Fall awakening

The rainy season embraced us more than two months ago and it feels as if she won’t let go.

According to a local website, San Miguel gets about 22 inches of rain yearly but by the end of August we had already received a little more than that. Surely skewing the yearly average were the 2.10 inches of rain in January and 6.56 inches in February–including an even more rare dusting of snow that left the local folk in awe. One told me the last time a snowflake had fallen around here was about 40 years ago.

Aside from actual rainfall measurements two eyeball indicators tell us 2010 has been a wet year.

First, the oversized rainwater collection cistern we tucked under our terrace, and which holds about 35,000 gallons, has been filled to the top for at least eight weeks. We’re supposed to receive water from the community well once a week, but a floater shutoff in the cistern hasn’t allowed in much well water.

“Supposed to receive” because a guy named Lucio, who has a long-running battle with liquor, is in charge of turning the valves that distribute the water to the various parts of the community. Lucio tends to either forget to turn on the valves or otherwise leaves the water running for days. Four-day holiday weekends are particularly hard on Lucio and the reliability of our water supply. He has been known to ask local gringos for “propinas” or tips in exchange for turning on the water on the side.

Then again, all public services around here, particularly by the national government-owned electric company, seem to take a hit during long weekends and holidays. A sign on its trucks proclaims that the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) is “world class enterprise.” That might be true if you exclude such factors as reliability, responsiveness to customer complaints and fluctuations in voltage. The latter can swing from 103 to 130-odd volts, sometimes frying computers and refrigerators along the way.

Ten days ago a CFE blackout left our house–with its solar electric system, hah!–as the only one in the neighborhood with lights on. Looking out from our bedroom window the dark sky and darkened landscape had become one.

Worse yet, the power failure coincided with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, which kicked off on Wednesday September 15 and continued until the following Sunday.

When he returned to work the following Monday, my gardener Félix, who has lived all his life around this area, casually mentioned the lack of electricity for almost five days.

“Well, why didn’t you call the electric company?” I asked him.

“It’s a holiday weekend,” Félix explained patiently, as if he were talking to a dim-witted Martian. “CFE doesn’t answer the emergency phone, or if they do, they are not going to come out here and fix anything. So why get excited?”

Sage advice from a young but sage Mexican.

Along with a full cistern the heavy rains this year have left us with a second and unexpected bonus: Seven and a half acres of wild flowers, some of them shoulder-high.

When we bought this land it had been used for grazing, mostly sheep and goats that had munched all vegetation down to a stubble. Then came the construction crews which created a circle of destruction around the house that practically engulfed the entire property. It took us months, with the aid of backhoes and Felix’ patient and hard work to get rid of piles of rocks, dried-up blotches of cement that looked like giant cow pies–though not nearly as beneficial to the soil–in addition to other construction debris and empty beer and soda bottles.

Most worrisome was the leftover tepitate, a sort of limestone very common around here and used as backfill for roads and foundations. Tepitate‘s usefulness is precisely that it packs very tightly and stifles vegetation. After the house was finished the workers spread the mounds of leftover tepitate around the foundations. I expected that to remain a dead zone for years.

Reclaiming the land came in two phases. The far less important was our campaign to plant about a hundred native trees and evergreens, and at least twice as many cacti and shrubs, to try stem further soil erosion. The entire land is on a slope, some of it quite steep, and during the first rainy season we could see water and soil rushing down in rivulets. The results were clear: The lower part of the ranch was relatively lush compared to the rocky high points which looked like bald spots.

We also built concentric terraces out of rocks–by far the most abundant natural resource after tepitate–to further help prevent runoff, and fenced in the property to keep out the livestock.

But our efforts are puny compared to nature’s capacity for self restoration. No doubt spurred by the heavy rains we must have tens of thousands of wildflowers, some showoffs like tall Mexican sunflowers (tithonia), others discreet blossoms barely a half-inch apart, crawling from under rocks or popping out of barren spots.

Where did they all come from? Most must have been buried in the soil and spent years unsuccessfully fighting against the appetites of the local sheep and goat herds. The relentless winds clearly helped. We planted several patches of ornamental fountain grass (pennisetum) and the seeds from its plumes were carried by the wind. There are colonies of fountain grass growing as far as 50 or 75 feet away from the original plantings.

Pink cosmos, and a single white variety, which are rampant in the area but were nonexistent in our ranch, have established a foothold, its seeds, I assume blown in from nearby lands. Or did the burgeoning population of butterflies and birds carry the seeds in, maybe in their bellies?

It’s an amazing, miraculous spectacle particularly so late in the season. Fall in the States is glorious but also nature’s grand finale, when flowers fade and trees go into hibernation. Instead we have swaying masses of grasses and plants, just outside our windows, ushering winter not with somber colors but a blast of wild bouquets.

We have a guide to wild flowers in San Miguel that Félix and I need to consult to figure out at least some of the hundreds of species that now cover the ranch. After all, they are bound to proliferate geometrically with every passing season. I can’t wait until next year’s crop.

3 thoughts on “Fall awakening

  1. Nice to see the progress and the lush vegitation around your house. I'm curious, did they replace the original battery for your solar system? Also do use a gasoline or electric powered pump to distribute the water from the cistern?PhilPhoenix


  2. Hi Phil: No, they didn't replace the battery for the solar system. The problem with the system was not enough panels on the roof, so we added four more, for a total of 16. Everything seems to be working fine now. For pumping the water we use a submersible electric pump, powered by solar, which takes the water to a pressure tank and from there through a filter and throughout the house. The pump uses a lot of juice when it comes on, but runs only for brief spurts. Thanks for your interest. al lanierPS: It's stopped raining here as of Oct. 1.


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