Reclaiming a piece of land and some peace of mind

The settlement, five weeks ago, of a long-standing land dispute has turned out to be a double blessing. It ended that nerve-racking episode and now, by focusing our attention of restoring the damage left behind, also has taken our minds away from the ongoing pandemic crisis here, and the other bad news from north of the border. 

Just cleaning up the damage left behind—removing piles of rocks and rubble, tumbled-down fences and filling in open ditches—took the better part of a week, three guys and a backhoe. 

Just watching the work infuriated me: It reminded me of the extortion, harassment and intimidation we endured for two and a half years, including the other guy building a stone barrier across our entrance that for a week, forced us to enter and exit our ranch through a neighbor’s property. 

It was a nasty situation that at one point had us thinking of abandoning the ranch and moving back to the States. But now, rather than letting rancors and bad experiences continue to gnaw at me, I try to put them behind, as so much “blood under the bridge,” in the memorable words of advice to Martha (Liz Taylor) in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, by her husband George (Richard Burton).

Martha, honey, you need to let it go. 

Removing the unfinished piece of wall, hauling away the rubble and filling in the ditch required two trips of a dump truck, two loads of black dirt, plus several pickup-loads of horse manure and wood chips from a nearby ranch that we would mix with the black dirt to plant trees. 

Most crucial to the success of the reclamation project was the labor of a crew of three headed by Félix, with occasional help from his cute-as-a-bug, ten-year-old son, Edgar, who came came by occasionally to keep an eye on the progress. Although not all his decisions were brilliant, overall Félix rose to the occasion and worked well as a foreman. 

When we were finally done last week, we had planted a small forest of 29 trees, from spindly saplings to fully grown trees as tall as 25 feet. Our new collection includes two green acacias, seven Greggii pines; two each of Michoacán pines, Peruvian pepper trees (known around here as pirules), white cedars,  magnolias, olive trees; one grevillea, and seven seven pirul saplings that Félix had nurtured in our small greenhouse. The big trees all came from a nearby nursery, except for the Greggii pines.

Being neither experienced arborists or landscape designers, Félix and I instead tried to tap our experience with planting about one hundred trees elsewhere in the ranch over the past ten years: Which trees seemed to survive the best? The ranch sits atop a hillock, open on all sides and exposed to late afternoon and early evening winds, which during the winter, can dessicate or freeze more tender types of trees. For example, we’ve tried to grow jacarandas, which I really like, but as Mexicans say, ni modo. They would thrive during the summer but vanish in the winter without even a proper goodbye. 

Our excellent work crew, from left: Félix, his 10-year-old
son Edgar (in a supervisory capacity); José, a relative of Félix’s wife; Juan,
a compadre of Félix; and the laconic backhoe operator, Luis Angel. 

The most difficult part of the job was to bring the seven Greggii pines from a defunct tree farm, five kilometers from here, that had been owned by a New Zealander with dreams of making many pesos at Christmastime. Kiwi Man died, and his tree farm went to hell, its final mile there hastened by brush fires set every fall by local juvenile dimwits, a too-abundant crop around these parts, that have killed dozens of trees.

The woman in charge of the farm offered us as many of the remaining trees as we wanted, some of them 15 and 20 feet tall, for $400 pesos, or approximately $20 dollars each. It was a ridiculous bargain with a catch to match: We had to dig up the trees and haul them away ourselves. 

Félix insisted no backhoe was needed, that he and his two compadres would dig up the trees by hand, load them on my Chevy Colorado pickup, bring them here and pop them into holes already excavated by the backhoe. 

It was one really bad idea on Félix’s part: The three guys damn near killed themselves digging and hauling trees, particularly the 17-year-old featherweight José, whom I suspect hasn’t even started to shave yet. (Despite his tender age and weight, José is married to a 19-year-old girl and they have a two-year-old José Jr. You do the math.)

Mission accomplished, for now.

After the first day of brute labor, which resulted in transplanting only two of the pines, Félix gave in and hired a backhoe to dig the trees, load them on the pickup and offload them here. All told we ended with only seven trees from the Kiwi ranch. 

I think Félix was disappointed because he had visions of a Mexican arboreal pine forest of 17 or 20 trees swaying and whistling in the breeze. I promised him we’d try to go back next year and fetch a few more pines that survive another rash of brush fires. 

A different work crew is coming tomorrow to begin building a stone entrance to the ranch. It will be impressive but not fussy—no arches, bells, crucifixes, Virgin of Guadalupe or other obligatory “Mexican” touches. After that, we’ll just have to stand back, irrigate the trees and see how they do in their new home, while trying to remember George’s memorable advice to Martha. 

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