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Bones, tendons, ligaments, nerves, heart, blood, the gauzy envelope of skin, cerebellum, signals firing along the rail line of the spine—just some of the exquisite processes working in harmony that allow me to get out of bed in the morning and go about my bipedal day. So easy to take for granted and I have.
The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in London is heroic not just because its subject was a hero but because it portrays the man as mortal. His colossal frame is tilting and he leans on his cane. It was a Sunday in May, the day I took the photo of Churchill, and Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square, and the maze of sidewalks in central London were packed with people in all stages of gait. It was my first day ever in London. I was in that special state of traveler’s euphoria—a condition of mind I love—seeing landmarks I’d read and heard about for years. It hardly mattered that my feet were killing me. There lurched Winston Churchill, and if I can imbue a bronze statue with feelings, he and I shared a moment of insight that comes only with age. The walking machine will fail with wear and tear and time. And we noted with a wink the foolish young people scurrying past their national hero and me, taking their gait for granted.
Day One, March 5, 2019
We left Alamos at 9 a.m. on our adventure to the Sea of Cortez estuaries, isolated igneous hills, towns, villages, and the raped coastal plain of Sonora. We stopped in Navojoa to shop for a few groceries and get money. As is often the case when traveling anywhere, our errands became a time sink. We had to go, for example, to several banks before one would spit out our money.
We didn’t have far to go. Only an hour and a half—if one had planned wisely not to stop in Navojoa. Our idea was to spend two nights at the Hotel Perla (which, at my request, we had inspected on a previous trip) in the farm town of Villa Juárez. We’d be close to all our destinations and could get up-and-out early to bird.
Villa Juárez was founded in 1943 and was initially called Colonia Irrigación. It is an urban consequence of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution and its economy revolves around industrial-scale agriculture. The town reminds me of Topsy, the valiant slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who grew up fast and haphazardly with no guidelines or advocates, who said, “I s’pect I just grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”
The town sits amid a maze of canals churning at this season with water from the Río Mayo. Water everywhere for crops, not so reliably for people: While we were there, parts of town were without water and trucks were driving around filling rooftop tanks. A hardscrabble place—dusty streets, concrete-block houses, hard-packed dirt yards, ag-related businesses, big lots with farm implements and anhydrous ammonia tanks, and a surplus of grandiosely bland governmental buildings erected for who knows what purpose and a few appearing to be abandoned.
The town seems not rich, not alarmingly poor whose citizens work and work some more to make ends meet in a social and economic system that affords few escape routes. In this way Villa Juárez is like millions of other towns around the world. I think one of the most important things we as human beings can provide our offspring is the option of escape. Stay if you truly wish, fling out if you have the desire, initiative, curiosity, and the means. Often it is the means—education, financial resources—that is lacking.
We had lunch at Ana Louisa’s where she and her daughter Perla (not named for the hotel or vice versa) lavished us with good cheer, good service, and good food. Perla about whom I wish I knew more would make a great study in options and opportunity. She is a U.S. citizen but like many Hispanic Americans has never learned English. She lives part of the year in Villa Juárez to be close to members of her family then spends June to October in Juneau, Alaska, working in a salmon processing facility. Assuming she makes about $12 an hour working 12-hour days, she earns much more than the average wage in Mexico, which ranges from about $13 to $19 a day. I am not sure a job in a fish-processing factory qualifies as an escape. But I can’t impose my definition of escape on Perla who does have options. These are the things that clatter around in my brain when we have wonderful but fleeting encounters with Mexicans we meet when we are out birding.
But before we got to town, we had the birders’ serendipitous delight. On the highway a few kilometers before the Villa Juárez turnoff, David saw a bird on a wire. He veered to the road shoulder, braked, backed up. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! Such a beautiful, winsome bird from my heartland of Texas. For several giddy moments we stood on the shoulder as cars and trucks whizzed by. This individual was off course on its northbound journey by at least fifteen hundred kilometers; I admit I fret that such vagabonds will never make it back to where they belong.
After lunch we headed to some ponds near town David had seen on Google Earth. We thought they might be wastewater treatment ponds (magnets for birds). Instead they are aggregate pits filled with water—perhaps irrigation water is diverted into the lagoons for temporary storage, who knows. Many things in Mexico remain a mystery to me. There was nothing much beautiful about this landscape. Fields forever, dusty roads, scruffy shrubs, trash, and—another mystery about Mexico—piles of broken-up concrete from some failed or demolished structure, who knows. Escombros—rubble—is the word for these piles. I see these heaps all over Mexico except in the wildest, most remote places. Looking at this debris makes my head hurt. How can so many construction projects devolve into abandoned wreckage?
We had a great time in this wasteland. David, who has a vastly superior eye than I for vines and shrubs whose flowers and fruits attract insects and birds, spotted a rambling mass of climbing milkweed, Funastrum cynanchoides, growing by the first lagoon on our excursion. Its clusters of white flowers look nondescript from a distance but are beautiful up close. Butterflies are attracted to the nectar.
We were enjoying this and other nuances of the landscape when a pack of dogs from a nearby dwelling or industrial equipment compound—it was hard to tell which and perhaps it was both—came bounding and barking toward us. Their ranks grew, as more dogs kept streaming out onto the road, at least a dozen, pups of various ages, females, males. Some of the males were even neutered, a rare practice in most of Mexico. They were handsome, reminiscent of Rhodesian ridgebacks, and well cared for and bluffing. They were in fact hilarious, wanting almost to be petted but shy and skittish.
The road to the next lagoon passed through this compound, where a woman blank of expression was standing by the fence watching us. We smiled. She smiled back. We explained we were birdwatchers and that we got a big kick out of the dogs. Well, actually I don’t know the equivalent in Spanish for getting a big kick out of something. So I probably said something like “¡Disfrutamos los perros!” or “¡Qué padre los perros—son muy divertidos!”—Spanish that probably sounded stiff as a board to her. Her smile got bigger and the dogs leapt and whirled and barked around our car. Just around the bend by the lagoon was a cattle pen containing half a dozen cows. This enclosure was constructed of scavenged lumber, posts, cardboard, barbed wire, and hardware. It looked like it would fall over with a shove.
We spent about an hour birding around this lagoon. The stars of the show were three Least Grebes who I coaxed into a frenzy by playing their rapid stuttering chatter. Tiny wind-up-toy birds, shiny black with piercing yellow eyes, they became whirling aquatic dervishes.
Earlier we had stopped at the Hotel Perla to secure a room for two nights, a superfluous exercise. We were the only guests the first night, and one of three the next. In the evening, back at the hotel, we sat outside under a semi-dilapidated palapa drinking some beers and making a bird list, while a friendly woman married to some member of the establishment pushed her little daughter on a tricycle up and down the concrete parking lot.
My description of the Hotel Perla is by no means a reproach. We have stayed in and will encounter in the future similar places throughout Mexico and we will go back to the Perla. The décor was simultaneously garish and Spartan. The bedding consisted of a brilliant purple polyester bedspread with a neon-green fitted sheet of some indescribable filmy fabric, no top sheet, and two flattened pillows. There was one bath towel, no bath soap, no toilet paper. After we asked the man on duty—a friendly, ecstatic, and strangely challenged individual—if he could round up a missing showerhead for the pipe sticking out of the shower wall and he returned with one that did not fit, we decided it would be simpler to go out and buy the bath soap and toilet paper. The water was hot—the most important factor in any hotel all over the world—even if it poured out of a pipe. The owners were cordial. The surfaces were clean. It was quiet. It cost $18 a night. Our man on duty had the most endearing manner of leaping and twirling before performing his next task. And the Virgin of the Guadalupe in her grotto twinkled each night with a halo of lights.
Day Two, March 6, 2019
We left the Hotel Perla at dawn and drove back to the highway to see if perhaps the wayward Scissortail was still around. Negative. In order to head back toward the coast, David turned into the municipal garbage dump to turn around. Birds like dumps, so we lingered for David to take some photographs. A man on a motorbike drove into the dump—either an employee or a person looking for useful items. A garbage truck pulled out to go pick up a load. Cattle egrets, like white-robed angels, pirouetted on mounds of trash. Even a garbage dump is beautiful in the gilded light of sunrise.
On the highway we passed an abandoned cotton gin we’ve seen on numerous other occasions that always makes me think we have been hurled across space to the Delta of Mississippi and men walking on the road shoulder wearing white boots and carrying a shovel over their shoulders going to manage irrigation water in the fields.
We were headed for estuaries and mudflats on the Sea of Cortez where shorebirds, herons, egrets, pelicans, gulls, and other costal birds congregate as the tides recede. Our destinations are poised between two ragged fishing towns—Paredón Colorado and Paredoncito. I love coastal birding but I find coastal Sonora and marine fishing as a way of life to be so stark and inscrutable that I don’t have the language to describe it, and if I made a flailing attempt it would be unfair to the people who live and work there. I do like to eat seafood and we had a fabulous lunch of fresh crab and shrimp tostadas at El Mirador in Paredón Colorado. We were the only clients sitting in the sprawling palapa—this is an establishment that caters to weekend visitors from nearby cities like Ciudad Obregón. The young woman who waited on us was disinclined to make eye contact or smile. Perhaps she was afraid her shellacked purple-red lipstick would crack.
The attractions of coastal birding are many. The pastime requires a telescope to see faraway birds and to focus closely on plumage and other anatomical details for tricky identifications. Looking through a telescope blocks peripheral vision. The distractions of the world fade away. It becomes a quiet Zen experience, like snorkeling amid a coral reef.
The species of birds that occur in estuarine zones are beautiful, some spectacularly so (Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer), others subtly so (sandpipers, gulls, terns, dowitchers, curlews). The subtle ones can be a challenge to identify. A clutch of Red Knots in winter plumage, a skittering group of Dunlins, also winter-clad, with their droopy bills, a lone Sanderling dashing like a mad Sherlock at the edge of the foamy surf. I feel a small triumph when I can pick these birds out of a crowd and put a name on them.
Before returning for the evening to the Perla, we went back out on the highway for another Scissortail check when we encountered a spectacular mob of blackbirds swirling, perching, swirling again, clashing and bickering for priority perches on the wires and armature of large electrical poles. Of this assembly the most stunning and entertaining were the Yellow-headed Blackbirds—jet black bodies with brilliant yellow heads and breasts and flashing white wing patches—making their medley of hoarse, rasping calls. They are described on the Audubon website as perhaps “the worst song of any North American bird”—an assessment with which I do not agree.
We went again to turn around in the municipal dump. This time a young couple came vrooming in on their motorbike. They stopped a moment to chat. Where were they from? I asked. Bayajorit, they said, a village a few kilometers away at the base of an isolated igneous hill on the coastal plain where we planned to go birding on our way home. What brings you to the dump? I asked. They come regularly, they explained, to scavenge for discarded food to feed their chickens. What an excellent idea, I said.
The light was getting golden. We returned to watch a fiery sunset from the roof of the Perla with our evening beers. A Merlin on a mission blasted by in the twilight, a fine bird to end the day.
The bonus before we adjourned for bed was meeting Victor, a long-haul trucker whom we met in the parking lot. His big, new, shiny white tractor was parked next to our car. We struck up a conversation. He is from the state of Morelos and has traveled all over Mexico for his job. He loves Mexico and its varied and stunning landscapes. We concurred and told him that we also travel far and wide in his wonderful country. He takes a lot of photos on his smart phone. He has a superb eye. His photos of landscapes and cloudscapes were beautiful.
Earlier in the day on one of the maze of canal roads crisscrossing fields we had stopped to watch a crew of workers who were standing on platforms on a hulking harvester. They were processing by hand Brussels sprouts as the machine slowly lumbered through the field plucking the stalks and feeding them up on conveyors to the hands of the workers. In the morning, Victor told us he would pick up his refrigerated trailer full of Brussels sprouts and haul them to the border for export to the U.S. market.
A public health announcement on the wall of a clinic in the village of Copala, Sinaloa, February 26,2019.
The messages: “Social network – Prevent maternal death.” “The uterus gives life and is fragile like a rose. Get your PAP smear!”
The red dirt trench and pile of rocks are characteristic of unpaved roads in villages and rural areas around Mexico, which seem to be in a perpetual state of repair or disrepair—it is often hard to know which.
“The sky throughout history has been variously filled by the promptings of the imagination, whether with gods and prophecies and the rhythms of the zodiac,
or with the first faint stirring of scientific thought.”
—Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds
In January this year we had several good rains in southern Sonora. Precipitation in the winter is much appreciated by all because it provides a buffer against the impending dry season, a parched, sweltering, and dusty period that persists until the onset of the rainy season in mid to late June. When we were talking about the good fortune of these winter rains with Alejandro Sauceda, a friend who grew up and still lives in the campo, he told us about a weather-forecasting system still widely used by country people around here. With our imperfect comprehension of Spanish as spoken in rural Sonora, we picked up on the idea but not the exact details—something about using the times when it rains in January to predict weather patterns, especially rainfall, in the ensuing months.
Not immediately catching the name he used for this practice, I asked, “¿Otra vez, cómo se llama este sistema?”
“Las Cabañuelas,” Alejandro replied, of course repeating the word several times until we thought we had captured all the syllables. Alejandro is very patient.
We asked another friend Ángel Esquir if he could elaborate on the subject. We figured, rightly, he would know all about it, because he was born and spent the majority of his 80-plus years in the campo, which here in Sonora is more commonly referred to as el monte. We videotaped his explanation of Las Cabañuelas so we could refer to it and translate the details and so we would have this memory of him explaining it. The elders who hold the knowledge of the Sonoran monte—its pastoral culture, norms, economy, and natural landscapes—are fading away.
I was skeptical when Ángel made the claim that Las Cabañuelas is a universal weather-forecasting system. Considering that Ángel’s universe is Hispanic, he is basically right. According to Wikepedia, today’s widespread click-away source of information, the tradition of Las Cabañuelas dates back at least several centuries in Spain, and its use spread around the world with Spanish conquests in the New World and parts of Africa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caba%C3%B1uelas
Ángel grew up with Las Cabañuelas and can recite its rules like an anthem. Still I don’t know how doggedly he adheres to it as a forecasting tool. He, my husband, and I often discuss the science-driven weather forecasts we follow online and he follows on the blurry television in his home. I think Las Cabañuelas is simply woven into the fabric of his life. Just like Groundhog Day is woven into mine.
On the subject of weather, I just finished reading The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn. What a wonderful book! It is a biography of Luke Howard, a British chemist, Quaker, and amateur meteorologist who in the early 1800s devised and promoted among the scientific community a classification system for clouds.
I have been reading a lot about clouds and weather since 2016 when I purchased the CloudSpotter app ($2.99) and joined The Cloud Appreciation Society (member #41,844). I am accustomed to looking up. I have been watching birds for fifty years. Now I simply look up more often.
Adapting the Linnean system for ranking living organisms, Luke Howard used Latin names to classify clouds according to such factors as altitude, temperature, and solar radiation that drive their formation. For his continuing efforts to elucidate the clouds and share his knowledge with an enthusiastic public, Howard was greatly admired, indeed a celebrity, in Great Britain and Europe.
As Hamblyn writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century the grip of rational entertainment had firmly secured itself on the public mind, and had done so because it served the equal, if novel, demands of pleasure, instruction and imagination. Science had been on the rise for a century or more, and had now ascended to its height, where it drifted through the cultural atmosphere of the age.”
Across London, many lecturers expounded on biology, geology, meteorology, and new inventions, and their audiences widely embraced scientific discovery. Hamblyn writes, “…people cheered loudly at lectures.” I detect a bit of wistfulness in his tone as he describes this era—or I am projecting. My goodness, from my vantage in 2019, it is hard to imagine the public in the “grip of rational entertainment” or the appreciation of science drifting through the cultural atmosphere of my era.
With some modifications and additions over the years, Howard’s Latin-based nomenclature became the universally accepted system of cloud identification used by meteorologists around the world to help forecast and explain the weather and by cloud enthusiasts, such as myself, who wish to put names on the gorgeous specimens we gaze up at. A truly monumental effort, the International Cloud Atlas, first published in 1896 and still in print (and online), is the official authority and keeper of the cloud classification.
The Invention of Clouds is far more than a biography. Hamblyn uses clouds and the wonderful life of Luke Howard to tell a history of our human quest to understand, codify, explain, forecast, and frequently create dogmas about, the weather. In the chapter “A Brief History of Clouds” Hamblyn makes a sweeping survey of the subject drawing on ancient Egyptian and Babylonian texts, Chinese yin and yang philosophy, Taoist hierarchy of gods, Norse mythology, Greek and Roman treatises on mathematics, astronomy, and meteorology, Christian theology, the Cartesian scientific revolution and Age of Enlightenment (bringing the invention of the telescope, microscope, thermometer, and barometer)—all leading up to the cloud classifications proposed by the modest Quaker Luke Howard.
Although Hamblyn does not reference it, the Iberian spread of Las Cabañuelas around the world, news of which reached me in southern Sonora, Mexico, in 2019, is part of Homo sapiens’ long march to decipher the weather, which is so basic, changeable, critical for navigation and aviation, essential for forecasting and responding to weather-related emergencies—and so very personal. For eons people have been parsing the clouds and inventing interpretations that range from the quaint (Las Cabañuelas) to the sinister (Noah’s Ark). That there is now a rational explanation for clouds based on their chemistry and physics—what makes a cumulus a cumulus and a cirrus a cirrus—in no way distracts from marveling at their mutable beauty as they waft, roil, and shift across our sky canvas. I often stand outside looking up a cloud formation and hear myself saying, “Oh, my.”