A young family walks in the woods. Although the path is clearly marked the trio strays from the packed dirt. They stomp over fresh green shoots as they travel. The mother of the group pulls up wild flowers and shows her child how to crush the soft petals in her tiny fist. They laugh at the destruction they leave behind. The trio follows a bird back to her nest. They overturn a tiny clutch of eggs as they look inside. Picking up the last two unbroken eggs, they manage to smash the fragile shells between their fingers. The mother bird takes to the skies when the father of the group grabs for her legs. She sings a song of misery as she spirals higher and higher into the sky, mourning her lost young and demanding justice. Madremonte hears the young bird’s cry and arises from her bed of leaves to enact swift vengeance on this marauding family.
Americans have a popular outdoor saying: You don’t turn your back on Mother Nature or take her for granted. It equates to, pay attention when you’re in the woods because if you don’t wild weather or the unexpected animal encounter might end your outing in a nasty way.
Although we call nature by this maternal name most of us don’t see nature as a single anthropomorphic being. If we do see nature as a person, it’s often one of the Western myths that comes to mind, like the Greek version of Gaia. However, Latin American cultures have several forms of mother earth goddess. The Aztecs called her Coatlicue, and she wares a dress of live snakes. The Colombian version is called La Madremonte and she is one of my favorites. La Madremonte rules over all of nature, weather, waterways, plants, rocks and animals. She makes it her mission to protect nature from man’s abuses.
La Madremonte is pictured as a large and rather curvy woman. Not a particularly young woman or an attractive one. She has large teeth, (and sometimes fangs) bony hands and instead of skin she’s covered with rich green moss. She wears leaves as her clothing and vines grow from her head in a way that resembles hair. Although she loves animals and is often depicted with them crawling all over her, she’s not a fan of humans. Many people believe that Madremonte gave birth to all waterborne diseases as a way of keeping the human population in check.
Stories of Madremonte often feature the clever ways she eliminates anyone who disrespects nature. As a skillful shape-shifter, she manipulates herself and the landscape any way she wishes. People will wander for hours in her forests and jungles, getting hopelessly lost as she erases trails and rearranges the flow of rivers to confuse them. She can even change the shape of mountains or other landmarks to trap humans in her realm. She keeps them wandering and lost until they die of exhaustion and exposure. A lucky few will simply fall into a deep sleep and be spirited out of her domain. To deal with children Madremonte is more lenient. These she picks ups in her winds and carries to her secret caves located behind waterfalls. She will raise these children as her own, but they will never been seen again.
People still claim to see La Madremonte in wild landscapes and to hear her voice carried on the winds during stormy nights. If you ever encounter Madremonte try not to show any fear and do not run. Just act respectfully and blow tobacco smoke in her direction to keep her calm. Better yet, don’t do anything to make Madremonte take notice of your actions. Always treat nature with kindness.