Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wild Plants: Macal



These huge flowers appear in my Mèrida garden several times per year. They last showed themselves in November, and began to blossom again in mid February. The blooms resemble those of the plant which we call "skunk cabbage" in Alaska, differing mostly in color; skunk cabbage flowers are yellow. This is macal, of which two varieties are indigenous to Yucatan, known as macal box (maCAL bosh) and xmakin macal (shmaKEEN maCAL). As best I can tell by talking to people, this is the latter variety.

In my garden where it receives a lot of water, macal grows and flowers all year, but my research tells me that in natural surroundings these plants sprout in May, or around the hot and steamy beginning of the rainy season, and the edible roots are ready for harvest in November. New plants sprout from the roots, and spread quickly. I once chopped down a couple of these plants that were very mature and had stopped producing healthy new leaves, and within two months I had probably twenty new examples which had grown from the roots, which I had left in the soil. The roots are huge; I read somewhere that three or four would fill a bushel basket. The flesh is white and very starchy, and some people have told me that eating macal in excess can cause sickness. I haven't tried it yet. I am waiting for someone with experience in cooking and eating macal to help me with the recipe the first time I prepare it for the table.


The plants grow wild, and are commonly seen in rural gardens. I get the impression that in the past macal was eaten more commonly than now. The presence of potatoes and a greater variety of vegetables has somewhat displaced macal in the Yucatecan diet, except perhaps in cases of families living in extreme poverty. I appreciate the huge leaves for their ornamental value, and the flowers because they are delicate despite their large size, and for their mild, pleasant aroma.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wanderings: Ranch Country



Carnaval, with its orgy of music, dancing, extravagant costumes and parades, lubricated by plenty of good food and beer, ended Tuesday. I had planned to write about Carnaval this week, but other things came up and I did not get down there much. I walked to the Paseo de Montejo for about an hour one night, drank one beer and enjoyed the spectacle, and that was all I managed.

On Tuesday, when an estimated 400,000 - 700,000 people were enjoying the last blast of Carnaval only a few blocks from my house, I was not home. I was rumbo a Izamal, out Izamal way, once again looking at land that is for sale. I like Mèrida, but think more and more of having a little hideaway somewhere quiet, with more room for fruit trees and space between me and my neighbors.


I'd been on the property, a section of former ranch land, a few days earlier, then asked permission from the absentee owners to go back out, inspect the property lines, and get a little farther into the brush. With a larger property, it's the only good way to know exactly what you are getting. This is a nice piece of land, with an old house, working windmill and well, a cave, some corrals and many beautiful arched gates (photos). It also has an aguada, or surface lake fed by an underground water source, like a cenote, but not down in a cave. The property is attractive; I'll not say much more or publish the more revealing photos that might identify it because it is private property and I had permission only to walk around as a potential buyer.

I'd wanted to go out again because what I had seen on the survey plat, on Google Earth, and in person on the first visit left me with a lot of questions. The survey was confusing and the proportions did not coincide with the satellite images on Google or what I had seen. And, it appeared that a section which the owners indicated was included in the property sale and which I had looked at on the first visit was excluded in the technical description with survey points, distances and compass directions which accompany the plat. Then, I was just curious to see more of the area. I invited my friend Victor, a great companion in exploration, and very knowledgeable about the region, to come along. We packed food, water, camera, maps, hats and short straight machetes, or morunas, in the car, and headed out the highway.

Since it was a holiday for many, early traffic was light, and in 15 minutes we had filled the tank, passed under Mèrida's Periferico and onto the divided Mèrida-Cancùn highway. Forty-five minutes later, we turned onto the ranch road, which winds through leafy glades and pastures, until we reached the turnoff we were

looking for. We parked near the house and shouted, "buenos dias," to warn the worker who is sometimes present that he had company. No one was home and the doors hung wide open, so we were able to peek inside the two ample rooms of the old house. The floors were piled high with ears of dried corn and sacks. A hammock hung in the middle of one of the rooms, and two hats and farming implements sat on a bench. In the other room there was more corn, votive candles, and a shrine with cross in one corner.

We looked briefly at the house, which is in habitable shape but needs some work, and inspected the windmill. It was working, and the watering troughs in the old corral were full. There is a big, round stone water tank in back of the house that would make a superb rustic swimming pool some day, when it's cleaned up, trees growing inside are taken

out, and the cracks repaired. The land is rocky, but appears to be fertile enough to support an orchard and garden. We opened a gate and walked through one of the ancient arches, to the aguada, its periphery shaded by large, old trees, the water glowing a bright

algae green in the morning sun. Large turtles sunned themselves on rocks. We startled a pair of zopilotes, vultures, and they soared above. A large hawk I had seen on the earlier visit did not make an appearance, but smaller colorful birds swam and flew and sang. I began to imagine a trail cleared around this small lake, with places here and there to rest and view the wildlife. This is exactly the type of place, in this flat land of no rivers, where wildlife congregates. Besides birds, deer, other mammals and the reptiles they call "cocodrilos" all ought to present themselves, if one has the patience to wait for them. We continued, cutting through brush at times, partially around the aguada. Many interesting varieties of trees, cactus, and flowering plants grow in the area.

However, we soon started running into things that raised questions. We found shiny new barbed wire and a corridor brushed out as if someone was planning to keep animals there or marking a property division. There was sectioned-off area full of cattle, with a house and well, on land the owners indicated is part of the sale. A man on a bicycle we met there said that these sections of the old ranch had been divided and sold off some time ago. Was there a communication problem with the owners that led to me receiving wrong information, or have people moved onto the land? Invasions are not uncommon in Mexico; if someone uses and lives on land long enough and the owner does not take measures to have them leave, the user can gain legal possession. The man asked me if I was the owner of the ranch parcel with the house and aguada; he said no one had ever seen the owners, and people thought they were letting good grazing land go to ruin by letting it grow back into brush and trees. This started looking to me like a situation that might encourage an incursion.

I should say my understanding is that this sort of situation is not very common around Yucatàn, and doesn't happen at all when owners are around and the land is in use. It is not a conflicted area; the man who told me these things was friendly and pleasant, and there was no undertone of discomfort or resentment. He was just telling me the way things are. In fact, if what the man said is true, we were trespassing on land owned by his son-in-law when we met him, and he did not ask us what we were doing there or even tell us we were on his family land until I started asking about the property boundaries. We talked a little more, then said thank you, shook hands, and went on our own ways.
As we walked away from the meeting, my hiking boot blew out. A large section of sole suddenly became unhinged, tripping me and making it hard to walk without lifting my right foot high into the air with each step. Victor, a country boy, selected a nearby vine, chopped it down, and neatly bound my boot together. It wasn't pretty, but I could walk. I decided we'd had enough for this day. After waiting without luck a while for the owner of a neighboring ranch who might have been able to clear up some of my questions, we were back on the divided highway.

Suddenly, an aggressive-looking white convertible loomed up in my mirror and passed at very high speed. I couldn't believe my eyes, but on the rear of this vehicle I spied the flying-B badge. Just minutes back I'd been hacking through the bush with straw-hatted Mayan campesinos and picking ticks off my pants, my boot bound up with a piece of vine, and now passing me was the latest-model Drophead Bentley Coupe, worth a quarter of a million dollars, maybe, and more commonly seen in places like oil-rich Arab states, Southern California, or perhaps the motorways around London and autobahns of Europe. Probably some wealthy empresario zooming to Mèrida from Cancùn; another world. I prefer this simpler, more interesting, though sometimes untidy, one.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Language Older Than Words*



I have heard and read from time to time about people, "whisperers," shamen, and others who communicate with animals. I have listened to experiences and stories of Native people in Alaska and elsewhere who assure that such understanding is possible, and even normal, if you are open to it. I never thought much about this subject in terms of myself until last weekend.

I posted not long ago about the habits of the Tortolitas, or Mourning Doves in and around my house in Mèrida. Well, after a brief winter respite, the courting and nesting behavior resumed a few weeks ago. Already I have chased several pairs out of my laundry and storage areas as they started to bring in bits of grass and twigs for new nests. Many times in the past they have nested in the mandevilla that grows over the archway between my interior patio and the dining/kitchen area at the back of the house. Just lately a pair resumed housekeeping there.

This arch has no door, so the kitchen and dining area are open to the outside on that end. When the Tortolitas nest in this foliage at the top of the arch, sometimes they mistakenly fly into the house instead of up and out of the patio area. This probably happens because there are two large screened doors in the far end of the room which let in a lot of light, even when closed. I assume the birds see the light and fly toward it, thinking it's a way out.


They've been doing that a lot lately. Twice Saturday I walked toward the kitchen to find a bird fluttering around looking for an escape route. Usually I open one of the back doors and the bird flies right out. However, the second time on Saturday that I found a bewildered bird there I was just arriving home, and the back door was locked. The door requires a key, even from the inside, and a glance revealed that the key was not in its normal place on the counter. I decided to try to move the bird back the way it had come in by edging around the room in its direction, hoping as it moved away from me that it would circle toward the archway and find the exit.

"Relax, I'm not going to hurt you."

No use. The poor thing, which I could see now was a hen, plump, heavy and looking as if she were carrying an egg, was exhausted. She flew haphazardly toward me, made a valiant try for the skylight, and after bumping into the glass spiraled to the floor. She rose, flew past me, and again was batting wings at the closed doors, agitatedly bumping into the mosquito screen and fluttering wildly. A feather loosened and twirled down. She went down again, following her lost feather to earth.

"Shhhhh. Rest. It's OK. Shhhhhhhhh."

As I moved closer, in a final desperate move she scurried on foot and tried to squeeze through the space under the door. Only her head would fit. Head kept low, she darted a little to one side and tried again, resembling nothing so much as a cornered rodent. At this point she seemed to be trembling, and I backed off to let her rest there on the floor, partially obscured behind a potted plant.

"Don't worry, you'll be all right."

After waiting a bit I approached the bird, which remained quietly on the floor. I continued to speak softly, then slowly crouched down and moved to within an arm's length. She didn't flee, but remained frozen and motionless; a survival instinct, I suppose. After a moment, I simply reached down and picked her up in my left hand, wrapping my palm across her back to pin her wings, with my fingers curling around her breast, leaving her feet free. I brought my other hand up and rested her feet on its palm. I could feel her heart racing, but she did not struggle or even move.

I continued to talk as I walked back under the arch where she has her nest to the open space of the patio. Once in the open I removed my left hand, and the little hen sat in my right, motionless, and slowly calmed down.

"You're not afraid anymore. I'm glad."

She stared at me, sitting with her underside nestled into my palm as if it were a nest. We stayed like this for several minutes, I think, but it's hard to say for sure. We just watched each other. All I recall is her dark, glinting eye, her warm, almost weightless body and the beat of her heart, which slowed as she relaxed.

"You know, I'm not keeping you. You can go."

After having remained completely motionless for several minutes, the little bird actually blinked and rotated her head as if to look around when I said this. I tilted my hand slightly. She rose up on her feet, and in an instant she was gone.

"Adios, Tortolita."

She left my hand but she didn't go far. As I write this at the dining table a couple of days later, she and her mate watch me from their perch in the mandevilla over the arch, a very short distance away.

In reality I can speculate but I do not know what happened on Saturday. Maybe the bird was so tired that she had given herself up to fate, frozen in terror. Possibly she is one of the many generations of Tortolitas that have been reared in and around my house, are used to seeing me, and knowing I am non-threatening have lost some of their natural fear of me. She might even have been one of the fallen, flightless chicks I've found and briefly cared for on a couple of occasions before returning them to their parents. It is nice to think that she could perceive from my approach and body language that I was not going to hurt her, or that she sensed my good intentions. Whatever the truth, the experience made me think again about the lore of human-animal interactions in historic and traditional cultures, and about why we have lost this ability.

*The title of this post is borrowed from the book of the same name by Derrick Jensen, a philosopher and environmentalist whose writing I have found interesting and thought-provoking. In the preface to that book, Jensen talks about an experience he had communicating with wild coyotes, which was the genesis for the book. The "Language Older Than Words," he writes about is human interconnectedness with our planet, and the ability to communicate with and interact with the natural world -- our home -- something that we have lost in the process of becoming "civilized." Jensen believes that civilization is doomed to failure and that we must re-establish that connection with and respect for our planet. It's a subject worth thinking about.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Yuctecan Still Lifes: A Walk Around the Corner



Assignment: See what kinds of photos I could make on my routine walk to the store around the block where I buy the morning paper. The round trip takes less than ten minutes, and I did not allow myself to take much more time than I normally do, nor deviate from my normal path. This means not crossing any streets: to get to the store I turn left out of my front door and walk to the corner where I make another left, and continue to the next corner where I turn left once more. Tendejon Miguelito is a few doors down the way, just about back-to-back with my house. I walked to the store, observing, and bought the newspaper. On the way home, I took pictures. They reveal details about life and culture "por mi rumbo," in my neighborhood.


#1. (above) A barred security door, propped open against the wall of a house. Someone slipped an advertising flyer into the bars. This is a daily occurrence in Mèrida, where many families do not have internet or receive the newspaper. Advertising is often done via these types of leaflets.

#2. Trash in a planter. Some wrappers, a plastic spoon, a bottle, two chunks of cement and what appears to be a photo of a child soldier in the Mexican Revolution have been discarded in this planter in front of a home.

#3. Old bakery. This late 19th or early 20th century-style building has been empty ever since I moved onto the street. During the Yucatàn hennequen boom of this time period many Mèrida buildings were renovated or built in this Europeanized style. I am told this once was a factory or a bakery. Some of the original wooden doors, like the one on the right, were replaced by modern steel overhead doors, a common practice over the years here in Mèrida where a good proportion of the oldest buildings were converted to industrial, retail and warehouse use. For years this building has been for sale or for rent, but nothing ever seems to happen. Recently workers have been painting, cleaning and renovating the facade. The sacks contain some of the rubble and debris from the work that presumably will be hauled away some day.

#4. Renovated house. These neighbors decided to redo the facade of their old house, creating a garage door where once there was a window, and putting ceramic floor tile on the lower part of the facade. Supposedly these types of alterations in the Centro Historico are prohibited, but many flaunt the rules. Or perhaps this house is modern enough to be exempt. Maybe no one noticed. Whatever the facts are, they redid the front of the house. It's not exactly to my taste, to be gracious about it, but everyone has a right to their own aesthetic.

#5. The carpenter car dealer. This building is just about five doors down from my house. The guy, who seems to be a Chilango (from Mexico City) and is definitely not Yucatecan, used to build and sell furniture, tables, chairs, shelving, beds, things like that. Now he seems mostly dedicated to selling used cars. These he often has parked along the street while leaving his huge private parking lot empty, taking up a lot of the limited public parking and annoying some of the neighbors. However, mostly he seems to play very, very loud music and invests his time cruising around in a convertible, top always down and with his elbow resting on the window ledge, or holds court on the sidewalk with a six pack and various neighborhood characters. You get the idea. About a year ago, he built this coffin, and it has been outside leaning against the front of his shop since. Maybe the person who ordered it got better. Maybe the buyer put off making his last payment until it was too late. Or maybe the carpenter made it as a joke. He did have the lid open and a mannequin dressed up like a monster laying inside for Halloween. I like it; brings up the neighborhood a bit. Best thing that guy's done around here.

#6. Neighbor's door. Frankly, looking at the front of this house with any kind of concentration gives me vertigo. Fortunately it's not directly across from my house, so I don't get dizzy walking out the door. A lot of homes in the city have some tile on the facade because it is more durable and requires less maintenance than a painted surface. This tile pattern apparently was fairly popular some years ago.

#7. Gilda's tree. This is a piece of a flor de mayo, or plumeria tree that my neighbor and friend Gilda put out against the front of her house to be taken by the trash collectors, who apparently balked at hauling it away. After resting there for a few days, it fell over and stayed that way, as you see it here. Right after I took the photo, someone collected it.

#8. Neighbor's plant. Three doors to the north of my house is a very old, very traditional home. When the doors are open you catch glimpses of chandeliers, paintings and old furniture that look like they have been there since great grandma's day. In the front garden there are several potted plants. This is one of them, in front of a window grille.