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.




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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. 

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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."

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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.

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