Ode to the Hammock
By Natasha Soto
My sister, who works at a nonprofit organization, shared a burnout questionnaire with me. I approached the questionnaire as if it were an exam–determined to ace it. Most questions were straightforward, as if they could be on an intake form at a clinic: How many hours a night do you sleep? How often do you exercise? Then, there was this one: How often do you watch the clouds change shape? (Never, not very often, sometimes, often, always). I began to picture myself as a small girl laying on a concrete sidewalk in New York City, watching a massive cumulus transform above the red-brick buildings. I laughed at how child-like the question seemed thrown up against the others, but to my delight I was able to fill in the bubble for five on the likert scale as if I were gaining points on a test: often. I owe this luxury to a recent move from New York City to Philadelphia, where I installed a camping hammock on my deck. With the arrival of summer, I lie on it often. It is from this hammock that I watch the clouds change shape in the sky above me, which, according to this self-care evaluation, is very good for my well-being.
Is everyone as soothed by hammocks as I am? I grew up with hammocks, at least for part of the time. They were all over the place when I would visit my parent’s respective countries of the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. My parents like to tell me about the introduction of the hammock to America. According to them, was introduced by the Spanish colonizers. They laugh at the absurdity of this invention, and call it “lazy.” Something in this retelling feels inaccurate to me. People who came to impose work on a populace just don’t seem capable of building an object of leisure, especially one that works so well with the natural environment.
So I begin digging into this claim, and find that the hammock was developed by the pre-Colombian inhabitants of the Americas. Original hammocks were slung between trees to lift sleeping bodies above the ground, away from snakes, insects, and other animals. The word hammock comes from the Taíno and Awarak word hamaka. Both populations are native to Hispañola, and both suffered serious losses to the Spanish colonizers.
I still remember the giant, colorful cloth hammock from Otavalo that my grandmother kept in her garden, where five cousins and a puppy would pile on and swing all at once. I remember the more rustic hammocks constructed of some sort of net that hung beneath my uncle’s house on stilts in the tiny town of Olmedo. As far back as they tell me, my family were campesinos, agricultural people who worked the land. When the equatorial days turned scorching, the workers would eat lunch and wait out the sun by swaying in these hammocks.
They were my favorite places to rest, face full of hand-picked papaya, with chickens scratching at the mud beneath me.
I remember the hammocks in the Dominican Republic, even in the capital where everyone had gates around their balconies like they were living in bird cages. There were hammocks in these bird cages. There were hammocks in the bedrooms. What I remember about my summers in New York is that they were hammock-less. I would try to get the same effect by perching on a couch near a window, or bent legged and barefoot on a fire-escape holding a book. Always wishing to be rocked in the breeze, peaceful in the real thing.
While in Cuba on a school trip, I was surprised to learn that Cuba’s first national hero was a Dominican. His name was Hatuey, and he was a Cacique, or leader, of the Taíno people in Hispañola. The colonizers had arrived in Hispaniola first, and when Hatuey witnessed what the colonizers had done to the people on his island, he travelled to Cuba (then called Cubanascan) to warn the others of the dangers they would soon face when the colonizers landed on their shores.
With a basket of gold and jewels in his hand, Hatuey proclaimed “this is the God the Spaniards worship. For these, they fight and kill.” Unfortunately, the uprising Hatuey led was no match for the colonizers. When he was eventually burned at the stake, a priest asked if Hatuey would accept Jesus and go to Heaven. Hatuey asked the priest if the Spaniards went to heaven.
When the priest said yes, Hatuey, the badass, said he would rather go to hell. The colonizers not only took their land, gold, culture, and souls. The colonizers took the hammocks.
I wish I knew more about my history. It comes to me in fragments, bits and pieces, here and there. I barely know about my grandparents, their last names. Migration and the school system have made these things difficult. I tell this to my sister as we sway on the camping hammock on my deck. It is strong enough to hold both of us plus the books flopped on our bellies, their spines facing the summer sky. There is a picture of us as teens in the same pose in the hammock in my grandmother’s garden–in the photo my sister is reading Love in the Time of Cholera, and I am reading This is How You Lose Her, angry about the patriarchy. Today, my sister is distracted.
“Do the clouds always move this quickly?” She asks me, inspired by her wellness questionnaire to look up at the clouds. I realize she is a person who doesn’t look up at the sky much. A person who did would not ask such a question. She is staying with me for an environmental justice conference here in Philadelphia. Five hundred years after the colonizers came to the Americas looking to accumulate wealth, their reverence of it never ended. Their quest for profit continued at all costs, at the expense of both humans and the planet. Trying to mitigate the harm is difficult work, work that requires “wellness questionnaires” to measure burn out. For now, we are watching the clouds change shape. We are reconnecting–with ourselves, with our histories, with the Earth that holds us. We are doing nothing and everything at once.
We are in a hammock.
Natasha Soto was born and raised in a Dominican-Ecuadorian household in New York City. She currently lives in Philadelphia where she is an MFA candidate in creative writing and English instructor at Rutgers-Camden University. You can probably find her reading and writing from her hammock this summer.
Aikhenvald, Alexandra, Languages of the Amazon. Oxford University Press. P. 64 (2012)
Bartolome de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542)