Ceiba pentandra

One January, my wife Esthela Calderón and I secretly rushed Ceiba (as well as Cacao and Copal) leaves wrapped in damp paper towels and sealed in plastic bags across borders from our ancestral farm in Pueblo Redondo (Telica), Nicaragua all the way back to wintry Canton and the confocal microscope at St. Lawrence University where Jill Pflugheber was poised for action. We were all ecstatic with the botanical forms (particularly the stomata and trichomes), colors, juxtapositions, and evident raw power of this towering tree in no way diminished by the microscope and the hum of electrical current, this sacred emblem of protection, Axis Mundi, joiner of earth and sky, revealed at last in these images.

No one has written a more beautiful ethnobotanical portrait of a Ceiba than Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002), my literary mentor for decades. The poem, which I translated with Greg Simon, is one of my absolute favorites by Cuadra, and comes from the extraordinary Seven Trees Against the Dying Light published by Northwestern University Press in 2007. Highly recommended! Here is a fragment from “The Ceiba Tree”.

“This tree was born in the center of the world.

From its highest branches you see what your heart longs for.

This is the tree that lovingly cradles your childhood on its lap.

With the light, silky cotton of its fruit, your people made the pillows

on which they rest and shape their dreams.

Climbing this tree, the serpent becomes bird

and the word, song. 

This is the Mother Ceiba in whose swelling trunk your

people honored birth and fertility.

From a single piece of its white, easily carved wood,

they built a vessel

that is their cradle when their journey begins

and their coffin when they reach their port.

From this tree, humanity learned mercy and architecture,

order and how to give with grace.”

Writing about Upper Amazonian shamanism in Peru, Françoise Barbira Freedman says that tobacco is offered as a propitiating food to the mother-spirits of certain trees, particularly the lupuna tree (Ceiba spp.): “The lupuna sap is indeed known to be poisonous as well as psychoactive.” I have written more about these properties of the Ceiba in a short essay that appears in The Mind of Plants (Synergetic Press, 2021), edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patricia Vieira.

In a book on the shamanic practices of the Yanomami, Bruce Albert and William Milliken affirm that the Indigenous healers use the “images” of the largest trees of the Amazon rainforest, such as the Ceiba, to scare off evil spirits that cause disease. What if these powerful confocal images could serve the same purpose?

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