Salt of the Earth

By Jheri St. James

“Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea.”
Pythagoras (580 BC - 500 BC)

According to the World Map of Happiness, the people of Colombia rank number 34 out of 178 nations studied. (Adrian White, Analytic Social Psychologist, University of Leicester – “The concept of happiness, or satisfaction with life, is currently a major area of research in economics and psychology, most closely associated with new developments in positive psychology. It has also become a feature in the current political discourse in the UK . . . there is increasing political interest in using measures of happiness as a national indicator in conjunction with measures of wealth. Further analysis showed that a nation’s level of happiness was most closely associated with health levels, followed by wealth, and the provision of education.

Common Ground 191’s people are very happy that Leticia Zomosa chose to send us soil from Colombia for our project. She chose soil from the capital Bogota, and the symbolic Catholic Monserrate hill as her final location, because it presents such a panoramic view of the capital city. Leticia originally had three possible collections points in mind: Bogota, Guatavita (religious lake, origins of Colombian Indian culture, Muiscas, or Zipaquira (salt cathedral), and Bogota was her final choice. Our collectors usually give a great deal of thought to their collection site, trying to choose soil from a place that really symbolizes their country in a larger, global way. Because all of her sites are so interesting, they will be the topic of this journal entry.

This was another of the more complicated collections. There are 35 pages of emails in the file, beginning with one from Elizabeth Vexelman, our collector from Peru, who was just reading over the Soil Collection Status Chart one day, and noticed that Colombia was still open. In that great spirit of giving that she has, she remembered her friend Leticia, and wrote to Gary Simpson, Artist. One thing led to another and four months later, after shipping out the empty box and e-mailing instructions for the inevitable snags in shipping, we received the soil for our International Wall of Soils, to ultimately become part of the final 50’ x 50’ fresco. Now, multiply that times 191 and it will become apparent why we appreciate these friends of the project so much, people who are willing to go through all that patient perseverence. Thank you Elizabeth, and thank you Leticia! You are the salt of the earth.


Originally called Bacata by the Muiscas, it was the center of their civilization before the Spanish arrival. As recently as 2000, the capital city’s name was officially changed back from “Santa Fe de Bogota” to just Bogota. Located in the center of the country, Bogota is home to the Bogota River, which crosses the Sabana forming Tequendama Falls to the south. Tributary rivers form valleys where flourishing villages exist, whose economy is based on agriculture, livestock raising and artisanal production. Bogota is Colombia’s largest economic center, home to most foreign companies doing business in Colombia. It has a busy banking and insurance sector and a stock exchange, engineering firms, central government institutions and military headquarters, is the center of a vast telecommunications network and the largest industrial facilities in the country. In downtown Bogota miliions of emeralds are bought and sold daily. At one time the motto of the city was “2600 metres closer to the stars”. Bogota has the highest quality as well as the most expensive potable water in Latin America. The gold museum there has the biggest gold handicraft collection in the world.

The Republic of Colombia is a country which sits right at the gateway between Central and South America. It is bordered to the east by Venezuela and Brazil, to the south by Ecuador and Peru, to the North by the Atlantic Ocean, and to the west by Panama and the Pacific Ocean. This country is perhaps one of the few with coastlines on both salt Oceans, as well as the Caribbean Sea. Colombia’s name references the explorer Christopher Columbus. The name originally belonged to a short-lived republic consisting of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama (Great Colombia), which collapsed in 1830 when Venezuela and Ecuador separated and the Cundinamarca region, which remains, became a new country--the Republic of New Granada, which in 1863, changed its name officially to United States of Colombia, and in 1886, adopted its present day name: Republic of Colombia.

Colombia has significant natural resources and its diverse culture reflects the indigenous Indian, Spanish and African origins of its people. But it has also been ravaged by a decades-long violent conflict involving outlawed armed groups, drug cartels and gross violations of human rights. The fourth largest country in South America, and one of the continent’s most populous nations, Colombia has substantial oil reserves and is a major producer of gold, silver, emeralds, platinum and coal.

A hooded eagle among blinking owls.
You will see Hunt--one of those happy souls
which are the salt of the earth, and without whom
this world would smell like what it is—a tomb.

                                      Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Colombia’s economy has been on a recovery trend during the past two years despite this serious armed conflict. The economy continues to improve thanks to austere government budgets, focused efforts to reduce public debt levels, an export-oriented growth strategy, and an improved security situation in the country. Several international financial institutions have praised the economic reforms introduced by URIBE, which succeeded in reducing the public-sector deficit below 1.5% of GDP. The government’s economic policy and democratic security strategy have engendered a growing sense of confidence in the economy, particularly within the business sector. Coffee prices have recovered from previous lows as the Colombian coffee industry pursues greater market shares in developed countries such as the U.S.

Those are the 21st-century Colombia statistics. Living beside this modern land is the ancient Colombia, peopled by the indigenous people in Colombia’s Amazon jungle. These people are known to use a garden for just two or three years before abandoning it to clear a new one somewhere else, thus practicing sustainable agriculture in an exuberant but fragile environment where the soil is extremely poor.

In 2005, Rufina Roman, daughter of a native shaman, spoke in public for the first time about some of the secrets she has learned from her mother, the shaman’s wife. Her audience included women from the Guambiano, Arhuaco, Kokama, Waunan, Bara and Wayuu ethnic groups from different parts of Colombia, as well as women of the Ashaninka people of Peru, the Mapuches of Chile and the Kuna of Panama. In Colombia, people belonging to 90 different ethnic groups make up one million of a total population of 44 million.

Roman felt a strong call to keep the generation-to-generation transmission of indigenous knowledge alive. “That’s when I started learning. Only the preservers of culture are familiar with the code of life.” Before that, Roman had been at school in the capital, Bogota. She thought that when she returned home, she would be able to teach her community many things, but they rejected what she brought back, instead teaching her the native secrets.

Using a large colored pencil drawing on construction paper of a woman’s body dotted with plants and fruit as an illustration during her presentation at the conference, explaining that each plant had its corresponding place in the body of the woman in the drawing, who symbolized the chagra or traditional garden covering one or two hectares cleared out of the forest by indigenous peoples in the Amazon to grow their food and medicinal and spiritual herbs. The sacred plants of coca and tobacco are at the woman’s head, and drawn across her waist are people bringing in the harvest.

The imagery of this drawing is really the crux of what the Common Ground 191 project is about, celebrating the life force of our Mother Earth, the originator of life as we know it—the foods, medicines, trees, waters, and all good things that come from the soil. The dirt we are collecting to celebrate in art that which we all share, the ground upon which we walk, dance, do battle and under which we are buried.

"An honest laborious Country-man, with good Bread, Salt and a little Parsley,
will make a contented Meal with a roasted onion."
John Evelyn (1620-1706)

No description of Colombia would be complete without mentioning the mighty Amazon River, 3,920 miles long and sourced by glacier-fed lakes in Peru. It is second to the Nile as the mightiest rivers in the world. River water is diverted for agricultural irrigation, industry, hygiene, and related uses. Because flow is not constant, rivers like the Amazon produce floods and droughts, and carry dissolved minerals and organic compounds. Even a slow river can carry small grains of clay. As the strength of flow increases, sand, gravel and even boulders can be dislodged and moved downstream. Some communities depend on the fish that live in or travel along rivers.


La laguna de Guatavita

After Bogata, another site Leticia considered as Guatavita, 75 kilometers from Bogotá, a sacred lake and ritual center of the Muisca Indians. Some believe that the lake was made by a giant meteor which fell some 2000 years ago, and left a huge circular hole shaped like a volcanic crater. This quiet and beautiful lake is where the legend of "El Dorado" originated. The Indians interpreted the phenomenon as the arrival of a golden god who lived thereafter at the bottom of the lake. The lake became an object of worship, where gold, emeralds and food were offered for protection, misfortune, etc. When the Spaniards saw the Indians throwing gold into the lake, they believed a fortune was at the bottom of it, so several attempts were made to retrieve the legendary treasures. After four centuries of digging, draining, pumping, and diving, the lagoon has finally been left in peace. Some pieces of gold were found, and the most famous one is the Balsa Muisca, considered to be the most elaborate gold object, and the ultimate proof of their ceremonies. It was found in 1856 and now is at the Gold Museum in Bogota.


Salt is an essential element in the diet of humans, animals and many plants. A preservative, it has been used to preserve food and Egyptian mummies. The industrial and other uses of salt are almost without number. Salt has been the subject of many stories and folktales and is frequently referenced in fairy tales. Some cultures ascribe magical powers to salt. Salt served as money at various times and places, and has been the cause of bitter warfare. The forerunner of the English word “salary” was “salarium argentum”, the Roman word for the salt rations given to early Roman soldiers, who were dismissed for being “not worth their salt”. Salt is in our tears, our blood, our food. We are surrounded by undrinkable water because of its salinity. And yet unsalted foods definitely lack something.

"Salt is the only rock directly consumed by man. It corrodes but preserves, desiccates but is wrested from the water. It has fascinated man for thousands of years not only as a substance he prized and was willing to labour to obtain, but also as a generator of poetic and of mythic meaning. The contradictions it embodies only intensify its power and its links with experience of the sacred.”
Margaret Visser, 20th century author

In Colombia, an unique and original use for salt exists, the salt cathedral of Zupaquira.

Las Salinas de Zipaquirá

The first one built
the new one

The salt dome of Zipaquirá is believed to have originated from salt deposits 200 millon years ago and concentrated in the present site. This salt rock is located in a hillside above Zipaquirá and made it possible to excavate many kilometers of tunnels to mine the salt. In the heart of the mine there is a unique Cathedral carved out of the solid salt. It opened to the public in 1954. The Cathedral was rebuilt in 1991 at 500 meters from the original by the architect Roswell Garavito, who made a remarkable architectural and artistic achievement.

"With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt."
Moses, Leviticus

* * *

According to Balzac, a real novelist must “plumb the depths of society because the novel is no less than the secret history of nations.” Balzac’s observation about the power of fiction to reveal social truth applies with particular force to a country like Colombia, whose reality has been so distorted by its official history. History is typically written by the victors, so it tends to be blind before horrors committed by its authors while exaggerating the misdeeds of others. A defining fact of Colombia life is the social and geographical isolation of the indio and the cultural devaluation of the indigenous heritage, as well as the black descendents of African slaves, originally brought to Colombia by force to work on the farms of Spanish colonists.

In Colombia, owning the country—even having the minimal familiarity required for such ownership—has been a very slow process. For many, it has barely started. Bogota is virtually unknown to its inhabitants, who often cannot name its districts. Significant parts of Bogota and other major cities are off-limits to all but the local aristocracy, surrounded by razorwire and checkpoints.

Colombia, as all the nations of the earth, is both blessed and cursed by the notion of borders. Is it presumptuous of mankind to draw arbitrary lines on the surface of the earth and then declare anyone crossing those lines subject to death? Isn’t the earth so much more than mere surface? Aren’t there thousands of miles of substrate and tectonic plates creating their own underground reality? Aren’t there millions of miles of sky rising above that surface? One wise man pointed out that mankind rarely touches more than the bottom of his shoes to the earth; the rest of his being is in the sky. And even then, cement, concrete, the floors of buildings prevent that elementary sole/soul contact that indigenous peoples experience for entire lifetimes. Interesting questions; varied answers.

Either way, the soil of Colombia will be used with gratitude in the Common Ground 191 art project. Thank you again, Elizabeth and Liticia, Salt-of-the-Earth-People. The word for peace in Colombia is la paz.

It was good to hear that Colombia was listed as 34th in world happiness. There seems to be so much sorrow on the planet. Can we work within the framework of the test before us? Can we put on our armor and shields of sacredness and walk through the sorrow, fear and disappointment of what other humans have done without judgment of them or without being discouraged? The more light we carry, the more we will see that which is sorrowful on earth. Only the masters can see these things as reasonable within the scheme of why we are here. It is important that lighthouses are not distracted by the storms as they shine their lights. Otherwise they become useless. Here are some pictures of lighthouses in Colombia, shining out over salty seas.


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