My father, Richard Levins, who died on January 19, was an atheist, and I couldn't bring myself to say a traditional kaddish for him, but he did believe in forces greater than himself, and I decided to write my own kaddish celebrating his faith in their endurance and hopefulness.
Joyously celebrated be the infinite complexity and beauty of the universe, its endless dialectic, its loops of positive and negative feedback, equilibrium and change, its constant evolution; and celebrated be human creativity and solidarity and courage. May they establish liberation in our lifetimes and in our days and in the lives of all peoples everywhere, speedily and soon, and let us say, ¡Que viva!
Praise to the great dialectic of change always unfolding possibilities.
May the deep wells of humanity and hope within us gush forth into the world and may there be principled unity and immense and powerful coalitions, clearheaded analysis and breathtaking vision, and practical, hard work done together and with joy. May the local and the global embrace, may the personal and political embrace, may intellect, emotion and flesh dance together. May our deepest desire for connection dissolve all factions and wash away all unnecessary conflict. Blessed and praised be solidarity, extolled and honored beyond all the songs and chants, manifestos and movements that have ever been crafted, for it is our greatest hope and we must cultivate it in all we do, and let us say ¡Que viva!
May all who are bound up in the toils of greed for power and wealth, and all who are trapped in the fear of scarcity, in selfish individualism and the short term strategies of desperation, and all who are confused by privilege and wounded by the ruthless heartlessness of oppression, be released, to join in the common good of us all which is far greater than any other reward.
May liberation arise abundant and universal from our own hands and hearts and minds; may there be peace and justice and life for us, and for all beings, and let us say ¡Que viva!
May we whose love and labor bring life sustaining food forth from the soil, create a sustaining and sustainable world for ourselves and for all that lives, and let us say ¡Que viva!
My hosts at the small cabin I found on airbnb, a friendly couple from Wisconsin, describe what surrounds their hand built, octagonal retreat as “jungle.” It’s a Hollywood word, full of Tarzanic imagery, an exoticizing word that conjures up fantasies of white colonial explorers cutting paths through the homelands of tropical people. I gently explain that this is not a jungle. It’s second growth subtropical forest, taking back land cleared over a century ago during the rise of the coffee kingdoms, a richly dense ecosystem, full of tree ferns and hanging vines, but not the primordial rainforest they imagine. Many of the tallest trees are imports, brought here to shade the coffee: red blossomed tulipán from West Africa, pomarosa and guamá from Venezuela. In the reclaiming of those cafetales, the monte, the wild, begins with yagrumos, shooting up from the million seeds each tree can produce, armed by its symbiosis with the little Azteca ants, who defend the saplings from insects and choking vines in exchange for shelter and the food provided by special glands yagrumo has evolved for the purpose, so called mullerian glands, named
for pioneering German naturalist Fritz Müller, who, dismayed by the
failed revolutions of 1848, went off to be a naturalist in Brazil.
Yagrumo always seems to me to be a talkative tree, waving its white palms in the air, announcing by flipping its palms back and forth like a child playing a tossing game, that the rain has begun to fall on the far slope, that a fresh breeze is blowing in from the Mona Passage, that the first edges an announced hurricane, the frothy skirts of Guabancex, her terrible winds and heavy downpours curving their way clockwise across the Caribbean, are approaching. Yagrumo is resilient. It bends its soft wood, and what breaks quickly regenerates. Not like the ancient hardwoods who take decades to reach maturity, ausubo, guayacán, capá blanco and capá prieto. (I say who because they are beings to me, family ancestors with stories to their names.)
After Hurricane Hugo, I was taken into the Luquillo rainforest by a biologist friend of my father’s. Whole hillsides looked like New England in November, leaves burnt brown by the salt wind, and ranks of tall mahoganies reduced to piles of splinters. This isn’t the disaster it seems to the uninitiated. The forests of my island evolved in a realm of storms, and ned the cleansing breaths of an occasional uprooting the way the western forests of North America need fire. But for the human inhabitants it’s another story. Don Luis, my best friend’s 97 year old father, still remembers finding a piece of zinc roofing impaling a large tree in a deep valley after the cataclysmic San Felipe hurricane of 1928. He and other elders have told me how when they crept out of their shelters it was to an unrecognizable landscape, stripped bare of all vegetation. In 1899, hurricane San Ciriaco left 100,000 homeless and starving. Don Luis’ father told him about the lines of silent, hungry people walking toward the coast, to “las emigraciones,” not knowing where in the world the ships were taking them except that it was away from eating leaves and mud. Over five thousand of them ended up in the cane fields of Hawaii and streets of San Francisco. I interviewed a remote cousin of Don Luis, a third generation Hawai’ian Puerto Rican whose family never returned.
Don Luis can name all of the dozens of hurricanes to strike the Western cordillera since then, and the near misses whose paths arced northward to the east or west of us, Hugo which tore pieces out of cement buildings on the island municipality of Vieques and left Indiera untouched, and Georges, which uprooted half the pines on our land and it was ten years, he tells me, before the mediopesos nested there again.
I can imagine these slopes, a few years after San Felipe did its worst, greened over by the pioneering masses of fern and shrub and the graceful silhouettes of young yagrumos, hands raised to the sky, ants scurrying up and down the slender trunks, repelling the attempts of bejucos to get find a smothering foothold, spreading their shade for the delicate flowers of alegría to repopulate the scoured hills with color.
I vividly remember the day, in 1959, when my father was called up before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, during their hearings on the Puerto Rican left, of which he was a part. My parents had been blacklisted since 1951, when, on graduating from Cornell University, it was made clear to my father, a member of the Communist Party, that he would not find a job. Facing the possibility that he would be drafted into the army to fight in the newly erupted Korean War, my parents decided to go to Puerto Rico, unsure whether my father’s refusal to fight would result in jail time and separation.
In Puerto Rico, a neighbor of my mother’s aunt pulled my father aside, told him she was part of a cell of the Nationalist Party, and that the FBI was visiting each place he applied for work, warning them not to hire him. On the advice of Alabama communist Jane Speed, who had moved to Puerto Rico in the late 1930s, they bought land, so they would at least have food to eat. In 1956 they moved back to New York so my father could attend graduate school at Columbia while my mother took classes at City College and parented me and my brother Ricardo.
On the north side of the mountains, the overgrown side,where the trees have not been cut in at least 90 years, there are seven springs. One of them at least flows into the tiny Río Sapo and makes its way to the Caribbean sea. That northern slope, un-terraced, wild, always captured my imagination as a child. Living as we did on the very crest of the Cordillera Central, we could look down to the coast on three sides. Away to the north are the limestone karst hills near Arecibo, tiny carved and cave riddled hills resembling Chinese landscape paintings. When the rains came from that side, we could see its path as it struck the silver-lined leaves of yagrumo trees, flipping them so the undersides showed white, a wave of water walking across the far slope and the valley until the first drops began to strike the tin roof with a noise like hail. That uncultivated valley was full of lizard cuckoos, whose cries, like hoarse laughter, also seemed to come just before the rain.
Rain ruled our lives in so many ways, the presence of water and its absence. As humidity rises in the mountains, insects come out into the air and swallows and other birds begin swooping and diving to eat the, The little coquís in the underbrush sing more loudly, and the air itself seems to wake up and shout.
I’m in the highlands of Maricao, Puerto Rico, talking with my childhood best friend Carmen Ana Ríos and her 97 year old father. Don Luis tells me the land is exhausted, and doesn’t yield what it did. For a hundred and fifty years the mountains of Western Puerto Rico have produced some of the best coffee in the world, but now Coca Cola has bought up 60% of the island’s coffee companies, mixes it with cheap, lower quality beans from Mexico and Colombia and markets it as Puerto Rican, so the coffee itself isn’t what it was either. All along the roads are signs announcing once viable farms for sale, and tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds is buying, while the people of the mountains are being displaced, to Central Florida, Georgia, Texas.
The coffee farms of my childhood were forest ecosystems, where tall shade trees kept the undergrowth to a minimum. As a boy, don Luis was sent up those trees once a year to open the canopy, so the sun could ripen the coffee. Before the harvest they’d clear the weeds once, then let the canopy close again, which controlled the weds without any further effort. Around thirty-five years ago the government began exerting pressure on farmers to cut down those forests and plant rows of sun grown Brazilian varieties that matured faster and yielded a little more. Without shade, the growers had to use herbicides to keep weeds under control. Without roots, the soil began to erode, washing downhill to silt the reservoir that provides this mountain community with water. There was no leaf litter to restore nutrients. Without trees, the birds declined. A rich tropical forest habitat became open hillsides with rows of low bushes.
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