Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring Interruptus

April and May don't bring showers or flowers around here but mostly winds and dust, frequently spiced with brush fires, all of it to remind us of our a semiarid climate and terrain.

It's a season of both high expectations and frustrations, much like February and March in the upper latitudes of the United States: You know spring is coming soon but it takes its time in arriving and sometimes changes its mind. Jonquils and crocuses might pop out of the ground only to have their fragile blooms smothered by a blanket of late snow.

In late February and early March we had a similar Fool's Spring in the ranch. Huizaches, jarrillas and some mesquites exploded with yellow flowers but then a couple of freezes abruptly cut short the show.

Spring is here: The dramatic flower stalks
of the cucharillas. 
We have one jacaranda tree that we planted three or four years ago and in February its bright green, new foliage reached almost six feet, the tallest ever, and I secretly hoped for a least a sprinkling of the blue flowers that cover the mature trees in the center of town.

Our diffident jacaranda let me down again by shriveling in the late cold snap. It's sprouting new foliage now but there won't be any flowers this season. Last year we put rebar stakes and wrapped a protective piece of plastic sheeting around it but the barrier failed to fool nature or keep the sapling  from doing its frustrating leaf-out and dry-up routine.

But about ten days ago our cucharillas started a totally unexpected show: flower stalks about ten feet high which against the rest of the landscape look like, hmm, giant erect penises covered with tiny flowers. It's like a commercial for Viagra but far more interesting and without the four-hour warning.

Cucharillas are very handsome, round desert plants with narrow leaves with little threads at the ends. They are sold in the U.S. for arid southwestern gardens http://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/1503/green-sotol.php under the name of green sotol. Their botanical name, in case anyone is interested, is dasylirion acrotriche.

The stalks are covered with tiny yellow flowers
 that drive bees crazy. 
Their preferred habitat though is the great Chihuahuan desert of northern Mexico, just to the north of San Miguel. Indigenous people still use the leaves of cucharillas to make decorations for festivals, and in fact too many decorations and festivals apparently have led to an excessive harvesting of the plants in the wild.

When we planted several of them about three years ago they arrived in pots and were about three feet high. They let out a group yipee!!—or its Mexican equivalent—as soon as they hit the ground. Prolonged lack of rain and lousy, gravelly soil only seem to encourage their growth.

Accompanied by some LED uplights Stew installed, their long leaves waltz in the night breeze and could almost fool you into believing I actually knew what I was doing when I conjured up this bit of xeriscaping.

The spiny leaves are tipped
 with dried threads.
In some agaves similar flowering stalks look like candelabras of flowers that unfortunately signal the end of the mother plant. Not to worry because the seeds off the stalk land somewhere and become new plants.

In the case of the cucharillas the sudden appearance of the monumental stalks and the flowers—hundreds of bees are buzzing around them—does not presage the plant's demise, which would be an awful shame.

Finally, I'm almost afraid to talk about the other gardening news, so I'll just whisper because gloating about early successes in the vegetable beds only invites late-summer catastrophes. So keep this to yourself:

Although the leaf vegetables are pretty much done until cool weather returns, we seem to have a bumper crop of several varieties of tomatoes in addition to beans, peas, cauliflowers, carrots and what-have-you's. Everything is amazingly healthy, behind small wire fences around each plant to keep the rabbits away. 

Surprised the hell out of me, I tell you.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Living the (Good) Green Life

When about three years ago we moved into a "green" house we had built—and which as far as we know remains the "greenest" house in San Miguel de Allende and the surrounding area—the initial weeks were not reassuring.

A freak winter storm in January dumped several inches of rain over a two-week period and one morning we woke up to an even more rare dusting of snow that covered the cacti and the mesquites. The solar electricity system failed miserably, along with the solar water heater, because of the lack of sun and design miscalculations. We were forced to borrow and then buy an electric generator and light up the propane water heaters. The array of windows on the south and east sides of the house, which were supposed to trap sunlight to warm the interior instead leaked cold air and even trickles of water. A basement storage room underneath the kitchen flooded. Indeed, the only thing that seemed to work properly was our huge rainwater collection tank which filled up in two or three days.

For a couple of years Stew and I had planned an off-the-grid, self-sustaining house, studying scores of  books on everything from xeriscaping to wind generation of electricity, poring through magazines and websites, and quizzing people for experiences or suggestions.

Real-life stories were surprisingly unhelpful. Some of the folks living in green houses in San Miguel were a bit too green for us. Shoveling composting toilets, for instance, was never in our vision. Even close friends reacted with polite, puzzled or amused looks: "Now, why would you want to do that?" or "Hmm, isn't that a little far out?"

More helpful than anyone was our architect, who not only was open to new ideas but also incorporated several excellent design features of his own. Most if not all of the other architects or builders we interviewed were thoroughly ignorant about green construction and a few were downright hostile to the concept, laughing it off as some lame-brained gringo fad that would go away.

Now that we've lived here over three years—ready or not, we moved in on Christmas 2009—we are happy to report that after the initial shakedown period, and additional tweaking, we are delighted with the results. The greatest reassurance about our decisions comes when we visit other homes in San Miguel and the surrounding countryside: Although many are bigger or fancier, we still haven't found one that we like better than our own.

All's well that ends well: The final product. 
In the next few posts I'd like to revisit how this green house has worked out and also mention a few "if I were to do it again" suggestions for anyone interested in taking on such a project.

The house is definitely off the grid except for propane delivered by truck for cooking and heating, and water from a community well that arrives (anemically and erratically) twice a week for four or five hours each day.

For all other modern amenities—the bulk of the water supply, electricity, telephone and internet (both wireless), sewer, heating (mostly passive solar) and even access (through a half-mile-long dirt road), the house stands on its own on seven-and-a-half acres, on a small hill surrounded by mountains and farming and grazing fields.

1. Location, location

Our house in many regards has a unique location, which like most locations involves both good and troublesome news. According to Google Earth, we live at an altitude of sixty-nine-hundred feet above sea level. Not Mt. McKinley but a good ways up in the air. By car, the nearest towns are San Miguel de Allende (pop. 85,000 and about thirty minutes away); Querétaro (pop. one million and one hour away); and Mexico City (pop. several bazillions and four hours by bus). We're almost equidistant from both coasts and about ten hours by car (with a tailwind and not too many police checkpoints) from the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas.

Sunlight is plentiful in this semi-desert terrain, in fact about three-hundred-and-thirty days of it annually. Even when the day starts out gloomy or iffy, the sun dominates by eleven o'clock or noon. That means that even if the temperature drops below freezing overnight, which generally occurs only three or four times a year, by noon we're back to light-jacket or short-sleeve weather.

I have no data on winds and haven't found any wind maps for this area, but it feels unusually windy here, much more so than the reputedly windy city of Chicago. Even when days start out calm, the wind often kicks up, along with the dust during the dry season, and can reach ten or twelve miles an hour by late afternoon, dying down along with the sunset.

This all adds up to a climate well suited for both passive and active solar energy rigs. That yields very low cooling and heating bills and quick paybacks on solar equipment, provided that the house is oriented and designed appropriately. We've seen many stupidly built houses here that defeat the solar advantages of this area.

So far so good, except for one major hitch: Scarcity of water. We normally get approximately twenty inches of rain a year, far drier than Chicago or Miami, but much wetter than Arizona, New Mexico or southern California, all of which get along on single-digit annual levels of precipitation.

Our rainfall, however, would be much more beneficial if it were spread throughout the year. Instead it rains heavily between July and October, when the hues of the landscape go to bright green from the beige/browns that dominate the rest of the year.

Sinking private wells is quite expensive and licenses are difficult to obtain, hence our decision to incorporate a thirty-five-thousand gallon rainwater reservoir under the terrace. Aquifer levels reportedly drop every year and some wells have shown contamination by heavy metals and other pollutants. A drought along the Mexican-U.S. border for the past two years doesn't help our worries. Availability of water is bound to be a challenge in this area for the foreseeable future.

Temperatures are mild with a couple of exceptions. It can get brisk at night during the winter (January and February) and hot during the summer (April and May). Yesterday it was ninety-five degrees at two o'clock in the afternoon, with a ambient humidity of seven percent—that's right, 7 percent—though it gets much more humid once the rains start.

The ubiquitous wind can work for or against you. In winter it can whistle past the weatherproofing on the windows and doors and make it feel clammy inside after the sun sets, but the during the summer, combined with the low humidity, it makes ninety degree-plus days seem quite pleasant.

If there's one thing we've learned about green construction is that all factors play off with or against each other. If the exposure and windows of the house are not calculated properly—one rental in which we lived before moving here had cathedral-size windows that faced straight west, which made the place an oven in the afternoon—it's going to be difficult to maintain comfortable temperatures inside and will pose an insurmountable challenge to a solar electric system. Likewise very high ceilings make the spaces below difficult to heat.

Generally our house performs admirably in all seasons, though there have been a few goof-ups along the way that I won't be too shy or proud to discuss.  I'll be happy to answer any questions or comments.

Next post: Orientation and construction materials

Saturday, April 13, 2013

What's With the Bees?

After a bumper crop of honey in October, really far more honey than we could process, eat or give away, a check of our hive by Stew and (Bee) Bob Lewis last week showed production had dropped  drastically. This after a bountiful, if short, spring when the landscape was filled with yellow jarrilla and huizache flowers and bees buzzed around the ranch in a frenzy.

Bee Bob, the local apiculture maven who has helped Stew set up his hive and who teaches beekeeping to the locals under a grant from the Audubon Society, is not quite sure what's going on but surmises it might have been caused by a couple of unexpected killer frosts in late February, which wiped out most of the bumper crop of flowers. No flowers, less honey. Bee Bob said that some apiculturists in nearby Dolores Hidalgo had seen production drop off by between one-half and two-thirds.

Bee Bob had planned to take two "supers" from our beehive—supers are the flat boxes with slots where the honeycomb frames are placed and on which the honey collects—but removed only one because of the decreased production.

Bad news from the beehive. 
He will send the one super to a processing plant in Dolores Hidalgo where they have centrifuges for extracting the honey, instead of Stew doing it manually in the kitchen, a process during which he spreads honey all over the counters and floors, and lets bees loose in the house.

Our dogs, who have been stung during some of Stew's apicultural abracadabras, were relieved to hear the news about the outsourcing of honey processing.

If the cause of our production drop-off was the frost that would be the good news. Far worse would be if our beehive were also affected by the apparent pesticide poisoning and other problems that have been blamed for the collapse of bee colonies in the U.S. and Europe.

Bill Dahle, a commercial Montana beekeeper quoted in the New York Times sounded distraught about the alarming bee die-off last year. "They looked so healthy last spring," he said. "We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy."

I don't believe Stew is quite that emotionally attached to his bees yet, nor have I seen a bee fall on its face, but the problem is very serious because many commercial farmers use borrowed bees to pollinate their crops. No bees then no apples, grapes, almonds or whatever.

Our lone beehive may not have such transcendental environmental impact, but it would be good to know what's going on.

In the U.S. and Europe some scientists blame the use of a powerful new family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, and which plants incorporate into their systems, for the alarming collapse of honeybee colonies. Environmental authorities in the European Union are considering a ban on the neonicotinoids but makers of the pesticides say their product is not to blame and more research is needed. Scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are also looking into the matter.

In Mexico, where environmental regulations and controls are far more loosey-goosey—or nonexistent—we'll just have to continue scratching our heads and/or praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Our man Bee Bob says commercial vegetable producers, a big business around San Miguel, could be using nicotinoids but no one knows that, much less regulates their use.

Some of the produce grown around here is sold in the U.S. under the brand "Mr. Lucky." If nicotinoids are to blame for the collapse of honeybee colonies let's hope environmental regulators North of the Border act and any bans eventually ripple down to Mexico, to give our bees a lucky break of their own.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Secret Life of Dolls

Tucked behind all the racks of tourist postcards, cities hold a few secrets and surprises unknown or ignored by most visitors.  Of the hundreds of thousands who pile into Chicago's Wrigley Field yearly very few will notice Alta Vista Terrace, a one-block-long jewel of a neighborhood with forty quirky houses built in the early 1900s to replicate town homes in London and located almost in the shadow of the far more famous stadium.

Mexico City's Xochimilco Gardens, a tiny remnant of the legendary Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that Spanish conquerors stumbled on in the sixteenth century, is no tourist secret. In fact over the years it's been trod upon by some many local and foreign visitors that the United Nations has threatened to take away the designation as a World Heritage Site because of its environmental degradation.

Flat-bottomed boats still are propelled by long poles, gondola-style, and decorated in searingly bright colors. But the colors now come from cans of bright enamel paints rather than flowers arranged on the arches over the boats, and the stagnant water in the canals is nasty and the coffee-colored. Weekends can turn into noisy traffic jams of boats, called trajineras, loaded with tourists, trinket vendors, mariachis and free-flowing margaritas.

Our oarsman Angel, a sinewy man of few words.
 Sail behind that Xochimilco postcard, though, and there's a quieter piece of this Aztec relic, one that you enter through a primitive lock that lifts the trajineras from one water level to another. Most of the tourists disappear behind you along with the constant hum of Mexico City, whose twenty million residents live only a couple of miles away. Birds, mostly coots, mallards and stately great white herons, wade around or perch on shoreline trees, cautiously watching the visitors gliding by.

Behind the locks of Xochimilco, great blue herons far outnumber tourists. 
Still farther away from the tourist landing docks is the small Island of the Dolls, a hallucinogenic creation consisting of a couple of huts and a collection of several hundred dolls, or pieces of dolls, tattered and moldy, hanging from trees, nailed to walls, some of their heads impaled on bamboo poles or their bodies assembled in contorted positions.

The collection was assembled by one Julián Santana Barrera who lived alone on the island for fifty-some years, until his death in 2001. Yep, he was a peculiar fellow alright—alcoholic, lunatic, visionary, artist, mystic, tortured soul—any or all. There's no definitive story of the man.

How he got started on his doll collection is equally mysterious. Some say one day the body of a young girl washed ashore and thereafter he collected the dolls in her memory. Another, more sinister, version says he might have in fact murdered the girl and kept the doll companions to assuage his conscience and placate her restless ghost.

Plant these wild, hybrid narratives in the soil of the Mexican imagination and you come up with a story line custom-made for Wes Craven. The dolls, which washed ashore or collected from rubbish heaps, were said to come alive at night, walk around killing animals or help Santana with his vegetable crops which he sold to survive.

How he died is tantalizingly unclear too. Was it natural causes? Did the restless dolls gang up on him one night? Or did he commit suicide? It is said that his dead body was found in the water, just like the girl's. Not that a visit to the island is going to clear anything up.

We've visited a couple of other places in Mexico created by wacky geniuses. Edward James, a wealthy collector of surrealist art, created a visionary retreat near Xilita, about a four-hour drive from San Miguel, that will rattle your mind with its nearly incomprehensible collection of concrete structures and sculptures. Closer to San Miguel there's Timmyland, a private but smaller playground created by a rich American, also along surrealist lines.

Neither one, however, approaches the Island of the Dolls on the creepiness scale.

The dolls, or pieces of them, are not arranged casually or at random. There's a line-up of a dozen heads mounted on bamboo sticks. Others are paired to suggest a relationship, like a mother looking over the shoulder of a child. One was placed in the crook of a tree that eventually devoured it, so all you now see are a couple of baby feet coming out of a trunk. There are voodoo-like altars one with the head of a doll alongside a bowl filled with coins and another with a withered ear of corn, probably placed there as an offering. A few dolls had their clothes suggestively torn or pulled off.

Is that the mother behind, looking over the baby?
A very lifelike doll, despite the effect of rain and the elements. 

Why the metal studs in the doll's nostrils?
The unanswered question is: What was Sebastian's plan or vision? Or more to the point: What the hell?

Yet it's precisely this lack of precision that makes the Island of the Dolls so fascinating. You can pick whichever details or versions make the most sense to you—or let your imagination fill in the gaps in the narrative.

Time and nature also embellish the ghoulishness of the place. The island is densely covered with trees so sunlight flickers through and shines on the dolls in ever-changing patterns. Rain and time have damaged the dolls some of which are missing eyes, limbs or hair, or are covered with mold. One doll has been attacked by maggot-like insects that seemed to be coming out of its mouth—or crawling up its chest and marching into its mouth.

I don't know if you can rent trajineras after dark (daytime, non-weekend rates run about US$25 an hour), or what all really happened on the island with Santana and his dolls during those fifty years. But I'm not too macho to admit I'd be leery of visiting the island at night, even with a full moon. Hell, Rambo with a giant machine gun would be a bit shaky too.

Our trip was a one-day photography tour and Stew and I took about one-hundred-fifty images each. The pick of our photos are assembled in slideshows located at:




I tried to put together another slideshow, this one with suitably Halloweenish background music and combining both sets of images, but it's not available yet because of technical difficulties, a condition also known as "I don't quite know what I'm doing."

Anyone wanting to put together their own visit to the island can contact our boatman who had business cards with a street address, email, a Facebook page and four phone numbers. This man is ready for business. Figure on a minimum of four hours for the round trip to the island. Each trajinera can carry about a dozen people. His cell phones probably work best.

Domingo Campos
Ebarcadero Nuevo Nativitas Local 93 y 94
5641-1209 (home)
5555-0904 (business)
044-55-4015-6793 (cell)
044-55-1908-0314 (cell)


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Failure on the ground, triumph above

So our veterinarian says he needs a urine sample from our seventy-pound, six-year-old dog Lucy to properly diagnose her sudden, occasional incontinence. Yeah, sure, Stew said, without considering the logistics: How do you collect pee from a large dog used to roaming a seven-acre-plus ranch?

After considering a small sauce pan and other options, Stew settled on a longish plastic container that he would cleverly slip under Lucy just as she squatted. Can't imagine how you would collect the stuff from male dogs, with their merry spritz-here-and-there approach to peeing.

During the past two days Stew has been stalking Lucy like a pervert, trying to slip the container under just at the right time, but so far no luck.

Last night we went out again, with the container, a flashlight and the two other dogs who kept meddling in this tricky procedure as if they were missing out on something. They peed merrily but poor Lucy kept cowering and looking over her shoulder, as if she was being punished.

Finally Stew just let her off the leash and she ran off, relieved to be free and freely relieve herself in some dark spot of the ranch, in privacy, away from the expectant eyes of her two masters. The indignities pets we have put up with, pets would say, but they don't know what owners have to suffer too.

This morning, at exactly 6:08 a.m., a far happier event: A flyover by the International Space Station, slicing the northeastern skies just as the sun was readying to rise from behind the mountains. The sighting lasted only three or four minutes but it was unmistakable, a tiny but very bright LED light, steadily going east as if seeking cover.

A beautiful metal bird, even from 300 miles away. (Thanks to NASA or whoever for the photo)
Though our main bedroom has a straight-on view of the sun rising, we've almost taken the spectacle for granted. Today we got to sit on the back terrace and enjoy a double feature: the majestic natural sunrise and a fleeting sighting of the man-made station. The air was light-jacket cool and the only sounds came from a couple donkeys braying in the distance.

Sunrise shortly after Space Station flyby.
Because the space station flew by for only a few minutes some might say "big deal." They would be people with no imagination. You need to look at that artificial meteor and imagine the rest.

This twelve-year-old wonder flies overhead at an average altitude of three-hundred miles and a speed of over seventeen thousand miles per hour. Its altitude is pretty low compared to some man-made satellites that cruise thousands of miles above the earth. It has been populated by scientists from fifteen countries. Friction from the atmosphere slows down the station and causes it to lose altitude, so boosters periodically have to goose it back up to the proper levels of each.

The station looks like a gawky Erector Set bird, with wings approximately three-hundred-fifty-five feet long and covered with solar panels. It's constantly being expanded with sections and modules supplied by the U.S., Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada, and launched from a space station in Russia. It's present weight is almost one million pounds.

[Russia: Has someone informed freshman U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about this? There might some communists lurking around in all that labyrinth of hardware overhead.]

Exactly what the space station does is admittedly hard for average European or Canadian taxpayers to figure out though they are footing the bill. The combined station budget has to be a giant pot of tens of billions of euros, dollars, rubles and yens.

The latest addition to the station is the two billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment to determine the origin and nature of antimatter.

Indeed. I diligently tried to find out a bit more about the station's various experiments and gadgets. All I can figure is that antimatter must be what fills my head with when I try to think about this stuff.

Nevertheless I figure this contraption probably cost a hell of lot less than the Iraq war cost U.S. taxpayers—more than two trillion dollars and still counting—while promoting international cooperation and science, however obscure. At least it doesn't go around destroying things and people and pissing everyone off.

Back on earth the Lucy dilemma remains unsolved. After a couple of antibiotic pills, variously concealed in a mixture of dog food, cat milk and pieces of hot dogs, she seems to be getting better. So the urine sample may be unnecessary, a great relief for her and Stew.

In fact we hope she can join us tonight at 8:14 p.m. when that beautiful spaceship and its six astronauts will go over the ranch again. This morning the two cats paced the terrace meowing while the station flew over their heads. We thought it was excitement about space exploration but no. They were just hungry.