roots searching for earth

6 April 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s quite humbling that I had to venture on my own all the way to the high forests of Panama to understand the idea behind dreadlocks.

The other day Heather and I discussed the ways that tattoos, piercings, and other body modifications say “fuck you” to society. While I respect the need for and act of radical self-expression, I argued, I made the same sort of statements myself, but didn’t need a thousand-dollar tattoo to say it and simultaneously ensure that I would never obtain a well-paying job, and I certainly didn’t want spider webs in my dreads, to borrow a persistent rumor, to worry about when smoking arbitrarily illegal plants to vibes of trip-hop or reggae – I could just say it:

Fuck you, society. I don’t need you.
Your claws don’t tear my skin; you made it thick enough to withstand them.


Somewhere north of Boquete I found a trail that veered off a snaking and shadowy one-lane road. I had passed ramshackle houses whose roofs consisted of painter’s plastic and tree branches. I followed a small stream until the trail faded into the muddy mountainside, literally running into the side of the hill like a painted road line pulled up from the asphalt and laid down again to lead straight into a brick wall.

On the way back to the road, another trail led up – straight up. The sun poked through the jungle canopy, a sign of heat and burned-off humidity somewhere above me. I climbed the muddy hill, scrambled over tree roots and barbed wire toward the sunlight. When I reached it, a lush coffee plantation dominated my horizon. Rich, dark leaves on nearly uniform plants in precise, diagonal lines.

The farm took up most of the curvaceous plateau, inclined toward the nearby volcano, and downward east-wise to the road from where I had started. Giant trees, complete with hanging vines strong enough to swing from, lined the border of the farm, their roots extending far down into the damp valley.

A jeep trail divided the coffee from the wild. I followed it up toward the volcano. Every hundred meters or so, a coffee bean sack hung from a trio of sticks that were shoved into the earth. They were basureros, trash sacks, used but barely. True to Central American ways, candy wrappers and plastic seals from bottled water littered the ground around them.

When the jeep trail veered away form the volcano, another single-track led into the woods. I followed it, and came to a sign:


A sucker for waterfalls, I went. Ran, faster and faster down the well-trodden path, slipping over boulders and tree roots. I carried my notebook in my pocket and lamented my wallet weighing down my flight. Trail running has always been the most liberating sort of running for me – it requires focus and concentration on the environment, and seems faster and more dangerous than running on pavement.

What energy I did have for introspection pointed out that I wore the same clothes I had been wearing on Thanksgiving in Barrio Cristo Rey, the ghetto neighborhood in San José I’d ventured into a few months before (I had escaped with my life, if not my backpack). Sprinting through the wilderness toward a waterfall and sucking in clarity, I was glad to finally be free of that fear.

Next to the streaming falls, a gargantuan tree pinned itself upright from the edge of a wet cliff. The base of its trunk started at the top of the bare wall, and its root system weaved and reached its tentacles down, down, down, pawing for earth. Thin-barked fingers split off from one another, perhaps in hopes of winning a race to soil. They twisted and spun round each other, bounced off the wall like an ancient game of Tag. The thick taproot swan-dived ten feet or more from the wall, leading its misdirected siblings toward the footpath and the earth where their nutrients lay buried.

The vertical, undulating wood organs resembled the dreadlocks of the surfer at the ice cream shop on Isla Carenero. His dark skin and Caribbean swagger completed the look, Heather and I had agreed after just that morning poking fun at white people who claim Rastafari as a philosophy and religion.

Dreads very well may be a ‘Fuck You’ to society, but it’s not that simple. They are a more visceral statement, not founded in the rejection of constructs, but in connection with the earth. They reach for the rich soil on a journey to seek something more pure from life than a high-paying job in a tall building that, in this day and age, is more likely to be demolished by a jetliner than make one truly fulfilled and happy.

They are a symbolic Thank You for the template Mother Nature, Jah, God, Allah (et al.) provided us, and a promise to take care of that connection with peace for the family we have no choice but to love.

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