Monday, October 31, 2011
Fall falls on the ranch
Autumn is the time of year when we're especially reminded that we no longer live in the American Midwest. Here jack-o'-lanterns will go on sale by the side of the roads in mid-October, even if most Mexicans really have no clue what Halloween is all about. And a few restaurants will advertise Thanksgiving dinner specials. But none of it rings true.
Fall in the northern tiers of the U.S. is a curtain rising on winter, the final act of the year. Spent leaves cover the ground with a moist and colorful carpet that squishes underfoot. Trees turn into stark wire sculptures outlined against the unnaturally clear skies.
The entire cast of nature seems to be in a frenzy to take cover from the imminent onslaught of winter. Millions of birds fly overhead, the vast majority fleeing to somewhere more hospitable. Squirrels frantically hide nuts and fruits even though they'll immediately forget where they put them.
The entire spectacle of fall says "run for cover, winter is coming!" At retailers, gardening tools and pool supplies disappear overnight and are rudely replaced by heaters and insulation wares, while the media rhapsodize about comfort foods and families gathered around a roaring fire.
Immediately after Thanksgiving comes the Christmas avalanche of trees and ornaments, while carols play nonstop everywhere, from elevators to parking lots. Ho, ho and more ho. The only encouragement to go outside is the need to hang Christmas lights or if you have enough money, to dash to the airport for a vacation somewhere else.
In San Miguel, the definitive sign of autumn arrives in early October, when it stops raining--abruptly and utterly--and the humidity plummets. It will drop down to the single digits by mid-December and your skin will feel sere as rawhide.
Lack of rain will turn the landscape to various shades of gold, even though most of the trees will stay green, along with cacti and other desert plants that shrug at the arrival of the dry season.
Most of the trees here--mesquites, huizaches, pirules--have tiny leaves that hardly perspire and that's how they survive without moisture for months on end. Also their roots. Ever try to dig up a mesquite? Even a young tree is likely to have tap roots going fifteen or twenty feet straight into the earth in search of any buried drop of water.
For the farmers, fall is judgment time when nature reveals the results of all that ground work they put in earlier in the season. This year nature was stingy, even cruel. Early rains around May and June filled farmers' heads with visions of bumper crops but in the end we only received half the normal rainfall. So the crops withered, and most of the dreams of plump ears of corn, bean pods and squash never materialized.
All that's left for farmers, like Don Vicente, whose ranch abuts ours, is to collect the dry stunted corn stalks and gather them in tepee-like piles that will later be used to feed livestock. It's an all-manual job that involves men and women of all ages, and even young kids, hunched over with machetes under a sun that now mercifully sags over the horizon rather than blasting from directly overhead.
Our temperatures drop significantly at night. We've already had a couple of nights of below-freezing weather that left a half-dozen jalapeño and serrano chiles we had finally coaxed out of the ground looking like they'd been electrocuted.
Our herbs--an odd collection of basil, parsley, rosemary, marjoram and thyme--were hastily transferred to clay pots and are now huddled in a corner of the terrace from where they watch the sky apprehensively. Basil and parsley surely are not going to survive many cold nights.
But during the day, temperatures rise to a near-perfect mid-70s, with constant breezes and sparkling skies. Day after day, for weeks on end. At night there are so many stars dangling above you feel like you're living in a planetarium.
There's no reason for anyone to hide inside during the day. Hummingbirds are arriving, not fleeing. In fact Félix the gardener has a mini bumper crop of lettuces and other leaf vegetables already going in raised beds whose only protection is plastic sheeting after dark.
No need to fear snow either, though a couple of years ago a freak storm dumped about an eighth of an inch of the stuff on the startled vegetation. I barely got a chance to take pictures before it had all melted around 10 a.m.
If there is anything here reminiscent of Midwestern autumns is the resetting of the clocks for Daylight Savings Time, but even that ritual comes a week earlier in Mexico. That means that our three dogs who are used to licking our faces at 6 a.m., clamoring to go outside, now do that at 5 a.m., despite all efforts to ignore them. Some things don't change.
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