# 20: “DaviLinda shel zahav”

13 November 2015

DaviLinda shel zahav, or the Virtues of benign neglect.

            In 1967 the Israeli singer Naomi Shemer wrote a paean to Jerusalem called Yerushalayim shel zahav, or “Jerusalem of Gold.” The song referenced the ancient traditions that make Jerusalem the heart of the Jewish people, of course, but it also evoked the glow at sunrise and sunset of the pinkish-gold stones of which most of the buildings in Jerusalem are constructed: Yerushalayim shel zahav, u shel najoshet u shel ‘or. “Jerusalem of gold and of copper and of light.”

            The property we bought from Gustavo Taboada is a hillside whose upper boundary is Santa Cruz’s arterial irrigation ditch, the zanja, and whose lower boundary is Calle Independencia. When we first measured it we found a ten-meter altitude differential between the top and the bottom, but the slope was gradual. Our need to site the house on a level swath near the top of the property, meant that we had to push a lot of dirt up toward the

zanja, resulting in a flattish plot at the top where the house sits, a flattish plot at the bottom where we manufactured our adobe, and a steepish hill connecting the two.


            Corollary #1: the house and its porch are perched high above the road and command a spectacular view of the Oaxaca valley and of both Monte Albán and Atzompa, the two sites that define the pre-Columbian culture of the region. Corollary #2: the steepish hill and the flattish ex-adobe-factory are a lot of land, and in heavy rain, very liable to erosion. The ‘lot of land’ means we realized we might be wise not to try to garden it formally: if we were not judicious it could consume a lot of time, water, and cash. Still, the ‘liable to erosion’ meant that sooner or later it had to be covered with something, preferably something well adapted to our soil, topography, and climate, something fast growing and fast spreading, with tenacious roots, and a camel-like ability to subsist in the dry season with very little water.


            So what we decided to do was: 1. Attempt to control runoff with dry channels anchored with cobblestones. 2. Terrace the top 3 meters of the bank and plant it with showy and presumably hearty stuff that would gladden the hearts of people seated on the porch. 3. Think about the rest later and keep our fingers crossed. At the end of the 2014 dry season the lowest third of our property was bare as a billiard ball. During construction we had pushed around so much of the dirt that nothing was in its original place. The only plant to have survived was a scrawny huamuchil tree, about a meter tall. The rest of the land was good for pot-sharding, but there was nothing on it that would retard flowing water.


            We built the channels and planted the top three meters, setting the pots at a distance from each other that made them look like orphans. But gradually they filled in, with lavender, citronella, lantana, frutilla, marigolds. They became a thick fringe of color at the edge of the tiny lawn where Qalba likes to sunbathe. They attracted birds and butterflies in profusion, and became a little domestic jungle to amuse the

cats, Vilu and Mitsiú. The top three meters soaked up all the mulching, watering, weeding, love and attention that we had the time and energy to devote. Which is why we never got around to thinking about the rest later.


            Then shortly after the start of the rains “the rest” began to weed up. We couldn’t tell what the spindly green pioneers were, but there were a lot of them. Within a month they had pretty much carpeted the lower slope in green, and we were beginning to be able to differentiate types. There were small, ground-hugging plants, some of which produced little button-like flowers of red, yellow, and blue. But mostly yellow. The flores de San Nicolás, used on the Muertos altars were the most profuse; but there were ground-hugging yellow one with black centers, too, and slightly taller ones with five petals.

If this were a jungle, these spontaneous flowers would be the understory.

Pretty soon some of the taller plants were flowering. There were meadow asters of several types, and some lantana, some spikey things that looked like they might turn into thistles, and some others that looked like they might not.  Next to the casa and casita, along the dry channels, on both sides of the drive road up to the bodegas, and all over the lower hillside another thick-stemmed, arrowhead-leafed plant began to assert itself. Not arnica —we had several of those along the east boundary— but something equally aggressive.  We thought about pulling them, but Lauro and Lázaro, who have been helping us with the gardening, counseled that we wait. It was clear that their roots went deep, and they were holding the soil, and as they got taller they efficiently screened the road, so we figured – what the hell!? Let’s leave them be and see what happens.


            Soon they were a meter tall. Then two meters. Where there was a little moisture, like below the diffusion areas for the gray water from the casa, they soon reached three meters in height. Stalks as thick as baseball bats. They branched out, and sprouted little buds at the branch tips that looked like, maybe, they would turn into flowers.


            Two weeks before Muertos one of them popped. And then another. A yellow composite, something like a Jerusalem artichoke blossom, both because of their color and they way they stood tall over everything, turning their faces toward the sun as the earth revolved. We asked Lauro their name and he said “acahuales,” their name in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The internet filled in the Latin: Tithonia tubaeformis. Mother nature filled in the lower half of the yard, both sides of the casa and casita, the areas around the portón and the portón chico, and both entrance driveways.


            A week before Muertos all of our hundreds of acahuales burst simultaneously into a glory of green and gold. Our casa on the hill sat among them like an adobe jewel in a brooch of gold. Cars heading up hill along Calle Independencia from the purple Juquila shrine slowed at our portón to gawk. Visiting expat friends who drove up to the house on the entrance road got out of their cars with their mouths agape. When they recovered their composure, they launched into babble.


            “I can’t believe it! How did you do that? It was so fast. I remember when it was all just bare dirt. I’ve never seen anything like it. What are they? It’s fantastic! It’s . . .”


            Mostly Linda and I just answered with by smiling like Cheshire cats. But we did let two or three of our closest friends in on the secret of our home’s fortuitous halo of gold and copper and light.

            “Benign neglect. Plant nothing, mulch nothing, water nothing, weed nothing. Benign neglect.”

David & Linda