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Quaker Theology -- Issue #7 -- Autumn 2002

The Making of "The Tree Of Life"

Bruce "Pacho" Lane

The first thing I filmed was the preparation of the beautiful ceremonial candles. There were several dozen individual candles, about two feet high, each lovingly made of beeswax and adorned with elaborate wax decorations The most striking things were two large "candelabra," each with six yellow beeswax candles in a circle and one in the center, all adorned with wax flowers and birds, and with a wire circlet attached to the central candle. It only became clear later that the candles had nothing to do with the Voladores. Salvador, who with his brother Juan was one of the two Capitanes ("Captains") of the group, had accepted the obligation of providing the candles for the church fiesta as a mayordomo charged with the expenses of one day of the fiesta.

At some point I realized I was being guided, and my job was to discern what I was being led to film. In retrospect, I am fairly sure the "inspiration" to return to Huehuetla came "from" the hawk in the Arkansas woods. But in fact, my whole life had led me to that point. I was unconsciously practicing being open to the Light, and following where it was leading. Without analyzing it, I was applying Quaker process to film-making.

Once I committed to making the film, Way opened before me. Things happened I could not have planned, indeed that would not have happened if I had tried to make them happen. If my friends had not met Clementina, and if I had not stayed with her, she would not have taken me to visit the Voladores. If Clementina had not previously taken another friend, a biologist specializing in frogs, to visit her compadres, and if he had not taken stills of the family and mailed them back to the families, they would not have cooperated when I started filming. And if I had not "intuitively" filmed the candle-making, I could not have made sense out of the Voladores ritual. I’ll come back to that.

Back home in Austin, my wife and I made up, and started an import business selling hand-embroidered Mexican Indian clothing. As soon as I had enough money ($400), I had ten minutes of the film developed and printed, and managed to show it Bob Schenkkan, the manager of KLRN, the Austin PBS station. It turned out he was a Mexico buff, and was so impressed by the footage he got me enough money to develop and print the rest, and to pay for basic editing equipment. Over the next year I edited the footage. When Schenkkan saw the half-finished film, he found enough money to pay for a second trip to finish the film.

When the money came, I made an advance trip to make arrangements with the Voladores, so we could be there in time to film the felling of the tree, and found two other film graduate students at UT to work on the project. David was to do camera, and Ben to take care of the sound, while I directed.

We arrived in Huehuetla the night before the tree was to cut. The Voladores were waiting for us, and we arranged for them to come for us at 5:00 am the next morning. Before sleeping, we checked the equipment, and everything was fine.

The next morning we made the three-mile trek along the "camino de herradura" (horse-shoe road) to the tree. Ben awoke with the "Aztec two-step," and had to stop by the side of the path every few minutes, but made the journey. Since this was a faena, or communal labor project, over three hundred Totonac men joined us on the path. By tradition, faenas could only happen on Saturday mornings, so they planned to cut and trim the tree, then drag it back to the churchyard near Clementina’s house, where we had started that morning.

Once at the tree, we set up the camera and tape recorder, and stashed the film safely away from where the tree was supposed to fall. As soon as we were ready, Salvador made the sign of the four directions at the base of the tree with an offering of refino, the local white lightning. Then the faeneros attached ropes to the tree so they could pull it down when it had been cut far enough.

As the first axe blow fell, our Nagra recorder stopped dead. While David kept filming, Ben and I checked the recorder, and found that the alkaline batteries, new that morning, had mysteriously gone dead – theoretically impossible. So we sent a kid on the six mile hike back to town to get more batteries. Ben, meanwhile, collapsed, glad to be able to focus his attention exclusively on his bowels.

As I tried to direct David with the camera, it became clear he didn’t understand what I wanted. In frustration I told him to stop, that I would film because we didn’t have time to argue. So David sulked as I filmed the chopping of the tree. I finished a roll, and started running with the camera to where we had left the film, to change the roll.

Then I felt a pressure on my back, and heard the tree begin its fall. I realized that the tree was falling directly on me! Suddenly my mind went into automatic pilot – fully conscious, running, but my Self was sitting in a small room in the back of my skull – that’s what it felt like – calmly watching my body run, and my conscious mind experience pure terror.

At that moment, words appeared. It wasn’t a moving finger, or a Voice, but somehow the words were there: "I’m going to hit you but I’m not going to kill you." Then the tree hit the top of my skull and I blanked out.

When I awoke, three hundred Totonacs were crowded around me, and David was feeling my pulse. Blood was pouring from my head, but my first concern, of course, was for the camera. The body was unhurt, but our zoom lens had snapped off as I fell on the camera. I looked around, and saw that I had been hit by a branch. The tree trunk was only a couple of feet to the left. I felt very grateful for the tree’s decision not to kill me!

Once they saw I was all right, the Totonacs went back to work, lopping off branches and getting the tree ready to drag down the mule trail. We now had no recorder and no camera, and two of us were out of commission. The faeneros wouldn’t wait, so I asked David to take stills with his Pentax. David shot two rolls of 35 mm, and then realized that the film had not been advancing through the camera!

By this time it was clear to the three of us that something more than just accidents was at work. But there was nothing left to do but follow along as the three hundred Totonacs dragged the tree trunk down the trail. As the tree turned a corner, the tip hit a wasp nest. Out of the three hundred-odd souls within range, the wasps stung only David – about a dozen times.

Fortunately, a few minutes later it began to rain. The faeneros dropped their ropes, and everyone headed for shelter. I ran into a tienda (store) with Salvador and Juan, and asked them what had happened. They were very apologetic. They said they knew the tree had "a bad heart" because the owner had not wanted to sell it at the confiscatory price the town mayor had set. So they said they had been especially careful to ask the tree’s permission in the ceremony we had filmed. They wondered if we should make an offering, too, but decided nothing could happen to us, since we were gringos!

Once recovered from my shock, I asked them what we should do in order to be able to continue filming. They said I had to placate the spirit of the tree, and told me the steps in a ritual to do at the altar in Clementina’s house.

When we got back, I performed the ritual and started packing to go into Mexico City to buy a replacement lens. Since the faeneros would finish dragging the tree the following Saturday, and it took a day each way to Mexico City, we had plenty of time – three days – to find the lens.

But it didn’t work that way. David and I looked everywhere, but couldn’t find anything that would work. I was depressed, and felt like Joe Btfsplk, the character in the old comic strip "L’il Abner," who carried a rain cloud over him wherever he went.

Finally, the last day, I decided to go back to our first stop, a photo store near our hotel, run by an old German emigre. About a block from the store, I felt the rain clouds part over my head: there in the shop window was exactly the lens we needed. I pointed out the lens to the owner and said how glad I was that he had just gotten the exact lens. He said that lens had been in the window for months. He must have been right, but we had not seen it on our previous visit nor had he pointed it out. We and the lens made it back in time to film the arrival of the tree at the churchyard, where it would be raised a few days later.

Meanwhile Ben had spent the week with the Voladores. Apparently because they felt guilty about the tree falling on me, they had decided they wanted to participate actively in the film. They volunteered to cut another tree so we could film it. They had also come up with a list of things to film, and suggestions as to how to film them – this from people who had never seen a film! From that point on, the film became a cooperative endeavor in which they participated fully.

Ben and David, however, were having trouble with my "intuitive" approach. They felt they didn’t know what we were doing, and they asked me to write a script, as we had been taught to do in film school. I did, but it felt so wrong that I told them I couldn’t follow a script. I couldn’t explain what we were doing and they would just have to trust that it would work somehow. So not only were they in a place totally unlike anything they had ever experienced, but they were with a madman whom they couldn’t understand! They decided they couldn’t continue, and returned to the US.

Fortunately by this point another friend, David Taylor, had showed up with his camera, and my wife, Susan, and sister, Karen, had arrived, so we were able to finish shooting the ritual. Of course both Susan and Karen had been to Huehuetla on our first trip, and were much more comfortable with the community, which helped David feel more at ease.

This is probably as good a time as any to explain what actually happens during the Voladores ritual. I’ll get to an interpretation further on.

When the tree is raised in the churchyard, it has been wrapped with vines as a rough ladder. On top – eighty feet in the air – is a hub, about 18" in diameter, from which is suspended a frame. Ropes are wound around the pole and through the hub.

On the day or days of the town fiesta, from Sept 5 through 8th, the Voladores dress in special costumes which are clearly derived from eighteenth-century European menswear – knee breeches, frock coats, Spanish shoes (the only time they ever wear shoes), sunglasses, and "dunce caps." They dance at the entrance of the church, participate in any church procession, and dance again around the pole.

When they have finished the preliminaries, the Voladores climb the pole. The Capitan sits on the hub, and as he plays a three-hole reed flute he leans back until he is horizontal, four times, for the four directions. He then stands up on the hub, and dances a complete circle, East-North-West-South-East.

Meanwhile the other Voladores have tied the ropes around their waists. When the Capitan completes the circle, he sits down, and plays the flute and drum as the others fall backwards off the frame, eighty feet from the ground, attached to the ropes threaded through the hub. As the ropes unwind, the Voladores slowly descend, circling head down with arms outstretched until they flip over for landing just before reaching the ground.

The first flight must be at noon, when the sun is at the zenith, and the Capitan must perform the ritual on the hub for the first flight. Thereafter, the dancers can fly as often as they wish, with or without a dancer on the hub.

On the first flight, with a new pole, and new ropes, the Voladores are very nervous. There are many stories of accidents, which, however, are always attributed to improper behavior during the ceremony. For example, a previous Capitan had allowed two drunken Indians to fly off the pole (during the ritual period, the Voladores may not drink alcohol and must abstain from sex). The Capitan was watching from the ground, and one of the drunks fell on him – and walked away unhurt. But the Capitan was crippled for life, and was unable to fly again. So this year the Voladores were particularly concerned, since the tree had already almost killed me. But everything went perfectly!

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