenseless. But you were powerful. Only a powerful person can transform those she has around her in such a profound and conclusive way.

            You were tenderness. You used your words to comfort, to heal, to celebrate, to respect.

            We Ecuadorians carry affectionate itos and itas on the end of our words. We have a warmth in our culture that the intolerant are robbing from us. We don’t drink coffee, we have a cafecito. You used the diminutive with a pride I have never seen in others. You had an active, proud, assured sweetness. You focused your concerns on everything you saw that was fragile or helpless, especially children and the less fortunate. It was not a syrupy softness or self-complacency—you despised anything sugary or lacking in good taste–but an essential tenderness.


            How is a garden made? Slowly, with care and with enormous tenderness. In the same way that affection grows, in the same way that a house is converted into a home. Just as people gradually put so much of themselves in our heart that one day they are there to stay.

            There is nothing magical or automatic about it, making a garden requires perseverance. First its outlines are drawn; it is given an easily understood and human dimension. Then it is sown, it is watered, it is awaited, it is trimmed and then again awaited. Constructing a garden is an act of appropriation, a personal dialogue with nature and its cycles.

            So if a garden is to be an actual garden, I must become its gardener. I must domesticate it. Make it mine. Mine in affection, mine in invested time, mine in my ability to evoke it when I am not there.

            We human beings can love what is small, what we have shaped with tenderness, what we can hold in our memories. It is difficult to love an entire national park like a Cotopaxi or a Yasuní. But that little rivulet born from their glaciers, or that ancient and so lordly tree clothed in mosses, those I can make mine.

            You can see, my beautiful Carolina, that you have turned me into a gardener. I make gardens with my camera. I make them mine through patience, and waiting.

            I have gone back to my origins. Inspired by you, I am again taking photographs of landscapes.

            You were always so fond of that shot of me on Cotopaxi, the one when I was a thin, ungainly youth photographing nature. More than twenty years have

gone by since I traveled all over Ecuador with an unbounded sense of hope and my camera on my back. You were captivated by how happy and handsome I looked in that photo.

            I am no longer the same, preciosa. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I am more fragile, sometimes frightened, and I can be difficult. I do not have the same strength, or unconditional hope. And good-looking? Maybe, but only for those who know me well.

            To do this book I went to the places you loved, and to others I was never able to share with you–places I knew when I was that ingenuous youth with the easy laughter. They are photos of our Ecuador, of the country that gave us an identity, a meaning.

            I went often to Cotopaxi, an imposing volcano that occupies the nightmares and imagination of those of us who live near its shadow. Your accident was so close to Cotopaxi. How is it possible for so much beauty and so much pain to fit into the same area?

            I went to your native Loja, so loved, the source of so much pride. I went to La Toma, to El Cisne, to look for the gardens seen by that long, curly-haired Virgin you convoked at the least hint of danger or injustice. “Virgencita del Cisne,” you would say with a devotion somewhere between sweet and frightened. And when the danger was greatest you said, “Diosito del Cisne,” to which I always replied with an impertinent theological quip that the Diosito is not from Loja, or El Cisne, but from the entire universe.

            I went to Santo Domingo, a place you loved so much, to several tropical forests that are the last remains of the great Chocó, which runs from Panama to Peru. Along the Costa of Ecuador we have succeeded in destroying nearly all the tropical forest, victim of the encroaching frontier of development. The same fate that probably awaits our Amazonia. Little by little, slowly, with macabre persistence–tree by tree, hectare by hectare, clearing trails and roads–we are blasting and mining its core, dissolving its integrity.

            Patricio, always so patient and generous, went many places with me. We went to the province of Carchi, to that extraordinary road between Tufiño and Maldonado, where what we call the fraylejones, of the Espeletia genus, look like gigantic flowers, inhabitants of a mysterious garden that warms the soul of those who look on it with humility. We also visited the ceibos of Manabí, with their arms and legs and muscles and tendons that embrace and fuse into one another. It was from those trees, when I was a teenager, I discovered the simple poetry of living.

            I went to Yasuní, to the station of San Francisco de Quito University, a place that moved you to tears. The noise of the generator stopped and the sound of the tropical forest turned into a deafening shrill of invisible creatures. The Milky Way stretched across the treetops. There beside the river, in the most absolute darkness, I again felt like a defenseless child surrounded by mystery. The tropical forest is life in all its power, the delirious complexity of an indecipherable but joyous jigsaw puzzle in which we are barely one piece.

            I went with my brother, always so warm and supportive, and his old friend Meyer, an agile, smiling Black, to an extraordinary mangrove forest in Olmedo, Esmeraldas. I had never appreciated mangroves, those trees that live in the mud near the sea. How you would have loved that forest, bonita! The trees are very tall and they stand tall on airy roots like the feet of giant insects. Since they had become my friends and I had looked at them with greater attention, those mangroves, bonita mía, moved me the way they always moved you. There are so few of them left, so isolated from one another, so fragile, so threatened by shrimp farms, growth, and modernity.

            You know, I have come to realize that we photographers are very arrogant. As I began this project, I was looking only for spectacular photographs, I was annoyed when it wasn’t a day for the honeyed sun I am so passionate about. It was difficult for me to see the small, simple things. I was near something precious yet went on looking for something better. What blindness, what ambition. Always pushing on, demanding more.

            The campesinos call our wild areas the monte, those that have not yet been domesticated. With these photos I changed focus and began constructing gardens in the monte. My gardens are far away in the middle of nature, places where my mind rests and my heart finds some consolation. Now they are mine.

            The gardens in these photographs are the sparse remnants left after development, found in a gorge, at icy heights impracticable for agriculture, and too far from highways to have been disturbed. Many are in National Parks or Reserves, but most are orphans or fugitives from development.

            These gardens are little jewels, symbols of spaces a thousand times larger and more complex. We need to expand the parks we have, create corridors to join them together, protect the remnants of the forest.  But if we are not even disposed to respect the limits we have imposed on ourselves when we draw the boundaries of our reserves, we are even less able, as a society, to find a compromise for protecting what we have not yet learned to celebrate.

            Bonita, a treasure is something that has preserved its integrity. Nothing compares to natural space, to a garden that has not been perturbed. There is the magic, the mystery, the complexity.

            Conservation cannot be done out of rage, or only with intelligence. It must be done with tenderness. I made the decision to protect nature because it is mine, because it is fragile, because once it is disturbed it is lost, because it touches me in the most intimate part of my being, because it gives me back my humanity, and reminds me of my place in the world. Without those great forests, without the moors, without the wetlands, I am the poorer. And my children will be deprived of even more.


            Carolina, my precious, brilliant gardener, sweetest of all women, surely you are tending those wild gardens. You will have accepted that most humble and worthy task.

            An uncultivated garden is like an antique clock, a perfect clock, with uncountable gears and moving parts, a small clock, the product of countless hours of evolution. What makes it so special is that we don’t know what makes it function. Only that every little wheel or micro-gear is necessary.

            And if we interfere in its delicate mechanism it always stops. And when it no longer marks the minutes, we become arrogant, we believe we are the chosen, and we feel eternal. We believe that we have conquered, dominated, controlled. Nature belongs to us. Nothing can happen to us.

            We lose awareness that time does not need the tick-tock of our clocks. Time takes everything with it.

            We approach the things we do not understand, and those that are most precious, with caution, on tiptoes. We marvel at their details, at the visible, and even more at the internal and invisible connections we can only intuit.

            The light of dawn, the song of birds, the imperceptible flight of butterflies, are a gift, a delicate breath that recalls to us the fleeting miracle of life.

            Carolina, the best and finest of all I know, I inherit your dreams. My mission is to give them wings. Now I carry you within me, in the soul of my soul, in the heart of my heart.