The Mesita, San Pablo Etla

1December 2016

One reason San Pablo Etla is special, and differs from its neighboring villages in the Etla Valley and the valleys south of Oaxaca, is its mountain. To be precise, our mountain is a section of the long, long ridge that rises another 1,600 meters (about a vertical mile) just east of Casa DaviLinda. The mountain itself isn’t particularly distinguished since there isn’t a single place in entire Central Valleys region of the State of Oaxaca where you don’t get a 360-degree view of ridges of mountains, and most of their summits are in the 3,000-3,500 meter range. On these mountains there are no dramatic peaks. The slopes are seriously steep, and the massif is cut by deep gorges, some of which have been dammed to create reservoirs for drinking water and for irrigation in the 9-month dry season. What is special here is the way San Pablo Etla has chosen to take care of its mountain.


The forests on most of the mountains in these parts are being indiscriminately pillaged, leaving bare patches and few old trees. The burgeoning population on the suburban lower slopes of the valley scours the mountains for firewood. In many places agriculture on the high slopes has opened the door to erosion. Heavy use of pesticides has negatively impacted biodiversity, particularly of the fauna. Here in Santa Cruz and San Pablo Etla, back in the 1930s the towns’ major source of cash was charcoal, which they made on the mountain and sold to the pottery-making villages in the valley to fire the kilns, or to the city of Oaxaca for cooking fires. But back about … 30 years ago? … San Pablo, through its elected Comisariato de Bienes Comunales (Stewardship of Public Resources), decided to manage its portion of the mountains as an ecological reserve for research and environmental education. And so it has. It is a work in progress, and so far with great success.


Some achievements: the RAW program (Real Architecture Workshop) brings a group of 7-12 senior architecture students from universities around the world to Oaxaca for ten days to accomplish a project. That is, design it, marshal the resources to build it, and then actually build it, all within ten days! Real clients, real needs, minimal resources, and a ticking clock. Over the past few years they have built a cabin with ecological waterless toilets to host visiting researchers. An observation platform looking out over the valley. A Welcome Pavilion, so groups of visiting school children can get their orientation lesson seated in the shade. An observation tower. A wildlife viewing blind. All of them ecologically sound and pleasing to the eye.


Another: with funds from donors and sponsoring arts agencies, they created a sculpture garden of eco-themed sculptures, the most recent a Corn Princess, by the renowned ceramic sculptor José García Antonio, the same blind-from-birth artist who did the mermaid librarian on our back terrace (note the same woman’s face: García’s wife Teresita has a mole in the middle of her forehead, and she is his only model for what a woman’s face “looks” like).


Another: a plant nursery that breeds common and scarce local plants to reforest the parts of the mountain that need them. And in the works, a butterfly, —uh, whatever the parallel word in English is like aviary for birds. In Spanish it is a mariposario.


Another: placing motion-sensitive cameras in various parts of the forest to see what animals are really up there, besides the common ones everyone knows about (foxes, skunks, deer, raccoons, possums – each a little different from their northern cousins). So far? A couple of birds people had no idea were around here, and almost all of the big cats of Mexico (jaguar, jaguarundi, ocelot, puma, etc).


So much has been achieved, and so uncommon are the achievements among Mexico’s small rural villages, that the Comisión Nacional para Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP = the National Protected Areas Commission) has just given San Pablo an award, one of just a handful in all of Mexico. As our friend and tireless worker for the environment Jim Austin communicated to us a couple of weeks ago, the award is for “the community’s outstanding work in conserving natural resources.  In addition to preserving the communal forest reserve with its water sources, carbon sequestration, oxygen generation, and biodiversity, San Pablo’s efforts in environmental conservation and education in ‘La Mesita’ stand out as exceptional.”


I forgot to mention another outstanding achievement: building programs to foster environmental education among school children. Like last weekend’s birding expedition for about a hundred middle-and high-school aged children. Busses brought the kids to La Mesita by 8:30 in the morning. After a brief orientation session, they were divided into ten groups of twelve, each group assigned to a different mountain trail. Accompanying each group were a trail guide (a member of the Comisariato), an adult inchargikeh (a teacher or a parent), and a knowledgeable birder (9 real ones and me). We bird docents handed out our personal spare binoculars, and at 8:50, following the trail guide, we headed up into the forest. This program was really well organized.


As group #4, we were on trail #4, beginning just above the Corn Goddess statue. On our mountain, like on most mountains, the environment changes as a function of altitude, soil, water, wind, etc., but mostly altitude. Here in the Etla Valley the layers are: agricultural bottom land, alluvial floodplain (±1500 meters); thorn scrub on the lomas, really crappy breccia (±1600-1700 m); oak scrub on increasingly steep slopes (±1700-2200 m); pines of various species, madroños, on the impossibly steep slopes (±2200-2800); and moss draped cloud forest at the vary top. Wildflowers vary by altitude and season, as do bromeliads, epiphytes, orchids, ferns, mosses ...  you name it. Our trail, started in oak scrub and ended in pine and madroño.


In the thorn scrub, down below, which is where I usually bird, activity starts at first light (nowadays, about 6) and peaks for an hour beginning when the sun actually appears over the eastern mountains (about 7:15). After that most of the birds, their little tummies full, opt for siesta until the early evening feeding (there are exceptions, of course, and many birds continue to munch in between their major feeding frenzies). I feared that if birds on the mountain’s mid-levels followed the same schedules as in the thorn scrub, by not starting until nearly 9:00 we’d be lucky if we saw as many as two.


In actual fact, we fell two short of that. Oops. Maybe this program was not so well thought out after all.


When the kids on trail #4 got tired of looking and not seeing, the docent (me) shifted focus. There are lots of things, after all, to look at and be interested in on a mountain trail. Lots of things with which to prompt people to figure out why they are the way they are. How many kinds of erosion can we spot? Where do the spiders up here build their webs and why? Where are we likely to see bits of the bedrock of this mountain? How many kinds of scat can we find along the trail? Celso Taboada, our trail guide (and the nephew of the man who owned the property we brought) knew a lot about trees and edible plants, and could tell which seeds were in the fox scat, and the places where the foxes had reseeded pines down among the oak scrub. Our other adult knew a lot about medicinal plants, and could tell us about the uses of a goodly number of the wild flowers and shrubs along the trail. I heard a rustle to one side and caught a glimpse of a scurrying lizard, so we could look for those. Celso pointed out a couple of charcoal patios, flat places where thirty years ago villagers were still making charcoal, and he was just old enough to have seen it done a few times, so with our prompting him along he could tell us about that. Bottom line? All our kids seemed to have had fun. And maybe learned a little bit.


Back at La Mesita the groups mingled and swapped tales of what they had seen, although mostly they swarmed the food tables. Tangerines and mole enchiladas and mountains of pizza, washed down with jamaica and amaranth juice. I like to imagine that while the other groups talked about the turkey vultures they saw overhead, our Trail #4 veterans bragged about all the non-birds they saw and felt a little superior about their powers of observation. Docent dreams


All in all, it was good fun and I can’t wait to do another.


But starting earlier.