Educator: Carolina Marchán
Children: Ana Sofía, Isabela, Bastián, Maria Antonia & Julian Nicolás
In the Cholas de Piedra perish, waters from the high mountain lakes of El Cajas National Park move with the great Machangara river to the Machangaracocha lagoon. The Machangara river channel threads through the neighbourhood hills, paralleling with three other lively rivers that flow to a valley that shapes the city of Cuenca. A central figure in this place is a monument called Cholas de Piedra (in English, Stone Dolls), a symbol of mestizo (mixed) Andean subjectivity and the important work of women, ‘cholas cuencanas’, that characterise both this countryside community and the city below.
In the Cholas de Piedra garden, children notice traces of others who were once here, but have disappeared. For example, birds and spiders have left behind white feathers and empty webs. Together with the children, we use yarn as a language to think with/through speculative stories about the creatures who have left and what might be required for their return. In the Andes, knitting practices have a long ancestral thread that is woven through generations, a connective fiber that gathers and brings women, like the cholas cuencanas, together in a dialogue. In the garden, yarn is a material language with grammars that enable us to knit together stories and correspondences among children, educators, absent creatures, and ancestral presences.
ENCOUNTERS WITH ABSENCES: NOTICING IMPERMANENCE AND MAPPING DIALOGUES IN THE GARDEN
In the Cholas de Piedra garden, we experiment with conditions that might unsettle the divisions between nature and culture that emerge when the child is positioned as the sole protagonist. We have made a pedagogical decision to think together about how we might maintain webs of dialogue with others who have been disappeared in this garden.
The presence of children in an already lively garden generates dialogue about the problems this garden poses, and what must be removed in the name of safety.
Two large dogs are caged, bees and their hives are removed, ‘pesky’ insects are swatted away, and materials are refigured to ensure an educational space made for children.
We pay attention to the webs in which spiders live. We are drawn to the web’s weave. Webs are like sticky, knitted hammocks that hold what comes near; a figure we imagine might help us in a struggle to hold impermanent presences in the garden.
Carolina (the educator) shares with the children that her family has a long history of knitting. She shares with them memories of knitting with her grandmother and other women alongside Cuenca’s Tomebamba River.
Knitting practices have a long ancestral thread that is woven through generations in the Andes, a connective fiber that gathers and brings women together in a dialogue – conversations that are enlivened in the loopings, hooks and tangles in-the-making of the weave.
We work with yarn to think with/through the children’s questions. Yarn is a language that enables pedagogical gatherings that link us to this place. A material with grammars that might knit together conversations and correspondences between children, educators, disappeared spiders, insects and birds.
We encounter yarn through its abundant length – long threads that the children extend out and tangle up in. Yarn meets legs, lassoes tree stumps, loops around hands and performs strange, shifting figures with moving bodies, meetings and disjunctures. When these long thread networks are placed on the ground and viewed from above, they become an arial map.
With more feathers found in the garden, a question emerges: “if the insects are now living inside the bodies of the birds, will the birds bring the insects back?” Some children speculate that if the birds have proper homes (like the webs the spiders already have here in the garden) then they might let the insects stay. Antonia proposes, “we can make nests so that the birds have their own house and do not eat the insects in the garden.”
With yarn, we return to intensify the relations between the birds, spiders and insects that trouble the children.
We take Antonia’s proposition seriously
and extend it to the other children.
Together we use yarn and cabuya to braid
small nests in hopes that the birds might return.
Together we wonder if the birds will come,
and if the insects will be carried in their bellies.
Maintaining dialogue with the birds and insects that have gone, our daily weaving continues and the nests accrue into what the children now call ‘a city for birds’.
The children announce that this city is an invitation for birds’ return.
Taking the proposition that the collection of nests are becoming a ‘city for birds’, we think together about what might be needed to create a city made particularly for birds.
We begin city planning by collectively drawing an emerging map that is layered with the braided nests. We gather various maps of Cuenca, large grid paper, chalk, rulers and geometry equipment to begin the blueprints.
What are the architectural designs needed for a bird city?
What does a bird need to live well in this city?
What are the features, qualities and design of a bird city?
What does this mean for the insects?
Jose Miguel tells us that the birds need a safe place because ‘Lia and Max (the house dogs) hunt birds that come to the garden.’
In a passing by manner, he announces that this is the reason that we only find the feathers in the garden.
While drawing, the children propose that the bird city must be designed high off the ground, so the birds are kept safe from the dogs, Lia and Max. Isabella tells us, the birds should live “in a big city, with many houses and trees. They will be safe, and nobody will eat them.”
The children’s drawings become taller, with far-reaching trees and neighborhoods of houses that are out of reach.
It becomes clear that a city at ground level is not safe for all animals.
We decide to add other elements to the city. We make small insects and homes for spiders.
We wonder what inconvenient or disconcerting cohabitations this growing city might generate as it becomes hospitable to birds, insects and spiders who have already tensioned relations in the garden.
What dialogues might emerge
in the mappings if we continue
to presence disappeared insects,
birds and spiders?
Mia suggests ‘to surprise the birds’ with incredible and unfamiliar houses.
Taken by Mia’s unexpected idea to ‘surprise’ the birds, we seek help from families to invent together ‘surprise houses’.
We propose to families to stay with what could be an uncanny (or even bizarre) city scape – to think and create bird homes beyond the structures of a house we might already know of.
Through the children’s drawings and co-constructions, the city scape complexifies and emerges in–the-making.
We try possible architectures for a city that is hospitable to these different homes in shared space.
The children notice more insects in the garden. They are puzzled and preoccupied by the possibility that the insects might have the same problem as the birds – ground level is not safe. They suggest that the insects must also live high above the ground and away from Max and Lia.
The children cut out their drawings and place them throughout the high top folds of Cycas trees.
Cycas, or ‘sago’ trees have a particular presence in this garden. Exported to Ecuador from Japan, this tree is highly toxic if consumed. The Cycas tree is especially dangerous to Max and Lia, as dogs are often lured by the taste of its poisonous seeds.
Because of its toxicity, the Cycas tree requires endured attention and care when engaged by humans. Harvesting relations involves the extraction of ‘sago’, or starch from the Cycas tree. This is a delicate and devoted process that involves cutting, pounding, drying and several phases of thorough washing to remove deadly toxins before the fibers can be used. Working with the Cycas tree’s generous folds alongside young children is risky and requires a similar, sustained carefulness.
Encountering the Cycas tree with the children through its unique trunk, its thick, overlapping fibers become toxic cradles for the city’s houses and nests. The Cycas tree weaves another layer to the complex dialogues we are attuning to in the garden.
The children decide that the birds’ nests and other houses that aren’t made of paper should also join the city in the Cycas trees. The children specify that, though the birds, insects and spiders share the same city, they live in distinct and separate houses. Some of the houses are difficult to arrange so high up.