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The change of seasons

The Change of Seasons


        Every morning at first light Qalba takes me out for a walk. When she thinks it is time to go she sheds every pretense of subtlety. She barks, nuzzles my leg, and whines. While I stretch, make the bed, shave the bits that border my beard, gulp my first fistful of daily meds, prepare coffee, and turn on NPR, she dogs me from room to room as if she had just been granted the Shadow David Concession. The streetlights are still on and it is too dark to see colors, but she knows the drill, and that it’s time for her to try to hound me into an enthusiasm that is just as frenetic as hers. I cut up a mango, add some granola, and make it through the first cup of coffee and halfway through the second, before I give in. As soon as I start applying sunscreen she peels off and waits panting by the door.


       Casa DaviLinda is fairly snug to the mountains on the eastern side of the Etla Valley. This means that we have forty minutes of light, and morning cool, before the sun tops the ridge and I begin to think about taking off my long-sleeved shirt. The two of us often start by hiking up Calle Independencia toward the Santa Cruz Agencia and then cutting down Calle Pípila. The view toward the west at that hour is breathtaking, for the sun has already illuminated the mountains on the west side of the valley, and as we walk we can watch the sun-line creep across the valley floor and up across the lomas toward us.


While I have been able to hear birds calling from long before my beside clock turns to 5 AM, the chatter comes mainly from the seed-eating, flocking birds who want to get an early start on boosting their metabolisms. I also hear from the hormone-stoked solitary males who have staked out the high perches to open their advertising campaigns to attract mates. After all, it is becoming spring. Pretty soon the rains will start and plants will start manufacturing baby food. It’s time to shack up, build a nest, lay some eggs, get to it. 


But as soon as the sun tops the mountains and all the microclimates begin to warm up, insects come to life. That’s when the birds who earn their living by making sure that those insects’ lives are brief all start their engines. It’s mid-April and we’ve just entered chicharra season. Chicharras, the most common Mexican version of the cicada, start singing when the ambient temperature of their particular microclimate tops a certain level, so as Qalba and I make our way down Pípila and up toward the loma we can hear pockets of chicharras revving up in scattered copses of thorn brush. On our right, perched on an electric line, is a tirano tropical, a tropical kingbird, with a chicharra struggling in his beak. He flies down to a nearby tree, thumps the chicharra a few times against the trunk to break the its exoskeletal shell, then settles down to breakfast. Below him our newest neighbor does the same. He is now about a week old; in those seven days his legs have lost their spindliness and he has learned exactly how to hone in on his mama’s spigot.



            The early morning traffic in Santa Cruz follows a routine. The folks who keep animals and grow their own corn and still have day jobs in the city are finishing their fieldwork just as the sun tops the mountains. I get up early, but they get up earlier still. Those with burros have staked them out to graze on the public lands at the top of the next loma to the north, and the cattle egrets have come to keep the burros company in the hopes that they will kick up some tasty insect breakfasts. After logging the egrets on my morning tally for the Cornell study, Qalba and I stop by Doña Nicolasa’s house to say hello to her rapidly growing Dalmatian puppy, Looki (spelled L-u-c-k-y).


Around 7:00 I begin to see women from up the hill carrying plastic buckets of dried corn kernels down to the molina, the town mill near the Agencia, and a few minutes later they carry the bucket of ground masa home to make tortillas for the men coming in from the fields. Going on 8-o’clock, grandmothers take their 5 to 9-year-olds to the primaria in Santa Cruz. The older kids, in groups of three or four, walk unaccompanied down to the secundaria in San Pablo, or, if their families are marginally more affluent, make the trip in a three-wheeled mototaxi. Some parents carry two kids, or even three, behind them on their motorbike. Around 9 o’clock, as Qalba and I head home, younger moms are taking their toddlers to the pre-escolar; the government provides universal preschool for ages 3 and 4. That’s also the hour some city-working moms leave their 1- and 2-year-olds at one of the private jardines de niños.



            The men who do mostly agricultural work, of course, are in the fields most of the day. They’re about done with plowing; people want to get their corn in before the rains begin. During the previous three years the rains were scarce and began late, so that by mid-April the whole valley and the lower slopes of the mountains were a parched dull brown, but this year we had two rainy afternoons in March and one whole rainy day in April. Everywhere I look the landscape is tinged with green, not the deep, pervasive green that it will show by late June, but a subtle, hazy green, that hints of life ready to burst forth.



And burst it does. Back home I feed Qalba, change from my walking tennies to my sandals, pour another cup of coffee, and tour our acre of jardín. Signs of spring are everywhere. The bugambilia, where the leaf-cutter ants haven’t stripped them, are tinting the borders of the property with red and while and pale blue. The coffee plants are putting out a few white stars, as are the limones, the mandarina, and the pomegranates. Our five flores de mayo trees are all flowering, even the broken branch that I stuck in the ground last summer, half believing what people had told me about that being the way to propagate plumaria trees.

Even last year’s wind-scattered seeds of zinnea and cosmos are thrusting new plants up through the stones in front of the carport.



Last year’s acahuales, the native Mexican sunflowers whose stalks sometimes top 3 meters and whose profusion in October masks the casa and the casita in a curtain of yellow, have long since dried, given up their seeds, and now serve only as early morning perches for towhees, finches, and humming birds. The few remaining bee-balms, their dried blossoms resembling the wooden molinillos people use to whip hot chocolate to a froth, have gone dry; their remnants are scattered among the acahual stalks. And everywhere new acahuales, this year’s promise of October gold, are pushing themselves up through the rocky soil. We will have the prune all the walkways every couple of weeks for the next six months to leave ourselves paths to get to the casa.


            In the Tanque garden the lettuce, parsley, cilantro, dill, basel, and chard have all gone to seed. I will have to harvest the last of the Brussels sprouts and the native wild tomatoes this weekend or they, too, will be a loss. The hoja santa leaves next to the banana (which is doing just fine, thank you) have wilted out, but new ones are pushing up at the roots. A few of the asparagus plants are also showing signs of having survived the dormant months.


            The other new thing in the garden is a gift from Abby, a roundel of glass, in an iron stand made for me by artisan over near Cuatro Caminos in San Pablo. Red, and blue, and textured with a few flecks of Linda’s ashes, it stands by the path, at the foot of the terrace, in view from the porch, the dining room, and the steps up from the little gate of the portón chico, gathering the crisp first light of morning and the scarlet rays of the evening sunsets into the gardens that Linda so dearly loved.