It's a struggle to slog through ditches and along dry footpaths in the Mazahua country of rural Mexico, on a mission to bring beauty and grace in the form of trees.
Local Mazahua farmers – impoverished offspring of a tribe whose lands were fought over by Aztecs and Toltecs in ancient times – lead the way as we cross the dusty fields in a ragged line, carrying 3-year-old saplings to plant in their dooryards. New seedlings won't do – they'd be trampled or eaten by the chickens, turkeys, sheep, and burros that wander everywhere unfettered.
Lisa, our leader, assures us that this is a worthwhile project. She's the codirector of Misión Mazahua, a Protestant mission that's been bringing "holistic transformation" to this region of some 300,000 Mazahuas for the past 30 years. We, her short-term helpers from Congregational churches in the United States, are here for a week of work in support of the mission's projects.
Some time in the past thousand years, the trees on this high plateau northwest of Mexico City gave way to a carpet of corn, beans, and pasture, to ensure the Mazahuas' survival. Now, one of the mission's projects is microreforestation, and Lisa says the Mazahua people really want these trees – evergreens for shade, plums and pears for fruit – to grace their tiny, arid farmsteads.
The Mazahuas do seem engaged. They gather at the little crossroads where we unloaded the trees from the mission's truck and greet each of us with a cordial handshake, saying, "Buenas tardes."
Then for more than an hour, in rapid Spanish, they jointly allocate specific trees to each family. This is because the mission, which grew and donated the saplings, has laid down a strict rule: Trees would go only to those who had already dug holes to receive them and had compost ready to mulch them.
When all is decided, Lisa steps forward and, in slower Spanish, gives a sermonette. She talks about God providing trees for the community. It's a big responsibilidad to plant a tree, she points out, and the Mazahuas nod assent.
Then it's time to take the trees to their new homes and plant them. Each family has just a few acres, so no farm is far from where we are.
Aside from greeting and being greeted, witnessing the division of trees, and helping to carry them, we volunteers aren't really sure why we're there: When does the heavy lifting start?
Our job, we soon discover, isn't just to bring the trees but to help make a ceremony of their installation. Having brought my camera, I am designated fotógrafo. Here, as at home, the photo op seems as important as the event itself.
At the first farm, in front of a two-room cinder-block house, Lisa plants a tree in the first of a neat line of holes, with plenty of good-natured commentary from the villagers. Everyone, it turns out, comes along to see everyone else's trees planted; it's only neighborly.
Rosaura, Lisa's assistant, plants the next tree (faithfully snapped by yours truly). Then Jim, a tall, easygoing man with a cowboy hat, plants a tree. He's followed by Ron, a natural clown who delights children of all ages and nationalities, and Josh, an earnest young man with serious computer skills.
Then various local villagers, including a smiling political leader, try their hand at planting a tree. Even el fotógrafo gets into the act. I hand my camera to Ron and acquaint my hands with honest toil.
Someone shouts, "El Rojo!" and Dylan, a lanky teenager from Michigan, graciously complies with popular demand by inserting an evergreen into its hole. For the remainder of our visit, Dylan will be known as El Rojo, "the redhead."
As we spread our bounty of saplings, accompanied everywhere by the whole population of the neighborhood, we become more at ease with them and they with us, and it's – well, heartening.
Lisa translates comments, questions, and jokes, so that everyone joins in the camaraderie. We plant the residents' trees, tickle their babies, and praise their ducks.
At the last farm, a table has been set especially for us. We sit down to a feast of beef, lamb, and various dishes prepared with beans, chilies, onions, and a tasty green sauce, served with plenty of fresh hot tortillas. The spoons are only for serving – one's tortilla is the all-purpose dining utensil. The Mazahuas are good at it, we are clumsy.
Ron protests: We are sitting at the table, while the Mazahuas dine standing around us. "Come on, sit down," he says. "It's not right you should stand while we sit."
Lisa explains that this is their way of honoring visitors, and we must receive the hospitality in the spirit in which it is given.
The meal proceeds with companionable conversation. There is laughter as village women size up Ron and El Rojo as potential mates for their daughters or themselves.
At length we stand, offer our thanks for the hospitality, and make the obligatory round of farewell handshakes. "Buenas tardes ... mucho gusto ... grácias."
Some of the villagers walk us back to our truck, and there is another round of leisurely good-byes.
It's clear now that we brought only trees. Grace and beauty were already here.