The rain, which came in like a lion at the beginning of summer, in autumn went out like a lamb. Each afternoon in the latter days of September, the dark clouds would come as usual, flashing and grumbling down from the high sierra, obscuring the sky and the sun. Sometimes a few fat drops would sputter down, enough to make children leap and shout and women scrubbing clothes in the arroyo snatch up their garments drying upon boulders and dash back toward their casas. But frequently it was a false alarm. The drops would stop as suddenly as they had begun. Or the clouds would part and the sun reappear, often while the drops still fell. It was a season for rainbows. Then a day passed when it did not rain at all. Then two consecutive days. Then four. The last rain fell in scattered spots in the barrancas somewhere around the 20th of October.
Gold is the conspicuous color of Autumn in the upper barrancas: not the soft, dying gold of autumn leaves, but rather a vivid, flaming gold like that of the poppy-covered flanks of the California foothills in spring. As the summer rains subsided and the days began to get hotter as in spring, a glowing inflorescence of saffron-colored daisies (cosmos) began to paint the slopes of the barrancas. These vivid orange-red blossoms burgeoned upon a jungle of wiry vegetation which had sprung up like a startled pheasant during the last days of the rainy season, crowding out the other herbage until little remained but a dense tangle of these colorful composites, which rose from four to eight feet high, and continued to shoot upward even as they were blooming. Each day a billion new buds would yawn and stretch their luminous petals. Each day the slopes grew brighter. As one stood on a hilltop surveying other hills in the distance, the sloping fields of golden daisies, interrupted by the rich green of hillside corn patches, formed a delightful and colorful mosaic. The daisies grew in greatest proliferation where the hillsides had formerly been cleared, burned, planted with corn, then abandoned. Although the villagers regard these fast-growing composites as their enemies and battle to keep their cornfields clear of them, the cosmos are most certainly an important factor in the long-term survival of the villagers. Once a steep hillside has been cleared and burned for planting, all the surface soil is washed off in the torrential summer rains, and the land becomes useless for planting until sufficient new topsoil is formed, a process that takes up to fourteen years. Yet fourteen years is a brief period for reestablishing such devastated terrain, and much of the credit is due to the exuberant proliferation of these pioneering plants that spring up on the man-ravaged slopes at the close of each rainy season and die back again each dry season. They stabilize the soil and creating new humus at an astonishing rate, so that, in relatively few years, man may plant and despoil it anew.
So dominating is this maze of cosmos in its peak season, that it has engendered its own curious insect life. Someone unaware of the significance of protective coloration might suppose that many of the small denizens of the daisies had been decorated for purely aesthetic reasons, so perfectly do their colors harmonize with those of the flowers. One pollen-plundering click beetle has wing covers of the same saffron hue as the flowers, while a common long-horn beetle has a sparkling green body with saffron colored legs. Green and orange caterpillars nibble upon the leaves. Scrambling like a many-armed ape through the daisy jungle, and pouncing upon the smaller denizens whose camouflage fails them, are wooly tarantulas, up to four inches across, whose long fur is the same saffron-orange hue as the flowers.
The cosmos are in full bloom for almost a month. Then, slowly, in early November, as the corn in its steep patches begins to dry and yellow in the sun, and the petals fall from the flowers, a gradual exchange of color takes place on the slopes of the barrancas, until the expanse of wilted daisies forms a gray-green background to the fields of straw-colored corn.
Most of the corn is ripe by mid-October, yet picking does not begin until mid-November or early December. The mature ears are allowed to dry upon their stalks so that the grain will not rot with moisture after harvest. During this drying period, as always, the farmer is subjected to the weather’s whim. A surprise cloudburst in November, or early winter rains in December, before he has finished harvesting, may cause him great loss.
The desiccating corn is also marauded by many birds and beasts. At lower elevations, near Ajoya, the armadillo dines greedily in the milpas, as do the urracas (magpie jays). In plantings near streams, the mapache de arroyo (raccoon) is a prevalent pest. At middle elevations, near Verano, the tlacuache (opossum) and tejón solitarioi (coati mundi) together with the zorra (fox) are among the chief invaders of the ripened corn. Near villages, domestic hogs make their way to milpas, while remoter patches are raided by their wild cousins, the javelín (peccary) and venado (deer). In the higher reaches of the sierra, the occasional bear plays havoc with a milpa. A bear is said to demolish a large section of a cornfield and carry all the ripe ears to a central pile before he sits down to eat. At any elevation, cahuillas (small crows that travel in large flocks) may descend upon a harvest and pick it bare as fast as it ripens. But in all areas, perhaps the biggest threat to the corn is the domestic dog. Characteristically, dogs of the barrancas are underfed, and are used to a corn diet because they are rarely given more than left over bits of tortillas. Dogs have learned to raid cornfields, banding together in small packs at night. Like the bears, the dogs frequently pull down a number of stalks and carry off the ears to a sheltered spot before beginning their feast. In spite of their bad habits, dogs are, of course, an invaluable aid to the farmer in tracking down the wild raiders of the cornfields. Like the saffron-colored cosmos, the dog is both man’s enemy and friend.
The last half of October and beginning of November in the barrancas is the season for cortando las hojas, or cutting leaves. The leaves of the corn stalks are harvested as fodder for mules and cows. They are stripped from the stalks, leaving the ripe ears jutting ridiculously from their naked poles. The leaves are then bound into large manojos (bundles) with wild vines called bejucos, or with long, thin strips of bark, called majaguas, frequently peeled from the guasima tree. After bundling, begins the task of stacking the manojos atop a tasolera, a square platform on poles, up out of reach of a hungry mule. Sometimes the farmer builds his tasolera at the edge of his corn patch, far from his casa, as did Irineo Vidaca. But if he has enough burros, or—as in Bonifacio’s case—children, to help carry the leaves, he will transport them to his casa and build his tasolera there.
Back and forth, every day for over a week, Bonifacio and his children came trundling past my dispensary at the Vidaca house, bringing down the leaves. Each child bore a load many times his own volume, but proportionate to his size. I had to laugh each time I saw the comical file of these two-legged bundles, with Bonifacio’s stout legs under the biggest load of all, come scuttling by at more of a smooth, running pace than a walk. On their return trips to the milpa, Bonifacio and his young ones would frequently pause outside my dispensary, their faces wet with sweat and plastered with bits of corn leaf, to say hello and frolic for a moment before they hurried back up to their fields. They had to hurry, for if a heavy rain fell before the leaves were stacked on the tasolera, they would mildew and be lost.
Stacking the tasolera marks the end of another phase in the agrarian cycle, and, as such, may become a kind of ritual and celebration. Neighbors gather, and help toss the bundles up to a man on top of the mounting stack who arranges them like shingles around a tall central pole. The process looks simple, but it is quite an art to get each manojo so placed that the rain is properly shed. The pile gradually tapers as it rises until it comes to an acute peak at the top of the pole, which, as the last touch, is capped with a bule, or gourd. Sixty-eight year old Esteban Sánchez of Los Pinos is renowned for his skill in stacking, and came to help Bonifacio form his tasolera.
Echando las hojas—tossing the leaves—also looks easy, but is (as I discovered on attempting it) a little like trying to throw feathers. As the tasolera gets higher, the tossing becomes more difficult. The men compete with each other, laughing and shouting when the bundles go wild or fall short of their mark. In the last stages, often only one or two of a dozen men can successfully land the obstreperous bundles upon the peak, ten to twelve feet above the platform.
This autumn, thanks to the abundant summer rain, there has been a bumper crop in the barrancas. The people have again begun to eat well—or at least what they consider well. There is a sense of plenty, a joyousness, an expansiveness among the villagers. Hunger is temporarily forgotten. With the harvesting of the corn and sesame in November and December, people have been bartering cloth and clothing which the traveling fayuqueros have brought up from the lowlands; they have, been fattening their chickens and hogs—which also grew thin during las aguas—and the chickens have begun at last to lay. Once again, also, now that corn can be traded for cash, the traffic of illegal alcohol from the coast has become a big thing. Parties and dances are being thrown—usually by the vendors of the vino —to which old friends, as well as old enemies, are drawn together. Sometimes the merriment ends in fighting.
Las secas de otoño—the dry season of autumn—then, has been a season of gold upon the mountain slopes, of joy and prosperity afforded by the bumper harvest, and, unhappily, of bloodshed and suffering resulting from the misuse of that brief prosperity. Yet in response to the tragedy and suffering, the villagers of the barrancas have rallied a new degree of generosity, cooperation, and sacrifice.
This last quarter in the Sierra Madre has been for me the busiest, most momentous, most terrible, and—strangely—most beautiful of all. More has happened than in the other three seasons put together. Somehow, many of the small events that formerly seemed unrelated have begun to fall together like a puzzle, so that now, at the close of one year, I feel that I have just begun to catch a glimmer of the structure and enormity of this small corner of the universe. My only regret is that I cannot write it as I have felt it. May the reader bear with me.