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The ceibo is a sacred tree throughout the Americas. This is the ceibo of the Ecuadorian coast (Ceiba trichistandra). An enduring memory from my childhood is of long drives to the beach or to my mother’s birthplace, over hilly savannas, watched over by the silhouettes of lone ceibos standing guard like sentinels against whatever the ocean winds might bring.

The coastal ceibo’s bulbous trunk holds water throughout the dry season, and its green bark continues photosynthesis even when its leaves fall. When young, thorns protect its soft wood, but as the tree ages its bark becomes smooth like human skin. Its seed pods produce a white cotton, the kapok, used for mattresses and pillows, and, until it was replaced by artificial fibers after the 1940s, it was the principal source of stuffing for automobile seats and life preservers.

Their enormous trunks were used to build giant dugout canoes, the means of connection for many peoples living among the waterways of the coastal forests. Its cousin, the kapok ceiba of the jungles, is a sacred tree to the Maya and many Amazonian peoples, its roots reaching to the center of the earth, uniting Xibalba, the underworld, and the spirit world above.

Along those roads we passed many roadside altars, memorials to those killed in accidents, but it seemed like the ceibo trees themselves, with their gnarled roots and hidden shadowed niches, held their own memorials to passing time.