Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Amateur forestry thrives at the ranch

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.
The second best time is now."
               (Sent to me by Anita, a friend in San Antonio)

When we bought the ranch nine years ago, the first thing Stew and I did was put a fence around it. We'd been warned that property lines in rural Mexico could be fluid and contentious and that it was a good idea to put up a fence before the ink on the property survey even dried.

That was the first, and maybe the most important, step we've taken in our campaign to restore our three hectares to what they might have been like before man—and his goats, sheep, cattle, burros and other animals—ran roughshod over it and denuded the land almost down to bedrock.

The "Mexican Eagle" is actually a
falcon and its proper name is
"Crested Caracara"
With the hungry animals kept at bay, vegetation—nothing fancy, mostly weeds, cacti and wild trees and bushes—promptly popped up to create prickly, waist-high and nearly impenetrable jungle.

It covers the entire ranch except for about an acre on which our house and surrounding garden sit. Rabbits, snakes, rats, roadrunners and various birds—including Mexican eagles hovering overhead—seem to enjoy the new landscape.

We then used the native rocks to build small terraces, like necklaces delineating the gardens that would come later, to help keep the soil from washing downhill during heavy rains.

One of our three Michoacán pines, which
weren't supposed to grow around here. 
But the most important—and expensive and frustrating—part of our restoration effort has been to plant about two hundred trees, twenty percent of which have succumbed to our inexperience and the lousy eroded soil.

It's hard to picture that once, before the arrival of the plundering Spaniards, the hills around us were dense oak forests. Félix, who climbed those hills as a child says there are few huge oaks still standing and the occasional scampering deer.

Our experience as arborists being so brief and confounding, it's hard to suggest any rules to anyone attempting what we have tried to do.

One would be to buy large trees, two or three meters high, and dig ample holes—with a backhoe— twice the diameter of the root balls, and then backfill with good black soil mixed with compost. Planting spindly saplings in skimpy holes is largely a waste of time.

Yet contradicting this rule, and most any other rules of tree-planting, there seem to be an equal number of  exceptions.

Félix' allée, which he created from seedlings
from the Trueno tree in our front yard.
In the entrance patio to our house we have a Trueno tree, as it is called here. (I believe the real name is Japanese Privet, or Ligustrum lucidum.) It had a very hard time getting established and then took off. It now flowers and self-seeds prolifically. The bees from our hives love it.

Not one to waste any plant material no matter how insignificant, Félix set out to collect the tiny seedlings from under the tree and nurture them into scraggly foot-high trees. He then planted them along the driveway creating an allée of truenos now about two meters tall.

On the other hand, just yesterday we had to dig up two Sycamores, of good size and properly planted, that died after two seasons. We replaced them with two Boxelder maples (Acer negundo), to join another one we planted a couple of years ago and seems to be doing very well.

The peach tree and the smaller mesquite came out
of nowhere—we didn't plant them. The peach produced
about twenty five peaches this year. 
Another rule that has proven unreliable is to use either native trees or those that seem to grow around here, even if originally from somewhere else.

Our biggest success story is a trio of Michoacán pines (Pinus Devoniana) that we were warned would never make it in our dry climate. They are thriving, the long droopy needles dancing in the breeze.

One customer called Australian pine (Casuarina Equisetifolia), with long needles that seem to whistle when blown by the wind, has survived but not really prospered.

Two winners are the Greggi pines (Pinus Greggii), a dozen of which we bought from an abandoned Christmas tree farm down the road and are doing fine, and eight to ten cedars that seem to be happy also.

One of three olives, two arbiquina variety and
one mission. They have produced 
three olives—one each.
A very common tree to San Miguel called the Pirul (Schinus molle), also called the Peruvian pepper tree, has done so-so here. We have three or four that have lived and just as many that croaked. A huge pirul, the only large tree on the property, is thriving at the end of the drainage pipe from our septic tank.

Three Jacarandas have died during our windy and dry winters.

This is but a small selection of hits-and-misses from our campaign to restore trees to our land. Other winners are three fresnos (ash trees); several peach trees; mesquites; a magnolia (thriving); olives (growing but no signs of olives); two walnuts (very slow growing); four cypresses; three Chinese elms; an orchid tree plus an aster that has quadrupled in size since his arrival five or six years ago.
One of the two new Boxelders, memorializing my mom
and Félix's grandmom. Behind them are one of many
cedar trees at the ranch. 

Regardless of our tree-planting batting average, when I walk around the ranch I cannot help but be gratified with our efforts. The land isn't barren any more, and the thickening forest provides a natural privacy barriers from any future neighbors.

We can think of this mini forest as our legacy to Mexico and also to our forebears.

I told Félix I wanted to dedicate the two new Boxelders, one to my mom, Georgina, and one to Julia, his recently deceased grandmother.

Félix preparing the memorial stones. 
He had never heard of such a tradition but promptly endorsed it. He painted their names on two stone tiles we had in the basement and placed them at the foot of each tree.

We hope Julia and Georgina look after these trees from Upstairs and make them prosper.


N.B. If there are any readers who really know their trees, or want to help out with our forestry efforts, feel free to leave comments below.

Monday, August 7, 2017

When the lights went out and peace came in

Our solar electric system went on the fritz and
that brought us some unexpected blessings 

Our house is "off the grid"—the only external input is a refill of propane gas every two or three months—and the system worked well until last Friday afternoon when our solar electricity rig crashed, taking down with it all appliances and electronic gizmos. 

We bitched and fretted as Stew tried unsuccessfully to fiddle with the system's inverters and controllers. And so we just went to sleep on a blessedly cool, dark and breezy night.  

The inverter (DC>AC) and the three controllers. 
Lying in bed we marveled about the total silence. No whirring clocks, whooshing ceiling fans, humming refrigerator, no music or radio announcers to go to sleep with and most important, no internet as the WiFi router also went dead. 

It amazes how much electricity-generated noise there is in a house. 

No news either. Trump could have been blowing up the world while we laid in bed our eyes straining to spot through the darkness any feature or shadow on the bedroom ceiling   

The farm animals around the ranch didn't even moo or bray or stir either, as if out of respect for our newly discovered peace. Roosters and turkeys were either sound sleep or too far away for us to notice. 

All the lights went off: the outside spotlights, the LED light over the kitchen sink, the night lights on the hallways and the tiny red standby lights on the TV and the computer. 

Except for some moonlight tentatively peeking through the clouds, the outside was pitch black too. 

We should do this often, it occurred to me—shut off everything, including our mouths, and enjoy the sound of deep, unexpected silence. 

With your senses defeated—nothing to hear, see or smell—the mind turns inward, a luxury it seldom enjoys amid all the distractions The flickering of two votive candles added to the calm of the moment rather than cut through the darkness.

The next morning I woke up relaxed, but Stew, the compulsive fixer-upper, had to ruin everything by checking on the refrigerator, which had maintained normal temperature even when turned off.  

Our mini generator sitting in its
compartment outside the garage. 
Then he turned on the rackety emergency gas generator and promptly the electric gadgets flickered back to life, most disruptively the internet with its stream of news, emails and marketing messages. The coffee pot commenced gurgling.

The generator charged the batteries and brought our electrical system back to normal through Saturday. 

Brian Richards, San Miguel's ponytailed solar energy wizard, showed up early Sunday morning and found that one of our three controllers had short-circuited and would have to be replaced at a cost of approximately six hundred and fifty dollars. 

It's not too much considering the system has worked reliably for six or seven years, even as our neighbors often have been left in the dark, sometimes for three or four consecutive days, waiting for repair crews of the government-owned electric company to detect there was an outage, let alone fix it. 

We thought we were lucky to have uninterrupted electric service and all the noises and disruptions that come with it. 

I'm not so sure anymore. It might good for our minds and senses to turn off the juice once in awhile even if our photovolatic system is working perfectly. 


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Why do you go to church anyway?

Is it cynical to attend church
mainly to meet other people?
While in the U.S. church attendance continues to decline, during our eleven years in San Miguel we've noticed that English-speaking churches here seem to be growing almost as fast as restaurants and art galleries.

No doubt previous religious affiliations point some expats to certain denominations, but I suspect the chief driver of church attendance here may be largely social: To meet other expats and make friends as much as to formalize one's relationship with the Almighty.

Come by and meet someone. 
The largest and least traditionally God-centered congregation is the Unitarian Fellowship. It shuns even the word "church."

On a sunny Sunday it may attract almost two hundred people—a motley stew of atheists, Jews, lapsed Christians and others, along with ponytailed, gray-haired liberals still grousing over Vietnam War-era causes.  Another prosperous venue is San Miguel's Jewish Community Center.

Both groups supplement their religious offerings with discussion groups, lunches and dinners where people get to know each other, a particular attraction for English-speaking Americans who may feel disorientation, even loneliness, living in a foreign, Spanish-speaking culture.
Stew and I are irregular members of the San Miguel's Community Church, a relatively recent group that offers two services—a full-strength, Episcopal-ish liturgy at 11:00 and at 9:30 a small discussion group for a dozen or so people like us who prefer a lighter, less dogmatic sip of religion.

To this morning's early service someone brought Osa, an affable, beefy mutt, who insisted everyone rub her behind the ears while they discussed how to deal with chaos in their daily lives. It may sound like an arid topic but it proved quite thought-provoking, as were the comments from the floor which ranged from old-time religion to no religion at all.

For Stew and me, our views regarding God and His/Her intervention in our daily lives remain, hmm, very sketchy. Yet Stew and I enjoy thoughtful, if sometimes arcane discussions even when laced with Scriptural references. Exchanges are invariably cordial and respectful.

Just as much, though, we like checking up on the friends we have made through the church and supporting its charitable efforts which last year came to almost twenty-five thousand dollars, a significant bundle of cash in Mexico. The Unitarians also distribute around thirty thousand dollars a year to social service groups.

Are Stew and I cynical for attending church partly or largely for social reasons? Or for abandoning the Community Church on certain Sundays when the Unitarians may have a more interesting speaker, and touching base with our friends there?

Might we be on a slippery road to hell for our sham religiosity, spending more time conversing with our friends rather than the Person Upstairs?
For the flip side of this existential dilemma, check out a short video in this morning's New York Times of a drive-in church in Florida where congregants park their cars on a vast grassy knoll and listen to the service, in isolation, on a dedicated radio frequency.

I recommend the video, it's great: https://nyti.ms/2uhbdQ1

When you arrive, you are given a sheet with the order of service, a small plastic cup with wine (or grape juice?) and a tiny communion wafer that you're supposed to consume on cue.

The camera scanned past some of the congregants, including a large woman, her stomach pressing on the steering wheel, rapt with the minister's words; someone in a convertible with a black Lab, the dog's ears at full attention; and another person who brought a cat, all of them listening to a distant minister clad in a red polo shirt and speaking from behind a clear plexiglass pulpit.

Halfway through the service an usher on a golf cart drove around to take up the collection.

The visitors come to listen to the minister, maybe even God, but apparently want nothing to do with one another. At the end, everyone turns on the ignition and goes home with not even the benefit of a coffee hour during which they could meet other attendees.

How does this drive-in church handle more intimate affairs like funerals? Put the casket on the golf cart while the mourners mourn in their cars with the air conditioning and radio on?

And still, if the depressing existentialist philosopher who noted that "hell is other people" was literally correct, that would put the solitary churchgoers in Florida on a more direct path to Heaven than Stew and me with all of our friends.

I can just imagine St. Peter's charge against us at the Final Judgment: "Attending church under false pretenses."


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forget emails. Just call.

"Now they tell me!" said
Donald J. Trump, Jr. 

During the past few days I've soured on that modern addiction to e-mails, a communication medium that frequently creates confusion and misunderstanding and can even get one of your mammaries in the wringer.  

Yesterday I called my friend Barbara to find out how she was doing after a nasty accident in which she sliced open one of her arms from her wrist to nearly past her elbow. 

I could have sent a short, hi-how-are-ya email, as I tend to do, that would have fulfilled my social obligation to inquire about the welfare of a sick or injured friend, but without really exchanging much warmth, emotion or detail. 

In other words, a formality, a way to communicate but not really.  

Instead I called her and we spoke for about twenty minutes—about the briefest conversation possible with a Texas talker like Barbara—in which she filled me in on the details of her recovery, how one of the Mexican neighbors whom she hardly knew took her to the emergency room, how good and surprisingly inexpensive was the medical care she received. 

We enjoyed communicating with one another, as they say, in "real time."

This morning we called Richard to wish him a happy birthday, the actual number of years at this point a closely guarded secret between him and his husband Don. Richard was out on some errand but Don said he'd pass on the message and I'm sure he'll call back and we will talk about movies and exchange gossip and jokes, anything but his age. 

The most insipid type of modern communications has to be the "e-card" prepared and sent, for a fee, by one Jackie Lawson, a mythical interpreter of personal feelings who's really a computer somewhere in South Dakota. 

It's the sappiest and most impersonal way to express any message, be it sympathy or congratulations. 
It usually involves an illustration with moving birds, trees or rabbits, harmonized with equally saccharine e-music. 

It would be a profoundly moving gesture if friends actually sat down and doodled the cards themselves, no matter how ineptly. But it's not: Instead you pick a topic from a computer-generated menu and for a modest fee—ka-chink!—Jackie will capture and transmit your most sincere and heartfelt feelings. 

I've been surprised how normally terse people can open up at the sound of a sympathetic voice. Recently our friend Don's wife Sheryl died—not "passed away"—and rather than an emailed condolence Stew called him in Canada. They spoke for about a half-hour, sharing loving memories of Sheryl that even the most eloquent email could not convey. 

There is also the grenade-like peril of impulsiveness in emails, which are not nearly as private as we think. 

I should have called first?
One time an explicitly amorous message between a woman working for me and my boss accidentally crash landed in my email inbox. Uh-oh. 

Another time a raunchy observation that I meant for one person got bollixed up by the "reply to all" option and went out to a hundred people I didn't even know. Make that a double "uh-oh."

In the old days of written correspondence, involving pen and ink, there was a lag time between the brain and the tip of the pen, and your feelings were tempered by the physical presence of paper and your words in front of your eyes, be they love or anger, or sleaziness or other lower emotions not suitable for third parties.  

Not so with emails. Just ask Trump Jr. whose impulsiveness, combined with his towering arrogance and dimwittedness—a volatile mixture—put him and his tweet-happy dad in deep trouble, as if they needed any more.

Maybe he should have pondered, hmm, who is this Russian Mata-Hari and why is she calling me? Maybe I should find out—call someone—before replying "I love it!," setting up meetings at Trump Tower, with however many people, and then having to spend several weeks discombobulating, dissembling, consulting with lawyers and trying to roll back what couldn't be. 

Next time, Donny, call first.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Elon Musk's Tesla pulls into San Miguel

Electric vehicles are headed for San Miguel.
That surprised the hell out of me.

Sometime last week, with as little fanfare as organ cacti popping up in the countryside, six shiny Tesla electric car chargers appeared in the parking lot of the Luciérnaga shopping center in San Miguel, by the Office Depot store.

We of course had heard of billionaire Elon Musk, and his rockets and electric cars, but we never expected to see any of his creations in Mexico, much less in San Miguel, in our lifetimes.

Oh we of little faith.

Be still my heart, and my checking account too. 

(Amid all the Trump-inspired palpitations and wing-flapping over immigration, I can't resist mentioning that Musk is one 12 billionaires who came to the U.S. as immigrants. He came from South Africa. Others on this list are Russian Sergey Brin (Google); French-Iranian Pierre Omidyar (eBay); Israeli Isaac Perlmutter (Marvel Entertainment); and Hungarian-born financier George Soros. I could have made the list (Cuba) if I had only paid more attention in school.)

Stew and I saw a Tesla at a showroom in Amsterdam two years ago, though before that we already had noticed the growing presence of electric car charging posts in other large European cities.

Sitting under banks of halogen lights, that Tesla baby was a vision. It had a mirror-like paint we had never seen on any other car. That and its futuristic lines made the vehicle look as if it were gravitating six inches above the showroom floor. Otherworldly.

Still, when we saw the Tesla charging stations in San Miguel our reaction was eye-rolling mixed with snarkiness.

Plug me in Scottie.  
After a bit of research, though, the vision of Teslas in San Miguel doesn't appear that far-fetched.

Tesla already has a dealership in Mexico City, in the hyper-posh neighborhood of Polanco, on Calle Presidente Masaryk, Mexico's equivalent of Rodeo Drive. Whether it's a Tesla, a Brooks Brothers shirt or a Cartier diamond, it's no problema in Polanco.

In fact, when the dealership opened last year, it quickly received deposits for fifty units.

As for some logistics: The long-range Tesla now on sale ($44,000) can go 310 miles between charges.

San Miguel is 170 miles from Mexico City, so even if you run into traffic or a dead burro blocking the road, you should be able to make to the Best City in the World with no problema at all.

One missing detail: How do you pay for
the electricity? I assume by credit card. 
Conveniently, the highway from Querétaro/Mexico City feeds right into the Luciérnaga shopping center. You can pull in, adjust your Ray-Ban mirrored sunglasses, fiddle with your rakish Hermès ascot, wave condescendingly at the less fortunate souls ogling your car—and plug her in.

Assuming the posts at Luciénaga are superchargers, the batteries on your Tesla should be charged in about a half-hour (for 170 miles), long enough to stretch your legs and have some churros or empanadas at Chocolates & Churros, owned by former soap opera actress Margarita Gralia and located next to the Cinemex theater.

You can also plug in your Tesla to a conventional outlet, in which case a full charge will take overnight.

However, this being Mexico—where aspirations sometimes run ahead of reality—you must make allowances for the superchargers at Luciérnaga being out of order, or if you arrive in the middle of thunderstorm, the electricity being out altogether.

Still. Gimme one.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Waking up to Donald Trump

These days perusing the headlines first thing in the morning often is like taking that first sip of coffee and discovering someone has laced it with Tabasco sauce. You gag. You spit. You say "What the hell?" or worse.

Wednesday and Thursday were Tabasco days. Via one of his early morning tweets, which have come to resemble lightning bolts from a demented Zeus, Trump banned transgendered people from serving in the military. In a separate action later, the Justice Department intervened in a discrimination suit filed by a gay employee and took the side of the employer.

The transgender ban shocked most everyone, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and gay activists but most of all the military. No one had lobbied for the ban—certainly not the Pentagon—and there are no studies or reports to justify the action.

Trump said he had "consulted with my generals and military experts" but none could be identified by the White House or the media. Another day, another lie by our president.

Trump's tweet stated that "our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

"You're fired!"
Except there is no evidence anywhere. nor complaints by anyone, that the estimated six thousand transgender military personnel—out of some 1.3 million people in uniform—had disrupted any of the country's security objectives.

As for the costs, someone already figured that the military already spends more on Viagra than on any transgender-related medical interventions, which amount to a gnat on the butt of the mammoth Pentagon budget.

Any more, I've developed a knack for defensive newsreading which guides my thumb and eyes to slide down my tablet, past the headlines about the cyclonic lunacy that grips Washington, and on to calmer waters such as book and movie reviews, travel stories, even the business page and daily recipes.

But the news about the transgender decision was a thumb-stopper. I first felt anger at the gratuitousness of Trump's decision—an arbitrary edict based on no facts and purporting to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

Politically it didn't win Trump many friends even among Republicans. There wasn't any cheering sweeping the country.

And pity those long-suffering gay people in the Republican Party, some of whom even support Trump, and who now find their efforts to fit in more daunting than ever.

The only logic may be that Trump once again, and not unlike authoritarian rulers, tried to distract public opinion from his crisis-prone administration's other problems, by creating a phony issue. Fake news indeed.

All that aside, what I felt most was sadness for the transgendered people in uniform who have served loyally and now face possible expulsion from the military or a tortured coexistence within it as second-class soldiers. They deserve better than this.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Victory! Vinyl LPs live!

Comments on my blog yesterday, about whether I should keep my collection of vinyl LPs, leaned in favor of keeping it with an outlier voice from Pátzcuaro grumbling that I should toss it.
Stew and three of our highly-trained dogs
looking under the stereo cabinet to
assess the nature of the problem. 

Vox populi won and Stew and I today spent the better part of three hours digging through a nest of wires in the stereo cabinet, dusting, checking, rechecking—even reading instruction manuals—trying to figure out what went where.

Before lunch we had all the wires reconnected and the components working—the bulky Harmon-Kardon amplifier, the Nakamichi CD player, even the four cheapo outdoor Radio Shack speakers.

Everything whistled along except the fancy-schmanzy turntable, which generated a bad hum plus a terrible scratching sound whenever the needle landed on the record.

We were ready to order a replacement needle-cartridge assembly, which on Amazon sells for $80 and is described as sort of a relic you ought to be grateful to find, even though the turntable is only about ten years old. That's how fast sound reproduction technology has evolved.

"Ground control, the stereo situation looks hopeless."
 I also thought of taking the turntable to a stereo repair shop in Querétaro, the most advanced city near us short of Mexico City. But I feared I would only find a tattooed nineteen year old with numerous body piercings who would politely look at me and ask, "What does this thing do?"

Except that in my experience, whether it's cars, motorcycles or refrigerators, Mexicans have a preternatural knack for fixing things even when they have no idea what they're doing, which is often.

But just when I was ready to give up, Stew came into the office and yelled: "I fixed it!!"

The answer appeared at the top of page five of the turntable manual, which indicated that under the rubber mat on which you place the records you would find a switch for "phono out" and "line out". Flipping it to "phono out" solved the problem and everything now is working for the first time in years. (Picture below)

We are not sure what the magic switch does or how it got switched to the wrong setting.

While going through the records I found some real oldies I'd forgotten. One in particular I might mail to Felipe Zapata to help him break through gloomy fog that sometimes envelops Pátzcuaro.

It's a 1965 recording of Joan Baez singing anti-Vietnam War songs.

Does anyone have his address?


The turntable, up and running.