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Published: Sat Jul 1 2006
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

Founded in 1523 with the flashy name of Santiago de los Caballeros

About like Saint James of the Dudes

Those andaluz colonizers must have been so full of themselves, fresh off their galleons and caravels only a couple of years after Cortés

Santiago de los Caballeros is called Colima now

Its aching poverty is isolated by—but is cheek by jowl with—big, wealthy Jalisco

Colima’s young venturers have struck out for California del Norte since even before the early days of pachuco LA

Life out in the sun-field bleachers

Like Cape Breton Acadians to Massachusetts

Turks into Germany

Like Filipinos and Bangladeshis to Saudi Arabia

Senegalese to France

Indians and Jamaicans to the UK

Colimotes arrive purposefully in the California del Norte wine country in considerable numbers to work 12/6 at nine dollars an hour

Vida: Rock picking with Colimotes in a new vineyard

They’re from San Miguel off the road through, south from Guadalajara

Soft Mexican Spanish barely carrying to the Douglas firs at the vineyard’s edge

Peculiar voice-dampering by the dry, loose well-turned earth so that words come in and out on approach as though bobbing down a stream

Unbroken by moving air

No breeze at all, mostly calm air on these high Spring Mountain slopes

Stones thump and drum on the vineyard tractor’s hardwood wagon bed, and then the sound of stones on stone well up the sideboards

There are breaks as the straw boss, Luis, drives off to the edge to dump full loads

Piles of California volcanic ridge stones and boulders that down the line may well be turned to dry vineyard walls or terraces, masonry buildings onsite

Or hauled off to fill erosion cuts or even to level-fill as yet unimagined freeways far down the valleys, or put to some unimaginable other use downslope far removed from now

Or just sit on Spring Mountain into the near eternity, in rock piles as shelter for western fence and sagebrush lizards always

In almost infinite numbers down through future centuries most animals probably will be the same as now

Sonoma chipmunks up on the stone piles for a view now and then, California ground squirrel burrows nearby

Foxes will trot past, once in a while a black bear will saunter through

But if the mammals are gone, buzztails will bask sun-warmed on these stones into perpetuity and on beyond any scan of time

When earthquakes and human fallibilities have severely changed the profiles and realities of Spring Mountain and the hills and canyons around it

The Mayacamas lifted grinding and temblor shifted

With it gone to something else, with San Francisco and its bay gone derelict and left somehow again to tidal flats

Whatever will be, insects and reptiles should still be as they are

Lizards have been on Spring Mountain almost since there have been small beings with eyes, toes and spines

Those magnificent blue-bellied male fence lizards and the skinny whiptails

With the Alameda whipsnakes, the Saint Helena mountain kingsnakes, the Pacific gopher snakes and the western rattlers, almost forever

Inside the Sonoma-Napa horizons, the vines grow venerable in their time that is absolutely nothing in earth life scale

They thicken through the seasons, scarred from pruning, swelling to gnarled and daedal live fence-walls on their horizontal wires, stakes and hangers

In late June, in the Mayacamas at two thousand feet the vines are beginning to fruit, tiny berries on the lacy armature

To bunch to full purple glaucoused lushness at the vendange

After the summer solstice, the duff beneath the Douglas firs, the madrone understory, Manzanita openings and grasses are fully drying out and last winter’s growth becomes the fire season’s fuel

The mountains bake, the vines’ roots tapping deeper and deeper into rubble-rock chaos beneath

The crumbly soil in the interstices sifting down, with every temblor the very understructure of the Mayacamas rearranged

The constant kinetics of the California faults

Beneath the Douglas firs and the chaparral

Late in June birds on the Mayacamas are still nesting, nervously this late in the warm months, the perils of late-brooding with July closing in when there will be no surface water at all

The black phoebes silently winging out carefully from their broods under the pole barn’s eves for insects

The Steller’s jays remarkably quiet, the bushtits and California towhees unusually unobtrusive

In the African savannah the dust smells of ancient remains with a lightness in hand of compressed dried organic leavings and random spoors and seeds that open with the rains

Traveling bush roads the dust in your face has that essence

You taste it when you tongue it off your teeth

California laurel-manzanita-chaparral dust is nearly as characteristic

Not as strong but more aromatic, from the oils of the chaparral

The smell of bay

The Spring Mountain vineyard dust has its admixture of needles from the Douglas firs

Lower Chilao, south in the San Gabriels under big ponderosas and Coulter pines at almost five thousand feet, has its own dust with even stronger sun and the essence of the resinous shiny leaves of mountain mahogany

The duff there thick with shiny Ponderosa needles and fragments of the great Ponderosa orange-russet bark plates

Longer Coulter pine needles and the Coulter foot-and-a-half by half a foot cones spread like small animals feeding in the moonlight on the soft silvery mat of needles

At five thousand feet, above the chaparral

In brush fires dust can mix with the smoke and then almost overwhelm so that there’s nothing left to do but pull back

Goggles down and bandanas against the dust especially when helicopters arrive and spot in

Always have extra socks in your fire bag, and on the second or third day of campaign fires paper underwear is issued in fire camp

Wine country fires of any size are rare

Plenty of access roads, people living on the land, a lot of cleared ground with a lot of bare earth, occasional fog in from the cold Pacific or up from San Pablo Bay

Ancestors of the Colimote vineyard crews mostly shipped out from Huelva and Cádiz

Campesinos down from Estramadura and the Sierra Moreno to become soldiers of the realm

In Mexico or the Caribbean, or Florida like Cabeza de Vaca, their real adventures began

In Cabeza de Vaca’s case, the slave of Texas Indians after a shipwreck on the Gulf Coast

He escaped with three other Spaniards and became the first European to go walkabout in North America, drifting from Texas across to the Pacific coast for eight years esteemed as a faith healer among the tribes whose languages he learned

These four, probably the first Europeans to see buffalo

Those with like faces, dispositions and cultural inclinations who lie behind the vineyard crew from Colima may have been soldiers of the conquest or may have settled down in central Mexico to farm or ply their trade

Generations of Hispanic-Mexican civilization since the 1520s and the 1530s known only to themselves, and records in Colima’s bishopric or the Archivo General de Indias in Seville

But the same idiom, the same faces, the same manner in the 2000s

Instead of picking rocks, men who could be on route march with lances, swords and crossbows behind a mounted priest or officers riding in chain mail and light greaves

But it’s a twenty-first century bunch, conversationally diverse, quips and questions, la economía, tractor caps and gauntlet work gloves, working toward the dusk

Down the mountain, white-tailed kites back and forth over the valley vineyards on their perpetual rodent hunt

Perch-hunting on Spring Mountain and down along the whole Myacamas it’s mostly buteos, red-shouldered, and red-tailed hawks

It’s quiet except for full conversation through a break until Luis brings the empty wagon back up along a row

Gloves back on, picking rocks again

Little talking with the empty wagon there to fill, helping each other with the big ones

Glancing around, everywhere but up, the scale and depth straight out

D. E. Steward is in his twenty-sixth year of months in the mode of his AGNI Online pieces “Maggiot,” “Juino,” and “Agosti.” Other months in this project have appeared in Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Written serially, month to month, many have autobiographical reference, but the project is not an extended Jahrbuch. It has affinity to Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, and Evan S. Connell’s two books of a similar kind. Well over half the 306 months in the project have been published in magazines. Another Mexican border month, “Avrila,” appears in Conjunctions 53. (updated 5/2012)

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