Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Seismic Legacy of Volcan Barú

We live in the foothills of Volcan Barú (11,398 ft); we're at about 2000 ft; the pueblo itself, about a kilometer and a half away, is at 3200 ft. At the moment, Volcan Barú is a dormant volcano, but it wasn't always asleep. The last major eruption occurred around 500 C.E. but there was a minor eruption around 1550 C.E. In 2006, there occurred what geologists call an earthquake swarm, a series of minor temblors occurring over a short period of time. We felt one of them here in Potrerillos, which caused a certain amount of curiosity; minor temblors are frequent, although this was stronger than most. Still, there was no damage to our house, which is built in the traditional Panamanian style, and therefore pretty impervious to anything but a major quake. In Boquete, it caused a major panic, with people in the streets, screaming. Well, that's Boquete. We're a sturdier sort here in Potrerillos

The former eruptions left plenty of evidence around. The ground here in Potrerillos, more so than in Volcan or Boquete, is littered with rocks that range in size from huge boulders to small stones. We moved into our house in June, 2005. At that time, I hired a small backhoe to remove the worst of the rocks from the rest of the property (the house area had relatively few above ground) and move them to the quebrada area. The picture at the upper left shows what's left of those rocks--these are by no means the biggest moved. Behind the fence, you can just see the outlines of some of the huge boulders the backhoe moved to the edge, piling some on top of others in the expectation that we would eventually build a stone fence on that foundation. For various reasons that didn't happen. The rocks in the picture are part of a small mountain piled up by the backhoe. Those rocks and other removed from the ground manually by means of a tool called a coa were used to build our stone fences of the type so commonly seen in this area. There are some stunning examples that you can see as you drive up the carretera from David.

But these are a fraction of the rocks that still exist on the property. Especially this year, we've been making an effort to remove as many rocks as we can. Maintaining the property with power tools such as weed eater and lawn mower is the only way to keep the grass and jungle under control. But the rock problem was so bad when we moved in that we had to maintain nearly the entire 3 acres first by having it cleared by hand (2 workers with machetes) and then by weed eater. As we slowly cleared, we were able to introduce a lawn mower. We're still working at increasing the area we can do with the lawn mower; I'd estimate that we now maintain about a half acre by weed eater.

Unfortunately, there's more to it. This is ranching country, thus our cattle ranch neighbor. Bermuda grass grows rapidly here and is an excellent pasture grass. It's also one sign of poor soil. You would think that as a consequence of volcanic activity that, as a compensation for the rocks, we would have the benefit of rich volcanic soil. Wrong.

Actually, we don't so much have soil here; it's more of a matrix for small rocks and smaller stones, nearly impossible to grow anything with a serious root system. This particular piece of land was pasture before we bought it, although cattle hadn't been run here for a few years. There are trees; we have a swath of jungle anywhere from 50 ft to 80 ft wide that extends probably 2/3 of the length of the north end of the property. If we didn't mow and otherwise clear back there, the jungle would be much closer to the house than it is at present (about 30 ft away). And left to itself, the jungle would eventually reestablish itself even on the worst parts of the property that have so many small rocks and stones embedded in the soil that it can be problematical to walk--you do have to be careful--and murderous to weed eat--I recharge the line spool 2-3 times an hour, which is a LOT of line, but the rocks tear it up. Native (and invasive but benign) trees and shrubs do appear spontaneously, even in the worst areas, where I let them grow. A lot easier than weed eating!

Not all the problem is due to volcanic activity. The phrase "torrential downpour" was coined for the tropics and it certainly applies here in Panamá. We have watched in awe in September and October as the rain came down in sheets that made it impossible to see beyond the porch--for hours. We have no way at present of measuring the rainfall here, although we're getting a weather station in October, at the height of the rainy season. But near Panama City, the capital, rainfall in October and November averages 12"-13". We are probably slightly wetter here in Potrerillos. The rain can vary rather dramatically just within a few kilometers; we'll have rain here when it's not raining or raining mcuh less in Las Asequias about 6 km down the road.

One of the consequences of this hard rain is that it beats the living daylights out of the ground, causing spectacular runoff--and erosion. A lot of this area used to grow (and still does) sugar cane, which is hard on soil. Combined with the heavy rains and the fairly steep slope of the ground, I suspect that a good part of what we experience is due to erosion. But there's too much rock buried too far under the surface to be just that.

It means that even though I long to put in an extensive garden, this year was the first year I was able to do anything, because first we needed to build raised beds and haul in soil from outside--another story! I have been too busy doing maintenance, finding out where to get equipment repaired, seeing to (and working on myself) a fence to contain Fred, planting fruit trees and shrubs to do much about a vegetable garden. But this year I managed, with the help of Darío, our marvelous part-time gardener/general handyman and jack-of-all trades, to get two built using rocks we (and I mean we--I operate a mean coa) cleared from the ground. I'm terribly proud of our pepper and eggplant farm that you see here, with sweet potato vines in the foreground in the second bed. I cemented the upper layers of rocks in this masatera (flower/vegetable bed), simply because I wanted to make sure they would be able to resist the pressure of so much soil and water. It's not usual here to do so with fences--they're strictly "dry" stone fences, and for the most part, that's true of ours.

I've had to reduce my expectations of what we can do with this property, but I suppose that's all to the good. I spend a lot of time working around the property; maintenance takes up a serious amount of time. I am doing enough now in the veggie garden to keep me plenty busy; it's probably a good thing I really can't do a small farm. Really. I keep telling myself.

Addendum: I just looked up precipitation data from a weather station,, run by Lloyd Cripe over near Boquete. The climate is different there--I think we may actually have more annual rainfall here--but until we get our weather station, it's a guess. has only been in operation a year, but has excellent data for that time; for the month of October, 2007, the records show 34.81" of rain. We had abnormally high rainfall last year, so that's not totally typical, but it gives you an idea, anyway.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

No Such Thing as a Normal Day

My days vary wildly, all over the map. Used to be, when living in the US, I pretty much knew what I was going to do from one day to the next, and even, talk about a schedule, for a whole week!

Here? I can plan all I want, but chances are good that by 8 am, I've completely changed around whatever it was I intended to do. Mostly it's due to "crises"--something I had better take care of immediately or all hell will break loose in whatever arena the emergency is occurring.

Part of the problem is that I'm trying to get a lot done at once around here. This is the first year for the garden, and I'm learning an enormous amount--mostly through very ugly surprises. Then I have several small projects going--a "potting shed", except it's not really a shed and it's not just for potting. It's a small structure that is a cross between a greenhouse (totally unnecessary here), potting area, and indoor growing space. Concrete slab with bamboo supports and the side that faces the wind and probably a corregated plastic roof with shade cloth on top. I'm responsible for buying or at least arranging for the materials, as with everything else here. sometimes that means, as in the case of bamboo, finding out where to get what I want and then negotiating for the stuff.

Or maybe I wake up and find we have no water. Then comes the fun of finding out whether it's IDAAN, the government-owned water company or whether there's a break in the mile or so of PVC lines from the IDAAN connection up on the carretera (highway) down to our place--whether it's due to a cow stepping in a hole and breaking the 3/4" pipe (yes, it happened), or a bulldozer running over an exposed pipe (right), or a careless worker tromping on the shutoff valve in the gander next door (ditto). Why so vulnerable? Because the man who installed the line was told to bury it at least a foot deep and therefore he buried it about 2-3" deep. I've been slowly getting the line buried deeper.

If there's a break, it means that I haul out my repair kit--I have a plastic tool box, a little one, filled with joins, PVC cement, pliers, and other goodies--put a length of PVC in the back of the truck, and then travel to wherever the break is and fix the line with water pouring out at well over 100 lbs pressure. In all kinds of weather. Mostly it happens on Sunday morning when no one is around to help. I've learned to be self-sufficient. And it often happens in a downpour. I've actually slipped and slid down a small embankment during a hard rain, wrenching my knee in the process, fixing a break.

There's the house maintenance/repair work. Finding a decent builder who won't rob you blind is a problem here in Panamá. Our builder was relatively honest--which was good, because I knew nothing about construction either in Spanish or in English at that time--but he had his limitations, and one of them was installing our polypropylene roof. It's almost impossible to avoid roof leaks here upon first installation, and our roof has developed a number over time. so--where to find a good person for repair and then how to insure that he actually does get over here and work? That is NOT trivial. There is nothing even remotely like a Yellow Pages here. You find people by word of mouth. It is not a quick process. But I finally got our usual worker over here--finally, after 3 broken promises to get here, not uncommon for this area--and today, he has washed the roof, stopped up spaces in the cumbreros with polyfoam, and is now introducing silicon sealant into the screw holes and then resealing the screws. Later, I want him to paint the roof and then do an overcoat of silicon paint to really seal it off and shed the downpours of September and October.

Equipment maintenance is always a barrel of laughs, given the incredibly rough ground we have and the likelihood that through nobody's fault, I'll have to get the lawnmower into a repair shop once every other month at the worst possible time of year--smack in the middle of the rainy season when the grass grows 2-3 inches overnight. Try and find a workshop (taller) that a) can indeed repair anything mechanical and b) won't rob you blind because you're a gringo/a and by definition rich and stupid. I'm on our 3rd weed eater in 3 years, thanks to the incompetence of our garden workers, ditto the tallers in David. I have eliminated at least 4 weed eater repair tallers and am going on recommendations of friends in Volcan for the next lawn mower crisis.

The competency thing is a real problem here. Without too much exaggeration, this particular area of Panama is about one generation from the wheelbarrow being the latest technological advance (other rural areas may not be that far ahead). We religiously take our truck into the Nissan dealer, whose mechanics are trained by Nissan; there are other, "cheaper" tallers--but not after you spend time taking the car back in, arguing with the mechanic about what's wrong, etc. etc. and so forth, if they even know what's wrong to begin with.

Then there's Fred's Fence, which is a post all by itself. Our darling chocolate Lab, Fred is a wonderful dog who loves us dearly as we do him--but who is also, like just about every Lab I've ever know, a Happy Wanderer. He particularly loves the neighbors next door, who return the affection--a mutual admiration society that has Fred burrowing underneath the barbed wire fence and jumping over the stone one to cross the quebrada (creek), get his hugs and a bribe to return in the form of a dog biscuit. I think we FINALLY have him contained--but believe me, it hasn't been easy. So some days I'm doing crisis stone wall work, humping 20-35 lb rocks, thanks to the need to plug Fred's latest escape route.

The garden. Because I gardened organically back in the US, I never had an aphid problem, and we lived too far north to get acquainted with white flies. I have been rudely introduced to both here (never mind trying to save bougainvillea from leaf cutter ants who can strip a plant overnight). I have had to figure out the best and least toxic way to deal with them and other pests. I never know what I'm going to find when I walk out to water.

More on all of it later.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Path to Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush book review

Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush
Aims McGuiness

When we think of “our” history—whether of “our” country or our personal history, WE—or “our” country—are the center of attention. We may mention other people and other nations as part of the story—how they affected us—but rarely and usually sketchily—do we consider how an event in our history affects the development of someone else or another country.

However, there seems to be a new trend with historians called transnational history—recognizing that no person or no country is an isolated identity, and that the actions of the central player(s) on the stage—us, the US, say—can strongly affect the destinies of others. This is the point of view taken by Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush.

I never really thought much about the California gold rush except that it happened and that it contributed significantly to the development of the West. I knew in a sort of vague way that there were some people from other nations who also arrived in California for the gold rush, but I had no idea how many—always thought it was pretty much Americans. Until I read Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, I had no idea how many people from Latin America made their way to California hoping to become rich—and I also had no idea just how brutally they were treated.

In the same fashion, I thought most Americans traveled by the Overland Trail in covered wagons. I had read that some came by ship, but since there was no canal at that time, I had no idea how important the transisthmus route across Panama was, not only in ferrying people from the Atlantic side to the Pacific on their way to California, but in transporting people and gold in the opposite direction.

And I had no idea whatsoever that this route, re-opened since the Colonial Era, was of critical importance to the development of Panama as a nation, even tthough at the time it was still part of Columbia, which was called Nuevo Granada then.

McGuiness documents and explains all these points and more in his book. He is excellent in depicting what the overland route from the Atlantic to the Pacific meant to the local people—the boatmen, the muleteers, the people who owned businesses in Panama City. Hotels did a thriving business, since many times there were waits of up to a month for steamers heading back to the US.

One of the fascinating parts of the book describes the construction of the first transcontinental railway, by the Panama Railroad Company, which took 5 years, completed in 1855. It was a struggle that foresaw all the difficulties in building the canal—importing workers from Jamaica, other parts of Latin America, Ireland—anywhere the company could cajole people into signing on. And the deaths were in proportion to those suffered on the canal construction. Once the railroad was constructed, though, people and goods were moved from coast to coast in a matter of a few hours, stepping off the boat on the Atlantic side at Colon and after disembarking from the train, stepping on to a steamer for the US at Panama City. The railroad, which Panamanains thought was going to bring boom times to Panama, basically destroyed the local economy. The traffic between panama and the US, whether going to California or back to the East coast increased enormously; mail, commerce, migration, news was speeded up by orders of magnitude and directly affected the settling of the western US. Far more people traveled to California via Panama than by the continental Overland Trail.

Although he continues his narration into the early 1860s and a little beyond, McGuinness really ends his book in 1856 with the Incident of the Slice of Watermelon (El Incidente de la Tajeda de Sandia) and its aftermath. On April 15, when two things happened: a drunken American named jack Oliver refused to pay ten cents for a slice of watermelon and pulled a gun on the fruit vendor, setting off a riot, and “Panamanians”—who had considerable autonomy under Nuevo Granada—stood up for themselves against what were now the hated gringos. These two events had important ramifications for both countries. Eventually, the erroneous reports that made their way back to the US of what happened--blaming the locals, inciting racial hatreds—led to the first US military intervention in Panama in September, 1856. the new consciousness resulted in the first (and unsuccessful attempts) to form a pan-Latin American alliance to stave off what Panamanians and others were certain would be US intervention and possibly annexation. At this time, there were plenty of Southerners in what would be the Confederacy promoting exactly that—and the reinstitution of slavery, which had been abolished in Panama since 1852. that first US intervention led to the US more or less dictating to the new nation of Panama, established in 1904 with US connivance and help, the imperialistic conditions under which the Panama Canal would be built.

For me, this was an absolutely fascinating book. While for the most part Panamanians now are extremely friendly towards Americans, anti-American hostility does exist and is increasing with the increasing migration of Americans to Panama. I was rather relieved to find out that it began long ago—not just with the invasion in 1989 to remove Noriega, a dictator whom the US supported until Bush, Sr. got bored; thousands of Panamanians died in that invasion, and the damage done in sections of Panama City has yet to be rebuilt. This book has placed my life here in Panama in context with the history of the country, and I am grateful for the insights.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cam Corder Frustration

We've just been through Holy Week, and of course, with the best of intentions, Mary and I did not attend a single service--this in a country where Holy Week is A Really Big Deal. I was going to haul along the camcorder and take videos. Yes, well, first you have to get there.

But today being Easter, we set out for Mass. Our parish is Dolega; we have a church in Potrerillos Arriba which is a congregation but not a parish per se. There are others like that in the area--I don't know, maybe a half dozen or so. And there are exactly 2 priests in the parish, Franciscans. So, they do a circuit on Saturday and Sunday, celebrating Mass in Dolega on Saturday afternoon then celebrating at the other churches and chapels that day and Sunday morning. our Mass is usually at 11 am on Sundays, a time I truly hate since it splits up the day and ruins my nap schedule.

There was just one Mass today in the parish outside of Dolega, in the chapel at Rovira--exactly where that was, we weren't sure except that it was near Cítricos (the big citrus and other fruit growing company) near Potrerillos Abajo. Let's say that covers a lot of area. But thanks to asking questions of bicyclists and others, we finally made it to the chapel.

One of the many things I love about Brasil is the sense of joy in the church services. People wave their hands as they sing, move their bodies, and generally display more emotion in one service than I've seen in the US church I attended for 10 years or so in that entire time. We hadn't seen much of it here, and I was wondering if we ever would.

Well, the priest was late (this is Latin America), and to keep up the good humor, we were singing hymns. Then suddenly the leader launched into a lively, joyful hymn of praise--and people were waving their hands, dancing in place, clapping, pantomiming the words. Great!! One of the things I moved to Latin America for was finally taking place!

I took out the cam corder, turned it on--and discovered to my horror and a chagrin beyond imagination that, although I had made sure I had a fully charged battery--I HAD FORGOTTEN TO LOAD A TAPE!

I am afraid that I said some words that, since they were in English thankfully, were probably not really understood by the people around us. Mary was suitably horrified. I was pissed off beyond belief.

I put the worthless piece of machinery away in the pouch I had bought specifically in which to carry it around. I tried deep breathing and affirmations about how this was yet another Life Test to calm myself down--useless as always. I tried not to scandalize Mary any more. And then the priest arrived--my favorite who is from either Guatamala or El Salvador, and that restored my good mood.

The chapel is not all that large, the air conditioning is whatever comes straight through the open windows and doors, and we're in the hottest part of the year because there is little wind. But nothing really dampened the enthusiasm of the congregation. I listened to the priest during his homily and even understood about half of what he was saying--he's a good man and focuses on real problems of the people here, not ones manufactured by the Vatican.

After we all recited the Padre Nuestro (which Mary and I now know in Spanish), we all moved around to give each other the handshake of La Paz. Our friends the Espinosa family were there, as well as others from our congregation in Potrerillos, and as always, Mary and I felt closer, more integrated into the community. These are extremely nice people. As the only Americans there--or any foreigner for that matter--we were a novelty to those from other congregations, but it was gratifying to have so many people from Potrerillos wave or come over to shake our hands.

So, no, I don't have any videos from an Easter Mass as a record of our experience. But we came home feeling even more than usual that we belong here.

Oh, yes--just to make things clear--the woman in the photo is Mary, not me! She really hates this photo but I rather like it, and it's my blog, so.....

Saturday, March 22, 2008


When I saw the bougainvillea here in Panama--and it's everywhere!--I immediately knew the real meaning of lust. I lusted after those plants--they are so utterly beautiful. Huge, with large sprays of flowers in shades of red, blue, lavender, orange, white. I wanted them all.

And so the first thing I did when we moved into our house was to buy bougainvillea. Just 4 plants. And put them out on our south boundary. Thinking that it was going to be easy. After all--everyone had bougainvillea, right? And it was obvious that it didn't need a lot of care.

Yes--but there was a caveat to that. No, it doesn't need a lot of care--once it's established. And there lies the kicker. Once it's established.

Despite it practically being the signature plant of the tropics, especially in the Caribbean area, bougainvillea did not originate in Central America but in Brasil. It was named after a French botanist who discovered/described the plant.

Brasil is huge, much bigger than the continental US. In addition, it's not a rectangle spread out horizontally but a land mass that extends from just a tad north of the equator down past the Tropic of Capricorn to slightly more than 30 degrees south latitude; Brasil encompasses far more degrees of latitude than does the continental US. Which means that Brasil hosts a very large number of recognizable climate zones ( many more than the continental US), from equatorial and subequatorial through tropical, semi-arid and various subdivisions of temperate. So when you say a plant originated in Brasil, you can't automatically assume anything about the climate in which it grows best.

It rains here in Panama, a lot. And it turns out that bougainvillea really isn't that thrilled with a whole lot of rain. Tolerant, yes but really thrive? No. in fact, because it flowers during the dry season, it's called veranera here, or "summer plant". It doesn't like wet feet, so you have to be really careful of drainage--that in a country like Panama where the annual rainfall is measured in feet. Also, the roots are fragile and it takes a while for a decent root ball to amass. I planted 45+ bougainvillea, and as of yesterday, 34 have survived (of which half are flowering this year), and that doesn't include about a half dozen replacement plants I put in last year. It takes at least 2 years for the plant to get established, for some varieties longer. The most vigorous is the red type which--no surprise there--is the most commonly seen.

Not only do you have to worry about the plant's natural fragility at a young age, but leaf cutter ants find bougainvillea a gourmet meal. We have a beautiful white one that was growing vigorously and which I had pruned so that it was a lovely bushy plant, about 2 ft tall. Last year, about a week after I had looked at it (it's down near one corner of our rectangular property), I happened to be weedeating in that area--and the plant was completely stripped of leaves and shortened by 6-8 inches. Leaf cutters had stripped it and chewed off--precise cuts like with a pruning shears--the tender growth. With pleading and coaxing and generous doses of fertilizer, the plant is finally making a comeback this year. That's another thing I've noticed--bougainvillea does not make a rapid comeback to adverse conditions when young.

Once established, though--once they develop that thick trunk--they're pretty much impervious to anything. Great drought-resistant plants.

BUT despite all the headaches and heartbreaks, when you discover that no matter what you've done, some plants simply have not survived the torrential downpours of winter, they're worth the effort. On the top of the page is a picture of our oldest veranera--one plant is now 4 years old, the others three.

There are some spectacular specimens of veranera around the neighborhood. Here are some photos.

Friday, March 21, 2008


When you live in temperate zones, you think of the seasons in terms of temperature changes: cold in winter, hot in summer, mild and fresh in spring, cool and crisp in autumn. There are variations on this theme--some places only have 3 seasons. but still, what you're used to seeing as seasonal change--leaves turning color, lack of growth--is the result of temperature changes.

But here in Panama, 9 degrees north of the equator, we just don't get that kind of seasonal variation in temperature. While my records are far from complete (we intend to get a weather station in October), I've never recorded lows less than 62 degrees. Highs are trickier, given you can't put a sensor, no matter where you live, out in the sun. But so far, I've never seen temperatures above 92, and then maybe just 2-3 days during the year.

But we do have seasons, two of them: the rainy season, which is called inverno, or winter and the dry or drought season, verano or summer. This is the seasonal climate drama, going from drought to increasing rain starting in April or May that ends up with the torrential downpours of September and October to a tapering off to the beginning of summer in January, marked by high winds. Due to the wind patterns, the rainy season is dominated by weather from the Pacific--here in Potrerillos, you watch the rain clouds roll in from the south. The dry season results from winds from the Caribbean, keeping the high moisture Pacific clouds pushed offshore. I'm sure that's when the northern part of Panama has its wet season, but there is a range of mountains--the Cordillera Central which includes Volcan Barú to our north, that causes those clouds to dump their rain long before the winds hit here.

But there is another way of looking at seasons, and that's in terms of plant life cycles.

Because of the tropical climate, there are flowering trees, shrubs and plants all year long--just not the same ones. " Amaryllis"--what everyone calls amaryllis (image)-- grows easily outside. A few years ago, I planted a bulb I got from somewhere and lo! in December, there were blooms! Amaryllis, like other lilies and tulips, naturalizes easily. this season, we had a steady succession of blooms from late November until February. I'm going to have to separate the bulbs soon.

But there is a dizzying variety of flowering vegetation--something new--whether tree, shrub, or plant-- comes into season every month. Every Panamanian home, no matter how poor, how humble, has flowers and flowering trees of some sort, and some gardens are spectacular. I have no idea what most of them are, except that I love to look at them, and they make Panama a paradise.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dog Games

Ethel, our 13 year old black Lab, has a toy she adores--a red kong, which we call bong. If presented with the choice of food and the bong, I think she'd be torn, at least for a while (with Labs, food always wins out). When Mary takes the dogs for their afternoon walk, Lucy and Fred, especially Fred, our 2 1/2 year old chocolate Lab (favorite position, upper left photo), try to take the bong away from Ethel, and then run with it, daring her to chase them, which she does. Usually Fred, who is big and strong and not averse to throwing his weight around to get what he wants (typical male), grabs the bong, and away they go.

Yesterday, I tracked them with the cam corder.

The little squeal you hear is from Ethel, who, after 5 minutes or so of chasing after Fred, finally got her bong! ETHEL WINS!! YAY ETHEL!! GO DOG GO!!

I've made it a goal to take as many videos and photos as I can of the dogs, especially of Ethel, who is getting old. Her health is excellent and we can reasonably expect her to live a good life for at least another year and quite possibly longer, but can never have too many photos, too many videos, too many memories.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Some Volcan Flora or How To Make A Jungle

It does seem in line with my life that, after starting a blog about living in Potrerillos, the first real entry should be about a town in another valley about an hour and a half from here. Last month, we went to visit a friend of Mary's there--a fellow amateur botanist; Carla and her husband Angel are heliconia enthusiasts and travel some distances in order to collect different species.

What, you say, is a heliconia? I've wasted the prime spot at the beginning of this post to show you an example.

Let me make it clear--I'm not interested in differentiating between two species of the same plant that look identical to me. I leave that joy to others. In fact, I'm not that interested in identifying just about any plant, except by its local name. Maybe. Depending on what I have to do that day. To me, it is a royal waste of time, a monumental bore but then such efforts keep Mary happy and me free to play computer solitaire. I figure it's enough to know the difference between a head of lettuce and, say, a poisonous toadstool. All else is superfluous.

So that's the only botanical information you're going to get. Since this was the first time I'd ever seen this particular heliconia, I feel I have the right to name it according to the LaGow Classification System of Indifference; I now call it Heliconia whatever. Look at that flower--there are hundreds of species, it seems to me, that look exactly or nearly exactly like that. We have a few, thanks to Angel and Carla. As far as I'm concerned, their major virtue is that they naturalize rapidly, and I'm all for covering the space outside of the fence with something that reduces mowing, ups the privacy index, and is beautiful to boot.

But Angel and Carla have other plants. Maybe if I do learn what they are, I'll edit this post to include them.

However, I do know Vitoria amazonica--the Amazon water lily. Angel and Carla have put in ponds, and I was both astonished and delighted to see the giant pads floating on the surface as we drove up to the house. These are not as big as the ones I saw in Brasil on the "Amazon" River, but then nothing is as big as it is in Brasil.

Yet another flower from Carla and Angel's finca.

What Carla and Angel have done with their 5.5 acres is remarkable. Originally, it was pretty bare of trees. The area is heavily agricultural--not only farming but dairy operations as well. The land was probably used for pasture. Given how fast things grow here, it's just a question of time as to when the jungle will reclaim any piece of ground. But Angel and Carla managed that process, which is what I found impressive. They went into the surrounding jungle and collected saplings, shrubs, etc and planted them on their land, leaving plenty of room for heliconias and other plants that they wished to introduce. Their land borders a year-round stream, from which they get water for irrigation--the heliconias demand it during the dry season. Their property looks much bigger than it really is, thanks to the paths they've constructed around and through the plantings. 7 years later, it looks as if it's always been there. Angel talks about working with the jungle, improving it. I came away as ignorant as ever about species identification, but with plenty of food for thought about what to do with our place.

The situations, however, are not identical. They don't have the eroded, rocky "soil" we do. We have a much harder task, but not insuperable. Looks like the rains have started a bit early, so I can start working with the section of jungle we have, and improving it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Not So Sure About This

I've resisted doing a blog, because God knows I don't need anything else to distract me from what I really should be doing (weed eating, painting, bathing the dogs, trying to figure out why I'm having such spectacular failure at germinating lettuce, sleeping, reading). But here I am, unable to resist the siren call of vanity.

My only rationalization is that it will be easier, really, to post photos of the dogs, the cats, the garden, Potrerillos, and even clips from my enthusiastic but relatively crude attempts at filming with my really low-end camcorder. Also, I have it on good authority--my daughter-in-law, Bette--that it can be cathartic; toss in a mental health excuse as well.

But mainly I want some easier and more organized way to document my life here in Potrerillos than YouTube for my few videos and FlickR for a collection of photos that just grows but seems sort of useless. I need a framework to keep up my interest and to satisfy the urge to communicate to the world (or that minute fraction thereof which has the slightest interest in reading about it) what I see and experience here.

Hey, if it doesn't work, there's always the Delete option!

So, here goes--expect plenty of changes as I figure out how to customize and modify this thing.