Friday, January 27, 2017

Ranch House: Raising the Roof

The casita at Rancho San Benito has been abandoned for many years. That is about to change.

The first time I approached the little stone building after buying the property, there was a large rattlesnake staring at me from under the kitchen counter. Scorpions, beetles, tarantulas and a variety of other creeping and crawling organisms scuttled away as I explored the dingy, dank rooms and moved accumulated debris aside.

Since the ranch house in this state is uninhabitable, I've been renting a small place in the nearby pueblo. Now I have decided it's time to quit renting and live in my own house. However, it needs more than cleaning and fumigation to be made comfortable.

The floor is cracked and uneven and the doors rotten and termite-damaged. The galvanized, corrugated metal roof, where it has not collapsed from rotten supports, is so rusted that pinholes of daylight show through like constellations in the night sky. And the ceiling is so low that I can reach up and touch it without stretching.

I'd like to have a little more headroom to keep the heat out of the living space and generally want to make the place more comfortable and secure. The work will include reinforcing the old walls and increasing the height of the ceiling by about 80cm, putting on a solid roof with skylights, enclosing the outdoor kitchen, replacing the floors and putting in new windows, doors and mosquito screens to help with safety and ventilation.

We'll also build a 5 x 7 meter above-ground water storage tank, to be filled by the windmill pump from the old hand-dug, stone-lined well. This will allow us to accumulate water for household use and irrigation when the wind blows and will serve as a swimming pool for refreshing dips after hot work in the fields.

After a long, fruitless search for a good contractor who would work in this remote area, I fell back on the engineer who has done several projects for me in Mérida. It turns out that some of his albañiles actually live in a pueblo not far away, so the logistics will not be as difficult as I had thought. Two of his employees, an engineer and an architect, came to the ranch with me this week to measure, draw plans and put together a budget for the project.

I hope to break ground within two weeks and to move in by April.

Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson

Monday, August 15, 2016

Wild Neighbors: Deer at the Ranch

My best deer image: a very nice-looking buck poses
When I bought Rancho San Benito early last year, I was told that there is an abundance of deer in the area. One of the primary reasons for buying the property was to have a quiet place where I can spend time closer to the natural world, so the fact that larger wild animals live there was an indicator that the ranch property was good spot for me.

 However, after several months of part-time work on the ranch a cast-off antler, which I picked up and put on a windowsill at the house, was as close as I'd gotten to seeing one of these beautiful animals.

So, inspired by interesting images captured by a cousin of mine in Washington State, and with his advice, last fall I invested in a motion-activated trail camera, of the type used by hunters to watch for game and property owners to monitor activity in remote areas.

I strapped the camera to trees along likely trails and in clearings starting last September, and eagerly visited to switch out the memory card and view my "captures." For several months I got interesting images of a variety of birds and small animals, and lots of pictures of leaves and branches being tossed by windstorms, but nothing of deer.

I was beginning to think that the stories of deer were false, when suddenly in January they started showing up in my pictures. The buck pictured above was the first good image I got, and this was in February. In the same location, a few days later, I captured the image below.

A doe forages in a clearing
 I have wondered why at least four months passed before I started getting pictures of deer. I am not sure, but it must have to to with their movements and the availability of food in the environment. I began to get the deer images after the dry season was in full swing, when much of the lush vegetation had withered and leaves had fallen. I assume deer forage more widely and take greater chances moving into open areas when food is scarce. It also could be that they are just more easy to see when vegetation is sparse.

The camera documented this pair of Yucatan Jays harassing a doe

"Hi there!" This doe got a good close look at the camera

I still have not seen a live deer on the ranch property, but as I spend more time out there, and as I learn more about their habits (with the help of the camera), I expect to do so.

I've gotten more interesting shots of other wild neighbors on the ranch with the motion-activated camera. I'll share them in a future post.

Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Dry Season in the Country

In tropical Yucatán, if there is a season that resembles autumn in the north, this is it. Late winter and spring on the Peninsula is the dry season. Rain is slight and the otherwise lush, nearly-impenetrable vegetation in natural areas gives way for a few hot, dry months. Herbs, grasses and other small plants wither to nothing and many bushes and trees drop their leaves.

Out at the ranch, the opening of spaces and the extra light reaching the ground offer me a chance to see things that are hard to discern at other times. The rest of the year, shade and thick green curtains of vines and brush block the view more than few feet beyond either side of the road and trails.

Since this is my first dry season on this land, I am using the time to take a close look around. I took an hour's hike on one of the trails to the back of the property last week. I was able peer into areas normally hidden from view, and observe the wider contours of the property. This helps me plan construction and irrigation projects that I will be working on later.

I've surveyed and opened access to a nice high spot that may prove to be my home site and cleared trash and rubble from around the existing house. I also have taken a good look at the old orchard to figure out where I can best plant fruit trees, keeping in mind gravity-fed irrigation from a central water storage tank next to the well.

The openness right now also allows me to appreciate other things close up, things I might miss in the rainy season. For instance, this chaká (gumbo limbo) tree, is not so easily noticed the rest of the year. I took a moment to admire its green trunk and contrasting papery copper-colored bark.

I also noticed this tiny fungus growing on a rotting, fallen branch.

The walk took me around a meandering loop that ended back at my work area, the former orchard near the corral and well. It looks very different right now, too, both due to the dry weather and our efforts to clear space for spring planting. I am starting to save stout hardwood branches for fence posts, a few of which which can be seen leaning against the wall. I am not sure when I'll need them, but certainly they will be useful at some point.

I also am saving longer sections for use as roof beams on a later project. I'll post about that soon.

Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Ceiba

Last week when I arrived at Rancho San Benito after a five-day absence, I was presented with bouquets of flowers.

This is the ceiba, sacred tree of the Maya people, also known as the kapok tree. This example grows smack dab in the middle of the stone-walled corral.

I'd expected to see ceiba flowers this week because on my last visit, the buds on its branches were obvious. Not having lived near one of these trees, I hadn't quite expected this sort of show.

After admiring the glowing pink of the blossoms in the warm morning sunshine, I noticed the number of birds. Among others, I counted three hummingbirds in the tree at once and a pair of Altamira Orioles. A squirrel cuckoo, with its earthy-red body, flashy fan-tail and characteristic squirrel-like hopping behavior, was lurking nearby. The usual crowd, mainly jays, big-beaked Groove-billed Anis, blackbirds, grackles and a variety of other birds I still cannot identify, foraged among the blossoms as well.

But the most impressive visitors to the ceiba were the bees. Thousands of bees. They were busy going about their business, and the loudness of the hum was startling. As I stood beneath the tree, what was even more fascinating was the quality of the sound, which seemed to be everywhere. It was directionless and enveloping, as if the atmosphere itself was humming and vibrating.

I went about my work, carrying buckets of water for thirsty coconuts and lemon trees and packing compost and leaf mulch around their trunks to help the roots stay moist in this rainless season. I checked the plum trees, which budded last week and also are in flower now, and they're doing fine. I cleaned out the one-room house near the corral, which needs a new roof, door and some structural repairs before I can move in. The cleanup is in preparation for measuring and a full inspection prior to starting that project some time this spring.

Then, after the twenty-minute walk back into the village, the afternoon's agenda consisted of lunch with neighbors and a siesta.

That's pretty much how the days go around here right now.

Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Hummingbird Showed Me

Old wild plum (ciruela) trees at Rancho San Benito

I have not been terribly productive at the ranch for a couple of weeks. The truck is in the shop for engine work, so I've been making weekly ranch visits by taking a two-hour bus ride to the pueblo and walking from the house I rent there out to the property. This means that I can't bring tools and materials, so on my visits to Rancho San Benito work is limited to planting, weeding, watering and other small projects.

Without the chainsaw and other larger implements, I work quietly and take it easy. While buckets fill with water I sit by the well and wait. I have plenty of time for observation and learning, which is one of the important reasons for having the ranch in the first place.

I was taking a coffee break late Thursday morning, seated under the oak tree that shades the well, when the sun was dimmed by gathering grey clouds. Soon I was feeling cool northerly gusts and bathed in misty drizzle. The morning had been hot, so I was a little surprised by the abrupt change in the weather. I started to think about getting my things together for a quick walk back to the pueblo, if necessary, glad that I had a large plastic garbage bag that would serve as an emergency raincoat if things got worse.

But coffee comes first, so I relaxed for another moment. Savoring the hot drink, I watched the changing weather through the branches of two wild ciruela (plum) trees, leaves fallen for the winter dry season, when my eye caught a tiny movement. What I thought at first was a moth turned out to be a hummingbird, a colibrí, nervously flitting amongst the twigs. The strangeness of this scene was heightened by the ominous conditions. What on earth was the tiny creature doing in a barren tree in such weather?

As the little bird continued busily my curiosity strengthened. Finally the hummingbird rested for a minute on a wind-buffeted branch. It then made a beeline for shelter in the thick brush.

I walked over to the trees, still unable to perceive what had attracted the bird's interest. It wasn't until I bent down a low branch and looked carefully that I saw what inspired the hummingbird's attention. Tiny purple buds, which must have popped out overnight, covered the branches. These trees lose their leaves in December, then flower and produce fruit before new leaves appear in spring. I guess the little bird was anticipating the readiness of the first sweet ciruela flowers in coming weeks.

If I'd been working in my accustomed way, it's likely I would have missed this. I am glad I had the time to notice what the hummingbird had to show me.

Meanwhile, I'll have to be more patient than the bird, since the fruit won't be ready until late April or early May. There are plenty of other things to learn about and to keep me busy until then.

Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Sunday, December 6, 2015

At Rancho San Benito

A spotlight of evening sun breaks through the gloom, minutes before sunset

In May I mentioned that I'd agreed to buy a parcel of old ranch land outside of Mérida. The transaction was completed in June.

Rancho San Benito has not had cattle grazing on it for close to fifteen years. In the tropical Yucatán climate, the result is that what once was open pasture now has trees on it whose trunks reach the thickness of a human leg. Large swathes of land are inaccessible due to dense thorny brush. Basically, although in the early stages of succession, the land has reverted to a form of jungle. A few game trails are passable if one is willing to swing a machete, and it's possible to walk around the limits of the place since the owners kept most of the lot lines clear. The back section, more than half of the property, although used as a wood lot has not been cleared in a very long time, if ever. Trees there are larger and the understory less dense but it's still not an easy place to move through.

Most of the progress I've made so far on the ranch has been in planning. Even in passable areas, the rocks and thorny growth do not allow for casual strolling. In order to learn more exactly what I'm dealing with in the area where I hope to build a dwelling, I've had some help clearing brush. This work continues, but slowly. I enjoy having people to work with, and often the work is lighter and goes more quickly with pleasant company. But I enjoy the quiet and think time provided by days spent working alone.

Working by myself allows me to hear and see more, like a small flock of wild turkeys that rose startlingly one morning out of the brush and flew low-to-the-ground to hide themselves out of my sight. Where they had just been, I found these feathers. On a daily basis I see quail, chachalacas, orioles, green jays, vultures and a variety of small songbirds. I've listed about 25 bird species so far, and have seen many more that I have yet to identify. Birds are my constant companions when I am out there alone. Other inhabitants include various small mammals, snakes, armadillos and a large variety of colorful lizards.

Working solo and quietly also means that I am more likely to see the deer that several villagers have told me are plentiful on the land. For some reason I haven't yet seen them, but as I go about my business it's only a matter of time until I do.

Days spent working alone at the ranch may be less productive in the sense of concrete accomplishment, but they give me a lot more information about the environment in which eventually I will live. And I enjoy having time just to enjoy the quiet and solitude there. I take breaks and just wander, or open the thermos on the tailgate of the truck and sit there enjoying the silence and a cup of hot coffee or icy lemonade.

This project is so large that it will never be done. There is no need to rush. The process is the project.

Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson

Sunday, September 27, 2015


"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

-- Viktor E. Frankl

My "situation" -- life -- got so busy over the past year or so that I neglected to blog about it.

The year without a doubt provided more material for interesting posts than any since I started this blog. But in the process of living through it all I didn't make much the time to write. 

Most interesting of all is that more and more I found myself able to apply the wisdom of Viktor Frankl, a psychologist whose work and approach to life I have admired and attempted to incorporate into my life for many years.

Frankl said:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

There has been lots of change in my life recently, not all easy, of course, but I do my best to choose for it all to be meaningful. Finding meaning is the key element.

Frankl was a young Viennese doctor who survived years in Nazi concentration camps. He became known after the war for using the time he was incarcerated under inhumane conditions, with wife, friends and family gone and others dying all around him, to develop his theories. Frankl's major conclusion was that people most likely to thrive, even under the most extreme and difficult circumstances, are the ones who have a compelling reason to live. His experiences resulted in a book titled Man's Search for Meaning.

We all know if we're honest with ourselves that control and security are illusions. The structures that maintain our sense of stability and safety are fragile and can come tumbling down quickly due to illness, death, accident, economic downturn, loss of employment, or any one of a number of other causes. 

How we react to the losses is the key to finding meaning and moving on. As Frankl said, when you can't change a situation, you have to change yourself. I have done my best to put this principle into practice in my life.

As a result, over time I find myself happier, having more fun and worrying much less over things I can't control.

Mexico has been a big catalyst of the change. There is a Mexican approach to living that a foreigner here can absorb by interacting with and thoughtfully observing friends and neighbors. Aspects of this attitude, which I think of as la vida a la mexicana, mesh well with what Viktor Frankl discovered for himself in a different place and time. It's something that keeps life refreshing. Even after a dozen years living in Yucatán, I am still learning.

Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Stories

Visiting the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau with my Dad's parents. I now am older than they were then.
As more years of our lives stretch out behind than we are likely to enjoy ahead, often the past becomes more interesting to us. I recall as a kid hearing older folks talking a lot about things that had happened before I was born. I was more interested in history than the average kid, but like most children, I naturally thought more about the moment, tomorrow, or maybe out as far as next summer's vacation than about what had happened long ago.

Now I find myself in the older generation's shoes. My parents are gone. I am older at this point than my grandparents were when the photo above was taken. The remainder of my life life looms like the visible portion of the iceberg, with a larger percentage -- experiences, events, the influence of ancestors --hidden below the surface, yet the critical ballast that steadies my course.

I have been thinking a lot about the past this year. My father's death one year ago and my mother's two years before that have prompted a lot of reminiscences with friends and family, and lately lost snippets of growing up in my family have been passing through my mind. I didn't really analyze it until I was back Mérida and had time to ponder, but on a trip north that I made last year, I was steeped entirely the past.

Graves of some ancestors on the old family farm in Virginia

My great-great grandfather
I visited my cousin Kim in Washington, D.C. She's done extensive family research, and we love to talk together about family history. One day we drove into Virginia, where my mother's family arrived from England in the 1600's. That was the start of a fascinating and humbling experience, exploring places where predecessors of mine had lived and died, and walking land that was in the family for generations. We met a distant cousin who still owns some of the family farmland, and she directed us toward a large, old tree in a field, under which we found the graves of several relatives, including my great-great grandfather, who lived to be nearly 100 and fought for the losing side in the Civil War. To be honest, there is a part of my heritage there which I do not deny, but of which I am not proud.

As a teenager, my grandmother worked in this factory
We visited the nearby country church where many of the family were baptized, married and laid to rest. We spent time exploring the town where the generations before my mother's had lived and struggled to keep the family together amidst grueling work, poverty, and violence which took two family members' lives and prompted the survivors eventually to escape by moving up to Baltimore, where my mother was later born.

I realized that in exploring this area I was visiting a painful past that my mother's family had mostly left behind, and which Mom never talked much about. And I have begun to understand some of the reasons why.

I stopped near Baltimore to visit my aunt and uncle, Kim's parents. They live still in the house they did when I was a child. Visiting there I sleep in my great-grandmother's bed and we eat off of grandmother's dishes, which my aunt brings out for the occasion. We spend hours poring over old pictures and talking about our lives and things that happened long ago.

On the same whirlwind trip I also visited with an old friend and co-worker in Washington, D.C., and attended my 40th high school class reunion. On these occasions as well, most of what we talked about was things that happened a long time ago. Once the conversations warmed up, sitting in a roomful of classmates I hadn't seen in forty years I felt strangely at home. I get along much better now with many of those people than I did back then. Time and maturity clear away the trivial and temper passions. And reminiscing about the best football games, griping about teachers, laughing and crying about friends who have passed away, finding out finally who was the kid who streaked across the student parking lot one morning my senior year, stuff like that, certainly gave us a lot to talk about.

And this was the central theme: through all of my trip, I told and listened to stories. Human beings love stories. Stories unite us. With the mellowing passage of time these stories become interesting and even entertaining -- even the events that made life difficult. In the retelling, we find meaning in the the bad and celebrate the good. This and the practice of telling makes the stories better. Stories of hardship and sadness become tales of survival, and help explain who we are now.

Of course my realizations here are not news, but I've been seeing it lately for myself. I think that this blog will evolve a bit. I believe I will start telling more of the stories.

Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Wild Plums

If you have been reading this blog, you know what I am talking about. Here they are:

In a recent post I mentioned that I would return to a parcel of ranch land I had been exploring so that I could enjoy harvesting and eating the wild plums that grow there, and perhaps daydream about the future. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, the plums (ciruelas) were hard and green. Right now they are maturing, juicy and delicious. The timing of my visit yesterday was just right.

In fact I arrived none too soon because birds have been having an easy meal in this tree. The ground beneath was littered with pits and yellow, orange and green bits of partially-eaten plums. A large flock of Yucatan Jays (che'les) was busily enjoying the feast. The positive side is that it seems the birds favor the higher branches, which means the low-hanging fruit is left for us.

Along with the jays, we saw a pair of Squirrel Cuckoos, orioles (yiuya), Kiskadee (xtakay), Blue Crowned Motmots (Toh), quail (codorniz in Spanish or bechito in Maya), plus the usual assortment of cardinals, doves, grackles, mockingbirds, hummingbirds and small songbirds. We also heard but did not see an owl and a couple of other species we could not identify.

After savoring some plums and stashing more in pockets for the trail, we took another hike, in a section different from the one we walked the last visit. Ramiro, the man doing some clearing of impassable trails, has been busy in the meantime. Passage alongside one of the overgrown pastures is now open (photo below), and the area around the corral and well is now clear.  It was much easier this visit to walk and assess the condition of things.

When I ate the plums this morning, they seemed especially delicious, and not just because they are now in their prime. As I mentioned in the prior post, I have been very interested in this place for a long time. So without too much more thought, soon after taking that walk here and tasting the sour, unripe fruit a couple of weeks back, I signed a contract to buy and made a down payment on this property. We have a couple of legal hoops to jump through yet, but if all goes smoothly, soon I will be the proprietor here. This project will involve a lot of work and a significant shift in lifestyle, but I am looking forward to the change.

Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Cool, Cool Florida

On this street we lived for four air-conditioned years
When I was 13 years old we, an Alaska family, moved to South Florida. For about the first year or so I really thought I might die. It seemed so incredibly hot.

The whole family felt much the same. We kept the house central air conditioning temperature set very low and spent a lot of time inside except perhaps in the evening or to go to a nearby pool. When we had to go out we ran to the Oldsmobile, which normally had its AC cranked up so high that the noise of the fan made it difficult to talk. Sometimes the kids battled over who got to sit in front between Mom and Dad, where the center vent blew freezing air into the lucky kid's face hard enough to make one's hair fly. We loved that.

Thanks to my parents' ability to afford our electric bills, we survived in Florida for four years. Then we moved back to Alaska, and I did not expect to live in another hot place, ever again.

Now as a ten-year full time resident of Mérida, it's interesting to see how I have adapted. Until just a few months ago I have lived here, a place hotter than South Florida, without air-conditioning at all. Now that I have AC in the bedroom, I still use it only occasionally.

My sister came around, too. After a few decades of feeling always cold in Alaska, she and my brother-in-law moved back to Florida several years ago.

Now, strangely, I find myself looking forward to my visits to see them in Florida as a respite from the heat. Particularly this time of year, when the Yucatán temperatures hit their peak.

The weather in Mérida has been reaching about 39 - 40 Celsius (102 - 104F) lately, and the forecasters say it will get quite a bit hotter later in the week, possibly as high as 45C, which is around 113 on the Fahrenheit scale. Today's edition of Mérida's Diario de Yucatán featured the banner, "Yucatán arderá," "Yucatán will burn." This morning's headline story tells us that record temperatures will be set in coming days.

I find it interesting that I often look forward to a Florida visit as a cool break from the Yucatán's blast-furnace heat. It points out how flexible we can be, and how much I've changed.

Text and images copyright 2015 by Marc Olson