Ganado means cattle. Everybody’s pride and joy, beautiful source of milk, quesillo cheese, cow dung, meat, leather, and methane. For these quick, wary, surefooted little black criollo cattle, these mountains are turned from flowering forests to brown hills reminiscent of Southern California, crisscrossed to incredible heights with the small diagonal paths of grazers. The rainfall during the dry season doesn’t support enough grass for cattle, so the ground cover is eaten to nubs and the ground dries out.
Not many new trees can grow under these conditions besides the latex-leafed wild figs, and the desert tolerant Ceibo, whose thorns protect the main stem, The wild fig, called a Higeron, grows to massive dimensions with sufficient water. Its trunk becomes enormous and convoluted, and bromeliads and orchids perch on its branches. The foliage is dark and oily looking, and right now fat round fruit are plopping from on high. They have seeds like a domestic fig, but are tough and downy, and I don’t thing they are edible for humans. The Ceibo is also called a Kapok, and has large red fruits that are filled with kapok fiber, like cotton. They have large, pretty white flowers and swollen, thorny trunks. The best tree we have on our land is a ceibo, and I hope to have a sort of dais around it to sit and enjoy the shade. Down the bank on the land adjacent ours is a big higeron, with pink cattleyas in its top and a meliponga hive in its trunk. What’s a meliponga? It’s a stingless honeybee, tiny and delicate, but that is another story.
These huge brown mountainsides put me in mind of Jean Giono’s L’Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres, a short story about a shepherd who reforested a region in Provence. It’s a wonderful story, and he gave it away for free, so it would spread. You can read it in 40 different languages. The point is that trees, or their lack, can change not only an ecosystem but the whole feeling of a place, -and how the people feel who live there. Ecuador’s incredibly generous climate can grow pretty much anything, but introduced species like cattle and hogs, as Hawaiians can testify, change things. Our branch of the valley, here in Uchima de San Pedro and Santorum, has a strong little river flowing through it, and evidence of numerous dried up springs all over the mountainsides. We have dug a well by the river, and are putting in tubing to pump water up to two 2500 liter tanks to act as our primary source of water for drinking, washing, and watering the gardens we are planning.
When we first bought the place, we put in a vivo, which is a living fence made by alternating three slender fence posts of a tree that will root where it is set into the ground with a strong post that will eventually rot. It took Francelin about two weeks. He put in Porotilios, which are a leguminous tree that has slender red trumpet-like flowers and bright red seeds that are used for jewelry. Hummingbirds love them and while they are generally kept hacked back, my friend Ruth says they are good for orchids. Also Francelin put in one Ciruela shoot, which covers itself with tart, juicy red fruits the size of olives. Since the vivo has been in place, and no cows or donkeys could graze, the chileno grass has grown up thickly. During the dry season, it looks to me like a Wyeth painting.
Instead the cows thunder happily down the trench we had dug by a bulldozer to bury the water tubes. Of course there was one delay after another so they have had plenty of time to enjoy it. As I and Francelin have spent weeks picking out rocks and stones and dumping soft earth over the rocks we couldn’t get out, so that when we bury them they won’t be pierced, the trench is nice and soft. They seem to enjoy it, although they occasionally hook at the side of the trench with their curved horns, just for devilment, scattering piles of stones onto the clean sand. As they leap in and out of the trench the sides collapse and hours of careful work are undone, Our neighbors put up a barrier of branches, but the cows went up the mountain and around. I was so mad I ate a hamburger. They were much more flavorful than most American beef I have had. So I had another one. Recently Francelin made a more elaborate barrier, so as we glued the tubes today I am hoping it will be effective.
The cows didn’t come in last night, but they may have been at a funeral. Cattle generally run semi free, and while one usually sees an old man driving a few cattle along road, one also sometimes sees a few cattle on their own. The law is apparently that if a driver hits an animal it is his fault, unless the animal was attended by an owner. Then it is the owner’s fault. This would seem to lead to hit and run on the one hand, and hiding in a ditch on the other. Perhaps I have it mixed up. A few days ago a cow was struck by a doctor driving to Santorum. It appears the owners showed up and collected the cow’s remains. My friend lent them an empty dog food bag, which they washed and returned. There were a lot of broken plastic bits from the car and several explosions of cow dung on the road.
I’m not trying to condemn cattle raising in Ecuador entirely. In fact, in wetter areas, Ecuador looks a lot like Switzerland, with the dairy capacity to match. Closer to Loja, where it rains a lot more, the mountains are as green as ours should be. There are a lot more trees, come to think of it. The rain produces year round thick, lush grass, and cattle showing characteristics of Holstein, Zebu, Brown Swiss, and Jersey dot the mountainsides. While milk here is generally sold in ultra-pasteurized plastic bags, unrefrigerated, we get ours from a lady who sells fresh raw milk every morning from the dairy up in Mollepamba. Fresh and warm, it is quite sweet. Later after I chill it and the cream has risen, I skim some off for cooking, and we drink a cup or two of the cold, creamy milk before scalding the rest for yogurt. Once the yogurt is firm, I drain it to make it thicker, boil the whey to separate out the remaining solids for cheese spreads, and save the clarified whey for my friend’s dogs. I am not a real cheese maker, but I do love cheese. So far Ecuador’s cheeses are simple, fresh, and tart. They are good, but, well, I miss France.