Photo by Mark Graf
"The closer you get
to real matter,
rock air fire and wood,
boy, the more
spiritual the world is."
—Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
The deforested side of east Bomboli Hill in the province of Pichincha, Ecuador, looked uncomfortably bare, like a dog just back from the groomer. So I hiked on the west side, where I met Oswaldo and Marianita, who had been restoring their 320 acres there for some 30 years. Near the summit, grasses swelled all around us with gusts of Andean air. Below, a wet forest of vines, bromeliads, and orchids. Marianita held a bundle of mutt puppies, their paws buried inside her jacket.
I was then a teenager who, months earlier, had left my parents' suburban home to find whatever it was I was looking for. Less asphalt, more empathy, a slowing down. "Your land is perfect," I said to Oswaldo in hesitant Spanish. If he had invited me then to stay for another day or a month, I would have. But Oswaldo looked down and rummaged inside his vest pockets.
Behind us was a grove of trees, one planted on each of their children's birthdays. Their children had left years ago, but it did not occur to me to ask why.
From a pocket, Oswaldo took out a magnifying glass the size of his thumb. He knelt and pointed at what looked like a plain daisy: white petals with a honey center. Then he held the lens to my eye. Through it, the flower's yellow resolved into a series of mountains and valleys along which a dozen ants marched. For the ants, the whites of the petals must have been the horizon. When my head shadowed them, they marched faster, and I sat down.
Years later—when I've forgotten Oswaldo's name until I come across it on a stranger's blog—I'm apartment hunting in the Bronx during rush hour. On this cool evening, I pull from my fleece pocket a magnifying lens, which I now carry with me always, because outside of what might soon be my apartment, the sidewalk is layered with yellow leaves from a rosebud tree. The leaves' edges curl lazily like chiffon, and their veins spread out like the fingers of an open hand. —Natalya Savka