Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fade to Black

Drought in a desert is almost an oxymoron but most deserts have seasons and many of the same variations of weather as non-deserts. Only those who live in the desert see and feel a drought; tourists can only judge things as they appear in the snapshots they take home. Satellites can show us anomalies but you’ve got to get nearer to be a good reporter. High-flying birds can see the pea-green patches around well ranches, seep corrals in the canyons – they can judge the drought from the stark contrast between these tiny oases and the burned-out look of whole mountain ranges. Airplane passengers might remember those tiny slivers of quicksilver, ponds and streams, are not where they were seen on the last flight several years ago. Worst drought in Mexico in 71 years, worst in Baja Sur in 7 years.

Most weather systems in the western part of Mexico stay on the mainland so the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula is like an offshore island and is affected only by ocean borne systems. Tropical storms and hurricanes begin off the western shores of southern Mexico and Central America. As many as 15 to 20 each year march west where most dwindle and die far out in the Pacific thousands of miles from our parched and tortured mountains. So a drought here is a condition caused by a long period of time when none of the storms drift far enough north to give us rain.

In drought condition, as hand-dug or uncased wells dry up or cave in, the roaming browsers like goats, burros, cattle and horses are in great peril. The vultures have a time of plenty. Where there are people there will be water. Wild birds and animals are drawn to ranches and villages with deep wells and natural tinajas, waterholes. Villagers with overflowing pilas can sense the drought. They begin to see the coyotes and snakes, skunks and badgers, hawks and rabbits in their yards at night. The civet cat, the babisuri, spreads his awful musk, marking new territory in small pueblos like his Ice Age progenitors did when they made their homes in the rocky scarps of North America surviving among saber-tooth tigers, lions and sloth bears.

In the mountains and plains the deadly desiccation is insidious. One cannot see little things die; like watching a small clock tick away the hours, the days. Droughts are silent, unseen killers, hard to mark and remember. They weaken, ruin and kill like earthquakes and Tsunamis but without the terrible surprise of sudden death and destruction. Life-forms begin to slowly slip away while waiting for the impossibly faint promise of salvation, droplets from a cloudless sky. It is horror in slow motion.

When botanists say desert plants and animals are hardy they do not mean they can live forever without water. Plants can store water, most animals cannot. Many desert animals do not drink water. They get all the water for their entire lives from their food. When the food-water is gone they stop having babies, then, those that can, aestivate to conserve calories. They wait. Every thing waits for water. Uncountable living things die while waiting. It would be unkind parsing to say they starved to death. Food or water deprivation ends the same way.

Here, now, in San Isabel we are witness to another kind of withering starvation; the trickle of pesos that dribbled into the pockets of the people of the pueblo has all but dried up. There are many things to blame – no single thing stands out. Like the shriveling water-starved plants the signs are subtle, agonizingly slow. They are things that cannot be seen from the airliners, from the window of a bus. Those lucky enough to still have money for table food get a hint at the change as they walk from one little store to the next to find eggs, tomatoes. The electric cold boxes are empty, unplugged, their doors ajar; some stores are dark except for the current to run the register.

There are many empty desks at the school, the clinic is well lit, well staffed, empty of patients. The dentist has moved to San Jose, a local fishing resort closed its doors after five decades of successful operation. The fishing fleet that in good times boasted almost 500 charter boats is but a skeleton, unable to support a once busy bait business. The relic tourists who can still afford to vacation here don’t need reservations for rooms, cars, dining, excursions. Our carwash; Carlos, hose, rag, under a tree, is closed. Rancheros are selling half their stock to buy hay for the few that remain alive and healthy enough to move about, take food, feed their calves. The ranch horses are left to wander, browse and die in the brush.

This piece of reportage is nothing more than a sad little benchmark, a very low spot in the history of a proud place, a proud people. I am humbled by the task of describing a single tiny fish floundering in a cruel convergence of crippling happenstance because I lack the will and the skill to tell the whole story --- to somehow let the reader know how the misery has spread to the furthest reaches of the place and its inhabitants. I give you this snapshot to spare you the unbearable sight of an endless panoply of suffering.

If and when the pieces that fell apart right themselves, find their places, when the rains and the pesos return, I’ll do my best to offset these words of shallow consolation with special words of celebration, exaltation and awakening.

George Bergin retired with his wife Lynda to La Ribera, a small village at East Cape, Baja Sur in 1996.  A former insurance executive in Las Vegas, Nevada, George’s love for the desert, outdoor living, drew him south to roam the Laguna Mountains, fish and write books, short stories and news items for Southern Baja California periodicals.

Vacationing in Baja California for thirty years, George learned more than what bait to use, the best lures -- his curious nature took him deep into the local culture until he was ineluctably drawn to live full time in what he sees as his own private desert playground.

Send opinions on articles/stories to:

No comments: