We are dead dry, the land chewed and burnt to the quick, the ethers as still as nature allows. Having arrived at the pinnacle of the season, we gaze over the precipice.

Arid winter is my favorite time of the year, but these few weeks before the rains come are singular. Felipe describes it as the time of suspension, as he says this I think, yes, that is it exactly; like the moment of faith in a free-fall, those few glorious, soaring seconds before we catch the grasp of progress and are channeled into the rain’s agenda.

For now, there is promise on the horizon, the air is thick with it. After sunset dark clouds tumbleweed the horizon. Heat lighting is the headliner. Center ring at the circus; we sit in the bull’s eye, the spectacle spins around us, a massive powwow to which we are not yet invited.

Morning news comes word of mouth; it rained in in Xoxocotla, downpours in Zacatepec. We are wallflowers, waiting for a suitor.

When I lived in Chicago I seldom bemoaned even the most ferocious weather. I clung to the belief that gale force winds, slush sprays, and the rapturous snow globe moments beheld in the city’s  grand canyons were all I had to maintain my reverence of nature’s dominion. I was grateful to be imposed upon. But here in the palm of the Sierra de Huautla those encounters with weather have the quality of home movies from a past life, the film sepia, insubstantial.

This period does not correspond to the exaltation of Midwestern spring; like the opening of a hand, all Maypole and peony, perhaps a storm provides excuse to fill the hearth once more. Ours is a guarantee of violent takeover, a tsunami of clime that blasts flotsam with the force of a fire hose, drowns careless planning and leaves us in the midst of fecundity so swift, so prolific, there is no doubt of its supremacy.

Here at the Piedra Rajada , we are uncommonly well prepared this year, with well roofed housing for animals and storage for grain, windows mended, hatches battened. No, we will not escape without losses, but the threat is minimal in comparison with years past. Perhaps it due to this small security that this year– though water is not my element, I will plunge beyond my ability to tread.


© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer

What has Been Sown


nixtamal(corn prepared for masa)

As I walk through the fields bringing Felipe his almuerzo(lunch), a wry smile forms for the small triumph I hear around me. A combine buzzes like a chainsaw over the land next to this path, the mechanized clatter tears at the quiet that occurs at this hour; the heat of the day. But—louder than the racket, I hear hundreds of crack, crack, snap and rustles, thousands of ears of fat mazorka(ear of dry corn), and leaves for silage being harvested by hand.  If I were inclined to anthropomorphize, I would say I also hear the coy laughter of the earth as the sweat of men tamps down the dust.

bring Almorso

bringing Almuerzo

The manual harvesting occurs, even on much of the land that was planted by tractors, because many of the plots are small and the terrain too inhospitable for the combine owners to deign attend them.  This is how I see it; the earth does not allow all of its gifts to be torn from its flesh by iron claws. For some of the fruits, like the portion one measures to leave for the gods, the rows must still be trod, the plants caressed, the rewards cradled in the hands of their beneficiaries.

Large growers, those selling 150+ tons or more, dominate the flat accessible land. It is those of us that grow for ourselves and animals, and perhaps sell a few tons to get us through the especially lean dry season, that stay close to the ground and are willing to attend our crops on their own terms.

I wish it were true that most of us owned our own land, but sadly La Tigrians lost much of their ejido to corrupt comisariados (land commissioners). In the ejido system, a land reform of the 1910 revolution, the land is owned communally and controlled by those who work it. The comisariado is elected by the community every three years with the charge of protecting the land rights of the people. But the grandfathers of the men who must rent the land now, sold all of the valuable flatlands during their reign.

Why did La Tigra’s patriarchs sell what was meant for future generations?  Felipe’s conjectures, that because they were the founding fathers of La Tigra they believed they were entitled.  They enjoyed the feeling of power and wealth that controlling the land provided and they had no qualms about keeping all the profits for themselves.

For those of you interested in rural ways, some more farming lore. As with the planting practices there are several different methods of harvest.

Felipe (he is the only one that practices this) cuts only the grain, then chops down the plant and leaves it on the ground to nurture the soil. His silage chopping process is quite a performance; he looked like a lethal windmill in the midst of a storm cloud of sorghum, using two machetes with invincible rhythm to fell the plants for fodder.

Felipe harvesting

Felipe harvesting

Some cut the plant at ground level and leave it to dry in rows and then grind the entire plant for animal feed, leaving the ground completely bare and vulnerable to the spring rains onslaught. This is the most oft used method. Because so few are working their own land they don’t care about the field’s future productivity, only that they get the most from the rent they pay. Farming rented land precipitates excessive use of chemicals as well, to boost productivity of beleaguered soil, because there is no concern for further damage to the field. It seems the land owners only care about their rent.

the strip it bare method

the strip it bare method


The most traditional method is this; the top of the plant and all of the leaves are removed and stuck in between the remaining stalks on which the mazorka is left intact. All of which is left to dry in the field. The mazorka is then removed husked and ground, the husks kept for tamales and animal bedding, and the leaves tied up into trees to be used for animal food through the winter. The remaining stalks are left in the field and the gates opened for roaming herds to eat during the dry season.

the traditional method

the traditional method

Having returned home, I sit under my enramada of passion fruit vine listening to my neighbor Octavio sing his way through his work in the field behind our house.

His field is still owned by his family, though his father offered it to us once to buy a supply of mescal. It’s a miserable field; full of rocks much of it at a 60 degree angle. He and his family have been defleecing  it  of trees for the last three years; exposed, its’ thin skin of topsoil escapes into the path between our lands and comes to rest in our horse pasture during the spring rains.

As as I listen to the whisper of Octavio’s’ corn as he passes through its’ gauntlet, I can almost hear next month’s chainsaw attack. But today.  The wind through the corn is exactly the sound of rain on the water, and the slipping of Octavio’s tire soled huaraches on the marbled slope a murmured promise. Only hands will ever reap this stalwart bank.

Thus concludes the Present Witness series; the story of our growing season. By following the links you came read the rest of the series, The Present Witness, Sustain-able,  and The Radical Plate.

© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer

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