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Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002

The Making of "The Tree Of Life"

Bruce "Pacho" Lane

This is a story about learning to put Quaker faith into practice in a way George Fox never anticipated, while making a film about a Mexican Indian religious ritual.

I’m a "birth-right" Friend. My father, Ralph Lane, was convinced while in college at the Univer-sity of Illinois. I was too young to remember attending 57th St. Meeting as a child, but do vaguely remember the Oak Park Meeting, which my parents founded. In 1948, when I was ten, my father took a position in Mathematics at the University of Texas, and we moved to Austin. There too, my parents were founders of the Austin Meeting.

Texas was another country for me. We lived in a white neighborhood, but only a block from the black ghetto. As time passed, I gradually became aware, also, of my Mexican classmates – admitted to, but not accepted in, to the white schools. I began to learn Spanish in the ninth grade, and later traveled to Mexico with my prep school, Verde Valley School, a Quaker-influenced offshoot of Putney School, near Sedona, Arizona. It was there also that I first experienced Indian ritual. The school traveled for two weeks every year to the Navajo reservation. I went to several Night Chants, and can still recall them clearly.

With college at the University of Texas (UT) in the 50's came the challenge of military service, and the first questioning of what I had accepted without much thought in First-Day School. I applied for and got my CO status, but more importantly, the need to think about my beliefs made me much more aware of the injustices in American society. With the Austin AFSC office, I helped organize weekend workcamps in the black and Mexican neighborhoods, and then spent a summer in an AFSC workcamp in San Antonio, honing my Spanish working with new migrants.

In 1958-59 I took an impromptu "junior year abroad," enrolled as an auditor in the Goettingen University, attended the German Yearly Meeting in East Berlin, and became very interested in Eastern Europe. In the second semester, I switched to studying Russian (in German) at Heidelberg University.

Back at UT, majoring in political science, I was picked to participate in the 1960 Texas-Chile exchange program and spent the summer of 1960 in Chile, in intense political discussions with Chilean students – many of whom later worked with the Allende government –and "disappeared" when Pinochet took power (with US support). In the spring of 1961, I was a student delegate from UT to the conference the new Kennedy administration called to found the Peace Corps, and was selected for the very first group of Peace Corps volunteers to go overseas, to Colombia, from 1961-63.

Our group was assigned to work in rural community development. As a city kid, living in a small Colombian town, ten hours by car from an urban area, was a big change. I loved the face-to-face communication, and the sense, even as a temporary resident, of belonging to a community. I was lucky to be posted to towns close to major indigenous groups, first on the northern Venezuelan border, and then in the Amazon basin. My off-duty time was spent visiting Guajiro, Kogi, Motilon, and Desana Indian groups.

As for so many others, the Viet Nam war changed my life. After Colombia, I wanted to continue working with third world development, and particularly with indigenous peoples. Foreign Aid seemed like the logical approach, so I entered graduate school in development economics, at the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor had a strong chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As US intervention in Viet Nam expanded, I joined the SDS protests.

In the summer of 1965, I applied to work as a "summer intern" with AID in Latin America. Instead, I was offered a slot in Viet Nam, and jumped at the chance to see what the US was doing firsthand. The experience there convinced me my government was wrong, and that I could not morally support it. That made it impossible to think of a career with a government agency – especially the Foreign Service.

Not knowing what to do next, I decided to take my recently-widowed mother and two younger sisters to Europe for an extended stay. When we returned to Austin in 1967, I tried to return to graduate school at the University of Texas for a PhD in political science. But I could no longer concentrate on course-work. Since UT was a center both for the anti-war movement and for the counter-culture, it was natural to continue my activism. But what was really new was the addition of psyche-delics – psilocybin, mescalin – as well as marijuana, which put me in touch with visionary experience in a whole new way.

At the end of the fall 1967 semester a friend told me about the new film school at UT, and suggested I take a course. Since I was "seeing" more and "reading" less, it sounded interesting. I was immediately hooked, but knew at once I was not interested in fiction films, or commercials, or television. I was looking for a way to share my interests in foreign countries, in Latin America, and particularly in traditional cultures. With this newly-awakened interest in visual, rather than verbal, communication, film-making seemed the perfect medium for sharing what I had learned in the Peace Corps in Colombia, traveling in Europe, and as an activist.

While I was learning how to make films at UT, my sister, Karen, was studying anthropology. In the spring of 1969, Karen got a small grant for us to go to Mexico over the Easter break to make a film. A Mexican anthropology professor said there was supposed to be an interesting Easter celebration in Huehuetla, in the northern mountains of the state of Puebla, not far from the Gulf coast. So we drove down to Poza Rica, and flew in to Huehuetla in a Piper Cub – the only alternative to walking nine hours.

We were all charmed by Huehuetla. It was like traveling back two hundred years, not just to a different time, but to a different reality. Only about five per cent of the population were mestizos–native speakers of Spanish. The rest were monolingual Totonac Indians, who lived as they had for the last 500 years, and in many ways as before the Spanish conquest. Besides, the countryside was gorgeous, subtropical mountains with coffee trees and cornfields on the steep slopes. No cars, no running water, no electricity, and of course, no television. We were probably the first U.S. Americans ever to show up in Huehuetla, and were welcomed as curiosities by the mestizos. On this first visit, we had no real contact with the Totonacs, because of the language barrier.

When we got back to Austin, we showed our little Super-8 Easter film around, and told our friends about the town. Other friends made the trek over the next year. Meanwhile, I had gotten married, but the marriage was not going well. In fact, my wife was having an affair with my best friend. So I decided to disappear for a while, and drove to the woods in Arkansas to think things over.

I camped out in an isolated spot, and thought about where my life was supposed to be going. For some reason, a hawk hung around, and called. Perhaps I was camping near his (or her) nest, or hunting ground. Be that as it may, I started calling back, and we had a sort of dialogue, or so I imagined. Gradually it became clear that something was calling me to return to Huehuetla and make another film. I didn’t know what the film would be about, only that I had to go and make one.

It wasn’t until several years later that I learned that Mexican Indians believed (and some still believe) that hawks are the reincarnations of warriors who died in battle or were sacrificed – and that the film I ended up making was about exactly this.

So I returned to Austin filled with new purpose. I scraped together enough money to buy a Beaulieu camera, capable of holding a two and a half minutes of 16mm film, a tripod, and film, borrowed a Nagra recorder from the Folklore Center, and left for Mexico.

Back in Huehuetla, I looked up Clementina, a mestiza (native Spanish-speaking) woman with whom friends had stayed. On her own initiative, she took me out into the country to visit a Totonac family, her compadres (co-parents). They welcomed us, and I immediately liked them very much. With Clementina’s interpreting I learned they were the leaders of the Volador (or "Flyers") dance group.

Because our first visit had been with mestizos, I had not heard about the Voladores. With Clementina’s help, they explained the ritual, which involves climbing an eighty-foot pole and then "flying" off it. The pole had already been cut and raised in the church plaza. Still, without having seen the ritual, I had trouble envisioning what this would look like, but knew immediately this was what I had come to make a film about.

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