Flights of the Fabulous
Because the scent of the Reina de la Noche ("Queen of the Night") is rumored to intoxicate the person sitting downwind of its perfume, it was sometimes planted with specific reference to the wind's direction and for just that purpose—to release someone from the constraints of the rational, the prison of the particular, the pedestrian. According to botanists, the reina de la noche that we see are escapees from cultivation, for the flower is officially extinct in the wild. In the family Solanaceae, it is native to and originated in tropical regions of South America,
along the Andes from Venezuela to northern
Chile, and also in south-eastern Brazil; and it is, like its herbaceous relative, Daturae, toxic but beneficial. The plant contains important alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine; and they have proven medical value for their spasmolytic, anti-asthmatic, anticholinergic, narcotic and anesthetic properties. Its medical properties have been synthesized and indigenous peoples in the region have been known to use it in their ceremonies, believing to gain truths from extra-normal visions...
Now I confess that I have never gotten high on the scent of Brugmansia (la Reina's official Latin name) a perfume which comes on at night. Nor have I availed myself of its medicinal properties, but I can testify that its smell is indeed strong, heady and delightful, an aphrodisiac to the imagination.
More familiar in general, but quite special in the tropical Americas, is the arco iris, the rainbow. Most seductive in the mountains, when it is "neblinosa" (when mist-not-quite-rain occurs) I have looked up to the hills and seen a whole hillside refracting the colors of light. Or a full bow stretching across the valley like, were I a believer, god's promises and emblematic of a wonder which is normally hidden in the folds of ordinary reality.
Now, I once had a student who wrote about her encounter, while surveying in a South American rain forest—her encounter with a jaguar, that most elusive of New World felines. The climax of her account was when that cat suddenly looked up, caught her glance, and for but a fleeting second, both looked each other straight in the eye.
How does one look wildness straight in the eye?
When I met a jaguar, it was a large adult who had been shipped from the confines of a tiny zoo in Costa Rica to a refuge center where animals who could not be returned to the wild were housed.
Missing him, his keepers had come for a visit, only to have him turn away as they greeted him in his cage. At my visit I found him, lying down, head on his giant paws, staring ahead. “Depressed,” said his present very worried caretakers. In all of that most eco-conscious country there were only 50 jaguars left in the wild.
In that same refuge center, I met a puma, who had been hand-raised as a kitten. For her protection, she was kept in a cage during visiting hours, but her caretakers invited me to step in and pet her. I stroked the head of this magnificent creature, its ears each with that single wisp of long hair at the tip, a large cat with paws that, at one swat, would have easily knocked me to the ground.
Though sometimes prey—or preyed upon—our ancestors understood such animals as wondrous, wild, with a unique and numinous essence. Perhaps only until that first wolf crept near the campfire for a scrap of meat, then set up a howl when his hosts were in danger. Perhaps until the first small, but wild, cat lay down nearby, batting a mouse it caught in the group’s grainstores, toying with it till the creature died and could be eaten…
Visiting friends in that same Costa Rica, I remarked upon the beautiful sunset I had just seen—"oh, that's the sands of the Sahara come to Centroamerica. You notice how overcast it was all day? the Sahara—" Would early indigenes and later settlers have known the origin of these phenomena?
Eduardo Galeano's "ventana," offers a glimpse into the subject of a very real, but imaginary watch, drawn on the wrist of a child. A wonder, yes, hidden in the folds of reality with its own peculiar roots, that both reach back into the amorphous land of ancient Inka yet stretch into modern Peru. It is not, though, a mystery, not the wild, but the imagined, invented domesticity of timekeeping…
Domesticity, the wild, the need to make sense of the miraculous and evade harm…the creation of stories, sacred and profane, that are both talismans against the fearful unknown, the uncontrollable… and for those of us from the temperate Americas, whose forebears also invaded that continent, cleared its forests, slaughtered and sickened its indigenous inhabitants, if we are able to free ourselves from the tyranny of absolutism, of self-serving ‘realism,’ what are our wonders?